As noted in previous essays, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) created a stir when they posted an article on diversity and D&D. The company plans a variety of changes but I have been focusing on their plan to change to “portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” They also plan to release a product that “offers a way for a player to customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D’s many other playable folk. This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.” Both are significant changes in the world of D&D.
While the AD&D Monster Manual did allow for individual monsters to vary in their alignment and it has long been common for Dungeon Masters to break racial stereotypes in their campaigns, the general practice has been to portray the various races and species in accord with established in-game stereotypes. Drow and orcs are monstrous and evil, elves and dwarves are friendly and good.
AD&D also solidly established the idea that the various fantasy races had definite physical and mental traits relative to humans, receiving penalties or bonuses. AD&D also set minimum and maximum scores for the game stats. For example, half-orcs have a maximum Intelligence score of 17, a Wisdom score limit of 14, and their highest possible Charisma is 12. The game also divided characters by sex; females of all the races could not be as strong as the males. A PC’s race also limited what class they could take and how far they could advance. Going back to the half-orcs, they could not be druids, paladins, rangers, magic users, illusionists, or monks. They could be clerics, fighters or thieves—with limits on their maximum level. They were, however, able to level without racial limits as assassins. This is why everyone who played AD&D was suspicious of half-orc PCs—they were probably assassins and hence evil. As a side note, the only PCs I have killed as a player have been half-orc assassins who decided to try to ply their trade on the party. Given that race has been such an important part of D&D, it is no wonder that some are upset by these changes and oppose them.
While some make the error of assuming that all critics of the changes must be racist, I will not make this mistake. There are good arguments for not changing the game that are not racist. The problem is that racists (or trolls using racism) use these same arguments. The difference between the two, aside from the obvious factor of racism, is that the honest critics are arguing in good faith while the racists (and trolls using racism) are arguing in bad faith. The main thing I will focus on is the distinction in goals: a good faith critic opposes the changes for the reasons they provide, and they are not trying to “trojan horse” in racism. The bad faith person might oppose the changes for some of the reasons they give in public, but they conceal their true motives and goals—they want to maintain what they see as useful for racism in the game and they probably want to use the argument to try to recruit and radicalize people.
Some will contend that those who engage in the bad faith arguments are mostly just trolls and not actual racists. My view is that distinction does not really matter. Consider the following analogy. Imagine that you go to church and take communion. The wine tastes a bit different and later that day someone Tweets at you “did u like the atheist piss in ur bld of Christ? Lol!” Consider these three options. First, the person does not have a real commitment to atheism and is just trolling you to get a reaction. Second, the person hates you personally and was out to get you with something they thought would hurt you the most. Third, the person is an atheist who hates religious people and went after you because you are religious. On the one hand, the person’s motives do not really matter: you still drank their urine. That is, the harm done does not depend on why it is done. On the other hand, one can debate the relative badness of the motivations—but this does not seem to change the harms. Going back to racism, the person’s motivation does not matter in terms of the harm they cause by endeavoring to defend and advance racism. Now, to the argument.
One reasonable good-faith argument can be built by pointing out the in-game value of having distinct character races to play, such as allowing people different experiences. Just as having only one character class to play would soon grow a bit dull, only having one basic race to play would also be dull. So, just as the classes should be meaningfully different, so too should the fictional races. While there are legitimate concerns about how racists can exploit this idea that races differ in abilities, it can also be argued that people understand the distinction between the mechanics of the fantasy world and reality. It can also be argued that we can stop the slippery slope from accepting fantasy races as different while not embracing real-world racism. One could even make a positive argument: people playing the game get accustomed to fictional diversity and recognize that PCs of different types bring different strengths to the party—something that extends analogically to the real world.
Unfortunately, this same sort of argument can be used in bad faith for racism. One obvious tactic is to use this same argument, but then subtly slide into alleged differences between people in the real world and then into racism. As a concrete example, I have often seen people begin with what seems to be a reasonable discussion of D&D races that becomes corrupted. One common racist (or troll) tactic is to bring up how D&D has subraces for most of the main races. There are different subraces of elves, dwarves, halflings and so on that have different abilities. The clever racist (or troll) will suggest that the same should be done for humans as well. On the face of it, this seems fine: they are following what is already established in the game. At this point, the person could still be a non-racist who likes the idea of fantasy subraces and thinks it would be cool to have different options when they play a human. But what often happens is that someone slips in references to real-world ethnic groups, asking how one would stat whites, Asians, African-Americans and so on. The person can insist that they are just following the logic of the game—and they seem to be right. After all, if the game has many sub-races with meaningful ability differences, then the same should apply to humans. And this is exactly how a racist can exploit this aspect of the game. A persuasive racist can convince people that they never made the move from discussing D&D into racism and they can use the honest critics as cover. This shows why the proposed change has merit—the intent is to deny racists a tool.
I am divided on this. I do like the idea of distinct races in games; mainly for the variety they offer for making characters. But having seen people exploit this to engage in racism I cannot deny that this is a weak point. While I do not want to yield this to the racists, I can see the need for a change to counter the racists. This would be yet another thing made worse by the damn racists.
A second argument is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Socrates is credited with developing this method. The idea is to assume that something is true and then derive an absurdity or contradiction from this assumption. This shows that assumption is false. In the case of races in D&D, some people have noted that the proposed approach would logically lead to all creatures in the game being the same. One person, I recall, asserted that the proposed changes entailed that tigers and beholders would have the same stats. Another person joked (?) that this would also mean that gnolls would be “friendly puppers.” The idea was, of course, to show that assuming the changes are good and should be followed would lead to absurd results: no one wants monsters to all have the same stats and no one wants all the game creatures to be good.
While this could be a good faith argument, there are some concerns. One is that reducing the changes to absurdity in this manner seems to require using the slippery slope fallacy or at least hyperbole and the straw man fallacy. No one is seriously proposing that all monsters have the same stats or proposing that all monsters be good. In terms of the slippery slope, no reason has been given that WotC would take these changes to those extremes. At best these would just be bad good faith arguments. Depending on where a person goes with them, they could also be bad faith arguments—after all, they do mirror the real-world racist arguments that claim it is absurd to think that everyone is perfectly equal and then head into arguing for racism.
I obviously do not think that all monsters should have identical stats nor that all monsters should be good. But this is consistent with the proposed changes and one can easily adopt them and avoid the slippery slope slide into absurdity. In closing, I agree with WotC’s proposed changes—and note the obvious: they change nothing about what anyone can do in their own campaigns.