DMing

My Approach to the Monstrous Races

There are some role-playing topics that I can be very opinionated about, chief among them the ways that we can better write our rules and our settings to include topics such as race, gender, and sexuality in a positive and inclusive way. In terms of race, the fantasy genre in particular has not always done a good job at respectfully using non-human races as allegories for non-white or non-Western groups of people. There are a lot of great critiques out there already that delve into this topic much more thoroughly than I could ever hope to, but I would like to consider specifically the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, how they have changed their approach to address some old problems, and where I as a marginalized creator see room for further improvement.

Admittedly I have not read Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and therefore may be missing some nuance afforded to these races following the initial debut of 5th edition. Regardless, the longstanding problem that Wizards had to consider was this: is good and evil relative or absolute? And, if good and evil are relative, how does that affect the player characters’ morality and culpability in a game that is foremost about slaying monsters? When the Warcraft franchise considered that same question, the result was a faction-based series where both sides were afforded playability and narrative perspective. The latest edition of D&D took the opposite approach, which was to use world building to remove the monsters’ agency and distill it down to the simple dichotomy of good vs. evil. If a race of monsters is created by a fiend or an evil god to serve a specific purpose, Wizards posits, then they have no freedom to deviate from that purpose and therefore there is very little moral gray area surrounding the game’s central conflict.

The Player’s Handbook has the following to say about alignment:

For many thinking creatures, alignment is a moral choice. Humans, dwarves, elves, and other humanoid races can choose whether to follow the paths of good or evil, law or chaos. According to myth, the good-aligned gods who created these races gave them free will to choose their moral paths, knowing that good without free will is slavery.

The evil deities who created other races, though, made those races to serve them. Those races have strong inborn tendencies that match the nature of their gods. Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc gods, and are thus inclined toward evil. Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life. (Even half-orcs feel the lingering pull of the orc god’s influence.)

Alignment is an essential part of the nature of celestials and fiends. A devil does not choose to be lawful evil, and it doesn’t tend toward lawful evil, but rather it is lawful evil in its essence. If it somehow ceased to be lawful evil, it would cease to be a devil.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST. (2014). DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® player’s handbook® (Pp. 122).

The Monster Manual additionally has the following to say about orcs specifically:

Their lust for slaughter demands that orcs dwell always within striking distance of new targets. As such, they seldom settle permanently, instead converting ruins, cavern complexes, and defeated foes’ villages into fortified camps and strongholds. Orcs build only for defense, making no innovation or improvement to their lairs beyond mounting the severed body parts of their victims on spiked stockade walls or pikes jutting up from moats arid trenches.

Wizards of the Coast. (2014). DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® MONSTER MANUAL (pp. 244).

Overall, this does solve much of the moral dilemma and makes the game more accessible in that regard. However, when the rest of the descriptions for many monsters are still couched in the language of the “primitive other” it can nonetheless be extremely problematic.

A brief aside to include a bit of my own background: I am mixed-race Filipina. My ancestors were from the Cordillera Central areas of Luzon, and whether or not they themselves practiced headhunting they were certainly from a part of the world where many peoples did. Growing up, my Lolo kept a wood carving in his living room of a tribal warrior proudly displaying the decapitated head of a slain enemy. My point is, no matter how you feel about practices such as raiding, razing, and (yes) headhunting, no amount of narrative backpedaling can ever fully divorce the world of fantasy from the real world cultures and dynamics that inspire its tropes. Likewise, we need to be mindful of how and where we use racially loaded language such as “tribe” or “civilization”, and what we intend for those terms to mean. Because of that, we owe it to ourselves and to the marginalized people who play our games alongside us to examine our biases and strive to do better.

Some Points Worth Considering

1. Cultures, not Races

Instead of generalizing the tendencies of a fantasy race, try describing them in terms of their cultural values. Think of it this way: if all humans were Vikings (itself a bit of a misnomer), that does not mean that all humans would inherently tend towards raiding and pillaging. Rather, it is one example of a specific culture that places value in masculine virility, prowess in fighting, and fearlessness as symbols of an individual’s aptitude and worth, in a part of the world where these specific values existed under specific conditions that led to certain practices becoming commonplace. Re-framing how we think about races allows for each member of a society to retain their own agency and individuality. They can have their own immutable personality traits but how they choose to engage or not in those practices is driven largely by their own goals, expectations, and the people they are with, rather than the practices themselves being an insatiable drive within all of them.

2. Conflict Arises from Scarcity and Abundance

Human conflicts are fought over resources: territory, wealth, status, survival, etc, and the same should be true for your monsters. Even for cultures that revel in battle, they do not tend to expend existing resources and court risk unless there is something to gain. Vikings raided for material wealth. Headhunters in the Philippines did so for social status (proof of one’s ability to protect their family and community in an era where “heads or it didn’t happen” had a certain appeal). It’s important to think about how large accumulations of resources can draw the attention of nearby groups, as well as how changes in those groups’ ability to meet their existing needs can embolden them to take greater risks.

3. Language

One thing that’s often overlooked is how the lack of a common language can escalate conflicts. Something I’ve used in my own campaigns to great effect is an intelligent enemy who doesn’t speak common. If an enemy acts with reason and caution — drawing a bow but not shooting, aggressively posturing but maneuvering away without initiating combat — it can serve as a uniquely tense and sometimes unnerving situation for players to find themselves in, questioning in real time what is right vs. what is wrong.

An Example

In my setting, more traditional gnolls are effectively replaced by hyena-like desert raiders called Krokoans. In practice so far I have used them more as a travelling hazard than a central enemy. When I introduce them, often through an encampment ambush, it is usually based on the following conditions:

Krokoans contend for survival with the surrounding apex predators, which include (in escalating order) giant scorpions, sand sharks, and roc birds. Scorpion chitin and sharkskin both make excellent armor, and the armor worn by Krokoan warriors tends to be mismached out of ad hoc additions and hand-me-downs made from these materials whenever possible. The greatest honor that can be awarded to a Krokoan warrior is for having slain a roc bird, and those who have accomplished this feat are typically rewarded with roc feathers that they tie into their waist wraps to display their prowess.

They spend the majority of their time hunting antelope, hares, and other wild game, and can become seasonally nomadic based on their access to water. Krokoans also practice raiding for food, weapons, and supplies, but tend to stay far away from humanoid settlements due to them typically being well armed and potentially wielding magic.

All of that said, my impetus for them to come into conflict with the players is usually a drought. A small group of warriors, whose families and community is rapidly falling ill and potentially dying of thirst, will venture further out and risk attacking caravans to steal their water supply. They do not speak common and the other races do not typically speak Krokoan and while they don’t want to risk a drawn out conflict, walking away with that water literally equates to survival for them and their loved ones. I play them tactically and capably, and if they accomplish their goal they will immediately disengage and flee.

In one game session I can recall a tense moment where two of them were spotted by a party member (they were aiming to cause a distraction while the other half of their group flanked the supply wagon from the opposite side). The player drew their bow without firing, and so the Krokoans also drew theirs without firing. I described the one in front, “she is an older, grizzled warrior with graying fur around her muzzle and scar over her missing right eye. Her good eyes gleams with intensity in the firelight, but so far she is holding her arrow.” The player called out to them but it was apparent they didn’t understand, and I could feel the palpable weight he was feeling as he realized that they had little choice but to fight these creatures that were fighting for their own survival. During the battle, the players did suss out what the Krokoans were after, but the simple fact of the matter was that there was only enough water for their immediate journey — that both groups desperately needed it for survival, and there was simply not enough to make an easy compromise.

Credit: SinopaRapax | https://twitter.com/sinoparapax

I present this example not as the be all end all, but to illustrate how all the points I listed can be used together in writing your adventures. Personally, I love me some moral gray area and I do so while acknowledging that a black and white approach is both more scalable and more accessible to new players.

My only ask would be that as we continue to create races of monsters that are irredeemably evil, to please take a critical eye to the tropes underlying their depiction so that we as a community can avoid the continued othering and dehumanization of the real world people we unconsciously base them on.

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