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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

On(e D&D) the Origin of Species

The Heroes of Bounty and a Behir, Be Here Now

Recently One D&D announced they are doing away with race as a term to describe the various playable humanoids in the game. This move is long overdue, yet at the same time misses an opportunity for the sake of convenience. Merely switching one word for another, a find/replace step that takes a couple of clicks, isn’t necessarily doing enough. Dungeons and Dragons has a documented history of problematic terminology and depictions of any culture outside of the Eurocentric framing that has been established as the norm by the gatekeepers of high fantasy. A better approach to correcting the game within the context of fantasy writ large, needs to address more systemic issues that will remain after the launch of One D&D.

Looking back at the earlier versions of the game, the problems are apparent. The first edition I played in ‘81 missed the mark with race and class, conflating the two into a complete mess. The description of ‘human’ in the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Rulebook portrays the European colonialist mindset, the only race that could be a magic user, thief or other classes. Demi-humans, such as elves and halflings were defined as their class. Humans, coded as white, were the most desirable due to their versatility and specialization. 

Humans are the most wide-spread of all races. The human traits of curiosity, courage and resourcefulness have helped them adapt, survive and prosper everywhere they have gone.

    As the Basic Edition was replaced by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, depictions of race got worse, much worse. Depictions of humans still echo the white European ideal with superiority built into the rules.

Each racial stock has advantages and disadvantages, although in general human is superior to the others… Human characters are neither given penalties nor bonuses, as they are established as the norm upon which these subtractions or additions for racial stock are based.

    With all other races deemed inferior to humans, this version of D&D used language to describe some as inherently undesirable, inferior savages. Half-orcs were portrayed as the mongrel offspring of orcs and humans, with only a small percentage of them regarded as passing enough to walk among humans. This barely-disguised bigotry is baked right into the game and with the framing provided in the rule books, often resulted in the half-orc relegated to being the cruel, brutish fighter. The AD&D Players Handbook continues:

Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels are sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human.

    Fifth Edition and One D&D have taken a basic step toward bringing this issue into the open and correcting this problem but even this half-measure will surely be as welcome as rolling a one on a D20. Any changes to the existing game will bring out the haters and if the race/species debate becomes prominent, it’ll cause even more tension. Hmmm. Changing the systems that support racial bias meeting opposition? Where have I heard that before? (Press play on Childish Gambino’s This is America here)

    In our current campaign, I’ve been basing character creation on Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e by Eugene Marshall (Arcanist Press, 2020) to bring depth and balance to our fantasy world. Each character is allowed to choose an ancestry, a broad-spectrum family tree that can influence some physical traits while choosing a Culture allows for other abilities to be nurtured. It encourages a vibrant backstory and the result is a more developed character. That’s how our human wizard ended up being raised by a community of gnomes.

    Which I guess is why I’m still drawn to this game, the ability to make it your own, using what works, discarding what doesn’t and tapping into a world of creativity with abundant resources from creatives in the community. Building on the foundation that One D&D is implementing will allow for continued improvement of this game. A game that strives to learn from past mistakes, meeting the goddess on this hero's journey. Roll for initiative…

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