Sep 13, 2010

Racial thinking in fantasy role-playing

Years ago, I've run a couple of role-playing campaigns with ICE's Rolemaster standard system. For all its flaws, not least of which is encumbering the GM with a metric ton of tables and charts, it works surprisingly smoothly, and even if I wouldn't say I like it, I've found it useful. As a curiosity, one of the first things I ever wrote was a small article for a role-playing "netzine".

A while back I picked up a copy of ICE's RM supplement "Races and Cultures", from 2004. The way they published the system was that they came out with the basic rules, the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS), and then started adding supplements to cover areas they'd only done sketchily in the basic ruleset. Some examples include the ludicrously overpowered Martial Arts Companion and various sets of magic rules.

Races and Cultures (R&C) aims to expand on character creation. In the RMSS, each character had a race, and if they were human, a culture. So dwarves and high elves were just dwarves or high elves, while humans were hillmen, mariners or something like that in addition to being humans. So humans had cultures, while everyone else just had race. As a side note, I have a personal gripe with R&C because it practically eliminates urban cultures, and a lot of the material on cultures is, to a person with even a nodding acquaintance with anthropology or cultural studies, ridiculous. But that's beside the point.

Now, using RM as an example, I'm going to argue that the vast majority of fantasy role-playing games reproduce European racism. I'm sure that some people reading this are going to be completely turned off by that, but bear with me. This is important.

As far as I know, one of the first civilizations to put an intellectual gloss on "us versus them" were the ancient Greeks. To them, the world was divided into Greeks and barbarians. "Barbarian" was a racial pejorative; while Greeks spoke Greek, the barbarians didn't even have real languages but just made a kind of "bar-bar-bar" noise when they talked. Modern Finnish also has several racial pejoratives for people from the Middle East and Africa based on the same idea.

In Greek thinking, all Greeks were individuals with their own motivations, desires and personality. If a Greek did something, and you wanted to know why he did it, you would find the reasons in his individual attributes. On the other hand, if a barbarian did something, it was because he was a barbarian. For example, a Greek who murdered a fellow Greek would probably do it because he was somehow disturbed, or maybe the other guy had insulted him, or whatever. If a barbarian killed a Greek, it was because of his "barbarian nature". Greeks were individuals with personalities, but barbarians were just animals driven by their animal natures.

This thinking went on to form the basis of all European racism since. Alert readers may notice powerful parallels between what I've just described and the discussion on immigration and Islam going on in Europe right now. In that discussion as well, European violent crime is caused by a complex series of forces and motivations, but immigrant crime is caused by the fact that immigrants are immigrants. The IRA, for example, are terrorists because they are pursuing a political agenda through violent means, but Hamas are terrorists because they're Muslims. This kind of thinking is still everywhere, and that's why it's interesting, and scary, to find it replicated in fantasy role-playing.


In fantasy, humans take the place of Greeks/Romans/white Europeans. As I said, in the original RMSS, humans had different cultures that determined their background and outlook, while Halflings were just Halflings no matter where they lived. In other words, for humans their cultural background determined a lot about the character, but for the other races, their race determined everything.

R&C tries to eliminate this by giving every character both a race and a culture. Now elves, dwarves and even orcs have cultures, too! However, it isn't quite that simple.

The writers of R&C couldn't bring themselves to jettison the determining role race plays in their world. Here's some pieces of text from the race entry for Common Men:

However, the prejudices of all Men, their affections and disaffections, are always subject to local circumstance. (...)

Religious Attitudes: Mannish religious practice generally conforms to the norms for their particular cultural template.

Preferred Professions: All professions are open to Common Men. (...)

Typical Cultures: A full range of culture options are available to Common Men. (...)

Character Concepts

Men are everywhere; they exist in just about every cultural niche, every profession, every situation in which an intelligent being can find himself.

Basically, humans don't have racial attributes in R&C. They can go anywhere, do anything, and their attitudes are a product of their culture and environment. To a 21st century person, this seems like a reasonable description, and I'm sure the ancient Greeks would have agreed.

However, when it comes to other races, it turns out they're not such a tabula rasa.

As a race, Dwarves have a universal reputation for ruggedness, practicality, unwavering loyalty - and stubbornness. They are intensely clannish and stand up for their fellow Dwarves regardless of circumstance and come what may. (...)

Character Concepts

A concept for a Dwarven character could take into account his inherent racial prejudice.

The entry for Dwarves also describes their distrust of elves, their hatred of the "evil" underground races, and their religious beliefs. Remember that these are racial characteristics; Dwarves are this way because they're Dwarves. In the R&C system, a Dwarf raised in a harbor city hundreds of miles from the nearest mountains would "instinctively" hate other underground races. The same thing goes for Halflings and Elves, too. And then there are the Orcs.

Prejudices: Orcs hate all other races (...)

Religious Attitudes: Orcs worship dark gods and calue nothing so much as power and dominion over others.

Preferred Professions: Common Orcs stick to the non-spell using professions: Fighter, Rogue, Thief. They are not intelligent enough to make good spell users and they never bother to try.

That last bit isn't even true, by the way: going by their stat bonuses and power point progressions, Common Orcs could actually become spellcasters. Except that they're expressly prohibited because of their race. In the "Character Concepts" section they lay it on particularly thick:

Orcs are living, breathing fighting machines. They exist for no other purpose than to do violence, and war and mayhem are all they ever really think about.

Again, remember that this describes any Orc anywhere, regardless of where or how they grew up. They can pick any culture template they like, but apparently none of it really applies to them, because the fact that they're orcs overrides any influence their environment could possibly have on them. For them, the culture template only provides adolescence skills and starting items.


So, the Races & Cultures supplement sets out to undo RMSS's confusion of race and culture, but ends up replicating it exactly. Elves were actually the only race that was in any significant way freed from the constraints of its "racial nature"; Dwarves are still always Dwarves, Halflings are always Halflings, and Orcs are always Lawful Evil, as the trope goes. It's a D&D trope, by the way, and it's alive and well in third edition D&D: elves are always good, orcs are always evil, humans are anything they want to be or end up being.

This is precisely the same thinking as the original Greek racism and its descendants, and it persists throughout fantasy role-playing. A human's individual outlook and personality are shaped by his personal attributes and background, but a non-human's is a product of his racial characteristics. It is testament to how deeply rooted this thinking is that even a determined effort to break away from it, the Races & Cultures supplement, failed to do so.

To a large extent this is because the other races don't really have any intrinsic value. They're mostly there to define humans, not themselves. R&C is quite explicit about this:

Build: In a sense, it is useless to describe the body shape of a Common Man, because it is the baseline to which the shape of all other races and creatures are compared. All other reference points relate to the typical range of body types for Common Men, so to use those other reference points to try to define Common Men would create a circular description.

Obviously, this selection shows a terrible intellectual poverty. Surely one can fairly describe humans as, for instance, bipedal mammals with a given average height and weight? That isn't a circular definition. But more importantly, this piece of text very powerfully conveys the way the authors, and I daresay nearly all other fantasy RPG authors, think about the various races. Humans are the baseline, and everything else is defined by how it's different from humans.

This informs the racial thinking when it comes to culture and attitudes as well. Really, the definitions of the other races aren't there to define themselves, but to define humans. Dwarves are stubborn and prejudiced; compared to them, humans are open-minded. Elves are unworldly and haughty; compared to them, humans are humble and practical. Halflings are comfort-loving and gluttonous; compared to them, humans are rugged and Spartan. The other races serve to define us. In order to do this, they have to be denied the same subjectivity and freedom of choice that humans have, to preserve the caricature. A liberal, open-minded and cosmopolitan Dwarf would destroy the very idea of the Dwarf as a cultural marker.

The most drastic contrast is with Orcs, who in most fantasy role-playing games are little more than animals. Orcs are inherently evil and violent, and they hate everyone else. How could anyone not fight orcs? After all, they're always evil! Orcs are a handy way to escape any kind of moral dilemmas: killing orcs is always right.

The history of orcs in fantasy fiction is very informative in this respect. J.R.R. Tolkien "invented" orcs as we know them, and his orcs were originally elves who had been corrupted by the Great Enemy, Morgoth. So in Tolkien's world, even the orcs are ultimately victims, not offenders. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has Gandalf express pity "even for Sauron's slaves". Much of the Lord of the Rings is informed by Tolkien's experience of World War I, and it's not hard to understand how witnessing the senseless slaughter of trench warfare would make him feel sorry even for the enemy.

After Tolkien, though, these distinctions have gone out of the window. To most of the English-speaking world, the Second World War was morally absolutely black-and-white, and the same mentality entered into fiction as well. Orcs are the Nazis of fantasy; fighting and killing them is so deeply, inherently right that it never needs to be questioned. In much of post-Tolkien fantasy, orcs have simply become cartoon villains.

Later, there's been a partial rehabilitation of orcs, and in many games and books they've come to symbolize strength and stupidity. The big, dumb, working-class orc has even taken on something of a class nature, and I say this as someone who abhors Marxism in any way, shape or form.


In conclusion, fantasy literature and games have become one of the most direct ways in which racism and racial thinking are reproduced. Given that fantasy is usually considered "young people's" reading, this is actually more than a bit scary. It's been fashionable in leftist circles to lambast Tolkien for this for decades, but I believe this is based on a fundamental, and to some extent deliberate, misunderstanding of his works and of the context he wanted to set them in. After the Second World War, Tolkien's imitators met with the other big strand of fantasy, pulp, which was usually explicitly right-wing, chauvinist and conservative. Conan the Republican is hardly an exaggeration in contemporary American terms. Two of the most influential pulp authors to modern readers were Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft; the first occasionally wrote blatantly racist stories, and the second we know was a nearly hysterical racist.

Like conspiracy theories, part of the appeal of fantasy literature is that it often provides simplicity in the middle of a complex world. Unless you're a lunatic, the world just doesn't divide neatly into friends and foes who you can tell apart by their flags and uniforms. In this day and age, the kind of fantasy where elves are always good and orcs are always evil has a definite appeal.

There's nothing wrong with that in itself. All the partly leftist counter-movement to the perceived right-wing character of fantasy has managed to accomplish is to produce "intellectual" fantasy that usually collapses under the weight of its own pretentiousness and is only read by fellow travelers, or fantasy works that are practically indistinguishable from the ones they supposedly oppose. A case in point is Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, which makes a point of making the villains white and the "good guys" colored. How the author feels that upholding the fundamental idea of different "races" fighting each other is antiracist is beyond me, and anyway, the first time I read the books I didn't even notice that she'd swapped the skin colors, so to speak.

So I don't mean to endorse the left-wing "countermovement", because as far as I'm concerned, China Mieville is just as bad, if not worse, than Andy Remic. Mieville has accused Tolkien of furthering exactly the thinking I'm talking about here, which to me indicates that like many other Tolkien critics, he hasn't actually bothered to read the Lord of the Rings.

I don't really mean to endorse anything. I do, however, want to draw attention to the way in which fantasy role-playing games and literature perpetuate and reproduce a way of thinking that I find worrying and frightening. In fantasy, ethnicity is more important in determining a person's nature than culture, upbringing, environment or anything else. Our worldview is so permeated by racism that this is perfectly natural to us, and we accept it without question. After all, it doesn't matter how an orc is brought up or what he's like as a person, he's Always Chaotic Evil. Because he's an orc. Because that's just how orcs are. All of them.

And that's really racism in a nutshell.


Taranaich said...

A fascinating, thought-provoking post. I'm the sort of guy who loves "outsiders," and I relish the idea of fantasy archetypes that go outside the bounds. Your open-minded cosmopolitan dwarf sounds great to me.

That said, I think there's a difference (sort of) between racism between two ethnoi, and racism between species. With white, black, asian and other ethnicities, there really isn't any genetic difference worth considering: some haplogroups of white groups are more genetically distinct from other white groups than they are to asians or blacks, for example. But with dwarves, elves and orcs, there is a genetic difference, and that could lead to a justification of certain flaws and advantages. However, I don't think that justifies social constructs like the ones you mention in their post: what does a dwarf's genetics have to do with their intellectual approach to non-dwarves?

I think it's important to remember that Howard and Lovecraft were writing in the 1920s and 1930s, before World War II. Both died before the very onset of war, as a matter of fact. They most certainly were not Tolkien imitators, seeing as most of their work was written before The Hobbit was even published. (I'm unsure if you were aware of that and that I was simply misreading your post, but I felt I should point it out anyway.)

Secondly, characterizing Howard as "right wing, chauvinist and conservative" is completely wrong. Howard hated Republicans (he said in a letter he'd die before he voted Republican), he was so forward-thinking with his female characters he was practically proto-feminist, and calling him conservative is just flat out contradictory. I won't doubt that other pulp writers were right-wing, chauvinist and conservative, but Howard most certainly was not. Again, not saying you were saying this, but there's a marked difference between Howard and other pulp authors.

The racist element is very unfortunate. Howard was a white Texan living in the 1920s and 1930s: the fact that his views on race don't jibe with modern times should not be a surprise. Yet even then, Howard has shown that he could rise above the pseudo-science of the time (don't forget that in popular science, non-whites were still thought to be inferior from a genetic standpoint), even writing two stories with an intelligent, sensitive, sympathetic black man as the hero.

Regarding Le Guin, I have to agree, though I don't recall that she said Earthsea was antiracist, so much as she felt it would be nice to have non-white heroes for a change. Perhaps I'm mistaken. Mieville's views on Tolkien are ambivalent: there are some of the horribly trendy lefty quotes, but there's an essay where he wrote "why Tolkien rocks" that makes a lot of sense.

Again, I really enjoyed the post.

Michael Halila said...

Thanks for your comment!

What I tried to say about Howard, Lovecraft & co. was that modern fantasy comes about when Tolkien meets pulp fantasy; in retrospect, I was writing with the assumption that everyone would know that the first two gentlemen predate the third.

I see from your blog that you've been discussing Howard as a proto-feminist lately, so maybe I should dedicate a whole post to that to do justice to the topic. In short, though, in my opinion calling Howard a proto-feminist is a serious exagerration. Yes, some of the female characters are presented equals or even superiors of men, but only occasionally. Even Valeria ends up as a damsel in distress. But like I said, that would take a whole post.

I do want to make it very clear that I'm not saying anything about Howard's politics. I said that pulp is usually right-wing, chauvinistic and conservative, not that its authors are. I used to major in philology, so I take that distinction very seriously. I don't even know if other pulp writers were right-wing chauvinists; some of the stuff I've read strongly suggests they weren't. However, their stories in general are very conservative, very racist and misogynistic. I'm trying to stick to the texts.

In LeGuin's case, conversely, I admit I'm referring to what I perceive as her overall attitude, which probably isn't entirely fair.

Again, thanks for your comments. I'll have to take a proper look at your blog, too.

Taranaich said...

Thanks for the clarifications,
Michael: I had assumed based on your erudition that it might've been a misreading of the post, but I felt it necessary to point out nonetheless. I'll have to delve into your blog myself.

I'd certainly be interested in seeing your opinion on Howard's feminist qualities/exaggeration thereof. Discussion of that requires a look at Howard's other female characters, especially Red Sonya and Dark Agnes. Suffice to say, I think that the fact there are strong female characters is in itself advocation of feminist qualities considering the time. I also think it's a bit simplistic to categorize Valeria as a "damsel in distress" when Conan himself has to be rescued in certain stories: I don't think Valeria was any more of a damsel than Conan was in those situations.

But perhaps that'd be best for another post.

Thanks again!