Evil races in D&D

September 24, 2014 at 10:00 am
filed under Roleplaying

I shouldn’t spend too much time on the computer these days, on account of RSI. This will therefore be an exercise in not revising ad nauseum. I may not even have a decent conclusion.

The topic here is the question of evil demi-human or humanoid races.

As much as I want to sit back and relax, and just do some D&D, whenever I try to plan an adventure I like to inject some ambiguity or complexity.

In D&D, there are various intelligent/sapient humanoid races that are also by and large evil: goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, kobolds, and probably others. It’s always bothered me that these races are mostly just there to be killed. They’re an “other” where their evil is taken as read and you feel no qualms about killing them.

I thought about trying to inject some ambiguity, in the sense of goblins or orcs not just attacking because they can, because they’re “evil.” But something about this just didn’t sit right with me.

Here are some of my coping mechanisms.

It’s the gods’ fault

Now, ordinarily, “the gods did it” feels like hand-waving. It’s like “a mad wizard did it” except a lot less charming in my opinion. Consequently I have a tendency to gloss over this one in my quest for complexity, and I think now this may be a mistake.

Inherent to the D&D cosmology is the idea of objective evil. For instance, that’s what the Great Wheel is all about. I’m used to thinking that objective evil is boring. But now I realize you could make a pretty good case that the existence of objective evil is pretty scary.

In a complex, arbitrary universe, you have to find meaning for yourself. “Evil” is a projection of sorts. Some creatures or people may be evil but in the absence of perfect knowledge, you can’t say for sure, can you?

In D&D, evil manifestly exists. You can’t argue this out of character. Even in character a character would have to be hopelessly naive.

So the fact is that evil exists, evil gods exist, and these melevolent gods created monsters who are humanoid, sapient, and evil.

Trends operate on groups, not individuals

Grummsh or whoever else created orcs, and he created them without as much free will so they’d be more likely to obey him, right? Orcs are ostensibly violent and bloodthirsty.

The reason isn’t because they’re mindless automatons; they’re not like skeletons or zombies. They are flesh and blood, they can reason independently, and they are individuals. This isn’t a plea for sympathy. Rather, there’s a reason that orc chieftain is a chieftain above all the others. (So what is it? Cunning? Foresight? Resourcefulness?)

Evil itself isn’t a switch, a binary. Even among the three evil alignments, there’s considerable room for variation. An inclination towards evil is a trend comprised of individuals, perhaps on a bell curve. The reason the curve looks the way it does is because someone’s thumb is on the scale; it’s just easier for orcs to be evil, and it’s difficult to make a case why an orc should do otherwise.

One last point about nature vs. nurture: trends like whether a race is “evil” or not only become evident over time, meaning that you need multiple samples. And sapient beings are influenced at least to some extent by the environment they’re raised in.

This brings me to the next point.

Particulars, particulars, particulars

The two last points set the stage for this one: particulars.

Obviously everyone has a different world-building style, and this might not work for you. But with the above in hand, I still don’t think the PC races vs evil races dynamic is believable, at least in a visceral sense.

One way to bring life to the hatred between, say, orcs and dwarves is to make it real through history, through legacies.

There are human civilizations with cycles of violence reaching back through multiple generations. Imagine what it’s like if we’re talking about a group engineered with a predisposition towards violence.

So if it’s relevant to the story and you really want to add some color, it may be worth establishing some particulars of how and to what extent key NPCs have been affected by these conflicts.

Contrariwise orcs too easily become faceless hordes. How about giving PC races a focus for their hatred? Clans, lineages, lieutenants, and chieftains are all ways to put a name to a group or individual. They might be dead, leaving behind a legacy of some sort.

One way or another, this gives you something upon which you can hang characteristics on, such as an insignia, one or more distinctive weapons or tactics, and so on.

One last thing: if the cycle has continued for a while, whose “fault” is it anymore? Maybe at time t the dwarves are angry at the Bonesplitter tribe for killing the local cleric. The Bonesplitter clan is just retaliating for some major setback at t-1. Well, at t-1 the dwarves were trying to get back the territory taken from them at t-2 by the Bonesplitter tribe. And so on.

That’s not to say that peace has any likelihood of working. This is how eliminationist (read: genocidal) behavior from the PC races is not wholly abominable. Maybe, in theory, you could coexist with the right orcs or goblins in the right conditions. In practice, these creatures were created with their nature. Trends are functions over groups with time as an input; with a larger time window, the odds get worse and worse. It would probably take an act of god to “fix” them. Or it would make for a really interesting campaign.


I hope this helped you as much as it helped me. The goal isn’t to transform D&D or make it post-modern in any sense. Of course, if you’re content with hack and slash, more power to you! Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that and I myself enjoy it from time to time.

My goal here is to make it believable, so that we’re not all on autopilot when it comes to conflict with various races. To do that, you need to bring these faceless archetypes down to earth somehow, and that means looking at how you want to portray them in your stories.

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