Sunday, October 10, 2021

I Don't Think I'm Going to Allow Elves to be Playable Anymore

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...

  1. "It's just a game, stop taking it so seriously"
  2. "Stop trying to make everything political"
  3. "Stop trying to read race into everything"
  4. "SJWs are trying to ruin D&D"
  5. "A game can't make you racist"
  6. "It's not real life, so there can't be anything 'wrong' in it"
  7. "Stop calling me a racist for liking the things I like"
...Or anything along those lines, then fuck off. The grown ups are talking.

If you chart anywhere on the scale ranging from "fascist" to just "asshole" then please don't read my blog. You won't like it. I'm a long-winded, know-it-all SJW who you'll find annoying. I'm not fun to troll, I'm just kind of boring and exhausting.

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 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?

But orcs have been transformed into lots of things! Why not? All fantasy ideas have been. Elves have been a million gazillion things before, after all. Anyone who plays D&D should just understand this implicitly. "What are the halflings like in your setting?" "Oh, in my setting they're less 'Hobbits' and more like dinosaur-riding cannibals." That exchange only makes sense if you already understand plasticity.

Who knows? Maybe it's actually a good movie
So there is no true, "platonic" orc anymore. In fact, I think the majority of works that include orcs nowadays completely abandon that traditional quality of "lacking moral agency." While it's ever-popular to, say, change their visual design or add cultural features or change their backstory (all of which we'll talk about in a minute), the most popular change is to make them into people. In other words, make them more human-like, but specifically in the ways that matter to questions of morality. WarcraftThe Elder Scrolls, fucking Bright and so on all have "sympathetic orcs." Warcraft even made that one movie using the standard Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas plot that everyone predicted and then made fun of.

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
Problematic Aesthetics

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 though 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:

This is barely even a meme. That's actually what it's like. And you know what? It's great. It makes orcs actively better that this is a thing.

But that's rarely what happens. Instead, people are more inclined to turn orcs into, like, animists with shamans and stuff. Once again drawing on the cultures of colonized peoples for inspiration, although in this case it's more often done specifically because the worldbuilder wants something the audience will find sympathetic rather than "savage." Maybe. It depends. But you know what I'm talking about: "orc Pocahontas."
[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.]
Like, probably the classic example is "the Tarzan problem" AKA "is orc evil-ness nature vs nurture?" The morality of killing orcs with impunity depends on the answer being "nature," but there is nothing that fantasy storytellers love doing more than changing the answer to "nurture." The "orc raised by elves" always turns out nice and then has all this inner turmoil of not belonging to either world and is seen as a monster but really isn't and blablabla. It's a really lazy and cliched way to try adding "depth" to a classic trope. So while those narratives can be compelling, they do have ugly implications for everything else having to do with orcs. It confirms that they have moral agency. And then you have to wonder if it was acceptable to do all that orc-killing previously. Which I get is the whole point, but it's not a good point to be making.

This was the real problem with the "orc nursery" in Keep on the Borderlands. Yes, part of it is that the PCs are prompted to go beyond self-defense or even "cleaning out the countryside of brigands" and actively engage in something that could possibly be genocide. But the more complicated part is that, once you find cradles full of orc babies that look and behave a lot like human babies, suddenly that knowledge makes the orcs much more "human-like" in your mind and, thus, possibly people! And in the case of babies, you can't confirm if they're people until they're older. If orc evil-ness is only a matter of nurture, then these babies have a chance to grow up good. I mean, you just killed their parents, so you've already done something super fucked up. But the only option for not fucking up further is to either adopt them or place them in the hands of good and caring parents. But if their evil-ness is in their nature instead, then presumably their hateful violence will emerge at some point and you'll just be planting the seeds of destruction into a peaceful society. But if you kill them now, and you're wrong and it turns out that they do have moral agency, then you just killed a bunch of innocent infants.

It sucks. And it could be avoided entirely if, instead of a nursery with baby orcs in cradles, you had been shown that orcs are actually grown in alchemical cauldrons or from pods in the earth or are each hand-crafted by the evil god Morgoth or whatever. But the worldbuilder just had to go and make them more "people-like" without going so far as to make them fully people.
"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."
Makes it a little weird that we're also then expected to view orcs as "savage" and then kill pretty much all of them placed before us in the adventure module, right?

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.

Like, this tweet right here. They're right. They're super correct. D&D has made something unbelievably racist completely out of a strange, antiquated Social Darwinist mindset. But also, what I don't really see enough people saying is that maybe the problem started when someone decided to 1) assert that orcs are "sentient beings" rather than keeping them as simple as skeletons and oozes and stuff, and/or 2) bring fucking bloodlines into the equation.

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 nurture 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. Elves aren't the "forest-dwelling humans." Humans are the forest-dwelling 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.

Side argument: I've long suspected that the TRUE primary driver of making orcs and other monsters into just "green humans" is horny people who want to jerk off to orc women. All those pics I showed earlier of weird, piggy, monstrous orc designs go right out the window when it comes to lady orcs, and reconceptualizing them as full on people inevitably follows. I'm not trying to kink shame you or anything. But you are the reason we're having this fight now.

Oh, and art credit to Akira Raikou, I guess.

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. 

Like, yes, you're right. It's not enough merely to switch the word from "race" to "species" and then all the racism is gone. But 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

Recently, the podcast The Lost Bay did an interview with Ava Islam, designer of the RPG Errant and generally forward-thinking gal, I'd say. They discussed race in it, and she said this:

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 actually 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.


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  2. Very well written post!

    I like vampire-like analogues of "monsters", humans that are possessed or corrupted by some incorporeal force, like a demon or an evil numen à la Buffy or Supernatural. You can still have a mindless but super though and a weaker but super smart option. Undead are still in. So are other favorites, like giant spiders. ^^

    Maybe it brings DnD a bit closer to Pulp CoC. You're either fighting or fleeing from evil humans (beyond redemption?) or something so alien and malicious that morality does not come into play.

    For me it was a relief to have only humans in the game. Leftist or not, blind spots are real and one ends in racist tropes faster than one thinks. Not only on the GMs side of the table.

    The discussion of moral agency and moral significance is an interesting one. I think a lot of people are swayed by the argument that it is not okay to kill other moral agents. At least not without any qualms. They are happy to kill everything else though, whether it feels pain or not. And if you take that away, either by painting the suffering super vividly or removing it otherwise, you kill the fun.

  3. I think this is really thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you for writing this, and I'm glad I read it.

    I think a game where your players are only humans would be excellent, to try and recapture some of the magic and 'other'-ness of elves, dwarves, etc.

    I do think you're being a little extreme with *some* of your criticisms of WotC's recent direction (certainly not all, or even most). Their focus is on *player-facing options,* and wanting to ensure that any player can make the character they want (which you can criticize: we'll get back to that). Elves are still nimble and agile as a species, but your particular elf character doesn't necessarily carry a +2 Dexterity at character creation. Goliath are still tall and hearty, but goliath characters don't necessarily carry a +2 to Strength at character creation. And the statement about 'no longer including recommended heights etc.' is just about player characters: just like how there is an incredible range of heights/weights for humans, you can choose whatever height/weight you envision for your elf/goliath/whatever that's within their size type. It's not a statement about species averages, just about what you can choose as a player. And while we're still early in this new direction, there is evidence to suggest that WotC will still be making claims about species averages, even if it's more vague/relative and not 'goliaths are 7'1" tall and weigh 277 lbs. on average.'

    Which I think can still be worthy of criticism. Personally, I could care less about racial ability modifiers. I think it's a boring way to differentiate races that discourages player creativity. I'd much rather see actual features like elven trance or half-orc relentless endurance, that say something *interesting* about that species, that actually distinguish them from other species decisively as opposed to "elf characters are more dextrous than other characters," which I find so uncompelling. But to your point, I want that 'alien'-ness, as represented mechanically by inhuman features, to be front and center when portraying races and how to play them, rather than downplaying what they mean in terms of psychology, culture, etc. And that's definitely not happening (and hasn't in quite a while, as far as I know). And I do think that you can provide more specific info about species appearance/height/weight/etc. in general while also being clear that these are averages and individuals/players can choose what they want, within the mechanical limits of size category.

    So far, we haven't *really* seen what WotC's new direction looks like in practice, we only have playtest material and partial write-ups. I'll be more or less disappointed when I see what it actually looks like in full.

    Again, this is such a small component of your essay, which I do think is remarkable, and I'm so glad you wrote it. It's definitely given me a lot to think about in my games going forward, and I'm very grateful to you. Cheers!

    1. Thank you for reading it all and your sincere feedback. I will concede that, yes, WotC's new direction is still early. But across Tasha's, several UAs, and a couple blog posts now, I have only seen evidence of them going further and further towards the attitude that I'm condemning here. For example, I, at first, bought into the common argument that this was just meant to apply to player-facing decisionmaking. But like, now they won't even say, "most Xs are especially dextrous, although YOU don't have to be." They just don't seem to acknowledge those kinds of differences at all, in any context. They don't just NOT list the average height ranges. They've straight up declared going forward, "Player characters, regardless of race, typically fall into the
      same ranges of height and weight that humans have in our world" and then reveal nothing about the averages for NPCs of each race.

      Maybe I'll end up eating my words, but I betcha when that "5.5 edition" everyone's expecting comes in 2024, they aren't just gunna include the new Tasha race rules in the PHB. They're going to remove any mention of height, weight, age, and ability modifiers from the whole race section. And while, yes, empowering player creativity is valid, the actual reason CITED for this shift has been to combat racist elements in the game, which I've argued is malarkey.

      So yes, you're totally correct that ability modifiers are the most boring species differentiator anyway, but the important thing to me is that D&D doesn't seem to want us to think of them as different species at all.

  4. Thanks for this post. Probably the best I've read regarding this whole situation. I've long ago come to the conclusion that we, as human beings, can't possibly comprehend or imagine how different species would think or rationalize. So we usually resort to stereotypes. Elves are just thin, pointy-eared assholes. Dwarves are short, stubborn beer drinkers. And I was tired of playing D&D like that.

    I just dumped the entire race system in my game and let the players be free to be themselves (humans with our range of emotions, personalities and moral dilemmas). Everything else is alien, weird and fucked up. As @Nachzehrer said, just go down the CoC way. Insane humans, bizarre religions, demon magic, monstrous abominations.

    It seems to me that WotC is just "re-skinning" humans with that approach. Orcs are just green humans now. And it doesn't solve the problem at all. They will talk, think and live like humans, but they will still be tagged as something else.

  5. This is why I like using archaic humans as my baseline. Neanderthals, florenesis, denisovans, so on. Let the dwarves be molefolk and the elves be freaky weirdo forest spirits and orcs be wild hogs that have eaten enough human flesh to learn how to hate.

    Everyone else, though they might be a weird human, is a human. Big humans, small humans, in-between humans.

  6. Every time I see the term "ancestry" instead of "species" I want to scream, same with the argument "my gnome should be as strong as a goliath because its special. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, I hope it would get to Wotc or MCDM.

    What bothers me about this changes in official material is that it makes my job as a DM so much harder. I was already strugling to convince my players to play as humans or at least try to play an elf as something more than a pointy year human, now how wotc is pretty much making that the canonnical way to view things... my options are either reciting this essay to them or looking like an asshole dm that wants to impose an arbitrary restriction.

  7. This post is, to me, a gold standard on the subject. I'm not sure I arrive at exactly the same conclusion as your last few paragraphs for *every* game I want to run/be a part of/play, but you've done a great job of methodically articulating lots of great points.

  8. An excellent essay. Thank you!

    Two notes:

    1. Social Darwinism, racism, and intentionally racist game design are not, sadly, past-tense things. FATAL, MYFAROG, White Racial Holy War and similar atrocities are proudly bigoted RPGs hiding their bigotry behind faux-scientific arguments. Though they exist on the fringes of the hobby, they DO have their fans.

    2. Your remark about the personhood of goombas in Super Mario Brothers is an ironic choice. "Goomba" (like the portrayal of the Marios themselves) is an ethnic slur against Italians. I know you didn't intend it that way, but this Sicilian found that example amusing.

    1. Holy shit I can't believe that.

      I had to look it up. I can't believe I've never heard that before. "Goomba" is an honest to God real slur.

      I guess you learn something new everyday.

    2. Another Sicilian here gotta agree Mario is an insane stereotype. I'm not offended but good grief if he were another ethnicity!

  9. Also, Buffy and Angel CONSTANTLY interrogated the idea of personhood, violence, and who has the right to kill whom. The moral landscape of those shows was constantly thrown into question, with Buffy often being portrayed as a murderer and a monster in her own right.

  10. Another well reasoned post. I don't really use WOTC products so I'm a little bit distanced from that but I've struggled with these issues for a long time. If you use humanoids/goblinoids as written for most versions you do end up with basically primitive hunter gatherers oppressed by the man unless they are part of another mans army of conquest. My strategies have been to phase out most humanoid types in games I run or if I leave them in make them more fairy tale like and as you say pretty different from human. I've been running Hyperborea and in that system (which is basically between B/X and AD&D 1e) there are no demi humans. It's pretty nice really and simplifies things - less intrinsic powers for players to lean on too. In the Arduin Grimoire (side note: if you want to argue with old timers who complain that the kids today all want to play some weird creature these are the books to point to and say its been done pretty much from the start) there are these special abilities charts that you roll as part of character creation - some of the results end up giving you some sort of non-human ancestry with a minor benefit attached. I think that's about a far as I want to go in that direction these days.

  11. "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"
    You do realize that Middle Earth Orcs are nazis, right?

    1. Uh... yeah. That was the point.

      ...what did you think that entire section of the post was about?

  12. Going on a tangent here - this is largely how I feel about undead, especially minor undead, in D&D. It's hard for me to hold the two concepts of "Zombies are horrific mirror images of ourselves" and "every town has a zombie problem, killing them is a rite of passage for adventurers" in my mind at once. It seems like a fundamentally banal, incurious way to play to just admit that this is a part of daily life to be complained about like trafic or cell service. I'll often let players know at the outset of a campaign that undead are not really a fixture of the game world - they should be rare and particularly bizarre.

    1. Zombies do not represent only the two facets you describe. In a world where raising the dead is possible, they become a potential source of cheap labor AND they can be killed without moral complications. That makes them like robots/automatons, which are very useful gameplay structures. Remember that it's a game.

    2. Sorry to double post, but I wanted to clarify: the zombie issue is a world-building dichotomy and a choice each DM makes. They aren't automatically wrong or banal for choosing either one.

      If zombies occur spontaneously, they become a natural, persistent threat to humanoids. Each generation must train up their defenders against this on-going threat, hence the rite of passage within every town under siege.

      If zombies must be created, then they function as automatons, with the ambition of the creator driving them to action (usually violence and control). This is the classic necromancer villain.

    3. Agreed on both counts! For me it's difficult to imagine that either of the two possibilities you described would have anything less than a seismic effect on society. Neither, taken to its natural conclusion, suggests to me the classic agrarian hamlets of D&D.

  13. I completely agree that what we’re talking about are species, distinct from race and distinct from culture. And it’s frustrating to lose the “flavor” of various species. But the problem is conflating species and culture, and it is a major piece of fundamental design that assumes monolithic species-culture links in factions such as the drow, duergar and orcs, and to a lesser extent to high-elves, wood-elves, dwarfs etc. It does not assume this of humans, or, interestingly, tieflings.

    There are two game mechanic truisms at play here that need to be addressed, outside of the cultural implications you've discussed:
    1) Players like to optimize characters for combat - D&D is a very tactical game after all. This means that specific species are the natural picks, and there is a mechanical opportunity cost if you pick a non-optimized species-class pairing.
    2) Players are human (as you point) out - and are unlikely to play their characters as truly alien. This is further compounded by each DM specific setting. I suspect that very few DMs or players have the acting chops to infuse fey-based NPCs or PCs with that sort of 'otherness' you describe. And what happens if the otherness that you ascribe to elves, for example, is different than how your player thinks about it?

    This is a long way of saying that elves, dwarfs, etc will always be pointy-eared/short people. Giving them species specific stat bonuses won’t fix this.

    Now - what about the culture-species conflation – Social Darwinism?

    If you run a game in a very local area, then you may be able to do this: the bone-breaker orcs in this game are evil. They're raised evil, do evil, eat babies. Did you use a racist trope? Well, as you say, that's on you. World-wide, orcs may be fine - but these orcs lack person-hood because their actions are radically evil. Similarly, elves in this region all get trained using rapiers etc. You can build in CULTURAL bonuses (and then decide if you want these tied to species).

    But if it comes to +2 to strength - here we get into optimization MECHANICS. There are some players who would never play a goliath wizard because the bonuses are all wrong. And here I'm going to side with WOTC. DnD stories concern exceptional heroes - the super strong barbarian gnome or something. Is it weird? Yeah, it's weird, but that's what's fun. When you as the GM make NPCs, those are likely "typical" examples of the species. The PCs are outside the norm.

    In sum - if the biggest problem is that gamers cannot role play truly alien intellect and motivation then excluding these species from character creation is a perfectly valid option. It makes sense, and I personally think that would be a lot of fun.

    As you point out, though, the problems are racist tropes in our games. I’m not sure that NOT allowing any other species in your game automatically fixes this – I suspect that in general it doesn’t. The only way to expunge racist tropes is to admit that they exist, confront them, and try expunge them, all while understanding that no matter how hard we attempt it, we won’t get there without a lot of work.

    One potential solution is to outline which species are geographically co-located into cultural groups. For example: Culture A in my campaign world is from area X, is 80% human, 10% elf, 5% tiefling, 3% halfling and 2% every other species I include in my game world. Some geographic regions may contain 2 cultures – and that may be a source of conflict the players want to explore. You could go further and divorce stat bonuses, culture-based bonuses and what you might term “weirdness” or “otherness” bonuses. Everyone gets a +2 and +1 to a stat – player chooses (stat bonus). Half Orcs get to fall to 1 HP instead of 0 HP once per day (otherness bonus). Now, when it comes to armor, weapon, tool or language proficiencies, these come from being from a specific place and culture.

    Thanks for a well written article. From one self-proclaimed SJW to another, it made me think.

  14. Regarding: "tribes" led by "chieftains" and have a "shaman" or a "witch doctor"?
    Those terms describe the Roman era Celts and Germans. I think pretty much every culture starts with tribes and chieftains.

    1. Did it not occur to you that "Roman era Celts and Germans" are a classic example of two colonized peoples? Specifically, ones who we know almost everything about from records and narratives passed down to us by their colonizers (the Romans) and those who inherited that legacy (later influential yet biased historians like Petrarch and whatnot)? And ones who we happen to know were strongly characterized by the Romans and their later admirers as "primitive barbarians" in the exact same way that indigenous peoples worldwide have been later?

      And I could be wrong, but in the historical record, do we also not have a habit of ceasing to refer to Germans as "the Germanic tribes" and their chieftains at riiiight about the point in early to high medieval history when they finally accumulated enough autonomous power + embraced Christianity enough that they both gained some influence over the historical narrative about them in our own heavily-Christianized modern legacy?

      I dont think there's any way for me to phrase this non-condescensingly so I apologize, but all I see in your comment is two great examples that reinforce my own argument really, really well. The Celts were largely wiped out precisely for being "primitive tribes" and the Germans only stopped getting called that once they gained enough power to be seen as legitimate.

    2. No it never occurred to me that they are classic examples of colonized people. I've never heard the term used to refer to anyone in pre-modern context.

    3. My point is that if every culture was once full of tribes and chieftains than what is the problem using these terms for Orcs to indicate a similar level of development?

    4. Re-reading my comment, I didn't mean to come off as aggressive. I'll elaborate:

      It's not necessarily a problem that someone making their D&D world includes some cultures analogous to ancient Celts or tribal Africans or something like that. It's not even that bad to make your orcs inspired by one of those cultures. The problem I'm trying to point out is that almost EVERY fantasy world including orcs does it. That nearly EVERYONE seeking to flesh out their orcs always reaches for that source of inspiration by default. It reveals an unconscious bias towards always thinking of so-called "primitive" peoples as being connected with the savagery of orcs. I argue that the more natural connections we could draw with real-life cultures would be nazis, conquistadors, and various genocidal colonizers, yet people's bias towards equating "violent brute = guy who wears fur armor and worships a totem pole" shows us that racist colonialist propaganda is still affecting our thinking to this day.

      Let me revisit how I phrased it in the original post: "Why do they never organize into 'duchies' or 'communes'? Why are their leaders never 'burgomeisters' or 'archdeacons' or 'boyars'?" You're 100% correct that the words "tribe," "chieftian," and "shaman" are actually fairly culture-neutral (from an anthropological standpoint), but if you're going to be fleshing them out anyway, why not give orcs something a little more culturally-specific? Compare how people often flesh out dwarves: "key Longbeards have voted to sanction a third-tier Grudge against the rebellious House Siekert and their Patriarch, the Herzog Thandur, for their deception in the High Imperial games of Kriegspiel." Even if you choose to make up fictional words (such as "Moff" from Star Wars), it's better than always reaching for generic words associated with the "primitive" when it comes to orcs. At least Romulans in Star Trek got to be called "Centurions" in certain contexts. If you give them cultural traditions, why must they always be borrowed from things that colonized peoples do and never things that colonizers do? I once read a guy's adventure where his hobgoblins committed ritual cannibalism, which has a long history of being demonized by colonizer cultures as "savage." Meanwhile, I decided my own hobgoblins play lots of chess, since I think it fits well into their lawful-minded military culture.

    5. Orcs are generally bad guys in a campaign. By using terms associated with primitive cultures you imply savagery in clash with civilization. Dukes and Burgemeisters are associated with "civilized" cultures with cities and trade unions and such and give a very different mental image.

      By using generic terms (Witch doctor is problematic but the others are generic) you avoid making them some counterpart to a specific Earth culture and thus avoid a lot of baggage when applied to bad guys.

      Lastly inventing new words creates a type of baggage. It creates one more barrier to understanding the world. Glorantha and Tekemal have this problem. If you get it, its great, but there is a lot of extra homework to do before you feel engaged in the campaign world. That is why most choose to simply use fairly well known words in campaign settings. Also, since nobody in the fantasy world is speaking English (or French or whatever) you can consider all of these words translated from Common, so does it really matter in game terms? We do have the option to play in Elvish or Klingon if dedicated enough but that seems like a lot of work.

    6. I hate that I can't edit. But basically it gets down to these words are the English version of native words. Celts and Germans and Africans didn't say Chief or tribe, they had their own words for these things and the English words are used by English speakers to describe similar things. The same thing simply continues with orcs.

    7. I will coneded that the terminology isn't the most important thing for me (although I still believe that, despite being "technically" culture-neutral words, they still EVOKE the image of the "primitive savage" cultures in the audience and, thus, there are no "culturally neutral" options for how you flesh out your fantasy monsters).

      The more important thing to me is that 1) people consistently try to do that exact "savagery vs civilization" thing with orcs which I find a bit problematic when done completely straight, but also 2) that orcs were moved FROM the "nature-destroyer colonizer" role in Tolkien over to the "savage spirit-worshipping natives" role in popular fantasy, AND that it has (seemingly, to me) happened unconsciously. That it reveals just how ingrained those narratives are in most fantasy fans' imaginations. You show them a literal magic Nazi and say, "here, use this in your D&D game" and their first instinct is to go, "right, yes, a magic Aboriginal tribe will make for a great villain!"

    8. *Concede

      I also hate that I can't edit my comments

    9. Barbarians were constantly fighting with civilized areas throughout history. Sometimes the barbarians started it, sometimes the civilized area, either way the borderlands between the two seem a good area for low level adventure.

    10. Anyway, I understand your points and don't want to stretch the debate beyond the terminology point.

  15. Feels like orcs as a popular concept need either a major rollback to the nature-raping colonizers they were in Tolkien, or a hard course-correction in some other direction.

    I notice a fair few people online characterizing them as big, green, good-natured but slightly blunt-headed himbos, which I think would be a healthier direction to try and take them if writers insist on them being people.

  16. This has certainly been an interesting read, and has given me some things to consider with the ideas I have running around in my head for a setting. And I admit I was having some similar thoughts to you regarding how our brains link ideas to things we know, and how I wasn't comfortable with how some of the concepts for species were forming in my head.

    Though as a side-note, although I see your point between species and race, a bugbear (pardon the pun) that seems to be cropping up in my mind whilst reading it is that species in the form it's used here is a relatively modern term, and I find myself trying to find an analogue that both works as a way to describe the differing distinct groups that works within the tropes of a high fantasy setting, without the baggage race does.

    Maybe I'm overthinking the problem there.

    1. No, that's a very commonly brought up point with the responses I've gotten to this post, and one that I was aware of even when writing it. At the end of the day, the word "species" just feels like a sci-fi word. It's too 19th and 20th century. But though I've searched far and wide, I just haven't found a good equivalent word. "Kin," "culture," "society," "stock," "lineage," and worst of all, "ancestry" are not actually synonyms. They carry different shades of meaning and the nuance here makes all the difference, because it is EXACTLY this habit of equating "species" and "ancestry" that produces these problems.

      I am still on the lookout for a "true" synonym for "species" but yeah, I don't think you're overthinking it at all.

    2. My decision is to go with "Seed".
      "of the seed of elves"
      "of gnome and dwarf seed mixed"

  17. I dislike the term species applied to entities that are capable of easily interbreeding with humans and so should likely be considered some kind of Hominid. Species itself is a murky concept when comparing closely related organisms ,so I would advance the term 'clade' as used in the Orion's Arm universe project. A clade can be defined by common physical characteristics but can also denote common culture and is as divorced from racist vocabulary and cultural baggage as we are likely to find.

  18. I feel that the racist connotations are more of a problem in modern versions of D&D where the prevalent means of gaining XP is by killing monsters. In older versions with XP for gold and reaction rolls, not every encounter with a group of orcs must be a violent interaction. With the older editions, if the DM decides his campaign is going to be about colonial forays into orc territory, thats the DM's choice, not the system's. If the players decide to embark on orc genocide, that's the players' choice, not the system's. And if your DM or players are making such choices, perhaps have a conversation with them about why that is or maybe find a new DM or players.

  19. For all the length of this post, I think you actually failed to go deep enough on one topic. "Not Human but still People". You even bring up an excellent example of this in Buffy. Angel is a person but not a human, and possesses non-human powers and weaknesses. Humans and ensouled Vampires are people, soulless Vampires are not.
    Kara Zor-El isn't human, she is kryptonian, but she is still a person. Sapient AI can be afforded equal status and personhood despite different capabilities inherent to not being a meatbag. The existence of creatures with parity level intellect, with human-like mindsets, and inherently different physiologies is definitely possible in reality so should be just as possible in fiction. Social Darwinism is wrong, the races of humanity are a blend of thousands of overlapping Venn diagrams, but aliens can exist and if they do its unlikely they all have either humanities great throwing arm OR are unpersoned monsters.

    If Elves were created by the first morning light shining down on a forest, they could still be people and have darkvision. Unlike the Orcs who are not people, oozes who are not people, and humans who are people until they sacrifice that personhood to become a Vampire.

    Provided the distinction between People and Not-People is defined sharply and explicitly, I dont think there is an issue making that division separate from mentality. It's not like neurotypical thought processes are an indicator of personhood either, autistic, psychopathic (in the clinical sense not the inaccurate pop culture definition), and other neurodivergent people are still just that after all.

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  21. While I think the sentiment here is well-intentioned, this line of thinking on fantasy race always feels like it's addressing one problematic mode of worldbuilding by inviting a different, *also* problematic mode of worldbuilding.

    Saying "all nonhumans are too alien to understand" might feel like an intuitive approach if you want to make it clear these are "species" instead of "races," but it ultimately begs the question of what "normative" human thinking looks like. The whole line of thought that says "elves and dwarves DO have cities and societies, but their behavior and thought is too alien to inhabit as player characters" is really just moving the metric of Otherness from phenotype to neurotypicality. Speaking from the perspective of a mental health worker, if you handed me a list of compulsions and behaviors that made an elf too weird to adventure alongside humans, I'd probably be able to hand you back a DSM-V diagnosis within the day. As the above comment helpfully pointed out, the neurodivergent are still no less people than their peers.

    I think there's no escaping the fact that a fantasy race (or species, ancestry, what-have-you) with an identifiable culture is A People, and creating an inherently monstrous class of people will always be a deliberate writing choice with inherent baggage. You can make orcs possessed fungal hives or mud-spawned demons to justify their inhuman psychology, but as soon as you've given them a social heirarchy, language, and customs, you've nonetheless taken on the responsibility of writing people.

    Where I agree isnthat the problem isn't the existence of fantasy creatures with innate differences, which is where people lose the plot a little bit. There's nothing inherently racist about dragonborn breathing fire, or goliaths being big, or halflings being small. In fact, I think the weirder a fantasy race's traits, the better for escaping the way people have come to think of "fantasy race" as equivocal to the real-world conception of race. I just don't think that should make them any less people.

    Maybe its boring if a dwarf is "just" a short person, but if you make them people who NEED to eat gemstones, you've created a drive that will make them act differently from humans without prescribing psychology or culture. Maybe an elf is a kind of person who can eat flesh to gain memories. Maybe halflings can all talk to woodland critters. Maybe orcs are all grown from magic spawning pits, and they can grow their own backup bodies if they claim a spawning pit of their own. Maybe that doesn't give you any inherently monstrous men to fight, but also, maybe that's fine. You can still have the people in your dungeons be assholes if you want to kill them and take their loot.