Friday, April 7, 2023

"I'm a horse now!", says the mule ... (mistakes have been made)

Let's have some commentary on the latest WotC kerfuffle: no "mixed races" anymore, because that is deamed "racist". Now, we need to be careful here as not to fall for the obvious groupthink bait, and look at it as is. Has it merit? Is it a good idea? Because it could have, but still is! This, then, is a the simple attempt of a small blogger to see what they are talking about here. Spoiler alert: this is not about racism, in any shape, way, or form. All of this is, if nothing else, a mistake in terminology ...

Cutting to the chase real quick

Half-Elves are no more, at least officially and as far as D&D is concerned. Same goes for Half Orcs and any other halves you could think of in your games. We are talking fictional characters here, just to be very clear about this from the beginning, so no sensitivities are presumed. I mean, if a true half elf were to comment to make their case, I'd be listening (needs to be the real deal, too, just "identifying" as one won't be enough).

Just a little joke ... hehe [source]
 But I won't be holding my breath.

This is about a twist to a character one might want to play in a game. Something that plays differently on a narrative and (ideally) on a mechanical level of the game. I've always held the opinion that each GM should play with those options in order to make their campaigns unique. I have a very different take on elves, for instance (very old post here). Either way, taking away those options is bad style. Doing it for "politics" just leaves a bad taste in the mouth here. Pandering like that is divisive and should be frowned upon for that alone. Where are the bridges? Where is the love?

In other words: why isn't there a compromise? Because there is compromises to be had, for sure. Just a very superficial survey of less reputable sources like Wikipedia will tell interested parties that an "Elf" is considered to be a "humanoid supernatural being". It is right there in the first sentence. "Humanoid", now, would mean that it is a "non-human entity" carrying some human traits. That second Wikipedia entry goes on to explain that there is the idea of "convergent evolution", which would mean that different species may come to the result through different evolutionary paths.

I think that's quite easy to understand. There's a couple of useful ways to interact with reality, less so the more specific the interaction, so the concept that different species come to the same results isn't hard to grasp.

The next stop down this rabbit hole would be "species", then. Wikipedia says:

In biology, a species is often defined as the largest group of organisms in which any two individuals of the appropriate sexes or mating types can produce fertile offspring, typically by sexual reproduction.

You see, just by following some easily visible bread crumbs, you'll find out that saying elves can be considered a humoid species would be a very well grounded assumption. Not "race" (which is obviously politically AND historically loaded), but "species". Took me longer to write this than to find it out, which should be an indicator how readily available this information is.

There are even pictures about it:


"Traditionally" it is "Race" in D&D, though. Right?

The funny thing is: yes and no. As far as I can tell, when it first came up, they talked "demihuman races", which is all mixed up terminology. And yes, it is carried along for some time unquestioned. That said, they caught up to it relatively early, actually. Here's what you'll find in the AD&D 2E Player Handbook (first paragraph introducing the concept):

After creating your character's ability scores, you must select a player character race. This is not a race in the true sense of the word: caucasian, black, asian, etc. It is actually a fantasy species for your character -- human, elf, dwarf, gnome, half-elf, or halfling. Each race is different. Each possesses special powers and has different lists of classes to choose from.
That's interesting, isn't it? They are actually talking species and just CHOSE to call it race (maybe because it had been established as "races"?). They willingly tried to expand what "race" means instead of using the term "species". But they also CLEARLY categorize it in the sense of SPECIES (that is: biologically) as early as 1989!

My beloved HackMaster 4E actually makes the same statement (HM 4E PHB, p. 22):

Note that when we speak of 'race' in HackMaster, it has nothing to do with what we in contemporary society know of races, i. e. Eurasian or African. In HackMaster, race simply refers to the fantasy species of your character.

Wizards of the Coast, however, did not carry on that sentiment into the D&D 3E they published, which is also interesting, I think. There is, of course, a biological definition of "race" that is synonym to "subspecies" (see here), so in that sense it is not necessarily wrong to use the term in D&D (or any other game).

What made it problematic, it seems, is the claim that categorizing a species into subspecies is somehow "racist", which is (at least!) highly debatable. If, as history teaches us, a categorization like that is used to argue some sort of superiority for a subspecies, it is plain stupid, wrong and objectionable. And very dangerous. For obvious reasons. But that has nothing to do with the idea of categorization itself, which can be quite useful. Also for obvious reasons.

So what's the case we can make here? The hobbyists that created D&D used "demihuman races" as the distinction to categorize their "fantasy species". It created some adjacent terminology, and they never changed it across editions, although it is noteworthy that they cared to define it properly in the AD&D 2E (and the HackMaster 4E, which just revised 2E).

It is, in a sense, legacy terminology, but never "abused" to paint some sort of "hierarchy of subspecies" (as far as I'm aware of). Instead, it is merely terminology for a categorization that became necessary as the game grew and evolved, and was done with good intentions and taste throughout. Again, for obvious reasons, as they wanted people to like and use the options they got. Like in: all people interested in the game, with no reservations.


Now "mixed races" are banned ...

... for ideological and emotional reasons, as far as WotC are concerned. This is, at the very least, nothing but big mouthed pandering or ill adviced marketing and social media politics. It is not about bringing the game forward, as it should be, but about virtue signalling. I'll say that as unbiased as I can. Of course, it is their business and they can do what they want. But categorization is useful, as we have learned, and this move should be catgorized for what it is: done in ill will.

In a way it shows the same contempt WotC showed with their attempt to change the OGL. It shows the same lack of competency, too, imho.


Why do I think that, you ask? Because compromise would have been so easy, but wouldn't send "the message". If they'd been "Language is important, and since the term "race" is so loaded and convoluted these days, we decided to use the more precise term "species" instead so all of you can keep enjoying playing your half orcs and half elves!", or something along those lines (and to give but ONE obvious example!), it'd barely been worth news.

Instead, it would have helped bringing people together (would be my guess, anyway).

It's just not what they wanted to do. They wanted to put fuel into a divide that already went to far as it is. People should build bridges again and come together, not wallow in resentful hatred against some idolized opposition. If we are able to find and cultivate what unites us, we'll be able to overcome our differences.

Easy as that.

And you can't tell me that they did that stunt out of the good of their heart. That's just not where those ideas come from. War is not peace, slavery is not freedom, and ignorance is not strength, no matter how loud those people claim to have good intentions when supporting ideas like that.

And if you think that's a bit far fetched, to go from saying it is "racist to have mixed races in a game" to full blown 1984, I'd urge you to think again. They keep saying that the origins of the game are racist and misogynistic (among other things), despite all the good the game did. Despite all the science, even, that exists today, pointing out how it brings people together, how it helps personal growth, how it helps mentally. Tbh, all this posturing completely goes against common sense.

There is no healthy rationale behind it. There never is behind revisionism, which this is, because what they are saying is that chosing that term "race" to begin with was out of hatred by the original creators. Maybe they'd say it was "subconscious" or whatever, but it doesn't change that thinking like that is small minded, to say the least.


A horse is a horse, of course of course ...

I don't know if you are aware of this, but horses and donkeys, two distinctly different species, can have (infertile) offspring. If a male donkey mates with a female horse, that hybrid is called a mule (if it's the other wa around, that's called a "hinny", which is somehow cute, I think). Different species, some sort of outcome.

Zonkeys are a thing, too! [source]

 A little closer to home, the same is said for humans being able to reproduce with Neanderthals (leading to their extinction, is one theory). Which leads to another well established fact: we used to live with other humanoid species here on planet earth, and not that long ago, too. Not only Neanderthals, but it also had Denisovans and some smaller hominid groups. We interacted with them, and I believe some of our oldest stories are proof of those interactions (which is neither here nor there, but still interesting to note).

What I'm saying is, there is no reason to say this phenomenon of interspecies reproductional activity cannot exist or talked about. To be completely honest, I'd say, if we were to encounter aliens, people would find ways to fuck them before anything else. That's just who we are.

So if you don't like the term "race", use subspecies or species and be done with it. Nothing I wrote here is "newly established science" or something like that, it is no secret knowledge. The information is right there, publicly available. Why act as if a decision like that wouldn't need checking what can be gathered about it?

No need to make a stink.

Will this hurt the hobby? Fuck if I know. There are enough alternatives to D&D out there, published by companies that don't feel the need to act like WotC. Will it hurt the brand? More likely, if bullshit like this keeps mounting up. And that is a shame on multiple levels. For one, as I said above, this hobby of ours should be about uniting people with good intentions, but D&D is more than that, culturally speaking, and the little history it has should at least be looked at with the benefit of the doubt, if not heralded for the good it did.

Tainting that history by implying some sort of moral superiority and to gain, what?, social credit?, well, I think that's something reprehensible. Especially if it's done by people that have proven to be morally suspect, as WotC did on multiple occasions in the last couple of years (not just recently).

Final thoughts

Not sure how to end this ... I recently came to believe that there is too much anger all around. People dug in and aim to hold their positions. There's also a lot of negativity around, and I don't know how you guys feel about it, but I just can't take it anymore. So I'm pointing this out as bad behavior to encourage people to do better. Not that I believe that anyone addressed here will read this, or care about those things, for that matter.


The point of the exercise is more along the lines of reminding anyone reading this that we worked hard in the last couple of decades to create a culture of exchange, understanding and personal growth. We have an obligation to check what can be assumed as useful interaction, and what should be considered disruptive or even harmful. We already know a lot about these things, we don't have to start at the beginning with every dilemma that presents itself.

As a matter of fact, why not try to be a bit more mindful in general? I know I struggled with this in the last couple of years, for sure, and I know it'd help me to find more peace.

Easter is traditionally the time for new beginnings, so with this I'll renew my efforts to be a positive force where I can. If you read all of this, I appreciate you. If you have any thoughts about my take here, you are welcome to share them.


Currently reading: Penetration by Ingo Swann (a Why Files recommendation, and so far a good read ...)


If you liked any of this, you could go and check out my offerings over on drivethru. The latest is part three of the blog anthology I'm working on. Part four is already in the works, and I aim to offer a PoD of the first three books as well. Soon ...