Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prejudice in Fantasy Worlds

I was thinking today, while bored at work, about human history with regards to prejudice and war. Yes, I think about topics that are a little overly complex when I'm bored.

Anyway, this got me thinking about aliens and also fey races. Humans, over history, have used almost any excuse to make everything a situation of "us vs. them". It's commonly referred to as outgroup Bias. Currently, in the US, you find a lot of this directed towards Muslims, or worse, Arabs in general. I've heard numerous people say that all Arabs "want to kill everyone", whatever the hell that means. They are basing their outgroup prejudice on nationality, skin color to an extent, and certainly religion. Humans use these flimsy excuses to hate people that are, in all the ways that really matter, just like them.

Now take that knowledge of basic human nature, and think about a world where there are sapient races that aren't human at all. Elves, Dwarves, Halfings, Orcs, Goblins, Angels, Demons, etc are all intrinsically different than humans. Many D&D worlds, sort of the 'standard', in fact, has a largely dominant human culture. Humans breed more quickly than elves or dwarves, have shorter lives and thus strive harder to get things done, etc etc. So you have a world where humans are the dominant military and social power, and you have major philosophical, psychological, and physiological differences between the sapient races. Think about how much effort, money, time, and creativity has been wasted in humanity's past just on killing people with a different skin color or creed, and think about how much different fantasy races are from humans. Is it really at all reasonable to assume that the D&D world is that much more tolerant? Tolerance and acceptance have never been the norm in any society, not even today.

What does this all boil down to? I think it might be interesting to think about having more prejudice and general... speciesism(?) in D&D. We don't really have a word for it, since we don't know of any other sapient species, but the idea fits. Call it racism I suppose. Humans deal with other races, sure, in a trading sense. However, it's entirely possible that the tavern you are dining at just doesn't serve nonhumans. "Not that we don't like you, y'see, but we know how Dwarves like to hoard gold, and we've got a bit of it as decoration. Also, we know the Elf might flinch at us having killed all those trees to build the place. Eh, there's a bar a few streets over that might serve your kind, gents." Maybe the elven wizard that runs the local scroll shop, or what have you, doesn't like half-elves; he doesn't like the idea of the proud elven line being sullied with human blood. Dwarves have a sort of traditional antipathy with elves in high fantasy worlds, but what if a recent raid on a dwarven settlement by a rogue group of elves has put the relationship on edge even more so? Suddenly, when an elf and a dwarf pass one another on the street, both of them have a hand on their weapons. It's not attack-on-sight, but there's tension. Your fighter, aiming for membership in the Blades of Ammeron, a knightly order local to this town, finds himself rejected for membership due to his traveling with a half-orc. In an extreme case, Tieflings or such may be entirely hated in common society. Tieflings can't own property, have next to no rights as people, and have to cover their more telling racial identifiers. Dragonborn have to wear muzzles to keep their weaponlike teeth and breath weapons "sheathed", or might be arrested for brandishing a lethal weapon in the city. I think it might add a bit of diversity to the world to have people in it that don't care for diversity.

That being said, this sort of thing is easy to offend people with. Know your players. If you've got a group with a few people that are going to get all offended over fantasy racism, it's certainly not worth losing a friend over. However, if everyone can handle it, it might be an interesting sort of spin on the normally happy go lucky sort of world.

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