So it seems inevitable that I’ll have to address this, as every other blog in existence is currently, and days of seeing it repeated across every nerd-ball and elf-games group I belong to has it entrenched in my brain.
Wizards of the coast finally addressed the elephant in the room a lot of us have been talking about for some time in that some of their depictions have been racist. In this case, they focused a bit on orcs and drow, but the clearly racist Romani stand-ins from Curse of Stahd are the ones I was the most happy to see addressed. Frankly, the last of those was egregious and something I thought WotC would have addressed before 5e Ravenloft’s publication, but apparently not.
Orcs’ origins with Tolkien have always had a problematic element. If you disagree, I encourage you to check out the Tolkien Gateway section on such, and read the article on The Conversation written by Dimitra Fimi. While I don’t think Tolkien was a bigot, I also don’t pretend he didn’t write some of the things he did about people that looked different. I also don’t inherently think D&D orcs are the same as Tolkien’s orcs, the same as Warcraft Orcs, and definitely not the same as Warhammer Orks, but that’s a whole separate post on the “our orcs are different”.
Drow frankly have been through the wringer. The earliest art I ever saw of drow depicted Drizzt as an old wrinkly white dude with purple eyes and white hair. It wasn’t until I read the book that I knew his skin was black, and the first art I saw depicting thus had him as a brown skinned elf. I thought it was cool that elves, like humans could be of every different skin color, and that anybody could be what Tolkien described as the “fairest of all people.” Representation is important, and people of color deserve to see themselves as part of a magical world as much as anyone else. But like... except for Drizzt, canonically almost all drow are evil. Which is, frankly boring as fuck and reads like race hate propaganda from the High Elves or Eladrin or whatever they’re called in Faerun these days. And then drow went from being like, black skinned to grey to bluish purple. It was a tacit “we know this is offensive to people of color so let’s change it” without a direct apology or admission that it was.
I’ve also admittedly been too vague on this blog in the past that elves are among my least favorite elements of the game. They smack too heavily of tolkienic fantasy, and the lazy world building “race-as-monoculture” too often associated with D&D. I think the drow suffer the heaviest from this. I’ve stated before to others I see little difference between considering yourself better than another species and actually acting that way, which is definitely a feel I get from elves. This is why in my home-brew I often move all elves to True Fae adjacent, like Material Plane cousins to their monstrously extradimensional kin. But further and greater than lazy world-building, I think writing “all of X species are baaad!” is piss-poor writing, and I’ve seen so, so much of it in RPGs and LARP and other locations. Moreso, what you’re saying is that, even if it is fiction, you’re willing to entertain the idea that all people of X are evil. X in the previous sentence being whichever factor (ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, identity, etc) is most likely to get under your skin. Think about that for a few seconds.
Not that I think that evil cultures and societies can’t be written well, or don’t exist. I have a friend who models her drow society on Nazi-era Germany, which is absolutely horrifying and (in my opinion) thematically on-point for elves. I’ve spoken before in my blog about the inclusion of cannibal cults and moving away from orcs as Villain-employed Cannon Fodder. You can have bad-guys who are bad, just make them bad due to their actions not due to the way they look or their species. Don’t build lazy worlds. Don’t fall into the species=monoculture trap.
You may also note I’ve made it a habit to say species often here when talking about the difference between humans, elves, tree-people, or what-not. If you’ve read this blog before you know a heavy influence on my style of gaming is “Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville, which features a whole host of different peoples living together of weird, wild assortment: Ant-headed insect people, walking cactus people with wooden bones, gargoyle creatures that can fly and all kinds of not-human fantasticness. Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, The Justice League, all sorts of stories have fantastic non-human characters we love, and I believe that’s part of what makes fantasy so fantastic is our inclusion of non-human peoples. I’m largely of the opinion that the more the merrier with weird things to play, and that having an assortment of living beings makes your fantastic setting vibrant and bright.
Even then, “species” is only a temporary fix, as that puts the focus on biological differences. I’ve read some players opting for the term “ancestries” or “heritages” which I think is probably stronger. If I’m not mistaken, the second edition of Pathfinder works like this, but I admittedly haven’t touched the game in a few years.
To this end, I think Holmes’s had it right: make your character whatever kind of person you want, skip any dumb “bonuses” and keep the dice and numbers small. This is also why I’ve mostly ran exclusively human games lately. Full Disclosure: this thought comes at a time when I just finished writing three non-human species for my own world, and deciding what bonuses both they and humans get (surprise surprise, no ability score bonuses). I’m wondering if I’m going to include species as a game-play affecting element now.
If you’ve made it his far, I really encourage you to track down The Public Medievalist and read their post “Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre”. It outlines, and links to even more, problems with a lot of the inclusions of the term “race” within the game and the malign stereotypes it’s yet to distance itself from, and does a great job closing on some inclusive modern fantasy.
I think Wizards made the right call here by admitting they were wrong, and stating they’d work better towards a brighter, more inclusive future. I think there’s always more room at the table, and that a more diverse and strong host of fantasy worlds leads to a more diverse and strong real world, for all of us. I also hope that if you’re reading this, you too choose to do the same.