I’d like to start with that I started writing this post before the discussions regarding the future of Dungeons & Dragons during the D&D Celebration event, as well as the release of the Unearthed Arcana playtest supplement detailing a lot of new character options fit for the more fantastical styles of play and setting (notably the Spelljammer D&D-in–SPACE!SPACE!SPACE! style of play, with sentient ooze beings, mantis-like four-armed insect humanoids, and ammosexual hippo-humanoids and the like). But, while this wasn’t on the table officially in some form when I started this post, it’s still very applicable.
One of the key foundations in role playing games and the games that have spawned off from them is the concept of the player character, or avatar in an online context. In many games, the player assumes the persona or role of a set character: the best example of this is Link from The Legend of Zelda series. Your play and choices drive the character’s actions. It is quite different from the generic, identity-free “player” that occupied any games: literally anyone could be controlling one side of the board or the input device that causes things to occur in a game.
But role playing games offer more than that; you can create much more of the look and persona, and even abilities, of the character crafted by your choice. This option is found in many computer and console games, but it’s more than just personalizing a token used in a game. It’s an idea all of its own. The character could be a creative interpretation or manifestation of the player themselves within the setting of the game; the character could be an alternate personality that the player wishes to explore; the character could be inspired by an idea or fictional characters, and serve as that player’s version of that idea. The possibilities are endless.
However, there are limits on top of those possibilities. First off, many games reward success with advancement and growing ability or power, and thus do not have players begin at the peak of their abilities. But, in addition to that, limits are often imposed on the types of characters that can be made, and furthermore, the potential they can fulfill. Many computer or console games enact these limits by simply having a player assume a fixed character, like Link or Mario or Lara Croft or Pac-Man or Batman or Spider-Man or so on. But role playing games do this in other fashions, and the fashion of how that was and is done has changed over the years.
Now, what I am referring to is a particular character system where there is a mix of selected and randomly generated defining attributes. This system defines all characters by numeral values in a set of attributes or abilities, like Strength, Intellect, Luck, Speed, and so on. Certain roles or professions, or as they are commonly known as, Classes, utilize one or more ability scores more than the others. In addition to this, the character is further defined by their identity: typically the variety of a species of a particular type of sentient being they are playing, whether it is a human, human-like, humanoid, or other sort of entity.
This is different from other games which simply provide a pool of points or ranked options or something along those lines, and the player picks and chooses from these resources to build a character. Often, such systems have ability scores, but they also have a broad array of skills and abilities that the player picks and chooses from. I am not going to focus on such systems, primarily because the default assumption is that the character is a human, and anything other than human is a choice or resource expenditure that takes away from selecting something else. So do I want to be a human adventurer who can use a little magic and a lot of weapons and armor, or do I want to be an elf, a dwarf, or a reptilian humanoid who has abilities beyond that of a human, but yet can’t attain the same level of skills as a human because how the game system works? These skill-based or point-based systems tend to either have humans as the only default option for players, or have that non-humanity serve as a distinguishing trait or ability to be invested in.
The class-based system that games like D&D uses and that games inspired by D&D adopt in some form or fashion have developed in a particular way. In the earliest days of the game, the initial choices for the classes were Fighting Man, Magic-User, and Cleric. Of these three, the Cleric was the last to be added, included as a sort of vampire-hunting holy warrior. And, in a way, the Cleric was the first hybrid class, mixing some fighting ability of the Fighting Man with the spellcasting of the Magic-User, though the magic focused on prayers and miracles rather than alchemical formulae, esoteric rites, eldritch powers, and foul enchantments gained through study, pacts, or inhumane lineage.
In addition, impacted by the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, the racial choices for those first characters included Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits in addition to the standard humans. These options provided additional abilities to the character than humans did not. However, as a balancing mechanism for the game, the developers decreed that non-humans could only choose certain classes, and furthermore, they were limited in the number of levels they could attain in said class. Dwarves and Hobbits could only be Fighting Men, and Elves had to choose between being a Fighting Man or a Magic-User each game.
As classes were added to the game, so did the options increase somewhat for non-humans. Anyone could be a member of the new Thief class, though it was humans-only for later classes like Monks, Paladins, Assassins, and Druids.
The game received multiple revisions over the years, mainly due to much needed standardization and clarity of the rules, especially for organized play. However, in this process, some of the benefits and limitations of non-human characters were enshrined, and thus acted as a precedent for enshrining them in the games inspired by D&D. While the “basic” version of D&D did not modify the ability scores generated based on the race selected by the player, the races themselves became a type of class, and still had caps on the levels they could reach compared to the “human” characters.
However, in the first advanced version of the game, race and class were kept separate, but actual differences in the ability scores possible were noted through positive or negative modifiers based on the character’s race. Humans had no such modifiers, but the other races did: dwarves, elves, halflings (named so instead of hobbits due to legal actions by the Tolkien estate), gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs. Furthermore, each race had ability score minimums and maximums possible (as did classes have “minimum permissible scores”), and these limits were further delineated by gender; typically, female characters could not attain strength scores as high as those as male characters. And, as before, only humans could select any class available, assuming they met the ability score and alignment requirements, whereas non-humans were limited in the classes they could select and the maximum levels they could attain (though thieves remained available and limitless to all, for some reason).
Different classes advanced in ability at different rates; it took different classes a different number of experience points to advance to the next level of ability. One thing non-humans could do is advance in two or more certain classes at the same time, to replicate the ability of the original elves being both fighters and magic-users. However, the level limits remained, and all the experience points earned were split between the classes. Humans, on the other hand, could change their class at some point, as long as they exceeded the requirements of their own class and the new class. This system was meant to reinforce human dominance in the system (because otherwise the world would be overrun by long-lived elf spellcasters), but it also set a precedent for unfortunate unspoken connotations in the game.
You see, the race and class system in D&D perpetuated “norms” and stereotypes in the fantasy genre. Dwarves were tough, but not that agile or likable. Elves were graceful, perhaps smarter than usual, but more frail. Half-orcs were strong and tough, but often dumb and ugly as well. As the game developed, offshoots of the main non-human races came about, like the famous dark elves, who may have been meant to be photo-negative opposite versions of the elves, but their dark skin could not be ignored. The idea that these dark elves were matriarchal, inherently evil, and so on played heavily on the “Other” quality, because the game assumed the predominant demographic of players was young, male, and Caucasian.
The gender-based ability score ranges were abandoned with the second edition of the advanced game, but ability score modifiers and level limits remained. The third edition of the game eliminated the level limits of prior editions, but in some cases, the “excess” of certain racial abilities were balanced with “level adjustments,” a system that said a 1st level dark elf character was the equivalent to a 2nd level human or other “standard” sort of character.
It wasn’t until an update to the current fifth edition of the game that negative ability score modifiers were eliminated. And, in an effort to counter any unintentional effects of having a character be “Othered,” there is a work in progress to rebrand the term “race” with terms like “origin” or “heritage.” Rules became more flexible about what a character of a certain type had to start with, in order to account for those characters who do not fit the stereotypical mold. Now it’s easily mechanically possible to have a dwarf who’s more in tune with nature rather than smithing or mining, or an urban orc wizard who doesn’t even speak a word of the orc language. The game now has a custom origin option for players to build something not even provided by the current rules, such as the child of a dwarf and a gnome, an alien humanoid, or whatever the player’s imagination can fashion with this toolkit.
I like this new approach to characters in the game, because it allows for creativity. However, I am also of an age and era to remember when some players’ efforts to be creative also had an unspoken motive of having a mechanical advantage in the game. I would stress that this is a game which has multiple participants where everyone involved is trying to have fun, and it is not just for the fun or glory of one individual over all. I also applaud this approach because it is removing assumptions from who a character is. Just because a character is an elf doesn’t mean that they can use a bow like many other elves who are encountered. And, if you switch out “elf” with “Asian” and “a bow” with “martial arts,” you can see the slippery slope of thinking that’s being tackled in this change.
Relatability can be a huge influencer on our attitudes, actions, and thoughts. If we are capable of relating something or someone to something we know, we tend to do it. And this is both good and bad at the same time. While seeing tiger cubs playing like the big kittens they are makes us think of cute fuzzy kittens and thus harbor a desire to pet or snuggle said kittens, or even be motivated to donate to a charity helping tigers, we also may ignore the truth that those cute cubs are going to grow into massive wild carnivores that may and have seen us as potential prey. Conversely, if we’ve grown up seeing indigenous peoples depicted in media as violent, aggressive, superstitious, untrustworthy, fearsome, and all-around negatively, then it’s not surprising that some people’s unspoken inherent reaction to seeing a member of that group in real life be a harsh, fearful, or outright hostile one for the individual who was depicted in that manner.
This gets worse when combined with something like the Alignment system I discussed in a prior post, and labeling certain groups of sentient beings as “frequently” or “always” a set alignment. For metaphysical entities such as demons, angels, and such otherworldly beings, this is not a problem since that is the narrative role they play. However, for sentient beings of a region, culture, nation, or even planet, this falls into stereotypes. It leads to arguments over what certain groups would define as “good” or “evil” culturally or historically, and forgetting the focus on the cross-cultural, universal conceptions that all can agree on.
As to why some people may react seriously to the developments or changes made in a game, or even ask why people may consider things such as a game seriously, we have to consider what we, as people, do and think, whether for work or for fun, says about us as people. As much as we can credit an individual or an idea or object for inspiring some aspect of our identity, we should also consider how these seemingly inconsequential things shape us both consciously and unconsciously. How far of a stretch is it really to say that “orcs can’t be wizards” is that different from, say, “men can’t be nurses” for example? Ultimately, as the language works, and the thought processes with it, the formula is just “X can’t be Y,” and whatever terms one wishes to assign to X and Y is at the speaker’s discretion.
The key element in all of this is the elimination of arbitrary limitations on characters in a game, in a manner which, ideally, we should eliminate arbitrary limitations on others and ourselves, yet not in an all-or-nothing indiscriminate way.
(Despite what some may imagine or wish, we still need to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and despite what some may secretly want, we shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal, abuse, or kill. I have to state this because, in my years of gaming, I’ve had semantic arguments with others who will use and abuse ideas and language to win an argument or achieve what they want in the game. And then there’s people in the real world who do this with real-world systems and rules like the legal system or belief systems.)
However, though these changes have happened in D&D, not everything that D&D has inspired has changed along with it. For instance, there may not be any varying experience level progression charts or level limits based on race and class in World of Warcraft, but there are permitted and restricted race and class combinations in the game. The game sort-of circumvents this with new variants of the familiar races in the game, but it still gives off the vibe of “only this sort of Orc can do this, while only that sort of Elf can do that.”
While the Warhammer universe, both fantasy and future, parodies and exaggerates tropes of each setting, there is the unfortunate side effects that come to be when the joke isn’t understood, or is taken as serious (or more likely, serious-not-serious-but-seriously-serious). With the game, it’s focused on armies and conflicts, but as a result this can be just as bad because the concept of sweeping generalizations over whole groups and cultures of folk is reinforced and normalized. It’s not any different from playing games of Axis and Allies that reinforces national stereotypes of Germans, Japanese, Russians, British, and Americans to almost absurd degrees.
While humor plays a significant role in such approaches, it must be said that things can be interpreted beyond the creator’s intent, and does so frequently. Figurative language is taken literally, or the humorous as serious, or so on. It may be the “fault” of the individual who misunderstood the context, but that “invalid” understanding isn’t immediately self-nullified; it can persist and pass on and serve as a nasty foundation for a harmful or malicious undercurrent in the real world. This may seem paradoxical to some, but it does occur. And, while some may defend such design elements as “harmless” and “just part of a game,” we must honestly consider those who don’t just see it that way; those who would see it as in indirect, unspoken, yet obvious dog-whistle validation of some horrid worldview they have and maintain.
Thus, the changes being made to the game are meant to remove the unintentionally disrespectful elements from the game, but preserve and promote those aspects in a new way. Rather than complaining or being outraged about the change, gamers should pause, look at what’s being done, objectively consider what things were like before without any value judgment labels, and truly consider if the change is going to make things worse instead of better beyond a gut reaction and a rallying defense of a cherished memory of an innocent or less-worldly past.
Besides, the new approach may allow players to create characters who are a quarter-human, quarter-elf, quarter-demon, and quarter-dragon in heritage who come from a long-ruling noble family, but that character will die just as quick as any other character after a few botched death saving throws, necessitating the need for the remaining party members to expend a ton of resources to bring the slain character to life or, quite possibly, have the player make another character and move on.