Author Topic: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters  (Read 788 times)

Jubal

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Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« on: May 26, 2018, 11:11:02 PM »
Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
By Jubal



This article is based on some thoughts after a Kalamazoo 2018 panel on problematizing the medievalisms of D&D. It was done as a format experiment; the panel played through a starter-set type game, and the audience then chipped in discussions of what was going on from a medievalist perspective. The main downside to the format was that far too much time was spent with people stating the obvious – for example, that many common monsters have racially coded elements in their presentation, that there’s a lot of gender-norms stuff written into pulp D&D settings that doesn’t need to be there – and so I don’t think people got to use their expertise as effectively on the topic as might have been nice. Nonetheless, one interesting point that came out was on the use of the term “race” to describe the different monsters of D&D.

Of course, in technical terms being a goblin is not merely a race. Goblins, at least in most settings (and we’ll use them as our main monster for this article) are a species in their own right, one that looks and acts quite differently to our own. Nonetheless, their presentation in modern literature and gaming has elements pulled in that have their roots in human presentations of race and racial difference. Goblins, like most monsters, are often not permitted the sort of range of personality and characteristics that humans do: they conform to a single social stereotype with consistent markers like dialect, social structure, and social status and attitudes, which are often features of racial power dynamics and demarcations among humans. Of course this is part of the point. Humans, which are variable, always need introduction – monster species do not, meaning they can be deployed much more simply by a GM. This, however, blurs the boundaries of whether we can treat goblins simply as a species. Despite being biologically in a different category to humans, they have a set of archetypal characteristics that we think of as being more “racial” in style.

That there are issues (that is, heavy reflections of real-word power dynamics) with the portrayal of many or most monster species when treated as “races” is fairly uncontentious to suggest. Monster races like goblins often speak in broken, slang-heavy dialects which are heavily coded to suggest lower social status groups, and their appearance and dress codes are often coded through nineteenth to mid twentieth century colonial-era archetypes of colonised peoples. Even for races portrayed more positively, Tolkien’s dwarves were, by his own admission, heavily influenced by Jewish culture, a feature which has carried forwards into other settings (note how “dwarf languages” in different settings often include a lot of ks and zs, which originates from Tolkien using semitic languages as a basis for Khuzdul, and how dwarfs often have a lost homeland/disaspora culture in fantasy literature). The implicit understanding that fantasy creatures are races is strong enough that one can write a satirical book about race and racism using them as the archetypes instead of actually races (Terry Pratchett’s Thud).

And so we come to the question of how we think about and deal with these issues and handle race in our games, for which there are a number of possibilities. We can accept and underline the current terminology under the assumption that it forms its own, new technical lexicon, we can accept the portrayal of fantasy creatures as races, or we can attempt to break the race-species lock we have in fantasy.

The first option is the simplest, and arguably the one people do anyway – we just accept that “race” has a different meaning in fantasy settings and games that encompasses simplified aspects of both species and culture for narrative convenience, and that this is fundamentally different to the way we use the word “race” in reality. In general, I think this works better than some people tend to expect it to; people are well aware that fantasy and reality differ, and I have a mild scepticism of the school of thought that suggests that, for example, the portrayal of “races” as having inherent characteristics of intelligence or strength or whatever in a D&D game will leave young gamers with the idea that races in human society function similarly (I’ve heard this contention made, but I’d very much like to see survey/statistical evidence for it and haven’t seen any as of yet). The problem with just relying on a lexicon distinction, though, is that it doesn’t do anything with the fact that a lot of the material we draw upon as game designers and DMs comes with a weighty historical legacy, one that I think it’s unwise to ignore. I think that good writing can solve a lot of these issues – having diverse casts of human characters to help stop the monsters being treated as racial analogues, for example – but handling that well, especially for DMs/GMs who don’t have a lot of experience of writing diverse characters, can be tricky too. It might be nice if GM handbooks included some well-written guidance on this sort of area.

A race-centric fantasy setting is another alternative: one in which one more or less accepts that “we’re all human” with all that comes with that. The difficulty with this is that doing so requires accepting a level of humanity on the part of non-human enemies in gaming settings that is difficult to sustain whilst still retaining the sort of clear markers of good and evil that pulp-style fantasy settings often rely on to function. If a goblin or an orc is mentally and morally equivalent to a human, it’s no longer mentally or morally an easy decision to go and beat a bunch of them up. Certainly one can no longer maintain the “always evil” categorisations of D&D rulebook styles. Modern fantasy works have often started exploring this area – Rich Burlew’s goblins suffering from years of slaughter by human paladins, and books looking at things from Orc perspectives – but in doing so, something is both gained and lost from what we can do with fantasy. We lose the ability to present, via fantasy races, our own ideas of what uncomplicated evil looks like, and are forced to present players with a less escapist, less morally simplified view of the beings they live alongside.

Our final option is to more firmly build settings that try to break the race/species connection. The way to do this, in essence, is to provide cultural/racial divisions and a lot more depth within each species you’re going to be dealing with. The problem with that is that firstly it’s a lot of work, and secondly it risks erasing the contributions and stereotypes in older variants of a particular archetype. If you have orcs, say, that are culturally as varied as humans in their styles, visuals, languages, etc, then you’re… in some ways no longer using an “orc” as we’ve come to know it. This also, I suspect, could risk erasing the contributions of real cultural groups to fantasy archetypes. Diversifying or editing things to the point where one loses these older racial archetypes entirely may absolve a creator from problems around moral complication, but potentially loses clarity in setting design aspects, requiring a much wider, deeper level of world-building before a campaign can begin, that may not be accessible to gamers in more casual settings or indeed gamers who lack the time resources to work on their setting in that way.

I’m not going to come to a “X is the right path, ignore Y” style conclusion for this article – there’s too much still to be discussed that I can’t get to here, and it’s an area that one writer who’s not even an experienced DM is hardly a decisive voice upon. I think that there are things to be gained from mentally unpacking the backgrounds to our ideas of race and species though, and working out what we think we mean by use of those words and how they should be reflected in our games.
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Pentagathus

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #1 on: May 27, 2018, 11:32:57 AM »
Hmm, first off I'm not entirely sure of what you mean with  couple of points in the lead paragraph. Does the term "racially coded elements" mean something akin to racially coded language? Would the parallel between goblin dress and archetypal (or is it rather stereotypical?) indigenous costume be a blatant example of this? And if so, are you suggesting that the coding is consciously implemented?
The terms "problematizing the medievalisms" and even "medievalist perspective" are also not entirely clear to me, at least in this context. Do you simply mean you were attempting to analyse the D&D format from the perspective of people who happen to be medievalists, or were you attempting to analyse it from the kind of mindrfame typical of the medieval era? What are the medievalisms of D&D? Are they the attempts to frame the setting as being medieval? If so, would the gender norms you allude to be unnecessary in the sense that they paint an inaccurate picture of medieval gender norms or because they may reinforce gender norms to those who play D&D?


Now whilst I found this piece pretty interesting I have to say it feels purely academic to me. I think the notion that people (even children) would conflate fantasy races with human ethnicity is somewhat absurd.  If you read a fantasy novel looking for allegory or racial parallels you're sure to find them, but most people don't do that. And if they are doing that, it's usually as an academic exercise as you've presented here, in which case I don't really think they would have to worry about accidentally becoming racist. I grew up reading armadillo tons of fantasy novels, and I never even thought to draw parallels between fantasy races and real life human ethnicities. Or rather, I didn't think to do so until you told me that dwarfs were Jewish :p


I think you could make an argument that fantasy races may reinforce racial stereotypes if the fantasy racial differences are more realistic than those found in orcs, dwarfs or goblins. For example Tolkeins Numenoreans were a fantastical human race that were generally superior to other human races, without being nearly as distinct as Elves are for example, so I could imagine a child (maybe not consciously) conflating this race of superior, tall white men with real human ethnicities. If this is true then making fantasy races more human may actually have the opposite effect of the desired one, if orcs are something I can identify with then I feel more likely to conflate them with other things that I can identify with - ie real human ethnicities (although this still seems highly unlikely). If orcs are even made to be blatant caricatures of a particular ethnic group without actually attempting to humanise them then I don't see how one would identify in the same way that you can actually identify with that real ethnic group.


Since I feel like playing the devils advocate I'll also ask whether this "for example, the portrayal of “races” as having inherent characteristics of intelligence or strength or whatever in a D&D game will leave young gamers with the idea that races in human society function similarly" would be an entirely incorrect idea for these gamers to develop. For example Dutch people are the tallest ethnicity in the world, so on average I would expect them to be physically stronger than most. If you were designing a D&D game set in the real world then perhaps it would be reasonable a Dutch character to get +1 to strength on character creation (although this obviously doesn't seem like a particularly accurate way to present average differences in populations tbf). Of course cognitive differences may be considered more contentious, but even here you could make  case for the D&D format. AFAIK Ashkenazi Jews are the only ethnic group that have been shown to have significantly different (about 20 points higher iirc) IQs to the average, however it is hardly contentious that different cultures actually do create differences in average personality traits, although again modelling this accurately would be more difficult than simply giving a +1 to diplomacy for characters from collectivist cultures for example. And of course the effort you would have to make to read all the relevant literature in order to map these differences really wouldn't be worth it for a weird D&D character creation system but that's not really my point anyway.


I'd like to write more on gender norms in a fantasy setting, but I've written a lot and I should probably have breakfast. Essentially my argument would be along a similar line, if you actually tried to create a "realistic" medieval setting for your D&D campaign I would imagine gender norms and roles would be quite heavily enforced, but that this would be so obviously different to modern gender norms that young players wouldn't necessarily be highly influenced by them. Whereas the current system AFAIK (and I'm not very familiar with it) could be described as somewhere between modern gender norms and medieval ones (or a romantic view of medieval ones maybe), and so since they are less distinct from today they may well have more influence.
Also I think it would be pretty bitchin to play as an adult in a D&D campaign where setting actually tries to emulate medieval society.

Jubal

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #2 on: May 27, 2018, 12:48:05 PM »
OK, quite a lot to go through here. I don't think the racial coding (basically, using elements that point to a race, without actually saying it outright) of some D&D races is generally terribly conscious on the part of the people who write it, though I think it's looped through subconscious stereotypes of how we see society. And yes, the stereotypical indigenous-style costuming of goblins is a good example of this. The term "medievalism" is used in this context to mean "replicating medieval aesthetics or popular perceptions of the middle ages" - this was the sort of conference where not everyone does coal-face history, there were plenty of people who worked more on how the public sees the past and this is more their sort of area. I think it would've been interesting to have more discussion than we did in the session on how things linked back to the "real" middle ages, but a lot of the discussion was really on how a "medieval" aesthetic is often used to justify a much more modern set of norms.

As I said in the middle of the piece, I think I tend to agree that most people don't take parallels between fantasy and real races/race constructions away from the gaming table (and that seems to be the anecdotal impression of the one masters' thesis I found and read on the topic too) - but I'd really like to see some good social science work on that, since it's a contention that people keep making (and did make in this session) that I think it'd be worth having evidence on one way or another.

The important issue about your devil's advocate para is the word "inherent". There's been some interesting work some people have done to design D&D variants that split "species" and "culture" which I think is an interesting approach - one of the issues of the D&D race system is that it includes elements that seem to be biologically natural (dwarfs being able to see in the dark) and stuff that's definitely cultural (elves having a specific aptitude to using longbows, which is something that actually takes a lot of practice and which elves would only logically have in a world where they'd been brought up in a purely elven society that used longbows all the time). The differences you mention in human cultures fit almost entirely into the "cultural" mould, I think: they're aspects of nutrition, upbringing, etc, more than genetics. I think that's the worry people have with settings presenting inherent/from-birth racial characteristics - if you take a reading of a D&D setting that treats D&D races like human races, the whole thing starts looking like nineteenth century scientific racism where people posited that these differences were all genetic, which they're undoubtedly not, pretty quickly. I don't think that's how players generally understand the system, but I can see why it's something that people can read into it.

I don't, that said, think this should be a purely academic discussion - I think it's something that designers especially might find it worth time thinking about, for a variety of reasons. I think race/racism, and whether DMs reflect it at all in their games, is a fairly sensitive area that DM handbooks could sometimes provide more support on, and that particularly with a more recent generation of fantasy books working on "humanising" orcs, goblins, etc, we seem to be moving away from the "Goblins: Always Neutral Evil" type writeups of older books, and it's worth giving some thought to how and why we're doing that from a design aspect and where this ends up. In a hobby this international it can sometimes be worth clarifying terms like "race" in a rulebook too - people will interpret them differently in different settings.

Gender is a whole other kettle of fish, of course. It very much depends where/when you are in the medieval world - which of course spans like 1000 years depending on who you ask - how heavily gender norms were enforced, and what gender norms even were. The gender norms of modern medievalisms are mostly filtered through quite restricted/binarist cultures on gender, like the Victorian/C19th stuff in UK/Europe - and filtered through the literature of that period, which overwhelmingly focussed on elite women. I think there's a tendency for people to assume that things like gender norms, racial boundaries, etc, always used to be more rigidly policed than they are today, which is nonsense. Racial and ethnographic constructions in the medieval and ancient worlds were constructed on pretty different lines to begin with, and lots of cultures worldwide had quite a bit of variation in gender roles (which again in some cases were constructed differently, there's a fair argument that for example Byzantine eunuchs were treated as a separate gender to women or other men in terms of their social functions etc).
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Pentagathus

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #3 on: May 27, 2018, 03:32:19 PM »
I don't think there's much more I can add here since I unfortunately don't have much experience playing p&p rpgs. If you happen to feel like writing any more pieces like this though I would definitely like to read them.

When it comes to actually studying whether D&D reinforces racial stereotypes I really don't see how you would design an experiment which could accurately and reliably measure that. How did that masters thesis approach it?

I think you could make an argument that elves could be inherently good with projectile weapons (or inherently better than average at least), although if it restricted specifically to bows then I don't. There's also the question of whether their crazy long life spans would make them on average more skilful at many things (more time to practice) and how you'd classify that - after all the longevity is not environmental (as long as the environment doesn't kill them that is) but it's not innate in the sense that elves are not born old. So a 20 year old elf character would have no reason to be particularly skilled at stuff whereas a 200 or 2000 year old elf would be a different manner altogether. I don't think many rpg systems really make an attempt to tackle age though.
But yes I get your point, if the distinction is not made between cultural and innate modifiers then those that can't make that distinction for themselves could take away the wrong impression.

Btw have you ever tried to write a p&p setting based in/inspired by any of the eras you've studied?

Jubal

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #4 on: May 27, 2018, 03:49:18 PM »
The masters thesis author really just noted it down by anecdote - the bulk of the thesis was simply discussing the fact that one can make these connections via the literary roots of D&D, rather than going into any depth on whether this actually had an impact. I think the evidence I'd like to get on it would be polling based - poll a couple thousand gamers, a couple thousand of the non-RPG-gaming public as a control, and see how much difference there was on certain questions when you control for demographics.

IIRC the D&D rule is specifically longbows - it's not a bonus to eg hand-eye coordination type skills, it's specifically longbow aptitude. And yeah, age is a general mess for elves.

I have got some starting notes somewhere for doing a setting based on Georgian/Caucasus history and myth. It's quite a long way down the project pipeline still but I'd really like to work on it more properly sometime.
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Clockwork

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #5 on: May 27, 2018, 05:07:47 PM »
My guy Adam Koebel is a god of race, ethics, philosophy, stereotypes and allsuch things in a tabletop RPG environment. I think this episode has some of an answer to what you're looking at here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CTAC6-8GdQ&list=PLAmPx8nWedFVGdrP2JmcYzdvZC8sWV5b4&index=40. If not tweet at him or something he answers a ton of questions.

The type of game you're describing is pretty old though I'd have to say; I think a lot of new games (D&D 5th included) are less encounter heavy and have more weight on RP'ing. In Forgotten Realms, the goblin race (as part of the goblinoid species) are given some standard traits (persuasive, deceitful), and share a common history of tribalism. However, it clearly says they have the capacity for intelligence and emotion and whatever else you can think of and some 'civilised, good' goblins are found in most 'commonly good inhabited' cities. Physicality (short, agile, small fangs, pointed ears) can't particularly be changed that much which is sort of what makes them goblins I guess.

Sticking all goblins in your world as previous edition goblins or lotr goblins is literally just convenience or bad DM'ing, depending. Or perhaps in your world, yes, all goblins are armadillos :)

In modern D&D and other TT games from recent years there has been a tendency for these books to say: just ignore the whole thing if you want and keep only the mechanics - you do you.

Also while yeah you can create an RPG with drunkard, fat elves. Lithe Dwarf supermodels, humans being the literal gods and Orcs being shy scholars as a generalism - does it really make it any better or worse than the current expectations of variations of kith? I'd be inclined to think no.
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Jubal

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #6 on: May 27, 2018, 09:33:36 PM »
That's a good video, thanks - following down some of the same lines I was thinking on, I think, but it's good hearing it from a way more experienced DM/GM.

And yeah, I think things are changing across the hobby generally, but e.g. what was being played through in the aforementioned conference panel was the D&D 5th ed starter set and that was still *very* old school down-the-line encounter-driven stuff - and as Koebel says, aspects of that are just written quite deep into the core ruleset and into how we look at fantasy generally.
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Clockwork

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Re: Race or Species: The Humanisation of Monsters
« Reply #7 on: May 28, 2018, 12:35:23 AM »
No problem, glad you liked it! Yeah he's both very much in the DM space and the queer space so it's super interesting to watch him mix the two :)

I watch a ton of his content on JPs Rollplay shows and I watch Matt DM on Critical role. Both are progressive, culturally aware guys who take different stances to D&D and that difference is interesting to me.

Mhm the D&D starter thing is pretty much: walk out of tavern, kill goblins afaik. It is designed to take all the pressure off the DM. I do tend to disagree with him that it's just written into D&D in this edition (certainly it is in previous ones, no quarrel) but I think that comes from him DM'ing since the 80s and the things being just so ingrained in him (like 90% of people DM'ing atm) against me starting getting into RPGs recently. Also I think it comes from starting with non-D&D RPGs, more liberal, more story based, egalitarian by design RPGs such as Masks and Blades in the Dark.
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