I just read this article, and it is certainly something to consider. This weekend I ran a D&D game set on the frontier of a jungle. At the heart, my goal was to subvert tropes, and this article got me actively thinking how and if I was successful. Subversion of a trope can be hard to manage without forethought and focus. In the end, I think I cut into some tropes, but I could have done better. I can’t tell you too much about the adventure, because I’m using elements of it in a product in development. I can tell you that I’m seriously considering my presentation of ‘monster races.’
This is something I’ve written about before. In that article, I focused on Goblins, and I’m going to use them as an example again here. As a cultural group, Goblins are fascinating to me, and I think the way they are often used is very frustrating in general. Eberron does a good job of undercutting the traditional colonial/racist way of depicting Goblins. It’s not perfect, but it is a step in a positive direction and I think we should be trying to do better in our games. Other settings are less effective at showcasing Goblinoids as living, breathing, and dynamic sentient people. We’ll just leave it at that, I’m not going to throw any specific shade anywhere right now.
D&D has colonial roots, and racism is a symptom of colonialism. (Or vice-versa, depending on how you suss out the origins of the behavior the terms describe), but that doesn’t mean we cannot use it to examine those things critically. In fact, I think that is a core benefit RPGs can offer us. The entire concept behind Reach-Out Roleplaying Games is to help use games like D&D to explore and understand the impacts othering, racism, sexism, and other systemic prejudices have on people and our interactions with one another.
So, we have two options, as I see it. We can acknowledge the inherent colonialists flaws in D&D and then work to subvert them. Or, we can use them without alteration as a way to start discussion outside of the game setting. The second is harder if you don’t have a group that wants to deconstruct the game and their own feelings and thought processes after a session. I’d make a joke about my surprise at these things, but I’m not. Most people don’t play RPGs for constant self-reflection and internal examination of their own biases and mental constructs…
Before I digress too far down that rabbit hole, let’s talk about subversion of tropes. This is an excellent idea as it is often in the hands of the GM to create the world which these tropes are expressed through. You’ve got the power to subvert tropes as a player as well, but the GM controls the systematic side. That said, everyone at the table has a role in determining, subverting, or reconstructing tropes.
For example. Goblins are murderous creatures that stumble over themselves in a cannibalistic frenzy. This common fantasy RPG trope is based on some elements of Tolkein, and lots of D&D specific history. It references tropes of tribal behavior, particularly from colonial conception of African and Polynesian culture. This isn’t an accurate depiction of those cultures, but we shouldn’t be blind to that influence on the way certain monster races are presented. So, how do we subvert this trope?
The first possible way is to make Goblins part of mainstream society within a setting. What role could they fill that halflings and gnomes do not? Any. Halflings may focus on culinary arts (Tolkein level trope, but let’s roll with it) and Goblins work as crafters and artisans. Their smaller frames make them really good at working in small spaces, so plumbers, construction, or mining are roles that are positive to a society. You can of course also make them farmers, or animal herders and subvert several tropes all at once. Consider the motivations your Goblins have. What do they see as the good life? Is there a Goblin Socrates? Why are they part of the society they are a part of? What do most members of society do? What do the outliers do? What is normalized behavior and what is taboo?
You can also give the trope style Goblins motivation that makes their behavior understandable. Murderous mob of goblins? They are a splinter group of raiders that were ostracized from several goblin towns. Having the players make an alliance with these towns to mutually take the raiders into custody would be an interesting plotline They may not need to be killed and if they are, doing so may anger more goblin’s who are their relatives. Perhaps a second group of ‘murderous’ goblins are simply avenging the deaths of their kin. Looking at Icelandic Saga Feuds, or the Hatfield and McCoy feud it is easy to see how this cycle of revenge can quickly get out of control. In both cases, greater law is often imposed to limit feuding, and it could be an interesting campaign to show the imposition of higher law between groups that have agreed to stop blood feuding.
This may not be going far enough, depending on the group and the scenario you are creating. When developing a setting or a full game, I think we also have to be really cognizant of what we are saying about a culture through our writing. Eberron presents Khorvaire as once being home to a massive Goblin empire. That empire collapsed, and the majority of goblinoids are now living in poverty, or living in nomadic, or rural village life.
Keep in mind too, that rural village life in most D&D worlds is fraught with danger we don’t have in human history. In a lot of cases, Giants, Dragons, and such would have driven most humans to build great cities sooner if they had actually existed. Binding together is sensible in the face of this sort of outside challenge. So, it is understandable that the life of the average goblin in Eberron is one of high mortality, and a fight for survival.
This is edging into trope territory as well, though. This makes Goblins perpetually marginalized in a society where they are generally unwelcome. Again, that can be useful for exploring racism and class issues through an RPG. If that isn’t the purpose for using this trope, we have to again consider what we are hoping to say in setting development? What if Goblins were simply an accepted part of society? In Eberron, we could have them be heirs to Dragonmarks, which would include them in the House system, which could mainstream them.
You could also bring Darguun up to a fairly level playing field with the rest of the Nations of Eberron, pushing back the story of its unification, or even having it have sustained unity from the imperial era. This will either make Goblins more, or less antagonistic, depending on how much inherent nationalism you build into your world.
If you are building a completely new world, you could also do away with the standard Goblin tropes completely. Make them as accepted a part of society as Gnomes or Halflings. If you want to keep an antagonist group in the world, consider flipping the script and having Humans, or Elves be aggressors. You can either have it be a full swap, or try and subvert other tropes while you are flipping the script. The biggest danger here is shifting things and creating or falling into the same tropes with different faces.
What do I want you to take away from this? Try and subvert tropes that emphasize colonial or racist elements in RPGs. When you do so, try and take a holistic view on what your subversion would change in a setting. Be realistic, avoid stereotypes, and recognize you might not get it right. Take criticism, listen, and be prepared to adjust fire at the table too.
I’m interested in hearing how you’ve subverted tropes at your table or in your game. Let’s swap war stories.
I am not sure about subverting, but I did make a conscious decision to not have any of the traditional “villain” races in my campaign, no orcs, goblins, and such. Any people you met and are opposed by are going to be from the same pool of types as the player characters were choosing from: humans, elves, dwarves, and so on. I did not want to give player characters the easy out of “they are just goblins” (or whatever). Indeed, I remember some in-group backlash against a PC who semi-inadvertantly killed some bandits after they had surrendered.
When the villain is using slaves as disposable troops, that should be a signal to the characters that this is a evil person in command of the opposition, but how will they treat the slave soldiers?
So one question immediately comes to mind: How are your goblins (or any other race) anything more than just humans in different-shaped bodies?
I mean, at some level, aren’t most monsters actually *different races* – genetically, if you want to go down to that level – and not just humans who have morphed into new forms?
It’s a tough subject, because the racism of tropes you describe is born from treating human ethnicities as different races, but in a fantasy world these other races are distinctly not human, so I wonder if trying to make them *too* human is a sort of disservice of its own? That is, not allowing the monsters to really be different in temperament, in motivations, in appetites? Do they really feel emotions like humans do? Do they think like us? The list goes on and on, but in the end I would suggest we are actually dealing with a moral issue that could as easily be related to animal treatment as to racism and other prejudices.
I think that is a really fair question, and one that is going to have a different answer for every game designer. For me, Goblins etc. are not drastically other to humanity, elves, and the other races. As sentient species, I assume they think, and feel, and are like humans enough that they are understandable and not OTHER. The capacity for language is also a key element for me. If you can speak to one another, then there is a drastically different level of expectations we might have for behavior between fantasy races.
It strikes me that the most plausible background story for sentient humanoid races – particularly any that can be PC’s – is to give them a shared heritage. Tolkien even made Orks of Middle Earth magically mutated elves: much diminished but rapidly-reproduced versions ideal for easily controlled mob armies.
If goblins, orcs, lizardmen, etc are generally explained as mutations (natural, magical, or otherwise), or variants of a parent humanoid or human core species, we have a far more believable premise for giving them similar thought patterns, emotions, etc, which we can then modify based on their race’s history, environment, interactions with other races, etc. At that point I think we have the best case for even allowing them to be playable races with human-like qualities and psychology.