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.