Update: This article was cited in an online petition to Wizards of the Coast asking for more gender and ethnic diversity in the figures depicted in the artwork for D&D Next. The petition, created by Josh Fox, asks for a minimum of 50% of people shown to be female, a minimum of 20% of people shown to be “non-white”, and for Wizards to remove the text specifically describing demi-humans as being exclusively “pale-skinned”. You can sign the petition here: D&D Should Be For Everyone, Not Just White Men, which I would encourage everyone to do.
Note: This article does relate to role-playing. First though, I feel it’s necessary to share a bit of my personal background to provide some context to this article. I’ll try to keep it short.
I and my siblings are bi-racial. Our mother is “white” and our father is “black”, though you may not know it to look at us. Growing up in South Philadelphia in the 80’s, we were the only “white” family in the neighborhood and we went through some stuff because of it. I won’t go into details, but a lot of it wasn’t all that pleasant. Currently I live in Japan, which is unfortunately still a “closed” (some would say xenophobic) country. Case in point, the parents of my long-time girlfriend (who is Japanese) have flat out refused to meet me for over five years now, and are threatening to disown her if we were to get married (which to her enormous credit, has not deterred her). I am very aware of the fact that my children will be multi-racial, and am seriously questioning if I even want to attempt to raise children here. So, as you can imagine, matters of race and ethnicity are kind of a big deal for me.
With that being said, maybe you can understand why I was disappointed to open the latest round of playtests materials for D&D Next and read the following in the Races document:
Dwarves’ skin is typically deep tan or light brown, and their eyes are dark.
Elves tend to be pale-skinned and dark-haired, with deep-green eyes.
Halflings… skin is ruddy, and their hair is usually brown or sandy brown and wavy.
Really? Come on WotC. It’s 2012, this will be the 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game, and yet we still haven’t moved beyond these “racial” stereotypes? Look, I get it. The inspiration for the fluff of D&D was largely J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, neither of which had much in the way of ethnic diversity among the characters. I get it. Nerds are protective of their shared intellectual property, and changing the “ethnicity” of the iconic demi-human races would cause legions of rabid fans to rise up, pitchforks in hand screaming “That’s not an elf! It’s skin is the wrong color! [¹]” as they storm the WotC headquarters in Renton, Washington.
But why this lack of ethnic diversity among the demi-human races in the “vanilla” D&D setting? With the exception of dwarves (who are allowed to be light brown [²]) the other two demi-human races have very “white” sounding physical descriptors. “Tan” and “ruddy” aren’t often used to describe the skin tone of “non-white” people. I suppose it’s arguable that elves as presented could be Asian, given their pale skin and dark hair. But deep-green eyes? Now they’re only Asian if they’re wearing colored contacts. The point I’m making is this. Why is it only the humans who are allowed to run the gamut of skin color (with all it’s implications of ethnicity) from “nearly black to very pale”? Why do the other races have these “standard” physical descriptions that include skin color? Look at the huge variety of ethnic diversity on Earth. That’s just one race. If the concepts of biology and genetics in the fantasy world of D&D are assumed to operate the same way that they do in the real world, we should see just as much ethnic diversity in the demi-human races as we see in humans. Especially if humans are the “youngest” of the races (which is often the case), implying that elves and dwarves at one time covered the planet and had more than enough time to diverge into distinct ethnic groups of their own.
Over the weekend, I posed the question of why we don’t see “subraces” of humans in the D&D setting to my friend and fellow gamer. After all, the demi-human races have separate subraces that provide different mechanical bonuses. High elves are naturally more intelligent (+1 INT) than their dextrous wood elf cousins (+1 DEX), for example. So why don’t we see that mechanical differentiation in the D&D humans? His response was that despite the best intentions of the writers, someone would be insulted by the different characterizations of the ethnic groups presented for humans. Which is a very valid point. Much like the discussions of whether gender should have an effect on the stats of your character, applying different mechanical bonuses or penalties to a character based on ethnicity would be a gigantic can of worms. Especially if those fantasy human ethnic groups were similar to, or drew parallels to real world ones. Should characters from “Fantasy Africa” have a bonus to their speed? Should characters from “Fantasy Asia” get a +1 INT? That has the potential to get very ugly, very fast. So, WotC and other game/setting creators wisely sidestep the issue by making humans the “whatever you want, anything and everything” fantasy race. But again, why not apply that mentality to all the playable humanoid races? Why is it acceptable to provide different mechanical bonuses for the demi-human races to represent different subraces? I can hear some of you saying “Well, it’s because we don’t have to worry about pissing off any real fantasy races because they don’t exist.” And you’re right. We will never see a wood elf walk into a game shop, pick up a copy of D&D Next and throw a fit because WotC decided that high elves are on average smarter than other types of elves.
But that’s not really the point here. I’m not suggesting that WotC stir the racial pot by creating mechanically differentiated subraces of humans. What I am suggesting is that they make the demi-human races more ethnically diverse. With all this talk about needing to reach a wider audience to keep the pen & paper RPG hobby alive, not presenting diversity in the demi-human races is simply a bad idea. A person of African, Asian, or Hispanic descent is going to flip though the finished D&D Next rulebook, read those physical descriptions, and note that none of the demi-human illustrations look like they do. It limits the type of characters those players will self-identify with, and may turn them off of the game. I got an eye-opening lesson about self-identification back in high school. My closest friends at the time were all bi- or multi-racial, but looked “black” where I looked “white”. We all went to the same art-focused high school, and so we always drew illustrations of our PCs on our characters sheets. I GMed a West End Games StarWars d6 game for four of those friends, and when they handed me their character sheets at the start of the first session, I saw that each of their character illustrations looked “black”. I was stunned for a second, and then it dawned on me. They all self-identified as being “black”, so of course the “default” ethnicity for their imaginary characters would also be “black”.
This self-identification lesson was reinforced further when we went to the art supply store to pick up some fancy Pantone felt-tipped markers. “I need to pick up some flesh tones” I said. “So do I” replied my friend. When we got to the display rack, I grabbed some “white” skin tone markers while he grabbed some “black” skin tone markers. We looked at each other. “I thought you needed skin tones” he said. “I do” I replied. “Hey, why do you always draw ‘white’ people” he asked. I responded with “Well, why do you always draw ‘black’ people”. We looked at each other for a while chewing this revelation over. Once again I saw that who we self-identified as has a huge effect on the skin tone and ethnicity of the imaginary characters we create and identify with.
So WotC, if you’re reading this, enough with the set range of skin tones for your demi-human races. You’re not doing yourself any favors, and are probably even loosing some potential players/customers. Why not allow all the D&D Next demi-human races to have skin tones that range from “nearly black to very pale” just like humans? Include some illustrations to back that up too. Let’s see some “black” dwarves [¹], “Hispanic” elves, and “Asian” halflings this time around. Widen the “ethnic” diversity of your PC races and you might see a corresponding widening of your customer base.
¹ Don’t even get me started on why it’s somehow acceptable for the chaotic evil, spider-worshiping, baby-killing, slave-taking, universally hated elven subrace to be “black”. I try not to think about it too deeply as it just ends up pissing me off if I do. I realize that the Drow aren’t ever going to go away, but let’s not make any future evil races “black”. OK WotC? Thanks.
² I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t recall any relatives on my father’s side referring to their skin color as “light brown”. I heard things like, cocoa, milk chocolate, caramel, honey brown, and light coffee, when they would talk about the lighter African American skin tones. I’m not saying that describing someone as “light brown” is wrong, just that there are other, possibly better, ways to say it. Plus, when you start looking at the studies proving that darker-skinned African Americans are more likely to have negative relationships with the police, less likely to have higher education or income levels, less likely to hold public office, are considered to be less intelligent, are used less often as “standards of beauty” in media, and are generally seen as being inferior to lighter-skinned people, you start treading on very dangerous ground. Allowing “light brown” to be the darkest skin tone available unintentionally backs up this “lighter is better” mentality. Especially when the “black” demi-human subraces you’ve created are evil (I’m looking at you, Drow).