Do We Still Need "Race" in D&D?

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The term "race" is a staple of fantasy that is now out of sync with modern usage. With Pathfinder shifting from "race" to "ancestry" in its latest edition, it raises the question: should fantasy games still use it?

“Race” and Modern Parlance

We previously discussed the challenges of representing real-life cultures in a fantasy world, with African and Asian countries being just two examples. The discussion becomes more complicated with fantasy "races"—historically, race was believed to be determined by the geographic arrangement of populations. Fantasy gaming, which has its roots in fantasy literature, still uses the term “race” this way.

Co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax cited R.E. Howard's Conan series as an influence on D&D, which combines Lovecraftian elements with sword and sorcery. Howard's perceptions may have been a sign of the times he lived in, but it seems likely they influenced his stories. Robert B. Marks explains just how these stereotypes manifested in Conan's world:

The young, vibrant civilizations of the Hyborian Age, like Aquilonia and Nemedia, are white - the equivalent of Medieval Europe. Around them are older Asiatic civilizations like Stygia and Vendhya, ancient, decrepit, and living on borrowed time. To the northwest and the south are the barbarian lands - but only Asgard and Vanaheim are in any way Viking. The Black Kingdoms are filled with tribesmen evoking the early 20th century vision of darkest Africa, and the Cimmerians and Picts are a strange cross between the ancient Celts and Native Americans - and it is very clear that the barbarians and savages, and not any of the civilized people or races, will be the last ones standing.

Which leads us to the other major fantasy influence, author J.R.R. Tolkien. David M. Perry explains in an interview with Helen Young:

In Middle Earth, unlike reality, race is objectively real rather than socially constructed. There are species (elves, men, dwarves, etc.), but within those species there are races that conform to 19th-century race theory, in that their physical attributes (hair color, etc.) are associated with non-physical attributes that are both personal and cultural. There is also an explicit racial hierarchy which is, again, real in the world of the story.

The Angry GM elaborates on why race and culture were blended in Tolkien's works:

The thing is, in the Tolkienverse, at least, in the Lord of the Rings version of the Tolkienverse (because I can’t speak for what happened in the Cinnabon or whatever that other book was called), the races were all very insular and isolated. They didn’t deal with one another. Race and culture went hand in hand. If you were a wood elf, you were raised by wood elves and lived a thoroughly wood elf lifestyle until that whole One Ring issue made you hang out with humans and dwarves and halflings. That isolation was constantly thrust into the spotlight. Hell, it was a major issue in The Hobbit.

Given the prominence of race in fantasy, it's not surprising that D&D has continued the trend. That trend now seems out of sync with modern parlance; in 1951, the United Nations officially declared that the differences among humans were "insignificant in relation to the anthropological sameness among the peoples who are the human race."

“Race” and Game Design

Chris Van Dyke's essay on race back in 2008 explains how pervasive "race" is in D&D:

Anyone who has played D&D has spent a lot of time talking about race – “Racial Attributes,” “Racial Restrictions,” “Racial Bonuses.” Everyone knows that different races don’t get along – thanks to Tolkien, Dwarves and Elves tend to distrust each other, and even non-gamers know that Orcs and Goblins are, by their very nature, evil creatures. Race is one of the most important aspects of any fantasy role-playing game, and the belief that there are certain inherent genetic and social distinctions between different races is built into every level of most (if not all) Fantasy Role-Playing Games.

Racial characteristics in D&D have changed over time. Basic Dungeons & Dragons didn't distinguish between race and class for non-humans, such that one played a dwarf, elf, or halfling -- or a human fighter or cleric. The characteristics of race were so tightly intertwined that race and profession were considered one.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the changes became more nuanced, but not without some downsides on character advancement, particularly in allowing “demihumans” to multiclass but with level limits preventing them from exceeding humanity, who had unlimited potential (but could only dual-class).

With Fifth Edition, ability penalties and level caps have been removed, but racial bonuses and proficiencies still apply. The Angry GM explains why this is a problem:

In 5E, you choose a race and a class, but you also choose a background. And the background represents your formative education and socio-economic standing and all that other stuff that basically represents the environment in which you were raised. The racial abilities still haven’t changed even though there is now a really good place for “cultural racial abilities” to live. So, here’s where the oddity arises. An elf urchin will automatically be proficient with a longsword and longbow, two weapons that requires years of training to even become remotely talent with, but a human soldier does not get any automatic martial training. Obviously, in both cases, class will modify that. But in the life of your character, race happens first, then background, and only later on do you end up a member of a class. It’s very quirky.

Perhaps this is why Pathfinder decided to take a different approach to race by shifting to the term “ancestry”:

Beyond the narrative, there are many things that have changed, but mostly in the details of how the game works. You still pick a race, even though it is now called your ancestry. You still decide on your class—the rulebook includes all of the core classes from the First Edition Core Rulebook, plus the alchemist. You still select feats, but these now come from a greater variety of sources, such as your ancestry, your class, and your skills.

"Ancestry" is not just a replacement for the word “race.” It’s a fluid term that requires the player to make choices at character creation and as the character advances. This gives an opportunity to express human ethnicities in game terms, including half-elves and half-orcs, without forcing the “subrace” construct.

The Last Race

It seems likely that, from both a modern parlance and game design perspective, “race” as it is used today will fall out of favor in fantasy games. It’s just going to take time. Indigo Boock sums up the challenge:

Fantasy is a doubled edged sword. Every human culture has some form of fantasy, we all have some sort of immortal ethereal realm where our elven creatures dwell. There’s always this realm that transcends culture. Tolkien said, distinct from science fiction (which looks to the future), fantasy is to feel like one with the entire universe. Fantasy is real, deep human yearning. We look to it as escapism, whether we play D&D, or Skyrim, or you are like myself and write fantasy. There are unfortunately some old cultural tropes that need to be discarded, and it can be frustratingly slow to see those things phased out.

Here's hoping other role-playing games will follow Pathfinder's lead in how treats its fantasy people in future editions.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca


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Should the works of literature be altered in their vocabulary due to the propaganda of politically motivated societal manipulation?
Let's bracket the question of whether Gygax's PHB is a "work of literature". Who is talking about altering it? The hypothetical 6th edition of D&D doesn't exist yet - but if it were published without using the word "race", what about it would have been altered?


One of the things I disliked with 3ed came out was how they treated classes (or lack there of), and made everything into a skill/point based system.

Even though you did not specifically say, if we take it a step further, this idea of eliminating "elven", or "dwarven", etc. and taking it to their lowest common denomination; traits that makes a being or "race" unique, where those that share alot in common of the same traits can be considered a "tribe/people".
It's not that you couldn't have it. You'd simply say something along the lines of "Wood Elves typically have the following traits."

As another person suggested, either the number, or the value of the trait would determine your ancestry. Bigger traits would contain stronger traditionally-identifiable racial elements. Smaller traits would be limited to things that most people think of as elfy, but have no real reason to be limited to elves. EX: Drow magic could be a major trait, while darkvision (something multiple races could have) could be a minor trait.


Just a note on the notion of "euphemism". What's the problem here? We do this all the time and it's considered a good thing. We replace a word that carries all sorts of historical baggage with another word that means the same thing, but without the baggage.

I mean, take Indian as an example. It was used to refer to the indigenous people in North America. At its base level, that's the meaning (although not the only meaning) of the word. But, "Indian" has all sorts of negative connotations and history so it has been replaced, at least in Canada, with First Nations.

The meaning, at its core, is exactly the same. The indigenous people of Canada or America. It's a "euphemism" in that sense. But, it doesn't carry the same baggage, so, it becomes the acceptable term.

Since when is a euphemism a bad thing? Granted, in this particular case of "Race in RPG's", it's a pretty minor issue. I don't think anyone is getting too bent out of shape in either direction really. Changing it, honestly, should be likewise a pretty minor thing. I doubt most people would even notice. And those that do, well, that's probably a good thing.

The fact that we've gone 450 posts now about this is testament to stubbornness, rather than any real feelings for the cause.


Recently, I noticed wikipedia scientific articles using the term ‘race’ to mean something like a sub-sub-species, sort of like a ‘breed’. Not only does that sound unfamiliar, it may well be reallife racists trying to stealth in racist crap into the collective memory networks.
If Ernst Mayr used it, I think we can assume it's legit.


It's an interesting discussion. Pathfinder now uses "ancestry", I used "heritage" in modern WOIN (but that was because the four choices were human - Augmented, Mutant, Chosen, and Human) but "race" in fantasy WOIN (where it refers to elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.)
‘Heritage’ might be the best nomenclature possible.

In a game where biology can be manipulated artificially by spiritualization, magic, gene splicing, cyberengineering, artificial intelligence, transhuman transfiguration, or so on, ... species and culture become the same thing. ‘Heritage’ seems to cover all of the possibilities − even self-modification.


Seems an odd choice to me. A demihuman's "racial" abilities in Dungeons & Dragons surely aren't the product of cultural differences, are they? They're not learned behavior.

Otherwise, I would dearly love to learn the changeling's shapeshifting "habits", and the sensory "mindset" of the draconic heritage.
As I see it, elves choose their physical nature by transforming themselves and their offspring magically. Since magic is a cultural heritage, their ‘race’ and ‘subraces’ are strictly (magical) ‘cultural difference’.


Gradine, I appreciate the reply. I hope you'll accept this post as continuing a conversation.

Fair enough. Far be it from me to minimize the harm and damage this causes to you.


you bring up ToA, an adventure filled with casual racism. An adventure that had not a single person of color contribute anything to it. A problem caused by gaming being (a) still a predominantly white hobby, and (b) the professional creative and publishing world still being very much a "good old boys" club, where who you know often matters more than talent. And how every time a company hosts an initiative or contest aimed at bringing more diverse voices to the table they are shouted down by the community at large for calls of "reverse racism" or "reverse sexism".
Speaking purely from my own situation, based on the experiences I've had with the people I know, a game which begins by choosing a "race", with those choice still heavily steeped in Tolkienesque ideas, is not maximally welcoming to all people of colour.

Or to come at the same general point from a slightly different direction: people with whom I watched the LotR movies noticed that the only prominent people of colour on the screen were playing the orcs and uruk-hai.

I'm not saying that you're wrong. I'm trying to convey that I don't see these issues as completely disconnected.

maybe it's the academic circles I run in [most of my friends have degrees in Critical Race Studies, and I'm currently working on my second master's degree in Sociology (go ahead anti-PC brigade, roll your eyes if you must, if it helps I also work at the university)], and I've never encountered the notion that "race' is an archaic or offensive term, either in modern, real world parlance or in the fantasy context. Maybe that's on me. It probably is. I'll eat crow on that one. Lord knows how difficult it can be to recognize the dehumanizing etymology of terms that have long since saturated common vernacular (see also, "gypped" or "lame".)
I'm an academic. Among other things, I teach theoretical sociology. I am not a critical race theorist, but I work on the borders of that particular discipline and have been taken for one at conferences. I don't think "race" is per se an offensive term - it's a crucial although very challenging conceptual tool needed for analysing contemporary social formations.

But the way that "race" is used in fantasy RPGs is a different thing. It's not a tool of analysis. It's more like this enduring outpost of reactionary conceptualisations of human natures.

when conventions put out zero-tolerance policies against discrimination or harrassment, a significant portion of the white male snowflake community start throwing tantrums about how some hypothetical vindictive harpy is going to get them kicked out of their fantasy game party, and how isn't that the real crime here?
Again to come at this from the angle that is closest to my own experience (I'm not a convention goer): before my daughters get near a convention, they would need to get near RPGing.

Now maybe I'm out of touch (I'm a middle-aged man) but for me fantasy RPGing is heavily grounded, in its tropes and the way it is presented and advocated, in a certain genre tradition. JRRT, HPL, REH, ERB, etc are the canonical authors of this tradition. Until my girls are late teenagers, how would I even show them REH or HPL? What are they meant to make of writers whose racism is so virulent? JRRT isn't as bad, but the issue is still there, as the films bring out.

In the fantasy literature that I see as canonical there are exceptions - eg Ursula LeGuin - but even in LeGuin European tropes, if not skin colours, still predominate.

To come at it from yet another direction, maybe more remote: Gygax's MM tells us that dwarves are mostly brown-skinned, but when was the last time you saw an illustration of a non-white dwarf? (Again, maybe I'm out of touch - I haven't bought a D&D book for a few years - but I never saw such a picture in any of the 4e materials I purchased.)

I think that fantasy RPGing has a problem here. It's approach to "race" is not all of it. Maybe it's not even most of it. I think it's part of it.

Maybe this is a change that's simple to do, actually benefits people, and is, at least in the long-run, relatively non-controversial. The first two seem self-evident at this point, and should very well be good enough. I do worry about the third; not because it matters what these people think, but because I worry about how that might distract time and energy away from issues that appear, at least to be, to be more urgent.

And maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. I'd be willing to concede that. Maybe we can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.
This is my thinking, but then I'm not a publisher. On the other hand, this thread (and ones like it) make me think the change is more important, not less.
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Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing.

Maybe the second quote answers the first?
I've GMed games where racial identity, stereotyping and subordination has been one focus of play. Whether that was a sensible thing to do, or not, others can judge. It doesn't depend upon the rulebooks using the concept of "race".


Just a note on the notion of "euphemism". What's the problem here? We do this all the time and it's considered a good thing. We replace a word that carries all sorts of historical baggage with another word that means the same thing, but without the baggage.
The problem is that the baggage comes along. I think it's Pinker who dubbed it the "euphemism treadmill". You can keep changing the term, but the underlying attitudes towards the thing don't change. If we all stopped talking about "race" and started talking about "ancestry", racists wouldn't stop being racist; just like everybody else, they'd start using "ancestry" to promulgate their ideas, and the word would become as tainted as "race" was. You can see this process clearly in the succession of terms for people of African descent, or those with mental disabilities.

Conversely, if you can change the underlying attitudes, you don't need to change the term. Look at "gay". Homophobia isn't gone from the world, but it has been pushed back dramatically over the past few decades. And a term that was once insulting (or even outright threatening) has largely been reclaimed. Rather than hop on the euphemism treadmill, activists stuck with "gay", made it a point of pride, and forced the world to bend around it.

So I guess I'd sum up the problem as saying that euphemism in itself isn't actively morally evil or anything, but it is a waste of time and effort and a sign of possibly misplaced priorities.

And when you turn the usage of a euphemism into a moral issue, putting down people for using words that had been commonplace, that does verge on being a bad thing.


Regarding elves.

In D&D cosmology, the shadowfell and feywild are *spirit* realms, ghosts and nature spirits respectively.

When elves ‘immigrated’ from the feywild into the material, they are spirits taking on matter, like angels physicalizing.

It remains unclear if these material elves even have DNA. Who knows, maybe elves are made out of ectoplasm?

The elves who still inhabit the feywild, including eladrin, remain completely incorporeal spirits.

In this paranormal context, the word ‘species’ in the sense of genetic relationships, is inaccurate.

When an elf and a human have a half-elf child, it is because magic.

Ancestry is a better term. Heritage may be even better because it includes cultural inheritance as well.
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In Adventure in Middle-earth, which is D&D 5e based, it is called Cultures. Cultures cover Elves of Mirkwood, Men of Bree, and Hobbits of the Shire.
It seems even the Tolkien estate has steered away from the problematic term ‘race’.


A weird sub-theme in this thread: how are real-world conceptions of biology, descent, DNA, etc possibluy applicable within the fiction of a fantasy RPG, where spirit/body duality is a real thing, where basic laws of biomechanics don't apply (giant insects, flying dragons, etc), etc?


In my academic experience, ‘race’ and ‘species’ mean the same thing.
Guess it depends on the field, because in my academic experience they mean absolutely, 100%, very different things. :)

Immanuel Kant is a good example of how the Enlightenment really created most of our modern idea of human races in a blazingly stupid example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect from an otherwise brilliant mind. But even he wasn't using it to refer to biological species.


Victoria Rules
... It would be like trying to replace "nation" with "descent" in real-life language...

I also thought of changing the term but, so far none of the alternatives seem good enough.
It's ironic you should say that, as you've in fact hit on the best alternative yet: "descent".

"The Elvish descent has pointy ears."
"Roll stats, choose class and descent."
"What descent features does a Dwarf get? I saw stonecunning, but what else?"

Yeah, I think we might have a winner here. (though I havne't read the intervening 100-or-so posts to see if someone's already shot it down) :)
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