Fantastic Racism
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"Legolas, what do your elf-eyes see?"

(he looks indignantly back at his human comrade, not towards the horizon as directed)

"Racism. They see racism."

Basic Information

Fantastic Racism is what occurs when the logical consequences of friction between different cultural/ethnic groups are applied to a fantasy setting where the different "races" are actually meaningfully different from one another. Given the accretive history of fRPGs this phenomenon is both over and underplayed by turns and can be a source of significant values dissonance on almost all levels.

The first and most obvious level at which this tends to apply shades into what measure is a non-human - in that in the majority of fRPGs there are entire species of sapients who can be openly and freely killed simply for being who they are without any censure from in game morality. Orcs are traditional members of this category. Equally, there are entire species who it would be unthinkable to kill without some form of censure (such as dwarves or elves) … unless they belong to specific races of those species (Drow or Duergar for example) … which will often be colour coded for your convenience. This policy of genocide is apparently subject to exception if a given individual happens to be a PC, but is otherwise not remarked upon (except for the traditional debate as to whether it is acceptable to kill the non-combatants of the species you are otherwise cheerfully eradicating).

Alternatively, and following on from the "PC exemption" touched on above, it is entirely possible for a fantasy setting to have all sorts of sapients living1 promiscuously cheek by jowl without anyone remarking on it. This is often the sort of setting where anyone who is noted as being aggrieved by the kitchen sink atmosphere is clearly a racist villain. Equally this phenomenon can coexist with a kill on sight policy applied to other species.

To be fair, neither of these is entirely dissonant, especially from some historical points of view - racial phenotype for example, wasn't nearly so interesting in Ancient Rome as your citizenship status and so it is entirely congruent to imagine that the grandson of an orcish slave could somehow become a senator and that for many medieval Europeans "foreigners" virtually started at the next village over - but equally it's often underplayed that so many different species can coexist without some legitimate tension. Likewise, there have been plenty of examples of human groups that would kill each other on sight, so mixing in a tail and some spines should definitely make that congruent… but equally evidence shows that we coexisted with the nearest thing we had to another sapient species (the Neanderthals) for millennia and opinions differ on how much we helped out with their eventual extinction. Speaking of which, the fact that in fantasy settings, virtually anything can breed with anything else, should be a great enabler of miscegenation - which in the long term should undermine racial differences - there are plenty of ways to develop a conflict with your relatives, but you loose credibility if you try to make any of them ethnic.

The key root to a lack of verisimilitude in fantasy settings often appears to be the use of race/species to indicate cultural group - which is often a shorthand in real-life racism (and thus, ironically, ruthlessly purged from most settings). In reality, conflict usually occurs along cultural group boundaries - as does allegiance, often in surprising ways2, but if species equals cultural group, this tends to lead to the problem in hand. A congruent setting could well have, for example, an urban dockside mob of thirty odd assorted species from a nominally human city flinging whatever comes to hand at a shipload of merchants from another, antagonistic human kingdom. That's not to say a monoethnic state should be something unusual, or to be frowned upon - again, until very recently most people stayed more or less where they were born and lived their entire lives around others of their own ethnicity and culture - but it should be possible for a state to have a culture not defined by its species: if the (human) kingdoms of Lorazepam and Dialuid are not culturally identical human monarchies, why should the hobgoblin republics of Dialuplan and Broadbandfibre be identical to one another?


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Niche conflict is quite a common cause of problems between communities - where two groups are rivals for the same living space or resources, conflict is likely to result, so for congruence, species that occupy different biomes are less likely to fall out whilst those who are in direct composition.
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