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Racial heritage: more than skin-deep…

Written by Daniel@DeepDark-Designs - Published on September 20, 2015

RacesI was reading the latest release in the current D&D Adventure’s League Season, Harried in Hillsfar, and one sentence leapt out at me:

“Rampant xenophobia, steeped in years of misdirected fear and outrage, have led to not just a citizenry distrustful of any non-humans, but also to a series of laws outright forbidding anyone other than humans to become citizens of Hillsfar.”

This reminded me a lot of an idea from Paizo’s Reign of Winter AP, only in reverse. At a certain point in the adventure the PCs journey takes them to a place called Whitethrone, in the land of eternal winter. There they discover a hostile, oppressive city where humans (and other non-monstrous humanoids) are treated as second-class citizens.

It also made me think of a Tyranny of Dragon’s campaign I was running not so long ago for 5e D&D. The group contained a silver dragonborn paladin called Kale Ravosashi and, given that the adventure focuses heavily on a cult of dragon worshippers, I afforded him a great many opportunities to use his heritage to his advantage in his dealings with the cult.

In all three of these examples making race significant to the adventure made them more effective, so why don’t we see race feature more prominently in roleplaying? Perhaps the reason for this is because of controversial real-world parallels that themes such as racism and discrimination have, but should we fear bringing interesting and complex subject matter to our games because of this?

Personally, I’d argue that anything that can enrich the play experience for those sitting around my table should be pursued, even if it requires delicate handling and a little extra work on my part to prevent offence or abuse. So the real question for me then becomes HOW to bring these ideas to life at the table?

For a start we could choose to celebrate in-game cultural diversity only in a positive light. A dwarf might find a kindred spirit (and drinking buddy) in a fellow dwarf, gnomes might share the same wicked sense of humour, or an elf might bond with another of his kind through a mutual sense of consternation and bemusement over the younger races. These friendships might lead to discounts on goods or services, or other actualmechanical advantages.

Taking this a step further, and considering that D&D is a game that focuses on heroic adventurers overcoming rampant injustice, wrongdoing, and outright evil–why not make prejudice and outright racism the central themes of a campaign? After all, this is exactly the kind of nuanced material that could elicit a genuine sense of outrage from players– their own real-world moral imperatives polarising the PCs into rallying together against a particular threat. Talk about a great hook…

Such prejudices could also add an interesting dynamic to your game in more subtle ways too. The PHB actually makes a couple of great suggestions on this front, such as having merchants hide valuable goods when a half-orc enters their store, or close up shop altogether when shocked gasps from onlookers in the street outside announce the arrival of a tiefling.

These subtle touches add weight and credibility to your world by making the people who inhabit it have more authentic reactions to the characters they meet. It also makes players pause and consider their actions a little deeper in relation to those around them, which in a game where imagination and immersion are king, can only be a good thing.

Written by Daniel@DeepDark-Designs

Hi, I’m Daniel, lead designer at DeepDark Designs and massive D&D enthusiast (well any roleplaying game really). I’ve been throwing dice as frequently as possible for over a decade now and love every second of it. In addition to ‘good’ adventures, I also write ‘bad’ fiction books. I won’t write an essay here but come say hi sometime, ya’hear?

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7 Responses to “Racial heritage: more than skin-deep…”
  1. MythicParty says:

    I remember reading an old school D&D adventure where the Dwarves in a city were unfairly taxed via a ‘beard levy’ & this was (understandably) causing problems. The PC’s had to discover who was really behind this divisive leadership.

    I think the Elf ‘s. Dwarf tension has become cliche & it would be more realistic to have racial issues between others, such as Dwarves vs Gnomes or Elves vs. Halflings.

  2. Richard B says:

    Exploring and confronting the various social drivers behind racial intolerance can make for outstanding stories, but they’re not the sort of stories D&D and Pathfinder are designed to easily tell. Such social shadings are usually used as window dressing (See Reign of Winter), rather than the spine of the adventure, which is enabled by D&D’s model of advancement through monster slaying. DMs who wish to really delve into this sort of thing will be well-served by consideration of expanding story-based XP awards, as well as a broadening of what constitutes “defeating” an enemy.

    I’m as big a fan of immersion as anyone, but I would be remiss if I didn’t add that any thematic elements touching on prejudice and race relations should take player sensitivities into account. Some folks don’t want to confront those sorts of problems alongside their dragon slaying.

  3. Darkwarren says:

    We were playing in a Kingmaker campaign that was a party of all dwarves trying to start a kingdom. But we tried to make a town/kingdom that allowed for all the races – even though some of the dwarven citizens thought our leaders were watering down the dwarf culture and some of the non-dwarves were grumbling of favoritism and racism.

    It was a rich experience to roleplay in – especially when the dwarven mayor had to execute a human murderer. Playing the pragmatism of dwarves unanchored from the typical traditionalism of dwarves was fun to play.

  4. Darkwarren says:

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned, because it might be hard to talk about, is the challenge of players’ own cultural/racist biases. Many gamers wish to be open and cosmopolitan, but since we’re human we can also be close-minded and xenophobic ourselves.

  5. Freerangegeek says:

    I think this can be done in a way that doesn’t touch too deep on racism. I always thought that Shadowrun had the best comment on this: ‘who cares what color skin that guy has, when his companion is an 8 foot tall slab of muscle and tusks?’

    You can have people hostile to non humans, distrust gnomes, fear Half Orcs, revere Elves etc. And don’t forget the reverse: Dwarves thinking little of humans, Gnomes who like to cheat humans, Elves who are arrogant jerks. It is all a part of role playing, who wants to play with with people who have to keep reminding you they are Elves? If there is no effect other than special abilities, and enhanced Stats, there is no reason to bring them into the game.

  6. Daniel@DeepDark-Designs says:

    @MythicParty – A ‘beard levy’ is a fantastic idea, I might just have to steal that for a homebrew campaign of my own. I’d also agree that elves vrs dwarves is an established trope but then I wonder if therein lies an opportunity – I find there’s few things players enjoy more than seeing an established cliché subverted or turned on its head entirely.

    @Richard B – Thank you for the brilliant suggestions, there is really nothing I can add.

    @Darkwarren – That sounds like a great basis for a campaign. I always wanted to run Kingmaker, it’s still ‘fairly’ high on my list of Paizo AP’s to convert to 5e if I get a chance.

    @Freerangegeek – I really agree with what you’re saying here. I think it’s part of the DM’s job to set the tone for proceedings and if he makes it a safe, fun environment then themes, even difficult ones, should be able to be explored. Of course, if a group is really struggling to handle such subject matter reasonably or responsibly, or its causing anyone distress or making them uncomfortable, then the DM can always take it back off the table and move back to safe ground.

  7. Sean Holland says:

    It all depends on what people want to see out of their campaign, some enjoy fighting social injustice, some just want to kill monsters and gather loot. Use these sort of things as background elements and your players will let you know if they want to see more (or less) of them would be my advise.

    I talked a little about this subject in the context of my campaign here: http://wp.me/pylJj-11

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