Howling Tower: Racial Discrimination

Howling Tower: Racial Discrimination

(Artist: Roelof Jansz. van Vries)No, not that type of discrimination.

Fantasy roleplayers love their nonhuman races. What started in AD&D with elves, dwarves, halflings, half-elves, and half-orcs has mushroomed into dozens of player-character races in RPGs. Players seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for more races to dabble with. The choices have expanded from humans through the so-called demihumans and well into subhuman, suprahuman, inhuman, and not-the-least-bit human.

Yet, in too many cases, they’re all still basically human.

Science fiction stories, films, TV shows, and RPGs have long been criticized for offering alien species that are little more than humans with unfortunate skin conditions and unfashionable clothes. In RPGs, racial characteristics manifested along the lines of “yiktiks are prone to drama and are drawn to bright lights; they get a +2 bonus to Charm, –1 to Common Sense, and +1 damage with lasers.”

When you’re talking about an alien species, it’s easy to see the failure in such a shallow description. As science fiction fans have matured, authors and game designers have learned to give their aliens real depth. Psychological and cultural differences receive as much or more emphasis than physical characteristics.

What about elves, dwarves, and halflings—or the more extreme cases of gnolls and kobolds? Sadly, uninspiring treatments seem to still be the norm in fantasy settings. Perhaps a human and an elf aren’t so dissimilar to begin with. After all, they can interbreed, implying that they’re no more different than German shepherds and Chinese pugs. You could argue that, but it isn’t a very satisfying answer.

Biology might be a reasonable basis for assigning Strength and Wisdom modifiers. A Clydesdale is stronger than a Morgan, but the Morgan is faster and a Lipizzan is (probably) smarter. But are those the differences we really care about as roleplayers? When you choose to play a drow in Pathfinder, is it because a drow can cast dancing lights, darkness, and faerie fire once per day, or because you enjoy roleplaying a character with the drow’s unique background? The purely mechanical reason is enough for some players, but it misses the point, I think. It lacks roleplaying panache.

I don’t mean to pick the scab off the Stormwind Fallacy here. I do believe that fantasy races deserve more compelling narratives. I’d like to see them treated the way the best SF RPGs handle alien races. The culture, psychology, and sociology of elves and dwarves, or of fetchlings and gripplis, are more interesting than their cleverness with longbows or their nimbleness while wading through muck, from a roleplaying perspective. Choosing to play an elf in D&D should carry the same roleplaying weight as choosing to play an aslan or a hiver in Traveller or a kerrn in Burning Empires. A dwarf or a half-orc doesn’t simply favor some careers over others and have an affinity for oddly shaped weapons that humans don’t often use. Rather, dwarves and half-orcs see the world differently from humans. They have different cultural values. They want different things. They react differently. They think differently.

This doesn’t need to be baked into a set of rules. Any GM can lay down cultural and racial parameters for his or her campaign world. If the GM doesn’t do it, players can create their own. The goal is to treat race less as a secondary character trait and more as a foreground element that is defined by, and in turn further defines, the setting.

About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!

18 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Racial Discrimination”

  1. Probably the easiest way is to think of different races as different countries. As a player, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of playing an alien, but I can act like a German. And that’s how I roleplay a dwarf.

  2. The only thing I’m against is every different race needing different mechanics. I’d be happy differentiating races entirely by backstory, and allowing players to pick any race they want without mechanical disadvantage for their class or role.

  3. Absolutely agree with you here, Steve. It’s one of the reasons I’ve endeavored to write full Complete-style books for the fantasy races of my homebrew setting. It’s very difficult to play truly different race (and they are different, otherwise they are just a kind of man) and you need help to accomplish it.

    I find the same is true of strange and alien cultures of MEN; as a historian, I am often put in the place of attempting to understand a totally alien historical culture. I am actually writing an essay about that right now, that’s how much I agree with you.

  4. One thing I recommend is treating races as different cultures. Either that, or treating them as you understand other species. Wolves don’t think like us, treating your orcs as wolf people can lead to a different experience.

  5. Mechanics: The more time goes by, the less I want rules to intrude into my character. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that before long, once my thoughts congeal into a tasty gelatin.

    Historical cultures: You don’t need to look far to find plenty of examples of humans who have a hard time understanding each other, or liking each other, for purely cultural reasons. I actually miss AD&D’s reaction modifiers based on race.

    On Species: We probably would be further ahead if D&D had used the term species instead of race. I like the idea of assigning animal characteristics. It’s similar to the linked article that suggests choosing a universal human trait and flipping it 180 degrees.

  6. Arguably the original D&D rules enforced cultural difference in the racial level caps. Why can’t they go higher? They can’t sustain the aberration that is adventuring and have to return to cultural norms. These caps were disliked, often ignored, but they did imply that elves were not just humans with pointy ears.

  7. You hit a most important point here, Steve. In my humble opinion what is most confusing is that DnD and many follower RPGs speak of races instead of species, and that DnD is in its rules made for Gamists and not Simulationists or Narrativists (well the whole GNS-Theory is an other discussion and how much sense such a distinction at all makes).

    My fascination with RPGs is exactly what you, and others here, have mentioned to get under the skin of another person, another culture, and in extremis another, non-human, species. Stats, feats, skills are but one part of this experience, how you see the world, what your progenitors or educators have told you on how to behave to your environment, what to belief, THIS is what it means to ROLE PLAY.

    Let’s enjoy this absolute unique possibility to the best we can, and yes, each group in its own and unique way. There is no the right or the wrong way, only the fitting way for each and everyone.

  8. Well dang. :P I’m trying to dabble in coming up with different ways of thinking based on pretty much just this, but spread out to even the different monster types (like how fey think, or demons, etc). Gonna ponder over it some, see if I can get the wording to be not-horrible, then maybe pitch it. :)

  9. I believe if the game has rules to deal with cultural and personal identity – and it shall have if these things are an important part of the game – the racial (species’) traits should be well baked in a set of appropriate rules.

    It’s always been strange for me to see games whose important aspects are not included in the rules but just suggested by its text, even emphatically. If it’s a rules-light game the important aspects shall be the focus of it’s text and if there are any rules, they should also focus on these important aspects, not leave them unsupported, free-floating.

  10. Great article, Steve. I’ve been thinking about this for some RPG noodling I’m doing lately myself, and reading your piece really crystalized a bunch of half-formed thoughts. Thank you.

    Because I like to play devil’s advocate: I wonder if the trend in games to focus on mechanical differences comes down to the `PCs are outliers’ issue? I saw some discussion around this concept a month or two back, around the question (very loosely) “Should dwarves get bonuses with axes?”.

    Bringing up the drow as an example is interesting, since the drow have transformed over time from a purely antagonist species into a (the?) go-to selfish antihero breeding ground. I wonder how much of this happened because of the proliferation of Drizzt-alikes and let’s say `very strong’ mechanics, and how much came from the fact that they had (have?) a relatively strong, unusual story?

  11. To accomplish a distinctive race feeling, I include a large non-RPG friendly rule to each mayor race.
    I.E Elves are high death-phobics; that means, if they cause the death of any living creature, that could cause them to faint. There are not a hard rule about that, just it is left to player’s interpretation. That means that elves PC will take a lot of actions to avoid cause the death of any creature in play.
    Dwarf can talk to any dead ancestor; all the lifes of the their ancestors are coded in their blood, and they can relive (Assasin’s creed like) any adventure that their ancestor lived. That means that to live as a Dwarf PC you need to permanent negotiate every actions with a host of “in their head” PNJs.
    Dragons (yes, we play with dragons as a playable PC race, balance be dammed) have monetary requirement in order to gain a level. In the order to reach 3rd level, they must gain at least one millon gold pieces. That means that Dragon’s PC are inhumanly greedy.

  12. While I agree that it would be nice to see more cultural differences between races, I believe the current system of non-differentiation came by player demand as well. In many older games, race dictated class, role, and alignment. This was frustrating to many players as they wanted to play characters they imagined, yet which were prohibited by the rules.

    Dwarf who uses magic? Nope.
    Elven martial artist? Nope.
    Good subterranean character? Nope.

    It’s difficult to strike a balance between thoroughly written races with personality, and allowing players the freedom to make what they like.

  13. @Mandramas: Excellent set of ideas. Could we talk you into writing up your whole list and submitting it as a web article? Exactly as you’ve done with these three races/species would be great. :)

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