Nerd Nite Presentation – November 18th, 2008


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).



134 Responses to “Nerd Nite Presentation – November 18th, 2008”

  1. MNPundit Says:

    Came here via Coates and I’d just like to say that as things later went on, Tolkien struggled with the fact that making Orcs always evil and in the end decided that they were redeemable as well as at least some of them coming from some of the Edain.

  2. mrvandyke Says:

    Thanks! This was written for 30 minute presentation, so for time purposes I had to cut an entire section I had on Tolkien. I’m thinking of expanding the essay, and it sounds like I’ll have to re-read my copy of the Silmarillian . . . What’s your cite for Tolkien’s struggle — is it in one of his letters, or one of the volumes of unfinished tales?

  3. Captain Yellowbeard Says:

    A couple of things about this:

    1. D&D is a folklore game created by and played by (generally) people of European descent. Big surprise that the heroes are generally people of European descent. I seriously doubt that this is “racism,” per se, but, rather, simply the normal type of imagining that most people in most races would do. For example, I have serious doubts that if the Masai created a role playing game that their typical PC would be a white banker.

    2. Talk to the players. Dweebs? Sure. Nerds? Yes. Need a bath? Almost certainly. But /racist/? I mean, at least, more racist than everyone not raised in an international school is by default? I doubt it. It is certainly not the haven of skin heads.

    3. Something tells me that if there were actual, literal other races, which are really… what? species? I have never figured out how they could be so totally different and yet still breed. And if you can’t breed with someone they are certainly not a race. Can a human breed with a goblin? Not in anything I have ever read… anyway, if there were all these other… species… or whatever, especially if many of them would kill you on site and take your stuff given half a chance, then I sort of suspect that the typical human race relationships which exist in non-fantasy land would evaporate. Sort of like if evil aliens showed up. All the sudden the Arabs and the Jews would say “you know, maybe we have more in common than we thought originally.”

    I think that this is an interesting but generally baseless argument. It’s not so much racism being perpetrated, here, as simple race unawareness – something entirely different. When I think of racists, the first thing that comes to mind is definitely not a bunch of role playing geeks.

    The only thing that /has/ always troubled me is the Drow stuff. First of all, if you live underground then your skin would likely be extremely light rather than dark (see the cave fish), and it has always bothered me that this one dark humanoid race is evil.

    I am not convinced that the other skin colors of the other fantasy creatures in D&D are analogues for race in the real world as much as they are simply something to create more flavor. To reiterate: I suspect that the creators of the game simply imagined things that they knew the most about and were the most comfortable with (as most humans are wont to do) rather than designing a game which was truly racist, be that “racism” explicit, implicit, or accidental.

    Full disclosure: I am a white, anglo saxon anthropologist who tries his hardest to be non-prejudiced about anyone (save neocons, who deserve my ire). I’ve been playing D&D and other role playing games for 26 years.

  4. DanShenise Says:

    I planned AD&D in the 80s (a dark time of mullet hairstyles and lack of quality male-female interact), and thought back then, when I was 12-15 that essentially I was playing a game with strong racial overtones. My group of gamers were into the whole desert campaign / vaguely arabic thing (cool chariots, and blue dragons), so we ended up playing a fairly PC campaign, with a bunch of “tan” characters. Funny though the racial overtones were there, we didn’t necessarily play things that way. Though we were odd in having an African-American female member of the group. So we had a variety of human characters of different ethnicities.

    Another way to look at this is not racial sterotypes, but cultural ones. Just as we fat, lazy Americans think of Germans as efficient and boorish; Elves look at humans as overly passionate and short-sighted. Hell, get a group of Europeans around a table and you’ll get a catelogue of cultural sterotypes, and the same would be true of various Asian cultures. I remember an event I attended at the Japanese embassy in 1999, where all the Japanese were constantly running down the Chinese and Koreans. Now we classify them as Asian, but they see differences.

  5. mrvandyke Says:

    Full disclosure — I’m a white, anglo saxom male who teaches high-school English in the Bronx. I went to a mostly white college and am neither an anthropologist or a sociologist, and started played various RPGS (mostly fantasy) back in ’89 when I was about ten.

    1. D&D is a FANTASY game set in a pseudo-European setting. I’m not sure how pointing out that the game is set in Europe negates my statement that it is anglo-centric and privilege white europeans — it gives a possible reason why. A game set in the ante-bellum South would privilege white slave-owners, but that doesn’t justify it. In addition, an all white pseudo-Europe is a bit “the way we never were,” and brings to mind Eastwood’s argument with Spike Lee over the inclusion of black soldier’s in WWII films. Medieval Europe had Anglos, Saxons and Franks, but also Mongols, Finnish natives, Roma, Moors, north-African and Middle-Eastern traders. Common, no, but more prevalent than the 99.4% white content shown in the illustrations. Also, it is a FANTASY game — fantasy exists in all cultures, and the settings are made up, so why they necessarily reflect an all white world? Finally, the game is played by real human beings, many of whom are NOT white — that the game makes so little effort to include them in the sweep of “self” is telling.

    2. What is racism? Sure, I end of white nationalists, but the term racism is far more sweeping and includes the entire spectrum of exclusion and privilege. Yes, burning a cross is racist — and very rare. Thinking John McCain “looked more presidential” than Barak Obama but being unable to explain why is racist. Confusing Muslim and Arab as being the same is racist. Expecting asians to be good at math and assuming black students are on financial aide is racism. The rate of incarceration among minorities in our country and the number of stop and frisks that the NYPD does for non-whites is racism. Being aware of the differences between Germany and Switzerland while being ignorant of the differences between Nigeria and Liberia is racist. Many of my gut reactions to events could be racist — I’m not telling players to stop playing or even to suddenly stop fighting orcs, but to be aware of the parallels.

    3. Thanks for bringing in the Arabs and Jews (and sweeping them all together, as if all Arabs and Jews don’t get along — perhaps mentioning some nations would have been more specific). The problem I see with a game defining a “race” as evil is that it conditions players to think it terms of racial essentialism and moral predestination. The idea that every orc is evil from birth and that every one of them wants to destroy you, your characters, and your “good” society sets up an easy habit to fall into when someone points out that Islam is inherently violent and that Muslim “bad guys” want to destroy “us” our freedom and “our way of life.”

    4. I completely agree — I’m sure that “the creators of the game simply imagined things that they knew the most about and were the most comfortable with (as most humans are wont to do)” and that they threw in other races to be “simply something to create more flavor,” and said as much in the essay. Reducing asian and african cultures to “flavor” and staying with what we are most comfortable with is racist — just not the skinhead variety. I have plenty of relatives who are “most comfortable” around other white people and “not comfortable” around people of color. That was the same logic used slow the “all deliberate speed” of desegregation in this country.

  6. mrvandyke Says:

    I would agree that many of the stereotypes are more cultural than racial — but in our society, race, ethnicity, and culture are all rolled together into the assumptions and prejudices we have. Since this was for an informal talk, I didn’t get a chance to go into the two terms, but I think the same problem still remains — privileging a “self” over the “other” and reinforcing the idea that “the other” is inherently evil and threatening to one’s own race/ethnicity/culture.

  7. calenth Says:

    I think the bit about the redeemability of orcs is from the later letters (Morgoth’s Ring?) This may be a good starting place, from google:

    A similar interesting question is Tolkienian dwarves. It’s often elided over, but there are some pretty good indications that Tolkienian dwarves are, well, Jews. Not just because they love gold and all wear beards, but because Tolkien used Hebrew as the basis for Dwarvish language in the same way that he used finnish and welsh as the basis for his elvish tongues.

    See generally:

    “The Dwarvish language sounds much like Hebrew, and indeed Tolkien noted some similarities between Dwarves and Jews: both were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…” (Letters, 176). Another reason Hebrew was chosen as a basis for Khuzdul is that it is unlike any of the European languages, and thus sufficiently alien to western ears to show just how different the Dwarven speech was from the Elvish languages. ”

  8. Captain Yellowbeard Says:

    Retrying this with HTML to differentiate authors. Mods, please delete original post.

    mrvandyke’s text

    Yellowbeard’s text

    It may be that my tone came over a bit too pissy. Sorry for that. I thought it was an interesting article. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t trying to attack you, just your argument. So, just to make sure you know, these being the tubes and all, where you can’t see my face, I say everything with a smile, and no attack meant on you. I must also admit that I wrote the above before reading your conclusion, which spoke to some (but not all) of my points. I want to respond to some things you said below.

    Full disclosure — I’m a white, anglo saxom male who teaches high-school English in the Bronx. I went to a mostly white college and am neither an anthropologist or a sociologist, and started played various RPGS (mostly fantasy) back in ‘89 when I was about ten.

    I mentioned my college training only to lend credit to the idea that I have considered other “races” (I am going to start putting the term in quotes, as there is disagreement in academia as to what the word means) and cultures and am not simply a bigot. I wasn’t trying to claim any sort of authority. Just FYI.

    1. D&D is a FANTASY game set in a pseudo-European setting. I’m not sure how pointing out that the game is set in Europe negates my statement that it is anglo-centric and privilege white europeans — it gives a possible reason why. A game set in the ante-bellum South would privilege white slave-owners, but that doesn’t justify it. In addition, an all white pseudo-Europe is a bit “the way we never were,” and brings to mind Eastwood’s argument with Spike Lee over the inclusion of black soldier’s in WWII films. Medieval Europe had Anglos, Saxons and Franks, but also Mongols, Finnish natives, Roma, Moors, north-African and Middle-Eastern traders. Common, no, but more prevalent than the 99.4% white content shown in the illustrations. Also, it is a FANTASY game — fantasy exists in all cultures, and the settings are made up, so why they necessarily reflect an all white world? Finally, the game is played by real human beings, many of whom are NOT white — that the game makes so little effort to include them in the sweep of “self” is telling.

    Ok, First thing: D&D is a fantasy game, as you say, but it is not set in Europe. It is set in a fantasy setting /based/ on Europe. Why is it based on Europe? Again, I think there are a few reasons:

    The creators were European. You say that this explains it but does not justify it (or, I feel, imply that with your later statement about the ante-bellum south). In this case, I don’t see how the explanation is not a justification. The original creators were simply trying to put some rules together for playing with some armor clad miniatures (Chainmail was the original game that Gygax created) who were based on European knights. While all cultures have war, and many have created armor of varying types, these guys were playing with European based medieval warriors who were fighting in Europe (as opposed to Crusading in the Middle East). They were really playing with a second-hand story that had been created by Tolkein, whom you mention, who had also based at least a good portion of his fantasy world on the knights of his own homeland.

    Again, I say that this depiction of the heroes as being anglo saxon knights is a fair one. I don’t know enough history to know if there were african or other races of knights in England in the 1200s, but I doubt that they made up a major portion of the nobility. Also, again, these people were playing a fantasy game about heroes that they wanted to depict. Is it racist to want to depict someone of one’s own race? I think that’s going a little far. Then again, I am unsure what “racist” means in every case. I am glad you brought that up and will leave my comments on that general topic for later.

    You ask why this fantasy depicts an all white world. I told you already: It was made up by all white players – at least originally. You observed that yourself. While role playing has become more widely popular over the years, the truth is that it was typically the domain of suburban white teenage boys. The heroes, therefore, depict the typical fantasy of suburban white teenage boys (those fantasies that don’t involve girls, I mean). Again I will ask you: If the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert (those people depicted in the movie “The God’s Must be Crazy” if you have seen it) or the Andean Maya were playing a fantasy game, would you expect them to pretend to be Chinese pirates? If they, instead, pretended to be icons of their own culture, would you accuse them of “racism?” I doubt it.

    While I appreciate your point about media dominance of white culture, I am not sure that that, in and of itself, is inherently “racist.” And if it is, then you must also accuse the producers of BET of being racist for making shows that feature black actors and are marketed to black audiences.

    What I am trying to say is: If D&D and other fantasy games are “racist,” then it is only a reflection of the larger “racism” of society at large, in which case your singling it out seems unfair. I mean, you are accusing the game of something that many people do all the time – not only whites – and that is of having a cultural bias. It’s not especially bad if whites are culturally biased. It only seems so because whites have been in power for some time and because you are white and because you probably suffer from a bit of liberal white guilt (like many of us do). But I think that taking that further – to an accusation of specialized “racism” in this case, is unfair. If you do that, then you must make the same observation about all races and all their media, all their fantasy, all their thought. The type of “racism” you cite here is biologically normal, if distasteful and not something special that D&D practices.

    To me, your last sentence is the most telling. The concept of the game does reflect “self” as you point out. I have met a lot of the people who work (or, at least, did work, several years ago) at TSR (I happened to be at a party at a Con – I don’t really /know/ them, just saw and met them) and they are predominately white. Their version of “self” IS white. If having a view of one’s self including one’s own race as part of that view makes one “racist” then I doubt you will find many people in the world who are not “racist.”

    2. What is racism? Sure, I end of white nationalists, but the term racism is far more sweeping and includes the entire spectrum of exclusion and privilege. Yes, burning a cross is racist — and very rare. Thinking John McCain “looked more presidential” than Barak Obama but being unable to explain why is racist. Confusing Muslim and Arab as being the same is racist. Expecting asians to be good at math and assuming black students are on financial aide is racism. The rate of incarceration among minorities in our country and the number of stop and frisks that the NYPD does for non-whites is racism. Being aware of the differences between Germany and Switzerland while being ignorant of the differences between Nigeria and Liberia is racist. Many of my gut reactions to events could be racist — I’m not telling players to stop playing or even to suddenly stop fighting orcs, but to be aware of the parallels.

    This is, I think, the really interesting question. I will point out that you missed many many examples. When I substitute teach and the black students in my class make comments about my being white and treating them badly because I am white (all evidence to the contrary) is that “racist?” When the Japanese treated all the other Asian people like subhumans during WWII was that “racist?” When people say that Jews are very often successful businessmen and bankers is that “racist?” When European Jews moved back to Israel in the 40s and started treating the Arab Jews who had never left like second class citizens (something they continue to do today) was that “racist?”

    Burning a cross is rare, even here in the south, where I live, but overt racism is not (though, thankfully, it is less so than it was) unheard of down here. I seem to recall that it is not unheard of in the Bronx, as well. Remember, just because whites have been the oppressors in this country for some time and have many unfair advantages still, that does not mean they have a corner on the “racism” market. They just happen to have more power at the moment.

    Parts of racism are biologically normal; fear of the “other,” a desire to increase the health of peoples who are biologically more similar to our selves. This does not make it “ok,” and I am not saying it’s an excuse. I am just saying that it is part of our makeup as animals. It is part of our makeup as humans to struggle against these inherent natures, but it is also part of being a human to not always win that struggle. Personally, I think we should still struggle anyway, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. If noticing differences is racist, then we are all racist. And maybe that’s the truth of it: we’re all somewhat racist. It’s the struggle we make to try to not allow those prejudices to rule us that is admirable.

    3. Thanks for bringing in the Arabs and Jews (and sweeping them all together, as if all Arabs and Jews don’t get along — perhaps mentioning some nations would have been more specific). The problem I see with a game defining a “race” as evil is that it conditions players to think it terms of racial essentialism and moral predestination. The idea that every orc is evil from birth and that every one of them wants to destroy you, your characters, and your “good” society sets up an easy habit to fall into when someone points out that Islam is inherently violent and that Muslim “bad guys” want to destroy “us” our freedom and “our way of life.”

    You’re welcome. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Muslims and the Jews do not get along so well, typically. Just because you have observed some of them getting along or because you don’t want them to not get along does not mean that they don’t typically get along. Many stereotypes actually do come from somewhere. Also, being from NYC, I would assume that you had observed at least some evidence that at least some Muslims want to do damage to the west. They had their reasons. We have our reasons for wanting to stop them. That, in and of itself, doesn’t make either of us “racists.” It just makes us at war. However, there are certainly “racist” connotations on both sides of this “war on terror.”

    I know you’re going to hate it when I say this, but Jews and Muslims, especially in the middle east, often don’t get along. Koreans and Japanese don’t either. Neither do the French and the Germans. Does that mean that /no/ Frenchmen get along with Germans? Of course not. However, it is a part of our lives that some cultures, because of things in history, don’t get along always. That doesn’t mean we just blindly assume things all the time, but it is still a fact in the world we can use to inform ourselves.

    4. I completely agree — I’m sure that “the creators of the game simply imagined things that they knew the most about and were the most comfortable with (as most humans are wont to do)” and that they threw in other races to be “simply something to create more flavor,” and said as much in the essay. Reducing asian and african cultures to “flavor” and staying with what we are most comfortable with is racist — just not the skinhead variety. I have plenty of relatives who are “most comfortable” around other white people and “not comfortable” around people of color. That was the same logic used slow the “all deliberate speed” of desegregation in this country.

    Look. My dad is 75 years old. He grew up in South Alabama or (Lower Alabama, as they call it down there). his whole family was racist. When he was in the Korean Conflict, where, as it turns out, he served out his term here in the U.S., he had a lot of black people in his unit. My father has always been a reasonable man. He realized, in that unit in the 1950’s, that the racism he had grown up with just didn’t make sense and he just stopped. When I was growing up, he preached in an African Methodist church. My mother taught in an all black girl’s school in Virginia during segregation. She was appalled at the level of racism she saw every day even though she had grown up in the midwest and could probably count the number of black people she had seen growing up on one hand.

    As proud as I am of my parents, I will lay you dollars to donuts that they notice when someone is a different “race.” And I will also bet that they still have pre-dispositions about what people of that race might be like – some good and some ill. Just as you probably would have predispositions if you found out that I was from a republican flyover state and we had not yet conversed. That does not make them racist. It simply makes them human.

    When you say that we are racist for staying with what we are most comfortable, you must also turn your ire on everyone else on the world as well. I have been to China. Guess what? The newspaper is in Chinese. All the actors on television are Chinese as well. I didn’t see one Caucasian in any of their broadcasts. All humans are naturally more comfortable with what they know than what they don’t know. It takes a great deal of effort to stray from that comfort zone. Doing so is admirable, at least, I think it is. However, not doing so does not make one “racist.” I very much doubt that you would call any of your black students “racist,” for typically listening to hip hop and for being more inclined to vote for Obama than for McCain. However, voting for Obama because he is black and they are black is just as racist as a white person seeing McCain as “more presidential” because he is white.

    I don’t disagree that D&D and other role-playing systems have probably been shaped by the same forces that the rest of the world has been. However, if that’s the case, why turn you anger on D&D. Why not simply throw up your hand at the entire world?

    Thanks for a very interesting conversation, by the way.


  9. tokenminorities Says:

    good post.

  10. wins32767 Says:

    At it’s heart D&D is a framework for telling stories, usually stories taking place in a medieval northern European setting. As a cooperative story telling framework, it has to have some mechanism for determining what happens when participants having conflicting goals for the story. D&D, being based on wargaming, uses a framework of rules based on die rolling and modifiers. When using this sort of framework, certain modifiers for physical, mental, and psychological properties are necessary for the system to approximate reality (which is important to aid the willing suspension of disbelief). Obviously a mouse stepping on an elephant will have a much different result than the inverse. Scaling this down further, a cat will likely be more agile on average than a sloth, a mule smaller than a horse, and a dog smarter than a cow. You seem to be objecting to the fact that these modifiers are applied to sentient beings.

    However, the source material (in this case Germanic and Scandinavian myths) does apply an essentialism to race (as race is used in D&D). Dwarfs are more interested in metals and rocks than humans. Giants are angry, stupid, and aggressive. Given that the source material would meet your definition of racist, is it any wonder that derived material that attempts to stay faithful to it’s source also meets your definition of racist?

  11. mrvandyke Says:

    YB –

    Thanks — It’s always good to remember that faceless rhetoric can leave both parties sounding prissier and/or more defensively condescending than they should. My reply definitely was a bit hostile, and I’m glad that instead of escalating you brought it back to a polite discourse. Thanks.

    I’m supposed to be at a faculty meeting in a few minutes, so I don’t really have the time to reply in depth, but I think it is clear that we are approaching the idea of race and racism from two different places — I don’t really want to get involved in a very long debate over what is and is not racist, but I’m willing to call a lot of actions and thoughts, mine included, racist. The fact that they are cultural, learned, or even the result of inate human nature does not make them any less racist.

    Also, I love FRPGs – D&D, Rolemaster, HERO, Tri-Stat, Paladium, Shadowrun, I’ve played them all and loved them. I don’t play much any more, but I still buy, read, and discuss them, and find myself trying to convert nearly every weird-fic book I read into a campaign setting. The fact that I love them doesn’t keep me from seeing some essential racist/culturalist/ethno-centri truths in them, however. The only reason I “turned my anger on D&D” (though I wouldn’t say anger, as I was not and am not “angry” at the game) was simply due to the fact that it was my topic. As the last line says, it is no worse that most comic books, movies, video-games, novels, or the various other forms of entertainment. I chose to deconstruct D&D – it could have been M:TG, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Gears of War. Deconstructing the entire world is too much to do all at once: I got to go piece by piece : )

  12. Captain Yellowbeard Says:

    I greatly enjoyed the conversation. I suspect we actually agree far more than we disagree and, perhaps, most of what we are doing is what Wittgenstein would call “language games.” I wish my wife still lived in Brooklyn so I could fly up to visit her and make you discuss this further over a beer.

    If you want to talk further, you can jam my user name together, add and drop me a line.

    Thanks for an enjoyable morning.


  13. mrvandyke Says:

    Wins –

    I suppose as long as D&D insists on trying to replicate medieval folk-lore, perhaps it would be impossible to avoid being racist. An RPG based on players running plantations in the ante-bellum south would by definition be racist, a game set during the Boer wars would by definition be racist. However, D&D is NOT Pendragon, an RPG actually set in the Arthurian mythos — it is a fantasy game, and does not need to actually recreate a euro-centric fantasy realm. As I said in response to YB, I also don’t want to see Gygax tarred and feathered, or even shouted at — I think his creation is brilliant, and have enjoyed playing it on countless occasions. I just think that, in the 30 years since it debuted, it could have made a bit more effort to be more inclusive and less anchored in a singular world-view, and that players should be a bit more self-conscious of the sort of tropes they are putting into place and acting out. It’s deconstruction — take it for what it is.

  14. billiecat Says:

    Excellent article. I began playing D&D just after the first “Basic Game” came out in ’77. I was uncomfortable with the racial aspect of the game from the start, for all the reasons you identified. In my own games, this took the form of de-emphasizing the “evil races” in favor of evil characters, but the racist overtones were always there. Anyone who denies the racism in D&D isn’t being honest with themselves, just as anyone who thinks it’s not sexist is deluded. I ultimately stopped playing D&D because I felt the rules system didn’t lend itself to the kind of fantasy literature I preferred, but the fact that I couldn’t sort out a good way to handle the “racial” aspect of the game also helped kill the enjoyment I had way back when. A good follow up to this presentation would be some suggestions on how to reform the game to address this problem, or if ti’s as hopeless as I felt it was.

  15. W B Mook Says:

    This rattled loose some thoughts of my own on the subject… I promptly wandered off into something only barely related, but I thought you might want to take a look.

    Thanks for the piece.

  16. justinmohareb Says:

    Interesting essay, but I think you dismiss OA & AQ far too quickly.

  17. Travis Says:

    I have always wondered why “Arica: Lions and Rhinos” never mentioned white people. I mean, yeah, its a game about being an African Tribesman in based in an African Folklore influenced universe… but common, maybe there is some subconscious racial influence in not including any Chinese? You know, the people who created the game were Kenyan, and most people who play it are Kenyan, but am I the only one the finds it suspicious that the art in the rulebooks doesnt have any mexicans in it? I mean, its a fantasy game! We were playing and I said…”Sun Tok-gawa, the african tribesman, hunts the gazelle with his Wakizashi….” I was laughed at by Undugu when I wanted to play my chinese character! Its just like D&D!

  18. mrvandyke Says:

    Justin —

    Not sure if you meant I shouldn’t dismiss OA & AQ or whether I should have spent more time dismissing them. If the latter, the format for the talk was a 20-25 minute presentation, so I was constrained by time. As it was I still went about five minutes long. Perhaps there will be a follow up . . .

  19. mrvandyke Says:

    Travis –

    If you can find me a PDF of “Lions and Rhinos” we can talk. Unless every D&D game you’ve played consisted mostly of french peasants hunting deer, I find your “example” not just immaturely dismissive of my article but itself racist. Reducing the entire African continent to Lions, Rhinos, and hunting gazelle? I wasn’t actually saying most D&D players are racist, but you obviously are. If you want to join the discussion, please do — otherwise find somewhere else to post.

  20. Kynn Says:

    I can’t speak for Justin, but I do think that Al Qadim isn’t nearly as racist as your dismissive side comment would imply to those who haven’t played or read it before.

  21. Dean Says:

    Wow, so much energy spent saying nothing of value.
    I’ve been a DM since 1981 and I can honestly say that this article is the biggest load of bunk I’ve every wasted my time on. Talk about projecting one’s own fears! If a player made the presumptions this author has suggested are truths about race in my campaign it is unlikely that player’s character would last ten minutes.

  22. Todd Says:

    yr dismissal of Travis’s example is insulting and to call him racist is childish. If a game set in Ancient China featured only characters with asian characteristics as the “good guys” would that make it racist? If the enemies were ninjas would that be racist against Japanese and black people – since they are all dressed in black isn’t this a subconscious attempt by these racist game makers to suggest black is evil?

  23. mrvandyke Says:

    I’ll say it again — I love D&D. I love fantasy-role playing games. I spent most of my teens doing nothing but DMing. I met nearly everyone of my good friends in high school AND college through role-playing games, or else discovered quickly that they too were gamers. For everyone that keeps thinking I’m damning D&D for being racist, re-read the article. I use the term “racist” exactly three times: once to ask the question in the intro, once in reference to White Nationalists (can we agree they are racist?), and once to say that I’m sure Gygax did not have a racist agenda. That’s it. Everything else is to point out that the game does rely on stereotypes and otherizing that should be considered both by the game designers and players. I don’t tell anyone to stop playing it. Could everyone do me a favor and just post their race or ethnicity along with their comment? While I’ve had lots of defensive reactions from white people, I haven’t had a single person of color, whether they fully agreed with me or not, who didn’t at least say “yeah, that always bothered me . . .” Then go over to Ta-Nahisi’s blog, where my article has sparked a debate that is actually interesting — not that all the comments agree with me, mind you, but they actually engage the topic.

  24. mrvandyke Says:

    Kynn, Justine — I’ll re-read Al-Qadim and follow up. It has been a few years, and I honestly dismissed it due to a) time and b) yes, to get a laugh at the presentation. I’ll look at it again.

    Dean — I never attacked your campaign, and perhaps you run one that defies everything I said in this article. It is more than possible, as I’ve played a few myself. I was deconstructing the rule books themselves and looking at how, more often than not, the game plays out.

    Todd — I didn’t call Travis a racist to be childish and dismissive. I called him a racist because I found his comment to be racist.

  25. jim Says:

    Great article, but the elusive answer isn’t so elusive.

    D&D is played, primarily, in America — a country that is extremely isolationist, often stereotypes cultures from other nations, routinely speaks only one language, and values its own constitution above all other nations despite never having lived or learned about other nations — by people who are good at math, boiling things down into easy to digest black and white elements.

    None of these are “bad” things, but they easily explain the reason why alternatives to D&D that explore these themes OPENLY often rub people the wrong way. Gamers do not inherently believe whites are “better” than blacks (or latinos, or whatever), but that doesn’t mean they like having themes of inequality shoved in their faces.

    You can’t fix it if you don’t really think there’s a problem with it… and admitting there’s a problem with it, means undoing 30+ years of what makes it easiest.

    Lastly, adventure gaming is escapism. But if the escape is so alien to you that everything must be relearned (no humans, no weapons, and no culture), how easy would that game be to play?

  26. Nora Says:

    Thanks. You’ve encapsulated the main reason why I stopped playing D&D after being introduced to it as a child. As a black female who was basically the opposite of the white males that the game was created by and targeted at, I could not escape a creeping, sinking skeevy feeling whenever I tried to play it. It didn’t help that the (white, male) GM of the local game had clearly internalized some of the game’s unspoken messages. As I recall, I wanted to be a paladin, and he kept suggesting that my character (whose physical appearance I never explained, but who he clearly decided was black like me) should be a thief. (Since the group — all white other than me — also urged me to do this, I caved to peer pressure.) Whenever our party encountered orcs, they would attack the other characters, but for some bizarre reason they kept trying to rape my character. (Yeah, that GM had some issues. Your next post should be on sexism in D&D, BTW.)

    I played for a few months, then quit, and didn’t get back into roleplaying until college, when (wonder of wonders) I found a group of fellow geeky black/Asian/Latino people to play with. Actually, there were a couple of white players too. But given the majority-minority makeup of the group, we never even thought about playing D&D; instead we opted for a superhero/comics milieu, and later Vampire the Masquerade. Even in that group, we’d internalized the message: D&D is fantasy, and fantasy is for white people. Brown people should play something else.

    What I have to wonder is this: how much has D&D potentially limited its sales, and pigeonholed its own customer base? There are brown people out there gaming, and there will be more as America’s population shunts toward majority-minority on the macro scale. Is D&D going to change in order to try and appeal to those gamers? Or is it going to keep sending warn-off signals with its creepy eugenicist, white-power-fantasy messages? Never mind the moral issues — how is a company with a product this flawed going to survive in the 21st century?

  27. Ovid Says:

    Yeah, I don’t understand the AQ hate either. IIRC, it explicitly abolished racial animosities in analogy to medieval Islam’s relative tolerance.

    It sounds to me like you’re a bit too credulous about Edward Said’s work – he asked some interesting questions, but his attempts to answer them were often piss-poor (and the academic mini-industry that developed round his ideas was often worse).

  28. Michael Fiegel Says:

    Interesting piece. I covered much of the same terrain in a column I penned for back in 2001/2002.

  29. mrvandyke Says:

    Nora –

    Thanks! Checked out your blog — if I ever do a follow up talk, I’ll let you know. Nerd Nite’s in DUMBO, so perhaps you’d like to swing by. Thank’s also for your conclusion, since Ovid is correct in pointing out I pull a Said by asking a lot of questions then ducking out before answering them (though I find the act of asking these questions to be important in and of themselves). I keep using the lame excuse “I was giving a talk and didn’t have time!” to beg of the piece’s short-comings, but it is true, and I didn’t edit it at all before throwing this on-line (there were a few people who were interested in reading it — I didn’t really think of it escaping into the wild). But yes, morality aside, why must D&D start out by limiting itself and its audience? Many people keep saying “it’s set in medieval europe?” but it’s NOT — the core-books are just a set of rules that can be used in any pseudo-medieval setting. If you want to role-play in europe, use that for a campaign setting; if you want to campaign in sub-saharan Africa, use that for a campaign setting (though to be honest, if that box-set was designed by a bunch of mid-western white men, I would be a bit nervous). Both for the sake of making the game more interesting and being more inclusive both of its current and potential audience, D&D should make the PH and DMG more race-friendly.

  30. mrvandyke Says:

    Michael –

    Thanks! I somehow missed your articles in all the googling I did when working on my site. If I do a follow up and/or expand this, I’ll have to give your series a more thorough look . . .

  31. thedog Says:

    i think your reading to much into race man. I can debunk your whole topic in 3 examples.

    1) ever heard of al’quadim – basically arabian nights
    2) oriental adventures – kara tur in the forgetten realms
    3) maztica in the forgotten realms.

    places that have the appropriate human race has them. I wouldn’t expect a game made and based out of china to have pictures or characters that were white. Unless that game of course had a “European type” source book.

  32. mrvandyke Says:


    I’m glad you think you can debunk my “whole topic” in three easy steps, but please actually read my essay before you comment. I DO discuss why I don’t think the existence of source-books changes anything I am saying. Or read the comments above — I do admit to dismissing AQ too quickly, but I briefly discuss OA.

  33. martens-koop Says:

    To the writer of this excellent article:

    I find myself agreeing with you at just about every turn. Especially in regards to essentialising race. Your quotation from the white power group at the end is very thought provoking.

    I am doing a second masters degree in religious studies at the moment, and as part of my research assistant work for a prof I am reading through a lot of material on racism. of interest to you might be the work of James H. Cone. (a theologian from the usa who wrote / writes in the area of black theology, claiming that theology must be a theology of liberation).

    anyway, all this is background to the point I wanted to make using JH Cone: sure, you got your racism that involves beating people up, burning down houses, burning crosses, etc, but there is also a very real racism that occurs in the system, inside each little assumption that gets made about what is “normal”. these assumptions tend to find their way into everything that the dominant class produces, in this case D&D.

    I love D&D, and I don’t play it enough! I am drawing up a new universe as well as a campaign outline to begin shortly around christmas time. I have been working very hard to eliminate these sorts of 2 dimensional portrayals of orcs and goblins.

  34. martens-koop Says:

    hey Nora:

    I also found a lot of rampant sexism in D&D, and in fact still do. one of the things that I did to shake it up a little was play a female character the next time I had to make one. it actually worked very well -to a degree.

    hmmm. if gender is performance, I wonder what that says about gender and D&D in general?!

  35. Kialio Says:

    I’m going to echo Nora as another black female. I stopped playing D&D also, and find it hard to get into other fantasy games for the reasons you’ve outlined in your piece.

    All of it needed to be said, especially this part in the comments:
    I just think that, in the 30 years since it debuted, it could have made a bit more effort to be more inclusive and less anchored in a singular world-view, and that players should be a bit more self-conscious of the sort of tropes they are putting into place and acting out.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

  36. 30 Years Running « ChromaQuest Says:

    […] “I just think that, in the 30 years since it debuted, it could have made a bit more effort to be more inclusive and less anchored in a singular world-view, and that players should be a bit more self-conscious of the sort of tropes they are putting into place and acting out.” (Read more…) […]

  37. Race in D&D | Juhana Pettersson Says:

    […] found a link to this essay by Chris Van Dyke about race and D&D at the Roolipelaaja forum. Near the end of his text, […]

  38. thedog Says:


    i will accept your counterpoint on the specific source books, but you didnt comment at all on my reference to a “chinese” roleplaying game. If there was a game very similiar to D&D and used the local myths and legends and the main characters were asian type people, how would you react to that ? Would you be writing the same article ?

    the whole time i have played D&D with various groups over the years we never thought about race as an issue. we’ve had friends of most skin colors , white, brown, black playing the game.

    the same thing for terms of man or woman. we have had women play man characters, and men play female characters. never had much of a problem. the game itself is a little sexist there can be no doubt, but thats the great thing, you can play however you want, the rulebook is just a guideline.

    You should look into the new 4th edition. i think alot of the things that you have noted, have changed.under the halfing page there is a black skinned halfing, page 44 to be exact.

    There is also the character Miallee who is a darker color elf wizard form the 3rd edition.

    To the lady above who wanted to play a black skinned paladin, and the DM told her to play a theif, that is just deplorable. Your DM was an asshole, it wasnt a problem with the game.

  39. Jive Professor Says:

    A few observations from my perspective:

    First of all, this is a good article, well-written, and certainly a dialogue we need to keep active.

    That being said, I would like to point a few things out. If you were to make a DnD corebook with the fantasy races replaced with human “races” and used the same statistic-changing templates, gamers (on the whole) would be very offended. For example, if you could choose to make your character a black man, and the rules stated that you add +2 DEX, -2 INT, and were automatically trained in Basketball, a lot of gamers (our predominantly anglo-male demographic) would be offended and find the game to be completely absurd. And rightfully so.

    In addition, you’re basically taking only 1st-3rd edition into account. 4th edition, the most recent, represents the increasingly more cosmopolitan demographic. Using your example of Humans being the anglo, European norm, we run into some problems. Under Physical Qualities, the text reads:

    “Humans come in a wide variety of heights, weights, and colors. Some humans have black or dark brown skin, while others are pale as snow, and they cover the whole range of tans and browns in between. Their hair is black, brown, or a range of blonds and red. Their eyes are most often brown, blue, or hazel.

    Human attire varies wildly, depending on the environment and society in which they live. Their clothing can be simple, ostentatious, or anything in between. It’s not unusual for several distinct human cultures to live side by side in a particular area and mingle, so human armor, weaponry, and other items incorporate a wide variety fo designs and motifs.”

    Wow, quite a bit of variety, and the only word than has any real negative connotation is “pale”, a descriptor used for whites no less. In addition, it points out that Humans tend towards multiculturalism, even in very close proximity, and that there is no normative look or fashion amongst humans. This way not entirely “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, but I would argue that this tends to reflect the opinions of modern gamers. Let’s not forget, even 3rd edition is 7-8 years old.

    And what do we make of the fact that races no longer have negatives, only positives to their attributes? All races get +2 to two different stats, except humans who only get +2 in one stat (they can, however, choose which stat, the others are preset). What does this indicate, at least in its subtext? Humans are malleable, but are essentially weaker?

    What do we make of the core concept of the DnD adventuring party? A multiracial, multi-professional group of individuals setting out to save the world from evil?

    Gaming and gamers have come a long way. We still have a ways to go, but I feel that, for the most part, both the overt and subtle context of the games has little to do with racism and sexism. For most of us, anyway.

  40. jim Says:

    Jive Professor,

    While you make some cogent points, you miss the entire point of the thread. WOTC writing in a few descriptions of skin and eye color, mixed with hair styles does not remove the inherent racists overtones that “Race X is valid in its quest to kill Race Y.”

    You can flip the skin tones around all you want ala Outer Limits, but it won’t change a single thing about how people approach the game with a very B/W approach to the moral compass of murder and genocide.


    GMs and PCs trying to rape anyone (PC or otherwise; black or white) absolutely disgusts me. Send me their address so I can deliver the verbal pounding these misanthropes deserve.

    On behalf of the gaming community, I apologize that you were exposed to this kind of callous and callow inbred “things” disguised as gamers.

    – jim

  41. Jive Professor Says:

    I don’t see how, when a particularly large portion of the article involves the inherent racism in character development and choice for players, discussing the more cosmopolitan nature of character development is somehow missing the point?

    I agree about the idea that certain races are outright evil is simplistic, and has the potential to contain some racial overtones.

  42. mrvandyke Says:

    JIm, Dr. Jive, I think you are both right. The Prof. is right that I do spend a lot of time critiquing the overly white nature of the character creation process — if 4th ed. has gone a long way to be more inclusive and representative of the real world and its player base, I think that’s great, and I’m sure its changed the experience for non-white gamers.

    Jim, however, is quite right that the inherent overtones inherent in the very idea of an “evil race.” He’s also got a point that I bring up in my newest point – dying Barbie brown doesn’t mean the product is diverse. I haven’t read 4th ed yet, so I don’t know if its just swapping some colors around or not. I’ve got some reading to do . . . 🙂

  43. Jive Professor Says:

    I never argued that “evil races” were somehow okay. That was not a point of contention. I don’t think it’s quite as racist as it sounds (when I have more time, I’ll try and type up why I think that, heh!), but they are definitely dangerous waters.

    I also would like to point out that, as I mentioned, none of that nessarily evens things out and makes it all a-okay. The artwork still features predominantly white characters, but there is a higher presence of non-whites (though that is from what I remember, I can’t say I actually went and counted).

  44. mrvandyke Says:

    I’ll have to get me 4th ed and do some counting . . . And Dr. Jive, you don’t need to point out what you didn’t say — I’ve spend the last 4 days doing nothing but pointing out “No, I didn’t say that” or “just because I didn’t say X doesn’t mean I wasn’t planning on saying it.” Comment forums are perhaps the worst way for two (or more) people to actually have an intelligent discussion.

  45. jim Says:

    mrvandyke. thanks for the barbie metaphor. excellent point.

    jive. let me try another approach. if sit down for a D&D game, i’m sitting down to explore a game world that is 95% of time some derivation of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. my character, regardless of skin-tone, racial bonuses, and alignment, has one objective PER THE RULES… go on adventures and kill creatures for gold, so i can get better items to kill bigger monsters with.

    All the mythic adventure aside, this is kinda stupid.

    Gamers looking for more out of their RPGs have moved away from this style of play, but the 4th Edition reinforces this on a level that 1e to 3e cannot touch. The game is COMPLETELY combat-based. What you’re doing and why you’re doing it do not matter. The rules are here for you to simply defeat the thing that opposes your world-view.

    And killing things that don’t agree with you is pretty much a white imperialist attitude. Anyone with a history class under their belt can attest to this… or anyone living in a technologically backward, but resource-rich nation can as well.

    Now. ‘m a black male (and i’m not) and i’m sitting down for a game of KILL THE ORCS that don’t think, look, or act like me. Holy crap is that an awkward game experience. That’s not a game of cultural diversity. That’s not a comfortable scenario for someone that might already have self-esteem issues related to second-class citizenry.

    Imagine a Native American playing at a table where the adventure is about keeping orcs off OUR LAND. Ouch.

    Imagine being an Asian playing in a game where you have to torture prisoners of war for information in a secret camp far from prying eyes. Crap. Imaging being the son or daughter of a vietnam vet playing in that game? And while we’re at it, why is it STILL called Oriental Adventures? Who uses that word Oriental?

    The maxims of D&D have always been about expansion, plunder, killing, and accumulation, all tenets of western philosophy that evolved out of the Crusades, an era not far from the inspiration of the D&D game to begin with.

    Like the author of this article, I doubt that Gygax was a racist. but I do know he is from the midwest of America, in a town that is mostly (if not all) white. His world view was and is his world view. He wrote what he knew. Intentional or not, D&D is not a game for the masses.

    I would be interested to see the demographics on WoW and see how many people playing it are white and asian.


  46. Jive Professor Says:

    So by making non-combat spells all fall under a different, unified mechanic called Rituals, and by, for the first time ever, actually including a rubric to design non-combat situations (the Skill Challenge System, even though I don’t feel it is the best system, it is more than just “roll your skill”), the game is COMPLETELY combat-based?

    I always thought COMPLETELY meant, you know, all of it. If I said, “THIS CAKE IS ENTIRELY CHOCOLATE!!!”, when some of the slices were in fact strawberry, that would be an incorrect statement.

    Once, you’re missing what I’m saying (this will be time number three): I recognize there is a definite civilized vs. barbarism subtext in the way “monster” races are handled. But the party is itself often multi-racial, full of races that don’t look like or act like this “anglo” stereotypical norm. Are we just throwing that subtext out?

  47. Jive Professor Says:

    “And killing things that don’t agree with you is pretty much a white imperialist attitude.”

    Also, I had to laugh at this a bit. Killing others that disagree with you is something only white people do? Ignorance and violence are not part of the human condition, but rather are traits of the anglo?


  48. jim Says:

    My apologies Jive. You are correct. I should have noted in the context of the game’s anglo-crusade lietmotif the game mimics the imperialism of nations would have spread around the globe. But now that logic seems circular, so perhaps it’s not the best way to make my point, which was lengthy and did not hing on that statement alone.

    Sometimes I start writing so fast, my explanation doesn’t catch up. My fault.

    I’m not throwing out the subtext of “different” races. But PCs don’t have “racial subtext” goals within the framework of the game. You don’t play D&D differently because you’re a dwarf. You still swing your hammer at the head of races that aren’t part of the anglo zeitgeist. I will agree with you that character creation is more multi-optional than it’s ever been. But you won’t get me to agree that it’s more multi-cultural. I don’t get to play a different game now because I’m an elf.

    Completely vs. 99% seems close enough for government work.

    At the end of the day, Jive, this essay was written by someone else, and I’m just a reader who agrees with a good portion of it. I don’t need to convince you of anything. Rather, I would enjoy a lively discussion about the merits of this ideology, which you so far have refuted. You are allowed to. I think debate is healthy and you have a good grasp of why you don’t agree.

    Of the 20 or so things wrong with D&D, this is certainly a topic worth examining. And examination means chipping away at the merits of the arguement, not the rhetoric of it.

  49. mrvandyke Says:

    Can we all agree that Dragonborn are a pathetic attempt to interest more 12 year old boys and that 4th edition, regardless of whether it is or is not more racially inclusive, seems to suck?

  50. jim Says:

    Yes. Yes we can.

    Can we all agree the NECK SLOTS are straight out of games like Diablo and Everquest?

  51. Jive Professor Says:

    Wow, Obama’s campaign just took on an entirely new meaning for me. Does he have the executive power to remove Dragonborn from 4e? Will there be a Secretary of Epic Lootz? Only time will tell.

    Also, for my 2 cents on Dragonborn, I think they are a healthy addition to the game for the very same things we are talking about in this thread: they are a core race that actually looks somewhat alien. The Dragonborn in our games are great narrative tools for Frankenstein-esque RPing opportunities, where the people you save or simply the people around you fear you for your differences. Also, Lizardmen have always been in fantasy tales, and I love em.

    I am not saying you owe me an explanation, Jim, nor does the author per se. But Mr Van Dyke is making an argument, and I’m just bringing up some alternative views, or at least presenting some of the more murky situations where the logic might run into some problems. If you make a presentation on it, some folks might bring it up in a Q&A portion, no? If nothing else it’s good practice (or maybe it’s poor practice, I don’t want to get full of myself here).

    I’d also like to say that, as far as the Tolkien analogy goes, I think that does crop up, but far more in the narrative scope of the game. Most DnD players don’t just kill for loot – I think most of them are trying to take [Terrifying Uber Weapon of Power X] to [Place Where it Can Be Destroyed Y] to protect [Civilization as They Know It Z] from [Ultimate Supernatural Evil Q] (why Q? I dunno). I think the game of DnD is less about race war, and more about fear of the unknown wilderness. It is the comfort of civilization vs. the danger of the untamed wild. The Monster Manual includes numerous enemy types for all of the core races (Humans, Halflings, etc.). Like in the Human example, they are typically Bandits or Rabble, just a few pages from Kobolds, Orcs, Gnolls, and other “monster” races, and I think that is key. DnD is about a fear of so-called “lawlessness”, that civilization is the only place where law can reside, and the constant erosion of the entropic wildness of nature is something that has to be stopped (and hey, who says we can’t loot their corpses while we’re at it).

    Also, I always assumed the Tolkien races were just different Brits. Elves are posh, rich Brits who talk about art all day, Dwarves are gruff laborers who miserly hoard what wealth they have and mine all the live-long day, and Orcs are cockney types – possibly influenced by Warhammer, but it certainly shows up in the LOTR films. “We ain’t had nuffin ta eat but maggoty bread fa three stinkin’ days!” Pip pip guvna, need your chimney swept? But maybe that’s just me. Of course the evil Easterners and such is loaded with racial subtext, but I’d be lying if I said Tolkien was a man without prejudices or faults like any other (though he was keenly aware of history and mythic poems – would I sound like a Tolkien Apologetic if I posited that the “evil east” concept may have been a conscious decision, considering he intended his Middle Earth stories to be the mythic tale for Brits that they never had?).

    As you bring up at the end of your post, Mr Van Dyke, video games make for another interesting topic. In a much more simplistic example, let’s put Galaga under the microscope. A game where you, the heroic all-white ship, must forever ply space gunning down everything in your path – and that everything is multi-colored and probably multi-ethnic, an alliance of “others”, clearly different “races” or “species” and such, for the accruing of points. Is this a would-be-imperialist simulator? Is it “far too simple” to apply such an exhaustive racial-analysis template, or is just the open, visible framework that DnD is built on – whites must kill and conquer for gain, and they must kill the barbaric other races in their path to do it?

    I’m not actively arguing against the presence of some subtle racism in DnD, I’m trying to see how far the rabbit hole goes. As I said, most gamers are not racists, at least in my (clearly anecdotal) experience.

  52. mrvandyke Says:

    Jive, Jim:

    Thanks for keeping the discussion lively AND intelligent — so often comment threads seem to skew to one extreme or the other. Dr. Jive, I’m glad you’re brining up “some alternative views, or at least presenting some of the more murky situations where the logic might run into some problems.” Because a) I DID give this as a talk, and there WAS a Q&A, b) I did write this in about two weeks, so there are problems in my logic, which I need to work out, and c) I’m hoping to give a follow up talk, and all these ideas are fodder for my next essay. As long as the ideas are intelligent and civil, I love dissenting views — it makes me rethink my position and either change it or reinforce it.

    As for the Dragonborn, perhaps I’m a bit of a hypocrite — I want D&D to expand its concept of race, but I love the Tolkien-esque “high fantasy” setting, and 4ed seems to weird-fic to me, too Earthdawn. It implies a setting that I wouldn’t necessarily want to game in. Perhaps my personal bias for gaming doesn’t line up with my politics . . . I’ll have to think through that a bit more.

  53. Jive Professor Says:

    Thanks, I wouldn’t be here discussing it still if I didn’t think there was some definite meat to the argument. I’m only trying to fan the flames, expand it a bit more to see if we can take it and refine it even more.

    I think you hit on a key part there with a love of Tolkien-esque high fantasy – DnD is, at its heart, cooperative storytelling. In the same way we reread favorite books or watch favorite movies together with friends, I think DnD is about retelling our favorite epic poems. DnD is a malleable game – the ignorant bastards on Stormfront take DnD and they transplant their worldviews and skews to make a game world that plays out their idiotic and terrifying fantasies of racial conflict and warfare. You (and I and many others) take the DnD world and project something else entirely onto the framework, where every race has good and bad individuals, and where all people must band together (in Fellowship, if you will) to protect the world, for all its faults, against the unspeakable horrors of hate, malice, and death. DnD has subtexts, but much of the game is what you make of it.

    There will always be people who ruin the game – whether they are the overt white supremacists of Stormfront, or white GMs who are so full of pent up insecurities and prejudices they won’t let a black woman play a Paladin (you ask me, I think Michelle Obama took a few levels in Paladin, but that’s another story). But I feel that the racism of DnD is not inherent in the game – it is THE generic fantasy game, and it is whatever the group wants it to be.

    Oh, and you don’t have to like the Dragonborn. You can still think they’re lame. My group tends to like them (look at the artwork in the Paladin Paragon Path section, tell me that Dragonborn Bahamut Paladin doesn’t look awesome!), but we are a bit biased towards lizardmen barfing lightning.

  54. Jive Professor Says:

    Oh, and how did the talk go, by the way? Did people respond well to it?

  55. mrvandyke Says:

    I agree – wanting to retell and (to some extent) relive our favorite stories is largely what role-playing is about, and the game just gives us an artificial construct to allow grownups to suspend disbelief and take part in the collective “make-believe.” Every time I read a comic book or weird-fic novel I love, half my brain is trying to convert it to a campaign setting or rule-book: Perdido Street Station, Invincible, the Walking Dead. When those source stories come with racial undertones (as Tolkien, Haggard, et. al undoubtably do), the stories we tell in our games inevitably will as well, and I think gamers need to a) be aware of this, and b) question to what extent it is unavoidable and to what extent it can be reduced. That’s really all I was saying with my essay. Actually, I was doing was pointing out where those racial undertones exist — I think a lot of the negative reactions are from people who don’t understand the act of deconstruction. I’m not really saying “do this” or “don’t do that” (though I have my own personal views), just gesturing and saying “this exists.”

    And the talk went brilliantly, if I may be less than modest. The coordinator of Nerd Nite said that, in the two years he’s been running it, he’d never head an audience respond as enthusiastically for a presentation (though I think the fact that I’m pretty handy with Power Point helped). Any chance you live in the NY area? I’ll let you know when I’m set for my sequel . . .

  56. Jive Professor Says:

    Sadly, no. I live a few miles south of you (Florida, I say, Florida that is! ala Foghorn Leghorn).

    I agree that they are there, I am just trying to disagree on the extent. I guess my point is why do so many non-racist whites enjoy DnD, and play it such a different manner than it is (supposedly) presented? Are they just unaware of the game they are playing?

    Like I said previously, I feel it has a lot more to do with a common geek fear: outside. Inside (civilization) is comforting, safe, unexposed. Towns, villages, cities and the castles, huts, and homes that make them up are safe and structured (even if they can be corrupted and full of robbers and the like). Outside (nature) is frightening, prone to change, exposed. There forest is the home of the numinous, the things that go bump in the night and that roar in the day, living in caves and deserts and hives, without law or reason or discourse. They kill you because you are made of meat, and use your shinies to build a nest while they gnaw your bones.

    Outside you can’t play DnD, and jocks run around in large encounter groups, tackling people and giving them wedgies! Madness, chaos, anarchy!

  57. Layla Says:

    I’m glad that I was linked to this — it’s a fascinating and insightful article that ties into a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately with regards to high fantasy, racial essentialism and Eurocentricism. (Quickie disclaimer: white, female, former gaming nerd here.)

    I find it interesting that so many of the commenters seem to be assuming that D&D is explicitly a European-based game, as if this is a refutation of your basic point.

    But, number one, it’s *not* explicitly European; your quote above from the 4th edition about racial mixing in D&D makes it obvious that this is *not* supposed to be Europe — it’s more of an “everyfantasy” sort of game, at least in theory, and the fact that it is obviously European in nature IS the problem. Like Nora said, no wonder so many black geeks and gamers feel that fantasy has no place for anyone other than white males, when the dominant fantasy game on the market (like most published fantasy) is so explicitly coded white/European.

    And number two, whether the game is set in Europe or not, the racial essentialism at its core is still hugely problematic. Even if it weren’t for the extra level of badness that comes from having the only non-white beings in the game set up as either unpleasant and evil, or exotic and mysterious, there’s *still* the fact that the game is fundamentally based on the idea that one’s occupation, intelligence, physical abilities and personality are all hard-wired by “race”. At the very least, I think it’s vital for us nerdly types to be aware of that underlying assumption and question it.

  58. mrvandyke Says:

    See, Layla just nicely reduced my entire point to a few well put lines: be aware of underlying assumptions and question them. That’s all. Ask: does the game have to be so white? and I’ll be happy.

    Layla, I’m hoping to start some discussion on the whole “European folk-lore” aspect in a few days under a different entry — please come back and take part then!

  59. Layla Says:

    Thank you; for my part, I’m glad to see more awareness of these issues in the gaming community. That next post sounds right up my alley; I will definitely be back!

    *bookmarks your blog*

  60. Jive Professor Says:

    “Ask: does the game have to be so white? and I’ll be happy.”

    I would respond that no, it doesn’t. Our group treats “monsters” like orcs, minotaurs, etc. as having their own distinct culture and personalities. I don’t take issue with the fact hat there might be, in certain styles of play, underlying or even overt racial themes (see: Stormfront geeks), but to posit that all of DnD is nothing but a proxy race war…not so much. My argument is that it is malleable, very much determined by the whims of the group that plays it.

    Since we never took on my Galaga example, why not Legend of Five Rings…is this another racist rpg? Oni are multicolored “demon” people, no different than “monsters” in DnD, and they are there to be killed. What do we make of the different clans, seperated by the colors they wear? Or do all these racist tendecies simply stem from the underlying and obvious racism of all anglos, since it is a game designed in the west?

  61. Jonas Quinn Says:

    I had a very difficult time taking your article seriously. After a while, I began to flash back to the “Black Rage!” speech from “Chasing Amy”. I won’t bore the rest of you by rebutting Mrvandyke’s points, but instead will point out that Dungeons and Dragons is a game of imagination. The rules are a frame-work, and the Dungeon Master’s task is to use that frame-work to help build a fantasy setting that meets his/her requirements as well as h/er players’.

    I’ve participated in a number of DnD campaigns, with fantasy settings ranging from the detailed ‘political thriller’ to the ‘hack-and-slash’. I personally prefer a campaign that is three-dimensional, with in-game consequences for poor behavior. In my campaign settings, not every orc is hostile, not every village is there to be burned to the ground. A hack-and-slash campaign is indicative of a lack of imagination on the part of the Dungeon Master, and it’s up to the players to let the DM know whether or not that’s acceptable to them.

    The rules and sample campaign settings are guidelines, as it is repeatedly pointed out within those same texts. If something there offends you, or does not work with your setting, throw it out. Add something that does fit better. YOU have the power to tailor the game to your liking, and that’s the main reason this game has been so successful throughout the years.

    GenCon (Indianapolis, every August, is always looking for speakers and event leaders. Perhaps giving this Power Point presentation there would be useful in your research? I would also encourage you to start a DnD campaign with local gamers and gauge their reactions to running hack-and-slash, where every dark-skinned thing is evil and should be killed, versus a more thoughtful campaign, in which people are judged by their actions, not their physical attributes.

  62. Franklin Rosado Says:

    As a Puerto Rican male from Brooklyn who first played D&D in the first grade ’79-80 and played it religously through college (i’m exclusively an online player) i was very sensitive to race in D&D.

    My friends (mostly african-american, latino, and one korean) and i knew from an early age that we were not represented in the game, that disappointed us but did not prevent us from knowing what our representations looked like in the world of our imaginations.

    We owe alot to D&D, how many 3rd graders knew the meaning of the word antipathy?

    Having said that representation is huge and by not addressing it the companies that make these products are doing a sector of our society a significat disservice.

    I will not get into the D&D races as analogues that is a significant issue but one i will leave off of the table for now and only briefly touch at the end of this.

    The core of what we saw from our represntations were a sign of the times and very negative, i remember the psuedo king kong module (dont remember the module number or name) and the varios african represntations in official source material. It was brutal. Savages and the noble savages were the flavors most represnted. The same with Maztica and the Native/Latino representations.

    There was one source book that actually was positive, and for us it was significantly positive, and that was Dieties and Demigods. While it still played off of several stereotypes there was significant cross cultural representation never seen before (and i think never seen again).

    While i understand that D&D tries to create a fantasy universe paralled to roughly the dark ages in history it is modern day youth that play the game and the images and representations do a certain sector a significant disservice.

    In looking at the analogues, the similarities between ths savage orcs and the savage representation of african and native/latin cultures, the dark skinned nature of the underground dwelling drow and the whole light and dark concept translated to morality, we saw it when we played, this doesnt slip under the radar. Perhaps there could be a disassociation of the analogues if the protagonists and antagonists were more equally represented?

    Most of us (our gaming group) grew up to be well adjusted (whatever that means) members of society and D&D and AD&D was a mixed bag in that development that was both very neagative and very positive. In my experience i must say the positive outweighed the negative, but the core issue here is:

    1) We should be moving forward properly, and moving forward properly means representation (positive and negative) in some accessible proportion.
    2) We should be mindful of what is going on racism, xenophobia, sexism, whatever by stating it was unintentional is not an excuse.
    3) If we care about D&D and love all the good stuff, lets make an effort to address the bad stuf.
    4) Marlon Waynes didn’t help 😉

  63. Minsc Says:

    Came across the link to your blog from Bluesnews. Interesting read…can’t say I agree with all of it, but you bring up some good points.

    I’m wondering what you think of the Warhammer 40k setting or possibly consider exploring it in an essay as it’s gottten quite popular due to the Dawn of War (and upcoming DoW II) PC games and has some questionably racist elements. While I enjoy playing the games, I’ve always wondered at the appeal of wanting to play, essentially, genetically “pure and holy” fascist super-human space nazis who refer to orcs as “greenskin scum” and hold to tenets such as “purge the unclean, burn the heretic” and the entire Tau faction which seems a parody mash-up of Asian cultures. One could argue that all of the factions in the game are over-the-top parodies and it’s really more of a satirical view of a fantasy future but you have to wonder if the playerbase really gets that.

    Anyways, thanks for the essay.

  64. SplitHair Says:

    Seems like a gross misuse of the term ‘race’ since biologically we’re all in the human race. Killing alien others is a fine human tradition if you haven’t noticed, in truth and in fiction. Think of evil races like an advanced community of crocodiles if it helps you sleep at night; they will eat you therefore they are evil!

    I don’t recall in any edition of d&d where it were stated you must play a whitie. Also Drow have pitch black skin, which was stated very clearly in ‘Descent Into the Depths of the Earth’ or whatever that first module was called. Show me an African with pitch black skin and I’ll show you a can of paint.

    For anyone who let’s Eurocentric illustrations and inspirations dampen your enthusiasm: use your imaginations! That is the part that made d&d so important, not its derivative tolkienesque euro-heroes!

  65. anon Says:

    Racism exists because some people try very hard to see it in everything. I have no problem coexisting with any human, because my reasoning of that is not based on skin color but on their personality. It’s just sad that this seems to be based mostly in America (all people are equal right?), while in Europe they don’t care much about it.

    Tolkien didn’t cared much about it either since he had much important things to do. It’s Fantasy not real world and people should stop mixing it up and enjoy it. That is it’s purpose. While taking a break in a Fantasy setting I tend to break with the real world and clean my mind a bit of all the trash. Why would I want to bring the worries of real world to my relaxation time? It’s like going in vacation with my work cell phone and notebook. I rather not do that.

    Anyway congrats for your work, while I only read a few I see you are very serious about it so you probably don’t care much what others think about it unless they approve you. I feel it’s a waste of time though.

  66. mrvandyke Says:

    I’m not even touching the “I don’t see race” comments, since there are entire blogs devoted to talking about race qua race. I don’t have the time or patience to do an entire primer on race-theory and language-theory.

    That said, the words we use are very important — “latino,” “african-american,” and “white” are not actually different races, but that’s how we discuss them. Did you miss the entire presidential election? The “R” word came up a few times. Same with skin color — I’ve never seen a pure white person or a pure black person, but that is the language we use to talk about ethnic groups that tend to share similar skin tones. (end short lecture on race and language that I promised not to give)

    For anyone who keeps thinking pictures and word choice don’t matter, if didn’t include a single white adventurer in 4th edition, people would freak out. Why? Everyone could just “use their imagination,” but its true, people would be outraged.

    And Europe has a LOT of skin based racism — remember those riots outside of Paris a few years ago? Anyone who tells there isn’t a “race” problem in Europe is most likely white.

    (speaking of which, I’d still like everyone — white or not — to state their race or ethnicity. The only people who have done so thus far are all non-white, save Yellowbeard. Come on white people!)

    Last, Anon: I love to hear what other people think, whether they approve of me or not. I actually love to have to defend and discuss my thoughts, as it helps me work out what I actually believe and why I believe it. I’ve had to change my stance of Al-Qadim, thanks to these comments. What I don’t care about is hearing the same tired, knee-jerk reaction comments from people who haven’t read most of the discussion above, because if they had they would realize that they were just rehashing comments that have been made before.

  67. SplitHair Says:

    Vandyke, I don’t know anyone who would freak out if 4e had no white ppl pictured in it. I think it’d be pretty cool, and hopefully represent a cool original fantasy setting for a change. Sounds like your hypothesis is that dnd players are white racists; good luck proving that one!

    I think u, like the sensationalist US media, are trying to make waves with gross, inaccurate generalizations. And I’m not going to say what color my skin is, partly bc it changes seasonally, and also bc it doesn’t represent my heritage. Its like calling Obama black, nevermind that he is half African; it just isn’t accurate.

    Anon: try going to Europe and meeting some natives before you generalize their tolerance; I think youll find prejudiced ppl as frequent as in the US, if not moreso. Go into the middle east or Asia and it is even worse!

  68. anon Says:

    to mrvandyke:

    The riots in Paris were based on poverty more than racism. When you have your stomach full is hard to think of revolts and this is true for most people.

    People born in the same place or been a while in a place (they also have more or less the same skin color) tend to create relations with one another (a natural instinct we have) and thus there looks to be an race problem, but in fact this is an heritage problem. Their social relations created tend to be hostile to any outsider and this is true everywhere you look around you.

    I worked with all the social categories in my life (with different skin colors by the way) and more than a race problem there is a rich versus poor problem. Also I don’t think we should enter into that issue when judging DnD.

    You missed the essence of my post though. Personality matters more than skin color and, more important, we shouldn’t mix a fantasy world with the real world. See the full not the empty part of the wine glass in other words. It’s so easy to see the bad parts of a thing.

    I got here from an external site, but I see you have writing skills so I challenge you to write another essay.

    Please write about all the benefits that DnD brings to players in the same analytical way you did in this one.

    I look forward to read about it! It should be a good lecture.

  69. mrvandyke Says:


    We do agree on a lot — sorry if I missed the essence of your post, as I am completely with you on the idea that class is much more the essential problem at the root of “racism” as we tend to discuss it, both in America and Europe. Very few people today would refuse to sit in the subway beside a very well dressed, rich black man, while many might be hesitant to sit by a homeless white man. The riots in Paris were essentially about poverty and social exclusion.

    However, because of socio-historical conditions forced upon groups of color by white power structures, class and race are often very intertwined. When a NYC police officer guns down an unarmed man, that man is always black. The hungry crowds in Haiti were black, fighting mainly white UN soldiers. The riots in Paris were mainly black and middle-eastern youth fighting with white Parisian cops.

    I still think race and skin-color are very important — not because they are important in and of themselves, but because people feel they are important, in both positive and negative ways. People are proud of their racial and cultural heritages, and people see skin color and judge others based on, even if in slight, subconscious ways. Splithairs, I agree completely that race is much more complicated than just skin color. Obama is half-white and half-African, a fact that gets glossed over or completely forgotten on a regular basis. However, when he appears on television, what people see is a black man, for better or worse. That is a fact, and while I agree we should deal with the complexities in our discourses and dialogues, we also have to deal with the way the words and images are actually used in our society.

    When Malcolm X gave a lecture in Ghana (after his hajj and name change to Malik Shabaz), he was asked by a listener why he called himself black, since he was so light skinned than in Ghana he would be considered white. Malik responded: “At home, that is the place I was born, I’ve been called by Whites a yellow n—er, a light-skinned n—er, a red uppity n—er, a fair-skinned seditious n—er, but never until now have I been called a White man. I mean, Whites, who should know their own have never made the mistake of overlooking my African blood.”

    Anon, I’m glad to hear that personality matters much more than skin color to you, as it does to me, but society sees race. I’m just trying to point out how D&D reflects that, in both obvious and subtle ways. I think D&D does great things for the people who play it — it shaped me and my imagination in many positive ways, and I think the good in RPGs far outweighs the bad. That’s why I love them, and that’s why I’ve never called for anyone to stop playing them. However, I believe in critiquing the things you love to make them better — dissent is patriotic, racial deconstructing D&D is an act of love and hope (and its fun!). There are more than enough people out there to be boosters for the game.

  70. Charlie Six Says:

    Hi, great discussion and original article. Have you folks played the Warcraft games, too? They seem to be based heavily on the D&D universe, and appear to throw many non-white human cultures into the Horde category, which I think supports some of what was said in the original presentation, that “Humans = white Europeans” while other fantasy races are approximations of real world non-white groups.

    For example, the Orc faction in Warcraft 3 contains the Jamaican trolls, a Japanese samurai Orc, and Native American Tauren. There is a “Neutral Hero” Chinese Panda that can be recruited by any faction though. He’s obviously not Human of course :-P. Orcs in World of Warcraft can do an MC Hammer dance, too. And like D&D, all Orc magic is “Shaman” or “witch doctor” magic.

    This kind of trend doesn’t just stop in fantasy, either. In the Star Trek series of shows, the primarily human “Federation” is essentially a representation of left-wing affluent America, to me. While the Klingons are a representation of Japanese Samurai culture, the Romulans are (as their name implies) a caricature of ancient Roman culture. In the video game Mass Effect, humanity is again represented by Americans, although this time a more right-wing, militaristic kind. Meanwhile, the non-human races are clearly given cultural traits from real world “alien” cultures. One group is an obvious homage to the real world Roma, aka Gypsies, although I forget what that race is called in the game. Star Wars’ Jedi seems to have an obvious “Eastern” philosophy to them, with many Jedi having Chinese name characteristics (Qui-gon, Obi-wan, Tse-Tung, En-lai).

    Makes you wonder what is going on here. In the Warcraft universe, are the writers trying to get people to think about real world race, history, and politics but in a subtle way? The Warcraft humans (ie European/North American whites) are shown as locking up the Orcs in a brutal fashion. There really seems to be messages about colonialism and imperialism here. In Star Wars, is George Lucas trying to get people to consider “Eastern” philosophies more? Seems so.

    If they are trying to get people to think about these issues, is how they’re going about it ethical/smart? I personally don’t think so, as it feels like the whole discourse becomes cheapened thanks to cartoony caricatures. But what do others think?

    (And I’m a white washed Chinese American by the way.)

  71. Lorenzo Gatti Says:

    I liked your essay; it is remarkably close in spirit to an old post of mine on, “Races and racism in the AD&D game”.

    As can be seen in the rest of the excessively long thread, the answers I got were evenly divided into considering my post a troll or at least ridiculous and excessive, dismissing racial issues because it’s just a game, discussing seriously, and going off tangents like the history of racism and Tolkien’s attitude towards his fantasy races.

    The answers I got were mostly hostile, but very diverse; it’s fortunate that thanks to the protected environment of a freshly created blog you attracted only polite and educated commenters (the “ignorant bastards on Stormfront” don’t seem to read you, for instance), but I feel a bit of nostalgia for the passion of yesterday’s Internet.

  72. wychwood Says:

    Thank you for this. I like the way you think! Too many people try to argue that you shouldn’t examine race in popular culture because it’s “just fun” and “no one wants to think about race in their entertainment” without ever considering that the only reason they can say that is because they have the automatic privilege of being the majority “race” in virtually every area of pop culture. Good post.

    (for the record: white, female, RPGer)

  73. Donovan Says:

    Although you make valid points, I don’t think they are shedding light on a great injustice at this stage of the game. Although you’re 100% right about the visual representation of characters in the 3E books, most of the text descriptions for races mention ranges of skin color. As far as culture is concerned, very little is mentioned anywhere in the books (3E). I think this allows for the players to freely create their own settings and characters. I know I did.

    Anyway, we taught at the same school in the Bronx, and I still do. I always thought that role-players should have a secret sign of some sort so that they wouldn’t have to “go public”. I think a D20 keychain would do the trick.

  74. Jive Professor Says:

    I still posit that modern gamers have far cosmopolitan tastes and gamestyles, and I feel that much of the “corrupting” influence of say Tolkien or Lewis is largely misinterpretation.

    I will ask again, what do we make of the core underpinning of The Lord of the Rings, and basically D&D: A multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-professional group that sets out to stop a supernatural evil?

    What do we make of Lewis’ Prince Caspian, which portrays Europeans as the aggressors, waging a campaign of genocide against the Narnians?

    I will not argue that, visually speaking, D&D still has a long way to go. The artwork is essentially nothing but anglos. But I think it is another leap entirely to suggest that playing D&D is essentially an act of imaginary racial violence.

  75. Jive Professor Says:

    I had a bit of a typo there. I meant to say: “I will not argue that, visually speaking, is equal”, i.e. there are basically only Anglos in D&D’s art.

  76. mrvandyke Says:

    Donovan — so, how’s Walton doing? Its too bad you never noticed my D20 keychain back in the day, though I was less than subtle about it: one semester I spent my lunch breaks in the library using ProFantasy software to create maps for my campaign world and writing rules for a game set in the world of the Icelandic sagas. I’m pretty public about my nerd nature. I don’t argue with the idea that you can make any culture and inject as much race and ethnicity as you want — I just wish the default wasn’t white europeans.

    Jive — The Lord of the Rings involves all the white, European races banding together to fight the evil, dark-skinned races of the East. I actually think your example, rather than a rebuttal, sums up the trouble with high fantasy quite neatly. Explicitly, LoTR is a story of multicultural collaboration, but implicitly it is one of racial protectionism and xenophobia. As for Prince Caspian, I haven’t re-read my Narnia in a while, but I have a vague memory of the darker, eastern (aka Moorish) elements being threatening and evil, but I could be wrong. However, Lewis is much less of an influence on high fantasy, as the “talking animal” thing never quite appealed in the same way as battle-axe wielding dwarves, so I’m not sure those books are either here or there in this discussion.

  77. Jive Professor Says:

    I can’t deny the East vs. West dichotomy in LotR. It isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable with either, but I don’t know how Tolkien intended it. How much it was ideological and how much it was racial is a topic we could ruin a dozen keyboards arguing over. Tolkien was a man of history, and it shows up a great deal in his writings. The 300 vs. 10,000 of Helm’s Deep is obviously an allusion to Thermopylae. Is he recreating East vs. West battles in history to simply lend some credence to his fanciful mythos he is fabricated for Britain, or is he trying to inject a racial element to it? Not entirely sure.

    I think the CS Lewis comparison is important, not least of which because he and Tolkien were such good friends. Narnia is also hugely popular (those box office receipts are pretty telling), and high-fantasy is certainly on the upswing (World of Warcraft is a good example), though it obviously had far less influence in DnD, and I am aware of that.

  78. Turner Says:

    So there is a curious aspect to some of this: while it’s perfectly reasonable to focus on race relations as encoded in D&D as a topic, it seems very strange to take the Drow (who make Bob Guccione look like Andrea Dworkin, in their anti-feminist content) as an example of encoded racism. Also, the Drow don’t fit into the typical ‘disenfranchised black person’ role from the classic race stereotype: they’re not the fumbling untermensch that turn up in classic dead-white-male polemic on race, but instead they’re hyperefficient killing machines who are beyond reason, beyond reconciliation, who are led by a demonically-possessed priestesshood.
    I think talking about the Drow as an example of race-bigotry when they’re so gender-bigotry-born is blindering yourself quite thoroughly- something like talking about Pol Pot being misogynistic and ignoring the fact he was a mass-murderer.

    It’s not just race that gets a bum representation in D&D.

  79. Donovan Says:

    Walton has 5 schools and 5 principals. They can’t agree on anything worthwhile. Well, they have all chipped in to construct a giant handbasket around the building in preparation for our trip to Hell.

  80. Eggbert Says:

    You make pretty gross generalizations. Your assumption is 1) that the heroes are the good guys at all times, not just the protagonists of the story and 2) that these “white” races are all considered to be good by default. However, there is a matter of alignment to consider. Players may be evil as well as good. In fact, it is the very nature of each of these races that there are good and evil within each. I point to the Forgotten Realms’ Zhentil Keep denizens as an example of evil white characters, while one of the more heroic characters in the Moonshae region is, in fact, an Arabic-styled character from Calimshan. Yes, these are supplements, and yes, I know your speech was cut short for time. But to make such statements about a game when you can’t allow for a broader consideration? Why make such a speech at all, then, if you can’t be more accurate in terms of the company’s entire stock of supplements? It sounds to me as if you wanted to make a point and purposefully manipulated the data at hand to make said point. Forget the notion that you could go back later on and write other presentations about these supplements. The meat and primary impact of your views would be made in this presentation, and I daresay I doubt they would show up on any blogs about race.

    Frankly, I never played AQ or Maztica, and I only participated in one Oriental Adventures campaign. I had little interest in these because my tastes in folklore do run to Norse/Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon myths. One may call it comfort, but I call it a simple interest in these societies. My roots are in Eastern Europe, so according to some of the arguments I’ve seen on this page, I should be interested in gypsies and vampires, but that’s not what I like. Do you see where this is heading? Many of the comments here made by yourself and others are lumping all Europeans into one group as well, suggesting that we’re all somehow Anglo-Saxon or at least Anglo at heart. Perhaps you should look to your preachings and question why you would infer this.

    As for orcs and kobolds and goblins being dark-skinned races there for the white characters to slaughter, I simply disagree. In any story you need a protagonist (in our case, the PCs) and you need antagonists. Say for instance that all of the humans, elves, and dwarves are good, by making the orcs the antagonists (for whatever reason) the players will see them as evil, whether they are or not. They don’t necessarily have to be evil. You’ve simply limited the scope of these races to fit your argument. Yes, they have an alignment listing them to be evil in the Monster Manual, but the other races mentioned (elves, dwarves, etc.) that are rumored to be good have very specific alignments as well. Say for instance that elves are considered to be neutral good for sake of the argument. That doesn’t make every elf neutral good. Therefore, listing orcs as lawful evil doesn’t make all orcs lawful evil. Alignments, like all of the rules in any edition of D&D going back to the Red and Blue box days, are just guidelines. I believe someone else already made this point, but I want to stress it again. It’s a guideline. It doesn’t reinforce any kind of stereotype because the rules are fluid.

    Now, let’s say for a moment that orcs and kobolds are, in fact, completely evil. Where you see dark-skinned races I see the game designers dwelling, as so many storytellers have done throughout the ages, on physiognomy. The very evil in the hearts of these creatures is reflected in their features. Therefore, they have features that mark them as craven, brutish, aggressive, spiteful, opportunistic: adjectives we typically use when making a case for someone being evil. Green (a color representative of sickness or poison to most European beliefs) is the color of orc skin, not black or brown. Kobolds are dog-like because of a primitive fear of wild dogs that run in packs (kobolds run in large packs to make up for their lack of intelligence and weak physicality). That is a fear held by most races, not just those found in Europe.

    As for women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. feeling uncomfortable with the groups they play with, I’m sorry that you were reminded of your race or made to feel uncomfortable. You weren’t at my table, but if you had been, you would have been encouraged to play a character as you saw fit. My white players have been known to play other races (and I don’t mean elves, either). One played a black man from –gasp– a civilized and rather advanced African equivalent society. He did this because he understood African societies from roughly the same time period as medieval Europe and applied it to his character. During a recent Conan game one played a Hyrkanian, which is basically a Mongolian racial type because he enjoyed the notion of finding a way to play an Eastern ascetic in a largely barbaric Norse campaign (the campaign mostly took place in the lands of the Vanir). A Latino player from one of my older groups tended to play European types. He, too, liked the European settings and when asked why he didn’t play something Latino equivalent he said, “Now why would my guy be there, and why would he be a bard? Nah. Hey, make us a GURPS Western campaign, and I’ll play a Mexican.” If the lady who had wanted to play a black-skinned paladin had knocked on my door I would have never suggested she needed to play a thief. First, I would be happy that a woman wanted to sit at the table because I like it when women play. It adds a new and exciting perspective to the game. And if, as a black woman, she wanted to play a black character to reflect her, as vandyke put it, “self”, we would have found a way in the story to make that happen. I would, however, have warned her how difficult it is to play a paladin properly without losing one’s holy powers and being reduced to a regular warrior as the result of either gross misconduct or allowing my Haida Indian/African-American friend (who usually plays white Norsemen types as well — not because he has to, but because he, too, likes this mythology) to murder and pillage with no thought as to who he is killing and/or pillaging. As for the thought of raping a character in a session of D&D, I can’t imagine something more disgusting. You, miss, were in a piss poor group, if I could say. But every table has its own shortcomings. If you don’t like largely European settings and the rest of your group does, find a new group. I really don’t think it’s right to simply dwell on the race issue when you come across others of another race who simply don’t like or aren’t familiar with settings equivalents of other cultures. I wouldn’t presume to run an Arabic equivalent campaign because I don’t feel comfortable since I don’t have as tight a grasp on Arabic culture as I should if I were going to run such a thing. IF I’m going to run such a campaign, I would feel I need to know so much that if an Arabic man or woman sat at my table, they could say, “Yes, this is as accurate as can be, given the fantastic nature of the material.”

  81. Donny Says:

    Ironically, I had never given a second thought to the rac or gender of any of my players or their characters. Now I see that we are all misogynistic skinheads that hide behind gamer elitism. Fuck you very much.

    Rebutting this silliness gives it more weight than it deserves. Take your racial guilt elsewhere.

  82. eh Says:

    since the beginning of time, darkness = evil and lightness = good. this is because human nature is to be afraid of what we do not understand, and what we cannot see. evil creatures are generally dark, whereas good creatures are generally lighter in color. i didnt bother reading through all of your essay (though well written, i just dont have the time at the moment), but i thought that if you somehow didnt note this that i should include my two cents…

    i dislike this “racist” bull. when i play D&D, i never think of myself “linchin’ me a negroid” and im sure that it is the same with 99.9999% of the rest of the worlds players. i imagine myself slaying that which is wicked.

  83. Layla Says:

    “since the beginning of time, darkness = evil and lightness = good.”

    No, that’s not true. Color symbolism in Western culture tends to fall that way (though not even in all cases — e.g. white ghosts, or black as a color of elegance in evening dress). But in many parts of the world, white is the color of mourning and death, and black represents stability and wisdom.

  84. mrvandyke Says:

    And that, Layla, is why I gave up on this — I just don’t have the patience to debunk sophmorically simplistic arguments or explain basic deconstruction and race-theory to bunch of knee-jerk defensive gamers. Those who agree with me aren’t learning much new, and those that don’t really don’t listen.

  85. Layla Says:

    Yeah … I think you’re absolutely right. I had actually meant to come back to this, but forgot to do so until your excellent essay was linked at another blog that I read — which was why I ended up reacting to the latest comment in the comment stream when there is so much additional WTF? above it. Anyway, the energy that it takes to try to counter the same simple arguments over and over is probably better put into other tasks.

    In any case, speaking as a gamer and a nerd, I’m glad you wrote this.

  86. Kateri Says:

    Really interesting essay/presentation, it articulated and clarified a lot of vague misgivings I’d had for a while. To all the defensive gamers, I don’t think it means we have to vilify DnD or its players as racist, I just think it’s important and illuminating to examine the implications of these things that are usually just considered “part of the game”.

    Also that bit about Drowsploitation was *hilarious*.

  87. Tagon Says:

    I have played DnD since 2nd edition. And have never thought that it was racist. So my first thought on reading this racist piece of garbage is that in order for someone to draw these parallels they must first have a tendency to racism

  88. mrvandyke Says:

    Tagon, thanks for proving my comment to Layla by throwing out a cliched, shallow, knee-jerk reaction. Asinine comments like yours are exactly why I have no desire to keep blogging. Pointing out racists subtexts makes me racist? Clever retort there.

  89. Mannahnin Says:

    I tend to concur that the article is the result of a shallow review of the material, and the author bringing his own preexisting concepts and prior studies to examination of a subject, then unfortunately misapplying such previous studies and distorting the new subject to fit them.

    1. As noted, 3rd edition has more multicultural material than is credited. If you read any of the text discussing any of the races, whether in the Players’ Handbook or the race-focused supplements (Races of Stone, Races of the Wild, Races of Destiny, etc.), the effort to embrace every race and ethnicity possible is obvious. There is a valid point regarding the characters depicted in the art being overwhelmingly anglo/European, but as was pointed out by a previous commenter, the author’s numbers are off- he’s overlooked a few. Any honest review of the text, however, makes abundantly clear that 3rd edition’s authors have worked hard to step away from a strictly Eurocentrist perspective. They definitely could have done better on the art, though.
    2. Also as noted, the author’s numbers for 4th edition’s non-anglo characters appearing in the art are also simply wrong. He skimmed the material instead of actually reviewing it conscientiously. Multiple non-anglo enthnicities appear in the PH, including black, Hispanic, and Asian. The 4th ed PH and DMG have almost no cultural information in them; they’re designed to be focused on rules and how to play the game, not on the actual setting and culture. While the text has little to suggest one way or the other whether the game is intended to embrace players of different ethnicities and cultures, WotC is still the same company that wrote the 3rd edition material, and seeing that they’ve clearly made an effort to be more inclusive in the artwork, it would be stupid IMO to think that they’re going to step backwards.
    3. Working backwards in time, 2nd edition was an era that saw the publication of an incredible number of sourcebooks and settings, including many based on historical eras, like Roman and Viking campaign handbooks. This is also the era of the Al Qadim setting, and of the Maztica and Horselords expansions for Forgotten Realms, intended to be respectful fantasy renditions of non-European cultures. If you’ve read them, you can judge them and speak about them with credibility. It is my perception that you haven’t. I haven’t read them all, but the ones I have read showed an intelligent and sensitive awareness of multicultural issues. As well as the intent to make the game work within whatever setting and with whatever cultures you desire.
    4. 1st edition (and earlier) are the areas from which some of the more cringe-worthy quotes the author produces spring. These are works primarily authored, as has been noted, by E. Gary Gygax and a few others. EGG was a great human being, but certainly had his idiosyncrasies. One of these was his authorial voice, which drew from the pulp fantasy and pulp sci-fi traditions, strongly influenced by Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, R.E. Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and others. There is an undeniable racist element in many of these old authors’ works. I certainly cringed the first time I read the original Tarzan. Most of the other authors had similar issues (though I don’t recall any in Vance). EGG did write from the perspective both of a fan of this fiction, and of a historical enthusiast and wargamer who studied European history and warfare and played games set therein. To the extent to which D&D reflects Eurocentric mythology and civilization, well, that’s what he was most familiar with. Those are the tropes and myths and legends he wanted to pay homage to and play with. (Though quick note to Layla- I think you’ve got the arguments mixed up- as EGG originally wrote it, D&D was Eurocentric, and that context needs to be taken into account. As 2nd and later editions were written, it’s much less so, and you should credit the more recent authors for their cultural awareness where it is evident.)
    5. Part of EGG’s preference in his worldbuilding was a sort of fantasy realism. He engineered his worlds and the races and species therein to fit the kind of fiction he liked, and the games he wanted to play. In the 1st edition DMG, for example, you find that he actually ruminates on how the game world might support so many large predators, and comes up with a science-based rationale for how the world might have more and faster-breeding herbivores to be preyed upon. This wasn’t meant to be taken so far as to turn the game into realistic science fiction, but to make for a logical framework for the game, so disbelief could be enjoyably suspended, and the game enjoyed and problems within it solved with some kind of logic. So it is no surprise that he would write about Orcs in a way that ensured they were numerous (to be ever-present foes capable of hording against civilization en masse), but inherently flawed, so as both to make the literary point about evil containing the seeds of its own destruction, and *avoid* making them just a metaphor for a real-world culture. Remember also that he intended this to be a fantasy game, to be enjoyed and not taken too seriously. He wanted memorable foes, whose evil would ensure action and conflict. He never meant it as an exercise in cultural anthropology. He originally conceived a game of picaresque pulp adventure, in which heroic rogues adventured in weird locales, on the fringes of society, winning wealth and notoriety through bravery and cleverness. I think reading into it themes of imperialist conquest of lesser races and people is fundamentally misguided. Going so far as to call it “proxy race war” is, IMO, the beginning of madness. It’s accepting the ideas of those Stormfront idiots and worse- tarring the innocent creators whose work said idiots are misusing.
    6. As regards class level limits, racial access to various classes, etc. I think you’re ascribing to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. Not to be cruel to EGG; the guy was brilliant, but he was working in uncharted territory in writing his game, and he made some dumb mistakes. He knew that he wanted humans to be prominent in the setting. They’re the heroes of all the heroic fiction he wanted to emulate, after all. He just struck on a clumsy and bad way of encouraging it in the rules. That’s not racism. It’s just bad design, which is sometimes obvious in retrospect, but hard to spot when you’re the guy inventing the stuff, and people are calling you at your home from all areas of the country to solicit your authorial authority in understanding the game. It’s not like there was anyone available who knew better.
    7. Anyway, I’d like to conclude by showing respect to Jive Professor. Excellent points, and excellent job taking the high ground responding respectfully to someone who didn’t always return the favor. ‘Attaboy, sir.

  90. Tom Says:

    Hey, loved the article! I’ve never really thought about race in D&D. At least, not in this way.

    Reading some of the more intelligent responses I get the feeling people are feeling attacked for playing this game, I for one don’t. I know that I don’t harbor essential racist thinking at all. (I always hated the stupid level limits they promoted in 2nd edition and I never played 1st edition, and I found the logic retarded.)

    It’s interesting to see racist logic in the context of D&D because there are different races: humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, kobold, etc., and there are different ethnic groups that should be considered, are there “black” or “asian” elves? I can honestly say that I never really thought about it. It would make for a very interesting and much more complex world to create were different racial groups and different ethnic groups are in conflict, or harmony depending.

    I found this article to be quite humorous, I’d love to see you expand this article.

    Thanks for an interesting article!

  91. mrvandyke Says:

    Tom — glad you enjoyed it. I really didn’t mean to make people feel attacked, but I think you are right about that being the source of so much defensiveness. I really just want people to think about the unintended assumptions that go into the game, to deconstruct the words and actions we use. Since they ARE unintended, I really don’t blame Gygax. Its completely true that he was simply a product of his time and background — but that doesn’t mean we can’t analyze it, and question whether what we should keep here and now.

    I’m also VERY glad you found it humorous – it seems that most people miss the humor. I was making a serious point, but I was trying really hard to make my audience laugh, at times at the expense of being perfectly accurate. The whole reason I made the “drowspoitation” crack was so I’d have an excuse to work Shaft and Drizzt Du’Orden into the same PowerPoint slide. Come on, thats funny! It was a performance piece, and people did laugh then. I just wish more people would laugh here.

  92. webba Says:

    Reading through this fascinating article, and the comments that followed it I couldn’t suppress the feeling that there’s a lot of misconception about what racism actually is, or more accurately, what racism is not. I can only talk from experience about this sort of thing, so it’s only fair that I share with you what my experience might be.
    I am a Caucasian 24 year old male from Australia. I lived in Australia for 21 years, Canada for 1 year and most recently in Shanghai, China for the last two years counting. My racial make up is mostly English (probably Anglo Saxon), and some parts Scottish, Swiss and German.
    My parents are very open minded and kind hearted people and I was taught as a child to hold those same values and attitudes, however growing up in a more rural area of Australia I was never exposed to much diversity in terms of culture. A good mate of mine at School was Sri Lankan and I didn’t think he was any different from the rest of us for the very good reason that he wasn’t, he’d lived in Australia as long as I had, grown up in the same culture, had the same mannerisms and the same way of thinking and speaking that I did. In fact since I’ve been over here his Aussie accident is probably a lot more obvious than mine by now.
    Basically I grew up knowing I wasn’t racist, and fully believing that I understood the basic idea that we’re all the same and everyone is equal. Now I’ve noticed a lot of people with similar situations to mine hold this view. It is, in my opinion now, based on a lack of experience and a lack of exposure to other cultures. I had no idea how fundamentally different China would be before I came here.
    In the process of learning the Chinese language, meeting people and making friends here, not just with Chinese, but with a very wide range of international students, I have seen and heard so many points of views that were different to my own. The simple fact that I realised was that we are not all the same. Comparing myself to my sister, I am not the same as her. Comparing myself to any other Australia I am likewise not the same. Comparing myself to a mainland Chinese person I am very much not the same. Different history, different education, different language, different way of thinking. These are all undeniable facts.
    It occurs to me that its just as plausible to say that race is caused by culture, as opposed to culture being brought about by people of the same race. It is precisely because mainland China, as a country and as a culture, has experienced relatively little interaction with other cultures until just recently that the ethnic Han population shares very distinct genetic traits. Chinese people all have black or brown eyes and straight black hair. Chinese men are on average shorter than Japanese men by 2 inches.(that discovery was apparently a big deal and led the government to start encouraging everybody to drink more milk) This is stuff that could all go on their entires in the D&D players handbook as racial characteristics. They’re facts and they’re differences. Acknowledging them doesn’t make anybody racist.
    The point I’m making is that in those western countries that tend to be melting pots of predominantly European ethnicity (America, Australia, Canada and so on) we tend to forget about the relationship between culture and ethnicity. It’s important to remember that the way a person thinks will differentiate them from each other much more clearly than their outward appearance.
    To sum up, here are the points I want to make.
    1. Racism has very little to do with peoples appearances or cultures and everything to do with the way a person thinks about the world. A English person who hates Germans is just as racist as a German who hates Japanese. Hate is the operative word here.
    2. Acknowledging the differences between the various cultures and races of humanity is not racism. Pretending those differences don’t exists is likewise not racist, but is pretty ignorant.
    3. Racism is when a person looks at those differences and makes a judgement value based on them. All those Europeans who looked at other cultures and said “These people are not as smart as us” were not necessarily being racist, just ignorant. Saying, on the other hand “These people are not as smart as us and that makes us better than them” is most definitely racist. To take an example from D&D saying that Elves are, on average, 2 points (how much is a point in real world terms anyway?) more dexterous than Humans is not racist, say Elves are, on average, 2 points more dexterous than Humans and that makes them better than Humans is.
    4. Racism, like any form of discrimination, is a problem with people’s attitudes and thinking. How do you place value on a human life? Racist people maintain the differences between various ethnicity and culture is important, sexist people maintain the differences between men and women are important, elitists maintain the differences between educated and uneducated, rich and poor, are important. Some young people think they’re better than old people, some old people think they’re better than young people. All is the same thought patterns and the same problem.
    5. The best attitude to take, that I have found, is to celebrate the differences in people as individuals and as cultures. We are all different and that is what makes humanity so wonderful. Just as agreement is not needed for mutual respect so too is it true that we don’t need to all be the same to be friends. When I was in Australia I learned not to place any comparative value on the colour of a person’s skin. When I came to China I learned not to place any comparative value on the way a person thinks. It was a very valuable lesson.
    How does all this relate to the original article? Firstly I agree it was probably true that D&D has contained some racist elements in its construction, particularly earlier on. It was a product of the 1970s America after all, this seems very reasonable. From reading the latest edition, the only one I must admit I’ve had the chance to read, I think the designers have make a real effort to break with anything of that nature.
    The second point is that I disagree with the idea that the mechanics of the game are fundamentally racist. Differentiating races by appearance, trends and abilities is not inherently racist(nobody is saying Humans are better than dwarves, just different), and I think its a serious misconception to believe otherwise.
    Final point is that for the purposes of the article including what white supremacists think about D&D isn’t exactly a convincing argument. I know that everyone here thinks racism is bad, why are we listening to people who think that it’s good? These are people who read race into everything, and who we disagree with on the most basic of ideas (that one race is fundamentally somehow ‘better’ than another). Knowing already that they have flawed thinking its not really valid to state their opinions as proof.
    There’s apparently a Chinese translation of the latest D&D edition in the works now, this article has inspired me to get a hold of it and see what my Chinese friends make of it. Thanks for a very interesting article MrVanDyke, I’d be interested in discussing it more with you if you have the time.

  93. wolfwind Says:


    firstly, thanks to everyone for the great discussion – to mrvandyke for the article, and to everyone else for contributing to the unfolding conversation.

    i’m a Singaporean in my early 30s, and i’m ethnically Chinese. My country is a former British colony, and the way things are run here are rather inspired by that whole experience of colonization. We speak English – our education system drills that into us from young – and we’re supposed to have a command of our “Mother Tongue” – for me, it’s Mandarin Chinese.

    We’re ethnically diverse; we’re a nation of immigrants. There’re many different ethnic groups here… For Chinese people alone, we have ancestries from all around China – mostly from the South of China, which is usually poorer and most of these older folks, my forebears, were running away from debt, war, plague, famine, poverty, etc, back home. We have different languages and dialects – you get a Teochew, a Hokkien, a Hainanese, and a Cantonese together, we can’t really communicate very well with each other cos our languages are all different.

    Then for the Malays, there’s all kinds of different subgroups too. There’s the Boyanese, the Javanese, the Bugis… for Indians, there’s the Sinhalese etc…

    Language is political in my country; English is the language of power. We have become a modern nation, and run screaming into the bleeding edge, through my state’s emphasis on English, science, tech, etc. As an ethnically diverse country, the ruling party – which was predominantly English-educated too – took steps to prevent the explosion of primordialist ethnic tensions that it feared greatly, between the different groups, and hence English – this strange get of many different lands – has become my country’s lingua franca. For the sake of our freedom, our prosperity, the leaders of my people now have decided that the language of our one-time rulers will become our language today.

    i’ve been playing DnD for more than a decade, and when i first started playing it, it was with a group of other Chinese kids. Elite sorts. multiplayer computer games were just getting really popular too, it was the age of Star Control 2 and Doom…

    The games we played, we read up on old skool greyhawk stuff. Ren ‘O The Star and all that. We borrowed books from the library to get our fantasy fix. Dragonlance, the Belgariad, etc.

    We were English-educated children, groomed to become English-educated elites, playing games that are based on performative and communicative processes that take place *through* language… that we played in English.

    The long and short of it, is, in order to not be racist, in Singapore, lol, we had to become Western. My first DnD character was a vaguely Western-European fantasy character… but i can’t remember who he is.

    I went on playing with other groups. Same thing. We inherited this culture from the internetz, oh what a cool tragically hip place this is. I played Vampire, and all the cool kids who had gone out of Singapore to live in the US or UK came back with fake accents, to show us suburban nerds what being cool meant, they were really into the scene, unlike us plain losers. In the Bordieu sense, they dominated the horizons of our habitus… They were also the key holders of the knowledge gates.

    Somewhere along the line, I became conscious of my ethnicity – as a “yellow” man who has been rendered “white”, or rather “transparent”. “White” isn’t an ethnicity, in Asia the discourse here is all about we want “Modernization”, not “Westernization”, and people start yapping about Asian values even though they’re pretty similar to what Americans may call Conservative family values.

    As a result, I started playing around with my identity a lot. I love half-orcs, by the way, not because of the +2 strength – which is why everyone else i know seems to play them in 3rd ed, but with the wood elves, few ppl bother bout half-orcs. Everyone i know seems to play them as stereotypes of the brute, but for me, as a Southeast Asian “Other”, i enjoyed playing a subaltern within the Western “Self”-dominated world of fantasy, and to expand the tropes of what it meant to be heroic.

    Funnily enough, I like Al-Qadim and Oriental Adventures, because i take it with a huge pinch of salt. I enjoy, with my Muslim friends, roleplaying the riddle contests between the jinn and the bomohs… and i often laugh at how exotic we must seem to the West, when i read OA. i like OA, AQ… because it gave me the rules mechanics to create fantasy campaigns I could use to express my own cultural heritage. I started taking out armor proficiences and shield proficiencies for warriors, and gave them athletics and unarmed martial arts instead, because in Chinese fantasy, that’s a more common trope.

    On another note, I was highly amused, for example, by the Hopping Vampire in 3rd Ed DnD. The art was all wrong, but it really harkens back to memories of childhood horror at watching Hong Kong vampire flicks, down to its breathsense ability. My friends – who are a diverse mix of Malay, Chinese, Sinhalese – etc got a rise out of fighting those guys. Everybody knew – from watching subtitled Hong Kong horror movies in our childhood – that we had to hold our breaths to avoid those guys, and the cultural system worked, for us.

    The Penaggalan was also a legendary creature that is from our culture.

    It could go on, and i know i’m rambling, but my point is…

    It really depends on the DM, i feel. As a toolbox, DnD is a system of mechanics, and it is also a useful analytic lens for us to anthropologically get a feel of the ethnocentric slants within our societies.

    In Singapore, and much of the rest of Asia now that MMOs have become super big here… Fantasy is not a neutral term. it is “Western Fantasy”. i watch recent Taiwanese TV serials about the Taoist deities fighting demons, and mysteriously, everyone has attacks summoning dragons that look like stock animation from MMOs. and wears full plate. and carries tower shields. with katanas and flamberges. And somehow, nobody seems to gripe too much.

    RPGs are useful litmus meters for understanding views of ethnicity, and as social platforms, they are also useful for creating performative spaces where these views can be disseminated and discussed.

    I run games where my players have started to play concepts closer to their cultural milieus, but i must also be cognizant that our cultural milieu – here in Singapore at least – includes the fantasy products of the Western literary and art worlds. Where is my position? Am i half human… or am i half orc? Or is the halfie status itself a viable ontological position? What happens when a half orc and a half elf have a kid? Is he “pure human”?


    Ok, enough ranting for now.

    Once again, great article. Cheers!

  94. Rosario Lydon Says:

    This is a really nice article.

  95. Other Races in D&D « Swords & Dorkery Says:

    […] Races in D&D No, this not a half-assed rant about how D&D is racist. You can find that here, and see it beaten into pulp here.  This is another prospecting post about a campaign I may run […]

  96. Nat Says:

    It’s an interesting argument, and I can argue with the facts you have brought to it. However, I can argue your interpretation of the facts.

    As has already been pointed out, it’s a pseudo-medieval, European adventure. Put simply, there was no real presence of other races at the time.

    My own argument is that you would then have to consider anything else out that contains a single race. TV springs to mind immediately: All white casts: Fraiser, Will & Grace, Friends. All Black casts: The Fresh Prince, The Cosby Show; Def Jam…

    Whilst the last ones have been called into disrepute for being condescending, the fact is that they havent been called into question for an all black cast.

    Personally I think the whole idea of producing different TV for different racial groups is silly, and causes disharmonious feeling, but I dont think it is in itself racist.

  97. Trev Says:

    An excellent article, literate, well argued and highly entertaining. As for the Stormfront angle, I have to say that in my experience, racist morons will co-opt any half-assed argument they can think of as ex post facto justification for their bigotry.

    The fact that one of their website’s denizens used D&D’s racial modifiers to accord some kind of legitimacy to their prejudice is (unintentionally) hilarious!

    For my part, I have been a human rights lawyer specialising in immigration law for the past eight and a half years, and I have represented literally hundreds of individuals from non-white backgrounds over that period. So if Gary Gygax’s (may his soul rest in eternal peace) hidden agenda in creating D&D was to induct me into some kind of sick dysfunctional white supremacist cult, I have to say that in my case he failed miserably.

    If anything, the many hours spent playing D&D in my adolescence and beyond helped enhance my awareness of racial inequality and social injustice. My first ever character, who happened to be half-elf, was continually patronised by well-meaning but gauche dwarves who would pat him on the shoulder and say “Don’t worry mate, it’s not your fault”. Or the halfling swashbuckler who would continually be accused of thievery and other petty crimes, simply on the basis of his race. Or the human bard, who played the gig of his life, only to be treated with frosty disdain by the predominantly elven audience.

    My point being, is that D&D, whilst being a fantasy realm, nonetheless mirrors the myriad inequalities of the world which we inhabit, and I’m pretty certain that Gygax consciously made it that way, in order to ensure his world was a socially dynamic and believable one, even before a single PC had entered it.

    Just because that’s the way it is, certainly doesn’t make it right, and as history has already shown us, an individual with enough determination and perspicacity (Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela) can make all the difference, just as one ambitious PC in D&D can make all the difference, hence the game’s enduring appeal to this day.

    Thanks again for an excellent, highly thought-provoking article.

  98. HipHoprosauraus Says:

    I see this thread has gone fairly quiet, but I just stumbled upon and want to thank Mr Van Dyke for a fascinating, provocative, entertaining, and more than occasionally downright funny essay (how anyone could miss the humor here is beyond me). The responses as well are quite interesting, with the usual full range of interest, sympathy, rejection, sarcasm, hostility, but also genuine reflection and thoughtfulness as well.

    The only question I have is this: role playing, as a genre, began when tabletop gamers (like Gygax) gradually included more and more embellishments into their tabletop rules – which were originally designed to allow gamers to create fantasy battles with miniatures on tabletops. These rules only gradually began to take on the “let’s pretend” aspects of character creation and storytelling that now constitute most of the genre.

    With that ever-so-crucial part of background filled in, the question becomes not “are RPG’s somewhat racist” but rather “is a form of entertainment that was designed to allow characters to imagine warfare – and act it out, in the relative safety of their imaginations” – going to reflect some subtle racial biases?

    So let’s go back to the beginning and start with a different question: is war racist?

    To my mind, the answer is a resounding and simple “Yes”. War, fighting, killing, genocide, these are the real-life endpoints of racism. Thus a choice that we are all confronted with, as a species: do we solve our problems by fighting, or do we seek other means?

    In a nutshell, that is why I think RPG’s are so compelling to so many. They allow us to contemplate that profoundly important question through the thin veneer of fantasy, which is removed enough to allow us to be “safe”.

    Of course- feeling compelled to contemplate something only in imagination, versus enacting that something in real life, are worlds apart. You might even argue that the “safe” space provided by imagination might be a kind of safety valve. By allowing ourselves to contemplate racism and violence in imagined worlds, we might give ourselves a more sober perspective as we see it in our real world.

    Or not. (exhibit A, the skinhead who declared that “everything he ever learned about racial superiority he learned from D+D”.)

    So I guess for me the question of whether RPGs are racist is like asking whether stories are racist, or movies are racist. It’s the message, not the medium. Why the medium was framed for such a long time in terms that invite these queasy-inducing racist projections is probably MOSTLY due to the fact that, in the beginning, they were invented for a very specific purpose – to allow armchair generals to enact fantasies of pillage, violence, and conquest. (or resistance to pillage, violence and conquest.)

    Does that mean, that that is all that RPGs are, and all that they will ever be? No. But it does require a recognition of what the source is of all of the stuff that, on reflection, seems a little queasiness-inducing.

  99. KusterJr Says:

    Well, I must say this was a fantastic read. At first I wasn’t so sure about the article itself (it didn’t help that I tend to be a grammar nazi and there are some glaring errors in it :P) – I’ve only played 4.0, so I haven’t been privy to some of the racist overtones that may have existed in the previous versions. However, upon further reading of both the approving and dissenting opinions, I have to agree that in general D&D does pose some minor racists ideas… if you take it at face value. If a group were to read the PH and DMG, and use things straight from them to play their game, it could be argued that racist tendencies did exist – and if I’m not mistaken, that was mrvandyke’s main point – at it’s most basic level, there is some bit of racism in D&D. However, once one starts actually playing the game intelligently, I think all traces of racism fall away (as long as the DM and group want them to do so, anyway). I just thought I would put in my 2 cents and see if anyone would enjoy reading them.

    Oh, and as a last word, I have had Avenue Q music going through my head for almost the entire discussion. (If you don’t automatically get the reference, look it up – it’s a fantastic musical).

    Hope you all have a great day,


  100. George Says:

    Coming in VERY late to the conversation….

    (I am a white male if anyone really cares)

    Firstly the OP has every right to question and analyse D&D in any way desired. If racist undertones are perceived then by all means lets discuss it.

    I must admit, what I got from playing D&D in my youth was almost the opposite of racism. To me, D&D was in effect saying that what YOU are (i.e. human) is at best bland and ordinary, perhaps boring, and at worst weak. Whereas the strange, mystical people that aren’t like you, i.e. dwarves, elves, half-orc, etc. are tougher, smarter, stronger, etc. with cool powers to boot such as infravision and resistance to magic, some of them are even almost immortal!

    The limit on non-human levels was a (very gygaxian) rule solely to counterbalance the very obvious awesomeness of other races, and in fact flies utterly in the face of any fantasy convention. In the literature Dwarven warriors are not in any way more limited than human ones. And logically (within the context of fantasy) anyone can see that a mage that lives for thousands of years (i.e. an Elf) would ultimately become vastly more powerful than a mere human.

    In D&D and other similar games I almost always chose the Half-orc if I wanted to be a warrior – that extra strength is invaluable. Gnomes made good mages with extra intelligence, etc. I can recall few, if any human characters. In fact the more exotic the better, such as Half-Ogres, insectoid type races, sprites, etc.

    In fact nowadays playing more modern fantasy computer games, I occasionally choose to play a human character simply because not choosing human has been such a staple part of playing games for so long, it is now almost a kick to be just a plain, boring old human again for ONCE.

    I do see some valid points being made about the “whiteness” of D&D, For me however the strongest messages from D&D and fantasy games is:

    1) Being something DIFFERENT to what you are is GOOD.

    2) Working together with other people vastly different to yourself (physically, mentally, culturally) is not just good, but completely common and virtually mandatory. Racial variety in parties is almost a given.

    3) Your character will almost certainly, over the course of his life, be immensely widely travelled, and visit all manner of different countries, realms, and societies. As a result your character will almost certainly speak, or learn to speak a great many different languages and be knowledgeable and partake of a great variety of incredibly different cultures.

    4) Humans (what YOU are as a player) are quantifiably _inferior_ to other races. So much so that they need special meta-game rules that go against the internal consistency of the genre to balance them out.

    As a side note, I’ve played other games based on non-anglo-saxon dominated mythos, such as Bushido, Legend of Five Rings, various Ninja games, etc. and they are all just as interesting to play as D&D.

  101. mrvandyke Says:

    Obviously, this conversation isn’t really “live” any more (I walked away from it after I got frustrated with arguing with angry idiots), but I’d like to thank the people who are still reading and getting some enjoyment from it — whether you agree with part of it, all of it, or none of it. I’d especially like to thank the people who have commented in the last few months, since you’ve left some very thoughtful comments. If more people who disagreed with me in a civil, thoughtful fashion had taken part earlier, perhaps I would have maintained this blog like I’d intended. I blame metafilter for my 15 minutes of fame and dragging lots of people here — if the internet has proven anything, its that a crowd of people and an open comment thread is not a recipe for intelligent discourse. I particularly like George’s “inclusive” reading of D&D. While it doesn’t change my thoughts on, I think everything you said was true — what makes RPG’s so wonderful (and potentially dangerous) is your ability to read into them what you will. When I played myself, I certainly took George’s take on it, not StormFronts, and I fully believe Gygax INTENDED it to be played the way George suggests. I just also think that Gygax unintentionally included some racially dubious ideas, though our culture at large and our nations less than stellar history of race-relations plays an even larger part in that than Gygax personally.

    Anyway, thanks again for reading — I have been looking at and appreciating every comment I approve, even if I haven’t chimed in for a year. Keep thinking about the games we play. If you do that, that’s all I ask. Game on.

  102. Mannahnin Says:

    Thanks for being open to and approving counter arguments. I think the initial article aroused a fair amount of antagonism because in the limited time you had to prepare and present it, and in the effort to work in some jokes and dramatic points, you inadvertently distorted and defamed quite a bit of the subject.

    In the drive for drama and humor, you made D&D out to be something it is not. And you really gave short shrift to the genuine and thoughtful efforts toward multiculturalism which are evident in pretty much every passage of D&D’s text touching on culture published since at least 1988 (going back to 2nd edition, at least). This substantially reduced the validity of your points.

    I appreciate hearing that what you really got out of the game was closer to what George did. You seem too intelligent to have genuinely derived such a warped interpretation of the materials. Even in its early days, despite Gygax’s lack of explicit nods to multiculturalism, the vast majority of the player base derived exactly the same kind of ideas that you, and George, and Trev, and wolfwind did. The core concept of a group of heroes of different races and backgrounds, united in a common cause to protect the innocent and the good from evil. In Trev’s case he has literally embodied that concept in his personal career; an undeniably noble and admirable path. And I think the evidence overwhelmingly bears out that this reading and these takeaways are by far the most common; the distorted and misinterpreted fantasises of racists paling to statistical insignificence beside them. D&D is in truth a device which teaches cooperation and tolerance, as well as a fun pastime.

  103. Chris Van Dyke Says:

    If anyone out there is still following this thread nearly two years later (I have gotten a few new comments in the past few months), I’ll be giving an encore presentation at NerdNiteNYC on September 10th at Galapagos in Brooklyn. If any of you are in the area and want to support/criticize me live and in person, that would be awesome. Or tell New York friends you know — encouragement or rotten tomatoes would both be welcome. Just don’t throw a 100 sided die at me. Those suckers hurt.

  104. tomis chagall Says:

    thank heavens for this article — on my birthday, no less!

    tolkien and his followers have established a clearly anglo-centric, racist fantasy world where one can indulge in crusades and conquests of exotic lands without fear of retribution or the like.

    runequest was a beautiful exception, particularly as i have a soft spot for trolls.

    generally speaking, the easy route is to apply “reverse racism” and exterminate humans, elves, hobbits and other abominations from the campaigns by implementing house rules. works like a (troll) charm. 🙂

  105. James Says:

    You got a PROBLEM with Eladrin, Tieflings, and Dragonborn bro?

    Racists. Can’t avoid ’em.

  106. shimrod Says:

    tolkien and his followers have established a clearly anglo-centric, racist fantasy world..

    Wow. What a tragically ignorant comment. It’s also rude, showing that he felt no need or desire to read any of the comments.

    I probably shouldn’t feel bad. He’s probably just a troll.

    • duck_sick Says:

      it is rather you reply that is pathetically ignorant. his comment is spot on, had you read any of tolkien’s publications of researched his background, you’d know.

      calling him a troll in this context would be a compliment, mind you — you probably didn’t even manage to read his entire post to see that. better luck next time!

    • gulbur Says:

      the only tragically ignorant and inane comment is your reply. in any case, refrain from partaking in a discussion if you fail to comprehend it, cheers.

      • Mannahnin Says:

        If neither of you has read Tolkien, nor his classic comments in regards to the racism of the Nazis when his work was being considered for publication in 1938, then you can only show yourselves to be credulous and ignorant.

        There is nothing racist in Tolkien’s work. That you feel the desire to him so out of ignorance is both sad and shameful.

      • Mannahnin Says:

        …pardon, I meant to specify “considered for publication in Germany in 1938”.

  107. shadoworphen Says:

    I just wanna say it’s a damn game get the fuck over your childish minds when it comes to appearances!!!!!! that’s why in the character sheet if ANYBODY ever pays close enough attention they have LOOKS!!! that way you can make the character you’re playing any color you want. That way it’s unnecessary to be “WHITE”. You can be pink, with orange patches of hair on your head that look like freckles, and purple eyes, with a long stout nose that has a green mole on it. Or you can have a black head, with no hair, 1 orange eye & the other tan, with a 3 ft long beard that is yellow, a blue left arm & a magenta right arm, & having 3 silver spots down a green torso, and having rainbow legs. It’s fantasy have fun with it quit bitching about it “because there are no black characters in it” or ” the exotic races shouldn’t have the same unique ability as humans”. True enough each race their own unique values, morals, GOD(s), and traditions but that shouldn’t stop “the more intelligent” races from attaining a single goal like an elven race building a city for them to live together as equals not just a camp like they normally would I’m talking about the more aspiring ones who want to get into making a more profitable lifestyle for themselves rather than moving to a city where they’d either be treated as slaves or like complete dirt for being different than humans. I’ve played d&d before and well the campaign I was in was immeasurably different than that of what is described in the books… books are only the basic guideline for classes and races but there are people who have created their own races and classes because they want to know what it is like to have those classes and races incorporated into d&d also sometimes they feel as if the races and classes aren’t exactly suited to their campaign also the DM may choose to free the restriction of encumbrance and base how much they can carry on their strength score or if they have a mount they may choose to store their party’s “luggage” on the mount without the mount taking any penalties to it’s speed but will have a weight limit to what it can carry. IF the mount is large enough it can carry the whole party such as perhaps a hybrid water dragon that can fly, carry massive loads, and host more than two passengers it becomes the party’s mount not limit to a single person.

    • Chris Van Dyke Says:

      Wow, about 3 years late to the conversation. But thanks, shadoworphen, for reminding me why I killed the idea of turning this into a regular blog/discussion. Your reactionary, sophomoric, ignorant response which clearly shows you either did not read most of my article or simply didn’t get it even slightly is why I couldn’t keep trying to have what I think is a very interesting (and ongoing) conversation. Re-read the very rich (and LONG) comment thread that has been here for over 1,000 days — I never called D&D racist, but since that’s the only thing that knee-jerk, type-comments-before-you-actually-think denizens of the web see, what could be an intelligent debate instead devolved into the repetitive act of responding to the same one-dimensional comments over and over and over again. But glad to know the sits still getting daily hits! Maybe I’ll have another pointless comment to respond to in another few years . . .

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  118. Bob Says:

    This article is very US-centric. In my country we don’t have a lot of black people, so I never thought of orcs as black.

    But I would like to see pictures of characters for Chinese, Indian, Arabian and African races in the next version of PHB. Most of these races are already present in the forgotten Realms setting, so why not add some pictures?

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    When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there; nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another sixty years. Historical debate about the origin of racial slavery has focused on the status of the Negro in seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland. However, as Theodore W. Allen argues in this magisterial work, what needs to be studied is the transformation of English, Scottish, Irish and other European colonists from their various statuses as servants, tenants, planters or merchants into a single new all-inclusive status: that of whites. This is the key to the paradox of American history, of a democracy resting on race assumptions.Volume One of this two-volume work attempts to escape the “white blind spot” which has distorted consecutive studies of the issue. It does so by looking in the mirror of Irish history for a definition of racial oppression and for an explanation of that phenomenon in terms of social control, free from the absurdities of classification by skin color. Compelling analogies are presented between the history of Anglo-Irish and British rule in Ireland and American White Supremacist oppression of Indians and African-Americans. But the relativity of race is shown in the sea change it entailed, whereby emigrating Irish haters of racial oppression were transformed into White Americans who defended it. The reasons for the differing outcomes of Catholic Emancipation and Negro Emancipation are considered and occasion is made to demonstrate Allen’s distinction between racial and national oppression.

  125. gritz Says:

    Just showing up to say I read this in 2013, and it’s still just as relevant as ever. It’s a shame you didn’t carry this forward, but I completely understand your frustration with the vocally regressive elements of the hobby.

    • Chris Van Dyke Says:

      Thanks. It it is rewarding when I see that a blog consisting of 2 posts continues to get regular traffic and comments 5 years later. Honestly, it wasn’t just the vocally obnoxious comments, but the many other projects I’ve been working on that kept it from being an on-going conversation. Thanks for the kind comments!

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  127. Btab Says:

    Thanks for this, if you’re still around. I wish you had continued the dialogue but I understand why. I just started playing D&D a couple months ago and ran into this issue so was doing more research. Still very poignant, but from what I read here and what I know about 5e, it seems less racist now?

    The only consolation I’ve found is being DM and creating my world the way I want it.

    • Chris Van Dyke Says:

      Thanks for commenting on this eight year old post 🙂 But yes, I myself just bought 5E over the summer to start playing with my young kids, and it seems to be a huge improvement. Visually, the illustrations seem much more diverse, and the text quite explicitly talks about ranges of skin color. It also has a few good notes on gender norms and sexual orientation as well, so all in all 5E seems like quite a progressive step forward.

      But its a game of imagination, so ultimately whether or not the world of RPGs becomes more inclusive and welcoming is up to every player that picks it up. I’m hoping that current and future players will do that. Anyway, thanks for the comments, and if you like gaming in general, I do have another blog dedicated to gaming with kids that i try to keep somewhat current if you want to check it out!

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