Decolonization and Integration in D&D

So, I was driving home and tossed in The Rat Pack Live at the Sands for the ride. I was muttering to myself about Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy games and how they treat both POC and non-humans as being less dimensional and nuanced. This had been set off by reading through my shiny new pdf copy of Tiny Dungeon 2e, where I was simultaneously elated at the variety of player races and depressed by the stereotypes applied. So, mid-mutter, Sammy Davis Jr came into the set, and I heard his iconic line of “Integration! Integration!” So let’s talk decolonization and integration. And yes, I’m picking on D&D in this, because it set the pattern.

The Issues

D&D set a template that has been relentlessly reproduced by fantasy RPGs right into the modern era. Unfortunately, it was a template of unchecked, and unquestioned colonialism and the repetition of racism based narratives. Where it flashes up in its most obvious forms are in how the game instructs players and DM’s to treat the “half” races (specifically Half Elves and Half Orcs), how POC are depicted and treated, and in how “monstrous” races are all but dismissed as “people” or being part of the world. I can sum a lot of the narrative design and world build up as “If they don’t look like us, we either want to have sex with them or kill them.”

This point of view is not surprising given the background that D&D emerged from. The USA in the 1970s was still in turmoil from the Civil Rights Movement. There were a lot of bad ideas around how races (being IRL people from different ethnic groups) “should” or “could” coexist. Gygax himself was a biological determinist and essentialist. The fantasy media of the era wasn’t particularly forward thinking or diverse in positive ways either. All of this bled into D&D’s tradition of exoticism, racism, and problematic practices. This was characterized best in the debacle that was Maztica in 2nd Edition AD&D. [1]

With the Half and Lineage player races; typified by the Half Elf, Half Orc, Aasimar, and Tiefling, we see a lot of things come into play. For ease of examination, I will draw on TV Tropes for this. These player races get the bulk of the negative aspects of the Half Human Hybrid, Half Breed Discrimination, Maligned Mixed Race Marriage, and parts of That’s Not My Child. Aasimars are the exception, because they’re traditionally planar touched from the outer (read: heavenly) planes, and therefore inherently acceptable/desirable. They’re not untouched by racism though, since being a “model minority” carries a host of its own issues.

The Half Orc, Half Elf, and Tiefling however, are a lot of One Drop Rule and discrimination at work, reflective of a simplistic and inaccurate view of mixed relations. It’s based on the ideology of American racism and the rationalization of segregation. That being that groups shouldn’t mix because the children of such mixing will (not might be, but will) be rejected by both groups and forced into lives on the fringes of everything. They ascribe half Orcs the negative stereotyped features of POC; they’re brutish, incapable of having or enjoying high culture, and violent by nature. Half Elves are the exotic, sexualized Mulattos of the game, there to be sexually desired and act as diplomats because of their inherent charisma. Both are denied “normal” lives, both are rejected by both sides of their families. Neither reflects what would, in a world with many such hybrids and a long history of it, be a normalized and routine part of any culture where people from different groups mix and mingle. Why? Because D&D worlds are segregated ones.

Tieflings offer a different issue. They’re not a hybrid, but rather a bloodline that traces their lineage to an Abyssal or Infernal pact made by a distant ancestor. They’re under a “Sins of the Father” sort of problem, and again, don’t reflect a world where their presence and background would have been normalized long ago. Yes, demons and devils are generally considered to be bad, and are, inarguably, evil. Tieflings however, are not. Neither are Warlocks (probably the most common source of Tiefling bloodlines) vilified. It’s discrimination for the sake of discrimination, arguably the weakest tool for creating conflict.

Monster races are thoroughly othered and denied all but the least rudimentary integration with the bulk of worlds in D&D, and definitely in its core lore. Even when they’re described as social, intelligent, and prone to creating large settlements, they are treated as unwanted animals to be cleared from the land to expand

(normally) human lands. Even where they aren’t coded as POC, the colonialist aspects of this are writ large, and hark back to the clearances of indigenous peoples from their lands by force that are still largely celebrated in the west. Notable examples of this are Orcs, Hobgoblins, Goblins, and Lizardfolk. In the essentialist framing of D&D, these races are not “people”, but “monsters”, and are inherently dangerous/evil, and can be killed without thought or hesitation to claim their treasures, lands, and resources.

POC in D&D suffer several issues. Stereotypical portrayals based in problematic pulp literature roots not being the least of them. Another is that their regions and areas are seldom developed any of the interest, vigour, or effort seen in the areas that are European coded. Continued use of outdated and offensive terminology, in particular with Asian coded source books being released as part of the “Oriental Adventures” line being the best example. In broad terms, POC in D&D, and games patterned on it, are either there as background figures waiting for rescue led by the European coded peoples, palette swapped European coded peoples, or presented in a stereotypical manner that was problematic in the 1990s.

Potential Solution

A solid solution to this state of affairs is decolonization and integration.

Decolonization is a difficult process in the real world, but less so in fictional worlds. The first step is to acknowledge, like anime, manga, and some forward thinking RPGs did ages ago, that fantasy worlds are not just the real world European middle ages, but with magic and monsters. That is a subgenre of fantasy RPGs, but that’s not what’s being discussed here. This small step is in reality leap forwards for games built on the D&D pattern. Fantasy worlds are not tied to the “real world” in terms of history, technology, or culture. Yes, I realize that nothing comes from a vacuum, and that coding is inevitable in most cases, but that doesn’t mean that things need to be slavishly reproduced to maintain a facade of authenticity.

The first big step is to stop presenting POC in the context of being background characters in their own lands. I’ve talked about this before, and most extensively in my review of Tomb of Annihilation. [2] POC need to be shown as active and dynamic, and the lands they’re in, and their cultures, need to be developed more and with better effort. Why? Because non-POC often lack the anchoring to the concepts and aspects of POC coded cultures; and defaulting to “hilarious” but racist accents and depictions is not the way forwards. To its credit, D&D has come forward a long way in the art department, but continues to lag in the areas of world building to support said art. Tethyr, Turmish, and Chult being recent examples. A further step here is to move away from the need to make POC in the game “historically accurate” and let them be as fantasy-powerful and active as the European coded people.

The next step in decolonization is to cease othering “monster” races, better described perhaps as monsterfolk. If players and dungeon masters can tell the difference between the standard player races when they appear in the monster manual and players handbook, or discern that there’s a difference between evil human bandits and pirates and not-evil humans who are not bandits and pirates, there’s no reason they can’t extend that monsterfolk. Except that the books train them to not to. Evil human cultists living in squalor and being obscene? Clearly an aberration from normal society. Goblins or Orcs living in squalor and being obscene? Normal and how they are because they’re Goblins and Orcs. That last example has some roots in racist depictions and narratives of POC that were used as rationalizations for colonialism.

A further step in decolonization is the abandonment of racist narratives and segregationist ideology around how different populations interact. In most cases in D&D fantasy worlds, we’re not talking about populations that were thrown together under horrible circumstances or just recently. In the majority, we’re talking about populations that have been living around each other for millennia. Now, I’m not saying it should all a peaceful, hug a rainbow love fest. What I am saying is that population mixing is a normal event, doesn’t have to be a violent one (and often isn’t), and that the cultures involved would develop practices around it. And those practices aren’t, by default, “reject the child”.

On into integration, there’s a lot of map work to be done. D&D and worlds that pattern themselves on it are human-centric in the extreme when it comes to maps. The political and territory maps are often the worst for it, with non-human lands of all stripes being ignored. Areas they occupy are usually just labeled like empty wilderness. These lands need to be delineated and described in the same detail as the lands they exist near. This moves to normalize them and is probably the easiest step in integration. A harder step is establishing relationships with the peoples around these spaces that don’t default to “they hate each other and attack each other on site”. That’s lazy and boring. Remember that if players and DMs can tell the difference between villainous humans and non-villainous humans, they can do the same with Orcs and Goblins.

Combining decolonization and integration is making monsterfolk cultures into functional ones. The bulk of them follow a simple pattern: they’re evil, rely on slaves, live in horrid squalor or corrupting opulence, follow an unbalanced and evil deity, and have cultural practices that are so self destructive that they would be unsustainable. A lot of this has some deep roots in how real world POC cultures were depicted in as a way to dehumanize them and rationalize cruel treatment, dishonest trade, forced migration, and extermination. So developing this away from that model is vital.

With the Half and Lineage races, the first step to decolonization and integration is to STOP CALLING THEM HALF-WHATEVER. The Tiefling, Aasimar, Genasi, Ogrillion, Orogs, Genasi and even Mul got names. A further step would be to move to a broader model of hybridization possibilities instead of remaining stuck in the Gygaxian blandness of Human/Elf and Human/Orc pairings. This is something I’ve touched on before, and you can get into those Punnett Squares there. [3] But the point is that “half-x” is doing no one any favours at this late date. With these groups, as mentioned in the issues part of the post, the integration point is that they aren’t new or unusual to the populations they’re in for the overwhelming majority of circumstances. Elves living near humans would have practices for raising mixed children, and vice versa. Remember mixed people aren’t “torn” between their ancestral lines by default; that’s just not how it works. Nor are they “natural diplomats” between them. That’s all old and racist narrative baggage. Figure out how the relevant populations handle mixed relationships and the children that can result from them.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t an exhaustive work by a longshot. This post is just a framework on how to remove some of the oldest, most resilient, issues from D&D and worlds and games based on their model. It doesn’t go deep into how the fluff and baked in lore does a lot of the heavy lifting for framing how different races are or what classes they’re best matched up with. It doesn’t go into the conflation of biological traits (seeing at night, poison resistance etc…) and cultural practices (weapons training, knowledge of stonework, a tendency to hold grudges) or how that reinforces the idea that biological determinism is a thing. Nor does it touch on the problematic copy-pasting of live, real world religions into the game where they’re treated like made up fantasy ones.

What this post is, and does, is call for better world building. To start the process at the point of entry that most have to the game, with characters, maps, and the descriptions of the cultures of these worlds. We live in an era where fantasy is tearing away from Tolkien, Leiber, and Gygax’s concepts and their limitations. So it’s not unreasonable to, canonically, move past them in the world’s largest and most famous tabletop RPG. Not just that, but it’s vital that we do, because D&D is very much an influence in fantasy, and the longer it drags its feet on change, the harder things will be when it comes. For more thoughts on decolonization, check out my post on Decolonizing Magic. [4]

References:

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HalfHumanHybrid

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HalfBreedDiscrimination

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MalignedMixedMarriage

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThatThingIsNotMyChild

25 comments

  • Hiraeth Starguy

    Does anyone else get a little bit irked when they see maps where human lands are divided into kingdoms and territories with names and distinct cultures and stuff, but elven lands are just called “the Elven Lands” and treated like a monoculture?

  • Thank you for your thoughts. I recently reused an old D&D setting from the 80ies, in which children of orcs and humans are basically seen as abominations, and probably attacked on sight. So far, I circumvented that aspect of the setting. I will have to change the background if I use it longer.

    The “good/evil” races concept dates back to Tolkien at least. Older fantasy literature is of course full of this kind of things.

  • The funny thing is that Tolkien himself often did a better job of it than his imitators. Very few people watching or reading the Lord of the Rings catch that Elrond is a half-elf. Neither he nor his parents were rejected by their society.

    And the Numenoreans themselves, who became the Gondorians, are the product of generations of mixing humans and elves.

    This is not to say he didn’t have his faults, only to say that he did show there are other ways to resolve the scenario. No more, no less.

    Your point about biological determinism actually has a pretty easy solution in D&D 5e that wasn’t available in other editions: backgrounds. A DM could remove cultural bonuses from races and move them to backgrounds. I can even see a possible third block of bonuses since most of the backgrounds are careers: race (biology), country (culture), background (career). Giving your inheritance, your social environment, and your own early life choices equal footing in defining the character.

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  • “The USA in the 1970s was still in turmoil from the Civil Rights Movement.”
    Both half Elves and Half Orcs came directly from Tolkien so you might want to point the finger at 1960s England.

    • Gygax was American and American perspectives on race are a much greater influence in D&D than the 1960’s UK.

      • Elrond and Aragorn are cousins. There are plenty of problematic aspects in LOTR, but “interracial marriage bad” isn’t one of them.

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  • Fantastic article, many thanks.

    I hadn’t even considered the “half”-creature aspect of things. Thankfully, I haven’t run any adventures that require preconceived notions of heritage to be considered, so the cultures of my world can be gently nudged away from those ideas.

  • I’m curious about some further resources on decolonisation and avoiding my subconscious prejudices when I’m writing for my TTRPG needs (both character and worldbuilding). Do you have a recommended reading list?

  • I just want to say that I love you blog and your writing. Keep up the good work!! I am learning a great deal from you, and you’re doing an incredible service to Dungeons and Dragons by doing what you’re doing here. Can’t wait to read your other writings!

  • 100% agree, and there’s no way to just ignore or sidestep this. We can even start with the Dragons. Highly intelligent beings with ancient and complex personalities but somehow their character is determined by the color of their scales? The colored dragons are of course evil. In my home brew campaign for kids there is an understanding that dragons are like people, some are good and some are evil. The old ideas are based on an old conflict that pitted the dragons against each other on a racist level. But there is now a racist movement of Dragonborn called “the golden order” who are trying to assert their birthright superiority and oppress all the “lesser” Dragonborn who are descended from “evil” chromatic dragons. Kids like to play Dragonborn so I kind of had to deal with this head on. There’s a fair amount of structural racism left over from that old conflict, and assumptions are still made about dragons and people of certain colors, but the actions of the factions at play are way more complicated and not easily categorized into binary good/evil. And contrary to the howls of protest from every little alt-right gamer out there, you can have plenty of fun in a decolonized d&d game, probably even more than in the old style.

  • Have you looked at the Eberron campaign setting? Basically does every single piece of what you’re asking, and it was published a decade and a half ago by WotC. The existence of Eberron should transform the questions we ask – it’s clear that holding onto perverse stereotypes isn’t made out of ignorance, but a market calculation that FR’s sword coast is more popular than an integrated world that treats monsters as people and half races as their own.

    • I disagree that it’s a market calculation; I think it’s a case of inertia combined with risk aversion. They know things like Forgotten Realms are “safe”, low effort affairs. Eberron on the other hand is still relatively “new” and has had little time or support provided to alter the paradigm. It barely had time to make an impact in 3.5e, was effectively skipped in 4e, and only just got an official book in 5e.

      • That seems pretty wildly ahistorical. Eberron came out a year after 3.5 released and got a dozen splat books – more than FR did. Same deal with 4e, it got equal or more support (book, players Guide, ton of magazine articles). 5e was the most laggard edition in fact! I will agree though the safety is the key piece.

        • The 3.5e support was the most comprehensive, but the setting was only four years old when 4e dropped. Compared to 100+ books, boxed sets, comics and novels for FR, all the Greyhawk material, and ~250 books etc… for Dragonlance over the course of the preceding 20 odd years, Eberron was barely a ripple in the D&D pond. 4e provided cursory support, but the same problem is there; Eberron is the still the new setting fighting to get attention against Dark Sun and Forgotten Realms.

          Eberron has been around for 15 years, but only has a fraction of the support and effort behind it that other campaign settings have. Its main historical fan support comes from the small population who got into it in 3.5e; so it lacks the same mass fanbase that other settings have. So sure, it may have addressed all kinds of things that are issues in the older worlds, but its ability to alter the paradigm is almost nil for lack of official support in comparison to older settings, its smaller fanbase.

          • You may not know this, but Eberron is the setting for the Dungeons & Dragons Online MMORPG, one of the oldest and longest running active games on the market. To say that it didn’t get the support of older setting is looking at it through a pinhole camera. The lore developed for it to build out an active MMO which released content expansions for ten years now, is massive compared to the thin supplements most D&D settings received overall.

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  • I often feel like the whole racial angle just isn’t helping me even in the game. What I mean is, I know that those people are intelligent beings, I CAN’T just treat them as sword fodder, but at the same time your standard fantasy setting expects it. Which often leaves my games lacking. I know there should be more action with fights against stupid mooks, but my mooks will gladly run away if they are met with some crazy murderhobos, and I know there should be more roleplaying of actual interaction between races. Neither happens in general.

    • I admit, my group and I joke about having a horde of goblins attack, and then I’m like “Oh dear, my goblins are Dragonlance Kender + DragonLance Gnomes + World of Warcraft Goblins, what profit or interest would randomly attacking a bunch of adventurers give them?”

      Sooooo I fell into the habit of throwing Murderous Trees and Big Spiders at my players (they asked me to stop making murder trees because they know the forests aren’t super murderous when there are loggers and stuff).

  • I read this article a week ago and I have thought it everyday since then. I never realized how Half-Orcs were coded. I’m currently playing my first D&D game in 20 years as a Half-Orc and found this looking to find more about role playing them. This really makes me sad because the second I read that part I knew instantly it was true. Thank you so much for sharing this point of view! As a 36 year old white guy I am legit going to make my PC and future NPCs more well rounded as people. This really was an eye opening article and I am so glad you made it.

  • spartanicus23

    Fantastic writing, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been recently asked to lead a 5E campaign for a group much younger than me, and as the “authority” on the game for those newer to it, I’m feeling particularly compelled to avoid the pitfalls and tropes that continue to exist in D&D – concerning race, gender, and the ethical questions inherent to any story that involves conflict. At worst, campaigns can devolve into unthoughtful killing and looting sprees, and that’s both dull and not the ethos I want to immerse my PCs in. This article helps frame my thinking. It also convinces me to build my own world, even if I use pre-cooked campaigns within it. Thanks for great insights! (And thanks also for the world-building suggestions on your other pages – they are really helpful.)

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