Race as a trope in role-playing games

The Pigmies as compared with English Officers, Soudanese, and Zanzibaris
An image from the D&D Sixth Edition PHB

I have real difficulty putting down any sort of hard boundaries around role-playing games. Like other things, I know it when I see it. But “race” as a trope seems as core to most RPGs as “classes” and some sort of individual characteristic statistics.

The vast majority of fantasy uses this trope as a crutch – and badly at that. Fantastic Racism is a product of its time, certainly, but that doesn’t make it “good” any more than chainmail bikinis are “good”. An exceptional writer can take almost any trope and turn it into something worthwhile as a commentary and building-block of their world. However, most of us are not G.R.R. Martin and shouldn’t fool ourselves.

Now the whole idea of assigning morality on a per-race basis is ugly when you deconstruct it even a tiny bit. Assigning personality attributes to a race, whether that’s “hill dwarves” or “Latin women” descends into uncomfortable territory almost immediately. Often, we don’t think about this because the traditional RPGer is a white person in Western society. Many of us have said in the past that we “don’t see color” or consider ourselves “color-blind”, but that also raises of privilege and awareness. After all, we may never have had significant issues in our lives because of our skin color or accent or traditional family dress.

I’d prefer to play in worlds where all humanoids should basically be treated as actual races, not species. In this world, human(oid)s just have even more variety than we do in ours. Dwarves and elves aren’t “separate” any more than “Black” and “White” in ours. In our world, race has its origins primarily in sociology rather than genetics. Instead, I’d allow players to choose from a menu of customization options (e.g. “you can add 2 to any single ability and 1 to any other two abilities, plus choose from these features for your character”). We don’t see mechanics associated with gender and sexuality in many games anymore. The reasons for that should apply just as well to race.

As an alternative to that, maybe treat racism in your world as we often do in our. It exists, but that is the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. So call it out in some way, or perhaps make it a theme for character development.

After all, if we can imagine worlds in which someone can personally invoke the power of the cosmos and transition between planes of existence, maybe we can imagine a world where your “race” doesn’t define your identity.

NB: This post was written for the November 2014 Blog Carnival.

Update: Some really thoughtful discussion has resulted on Google+.

3 thoughts on “Race as a trope in role-playing games

  1. The idea of gaming in a fantasy milieu that reflects the ideals that you aspire to in the real world is great. And if your fellow gamers are down with it too, so much the better!

    Having said that…

    Call me old fashioned, but in my own fantasy world—I run a Moldvay/Cook B/X D&D game—the different “races” (humans as a whole, demi-humans & humanoids) are, in fact, very different species. What’s more, many of them are truly evil and most barely tolerate one another. There are, of course, those exceptional personalities that are able to transcend boundaries of race/species. They’re the characters—human & demi-human, male & female—that adventure in my world. But of course there are lines even they won’t cross, …at least not without a drawn sword! 😉 Indeed, the tension between these different species provides the energy that drives many of the story arcs my game. It’s simple, effective, and doesn’t negatively affect how I think about or behave in the real world.

    Again, more power to you, especially if you and the folks at your table are all of a like mind. But at the same time I simply don’t believe there is necessarily anything wrong with the more traditional view of fantasy race as trope, …your image from the 6th Edition PHB notwithstanding 😉


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