Dungeons & Dragons has long been criticized for its depiction of race and lack of diversity. On June 17, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast finally addressed these criticisms in a post titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons,” in which they outlined the ways they’ve perpetuated racist stereotypes and described their plans to correct it. One of the races most commonly […]
Dungeons & Dragons has long been criticized for its depiction of race and lack of diversity. On June 17, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast finally addressed these criticisms in a post titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons,” in which they outlined the ways they’ve perpetuated racist stereotypes and described their plans to correct it.
One of the races most commonly referenced in these criticisms are orcs, who have been described as aggressive, warmongering, monstrous, and possessing limited emotional capacity. The other is the dark-skinned, demon-worshipping, slave-owning race of elves known as drow. In the post, Wizards apologized for portraying these races “as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.”
Wizards also addressed the way in which the fictional Vistani people presented in the Curse of Strahd adventure reflect stereotypes typically associated with those of Romani descent. Later in the post, they committed to featuring the Vistani in two upcoming books “in a way that doesn’t rely on reductive tropes” and pointed out that their two most recent sourcebooks provide deeper insight on orc and drow cultures. They also mentioned an upcoming product that will allow players to customize their characters’ ability scores based on their backstory, rather than their race.
Another notable change is that the word “race” never appears in the post. Instead, they refer to orcs, drow, and Vistani as “peoples”. This change signifies a break with D&D’s strict adherence to tradition. The 46-year-old game was originally inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work has also been criticized for featuring racist tropes. Tolkien used the word “race” to describe the many peoples of Middle-Earth, and the term has been a Dungeons & Dragons standard since 1978.
Decoupling the word “race” from the many peoples represented in Dungeons & Dragons is a long overdue change. The difference between a 7-foot, fire-breathing Dragonborn and a 3-foot, feathered Kenku is a biological reality, not a sociological construct. The term “species” feels far more appropriate here, but Wizards has yet to comment on what term they plan to use moving forward.
As a longtime D&D player myself, I’ve come up with a few changes that I would like to see implemented. In doing so, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m writing this from the perspective of a white player who sees several glaring problems with the game and the culture surrounding it. This list is hardly exhaustive, and I don’t presume to speak over or know better than any BIPOC players in writing it. I will continue to use the word “race” in this article to describe the many peoples represented in Dungeons & Dragons; not to undermine Wizards’ wishes, but to speak about the game as it currently exists. Many dynamics between races in Dungeons & Dragons reflect the dynamics between races in the real world; therefore, that term is more useful than any other for examining the consequences.
Decouple Physical and Mental Stats
All stats in Dungeons and Dragons are treated equally during character creation, but not during the actual game. When creating their characters, players have the option of focusing on six different stats. Three of them govern their prowess in the physical world (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) while the other three (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) focus on their mental and social proficiency. Players receive bonuses (and in rare cases, penalties) based on their character’s race. This is most successful when it affects physical stats, such as when a huge Goliath gets a bonus to their strength. When this principle is applied to mental stats, the results become much more problematic. For example, elves receive an inherent bonus to their intelligence while orcs get a penalty, reinforcing the idea that one race is mentally superior to the other.
Mental ability scores govern the use of magic. With few exceptions, spellcasters rely on either Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma. The higher the score, the more powerful the spell. As players grow over time, they gain access to spells that are able to change the very fabric of reality. Meanwhile, players relying on brute strength are never able to achieve this level of power. This is best described by the “Linear Warrior, Quadratic Wizard” trope and is a typical feature in RPGs. However, when aptitude for these abilities is indirectly tied to race through ability scores, it shuts certain races out of attaining them.
Another issue is that Dungeons & Dragons seems to correlate mental ability with morality. Though a character with high mental stats is equally likely to be good or evil, characters with low mental stats are far less likely to be good. This communicates that higher-Intelligence creatures have a greater capacity for moral complexity, while lower-Intelligence creatures are doomed to good or evil based on their race.
In general, I think that species-based bonuses to physical ability scores are a fun world-building opportunity that can largely remain untouched. Halflings, for example, are small, nimble creatures – it makes sense that they’d have a bonus to their Dexterity scores. Dwarves receive a bonus to their Constitution scores, which reflects their heritage of growing up in a harsh environment. In my experience, these scores empower players rather than limit them. They don’t inherently alter how a character is role-played, but rather allow them to accomplish physical tasks that others might not be able to.
On the other hand, I think that all mental stats should be unique to a character, rather than dictated by species. Wizards has indicated that their new product will allow players to “customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D’s many other playable folk.” I thought that the “This Is Your Life” section from the 2017 sourcebook Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was an excellent start to customizing a character’s backstory, and pairing certain life events with increases to mental ability scores would be an awesome way to customize each character. This would give players the opportunity to create builds that were previously considered suboptimal (orc wizards, anybody?), and provide them with the flexibility to excel in both physical and social encounters.
Portray Slavery Respectfully, Or Remove It Entirely
Dungeons & Dragons has been criticized for its depiction of slavery, and rightfully so. The drow own slaves, as do many of the evil species and civilizations that players fight against. While this is obviously preferable to depicting slavery as morally ambigious, it rarely goes far enough in depicting the horrors of institutionalized slavery. Players and DMs are forced to talk about slavery without being given the tools or vocabulary to do so respectfully.
The drow, for example, are a popular race among players. But because many drow own slaves, those characters are forced to have some relationship to slavery. Every time I’ve seen a white person play a drow, they’ve downplayed that relationship as a minor biographical detail rather than a character-defining trait. The attitude ranges from lukewarm remorse (“I used to own slaves, but that’s in the past now.”) to utter flippancy (“I’ll just get one of my slaves to do it.”). While I can’t deny the possibility that some of these players might have been using slave ownership to live out their white supremacist fantasies, most of these players were doing their best using the limited vocabulary that the game provides.
In Dungeons & Dragons, slavery is treated as a plot device at best and a set dressing at worst. I can think of at least two official, published adventures that feature enslavement as plot point, tasking players with escaping from their captors. This portrays slavery as a minor inconvenience that can be easily conquered with luck, strength, and ingenuity. Other adventures use slavery as background noise, utilizing it solely as a bad-guy-signifier rather than an actual system with consequences. If slavery is going to continue to be present in Dungeons & Dragons, it needs to be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
Another option is for Wizards to remove slavery from its official sourcebooks. As a white person, I’ve always felt that treating slavery as part of a game is inherently disrespectful to those who are still affected by it today. It is blatantly racist – not to mention disingenuous – to treat slavery as a fantasy scenario while living in a country still reeling from its effects. I’m sure there are still players and DMs who will wish to keep it in their home games, but there’s no reason why slavery needs to be included by default in official rulebooks. Adding it to a game should be an active choice made by individual groups; it shouldn’t take extra work to remove it.
Make All Races Equally Diverse
Wizards’ statement reads: “‘Human’ in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans”. While this accurately describes 5th Edition’s artwork, it fails to address the larger issue of how cultural diversity is presented in the game.
The human race in Dungeons & Dragons is treated the way that white people are treated in real world media. Film and television portrays white culture as complex and diverse while non-white cultures are often portrayed as monolithic. In the Forgotten Realms – the official setting of D&D – there are seven major human races (five of which are white or light-skinned), each with its own rich history and cultural traditions. Every other race has one or two subraces that get a paragraph or two of description in the Player’s Handbook, but receive nowhere near the same care as the human races. Most non-Human races are expected to possess a narrow set of personality traits, framing characters that deviate from those descriptions as exceptions to the rule rather than individuals. This disparity is also present in the game mechanics, which grant Humans more flexibility than any other race to excel as any class they choose.
Even though humans in the game aren’t uniformly white, their relationship to the other races in the game mimics real-world white supremacy. They’re the dominant race in the world, framed as the baseline norm from which all other races are deviations. As (presumably human) players, this is how we approach the game, so it makes sense why non-human races need to be initially described this way. But that power structure doesn’t need to be reflected in the world of the game itself. Doing so perpetuates and normalizes the idea that one race must be dominant above all others.
There are over 40 playable races in Dungeons & Dragons, and I realize creating complex histories and cultures for each of them would be a huge undertaking. If Wizards were to release more tools and guidelines for homebrewing cultures and traditions, players might be able to do a large amount of this work on their own. I don’t know if people would actually buy a 200-page book on the official history of genasi, but empowering players to write their own history would make that dearth of content far easier to fill.
Release These Changes For Free
One line that raised my hackles in the post is the mention of an upcoming “product” that will allow players to customize the origin of their characters. I sincerely hope that this resource will be released for free online, and/or as errata to the Basic Rules and the Player’s Handbook. It would be incredibly disingenuous for Wizards of the Coast to apologize for past racial insensitivity and then profit off of their proposed remedy.
The advent of free online tabletops like Roll20 has made Dungeons & Dragons cheaper to play than ever before, but the price of entry is still pretty high. The three core rulebooks retail for $49.95 each, as do many of the supplementary sourcebooks. If Wizard of the Coast wants a more diverse audience to enjoy their game, they should take steps to lower these barriers of entry.
D&D is ultimately a social game, created in the moment at a table filled with people. As players, we have to take responsibility for our own complicity in the ways we’ve played this game and the racist elements to which we’ve turned a blind eye. Wizards of the Coast’s statement is an important first step toward addressing this game’s racist past, but we need to be equally proactive in addressing our mistakes and creating solutions. No supplement or errata will be able to create an inclusive, welcoming community on its own. That’s on us.