Monday, May 29, 2017

The Dehumanization of "Monstrous" Races in RPGs

Have you ever seen propaganda posters from the first World War? Many of them are full of classic art, brimming with patriotism. More than a few, though, were attempts to caricature America's enemies. The goal was to dehumanize them, and to turn them into a clear force of evil that had to be opposed. When combined with the efforts to lionize American servicemen, the effect was to create a clear divide; our heroes, against their villains.

Case in point, this wasn't satire.
While that sort of setup is the kind of story we get about the sequel, the first World War was a lot messier. There were no jackbooted thugs yanking people out of their homes, and putting them on trains to death camps before polishing the silver skulls on their hats. The first World War was a Rube Goldberg device of backroom political agreements that went awry, and it had everyone at everyone else's throats before too long. Hard to find heroes in all that moral gray area.

Of course, you could say the same thing about most RPGs. Which is why a lot of the same dehumanization tends to take place in our games... even if we don't think about it.

If You Cut An Orc, Does It Not Bleed?

Fantasy RPGs inherited a lot of baggage from Tolkien. All you have to do is look at the base races, and how closely they mirror the cast of The Lord of The Rings in both tone and concept, to see the inherited traits. However, we've come a long way since the 1st and 2nd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. These days half-orcs, and even full-blooded orcs, tend to be available as PCs. Goblins, long used as little other than low-level dungeon fodder, have also become fairly common as PC races. If you can name a monstrous race that has a language, and has typically been used for nothing more than XP grinding, you can probably play one in today's games.

Even bugbears... if your DM is particularly trusting.
This has led to a lot of players starting to question the idea that certain fantasy races are inherently evil, and thus can be slain without so much as a blip on the karmic radar. Rather than the old days, where we just knew things like ogres, trolls, kobolds, gnolls, drow, and other monsters were evil, we now question how we're allowed to play them if that's the case. Especially if the PCs we have aren't inherently evil.

And sure, you could argue that the power of being a player character allows you to be different than your base creature type. But it also makes us look at the issue of how we view these other races. After all, if they have a culture, language, and civilization all their own (and we've shown that by being PCs that the race is not inherently wicked, depraved, savage, or evil), then how to we justify mowing them down without a second thought?

Overcoming The Explorer Fallacy

There's a logical fallacy that happens all throughout our history books, and it can be explained in one sentence; Columbus discovered America. Now, ignoring the fact that the Vikings beat him to North America by several hundred years, what was the first thing Columbus said he discovered when he got to the New World? People. People that he described as docile, welcoming, and gentle, and whom he almost immediately enslaved and brought back to Europe to show off to the folks who kickstarted his trip across the open ocean.

Those of us in the Western world see this all the time. Whether it's in the accounts of Lewis and Clark, or in the stories about characters like Allan Quartermain in his adventures throughout Africa, these characters are seen as brave explorers conquering the world's frontiers. But even in fictional accounts, these brave explorers aren't usually wandering empty wilderness; they're poking through ruined cities, and constantly interacting with people who live in these remote areas; proof that the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years.

Terribly sorry, chaps, but it doesn't count till someone speaking the Queen's English arrives.
This is called The Explorer's Fallacy, and a version of it happens in a lot of fantasy RPGs. It's why we see orc tribes, gnoll packs, and kobold clutches as pests to be eliminated, or threats to be dealt with, instead of as cognizant creatures to be treated with respect. Or, at the very least, as hostile nations that could be met with diplomacy before it's time to reach for the swords. It's not until we start drawing PCs from these races that we question whether their place as murder bait is well-earned, or just lazy storytelling.

If you flip the script, the image is pretty stark. You're just living your life, trying to stay safe in your cave, when one day a group of armored thugs smashes in your front door. Your friends and family try to fight them off, but they're slain in front of your eyes. With fire and steel, the invaders handily kill anyone who stands in their way, taking what meager treasure your community hoarded for themselves. All they leave behind is blood, and dismembered corpses.

That's your average adventurer's origin story. But in this case, it's for a kobold, or a goblin who managed to survive a 2nd-level party raid.

It's All About The Game You Want

No one, least of all me, is saying that everyone has to grant traditional monsters citizenship in your world, and your game. If you are perfectly fine using these creatures as low-level threats and XP grinding, and your players have no trouble with it, then shine on you mad bastard!

With that said, though, there are plenty of options that could be used instead of the "savage monstrous humanoid" cardboard cutouts. Undead are an ideal fill-in for enemies who are nothing more than a walking plague of evil that can (and should) be mowed down without any moral compunctions. Given that demons, devils, and wicked fae represent creatures imbued with absolute evil (especially if you agree with the reasoning in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs), they are also creatures that can be fought with little moralizing on the part of the PCs. Advanced animals and magical beasts (who lack the self-awareness, intelligence, and culture of the "fodder" monster races I've mentioned throughout the piece) are also perfectly valid targets to use as threats that need to be overcome.

However, with that said, it isn't just swapping one monster for another. If you are the sort of DM who wants to change the tune on this particular trope, you need to show these traditional "monsters" as having culture. Let players see that they have friends, lives, and drives the same as the PCs do. That might make them more likely to talk first, and fight only when it's been made clear they don't have another option.

Or if they kill first and don't bother asking questions, make it clear that kind of aggression can have long-term consequences on social standing, future relationships, and even the character's alignment.

That's all for my thoughts on this week's Moon Pope Monday feature. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my future thoughts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. As little as $1 a month is all it takes to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get some sweet gaming swag for yourself.


  1. I think this is one of the reasons I drifted away from D&D. I've lost interest in slaying "monstrous races" and the idea that a whole race is evil just breaks immersion for me.

  2. Just this past Saturday my players decided to poison the children of a monstrous race because "monsters". Luckily Morlocks are immune to poison.

  3. You could, of course, go the complete opposite direction and lean into the races being more monstrous. Give them life cycles that require the consumption of other beings (xenomorphs), require environments that humans are threatening (Grippli needing swamp land the humans are draining), being born fully grown (warforged), or birthing eggs to a communal nest(dragonborn).

    I wrote a bit about that.

  4. Huh. Funny thing actually I'm working on a setting where considerations like this are a thing. Some races are still culturally very aggressive (Gnolls for instance will attack you if you step half an inch into their territory and have a society built on violence) but they're also actual people with their own hopes and desires and cultures.

    But then again I've always hated D&D alignment explicitly because of things like "X is always evil" and its inherent need for morality to be objective in order to work.