Wednesday, December 20, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Destiny

Oh, man, sometimes you make a harmless-seeming wish like "I wish these Races of . . . books could be more interesting" and the monkey's paw curls and you get a book like Races of Destiny (David Noonan, Eric Cagle, Aaron Rosenberg) which is ostensibly giving human and part-human characters the same rpg treatment as elves, dwarves, et al, but the net result is just all of D&D's weird race stuff condensed down to its purest essence. But also, it's generally the least vanilla any of this series has ever been, and . . . I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT ALL OF THIS.

There's a section labeled "Human Psychology." It's a page and a half long. They gave themselves a page and a half to talk about human psychology

Obviously, they've got an unenviable task here, because they can't just say "You know what a fucking human is, you don't need us to explain them to you. That is, in fact, why they're here. Humans are ubiquitous because the game is written by, for, and about people and every person you've ever met is human. Demi-humans are served around the edges as an amuse bouche, but humans are the fucking main course because there are entire libraries filled with books about human psychology and elves are just a thing we made up."

And if you can't say something along those lines, you've got to go with your second choice and try to give humans a "deal" so that they are reasonably competitive with the other fantasy creatures. Usually, that deal is some nonsense like "versatility" or "adaptability" (as if those traits weren't just part and parcel with being an intelligent creature), and Races of Destiny does dabble around in that area, but it also makes the dubious choice of characterizing humans as aggressively colonialist, and that's kind of a bad look.

"Human societies are always moving forward, looking for new place to conquer, new areas to settle, new industries to develop." Combine that with the observation that "In human cities, the streets are straight whenever possible, intersecting with others to form a grid pattern" and you kind of get the key to all this - D&D humans are an idealized version of 20th century Americans. You see, all that stuff about expansionism and capitalism and tolerance of other races and personal ambition and general belligerence . . . that's just human nature.

Honestly, though, I can't be too mad at the book just for that. What am I doing here, looking at a 20-year-old D&D supplement and shouting, "YOU SHOULD BE MORE MINDFUL OF YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES." There was no way that chapter was ever going to be good. They clearly tried their best with an impossible task.

What I can be mad about is the chapter about Half-Elves and Half-Orcs. Hoo boy, that was a rough read. I have to confess, I have a certain degree of . . . let's call it "sympathy" for people who don't want to engage with the racial coding of D&D races. They're absolutely wrong in their position that it's "just a game" and they should definitely grow up and stop being afraid to confront the unexamined prejudice that encoded into the very structure of the game. But I can see how, if you really didn't think about it too hard, you could have a vague idea of "humans vs orcs" as being a matter of team jerseys. It's a game about fighting, you've got a group of guys who are like, "we love fighting, argh! We don't even need much of a reason, grr!" and it makes perfect sense that some people would be all, "hey, we like those guys exactly as they are." 

However, there is absolutely no way to read chapter 2 of this book and still come away with the notion that this is all just in innocent fun. Because it is not fun, like at all. Sometimes, it will threaten to briefly seem like it might become fun, and then it tosses in a line like, "Few half-orcs learn to read or write. Orcs have little use for literacy and humans see little point in teaching half-orc children a capability they will probably never need and might be too dumb to learn."

Like, fuck, man. What do I even say to something like that? Is it even my job to say anything about it? Maybe I should just let the line speak for itself.

I think where things get contentious is that, from a high enough level of abstraction, the chapter is sympathetic to half-elves and half-orcs. Discrimination against them is mostly presented as an unkind and unjust thing that is done to them, by callous humans, elves, and orcs. Maybe you might ask, "why does that kind of racism have to exist in our fantasy setting," but I can see how someone with a pre-internet viewpoint might have difficulty imagining a world where it wouldn't.

And yet, half-orcs do actually, in the objective rules of the game, get a charisma and intelligence penalty. The abominable behavior of the humans who don't teach them to read isn't coming from nowhere. It's not purely in-character prejudice. And you have to take a step back and do the hard work of examining this honestly. I'm sure they didn't do it intentionally, but the mechanics and flavor tell a particular kind of story, and in this case the story was, "what if there was a world where racism was justified?"

Also, the orc-like Sharakim were "twisted into hideous caricatures of humanity by the evil they had committed" and cabals of Illumians, led by their elders, plot schemes from their hidden fortresses, manipulating their human dupes into self-destructive wars.

And look, I actually kind of liked the Illumians. Of the various new creatures in these Races of . . . books, they probably have the most going on. They were clearly meant, without malice, to be the "espionage guys." But it's probably for the best that they seem to have fallen down the memory hole, because, damn, they really said (paraphrased), "cabals of Illumians are responsible for all the world's wars."

Now that the post is nearing its end, and the time approaches for me to do a summation, I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding this book than I was at the start. There were actually large stretches of the book that were completely inoffensive, and even inspired. The Illumians are humans who have physically and spiritually melded with a magical language, and with study and contemplation, they can utter an incantation with their final breath that will cause them to shed the dross of their physical form and transcend to a divine state. That's pretty neat. But it's also undeniable that there were parts that made me, a privileged white man, genuinely uncomfortable. Where do I draw the line? What are my values?

In the end, the answers don't really matter. The questions themselves are far too intense for a game as thoroughly silly as D&D tries to be.

Ukss Contribution: Why, oh why did I have to make my line for inclusion in Ukss "evil vs not-evil?" I don't want to be the arbiter of these things. Am I really going to sit here and say Races of Destiny is so harmful that it deserves to be banished from my sight?

On the other hand, am I then prepared to say that Races of Destiny is harmless enough to overlook its use of old racist tropes?

The answer to both questions is "no." I don't think it was malicious. I think it was careless. I've let worse books slide, but not without reservations. So consider this me officially registering my reservations.

With that said, my choice is the Final Seed, the member of an Illumian cabal chosen to live outside the stronghold, with a copy of the group's most important lore, in order to rebuild should the Illumians be destroyed by their enemies.

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