Examining Evil Humanoids

The nature of evil humanoids is a controversial topic in tabletop gaming, and it’s one with no easy answers. Or even hard answers. 

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There may even be no answers, just more problems. 

This recently came up in my last D&D game, and has also come up a few times in the last few weeks in my Twitter feed—which is no surprise as it comes up often everywhere for the last twenty-odd years. If not longer than that when you expand the conversation beyond tabletop RPGs and include fantasy fiction as a whole.

As such, doing a deep dive into the problems of innately evil humanoids and the associated racist connotations seemed like a worthy blog subject. 

Now, before I get started, I think the triggers of this article should be obvious. It will be addressing racism and racial violence as well as colonialism, which can be upsetting to some. But it also runs adjacent to free speech, free expression, and censorship in gaming. These can be triggers for an entirely different groups, because people dislike being told how to run their games and no one likes it implied that their game/ campaign setting is racist and, by extension, that they are racist…

Killing the Wicked

I think every gaming table has engaged in the conversation about whether or not to kill a quote-unquote evil humanoid. The captured drow. The sleeping orc. The demon trapped in the summoning circle. The goblin baby. 

That last one isn’t even remotely hyperbole. The first Edition AD&D adventure The Keep on the Borderlands has several humanoid encampments in caves, with the expectation that the players are going to kill or drive away everyone inside—including the children—to allow humans to settle the titular borderlands. (Read: colonize.) And the first adventure path released for the Pathfinder product line, Rise of the Runelords: Burnt Offerings features a goblin fortress with several cages of goblin children (which is how goblins rear their young in that world). Every single group that plays that adventure is left with a singular question: kill the goblin offspring, let them go (and likely die in the wilds), try and raise them, or just leave them and let them starve. 

And there’s no “right” answer to that particularly effed-up moral quandary. Goblins are “evil” in the Bestiary/ Monster Manual so killing them should be as morally defensible as killing a demon or undead skeleton. Innately evil beings. Unless the DM is of the opinion goblins can be redeemed, in which case the infanticide is a monstrous crime. That’s assuming goblins even need to be “redeemed” and goblin’s evil alignment is societal, the result of evil cultural values, and if raised by humans they’d be functional members of society. Every Dungeon Master has their own opinion on this issue and the truth of each option.

But even considering the idea that goblin society—and all goblin cultures and subcultures—can be “evil” is more than a little problematic. Which brings us to the issue of “evil” as a subrace. 

Black is Bad?

For intelligent humanoids, specifically drow and duergar, it’s now considered an outright bad idea to have them be inherently evil. The idea that everyone in a certain culture or of a particular nation is capital-e Evil is problematic.

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Firstly, it taps into the same dislike of “the other” commonly used to demonize the opposing forces in war. The other side is immoral and seeks to destroy your way of life. There’s no reasoning with them. They oppose everything you stand for. Etc. Having evil cultures feels less like a fact of the world and more like propaganda. Something the other elven cultures say to make conflict and murder justified. Drow are evil. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

This is also highly reductive, reducing an entire people to an alignment. Casting all they do and all their philosophy as either good or evil, rather than some values being good and some being evil. Because no nation can possibly be all-good and without flaws. This is even assuming you can identify a value as “evil”, which is ethnocentric: judging another culture based on your own values.

Secondly, predominantly evil races have the additional issue that they’re classically dark skinned. Having the non-white people automatically be evil and associating dark skin with immorality is deeply, deeply problematic, owing to real world history and treatment of people based on their colouration.

There’s lots of counterarguments. Black-as-evil is found in multiple cultures including several African religions. And fair skin is seen as preferable in many cultures across the globe because it’s untanned and implies a life of wealth or leisure rather than the sun-baked skin of a labourer. “Dark elves” predate D&D and come from the svartálfar of Norse mythology (literally translated as black or swarthy elves), and certainly didn’t have modern views of ethnicity. 

But none of that matters.

Because, in the end, D&D is predominantly a North American game, and Western racism is steeped in abusing those with darker skin. So while having fantasy people  with black skin be evil may not be intentionally racist or historically racist, it doesn’t feel non-racist. And racism, like bullying or harassment, is all in how the person being affected feels. No one gets to tell the victim how to feel or that their feelings are wrong. So dark skinned evil races are at the very least racially insensitive. 

And it never hurts to be sensitive to others.  

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D&D has actually tried to move away from this in recent editions. Drow became pitch-black in 2nd Edition rather than brown-skinned, before becoming purple/blue in 3e. And both drow and duergar are a medium-grey now, being much more light skinned than in the past. (Arguably, drow are fairer skinned now than the sun elves of the Forgotten Realms, who have been described as “bronze skinned” since 1st Edition.) And like duergar and drow, orcs are also a lighter grey; in bright light they’re almost closer to my pasty flesh than any of the myriad skin tones of Africa.

But, honestly, short of making drow albino I don’t think this will matter: the cultural zeitgeist knows drow are “black” and that can’t be changed. Much like how DC comics can’t stop jokes about Superman & Batman wearing their underwear on the outside, even if they’ve removed the briefs from their costume for the last decade. The trope is too well known.

The only way forward might be to shift away from drow and similar societies being evil. Or even just predominantly evil by introducing good settlements and non-demon worshipping drow in addition to the more overt evil kingdoms. Diversifying the alignment and culture of drown and instead just having the Lolth worshippers be evil. So they’re not evil because they’re drow, but because they worship a demon-goddess.

Nature Versus Nurture

The above gets harder with more “savage” humanoids like goblins or orcs, who seldom have organized nations or kingdoms that can be labelled “evil” like the above demon worshipping drow of Menzoberranzan. Instead, there’s individual groups and bands, which are largely separate and unconnected to other goblinoids and orcs and not organized into a single nation. Despite their social groups being separated and scattered, all orcs tend to roughly look and act the same. Which is evilly.

This raises the question of whether these humanoids are inherently evil and uncivilized or if their evil deeds is the product of upbringing. If it is cultural and the result of being raised in the orc bands, and if raised elsewhere they’ll have human or elven behaviour. Or the alternative, which is they’re just the humanoid equivalent of “undomesticated”—like wolves or foxes—and no amount of careful raising will prevent them from being a wild animal and behaving in an unpredictable manner. You can raise a coyote from when it’s a puppy, but it will never truly behave like a dog.  

There’s no correct or easy answers here. It’s horrible all the way down.

If it’s nurture, then all orcs have the same capacity for civilization and virtue as all other humanoid beings. Which raises the question of why they live in tribal lands in the wilds of other kingdoms, using scavenged or roughly-made equipment. You have to ask why they don’t have farms and build cities. Why they aren’t welcome in human or elven settlements. This strongly implies other humanoid civilizations have a long history of oppressing goblins and orcs. Forcing them into reservations. There’s shades of colonialism and systemic abuse. Even having orcs just be nomads who choose to maintain their traditional lifestyles and reject human culture while living inside the nations of others feels similar to the Romani people or Irish Travellers. This makes orcs being unwelcome in human settlements unintentionally parallel to the racism directed at those peoples. And most significantly, having orc behaviour being “nurture” means adventurers going into orc/goblin villages and killing everyone are perpetuating hate crimes and committing ethnic cleansing.

And man is that not a good take.

Making the reason orcs are less civilized a result of their nature avoids the above. Orcs may not be inherently evil, but they’re inherently chaotic: irrational monsters that you can kill for the good of innocents. Adventurers aren’t performing racial genocide but keeping the pest population under control.

However, having it be their nature still invokes some pretty horrible real world analogues, where certain peoples were considered less advanced or evolved. How orcs are being presented is a little too close to comfort with how people of African descent were commonly seen just a hundred and fifty years ago. Dismissed as savages and inherently uncivilized or uncouth. This can be really upsetting for some people, especially those who might have first hand experience being told they’re innately more aggressive, less intelligent, more subservient, or predisposed to certain tasks. (Which is, of course, all bullshit.) 

And nobody should be forced to remember being insulted and dehumanized while playing an escapist hobby game. Ever. 

Again, 5e has tried really, really hard to find a middle way. 5e has doubled-down on the connection of orcs to the god Gruumsh, even identifying them as “Godsworn” in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. So they’re not evil because of their nature or nurture but because the divine external force who created them is literally exerting His will on them, altering their culture and mindset. 

But I’m not sure even this is enough, as orcs are well-known for their problematic representation elsewhere. Most famously in Lord of the Rings; even fantasy fans who have never played D&D might be familiar with the discussion on whether or not orcs in the book and/or movie are a problematic racial caricature. And not just of people of African descent, as Tolken’s orcs have been seen as Japanese caricatures following the book’s publication shortly after World War II. Even the Wikipedia entry on “orc” raises this issue, despite only including passing references to D&D. Many Tolkien scholars have wrangled this question, weighing it against the needs of having an epic fantasy with enemies that can be faced without sympathy from the audience. 

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Green Lives Matter

If humanoids such as orcs and goblins have the same capacity for morality as humans or elves, this makes elements of the game difficult. Specifically, this makes it really awkward to have disposable action scenes. 

While this is a larger issue that applies to fantasy fiction as a whole, it applied doubly here because Dungeons & Dragons is still a game and you want to have the occasional combat, roll some dice, and use the cool powers your character has that lets them kick ass. For some players, that’s their main reason for playing. From a gamemaster’s perspective, sometimes you need a quick combat encounter to shift the tone of the session, give people’s minds a break, and get the dice rolling. The incidental encounter that doesn’t impact the plot afterward or alter the direction of the session. 

However, if the players start questioning the morality of their actions, this becomes harder. If they try to take captives or find out what drove the orcs to raid a village this makes the scene less of a quick tonal break or narrative palate cleanser between scenes. 

In Dungeons & Dragons there are some inherently evil beings (demons and devils) along with beasts and undead. But these aren’t always as easy to have roaming the countryside. Demons don’t summon themselves and zombies seldom arise with no reason. They make for a poor wandering monster. But even then things get fuzzy. There are good vampires in D&D, such as Jander Sunstar. And the most recent storyline adventure was about an angel (a being of literal Good) that became evil and may potentially be redeemed. If an angel can become the ruler of a layer of Hell, can’t a devil be turned good? A demon used for noble ends like an extraplanar Incredible Hulk? Even monstrous beasts aren’t always simple: who hasn’t seen the party druid try and tame or negotiate with an owlbear? Should the pack of wolves be murdered because they’re hungry? They have just as much right to live as the PCs.

To some extent. simple action scenes can work with regular PC races, like humans and elves, but even then these only work if no one stops to question the bandits or ask if the minions of the Evil Overlords were volunteers or conscripts (or victims of propaganda). Let’s face it, if the PCs ever stopped to ask why someone became a highwayman, the answer isn’t going to be pleasant or simple. People don’t just decide to roam the countryside as wanted fugitives performing regular acts of violence because they were well fed and clothed at home. 

Plus, assuming someone is evil because they’re from “the depraved nation of Simorgya* known for its wicked lifestyle” isn’t particularly better than demonizing orcs, and raises just as many ugly real world parallels.

(*Simorgya from the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story The Sunken Land, which I’m currently reading, invoked because I rolled my eyes at the name.)

Some people like the moral complexity of questioning the treatment of orcs and goblins. Navigating a morally complex world where there are no absolute right or wrong choices and things are ethically grey may appeal to some. And that’s fine. But others simply want more escapism in their fantasy and to play the hero without unintended consequences.

Again, no easy answers.

Pink Ninjas

Another wrinkle to the issue is the desire to be special. To make your player character unique in some way. And an easy way to do this is to subvert a racial trope. The dwarven wizard or the heavily armoured elven knight or the tiefling paladin or the feral halfling. As more races became playable in D&D, a particularly dramatic way was to play a good version of a traditionally evil race. The good drow. Which became the iconic example of this subversion of expectations.

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A former DM of mine used to refer to these characters as “pink ninjas”. Because the player wants to be something recognisably cool, like a ninja, but to also stand out and be special. Often pushing things to the point of absurdity.  

By removing evil races or making all fantasy races equally good and evil, the ability to subvert expectations and make such a character is reduced. People can’t play the exception to the rule or stand out. And this is somewhat undesirable. And, lets face it, one of the most iconic and well known D&D characters is Drizzt Do’Urden. And making good drow more common does make the character less special and unique. 

I don’t think being able to play characters you want outweighs people’s desire to be comfortable in the game and not be reminded of racism or bigotry. But it’s part of the conversation and will drive some people’s reactions and cause some push-back.

Moving Forward

I’ll repeat what I said at the opening: there’s no easy answers to this. I certainly don’t think I know how to solve this issue without first solving real world racism, both systemic and personal.

Because of the needs of the game, I do think you need to accommodate some level of murder-hobo behaviour and it’s preferable to permit easy action scenes without moral consequences. In the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer purposely chose to have vampires lose their souls, to avoid questions of whether vampires could be redeemed and if slaying them immediately was good or bad.

As such, I’m still inclined to have orcs and goblin’s violent tendencies be “nature” in my world and games rather than imply my players have genocidal inclinations. 

But I think some of the evil variants of player races shouldn’t be as monolithically evil. And including a range of skin tones from ash grey to slate grey while avoiding darker hues is also ideal. A range of colouration and subcultures. Making them more diverse and varied places less emphasis on the physical difference between them and their surface kin and more on the cultural differences (demon worship and slavery). 

There is also one other thing that can be done. Which is probably the only easy answer possible in this discussion. While not a true fix, it does help alleviate this issue and make it less pronounced. And this is just to have more people of colour in the game. Humans, elves, dwarves and the like who appear similar to those of African or Polynesian descent. Examples of non-White and non-Western cultures and people in the world. Because one of the big reasons orcs are problematic in Lord of the Rings is that they’re the only non-White characters in the franchise. If there were more diverse examples of humanity in the cast and characters, with heroic protagonists of colour, than the orcs would stand out less. 

And even if it doesn’t end the discussion of these races, we might still end up with a more diverse community for the game. And that is good.

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