Race + Gaming: Brown Skin, White Masks

By Guest Contributor David Song

A gallery of Dungeons & Dragons character types from the D&D Player’s Handbook (2003).

The phrase, “human race,” has always taken on different meanings in Dungeons & Dragons. I can remember, when I read my first D&D Player’s Handbook as an ungainly and imaginative teenager, the allure of the game that remains the same across the whole role-playing hobby: To imagine myself as a fictional character that I have created myself. The D&D Player’s Handbook guides every role-player through a step-by-step process of creating an imaginary character. And I remember being fascinated by the variety in every step of that process: Class, alignment, skillset, religion, and coming before all of them, race.

The most eminent franchise of role-playing games, and the one most tied to popular perceptions of the hobby, D&D has always had an odd relationship with race — or rather, with a concept of race, one where race has strict boundaries and inherent qualities. The choice of role-playing D&D is to play a member of the “human race,” which stands as the norm in the D&D universe, or one of diverse alternatives: dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-orcs, and so on. Not Englishmen, Frenchmen, or fantasy versions of ethnic identities, but either human beings or other people with similar but fundamentally different blood. “Race” is the very first characteristic D&D asks its players to define, before their characters’ skills, their personalities, whether they are barbarians or rogues or sorcerers.

While the earliest version of the game’s Player’s Handbook displayed only light-skinned characters, implying a medieval, quasi-European setting, 1989’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons allowed players to create Human characters who could be light-skinned or dark-skinned, their hair straight or curly, their bodies wide or slender. In other words, it avoided the tacit identification of “human beings” with “white people.” The art in the game’s 2008 handbook reflects a diversity of colors and bodies that might belong to anyone actually playing the game, beyond the image of the white male.

However, D&D still emphasizes race as an essential determinant of the personalities, beliefs, and abilities of the characters we role-play. Dwarves are strong and gruff, Elves are graceful and sophisticated, Gnomes are playful and inventive, Orcs are strong and “savage.” Only the human race fits into some default state of personhood, without inherent racial attributes or flaws: a race that isn’t seen on the basis of its race, whereas all other races are necessarily seen so.

Humans, Half-Elves & Elves, as depicted in the D&D Player’s Handbook (2003).

My first D&D character was a white human: light skin, brown hair, magical powers over plants and animals (he was a druid). As interesting as the non-human races were — and I found half-elves and half-orcs particularly intriguing, since D&D places attention on their hybrid natures — I was intent on role-playing a human being. Playing an Asian character, however, was out of the question; being roughly familiar with the world of D&D, I reasoned that it had its Eastern counterparts to its default Western world of wizards, paladins, and dragons. (A few weeks later, I came across the Oriental Adventures supplement in a Barnes & Noble, confirming my suspicions.) Not wishing to play a samurai or ninja, and not wishing to draw particular attention to my Asian-ness at the gaming table by role-playing an Asian, I remained with the white druid.

Even so, the allure of role-playing an outsider, a person whose difference is clearly visible, remained for me, as it does for many who play D&D to imagine, portray, and explore with other identities. But what were the racial options? The half-orc was the clear choice: It was the one race that presented the opportunity to role-play someone of the same blood as the monsters whom the heroes typically slay. My interpretation, then, was that role-playing a half-orc meant  navigating a racial borderland between “civilized” and “evil,” between Normal and Other, a character struggling for recognition, since the alternative was to be seen as merely a savage stereotype. There were heroic possibilities here. Certainly the Player’s Handbook somewhat bears this interpretation:

Each half-orc finds a way to gain acceptance from those who hate or fear his orc cousins. Some half-orcs are reserved, trying not to draw attention to themselves. A few demonstrate piety and good-heartedness as publicly as they can (whether or not such demonstrations are genuine). Others simply try to be so tough that others have no choice but to accept them … Frequently shunned from polite company, half-orcs often find acceptance and friendship among adventurers, many of whom are fellow wanderers and outsiders.

But D&D‘s racialization of character goes quite far. Half-orcs, we’re told, are inherently less intelligent than humans, though inherently brawnier and more ferocious. They don’t face assumptions that they’re dull, crude, and violent, so much as they actually are dull, crude, and violent. The first time half-orcs appeared in D&D, the handbook described as the ones role-played by players as “within the superior 10% of the race, who can pass close enough to human” (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 1978, p. 17). So much, I decided, for my half-orc paladin, and so much any character concept where I’d have to play anyone less intelligent, less dignified by dint of blood.

Orcs, as depicted in the 3rd edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (2000).

The game’s racial tropes have been at their most problematic with respect  to the fantastical racial conflict that is everywhere in the game. Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, Gnolls, Mongrelmen, lizard men, grimlocks, kobolds, bugbears — D&D supplies no shortage of “evil” races bent on committing aggressions against the “civilized” ones. Their motivations are all similar: Food, treasure, slaves, conquest, violence for its own sake, and an “ingrained” hatred of other races. (That last motivation is too a recurring trope in D&D. The enemies are characterized the “attitude” that some races are inferior to others. Racism, misunderstood as a set of “attitudes” “against” anyone on the basis of race, is considered a real-world problem, so the game moves it to the enemies.)

It doesn’t seem too much to ask of a fantasy world to center its storylines on something other than race — conflicts involving pirates, zombies, warlords, and so on and so on. But the trope of human beings fighting “savage” and “subhuman” Others defined as enemies by their race has a long history in D&D’s home genre. We can see it in the examples of heroes and orcs clashing in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or in the “exceptionally evil” lizard men of the famous module The Keep on the Borderlands, or nearly anywhere we care to glance through the pages of fantasy.

The best game of D&D I’ve ever played came during college, when I began to tire of the idea of killing savage races and taking their treasure, or playing some generically white member of the “human race.” My friend, the Dungeon Master, gave me his proposal: “My fantasy world has only the human race. No orcs, no dwarves, no goblins, no so-called humanoids — just humans, with a million ethnicities and nations just like in our world. And I have this idea for a D&D campaign about this nation of humans who have colonized a land where other humans lived first.” (I wonder, did he know that I was writing my thesis on Irish nationalism and colonization at the same time?)

I ran the implications of his proposal through my head: I could play someone with an ethnicity? I could play a human being, with an ethnic identity, with an experience of oppression or privilege or both? Now this was dizzyingly exciting, and I said yes instantly. (My warlord was one of the colonized ethnic group; the paladin and druid belonged to the colonizers; the rogue was a “mixed-blood” who passed as a colonizer. We learned to surpass our differences to defeat an evil dragon. The game was a huge success.)

Player character types, as described in the D&D Player’s Handbook (2003).

It took me seven years of playing D&D before realizing that this kind of role-play could happen: the exploration of a fictional ethnic identity, without having to sacrifice a human identity. This is not to accuse gaming, or the people who create (and endlessly re-create) these types of games, are racist. A Player’s Handbook where one of the human characters looks Asian, or where one of the halfling characters looks black, is written with good intentions.

But think of the discussions that take place around J.R.R. Tolkien and whether he or his work is racist. Even if Tolkien is dead, it makes us shake our heads if a white man tells us about his imaginary race of monstrous savages, describing them as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

In this context, race is used to thrill, to scare, to spice an otherwise less exciting objects of our imagination. Unexamined privilege excuses this use of race by saying: It’s a game, it’s a fantasy world, it’s for fun, so it isn’t really racist, and so stop thinking about it. For people interested in notions of “skin,” “face,” “mask,” and the problems of identity and difference, problems on which role-playing has a unique bearing, there is nothing to be gained by doing so.

David Song lives in Washington, D.C.

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  • lizzieb***

    I once played in a Vampire: The Masquerade campaign where all of the PCs, except mine, were white. (All of the players, including me, are white.) The story was set in Philadelphia, and at one point, we needed to steal a very large object and transport it across town in the middle of the day. We were carefully planning how to accomplish this when one player said “Let’s just walk in and grab it. Who’s going to stop us – we’re all white!”

    I then pointed out the flaw in his plan. And was rebuked for making things harder than they needed to be. …I don’t play with that group anymore.

  • norroway

    It’s also a gendered thing, too. I remember when I worked at Wizards of the Coast, they had posters of our target customer up on the wall outside our department to remind everyone who “our guys” were. And they
    were ALL guys. White guys.

    And editing Dragonlance: The New Adventures was such a challenge. How do you edit stories in which kender can’t do magic because their racial attributes mean that racially, kender are incapable of magic? How is there agency/choice in this world if a certain kind of dragon is biologically incapable of being good, and the other kind of dragon biologically incapable of being evil? It was hard, and fans often got on us when we broke the rules (DLNA starred a kender, Sindri, who is given magic by a dragon, which felt very much in the spirit of DL, but some fans didn’t really care for because of the game-based rules).

    I loved my time at Wizards, but there was a problem inherent in the game’s handling of race that was a challenge.

  • moridin

    D&D has explored human beings from different ethnicities having problems with each other for a long time. Maztica is basically the recreation of the encounter between Spaniards and Native Americans, with all the implications it had (plus magic!). And this has been retained in Forgotten Realms scenario, I think, with a constant problem betweem Amn and the colonies it tried to establish in Maztica and the natives Mazticans. I think Maztica is a 1989 supplement for Forgotten Realms.

  • Jenevieve DeFer

    I wonder what the author thinks of The Dark Skinned “evil” versions of the “Good” races (ie Drow). I guess that’s one reason that I prefer to refer to the Non-Humans as belonging to a different Species. Race IMHO is best used for the Variations in the species (ie High Elf, Grey Elf, Wood Elf, Drow, Hill Dwarves, vs Mountain Dwarves). Bring these ideas up must be very subversive because most gamers seem to dismiss them out of hand.

    • crimfan

      Whatever else they were/are, drow are a typical Gygaxian pun: Their appearance is based on what black and white photographic negatives look like. They are also based on the svartalfar of Norse myth.

    • Dssong

      I can’t remember any of the Evil Counterpart races except for the Drow elves, which I thought (and still think) are way cool in a silly way. But aside from the notion that the existence of evil elves implies the existence of a separate race of elves, what’s troubled me about the Drow is their over-the-top Evil Spider-Worshiping Matriarchy. What I mean is this: The one-female led society in the D&D world is evil, evil, evil. Well, that wouldn’t be such a horrible notion in itself (it’s fantasy blah blah blah), except that there is no assumption in D&D that there are any societies that are Evil Patriarchies (and if they are, they’re not White Human Beings). That suggests to me that in fantasy worlds, Normal Societies won’t be sexist (in that the writer won’t talk about gender norms and patriarchy in Euro-Knight-Land), but when women are in charge of a fantasy kingdom, whoa, watch out! (As for Drow having dark skin, I dunno.)

      • Karin Karejanrakoi

        Yes, the misogyny at work here is rather depressing.

  • James Degenhardt

    is even more prevalent when examined through miniature painting. Yes,
    people can play whatever ethnicity that they want, and few think twice
    about it. But when I paint miniatures, and do a variety of different
    ethnicity, it boggles people’s minds.
    Unless it’s something stereotyped horribly (Samurai, Jungle Warrior,
    Indian, etc) it just doesn’t occur to people. And when they see it, they
    don’t know what to think. The idea that the human druid has dark skin,
    and the Cleric is olive-skinned, doesn’t really sink in until the mini
    is on the table.

  • Kraas

    I’d like to find some fantasy works that avert these tropes. I have to admit I do greatly enjoy the genre while at the same time realize that its greatest contributors (Tolkien, Lovecraft, Howard, and others) gave their works a ton of racial implications and often explications.

    • Aus

      Here you go @disqus_nkbVPO9YKm:disqus : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malazan_Book_of_the_Fallen . Races in Malazan are pretty well mixed throughout and every group of peoples seems to be both good and bad, well, ok the world’s a pretty tough place and everyone is mostly bad, but still.

      • Kraas

        I’ve heard of that series, I should pick it up sometime soon, thanks for the recommendation.

    • crimfan

      JRRT, Howard, Lovecraft, etc., are all definitely products of their era and need to be understood as such. JRRT started writing LotR nearly 100 years ago. Howard and Lovecraft were both dead in the mid 1930s. Of golden age sci fi/fantasy authors who aren’t racialized (as I recall), check out Fritz Leiber or L. Sprague de Camp. Leiber has a long story where he transports Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser out of Lankhmar to Ancient Persia.

    • Drew_Gehringer

      Pathfinder’s campaign setting seems to be trying to avoid that, by giving humans and the other races different possible ethnicities instead of being monoblocs.

      In my opinion it doesn’t quite go far enough yet, but they’re doing a damn better job at trying to eb properly diverse than a lot of other RPG settings do.

    • Karin Karejanrakoi

      You might like to try MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel (www.tekumel.com).

      Read the FAQ (http://www.tekumel.com/about_faq.html), especially the sections entitled “What is Tekumel?” and “What is Tekumel’s History?”

  • Erik Bernhardt

    Interesting article; it’s a bit counter-intuitive that the game that had the most interesting approach to race was the one that threw the “fantasy races” out the window. But it made sense once I wrapped my head around it.

    • crimfan

      I played in a game in the early 90s that lasted for several years that was based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The main enemies were a Norse type nation who were working to finish Ragnarok, which had stalled due to interference from the pseudo-Asian pantheon. It was run by a white guy from rural Illinois; most of the players were similarly white guys from rural Illinois.

      A bit after that I ran a game loosely based on Celtic myth where the pseudo-Romans were the obvious enemy, but the real enemy was internal.

      What does this prove? Not much besides the fact that you could always go outside the lines with D&D, if you wanted to.

      Other things that should definitely be recalled: Al Qadim was very well-researched and written take on the Medieval Middle East. TSR gave it a good, long run.