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World Building: Race Relations

Some game designers, GMs, and podcasters have been discussing racism in fictional worlds. It’s an issue that touches fields well beyond tabletop roleplaying. Your game may benefit from the strategic introduction of racism to the game world, though it can easily go wrong. Below are perspectives on incorporating racism in games, in tabletop and video games.

(Note: Discussion of race and handling race can be terribly fraught. I’m not the best guide, but follow the links and you’ll find worlds of perspective to consider.)

Recent Discussions

I most recently stumbled on Greg Christopher’s G+ post [1] about incorporating racism for more realistic worlds. In his post, he explains why he’s working on bringing manifestations of racism into the game world as a tool to deepen verisimilitude. One of his first principles is that none of his groups is especially enlightened–racism is something that all of his races will manifest.

In Greg’s scheme, racism is about justification. Justification of Difference, Justification of Success, Justification of Failure, and Justification of Abuse are his four pillars, leading him to specific manifestations that drive characterization (mostly of NPCs), which leads to behavior that can drive plots.

The comments do a good job of bringing up complementary approaches and alternate first principles. They also foreground a concern specific to gaming: are the PCs expected to have the same blinders & beliefs? Depending on how it’s approached, friction between PCs due to their racism might drive the plot, encourage inter-party conflict and dissension, or be an inspiring example of what can be accomplished if you push through your prejudices.

Commenters interrogate the model and discuss how racism will affect the game world, plot, characters, and relations. There are also references to specific games (like Dog Eat Dog [2]) and books where racism deliberately affects fictional worlds. If you’re looking to incorporate racism in your game world, the post and comment thread gives you a framework and examples of application.

Odd Racism Manifestations

Chris Chinn [3] recently pointed readers at an interesting podcast called Justice Points [4]. It’s a wide ranging discussion about (mostly) videogaming, with a lot of examples of racism done poorly. This week’s episode tackled Dragon Age: Inquisition, and mentioned elements of diversity that worked… and many more that smuggled in unexamined assumptions, falling flat.

One key, emphasized by Chris in the post linked above, is that racism as it manifests in the real world comes from a history and context. If you’re not careful, the racism that you added to your game in hopes of making it feel authentic will instead detract–because the manifestations you choose are tied to our history and context rather than reflecting the game world. The fictional racism should express itself very differently if the setting never featured a transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. His post concludes:

It’s so jarring and weird when modern racism bits are inserted into games or settings which… basically have no reason for it otherwise.

Isms at your Table

The racism that builds one player’s feeling of verisimilitude might be one encounter too many this week for another player at your table. Racism’s manifestation in the game world might tune a player out for the rest of the night [5].

Blackjack reported a great discussion [6] with a player about a game world with sexism. The same lesson may apply to your table, whatever ism you explore.

“My intent with including sexist elements was to portray real-world problems but in a fantasy setting where they are easier to overcome. Have I missed the mark?”

“The thing is, I put up with enough crap every day in the real world because I’m a woman. My fantasy world is not one where I get to humiliate chauvinists at will; it’s one where I don’t have to deal with that problem at all.”

Racism and sexism are incredibly easy to introduce to games poorly. Gaming isn’t very diverse [7], which means it’s easy to drift into stereotype–or to borrow unconscious models that apply modern concepts intrusively. Even a nuanced, realistic, portrayal of racism in the game world might dishearten or exhaust someone who faces similar challenges every day. If your game doesn’t tackle racism as a primary theme, carefully consider whether what you’re gaining (verisimilitude, plot drivers) is worth the cost. Consider passing out X-cards [8] or explicitly discuss the challenging elements that you’re incorporating into your game prep before characters are made.

Books versus Table

For a writer, racism can be easier to deploy in service of the story than at a roleplaying table. When the beliefs are spread around the table, it’s important to consider how they’ll be used by everyone–including the players who only skim the background material.

A writer can introduce the consequences of racism to reinforce the themes running through the work. In a collaborative setting like roleplaying, it’s trickier to get a consistent output from the structure you set up. Player actions and the dice might reinforce the tropes that you were hoping to undermine or interrogate.


A different approach to creating conflict between groups is to build the specific cultures, concentrating on their own point of view. By working from an internal point of view, you can often avoid shallow stereotypes. Concentrating on what members of a culture do [9] can be a great tool for showing cultural differences in play. (For more, Gamable Culture [10] discusses a great series of approaches from ThoughtCrime.)

So… have you used racism as a deliberate tool for your game world? Did it work the way you’d hoped? Help us avoid the pitfalls by sharing in comments.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "World Building: Race Relations"

#1 Comment By Yora On February 12, 2015 @ 3:03 am

Personally, I don’t get the idea of people not wanting to deal with certain prejudices in an RPG. We are almost always fine with murder, robbery, and all kinds of other attrocities in games, why should NPCs with prejudices be different? The key is probably to make it clear that it’s the attitude of certain NPCs who prejudiced and not the GM enforcing that all the players play their characters according to these prejudices. PCs are usually very powerful heroes. If they encounter prejudice and discrimination, they have the ability to show those NPCs their place.
Fighting an issue seems much more meaningful to me than playing in an utopian world where everyone agrees to pretend that the prejudices don’t exist.

Dragon Age is a quite good example about prejudices in a videogame, but it’s not really about racisms. People are not attacked or getting into fights because of their bodies, but because of the groups they associate with, or they are assumed to associate with. When a noble looks down on an elf, it’s not because it’s an elf, but because the noble assumes it’s a servant, since all the elves he ever meets in his castle are servants. The human servants get the same bad treatment as the elven servants. And where things get really hot is when it comes to ideology. Elves don’t hate humans. Dalish hate Templars. Because the human templars believe that the dalish leaders use evil magic and need to be destroyed to protect the world from demons. It’s not about racism at all.

Providing historic backgrounds for prejudices and old hatreds is very important, and BioWares other recent game series Mass Effect is even better at that then Dragon Age. Quarians hate intelligent machines, because intelligent machines kicked them out from their homeworld and forced them to live in squalor up to the present day. Krogans hate Salarians not just because they used a bioweapon that decimated their species, but because the Salarians still refuse to cure the disease because they think it was completely justified and have no problem telling that the Krogan right to their face. Nobody would be surprised that these can’t get along. There really are only four historic events that shaped relationships between the species in that setting and it’s amazing how many storylines the people could create with them. Just four reasons why people hate each other, and yet the conflicts seem much more complex and meaningful than what you get in most other settings.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On February 12, 2015 @ 10:13 am

Fighting an issue seems much more meaningful to me than playing in an utopian world where everyone agrees to pretend that the prejudices don’t exist.

I suspect that your quote is key; if you’re going to work racism to serve a function, it might work very well. Unconscious -isms, or conscious -isms that aren’t thought all the way through can counter the effect you’re aiming for.

It’s also important to get everyone on the same page. Are the elf and dwarf going to banter or come to blows over their prejudices? Will the world offer different plots to the group depending on its makeup? Bringing racism in, then relegating it to annoying and constant but irrelevant to plot or leading to shallow characterization is the worst of worlds.

#3 Comment By Weiland On December 9, 2015 @ 10:45 am

I notice you suggested that in Dragon Age, racism between elves and humans isn’t really racism. I would disagree. Not that those particular caste, occupation, and factional issues aren’t present – city elves generally are servants or underlings, and the Templars *are* a major focal point of loathing among the Dalish – but as in real life, animosity towards a certain race for legitimate reasons (I.E. crime, status, culture, etc) eventually condenses into simple racism – or, more specifically, racial contempt.

In real life, a good example could be drawn from black culture in America. Strictly, racism implies a superiority/inferiority of a particular human being on basis of ethnicity. By this strict definition, racism would appear to be largely extinct in American culture (with the obvious exception of certain groups such as, say, the KKK or the Arian Nation – skinheads, that is). However, much of the white population that expresses animosity or mistrust towards blacks often, if questioned, admit that it is rooted in a perspective drawn from observation of reality/statistics on black culture (crime rate by neighboorhood, fatherless households, incarceration, gang activity, and so on). To this extent, you have not strict racism, but more of an animosity towards a particular race. And, often, it devolves into a simpler racism – a loathing of a particular race for rarely-articulated reasons.

Back to Dragon Age. Because of misunderstanding and fear, humans and Dalish have a mutually antagonistic view of each other. While neither will attack the other on sight – humans have been known to interact with Dalish settlements, and Dalish have been known to travel more-or-less unmolested – there are numerous examples of the opposite (DA:O brings to mind a particular example, where the Dalish main character kills off several humans in the forest simply because “no good comes of humans”). “Knife-ears” area often given the short end of the stick in human-dominated regions because it has been deemed (legitimately or illegitimately, opinion varies from scholar to scholar) that elves are trouble – dangerous trouble – if not kept under a strict leash. City elves specifically are second-class citizens whose lifestyles and living environments mimic pre-Civil-War America’s slave environment.

Now, you want a really good example of racism/xenophobia in a video game? Go play a Witcher game – especially, Witcher 3. Non-humans get burned at the stake, regardless of species, simply because humans decided they were dangerous. Or just too different.

#4 Comment By Lord Karick On February 12, 2015 @ 8:03 am

An interesting issue and worthy of attention. One of the biggest problems is dealing with the shift from virtue to failing. 1,000 years ago (hell, who am I kidding, 50 years ago or even today in some corners of this sad world), bigotry, misogyny and racism were considered to be virtues. Of course we see things very differently now and pride ourselves (for the most part) on our educated liberalism. One video game that does this well IMO is The Witcher, where the non-human races are reduced to scraping an existence in ghettos. But playing it out at the table is a challenge beyond my limited GM skills.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On February 12, 2015 @ 10:04 am

I’ve heard similar good things about The Witcher, but haven’t played it yet. I agree; it’s something that I think could work very well, but the degree of “mind meld” required to get a group to handle it properly is intimidating. It’s a little easier with a book or videogame, where the actions and responses are all scripted.

#6 Comment By Yora On February 12, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

The Witcher is very interesting when it comes to these things (and a lot others). They just announced the final books to be released in English (after huge delays), and I can’t recommend them enough. They are terrific.
The first book of the main series is “Blood of Elves” and starts right with the observation that all of the humans present almost certainly have some elven blood themselves. The games a great, but this whole issue gets explored even more deeply in the books.

#7 Comment By Trace On February 12, 2015 @ 8:24 am

“Damn the elves, keeping us down (in the mines).” Dwarf-elf racism is not featured in any of my homebrew settings, as that trope is done to death.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On February 12, 2015 @ 10:07 am

It made sense in Tolkien, but it’s been uncritically copied into a number of games. It’s more problematic when you start changing the races from his vision; once elves ordinary mortals with a longer life and dwarven greed is flair in characterization but doesn’t drive the story, the impact is totally transformed.

#9 Comment By Angela Murray On February 12, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

I’ve never had a problem with the way race relations are handled in Dragon Age. In fact, I’ve always found it to be an interesting twist on the usual way elves are handled in fantasy settings. Sten’s quote from the first game is the one that always stuck with me: “People are not simple. They cannot be summarized for easy reference in the manner of: ‘The elves are a lithe, pointy eared people who excel at poverty.'”

Basically, having played the hell out of Dragon Age, there was never anything about the racism with elves that fell flat for me.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On February 13, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

The podcast has some pretty bad specific examples, but it does seem like the company tried to incorporate racism. It also sounds like it was pretty successful in the game, except for a few problematic oops moments.

#11 Comment By FrugalGnome On February 13, 2015 @ 6:33 am

I love D&D, but the default racial structure has never sat well with me–that there are evil, savage humanoid races (orcs etc.) that are beyond civilization or redemption and must be cleansed from the land. It’s an ugly legacy of Tolkein’s works, and I feel like you don’t have to scratch his books very hard to find out to see the metaphor underneath.

So then you always get to that awkward moment where the PCs raid a goblin camp or village and find children there. Genocide or not genocide? It’s possible to spin some more complicated storylines out from this, or sometimes I just house rule and tell my players that “in this campaign, no humanoid race can be assumed to be unchangeably evil”. But it’s me working against RAW, and my players rightly tease me for being a hippie.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On February 13, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

Yeah, unchangeable evil humanoids too often an issue. I suspect that the thought goes: we need critters for the PCs to slaughter routinely for XP and treasure, and murder is a fraught thing that requires a lot of justification if we’re to continue empathizing with the character… so we’ll punt and just assign slaughtering these critters as a positive so the game can move on.

Eberron fought those defaults but retained an adventure friendly workable world, so biased but not inherently evil monstrous races can work.

#13 Comment By Tomcollective On February 13, 2015 @ 7:53 am

This is why I don’t use alignments.

Speaking of Tolkein, I was researching Dwarves (and why everyone seems to turn them Irish or Scottish) and discovered that he had actually based the Dwarves on Jews.

Suddenly I’m kind of uncomfortable watching The Hobbit movies…

#14 Comment By black campbell On February 13, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

I often seem to be the odd man out on this subject — if it’s period appropriate, and its done without being too preachy or too offensively, using racism or sexism can really help player buy-in on the reality of the game world BUT the characters are special…having social norms that can challenge a character in a way that doesn’t require an axe to the head or a fusillade of gunfire cannot. But there should also be the opportunity to overcome the bigotry — history is replete with examples of women and minorities that manage to excel in a society they should not because of their charisma or ability. There should always be the non-jerk NPCs that can help the characters overcome.

More on this: [11]

#15 Comment By Scott Martin On February 13, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

I like your post; it’s got a well thought out rationale. Your technique embraces the bumps and historical ugliness that makes the past a foreign country–which, once your players understand the goal and technique–will work great.

How do you brief players that “yeah, society is a dick, but you can overcome it” prior to play? Do you have many players duck out and choose privileged people to play so they can avoid those stereotypes and repercussions, or do some of your players embrace Victorian middle class constraints and play with them? (I do like your 4 examples at the bottom of your post; it turns the abstract real.)

#16 Comment By black campbell On February 14, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

Usually, I let the players know exactly that — I’ll run the period realistically, but they’re the heroes, so they’re going to be able to overcome. Some of the players did, in the past, go for the upper class characters precisely because once you’ve got cash, you’re not black or white, male or female, you’re “green.” Also, convention tended to break down outside of the developed world — if you made a name for yourself in some exotic place, that exoticism usually bought you some leeway in society.

Kinda like, if you’re rich, you’re not nuts…you’re eccentric.

#17 Comment By Malruhn On February 15, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

I’ve used race and gender relations for about 20 years. Some cultures in my homebrew campaign world are inclusive and loving – and others are misogynistic and/or racist. Many humans harbor ill feelings toward those “stunties” (any race under 5′ tall), or demon-worshiping Elves (how else could they live forever?).

Thus far, nobody has complained. It’s been a plot device at times, but I’ve never made it central to a campaign or campaign arc.

#18 Comment By Shelby Dawg On September 21, 2016 @ 11:29 pm

My players inserted ‘racism’ into my campaign a long time back and I have run with it nearly 40 years. Elves really are better than any other race and a lot of humans resent it. Elves could care less, but would have to try far too hard. Players are not happy it costs 10 of their 15 starting points to play an Elf, yet I have 3 playing Elves. I think Dwarves cost 2 points and I only have one, Halflings 0 for both and Half-Elves 5 for one. Each race ‘package’ is geared to the campaigns history and clicks.

Elves treat every non-Elf equally…with pity. And other races both acknowledge Elven superiority and hate them for it.

Dwarves are either from Dwarven settlements and wary of non-Dwarves or have settled among Humans and are seen as hard workers.

Halflings are a sub-race of humans and heavily integrated into human cities and life. They are also the friendliest of races.

Humans are so numerous that they foolishly consider themselves of differing races.

Their are dozens of other races and most have no unified view of another. The racism that does exist is normally of the ‘hooray for our side’ variety, as opposed to ‘they are to be hated’. The distaste for Elves is more to the flavor of the French Revolution, but without the Guillotine. Then again, Elves are also seen as ‘rock gods on tour’! Hmmm…make that Jazz stars traveling through the north before the Civil Rights Act.