What happens to elves when they die?

"Orcs have to die!" Racism in role play

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes


Dwarves hate elves, elves hate dwarves, and everyone hates the orcs. Races and their rivalry has been going on Dungeons and Dragons an integral part of fantasy role-playing games. But what is the truth of the old accusation that role-playing is therefore racist and should be enjoyed with caution? Are we no longer allowed to slay trolls with a clear conscience and plunder their caves? Troll hunter Dirk has asked himself a few serious questions about this sensitive topic.

[Editor's note: This article was published in 2014 and its content has been revised]

Let's start this delicate subject with a not so fictitious story: A boy is thirteen and is just beginning to discover the hobby of role-playing games. Fantasy should be how The Hobbitthat he recently saw in the cinema. It's good that his friends lately The Eine ring play. He wants to fight like Legolas and creates a wood elf from Mirkwood to fight the orcs from Dol Guldur.

“Are there any nice orcs?” He asks the game master. "No. They're all mean, ugly, and stinky. They are a soulless race and only serve the evil from the east. If you see one, you better kill him. ”At home he proudly tells his father about his adventures and is house arrested. “You don't play such a racist cheese!” The boy no longer understands the world. Where was the problem anyway?

Table of Contents

The problem with Tolkien's time

The fact that there are several humanoid races in many role-playing games is old hat for role-players. After all, that was the case with Tolkien. The co-founder of the fantasy genre and thus the grandfather of fantasy role-playing games described in the Silmarillion, Lord of the rings and The little hobbit the world of middle earth. There, in a simplified and exaggerated way, the good elves fight against the bad orcs. Tolkien wrote these works in the first half of the 20th century against the background of currents such as nationalism and the social Darwinist idea of ​​racial struggle. Tolkien's description of the sublime fair-haired elves and crooked-legged, slit-eyed, cruel and black-skinned orcs (from the East (!)) Are all the more irritating for us today. in the Little hobbit they are even described as "cruel, treacherous and evil-hearted people".

Insidious races, phenotypic characteristics for enemies? From today's perspective, we have to be careful not to rush to blame the founding father of fantasy. Because clear enemy images and their devaluation are also in Tolkien's tradition of fairy tales and legends. The orcs are a people, but also mythological creatures of evil, created by the god Melkor as caricatures and adversaries of the elves.

In addition, Tolkien was, in spite of literary-historical enthusiasm for Germanic heroic sagas, a resolute enemy of racism. In a 1938 letter he wrote in response to an inquiry regarding his parentage: "I have many Jewish friends and would regret to give any reason to believe that I subscribe to this utterly vicious and unscientific racial teaching (...)" . So it would be too easy to see Tolkien's world of Middle-earth and its peoples only as the product of a national zeitgeist. Because the wars of men and elves are not waged as a cultural war, but solely against the threat of an unnatural enemy.

The orcs, on the other hand, act primarily out of fear of their master and through his supernatural coercion. So the affirms Lord of the rings by addressing the peoples and their differences, it does not show ethnic prejudices, but rather shows how they have been overcome in favor of a multicultural idea. This can be seen most clearly in the community of companions and in the deep friendship of the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli. Tolkien's story is not a popular Germanic epic, but a through and through fantastic heroic saga in which inconspicuous and unusual protagonists (hobbits!) Take center stage.

A people to kill and rob ...

Twenty years after the publication of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings Gary Gygax created the nucleus of modern role-playing games: Dungeons and Dragons. He diligently made use of Tolkien's Middle-earth. In Dungeons and Dragons If magic and supernatural beings should also play a major role, Tolkien's companions were clearly the model of intended groups of heroes. So it is not surprising that Gygax implemented different races - elves were slender and beautiful archers, dwarves were greedy but brave hand-to-hand fighters.

And orcs? They were the enemy again and released to be shot down. Countless groups of heroes stamped through ancient dungeons and mowed down hordes of greenskins to get their treasures. In its early days, role-playing was still closer to the board game, the psychologization of the hobby was not yet very advanced, and opponents were hardly more than enemy pawns.

The clichés of arrogant elves, thieving gnomes and drunken dwarves were more problematic. These helped players to get started quickly with the character, but at the same time conveyed a picture of prejudices that were repeatedly confirmed - coupled with fictional peoples. But that was more a question of style, because where characters and opponents are little more than play values, moral doubts and warning fingers are out of place.

Player of Dungeons &Dragons consciously bought a black and white fantasy world in which magic spells could definitely 'read out' the attitude of a counterpart. Orcs (and gnolls, drow, mind flayers, etc.) served the players' longing for clear enemy images that could be killed without thinking to justify the act of killing and looting. The defining element of “race” made it easier to categorize enemies than, for example, membership in guilds or belief in certain gods. But with some critical players the feeling remained that something was wrong with the orcs, who were exterminated down to the last greenskin on some self-made fantasy worlds 'for the benefit of the free and good peoples'.

In the skin of the enemy - The Drizzt phenomenon

While progressive editions of Dungeons and Dragons Not officially admitting orcs as a player race in order to get the label as "enemies" and not to raise moral questions, an upgrading of the old enemies began elsewhere. But the culprit wasn't greenskin at all, but a drow whose people were no less frowned upon and reprehensible. His name, which is probably known to all role-players today: Drizzt Do’Urden. The unique thing about the creation of author R.A. Salvatore was Drizzt's dissent and humanity. A good dark elf clearly contradicted the bad people attribution and raised countless questions. In Drizzt's backstory in the novel series The Dark Elf Trilogy the responsibility for the deeds of his people was not tied to a supernatural evil, as was the case with Tolkien, but rather as a result of the culture of Drow described.

Apart from that, Drizzt was not a devious 'sub-being', but a noble prince of his kind, brave adventurer and good swordsman, in short: a hero. The result of this de-demonization was - thanks in part to Drizzt's popularity - resounding. Purified orcs, vampires, dark elves, goblins, warlocks and werewolves appeared as characters in countless RPG rounds and publications.

With that, role-play and the fantasy genre began a moral reappraisal of the racial category incorporated by Tolkien. This was a necessary modernization of the legacy of folk ideas that had been dragged along from the early 20th century and which was quite misleading, and which were by no means counteracted as well in all publications as they were in Lord of the Rings.

The most important question: If one individual succeeds in liberation and change of mind, why not others too? This brought about a change of perspective that some players still nibble on today. The eternally evil perpetrators and cannon fodder of the orcs became misunderstood victims of the circumstances and their culture. In other words, being an orc was suddenly no longer a reason to be murdered and robbed. On the one hand, the decoupling of racial attitudes expanded the hobby to include interesting stories and moral gray areas. On the other hand, this new perspective complicated old plots of adventure and dungeons. Because now racism had become an issue.

Racism in the pen and paper role-playing game today

Today's role-playing community is shaped by the idea of ​​a multicultural society in which images of the enemy no longer come from peoples or states, but from elements that disrupt order such as terrorists (Finsterlands Anarchists, Vampires: The Requiems Belial's Brut) or are to be found in power structures themselves (Shadowruns Corporations).

Wars do not arise from a sense of mission or the idea of ​​cultural dominance, but from the conflict of important different interests (the clans in Legend of the Five Rings). While playgroups accept the existence of races in role-play as a tradition of hobbies since Tolkien, open racism of the protagonists towards imaginary peoples seems out of place.

Gone are the days when orcs were stupid enemies. Even the otherwise traditional top dog DSA allowed orcs as playable characters in the 4th edition and added Empire of the Red Moon its own background volume. This development is also a result of the constantly expanding complex role-playing game, which, in the search for new ways to play, extends the limits of what is playable and thereby opens up new perspectives.

Of course, exceptions prove the rule: In settings like Dark Heresy in the Warhammer 40,000-Universe, racism (here xenophobia) is part of the repertoire of dystopia. The setting in itself is social criticism, even if some players celebrate a catharsis of the modern age brushed on "political correctness". And it's true: clear archaic enemy images such as bizarre aliens, demons and the undead have something relaxing. But you have to put up with the question of whether such two-dimensional enemy images are not out of date today. Role-playing games with complex enmity constellations such as Exalted of White wolf or A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying are no less martial or heroic, but more modern and almost completely dispense with races as elements of categorization.

Role play with racism

RPG has the advantage of working according to fantastic rules through which monsters real and humanoid races can be a biological fact of the game world. This makes it ideal for making concepts and ideas tangible, to which we have otherwise difficult access today, as they only appear to be highly politically charged or cause apathy by being over-themed.

This also and especially applies to racism. For example, they offer Forest Knightregularly offers educational LARPs to bring young people closer to this sensitive topic. Your experiences, sometimes in the difficult role of a victim who has been discriminated against, are valuable and formative LARP educational food. At this point be with Charnal Houses of Europe: The Shoah also mentioned a daring pen & paper experiment on borderline experiences of racism. In this supplement too White Wolfs game Wraith the players slip into the role of ghosts of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust. Even for experienced playgroups, this is a challenge and the setting is probably the greatest possible personal approach to the topic without disrespect for the victims.

W6 moral index finger

Despite some grim role-playing games and martial book covers, a condemnation of the hobby, hanging on the word "race" on numerous character arcs, misses the topic.

The moral index finger is usually raised in a complete lack of understanding of the traditions, history and mechanics of role-playing games. Here there is a need to mediate with an older generation (who are significantly more sensitive to the topic due to the temporal proximity and proximity of their parents to National Socialism). Because on the one hand, role-play always includes the player's free decision-making power for or against an action and thus a focus on weighing and the search for morally or tactically better alternatives.

On the other hand, hardly any other topic like racism has been dealt with so intensively, illuminated and processed in role-play campaigns and buyable adventures. After all, role play lives from slipping and thinking into other roles and foreign peoples. Legolas and Gimli, as well as the players at the gaming table, not only awaken an understanding of what is foreign, but also build bridges to other cultures and build friendships.

This is the real legacy of Tolkien's elves and orcs. In the end, it remains to be hoped that with the current retro wave of role-playing games, not all too clumsy enemy images of greenskins run in front of the swords of the upcoming young heroes.

Cover picture: © Anton Kokarev (http://kanartist.ru/)
Layout and typesetting: Roger Lewin
Editing: Simon Burandt