This is going to be a fraught post and I'm not sure I'll articulate everything I mean to clearly. That's not meant as a shield, it's just the truth. I'll try my best though. I know I have a very patient audience.
I mean, for one thing, we can start optimistically. There's lots of great fantasy fiction that's humans-only! A Song of Ice and Fire, Conan the Barbarian and most other Sword & Sorcery, Arthurian Mythology, most other real-world mythologies, most fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired fiction (e.g. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and whatnot), most gothic fantasy/horror (e.g. Dracula), most pirate-y fiction, and so on. And others are human-centric to the point that things which may be called "dwarves" or "goblins" or whatever else are either clearly not societies or they're so peripheral to the action that "playing as one" wouldn't make much sense at all. Hellboy, Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, et cetera.
So if anything, it's really the default option, right? Elves and dwarves are the exception. Everyone should be asked to justify why they are including non-human player options, rather than me being asked why I'm not.
But here I am. I need to explain myself and it's going to be messy. If you're getting used to hearing arguments about orcs and dark elves a lot lately, this post is about that. I've been sitting on this post for a while now. This is going to take me a while to explain my line of thinking but please bear with me. There is a reason for each section in this post.
First things first: Nazi punks fuck off. Additionally, if your instinctive response to this post is any of the following...
- "It's just a game, stop taking it so seriously"
- "Stop trying to make everything political"
- "Stop trying to read race into everything"
- "SJWs are trying to ruin D&D"
- "A game can't make you racist"
- "It's not real life, so there can't be anything 'wrong' in it"
- "Stop calling me a racist for liking the things I like"
As for everyone else:
I kindly request that you read the whole thing before jumping in with an argument. I tried to be as comprehensive as possible with addressing every last point I've heard people contribute to this fun ongoing debate, so if at first you think "he's missing the point," then maybe just keep reading until you see your argument come up. If it never does, then by all means, please comment and let's talk.
It's especially going to be frustrating because, if you've been engaged in this conversation for a while now, you've probably heard a lot of what follows here already. But I am fairly certain you haven't heard my conclusions, because I can't seem to find anyone saying these things anywhere I look. And if anything here sounds patronizingly obvious, then I promise you I only included it because I've had real-life conversations with real-life adults in the 21st century who play D&D and weren't familiar with some of these things.
I'm particularly wary of doing this article because most of the people who'll be interested in even engaging with this debate, and who I will be disagreeing with on quite a few points, are my own allies on the progressive left. And leftist in-fighting is the fucking worst. So I'm prepared for people to fight me on a few things.
Also, I'm gunna apologize up front for being so angry in this post. I know I already use a less diplomatic tone than most other bloggers in this hobby and this is my most abrasive post yet. But please don't mistake my tone for my message.
The first thing we need to talk about are...
Villains: Who Can Heroes Kill?
So there has always been the question over how sympathetic you should make your villains in storytelling. Lots of works, maybe even most works, go with "little to none" for sympathy. People like action and violence and they want heroes who can kill the bad guys and will be justified in doing so. This isn't impossible to do with sympathetic villains, but it's easier when they're more 1 or 2 dimensional. So most of the time we use things like Nazis and terrorists and mercenaries and stuff as fodder for action heroes and we usually agree it's fine. But sometimes it's not? I had this issue with the first season of Stranger Things. Vague spoilers for that season.
So there's a little girl named Eleven who has psychic powers and she was raised in a controlling, abusive facility of deep state government agents and scientists. She escaped somehow and they're trying to recover her. Throughout the season she kills, like, a ton of people. She uses her powers to just tear through these guys, oftentimes by snapping their necks but at least once by flipping a truck. And that's not inherently a problem to depict that sort of thing. But this isn't done like in Carrie or something where it's treated very seriously and in kind of a horror fashion. Almost every single time she kills someone, it's framed as triumphant. The music, the lighting, the flow of the scene, the response of other characters, and so on is consistently in agreement that each time she does this, it's awesome and badass and we, the audience, should feel relieved that momentary tension has just been relieved and safety restored. In fact, the truck flipping scene was a little homage to the "flying bicycle" scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, making it a comedic beat for many audiences. At no point does anyone ever raise the concern that a little girl is growing increasingly comfortable with just fucking murdering human beings.
And absolutely nobody I knew agreed with this concern of mine.
To the show's credit, someone on the writing team must have been listening to me, because in season 2 they devoted an entire episode to exploring the moral implications of Eleven using her powers to kill people. I mean, the episode was fucking awful. But they tried, and I really do appreciate that a lot. The bigger point is this: most people felt that, while those are legitimate questions to ask in other works of fiction, we don't need to expect that all fiction depicting violence needs to tackle those issues. We don't need to constantly be exploring the morality of violence. Sometimes we can just accept the fiction's conceit that "it's okay in this case" and then move on and have fun and maybe spend our effort and attention exploring other worthy questions instead.
And I've come around to agreeing with that. I no longer really have issue with the first season of Stranger Things. I do want more action fiction to take these questions seriously, but I recognize that it's fine to just be lazy about it sometimes and have fun instead. And this is a core appeal of D&D to most people.
HOWEVER... the nice thing about fantasy fiction is that it allows us to construct imaginary creatures which are free of these philosophical issues! Should we take advantage of that? Well let's see what that really means.
Vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a great example. That show features a protagonist who kills tons and tons of characters every episode but also agonizes endlessly about the choice and risk of killing other characters. What's the distinction? Well, because the former are vampires and demons and the latter are usually human beings. And it's not merely a case of "interspecies bias" or something. They explain in great detail again and again throughout the series the difference between humans and vampires, and why it's fine to kill vampires: they have no souls. What is a soul? Well in Buffy, it's the thing that gives you empathy and guilt and moral agency. And when you dig into the philosophical question of "why is killing people wrong?" the answer usually points to those qualities.
Really, it's one popular way to define something as a "person." Most people believe that life has value, but they might not be able to explain why. But if you spend some time thinking about it, most people will conclude that it is for these specific reasons. Because "people" have empathy and guilt and moral agency and all that stuff. This isn't the only answer to that philosophical question and you can definitely poke some holes in it, but all in all I think most people would agree that it's fairly reasonable.
Of course, it's kind of hard to wrap your head around sometimes. Like, I've known a lot of people who have comprehension issues with science fiction works that explore "robot personhood" because they get too fixated on the robot part and can't understand why the killer robot hordes from Samurai Jack or, like, the Star Wars prequels would not be considered "people" but the robots from Blade Runner, Wall-E, and The Iron Giant actually would be considered "people."
But they are. The former aren't people and the latter are and that's a fact. In these cases, it's almost always an intelligence threshold, with the implication that moral agency comes naturally with sufficient intelligence. Animals and simple machines lack the capacity for moral decision making because they literally can't understand the factors involved. Minds, even artificial ones, that are indistinguishable from a human mind are capable of moral agency. And that's usually a better explanation than "souls" in any work that's not-fantasy or is spiritually atheist/agnostic.
Of course, the vampires from Buffy are tricky examples because they are intelligent, but they lack personhood in spite of that. Characters are frequently reminded not to mistake them for people, because they are essentially deceptive creatures. "The person you love isn't there. They died a while ago and their soul moved on. All that remains is a dark force that's using their dead body as a puppet with the goal of tricking you." And they stick to this logic! Angel is a vampire whose soul has been restored, so that makes him a person again. And there is much agonizing over the possibility of his death. And there are other demon characters, like Lorne, who have souls and, thus, are people too. But most vampires are asserted to be intrinsically evil because anything that allows someone to be good has been erased from them. The end result is something of an "alien mind": intelligent, yet incapable of moral thinking.
So yeah, however you define it, no real human being exists who is totally free of these qualities because all humans are people. So if you want fiction where the audience freely accepts lots of bad guy killin', you either need to 1) depict humans whose personhood is absent (which is usually done by racists for racist reasons), 2) depict humans whose morality has been compromised to the point where most people will just be like, "eh, they're probably beyond saving" (e.g. the Nazis and terrorists and stuff), or 3) depict creatures that are hostile but not people (which is an invention of fantasy). Such as vampires.
While I have strong feelings about violence and pacifism, I will concede that it's probably fine for people to want action media and to have stuff where they can just indulge in dumb fun. It's okay to want to play a paladin with a sword and mow down waves of baddies. And that's why we have things like skeletons and oozes and bug monsters and demons. They allow you to both 1) be a "good" and righteous person, and 2) employ violence frequently and skillfully. Normally those two things would be mutually exclusive, but because of the conceits of fantasy, we have these conveniently perfect evils to do battle with.
No one would object to you killing skeletons or oozes or big bug monsters. Demons are a bit more flexible but the general understanding of them is that they're not people, but rather, like, personifications of pure sin. They are literally hateful violence incarnate. If that isn't acceptable to combat, then by definition literally nothing else could be.
Alright, finally moving one step closer to the "playable elves" question, let's connect this all to the next subject. And that subject is orcs.
While there is a bit more to it than this, I think it is hard to argue that Tolkien's orcs weren't basically just serving this same purpose. Above all else, the fundamental role of orcs as originally conceived was to just be "humanoid creatures who lack moral agency and are hostile and violent and are okay to kill."
But orcs are problematic all the same. Why is that?
Orcs Are Plastic
"Orcs" are a plastic idea. They (basically) originate in the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien and have firmly entered the popular culture of standard, familiar fantasy tropes. But with such mainsteam popularity, they also get stretched and warped and re-shaped and everything else. I've talked before about the strengths of plastic characters and plastic ideas in fiction. And while I do love it, it also has this tendency to confound people. Remember how much people argue about Batman?
|Who knows? Maybe it's actually a good movie|
Why does this happen? Well, it usually starts because people like having sympathetic villains. While many folks just want bad guys who are fun to kill and don't make you worry about the implications, others want more Magnetos and Killmongers and Mr. Freezes in their fiction. And that's not a bad thing to want! Hell, we're taught to have sympathetic, nuanced, three-dimensional villains in every storytelling and writing class on the planet. We should have them. In fact, this is where the villains of Blade Runner came from! They took a concept invented out of convenience from more shallow fiction (killer robots) and decided to give them depth and explore the questions of morality that arise when you grant them personhood (replicants).
Another place it comes from is worldbuilders trying to make the orcs more interesting and colorful. If they were just an entire society of "green dudes with spiky armor and axes who sit in dungeons waiting to kill PCs" then that'd be a bit weird and hard to believe. So you give them spellcasters. You give them religion. You give them hierarchy and titles. You give them some kind of weird strength-based honor culture. You give them traditions like putting on warpaint or keeping monsters as pets or collecting their enemies' bones as trophies. But the more you do this, the more "people" they'll inevitably become.
The third major place it comes from is players who want to play as orcs. DMs are usually encouraged to say yes to such requests. The 1974 OD&D rules even state it, like, right up front:
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.
And you can see why PCs who've been fighting orcs for a while might, at some point, seem attracted to the idea of being one themselves. So in order to make them playable, they need to also become more human-like, because your players are, in fact, humans themselves.
Here's where most of the problems come from: when people add their ideas to fantasy fiction and they try to bring orcs closer to humans, they either 1) flesh it out in problematic ways or outright code them as an actual human culture, or 2) don't go all the way in making them into "people." These are two different mistakes that are each a bit complicated. They overlap a little but I'm going to tackle them one at a time. Allow me to explain.
|Art Credit: Samo94|
The first one is easier. When you decide to take the beefy green dude with spiky armor and give him a title or a cultural tradition or something, the specific creative choice you make can be quite revealing. It's pretty hard not to draw from real-life, so I don't begrudge you for doing so. I usually find history far more fascinating than anything that's produced purely from the imagination, so by all means, go to history for inspiration.
But the devil is in the details. Why is it that orcs and goblins always organize in "tribes" led by "chieftains" and have a "shaman" or a "witch doctor"? Why do they always worship totem poles? Why do they never organize into "duchies" or "communes"? Why are their leaders never "burgomeisters" or "archdeacons" or "boyars"? You see the problem?
It's not necessarily bad to draw on real-life cultures. But there is a very pervasive unconscious bias of only ever drawing on colonized peoples who most of us were told are "primitive" or, even worse, "savage." These tend to be Africans (just, like, in general. Which is weird because it's an entire fucking continent) or islander cultures (but usually just a pop culture idea of them). And that's, uh... a bit fucked up. I hope I don't have to elaborate on why this is a racist thing, even if it's not coming from a consciously racist impulse.
Before I move on though, I need to talk about how plasticity applies to "problematic aesthetics." See, it's this reason here that most well-meaning progressives have written off orcs and other related ideas as being "intrinsically racist," and therein contains a logical fallacy. It's not the only place it comes from, so I'll have to revisit the "intrinsically racist" argument again later in this post. But let's break down the thinking on these lines:
"Orcs in D&D are always 'savage' 'tribal' people! That's a racist trope! PCs are put into the role of colonizers and are made to reenact those crimes in glorified fashion! Orcs are fundamentally racist!"
Except orcs don't have to be based on racist tropes. They're plastic. You can make them into all kinds of things. If you put your PCs into the role of colonizers, that's on you. And sure, there's a long history of published adventures that have done that. But there's also a long history of published adventures that have done quite the opposite. In fact, difficult those this may be to believe, I myself hadn't encountered the "orcs as Africans/islanders" trope in any fantasy media until I was already, like, a teenager. I mean, the orcs from Warhammer 40K don't really fall into that trope, nor do the ones from Middle-Earth!
"But wait, the orcs in Middle-Earth do have racist aesthetics! Tolkien describes them as 'Mongoloid' and 'swarthy skinned' and stuff! They're intrinsically racist!"
Yeah, you're partly right. That's undeniably super racist. And it's not the only racist thing in Middle-Earth that came from a colonialist, conservative, English bourgeoisie mindset. But guess what? Orcs are plastic. You don't have to make them look like that. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen someone take Tolkien's physical description of orcs' appearance and put it to paper. Instead, people choose to make them look like this:
All of those are awesome. More importantly, none of them look either like any real person on Earth, nor even like a common caricature used for some group of people on Earth. Half of them look like pigs.
A lot of people who make the mistake of thinking that orcs are "intrinsically" racist because of Middle-Earth are committing the fallacy of thinking that something's origins set it in stone permanently. But I say once again: orcs are plastic. Lots of great things we have nowadays had shitty, bad, hateful origins, but they were transformed over time. In fact, probably most good things in our culture originate in something problematic. You get to change things if you want to. You can make them better, you can make them worse, you can make them just different! If the orcs in your D&D game are shitty and racist, it can only be because you've chosen to make them shitty and racist instead of something else you could have chosen.
You know how I know this is true? Because nearly all the other details that "flesh out" the orcs in D&D and D&D-inspired fiction were changed from what's in the Middle-Earth version! For example, in Middle-Earth, it's the orcs who are the industrialist colonizers, rather than the victims of colonialism. They rape the earth and pursue genocide! They tear up nature and build engines and gunpowder and metal and smoke. Also, he writes them with a Cockney accent. While that is awfully classist, it's a pretty big point in favor of "not meant to be a depiction of foreigners/colonized people." Remember, this is a guy who strongly believed he could create his entire living world out of just language and the way people speak. If orcs were meant to reflect his views of colonized peoples, he wouldn't have hesitated for a second to give them, like, Indian accents or something.
So while Tolkien wasn't fond of allegory, his orcs are nonetheless a very straightforward depiction of cultures most similar to the Spanish "explorers" or the industrialist English. In his own words, he wants his ideas to be applicable, and I can't think of any other idea in Middle-Earth more applicable to real life than, "hey, the people who do this kind of stuff, AKA colonizers and conquerors, are the villains."
To me, it always seemed a more natural fit that I use orcs in D&D as pig-faced conquistadors and capitalists. Like, that's never even been a question in my mind and it's honestly kind of weird to me that other people don't see that as the "default" interpretation. For fuck's sake, one of their most consistent traits in every iteration is that they capture civilians and make them into slaves meant to be tortured and do back-breaking labor. The "you're all living peacefully in your homeland when orcs invade and colonize you, and someone needs to fight back!" adventure writes itself. If that wasn't your default way of seeing orcs based on the way they were first presented to us in their originating works of Middle-Earth, I feel like that reflects more poorly on you.
Not Fully People Yet
This is the problem that runs deeper and has more to legitimately criticize. So you know how I said that skeletons, oozes, bug monsters, and demons are all firmly "not people" for a bunch of reasons? And that vampires, while intentionally deceptive, are still also "not people" when you break it down? So, like, there are things you can do to add "people-like" features to a fictional concept like this that imply some of those qualities of personhood, but that'll conflict with any other features you include that seem to contradict this.
For example, it's kinda difficult to add those fun things like magic and religion and traditions and family structures and whatnot without them also granting the kind of "depth" that we understand humans to have. It's possible, but hard. For example, orc religion in Warhammer is fairly detailed but also impossible to take seriously as something that gives orks "depth." They have two gods: Gork and Mork. Here's everything you need to know about them:
[EDIT: so I just want to get this in there that Warhammer, as the most maximalist work of maximalism ever made, has everything you can think of in there somewhere. In the fantasy Warhammer media, they actually do the "animist shaman orc" thing too. They do everything, so don't just assume that it's a good example of a fantasy setting with nothing problematic. Good God no.]
"Orcs can breed with humans to make half-orcs!"
"The orcs make a peace offering, wishing to give you a tapestry depicting the history of their people."
"Today's dinner is a traditional Orcish goulash, prepared by the sous-chef of the most popular restaurant in Waterdeep."
But we're just getting started on the problems with "not quite people yet" orcs.
Orcs and Social Fucking Darwinism
So racism is obviously complicated and differs in its nature by time and place. But the most powerful iteration of racism as a strand of thought and force for change was (and is) the "science-based" racism of the 1800s and early 1900s. Of all the rationales that have been used to justify the subjugation of different groups of people, this one is the trickiest to educate people out of and is still weirdly pervasive to this day. Social Darwinism:
"The theory that individuals, groups, and peoples are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection as plants and animals. "
That is to say, it's the long-pervasive belief that humans aren't truly one species, and can be divided up even further by genetic and physical differences which significantly separate us.
Just in case anyone isn't clear on this yet: you can't. Humans are humans. This has been proven by science. You cannot meaningfully discern intrinsic traits of mental character from the shape of people's skulls or the degree to which their ancestors "mixed" racial groupings or whatever. There are small general differences in some physical trends among the "races" beyond just skin color, such as height or body fat or whatever, but these are genetic trends, not rules. You can't actually make a real, objective list of racial groups because they're a social construct, and any strongly prevailing genetic trends among a perceived race of people can be broken by literally any amount of "interracial mixing." And some things never had anything to do with genetics at all. Jews aren't "intrinsically greedy," Italian people aren't "intrinsically lazy," and black people aren't "intrinsically violent" or "intrinsically stupid." Those traits are always nurture and never nature. Racial biological essentialism is not a real thing in humans.
But the idea that all of this was legit and based in science was a really convincing thing to a lot of people for a long time and it deeply influenced popular culture, especially fantasy and science fiction. And that means that orcs are not only problematically tied to marginalized cultures, but also to marginalized races. And all the baggage that comes with it.
So the canon stance on orcs' "half-people-ness" problem that D&D (and many other works of fantasy fiction) has adopted is to basically embrace a weird Social Darwinian mindset. From Volo's Guide to Monsters:
Most orcs have been indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter. But unlike creatures who by their very nature are evil, such as gnolls, it's possible that an orc, if raised outside its culture, could develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.
No matter how domesticated an orc might seem, its blood lust flows just beneath the surface. With its instinctive love of battle and its desire to prove its strength, an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.
Jesus fucking christ. So much of that rhetoric is taken directly from Social Darwinist propaganda. Especially the notion of "domesticating" someone inclined towards violence.
And you can see how they open by trying to insist that, "no, they aren't evil by nature. They're people!" but then they immediately say, "yeah except they are inclined towards violence by nature and can only possess moral agency by way of being 'domesticated.'"
Jesus fucking christ.
The Ultimate Argument Over "Intrinsic Evil"
Okay, so WotC can't decide if orcs are people or not, because they seem to want it both ways. In the very same breath, they acknowledge gnolls as an example of a purely evil, purely monstrous creature, so we know they're willing to use that idea. Just not with orcs. And we know that they're willing to make things like elves as fully possessed of "personhood" as humans, but orcs aren't in that category either.
To some degree, they attribute it to orcs having "insufficient intelligence" much like the previous examples we had of fictional robots. And that's problematic because "intrinsically stupid" was one of the most commonly weaponized ideas of Social Darwinism and is strongly associated with that line of thinking, so attaching it to anything that we're also being asked to think of as "people" or at least "people-like" is drawing up a nasty comparison with how Social Darwinists depicted black people for a long fucking time.
But something of note is that Tolkien's orcs were evil for reasons more like Buffy's vampires. The exact origin went through a few iterations, but the gist is that 1) they used to be Elves (who are wonderful and good) but then 2) an evil god led them astray and corrupted them into violent creatures without souls. Tolkien agonized over the details (he had hang-ups over whether or not creatures without moral agency could have language, oddly enough), but the stance here was clear: they did not possess moral agency, even though they deceptively appear as though they could (i.e. just like vampires). He even goes so far as to say that their ability to speak is merely a taught "mockery" of the speech of creatures with rational souls. And he also takes time in the text to address the morality of the "evil humans" who support Sauron, specifically clarifying that, "as human beings, they're actually just misguided and not innately evil. Because humans can't be intrinsically evil. That's an orc thing." There's an explanation for what "intrinsic evil" is and where it comes from and it resembles Catholic mythology a lot more than racist propaganda.
So should that kind of thing matter? Does that make a difference?
Maybe let's examine if "intrinsically evil" creatures are a problematic thing in and of themselves. Because a lot of people have been arguing that lately. And let's not make the mistake of making a Thermian argument.
[unintentional on my part, but I love that the specific examples he uses are both orcs and vampires]
To summarize: we can't hide behind "the lore" for justifying what we show to the audience. I may say that "the devil is in the details" but that's only if you care about the conceptual. But the most directly experienced part of fantasy fiction is the superficial and the visceral. It's the visuals and the tone and the vibe. It's the part you spend the most time focusing on. Even if "the lore" gives us an excellently thought-out reasoning on why orcs are intrinsically evil and all of their culture stems from, like, demonic influence or something, the audience still sees "savage-looking people acting like animals being put down by European-looking people." Images make a stronger impact than explanations.
And really, does the rationale matter for why one group of humanoids is people and this other group of humanoids isn't people? Social Darwinists hid behind pseudo-science, but someone of racist intent could just as easily spin a tale much like the mythological one in Middle-Earth as a justification for why "black people aren't truly people" if they wanted to (ahem). Maybe the very idea of "intrinsically evil creatures" is itself intrinsically harmful. It's still like biological essentialism, which is a harmful idea. "Demonizing" enemies is, perhaps, the very problem.
From that video: "So, in the world outside the diegesis, in our world, only the implications and impact of that fiction actually matter." Is there any way that the idea of "monster man you should kill" wouldn't have a negative impact? Because that's the part that matters.
On the other hand: OH COME ON.
This seems like an absurd thing to assert when we remind ourselves of, like, oozes and skeletons and stuff. I mean, seriously? You can totally have killer robots, cackling demons, and raging pig mutants who are clearly not creatures of moral agency. Who are clearly not sapient. Who are clearly just monsters. Whether the explanation has to do with souls or brain size or whatever, or even if there just isn't an explanation, then it's very possible to construct imaginary monsters to heroically fight without issues arising. Did anyone ever raise a serious concern over the personhood of goombas in Super Mario Bros?
Honestly, the only thing remaining that I might seriously take issue with is just the depiction of glorified violence in general, regardless of the target. But we are definitely not ready for that conversation yet.
You can totally make unproblematic orcs who are cool and interesting if you just make them like moblins from Legend of Zelda or the Swine from Darkest Dungeon or the goons from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. And if you want to go a bit further and make it so they can talk and have some personality, then don't worry. I'd like to believe you can cultivate an attentive audience who can appreciate nuance and pay attention to the details. Buffy used this convenient idea of "intrinsically evil creatures" made possible through fantasy, but it wasn't lazy. It still took it seriously and took great care to explain to the audience the moral landscape of the situation. That what makes a person a person is not how they look or the shape of their fucking skull or whatever, and that the only things you'll ever be told aren't people will be things that aren't human.
I feel like if you construct a bloodthirsty, non-person mutant pig orc race with no moral agency but lots of cool pseudo-cultural details so they remain an interesting yet easy-to-kill villain for a long time... then you can also present them in such a way that players will understand, in detail, why they aren't actually people despite appearing much like humans. So your players never fall into a mindset where they begin equating your orcs with any real life group, sympathetic or not. Or that you should even go a step further and consider intentionally making them similar to the real life groups who genuinely are villainous, like colonizers and capitalists. I have to believe that we're capable of that.
...But Wizards of the Coast, apparently in an effort to "fix the error of their ways," decided to instead tackle this issue by running full speed into the exact opposite direction, and I feel that all they've achieved is somehow more racism.
Everyone Insists That We Must Have "Races" in Fantasy
So I said that much of the problem arises from only making orcs into, like, half person. But it's not unique to orcs. This post has "elves" in the title, after all. And everyone fucking loves elves. But the problem with orcs has also been the problem with all the other major races in D&D and other similar games as recently as the publication of Volo's Guide.
All of them have features that would tell us that they're "people" and we're told that they're "people" but then they also have other features that would seem to suggest that they are either not people or are at least "people but not human." [Put a pin in that last distinction. We'll get back to that]
They all have ability score adjustments but never abilities that are set in stone. They have weird, biologically-based traits like darkvision and innate spellcasting and wings and stuff, but also can freely learn each other's languages and arts and traditions. They trend towards some alignments but never as a rule, and whether this is because of nature or nature is never consistently explained. Some can breed true with each other, others can't. Some are described as having alien psychology, yet all of them are made playable by human players.
I have always been in the camp that advocated us going further in making the non-human player options a bit more alien. Not just orcs, but elves and dwarves and gnomes too. The way most DMs and campaign settings flesh them out is really lazy. "The dwarves of my setting are Chinese" is both shallow and really weird and fucked up since you could have just made humans inspired by Chinese culture, since Chinese people are humans. To quote Courtney Campbell:
Elves aren't the foresty humans. Humans are the foresty humans.
Elves should be something else entirely, and that's cool. I always liked the "Dvargir" in Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth because there's a page with a flowchart to follow if you want to accurately roleplay their strange, non-human psychology. See also this recent post by Coins and Scrolls that I liked.
Calling it "race" was always a misnomer. It should have been called "species."
Or at least that's what I fucking thought the idea was. Here I am, in the year 2021 (actually this probably all started around 2018), finding out that everyone else on Earth (it seems like) took the term "race" completely literally.
Like, if you had asked me about the relationship between humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings, I would have told you that it's mostly analogous to the relationship between chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos. They're similar, for sure. But they're also firmly different species. Different genuses, even. They have different ability score modifiers because they literally have different anatomy. They have different psychology because they have different brains.
I would have thought that we could agree that the mistake being encouraged by the text is to instead treat their relationship as being more analogous to the relationship between white people, black people, Asian people, and indigenous Americans. That most of the racist tendencies in how people treat these concepts arise from making this mistake (such as, for example, always treating humans as the "white people" option) and that trying to make a cultural shift towards calling it "species" instead would be commonly recognized as progress.
NOPE! Turns out, Wizards of the Coast actually does believe that the relationship between them should be analogous to the relationship between white people, black people, Asian people, and indigenous Americans. That they actually are like real-life race, and that the correct way to update their content for modern, progressive sensibilities is to go further into the analogy and begin viewing them the way we should view real-life race.
I mean, once again, it's only kind of. They still can't make up their minds. Here was their original blog post announcing the big shift in philosophy. On the one hand, it's got a lot of great stuff in it that I believe they've made good on (although I've heard that maybe they haven't...). Ravenloft's "fantasy gypsies" are racist against Romani and needed to be changed. Tomb of Annihilation was weirdly colonial in a very 1800's sort of way. Having better hiring practices and a less racist workplace is also crucial. And they even specifically acknowledge the problem of "humans" always being treated as synonymous with "white people." If they've truly addressed those problems the way they deserve to be, then that's excellent.
On the other hand, I wonder what their understanding of the problems with "fantasy race" actually was. They characterize certain things as actually being purely cultural, and thus, shouldn't be set in stone. And in some cases, they're right! The languages you speak, the weapons you were trained with, and most skill proficiencies are definitely cultural. "Nurture," not "nature." But they also lump in ability scores and alignment into the cultural category. They say that this is because those things also depend on the way a person with full agency has chosen to live their life. And yes, that would definitely be true for humans. But if you're saying it's also true for all the other races, then I think that takes us about as far from the original concept of elves and orcs as we've ever gotten before.
So they've put their foot down. "Orcs and drow are people." No more "kinda evil" about it. No more mutant pig orcs with the same level of moral agency as a slobbering hunk of acidic ooze. Orcs are no more frequently evil than dwarves are. They have souls and agency and culture and you'll find just as many of them among PC adventuring parties as you will among the villains being fought. They're people.
...That are functionally indistinguishable from humans. That can interbreed with humans and only have superficial differences. Like skin color. Y'know... making them functionally just another race (i.e., real life race) of humankind.
It goes further. See, there actually has been a general shift away from the word "race." After all, back when Tolkien (or maybe some other fantasy writers from back then? I dunno) introduced the word in this context, it just didn't have the same meaning as it does today. These mistakes in equating it with real-world race come from the word having an antiquated meaning, so it's time for a replacement. Except instead of being towards "species," it's seemingly been towards "ancestry." And I do not think that's an improvement. I've seen it in WotC materials, in Pathfinder 2E, in Matt Colville's 5E supplements, and in the recent product by Arcanist Press, Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e. This book just got nominated for three Ennie awards and won two of them!
And once again, it is fucking alarming to me to see what other people's understanding of "fantasy race" is. Because even though the word "ancestry" isn't as politically charged as "race" for most people, it still functionally means the exact same thing. It doesn't drive at anything fundamentally different. It's still guilty of misleading people into viewing things incorrectly. Viewing them in a way where they'll perceive the relationship between elves, dwarves, and humans as being like black people, white people, and Asian people. Because being actually biologically distinct species is not merely a question of one's "ancestry," except, like, on a geological scale.
Listen, I have Slovak ancestry. I have Scottish ancestry. I have white European ancestry. But I don't think most people would say I have "human ancestry." If homo erectus were still around, the differences between us wouldn't just be a matter of what island our grandparents walked around on. It's not feeding into the fucked up, harmful theory of biological essentialism to point out that the two of us are different species with different anatomies, different brains, and an inability to procreate. And yeah, maybe in your cute worldbuilding you actually do have humans and elves separated only by evolution, and they actually are just a difference of geological ancestry. But please tell me: at what point in our "ancestries" did humans and dragonborn diverge? Did the innate spellcasting that gnomes have and humans don't just come down to natural selection? And can you show me the taxonomic relationship between human ancestry and the "ancestry" of warforged?
I am certain that the majority of those who've been adopting this term are just following a trend and trying to keep up with modern progressive politics, not having really spent enough time thinking about it to realize that it isn't actually any less wrong or problematic than "race."
Polygon did a big advertisement for this product shamelessly jerking it off and all it did was remind me of how weirdly pervasive Social Darwinist thinking is, to the point where self-proclaimed progressives still can't seem to escape that mindset. I mean for fuck's sake, do they think that Asian people have special traits that white people don't, like darkvision?? Do they think that black people get a breath attack?? Because they're equating these two things that I think should have only gotten separated further apart. In the text of the book, they literally claim that the "ancestry" half, the part representing your "biological traits," is your "ethnic group." What do they think "ethnicity" means??
Racial diversity exists within humankind and deserves to be celebrated there. But to then suggest that "yes, and Elves should be included within that" sounds, to me, not unlike someone attending an event about racial justice and unironically saying, "yes, and let's put an end to the systemic racial discrimination against chimps while we're at it." Why are your Elves so heavily coded like some real-world human race that you can't even distinguish them anymore?
Quoting the introduction to the book,
As [James Mendez Hodes] explains, the origins of the races in fantasy roleplaying games are derived from racist stereotypes from the real world. And transposing them onto fictional fantasy races, or species, does not remove the problem. As Mendez later says, “If you find a way to scrub an explicit signifier from a racist expression, but keep the expression intact, you preserve the racist dynamic without the explicit identification.” And this applies whether you call the groups in question races or species; either way, it replicates the problems that the concept of race faces in the real world.
Again, I must ask: 1) why are any of you out there fleshing out your fantasy species with details derived from racist stereotypes to begin with? and 2) if the problem is, as Mendez claims, that Tolkien's orcs are inspired by racist depictions of Asian people, then why would the solution be to instead make them positive and wholesome depictions of Asian people? Why does no one else think that maybe orcs shouldn't be recognizable as analogous to any race whatsoever? Why aren't they just as alien as oozes?
Like I said, it feels like we're going in the opposite direction of where we should be. I never thought that there should have been half-orcs or half-elves in D&D to begin with.
But here we are anyway.
I have lost this battle, and I need to find alternatives
When you have a character who's playing, like, a slime boi, and the other character's playing, like, a really fat lizard, and one's playing, like, Humpty Dumpty, it completely shatters the straight-faced, authoritarian illusion of race and just replaces it with, like, complete. Fucking. Nonsense. I love the idea of proliferating the number and type of "races" to the point where, like, the entire logical structure of it collapses in on itself and race, as a category, ceases to become coherent or meaningful in any sense.
And I like that idea plenty. It's an interesting line of thinking. But it's fitting for a specific genre of fantasy. It's very gonzo, very silly. And solutions like that aren't going to be able to replace the general cultural expectations people have for "race" in D&D. They expect it to be a choice you make at character creation with as much weight as your class, whether it's backed up by mechanics or not. They want to be able to categorize all NPCs into one of several recognizable, consistent "races" that they can, I guess, view in the same way they view races of humans in real life.
Look, I don't want to use the new WotC version of "race." It's still racist, just in a different, more complicated way than the old version. And I also didn't use the old version, for what it's worth. I've always tried to make them more and more different, and to make it clear that whenever you encounter a monster that walks on two legs, that doesn't make it a person. I've never allowed my players to be orcs or drow. But I feel like that's not enough anymore.
And I know people will say, "no one's forcing you to drop these things from your game. The SJWs aren't going to come to your house and make you get rid of problematic things." But I don't just play a private home game. I'm part of a community. D&D is constructed by those who play it and talk about it and keep it going, not by what's written down in books printed and sold by WotC. So for true progress to be made, it has to be made in our own spheres. I'm also making my own game, with the intention that other people use it! So whatever I think the correct role of "fantasy race" may be should go in there, too. This conversation has only just begun with D&D. Wait until these arguments begin finally getting the same level of attention in video games and film. For fuck's sake, The Elder Scrolls actually literally has biological essentialism built right into the character creation process. You actually do get a unique racial ability for choosing to be a black person!
I want to put my money where my mouth is and really commit to the "species" idea. Anything in my game that's called an "orc" will really, truly be a monster. But for the same reasons I come to that conclusion, shouldn't I also have to make elves and dwarves just as alien?
The fact is that you can't just claim that, as different species, they each have different, alien psychologies. Because the people roleplaying as them are still going to be humans. I can try to say that, "an elf's brain would be as different to us as would be a raven's brain or an octopus's brain," but that'll fall apart the moment we begin playing.
Then again, we trust the Dungeon Master to effectively roleplay as all creatures with a role in the story. I roleplay as the skeletons and oozes and big bug monsters too, right? If I can roleplay the dwarves as NPCs, can't the players? See, I love some of the worldbuilding I've done with these species. If you'd permit me, I'd love to share my gnomes and my halflings. I'm very proud of them, and I want all my non-human humanoids to be that fun and cool. You can't even begin to understand just how much I fucking love dwarves in fantasy fiction.
Earlier I said we would put a pin in this distinction: "people but not human." That's always been how we describe elves and dwarves but not always how we describe orcs and drow. They do have full moral agency and human psychology but, for other reasons, still aren't human. But this, to me, has begun to reek of that same "can't make up your mind" problem with "half-people" orcs.
So that's why I think I want to bite the bullet and only ever allow players to be humans in any game I make. If there are other "races," then they'd have to have much the same role they have in those works I discussed where they're very peripheral. Hellboy and whatnot. There's a secret kingdom of elves but they're very much "the other," no matter what culture of humanity you come from. There's a clan of miner dwarves that lives in the mountains but you can't really hold a conversation with them. They're nice and all, and they have their own conflicts and politics and will fight by your side if they have good cause to. But the differences are more than just cultural. And I'll never be able to make that clear if they suddenly become as familiar and accessible to the players as humans are. For the same reason that the DM has the responsibility to run everything else in the world in a believable way, from the weather to the gods to the behavior of oozes, so too must they have the responsibility to run elves and halflings and orcs in a way that no player ever interacting with them will think, "this is just a human with pointy ears." Because apparently, that thought somehow inevitably leads to the player then thinking, "ah, these must be the Indian people of this world" because they can't help but apply real-life race to things which aren't even humans.
I don't want to make a flimsy spectrum of "humans" to "demons" with elves, dark elves, dragonborn, dwarves, half-orcs, and orcs placed messily in between. That's a terrible idea. That's where you get the "Social Darwinist orcs" from. I would just rather commit to "humans = people" and "everything else = not people" or something close to that. If it's bad for "People" orcs to have "a limited capacity for love, with an instinct for bloodlust" then for many of the same reasons it's probably also bad for People halflings to be instinctively lazy, for People dwarves to be instinctively gold-hungry, for People elves to be instinctively good at studying magic, and so on. But without those traits, they become functionally indistinguishable from "another race of humans," so I'd rather remove the "People" element. I'd rather have alien dwarves who literally eat gems to survive and alien elves who are innately magical creatures if I'm gunna bother with dwarves or elves at all.
Taken from an interview with the author of Ancestry & Culture:
Racist ideologies in the real world assign innate smarts, or violence, or speed, or good/evil, to people because of the color their skin. And lots of folks who have been harmed by those racist beliefs would prefer not to encounter that in their gaming (including me), so these rules are an attempt to address that.
I also don't really want racism in my games, but I do want to be able to acknowledge that, yes, if you play as an 8 foot tall Goliath then you will be stronger than any human alive, and that's perfectly fair because Goliaths are not a race.
Since apparently neither this author nor many of the folks playing D&D today can tell that "dragonborn" is not a skin color, I figure that a far more sensible way to address the (very valid!) desire to not encounter these ideas in your escapist gaming would be to just remove the issue entirely.
Maybe my games will be better for it, anyway. I won't have to deal with darkvision anymore, at least.
[Post Script Addition] While in the process of writing this post, Wizards of the Coast made another blog update on their changing conception of "fantasy race" (among other things). And while, yes, they maintain some easily defensible ideas like removing languages, holy shit they have literally gone forward and removed age, height, and weight from races. There is now literally nothing separating halflings from humans, because "being short" is canonically no longer a characteristic of halflings. I was worried before posting this that I might be coming off as alarmist but luckily WotC did me the favor of confirming exactly what I said.