Dungeons & Dragons Has A Race Problem They Aren’t Doing Enough To Fix
For people of a certain age, the name Dungeons & Dragons conjures up a very specific image, particularly one of super-nerds and/or devil worshippers. What the most iconic tabletop role-playing game actually really represents is one of the best imaginative, improvisational storytelling exercise kids can do. Thanks to things like Critical Role, the game has never been so popular nor revealed how the community is made up of all types of folks. Even Deathstroke himself, Joe Manganiello will travel to his native Pittsburgh to run sessions for kids at Children’s Hospital. However, like almost everything else, Dungeons & Dragons has a race problem. While steps are being taken to correct it, there is an argument to be made that they could be doing more. (And, it could actually make money for parent company Wizards of the Coast.)
When it comes to Dungeons & Dragons’ problem with race, it’s not exactly what we normally think of when we hear that term. In the game, players can design characters of multiple races from Elves to goblins. All of these races have unique traits and features that give players cool abilities depending on what they chose. However, some races are written as genetically deficient and unskilled by nature in various areas. For example, Orcs take a penalty to their intelligence stat, suggesting they are, as a race, dumber than any others in the worlds of the game.
The game developers took their first steps to address this with the rules expansion in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. They created a set of rules that allows players to customize their characters more than ever before. Yet, players were already doing this on their own.
How the Rules Changed in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Image via Wizards of the Coast
In the rules as written for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, racial benefits usually provide bonuses for players. However, these bonuses were typically aimed at very limited archetypes. For example, Elf characters would gain a bonus to their dexterity, the stat used for classes like Rogue or Ranger. However, if a character wanted to play a strength-based Barbarian, they’d essentially be wasting a bonus if they chose an Elf. The changes made in the latest sourcebook allow players to take that bonus and apply it to the stat of their choice. They’ve also made character origins more customizable as well. These origins come with additional skill benefits. Yet, this change is something that most players and Dungeon Masters have already implemented on their own.
The problem with tying specific stats to a race in Dungeons & Dragons goes beyond player convenience. Beings of different races are all simply the same. The game rules will blend cultural generalizations into their description of the races. Drow elves, half-orcs, and the most drastically different from human races are considered to be evil by nature.
Surely some readers may think, “It’s just a game, who cares?” While there are other pressing sociopolitical issues to consider in the world, we can walk and roll d20s at the same time. Dungeons & Dragons is a wildly influential game to the people who help shape pop culture. Directors, writers, and actors from across film and television talk about how games like these helped them hone their creative skills. So, if Dungeons & Dragons has a problem with how it presents race, future storytellers will inherit those problems. Though not all. Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer published an official campaign guide in which he created a kingdom where the monstrous races weren’t so monstrous.
Image by Wizards of the Coast via Facebook
As he told Syfywire.com upon the release of his official campaign guide:
“From a lore standpoint, I really enjoyed creating the Kryn Dynasty and presenting a very powerful and prominent society that largely embraces what are considered classically as the monstrous races of D&D. They are just like any other creatures in the world — trying to survive, trying to get by, trying to work together….
“So, while you can deal with absolute evils in campaigns, I’m trying to steer away heavily from the idea of it being based in race or any sort of innate character nature. Instead it’s based on their experiences and how they’ve chosen to live their lives and all their goals. That’s a little more personal, as opposed to just a generalization.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, people turned to tabletop gaming to reconnect with each other. Virtual games skyrocketed, and more people than ever before are finding this pastime. Players who deal with harmful stereotypes, racism, and bigotry in their real lives shouldn’t be forced to endure it in a pretend world of make-believe and magic. Even if you want to include subjects like this in your campaign storytelling, that should be a decision DMs and players make rather than the parent company.
There is nothing wrong with classic franchises that mean a lot to us reexamining things to make their worlds more inclusive. It doesn’t take anything away from them. In fact, they add to them in such a way that ensures their longevity in the future. And there is a really simple solution Wizards of the Coast could use that might actually make them some money along the way.
Dungeons & Dragons Needs All-New Sourcebooks to Fix Its Race Problem
Image via Wizards of the Coast
A 6th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is surely coming in the future. However, the game has never been more popular and interest continues to grow. So, like they did between the 3rd edition and 4th edition, Wizards of the Coast should release all new sourcebooks, like The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide that removes racial abilities altogether. Call them something else like “archetypes” or “lifestyles” or anything, really. The race of a character can be what players call “flavor,” meaning a customizable detail that doesn’t really affect the gameplay one way or another.
It wouldn’t even really be another edition of the game or even a major change. It would just allow the game developers to separate race from game mechanics. Also, by putting these changes into the books that every new player is supposed to pick up, they can ensure that new Dungeons & Dragons players never even encounter the race problem. Even better, it will help eliminate from our thinking that entire groups of people are “good” or “bad.” Like real life, the characters in these fantasy worlds that players create are just mere reflections of the world in which we live. But, since it is a game after all, why not try to fix what we can and allow players the freedom to shape their characters and stories without the burden of antiquated, problematic thinking?
What do you think? How would you address the Dungeons & Dragons race problems in your own games?
Share your thoughts, experiences, and own homebrew-ed solutions in the comments below.
Featured image via Wizards of the Coast
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.