Race in fantasy: signpost

Race has been an issue in fantasy world-building and gaming for a while now. Since the beginning really, but it has been a slow burner in terms of how much attention most gamers have paid to it (as a topic of discussion rather than just as a box to fill on the character sheet).  I’ve been working on an alternative approach to race in my game and setting design for a few years, and consciously reading on the subject to inform myself for a year or so, and thoughts are at the stage where I feel the need to type them out. So I’ve made a few blog posts in early 2021, in addition to an older one from last year, plus a couple more in the pipeline. It feels like what I need is a post linking to all of them so that I and any readers can find a way around them. So that’s what this is.

Better things to read

Before I link you to anything of mine though, I’m going to link to some posts by more qualified writers than me. Though I’m blogging to express my thoughts, I’m not sure the world really needs to hear the ramblings of yet another privilege-sheltered virtue-signalling amateur white guy. But I have come across some other posts and articles on the subject by people who have a much better basis to form their thoughts than I have. So:

James Mendez Hodes, Orcs, Britons and the Martial Race Myth. A discussion by an Asian-American game industry pro of racial stereotypes, racist ideologies and concepts, how they informed Tolkien’s creation of Orcs and other elements of Middle-Earth, how the racist portrayals of DnD races like orcs and dark elves affect people in the real world, and how to make orcs (and other race-coded fantasy people) better. Powerful and cogent, it (and its part 2) is a must-read.  

NK Jemisin, The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing. A short discussion of orcs and the racial coding behind them, and why the bestselling, multi-award-winning fantasy author (and person of colour) resists pressure to include them in her books.

Paul B Sturtevant, Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. A historian’s discussion of essentialism, racial coding and racism in Tolkien and in DnD (especially dark elves), and some alternative approaches to race in modern fantasy.

I’ve seen others (and I think copied the links somewhere) so I’ll update this section of the post when I can find them again. Let me know in the comments if you know of good things I should include.

Guide to my own posts on race in fantasy

There’s an idea running through my posts that the various playable races and suchlike intelligent humanoids are people, and that many of them should in fact be included within the Human species (or a species-like category if, like me, you don’t really want to drag modern science concepts into fantasy). I think the first point very much aligns with how a lot of people now play them, but the second bit is perhaps a bit more non-standard, so I did an analysis of the points in the official core rulebooks for 5e that show which humanoid races can interbreed (the potential to produce fertile offspring being the leading scientific definition of species).

Having identified that most of the more human-like races can have children together, I discussed what that means for world building. In what sort of world would races remain separate and distinct, rather than having children together so much that they all blend into one high-variation gene pool? That post identifies a number of possible scenarios in which multiracial descent is rare, but I don’t particularly want to build any of those myself at this point, so I’ll leave it at that.

What I am interested in doing is building a world where the races have interbred to produce one very diverse humanoid population (or there were never separate races to begin with but humanity is just fantastically variable). Last summer I posted a quick draft of how the 5e race rules might be hacked to implement that (though I think the recent WotC product Tasha’s Cauldron may have since brought out an official rule on ‘custom lineage’ that works on similar lines), and I’ve now put up a short outline of the world-building principles that I think can replace the standard fantasy approach to race, and started putting up pages about Galthamar, my homebrew setting (there’s a leading post on how Galthamarian society is divided into ‘estates’ that resemble Tolkienesque races, and that links to the more detailed descriptions).

Why, though? Apart from the inexorable logic that if types of people *can* have children together they *will* and the biologically hereditary differences between them will blur away, I want not to perpetuate through my games false and harmful notions about race that seep into thinking about the real world. For similar reasons, I think it’s worth helping people see where the racism is in fantasy games that have been published over the decades, so I did an explanatory post about ‘essentialism’ (the notion that races are inherently separate and different, and that members of each race inherently have certain characteristics), and I may do another exploring some of the arguments I’ve come across about how the things in games that people call out as racist aren’t really racist.

Further reading

(Just a couple of things so far, but I think I’ll probably be able to edit in a few more as I track down the various pages I’ve been meaning to go back to.)

Here is a discussion of some recent developments in the direction that Dungeons & Dragons is taking.

Here is a really great article that covers real-world and fantasy race but also delves into ableism and monster types that the games don’t generally label ‘races’.

What do you think?

People have things to say about this; I’m sure you do too. Get involved in the comments below.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.