Rethinking Inherently “Evil” Races. (Updated 2/14/21)

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Synchronicity, being what it is, has brought together one of my blog topics and some current discussions floating around the web. In particular the racist nature of dark-skinned fantasy races that also are inherently “evil”.

Over on the RM Forums there is discussion about the dark-skin – evil duality. However I am more interested in the broader issue of evil races and if they even make sense. As a primer this is an interesting take:

Certainly a lot of progression has occurred in fantasy over the last 40 years: simplistic tropes have developed into more mature themes, the founding player base has aged and “awoken” and world building has expanded into more realistic modeling of societies.

Putting Tolkien aside, perhaps the most stark examples of monolithic races that I can remember was in David Eddings Belgariad series. Even as a young reader, the stark rigid depiction of racial characteristics was distracting. But this was pretty standard for Golden Age fantasy gaming and driven by the ideas on literature.

There are probably many driving forces for the standardization of evil races in fantasy gaming:

  1. Alignment. The introduction of alignments, and the assignment of alignments to races, monsters and creatures created a blanket behavioral type that was hard to overcome. I remember one early game where we first introduced a half-orc PC–the rest of the group was suspicious that the PC was secretly an assassin and was never trusted.
  2. Physical characteristics. Again, there is enough written about skin color, but there is also the physical attractiveness equation: ugly = bad, beautiful = good (although beautiful is also depicted as evil, but in a remote dispassionate cruelty).
  3. Story element. Every hero needs a foe, so races of inherently evil humanoids are a great standard foil. Fighting, attacking and killing any member of a evil race is just and righteous.
  4. Societal traits. Civilizations that are ambitious, colonialist, capitalist or warlike could be described as “Evil” or just immoral. Does that mean that every member of the society also holds those traits? A majority of them? Or just the leaders and powerful members of society?

Personally, I like moral ambiguity in my campaigns. It provides a more complicated ethical framework and consequences for actions. However, I realize that one of the appeals of RPG’s is it’s relief from a morally complicated reality and the escape to a good vs evil paradigm.

But even if you like a simpler framework, does it make sense to apply a blanket label like “evil” to an entire race? Is that corruption embedded in their DNA? Is it nature vs nurture? Can a societal structure create so much influence as to pre-ordain a person’s ethical nature? This is a philosophical debate, but still worth considering when using races like Dark Elves and Orcs in your setting.

One hand-wave approach to rationalizing a racial alignment is to have it driven by the race/society’s god; ie they worship an evil god therefore the people are “evil” too. Simple. In my own Shadow World campaign, the only truly evil entity is the Unlife. Dyari (Dark Elves) are simply a label for Elves that have forsaken the Lords of Orhan, and are not a distinct separate race.

There are a lot of arguments against a intrinsic evil as a racial trait. What are the argument for it? What do you do in your game?

{Update} In a related note, James over at Grognardia had an interesting post on alignment languages. It’s been decades since I’ve dealt with alignments, but the more I ponder the concept of alignment languages the less it makes sense. Based on the comments to James’ post, a lot of people struggle to define or rationalize them.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Inherently “Evil” Races. (Updated 2/14/21)”

  1. What a great post to wake up to on a day I’m snowed in! I started thinking about this when the issue of race in gaming got attention in the spring. I realized that there were two things that made race/culture in my campaign different from the real world, and you sort of hit both of them. One, “race” in my world and Rolemaster is really more distinct than what we have in the real world. Elves, dwarves, etc. have fundamentally different abilities and nature, by rule system. Two, “evil” can have a true presence that is manifest in daily life, unambiguously. The fantasy nature, as you point out, allows for a structure so different from our lives that the morality context requires a “fantasy check” on the real-world issues.
    I do not have monolithic evil races or cultures in my campaign, though the government or religion that holds power may be evil. And by evil, I usually mean consciously wanting and willing to cause actual harm and suffering to others for personal gain. In my main culture, the Jan (Shadow World Nomads of the Nine Nations, absent the Shadow World elements), has an evil deity but that deity is not ascendent. The neighboring Shoneb Empire is heavily influenced by that church, which includes human and orcish sacrifice (so now the humans go out orc-hunting to use them for sacrifice, adding more moral ambiguity to the “norm”). Citizens live largely in fear and poverty, much like a post-Soviet country with an added evil deity hovering over it.
    When I started pondering this, I came across Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions. It scores cultures on 6 metrics, and I went through my primary cultures and scored them. I since have used it to sort of frame out my concepts for new cultures, even down to the level of cities. It’s not perfect for gaming – it has no “Inflicting pain” or “evil” dimension – but it’s been a novel way to get myself thinking of what that culture will be like. I also started writing out the *prevailing* core values for the culture, the gender values (if there’s a difference in how genders there are valued, or value different things), and “legacy” values to reflect what they consider important as the legacy they’ll leave.
    You mentioned moral ambiguity and I’m totally on board with that. I also like slowly revealing layers of information that change the situation and make the party reassess their plans. For example, they were in a city where two gangs were fighting. When they started to try to intervene, they started learning new information that made them realize that if they weakened either gang, the other would run rough-shod over the citizens. The party could move on, but the city would be in chaos and it would be their fault.
    The party is going after a fire giant right now, to get a gem the giant stole from the nearby city. But they don’t know that the gem was promised to the giant originally by the miners who found it. Nor do they know that there’s a long-standing compact between the miners and the giant for gems in return for protection from big nasties. And once they’re in the giant’s lair, they may learn she has a human jeweler who stays with her because together they can forge jewelry far more beautiful than either could do alone. They *may* learn it if they don’t just charge in, swords out and hacking.

  2. With the Belgariad, the only real interaction with the “evil” races was by and large with the very definitely unpleasant priesthood of a god who was at best, utterly insane, or with those trying to kill the heroes. It’s noticeable that, in the Mallorean, when those races are interacted with again that, bar the still massively unpleasant priesthood, they come across a lot better.

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