“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.