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.