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Subverting D&D's Racial Stereotypes

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

How to meaningfully subvert racial stereotypes in D&D.

There is something about the physical shape and texture of a spider that causes a biological reaction in more or less everyone who has not confronted and overcome this primitive back-brain fear response. This is what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious”. In Jungian theory, an archetype is “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious”.

Thus, an archetype is a high order psychological or even epistemological concept, pattern or meme that carries power, weight and value as a psychological and narrative tool. Archetypes are foundations for character concepts in stories and in role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. This also applies to monsters, and non player characters. Thus an archetype can be a force of empowerment.

A stereotype, by contrast is generally, a negative set of assumptions about a race, group or culture. Thus a stereotype is, in its base form, disempowering. e.g. Orcs are evil and stupid. Orc is the archetype. "Stupid and evil" is the stereotype. Warning: Conflating the terms archetype and stereotype is dangerous and incorrect.

First I want to discuss archetypes:

In an RPG, like Dungeons and Dragons, an archetype might represent a class, a race or a monster type. Psychologically and mythically these represent powerful, primal thought-forms that are so deeply ingrained in the human condition----and the very architecture of the brain----that they are virtually immutable. (I say virtually, but the truth is when they change, they become new archetypes. For example the Monster becomes the Mentor, the Ally becomes the Traitor, The Child becomes the Hero etc).

There are a number of different archetypes that represent different aspects of self and the human condition that can be expressed through character, theme, plot and even spectacle.

Besides paying special attention to four primary archetypes, Carl Jung claimed to identify a large number of others. Jung labeled these primary archetypes the Self, the Persona, the Shadow and the Anima/Animus but a variety of others are also deeply important to narrative construction and character building.

Some of these myriad other archetypes include the hero, the trickster, the antihero. The hero myth itself is the most obvious example of a primary narrative archetype. It is so archetypal that it is used ubiquitously in the game D&D to refer to the player characters. But the list goes on and includes archetypes that are present in all cultures and for all peoples.

We all recognize the father figure (the mentor) the mother figure (the nurturer), the seducer (sometimes the lover), the vampire (the monster), etc. The list goes on.

For the purpose of this essay we shall ignore elemental archetypes such as fire, water, earth, air and also natural archetypes such as trees, flowers, and animals such as lions and cattle, snakes and spiders. We shall instead concentrate upon anthropomorphic archetypes (i.e. humanoid archetypes) and mythological archetypes (i.e. monster archetypes) as they relate to characters and NPCS and how we can use them for storytelling and meaningful role playing.

Utilized narratively, in conjunction with conflict----which is the essential element of drama----archetypes represent the essential, unchanging, immortal element of a character. An archetype is universal, self evident and consistent. It does not change without completely subverting its nature and narrative purpose. Altering an archetype beyond recognition dilutes its power and ultimately causes it to switch places with an entirely different archetype. The transformation here is cosmetic and meaningless. This can happen when a person tries to tamper with an archetype, failing to understand its purpose or its symbolic power upon the personal or collective unconscious.

In Dungeons and Dragons, it is my contention that the Monster Manual (along with the other bestiaries) is a kind of Archetypal Grimoire representing various underdeveloped and non-integrated aspects of the Hero's Self. These Monsters represent narrative potentials that can be resolved in any number of ways. Either through diplomacy, trickery or traditionally, combat (i.e. drama, resulting in a cathartic unity through death).

The act of the hero facing conflict causes the hero’s transformation. The application of heat in alchemy is fundamental to the transformation of base lead into gold. This could be said to apply in stages in D&D, from level 1 to level 20. From The Fool to the Magus. The Reluctant Hero to the King.

However, for the death of a monster to be meaningful, the obstacle that it represents needs to be important to the characters and players. That could be as simple as survival or as complex as justice or revenge. In any case the archetypes represented in the Monster Manual (etc) have traditionally not been playable races. Perhaps 90% of them or more, are still considered unplayable. It is my belief that the game designers understand these concepts and this is at least in part their underlying reason for building the game this way. Thus the drama is built in and hardwired. Note: Nine archetypal alignments built into the game.

Recently, in a bid to allow for more diversity, D&D has widened the definition of playable races to include certain archetypes once trapped in stasis as evil villains in the Monster Manual; creatures that once simply represented Fear and Disgust, Villainy and Greed etc are now allowed to have other lives. Goblins and Orcs for example are now playable races, (since Volo’s Guide to Monsters) and with the new tools allowed in Tashas Cauldron Of Everything they can be tweaked to allow their stat bonuses to be made flexible. Now you can have smart orcs and good goblins.

This is where the term Stereotype becomes important.

A good goblin is still a goblin. Right? It maintains its essential gobliness. Whatever it is about the goblin that makes it a worthwhile archetype----whatever essential element that makes a goblin resonate with universal human consciousness is still there. However, the notion that all goblins are an evil, stupid, greedy species is a stereotype. This is a more complex issue.

An archetype, as opposed to a stereotype, is an empowering, transformative image and tool. It doesn’t transform, it does the transforming. It is the alembic or vessel in which conflict and drama (fire/heat) is used to change the base lead of the stereotype into narrative gold: Engaging, interesting and transformative drama.

Can a goblin be unselfish? The simple answer is obviously yes.

Are all goblins unselfish? Obviously no.

Are most goblins unselfish? This depends on your dungeon master and our choice of campaign setting.

In traditional D&D Lore, this goblin stereotype, embraces itself in a way that makes them excellent antagonists to fuel the fire of conflict for the transformation of the players. However, because it is just a stereotype, this set of assumptions about goblins is not intrinsically true for them. Not universal, self evident or consistent. Therefore untrue.

Thus when a player chooses to play a goblin character they are not obligated to play the stereotype goblin at all. They can indeed make a hula dancing, princess dress wearing cutsie goblin that likes to pick daisies and "pat sheeps ears and noses". And that is completely ok.

However, one should still not conflate archetype with stereotype. You have changed the stereotype here, and depending upon the campaign setting, you may or may not have switched the archetype for another. Here’s how this works. If one was to take the above goblin character----lets call her Daisy----and we were to put her in the tradition campaign setting where most goblins have been (un) socialized and programmed to act like greedy, nasty, sadistic, hostile little monsters (i.e. goblins), Daisy finds herself an outcast from her goblin clan, her family and her people. She is not like them. Not to mention her struggle among the “fair races” of Faerun where she is likely to be treated as a freak, an oddity and a pet.

Daisy has proven that she can break the goblin stereotype (and that it can be broken) but because the traditional archetypal goblin form is intact, this transition means something. It means something because now Daisey’s struggle is real. We get to see Daisy deal with prejudices and conflict. We get to see her change. We get to see how she overcomes the various inherent prejudices. We see her gain allies and friends. How they bond over her struggle and how they change the world. This is empowering. Both for Daisy and for the inner lives of the players.

If however, Daisy lives a happy life among other goblins of her kind, who have also put aside their goblin ways, then unless we include this part of the narrative aside---an act which proves that they could change, break from their stereotypes and otherwise become civilized and reasonable creatures----we have robbed the archetype of its power. By incorporating this narrative, by way of backstory or part of the chronology of the game, we demonstrate that Goblins can deal in diplomacy and kindness as well as malignant death and rampant destruction----perhaps because they have learned the value of themselves as sentient creatures, either through their own indigenous agency or through outside forces. This is their archetypal evolution and mirrors universal human stories as we rise from the animal kingdom to become a proud, sentient people. Thus the goblin archetype has a story---its narrative is its evolution or its destruction. Sounds familiar. The rise of humanity from self destructive war and materialism to civilization and compassion. This has weight and pathos and reflects on the human condition.

If we ignore this journey, however, and begin our plot with the Happy Happy Joy Joy goblin tribe of Daisy the goblin---then we have robbed ourselves of the struggle of the goblin people to Become. More than this, if we ignore the original archetype’s associated stereotypes completely----we lose the essential element of the goblins narrative and Daisy might as well have been a Gnome. In which case, why even bother making her goblin at all, except to say “Look at me, I am being diverse!”

Switching a goblin archetype for a gnome archetype, despite the green skin and cutesy appearance, is cosmetic, and this is either an obfuscation, which avoids any actual dramatic premise allowing us to learn about racial prejudice and grow----or worse, it is a self--elusion.

Putting a knight in a wizards robes undermines both archetypes. Putting a devout Cleric of Light, in a rogues outfit, undermines both archetypes. They are no longer what they essentially were. The essentialness is now missing. This creates an entirely different situation. A conflict that can be remedied by multiclassing in D&D or having the character experience an existential crisis of self. BUT--they do not go on, business as usual. I think we can all accept that this would be nonsense dramatically, realistically and again, it steals the dramatic premise. No story writer, ever, thought that was a good idea.

Thus, in my opinion, the stereotype is related to the archetype, especially at the beginning of a character arc / development, in the narrative. But the stereotype is to be destroyed over the course of the narrative and by doing so, we are able to learn something. Other members of our group are given an opportunity to learn something, and we have fuel for the dramatic conflict in the story. Now we have an opportunity to play inner conflict and outer conflict and suddenly we have an interesting and realistic character. On the other hand, if we play Daisey of the Happy Happy Joy Joy Goblin tribe right out the gate, we’ve added nothing and we have conflated the goblin archetype, for a gnome. Thus, if you want to play Daisy the Goblin then somewhere in the narrative, either in play, in your backstory, or your GM's world's lore, the transformation of the goblin, their tribe or their race, from Monster to Hero has to occur for the goblin to be meaningful at all. If on the other hand, you have no desire or interest in engaging in meaningful role playing, it is easy to simply make the statement: "I am the good happy goblin, look how diverse I am." This doesn't hurt anyone. This is not bad or wrong. But you have robbed yourself, your fellow players and the world of a good story and the potential to explore and empathize with the plight of a maligned people. You have in fact really just switched one archetype for another and you are fooling yourself about how clever you are.

All cultures have a variety of monsters in their myths. A goblin is a western monster but it has analogues and names in many cultural myths too. In all those myths, the goblin archetype serves a similar purpose. It is not inherently there to racially profile another race, but is instead born of the subconscious fear of the unknown. Breaking down the stereotypes of an archetypes involves shedding light on it. When a bigot is forced into close proximity to the object of his disgust, he is forced to confront his prejudices and humanize this anathema. Archetypes cast shadows. The shadow is the stereotype. The Paladin's shadow is Lawful Stupid. The goblin's is Fear and Disgust. Engagement through narrative conflict and meaningful depth sheds light on the stereotypes, dispelling them as the illusions they are. But ignoring this process is folly. Do not be afraid of confronting the Shadow. Seek the Shadow and destroy it with your friends. Do it openly, do it publicly. Show the world Daisy's struggle and let them understand the dynamics of prejudice and hate so they can evolve too.

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