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The Problem of Race in DND | 5E+

  • Reading time:9 mins read

This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.


Race has been a consistent part of Dungeons & Dragons since the early days of the hobby. It serves, currently, as a way to help flesh out the character and establish certain bonuses based on racial features and abilities.

Each race (and subrace) includes two ability score increases, along with some other bonus features that add a bit of unique functionality — such as “draconic ancestry” for dragonborns and “trance” for elves.

This distinction is why there are hundreds of build guides for the system. For example, gnomes are granted +2 Intelligence — therefore, they make excellent wizards. Same for tieflings and any Charisma-based caster (bards, warlocks, etc). These bonuses make it so that creating characters can be a strategic process, rather than simply a creative one.

There are a ton of people out there who enjoy this process of character creation. It overlaps with the propensity of certain players to ‘min-max’, where characters are extensively planned out — down to where each ability point goes per level up. Not every person who creates a character build is a min-maxer, but I would wager that the overlap between the two types of players is quite large.

But there is an issue with this: these abilities-tied-to-race present issues with some character concepts — what if you want to play a character whose race has no bonus to Intelligence, but you want them to be a wizard? If there is a gnome wizard in the party, you will consistently be behind them in terms of power and ability. This issue is not especially problematic if you’re focusing on roleplay, so I want to ignore it for now.

The major issue with race in DND is how certain races are perpetually seen through stereotypes on a genetic / evolutionary scale. Orcs, for example, suffer from a -2 Intelligence — the implication being that they are naturally dumber than every other race in DND. Note that this is not a cultural restriction, but a genetic one — orcs are biologically dumber in the rules as written.

Evil is Evil (Or is it?)

Not to mention the problem of alignment with certain races. Drow are universally assumed to be on the evil scale of DND — servants to the spider goddess Lolth, slavers of the Underdark, ruthless in both their personal and professional lives. Similarly, orcs are described as follows:

Savage and fearless, orc tribes are ever in search of elves, dwarves, and humans to destroy. Motivated by their hatred of the civilized races of the world and their need to satisfy the demands of their deities, the orcs know that if they fight well and bring glory to their tribe, Gruumsh will call them home to the plane of Acheron. It is there in the afterlife where the chosen ones will join Gruumsh and his armies in their endless extraplanar battle for supremacy.

So, that’s a long way to say they’re evil too.

But what if you want to play one of these races and be a hero; someone who isn’t held back simply by the color of their skin, the inherent predispositions of the race you belong to, or the assumptions made about the faiths of those races?

In that case, you would have to invoke the immensely problematic “token”, who is neither quite as good as the non-evil races but not as evil as their own race either. A bastard of both lines, quite literally — which is itself a problematic stereotype.

It’s a Game, FFS!

Here’s another thing: people may sometimes enjoy playing the underdog — the misunderstood hero who is plagued by bad looks, bad blood, or bad luck to have an uphill climb in their adventuring.

Personally? I don’t want to mimic the shit we all have to deal with on an everyday basis in my fantasy getaway game. I don’t want to be reminded that my character is hated by certain individuals for the prejudices that are unfairly thrust upon them. As a black American, I deal with that plenty enough in real life. This is a big reason of why I talk about moving away from the mindset of “violence as progression”, something I’ve covered in a previous 5E+ article.

There are multiple ways we can move past certain expectations in our role-playing games. So why haven’t we? I can think of two reasons:

Why Do Things When You Could Just Not Instead

People hate change. People who play games traditionally despise it.

A big reason why the standards regarding race haven’t changed is because the audience who actually consumes and plays the game simply don’t want it to. No overt racism, no preplanned ulterior motives. Just laziness, pure and simple.

As a fellow designer / developer, I’m assuming the designers and developers at Wizards of the Coast don’t want it because it’s more work to fix than to leave it alone. Unless, of course, they can charge you an additional $50 for them to fix it.

Grand Old System

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti

All this hate for change (here and elsewhere) is usually followed by a big hubbub about “tradition” and how this is the “way it’s always worked”.

While that’s objectively false (no edition of DND has the same team as the one before it), we can even make an argument without proving the validity of their statement. Even if it were true then, times are different now. And we should be working to reflect those values now rather than waiting until we’re forced to.

While DND is not typically an iterative system (the prior editions aren’t built upon, their built over), 6th Edition is many years away — if it comes at all. More so than ever, this edition should take advantage of the many platforms and renewed excitement it has mustered. There is a benefit — and potentially a need — for iterative ideas.

What Does a Fix Even Look like?

Part of the problem with designs like this is that, at first glance, many of the “solutions” seem like half-steps.

Do we forget about race entirely? Do we have it be a pick-and-choose system of racial feats — the races themselves more of a fluffy narrative aspect? Or do we completely redo the whole system?

In the next article, I intend to discuss many of the prospective changes that could be done to better handle the prospect of race in DND and other tabletop role-playing games. This may turn into several parts as we discuss the ramifications — over the course of which we may overlap with some current designs done by Wizards of the Coast — but I hope you’ll stick around for what we uncover.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Roger Jones

    The only problem is that there never was a problem. Fantasy races are not the same as real world ethnicities. People who point to the trope of orcs and other creatures being evil for example, simply ignore their origins from folklore and mythology. These are creatures evolved from darkness and chaos. If an orc did exhibit good traits, it would be quickly massacred by its brethren for being weak.
    Drow were a bit different. They were an offshoot of the main elves, but their culture and worship of evil gods encouraged evil behavior. Those not exhibiting these traits were murdered or exiled. I had a couple of drow PCs in my groups over the years which people played very well against type. You could easily run a campaign where such a thing was possible, albeit unlikely with some of the monstrous humanoids.
    D&D was always a game of homebrewing. There’s no reason someone can’t have good orcs or other “monster races” in their campaigns, although half orcs existed early on. They were beings who had to fight the stigma of their heritage due to the atrocities orcs committed, their own existence being an example. That was what we called a roleplaying opportunity back in the day. I heard someone once liken playing a half orc to a soldier coming home from a war. You can be a hero who saved lives and still get spit on and mistreated. There will always be real world comparisons, but they can be explored just like the darkest of dungeons, should gamers choose to do so.
    The fantasy races also have PHYSIOLOGICAL differences. Why not take away elve’s longevity or enchantment resistance, or any number of racial abilities or better yet – why not make a campaign with just humans? The answer is because that just ain’t D&D.
    Reinventing D&D to address past or present real world disparities became less of a fix but rather, hype and a marketing tool. It’s why I drifted more and more to wonderful third party products such as yours. I also don’t have to worry about buying corrected editions because a sensitivity reader thought a woman’s only child should be referred to as “they” throughout a huge passage of text.
    I’ve been fortunate to always play with diverse groups of people, although we never called ourselves that. Racism never existed at the gaming table or anywhere else. I hope the race discussion goes away eventually to focus more on the positive aspects of the hobby.
    I sincerely hope you don’t follow Wizards down its dark road of pandering for profit.
    “.. that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.”
    I’m all for alternate rules and suggestions, just not reinventing the wheel to give us a square one.

    1. natewhit

      Roger,

      I think the conversation is a bit more complex than “it isn’t a problem”, but I lean a little more in the direction that it certainly is more of a molehill than a mountain, which is where I think you’re coming from.

      Back in 2020, when I wrote this article, we were in the midst of a massive movement centered around the topic of race in America. As a black American, it was top of mind for me when the TTRPG space seemed to fixate on the race question in DND.

      Since then, I’ve been able to re-examine some of the outrage (legitimate and non) and my take now is that certain games should absolutely highlight the physiological differences between the races. When it comes to player characters, however, baseline intelligence shouldn’t be baked into the race. Nor should baseline morality. It should be either a conversation between the GM and the player or a choice the player is making for their character. Not only for the sake of racial inequity, but from a game design perspective as well.

      I firmly believe that the best characters are ‘discovered’ during play, rather than pre-written before the adventure even begins. Starting with a character that is, as described in the racial features, evil, stupid, or both, is setting up a player for a campaign of playing the character no one else in the party takes seriously. And that’s fun for a few sessions, but in my experience creates more problems than they’re worth in the long run.

      In regards to “pandering for profit”, which I don’t think WOTC is doing (they’re just not very good at PR and self-examination), this blog reflects my feelings. And when I wrote this in 2020, this is how I’ve felt. I hope you can recognize that in good faith and stick around to read more.

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