Recently, the library I work at posted an interesting article to its social media: a piece from Wired entitled “D&D Must Grapple With the Racism in Fantasy.” This article sparked some discussion among students as well as staff, including a lengthy conversation with one of my fellow librarians. As a writer and avid reader of fantasy, as well as a D&D player, I realized that I had a lot of thoughts on the issue, and especially with the way that the Wired article addresses them.
First and foremost, it’s irresponsible to ignore the racist and sexist underpinnings of fantasy. That’s not to say that fantasy as a genre is racist and sexist--far from it; there are numerous authors who use fantasy as a way to comment on, escape, or even reject the prejudices that permeate the real world. It’s in the origins of fantasy that we find some troubling ideas. J.R.R. Tolkien, considered by many to be the father of modern fantasy, wrote extensively on the inspirations behind the races of Middle Earth, and scholars have spent decades dissecting his work. Many scholars agree that there are problematic racial stereotypes within The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is most notable in the way that Tolkien characterizes certain races of his world, particularly the Orcs. In a letter, Tolkien admitted that Orcs were meant to represent “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” This reflects what John Magoun called a “moral geography” in Middle Earth: the west (which includes the Shire, Gondor, Rohan, etc.) is civilized, while the east (realms like Mordor, Harad, and Rhun) is barbaric. The parallels between this and the imperialist ideas of Tolkien’s day should be obvious.
Even the more heroic races of Middle Earth are not without their associations. In the years following the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien was clear about the parallels between his Dwarves and the Jews, even stating that the Dwarvish language is Semitic in construction. He and others have drawn additional parallels, though there is some debate as to whether these parallels are meant to dispel antisemitic stereotypes or reinforce them. Matt Lebovic of the Times of Israel sees the parallel as largely heroic, and a rewrite of the antisemitic themes found in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Scholars like Renée Vink, writing for the journal Tolkien Studies, find the portrayal largely negative, citing in particular the creation myth for the Dwarves and its parallel to Christian ideas toward Jews at the time of Tolkien’s writing.
I could go on, but the focus of this discussion is meant to be on Dungeons & Dragons. Suffice it to say that Tolkien’s mythology, though wonderful and foundational for the genre, has its racist underpinnings, and those threads have endured, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in the decades that have followed. The publishers of D&D, Wizards of the Coast, have acknowledged their perpetuation of some of these stereotypes, and are constantly working to improve their product to be more sensitive and inclusive. The question here, then, is not if the works that inspired D&D are racist, but if D&D perpetuates these problematic ideas. The short answer to this is yes, but the longer answer is that doesn’t necessarily have to. My issue with the Wired article linked above is how it addresses this caveat.
One of the article's main points of contention is with the racial bonuses built into the game’s rules. For the edification of non-players: all player characters, nonplayer characters (NPCs), and monsters within the D&D universe have six ability scores--strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma--that impact their skills and dice rolls made with regard to those skills. These scores can range from 1 (abysmal) to 20 (exceptional), with the average being 10. For reference, a commoner (which is used as the basis for most human NPCs players encounter) has scores of 10 in every category. This establishes 10 as the baseline. Though the numbers offer a quantitative expression of these abilities, the baseline of 10 shows that these abilities are relative. A cat, for example, has an intelligence of 3 (much lower than that of the average human) but a dexterity of 15 (much greater than the average human). While players get the freedom to determine their own ability scores when creating a character (there are several methods for doing this fairly; each DM has their own preference), these scores are supplemented by racial bonuses, modifiers applied to ability scores based on the player’s chosen race for their character. Humans, being versatile, get a +1 to every ability. Elves, being quicker and more agile, get +2 to their dexterity score. Half-Orcs get a +2 to their strength and a +1 to constitution. Each race has their own unique benefits, but none of the 43 playable races in the current rules receive a penalty to any ability.
The article describes these bonuses as “lore-sanctioned stereotyping,” but based on the way that NPCs and monsters use the same ability scores, I would argue that it’s less a matter of stereotyping and more a matter of physiology/biology. By incorporating racial bonuses, it seems to me that the game isn’t so much saying “all orcs are strong,” but rather “based on biology, orcs tend, on average, to be stronger than other sentient humanoids.” It’s easy, given both the language that the game uses and the fact that our real world has only a single sentient humanoid species (humans), to equate its use of “race” with our own. It would be more accurate to think of the races of D&D as “species.” Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, etc. are all sentient humanoid species, but on a biological level, they are different from humans. They have different physiologies. It’s not a stereotype to say that a cheetah is faster than a human, or a gorilla is stronger, or a polar bear is tougher. It’s a relative comparison, and we should think of D&D’s races the same way.
The other aspect of this that the article minimizes is player agency. The article argues that racial bonuses push players toward certain class and race combinations. And yes, there is definite temptation for players to pair their choice of race with a class that will benefit from those bonuses. Because of their bonuses to strength and constitution, and their lore-based propensity toward violence and savagery, the article points out that orcs make excellent Barbarians. This is true. As a martial class, Barbarians benefit from having high strength and constitution. However, Fighter and Paladin are also martial classes, and also perform better with high strength and constitution scores, and while this is an aspect shared by all three classes, each of these three have wildly different abilities and roleplaying recommendations. A Barbarian is a savage fighter, like the Viking berserker, who fights with wild abandon. By contrast, a Paladin is a disciplined champion of their chosen god, sworn to fight for ideals like truth, justice, and freedom. The racial bonuses of an orc are suited for both, but the playstyles of each class are vastly different.
But though the higher strength and constitution of Orcs and Half-Orcs are naturally suited for a martial class, there’s absolutely nothing in the rules that prevents any race from playing any class. The player has the final say in the matter, not only in which race and class they choose, but also where they choose to put their ability scores. They can choose to play into the strengths of the chosen race or reject them, based on their choice of class, character background, alignment, and (perhaps most importantly) the decisions they make as they level up and progress through their adventure.
A good analogy for this is the nature vs. nurture debate. We are all products of our biology; there are inborn traits that we all have that we can’t help, but we change and develop based on what we’re exposed to as we grow. Player decisions are the nurture to the nature of racial bonuses. While some players might find it limiting that certain races are predisposed toward certain classes, many players enjoy the challenge, and constantly find new ways to innovate and craft unique, engaging characters.
The latest supplement for the 5th Edition, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, does something to alleviate these limitations. It provides a new way of allocating racial bonuses, allowing the players to shift things around to better suit their character’s class or background. It also paves the way for players to create their own variants on existing races or entirely new races--a process that always existed in an unofficial capacity (known as “homebrew”), but was only permitted by certain DMs in certain circumstances, and usually was difficult to balance properly in the game’s mechanics. TCE resolves this, providing an easy path for balanced homebrew. Wired quotes blogger Graeme Barber, who calls these “minor, superficial changes” and derides the supplement by reminding his readers that “optional rules are optional.”
This last statement in particular struck me as odd, because any person could use that same logic to dismiss practically any rule in the Dungeons & Dragons handbook. One of the perennial allures of the game is its freedom and adaptability. The rules exist as written to help facilitate and balance the game, but they are intended to serve primarily as guidelines. In the preface to the Player’s Handbook, the backbone text of the Edition, co-lead of the project Mike Mearls writes that “D&D is your personal center of the universe, a place where you have free reign to do as you wish.” This is reinforced in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which openly declares that “the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them.” Yes, the rules provided in supplements are optional, but by the admission of Wizards of the Coast, so are all of the others. For Barber to dismiss TCE simply because he feels it doesn’t go far enough is a bit silly. The rules are not the be-all-end-all. They are merely a basis. By the very parameters of the game, he is free to ignore or expand upon them as he and his DM please.
At the end of the day, Dungeons & Dragons is an evolving game. The rules provide a foundation for play, but the players and the DM have the freedom and the authority to do what they wish with that foundation. It’s important to acknowledge and reckon with the problematic elements of D&D’s inspirations, but to assume that players will fail to see these issues, or willingly reinforce them, is extremely shortsighted.
In the PHB preface, Mearls writes, “The first characters and adventures you create will probably be a collection of cliches. [...] Accept this reality and move on to create the second character or adventure, which will be better, and then the third, which will be better still.” We all have preconceived notions of fantasy, and these notions are the basis for much of Dungeons & Dragons, and as a result many players might find themselves reinforcing them when they first sit down to a table. My first character was a Dwarf Cleric, which would be considered an optimal race and class pairing. Most players I know started with a similarly ideal pairing, simply because they approach D&D the same way they approach every other game: with strategy and an aim to win. But D&D is not like other games. The object is to play. Whether you complete the adventure or die horrifically along the way, you succeed as long as you enjoy the experience. As Mearls says, this is something that most players don’t realize until they play, and once they come to this realization, they begin to formulate new characters, and new ways to approach the game, and these are often wild and strange and totally at odds with notions of “optimization.”
One of my favorite anecdotes from the D&D world is one that I’ve seen circulating online. Players and DMs trade stories constantly, and as a result are constantly inspiring one another to innovation. This story concerns a player who chose to create a Half-Orc Rogue. Rogues are thieves and assassins, masters of stealth and subterfuge. Half-Orcs gain no innate bonus to dexterity (a rogue’s primary ability). This player made his character enormous, and put absolutely no points into stealth. What he did, however, was capitalize on the fact that Half-Orcs have innate proficiency in the intimidation skill, and bulked up his proficiency there. Whenever he was caught trying to sneak somewhere (which happened frequently), he would shout “YOU DO NOT SEE ME” in an attempt to intimidate NPCs into compliance. Because of his high skill, these efforts usually worked. By the standards of the game, this would not be considered optimal or traditional, but I’m sure that the player and his party enjoyed every second of it, and that’s what matters.
This conversation is an important one to have. We should all--players, DMs, and non players alike--be aware of the problematic origins of these high fantasy elements. That awareness can help encourage us to break free of the tropes, and create new, imaginative characters that subvert and twist or openly reject these tropes. Orcs in Middle-Earth may have been intended as metaphors for the “Yellow Peril” when Tolkien wrote them, but the beauty of metaphors is that they are polyvalent.
Which brings me to my final point, and, fittingly, one that draws heavily from Tolkien. The fundamental purpose of fantasy, as Tolkien himself often asserted, was escapism, a temporary consolation from the ills of the real world. This is true of games like D&D, which not only offer the traditional escapist benefits of all fantasy, but also, through player agency, provide an exercise in wish fulfillment and power fantasy. Players can be whoever and whatever they wish. They can be stronger, wiser, more agile; they can hurl powerful spells, transform into beasts, and perform feats of superhuman prowess. In D&D, we can try out a different identity just for a little while, or even play as an ideal version of ourselves. Is it any wonder that D&D has such a devoted following in the LGBT community? Tolkien and those who came after him may have intended their creatures to mean one thing or another, but once those creatures are sent out into the world, they cease to belong to their authors and instead belong to us.
Virginia Woolf said that the only advice we can give each other on reading “is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. [...] To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions--there we have none.” D&D, I would argue, could be added to that. We enter a world of our own creation when we play. Though we use the words and inventions of others (whether of Tolkien, Wizards of the Coast, or some ancient mythology), what we do with those inventions is our own. The DM is the only authority--to admit any other would destroy the illusion. These creatures are ours, and they can mean whatever we want them to mean.
As Freud might have said (if he played D&D): sometimes, an Orc is just an Orc.