In a turn of events that I cannot imagine Gary Gygax ever saw coming, Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, has managed to take the world by storm once more in a sort of nerdy renaissance. First introduced in 1974, D&D has recently grown in popularity through the help of web series like Critical Role and Netflix shows like Stranger Things. Matt Duffer, co-creator of Stranger Things, attributes D&D’s newfound success to the “tactile, social experience” of the gameplay, while his twin brother Ross Duffer suggested that “some of [D&D’s resurgence into the mainstream] is due to nostalgia, and some of it is because people are looking for a way to connect that doesn’t involve a computer or a phone.”
However, D&D’s increasing popularity has drawn attention to some of its problematic aspects, namely its conception of race. In D&D players choose a “race” for their character (i.e elf, dwarf, orc, etc.) that comes with a set of traits and morals dictated by the character’s species; elves are graceful and charismatic, while orcs are brutish and unintelligent. In an interview with Huffington Post, medievalist Paul B. Sturtevant explains that D&D’s understanding of race is “fundamentally different than our concept of ‘races’ in the real world. In D&D, races are rooted in deep biological differences, whereas we know that in the real world, race is a social construct based upon arbitrary and superficial differences. Using the word ‘race’ in the game where they really mean something more like ‘species’ promotes racist ideas.”
This view of race is not only a problem within the realm of D&D. In fact, the modern fantasy genre has been imbued with racist ideals since its inception. It is only through thoughtfully and critically analyzing how racism permeates modern fantasy that any meaningful change can be made to create a more inclusive genre.
Tolkien, Lord of the Racists?
As the undisputed godfather of modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien has had an immeasurable impact on how the genre has developed. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Tolkien’s understanding of race is par for the course within the fantasy genre. But therein lies the problem: his conception of race as an objective reality rather than a social construct leads to the problematic and racist belief that one’s physical features (in this case, elven ears or orcish tusks) are somehow indicative of one’s personality and morals.
As a fan of the Lord of the Rings series myself, I acknowledge that it’s difficult to turn a critical eye to Tolkien’s intricate worldbuilding, but the explicit racial hierarchies and uncomfortable similarities to real-world races are concerning. The ‘good’ species and races like elves and the Free Peoples of Middle-earth are based upon references to European cultures, namely those of northwestern Europe, while the ‘evil’ species and races like orcs and the human tribes of the Easterlings and the Southrons draw obvious inspirations from Asian and African peoples, with their trademark dark skin and — in Tolkien’s own words —“wide mouths and slant eyes.”
Beyond the clear-cut comparisons between good and white versus evil and non-white, there are elements of Anglo-Saxonism, or the belief in the superiority of Anglo-Saxon (i.e. white) characteristics, that permeate the Lord of the Rings series. A prominent example of this is the fear of moral decline through race-mixing, a clear precursor to eugenics. In the second book of the Lord of the Rings series, The Two Towers, one of the characters says: “It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!” In his article “From the Shire to Charlottesville: How Hobbits Helped Rebuild the Dark Tower for Scientific Racism,” film-maker Andrew Stewart cites this quote as something that “would easily be at home in the mouth of a Klansman were ‘Orcs’ and ‘Men’ turned to ‘Blacks’ and ‘whites.’”
Some may argue that these examples don’t necessarily equate to racism, especially since Tolkien famously denounces Hitler in one of his letters to his son, referring to the dictator as a “ruddy little ignoramus.” However, critics point out that Tolkien’s condemnation of Hitler does not excuse the structural, insidious racism present within his lore. Just because Tolkien’s actions aren’t overtly violent doesn’t mean that the racism within his works doesn’t exist at all.
The Orc Baby Dilemna
Let’s return to D&D for a moment. As previously stated, the mechanics of race within D&D demonstrate a problem within fantasy as a whole in regards to prejudice and discrimination. The racism within D&D can best be summarized by a common thought experiment within the TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) community known as the “Orc Baby Dilemma.” The scenario is as follows: during a raid of some sort at a camp of Orcs, the players stumble upon a lone Orc baby. They are then forced to make a decision: either spare the child and risk them growing into a villain due to the inherently evil nature of orcs or kill the child, which is frowned upon for obvious reasons.
The fact that this is even considered a dilemma within the TTRPG community is morally reprehensible, and it demonstrates the racism present within D&D. By having races like orcs be considered so intrinsically evil that killing a baby is hailed as a valid option within a moral dilemma, D&D creates a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ races that mirrors the justifications for racial violence within our own world.
One prime example of how D&D promotes racism within the fantasy genre is when its publisher Wizards of the Coast released rules for playing a full-blooded orc in April 2020. The language used to describe half-orcs, originally the only “monstrous” race available to play, was already loaded with the same aggressive language directed at marginalized communities, describing them as having “a tendency towards chaos” and stating that “the most accomplished half-orcs are those with enough self-control to get by in a civilized land.” However, the language and mechanics used to describe orcs are infinitely worse, with rules giving orc characters negative modifiers to their intelligence — one of the few player races in all of D&D to even include negative modifiers for their ability scores — and sentences that discuss how “orcs could potentially be “domesticated” but would always have “blood lust flow[ing] just beneath the surface” or how they could maybe “develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion” but only if they’re “raised outside of [their] culture.” This kind of language is painfully reminiscent of the language used to denigrate and demean marginalized ethnic groups, namely Black people.
As a Black person who enjoys playing D&D, acknowledging that these problems of discrimination exist within a community that means so much to me is a difficult task. As tempting as it is to dismiss these concerns as a problem with the players rather than with the game itself, it’s essential to come to terms with the structural racism present within the very mechanics and lore of D&D and how it negatively impacts the POC community present within these spaces. It is only through recognizing these issues that steps toward effective change can be made and more inclusive spaces within the fantasy genre can be cultivated.
Black People Doing Magic? Now Let’s be Realistic
The appeal of the fantasy genre is, at its core, the desire for escapism. Being able to step out of one’s own mundane life and ‘enter’ a realm of magic and adventure has drawn fans in since the beginning. However, even within these worlds filled with things beyond one’s wildest dreams, it seems that having POC play roles outside of inspirations for monsters or token stereotypes is too unrealistic. As The Root’s Ashley Nkadi puts it, “In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time. Anything, that is, except diversity.”
In fantasy — as well as most other genres — whiteness is the norm. The white experience is touted as universal. Characters don’t need a reason for being white; they simply are allowed to exist as people within their own right. It’s only when someone with a marginalized identity is introduced that cries of “historical accuracy” and “the sanctity of the work” begin. Realism is almost never a concern within fantasy, a genre that prides itself on its larger-than-life, mystical elements; however, disgruntled white fans will lean on that excuse for dear life to question the validity of having POC characters within fantasy spaces. Tanya Depass, a cast member on Rivals of Waterdeep, a D&D actual play show on Twitch made up of queer and nonwhite members, points out the absurdity of being questioned for having a Black character with Afro-textured hair in a fantasy game, saying: “I have a flaming sword and I have a talking wolf. Why is this an issue for you?”
At its core, this resistance against allowing POC characters into the fantasy genre demonstrates the idea of marginalized communities simply not being welcome in these universes. It demonstrates that within these realms of pure wish-fulfillment, part of that wish is for the demonization and removal of marginalized voices. When marginalized communities challenge this by integrating their stories into the fantasy genre, this fantasy becomes threatened and some fans lash out in response. POC should not have to justify their right to exist and create within the fantasy genre. They should be allowed to operate within these spaces with the same freedom and ease that their white counterparts do. Everyone should be granted the space to indulge in the same carefree enjoyment, regardless of their ethnicity. Marisha Ray, a cast member and the creative director of Critical Role, details how D&D — and by extension, fantasy as a whole — should be about accessibility and being welcomed into a space in which “the power of the storyteller” is placed into the players’ hands. Creating spaces that promote inclusivity rather than exclusion allows for more innovative, unique stories that represent people from all walks of life.
Back to Reality
Some may argue that even if racism does permeate the fantasy genre, at the end of the day, these are all fictional pieces of media. People may say that these problems don’t have any bearing on the real world. However, this sentiment is incorrect. Works of fiction wield immeasurable influence.
According to Dr. Marty Laubach and Serena Holcomb, representation within the fantasy genre helps teenagers formulate identities through commiserating with characters and situations that resonate with them; when teenagers are left without representation, they are left with a sense of “disappointment” that their stories aren’t seen as worthwhile. As Nkadi puts it, even if the fantasy stories themselves are fake, “the pain felt when dark faces watch screens, searching to identify with someone, anyone, and find nothing” is very much real. On the flip side, research from Washington and Lee University has demonstrated that working to combat systemic racism within narrative fiction (i.e literature) proves useful in lowering racial bias. TTRPGs, like D&D, take this a step further; Ray discusses how spaces like D&D are “the perfect augmented reality to exercise” empathizing with others.
The power of fantasy is immense; these stories of adventure and magic encourage fans to look beyond the horizons of their reality and wonder: “What if?” It is the responsibility of creators as well as fans to create inclusive spaces within the fantasy genre for the POC.
Creators must take care to not thoughtlessly place POC narratives within the genre, however, — that’s how one ends up with racist caricatures like orcs. The structural racism within the fantasy genre can only be solved through thoughtful, well-researched efforts. As Brennan Lee Mulligan, the Dungeon Master (DM) of D&D actual play show Dimension 20, explains, it is not enough to simply “have a good heart, empathy, just feel it out.” Meaningful changes within the fantasy genre come from “research” and listening to those who “can speak through usually both first-hand belonging to and academic study of marginalized groups and systems of oppression.” He goes on to explain that it is the creator’s role to “strike this balance between making [their] world feel […] as inclusive and rich and diverse as our world is, and then also making sure that [they’re] doing that responsibly by putting the goddamn work in.”Fans must learn to critically analyze the media they hold so dear. Now, this is not a call for fans to burn their Lord of the Rings books or swear off TTRPGs forever. Rather, this is a request to consider the structural racism that may influence certain choices made within these pieces. Question why the most popular fantasy novels hold no marginalized people. Analyze the similarities between fantasy races and the racist stereotypes used to demean POC. And — most importantly — when POC say that there are racist elements in this genre, don’t impulsively leap to the defense, but take the time to listen.