RPG Evolution: 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.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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I think you know you are arguing semantics here and what the actual underlying issue is.
I know what the underlying issue is. I don't think the poster I repllied to does.

A commercial publisher changing the terminology it uses to state its rules and express its fiction isn't censoring anyone.


It IS a valid point, and one I feel is entirely within the DM’s purview to change...along with dwarven fighting techniques, alignment and other cultural or habituated traits. Drow who primarily live on the surface might not have light blindness. A human raised by dwarves might have stonecunning.

Because the MM & PHB entries describe typical members of a creature’s type or subtype, not all of them.

But some things probably shouldn’t be touched regardless of background absent extreme justification (like som kind of magical intercession). The changelings, cuckoos, adoptees, foundlings, etc. of fiction were different, but still retained their core species attributes. Tarzan learned much living with apes, but he was never to become as strong or large as one. Captain Carrot was more culturally dwarven than most dwarves, even though he was a human standing well over 6’ in height. Despite being adopted by dwarven parents, he grew to full human size.

Which is why I don’t think the stuff we see in the creature writeups should be officially divorced from their underpinnings and made into another laundry list of character building options like Feats or Spells. Homebrewing those changes is fine, OTOH, given proper context.

Oh, totally agree. What a DM does in his or her own game is none of my or anyone else's business. That's groovy. What bemuses me though is when people mistake their homebrew for what is actually in the game. They've done it a certain way for so long that they are no longer even aware that they have made changes and then start to argue that the way they've done it is somehow the "right" way of doing it, despite not actually being supported by the game itself.

And, frankly, I agree that I wouldn't really want the game to be changed so much that race/origin/whateverdahellwefinallysettleon is a la carte. A baseline elf has elven weapon proficiencies. I'm groovy with that. That's the baseline. If you want to deviate from that (such as AngryDM has) then go right ahead. But, as an argument that somehow those proficiencies are innate to elves is actually not supported by the game.

Granted, I'm banging the drum here on a single example, and I don't really mean to pick on [MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION] here actually. It was just something that stuck in my head. The argument is that race is the best term because race encapsulates elements that are not necessarily captured by, say, species because of the existence of magic. And, sure, darkvision (or whatever you want to call it) or trance, yup, that's pretty inherent in being an elf. But, that is still covered by terms like heritage or ancestry.


First Post
I know what the underlying issue is. I don't think the poster I repllied to does.

A commercial publisher changing the terminology it uses to state its rules and express its fiction isn't censoring anyone.

I think it kinda depends on the reasoning.

Right now "race" is the most fitting word to describe creatures like orcs, elves, dwarves etc. It actually is more appropriate for fantasy than it is real life so there is no reasons to change it.

If the justification is "some may not like it" where do you draw the line ?

-Do you remove demons, necromancy or magic in general because they deter overly religious people ?

- Do you remove religion and gods because some people may have been raised in abusive religious households/communities ?

-Do you remove magic because some people may come from cultures where superstition of magic was a source of abuse ?

Etc etc.

Or say, you dont remove those elements, you just make up new awakrd sounding names for them, would that actually work or be better ?

I believe, with race gradually being phased out of everyday language and perception, it is fine to use in fictional terms.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Morris, I am truly sorry to read your moderator response to my post. I find it interesting how controlled our speech has become and this is another sad example of how today's political correctness is seeping into something as innocuous as roll playing games. Don't worry, I will not add any further comments to this thread but shame on you for judging me and my intent. And by the way, I have been visiting this website since it belonged to Eric Noah, long before you were in the picture Mr Morris. This is unfortunate indeed.

My name's not Morris. And you were asked not to post in this thread again. And challenging moderation in-thread is not permitted, so I'll gift you with a few days' break.
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Just on a slightly irreverent tangent: where do Half Elves actually inherit their +2 Charisma from? Elves don't get it (Dark Elves only get a +1) and Humans don't have it either. So why do Half Elves?
As near as I can tell, it was an attempt to give the race a "niche" in 3.5 (IIRC). The vague justification is that the half elf generally takes the more appealing features of both parents. Considering the in game fluff is, and always has been, that half-elves are subject to prejudice from both sides, I find it somewhat incongruous.

It could also be taken as a bit offensive: "That half-elf girl better learn to shake her thang before the dandelion eaters or square faces decide to have themselves an old-fashioned lynchin'."

A couple real world examples came to mind, but that one turned my stomach enough.

If we have known that Race is a problematic term, that is not accurate for a century then I guess a game that is less then a century old would not have used that term.
You really think an insurance underwriter turned cobbler from the Midwest was at the forefront of that particular issue?

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