We’re no longer in Kansas, Toto. This is the world where fantasy, history, and game design meet. However, even fantasy worlds need to confront the racist tropes that are commonplace in the genre, for example in the characterization of orcs and other monsters.
that one game from that one show
Dungeons & Dragons has received a new breath of life with its Fifth Edition release. D&D 5e is arguably the most new player friendly edition. The edition gained widespread popularity in large part thanks to the phenomena of actual-play streaming and podcasts, in particular Critical Role. Actual-play is a genre of media wherein people record themselves playing tabletop roleplaying and board games. The rapid expansion of the D&D fanbase has also attracted creators with ideas about how to make D&D even more inclusive for everyone. It’s a vibrant community full of passionate people with opinions on everything about the game.
CONFRONTING THE LEGACY
Recently, there has been a head-spinning amount of discussion about orcs in the D&D community. The central question for debate: are orcs racist? It’s an old debate that flared up most recently when a since-deleted tweet pointed out that the descriptions for orcs in the Volo’s Guide to Monsters supplement book was racist. As a fan, writer, player, Dungeon Master, and race traitor; I consider Orcs racist because of design elements that are a holdover from fantasy tropes. It’s a feedback loop: the fantasy tropes are racist, D&D uses those tropes, D&D reproduces those tropes all over again. Why are they racist? There are a number of reasons, but I’ll try to explain a few.
In this context, I’m referring to the idea that behavior is explained by genetics. In D&D, the alignment chart serves as fantasy genes. Nobody will see them, but if the Monster Manual says they’re evil then they are evil. Even as the appeal of sympathetic villains has become popular, it doesn’t erase the fact that orcs are evil. The idea that behavior is determined by genes or birth is patently false.
This comes into play when a person is reduced down to some mitigating factor. In the context of D&D, we look at the monsters and see they are ugly, scary, or otherwise undesirable. This gives us a level of separation as we distance ourselves from them; we think of them only as ugly monsters to be killed. Essentially, they are evil because they are ugly and therefore they can be killed.
The idea that every hero needs a foe to destroy creates a problem. Who is the foe and what have they done to deserve death? The simple answer is: they are inherently evil. That idea is tied to biological determinism. Unfortunately, as with alignment charts as a form of biological determinism, there are real-world parallels to the idea that the enemy is inherently evil. That is the rhetoric of genocide.
A Solution: REDEFINE WHAT EVIL LOOKS LIKE AND WHY
My personal approach is to treat all sentient creatures in the game as equally valuable in telling stories. In the starting town of the first homebrew campaign I ever ran I made the Fey the villains. They were not evil because the Monster Manual said they were evil (they’re actually Chaotic Good). The Fey were simply trying to protect the forest and its sacred trees. Instead of killing them, the party was able to negotiate their way out of the problem. Later the party was almost wiped out when they ran into some mean humans. Humans are not inherently evil in D&D. The humans did what they did because they were given too much power and felt entitled to special treatment.
If you want to avoid racist tropes in your games, avoid falling back on the idea that there are sentient beings who are evil because they were born evil. Village of evil goblins? Sure! But they’re called evil by the humans in the town nearby. The unicorns don’t mind them at all. The reason the humans in the town nearby hate the goblins is that they keep stealing from wagons bringing supplies to the market. Why are the goblins doing this? Maybe they don’t know how to farm and their livestock caught a mysterious plague. Your party could investigate this plague, help the goblins and stop the town supplies from being robbed.
Flesh out your world
Furthermore, whether they’re orcs, goblins, elves, humans, or dwarves; the vast majority of them are probably just boring old normies trying to get through each day. The creatures who do the kind of evil that a party of adventurers have to fight represent a small minority. As with any good villain: they most likely don’t see themselves as the bad guys. It takes extraordinary circumstances to make people turn to evil deeds. A cruel king who’s terrified of losing his throne inflicts harsh taxes and random punishments to instill fear. A band of orc librarians secretly organizes a militant resistance to overthrow him. Sometimes you might find the villains have a worthy cause.
I don’t believe the monsters labeled as evil are racist because designers set out to be racist, but rather they are products of the global north’s legacy of normalized racism. As a game designer, I know that the choices I make about what I put into a game are shaped by both conscious choice and unconscious bias. What I accept and assume to be normal today may read as insensitive or prejudiced as our understanding of people, places and things develops to become more holistic.
If people still play my games in 25 or 50 years, I hope they throw out what I didn’t realize was harmful or prejudiced.
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