Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

1 July, 2009

Fantasy literature, and thus games, have a long tradition of evil or villain races.  Orcs being the classic example of such a race, though D&D has many: Orcs, Goblins and Hobgoblins, Kobolds, Drow and those are just the major ones!

These races are defined by their opposition to the forces of ‘Civilization’ and ‘Right’, that side being fixed by the fact that it is the side the Player Characters are on.  One does not need to think about the fact that your character is slaughtering intelligent beings.  They are Evil; no other justification is needed.  This is something that has troubled me for some time.  Cultures may be, more or less, evil but the idea that an entire group of intelligent beings is, just because of their genetics, always evil full stop is unreasonable.

Cultures and groups fight and declare each other evil all the time.  Not because some higher power has decided that the Kingdom of Wubwub and their practice of eating marshmallow and cheese sandwiches is an objective affront to all that is good and holy, but because the Kingdom of Jubjub wants to get its greedy hands on some silver mines and trade routes (while the Wubwubians selfishly want to keep them).  Two Elvish groups can be calling each other ‘dark elves’ because of religious difference: one holds its most important evening ceremonies on the full moon, the other hold them on the new moon.  While these are obviously tongue in cheek examples, wars in our world have been justified by reasons almost as silly.

This allows for a greater depth of world building and foundation of cultures that are authentic, not just convenient shortcuts.  How often can you hear: “Why to dwarves hate orcs?  Because orcs hate dwarves.  Why do orcs hate dwarves?  Because dwarves hate orcs.”  Without wondering where it all began and why.  Competition for resources, incompatible religions or philosophies, even that the two leaders of these group who first met really hated each other, all of those motivations have strong roots in our own histories.  Why would they not work just as well in a fantasy world?

So as not to have the “evil race” temptation in the Sea of Stars, I simply removed the villain races entirely from the campaign.  No goblins, orc or drow, just humans, elves and dwarves.  Any humanoid “villain” was going to come from the same sorts of races as the player characters.   The potential for moral ambiguity and culture clashes is much heightened by such a choice and violence must be justified by some call to reason or philosophy not just because “it’s an orc.”

Edit: Further discussion at the Sea of Stars Forum.


  1. An interesting question and one I’ve explored myself.

    There’s nothing more interesting to me than giving a thoughtful player, playing a good character, morally ambiguous choices.

    What do you do with “little orc babies?” Have they already “learned” to be evil? Do you dash their brains out against the nearest rock? Or do you try to bring them up, like a certain “good drow,” in the path of the light? Which is “good” (for the player?)

    The world is full of us-versus-them scenarios given to us by entertainment, the media, and politicians. I try to subvert that wherever possible.

  2. That’s a very good point, there …

    I grew up in the UK, where the standard “evil fantasy race” was the Dalek, which is stretching the definition, I know.

    But, from my understanding of Doctor Who’s history, I do know that the Daleks were alway’s and ever seen as — originally, anyway — representative of Nazi Germany. Something they’re somewhat left wing creator, Terry Nation, would have seen as evil.

    I can’t help but think that any fantastical race is exactly the same, a symbolic representation of all we find objectionable.

    However, I do know that in any game, TV shoe, or novel, the needs of the story is a factor in how we are entertained, and seeing a representative of a notionally “evil” race act against the races grain — I’m thinking of Seven Of Nine, in Star Trek; Voyager, here — is worth watching, as this may well tell us something of ourselves.

  3. I completely agree with you that the idea of “evil” races is completely ridiculous, but I think removing them doesn’t really do much to counter the notion. Why not leave in Drow, Kobolds, Orcs, etc. but have them be just like the other races in terms of their neutrality and motivations? Otherwise you’re suggesting that Orcs, Kobolds, Drow etc. must be evil and that you don’t want to deal with that, instead of portraying an “evil” race with the same fairness and balance with which the “standard good” races are portrayed.

    • Because goblins, orcs and drow carry too much baggage. I would say that rehibilitating them within the context of the game would be a distraction from the player characters and their adventures. Besides, fighting evil dwarves, misguided elves and mercenary humans is just more interesting.

      • I can certainly see the reasoning there, at least in terms of a D&D player’s perspective. D&D moral absolutes might be hard to overcome for some folks. I always hated it myself.

        It really seems like the problem you describe comes from the Gamist’s perspective that one traditionally sees associated with D&D. Those players that are more Hack-n-Slash oriented. A Fantasy game I’ve run in the past featured non-evil Orcs and I thought that went perfectly smoothly, it wasn’t a distraction in our game. None of the players seemed to have a problem with it at all. Those players were much more roleplaying oriented than hack-n-slash oriented. It just seems to me that the players who’d be distracted are the one’s looking for things to smash, not the ones interested in a strong, story or character driven narrative.

        That’s just my two cents though.

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