RACE IN DUNGEONS & DRAGONS
Chris Van Dyke © 2008
Presented at Nerd Nite, 11-15-08
Anyone who has played D&D has spent a lot of time talking about race – “Racial Attributes,” “Racial Restrictions,” “Racial Bonuses.” Everyone knows that different races don’t get along – thanks to Tolkien, Dwarves and Elves tend to distrust each other, and even non-gamers know that Orcs and Goblins are, by their very nature, evil creatures. Race is one of the most important aspects of any fantasy role-playing game, and the belief that there are certain inherent genetic and social distinctions between different races is built into every level of most (if not all) Fantasy Role-Playing Games.
For those of you who have NOT played D&D – you have no right being at something called “nerd nite.” But just a few quick concepts you need to be familiar with. When I’m talking about D&D tonight, I’m talking about the old-fashioned pen-and-pencil RPG, the one that those guys in high-school who always seemed to be hanging out in the library liked to play with the weird dice. The first step in any role-playing campaign is character creation, and involves making two vitally important choices: your character’s profession, and your character’s race. The classic D&D player character (or PC) races are Humans, Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, and at times, half-orcs (don’t even get me started on 4th editions Eladrin, Dragonborn, and Tieflings). The races have changed over the year and various supplemental rules have provided a plethora of other races, but these are the core fantasy races. During the course of the campaign, the PCs encounter many NPCs of other races as well, most (if not all) of which are evil – Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds, and other villainous monsters populate caves, castles, and the ubiquitous dungeon.
This brings us to the questions that inspired this talk. What sort of assumptions about race are built into the rules of D&D? Is the way race is represented in D&D — either through descriptions of various ethnic groups or through the number and statistic based rules — racist? And does it matter? Many of my nerd friends have reacted defensively when I began discuss this project with them – “Dude, it’s just a game!” Of course its “just a game,” but most of our forms of entertainment, while being “harmless” and “just fun” can say very important things about who we are and what values we espouse.
Human Races in D&D
To start, we need to differentiate between race as we commonly speak of it, meaning Caucasian, African American, Asian, Latino, etc., and race in D&D, meaning elves, dwarves, humans, etc. Both types of race, mundane and fantastic, are a factor – how (if at all) are non-white humans depicted in the game, and how does the depiction of non-human races encode assumptions about race in the real world? In D&D, humans are the normative race, and given the Anglo-centric depiction of human culture in the game, humans can be interpreted as representing “white people.” They are “normal,” while all other races, whether good or evil, are to some extent “exotic,” and otherized.
First, lets just look at race as it relates to the real world. How are different human ethnic groups – black, white, Asian, Latino – depicted in the world of D&D? In a word, they aren’t, and their presence is felt strongly through their near total exclusion. This isn’t a great surprise, as the source material for high fantasy primarily stems from Anglo-Saxon and European folk-lore. Additionally, the vast majority of players are white males. I actually have no statistics to back this up, but anyone who wants to argue that point can after I’m done. In a game based around “role playing,” players are encouraged to take on the part of elves, dwarves, half-orcs, assassins, and warlocks, yet it is assumed that in all these roles they will still be white. Not that this is ever stated, of course, but this assumption lies both in the lack of any mention of human ethnicity in the character creation process and the illustrations of player characters found in the core texts.
In the roughly 100 illustrations that depict adventurers in the 1st Edition Player Handbook and Dungeonmaster’s Guide (both published in 1978), there are NO non-white adventurers. In the over 100 illustrations of adventurer’s in the 2nd Edition Player Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1989), there are NO non-white adventurers. Finally, after 25 years the 3rd edition, published in 2003, makes some passing mention of race in the character creation process:
“Most humans are the descendants of pioneers, conquerors, traders, travelers, refugees, and other people on the move. As a result, human lands are a mix of people—physically, culturally, religiously, and politically. Hardy or fine, light-skinned or dark, showy or austere, primitive or civilized, devout or impious, humans run the gamut . . . [They have a variety of hair types] from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight), and facial hair (for men) from sparse to thick” (p. 12)
There you have it – “dark” and “kinky” are they only two adjectives in the first 25 years of D&D core texts that acknowledge that PCs might be something other than fair-skinned Anglo-Saxons. Yet the illustrations still show an almost purely white world. In 80 illustrations spread over the two core books of 3rd ed., there is one black woman and no black men. Coming across this picture after flipping through 982 pages of rules, I wasn’t sure whether the correct reaction was to be glad that the editors of the 3rd edition were broadening the concept of who a PC might be, or wonder why the first trace of race was a scantily clad, busty black female warrior.
Most recently, the 4th edition was published this last summer. While I only have the Player’s Handbook, of the 45 PC illustrations in the volume, there is one non-white character, this time a black man. In 4 editions, published over 30 years with 325 illustrations and 1,691 pages, I found exactly 1 non-white male and 1 none-white female. Note that this includes humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, Halflings, gnomes, and other core non-human races – all white.
So while the rules may allow for gamers to create PCs of any race, it is clearly assumed, given the pictures that accompany the rules, that 99.4% will be white. Not only are humans the normative race, but white humans are the norm. These examples do not include supplemental rule-books, adventure books, and campaign source material, but The Players Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide are, together, the Bible of D&D, and the inclusion of any other ethnicities in supplemental texts merely reinforce their peripheral nature – the exceptions that proves the rule book. For example, in 1985 TSR published the campaign setting, Oriental Adventures. Let’s even put aside the loaded term “Oriental.” While this book, for the first time, explicitly contained non-white ethnicities as player races, as Steve Sumner put it in his online essay “Is Faerun Ready for Its First Half-Orc President?” Oriental Adventures shows us that “Asians are (as everyone knows) basically just small, magical white people, which really means they are just like elves.” 1992 saw the publication of the Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures. And really the less said about that the better.
So humans are white, elves are white, dwarves are white, halfings are white, and gnomes are white. There are two non-white PC races, half-orcs and Drow, but both are “tainted,” with half-orcs being uncivilized brutes and Drow being evil (more on them later). Basically, all the pure good guys are white, and all the bad-guys – the orcs, goblins, kobolds, bugbears, trolls, hobgoblins, and beholders – are of course, not-white. I do not want to spend too much time beating a dead war-horse, but your average D&D game consists of a group of white players acting out how their white characters encounter and destroy orcs and goblins, who are, as a race evil, uncivilized, and dark-skinned. To quote Steve Sumner’s essay again, “Unless played very carefully, Dungeons & Dragons could easily become a proxy race war, with your group filling the shoes of the noble white power crusaders seeking to extinguish any orc war bands or goblin villages they happened across.” I would argue with/ Sumner’s use of the phrase “could become,” and say that unless played very carefully, D&D usually becomes a proxy race war. Any adventurer knows that if you see an orc, you kill it. You don’t talk to it, you don’t ask what it’s doing there – you kill it, since it’s life is worth less than the treasure it carries and the experience points you’ll get from the kill. If filmed, your average D&D campaign would look something like Birth of a Nation set in Greyhawk.
PART II – Non-human Races in D&D
As we have seen, humans in D&D are almost exclusively white. From the pictures that accompany the rules to the socio-historical setting of pseudo-medieval Europe, humans are not so much “humans” as “white Europeans” by default. “Human” is therefore interchangeable with “white,” signifying the self – all the fantasy races, therefore, signify “the other” or “not-white.” How do the differences between human and non-human/self and other play out in the game, even when the races we examine are good? All PCs may be “white,” but the choice of race is still present in a fantastical sense:
“For purposes of the game the racial stocks are limited to the following: dwarven, elven, gnome, half-elven, halfling, half-orc, and human. Each racial stock has advantages and disadvantages, although in general human is superior to the others for reasons you will discover as you read on.” (p.12)
Humans are “superior,” but one might want to play a different race since they are exotic – the “other” has always been a source of fascination. If one is still doubtful about the thesis that humans are set forward as “the self,” the player handbook continues:
“Human characters are neither given penalties nor bonuses, as they are established as the norm upon which these subtractions or additions for racial stock are based. Human characters are not limited as to what class of character they can become, nor do they have any maximum limit.” (p. 16)
Humans are the norm, and all other races are judged and evaluated in how more than or less than human they are – the closer to a white European ideal, the more human the fantasy race is. While this is not evaluated as “good” or “bad,” the other is NOT normative. The non-white is alien, strange, and removed from the self.
Although AD&D allowed one to choose both race and class, there were certain restrictions. While these were part of the 1st edition, they were clearly explained in the second.
“The human race has one special ability in the AD&D game: Humans can choose to be of any class – warrior, wizard, priest, or rogue – and can rise to great level in any class. The other races have fewer choices of character classes and usually are limited in the level they can attain. These restrictions reflect the natural tendencies of the race (dwarves like war and fighting and dislike magic, etc.) . . . A Halfling for example can become the best thief in the land, but he cannot become a great fighter.” (p. 28)
In D&D, the possible professions and jobs available are limited by race – humans, the normative white race, can be whatever they like. The other races, the non-human/white races, are restricted, thought the game politely describes these restrictions as based on “natural tendencies of race.” And it goes beyond the simple stereotype as “Dwarves like war and fighting.”
Take, for example, the class of Paladin. The true nerds out there read my bio and thought “Wait – half-elves can’t be paladins.” Well, Mr. I’ve Got a Magic Ring that Grants +2 Intelligence but -2 Charisma, that may have been true in 1st and 2nd edition, but 3rd edition does allow for half-elf Paladins. So there. But the point is valid and important – in the first 2 editions of D&D, humans and ONLY humans could be paladins. But wait – the non-nerds who were dragged here by their friends and presenting significant other’s want to know: “what’s a paladin?” I’m glad you asked. A Paladin is described as “a noble and heroic warrior, the symbol of all that is right and true in the world. As such, he has high ideals that he must maintain at all times.” All well and good – the holy warrior is a common archetype in the romance tradition, especially within the Arthurian tales of France and England. In D&D, however, the ONLY race that can take the class of Paladin is human. A rhetorical question in the Dungeon Master’s Guide explains the thinking behind this race based class restriction: “Paladinhood, for example, could be a uniquely human perspective. Would elves and dwarves hold the same values of law, order, god, and community to which a paladin aspire?”
Only humans can be Paladins, because it is assumed only humans have the temperament and cultural background to understand the most important of “western European” values – law, order, god, and community. Implying that non-human races cannot embody these values bears a striking resemblance to similar ideas espoused during the Enlightenment about “noble savages.” Sure, Native Indian and African tribes might have had many admirable qualities about them – strength, a strong sense of pride, even some degree of intelligence – but it was always assumed that they lacked the qualities that made white Europeans truly “civilized.” An ethnographer might be interested in an exotic religion or honor-code, but it was always alien. D&D carries these assumptions into non human races – Dwarves make good fighters, Elves might be good rangers, and both might have their own religions, but they hardly have an elevated, cultural devotion to core human (a.k.a. white) values.
In addition to class restrictions, there are also “Racial Level Restrictions.” Again, looking at 2nd edition:
“In addition to unlimited class choice, humans can attain any level in any class. Once again, this is a human special ability, something no other race has. In the AD&D game, humans are more motivated by ambition and the desire for power than the demihuman races are. Thus, humans advance further and more quickly. Demihumans can attain significant levels in certain classes, but they do not have the same unlimited access.” (p. 22)
Not only are non-human characters limited to the jobs they can get, but they are limited to how high they can rise within those professions. The blame for this fantasy glass-ceiling, however, is set squarely on the non-human races themselves: they lack ambition. This lack of ambition is engrained by race – all elves lack the ambition to advance any further than the 12th level as a fighter. Never mind what character you want to make, what the individual you wish to play might desire – as an elf, he is inherently, due to race, inferior to a human warrior in terms of level advancement. When we make the obvious parallel to race in the real world, this is even more troubling than class restrictions. White Europeans have unlimited potential, while non-whites are severely limited in how high they can climb in the social order – not due to ingrained, systemic racism, mind you, but because they lack the ambition to rise any higher.
What is the point of limiting the class choices and level attainment of non-human races? In part, it is to keep the game itself balanced – if one wants the various races to be roughly equivalent, any bonus above the human base-line must come with some negative to balance it out. However, even as the Dungeon Master’s explains this, the language it uses sounds more like racial protectionism:
“The DM can, if he chooses, make any class available to any race. This will certainly make your players happy. But before throwing the doors open, consider the consequences. If the only special advantage humans have is given to all the races, who will want to play a human? Humans would be the weakest race in your world? Why play a 20th level human paladin when you could play a 20th level elf paladin and have all the abilities of paladins and elves?
“If none of the player characters are human, it is probably safe to assume that no non-player characters of any importance are human either. Your world would have no human kingdoms, or human kings, emperors, or powerful wizards. If would be run by dwarves, elves, and gnomes . . . Also, if humans are weak, will the other races treat them with contempt? With pity? Will humans be enslaved? All things considered, humans could have a very bad time of it.”
In the world of D&D, non-humans are restricted in order to ensure a continuing human supremacy. The arguments against lifting the racial class restrictions sounds nothing so much arguments against ending segregation or giving African American’s the vote.
If what the rules say about “good” non-humans reinforces an Anglo-centric world view, what they say about the “evil” races of monsters does so with even less ambiguity. The first edition description of an orc is as follows:
“An orc is an ugly human-like creature, and looks like a combination of animal and man. Orcs are nocturnal omnivores, and prefer to live underground. When fighting in daylight, they have a penalty of – 1 on their Hit Rolls. Orcs have bad tempers and do not like other living things.”
While is merely a rehashing of Tolkien, what we are presented with is an intelligent, humanoid race that somehow is universally loathsome, violent, and antisocial. In various adventures and campaigns we are expected to believe that orcs build castles, manage nations, and are capable of organizing massive military campaigns, and yet are stupid, incapable of coordinated efforts, and inferior to humans in every way that matters when it comes to “humanity.” They are allowed just enough humanity to make them an interesting, exotic threat, but kept generic and inhuman enough to keep the conscious untroubled when it becomes necessary to kill them by the dozen. That these orcs are dark-skinned and tend to live in southern and eastern regions may be written off by some as mere coincidence, but nearly everything about orc culture fits with a reading that matches them to black or indigenous natives.
Take for example, orcish magic users. While all the “white” races have magicians, sorcerers and the like, orcish magic users are referred to as “shamans or witch doctors,” terms which associate with native American and African tribesman. Just as only humans can be paladins, only good, white races are capable of the complex, “civilized” magic that makes up sorcery, while the uncivilized “monsters” have to make do with a sort of magic western civilizations treat with condensation and paternalistic superiority. Time and time again orcs — the inhuman, devalued other in D&D – have characteristics that match non-white, non-European cultures.
The rules do allow for the possibility of player characters interacting with monster races, but almost only in a master/slave dialectic:
“Non-human troops, bugbears and humanoids, will be very difficult to handle. They will tend to fight amongst each other, fight with humans nearby – whether friendly or not, run from bottle if they see troops on their own side retiring or retreating, and fall to looting at the first opportunity. Communications are also a great problem. If the master is strong and powerful and gives them cause to fear disobedience, it will be of some help in disciplining such troops. Likewise, if there are strong leaders within each body of such troops, threatening and driving them on, they will be more likely to obey. Weakness in leadership, or lack of officering, will certainly cause these troops to become unruly and impossible to control” 1st ed (p.104)
Non-human troops are not just uncivilized and uncouth, but need a master to control them. The description of weak, cowardly, unorganized troops of orcs bears a striking resemblance to the arguments put forth by southern generals justifying their refusal to offer slaves freedom in exchange for fighting for the confederacy even as they were loosing the war.
We could continue to look at orcs, then move onto hobgoblins, kobolds, and bugbears, but they are basically all treated the same and we would just see a similar pattern repeat itself over and over.
Where things get more interesting is when monsters and humans begin to overlap. 1st Edition introduced the half-orc, the product of an orc and a human. The race has an interesting history: while half-orcs were included in first edition, they were removed in the 2nd, reintroduced in the 3rd edition, and removed once again in the recent 4th edition. While I have been unable to find an official explanation from either TSR or Wizards of the Coast, most of the internet chatter suggests it is because in a world where orcs are assumed to be inherently evil, half-orcs are implicitly the offspring of rape. As the 2nd edition pointedly removed or sanitized many other controversial elements (demons and devils were renamed tanar’ri and baatezu, a move that still leaves gamers confused), the fact that half-orcs were removed concurrent with this sanitizing effort does imply that they were felt to be unsavory.
Whether or not half-orcs are the result of consensual sex or rape, they are a perfect example of how AD&D presents an essentialist view of race. According to the first edition players handbook, “Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels ore sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human” (p.16) The amount of racially loaded terms in that description are staggering. Cross-breeds? Mongrels? Passing as human? We also seem to have the fantasy equivalent of the “one-drop” rule, with the monstrous, orcish nature nearly always overwhelming the “civilized” human nature.
So what is the half-orc like? Again quoting first-edition:
“Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger. This does not mean that all half-orcs are horrid, only most of them. It neither means that they are necessarily stupid nor incapable. They will always seek to gain the upper hand and dominate those around them so as to be able to exercise their natural tendencies; half-orcs are greedy too. They can, of course, favor their human parent more than their orcish one.” (p.15)
Remember, the half-orc is half-human, and yet their description is a catalogue of every negative social characteristic imaginable. There is a nod at the end to the idea that they can, in fact, “favor their human parent,” but the very tone and laundry list of negative characteristics implies that this is, at best, highly unlikely.
After being removed in the 2nd edition, the 3rd edition brought back the half-orc. The twenty-five years between 1st and 3rd, however, didn’t make the half-orc any more sympathetic – in fact, the newer description has a few phrases that make it more troublesome:
“The orc language has no alphabet and uses Dwarven script. Orc writing is found most often in graffiti. Half-orc characters receive a +2 modifier to strength and -2 modifiers to intelligence and charisma ability scores. Half-orcs prefer simple pleasures: feasting, singing, wrestling and wild dancing. They have no interest in refined pursuits such as high art and philosophy.”
Let me remind you that every basic player race is white – humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and gnomes – except for half-orcs. And how is the ONLY non-white race described? Strong and stupid, with no real interest in art or philosophy. Their “simple pleasures” in fact, sound a lot like a 19th century anthropologist describing an African tribe: feasting, singing, wild dancing? There is a more modern allusion as well – orcs do not use a normal alphabet, so their writing expresses itself as graffiti, a style of art most commonly associated with urban youth who are, yes, black. Orcs like saggy jeans, bass-heave R&B and hip-hop, spinning-rims, and are evil. Elves prefer Jens Leikman, The Mountain Goats, and attending art openings in SOHO.
Although they deserve much more discussion, due to time I have to quickly touch briefly on Drow – The Dark Elves. See, there IS a race of elves who actually have black skin. This might at first seem like the much needed diversity the game lacks, but there’s a problem. They’re evil. Drow, as a race, are cruel and so psychotically anti-social that the only reason they don’t destroy themselves is that their evil spider goddess Lolth forces them to continue existing together. While they were, at first, merely another race of dark-skinned monster for players to kill, Drow proved so popular that they were optioned as a player-race. They became favorites of angsty, goth D&D gamers, as they struggled against their inherently evil nature. One of the most successful lines of the Forgotten Realms series of novels follows Dirzzt Do’Udon, the anti-hero Drow. Poor Dirzzt – he is rejected by all: to good to be accepted by the Drow, yet universally distrusted due to his race, he is once again an exception that proves the rule. He is not so much proof that Drow can be good, as a complicated man that no one understands except Lolth. Drowsploitation, if you will.
PART V – Race by the Numbers
The one thing I have not really touched upon is perhaps the most central to D&D– the numerical and statistical nature of the game itself. The act of simulating a fantasy world, with the threats and risks of challenge and change, D&D involves a lot of numbers. The random nature of events is invoked by the use of polyhedron dice – in 3rd and 4th edition, that means the 20 sided dice, but in the first and second this involved all the multi-sided die that nerds hold near and dear to their heart – the D12, D10, D8, D6, and D4. Varying levels of skill – from how well one swings a battle-axe to the skill with which one picks a lock – are indicated by numerical bonuses that are added to the random numbers generated by the dice: +2 lock-picking, +1 save verses poison, -1 charisma.
It is these numbers that lend themselves to reinforcing the pure essentialism of race, as one’s race is boiled down to a series of charts, requirements, adjustments, and statistical bonuses – a lot of charts. Every elf is given a +2 bonus on dexterity, every gnome has +2 constitution, every half-orc has a -2 to intelligence. While individual orcs and elves will of course, vary in their attributes (which are generated through the random roll of dice) there is always the inherent quality of race augmenting that random, individual nature – statistically, as a race, elves are more agile than humans while half-orcs are dumber. Is this due to Gary Gygax’s view of race or simply due to the act of attempting to turn Tolkien’s setting into a dice based game? Either way, it boils racial natures down to a numerical science akin to phrenology or eugenics.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only person who has seen these underlying aspects of D&D, and even more unfortunately, not everyone finds them troubling. While doing research for this talk, I cam across the Stormfront web-site. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this vile-corner of the internet, it is the world’s largest discussion forum for white-supremacists. One of the most popular topics is “Culture and Customs,” with one of the most active forums being “High Fantasy and Lord of the Rings.” Most of the topics reinforce my optimistic belief that none of these sad individuals will find any one to ever reproduce with – the combination of racist ideology and Morris dancing is a powerful turnoff. Others yield such laughably offensive as the thread: “Drizzt Do’Urden fans, do you find the books blatantly pro-Negro?”
Some of them are more troubling, however, with many pointing out exactly what I’m saying, except of course they are celebrating rather than critiquing: “Ever notice how most if not all the good characters in fantasy novels are WHITE looking characters?” “Isn’t it clear who the orcs represent?” Then I came across “Learn All You Need to Know About Race from Dungeons & Dragons,” posted by Holy Roman Empire. I quote here liberally, as Mr. Roman Empire basically summarizes all my misgivings about D&D:
“From reading and posting on the Opposing Views section of the forum, I read a lot of foolish comments from the anti’s. Statements like “I know a black person who is really smart, therefore everything you say about racial intelligence differences is wrong.” Well, of course, the lack of understanding of statistics this statement shows is staggering. I try to recall when in my life when I could have fallen for such a foolish statement and I can’t think of when I would have.
“I completely understood how there could be smart blacks and yet blacks be less intelligent than whites as a whole when I was a child. When was the first time I thought about an idea like that? When I got into Dungeons and Dragons at the age of nine or ten. I knew that elves were more agile than humans. I knew that because they had a +1 bonus (back when I started playing, now its +2) to Dexterity, I knew they were more dexterous even though the average elf had a Dexterity of 11.5 and humans could have a Dexterity of 18.
“And this point may seem a bit silly, but it introduces an important idea that most white people are conditioned not to believe in – racial essentialism. The idea that race determines certain characteristics or tendencies. We knew that elves we dexterous, that dwarves were tough, that orcs were mean and nasty. We also knew that there were exceptions and that exceptions didn’t mean that general trends didn’t still apply.
“D&D also has a lot about racial loyalty. Elves band together in protection of their forests. Orcs raid human villages and have to be stopped by the hero. In D&D, you have loyalty to your people and you know that sometimes a race in general can be a threat to your’s.
“As I’ve grown older over the years I’ve continued to enjoy role playing games and my though the games I’ve played have advanced beyond just fighting orcs and finding magic items – but I think that some of those ideas I was exposed to as a child were good lessons that maybe helped me come to terms with ideas that are part of beings a White Nationalist.”
So where does that leave us, in the end? It is true that D&D is just a game, and I can’t imagine that Gygax or the other creators over the years have had any implicit, racist message they wished to get across – I’m not suggesting there is any conscious attempt to turn our youth into white-supremacists. However, D&D is guilty, as is much of our entertainment media, of reinforcing an Anglo-centric view of the world; a sense of western-superiority at the cost of fearing, distrusting, and looking down upon non-white and developing nations; and reinforcing stereotypes that go along with an essentialist understanding of race, culture, and ethnicity. That this is also true of video-games, comic-books and movies makes it no less true of Role-Playing games. (Video-games, comic-books, movies, role-playing games . . . I believe I’ve just indict 98% of my leisure time).