The Dungeons & Dragons community has been pretty split lately. While much of the community is a happy, wonderful place where you can make friends and escape the worries of your day-to-day life, not everywhere is like that. As with most things on the internet, if you dig deep enough, you will find a constant battle between two factions. One calling for more inclusion in terms of D&D races and accessibility, and the other saying that the game is fine and has been for nearly 40 years.
But What Exactly is Going On with D&D Races?
Obviously, there’s a lot going on that is a lot more nuanced than my straight-white-male self can tackle or even understand. But I want to at least bring this to your attention. That way, more people more capable of having this conversation can take it and do good with it.
So to start with, race as it has always been defined in D&D, revolves around stereotypes of intelligent creatures. This stereotyping often shoehorns players into playing their characters not as individuals with unique experiences, skills, and personalities. (I say intelligent creatures because in general, Wolves are Wolves are Wolves are Wolves, etc.)
For instance, Dwarves are gruff and good at crafting with stone. Elves are hoity-toity, disdainful of humans, and are great artists and woodworkers. Orcs are gruff and evil brutes, gnomes are silly and tinker with gadgets until their fingers bleed, and Tieflings are broody and sullen, while humans are stunningly average across the board.
Additionally, races in D&D grant proficiency in weapons, languages, and even give stat bonuses. Dragonborn characters get additional Strength, Tieflings Charisma, and Elves Dexterity. Dwarves are combat trained and proficient with hammers and axes. All Half-Orcs speak, read, and write Orc and Common, Tieflings know Infernal, and Dragonborn (as you might guess) start with a fluency in Draconic. Not even talking realism, just verisimilitude, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
What This Fantasy Racism Does
All of these are stereotypes. There are absolutely and totally real-world analogues that you and I can easily call to mind about nearly all of this. Certain people are more predisposed to this personality or that sport, music preference, hobby, or talent. And of course people with a certain color skin or facial feature obviously speak a particular language.
Except…that’s not true. So why is it true in a game where we can create characters to be anyone we want them to be? Why are we stuck with these archetypes (read: stereotypes) of fantasy folk?
Language isn’t genetic. We learn languages. We aren’t born with them. Tieflings wouldn’t all know Infernal just because they’re Tieflings. Surely somewhere a Dragonborn family spoke something other than Draconic as a second language. Why couldn’t they have spoken Common in public but Gnomish at home? Maybe they lived in a Gnomish city and that is how they got by. (Also, can you see a Dragonborn city living in an underground city designed for Gnomes? That’s a sitcom in the making right there. Hilarity would ensue!)
All Dwarves wouldn’t be good with a battle axe. I mean, unless every single person drilled every single day in combat with them, just like not every Elf thinks humans are garbage people. Similarly, I would bet money that in all the Orcs in all the Forgotten Realms and its dozen planes…someone, somewhere had the heart of a poet and was a genuinely good person.
But Beej, You Say…That’s Where Roleplay and Characterization Comes In
And I agree with you. That’s the problem, though. With all of this being set in the rules of the game, people are still bound to these certain Racial issues. Unless your table completely breaks and deconstructs character creation, the Rules As Written (RAW) keep bonuses, abilities, skills, and talents locked behind races. Homebrew is one thing. Official rules are another. One carries weight with you and your players. (Which is very important, mind you.) The other carries weight with the industry and gaming culture at large.
Which is even a misnomer to begin with. Races in Dungeons & Dragons aren’t even races. They’re Species. A Dragonborn and a Gnome are entirely different species, not races. Races are groups with minor physical or cultural variants within the same species. A Deep Gnome and a Forest Gnome…that’d be more akin to a race.
Anyway, even with the haphazard nomenclature, the idea of race in D&D brings up a number of issues when it comes to gameplay itself and player choice. And worse, it perpetuates and reinforces the tired and worn idea that racial stereotypes contain weight and should be relied on to make choices.
So How Do We Fix The Problem of Race?
Whew. That’s a big question, innit? I don’t think I have any answers for that.
But in the (forgotten) realms of Dungeons & Dragons, race can be fixed in a few ways. The way that WotC is handling it is a pretty good one. Some people say they’re not handling it well enough or fast enough. But because of timelines for publishing, testing, ideation, iteration, QA, and physically creating the products…it can only be done at a certain pace. Even hurried.
In Chapter 1 of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, WotC introduced the first steps to changing racial lineage officially away from these stereotypes.
Keep in mind, this was just a “get it out there” kind of adjustment. It’s not quite as robust as many people would have wanted, but personally, I think that it’s a fantastic first step at what might end up being the racial part of character creation in D&D 5.5e or 6e.
Recently, WotC released a bit of Unearthed Arcana playtest material called Gothic Lineages. The document includes a bit more honing of that system. It removes ability score increases, languages, and skill/armor/weapon/tool proficiencies that are tied to race.
I think this is a fantastic move just because of how much it opens up character creation. I mean, I am pretty generic personally when it comes to roleplaying, and I like being a Human or variant thereof. But I also like my Tiefling Warlock’s bonus to CHA.
These changes are good from a roleplaying standpoint because it makes the idea of Background and Origin mean something. My Bugbear who spent their entire life training as a Wizard should be able to have high intelligence — because he is smart, not because of any other reason. Because he’s worked hard to train. That bonus should be from being a Wizard, not a Bugbear.
The Half-Orc who was a circus performer and grew up learning to dance and sing should absolutely have high charisma modifiers and related skills and tool proficiencies. Not just +2 to Intimidate because of their “fearsome nature.” Now they can have +2 to Performance because they’re a delight to be around.
So…Who Cares About D&D Races?
We all should. I understand the old players who like it the way it is. I learned to play in 3e, but had books and such from 2e (never had a chance to play with anyone, though). And like them, I am used to the way races work in D&D.
But you know what? I’m excited for these changes. Because of the options we now have for character creation. This opens up a slew of new options. And it makes it a lot easier for WotC to integrate new stuff like the most recent Unearthed Arcana. I can’t tell you how excited I am to play a reanimated construct that gets what would formerly be racial bonuses locked away from it.
The idea that being more inclusive and moving away from tired tropes is harmful to the game is insane. Part of the reason systems like GURPS and Cortex are as popular as they are is because of the crazy amount of customization they allow. These kinds of custom lineages and cultures being moved away from race is a step in that direction for D&D.
In a lot of ways D&D is still a wargame at heart, focusing on combat encounters with minis and maps and grids. And that’s great. It’s one of the reasons I personally love it. I don’t want that to change.
But offering more options for role-players for for people to feel included and more connected to their characters? Bring on the rules changes. I can’t wait.
What do you think about the changes that Tasha’s and Unearthed Arcana are making to D&D Races?
Just remove races (which is really species, so real world analogies don’t really apply), and make every character a blob. If there should be no difference between a dwarf and an elf, just make everyone a generic, featureless thing if we get to assign ability bonuses and racial features anyway.