That Orc-ward Moment: Racial Coding in Dungeons & Dragons

Fantasy is a genre with lots of cultural problems to unpack, and the flagship TTRPG is no exception.

Header image: Dungeons and Dragons Players’ Handbook, © Wizards of the Coast

Part of loving something is acknowledging ways in which it is flawed. Genres – and even some whole art forms – have problems baked into their core, and even decades later we’re still dealing with the fallout of bad decisions.

Case in point, Dungeons and Dragons.

I love D&D, it’s brought me countless hours of fun – learning the rules, making colourful characters and bringing them to life with my friends. It’s fulfilling both intellectually and creatively, and I would urge absolutely anyone with a couple of friends and a few spare hours to give it a try. But I would be lying if I said that it was perfect, and its worst elements date back to the fantasy fiction that inspired it.

Fantasy gets a bad rap when I comes to issues of race and racial diversity, which it largely deserves. Either it boils cultures down to a few cherry picked points of exoticism as we saw with WoW in Owen’s article, or it ignores them entirely, creating a world where everyone is whiter than a swan in a snowstorm.

Dungeons and Dragons, by contrast, is about creating a world and characters who exist within it, exactly as you’d like.There are preset options for background, and class as there are in most RPG character creators. Where it gets difficult is in the selection of ‘race’.

There are 7 ‘racial’ options in the 5th edition D&D Player’s Handbook, each with its own ‘racial traits’. The available options cover standard fantasy bases like Humans, Elves, Dwarves and the like. They also include more obscure choices, such as Tieflings (demon people), Dragonborn (Dragon people) and Half-Orcs (awkward stereotypes). They each have their own traits that can do anything from changing your starting stats to giving you unique abilities and spells. However, the more appropriate word is ‘species’.

The so called ‘races’ of D&D aren’t different cultures of the same people, but instead biologically separate species. The notion that certain races or ethnic groups of have inherent traits that make them stronger, faster or more intelligent or more prone to goodness or evil is an ugly hangover inherited from the colonial attitudes that informed its most influential writers. The nonhuman people are almost all grouped as a single monoculture, with traits, skills and abilities all unique to that entire group.


Image: Dungeons and Dragons Players’ Handbook, © Wizards of the Coast

There are a different ethnicities of Humans in the Player’s Handbook, with their own naming conventions and general physical characteristics and the general consensus seems to be that they all get along fine. Instead prejudice is deferred to the nonhuman peoples. Stereotypes about Dwarves, Elves and Halflings are largely neutral, but more traditionally monstrous people like Orcs fare far worse. They have the dark skin and a tribal aesthetic, a warlike culture and a predilection towards violence. Half-Orcs are presented as an option in the Player’s Handbook, they’re assumed to be dangerous brutes, with short tempers and violent tendencies.

In more colonial fantasy then, Orcs and Half-Orcs would be the clear standin for black people. Tribes of hulking brutes, with a love of simple pleasures like drinking and fighting, intimidating to to other people they encounter. And for this, we can blame Tolkien.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Art inspires art, and when Dungeons and Dragons sprung from the world of war gaming, and the history of western fantasy fiction in the 1970s, it wore its inspirations on its sleeve. In particular the Lord of the Rings, the seminal trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, was front and centre in the creation of the game’s world and tone.

For those unfamiliar, the Lord of the Rings concerns the events in a fantasy world called Middle Earth. This place is occupied by Good Races, Humans, Elves, Dwarfs and such, and the Bad Races, such as Orcs and Goblins. Now if the extremely subtle emphasis in the previous sentence didn’t tip you off, the good guys in LotR are almost exclusively white European-ish men. They’re all beautiful and fair skinned, (qualities taken to superhuman levels by the Elves, ostensibly the Goodest and Purest of the lot), and even the stumpy hobbits are rosy-cheeked paragons of rural English virtue. By contrast the Bad Races are all dark-skinned, with wide noses, thick lips and dreadlocked hair. They are considered ugly and monstrous, and what’s more, their ugly appearance confirms their inherent evil. We learn to empathise and see ourselves in characters that look like us, reflect how we feel about ourselves onto them, and even as a child it was apparent to me that I had more in common with the baddies in LotR than I did with, say, Viggo Mortensen.

D&D has been through numerous changes over the decades, from edition to edition. Although it originally wholeheartedly embraced the trashier aspects of Tolkein-esque fantasy, by 2014 when Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, things had changed for the better. The default image for Human is a black woman, and all three of the core rulebooks are full of art featuring characters from all a whole range of ethnicities, engaging in all manner of exciting fantasy nonsense. The intent is clear, to set aside the stereotype of the all-white boys club that tabletop RPGs gained somewhere in the mists of time and put forward their stated intention: Dungeons and Dragons is for everyone.

Racism is never directly addressed in any of the official materials, as you might expect from a game designed to have a wide and family friendly reach. D&D is flexible enough that whether you’re using the premade campaign setting, or making your own, influences can be felt from any real world or imagined culture you like.

A case in point is the D&D book, Tomb of Annihilation. Released in november of last year, ToA is a full adventure, meaning a self contained story and epic quest for players to take on in the jungle continent of Chult. Chult is, very clearly, a stand in for central Africa. It’s people are dark skinned, with hair and clothes styled similarly to real world African cultures. This piece from Kotaku provides a little more detail on the ways in which it does and does not succeed in creating a place and moving away from the frankly unpleasant colonial tropes that informed the original version of Chult.

Although the decision to preserve the colonial past of Chult as a setting stays true to the game’s storied legacy, it misses a chance to improve on some past mistakes. Perhaps it’s realistic that a land rich in natural resources would attract invaders, but when one of those natural resources is magical space metal, it doesn’t strain the imagination to imagine the Chultans might have fought off potential colonisers. It’s supposed to be a fantasy after all. Wakanda with dinosaurs, anyone?


Image: Dungeons and Dragons Players’ Handbook, © Wizards of the Coast

So within the fiction of the game, there are canonically black people, in a world without racism. That’s great! It really is, the freedom to present your character in any way you like without the worry of being judged unfairly or treated differently is a powerful fantasy all its own. If I want to play a wizard with a dashiki and an afro instead of a robe and a bald patch, then I can. And I should! And I probably will!

But in shifting the presence of stereotypes to the fantasy races, the writers haven’t eliminated the presence of racism from the game, just moved the goalposts. Being Human doesn’t carry with it any negative assumptions but instead being an nonhuman character fills the gap.

As mentioned above, Fantasy fiction can be a difficult space to navigate, especially where playing up these attitudes enforces a hollow sense of imitation for real world prejudices whilst allowing the comfortable practise of excluding actual ethnic minorities from being a part of a world. The Humans of D&D, whatever their ethnicity, aren’t treated differently. The treatment of prejudice is trivialised by this because the targets of this serious real world issue aren’t real people and it become easy to both accept and dismiss. The characters from Chult are dark skinned, but they aren’t Black. Not in the sense of being a minority, treated unfairly and maligned based on stereotypes about their entire group based on the assertions of a few ‘beautiful’ murderers.

The Half-Orc from the Player’s Handbook is the primary option for players wanting to get their fix of problematic tropes. It also blurs the already difficult lines between ‘race’ and ‘species’. As a mix between two different peoples they carry stigma and expectation from each. For Half-Orcs raised amongst Humans, this usually means a life spent being judged for their origins, not Human enough to be trusted, not Orcish enough to be rejected entirely.

It’s sometimes difficult not to see representation wherever you can find it, but being caught between two very different cultures, with everyone you meet prejudging you based on their expectations of how you’ll walk, talk, and act based on stories their grandparents told them about people with your skin tone is sometimes too real.

For some people, this is not a situation they’ve encountered before, and I’m not trying to insinuate that any of the writers of the game are secretly racist or hiding outdated ideas about interracial marriage. I think they’ve done an amazing job taking the somewhat problematic mess they inherited and putting some very real positive changes into the fiction of their game. But some things can only change so much, constricted by years of history and legacy, that we have to learn to accept or bypass entirely.

Nor am I saying that anyone who disagrees with me on this is racist. Tabletop RPGs are a lot of fun,the turn based combat mechanics of D&D are exhilarating and creative and as engaging as any video game. Their worlds can mean different things to different people and the context of the story is decided by the group at the table far more than any book. Sometimes you want to just chill out, roll some dice and kill some monsters. But it can be difficult to do that when the bad guys are only bad guys because they look like you.

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About Reuben Williams-Smith

Reuben Williams-Smith is a UK based writer, podcaster and Dungeon Master. He loves games, eldritch horror and low budget monster movies. To see more of his work, and occasional pictures of his adorable fur-babies, follow him on twitter @reubscubes.
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3 thoughts on “That Orc-ward Moment: Racial Coding in Dungeons & Dragons

  1. I can see the reasoning behind your ideas, but don’t you think that they might be an interpretation based on your views of racism?
    What I mean is that orcs, goblins, trolls, the unseelie court, are monsters from the fantasy and nightmares of old European mythology. African people have their own mythical monsters.
    The reason why they are normally dangerous and evil is because they follow the monster archetype.
    Regarding the barbarian culture, Europe had it’s fair share of them (and normally are the reference for barbarian classes). The term is actually remaining from how the Roman empire would refer to european people like the Huns, Franks, Vandals, Saxons, and Visigoths.
    Anyway, just wanted to know your perspective on that.

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