Racism as Plot Sign

Along the streets of the market, you look for a shop to trade some items you’ve collected for some items you need. Along the way, you run into some elf somewhere who runs a market stall. Herein does the DM start to describe them. You pick up a piece of fruit and head on your way.

When you finally arrive at the appropriate shops to make your trade, you notice a merchant who seems to run everything. You take note of them, but decline to speak to them for the time being. The DM here decides to let you know this person is a jerk. How?

They’re racist. They don’t like gnomes. They say mean things about the elves that work nearby. They speak ill of the peaceful nomadic Orcs nearby. When asked why, there’s no substance to the hatred. There’s just hatred. This would be important except you don’t know anything about this person other than they hate a whole group of someone’s for no particular reason.

For other equally incomprehensible reasons, the response should be death and destruction. It isn’t something you can change or interact with. The only agency you’re offered is to know they are terrible and ignore them or kill them outright and deal with the consequences.

As I have said before, this is just not the way to handle a narrative, but let’s talk about that a bit more. Here’s a cup of chai; careful, it’s hot.

So here’s the thing: racism as an absolute marker for someone or several someones to be noted as bad guys is lazy and awful writing.

Conflict is important for character growth and exploration. We can all agree to that point forever. People can have traits that make them bad people and for that matter, evil. That said, race need not be the catalyst for this. Any type of sentient thing can be beset by greed, grief, anger, or other things. Evil has layers of nuance that can be explored.

Some say that evil without nuance is required for a good story and while I can understand that, I cannot understand the idea of sending people off to adventure in a fantasy game wherein we can choose to do and be anything and reduce all of that possibility to “They’re an Orc, so just kill them on sight.”

Or someone with all of this worldbuilding and history and going, “Oh, this person hates gnomes… because they are gnomes.”

Because here’s the tea: the people running these games and stories about racism aren’t people who have been negatively affected by them. What that means is that a subject which takes so much from me.

Has taken friends. Has taken family. Continues to take them while people treat their being taken as a hot take, a thinkpiece for medium, a reason for someone to tell me how I should be at a voting booth instead of enjoying a chicken sandwich.

So what do we use as an indicator that non-monster races are not good folks?

This may come across as abrasive, but in all honesty: you shouldn’t DM until you know how to characterize people. Put the DMG aside and watch a movie or read several books. Read a comic book. Watch other DMs and ask questions. Especially if that DM is a person of color.

Alternately, hire a consultant – yes, hire as in pay someone money for their time – to walk you through how to better characterize this and future NPCs you make. Watch How to be a great GM on youtube.

To sum up: put forth effort to actually make a character with some depth to it. Everything I have listed above is simply this.

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