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Racism in RPGs, especially related to fantastic races

Is it ok to portray a fantasy race in a negatce way? And how varied are your gaming groups?

  • Yes, that's fine with me.

    Votes: 54 76.1%
  • Describing a whole race as evil, stupid etc is not ok

    Votes: 17 23.9%
  • I've played with people of different ethnic background most of the time

    Votes: 13 18.3%
  • I've played with people of different ethnic background some of the time

    Votes: 25 35.2%
  • I've played with people of different ethnic background only rarely

    Votes: 10 14.1%
  • I've played with people of predominately caucasian background

    Votes: 30 42.3%
  • I've played with people of predominately non-Caucasian background

    Votes: 1 1.4%
  • I usually play online and so wouldn't know most of the time.

    Votes: 2 2.8%

  • Total voters
    71

howandwhy99

First Post
People "Humans" average 10.5 for all 6 Ability Scores.
As they are the scale from which everything else in the game is measured, they are considered "average".
But there are humans with all 3s. And humans with all 18s.

And then there are other races with different averages, spreads, distributions, and so on.
And there are plenty of those above or below the average human because their race is different.
 

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Racism = Specism in my D&D, and yes, it exists in the game world. Why wouldn't it? If there's a real risk of your species being exterminated by another intelligent species, the occasional (ir)rational hatred is to be expected.

Racism within a race is mostly rare, though -- with all the elves, dwarves, and orcs around to hate, hating on another human with different ethnicity just seems silly. Unless the race in question is drow, though -- everyone hates them.
 

While my campaigns vary in how serious vs light I want them to be, I tend to assume that the same sorts of prejudices exist as have existed for most of real world history, but throw fantasy races into the mix.

I don't tend to have many humanoid races that are inescapably evil. A typical orc is evil because of a combination of inborn tendencies (lack of empathy, a short fuse) and his upbringing in a society filled with people with the same tendencies. There are good orcs, they just have to try a lot harder, and are consequently very rare.

That's how I handle most good or evil races. To relate to the real world, many traits we would associate with alignment in D&D can be mapped to areas of the brain. Certain parts of the brain have an effect on empathy, for instance. If you image that evil races tend to have the D&D equivalent of low function in that part of the brain, while good races tend to have very high functions in that area (with humans somewhere in the middle and varying significantly by individual), it makes sense how free will can exist, but some species can be overall good or evil.

That causes some serious problems with race relations.

Amongst the races, and cultures of any particular species (including humans) I tend to maintain whatever prejudices make sense. In some cases that means they are less pronounced than in real history, while in others they are just as strong.

I also tend to have less integration amongst the species. So even a city like Waterdeep is probably at least 80% human.

I really wouldn't have much patience with PCs being racist jerks, since I tend to want parties of heroes, but I have no problem with a bit of friction in the world and the party. The thing about adventurers is that they aren't the norm. They tend to have unlikely allies, and to have seen enough of the world that petty squabbles between human societies or between humanoid races aren't all that important to them anymore.
 

I forgot to mention that I also like to bring moral dilemmas into the game from an attitude of "orcs are people too." If you wouldn't butcher human bandits who surrendered, then butchering orcs captives isn't any different.
 

WayneLigon

Adventurer
Depends on the tone and theme of the campaign, really. Mostly, I don't have a problem with it. I don't have a huge problem with it even if our primary enemy might be human, such as 'Easterlings'. If they've taken service with an evil master, then they reap the consequences of it. I don't have a huge problem with nonhuman races 'born evil' or even 'born good'. Yeah, I know that doesn't happen in the real world, but this is another reality where we can have things like an absolute morality, or any sort of other thing the setting want to use.

I'd be fine with a campaign world where that was NOT the fact, but I'd certainly want to know that from the get-go. Any GM should really realize that such as thing isn't part of the 'default setting' of D&D or most other games, and needs to make sure his players are on board with any changes to that notion before chargen.
 

Zhaleskra

Adventurer
I didn't start out caring about it, but over the years I came to view "you can kill beings of race X with impunity with no questions asked because they're all evil" as disgusting. This lead me to my belief that "even against evil, genocide is evil". After experiencing many systems, I am more comfortable with subjective morality than morality as an absolute force. An example that goes with my views from the World Tree RPG is that while the Primes might consider it okay to kill "monsters", the nonprimes will not, and outside of Prime territory it's their courts, not the Primes' that you'll have to deal with. Or as the female author put it "it's murder".
 

mythago

Explorer
Racism within a race is mostly rare, though -- with all the elves, dwarves, and orcs around to hate, hating on another human with different ethnicity just seems silly.
Please note that I'm not commenting on what you "should" do in your campaign, I'm just addressing this particular sentiment. Other groups of humans compete for resources, territory, etc. - why wouldn't The People hate those-across-the-river and their strange, barbaric ways?

Going back to the Discworld quote, while (as is only to be expected from any multibook series) Pratchett isn't 100% consistent with that - William de Worde makes a reference to his bigoted father extending nasty remarks to people from Howondaland - while the humans don't care much about skin color, there is plenty of bigotry standing in for it, deliberately so. The anti-Klatchian sentiment and cultural conflict in Jingo has nothing to do with the Klatchians' skin color. This is true in the real world, as well; we tend to think of skin color as THE dominant factor in 'race' and people's bigotry, but keep in mind that it wasn't very long ago in the US that being Irish or Italian or Jewish mean you weren't "white". Certainly I'm sure we're all familiar with the long history of seeing people from Over Thataway as being an entirely different class of humans because of their customs or geography.

Rambling back to D&D, as I said in the other thread, I suspect a lot of the whole thing with entire races being evil comes from Tolkien's orcs, which are more or less demons and in some variants are actually created by Sauron. So there's not a developed concept of orc children, orc communities or orc individuality; their monstrosity and evil is baked in.
 

Please note that I'm not commenting on what you "should" do in your campaign, I'm just addressing this particular sentiment. Other groups of humans compete for resources, territory, etc. - why wouldn't The People hate those-across-the-river and their strange, barbaric ways?
Oh, I'm sure that would happen. It's just that with other sentient races around, you can extend the history of human conflict from "me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; mme my brother and cousin against the village; my village against other villages; our region against other regions, etc" to include "all humans against not humans" ... all of which would tend to reduce the influence of internal racism in favor of specism. On the other hand, if a campaign is human only, or has very limited contact with sentient non-human species, I'd expect human racism to be all the rage.

(BTW -- aside from demons and devils and the like, I'm not a fan of "race X is evil because they are" ... I prefer the "from a certain point of view" approach to evil for non-human races. D&D relative and comparative morality can be fun!)
 

Derren

Hero
Oh, I'm sure that would happen. It's just that with other sentient races around, you can extend the history of human conflict from "me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; mme my brother and cousin against the village; my village against other villages; our region against other regions, etc" to include "all humans against not humans" ... all of which would tend to reduce the influence of internal racism in favor of specism. On the other hand, if a campaign is human only, or has very limited contact with sentient non-human species, I'd expect human racism to be all the rage.

(BTW -- aside from demons and devils and the like, I'm not a fan of "race X is evil because they are" ... I prefer the "from a certain point of view" approach to evil for non-human races. D&D relative and comparative morality can be fun!)
Strange thing about psychology. People do feel a lot more threatened by slight differences than big changes, especially when those changes include your core values (aka religion).
Its much more easy to accept that those strange ash skinned short fellows from the mountain worship a different god than those humans from the other side of the forest.
 

Lwaxy

Cute but dangerous
Its much more easy to accept that those strange ash skinned short fellows from the mountain worship a different god than those humans from the other side of the forest.
Yeah, good point. I'll keep that in mind for my next world to build.
 

Derren

Hero
Yeah, good point. I'll keep that in mind for my next world to build.
And don't forget the rule #1 of racism. Don't pick on anyone stronger than you. No matter how big the differences are, overt racism is only displayed against someone who can't fight back.
 


Storminator

First Post
My game is goblin PCs. It's full of casual racism. They constantly complain about poncy elves and soft humans. The warforged saying "worthless meatbags . . . present company excluded . . . " is practically a staple of game day. I had an NPC describe elf warriors as special unique snowflakes of death last session.

No important social commentary there, just goblins being goblins.

PS
 

Storminator

First Post
I didn't start out caring about it, but over the years I came to view "you can kill beings of race X with impunity with no questions asked because they're all evil" as disgusting.
I started my Goblins of Eberron campaign with a bunch of adventurers attacking the PC's goblin cave. The adventuring cleric specifically yelled something like this out during the attack: "The church teaches that goblins have no souls! We violate no laws of God nor man in slaying them!" just to, you know, get the PC persecution complex going . . .

PS
 

Janx

Hero
My game is goblin PCs. It's full of casual racism. They constantly complain about poncy elves and soft humans. The warforged saying "worthless meatbags . . . present company excluded . . . " is practically a staple of game day. I had an NPC describe elf warriors as special unique snowflakes of death last session.

No important social commentary there, just goblins being goblins.

PS
I suspect, that framed in the context of "the PCs are goblins and probably evil" lets the racism be "just a game"

As long as everybody's being racist to NPCs and knows they are just imaginary beings and not stand-ins for some real demographic.

Sounds fine to me. And since your next post has the goblin PCs as targets of racism, it sets the tone for "racism isn't nice to you." which should be enough to remind people what side of any social commentary could be going on.
 

was

Explorer
Any 'racism' in our games is usually directed towards the 'evil' monsters we are fighting. We don't play up any hatreds within the pc character races. i.e. dwarf on troll hate is good, dwarf on elf...not so much
 

Posr

First Post
Good point. I think that the issue of racism in fantasy settings often has its roots in the moral absolutism inherent in the use of alignment as a game mechanic. Moral opposites are expected to kill each other with impunity. Obviously YMMV, but that is what I see as the foundation for the pernicious idea that moral characteristics are inherent in races.
 

One of the things that is occured to me is that people don't use the word "racism" the same way.

Racial prejudice is almost ubiquitous in history. It just means that: pre-judging someone based on their race/culture (same thing), often in a negative light. The idea of not being racially prejudiced (while I agree with it) is an extremely modern idea, and a heck of a lot easier said than actually done.

Racism, as it has been explained to me, is more than prejudice, it is prejudice + power. Much uglier, and still unfortunately all too common in history.

Racial hatred, or hating someone because of their race, can exist with or without racism (though, of course, it would be odd to have it without prejudice). Racial hatred, I tend to imagine is rarer than either of the others. Usually it will happen as the result of wars or violence, not the original causes. Unless there is serious conflict, most people aren't going to work up enough antipathy to truly hate someone because of their race.

So the French and the English are prejudiced against each other. South Africa or American slavery are go to examples of racism, and the conflicts in the Baltics likely create a lot of racial hatred. There are also a lot of individuals who are more or less in possession of these traits than their cultural in general.

So I wouldn't remove racial prejudice from my game if I wanted any degree of believability. My human might not bear any ill-will towards elves or seek to interfere in their lives, but he doesn't think they are nearly as dependable as humans. Dwarves are just too dour, etc.

Racism and racial hatred make appearances if appropriate to the story line, the world, or themes to be explored. I wouldn't expect a heroic character to be any more racist or have more racial hatred than his culture, unless he had a compeling reason. Maybe his parents were murdered by elven assassins.

An innkeeper hates orcs because they have raided his family's home and killed some of them. He is prejudiced against the goblins from the other side of town because of what he has heard about their culture. And he racistly excludes lizardfolk from his establishment because he doesn't like the type of manners and etiquette they tend to exhibit--though he doesn't feel any strong negativity towards them as people.
 
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Aldeon

First Post
My regular group is three black guys, two black girls, and me (filipino mestizo). According to what I've been told, there isn't really a precedent that any of them felt that made them feel like outsiders in the hobby-- although one of the girls felt that being a woman was a barrier. More often they complain about racism in the comic books community.

In game, I have an inclination towards not painting a species as evil. However, that's cause I usually run games that are more grey than black and white. I like the portrayal of dark elves in 13th Age, for example. However, I've ran games where orcs are shown being evil and whatnot. I don't see a problem with this. I feel something that needs to be stressed a lot of the time that just because it happens in a group, it doesn't necessarily mean the GM agrees with it. Just because orcs are wholly evil in a campaign doesn't mean that there's some subconscious need to portray races as evil by nature. And there isn't any reason to battle that in some settings. If you hate codified evil races, take it out of your game. Even easier to do if you homebrew instead of run something like the Realms or Greyhawk or something.
 

WayneLigon

Adventurer
Good point. I think that the issue of racism in fantasy settings often has its roots in the moral absolutism inherent in the use of alignment as a game mechanic.
It's much much older than that. Look at the list of books that inspire D&D and are the basis for almost all Western fantasy literature. Almost all of them have a component that, if looked at in a certain light, might could be constructed as 'fantasy racism' by a few. Conan has beastmen and lizardmen and various other types of ethnic human and inhuman foes that described in broad terms. And from Tolkien, with 'dark creatures' - orcs and goblins that are born evil, and the Men of the East, the 'wicked men' that have served the spirit of Sauron for thousands of years.
 

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