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Dungeons and Dragons is Way More Racist Than You Realize

April 29, 2012

For the first time in a long time yesterday, I started a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The game takes place in the frontier kingdom of Brynlind, in its rugged northwesterly reaches called the Red Rock Vale. The player characters ended up in the busted boom town of Kordrak’s Bounty (though the sign now reads Kordrak’s Folly), where they encountered a howling horde of Gnolls that are threatening life on civilization’s edge.

This is a pretty standard set up for a D&D game. Since its very beginnings D&D has been obsessed with the boundaries of civilization and so called savage regions. Villages are described in the latest edition of the game as pinpoints of light in a shadowy world. The light of civilization in an unforgiving and savage country.

Language like this is why Dungeons and Dragons is irrevocably American. I don’t just mean American in the sense of the United States, but in the whole of the New World. It is a game of adventurers seeking gold and glory on the edges of the map. Sure, you can play out political intrigue in it, but the heart of the game rests in the idea of explorers that clash with savages and monsters undreamed of by the average citizen.

It’s no coincidence that John Smith’s biography as a soldier of fortune, who escaped his own imprisonment/enslavement in Eastern Europe, before becoming the man that was adopted by the mystic and savage Powhatan while carving civilization out of Virginia, might as well be a template for every high level D&D Fighter or Rogue. While not necessarily conscious, he is the archetype to which D&D characters aspire to.

Yet, I get ahead of myself. It’s easy when I think about Dungeons and Dragons, and its connections to colonialism, to just run off on a tangent about John Smith or Lost Cities, or what have you. Let’s break it down slowly but surely.

In Dungeons and Dragons, players control characters who are adventurers. Their reasons for adventuring are countless, and can vary even within groups. Some characters might adventure for the glory of their deities, or their countries, or themselves. Others might seek power, or gold, or merely the ability to tell a great story. A few seek to unravel the mysteries of the world, searching for hidden knowledge and lore.

All of these motivations bring them to the frontiers of the world, to lost cities where vegetation is overtaking once bustling metropolises, and to wide open plains which no man has ever recorded. In these places, they clash with monsters unknown, creations that fight wars long dead, and savages. Savage races of all shapes and sizes! There are so many brutish races in Dungeons and Dragons that believe might makes right that it becomes hard to imagine them as the other.

The point is, is any of this starting to sound familiar? Evoke images of your history courses in middle and high school, maybe?

If it doesn’t, it should. These motivations, these ideas, are what drove Europeans to colonize the known and unknown world. This is what the myth of expansion was based on.

Last week, I mentioned an article that called D&D racist because of the lack of non-white people depicted in the books. In retrospect, that’s a pretty surface level claim of bigotry to make against Dungeons and Dragons.

I once met someone who had been running games for years who had no idea that Goblins were sentient and sapient. Even though Goblins, Kobolds, Orcs, and so on, are tool using, magic wielding, races, he had no idea that they had thoughts and feelings like Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. To him, a Goblin was a philosophical zombie performing its actions without reflection.

Who should worry over the death of a Goblin? A Goblin’s organs are no different than the gears that make up a clock!

A lack of skin tone variety in a game is nothing compared to its ability to shape you into thinking like a conquistador from several centuries ago (though even they believed natives could think).

At the conclusion of my response to these ‘racism in fantasy,’ articles last week, I made a call for stories that tell different viewpoints, and perhaps even tell stories of interaction. Dungeons and Dragons is geared toward telling stories of interaction. The thing is though, stories of interaction are often bloody, and D&D’s viewpoint is quite clear.

D&D stands on the side of civilization as opposed to savagery. Look at various versions of the Monster Manual, though particularly the Third Edition. Elf and Dwarf Warriors can be encountered in Squads, Patrols, and Companies, while Goblins and Lizardfolk Warriors are encountered in gangs, bands, and tribes. Anyone who has taken a basic anthropology course will recognize bands and tribes! They’re the lower end of the structure of “increasingly complex,” societies as suggested by the idea of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.

The savage races travel about as nomads, and if they do take residence in some sort of permanent structure it will either be a natural structure such as a cave, or more commonly the ruins of a long lost civilization. Now, these civilizations are not implied to be the remnants of a previous Goblin or Lizardfolk group. No, they are most likely the remnants of the last great Human or Dwarf or Dragonborn (in 4th Edition) civilization. They are the Roman ruins to the current Spain or France or United States or whatever country the PCs hail from. Savages prey on frontier settlements, and oppose any efforts to be civilized. If they are civilized, expect the light of Pelor or another deity to have a hand in it.

Looking further, two of the best selling official adventure modules for the game (campaigns designed by TSR and now Wizards of the Coast), are Keep on the Borderlands and Red Hand of Doom. Keep on the Borderlands while a little more benign in the sense that it doesn’t emphasize a frontier land or horde, like Red Hand, it really doesn’t raise any concept that its savage/monstrous races (goblinoids, orcs, what have you) might actually be people. Red Hand of Doom goes full-on colonialist as the PCs must strive against a Hobgoblin horde being lead by the dark goddess Tiamat from overtaking a frontier region.

You better stop them before they can enact their villainous ritual they call the Ghost Dance!

Now, some people might try to argue that I am trying to project a “modern mindset,” onto a fantasy game but well… while the setting might be analogous to the world several centuries ago, the game is still thoroughly modern. Your beloved Dungeons and Dragons is racist, and the sky is blue. These are just facts of the world.

The real question is, what do we make of this? What do we do once we realize this?

Well, there are two things you can do.

One, you can draw more and more on the contested histories that exist in our societies to look for inspiration for your games. There are a lot of cool scenarios to get into, and grapple with that can make for a really awesome Dungeons and Dragons game. I’d elaborate on them, but I don’t want my players to glean anything about current or future games. Once you realize that D&D bases itself on colonial archetypes and language, you can better grapple with issues. Whether this be something as simple as having the PCs encounter a Good Aligned Goblinoid tribe, or something as complex as a world laid out in accordance with prevailing anthropological theories is up to you. The colonial period, and its successors are pretty awesome when it comes to stories you can tell, nor do they require the trappings of post-Medieval or post-Renaissance time periods. You can also always flip the coin too, and make the PCs the savages who are fighting against the encroaching “civilizations.” While this might get a little too revenge fiction if not handled correctly, it can also make for a really awesome game.

The other thing you can do, is try to deal with it like we deal with racism and bigotry in the real world. Strive to create a more cosmopolitan world. Maybe in your game, there aren’t any “savage” hordes that are going to overrun frontier regions. Perhaps the danger to frontier settlements are ancient constructs, or other nations (the history of Alsace-Lorraine comes to mind), or a new religious sect, or a quack wizard, or anything since this is a fantasy game after all. In your game, there don’t need to be frontiers, or lost cities, or any of these tropes, though at that point it sounds like you might be using a system other than Dungeons and Dragons since the game relies on these tropes somewhat.

Like I said, Dungeons and Dragons is racist. It is way more racist and bigoted than most people would even think to realize, because they either haven’t thought about it enough, or they just don’t indulge in this level of intellectual wankery. Knowing this though, all I can really say is, so what?

Rules were made to be broken, tropes were made to be subverted and lamp shaded.


From → Opinions

  1. Nguyen permalink


  2. If you have not read it, I recommend John Rieder’s “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction”. You may find its academic findings relevant to your discussion here. Thanks for the post!

  3. Hamish permalink

    You seem to be missing something here though. Goblins are by design Monsters, do you also believe that the Orks in the Lord of the Rings are victims of racism? The game has villages as pin points of light in a dark world because that’s what they are. The ‘savage’ races are only some of the dangers that lurk in the shadows.

    You mention the alignment system but fail to realize it’s significance. In our world we live with other humans that are all share the same intrinsic possibility for good and are arguably created by the same deity (depending on your religious beliefs). In the D&D games the ‘savage’ races are usually created by a god of evil, who made these creatures for the sole purpose to cause harm and pain for the other races.

    There is also the fact that the civilized races (elves, humans, Dwarves, Dragonborn, Gnomes etc) are quite literally at war with the ‘savage’ races. Goblins and to a greater extent Hobgoblins raze human cities killing (and likely eating) everything in their path. Had humanity had to face such a foe for centuries we would likely compare them to animals for no other reason then their unbridled cruelty.

    Then we come to the definition or Racism which is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” the PCs and NPCs do not fight Goblins and the like because they believe they are superior or because they want to colonize the land but because they are literally trying to save their lives or the lives of others from creatures that are measurably evil.

    All in all these are not other creatures that live alongside the civilized races with the civilized races hating them for no reason. these are ancient foes that have very much earned the hate and fear.

    • Sagitta permalink

      Maybe you had better read the article all over again. It is about the kind of opinion you brought that it proposes a reflection about.
      About how we, historically, were deluded into thinking that the slaughtered people from Africa or America were brutal savages, and their religions were labelled cults to the devils and witchcraft. Just a few centuries ago people were still arguing whether black people had souls or not.
      It sounds outrageous, at least to me, but those people were exactly the “creature not living alongside the civilization with civilized races” you mentioned. It is much easier to get rid of such “hateful and fearful” things, if you do not consider them human beings. And as a bonus, you can keep thinking highly of yourself because you can show good towards your equals and retain your “lawful good” alignment.
      At the end of the day, it is just fantasy. But it doesn’t mean fantasy isn’t an allegory to our own history and deep-rooted prejudices after all.

      • Travis Froggatt permalink

        Have any of you read “Unseen Academicals” by Terry Pratchett? It deals heavily with these very issues.

      • So I was gonna leave a comment, then I read the article again.

        You’re still talking out of your ass.

        See, here’s the problem with dehumanizing humans; THEY’RE HUMAN. Actual biological differences, not just cosmetic stuff like with humans
        This ain’t rocket science. There’s nothing wrong with dehumanizing a pidgeon, or even an orangutan. In fact, when it come to non-human species, in real life we have a problem with GIVING them human traits when they dont exist.

        Which honestly it sounds like you’re doing to the savage species of DnD. Equating their experience/values to your presumably Western ones. Gruumsh is a dick. This is canon. He made the Orcs to be dicks, this is as scientific a fact as we’re going to get in the DnD cosmology. And the fuckers are proud of it, and they’ll strait up tell you, before they both your head in.
        It’s not “Lawful Good”, its LAWFUL GOOD as an almost Jungian archetype that HAS ITS OWN METAPHYSICAL PLANE OF PHILOSPHICAL EXISTANCE, it’s not a mind game played by conquistadores to justify their dickery.

        So the problem is we’re using old 1-dimensional propaganda tales from the age of exploration but INSTEAD of having the stories be about exploiting a technological advantage over our fellow human beings and committing atrocities, we’re changing the stories to be about using teamwork, friendship, and magic (and butt whooping for justice) to defeat objectively-evil-in-a-way-that-isnt-possible-in-our-universe non-human monsters in humanoid form and saving innocent people, many of whom are a different species never mind race, but are still regarded as being as much of a person as anyone else?

        Fantasy is fantasy, allegory is allegory. You talking some Freudian subconscious bullshit. Omg, DMs take inspiration from real life stories. Definately racist.

        Get. Your. Head. Out. Of. Your. Ass.

        Also, you should follow your own advice, because it’s clear you didn’t understand any of Hamish’s points. I’m sure you read the comment, but you didn’t understand it.

        ALSO also, equating indigenous cultures with monstrous humanoids is racist as fuck. Think about it.

      • Tom permalink

        The big difference though is Africans and Native Americans are real fantasy monsters are not. To even suggest they are anything the same as real humans is insulting and in itself racist. PoC are not monsters and they are not fantasy. You are making an issue where none exists you could focus on real human rights instead of fantasy monsters and game language. Or do you think like the Satanic Panic thought the game focuses on killing so it makes killers? Do you feel the game makes racists?

  4. lordnikkon permalink

    This is just silly and thinking like this, is what’s destroying gaming (and the US right now).

  5. argent_Aegis permalink

    Like most people who push for “outrage culture” and make up slights, you are completely mistaken. The issue isn’t that the goblins, kobolds, etc are bad because they have a more primitive society. The issue is that D&D has an objective morality system, meaning you can point at something and describe it as Evil or Good or Chaotic or Lawful.

    And most of the antagonist groups are in fact Chaotic Evil. Meaning that they tend strongly towards Evil and tend strongly towards Chaos. Which is why they don’t have societies more complex than a tribe – not because they’re tribals, but because they’re CE. If you actually played the game, you would know this.

    I also find your claim that a fellow DM didn’t know that goblins and kobolds were sentient and sapient to be dubious BS, because in the MM they are described as such – they have a civilization, they have a culture, religion, and so forth.

  6. I am Native American and I completely disagree. I think we need to keep fantasy fantasy and real life real life. The great value in fantasy is that any creature can be anything. The great thing about fantasy is that it is world building, which means worlds that are not our own and in that situation, racism that exists in our world does not carry over. If we start restricting fantasy writers from creating characters with different looks, the worlds are going to become very bland. The drows are not a parallel to the ethnic people of our world. First of all, they have red, pink or even almost white eyes, purple to white hair (niether of which are ethnic traits in our world) and a range of shades of skin from dark purple to slate or even ash colored. Dark does not mean black. The correlation had to do with being creatures of shadow from the underworld. You might have an arguement if all of their evil creatures had dark skin and all of their benevolent creatures had white skin, but that simply isn’t the case. I mean, a barbarian does not represent “civilized society” yet they can have a good alignment. Your argument doesn’t really work.

  7. Barbarians do not represent “civilized society” but their alignment can be good. Your argument really doesn’t hold up.

  8. Ok, so obviously you have a career to maintain so you gotta get motherfuckers all riled up to “maintain your relevance” or whatever, but this article was just pathetic. “DAE gObLinS aRe 1dImENsiOnAL?” Yeah, no shit. DnD is full of cliche and shallowly written, no arguement.

    But here’s the thing, now listen close; YOU CANT BE RACIST AGAINT GOBLINS! THE’RE NOT FUCKING REAL and you know this. And, and, AND, even if they were real, it wouldn’t be racist to hate on em, cuz “goblin” isnt a race. Like, holy shit, do you actually think you’re kinda smart? Maybe even (dare I say) woke? Cuz dumbasses like you that overuse the “racist” card are making it a lot easier for ACTUAL racist douchebags to get away with their BS while driving wedges between allies.

    Not helpful.

    Not smart.

    Also not smart, your stupid DM who “didn’t realize goblins were sapient.” That’s not an arguement against DnD, that’s evidence that your buddy is an idiot.

    Seriously, the lack of critical thinking in this piece is genuinely amusing. Thank you for that. But I dont think you’re cut out for any type of intellectual job. There’s lots of work out there that doesn’t require intelligence and critical thinking, maybe that would be more to your speed.
    Although I would recommend doing some serious reading and working in those undeveloped parts of your brain. Cuz seriously, this article was shit and you should be ashamed of yourself. You made the world a worse, more stupid place when you wrote this one. But you can grow. I actually do believe in you. Just please, dont let the public read what you’ve written until you get better at it.

    • G Man, do yourself a favor and read a freaking book. Or if reading is too difficult (as evidenced by your responses), look up “Thermian argument” on YouTube. The channel is Foldable Human. It’s a short video that breaks down why your, “you can’t be racist against something that’s not real,” argument is ill-informed (at best).

  9. O.L.P. permalink

    Thanks for writing this! As a new DM, I’m still learning to make my games better so I appreciate reading your perspective.

  10. John permalink

    You’re a racist idiot

  11. Futsy permalink

    Red hand of doom and into the borderlands are not in the game currently. Into the borderlands is almost 50 years old….
    Sorry that you can’t figure out the facts of the real world, (or worse chose to skew them in support of your point of view) go figure you can’t separate fantasy from reality.

    Satanic Panic all over again, with people not understanding fiction.

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