Fantastic Racism

Posted: 22 June 2012 in GM Advice
Tags: , ,

There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D.  On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary.  That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.

In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins?  What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters?  For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?

When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races.  Why are goblins erratic and lazy?  Because that’s part of what being a goblin is.  You might as well ask why fire burns.  Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible.  Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not?  If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre.  And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans.  You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.

So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant.  Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think this approach is pretty common, but it makes me a bit queasy since it risks missing the point that we’re playing these games as humans, in a real world. It’s hard for me to play a game where we say “hey, there are these things that are pretty much just like humans except for some key moral failing (especially a key moral failing that, in the context of D&D, let’s face it, is very often a reason for killing them) – let’s have our adventuresome scientists find its physiological basis!” without, well, feeling a bit icky.

    • Jack says:

      I’m not sure I follow you exactly. Are you pro-killing goblins, or anti-killing goblins?

      • Daniel says:

        I’m… not sure what’s unclear? I wouldn’t say, no, I will never ever play a game where we kill goblins. But I’m uncomfortable with a game where we say there’s just something about goblins that makes them typically engage in behaviors that makes them merit killing, while they still remain otherwise very similar to human beings.

        • Jack says:

          I guess I don’t understand your objection. Do you want them to be less human, or less prone to raids, or do you want players to reconsider if raiding merits killing them? I definitely feel that PCs *shouldn’t* feel comfortable simply killing sentient creatures, whether or not those creatures are prone to be scavengers or savages or anything else. Whether their behavior is inherent to their nature or just common to their species is secondary in my mind.

          • casewerk says:

            I think his objection amounts to that it’s very similar to some of the arguments used to be made (still are in some unenlightened places and circles) for why the different ethnic groups and cultures of Earth are different. There used to be lots and lots of scientists trying to prove the fundamental psychological differences between the races, generally with an eye on saying white guys were better/smarter/more morally fit and should be running the countries that less-white people lived in.

            I can certainly appreciate the concern of saying goblins have a biological imperative to be nasty, vicious little buggers that it’s okay to kill because their biochemically predisposes them to doing things that responsible humans, elves and dwarves will feel morally justified killing them for.

            • casewerk says:

              er, their biochemistry predisposes them, rather…

              • Jack says:

                Yeah, I can understand that complaint. I think that trying to make an association between fantasy races and human societies is a bad move from the beginning, but I guess the argument would be that we’re humans playing a game in the real world, so we can’t-not make those associations. I would dispute that – I don’t think I’ve ever thought in those terms, personally – but your mileage may vary, I guess.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I thought I just left a comment, but it’s not showing up… not sure if it’s just gone or if you’re moderating.

  3. casewerk says:

    Some years back I created a DnD setting (well, I’ve created quite a few of them actually, but this was the most recent) where one of the two dominant races, the Ashari, was essentially what most DnD settings would call hobgoblins. They had swept in “a couple generations ago” as nomads and taken over a large chunk of the primary continent rather like the mongols or the turks did in their time on earth, and had settled down in place. Their culture was going through some serious growing pains in the transition from being nomadic raiders and marauders to being a settled people.

    While they were still highly militaristic and aggressive, a bit acquisitive and brash (as, yanno, Hobgoblins are raised to be) their leaders and many of their people had come to the conclusion that they had something to prove not only militarily but culturally, and were heavily engaged in trying to push their society into technological and cultural advancement in the arts, sciences, economics, policy and the like. The nature versus nurture discussion was very much a current debate in that setting, especially centering around the Ashari: were they at heart just ruthless savages trying to put on a veneer of civility that was just waiting for an excuse to fall away, or were they really just as capable of civility and discourse as anybody else. Naturally, most of the human scholars and potentates were quick to dismiss the upstart, jumped-up goblins… even as Ashari diplomats and courtiers were busily engaged in learning how to dance and intrigue circles around their more established neighbors.

    How’s that relate to your post? Well, I for one do like the idea of the races being psychologically different in various ways, but defining them by what one poster here described as “one moral failure” or some such would be a mistake I think. I prefer to think that, while there are differences, sentient races are, well, sentient enough that each of them has the same kind of moral agency that defines humanity, and can make of him or herself what he wants.

    • Jack says:

      I agree, and I tried to make that clear under my Always Chaotic Evil post. My argument here basically boils down to “they’re either just like humans or they’re not, and if they’re not then that explains why they’re different.” That doesn’t mean that every Orc or Goblin in my world is Evil (and as I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t think Evil alignment is the same as morally bankrupt or sociopathic), but it can help explain why certain outlooks and behaviors are common.

      • casewerk says:

        I agree that if there are differences, then it’s worth exploring them and their implications. For example, the Ashari were as they were partially because they (like some other races) were the remnants of the mostly-collapsed Fey, and they were originally created (magically engineered, in fact) to be soldier-servitors to the high Fey lords (specifically the Unseele). Therefore, even the most urbane and apparently peaceful Ashar had within his heart the seed of a soldier’s spirit and the urge to challenge, test and overcome opposition… making them a highly competitive people, even in non-combative matters. Note that I specified soldier rather than warrior – these were people created to cooperate and work together also, with an uncanny ability to go from squabbling and contesting with one another to eerie teamwork the moment an outside threat emerged.

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