D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—7. D&D changes the game’s original handling of races and humanoids

When D&D creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax adopted the word race for the playable species in D&D, they used the term in the same sense as the human race. More commonly, “race” refers to human groups who share superficial traits common to their ancestry, and that use recalls a long history of people using ancestry and appearance to justify mistreating and exploiting people. The choice of the word “race” weighed the game with problems that lasted until today. And D&D’s issues with race go beyond the baggage that weighs on the word.

“In the old days, elves and dwarves and some of the other playable options were very much the product of folklore, and in folklore, elves and dwarves were embodied metaphor,” said D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “They were metaphors for different aspects of the human psyche. So elves were often associated with more elevated lofty aspects of the human psyche. Dwarves were often associated with the industriousness that some people manifest.” If fairy tales, these metaphors became talking creatures. “You can meet a demon that’s embodied evil. You can meet an angel that’s embodied good. You can meet a dwarf that’s the embodiment of industriousness and hardiness.”

Often gamers enjoy playing metaphors and relish taking the role of an ale-loving, hammer-smacking dwarf who craves gold. Sometimes gamers like to play characters who stand out for their unique qualities, such as a dwarf wizard who happens to love tea and gardening. When the D&D team made faeries a playable race, tiny barbarians became widely popular. A chance to play a raging fairy that felt one of a kind delighted players.

Through most of D&D’s history, the rules penalized or blocked players who wanted a character who defied a race’s archetype. At first, rules blocked many combinations of race and class, so a dwarf simply couldn’t become a wizard. Later, the game added racial ability score modifiers that encouraged characters to fit the archetype of their chosen race, so half-orcs gained strength and constitution, but lacked charisma. Originally, half-orcs only excelled as assassins. The modifiers meant a player who wanted to play something like a dwarf wizard had to settle for a less efficient character. Most players disliked suffering a penalty just to play a certain combination of race and class.

Also, ability score modifiers raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. D&D’s unfortunate use of the word “race” makes those reminders far more powerful. D&D races can include robot-like warforged, tiny fairies with wings, and humanoid dragons that breathe fire and lay eggs, but they all represent sorts of people in the game world.

In 2020, the D&D team decided that some of the game’s rules and lore aimed at treating non-human game people as metaphors had to go. To “pave the way for truly unique characters,” Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything stopped linking ability modifiers to race. Now, players could create a dwarf wizard with a green thumb without settling for a less efficient build than a similar character who happened to be an elf.

Players also wanted game people to have just as much potential to be good and virtuous—or to be wicked—as real people.

Humans have a knack for imagining human-like qualities for animals, monsters, and even inanimate objects like desk lamps. When a human-like character also shares qualities associated with a human group, we tend to imagine that that character as part of the group, so a cartoon truck with eyelashes and a bow seems female. When imaginary creatures share qualities associated with real human groups, this tendency can create troubling associations. For example, Gary Gygax created drow to resemble the photo-negative of Tolkien’s elves. Instead of having dark hair and white skin, drow featured white hair and black skin. A dark-skinned race characterized as evil without exception creates a troubling association. Drow are imaginary, and Gygax never intended to link drow to real races, but the association remains. Suppose you read a children’s book featuring imaginary talking dogs. In the tale, all the golden dogs are good and pure, while all the brown dogs are wicked and savage. Instead of thinking, “Well, they’re just imaginary talking dogs,” you would say, “Oh, hell no,” before hurling the book across the room.

The D&D team wrote, “Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”

This belief shows in the alignments listed for creatures in the game. The 2014 Monster Manual listed drow and orcs as evil, but newer books characterize them as having “any alignment.” Even demons and angels now get “typical” alignments rather than unvarying ones. Some of this just reflects an extra emphasis. The 2014 Monster Manual already explained that “the alignment specified in a monster’s stat block is the default. Feel free to depart from it and change a monster’s alignment to suit the needs of your campaign.”

More recently, the D&D team announced that the 2024 update to the game would scrap the term race, likely in favor of the word species. Unlike races, the differences between character species go beyond superficial, so the term “species” fits better, even if its flavor seems a bit scientific for a fantasy game.

Some folks have pointed out that the word “species” brings as much historical baggage as “race,” because real world racists once pretended that people who looked different were different species, and then used that as a way to justify all sorts of injustices. Still, “species” likely rates as the best of all the imperfect options.

The controversy came from different perspectives. Some gamers favored characters that fit mythic archetypes—a valid preference. Some gamers loved the D&D they grew up with and felt angry about any changes that implied the old game included elements that felt racist. Some gamers wanted a game with unalterably evil humanoids, so young and old orcs could be killed without question. And many just followed an allegiance to their ideological team and raged at change.

Next: Number 6.

Related: How D&D’s Rules Changed To Encourage More Varied Groups of Heroes Than Those in the Pulp Fantasy That Inspired the Game

11 thoughts on “D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—7. D&D changes the game’s original handling of races and humanoids

  1. Geoffrey Greer

    At 15 years old, I was extremely grateful for AD&D (2e) if for no other reason than various “races” could be mixed and matched with any “class.” It simply didn’t make sense to me the other way. As we all continue to grown I like the idea of moving away from the word “race” and the limitations that have traditionally been imposed. However, I’m not sure the word “species” makes any more sense. Issues of humanitarianism aside, to use that word in this case is simply incorrect from a biological standpoint. For the most part, a given “species” cannot interbreed and create viable offspring with a member of a different “species.” They are different kinds of animals/plants altogether, insofar as living things are different from one another. That is certainly not the kind of D&D world we are creating/imagining as a fan base. “Half-this” and “half-that” characters are extremely common and very popular. Perhaps a better term would simply be “lineage” or “heritage”…?

    1. Marty

      I’d almost prefer “half” races went away.

      The original idea of the half orcs is pretty bad since it was generally considered a consequence of sexual assault (I think it was even heavily implied if not stated outright in the books).

      The half elf is only marginally better since it implies that mixed-race “exoticism” which is also icky if you follow that trail down the rabbit hole.

      It’s would be better if these were separate Species without any genetic compatibility.

      An 18 STR Fairy is still ridiculous, though.

      1. Geoffrey Greer

        That’s an interesting point and I appreciate it. With the mechanics of the game shifting towards “species” having no bearing whatsoever on stats, then maybe there will be no need to designate “half” anything as a label, since a PC’s species (didn’t mean for that to rhyme, LOL) will have little to no impact on game mechanics and will simply be an element of narrative enrichment, just like other aesthetic components like hair/eye/skin color and the like. We may be moving towards a version of the game where it is no longer a dual-axis (race + class) build, but back to a single axis build: class only (+ subclass). This is somewhat poetic and full-circle, I think, since the 1e had only a single-axis build, but one that was contaminated by fixed race/species assignments.

        Nice discussion, thank you. 🙂

    2. Tarmor

      3rd Edition allowed any class & race; 2nd still had the restrictions on what class each race could be. I agree with the point on species – I’d be just as happy to have no half-elves, half-orcs, etc.

  2. Tarmor

    Race was a bad choice for term, but I think that some of the “associations” with real-life cultures is overblown. In 40 years of playing D&D and other RPGs I’ve only ever seen/heard comments about this on-line in the last decade. I never saw that specific bonuses/penalties to “races” held anyone back in whatever edition – unless you had to assign stats in the order they were rolled. I’ve always seen players put a high roll to a stat with a penalty if that was something they “needed”. Personally, I like the idea that all dwarves (for example) are tougher from early editions, but I’d be inclined to reduce penalties. A good article in any case David.

    1. Old Sage

      Exactly right. Having played since the 1980s myself, all of this recent puritanical pearl-clutching about race in D&D is a solution in search of a problem.

  3. Xiru

    I guess would be better to just sell the D&D franchise to Disney at once. The developers should be a little more concerned about why Larian Studios had to fix their system in Baldurs Gate 3. Or maybe in why the main changes that have refreshed the system in the recent years are obviously inspired by Pathfinder 2ed.
    O fantasy world with no racism and outcasts? So we are protecting people from this topics? RPG games always have been a great opportunity for people to address these topics and learn from them.
    A world with no “half” races because they suggest “icky” stuff? So people in fantasy worlds are sexually attracted only for the personality of other, is that? Maybe we should forbid kings from having young wifes too. Oh! And queens should never have slave lovers. You know, Icky stuff. The female barbarian that was into halflings in the recent DnD movie? “Icky”.
    I really don’t get it. One thing is to adjust things to not hurt susceptibilities. But we don’t need to pasteurize everything.
    (I am not a native speaker, so sorry for any mistakes)

  4. backcountry164

    Tolkien used the word race to humanize what were, at the time, largely considered to be fairy tale monsters. To make those characters more relatable to readers.
    He succeeded. So much so that his original intent has been twisted by people who need to spend more time looking in the mirror…

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