The stories we tell each other

Race and racism in fantasy

I have recently been working on a conversion document that adapts Dungeons & Dragons’ Eberron campaign setting to the Savage Worlds system. I’m not a game designer and I’m not a particularly prolific writer, so this was a bit of a challenge for me. One of the most challenging things to pull off was converting the races. Through writing the document, I think I developed a deeper understanding for the racism inherent to fantasy fiction. And I’d like to talk about that.

Two disclaimers to start off:

  1. Real-world racism is incomparably worse than fictitious racism against fictitious beings.
  2. Fantasy fiction unfortunately uses the word “race” when describing species. I’ll be using both terms interchangeably.

The human problem

Before the rest of this article can make sense, I have to establish that games are generally predicated on some kind of balance. If I choose a dwarf character and you choose an elf character, the advantages and disadvantages we gain from our choices should balance out, and neither of us should be strictly better than the other. This can be difficult to precisely quantify, but it’s possible to at least be reasonably balanced. This is fine, because games require some sort of balance to remain fun for everyone.

Of course, there’s a problem, and it’s humans. What are humans if not strictly worse elves? Elves get to see in the dark, have keen hearing, amazing agility, meditate instead of sleeping, and—in D&D—have resistance against certain types of magic. What do humans get to counterbalance that? From a narrative perspective: Squat.

From a mechanical perspective, game designers often give humans a flat increase to everything, or allow the player to assign some extra points to things of their own choice. The thinking goes that this evens the balancing scales—which is fine, because it’s a game after all. The narrative justification is that humans are exceptionally “adaptive” or “ambitious”.

It’s a lazy justification, but because we might like some explanation, maybe it will do, especially considering that there are worse offenders.

Conflation of culture and species

All elves in D&D receive proficiency in swords and bows. The thinking goes that these weapons hold some significant status in elven society, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that all elves raised in such a society would have received training in these weapons. This is wrong for so many reasons:

  • It assumes that there is such a thing as an elven society and culture.
  • It assumes that that culture values proficiency in swords and bows.
  • It assumes that the player character grew up in this culture.
  • It assumes that the player character actually took classes in these weapons.

If any of the above assumptions are false, then tough luck—you’re going to be good at those weapons regardless, whether or not you want to, as if elves are born with innate knowledge of swinging swords and loosing arrows.

Moreover, if you’re a human living in this elven culture—in spite of it making no narrative sense—you do not get automatic proficiency in these weapons.

Not by the rules, anyway. Put a pin in that.

The bell curve

If we can’t or shouldn’t conflate culture and species, then perhaps we should just stick to biology. This seems promising at first. It doesn’t seem so weird that elves might be a species with better eyesight and hearing—after all, dogs are a species with a veritably better sense of smell. And maybe it’s not so weird that elves can get their night’s rest through meditation instead of a human sleeping pattern.

The most difficult biological trait to justify would be the elves’ heightened dexterity. The stereotype of elves is that they are these highly agile beings with a certain finesse. And before elaborating on that, I think it’s good to stop for a moment to appreciate that this is aesthetically cool. It’s pleasing to imagine cool people do cool things.

Having stopped to appreciate the aesthetics, we can move on to question them. Are all elves dexterous? Judging by the rules—yes, all elves get a bonus to dexterity. But narratively, surely, this can’t be true. Maybe an elf was born with a physical disability, or acquired such a disability later in life. Maybe they simply don’t get any exercise in. It does not require a lot of imagination to come up with counter-examples. But like with the weapon proficiency, an elf is going to get their bonus to dexterity whether or not they want it. Hold onto that pin.

Let’s loop back to the other biological traits. If it was so easy to find a counter-example to dexterity, maybe it’s possible to do the same to other traits. To counter improved eyesight, maybe the elf is myopic and requires glasses to see. To counter improved hearing, maybe the elf has any sort of hearing disability. Countering their meditative sleep is possibly the hardest, but it’s not too far-fetched to imagine an excitable elf with an immensely short attention span who never quite got into the whole meditation thing. This elf might still technically biologically be capable of meditative sleep, but if they’ve never done it before, it’s a distinction without a difference.

If we now put all those pieces together, someone might play an elf who requires glasses to see, and gladly uses those glasses to read every magical tome they can find. In their advanced age, they have stopped exercising, and have slowly become hard of hearing. Instead of meditating, they often fall asleep on top of their books, long after the appropriate time to go to bed.

It’s worth noting that the above elf is not an especially exceptional character. They’re an old wizard with glasses who has no time for doing anything other than reading. Nevertheless, this elf gets all the bonuses that run contrary to their concept. And that just can’t be right.

The rationale for the racial bonuses of elves being as they are often comes down to the bell curve. The thinking goes that those bonuses represent the median elf at the centre of the statistical bell curve of the distribution of those traits. If you take the median elf and the median human, the elf will simply be more dexterous as a result of their natural physiology. And if you take the lowest 5th percentile of elves and compare them to the lowest 5th percentile of humans, those elves would still be more dexterous.

This of course completely ignores that the player character can be anywhere on the bell curve. The low-dexterity elf wizard from above could have a highly dexterous human companion. As a matter of fact, that human companion could even be more dexterous than the most dexterous elf. This would be statistically unlikely if we assume that the bell curve is real, but odds have never stopped fantasy heroes.

Note that the median (most common) elf is more dexterous than the median human, but that there exist humans on the right side of the curve that are more dexterous than elves on the left side of the curve.

A professionally drawn bell curve of the distribution of dexterity in humans and elves.

Note that the median (most common) elf is more dexterous than the median human, but that there exist humans on the right side of the curve that are more dexterous than elves on the left side of the curve.

In conclusion to this section: Even if traits in fantasy races are distributed along these bell curves, there would still be heaps of exceptions, and the system should support that.

Additionally, I’d like to put a differently coloured pin in the very concept of bell curves. I’ll get back to that later.

Race is real

So far, the problems posed in this article have been fictitious and trivial in nature. It’s past time to get to the point.

Orcs are the traditional fantasy bogeyman. They’re a species that are characterised by their superlatively barbarous and savage state, brutish virility to the point of bestiality, low intelligence, and dark brown-grey skin tones.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you may notice a blatant parallel to the real world. The above paragraph could—verbatim—be a racist description of real-world black people. And indeed, part of that paragraph was paraphrased from Types of Mankind (1854), and another part was paraphrased from White on Black: images of Africa and Blacks in Western popular culture (1992).

And, you know, that’s bad. Like really, really bad. And it only gets worse. Because unlike in the real world, that characterisation of orcs is real.

In the default campaign setting of Dungeons & Dragons, orcs really are barbarous monsters that roam the lands to plague civilisation as raiders and pillagers. Quoting from Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016):

[Orcs are] savage and fearless, [and] are ever in search of elves, dwarves, and humans to destroy. […] Orcs survive through savagery and force of numbers. Orcs aren’t interested in treaties, trade negotiations or diplomacy. They care only for satisfying their insatiable desire for battle, to smash their foes and appease their gods.

[…]

[The orcs are led] on a mission of ceaseless slaughter, fuelled by an unending rage that seeks to lay waste to the civilised world and revel in its anguish. […] Orcs are naturally chaotic and [disorganised], acting on their emotions and instincts rather than out of reason and logic.

[…]

In order to replenish the casualties of their endless warring, orcs breed prodigiously (and they aren’t choosy about what they breed with, which is why such creatures as half-orcs and ogrillons are found in the world). Females that are about to give birth are […] taken to the lair’s whelping pens.

Orcs don’t take mates, and no pair-bonding occurs in a tribe other than at the moment when coupling takes place.

It is difficult to overstate how absolutely “savage” and evil these orcs are, as depicted. The above quotation outright states that orcs eschew civilisation in favour of war and destruction, and heavily implies that orcs know no love and leave human women pregnant with half-orcs in their wake. Note also the use of the words “females”, “whelping pens”, and “mates”, as though orcs are nothing short of beasts.

The rationale for this sheer evil is that orcs are under the influence of their creator Gruumsh, an evil god of destruction. “Even those orcs who turn away from his worship can’t fully escape his influence”, says the Player’s Handbook (2014).

If things couldn’t get any worse, they do, because the above is compounded by D&D’s alignment system, which is a system of absolute deterministic morality of good-and-evil that can be measured by magic. A character in D&D can be—by their very essence—veritably evil. In this case, the entire orc species is evil owing to the influence of this evil god.

Cutting to the chase, this effectively means that it is morally justifiable for people to commit genocide against orcs. They are evil, after all, without a shred of a doubt.

Worse still, this means that Dungeons & Dragons has effectively created a world in which the most wicked theories of racists are actually true:

  • “Race is real”, meaning that there are measurable differences in physiology between the races. This is represented by the game’s racial traits, which I earlier demonstrated don’t make a whole heap of sense.
  • Some races are evil and/or inferior. This is represented by the utter evil of orcs, and their inferior intelligence in the game’s racial traits.

This is where it might be expedient to take a look at that differently coloured pin with regard to the bell curve. The Bell Curve, as it happens, is a 1994 book written by two racists that states that intelligence is heritable through genes, and that the median intelligence of black people is lower than the median intelligence of white people by mere virtue of those genes. This claim is wrong in the real world, but it appears to be true in the fantasy world.

Now, if one could play pretend in any world, I think I’d like to play pretend in a world in which the racists are wrong. But that’s not the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Redemption actually makes things worse

This section is a small tangent. Earlier I mentioned that the entire orc species is evil, thereby morally justifying a potential genocide against them. There is no real-world analogy for this—there exists no species on Earth whose sole purpose is the destruction of humans. But if such a species did hypothetically exist, driving it to extinction could realistically be justified as an act of self-defence, lest that species succeed in its goal of wiping out humans.

It’s a questionable thing to focus one’s story on, but at least adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons can rest easy after clearing an entire cave of orcs.

There’s just one small problem: Orcs can be good, actually. In the fantasy world, it is possible for an orc to free themself of the corrupting influence of Gruumsh, and become “one of the good ones”. If even a single orc is capable of attaining moral good, this means that moral determinism is false, and therefore every orc is potentially capable of attaining moral good. This twist just turned an uncomplicated story of a fight against objective evil into a story of the justified genocide of slaves who are forced to fight for their master.

And, you know, that’s a lot to take in. And it’s built right into the game’s premise, and it didn’t take a lot of thinking to come to this utterly disturbing conclusion. Heroes are supposed to slay orcs without giving it much thought, but burdened with this knowledge, is that a morally justifiable thing to do at all?

More importantly, is this a story we want to be telling?

Missing the point

I’m not the first person to point out Dungeons & Dragons’ problem with race and racism, especially as it pertains to orcs and drow (dark elves). Recently, the people behind the game have begun to take some small steps towards solving these fundamental issues, and that’s a good thing. But a lot of people disagree.

I’ve read far too many criticisms of these steps in the writing of this article. Altogether, I think that their arguments can be boiled down to these points:

  • Orcs are not analogous to real-world black people. They’re not even people. Orcs are orcs are orcs.
  • As a matter of fact, if you think that orcs are analogous to real-world black people, you are the racist for seeing the similarities.
  • I really just want monsters to slay in my game. Why are you overthinking this?

I feel that these arguments monumentally miss the point, and countering them head-on would be a good way to waste your time. One could pussyfoot about and argue about the first two points, and although I vehemently disagree with these conclusions, it really wouldn’t matter if one conceded these points. The third point isn’t even an argument—it’s the equivalent of throwing a tantrum because other people are discussing something you don’t like.

The reason the arguments miss the point is that the point of contention is not whether orcs specifically are “bad”. Rather, the point of contention is that they—and other races like them—exist at all in the way that they do. That is to say: Orcs would be bad even if they didn’t mirror real-world depictions of black people so closely.

Given a choice between anything at all, why choose racism?

When we play pretend, we could imagine any world at all. The only limit is our own imagination, and this is—crudely put—really cool. And when we play pretend, we tell each other stories. And again, we could be telling any story at all. Storytelling being as it is, we will require some conflict to drive the story forward, and we can do this through antagonists—the “bad guys”. Now, not all stories actually require conflict, but I’m going to let that be.

And here’s the point: A story in which the antagonists—the bad guys—are a race of sapient human-like people that are inherently evil through moral determinism is a shitty story.

Phrased differently, the story of “we must kill these people of a different race because that race is inherently evil” is a bad story that is far too close for comfort to real-world stories of racism and genocide. That story is especially bad because—within the context of the story—the protagonists are completely justified in their racial hatred and genocide. This is in stark contrast to the real world, where racism is always completely and utterly unjustifiable.

Phrased differently again: Given a choice to tell any sort of story whatsoever, why choose to tell a racist story?

Systemic racism

I think we’re past the central thesis of this article, but I want to try to actually answer the above question—why choose racism? The lazy answer would be to suppose that the players of the game are racists—wittingly or not. But I’m not very satisfied by that answer.

In an attempt to answer this question, I want to return to the first pin regarding playing by the rules. As a light refresher: We were creating an elf wizard, but none of the racial bonuses were suitable for our elf. The rules forced us to play a certain way, even if that way didn’t make sense for our character.

But that’s a lie, of course. Nobody is forcing us to play a certain way. We could just discard the book; ignore the system and go our own way. We can tweak away to our heart’s content.

But before we do that, I want to emphasise how unlikely it was that we found a flaw in the system in the first place. For most people, when they create a new character, it’s like going to an ice cream parlour. There’s a large selection of flavours available, and you simply pick and choose from the things that appeal to you. By the end, you leave the shop and have your ice cream—close the book and enjoy your character. You may add some additional custom flair, but that is usually after you have already chosen the foundation for your character.

For our elf wizard, this process went differently—atypically. Instead of choosing from a list of available options, we created a character in a free-form manner. Then when it was time to open the book, we found that the options did not support our concept. I want to emphasise here also two additional things: We may not have noticed the discrepancy between our concept and the rules in the first place, and simply gone ahead; or we may have noticed the discrepancy and thereafter discarded the concept in favour of something else that might work.

Regardless, having come so far, it’s time to begin the tweaking. There’s just a small problem… Nobody at the table is a game designer or has ever balanced a race before. Furthermore, the rules don’t exactly give robust hints on how to go about doing this. And if we’re discarding all of the elf racial traits, why are we an elf again? Why is nobody else tweaking their character’s race? Everyone else was perfectly capable of creating their characters within the constraints set by the rules, so why aren’t we? Is it such a big deal that the number next to Dexterity on our character sheet is a little higher? Can’t we simply ignore the additional weapon proficiency? If we never pick up a bow, it will be as if that proficiency was never there.

That is to say: Breaking the rules is hard. There’s a heavy inertia to overcome, and that inertia can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

In summary, any of the following things can stop a person from creating their character outside of the rules:

  • They simply stick to the options provided by the book.
  • They come up with a concept of their own, and just pick from the options provided by the book afterwards.
  • They come up with a concept of their own, find that it is not supported by the book, and discard the concept.
  • They come up with a concept of their own, and—due to peer pressure or fear of being the odd one out—do not want to pursue creating custom mechanics.
  • They come up with a concept of their own, find that the books do not give them any guidance on creating custom mechanics, and give up there.
  • They come up with a concept of their own, successfully create or tweak the mechanics to suit that concept, but the GM does not allow this type of customisation.

One can only conclude that the rulebook—the system—enables certain outcomes much more than others. Even if you encounter a problem with the way that Dungeons & Dragons handles race, the odds of doing anything about it are very much stacked against you.

Involuntary racism

So why choose racism? Because the system has chosen for you. The system all-but-assures that the players will buy into its racism. In this system, all elves are dexterous, all humans are adaptive and ambitious, and all orcs are big and strong. There’s no choice in the system, and any choice to the contrary has to be outside of the system, for which the rulebook offers little to no guidance.

This is further compounded by the default campaign setting, Forgotten Realms, that creates a world in which orcs are unambiguously evil—barbarous savages reminiscent of the worst racist depictions of real-world peoples. It systematically enables a story of justified genocide against a people—a story that might as well be a wet dream for this world’s racists.

And, you know, that sucks.

Creating a better system

I want to end this article with my personal solution. I like fantasy, even though I spent the last however-many words comparing it to racism of the highest order, and I would like to enjoy it without its worst aspects.

A better system has heaps of requirements, but I think it boils down to the following two things:

  • The campaign setting mustn’t enable justified racism, and must be playable without racism entirely.
  • Players must be able to easily decouple mechanics from races.

For the campaign setting, I chose Eberron. I’m not sure if the Forgotten Realms are salvageable. Perhaps Gruumsh could be slain and all orcs could be freed, but there would still be a lot of other racisms that need solving in that campaign setting.

Eberron, on the other hand, is a lot more redeemable. The world is divided into rival nations, and the world’s races are more-or-less evenly distributed throughout the nations, creating a cosmopolitan feel. Moreover, there are no deterministically evil peoples in the world—Eberron’s original druids were orcs, and orcs can be as good or as evil as any other person. Even more importantly, culture and race in Eberron can be completely decoupled. An elf from the main continent is generally of the local nation’s culture, and an elf from the “elven continent” will generally be of one of the two local cultures, and this racial-cultural fluidity is explicitly called out in the campaign setting’s books.

Of course, there are some less likeable aspects of the campaign setting. There exist people with heritable magical tattoos, effectively making them an objectively superior breed. There’s also the fact that the “elven continent” exists at all, when it could instead be mixed-race like the rest of the world (although the racism on this continent is called out as being bad in Exploring Eberron (2020)). There is also racism against the world’s robot people and shape changers, which may not be a theme you want to play around with. But by and large, that’s it, and it’s a huge improvement over other settings.

For the mechanics, I ditched Dungeons & Dragons. Savage Worlds is a system that—unlike Dungeons & Dragons—truly gives you the tools to tweak the system if something is not to your liking. It has an entire section on modifying and creating races, and the rulebook is littered with reminders that you can change things to fit your game, and suggestions on how to do that.

Of course, Savage Worlds is not perfect. Its name is a little ‘eh’, its first campaign setting imagines a world in which the Confederate States of America seceded, and it has this extremely annoying Outsider feature that makes no sense whatsoever. Moreover, for our purposes, it does not explicitly tell the player that they can freely adjust their character’s racial features, but it does give the player the tools to do so, so I guess that’s good enough. Perfect is the enemy of good, and Savage Worlds’ flaws are trivially easy to work around.

Just one problem remains: This imaginary world still holds on to the bell curve. It still imagines a world in which the racists are sort of right—where elves are more dexterous and orcs are taller and stronger. And although the player characters are no longer bound by the bell curve, it still feels a little wrong.

And in truth, I have no solution for this whatsoever. If we want to play in a world where the racists are wrong, then maybe we shouldn’t tell a story in which their central theory of race holds true. It’s completely possible to tell a fantasy story composed of just humans, after all.

But I also feel that we would be losing something if we simply ditched the fantasy concept of race. Earlier in this article, I stopped to appreciate that dexterous elves are cool. And I think that appreciation bears repeating—not just for elves, but for all the fantasy races. When I play an orc, maybe I want to lean into the really cool concept of being inhumanely strong—or break with that stereotype to explore what it means to be weak in a society where everybody can effortlessly lift a hundred kilos.

After all, it’s about the stories we tell each other. And doesn’t a world in which radically different peoples live together and work to oppose bad actors make for a beautiful story?

See also