Whew, meant to come back to this topic WAY earlier! Life gets in the way and all that. Let’s see if I can pick the thread back up.
Right, so: racial essentialism is out in D&D and that’s a good thing. If there’s one thing we can deduce from D&D vis-a-vis player character race, it’s that there are not, in fact, multiple races – what we’re actually dealing with are phenotypical variations* which of course we see among humans on earth: some of us have dark skin, some light; some blond hair, some red, and so on. However, we call this “race” because of power dynamics, eurocentrism, and some very bad missteps at the beginning of the Modern era.
Now all of this implies that a magical world should somehow be beholden to the same laws of genetics and physics as a mundane world, and of course critics of any progressive move in gaming want to have it both ways: they want to handwave magic, dragons and other megafauna**, bizarrely inconsistent technological applications, Cities with no countryside, and all sorts of other narratively convenient contrivances while still insisting nay demanding that white people live in the white part of the world etc. etc. etc.
So enough, really, about respecting or engaging in that sort of argument. It’s a magic world, or rather, D&D consists of many magic worlds – my own is called Eshrantyr, for example, and the world of D&D official is called Toril, and so on and so forth. And on every world, creators can decide what the “Rules” are – so again even if D&D officially decides that race is a moot starting point, anyone can still make their own rules at their own table. Once again: the controversy is a non-controversy for 90% of the people actually involved in the *thing*.
But what if you want to use race in a game of D&D in a way that’s still interesting? I use the term interesting specifically in the sense of Well’s quote on the matter:
If everything is possible, then nothing is interesting.H.G. Wells
At some point, a game world has to have some rules to it, otherwise you wind up with a game that goes something like “We have to get the treasure” / “Okay I use magic to get the treasure” / “Okay game over that was fun” – you need obstacles, you need problems, you need conflict.
And now we get back around to how to do race in a constructive and interesting way -and it has nothing to do with whether or not orcs are strong or elves are smart or tieflings are an unnecessary edgy addition to the lore: it has everything to do with how the folk, in the game world, believe those traits to be so.
Because what people say about race in-game is what people in-game say about race! There’s no guarantee that your human / gnome / elf / whatever is necessarily anything. Players tend to min-max and take advantage of “racial” traits, that’s true, so sure, player character halflings tend to be extra nimble…but there’s no guarantee at any point that your average gnome is any more or less tough than your average elf. The bonuses that heroic characters enjoy then become the stereotypes by which the rest of their kin are judged.
And stereotypes are, frankly, boring. I noted this in my first post on the topic – they are dull and unimaginative. Low-hanging fruit. And so far as I’m concerned, they are the domain of folks in-game making assumptions.
“In the village of lumbertown, the folks know that dwarves are hale and hardy because they met a band of orcs who said so” – okay, is that true? Or is that folklore and superstition?
“In the city of Lorgwitzd, elves are banned because they practice sinister magic” – Okay, do they? Or was there an elvish wizard once upon a time who ticked off one of the city founders?
“Everyone knows orcs are stupid” – that just sounds like propaganda to me.
“But what about that marauding band of orcs attacking my town – they’re stupid!” – Now tell me why they’re attacking the town, and bear in mind you don’t have to validate the reason, you don’t have to love their misunderstood position. They may be driven by some sort of monstrous force, and they may wholeheartedly believe that the town deserves to be rampaged…but it’s not some genetic predisposition that makes them do that.
For everything I’ve described above, a choice: a mortal choice by mortal folk to describe others. And that sort of othering has a place in D&D not as a core component of character building, but as an obstacle to overcome in-game! Race is still very, very present in D&D, and it’s present now the way it is in the world: as a construct.
As a construct, race, in D&D and elsewhere, is subject to criticism. We players and dungeon masters can no longer just assume that dwarves are tough or that humans are “versatile” or that halflings are nimble…that’s how they are thought of, not necessarily how they are.
Can we observe trends? Sure. We can notice that people from certain regions have dark skin or light skin, are in general taller or shorter, heavier-set or thinner, but that in no way compromises their humanity, nor ought it to compromise that same essential dignity in-game. Fine, the elves of the High Forest favor the bow…but that’s the result of generations of training owing in large part to a lack of good steel for swords and armor. Okay, the orcs of the planes are strong and tough – because they hunt mastodons for their primary food source, and that takes a certain degree of fortitude.
But what have I described? Their warriors? Their hunters? What are their politicians like? Their merchants? Their gatherers? Their weavers? All these folk might be very much like their human, gnome, dragonborn, or whatever counterparts!
What I’m driving at here is that the exceptional individuals who make up the adventuring classes are, simply put, exceptional. They are stronger, tougher, more nimble – ET CET ER A. They are in fact not typical of their kin because they are exceptional.
Thus it is entirely appropriate that Hrogknagh, the extremely agile and smart orc battle alongside Flafniriv, the burly and stout elf, because both of them have exceptional talents and capabilities, and because they are exceptional folks will focus on their differences. “Ah yes, Flafniriv is so weird because, you know…elves…” and “Certainly Hrogknagh wouldn’t fit in with his own village since orcs are all, well…you know…”
When you say it out loud, it starts to sound an awful lot like what people say on earth. “Oh so-and-so can’t do [this, that, the other thing] because…well, those people…”
Summing up: D&D One’s direction on race is the right one, though as I described in my last post, it’s not finished. Additionally, those still longing for race as a dynamic in their games can, and I would even argue should find it there – what’s changed is that nobody can be lazy about it anymore. DMs, world builders, and players have to put in the time and energy now to understand how race actually works, because when you take away the green skin, the pointy ears, and all the rest, you find the same folk underneath, with far more similarities than differences.
- *Fun fact: People who pretend that race isn’t a thing here on earth would argue something like this, e.g. “But there aren’t different races because…” but the difference here is that they’re making a stupid, bad faith, sealion argument. When someone’s response to “Black Lives Matter” is “there’s no such thing as race,” you can go ahead and move on with your life because that person literally farts in the bath tub and bites the bubbles.
- **Fun fact: colossal and gargantuan creatures on land would be impossible in a world that also sustains human life! O2 concentrations would be too low and too high, respectively – one of many reasons you don’t see humans alongside dinosaurs unless you’re in one of those red states that don’t got no book larnin’ but for the one book.