Last week James Edward Raggi IV over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess listed my old post on Race and Dnd among a few he was responding to. Not sure if he puts me in the “thought provoking” or “thought suppressing” category. He’s an old school first edition grognard (war-gamer) type whereas I am quite pleased with the newest edition, but there are enough similarities that some aspects of his defense to hold over. His post is a long one and I don’t particularly agree with much of what he says, but he anticipates common critiques which makes his points easy to engage.
To start with, he argues against racism in the real world. There aren’t real differences between the races, so acting as a racist just doesn’t make sense.
In a fictional world, that often isn’t the case. Humans are different than elves are different than dwarves are different than orcs, and objectively so. Good and Evil exist as objective forces, and certain races are predisposed to a certain moral outlook. This does not mean that authoring, playing, or accepting this as objective fictional fact means endorsing or accepting this as truth in real-world ethnicities or that it's at all related to how the real world works.
This single paragraph gets to my problem. Objective fictional facts are fine in the mechanics of the game or in non-normative aspects of the game. Super powers and floating cities are part of the fun. But I think incorrect objective fictional facts regarding morality are problematic. At best the player simply ignores them, at worst it negatively effects our outlook. Long version after the cut.
To my mind, the bigger problem is the “certain races are predisposed to a certain moral outlook.” Racial strife between Dwarves and Elves is a fantasy trope, but so is overcoming it through the protagonists’ actions.
We can decide that if the killing and looting and banditry and the decaying civilization that we would absolutely not tolerate in real life either are acceptable in our games, then maybe a fictional portrayal of race relations might be too. We can realize that.. racial characteristics of D&D are not analogous to racial characteristics in real life…
Seriously, what is more insane: Racism present in a medievalistic (not strictly “medieval” by any means) game which also draws from ancient mythology, or applying standards of modern Western liberal morality (let us not forget there is a whole world out there that does not share our base assumptions, values, or our perspective on things like race or imagination) to the same? Does medieval history or mythology of any stripe welcome the “other” as anything resembling an equal to the home tribe? Does multiculturalism make any sense in this context?..
Barry Hughes, one of my graduate professors and a man wiser than I, said something that I think is relevant. We need to judge a culture’s practices by what actually helps them survive. With the abundance of the West and with long-standing institutions, it becomes easy to judge cultures that lack such resources. This does not mean I’m a cultural relativist; many cultures, including ours, have practices that aren’t conducive to our survival. Thus the question becomes: does DnD treat unfriendly relations to other species as a necessary or even a good cultural practice?
D&D does set up racial conflicts between fictional races in fictional worlds. But promoting or even illustrating real-world racism? No.
More specifically, I think it endorses racial conflict with evil-aligned races while on the other hand it tends to hold up conflict between neutral/good races as a common but unwise practice. Why? To promote racism? No, I think Raggi is accurate in his intention-based defense, objectively evil races are used because by and large the creators believed it isn’t okay to use ‘uncivilized’ humans. The reason they use racial conflict is because it provides a reason for combat uncomplicated by moral concerns.
So if they aren’t intentionally promoting racism, why is this racial conflict a problem? First and foremost because while DnD is about tactical combat, it is also about telling stories. Straight up war games can be a lot less problematic because there’s a lot less story there. All sides are typically played, regardless of motivation, because otherwise there’s no game. But in the default setting of DnD the players are heroic, not necessarily goody-two shoes, but the ‘good guys’ nonetheless.
Ultimately, this statement at the start gets to my problem:
Racism is not objectively bad. Racism is only a real-world evil because people discriminate against each other on the false premise of racial superiority. There is no difference in the potential intelligence or achievement or emotional state or morality between a white man, black man, Hispanic, Asian, Eskimo, Indian, or any other person. None.
The thing is, in practice different societies have different levels of health care, nutrition, and education available to them. This impacts our ‘stats’ as it were. They also have different sort of weaponry and strategic advantages which tends to lead to different evaluations of the morality of certain strategies. Even the least wise and most bloodthirsty of the modern liberal hawks or a relatively wise neo-con would never argue for colonial behavior because of inherent differences, instead they’d mournfully say that differences in culture and the effects of bad government necessitated it.
An effectively anti-racist DnD, one fully subscribing to modern pluralist thinking, might make the strong case that even with unreal but objective racial and moral differences, the most survival promoting behavior is to find ways to live in peace. That’s going to be tricky to pull off with anything like traditional DnD mechanics, regardless of edition. A DnD that doesn’t view conflict with the other as necessary can just scrap the objective morality of races. Eberron does this and it’s easy enough to gin up conflict based on the different interests of nations.
Ultimately games and stories have power. We learn from them even we don’t realize it, and we often don’t learn what the author intended. Mechanics teach us about cooperation as well as tactical and numerical thinking. Morality of games also teaches us. That said, I do think we can actively disregard those lessons as irrelevant. Similarly, mature players can certainly handle evil campaigns which can teach how to be a better bad guy. But it makes a better game, a better story, when you can learn something about morality of far more dire situations than hopefully the players will ever face in real life.
[Update: Made some fixes within the first fifteen minutes. I’ll announce when I do so, but won’t always note all the specifics.]
[Update 2: It has been pointed out to me that there’s lots of other points I disagree with that I don’t engage. In this case, it’s just a matter of responding to the ones that interest me. I’m also not sure to what extent racial alignment made it in to 4e. It’s certainly downplayed, which is a good thing. Don’t have my Monster Manual handy to check. It’s way easier to make enemies of playable races. That said, I haven’t seen as many Dragon articles that provide sets of ready made playable race enemies. If I’ve missed them, please let me know, as I intend to use them.]