Racial traits in D&D are pretty problematic. "Ancestry & Culture" is a great homebrew solution

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/08/10/racial-traits-in-dd-are-prett.html


I had a discussion about this with my group’s DM some weeks ago, Polygon had posted a similar article which i linked him to. To be honest these kinds of homebrew modifications have existed since forever, though i don’t say it to downplay the importance of having the conversation about it. I think it’s a perfect time to revisit these kinds of concepts and themes, maybe some of these elements can stay and maybe some can change but what’s really important is asking ourselves if there is any room for improvement around race, racial traits and culture.


There is only one human species, and divisions of “race” are largely social constructs

Meanwhile, “race” in D&D refers to distinctly different species. Dogs and cats are distinct species with distinct traits, as are dragonborn and orcs.

Would simply changing D&D terminology from “race” to “species” reduce some of the trouble here?

That being said, the old “racial hatred” table in older D&D editions does promote some problematic roleplaying…


Worth noting Pathfinder 2e went this direction already, a couple years ago, in the official core rules.




I’m not sure, because it just replaces racism with species-ism. As your final sentence alludes to, many racists justify their beliefs by viewing other races as a different species (TMK almost every real-world racist culture tries to dehumanize the other this way. Best known example is Nazis, who went to great lengths to attempt to demonstrate Aryan genetic superiority).

I’m not sure that the proposed solution is much better though. The issue is that there is still some sort of implied cultural hierarchy (elves>humans>dwarves>orcs etc.). It has a paternalistic ring to it - orcs raised by elves is a little too close to real world examples such as Indigenous peoples being stolen and raised by white colonizers who have a “better” culture.

I think a MUCH better solution would be to dissociate good/evil from ancestry without requiring a pre-defined cultural hierarchy. If someone wants to play a good-hearted orc, so be it. Evil elf gangs? Wonderful! (I am not too familiar with D & D, so maybe these kind of adjustments are already possible?)


I’ve NEVER TRUSTED the Dragonborn.


It’s not perfect, but I think this is a step in the right direction, and I feel that way not just because of my progressive values, but also because I think it does quite a bit to enrich gameplay.


I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong, the difference between a human and another human is pretty varied but at the end of the day we are the same species. When looking at a human vs a kobold or something else there’d be some innate differences in biology. No one is saying that one is better than the other, the differences will exist on a fundamental level but what matters is how D&D and other games decide to frame their mechanics around it. I’m not qualified to give an opinion on what changes are needed but at least i’m glad these conversations are taking place.

The one thing i would like to see however is for D&D to have a more robust flaw system as part of their character creation. The game gives you a lot of tools to build a bad ass character but i’m often more inspired by a character’s shortcomings and how they overcome it than their inherent strengths. I’d like to see something where if my character is really good at X thing in order to balance that out they should be lousy at something else, or have some weird habits or biases and not necessarily have these things be tied to one’s ability scores. And yes i know D&D has a thing for flaws but to me it leaves a lot to be desired and is super minimal.


This seems like a good first step. Some significant part of the problem, though, comes from the fantasy trope that the cultures of fantasy species are monolithic, especially when compared with culturally diverse humans (and so, e.g., being raised by dwarves would necessarily lead to combat training).

This doesn’t really seem to address that issue–though, to be fair, that would be a pretty complex bit of world-building.


I mean it’s a step in the right direction, to be sure, but the same group of now less problematic PCs are gonna go slaughter countless kobolds for having the temerity to be living in the cave where the treasure lies. Manifest destiny is rooted pretty deep in there.


Fantasy & Gaming need not be racist, but there has been a longstanding, uncomfortable intersection between fantasy roleplaying and White Supremacy.

There’s a certain cosplaying organization with ranks and vocabulary that read like the terminology one would find in the Monster Manual. Wizards, Dragons, Goblins, Monks… you name it.


It all depends on the dungeon master, the campaign and what the group’s goal is. You’re assuming characters just want to venture forth and slaughter, and while it can happen it’s not everyone’s goal. One of my last campaigns our group took every opportunity afforded to us to avoid combat and constantly tried befriending opponents, saving enemies and capturing them when they were hostile, and avoiding killing animals/creatures when possible. There were times when our rolls just weren’t good enough and had to resort to defending ourselves but our intention was to avoid confrontation when possible.

Also if a party wished to roleplay something as mundane as running a shop, farming, or getting into local politics they very well can.


I think it’s okay to start with the premise that different species exist in the D&D universe. What’s problematic is that there is an implied hierarchy among those species. If those who play D&D are trying to get around inherently colonialist tropes, I think there are better ways to do that than falling into another colonialist trope (raising a character in a supposedly superior culture that isn’t evil or dumb). I think it would be better to put so-called cultures on an even-footing and insist that those cultures are imperfect. Allowing or even encouraging characters of mixed ancestry is a sensible step though.

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It is an unfortunate stereotype that kobolds control all the money.


It all depends on the dungeon master, the campaign and what the group’s goal is. You’re assuming characters just want to venture forth and slaughter

Yeah, very true, and the flexibility of the medium is awesome. I’ve been part of some campaigns (not D&D system, but same issues) where we’ve tried to look straight at the justification for the typical dungeon crawl inside the game world, and it is definitely both heavy and interesting. I also think it’s less fun for me, because it is too connected to the issues which weigh on me in the real world. I’m trying to escape, from time to time.

Also, I think that this game design and DM behavior is really the exception. There is no chapter on “Deconstructing Colonialism and Racism” in the DM Handbook :slight_smile: . Maybe there should be!


You’re not incorrect, the various provided D&D settings do have a hierarchy though thankfully in the games i play they’re heavily modified by our DM. A lot of the basic details are lifted from D&D but the world building is mostly original, which can lead to interesting dynamics. Like Elves or humans not being the majority or having the most power, and having what has been considered weaker species like Halflings or Kobolds as actually being a driving force of industry and political power.

Power dynamics will be unavoidable, it’s just the reality of things but at least with my group its cool to see how some things are subverted. It’s also important for a dungeon master to keep in mind not to negatively paint smaller cultures as less-than anything else in the world. When i play we never consider anyone inferior or as something that needs to be treated as “other”. Except cultists, evil dragons and demons of course.

Amusingly our party has befriended evil liches before, as well as a horrifying and monstrous spider king. Both our DM intended for us to kill them but through quick thinking we were able to talk things about and resolve things peacefully.


I hope we can appreciate the subtle cultural differences that separate humans from gelatinous cubes.


Your example illustrates where things need to head then. DMs need to be encouraged to see a world that is more complex and even contradictory than what is printed in the manuals.

I think an additional challenge in general is that there is a huge world of literature, movies etc. upon which roleplaying games in the fantasy genre are based - that literature is largely white and male, though this is changing. But the canon (not just D&D novels, but LoTR and even back to Beowulf) informs the games.


All this fuss and bother is just a way for pervo characters who want to make it OK to date gnolls.