The problem with Evil races is not what you think

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I would argue that the most popular RPG is an adolescent power fantasy and coincidentally a lot of fun. In my years of gaming, I don't think I've ever witnessed a player or DM act out a sexual assault in game. I don't doubt that it happens but I've never been worried when playing with new people.

I've been lucky in avoiding that too. But Jean Wells and Kim Mohen in Dragon #39 wrote on the difficulty female players found themselves running into

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Roger Moore's article on Women in D&D in Dragon #57 was brought up elsewhere recently.

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That he felt the need in the paragraphs that follow to explain that having NPCs rape female players characters was a bad thing says something about the state of some of the folks at RPG tables.
 
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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
But what if the killer robots the PCs must destroy really have some self-awareness?

I always like to go back to the original monster manual in cases like this. You can ally with or charm any of them, and you can try to kill any of them, given the consequences. Many are intelligent. Many have treasure that you may want to take. (And Orc don't really stand out in analogy terms. Unless the issue is hating elves and being good miners).

The discussion of alignment is very brief, and notes it can be modified by "good or evil intent" and thats it relevant for "general behaviour". It also notes the two definitions of monster--something you encounter--and something "horrible and wicked" and gives the example of an encounter with an evil high priest as being one and likely the other. Sadly the EHP is not stated up, even with the section on "Men".
 





Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
This is a delicate topic. I very much want commentary to course correct me where necessary. Thank you in advance.
Dude, the course correction has been offered, but you’re not hearing it.

As others pointed out already, the issue isn’t the existence of always-evil races. It is the existence of always-evil races that are described in terminology linked to real-world racism and bigotry.

It is- and always has been- lazy worldbuilding to rely on negative stereotypes. It instantly alienates those at whom those slurs and stereotypes have been directed. It is just that it has taken 40 years for those concerns to be taken seriously by the majority of the gaming community.

For context, consider that DC Comics‘ Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) had an Asian sidekick nicknamed “Pieface“ introduced in 1960. The character was commonly referred to by that name until the 1990s, when Thomas Kalmaku told Hal off. Ask an Asian comic book fan, and you’ll probably be told that nickname was NEVER OK. But it took a literal generation for there to be a recognition and correction.

That is where the RPG hobby is now.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
My inclination is to say that there is nothing wrong with creating a stock enemy species, servant of the dark lord for your game, but due to the cultural baggage associated with orcs, goblins and others, it is best to make that thing out of whole cloth, free of the associations noted in the OP.
Yeah. See, I'm lazy though. So I'm just going to keep using evil orcs, goblins, etc. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel.

Tell you what though. I'll throw you a bone & concede that somewhere in my make believe world there might well be not-evil-people-orcs.
But as the DM? I guarantee that unless you make the effort to go find them, the only orcs you'll meet are the evil ones. There might be a story reason for that - but the only way you'll ever learn it is to make an effort on your end. These orcs aren't "people". They are mobile sacks of HP & XP armed with axes. So as they raid your villages, plunder caravans, & such? You can slaughter them like the generic bad guys that they are.
Oh, and don't worry about the children. The only young orcs you'll be meeting are simply weaker versions of the adults armed with smaller axes, & are just as evil.
 
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Yora

Legend
Hard disagree.

The idea that only "bad players" lean into the negative stereotypes embodied in our favorite fantasy races is hogwash, IMO.

It's systemic racism. The kind of racism you don't always realize you're engaging in until somebody points it out to you. Even if you are a "good player" . . . skilled, mature, tolerant, open-minded, and work hard not to be racist.
It's not that orcs or drow are stand-ins for any specific human group.
It's that the existence of evil and savage races in fantasy gets us used to accepting that some groups are inherently evil and savage and can't be reasoned with and don't deserve approaching humanely.
 

pemerton

Legend
The need to do this is because of bad racist players, as I note below. Certain players are the problem, not the rules.
No, only bad players would make the problematic interpretation. Good players would see the problem and reject it. I assume players have agency and knowledge. If they lack these, I might cut them some slack, but only to a certain degree.
This makes no sense.

The problem with the racist stereotypes that underpin (in particular) Orcs, Goblins and Hobgoblins as presented in D&D, inherited largely from JRRT, is that they are racist stereotypes. It's not a bad player who notices these things: it's an intelligent one.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Summary

This is a summary of the problem with respect to what the 5e D&D Monster Manual describes on page 7 as the "savage and brutal" "races" — orcs, goblins, etc.

1. Orcs and similar monsters are almost exactly the same as humans: shape; size; sentience; language; tool use; wear clothes or armour; build structures; biological needs — food, water, shelter; feel pain; can be injured or suffer from disease; mortal; lack of inherent magical powers; bear children; interbreed with humans and produce viable offspring; social; organised societies; culture; religion.
2. The ways in which they are not like humans correspond to racist ideas about non-white people: evil; bloodthirsty; worship evil gods or demons; widespread pulp-style cannibalism* and human** sacrifice; sexual threat; high fertility rates; dominant 'genetic' traits; bestial; inferior intellectual abilities; uncivilised; primitive; superstitious; always tribal; incapable of forming state societies.
3. These traits are racial, biological, inherited, and unchangeable. This is the same as the modern idea of scientific racism.
4. Orcs and similar monsters possess some non-negative traits that they share with real world non-white peoples such as darker skin, shamans and witch doctors (AD&D 1e DMG), non-state societies, or the hobgoblin's Japanese hair style and armour (D&D 5e MM).

*Referring to eating any sentient being not just their own kind.
**Or any other sentient being.

Supporting Evidence and Argument

The following posts, from later in this thread, develop and give evidence for the argument above:

Morally and intellectually inferior
High fertility rates, dominant 'genetic' traits, and abundant population
"Savage" and "civilised" races, devil worship, 'human' sacrifice, and 'cannibalism'
Racial determinism in D&D and its similarity to scientific racism
Goblin/hobgoblin art and East Asian peoples
A counter-argument to the objection that the "savage" races are more like animals than people
Possible sources for AD&D 1e's half-orc "mongrels" that "favor the orcish strain heavily"

These posts are from older threads:

Racialisation of evil humanoids in AD&D 1e
The use of the racial slur "mongrel" to refer to half-orcs in AD&D 1e and AD&D 2e
D&D 5e made things worse
Parallels between "The Brute" racial caricature and orcs
Parallels between racism directed at Native Americans and evil humanoids in D&D

In 2005 Gary Gygax explicitly made a connection between a racist's view of non-white people and evil humanoids in D&D when he used the term "nits make lice" to justify the killing of evil humanoid women and children.
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
This post is about the late 19th century theory that European stories about fairies, dwarves, and similar "little people" were based on a real non-white people who had inhabited the continent. Several Appendix N authors — HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, and Abraham Merritt — used this idea in their published works. Howard and Merritt wrote stories in which diminutive fantasy races and these imagined indigenes are portrayed as one and the same.

This post is not claiming that the theory of "little people" euhemerism (the idea that a myth is rooted in fact) is true. However Appendix N authors, and even Gary Gygax, believed it to be true. It therefore has a bearing on whether fantasy races in D&D can be considered to be based on real world peoples.

Popularisation of the Theory

The existence of Pygmies became known to Europeans in the 1870s. Carole G Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples (1999):

Travelers and "scientists"... saw the Pygmies' appearance and behavior as analagous to those of supernatural dwarfs... Sir Harry Johnston... remarks that Pygmies remind him "over and over again of the traits attributed to the brownies and goblins of our fairy stories"... Another traveler comments that the behavior of a group of Pygmies is reminiscent "of the descriptions of gnomes and elves in European legends"... Sidney Hinde describes Pygmies as "small demons" and "gnome-like beings," whose "seemingly magical appearance" and ability to vanish make him "almost doubt their being human" (pg 136)​

This gave added weight to the theory of "little people" euhemerism popularised by folklorist David MacRitchie. Strange and Secret Peoples:

MacRitchie's hypothesis that the fairies of Scotland and Ireland were really non-Aryan, Finno-Ugaric peoples... — that there had been little, yellow, slant-eyed dwarfs all over northern Europe — now seemed plausible. (pg 138)​

Building on the work of all who came before him, David MacRitchie popularized what came to be known as the "pygmy theory" in his important and controversial book, The Testimony of Tradition (1890). His argument was reiterated and further elaborated in Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893). Buttressing his case with philological, topographical, traditional, and historical proofs, MacRitchie correlated fairy lore with the archeological remains of underground abodes as evidence for the existence of an ancient, dwarflike non-Aryan race in England. The idea was not new, but the development of archaeology as a science and the increased exploration of prehistoric sites gave MacRitchie's new euhemerism a force beyond the theoretical. A sort of Victorian Thor Hyerdahl, he crawled through and diagrammed mounds and tunnels to prove the validity of his assertions.​
The heart of MacRitchie's argument was that the Finno-Ugrian or Mongol peoples (including the Lapps) were also the Fians (the race preceding the Scots) and the Picts of Irish and Scottish history, and that they had coexisted with the other inhabitants of England until at least the eleventh century. Skilled in medicine, magic, and masonry, they inhabited concealed underground earth houses — later known as fairy hills or fairy forts — and sophisticated chambered mounds like Maes-Howe in the Orkneys or New Grange and the other mounds at Boyne. (pgs 47-48)​

From MacRitchie to Appendix N

Lovecraft and Howard were familiar with the work of the Welsh horror writer, Arthur Machen, who had read MacRitchie. Ian Duncan, Spawn of Ossian in the collection Global Romanticism (2015):

Lovecraft liberally acknowledged the influence on his work of Machen's "fantastic lore of lurking 'little people,'" referring to an earlier, emphatically British invention of a sinister alien nation nested beneath our everyday reality... On the remote hillsides of the Celtic fringe the protagonists of Machen's tales stumble across the traces of hideous survivals of a subhuman pygmy race of "prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country," the traumatic memory of which has been laundered over the millennia into folk legends of quaint or mischievous "little people." Emerging at night from their underground lairs to kidnap and molest local lasses, Machen's aboriginal troglodytes are a depraved antination, a primal horde that manifests itself to civilized onlookers as an abhorrent, pullulating reversion to "the black swamp whence man first came."...​
Machen, in turn, took his cue from the late-Victorian popular ethnologist David MacRitchie… MacRitchie popularized the euhemeristic thesis that folk traditions of fairies, brownies, pixies, and other "little people" preserved the collective memory of a diminutive prehistoric "Mongoloid race" or "Ugrian race of Finns" that infested the British Isles before the advent of the Celts. (pgs 14-15)​

"Turanian" is an outdated term for Central Asian peoples.

Howard and Merritt

Robert E Howard, The Children of the Night (1931):

"When Von Junzt speaks of Picts, he refers specifically to the small, dark, garlic-eating peoples of Mediterranean blood who brought the Neolithic culture into Britain. The first settlers of that country, in fact, who gave rise to the tales of earth spirits and goblins."​
"I can not agree to that last statement," said Conrad. "These legends ascribe a deformity and inhumanness of appearances to the characters. There was nothing about the Picts to excite such horror and repulsion in the Aryan peoples. I believe that the Mediterraneans were preceded by a Mongoloid type, very low in the scale of development, whence these tales –– "​
"Quite true," broke in Kirowan, "but I hardly think they preceded the Picts, as you call them, into Britain. We find troll and dwarf legends all over the Continent, and I am inclined to think that both the Mediterranean and Aryan peoples brought these tales with them from the Continent. They must have been of extremely inhuman aspect, those early Mongoloids."...​
Humans they were, of a sort, though I did not consider them so. They were short and stocky, with broad heads too large for their scrawny bodies. Their hair was snaky and stringy, their faces broad and square, with flat noses, hideously slanted eyes, a thin gash for a mouth, and pointed ears…​
These Children of the Night seemed not human to us, with their deformed dwarfish bodies, yellow skin and hideous faces. Aye – they were reptiles – vermin…​
I had never before seen a village of the Children. There was a cluster of earthen domes, with low doorways sunk into the ground; squalid dwelling-places, half above and half below the earth. And I knew from the talk of the old warriors that these dwelling-places were connected by underground corridors, so the whole village was like an ant-bed, or a system of snake holes. And I wondered if other tunnels did not run off under the ground and emerge long distances from the villages.​

Abraham Merritt, Dwellers in the Mirage (1932):

I bent over the little man. His eyes were open; he was glaring up at me. Like his skin, his eyes were yellow, tilted, Mongolian. They seemed to have no pupils, and they were not wholly human…​
"It's the food of the Yunwi Tsundsi you're eating. Fairy food, Leif! You can never eat mortal food again."...​
Whence had the Little People come into the Shadowed-land? And where had they learned that ancient tongue? I asked myself that, and answered that as well ask how it came that the Sumerians, whose great city the Bible calls Ur of the Chaldees, spoke a Mongolian language. They, too, were a dwarfish race, masters of strange sorceries, students of the stars...​
"The Yunwi Tsundsi — the Little People — how long have they dwelt here?"​

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax said:
The early English folklore had elves akin to small humans, likely based on the Picts, and called stone arrowheads they found 'elf bolts'.
Source
Gary Gygax said:
As I envisage them, the Wild Elves are more or less just that. [Picts]
Source

It should be noted that, in contrast with other versions of "little people" euhemerism, we don't know whether Gygax considered Picts to be non-white.
 
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TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
It should be noted that, in contrast with other versions of "little people" euhemerism, we don't know whether Gygax considered Picts to be non-white.
Ok, I'll bite.

I don't know all the details, but I do know that D&D has inherited a ton of things from mythology and folklore, and from influences like pulp fantasy and Lord of the Rings. And like many authors at the time, their work was coated in their view of the world, which often had racist undertones. A very good friend of mine did his master's on racism in fantasy literature and we talked about it many times, it's interesting stuff.

Personally, I have absolutely no issues with using Orcs as a tribalistic, brutal, savage society that are mostly evil. But I always had a little discomfort with the way D&D portrayed Hobgoblins as eastern asians. To me, they're monsters. You can still reason with them, possibly ally them and all that in-game. But I most often use them as a force to be reckoned with. But I could absolutely see how the language used to describe them could be problematic, but that's something I'll leave for others to judge.

But, and this is my main point, can we agree that we should absolutely care if the concept of an elf was based on the Picts more than a thousand years ago? The concept and idea of an elf today is so far removed, both in time and subject, to what it was back then that it should absolutely not matter. The parallels that people draw between some species in fantasy sometimes are tied to groups that are still minorities today and suffer from it, or come from a somewhat recent reinvention (orcs, elves, etc), but talking about picts seems like borderline insanity to me.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
This post considers fantasy races with the characteristics of real world races in two Appendix N works – Edgar Rice Burroughs, At the Earth's Core (1914), and JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). In the first case the connection to a real world race is explicit, in the second it is only made explicit in a private letter. At the Earth's Core (emphasis mine):

Chattering and gibbering through the lower branches of the trees came a company of manlike creatures evidently urging on the dog pack. They were to all appearances strikingly similar in aspect to the Negro of Africa. Their skins were very black, and their features much like those of the more pronounced Negroid type except that the head receded more rapidly above the eyes, leaving little or no forehead. Their arms were rather longer and their legs shorter in proportion to the torso than in man, and later I noticed that their great toes protruded at right angles from their feet – because of their arboreal habits, I presume. Behind them trailed long, slender tails which they used in climbing quite as much as they did either their hands or feet.​

In The Lord of the Rings, orcs are described as "swart" (an archaic term for dark-skinned), "slant-eyed", and "crook-legged" or "bow-legged". Human-orc hybrids are "sallow faced" and "squint-eyed". The Uruk-hai, another hybrid, are "black orcs". Orcs call the Riders of Rohan "Whiteskins".

"Whiteskins" may derive from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. In these stories, "white-skins" is used frequently to refer to Europeans. For example The Pioneers (1823): "I look — but I see no white-skins; there are none to be seen but just and brave Indians."

Tolkien interview (1964): "It [Middle-earth] resembles some of the history of Greece and Rome as against the perpetual infiltration of people out of the East."

In Letter #210 (1958) to Forrest J Ackerman Tolkien commented on a movie script he had received. It therefore represents his carefully considered opinion. He corrected the way orcs had been described:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.​

Dimitra Fimi explains this passage in Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History (2008):

This statement is important from an anthropological point of view, as it seems to reflect popular ideas of the traditional hierarchy of the three extreme human racial types: the Caucasoid, the Mongoloid and the Negroid... In this case, Tolkien seems to identify himself with the 'European' race, usually associated with the Caucasoid, and chooses for his villains the physical characteristics in extreme of the so-called Mongoloid race, traditionally seen as inferior from a western European perspective. At the same time, the identification of Orcs with the Mongoloid race evokes popular ideas on racial degeneration and mental disability. For many years – officially until 1961 – the medical condition today known as 'Down's Syndrome' – was referred to as 'Mongolian idiocy' or 'Mongolism'. The term originated in the writing of John Langdon Down, who was the first to describe and study the condition… Writing during the second half of the nineteenth century and influenced by racial anthropology, Down came to view mental disability as a regression to earlier, less 'developed' races of humans.​
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
... but talking about picts seems like borderline insanity to me.
Mod Note:

"They disagree with me, so I will dismiss them with accusations of mental illness," is particularly weak, hyperbolicly insulting form of rhetoric that is grounded in prejudice against those with mental illness. Please do not use this on these boards ever again. Thanks.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
As I have said; define what is EVIL in your game. Cold-blooded murder, mind control (including slavery), worship of certain gods, cannibalisms, kicking puppies, races that do a number of things on the list and so on...
 

pemerton

Legend
In The Lord of the Rings, orcs are described as "swart" (an archaic term for dark-skinned), "slant-eyed", and "crook-legged" or "bow-legged". Human-orc hybrids are "sallow faced" and "squint-eyed". The Uruk-hai, another hybrid, are "black orcs". Orcs call the Riders of Rohan "Whiteskins".

"Whiteskins" may derive from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. In these stories, "white-skins" is used frequently to refer to Europeans. For example The Pioneers (1823): "I look — but I see no white-skins; there are none to be seen but just and brave Indians."
I think this reinforces that "men" or humanity, in JRRT, are normatively associated with Europeans, and especially north-western Europeans.

In another recent thread I've posted that the contrast between humans and Hobbits really starts to break down once we are dealing with "everyday" rather than heroic-type humans (contrast Ioreth, or Butterbur, with Eomer or Faramir). Somewhat similarly, the contrast between Orcs and humans starts to break down once we turn away from Rohan and Gondor and Dale and environs, to the peoples who live East and South of those places.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
I think I've demonstrated that the problems began a good deal earlier than that!
Its a deconstruction, no doubt about it.

Though "bloodthirsty; worship evil gods or demons; widespread pulp-style cannibalism* and human** sacrifice; sexual threat; fecund; dominant 'genetic' traits; bestial; physically superior*** ; low intelligence*** ; uncivilised; primitive; superstitious; always tribal; incapable of forming state societies." Describes ancient barbarians, views of dark age and medieval Europeans (both from present day and by their neighbours), and kinda describes D&D world more generally or at least its more interesting parts. (and is also ironic in present political discourse, but I can't go there).

But let's accept the basic premise. Or least the basic coincidence.

Does it mean there is a problem for D&D? Does it mean people should change how they play?

Should these races be removed from the game?

There has been a huge change on how many people not only view their fellow humans, but also their fellow animals. There has also been a big change in presentation of "monsters" in media.

Should that change how people play?
 

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