Note: This post is cross-posted to my Wizards of the Coast Community Blog. Quotes from some items in the Dungeons & Dragons Compendium have been reproduced for commentary purposes, a fair use justification.
I was looking something up in the online Compendium for D&D and noticed something interesting, something I never noticed before. Here's the physical description of humanity in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition:
Humans come in a wide variety of heights, weights, and colors. Some humans have black or dark brown skin, others are as pale as snow, and they cover the whole range of tans and browns in between. Their hair is black, brown, or a range of blonds and reds. Their eyes are most often brown, blue, or hazel.
That's copied from the Compendium. I don't have my physical copy of the Player's Handbook
handy, but there's no revision note so I assume it was copied directly.
Notice anything? Black and brown are given precedence over pale and blonde and blue. This would be a perfectly sensible way to describe the human race from a neutral, outside perspective, the same perspective we view any entirely new, made up type of folk that occurs in a fantasy world. Pale is a minority look among humanity. It's a recessive trait, an anomaly. So why should an introduction to or overview of the race introduce it first and foremost among all the possibilities?
Humans aren't an entirely new type of folk, of course... they're very familiar to us, and thus we usually view them through a biased filter. That's why I missed this before: I didn't read the physical description of Humans. I know what a Human looks like, or I think I do. But of course, when I think of "a human being", what pops into my head is going to fit a more specific model than what they're describing.
The filter through which we ("we" here referring to white Americans, a group of which I'm a member) tend to view typical Western fantasy is one where white is default and darker shades are interesting variations, if they're present at all.
Other races that have what we might call human-like skins (as opposed to rocky hides or scales or fur or crystals or whatever) mostly have notations in their descriptions that they come in the same range of hues as humans do.
Dwarves have the same variety of skin, eye, and hair colors as humans, although dwarf skin is sometimes gray or sandstone red and red hair is more common among them.
Halflings have the same range of complexions as humans, but most halflings have dark hair and eyes.
[Elves] have the same range of complexions as humans, tending more toward tan or brown hues. A typical elf’s hair color is dark brown, autumn orange, mossy green, or deep gold.
Not only are Elves no longer lily-white by default, but they tend towards tan and brown. Eladrin, on the other hand...
...have the same range of complexions as humans, though they are more often fair than dark. Their straight, fine hair is often white, silver, or pale gold, and they wear it long and loose.
To some degree, the art reflects this: they depict characters of color, here and there. The artists often seem to forget the new official description of elves, though, and the coverage of portraits that comes with the Character Builder is a little uneven: there are two dark-skinned Halfling women, but arguably no Human ones. Interestingly there's a dark-skinned Eladrin, but only one Elf who might be called "tan".
And while there's been some progress, that's not to say that D&D is Doing It Right all over the place.
I've read that among the pregenerated characters for the Dark Sun Encounters game, there's only one non-white character according to the accompanying artwork. She's also the only woman in the party. This is disappointing, especially as I recall 2E Dark Sun's sourcebooks describing a world populated along similar lines to the archipelago of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea
series (though without all that pesky water just lying around.)
And of course, the Elven tendency towards lily-whiteness has been transferred to the Eladrin, who also have "straight, fine hair". The Eladrin are the "Galadrielves", so to speak... graceful and beautiful and with an air of superiority. The other race who lives in the Feywild (faerie land) alongside them, the Gnomes, are described as being tan, ruddy, or rocky gray rather than having human-like complexions. I think the idea is that they're supposed to be naturally camouflaged, but the art doesn't really fully convey this. The impression we're left with is that in the Feywild, we have beautiful pale races and ugly, twisted dark ones. If the Gnomes aren't quite white, they're certainly not living embodiments of grace and beauty.
All this is without even getting into the problematic aspects of the Elf/Drow split. Yes, Elves are now brown by default, but their "evil" cousins are black. Adding the Eladrin into the mix just makes things worse: we have the original, uncorrupted Fey version of Elves who "are more often fair than dark", their cousins who stayed in the natural world and became tan to brown, and the eeeeevillllll twisted version who were banished into an underground realm are black as the night sky.
Some might defend the Drow by pointing out that they're not "like the black people version of elves, but black like the color black". Yes, I've heard that exact phrasing used before.
Well, that might dull the knife's edge for most (though not all) dark-skinned human beings, but it still sets up a preferential color spectrum, with dark being worse than light. And however the Drow are drawn today, the original artwork depicts them as being "the black people version of elves". For reference, see this D&D Alumni article
, with the 2nd Edition AD&D cover from Queen of the Spiders. There are (non-Drow) Elves with a similar shade of skin in the official artwork now.
For whatever progress has been made in 4E, it sounds a massive note of fail when it comes to Drow. The decision to stop calling them "Dark Elves" (except in campaign settings where they still do) is a bit of sleight of hand when their origin is mostly unchanged: they're still the evil race of elfy-like folk. And all of this is before we get into what is the biggest *headdesk* inducing moment for me, the one that almost ended my support of 4E, the Redeemed Drow.
Redeemed Drow is an Epic Destiny, which is something like a prestige class in 3E and something like the Paths to Immortality of Old School D&D. It provides an endgame for characters who have seen and done everything, an epic story hook for the DM and a satisfying finale for the player character. There are many to choose from. Some are open to any character, some only apply to certain types of characters.
The Redeemed Drow Epic Destiny is not, as its name suggests, just a codification of the already tired trope of the "lone Drow rebel, shunning the evil ways of the race". It's a Drow who worships the divine patron of the Just Plain Elves and works really hard and prays to be cleansed of the taint of Drowness.
No matter the deeds done, no matter the life lived, none of your mortal actions change the fact that you are drow—a dark elf and a living symbol of mortal corruption and vice—and throughout the rest of your days, you must bear the burden of the understanding that nothing you do can ever lift the stain that darkens your heart. The only escape from the curse is to truly transcend the mortal coil and become something more—to leave behind the shell of flesh and bone so your true light can shine and reveal to all the purity of your purpose.
Your successes earn you the attention of Corellon (and possibly others), who aids you in your crusade against your former kin by imbuing you with a greater sense of purpose to impel you to daring acts and astonishing deeds. As your mission nears completion, Lolth throws the full weight of her legions against you, and through the storm of demons, spiders, driders, and drow, you must stand fast before the blooming doubts and misgivings that threaten to cloud your vision. In the end, Corellon blesses you with the greatest gift you could ask for: a second chance at life without the filthy caress of the horrific Spider Queen.
Just in case anybody missed the point of what they're talking about with the references to a "stain that darkens your heart" and "the filthy caress of the horrific Spider Queen", they refer to a Drow as a "Dark Elf" in this description. Nowhere does it actually say that the character is reborn as a Non-Drow Elf, but the implications are clear.
I almost canceled my D&D Insider subscription when I read the article in which this Epic Destiny appeared. In the end, I didn't. It's one option out of dozens, included as an expansion to the game. It goes without saying that I would never allow a player to use it in a game I'm running... I'd hope anybody who played in a game I ran all the way up to the Epic Tier would know better than that, anyway. I wouldn't argue with someone who considered it the breaking point. If there's much more along the same lines, it'll be my breaking point. "If the wicked dark skinned races live good lives and pray really hard, they are reborn white"
is not my kind of fantasy.
But that leaves me with the question of whether to include Drow at all, and how to reconcile their problematic aspects I have no problem with them being feared and reviled by the people living in areas under white hegemony. That idea is strangely plausible to me. But the idea of them as an "evil" race has enough baggage before we get into them being dark-skinned as well, and the two together are utterly inexcusable even if we jettison all the explicit connections between their dark skin and their evilness. (Stain, taint, "darkness", etc.)