Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to a piece on race and DnD by Chris Van Dyke. As a side note, I think the comments on Coates blog are the most interesting of the bunch.
Anyhow. Here’s my take. First, he scores a lot of points against first and second edition. I won’t complain that he has done much on fourth, it’s less than a year old, but third edition has been out for a decade. The current company, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) does play up the legacy, so some such shots are fair enough. But to critique where the game normally is today, you’ve at least got to talk about 3rd edition. But enough concern trolling, I think there’s three or so key points that strike true and are worth addressing:
- Few PCs of color in illustrations.
- Racial stats
- Sub-human intelligent races
This is fairly geeky and long, so I’ll put the rest under the cut. Also may come back later to look at some of these issues in MMORPGs, but this post is already too long. [Update: It came up in the comments on the original piece so I should put in a plug for Stephen Erikson’s series which starts with Gardens of the Moon. Among other things, he effectively subverts the whole skin-color morality thing while building a compelling world that actually feels rather different than Tolkien. Sadly a lot of the American cover art is generic, British/Canadian versions are better.]
Few PCs of color in illustrations: I looked through my books and think that’s a fair point. That said, his “only one” comment seems wrong to me. Glancing through the core books and the one supplement I’ve bought, I’d say there’s about a dozen characters of color. That’s not counting dragonborn, who are neither here nor there, the primarily evil drow, and tieflings, which as a half devil/demon race are hardly exculpatory. Even with those numbers I think the point stands, something closer to 1/3-1/4 would do a good job of making the art more welcoming and more reflective of potential audience demographics.
- DMG 2 – p. 77, 117
- MM 0 - Not that I saw
- PHB 7/9 – p. Cover?, 44, 46, 89, 203, 153?, 165, 184, 226
- Non-Core: Martial Power 3/5 – p. 33, 108, 112, 122?, 127?
I wouldn’t be surprised if fantasy art in general had less than ten percent people of color, but no reason we need to be bound to that. In the near term, the most important thing to get right is the upcoming character visualizer. A range of skin tones seems like a good minimum standard and some diversity in any prefab characters would be even better. The new X-box avatar system does a great job of this, by throwing on a couple dozen samples which allows a mix of genders, races, and even ages.
Racial stats: In third edition, most races had a bonus to one key statistic (strength, intelligence, etc.) and a penalty to another. In fourth, this has changed to just be bonuses. That’s a bit less problematic, but nonetheless any game where picking your race, in this case species really, has a mechanical effect, you can easily get into the Bell Curve territory. The same issue can crop up when doing sci-fi with alien species. In any event using present or historical race relations for ideas for DnD-species relations can thus flummox even a would be deconstructor. If you really want to avoid this problem but not throw out the mechanics, I’d say make them national or location based bonuses. The could still by and large match up with species, but an elf raised in the city or a dwarf in the forest would pick up different skills. Some magical handwaving would be necessary to explain non-dragonborn breathing fire, but whatever. That starts to break down if you get into giant PCs or something, but getting the core races right is the main thing.
Sub-human races: Orcs, goblins, ogres, drow, and such are useful because they give an easy excuse for combat. A majority of DnD rules are combat focused, so obviously such easy excuses are useful. Aside from any moral considerations in their own right, they also tend to overlap with some creepy history. Sure some “barbarians” swept across the world conquering, but many others given the ‘savage’ moniker were basically defending their homeland from colonization. Such species are often darker skinned with tone becoming a signal for moral virtue, although in fairness that’s obviously not true of vamps. For an explicit non-DnD example, see Fable 2. This is not a new observation, the trouble is that trying to fix it by making the races more sympathetic might just get you into noble savage territory and in some ways strengthen cultural clues that link them to real-world ethnic groups.
From what I’ve dealt with of the Eberron supplement in third edition, it does a good job of delinking species and morality. Most notably in classic DnD you can tell whether a dragon was good or evil based on whether they were described with a metal or a color. It doesn’t avoid the racial stats problem mentioned above, but at least mixes things up to such a degree that they’re a lot less reflexive of real world relations. Anyways Eberron isn’t out yet and not using evil races does present one with the problem of missing out of a bunch of monster manual content. Fortunately, 4th edition does propose solutions for that. It encourages just using an existing monster and calling it something else, perhaps mixing it up a bit for flavor. This edition also makes it much easier to generate stats for PC-like adversaries. So anyone looking to go more with political conflicts and not racial ones will have an easier time of doing it.In summary I think there are problems there although they tend to be lesser in magnitude than earlier editions of the game. If WotC wants to quickly get right on this issue, I think art is probably the easiest area to change up for future publications. Experimenting with things like Eberron does is also a good start though not perfect in its own right. Generally speaking, the more welcoming the game feels, the more useful ideas will come from those who might not have less interest in a game that often focuses on European tropes. Also, they should totally get Ta-Nehisi Coates in for a promotional event, because he’s teaching his son an older edition and he’s just generally awesome. Currently he’s experimenting with WoW, grab him before he gets too sucked in!