Considering the Inquisition of the Week is ‘Races’ I thought I’d look at an issue that has personally caused me fair share of incredulous chuckles and uncomfortable examinations: race in Dungeons & Dragons. At first blush, D&D is a harmless fantasy game of heroes and villains, black & white. This article will examine the phenomena, offer some explanations as to its implications, and suggest how I have, anecdotally, approached the quandary of race in Dungeons & Dragons.
Orcs are just stand-ins for the hordes of mooks from action cinema, they just happen to look different than us. After all, every evil villain needs his flunkies, and the tradition of fantasy has those flunkies inevitably appear as inhuman beasts. But then, consider how D&D has evolved and how vastly different it is than the action movies I compare them to. In those movies, the protagonist can’t enter a bar, sense that an off-duty mook is there, and unceremoniously bash his face in. They are just normal guys that work for a bad guy (a fact that the Venture Brothers show loves to toy with). Now, let’s consider the scenario in D&D. The party walks into a bar in a normal town, sees an Orcish gathering, and a dwarf unlimbers his axe and goes to town on them. My point isn’t to argue whether or not that a ‘good guy’ would do that, but just that the Players, based on typical source material provided by Wizards of the Coast, would consider such an action reasonable, if not prudent. After all, Orcs are evil.
Not only are they evil, but they have a genetic predisposition to heightened strength and health. I guess that makes them good athletes too, right? And man, they sure can take a lot of punishment thanks to that Encounter power! And it’s not just Orcs, it is every race. Just consider the underlying assumptions PCs make every time they encounter a humanoid they are familiar with. The underlying implication, that you know something about a person based on their race, is anathema to the state ethos of our modern society, yet we play a game that not only enforces this notion, but thrives on it. There are a few plausible reactions to this kind of inherent racism.
First and foremost, some may choose to dismiss this line of thought because we are admittedly speaking about a fantasy game. Part of the game is succinctly describing to players what their characters are experiencing. Races, and their standard modus operandi, are valuable shorthand for the players and DM. What may be inappropriate for real life (hey there Jew, be my lawyer!) works well in a fantasy role playing context. Moreover, races that have different rules provide different play options and interesting decisions in character building, both of which are good things. On the other hand, it’s inescapable that race in D&D exists to justify the annihilation and pillaging from lesser beings. After all, how often are PCs challenged to consider the morality in plunging through a goblin warren, taking all valuables, and leaving cowering goblin children and infants with nothing? I suspect such things are infrequently considered. What’s more is this kind of chilling logic serves as an eerie mirror into classic justifications for expansion in modern human history (such as the American West or Hitler’s Third Reich).
As a DM I embrace D&D for what is, a game, but I refuse to allow the players lazy, albeit justified, racism act as an excuse for what would otherwise be poor behavior. Typically I use NPCs and occasions where races act “against the grain”, such as the peaceable goblins that find their homey warren invaded by overzealous dwarven miners. What’s more, I categorically reject the notion that monster types or races are unequivocally of a certain alignment. PCs learn rather quickly from this and find that although they can predict combat tactics and the like based on race they should be weary in assuming that they can ‘heroically’ attack the bugbears. All in all, I think that the D&D can promote a sort of racist laziness in players that I find both boring and disturbing. Rather than railing against its propensity for causing this I find that tailoring my style to be aware of this tendency acts as a sufficient curb on the greatest excesses D&D racism can cause.