Dungeons & Dragons’ Race Problem

With the new rules for One D&D, or 5.5e as I call it, we are getting new rules when it comes to character generation, specifically when you choose your Race.

In most of D&D history, including the initial release of 5e, you received Ability Score Improvements based on your Race. Elves got bonuses in Dexterity, Dwarves in Constitution, Half-orcs in Strength, every single Race usually got two bonus points in one stat, and another bonus point in another stat. This is saying that Dragonborns are just inherently stronger than other races, Gnomes are inherently smarter, and Tieflings are inherently more charismatic.

<Sam Santala>

Then, we got to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, where those Ability Score Improvements were open for you to place wherever you felt made the most sense with your character. Now, with the One D&D playtest rules, your Ability Score Improvements are based on your Background, what you did with your life before you became an adventurer.

Some people love this, because implying that some Races are just “stronger” or “smarter” than others implies racial supremacy, in one way or another. Other people hate this, because a creature that is, on average, over 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds will obviously be, on average, stronger than a creature that is 3 1/2 feet tall and about 40 pounds. To imply otherwise seems simply ridiculous.

<Sam Santala>

However, I’ve noticed that this disagreement is a symptom of a much bigger issue. Another symptom is the idea of pre-set Alignment. When you look at the color of Dragons, the Chromatic Dragons are all Evil, and the Metallic Dragons are all Good. So then, your Dragonborn should also follow this color scheme. You should never feel bad about killing Orcs, because they are monsters, and this is a game about killing monsters. However, to say that you are naturally evil because of the color of your skin scales, is obviously going to upset some people. To which you hear the rebuttle of “it’s just a game, keep politics out of it” and then “being a Person of Color isn’t political” and on and on and on.

These, and many more, arguments are just based on a difference of opinion when it comes to the Races in D&D. Is a Race a species, or an ethnicity? Whenever I talk about these topics, I always want to preface by saying I am white/Caucasian, and if I say something inappropriate, please feel free to tell me as such.

Race as Species

When taken at face value, it can easily be understood that the different races are different species, in the way we say “Human Race.” Elves all look similar, and unlike the Humans of Earth, which are both different from Dwarves, or Halflings, and then especially things like Dragonborn and Tieflings.

If we see the different races in D&D as species, then it would make sense why you give Ability Score Improvements based on Race, again, because you expect them to have different natural abilities. Then, it could also make sense that they have genetic alignment, because their natural survival instincts are different, and how they perceive threats is different.

Then, we start talking about Half-elf or Half-orc, where there are a few species that can procreate, such as horses and donkeys making mules. Mules, however, are sterile, and cannot then procreate. These are all super interesting in world building, in how these different species interact with the world and each other.

<Sam Santala>

Race as Ethnicity

However, when we are telling stories about this fictional world, which there is usually a story behind why we are killing monsters, we don’t treat the different races as species. We draw parallels between the fictional world, and our world. There are different countries within your setting, and those countries have their own cultures, which are, more often than not, influenced by the primary race of that country. Often times we see a Human Kingdom, Dwarven Holds, Elvish Lands, and sometimes even more. The Eberron setting is especially noted, as there are the Five (main) Nations, all Human-centric, but then also:

  • Valendar (Elves)
  • Mror Holds (Dwarves)
  • Talenta Plains (halflings)
  • Zilargo (gnomes)
  • Shadow Marches (orcs)
  • Eldeen Reaches (shifters)
  • Darguun (goblins)
  • Q’barra (lizardfolk)
  • Demon Wastes (fiends)
  • and Droaam (monsters)

So when you include different nations for different races, it really starts to pull into the side where a race is an ethnicity. They are all people, but with different cultures, governments, and belief systems. Once that happens, then saying that some people are inherently smarter than others, or more evil than others, it quickly turns into something else. Suddenly we have the racism that is too familiar to the real world.

It can be hard to see, too, when Humans are treated as the default, because western culture treats Caucasian as the default skin tone. When there is a similarity between the physical attributes between a fantasy race and a stereotypical ethnicity, then calling that race “strong, but not smart” is objectively a bad thing.

Also, this can be difficult for people who are children of mixed backgrounds (parents of two different ethnicities). The new rules remove Half-elf and Half-orc as options, and instead say that you can be a mix of any two races, but choose the mechanics of one, no mixing. Is this a good thing, because it normalizes people of multiple ethnic backgrounds, not ostracizing them? Or is this a bad thing, because it removes what makes them unique, and forces them to pick one side or the other as what they “really” are. You can be superficially Half-Dwarf Half-Human, but you’re just a Human who’s stocky. That’s minimizing someone’s heritage, and isn’t great.

So next time you are having a disagreement with someone regarding how the differences of Race are handled in D&D, take a moment to define your terms. Do you each see Race in D&D as a species or an ethnicity? If it is ethnicity, at what point does it become a species difference? Are Goblins an ethnicity, or Genasi, or Aasimar, or Githyanki? All of these answers are correct, and this is something that should be addressed at a Session 0, but if two people don’t have this framework, they can easily say something unintentionally terrible to the other person. It’s just a game, but art and stories are the way we interpret the world around us, and can be very important to us, more than just the rolling dice and killing monsters.

<Sam Santala>

In your world does Race mean Species or Ethnicity? Let me know in the comments below!

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