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Demi-human (Non)Diversity

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).

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HyveMynd is a Philly native who's been living in Osaka, Japan since late 2005. When he's not sitting in front of a PC at work, he's sitting in front of a PC at home banging out notes for yet another homebrew RPG system that will most likely never see the light of day.

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14 Responses to "Demi-human (Non)Diversity"

  1. Robert SullivanNo Gravatar says:

    I made a video on a similar subject in February, for Black History Month.

  2. rabaliasNo Gravatar says:

    So totally with you on this. As far as I can recall the most diverse set of nonhuman races in D&D has been for the Dark Sun campaign setting, where many nonhuman races had about as many variations in skin colour, eye colour, hair colour (or for thri-kreen chitin colour, chitin markings…), but even there I have a feeling that elves and halflings could go no further than “tan”. And this in a game that was far from having excuses about conformity with myth or Tolkien.

  3. SpiralboundNo Gravatar says:

    An interesting article, the sentiments of which I agree with, although you seem to have a contradiction in your argument – or perhaps you’re not going far enough with it, I’m not sure. You state more attention needs to be brought to bio-ethnicity in rpgs, that even the demi-races need more visual diversity to encourage humans of a greater diversity to play them, yet you also state we shouldn’t put multiple human subraces into our games because of political correctness fears. How exactly is that reasoning any different from say, avoiding placing any black npcs in a position of power for fear of offending real world whites who believe blacks shouldn’t be allowed to rule? Wouldn’t the correct response be to put full visual ranges of ethnicity into all the fantasy races AND put mechanical subraces into the humans of such settings? For that matter, just what is the difference between a different ethnic appearance within the default of a race and a subrace? Isn’t it just the addition of some cultural and mechanical differences for the subraces? Other than that aren’t they just a different ethnic group of that race? Thus, just as humans could be grossly categorized into white, black, and yellow, Dwarves could be categorized into mountain, deep, and hill, while elves could be categorized into high, forest, and about a million others. 😉 Maybe someone needs to make a rpg setting with only humans, with multiple ethnic groups, giving each group visual, cultural, and mechanical differences, and let the real world political correctness be damned. At least then that game would be out there in the wild to serve as an example and an influence for further change within other rpg games.

  4. DaemonNo Gravatar says:

    You’re absolutely right about the self-identification element, which is almost a little saddening given that we’re talking about a game where people have the chance to be something completely different from their real-life selves. For the record, I haven’t really dipped into playing many ethnicities other than my own (white) — in fact, I can only think of one, that being a Bangladeshi dude I wrote up for a Changeling: the Dreaming game. I shall purposefully change that next time I write up a character. I mean, if I’m happy playing a cat-creature from another universe (true story) why not one of the multitude of variations seen in my own species?

    Back to self-identification, though, and D&D Next. Is it really much of a surprise that we see this? I mean, watching the keynote speech at Gen Con 2012 we see white guy after white guy (all white, all male) giving their opinion on D&D. I think the pool of experience being drawn from there is limited to a very select slice of the world’s population. And that, in itself, might be more troubling than the creative output.

  5. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    it’s for these kind of reasons that I love it when people home brew their own settings. I’ve spent many happy months playing an Arabic dwarf, and it’s all because someone just wanted to do the same as you, open up the racial diversity to include all the fantasy races. And for the record, the GM in question and I are both white males, and we still enjoy playing around with this kind of thing.

  6. SpiralboundNo Gravatar says:

    I am a late 30s white male, yet over the years I’ve played a variety of races & ethnicities. One notable instance was when I played a 16 year chinese girl with a crazy engrish accent in a Shafowrun game. While I likely may have felt self conscious if an actual chinese person were at the table with me, my intent wasn’t to belittle or stereotype real world chinese, but to play a type of character which was starkly different from me. Using some stereotypical traits in a game gave me a type of acting shorthand to use. In the real world I am fully aware that real chinese people don’t all speak engrish. I believe this to be the difference in playing a stereotype as a form of play versus assuming a stereotype reflects reality as a form of racism. Sadly, this nuance can easily get lost, leading to hurt feelings and accussations, which is why I think often people will avoid portraying a race other than their own out of a fear they will be accused of racist tendancies should they not play that race perfectly or in a 100% positive, nonobjectionable manner.

  7. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    I’m with you on this, Sir Hyve. And if you and your girlfriend, hopefully someday your wife, want to move from Japan, you’re more than welcome to come to Iowa and hang us, we’d be glad you have you.

    Once of the guys in my FR game married an Asian woman and they have a daughter that’s cute as a button. I’ve known them for years and the bi-racial thing has never come up, it’s not even a thought. As far as I know, they’ve never had to suffer close-minded bullshit from anyone over it.

  8. JackNo Gravatar says:

    A couple points, I think.

    First, I’m going to go ahead and say that I think this (like many) is an issue or not depending on your playgroup. There’s nothing stopping you from adding a bit more ethnic diversity to your elves or halflings if you want, just like there’s nothing stopping you from adding a tribe of Lawful Neutral orcs. You’re game is whatever you make of it, and it seems silly to get upset because it was published a certain way, or because people in the wider Community have different opinions or expectations. If they aren’t at your table, it doesn’t really matter.

    Second, though — and don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m sure my words are going to be clumsy — I really this this is essentially a manufactured issue as far as gaming goes. The intolerance you experience in Chicago and Philly is real and meaningful, and I by no means intend to minimize that. But elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs, and so on are not human, and if there’s an association between one race and another I would argue that it’s because the proverbial You is putting it there. Halflings aren’t Irish, Orcs aren’t Chinese, Dwarves aren’t German, and making the claim that they are or they’re intended to be is to buy in to the stereotypes you’re ostensibly raining against.

    FWIW, I never associated the Drow with Africans — they strike me far more British/French based on their culture.

  9. HyveMyndNo Gravatar says:

    @ Robert Sullivan – That is an awesome video and one that everyone should watch. Well researched, well presented, and funny while still being very informative. Really excellent. I loved the bit about redneck half-orcs, and really like the challenge you presented WotC for D&D Next – depict at least 10% of non-monster humanoids as being “non-white” in core book illustrations. Oh, as a biology student, it has always bugged me that we use the term “race” for the different groups of humanoid creatures in fantasy setting when we should really use “species”. I was glad to see that get a mention, too. Great stuff. 🙂

    @ Spiralbound – Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I’m not saying that WotC *shouldn’t* include various “subraces” of humans in their default campaign setting. What I *am* saying is that despite having the best of intentions, giving those different human groups mechanical differences that are based purely on ethnicity is a *giant* can of worms. You just shouldn’t do it. Period.

    @ Daemon – The RPG hobby is faced with something of a “chicken and egg” problem. The way to attract a wider ethnic diversity of players is to present more ethnic diversity in the provided product. But to do that you probably need a wider ethnic diversity in the creators of that product, which isn’t really going to happen unless there is a wider ethnic diversity among the fan base. That’s a tough cycle to break, and as the Grumpy Celt (Robert Sullivan) points out in his video, it’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of WotC to get the ball rolling.

    @ Jack – You’re absolutely right about being me able to modify my game setting however I see fit. I can do whatever I want to the “cannon” setting when running my own games. The point is this. I shouldn’t have to, especially with a “standard” setting like the base world of D&D. If WotC is careful enough to make sure their fantasy humans are “ethnically diverse” so that all types of players can identify with them, then why not also do this with the demi-humans? Which is easier for you to identify with? A dwarf who appears to have the same ethnicity as you, or a dwarf who appears to be a different ethnicity from you?

    You can certainly argue that it’s a moot point because no one is really a (fantasy) dwarf. And you’re right. But one is only a single “step” away from you, while the other is two “steps” away from you. I’ll argue that the closer an imaginary character’s description matches your image of yourself, the easier you can identify with that character.

    Also, I’m specifically talking about skin tone and other visual ethnic identifiers (hair color, eye color, facial structure, etc) in my article. I’m not talking about culture or nationality. As Grumpy Celt says in his video ‘black’ does not mean African, and African does not mean ‘black'”. I certainly don’t think that the Drow are a fantasy analogue for African culture, and I don’t believe I said that in my article. What I am saying is that the implied message of “dark-skinned Drow = bad” while “light-skinned elf = good” is a problem.

    I have no problem with different cultural groups among a single race having mechanical differences. After all, “culture” and “race” are not the same thing. I’ve seen other RPGs give characters a “starting skill package” based on their chosen culture, and have no problem with D&D Next doing something similar. Differing starting skills, differing feats, talents, preferred equipment, deities worshipped (and accompanying Clerical domains) or other similarly minor things are the “safest” to change based on culture. They also provide the opportunity for WotC to produce more content (which is always good for a business). Imagine a D&D Next setting book for Al-Qadim, Maztica, or Rokugan. There are a wealth of new Background options that can be created based on the cultures those source books would introduce.

    1. JackNo Gravatar says:

      “A dwarf who appears to have the same ethnicity as you, or a dwarf who appears to be a different ethnicity from you?”
      .
      Well, that’s part of my point: he’s a dwarf, he’s not human, and getting hung up on skin-tone and hair color seems silly. That is to say: unless demi-humans are really just “humans in funny hats,” there’s something fundamentally different about them from word one. Would you be as upset if elves had skin tones that ranged from blue to violet?
      .
      I think I disagree that your character’s appearance needs to match your own self image in order to better relate to them: I have played plenty of female characters, and I’ve felt as connected to them as any of my other characters. I’ve played (actual) Asian and (actual) Arabic characters, and I haven’t had a problem relating to them. And in real life I have a very strong personal association with my ethnic heritage, so I don’ think it’s a matter of “ethnicity doesn’t matter to me.” (You didn’t imply that was the case, I’m just heading off an obvious counter-argument.)
      .
      I’ll check out that video when I’m not at work (heh), but my point is that I think you’re reading too much in to the physical appearance of the races and characters involved. Why do you see the Drow and think “dark-skinned = evil” and not “wealthy = evil”? Or “matriarchal = evil” (I’d think that one would have a lot more fuel for the fire)? Why do you look at elves and think “light-skinned = good” instead of “light-skinned = self-righteous jerk” (that’s how I’ve sen elves portrayed more often than not, see also: LotR)?
      .
      All the rest about race and culture I agree with — except for the implication that doing a setting book on Al-Qadim, Maztica, or Rokugan requires any “re-skinning” (pardon the term) of the races. It can, but it doesn’t need to, because that granularity of appearance isn’t really important in defining the races (or, I’d argue, the settings).

  10. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    As a biracial gamer myself (Limex = Limey/Mexican, aka British/Mexican), I like the idea of seeing multiple ethnicities.

    There is one way to mechanically differentiate races/subraces/ethnicities without raising a can of worms. Keep the physical changes the same, and focus on cultural identity. Instead of giving Africans a speed boost, give the Kalenjin Tribe a skill bonus for athletics. Instead of giving Asians +1 Int, give those educated by the Mandarins a knowledge skill bonus.

    Personally I believe that all of the racial benefits of a game should be separated into physical and social benefits. This allows people to have unusual backgrounds. An elf will have low-light vision even if raised by dwarves, but he might know how to use an axe instead of a bow. Likewise, each race should have different cultures – humans don’t. Why should a dwarf from the Curlytoed Mountains act like a dwarf from Berin’s Canyon? And all people from the city of Moonlight are educated in Philosophy, no matter if they are goblin, human, elf, or orc.

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  12. Matt GNo Gravatar says:

    Totally agree and while I’m not optimistic of the culture changing overnight, chipping away at the mindset – however slowly – will eventually allow change.
    It is a little chicken-and-egg though, if the game is being made by white males for (primarily) white males then the game will reflect their biases and inadvertantly exclude players from other backgrounds, reinforcing the lack of diversity. Once the tide begins to turn though, one would hope that it will do so with increasing speed.

    Fingers crossed

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