“Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.” This damning assessment of one of fantasy’s most ubiquitous villains comes from N. K. Jemisin, titan of modern fantasy and slayer of outdated genre tropes. As “kinda-sorta-people,” she writes, orcs are “fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of ‘the Other.’” The only way to respond to their existence is to control them or remove them.
What is an orc? To their creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, they are “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” More than half a century after Tolkien wrote that description in a letter, here is how Dungeons & Dragons describes the orc in the latest Monster Manual, where all such demi-humans are relegated: “Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces.” Half-orcs, which are half-human and therefore playable according to Player’s Handbook rules, are “not evil by nature, but evil does work within them.” Some venture into the human-dominated world to “prove their worth” among “other more civilized races.”
Genetic determinism is a fantasy tradition. Dwarves are miners and forgers. Half-orcs are rampageous. Elves have otherworldly grace and enjoy poetry. Dark elves, known as Drow, have skin that “resembles charcoal” and are associated with the evil spider queen Lolth. As both a ruleset and a fantasy backdrop, D&D is in the business of translating these racial differences into numerical scores: Dwarves get extra points when they try to hit something with a battleaxe. Elves get plus two dexterity. Half-orcs’ “savage attack” lets players reap extra damage off a critical hit. All because of their race.
D&D has mostly shunned the same approach when it comes to gender. The original version, from 1974, had no special rules for women player characters, but a Dragon magazine column from 1976, with the header “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D,” gave some women’s strength scores a nerf compared to men’s, and replaced their charisma scores with one for “beauty.” Those rules didn’t stick, and the latest Players’ Handbook reminds gamers that they “don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”
Over the years, however, D&D has made only trivial movements away from racial essentialism. Sure, publisher Wizards of the Coast has removed, for example, half-orcs’ –2 debuff to intelligence. One faction of orcs has more complex, even humanizing qualities in a recent book. Yet the stereotyping remains.
The game’s designers know they have a problem, too. In June 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, the D&D development team posted a blog titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons.” In no uncertain terms, this explained how D&D’s 50-year history of characterizing orcs and Drow as monstrous and evil is “painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.” To make things right, they said, D&D would offer new descriptions and possible rule changes for races in supplementary books, and correct some past errors.
You can only get so far with a couple of rule changes and a $30 book. D&D is a fantasy game, and fantasy has this unfortunate obsession with an anti-intellectual sort of ethnography. These people live in this place and behave like so, by nature. These other people don’t get along with them, simply because they are civilized and they are uncivilized. D&D cocreator Gary Gygax’s nods toward fantasy forefather Tolkien—including elves, dwarves, halflings (hobbits), and orcs—were so obvious that Tolkien Enterprises threatened to take copyright action. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction—the latter focused on the immeasurably horrible “other”—also served as inspiration for the first D&D rulebooks.
Fantasy worlds are, definitionally, made up. There doesn’t have to be racism, yet in some of fantasy’s most cherished texts it is almost always present. Helen Young, author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, has cataloged the prevalence of fantasy racism across countless fantasy media. “I ended up finding that it’s rare for a fantasy world not to have an idea of race or racism built into it,” says Young, particularly in the way that fantasy heroes and beauties are often coded as white. For Howard, desirable women were “lily-white.” Elves, considered a superior race, were fair-skinned and light-eyed. In his work and Tolkien’s, she says, “pretty much all of their own evil races—and even evil individuals, for the most part—are based on anti-black, anti-Semitic or Orientalist stereotypes.” University of California, Irvine informatics professor Aaron Trammell has written about this at length as well.
It’s something Graeme Barber, who runs the POCGamer blog, noticed when he read through the Dragonlance novels, published initially by D&D’s first publisher, TSR. One character bothered him: the underdog hero Tanis Half-Elven. As a half-human, half-elf, Tanis felt perennially alone. “According to humans, half an elf is but part of a whole being,” Tanis said in one of the books. “Half a man is a cripple.” Barber wasn’t a fan. “I’m biracial myself. The animosity [Tanis] got from everywhere really sort of rubbed me the wrong way,” he says. Lately, rereading Dragonlance has been painful for him, and not just because of the depiction of biraciality. He points to the Gully Dwarves, written as unintelligent sub-humanoids. They’re portrayed “as being profoundly mentally disabled to the point of not really even having a language,” says Barber.
When he began playing D&D, Barber noticed that this sort of lore-sanctioned stereotyping bled out into the game’s ruleset as hard-and-fast “racial bonuses,” but also in the way people role-played their characters. For example, gnomes get +2 to intelligence, priming them for a life in wizardry. So if players chose to play wizards, they’d often designate their race as “gnome” and role-play holier-than-thou attitudes. Half-orcs, who get bonuses to strength and constitution, make great barbarians. So friends role-played them as aggro, uncontained. When Barber chose to play race and class combinations that strayed from stereotypes, he was looked at askew. “There was always pressure from the outside for me to make my characters conform to narrow boxes,” he says. And even in the absence of such pressure, he would be falling into another trap: exceptionalism. Half-orc scholars, gnome barbarians. Exceptional in a world that remains the same.