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Surrogate Evil: Displaced Racism in Fantasy Roleplaying

Surrogate racism has been a mainstay source for conflict in the various Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings since the game was first published in 1974 - and shows no sign of being removed from its core themes forty years after its first edition. None of this is new, although most conversations surrounding racism in Dungeons & Dragons emphasize the fact that humans are depicted most often as white and gloss over the fantasy races as actual surrogates for the semi-accidental race-based ideologies. I say 'semi-accidental' because I believe that the writers do not set out to embed racism into the game material but that they must also be intelligent enough to at least think twice about it before pressing on with their themes. For the time being; I will be discussing this presentation of surrogate races and how they are used to displace and obfuscate the racism embedded in Dungeons & Dragons, rather than discussing the absence of human cultures based on something other than a white Euro-American analogue; because the latter discussion should be obvious to anyone and everyone.

It all begins with those non-human enemy races which Dungeons & Dragons adopted from J.R.R. Tolkien and his Middle Earth mythos. While the origins of these races in Middle Earth were never canonically established - because Tolkien was indecisive on the subject throughout his lifetime - it is generally assumed that the Goblins and the Orcs in Middle Earth are corrupted Elves who have somehow devolved due to an antisocial force ranging from enslavement or unnatural magics to copulating with wild beasts. Elves in Middle Earth are therefore positioned as good because they are pure and the Goblins or Orcs are positioned as evil because they are an impure race which resents their impurity while possessing an animal intellect. Thus all wars in Middle Earth become race wars due to this uncertain origin because every war in Middle Earth is essentially fought between the pure Elves and the impure evil races on some level.

All this was embedded in Dungeons & Dragons when the game adopted these enemy races for its own publications and inherited 'evil born from racial corruption' as a basic theme without the ethical awareness that appears to have consternated Tolkien throughout his life. Goblins and Orcs and Ogres and Trolls have always been the primary antagonists in the ongoing race war ethic that burdens most Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. Each enemy race is a parallel to each of the playable races which players can select from when building their characters and these enemy races share more commonalities than differences. Each enemy race is also prone to violence and antisocial behavior while being physically misshapen (not to mention often dark skinned) as well as less intelligent than the playable races. All their negative qualities are explained as being innate to their genetic makeup and any good natured members of these races are notable exceptions who exist only to prove the rule. But how does their existence within Dungeons & Dragons support racist ideologies?

     "Goblins! In Solace! This new Theocrat has much to answer for!" Flint spat. Reaching up, he swung his battle-axe from its holder on his back and planted his feet firmly on the path, rocking back and forth until he felt himself balanced. "Very well," he announced. "Come on." ... Flint strode forward, his hands getting a firm grip on the axe handle. "There's only one creature I hate worse than a gully dwarf," he muttered, "and that's a goblin!"
- Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, Dragons of Autumn Twilight

In the above (abridged) quotation from the classic Dungeons & Dragons novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, we see one of the most iconic and beloved characters in the Dragonlance series speaking in a way that would be very clearly racist were he a real man speaking about real human races. He establishes that this specific race is not welcome in his home town and then defines them as creatures rather than as a people. Clear parallels to real world racist attitudes can be drawn here, such as keeping African Americans or Hispanics out from predominantly white neighborhoods and dehumanizing them in a way that suggests an animal nature rather than a human one. Unyielding hatred toward so-called 'goblinoid' races is not an uncommon attitude in the Dungeons & Dragons novels nor is it uncommon to see such attitudes expressed by player characters around a gaming table. It is true that the racism in a Dungeons & Dragons novel or game may also be directed toward the playable races but this racism is always addressed as such and ultimately shown to be a character flaw which must be unlearned in order to achieve a particular goal. Meanwhile the racism directed toward the enemy races is shown to be acceptable and is never punished because it is presumably justified.

Elves and Dwarves and Halflings and the other playable races are each a variation on 'thematic human' when taken down to brass tacks. Directing aggressive racism toward them feels too real for anyone with a conscience, although even this was common in the younger years of the fantasy roleplay genre. Displacing racism onto a people who are meant to be monstrous and whose evil is innate allows the player or reader to engage in racist fantasy without feeling racist because they are not directing these antisocial fantasies toward a people which can be identified as human. Now, to be fair to the writers, the new fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons does establish that any race can embrace any alignment they choose, but this statement is little more than a brief curtsy of the fifth edition to more modern and enlightened sensibilities.  Racial cultures such as the dark-skinned Drow and primate Half-Orcs are still portrayed as innately unethical and bestial. Drow are described as monstrous fiends in the Player's Handbook while the playable Half-Orcs are described as forever wrestling with the evil and violent nature invested in them by their creator god. Both examples affirm that evil races remain innately evil in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and are therefore fair targets for the racially motivated prejudices of the player characters.

Some gamers would suggest that this is necessary and that Dungeons & Dragons requires a clear and definitive evil for the more heroic player characters to rise up against. I agree that Dungeons & Dragons is at its best when the player characters must face a clear and definitive evil in their world but I disagree that this evil must be manifest in a racialized form. We tell stories when we play tabletop roleplaying games or live action roleplaying games and the stories people tell  influence their cultures, whether these cultures be their personal cultures or the greater cultures of their societies. We embody the moral lessons of these stories, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and we choose to embrace a moral lesson that continues to plague our modern societies when we tell stories which uphold an innate racialized evil against which prejudice is justified. Meanwhile, we choose to embrace a more righteous and ethically advanced moral lesson when we tell stories in which assumptions of innate racialized evil are proven wrong or rejected. While many dungeons masters share my sentiments and often choose the latter stories; the writers of Dungeons & Dragons continue to assert the former and therefore choose to maintain a less ethical baseline for a game which has informed culture for decades. Such a practice in game design affirms racist ideologies in ways which are far more insidious than does writing predominantly pale skinned Euro-American fantasy cultures, because the practice masks the real world racist ideologies of human history with fantasy surrogates who allow players to ape these ideologies and call it entertainment. As laudable as creating ever more cosmopolitan and phenotypically diverse fantasy humans has been in recent editions, it does not balance this practice.