The Drow: A Case Study of Race in RPGs

By John Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>

Draft version, April 6, 2007.




There has been a fair bit of discussion regarding race and RPGs on Vincent Baker's new forum on "God, Sex, and RPGs" -- the eclectically-titled "I Would Knife-Fight A Man". I had posted first in the thread "Examples of Racism in RPGs" -- which broke down in controversy, but there were many follow-up threads, as seen in the forum category race & rpgs.

Via the IRIS Networks' Race and Ethnicity in Games sub-forum, I read an article on a Milwaukee newpaper site, "A new tone in gaming", about the third game in the Guild Wars series, "Guild Wars: Nightfall", which is set in a fantasy world inspired by North African culture. It was written by former TSR author Jeff Grubb (whose tabletop RPG credits include Marvel Superheroes, Buck Rogers, and D20 Modern).

Also via IRIS, I saw "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet" by Lisa Nakamura.

Examples of Race Issues

As I said in the Knife-Fight thread, I have never experienced racism in a game in the blatant sense of someone explicitly denigrating me based on race. However, there have been times when I have been made to pause and think about race. I'll talk about two of them.

At AmberCon NorthWest '06, I played in a game called "Exponential". I was playing the only Asian in a group of American scientist PCs, and as it happened, I was also the only Asian player. My PC was a rabid anti-communist, but even so when the destruction of the world was threatened, he suggested that we (the U.S.) talk to the Chinese government to work with them rather than trying to fight them to wipe out a project of theirs. However, everyone else was insistent that the Chinese couldn't possibly be made to understand the danger. Now, this is mixed up with anti-communism attitudes, but the vigor did give me pause. There wasn't anything overt, but it made me think. cf. my ACNW07 report

Many years earlier, I was playing in a horror campaign set in Victorian London. I was playing a white police inspector who was racist and violent, and we encountered Fu Manchu as a villain. Here's the bit that gave me pause. Naturally, my PC Inspector Grimmond was all violently against Fu Manchu, and there was an old Chinese shopkeeper (NPC) whom we had encountered. Grimmond was convinced that he worked for Fu Manchu, and went to beat him up. Now, as it turned out, in retialation for his brutalizing the old man, Fu Manchu captured Grimmond and tortured him. He was rescued by the other PCs with his lower half thoroughly chewed up by rats. As far as we had seen in the game, Grimmond's assumption that all Chinamen worked for Fu Manchu was correct. However, the GM was quite upset at Grimmond's racist and violent behavior on the basis of that assumption. He was perfectly aware of the racist nature of the Fu Manchu stories and mocked it, but nevertheless in retrospect I think that race was an issue here.

I'll have to ponder about other cases.

Issues of Race in Game Systems/Settings

There was an IRIS thread about creating non-racist fantasy races/cultures which was interesting. As many people have noted in the past, fantasy settings often reify common racist thinking -- i.e. there are inherently barbaric and/or evil races like orcs; race is a very concrete effect on one's abilities and personality; often there are distinct cultures especially tied to race (i.e. dwarves are good at mining and stonework); and race is a discrete quality (i.e. there are elves and dwarves, with nothing in between).

The Knife-Fight thread broke down in particular over issues with the drow in D&D, and in particular of white gamers dressing up as black elves. I'm not completely settled on this issue, but it certainlyi gives me pause. I imagine someone unfamiliar with it seeing a person dressed up as a drow at a convention:

P1: Is that dude dressed up as a black guy?
P2: Er, no. He's dressed up as a black elf.
P1: Interesting. There are black elves?
P2: Well, sort of, but not really. There are black-skinned elves, but they're an evil race who live underground, and have a different culture.
P1: Oh.

On the opposing side, the drow don't match most stereotypes of Africans -- but I also don't think that it a coincidence that the only black-skinned elves are evil.

Approaches to Real Races (i.e. Africans, Asians, etc.)

Among real races, blatant discrimination or essentialism is rare. (i.e. There are no games which have a "black" race with +2 Strength and -2 Intelligence modifier.) Still, there are problematic approaches. Two common problems I've seen seen are:

While in principle, it is possible for a game to explicitly focus on racism -- I think a good approach is to concentrate on making other races normal. That is, for non-white races to have diversity within themselves as well as a relatively ordinary populace. In the Vinland campaign, I made a point to contrast the different cultures. My game was set in 1392 of an alternate history where the Icelanders successfully settled in the Hudson Valley. I played up the contrast of the traditionally more peaceful Algonquian tribes with the encroaching Iroquoian tribes (who were unifying under Hiawatha) who were the enemy. While in principle this might have been viewed dimly by an Iroquoian-derived player, I think for my players it was a study in the clash of cultures.

Approaches to Fantasy Races

On both Knife-Fight and IRIS, there was discussion made of fantasy races like elves and dwarves. On Knife-Fight, Simon C. wrote:

I think fantasy races are interesting because they're just that: a fantasy about race. They're what racists want race to be: permanent, unalterable, genetically distinct, with clear implications for who that person is. It's okay to think that orcs are stupid, because if that's the way your world works, all orcs are stupid.

The built-in mechanics of race are interesting in that way. I note that while there is slight acknowledgement of half-breeds (such as Human/Elf and Human/Orc), they are presumably infertile because there are no quarters or other mixtures.

My own fantasy games have generally been all-human rather than featuring much of fantasy races like elves and dwarves. Still, I do recall some breaking of race assumptions. I remember years ago I played in a GURPS Fantasy game which was set in a post-apocalyptic Europe where magic had returned and history was repeating itself -- so you had elves and dwarves amidst Imperial Rome and medieval France. I decided to play a Romanized elf -- Antonius Publius Eldarus -- who had completely rejected the backwards ways of his people and was passionately Roman, extolling the virtues of Roman civilization. He acknowledged that there were problems with slavery (among others), but claimed that in order for the lives of all to be improved, there needed to be institutions that rose above what isolated tribes could do for themselves.

So there were a number of responses to my last post, and I wanted to try to summarize and address some of the points brought up. The controversy as such seemed centered on the drow -- which indeed seem to be a sticky point in many similar discussions, presumably because of their popularity.

Background on the Drow in D&D

Slight background for those unfamiliar with them, the drow in D&D were created by Gary Gygax, and first appeared in the 1978 AD&D module, Hall of the Fire Giant King (though they were mentioned but not described in the original Monster Manual under "Elf"). They were later included in the Fiend Folio and extensions to the module series. Etymologically, "drow" is probably derived from the Shetland Isles Drow. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1970) states: "Drow, n., [scot.] A tiny elf which lived in caves and forged magical metal work." The word's origin is identical to the origin of the word "troll," which goes back further to the Scottish Gaelic word spelled "trow." Wikipedia has an entry on dark elf, but there is very little said about them. The Norse svartalfar or dopkalfar also called duergar (dwarfs) who do things like forge Sif's golden hair. Their homeland is mentioned in the eddas as written by Snorri Sturluson, as:

There are many places there which are magnificent. There is one place which is called Álfheimr. A people lives there which is called ljósálfar, but døkkálfar live below in the earth, and they are different from them in appearance and very different in practice. Ljósálfar are more handsome than the sun in appearance, but døkkálfar are blacker than pitch.

So taken from the myth we know that they are creatures that are blacker than pitch. However, the D&D picture of them as nearly human in appearance but with black skin and white hair is an invention for the game. As they originally appear in Module G1, the drow are pictured like this:

Their black skin and white hair are clearly described in text, but are not obvious from the illustrations given the style. Even so, they appear somewhat different from the white-skinned surface elves. The features are subtlely different. Surface elves typically have long straight hair, and wield a bow and longsword. The drow here have short curly hair, and use a spear, spear-thrower, and pistol-like hand crossbow. (In the module, their weapons and equipment get considerable description, including an explanation that the properties are maintained by strange radiations of the drow homeland.)

pointed out how their image was later changed, citing in particular a Keith Parkinson painting for the 1986 book which compiled the modules as a campaign series, where they were pictured like this:

His suggestion was that the original was devoid of any real-world racial connotations, but that some later illustrations of the drow gave them a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist cultural associations, like Xen'Drik in Eberron. I know relatively little about the full history of drow illustrations and adventures, so I won't comment about the process of development.

I note in passing Module G3 did have the drow lead by high priestesses who were "strangely attractive" (with Charismas 18 and 17) -- but the illustrations were only of male drow, while the later GDQ1-7 collection cover obviously emphasized the female drow. I suspect this mostly had to do with marketing differences.

While covering the drow, I should mention that it has become fairly common for white gaming fans to dress up in black makeup as drow characters. cf. GenCon 2006 pictures, for example. Such costuming has been going on for many years, but recent commentary on it has fanned further the controversy, in particular as it mixes with other examples of black-skin makeup. For example, Eric Grandy posted Blackblackface? about the band "blackblack" who dressed up as "shadows".

Background on Race Relations

I think I should include some general statements here about race relations in general. Part of the controversy that seems to surround the race discussions seems to be different reactions. So, for example, I said that having a fictional people where the black-skinned ones are evil and the light-skinned ones are good has "racial connotations" -- this in turn was interpreted as a charge of blatant racism and a call for "blanket censorship" -- which in turn I misinterpreted.

The problem is that while everyone agrees that the term "racism" is a bad thing, there is strong disagreement on the specifics of that. For example, suggested that an important test regarding racism is whether the thing in question does identifiable harm as a concept. The problem is the question of what identifies harm.

Notably, he suggests that the drow are not problematic, but orcs are. He notes, "Stereotypical orcs closely resemble racist stereotypes about Africans: violence, strength, stupidity, fecundity, faux-tribal organization and even the need to be led. So it's the link to a real stereotype that's the thing." However, I'm not sure that matching stereotypes are the sole key to the issue here. A hypothetical series which has blacks always as non-stereotypical villains seems equally problematic.

I brought up the case of the video "A Girl Like Me" on YouTube, where black-skinned children picked a doll based only on the skin color, often identifying the white doll as a good one. I think that this demonstrates that harm was done. There have been many such studies in recent times with similar findings, not just in the U.S., but also in the Carribean and in Ghana.

However, what caused the kids to more often pick the white doll as the good one? I doubt that any of the kids had any explicit programming where, say, they read stories which explicitly teach the message that all black-skinned characters are bad. However, I think there are a myriad of other possible influences -- including examples from the media as well as personal experiences. Lacking a known cause, I think that possible influences should be seriously considered.

Regarding media examples, there is the issue of ubiquity. There is nothing wrong with having an individual villainous character of a given racial type -- be that African, Indian, Native American, Indigenous Australian, or whatever. However, if hypothetically in aggregate almost all the dark-skinned characters are evil and the light-skinned ones are good, then there are definite racial overtones. It could in principle be an insightful parody, a commentary, or other transformative work. But race would definitely be an issue.

Reactions to the Drow

So, the question is, is there an issue regarding fantasy races in general and the drow in particular? My general reaction to this was that writing in modern America, if you write a story in which you invent a people where the light-skinned ones are good and the black-skinned ones are evil, there are definite racial connotations. That doesn't mean I don't think that it should be done. I think that there are many interesting stories and scenarios that can be made using that as a premise about race.

draws a more subtle distinction that the original drow (as seen in the first set of pictures) had no real-world racial associations, but that some later reworkings were problematic. As I mentioned earlier, he notes in particular later illustrations of the drow which had a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist associations.

I'm inclined to see it as a change of degree rather than a sudden change in kind. Obviously, I do not feel that the drow inherently convey a message that real-world Africans are evil. However, it does add to a trend of dark skin being a signifier of evil. While they aren't always stereotypes of jungle savages, they were from the start the exotic Other lurking in the shadows behind the brutish giants, wielding unique weapons and lead by "strangely attractive" dark-skinned priestesses.


So what am I saying should be done? First of all, I am flatly opposed to any sort of censorship. I favor free expression -- which includes both artistic expression but also critical analysis of art. I think that we should continue to have games which produce creations like the drow, but we should also be able to talk about the racial connotations without people crying out about censorship.

There is a class of author who is willing to talk about the racial connotations of her work -- who will listen to criticism and not follow it blindly, but reflect on what it says about the content. I like authors to be like this.

If, say, I were running the D&D line at this point, I would not try to excise the drow from the product line -- but I would try to consciously introduce more dark-skinned, non-exoticized good characters and creatures. I was impressed by what I read about Jeff Grubb's "Guild Wars: Nightfall", for example.

However, there are also some authors who want to be "safe" from charges of racism. As soon as they hear there is discussion of the racial connotations of their work, they feel that they have failed, and try to deny any real-world connotations. If you genuinely feel this way, and don't want to engage or think about racial connotations -- then I would indeed recommend that you don't create a race where the distinguishing characteristic of the evil kind are their black skin.

What I Would Do With the Drow

This is another post following up on the previous post, "Regarding the Drow..." which looked at their background and racial connotations. In comments on that post, wrote:

What you have to ask yourself is whether or not your suggestion, if followed back in the 70s, would have been followed in such a way as to create anything as compelling, and if not, whether this loss of expression was a reasonable price to pay in order to avoid being embarrassed by cosplayers and assorted idiots 30 years down the road.

I might quibble about the assumption of loss of expression, but this is a reasonable question. I previously gave a hypothetical about what I would do if I was in charge of the D&D line now. Taken with a grain of salt that hindsight is 20/20, I can hypothesize about what it would be like if I was in charge 30 years ago. To reiterate my suggestion, I'm in favor of open dialogue concerning race. So presumably the drow would still be written as a concept, and probably after the first draft there would be first some internal feedback about what the racial connotations are. These would presumably include some views like 's and some views like mine.

Now, what would happen as a result of that? Well, I can't really tell how Gary Gygax as author would react to discussion of the racial implications. Perhaps he'd pull the whole module or excise the drow from it because I expressed that there were some racial connotations of all good elves being white-skinned except the evil ones who are black. I'd hope not, but it's hard for me to say.

But in order to continue the hypothetical, let's suppose that Gary died with Module G3 and its sequels half-finished, jumbles of notes to be filled in. By some twist, an adult version of me then took over and I had to complete it. I suspect the final product for Module G3 would stay more-or-less as-is, though I would likely add some depth to the two rival drow priestesses. Among the minor changes: I'd probably change the description calling her "strangely attractive" to simply say "attractive", and also comment on the appearance of her male attendants. I'd probably suggest that the illustrations look more like regular elves of unusual coloration rather than making them more curly-haired and swarthy.

The question is, where would I go from there?

Obviously, I would not approve the 1986 Keith Parkinson cover painting that complained about. But that's what I wouldn't do, as opposed to what I would do.

The Dark Hollow Earth

As I see the popularity of the drow, I'd bring a team together to work on a Dark Hollow Earth sub-setting. Within the Dark Hollow Earth as I picture it, there is a dark sun which makes infravision like normal sight -- able to see miles rather than 60 feet. There are lush mushroom forests, bizarre rock formations, and other juxtapositions of cave features and outdoor landscape. I'd would have some sort of relatively common magic to give infravision to those who don't have it, with limitations.

Here, many of the underground races live lives quite different from those who live just under the surface. They have space to fortify and rich lands to till. There are a different set of gods. There are variants of the various races, that don't fit many of the alignment and patterns above-ground.

Case in point: the drow of the Hollow Earth. Free of Lolth's tyrranical influence, they are the guardians of the Hollow Earth's natural world in parallel to the surface elves. They are good-aligned, but still with many strange reversals. To them, the forces of nature are stone and metal and fungus rather than wood and leaves and sunshine. They are still matriarchal, with priestesses worshipping the new gods of the Hollow Earth.

I might also have "good" variants of certain races -- probably orcs and kobolds -- but it wouldn't be an exact reversal. Instead, the races would be mixed up. There would still be many of the same evil monsters like illithids and kuo toa, and perhaps there would be evil dwarves/duergar and evil human enclaves (obsessed with fire and light) -- but still the good deep gnomes (svirfneblin) and some good humans (though they are viewed with suspicion because of the predominantly evil human cultures).

The cultures for the various races would draw from a somewhat wider variety of sources than is typical in D&D -- though in an eclectic fashion. I'm picturing Germanic/Teutonic model for the evil dwarves, and perhaps the good drow take more from the Rus. The civilized orcs might have more of a more Middle-Eastern feel of the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe we'd have a city module of the capital and its urban/urbane orcs.

There would be an appendix with rules for playing all of the good races of the Hollow Earth as PCs. The dungeons of the Hollow Earth would connect up at some point with the dungeons of the surface. So while the continuation of the Giants module would clash with the evil drow -- we'd also have writers working on the Hollow Earth.

Assuming I otherwise fell into similar trends as a company leader, particularly as we moved into the post-Dragonlance era of novel tie-ins and metaplot in the late eighties, there'd be modules which mix the two and have good drow who are horrified at their evil cousins. Surely we'd have some plotline about "Drow Wars" and there would be problems and controversy.


So, the question is: What was the point of all this? Well, for me as the hypothetical head of the company, I'd first of all want to make money. It could be that the Hollow Earth line doesn't achieve the same popularity and thus I have to agree to reduce the release schedule for it. I could live with that.

I also, though, want to make products which I'm proud of. I would enjoy having the line there which shakes up some of the assumed thinking about race, and hopefully might invite some gamers to think a little more about race through the course of playing a fun game. Besides have debate within the company about race, I'd probably invite feedback from gamers which includes questions about ethnicity and how open they felt our products are and whether that matters to them.

I'm sure that some players would jump at playing the good drow, and other players would scream about how the option X means that drow monks are unbalanced, and so forth. I'm sure that there would be some white gamers who put on black make-up to dress as either good drow or evil drow. My hope would be that given the culture of more open feedback, that would generate some controversy and debate rather than either (1) being shut down, or (2) being ignored. I'd also like to think that perhaps compared to real-world history, maybe a few more gamers are aware of race and ethnicity issues -- possibly after taking part in our feedback.

As hypothetical head of this company, I'd naturally defend my company and livelihood. I'd point to the bunch of positive black-skinned characters and role-models we have as part of Hollow Earth and other lines. But I'd also open dialogue to the people who are complaining either way -- for and against white gamers wearing black drow make-up. Hopefully I'd win over some people and get some good press about it, balancing out some bad press as well.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Jul 11 23:05:50 2007