How to address racism in a fantasy setting without it dragging down the game?

Derren

Adventurer
No real world discussion please...

In most fantasy games racism is the core component which allows adventurers to go out, kill things labled evil or just "powerful and inhuman" and take their stuff.
I wonderd how you could bring this up in a game, not as a central theme but more of a side story like a church or organization which fights for complete equality or similar goals, without it being disruptive, unfun or comical as being allowed to kill certain things and take their stuff without reprecussions is kinda the central theme in many RPGs.
I could of course resort to only use mindless undead etc. as enemies, but thats really only avoiding it.
Just to be clear, I do not want to lecture the players or make a statement, but just to have this as another facette of the world
 
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aramis erak

Adventurer
There are several approaches.

Tolkien's Orcs are born of evil and incapable of intentional good. Thus, slaughtering them is justifiable.

Meanwhile, the D&D Orcs merely have a propensity for evil; it is wired in but able to be overcome.

It's variable by setting whether or not the "evil races" were made irredeemable, made bad but redeemable, prone to bad but overcomable, or entirely free will based but with a violent culture...

If you really want to teach lessons via play, have the setting say one thing but the reality be the other...
 

Derren

Adventurer
Have a PC Elf or Dwarf get dirty looks and be refused a drink/room in a tavern because “we dont serve your kind here”

if the PCs have killed a orc/goblin/giant have the ‘monsters’ family turn up and demand justice from the local half-orc sheriff
To clarify, I don't mean racism between PC races. In most settings they tend to be pretty well integrated, but between PC and monster races.
And not even just humanoid monsters but also intelligent non-humanoid like elementals, dragons, etc.

I thought about having a church with a "Judge people by their actions, not their apperances" decree with maybe a conflict within the church about how far to extend this to get the pcs involved through quests (as I suspect no pc will worship this deity as its to limiting to the normal adventuring work unless you are okay with killing everythig and just preaching to the players will just be annoying).

I liked the plot in D&D FR that one dragon delivered would be dragonslayers to the nearest city (Silverymoon I think?) and demanded a trial which the city stalled because of the implications a verdict would have. I assume that was just a dangling plot hook and was not followed up with anything official?
 
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Sadras

Hero
1. A common threat binds unlikely allies or at least forces them to a meet. Racism could spell doom for all.

2. Elementals have been routinely used as slaves by elementalist wizards - a pushback by diviners seek to have this practice end due to prophecies now long forgotten which speak of a great war in the future between the inner planes....
* However civilisation has become accustomed to the services elemental slaves provide... Racism provides for a comfortable living.

3. The church of the damned who attempt to save the souls of demons or devils, believe that these souls are not beyond recemption and that by doing this good, they weaken the power of the demon and devil lords.
* Unsatisfied with their slow approach, the church now attempts to open a controlled portal to the abyss or the 9-hells to begin a mass redemption exercise.

4. An infamous prisoner of the evil race (that might have already been executed) shatters a long forgotten myth or popular belief about the race/monsters. From his teachings/revelations an organisation sprouts to "correct" the thinking of others. Not everyone believes this teaching, others do not care, while others oppose it, as the existence of this enemy brings much profit.
* The prisoner's secret writings are stolen by those who would see this belief die or an assassination attempt on the organisation's leader/s is orchestrated. PCs could stumble onto the texts or one of the survivors by accident, perhaps forcing them to pick a side. In this instance racism fuels commerce.

5. Dragons are dying out. Already diminished from hunters, egg poachers and wizards seeking rare components a small group of dracologists discover that the world's magic is limited - and the increase use of magic by the smallfolk is starving the magical races that require magic to breed and grow. Dragons being the most impressive are the first to suffer the effects, others will soon follow.
* A cult springs up, in an effort to curb the use of magic, however within this cult exists a militant sect which a different agenda... Racism could be used to fuel the extinction of the older races.
 
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steenan

Adventurer
I wonderd how you could bring this up in a game, not as a central theme but more of a side story like a church or organization which fights for complete equality or similar goals, without it being disruptive, unfun or comical as being allowed to kill certain things and take their stuff without reprecussions is kinda the central theme in many RPGs.
I don't think you can do it.
Either such an organization is obviously wrong in their beliefs and serves only as a comic relief, or they can possibly be right (it doesn't matter if they fully are, just that it's something worth considering). Because if it is possible that monsters are not irredeemably evil, no moral character can ignore it and keep "killing them and taking their stuff".
The whole premise of D&D and similar games, built around looting and killing, is that one does not really think about the moral side of it. As soon as you put it in the spotlight, it becomes extremely important. Either you focus the whole game on exploring it or you are better not to touch the topic at all.
 
As others have said said, it’s a tough question. I find there are two straightforward ways:

you can humanize some monsters - such as by having the party meet someone civilized that they like and later reveal they’re a monster. they’re misunderstood, but neither more good nor evil than anyone else, they just typically stand for something else.

...or you can dehumanize the monsters - I’ve always had a headcannon that orcs and goblins are ‘monsters’ not because they are cruel, but because despite their similarities to humans they literally lack souls or some other magically provable and otherwise non-physical trait.
 
I've always had a problem with how the lore goes out of the way to make sure certain NPCs are evil but then turn around and make them player race options. A half orc in eberron is fine, no race is truly evil. A hobgoblin in a FR game isn't.
The 'good' humor jabs like between elfs and dwarfs are ok as long as they stay in good humor.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I've always had a problem with how the lore goes out of the way to make sure certain NPCs are evil but then turn around and make them player race options. A half orc in eberron is fine, no race is truly evil. A hobgoblin in a FR game isn't.
The 'good' humor jabs like between elfs and dwarfs are ok as long as they stay in good humor.
I think this dissonance is part of why I don't like those "monstrous" races being available as PC races. I try not to put the characters in the campaigns I'm running into positions where the morals/ethics aren't pretty clear. Lots of undead, lots of deranged cultists, lots of things driven by demons or Great Old Ones, lots of self-defense.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
In most fantasy games racism is the core component which allows adventurers to go out, kill things labled evil or just "powerful and inhuman" and take their stuff.
I wonderd how you could bring this up in a game, not as a central theme but more of a side story like a church or organization which fights for complete equality or similar goals, without it being disruptive, unfun or comical as being allowed to kill certain things and take their stuff without reprecussions is kinda the central theme in many RPGs.

I could of course resort to only use mindless undead etc. as enemies, but thats really only avoiding it.
Just to be clear, I do not want to lecture the players or make a statement, but just to have this as another facette of the world
What I'm hearing is that you want to toss out the idea that it's not okay to kill all non-PC races, and that you don't really want to follow up on it. The best way to do this is to plan an entire adventure around it, with maps, NPCs, and treasure. Your PCs will promptly ignore all your hard work, and then follow up on something the watchman said, off-hand.

To clarify, I don't mean racism between PC races. In most settings they tend to be pretty well integrated, but between PC and monster races.
And not even just humanoid monsters but also intelligent non-humanoid like elementals, dragons, etc.
I wouldn't call it "racism" anymore if your idea extends to creatures with non-human features, or even otherworldly/magical creatures. Now you're talking about pacifism. Which should be an important part of one or many of your in-game religions. Until, that is, the religion sees an opportunity to expand or defend itself, at which point it's perfectly fine to kill anything and everything in the name of the god.
 
What I'm hearing is that you want to toss out the idea that it's not okay to kill all non-PC races, and that you don't really want to follow up on it. The best way to do this is to plan an entire adventure around it, with maps, NPCs, and treasure. Your PCs will promptly ignore all your hard work, and then follow up on something the watchman said, off-hand.


I wouldn't call it "racism" anymore if your idea extends to creatures with non-human features, or even otherworldly/magical creatures. Now you're talking about pacifism. Which should be an important part of one or many of your in-game religions. Until, that is, the religion sees an opportunity to expand or defend itself, at which point it's perfectly fine to kill anything and everything in the name of the god.
Hobgoblins in a nutshell. Am I the only one perturbed that they presented as a zealous culture with no clerics?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Hobgoblins in a nutshell. Am I the only one perturbed that they presented as a zealous culture with no clerics?
They are portrayed (in 5E lore) as really militaristic and hounded by their god/s, and you're correct that they aren't typically described as having clerics. They have clerics in my setting, but I didn't think about it other than it seeming reasonable and rational for them to.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In most fantasy games racism is the core component which allows adventurers to go out, kill things labeled evil or just "powerful and inhuman" and take their stuff.
I totally disagree with this take on things.

People don't kill dragons because they are racist. Nor are chromatic dragons just simply "labeled" evil, powerful, and inhuman - they are evil, powerful and inhuman.

The motivation heroes have for killing mind flayers, is not because the heroes are racist.

Heroes don't vanquish demons because the heroes are racist, nor are demons misunderstood and labeled evil, powerful, and inhuman just so they can be exploited by oppressive organizations.

Even in the case of something with a bit more "humanity" than those sorts of foes, say an orc, generally heroes are not going out and killing the orcs merely because they are orcs, but because the orcs are bandits, rapists, and murderers who have been pillaging and plundering peaceable villagers and farmers. It's possible to subvert that situation and have the normally aggressor race actually be peaceable and victimized, and that is interesting and I have written an adventure along those lines. But that isn't the normal situations. The normal situation is the orcs have a culture that considers war and violence to be noble, and whose principle economic activity is theft and the enslavement and cannibalism of their neighbors. In that situation, it's not racism that is the motivation for killing the orcs. And while yes, there is some complex thought you could delve into here as to whether if your only interaction with orcs is as brutal bandits and there are no known exceptions, whether it is racism to fear and hate orcs. But I think we first have to deal with the reality of that being complex.

If you really want to deal with "racism" in your fantasy setting, by far the most direct, appropriate, and honest manner is to show racism occuring between members of the same race and deal with that. It's probably not appropriate at all to treat with real world racism by using a monster as an analogy for some real world ethnic group.
 
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Derren

Adventurer
What I'm hearing is that you want to toss out the idea that it's not okay to kill all non-PC races, and that you don't really want to follow up on it. The best way to do this is to plan an entire adventure around it, with maps, NPCs, and treasure. Your PCs will promptly ignore all your hard work, and then follow up on something the watchman said, off-hand.


I wouldn't call it "racism" anymore if your idea extends to creatures with non-human features, or even otherworldly/magical creatures. Now you're talking about pacifism. Which should be an important part of one or many of your in-game religions. Until, that is, the religion sees an opportunity to expand or defend itself, at which point it's perfectly fine to kill anything and everything in the name of the god.
Thats exactly what I don't want. I want to toss the idea of "universal morality" or however you want to call it out there without it being comic relief or it being a killjoy. Neither do I want to enforce this believe (and strict adherence to) or make it the center of the campaign.

That doesn't mean pacifism either. You can still kill evil or aggressive things just fine and there is plenty of violence in history despite pretty much all religions being technically against it. Not everyone will believe in this faith, if it is indeed implemented as a faith and not a philosophy, and there will still be hypocryts. Needless to say I am not much a fan of D&D style absolute alignments and that conflict happens only between good and evil aligned creatures and not for example between neutral creatures because of political and other worldly reasons.
What I want is to include this philosophy in a setting and make it seem plausible or at least fitting without players coming to similar conclusions that it either is meant as a joke or anti-fun.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Thats exactly what I don't want. I want to toss the idea of "universal morality"...Needless to say I am not much a fan of D&D style absolute alignments
If you are doing this, how are you going to say that racism is wrong? What would be the basis of condemning the slaughter of anything that wasn't part of your tribe, if there wasn't some standard of universal morality which judged not only how you treated other people within your culture, but how people who didn't share a culture ought to act and treat each other? If each person or culture is allowed to define what is good and what is evil, then how are you going to say that it's wrong for them to be racist?

and that conflict happens only between good and evil aligned creatures and not for example between neutral creatures because of political and other worldly reasons.
Wait. What? What D&D world are you describing where conflict only occurs between good and evil, and not for example between say two lawful good persons (or parties) who judge that they have conflicting duties and no way to compromise? Are you saying that, for example, the scene in 'Les Miserables' where Jean Val Jean judges that his duty to save a child, after he gave his word to the mother that he would save the child, outweighs his duty to the law to submit himself to its judgment for the violation of his parole, and by contrast the police men Javier believes his duty is to bring a parole violator to judgement can't actually happen in a setting with absolute alignments? If so, why do you think that?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
In most fantasy games racism is the core component which allows adventurers to go out, kill things labled evil or just "powerful and inhuman" and take their stuff.
I wonderd how you could bring this up in a game....
Do you want players to change their behavior?

If not, then no, you don't bring it up.

If yes, then don't go the passive-aggressive "prove to them in-game that this is wrong". This is a playstyle choice, and should be discussed out of game, between GM and players, preferably before the campaign begins, but if the GM has had a change of heart, you do it when you want to change behavior.

And, if you do bring this up, please be aware that the change in playstyle will be significant. If they are told that no, they cannot really take it that it is okay to kill the orc guard,their approaches to challenges, and indeed to the entire world, will be different.

There is no way to introduce this and not have it become a central theme - because it is the difference between justifiable action to remove known threats to innocent lives... and serial mass murder.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
"Hercules' Legendary Journeys" had got some episodes about fictional racism against centaurs. (Lucy Lawless before playing Xena was Lyla, wife and mother of a centaur).

Planet of the Apes is a good example of fantasy racism and inverse-racism

The Witcher saga is full of fantasy racism between different races.

You have to remember if you have the end of the hate in the real life we have to defend the respet of the human dignity or the rebel against injusticed may be corrupted by the power and become a new tyrant.

* Please, stop hate against those annoying kenders!
 

Derren

Adventurer
I totally disagree with this take on things.

People don't kill dragons because they are racist. Nor are chromatic dragons just simply "labeled" evil, powerful, and inhuman - they are evil, powerful and inhuman.

The motivation heroes have for killing mind flayers, is not because the heroes are racist.

Heroes don't vanquish demons because the heroes are racist, nor are demons misunderstood and labeled evil, powerful, and inhuman just so they can be exploited by oppressive organizations.

Even in the case of something with a bit more "humanity" than those sorts of foes, say an orc, generally heroes are not going out and killing the orcs merely because they are orcs, but because the orcs are bandits, rapists, and murderers who have been pillaging and plundering peaceable villagers and farmers. It's possible to subvert that situation and have the normally aggressor race actually be peaceable and victimized, and that is interesting and I have written an adventure along those lines. But that isn't the normal situations. The normal situation is the orcs have a culture that considers war and violence to be noble, and whose principle economic activity is theft and the enslavement and cannibalism of their neighbors. In that situation, it's not racism that is the motivation for killing the orcs. And while yes, there is some complex thought you could delve into here as to whether if your only interaction with orcs is as brutal bandits and there are no known exceptions, whether it is racism to fear and hate orcs. But I think we first have to deal with the reality of that being complex.

If you really want to deal with "racism" in your fantasy setting, by far the most direct, appropriate, and honest manner is to show racism occuring between members of the same race and deal with that. It's probably not appropriate at all to treat with real world racism by using a monster as an analogy for some real world ethnic group.
I disagree with this assesment. In some cases, maybe even in most, you are right and the heroes fight in self defense or in the defense of others.
But in many other cases they kill things because "they are in the way" like guarding a McGuffin or follow orders to clean out a cave of this or that monster. And such cases the race of whatever you are killing certainly matters. If the PCs are paid to clean out an abandoned mine from dwarves instead of kobolds they will often approach this differently or when the McGuffin they need is worshipped by a primitive tribe of wood elves and not gnolls.

If you are doing this, how are you going to say that racism is wrong? What would be the basis of condemning the slaughter of anything that wasn't part of your tribe, if there wasn't some standard of universal morality which judged not only how you treated other people within your culture, but how people who didn't share a culture ought to act and treat each other? If each person or culture is allowed to define what is good and what is evil, then how are you going to say that it's wrong for them to be racist?



Wait. What? What D&D world are you describing where conflict only occurs between good and evil, and not for example between say two lawful good persons (or parties) who judge that they have conflicting duties and no way to compromise? Are you saying that, for example, the scene in 'Les Miserables' where Jean Val Jean judges that his duty to save a child, after he gave his word to the mother that he would save the child, outweighs his duty to the law to submit himself to its judgment for the violation of his parole, and by contrast the police men Javier believes his duty is to bring a parole violator to judgement can't actually happen in a setting with absolute alignments? If so, why do you think that?
The same way good and evil is assigned in the real world.
And lets be honest, in nearly all D&D adventures it comes down to PCs killing things labled
evil without remorse, regret or consequences.
Do you want players to change their behavior?

If not, then no, you don't bring it up.
No I do not want to change the behavior of the players nor lecture them. I only want to have this philosophy in the game, as one of many, to use for plots if the players show any interest in it or the story wanders into that direction.
But for that I would have to represent it as neither comical or fun threatening. And based on some of the extreme reactions in this thread I sadly have to agree with you that it is apparently a bad idea to even mention. A pity.

Still I am quite surprised at the pushback I got here. Why do people react so strongly to the idea that killing an elemental who only minded his own business should morally be considered to killing a dwarf who did the same? Likewise killing orc raiders would be similar to killing gnome raiders...
 

Celebrim

Legend
But in many other cases they kill things because "they are in the way" like guarding a McGuffin or follow orders to clean out a cave of this or that monster. And such cases the race of whatever you are killing certainly matters. If the PCs are paid to clean out an abandoned mine from dwarves instead of kobolds they will often approach this differently or when the McGuffin they need is worshipped by a primitive tribe of wood elves and not gnolls.
Well, I'd say it very much depends on whether the behavior of dwarves, kobolds, wood elves and gnolls are the same. Do the PCs have any reason to believe negotiation will be successful? Is the relationship that the tribe has had to its neighbors the same in all cases? I got to tell you, but wood elves in my game are very likely to shoot first and assume all strangers are hostile. I've never had wood elves guarding a McGuffin, but that sounds like an interesting scenario. The reason that PC's might approach dwarves and wood elves differently is that they assume that they can.

The real fault here is DMs that refuse to allow solutions other than the ones they envisioned for a scenario. There is no reason that a party couldn't trade with evil humanoids. The real problem is DMs that design combat scenarios or social scenarios and the players are metagaming based on the signals that the DM is sending, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. If gnolls hail the PC's and ask what they want, and wood elves ambush PC's and shoot first, you'll get very different behavior. Even if the wood elves are good and believe that the are just protecting themselves from trespassers. Even if the gnolls are bandits and slavers.

The same way good and evil is assigned in the real world.
Yes. Absolutely. Let's assume that assertion is framing my whole discussion.

And lets be honest, in nearly all D&D adventures it comes down to PCs killing things labled
evil without remorse, regret or consequences.
You keep getting stuck on this word "labeled". And again, the problem you have is that these things that the PC's are killing are not just labeled evil but are evil. And those that aren't evil are usually aggressive and hostile and want to make a meal of them. There would be absolutely no reason to feel regret for killing 95% of the things that my PC's kill, and for the other 5% there is remorse and regret and sometimes consequences.

When the PC's kill they usually have a reason for doing so. I don't know why you think otherwise. That isn't to say that the PC's are always moral paragons. In fact, far from it. But the PC's generally know and understand that they aren't moral paragons, and that they've made mistakes. They do have conversations like, "Are we sure we aren't the bad guys? Because sometimes I think we might be the bad guys."

Still I am quite surprised at the pushback I got here. Why do people react so strongly to the idea that killing an elemental who only minded his own business should morally be considered to killing a dwarf who did the same? Likewise killing orc raiders would be similar to killing gnome raiders...
I at least am reacting so strongly because in my game my PC's do not go around just killing elementals minding their own business. Heck, they don't even kill goblins that are minding their own business - they let the goblin knight go his own way. Heck, I joke with them that they've shown more mercy on hobgoblin thugs than human ones - they've outright murdered at least three human prisoners. They let the hobgoblin prison go on parole with only his promise that he'd get out of town. They have enough problems without picking fights with things that are minding their own business. When they pick fights with things that are minding their own business, it tends to snowball - there tends to be consequences. The PC's shooting first and asking questions latter with the Phanaton definitely regretted it - they ended up in an all out war with them versus discovering (as they did eventually) that they were potential allies and they'd been in the wrong the whole time. All those dead Phanaton were just acting in self-defense, and they'd murdered 100's of them and now they were alone on a deadly island without allies or safe haven. Regret, remorse, consequences.

Yes, killing gnome raiders would absolutely be morally equivalent to killing orc raiders. But how often have you run into scenarios with gnome raiders? And does it really fit the morality of gnomes to be off raiding, plundering, raping, murdering and enslaving their neighbors? But yeah, if the gnomes in the area are in fact cannibalistic, murdering, raping, thieves, then you can bet that when the PCs kill them they won't feel a lot of remorse and regret.

And further, I at least am reacting strongly to this idea that cannibalistic, murdering, raping, enslaving thieves are only "labeled" evil and it is somehow problematic that the PC's should be pitted against murderous brutal raiders and not feel sad about it. In the introduction to "Rise of the Runelords" their is scenario around the PC's finding themselves in the middle of a goblin raid, and the goblins are given personality and a vim and the writers endeavor to make the goblins something other than faceless or bags of hit points. But the writers also do a very good job of making it clear that the goblins aren't only "labeled" evil, and that the are rightly feared and despised.

What I'm reacting to is an implicit statement that unless your game features moral relativism you are doing it wrong, and indeed it's possible that in real life you are immoral yourself.
 

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