Dungeons & Dragons is still the world’s leading roleplaying game, especially if you count its various spinoffs and variants such as Pathfinder.
There are a number of concepts that make something D&D. And one, which has existed from the very start (and for which I blame the wargamers involved in the game’s creation) is hugely problematic:
Inherently evil sentient species.
I’m going to give a quick rundown of how this has worked for people who don’t play.
What is Alignment in D&D?
In D&D all creatures have an inherent alignment. In the very first version these alignments were Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.
The “alignment chart” came later, along with the concept that unintelligent animals were unaligned. The D&D alignment chart has two axes. Good-Neutral-Evil and Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic.
To help understand this:
Lawful Good — Superman
Chaotic Good-Robin Hood
Lawful Neutral-Judge Dredd
True Neutral-Tom Bombadil
Neutral Evil-Lex Luthor
Chaotic Evil-The Joker
(TV Tropes goes into this in more detail, but what a rabbit hole).
Your alignment is a spiritual thing that’s hard to change. This includes for PCs. Changing your alignment after a certain level creates an evil twin. For monsters, alignment is inherent.
Chromatic dragons are always evil. Metallic dragons are always good.
The Origins of “Evil” D&D Races
So, here’s where it becomes even more of a problem than railroading PCs into alignments:
If everything has an alignment, then there has to be a quick way to decide on the alignment of NPCs.
Combine that with the fact that D&D is inspired in part by Tolkien, and we have the Orc Problem.
Tolkien’s orcs, and I say this as a fan, are a problem. They are the Yellow Peril writ large, degenerate and corrupted creatures that tie in largely to the pseudoscience of race.
If you are born an orc, you are born corrupted and evil.
D&D doubled down on this with the drow, a race of elves that live underground, delight in torment and are evil because they were cursed. And, of course? They’re dark skinned while good elves are fair and light.
Do I really need to explain the problem with saying sentient beings are literally born evil, because it’s in their DNA? Especially when skin color is brought into the equation.
Orcs and drow aren’t the only evil races in D&D, but they are the best known.
The concept of inherently evil sentient beings (this is leaving out things like Outsiders, the overall D&D term for demons, angels, divine messengers and other purely spiritual beings) is racist at its core. There’s been a lot of discourse lately about how if you see orcs or drow as racist stereotypes it proves you are racist. Multiple people were attacked in this way on both Twitter and Tumblr, although it seems to have died down now.
And because the majority of fantasy writers are influenced by D&D, Tolkien or both, racial stereotypes disguised as evil non-humans run rampant. They even show up with the vaguely anti-Semitic goblin bankers in Harry Potter. The tropes are common…and a lot of writers don’t even really grasp that they’re racist.
D&D Getting Rid of Racial Alignment
The current publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, has now announced that there will be no more evil races in future products or in tie-ins. Instead, they are working towards building orc and drow culture into something more nuanced, something morally and culturally complex.
They’re also planning on reworking racial bonuses and penalties, which I have more of a mixed feeling about, but it does tie into the same thing.
Paizo has yet to say anything about Pathfinder, but they are redoing much of their lore for second edition at present and now would be a great time to fix a few things. (And at some point can we take the evil lizard shapeshifters out of Starfinder? Please?)
My primary group removed alignment as a concept from our games years ago and have never looked back. Taking it out allows for more nuance, more freedom to roleplay your character without worrying about “alignment rules” and the ability to play with and subvert fantasy non-human tropes.
It’s not just the right thing to do from a racial justice perspective, it’s the right thing to do from a creative perspective. D&D making this change will help bring fantasy in general into the 21st century.
(I have yet to see the backlash, but I know it’s coming).