The Problem with Diversity

The Fellowship of the Ring--diverse in the extreme; but in a good way“The Problem with Diversity” is not the kind of post title I ever would have expected to see on Papers & Pencils. The site just doesn’t have enough confederate flag icons to justify that sort of thing. I mean, fuck, I’m the kind of hippie who uses words like ‘privilege,’ and ‘cisgendered.’ Yet there it is, and here we go: there is too much racial diversity in modern fantasy gaming, and it’s hurting us.

Allow me to be perfectly clear: I do not mean ethnic diversity. Frankly, I think we could use a few more black elves. It’s pretty fucked up that the only ones we have live underground and worship an evil spider goddess. I get that drow are not intended to have any connection to real-life black people, but that doesn’t make it much better. And while we’re at it, some Asian dwarfs might be cool. So, with regards to ethnic diversity, we need more. It’s racial diversity which we need less of. Racial as in the human race and the dwarven race and the elven race, etcetera.

Most large towns or cities in most fantasy games are expected to have a variety of humanoid species present. Often they’ll have a primary race which exists in the majority, but a “human” city could easily have a population which is 15% dwarves, 10% elves, 8% gnomes, and 5% miscellaneous. I’m not sure what compels us to do this. Maybe we’re all instinctively creating allegories for the real world and trying to craft diverse cultures where everybody gets along. Or maybe we’re just being children who mix 10 flavors of soft drink together and think it’ll taste amazing. (Hint: it doesn’t).

The races of a fantasy world are different. Far more different than any real-world humans might be. Regarding the aforementioned human city, why would enough dwarves to constitute 15% of its population choose to live there? To a dwarf, human cities are ugly and uncomfortable. A dwarf is used to being underground, where even outside of their home there’s still a roof over their heads. Dwarves enjoy the natural beauty of stone formations and mineral deposits, not the natural beauty of flowers and trees. The elves make just as little sense. Elven cities incorporate much more nature into their design than human cities do. And why would a creature who will live thousands of years want to live in a place where most of their neighbors will die of old age in just a few short decades?

The problem with diversity is spawned from another problem more well documented in the tabletop community: the problem of humans in funny hats. It’s hard to see the world from a different perspective–that’s absolutely true. I have a hard enough time putting myself in the shoes of a woman, and I’ve lived with and around women all of my life. The idea of being able to put myself into the shoes of someone who grew up in a completely different culture from me is almost too much to conceive of. And a dwarf? A completely different species with a completely different evolutionary history, living in a completely different kind of world? There’s undoubtedly more to them than short, strong, taciturn humans with Scottish accents.

Gary Gygax realized this. Which is why 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons is explicitly described as a “Human-Centric” game. Now, personally, I don’t like the extremes Gary went to. I don’t like the idea of race being used as class, I don’t think races should have an inherent alignment (at least not an absolute one), and I don’t think we should view other races as being less important to the game than humans are. However, as I’ve mentioned before, we do need to make a concerted effort to make each fantasy race distinct. Part of that is that they should all live separately.

I sometimes feel as though modern fantasy is trying to emulate the cantina scene from Star Wars, without understanding that scene’s full effects. On the one hand, the cantina scene shows us just how diverse the Star Wars universe is. We’re overwhelmed by the amount of fantastic creatures we encounter all at once, and we gain a better appreciation for how large and varied this universe is. Everybody understands that part, and it certainly seems like something we’d want in a fantasy game. The second element of the scene, however, is that nobody cares. Aside from Luke, the wide-eyed farm boy, none of the characters give the slightest indication that the scene before them is as impressive to them as it is to the audience. And even Luke just walks up to the bar and orders a drink. So yes, that scene shows us just how diverse the universe is. But it also shows us that diversity is old news. The various species of the galaxy have lived with each other for so long that they’re all on pretty familiar terms. Is that really what we want in a fantasy world? By placing humans, elves, dwarves, and the rest into a single environment and making them as bored with one another as the species in the Star Wars cantina, we take away a lot of what makes them interesting to us in the first place.

Now, I’m not saying there should be no mixing of the species at all, but it should be much less frequent. Two or three orders of magnitude less frequent. For example, a human settlement could have a 1% chance per 1000 people to have [population/1000]d4 member of a different species living there. As an example, a city with 10,000 people would have a 10% chance of having 10d4 dwarves living there. And those dwarves would probably be outcasts among their people, or have some other extreme reason for living amongst humans. Greater diversity could always be achieved in other ways as well: a human city might have a delegation of 100 elven diplomats in residence. Halfling merchants may frequent the town to sell their fine textiles. Or perhaps there’s a gnomish settlement half a day’s travel away, and only one of the two towns has a high level cleric. But regardless, the different races should live apart, not together, except in special circumstances.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to run their game. There’s nothing worse than somebody who thinks it’s possible to have fun “the wrong way.” But I sincerely believe that most games would be more fun with better distinction between fantasy races. I’ve certainly been guilty of shoehorning pointless amounts of racial diversity into my game’s settlements. But I’ve known for awhile now that it reduced the impact of my game worlds. It’s only now that I’ve put it into words that I can say with conviction that I am officially done with it.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem with Diversity”

  1. Fist off, I think I very much agree. I think that itinerant Halfling or Dwarven merchants makes sense, ‘young’ elves out traveling the world or gnomish entertainers, but all of these would be itinerants, not residents. I think the next game I run will take these considerations much more seriously…

    That being said, I think you’ve misread Gygax a little here, as far as racial alignments go. In the early days of D&D, the alignments were meant to designate which side of an Epic Struggle a character was on, Law or Chaos. It took a while for D&D to lose that sense of an overarching struggle (something it inherited from Chainmail), and I don’t think it’s unfair to say “Dwarves are never on the Red Team” or something similar. Even at that, I just made a post on my blog about how societies and races can be inclined toward an alignment without necessitating that every member is a paragon of that value system.

    1. I realize 1st edition alignment is more, for lack of a better word, ‘cosmic’ than Pathfinder’s alignments. Good and evil are literal forces, which you support or don’t.

      I still don’t like the idea that a non-magical species will always support one side or another. I have no problems with outsiders, dragons, or aberrations having predetermined alignments, mind you. A red dragon raised amongst humans is still going to be an evil fuck.

      Where I draw the line is non-magical species which evolved (or were created) similarly to humans. Orcs, for example. The differences between orcs and humans are not all that big. Sure orcs are dumber and stronger than humans, but nothing about them seems inherently evil to me.

      Now, if they’re overwhelmingly socialized as evil, I can accept that. But in that case, outliers must exist. There have to be good orcs, and I’m fine with that.

      Basically what I’m saying is: if you find orc babies in my game, it would be evil for you to kill them. Whereas in a game in which orcs are inherently bound to cosmic forces of evil, then it would be good to kill the orc babies.

      1. “Whereas in a game in which orcs are inherently bound to cosmic forces of evil, then it would be good to kill the orc babies.”

        I think I agree with you in all points except this, though it may be based on my interpretation of “inherent alignment.” In OD&D, I think you can easily exchange “law and Chaos” for “Roman and Barbarian*” and have the same conundrum. If you’re a Roman soldier, is it *good* to kill a barbarian child or infant? What if you can be reasonably sure that if you don’t, that child will grow to be a man who will try to kill your grown sons and daughters? Even with simplistic alignments (that have little at all to do with morality themselves) and effectively ‘inherent’ alignments, I think there’s more nuance there than most people give it credit for.

        Even if evil means Evil, and all orcs are Evil, I think it’s hard to justify that it’s *good* to murder a child. Convenient, expedient, excusable, but not *good*.

  2. I have always hated the freakshow aspect of D&D. I tire of always being the only human in a nonhuman party, or DMing parties composed entirely of nonhumans. Apparently, I once had the unmitigated gall to suggest on the Paizo forums that there was no need for new humanoid races; you’d think I suggested burning Seattle down and salting the earth based on the vitriol and comments I received. Every DM thinks they’re going to revolutionize the game or something with their homebrew race (almost always some kind of elf, or demon blooded soul just yearning to prove that they’re not eeeevillll, just angsty). This is an acceptable trait in teenagers, I suppose. But how many different flavors of elf do we need? That shit was all cool when Tolkien did it, over 50 years ago. It’s been done.

    I also get tired of nonhuman characters whose defining trait is that they think and act as though they’re superior to humans (via the player being a total douche). If that’s what makes them nonhuman, then I can definitively say that the only thing elves and dwarves are better at than humans is being total assholes. I guess they’ve had years to perfect the art. I rarely see any other difference from that type of player or character.

    I like playing with other DMs, in their homebrew worlds. I also like many of the quality published campaign world available. I’m not opposed to the old cliches with a fiery hatred; I just wish people would occasionally explore other options. I loved many of the ideas behind Dark Sun; I also loved Talislanta’s “no elves” marketing campaign. I routinely cut out two or more humanoid races in my homebrew stuff; most of what I do is defined by the stuff I throw out rather that what I add. There’s so much room to explore culture without having it be putatively alien culture which is really just obviously and obnoxiously exaggerated human culture. I’m not asking to play with a bunch of learned abnormal psychologists; I just wish that people understood that alien psychology is hard to model, understand, and play, because, y’know, it’s alien.

  3. I’ve been wanting to run a human-only campaign for a while. I had a series of posts a while back about reskinning the B/X races-as-class for humans (so the halfling became the scout, the elf became the fighting magic-user, etc). Not an original idea by any means, but I like how most of them turned out, though I’m still not 100% satisfied with the dwarf as engineer.

    Another compromise that I have been considering is human only to begin with, but players could make demi-human PCs once they have been discovered within the campaign (or promote demi-human retainers to full PCs). This would also provide a nice incentive to parley with monsters. In this system, if you wanted to play an orc (or a dragon!) you would first need to get one as a retainer.

    I agree with all of your points, and would add a few more.

    1. Making all of the demi-humans common can also make other weird elements seem less weird. There’s a reason why traditional fantasy fiction was often told from the perspective of an outsider, so that the reader can learn things along with the protagonist. It’s harder to “discover” the elves if presumably you grew up as one (and what growing up as one means is usually hand-waved).

    2. In my experience, most fantasy demi-human races are stand-ins for nation-state politics. There’s an elf-land, with armies, and ambassadors, and all the other things that nations need. And orc tribes, or whatever. I have the same issue with aliens in Star Trek. Most of them are either thinly veiled analogues to human nations, or (slightly more subtly) blends of one or two human cultures. For example, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s almost impossible (for me, at least) to not just substitute in cold war politics. I don’t see that anything is usually gained by making the nations different by using fantasy races.

    There is a really good section on this in the LotFP Grindhouse Edition Referee book:

    Humanoids are basically man-like creatures who have a gimmick and are present merely to give PCs intelligent, organized opponents which can be slaughtered wholesale with little reflection, remorse, or consequence.

    They’re not useless in fantasy gaming, but are nearly always overused. Certainly an abundance of humanoids will detract from any sense of the Weird that your campaign may generate. Too many commonplace nonhuman societies give the entire campaign an exotic flavor that works against horror and Weirdness. If everything is fantastic, then nothing is.

    Whenever you think to introduce a humanoid, just ask yourself, “Why would these not work as humans?”

    However, there are good answers to the question, “Why would these not work as humans?” and thus good uses of humanoids. The trick is not to stoop to cliché in their presentation, and don’t overuse them. Don’t make any of the races globe-spanning entities. Localize them. And you don’t need an entirely new race every time you change the monster’s Hit Dice.

    (By the way, the LotFP Grindhouse Edition Referee book is perhaps the best DM book since the original Dungen Masters Guide. Highly recommended.)

  4. Yeah~! Asian Dwarf is cool! Some of them even have golden hair and silver eyes, altough most have red-bronze or black-iron colored hair. Hehehe~! (if you ever play Rune Factory 3 or Sword World, you’ll know what i mean) (^_^)

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