Confronting Racial Essentialism in Dungeons & Dragons

The last few months, NASAGA’s blog has been talking a good amount about Dungeons & Dragons. As the writer for NASAGA, maybe it’s time I come clean. I love D&D. Love it. I write for D&D, play D&D, and even get D&D tattoos. So, readers shouldn’t be surprised that I also love to research D&D. However, I will be the first to admit that D&D is not without its problems. Something that has gotten an increasing amount of community attention in the last few years is the approach to racial essentialism in D&D.

As part of my research, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extremely talented and influential creators in the D&D space. A number of these creators have been very explicit, both in their personal conversation and their publications, about confronting racial essentialism in D&D. They have worked to form real strategies for understanding what race means in D&D and how we can talk about it in a safe and productive way.

In this article, I address how players, writers, and dungeon masters can approach and confront racial essentialism in D&D, finding ways to resist the implicit demands on character races.

Problem of Racial Essentialism in Dungeons and Dragons

A conversation on how authors are confronting racial essentialism in D&D would not be very productive without some discussion on how racial essentialism has impacted the D&D experience. I’d like to lay out what I mean by racial essentialism, how that essentialism is encouraged by some of the more explicit tropes in D&D, and how that may affect player experiences, both in and out of game.

What is Essentialism

Racial essentialism is, at its core, the idea that racial identity determines the path we take in life. In the most egregious of real world examples, we can point to the absolutely disgusting practices of scientific racism, the pseudoscientific pursuit of empirical evidence that one ethnicity can be biologically inferior to another. The, I should hope very obvious, problem with this idea is that we cannot reasonably attribute individual and experiential ability or knowledge with race. To do so absolutely dehumanizes the induvial, generalizes the experience, and is, in short, utterly not cool.

How does D&D Encourage Essentialism

Dungeons & Dragons, however, deals with imagined worlds. In D&D, we do not deal with real people or real worlds. Instead, we function within mythical and often magical universes full of imagined creatures.

Drawing from Tolkien, much of the canonical D&D universe ascribes cultural traits to races. In fact, the core resource for players, the Player’s Handbook , includes physical traits and experiential knowledge based on race. If players choose to be an Elf, for example, they automatically receive training in certain skills and an increase in their intelligence.

Players must use these core resources to craft characters and, in doing so, must engage with an explicitly essentialist universe, in which your race determines everything from how far you can run to knowing how to blacksmith.

Further, within the game, D&D encourages assumptions based on racial essentialism. Certain races are “inherently evil,” and their actions always pursue goals of cruel intent. Players are trained from the start to expect evil intent from goblins, barbarism from orcs, or kindness form elves. These continued interactions represent only a peak at how often D&D defines character traits according to racial heritage.

Defining Racial Connections in Universe

The conversations I have had with the wonderful creators from the DMsGuild, an online marketplace for third party D&D content, have highlighted several approaches to confronting racial essentialism. The first, and most necessary approach, is defining how the in-game universe connects to the real world. As several of these creators have pointed out, the existence of a “second world” automatically inspires players to draw connections. It is the responsibility of the dungeon master (or writer) to lay out how the imagined world does or does not connect to the real world. Without that explicit guidance, players are free to imagine their own connections

One of the DMs with which I worked has a brilliantly binary method for addressing the issue. In her mind, an imagined world either is or is not connected to the real world. This binary approach, explicitly addressed, lets players know that there either are or are not connections and sets the boundaries through which the DM wishes the players to interpret the universe.

As the term binary implies, there are two real options here:

Crafting Full Fantasy: No Connections

The first binary approach is a full dedication to fantasy. In this approach, the writer or dungeon master makes explicit that there is no connection to the real world. As one of the wonderful writers put it, “orcs is orcs.”

This approach represents the full fantastical escapism of a disconnected experience. There are no allegories on which to draw and, because of this, there are no allegories that can be reasonably imagined.

Curiously, most writers find this to be the most difficult path to follow. The nature of the mind is to form connections. Even when striving to achieve this utter removal from reality, there are nearly inescapable connections, because we, as humans, cannot realistically imagine a completely disconnected reality.

D&D is a perfect example. Despite the existence of magic and fantastical races, the D&D universe operates relatively close to our own reality. The world contains many of the same flora and fauna, the same biomes dominate the planet, gravity is the same, and technology reflects our own technology from the same historical eras.

The departures from our own reality, such as magic, may be flagrant, but they are undoubtedly the minority when compared to the overwhelming number of similarities. And, it is these similarities that encourage players to make connections to our own world.

In the end, this approach is made difficult because, as my collaborators have put it, you have to be all or nothing with this approach. To completely imagine a new world and prevent connection to real-world issues, a writer or DM needs to constantly examine the content to ensure it doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes of the real world.

Tied to Our World: Drawing Connections

The near impossibility of total separation is one of the reason that many writers choose to meet the essentialism of D&D head on by drawing their own connections to the real world. This often involves challenging the in-game stereotypes and drawing narratives that connect the in-universe challenges to real world issues.

Taking this approach, according to DMs and writers alike, is challenging in its own way. The writer has to consider the rippling impact of how their allegories may be interpreted. But, in the end, a dungeon master or writer has control over what they do or do not include, giving them to power to narrow the narrative to a controllable level.

An example will be helpful in illustrating how this works.

Say a writer wants to use goblins in their story. However, they know that, according the official rules, goblins are an evil and brutal race. The writer wants to confront this by establishing the goblins as misrepresented. To do so, they represent the goblins as brutal, but only in response to the equally brutal behavior of neighboring group of elves that hunts and kills them.

This story is violent, yes, but it provides the writer with the ability to control a much more nuanced message. Yes, the goblins are cruel, but only as a means of survival. Further, the story brings into light how this “evil” isn’t limited to certain races by depicting the neighboring elves as no better or worse. Finally, the story allows the writer to control the scope and discourage generalizability by limiting the reasons for “evil” behavior to local groups, not wide-ranging racial stereotypes.

How Should I Confront Racial Essentialism In D&D Narratives?

At the end of the day, neither approach is superior. The explicit approach of confronting racial essentialism in D&D takes substantial work, but provides the writer / DM with much more control. It also allows for significant opportunity to explore these stereotypes in a productive way. On the other hand, the “orcs is orcs” approach gives players the opportunity at true escapism, so long as the DM is vigilant in squelching imagined connections.     

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