World Building 3 – Race and Racism in Tabletop RPGs

This is more of a thought piece on how to incorporate real-world issues realistically into the fantasy worlds of our tabletop RPGs. Scholars of popular culture from Henry Jenkins to the present have long noted that we can use such conflicts in fictional worlds to discuss similar issues in our own world. Heck, we all know that Star Trek was meant to show how all of us could work together for a more utopian future, but even it wasn’t free from stereotypes that revolved around “race” or “species”. We all know the character development that Legolas and Gimli displayed during the Lord of the Rings shows that, when handled with maturity, such issues can be fruitful for stories and possibly our own development. So, I just want to put down some thoughts I’ve had and things I’ve learned from mistakes as both a player and a DM regarding race and racism. And, if I’m honest, much of what I say here is informed by many of things I learned while working toward my MA in Anthropology.

Definition. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, race is defined as “(a) A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them. (b) A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the Celtic race.”

Race. Both of these definitions play a role in how the “races” are presented in various fantastic Tabletop RPG systems – fantasy, science fiction, etc. Think about any standard fantasy RPG. We recognize the Elf by the beautiful features, slender frames, and pointy ears. We recognize the Dwarf by shortness and stoutness of stature, the “dour demeanor”, and the thick, bushy beards. It’s what we expect, and, while “race” has been deconstructed by numerous scholars, it’s a concept that people do understand. This plays into our RPGs (and for any discussion of the mechanical impact of these definitions, I will use the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook as the basis for examples) with traits like Elves having “Keen Senses” and “Fey Ancestry” or Dwarves having “Dwarven Resilience (vs. poison).” By virtue of their genetic legacy, these are traits shared by all Elves and Dwarves

The second definition, which discusses how people are classified by history and culture, is where assumptions begin to be made. This category includes the “Elven/Dwarven Weapon Training” and even the languages a character begins play knowing. Why? Such “racial traits” assume upbringing in a culture where the specific race is dominant.  Think about it this way: my mother’s family is from Germany and my father’s family is from Alcase-Lorraine (a border region that, depending on who had more power, was either French or German territory). By the logic of RPG racial descriptions, I should be born with both French and German cultural knowledge including both languages. And honestly, if a Human or Dwarf grew up in a culture where Elves were the dominant people group, then, technically, they would be likely to have “Elven Weapon Training” due to being raised in such a culture.

By the time I was born, however, neither French nor German was spoken by anyone in my family who was still alive. I learned both of these languages in school – not at home. This is the story of many immigrants to numerous countries – within a few generations, assimilation into the “new country” can be so “complete” that members of the family no longer hold to cultural traditions from the “old country”.  I realize that it’s easier to create generic rules for “racial traits” than to create traits for numerous cultures. I’ve tried; it’s extremely time consuming and tedious. Also, these “racial traits” that assume cultures are divided by race have been tropes in fantasy and science fiction since at least Professor Tolkien wrote his novels.

But worlds are far more complex. Cultural contact leads to diffusion of ideas and inventions that may blend traits of the cultures involved. When an empire is formed, it may or may not squelch the beliefs and practices of those it conquers. A particular faith may work to destroy belief in “heretical” (read, “any other”) faith in the lands it dominates. A minority people may assume the beliefs, habits, and speech patterns of the dominant culture in order to gain cultural and economic capital. A people enslaved by another may have their culture stripped from them by force, and generations later, after their freedom, those remaining may struggle to regain a sense of who they are/were. These are all events/practices/occurrences that have been well documented in our world history, so, if we want to breathe a sense of life into our fictional worlds, then we must consider these as probabilities in the histories of those worlds. Correct?

Racism. Racism involves discrimination and prejudice based on supposed differences in morality that one assumes members of a particular group all share. When we think of racism, we often think of the glaring examples: the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses and performing lynchings or the Nazis performing genocide. These are the examples that are easy to spot, and in the fantasy world, this would be equivalent to an Elven tavern denying service to Dwarves (or other non-Elves) or an Elf looking a Dwarf in the eyes and calling them a “morally deficient violent drunk”. These are easy-to-spot examples, and, while they do happen, most racist actions are harder to spot. Let’s look at the way the PHB describes how Elves view Dwarves as a point of discussion.

Dwarves. “Dwarves are dull, clumsy oafs. But what they lack in humor, sophicstication, and manners, they make up for in valor. And I must admit, their best smiths produce art that approaches elven quality.” (PHB, 23)

A glaring racist would just say this to a Dwarf. However, more subtle displays of the Elven attitude toward the Dwarven race could easily include the following:

  • Lack of Humor: An Elf takes the time to slowly explain a joke he or she just told to ensure that the Dwarf understands why it’s funny.
  • Lack of Sophistication: An elf explains any form of learning or cultural art/artifice, because “a Dwarf clearly lacks the capacity of mind to understand and appreciate such things without our help.” (Though the Elf would never say that unless pressed for an explanation of behavior)
  • Lack of Manners: An Elf may excuse a Dwarven violation of the rules of polite society is “because these people do not understand the manners of civilized society” instead of a Dwarf who has never engaged with the social world of a particular culture.
  • Smithing: An Elf may assume that a Dwarven smith’s work “should be better than it is, because ‘Aren’t all Dwarves good at smithing?”

These are just a few examples that some may term “Elfsplaining”, but they show how many people take a benevolent view to actions that can be seen as racist. “This isn’t about me discriminating – it’s about me helping them, because of who they are.” This is more subtle, but it displays the prejudice that someone may hold for a particular group of people. Remember: a Human can be polite and friendly when talking to a Halfling while subconsciously holding their coin purse in case this is “one of those Halflings”.

That’s one thing I do love about the 5th Edition PHB – it offers ideas for bringing out the views a certain race has toward other races that aren’t always glaring examples of racism but still display the prejudices that people of a culture are likely to learn as they grow from childhood to adulthood.  These are far more common than the more glaring examples of racism that spring to people’s minds when the subject is broached in conversation. Although, if your PCs venture into small, isolated/nearly isolated villages, they may experience glaring examples of racism. The same can happen in large cities in certain districts or depending on the current political climate of your world.

Player Tips. When creating your character, think honestly about how this individual views other races. They don’t have to be a bitter, vile person who spews racial slurs and attacks others on sight (that’s a bit extreme), but they may act on a few prejudices in what may be subconscious ways (many people don’t notice when they do things like cross the street or run faster to “stay away” from members of a particular race until someone points it out to them). This may impact how your character interacts with both other PCs and NPCs throughout the world. Returning to the example of Legolas and Gimli, this offers your character a chance for personal growth throughout a campaign as your character either (a) changes their views based upon interaction, (b) does not change their views despite (or because of) interactions, or (c) grows more strident in their views due to interactions.

How? A simplified timeline could be something like this:  Act I (holds prejudice and acts upon it subtly – even after it’s pointed out) – Act II (begins to view a particular member of a race as an “exception” to the rule – aka the “Good Dwarf”) – Act III (begins to realize that their beliefs may actually be wrong and starts to change).  Notice how I typed “and starts to change”? Changing beliefs and behaviors is difficult, so it shouldn’t be something your character just wakes up and does. Make it a slow process. We don’t change our behaviors instantly, so don’t force such change on your characters.

GM Tips. There are a few things that can be done as a GM or DM. First, we can seek out settings (or build our own) that move away from the “one race nation” models so common in fantasy and science fiction. I know it’s an easy and familiar trope, and, on some level, it does make sense. But consider having a campaign start in a more cosmopolitan nation/city-state. Or maybe have areas that were once the “Nation of the Elves/Dwarves/Gnomes/etc.” but has since become a more (even slightly more) mixed nation. I know that the nation I’ve been building on my World Building series isn’t the best example, but it’s also the only example of such a nation going into the world of Iverune.

What about NPC interaction? As a GM/DM, we have lots of options here. If the players venture into a small town that is predominantly one race (which can happen), consider what tales of these other races the villagers may have heard. Perhaps these strangers will be the subject of curious children or rumors at the tavern. Perhaps shopkeepers or the local constabulary will watch them closely, paying more attention to members of the minority group than to others while insisting that it’s because “you’re all outsiders here and there have been a ‘string of robberies/break-ins/assaults/murders’ lately”. Perhaps there will be state-sanctioned discrimination/violence against members of certain minority races – although, if this is possible, I’ve learned it best to warn the PCs in Session Zero that this could potentially occur.

Communication. Communication is the key. If you’re a player whose character will hold prejudices that may be directed toward another player’s character, communicate this with that player so that it’s clear that no ill will is meant toward them. Also, it gives them a chance to respond as their character would see fit. GMs/DMs, communicate any necessary information about the setting and NPC views on race that might directly impact the players’ characters. I would suggest not saying “these people hold the following prejudice(s) about this particular race”. Instead, I suggest describing the actions in a way that conveys the attitudes.

Final Thoughts. Race, Prejudice, and Racism are sensitive topics for a lot of people. While fantastic settings give us a way to discuss these issues with a level of abstraction from our reality, we still need to be sensitive to how these things are approached. As I’ve just said, communication is the key. But, if we think about how race and cultural beliefs about race intertwine in our own history, we can build worlds and characters that can both perform these attitudes and hold the possibility for growth and change.

Thoughts? Other social issues that you think can be discussed in Tabletop RPGs?