From Katya: Wizards of the Coast recently announced (by recently I mean mid-June. It’s been a YEAR y’all) ways that they’re attempting to address the game’s racist characterizations of, well, in-game races. In their announcement, they acknowledge the widespread critique of their rules surrounding races, particularly the ways that stereo-typically dark-skinned fantasy races — specifically orcs and drow (dark elves, for non dnd folks) — are presented as inherently “monstrous and evil.” Their proposed improvements include making the worlds of orc and drow more complex culturally and morally, changing racially insensitive text, greater flexibility in character stat customization, and seeking to hire a more diverse staff.
Hopefully Wizards of the Coast follows through on this, particularly hiring a more diverse staff. While gamers are very diverse (statistics indicate, for example, that there are equal numbers of male and female gamers) this is often not reflected in the industry or many gaming spaces where diverse gamers aren’t often represented or, often, do not even feel welcome.
Wizards of the Coast aside, I’m not convinced that race-based character classification systems in general can be fixed. In broad terms, these systems assign personality traits, skills, and innate characteristics based on a character’s race. Specifically the 5th Edition Player Handbook notes that races shape character skills by “increas[ing] one or more of a character’s ability score and their alignment (good, evil, neutral etc.)
Some aspects are determinant (such as the character’s speed) others (like alignment) are tendencies rather than cut-and-dry rules. For example, my main dnd character is a chaotic neutral half-elf/ half-human rogue thief. Many of her abilities are based on her past and her profession, like being stealthy AF and able to climb walls in a single bound because treasure dammit. As a half-elf, however, she has an automatic ability increase (+2) to charisma, a +1 bonus to two other skills of the player’s choice, and are likely to be chaotic. They also have “skill versatility” giving them proficiency in two skills of the player’s choice. Looking just at the half-elf entry you might get the impression that being, as 5e calls it “between two worlds” in the half-elf section makes effectively bi-racial characters adaptable and more able to determine their own path. Not so, however.
A half-orc, on the other hand, has an automatic +2 to strength and +1 to constitution. They are also chaotically inclined: “inherit[ing] a tendency toward chaos from their orc parents and are not strongly inclined towards good.” The handbook notes that when raised among other orcs in what it calls “Tribes and Slums” as they typically are (presumably due to prejudices against orcs in general), they are usually evil. Half-orcs are also automatically “Menacing” granting proficiency in intimidation and have “Savage Attack” which, while a cool ability, plays into the racial stereotypes already in play.
Half-orcs lack the mobility and versatility of their half-elf counterparts. For the half-elf, having diverse ancestry is a benefit allowing them to be natural ambassadors and choose their own destiny. For the half-orc, it makes them uncontrollable, full of rage and violence, and -because stats are fixed rather than player assigned- trapped within the racial norms of the orc narrative.
There is some play within these categories that allow you to play against type but this usually requires a flexible DM and a fair amount of fudging the margins. (Ask me about my barbarian gnome that has an axe bigger than she with a cartoon rabbit on the haft.) Playing against type in this way reinforced the notion that there is a type to begin with and it’s the accepted norm. These norms also can become a point of contention among players themselves. In the past, I’ve seen resistance both in and out of game when I or another player shows up to play as one of these off-type characters or proposes one to a DM. In these instances, player’s gameplay style seems more likely to be policed by others even when they have the stamp of approval from their DM. This often becomes part of the ‘real gamer’ narrative that excludes those who do not present as white, hetero-normative male players. Self proclaimed “expert” gamers sometimes attempt to shut down these against-type characters because they aren’t “playing DnD correctly” by adhering to the norms stated in the handbook. Individuals who attempt to represent themselves or a version of themselves that was not originally afforded by the original rules are then being again excluded from the community as well as the game because tinkering with the game to make to represent themselves and their values is rejected as incorrect play.
I have a few examples of this like @mustangsart’s release of their Combat Wheelchair on Twitter and the ensuing trash fire of toxic gamers wanting everyone to get our desires for equality, inclusion, and representation our of their game. But until the episode, what do you think of rewriting racial features and their presentation in 5e? Do you think the system could be fixed or is it even worth fixing? What representations of different identities in games have spoken to you? Or been alienating experiences?