More Thoughts on Racism in RPGs

As I anticipated, yesterdays article proved to be controversial, much like the social media discussion which inspired me to write it. I also want to thank you folks for commenting and keeping things civil aside from a bit of snark, which is expected with such a topic. We’re still friends here. 😉

I have to admit that my thoughts on the issue are not as refined as some of the criticism pointed at it. It’s a complicated issue and it’s not easy to find a good solution considering you even see it as a problem. Fantasy RPGs thrive on tropes, on clichés. It’s what makes them so easy for many players to get into, but these tropes may be laden with problems. Clichés by their nature, simplify and generalize things. I also often struggle with putting my thoughts into words especially when I am using English which is not my native language. This combined with my perfectionism often makes it incredibly hard for me to reply to some of your comments directly.

Let’s get back to the topic. If you want to run a traditional roleplaying experience with – let’s say – D&D and you love simple dungeon romps where the players kill everything in their way and take their stuff, no one is keeping you from doing so. If you use various humanoid races as antagonists to kill with wild abandon, that might be unproblematic, as long as everyone at the table is OK with it. Intent plays an important role as well. As with everything else a GM should try to run a game everyone at the table is comfortable with. If there are elements a players in not OK with, the best course of action is to talk about it and make the necessary changes.

Things are a bit different if you write your own adventure, or design your own game. Then you definitely should take the time and think about how you depict certain humanoids in game. If you are aware that some fantasy tropes may have some racist baggage they carry with them, you can more easily avoid them. I also think that subverting tropes can be a lot of fun. Make things more complex. Having an orcish clan rampaging the country side because “it’s just what orcs do” is boring. Give them a legitimate reason beyond “they are just evil”. Just put a bit more thought into it. In my opinion it’s in the best interest of most game designers to make games more inclusive since it might directly translate into more sales. It’s also the right thing to do.

But wait, the longer I think about it, the more I realize we are actually tackling two issues at once here. The one is the traditionally depiction of non-human humanoid races and the idea that they might be inspired or influenced by the racism of the past, the other is the “murder hobo” style of gameplay, where every enemy is just there to be killed and looted. Personally my power fantasy more often than not includes helping people, overcoming prejudice, fighting injustice, and making peace. I guess it has a lot to do with what I experienced in the last 40+ years and how powerless I often felt. So just killing stuff for the heck of it is often not enough for me – especially when it comes to roleplaying games I want to be deeply immersed in. I don’t mind playing some mindless Diablo-style video game from time to time though. Yes, I know, I am weird.

I definitely don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun or drive them from the hobby. Far from it. I am just trying to look critically at our favorite hobby and find ways to improve it. If we get better people in the process, even better. I can understand if people want to just have fun and not think about complex topics like racism, misogyny, etc. when they are gaming. Roleplaying games are escapism and sometimes you just don’t want to be confronted with real life issues while sitting around a table with your friends trying to have fun. But in the time between games, why not spare some thoughts on the issue? If we realize at the end of the day, that the depiction of humanoid races in games like D&D isn’t problematic at all, then this is a perfectly acceptable outcome. But if we come to this conclusion we should at least have looked closely at the subject first.

By the way, I just found an article on Psychology Today titled “No, Orcs Aren’t Racist” and while I disagree with some of the points made, it definitely is a thought-provoking read.

I think one of the main points I want to make is that there’s a risk we are keeping alive highly problematic tropes which seeped into pop culture decades ago and are now traditional elements of the fantasy genre. I believe it doesn’t hurt just to be careful.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

13 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Racism in RPGs”

  1. I think a lot of it boils down to wither or not you’re treating elements like orcs, goblins, and NPCs in general as people or not. (not to say the were just here to have fun and kill things is bad, but for other styles of play this does come up) You can have orcs raid and pillage and such, but if you just treat that as “something orcs do” and declare all orcs as evil you start straying over into the ethically problematic territory.
    But if you treat orcs as people, as in they have reasons they’re doing the things they do and they are more complex than just pillage and ravage. You start to get on a better track.
    Now this doesn’t nessarly mean the orcs are nice, or friendly, no, or that the players shouldn’t fight the goblins who are taking them. After all people can be huge jerks and quite awful. But you shouldn’t treat any kind of NPC or monster as essentially just being mindless opponents. Always think about why the players are fighting them or they’re fighting the players.
    I personally, if I need actually absolutely evil things to fight, tend to go with demons and undead, because (usually) those don’t have any culture or lives outside of whatever task is in front of them. Demons essentially being entirely dedicated to torture and such.
    Basically my rule is, if it has a life outside of fighting, treat it as a person, they may be an awful person, but they’re still a thinking complicated being. Don’t make your fantasy cultures homogeneous .

      1. Players should be fighting the goblins (or negotiating with them!) because the goblins want to eat them. Or steal their things. Or because the goblins feel insulted and wanna beat them up. Not because he goblins are “evil”.

    1. I respectfully disagree. There is no real difference in treating an orc like a person than treating a demon like a person. They can absolutely both be portrayed as having motivations of their own that may or may not be respected in some way. We’re playing in a fantasy world. If its racist to portray a totally contrived and never-existing monster like an orc as bent on pillage and plunder then it’s also racist to portray demons or undead as such. Either we get to define a creature as inherently evil or we do not.

      1. Sorry, let me clarify. Your absolutely right! If your undead and demons have minds and cultures and such you should defiantly treat them like people.
        In my games, I just have a tendency to make demons very alien and very evil. Demons want to torture you in the same way a water flows downward. They don’t have minds or cultures. They are basically evil spirits. And undead just want to eat you or kill you (except for ghouls which are just humans who like to eat corpses) and don’t have minds at all.

        1. I think the difference lies in that, in that, demons literally have no civilization, minds, culture or anything. They are literally just maliciousness made flesh. In fact I retract my prevues statement, they are not evil, so much as they are personifed forces.

          1. Thanks for the clarification. However, I don’t buy into the idea that any creature that has a social structure needs to be treated as a human. I view monsters as more animalistic. Lions have a very well developed social structure, really a culture. The males have certain roles. The females have certain roles. They divide some duties. The young are cared for. None of this is relevant to the fact that if you’re on the serengeti, they will chase you down, maul you and eat your flesh without a moments guilt. I view orcs or demons or undead as the same. They may have a social structure that organizes them (because almost every creature does), but they still may simply be operating on instinct. In the case of a demon, it may be just to rend flesh. In the case of an undead it may be to consume. In the case of an orc it may be to plunder and burn anyone or thing competing for resources. If your demons or undead don’t simply stand and maul each other into dust, then they have a structure and society on some level. They must be respecting their own kind in some way. If that is not the case, they could never really be an interesting villain. They would be devolved into more of a trap, something mindless that “goes off” when triggered. To me, that’s boring. But what is also boring is being forced (and I’m not saying you’re doing this) to try to understand every monster in D&D. To try to put myself in their shoes and contemplate if they’re actually evil or if they’re just being oppressed. It’s utterly tedious and soul sucking. I get that we must do it in the real world because our fellow humans are deserving of such thought. BUt in fantasy world where we literally write the rules, it just seems completely redundant and even absurd. In an RPG, if you say “monster species X is always evil” then it just is true. So for characters in that game to carry that assumption is perfectly normal. Just like it’s perfectly normal to get out of the water if a shark is spotted.

  2. We have humanoids like Orcs and Goblins as bad guys so that folks don’t have to use real-world cultures (which could be truly problematic). These humanoids don’t really represent real world cultures except in that they’ve been given aspects of this as short hand to make it easier to identify them quickly and because we don’t have total imagination to come up with totally unique cultures again and again and again. They are provided with alignments which is unrealistic but designed to remove the moral ambiguity about them being NOT HUMAN and hostile and evil.

    Folks get wound up over the Tolkien reference to Mongol hordes, but he wasn’t saying Orcs ride horses and use compound recurved bows and laminar armor. He was saying they are invaders of a totally alien culture that arrived and slaughtered and terrified the Islamic world, India, and Europe for a time. He could have said Vikings but they weren’t totally alien to his Saxon-based Middle Earth. He could have said Conquistadors except they were more technologically advanced and religious based, so he picked Mongols and a million college essays were born out of misunderstanding.

    1. Very true. However I believe most of the contreversy over Tolkiens orcs comes from that fact that he describes them as. ugly and evil. And also describes them with terms such a “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” And has them allied with Easterlings (who are depicted as quite reminiscent of mongols or Turks) and Haradlings (who are depicted like fantasy middle easterners). And we never see really any sympathetic characters from their side.
      Which isn’t to say Orcs are something that can’t be used. I personally love orcs a sort of elves/humans minus mallows hierarchy. People who’ve been so abused that they’ve come out horrible bastards. But you still have to acknowledge that there were some racist stereotypes at play.

      1. We don’t see sympathetic characters from their “side” because it’s not a side. They’re monsters. The elves and dwarves were sides. The orcs and goblins are not a race of men. He makes that quite clear. No one who ever saw a fantasy depiction of an orc would look at it and say, “Wow, that looks like the mongol people”. I truly think we, in this modern age, suffer from a syndrome where we are truly digging for things to be bothered by. We’re hunting out every possible similarity with actual wrongs and attacking it as if it were the same. And in doing so we’re finding them where there were none before. I don’t think it does us any good as a people. It doesn’t heal old wounds, rather it opens them. It doesn’t educate, but rather it confuses.

  3. “I think one of the main points I want to make is that there’s a risk we are keeping alive highly problematic tropes which seeped into pop culture decades ago and are now traditional elements of the fantasy genre. ”

    I still don’t get what is problematic about these tropes. Only thing I find “problematic” is that when too many tropes are used and the content and setting created can sometimes become stale and predictable. This is what made the Warcraft universe so great. It took those fantasy races and added extra lore to them. Gave them a back story, gave them motivation and explained the culture behind these races instead of simply copying what Tolkien had already established.

    Going back to the whole “problematic” thing. On a discussion about this on another platform a person commented about blackface. I am of the belief that “blackface” is not problematic, what is problematic is when you do it to make fun or denigrate someone else of another race.

    1. Gus, I tend to agree with you in concept. Doing a thing not intended to offend is generally acceptable on its premise. But the truth is that we need to know what DOES offend even if it’s not intended. Even if the person taking offense is sensitive. Once we know that person has that feeling, we can each decide for ourselves what we do and don’t do. For example, I think it’s possible for one race of person to dress as another for halloween. I think it’s possible to HONOR a race or culture by doing so. I think taking a person or culture as a representive for a sports team is no honor because one would never want to be represented by something bad, but only by something aspirational. I think most people offended by such things are being sensitive. But generally I choose to respect that sensitivity by not doing it. Could I do it? Sure. But Personally I choose not to. We can’t make that personal decision unless we know what other people are feeling.

      Having said that I don’t think anyone looks at an orc and self identifies. I black person might look at someone in black face and feel caricatured. But no one is looking at orcs and seeing themselves.

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