The Nature of Good and Evil in Dungeons and Dragons (and what to do about it)
This is from 5th Edition D&Ds Basic DM Rules: “Humanoids are the main peoples of the D&D world, both civilized and savage, including humans and a tremendous variety of other species. They have language and culture, few if any innate magical abilities (though most humanoids can learn spellcasting), and a bipedal form. The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds.”
I’ve been unhappy about racism in D&D for some time. It didn’t take me long to see the connections between how humans treat orcs in D&D and how the British treated the Scots, the Irish, pretty much everyone else on the planet. ‘They’re evil. They’re inferior. It’s okay for us to conquer them.’ In D&D, you can kick the door in on someone else’s home, kill them and take their stuff and it’s okay because ‘they’re evil.’ That’s just nuts.
So — what do I do about it? I had planned a D&D world that was much more cosmopolitan, where different races got along, at least in some locales and when they didn’t, it would be absolutely clear that it was because of simple racism. I never thought I’d like a racist character but I’ve got an elf mage I’m working on who’s totally racist and yet, works for me as a character. He’s got the whole snooty elf superiority complex thing going on and he’s a wandering mercenary. I like it because it explains what such a character is actually doing. I mean, after all, if elven society is so much better than any other society on the planet, why isn’t he back there instead of wandering the world? The answer is: he only considers his actions as a mercenary acceptable because he ISN’T visiting death and destruction upon fellow elves for money. Killing humans, or orcs, or dwarves, or trolls, well, that doesn’t count. As long as he isn’t killing elves, he’s free to wander the land, blasting people with magick and getting paid to do it.
Drow, in particular, or rather their depiction, pisses me off too. The only dark-skinned race in D&D to get any depth of culture or politics or religion and they’re evil. They’re a subterranean race but they are dark-skinned — because they’re evil. Logic would make them albinos as they are in Warhammer but evil trumps reason in D&D — they have to be marked with dark skin like black people in Mormonism.
5th edition FINALLY made playing Drow a standard PC option. I remember when 5th edition first came out and I was so excited to see that and I looked forward to playing a good Drow character and then when I got to +1 Gaming, Jeremy Henson (and I’m not picking on him) was trying to persuade people to play anything BUT drow because drow are traditionally evil — even though a few good individuals are known to exist. I didn’t listen and played a good drow anyway. I’ve spent too many years playing a black human in D&D from Fabled Offmapia because neither commercially created fantasy worlds nor DM homebrewed worlds had an African continent equivalent. Dark-skinned people have a right to play heroes that remind them of themselves too.
Anyway — my doubt. I was cool with just making a cosmopolitan world where different races can get along or not as they see fit and it isn’t because one side is automatically good and the other automatically evil, except I read this article where someone was complaining about the “Klingonization” of orcs. He was referring to orcs in World of Warcraft being treated as people and not monsters and they’re not being ‘evil’ just a barbarian culture that’s been in opposition with humans and dwarves and elves for so long that it’s become habitual. In other words, exactly the kind of thing I was planning on. Except it reminded me of how I feel about demons.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sequel series, Angel, watered demons down into aliens. They weren’t manifestations of supernatural evil. They weren’t all inherently evil. Many, if not most of them, were just people who wanted to live their lives and not be noticed. Yes, there were some who had great power and abused that power for their own desires but there’s people like that too. I hated that view of demons, not because of it’s symbolic portrayal of diversity but because you took a fearsome category of monster and turned it into a homeless guy who just wanted to be left alone. And I can see how some people would feel the same way about orcs.
You could say the whole utility of orcs in a game like D&D is that they’re supposed to be irredeemable and they are a continual menace, like they are in Warhammer 40K and thus there can be no peace with them and thus “There can only be war.” And that’s entertaining and this is supposed to be entertainment so it’s okay. “They’re supposed to be monsters; let’s treat them like monsters.”
So I’m not really sure now. I like the cosmopolitan world but fantasy is ultimately about — well — fantasy — sex and violence — killing the bad guy, getting the girl, tossing gold coins and gems into the air and partying well into the night to celebrate your victory. What do we lose if we make fantasy mirror the real world and every enemy is only an enemy because they look different from us or because of their deep-seated psychological problems stemming from childhood?
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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.