House Rules, Learn the Game

Why did Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Continue to Use the Term ‘Race?’

At the beginning of Chapter 2: Player Character Races the Player’s Handbook has a curious passage

. . . After creating your character’s ability scores, you must select a player character race. This is not a race in the true sense of the word: caucasian, black, asian, etc. It is actually a fantasy species for your character – human, elf, dwarf, gnome, half-elf, or halfling. Each race is different. Each possesses special powers and has different lists of classes to choose from . .

Cook, 26

It’s an odd passage because the TSR design team is arguing that the usage of the word ‘race’ is inappropriate in the game as it doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of what players are picking in this chapter. It then proceeds to implicitly suggest that ‘species’ would be more accurate; only to subsequently return to using the term ‘race’ again. Why did they make that argument and then return to the inappropriate terminology?

When I first started thinking about this topic I assumed that the use of ‘race’ had been with the game since the publication of Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) back in 1974; however, when I looked back at my copy of Men & Magic there is no mention of ‘race’ although humans (referred to as ‘men’), dwarves, elves, and hobbits are present. The term did appear in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D 1e) Player’s Handbook and I imagine that it appeared in Dragon Magazine during the transition period from OD&D to AD&D 1e to teach players to use the term.

One of the things that I have learned through this Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (AD&D 2e) Series is that AD&D 2e is often times a reaction to controversies that surrounded AD&D 1e. Demons and Devils were renamed; half-orcs and assassins were removed entirely; and the moral ambiguity of AD&D 1e was tightened up to ensure players were the ‘good guys.’ So why didn’t they go ahead and make the change to ‘species’ as well?

It could be argued that with AD&D 2e removing and changing so much from AD&D 1e that the designers felt they needed to avoid making such a monumental change in terminology when it came to something that would directly affect how long-term players created their characters. While it’s not in actuality a fundamental change in the process the terminology change could have been perceived as something that made a fundamental change to the game similarly to how placing magical items in the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D 4e) Player’s Handbook was perceived as a fundamental change to the way the game was played. The Game Master (GM) still had to provide the players with the items through play but having the items in the Player’s Handbook was perceived by many long-term players as a fundamental change to the way the game was played.

As an old boss of mine used to say, “Perception is reality.”

Yet if they had gone ahead and changed the term from race to species, with that simple explanation as to why they made the change, then we would have avoided countless arguments about the term that have plagued the game for the last thirty years.

What is the right move for me here?

I think that I’m going to begin referring to the different fantasy ‘races’ as fantasy ‘species’ instead as the terminology is more fitting. It feels awkward right now, because I’ve spent the last 15 years referring to them as races, but in time it will feel more natural. What are your thoughts?

Works Cited

Cook, David “Zeb,” et al. Player’s Handbook for the AD&D Game. USA: TSR Inc, 1996. Pg 26 PRINT

6 thoughts on “Why did Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Continue to Use the Term ‘Race?’”

  1. I tried using the word “origin” last year for my perpetually in development homebrew system. It felt ham fisted. Especially as in the setting the main fantasy species are all collectively referred to as the Elder Races. I wanted something that encapsulated both species and cultures but then elves and dwarves are no more monoculture than humans.

    But you’re right. Species and cultures are the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the usage of the term Race was borrowed from Tolkien. Since Elves and Orcs and others can breed with humans I’m not sure species would be any more accurate.


  3. “Species” as a term is also much broader than the sense implied by “races”. With “races”, you get to play a two-legged two-armed humanoid with some cosmetic flavouring and minor tweaks to abilities. With “species” you get to play as a blue whale or a slime mold.

    Also, the game (expressed in mechanics and in touted activities/adventures) barely cares one whit for the difference between the terms for “race” and “species”. They are both words which, as far as the rules care, mean “people critters”.

    If however the game was quite different, e.g. all about ensuring the successful propagation of your in-group through breeding .. then “race” vs “species” would become relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

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