So I recently came across this article comparing how Vampire: The Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons have tried to change their previously problematic approach to the issue of race.
The gist of it is: Vampire good, D&D bad. In a more sophisticated assessment, you could say the article’s author, Kiran Trivedy, feels VTM more or less got it right, while WOTC’s attempt has been underwhelming and unsatisfactory.
This is by no means the first time the issue of racism has reared its head in the world of Tabletop Role-playing Games (RPGs). Though we’ve all been understandably distracted by the global pandemic and the political unrest in the United States, shortly before those issues took all the prime real estate in our heads, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), official publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, had been dropping announcements that it would be revisiting how D&D presented certain Races (as in, the gaming term). The issue was that certain classic races, often, but not always used as “monsters”, either constituted a negative racial stereotype (as in, not the gaming term), or were too close to doing so for everyone’s comfort. These races apparently included Orcs, who are green-skinned, violent humanoids, and the Drow or Dark Elves, who are evil elves with coal-black skin and bone-white hair.
Predictably, these announcements drew immediate criticism from the kind of people who actually believe that white people are the most prejudiced against in modern society. By the way, I make no apology for how critical the above statement is of that opinion. Racism is real. Racism is wrong. Speaking out against racism isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, and it certainly isn’t “white genocide”. It’s just a matter of having compassion and empathy for your fellow human beings, regardless of what they look like or where they come from, and believing that all human beings are entitled to peace, safety, and equal rights.
When these rumblings first emerged, I refrained from adding my voice to either side. At the time, I doubted my voice mattered. After all, who the hell am I? Oh, I had opinions. But everyone has opinions. What makes mine more valid or valuable than the next person’s?
In a word, nothing. But on the other hand, fuck it. Here are my thoughts:
“Race” is not original
“Race” was not originally a term used in RPGs, at least not in the sense of “playable race” such as Elf, Dwarf or Halfling. The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the three “Little Brown Booklets” published in 1974, list what we would now call three Classes (Fighting Man, Magic-User, and Cleric) and four Races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) under the heading Characters, but the terms “Class” and “Race” are not used. In fact, “Human” isn’t really defined at all, but rather a default option, only mentioned when specifying that only Humans can be Clerics and only Humans can progress to unlimited levels in any class (Elves, Dwarves and Halfings all had severe limitations as to what Class they could be and how far they could go, with Halflings limited to being Fighters and allowed to go only up to Level 4).
By the way, this stops short of being the so-called “Race-as-Class” approach, where you can’t be a Halfling Thief, you have to just be a Halfling (which is basically an underpowered Fighter). That began with the blue “Basic Dungeons & Dragons” boxed set, edited by J. Eric Holmes (and referred to as Holmes Basic D&D), and continued through the B/X and BECMI product lines.
To be honest, if Gary Gygax (the man most directly responsible for the publication of Dungeons and Dragons) had had his way, Human would probably have been the only choice of “Race”; he only included Elves, Dwarves and Halfings to please “the Tolkien Crowd”, whom he correctly expected would form a large part of the game’s fanbase. That’s why Halfings were originally called Hobbits (until the Tolkien Estate served Gygax with a Cease and Desist letter). And that is probably why neither “Race” nor any other term is used to describe what type of humanoid creature your character is. Gygax’s rules really pushed you to just be human, especially if you wanted to have the full choice of roles (what we would call “Classes”), you wanted to progress beyond the arbitrary level limits, or your stats forced you to play a Cleric. Singling out the Elf and other humanoids under a heading such as “Races” draws attention to this choice as part of the character creation process, and would probably encourage players to play a non-human, as it does today.
As far as I can tell, the first use of the word “race” in an official D&D product is in the Blackmoor supplement of the original edition, published in 1975. This booklet includes several new monsters, and the word “race” is used in the descriptions of two of them: the Sahuagin and the Ixitxachitl. In both these cases, the word “race” is not used in the gaming sense (again, as “playable race”) but rather more like when we say “The Human Race”, meaning all humans, collectively. The Ixitxachitl, for example, are “a race of Chaotic Clerical Philosophers”. They are not a playable character “Race” with certain “Racial” traits such as stat bonuses or extra abilities.
The First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, published in 1978 (four years after the original version of the game) seems to be the first product to use both “Race” and “Class” as we gamers use them today. And this usage continues right into Fifth Edition D&D. But that does not make it “correct”.
Race was never the right word
When I say “correct”, I don’t mean “politically correct”, though that is certainly a valid issue. Rather, I mean that “race” is literally the incorrect word for what the gaming element actually is, both scientifically and sociologically.
Let’s start with hard science, biology in particular, where “race” isn’t a thing. That is to say, there is no scientifically determinable cut-off point where one “race” ends and another begins. This isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as black people or white people. It merely means that where, precisely, we draw the line between who counts as black and who counts as white will vary, sometimes widely, from time to time and place to place.
For example, in US culture, if you look black, you are black, regardless of who your parents, grandparents, or ancestors are, as exemplified by such famous black Americans as Tiger Woods and Barrack Obama. By contrast, in South Africa, under Apartheid, there was a legal distinction between “Black” people (who had exclusively black African heritage) and “Coloured” people (who had a mixture of black African and white European heritage). I would like to point out that the use of the C-word above was the literal and legal term used in South Africa during Apartheid and not intended to be a slur; I apologize unequivocably for any offense caused. I should also point out that Apartheid no longer exists and I have no idea what the state of race relations in modern South Africa is. I certain have no reason to believe it is an inherently racist country or culture at the present time.
The Apartheid distinction is one that would never occur to Americans to make, and shows how two countries with a similar mixture of ethnicities can perceive those two ethinicities differently.
What this means is that the concept of “race” doesn’t belong to “hard” biological science at all, but rather to the “softer” social sciences. “Race” is a social construct.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that “race” doesn’t have a real effect on our daily lives, especially if we aren’t white. A black American man being brutalized by a racist cop cannot escape the situation by calmly pointing out that “race is a social construct”. Money, after all, is also a social construct, and we all know how thoroughly that effects the world.
Largely for this reason, if you look up “race” in a dictionary, you’ll find something like “a group of people with a common ancestry and certain distinctive physical features”. And that isn’t because that’s what “race” really is; it’s because that’s usually what we mean when we say it.
I’m neither a biologist, nor a sociologist, nor an anthropologist. But I am a lexicographer (a dictionary editor), and I know a lot about what words mean and how definitions work. On more than one occasion, a dictionary I worked for has been approached by an academic asking us to change our definition of race to the scientific one, or remove it altogether. And we always said no. Because the definitions in a dictionary are not necessarily what the words really do (or should) mean. First and foremore, definitions are what people mean when they say the words. And when we say “race”, we mean a type of human that looks similar to others of the same “race” but different to humans of a “different” race.
And the D&D use of “Race” is incorrect in this sense as well. No one who has ever played D&D or a comparable fantasy RPG thinks that an Elf is a type of human. In fact, the whole point of playing an Elf or other fantasy “Race” (like a Tiefling) is to avoid playing a Human.
Like Gygax, my gaming tastes run to the low-fantasy, low-magic, human-centric, and in my ideal world, all my players would play humans, and Elves and Dwarves, etc, would be occasional NPCs. But I have largely given up on this, because we all know players love to play non-humans. And it’s easy to see why. We all have to be humans every day of our lives. When we’re sitting down at the table to play a fantasy game with our friends, why would we still be human when we could choose to be something else, something exciting and different, and maybe a little bit magical? I’m running two games of D&D currently, and neither group includes a human PC.
So what is an RPG “Race”?
What Elves, Dwarves, etc are in your typical RPG is not a kind of human with a common ancestry and distinctive features. They are different species altogether. I have no idea why Gygax chose the word “Race” in 1978. Perhaps he felt “species” was too scientific (to be fair, it’s not a word you find in a lot of fantasy literature). Perhaps he was influenced by the ongoing struggle for racial equality, which made “race” a common buzzword. Or perhaps he never put much thought into it in the first place. Gygax was meticulous about game mechanics, but not so much about wording, and he was a notoriously bad writer. (Compare the First and Second Edition AD&D Core rulebooks to see how much more clearly the rules were laid out after Gygax left TSR.)
With this in mind, the easiest way to address the problem of “Race” in D&D is just to change the word. Use “Species” instead. Though it isn’t mentioned in the Dicebreaker article, Pathfinder Second Edition has done something very similar, opting for “Heritage”, which avoids the negative connotations (and inaccuracy) of “Race”, while still sounding like a word that belongs in a Medieval–esque fantasy world.
The best solution (?)
So we now have three potential options when revising how an RPG presents “race” or something similar. Two are detailed in the Dicebreaker article. The favoured one is, again, the Vampire: The Masquerade approach, which is to keep the word they used (“clans”) and even the clan names, but rebuild the clans from the ground up, keeping the features that made players want to play them in the first place, but leaving out any negative racial stereotypes.
The second is what WOTC apparently did, which is keep the word “Race”, but cut all the bonuses and features, so the existence of, say, black elves no longer implied something physiological about black people. The Dicebreaker article is critical of this approach and points out that is hasn’t played well with fans.
And the third is the Pathfinder approach, which is to stop using the word “race” for fuck’s sake. I have no idea how well this has been received, as I’m not really a Pathfinder player. I am, however, very impressed by Paizo (the publisher of the Pathfinder RPG) for taking this step.
Beyond terminology: is D&D actually racist?
I’m a white person, and as a white person, I don’t think I’m best qualified to judge what’s really racist. What I mean is, I have no idea what it’s like to live as a person of color in a white-dominated and historically racist society. So when people of color call out something I take for granted as racist, I’m inclined to defer to their experience. And any opinions I have on whether a certain RPG is “really racist” must be taken with that caveat in mind.
But, for what it’s worth (and that may be nothing), this is my take on racism in RPGs.
A problematic handling of race in role-playing games, often goes beyond the words you use. Consider, for example, the above-mentioned Vampire: the Masquerade. They use the word “clan”, which has little to no negative connotations (as long as you spell it with a ‘c’). It was the descriptions of the clans that was problematic. One clan was regarded as an obvious stand-in for travelling people (the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community); one clan seemed to be based on North Africans; another seemed to reference Muslims. And the features and mechanics of these “stand-ins” were both based on and reinforced negative racial stereotypes. (All of this is based on the cited article, rather than my own research.)
This sort of thing is not new to fantasy fiction. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which were a huge influence on Gary Gygax, are full of it. The Stygians, for example, are clearly an analogue to Ancient Egyptians. There are numerous black human tribes, who are routinely evil and primitive. There are derogatory stand-ins for Jews, people from the Indian subcontinent, and even Indigenous Meso-Americans. All of these fantasy peoples are clearly and demonstrably based on real-world human cultures and ethnicities, and nearly all of them are depicted negatively and portrayed using stereotypes that, at the very least, make the modern reader very uncomfortable.
Tolkien, too, is not immune, especially if you know your medieval literature. Orcs have dark skin, and regularly carry “scimitars”. In the popular film adaptations by Peter Jackson, they made these swords hooked instead of curved, but in the books, the references to Arab warriors (or “Saracens”) is clear, and almost certainly intentional. Think too, of the “swarthy” (which means “dark”) humans from the South who fight on Sauron’s side against Gondor. And don’t forget the Dunlendings, who joined Saruman to fight Rohan. “Dun” means “dark” in Old English, and the Dunlendings were described as having darker hair and complexion than the blonde, “Nordic” Rohirrim.
In short, in Tolkien’s writing, “dark” people are usually evil, while fair-complexioned people are usually good. Perhaps this is nothing more than a literal interpretation of Light vs Darkness, but it sets up an uncomfortable dichotomy which is at the very least insensitive to people of color.
When WOTC began discussing revising some of their problematic “Races”, I noticed two in particular that dominated the conversation: the Orc, and the Drow.
Repeating the above point that, as a white person, I don’t get to decide what’s racist and what isn’t, I have to admit that I, personally, don’t see the issue with D&D orcs. I know that, just a few sentences ago, I argued that Tolkien’s orcs are racist, but D&D orcs are a different creature entirely.
Old School D&D orcs are basically pig-people, and the current incarnation are green-skinned, muscular humanoids with tusk-like teeth and a penchant for violence. I find it difficult to imagine what real-world ethnicity this would represent, and I doubt it refers to any. Orcs are just another type of baddie the players have to fight. However, I am willing to listen to people of color who find this offensive and make any necessary changes at my gaming table.
It’s unfortunately not the same case for the drow. The drow, or “dark elves”, are basically the same as elves except for three things:
- They live underground
- They have black skin
- They’re EVIL!
It’s all too easy to imagine a person of color, new to D&D and excited to play, cracking open the Player’s Handbook and finding out that the black elves are the evil ones. How would this person feel, and could you blame her?
If you wanted to mount a defense of the drow, you could point out that their skin is coal-black, and not anything like real black people. You could also point out that their hair is bone white. But to be honest, this is a pretty weak defense, and I wouldn’t expect it to fly.
I haven’t read Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, where a solution for this is presented, but according to the article, WOTC’s big idea for redressing this issue is cancelling the stat bonuses for people who play drow. These stat bonuses are increased darkvision (to 120 ft, rather than the usual 60 ft), a Charisma bonus, and the ability to cast certain spells, even if you’re not a spellcaster.
There’s nothing really derogatory about that. No white supremecist ever accused African Americans of being exceptionally charismatic or have good eyesight. So it’s hard to see how this move helps the situation at all.
If you really want to make the drow less offensive, you’re going to have to change the lore. This is a difficult move, because a lot of drow lore is “canon”, and a lot of people will complain. But, stat bonuses or no stat bonuses, as long as “the black ones are the evil ones”, there’s going to be a problem.
What’s up with the Drow?
So, again, is D&D racist?
Whenever I hear a white person respond to being called out for racism, or complaining about a thing they like being called out for racism, I hear a very angry, upset and defensive person. I hear a person who doesn’t want to be racist and is desperate to refute the accusation and clear their name.
This is a good thing. It’s good that white people are desperate not to be racists. But unfortunately, this desperation often causes us to miss two very important points about racism.
The first is that racism isn’t an either/or thing. It’s a matter of degree. A lot of white people think of racism as wearing klan robes or nazi uniforms and going out in groups to visit violence or murder on people of color. And while this certainly is racist, it’s not the only kind of racism. If the only thing you need to do to not be racist is not join a group dedicated to killing other races, you’re setting the bar very low.
In fact, the extreme, uniformed Klansmen/Neo-Nazi thing is only one extreme of racism. At the other end of the spectrum are small things, like double-checking your car is locked when you see a black person walking toward you.
Does checking your car is locked make you as bad a person as Hitler or the Grand Dragon of the KKK? Absolutely not. That’t the point of degrees. But it also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to overcome whatever it is that makes you want to check your car is locked.
The other point is that we all have been brought up in a racist society (even people of color), and therefore we all have some beliefs and habits and assumptions that are racist, whether we want them or not. I do not excuse myself from this fact. And we may never get rid of all of this background racism, but we can try, and we can keep trying. So when someone points out that this thing you like is a little bit racist, it’s worth listening to them, considering their point of view and their feelings, and what life has probably been like for them, and seeing what you can do to improve the situation. We can’t change how we were raised, but we can change how we think and act every day.
(I know people often point out racism in a very aggressive and accusatory way, that doesn’t lead to conversation and compromise, and certainly not to forgiveness and growth. But you can’t make other people not be dicks; you can only try not to be a dick yourself.)
Gary Gygax didn’t invent the drow to be racist, or to offend black people. The word “drow” comes from the “trow”, an old English mythological creature that lived underground, and most of the details of the drow came from the Old Norse svartalvar or “dark elves” (literally “black elves”). All Old Norse elves were suspicious, but the dark elves were particularly dangerous .
But while Gygax may not have been trying to be racist, he also wasn’t trying not to be. Most likely he just didn’t consider how black people would feel about the drow. At the time, African Americans didn’t form a large part of the RPG gaming community, or of the wargaming community that preceded it. This is probably a case of insensitivity, rather than overt racism. But that’s no reason for us to continue the insensitivity. Especially if we’re in a position to know better.
Can the Dark Elves be “fixed”?
An important thing to remember about early D&D is that all monsters were one-dimensional. When the Player Characters entered the dungeon, or the vast, labyrinthine caverns, or any other dark and dangerous place, they met creatures who wanted to kill them. These were “monsters” (even if they were actually evil humans, or slimes, or mushrooms). And if everything went well, the PCs would kill the monsters instead, and then take all their stuff.
That was the essence of D&D in the beginning, and this style of play is still present in the game. And if you need to use drow as this kind of straight-forward, unambiguously evil monster the PCs can happily kill and loot, altering them could present quite a challenge.
But in the 40+ years that D&D has been around, the game has evolved beyond its hack-and-slash roots, with an increasing focus on story and role-playing (in the sense of “acting”, as opposed to the “in-character tactical decision-making” sense implied by the earlier editions). In this light, if you’re using drow as your monster, you must have certain themes in mind for your campaign. You must have a reason for choosing drow, rather than goblins or undead or any other creature you could have given to the PCs to beat up on.
As the game of D&D has developed, so has its monster lore. We now think of the drow as a culture, with distinct characteristics. They are matriarchial. They worship spiders and an evil spider goddess. They regularly scheme against their superiors in order to advance.
But if the drow are a culture, with a large, subterranean civilization, how likely is it that all drow are the same? Even if most of their society was “evil”, surely there would at least be a significant minority of dissenters. There may even be enclaves, or entire settlements of drow who reject the wicked ways of the majority .
And if this is the case, your PCs could learn to recognize the differences. Look for signs that a group of drow are Lolth-worshippers before attacking. This changes things from being a matter of “Black elves! Kill them!” to “They’re wearing spider insignia! Kill them!”
And consider also the nature of “evil”. D&D usually relies on a fairly simplistic view of good and evil. The bad guys are bad because they’re bad. They know they’re bad, and they like being bad, and doing bad things. But real “evil” isn’t like that. Hitler is widely regarded as one of the most evil humans ever to exist. But he thought he was the good guy. Most people view themselves as the hero, regardless of whether they really are.
So even if the majority of your dark elves are “evil”, think about what that means to them. How do they view themselves? What goals or higher purposes do they think they’re serving? Do they think they’re the real “good guys”? This is a great way to add nuance to your campaign, and can provide a lot of opportunities for role-playing and non-combat solutions.
And of course, at your table, you don’t have to make dark elves evil at all.
And finally, going all the way back to the point that dark elves aren’t black like humans: who says non-dark elves are white? Maybe the elves in your game run the gamut of human skin tones, and it’s the unnaturalness of the drow, not their blackness, that marks them out. Or maybe your elves have lilac skin, or blue, or hot pink. If we blindly assume that all elves look like Legolas, that only serves to exacerbate the offensiveness of having black elves be the evil ones.
And the point is…
So, to sum up: D&D isn’t an intentionally racist game, but it does suffer from an unfortunate choice of terminology. More importantly, certain creatures, most notably the dark elves, can be highly offensive to people of color. While none of this offense was intentional, it shouldn’t be left as is once we become aware of it. Some things WOTC might do to change this (that they haven’t yet done) is stop using the inaccurate term “Race”, and, more importantly, revise some of lore and mechanical features of certain “monsters” and playable “races”. Other publishers and games have already taken similar steps, so there’s little excuse not to take action on this.
As Game Masters, we can revise the lore ourselves. We can change how certain creatures function in-game, and give them more nuance or a broader spectrum of behavior and characterization, even if they remain more or less villainous.
I would like to reiterate for the third time that white people aren’t qualified to be the final arbiters on what constitutes racism, and we shouldn’t discount the feelings and experiences of people of color when racism is under discussion.
For decades, the RPG community was almost exclusively white and male. This was the case even when the hobby was at its previous peak popularity, in the 1980s. However, over the last 5-10 years, the hobby has enjoyed unprecedented success, and is gaining a following among demographics that either did not or were not invited to participate in it before, for example women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.
The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether changing the dark elves is a case of “political correctness gone mad”, but whether we want our hobby to be an open, inclusive place that thrives with the participation of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. And I certainly answer yes to that.