RPG Evolution: Do We Still Need "Race" in D&D?

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...

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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?

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“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.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
Yes.

If anything, RPGs more accurately use the term "race" than we do in real life.

(I'm known to fill in forms that ask for race with "human".)
 



Rhianni32

Adventurer
"The term "race" is a staple of fantasy that is now out of sync with modern usage"
It was out of sync with the very first game Gygax played.
Personally, I want my game different than a 1951 United Nations declaration. Of course it is out of parlance with reality. Setting aside 67 years of change in our world, here we have 1 human race with many cultures/backgrounds where as most games will have many races. If there is a problem with being accurate with the real world then switch race to species.

When making your average fantasy RPG character you have a series of choices. Some are based on the physical body (racial bonuses like elf longevity, or darkvision) others are learned traits in what you did with your time and the environment you lived in (background). Mechanic wise you still have to make the same choices whatever you want to call them.

Race+background+culture is bad.
Ancestory is ok?
 
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Malshotfirst

Explorer
Theres literally NO sound argument above as to why fantasy RPGs should ditch Race. Especially a quote from the Angry GM, "because I can’t speak for what happened in the Cinnabon or whatever that other book was called". Really? Thanks for your words of wisdom.
 


DammitVictor

Trust the Fungus
Supporter
The use of the term is technically incorrect, and that is the worst kind of incorrect. The socjus implications are way below my sensitivity threshold, but the misuse of the word bothers me.

Likewise, its most common replacement, "species". Also wrong.
 

Paraxis

Explorer
Need, no, but should we change to match the whims of a small group of people because it upsets them, also no.

Race is a perfectly fine term, and used the way it is in rpg books is more accurate than modern use when talking about skin coloration.
 

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