Roleplaying

Ridding Your Monsters of Ableism

People create monsters that reflect the fears of their society, including fears about disability. Because of this, ableism has been incorporated into our depictions of monsters. In some cases, disability is used to make monsters seem dangerous, unsettling, or unpredictable. Other times, it’s used to give monsters weaknesses that heroes can exploit.

In each case, these depictions spread harmful stereotypes about what it means to be disabled. This is a real shame, because a good monster can add a lot to a story, and ableism detracts from that. So let’s have a conversation about ableist monsters and explore our options for ridding our monsters of ableism.

Content Notice: This article contains multiple examples of ableism, including ableist words, phrases, and some intensely ableist excerpts.

Understanding Ableist Patterns in Monsters

Ableism is incorporated into monsters in many different ways. The majority of these fall into one of four categories.

Low Intelligence

To understand why monsters with humanlike minds (sapient monsters) shouldn’t be described as having “low intelligence,” we must look at the real-world history in which some groups of humans were viewed as subhuman. In this history, racism and ableism intertwine in dehumanizing depictions of people of color as “unintelligent” and “primitive.” These bigoted depictions were used to justify conquest, slavery, displacement, and genocide. Sadly, some of this history is still alive and well in the form of modern white supremacy.

Modern depictions of monsters like orcs, goblins, and ogres are direct descendents of this terrible history. Not a lot of people know this, but J.R.R. Tolkien deliberately created orcs from the worst Asian stereotypes of his day. Over time, depictions of orcs shifted to incorporate racist stereotypes about Black people. The coding of orcs as racist caricatures is so ingrained that some alt-right people use orcs as a stand-in for people of color so that they can get away with saying racist things.

This is some disturbing stuff, and the depiction of monsters with “low intelligence” is similarly disturbing. For example, the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual discusses the mental capacity of ogres in profoundly ableist terms in a subsection titled “Legendary Stupidity.”

Few ogres can count to ten, even with their fingers in front of them. Most speak only a rudimentary form of Giant and know a smattering of Common words. Ogres believe what they are told and are easy to fool or confuse, but they break things they don’t understand.

This is nothing less than a toxic stereotype of what it means to have a cognitive or developmental disability. And it is being used for a monster that is depicted in the Monster Manual as lazy, violent, gluttonous, and “primitive.” Not only is this a negative depiction of disability, but it is also entwined with racist depictions of tribal cultures as “primitive.”

Ableist terms like “simple,” “dimwitted,” and “stupid” are regularly used when describing monsters with “low intelligence.” In addition, these monsters are regularly compared to animals – a classic dehumanizing tactic that has long been used against both people of color and people with disabilities. A blatant example of this is in the description of hill giants in the 5th Edition Monster Manual.

The hill giants’ ability to digest nearly anything has allowed them to survive for eons as savages, eating and breeding in the hills like animals. They have never needed to adapt and change, so their minds and emotions remain simple and undeveloped.

The worst part of these toxic descriptions is that they exist to create monsters that heroes can kill without guilt – no questions needed. Any ogre or hill giant can be killed on sight, allowing the story to skip straight to dramatic action scenes. In the fiction of the game, killing these monsters makes the world a better place – but that’s genocide. The justification that hill giants are an “evil race” doesn’t help, because the concept of an “evil race” originated in the stereotypes and violence of the real world.

If we want to stop recreating this terrible history in our games, we need to let go of the concepts of an “evil” or “stupid” race. Let’s move on to better monsters and villains that don’t send the harmful message that some real-world people are less human.

Ugliness

Another way that ableism comes up is the depiction of ugly monsters as “deformed,” “twisted,” “misshapen,” and “unnatural.” These depictions use ableist descriptions of disabled traits, such as hunchbacks and atypical limbs, in an attempt to create revulsion in their audience. In the 5th Edition Monster Manual, there is no better example of this than the description of the fomorians.

The most hideous and wicked of all giantkind are the godless fomorians, whose deformed bodies reflect their vile demeanors. Some have facial features randomly distributed around their misshapen, warty heads. Others have limbs of grossly different sizes and shapes, or emit terrible howls each time they draw breath through misshapen mouths. Their wretched appearance rarely evokes sympathy, however, for the fomorians brought their doom upon themselves with the evil that rules their hearts and minds.

These ableist descriptions of disabled bodies being “wretched” and “deformed” send a terrible message about what it means to be disabled. In addition, this example also clearly shows how these stigmatizing descriptions of disability are also being used to represent moral failings. The idea that whether or not a person meets an ableist beauty standard reflects their inner worth is horribly stigmatizing. Not surprisingly, this idea is a common dehumanization tactic used in many other forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, classism, and ageism.

If we want to make monsters that are grotesque, unnatural, or unnerving without being oppressive, we need to move away from traits that real-world people have. Fortunately, in speculative fiction, we have a lot of options for traits that go beyond the bounds of nature.

Sensory Disabilities

Blind monsters are by far the most common monsters with sensory disabilities. Despite having an easily recognizable disability, blind monsters are regularly played for laughs, where they stumble around like a sighted person with a blindfold on. An interesting example is the three gray witches from Greek mythology who share one eye between the three of them. Despite each of them spending two-thirds of their life blind, in both versions of The Clash of the Titans these witches struggle to cope when Perseus steals their eye. They beg for him to return it, and when he throws it on the ground, they stumble and grope after it, demonstrating a complete lack of the skills and tools that actual blind people use. In this incredibly stigmatizing depiction of blindness, these three witches are simultaneously portrayed as comedic, horrifying, and pathetic.

This example demonstrates a huge problem in the depiction of blind monsters: they are based on a stereotypical and inaccurate understanding of blindness. This comes from the myth that sighted people can experience what it is like to be blind by putting on a blindfold. Research has shown that simulating blindness in this way makes sighted people think that blind people are less capable of functioning. In fact, these sorts of “empathy exercises” actually increase stigma against blind people.

Because of this stereotype, rather than exploring what blindness is actually like, sighted creators focus on replacing sight. The 5th Edition Monster Manual has a great example of this in “blindsight.”

A monster with blindsight can perceive its surroundings without relying on sight, within a particular radius.

Creatures without eyes, such as grimlocks and gray oozes, typically have this special sense, as do creatures with echolocation or heightened senses, such as bats and true dragons.

For creatures like oozes, blindsight is a completely undefined, sight-like sense that has no properties of its own – it is simply a replacement for sight. For other creatures like bats and dragons, real senses like echolocation are being treated as equivalent to sight, rather than being accurately described as unique senses with their own strengths and limitations.

Taken together, these depictions of blind monsters perpetuate stereotypes and stigma, rather than an accurate understanding of blindness. When other sensory disabilities, like deafness, come up, they experience similar patterns of misrepresentation. If monsters with sensory disabilities are going to be portrayed, it is important that they be depicted with greater respect and accuracy.

“Insanity”

“Insanity” is an inaccurate and stigmatizing concept that has long since been left behind by modern medicine. It comes from a time and place wherein people thought that mental illness was contagious. At that time, “insane” was used for anything that resulted in “abnormal behavior,” including mental illnesses, certain physical disabilities, and the behaviors of stigmatized groups, like unwed mothers. This terrible history also includes “insane” people being institutionalized, tortured, and experimented upon.

One of the things that makes the concept of “insanity” so inaccurate is that it lumps all types of mental divergence together. Because it was never based on the specifics of real mental illnesses, “insanity” has not kept pace with our developing medical understanding of the mind. Instead, it remains a toxic stereotype about people with divergent minds being dangerous, out of control, irrational, and disconnected from reality.

Because “insanity” remains a broad and amorphous concept, it is used many different ways in storytelling. Sometimes the stereotype of mentally ill people being dangerous and out of control is drawn on to make monsters seem more threatening. Other times, the stereotype about mentally ill people being irrational and disconnected from reality is used to explain erratic and unpredictable behavior. In addition, the idea that terrible things “drive a person mad” is used to accentuate horror and demonstrate psychological harm.

Once again, the 5th Edition Monster Manual has an example that effectively illustrates this.

Of all the terrors created by foul sorcery, gibbering mouthers are among the most wicked and depraved. This creature is the composite eyes, mouths, and liquefied matter of its former victims. Driven to insanity by the destruction of their bodies and absorption into the mouther, those victims gibber incoherent madness, forced to consume everything in reach.

Here “insanity” acts as an explanation for this monster’s incoherent babbling and is used to represent the psychological torment that these victims endure.

Regardless of how “insanity” is being used, these depictions are stigmatizing and they promote misinformation about mental illness. Because “insanity” is used in so many ways, there is no one thing that can replace it. Instead, we need to look carefully at how it is being used and swap it with a different story element that is appropriate to the context. It helps to think of “insanity” as an intermediary that is being used to get a desired result, like explaining erratic behavior. Once we know what the desired result is, we can use something else that gets us there.

Finding Disabled Traits in Your Monsters

Below is a checklist you can use as a starting point for finding and examining a monster’s disabled traits. Keep in mind that some of these traits, like “insanity,” are inherently stigmatizing, while others can be neutral or stigmatizing depending on the context. For example, depicting a blind monster “comically” stumbling around is ableist, but accurately depicting a blind monster is fine.

When reviewing your monsters, check for:

  •  Atypical Humanoid Bodies: This includes hunchbacks, joints that bend in unusual ways, bulging eyes, “twisted” or “deformed” bodies, and limbs that are unusual sizes and shapes.
  • Limited Mobility: Key words to notice include “shambling,” “shuffling,” “lurching,” “lumbering,” “limping,” “hobbling,” and “stumbling.” Also watch for body parts that are dragged along as the monster moves.
  • Ugliness: This includes descriptions of stigmatized bodies, such as fat, gaunt, or elderly bodies, as well as things that are considered disfigurements, such as blemishes, scars, pockmarks, and blotchy skin.
  • Diseases, Sores, and Growths: Look out for symptoms of disease, such as labored breathing, as well as words for sores and growths, such as canker, infection, warts, lumps, moles, pimples, puss, blisters, and boils.
  • Sapient Beings With “Low Intelligence”: Words to look out for include “stupid,” “dumb,” “simple,” “dimwitted,” “idiot,” “moron,” “primitive,” and “savage.”
  • Any Recognizable Disabilities: This includes being blind or deaf, having cataracts (white eyes), having prosthetic body parts, and using medical technology, such as respiratory equipment.
  • “Grotesque,” “Deformed,” and “Unnatural” Creatures: Related words to notice include “warped,” “broken,” “disgusting,” “repulsive,” “freakish,” “disfigured,” “twisted,” “contorted,” “malformed,” “mangled,” and “misshapen.”
  • “Insanity”: Words to look out for include “mad,” “crazy,” “unhinged,” “deranged,” “lunatic,” “maniac,” and “psychopath.” Also, watch for monsters that “drive people mad.”

Once disabled monster traits have been identified, investigate each one thoroughly. Is this trait being used to make the monster feel dangerous, create revulsion, or to explain erratic behavior? Is a disability acting as an exploitable weakness? Does the depiction of this trait send a negative message about what it means to be disabled? Are any disabilities being misrepresented? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then this is a stigmatizing depiction of disability that needs to be fixed.

Designing Monsters Without Ableism

Because ableism is incorporated into monsters in many ways, removing ableism requires a combination of techniques.

Use Neutral Species Instead of “Good Races” or “Evil Races”

Psychological researchers at Tel Aviv University have defined racial essentialism as “the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities.” Their research has shown that racial essentialism affects not just what people think, but how they think. This leads to increased bias, stereotyping, and discrimination.

In speculative fiction, racial essentialism shows up as the idea that fantasy and alien “races,” such as elves and Vulcans, each have many biological, behavioral, and cognitive traits that every member of that “race” shares. It is this racial essentialism that tricks people into thinking that “evil races” and “stupid races” are okay. Ditching racial essentialism is a key part of removing both racism and ableism.

So what do we do instead? Creating diverse, fantastical “races” is part of the fun of speculative fiction. We want to have stories about elves, orcs, Vulcans, and Klingons.

To start out with, let’s shift from the language of “race” to the language of “species.” Race is a social concept that we use to talk about different groups of humans. Because race is not a real biological category, it is important that we don’t act like it is. In contrast, species are real, biologically distinct groups. Because the fictional “races” of speculative fiction are intended to be biologically different, they are best referred to as different “species.”

However, just shifting language isn’t enough. We also need to remove essentialist concepts from the way different species are designed and discussed. This starts with removing value-laden concepts, like “good,” “evil,” “intelligent,” “unintelligent,” “beautiful,” and “ugly,” from species descriptions. Instead, species descriptions should focus on neutral physical and mental traits, like having wings or being easily startled. These biologically based, neutral traits should also be limited in scope. Anything more complicated, like behaviors and skills, are cultural traits and should be kept separate.

Another essentialist concept that needs to be removed is the idea that species are uniform. Just like the real world, there should be a wide range of diversity within each species, including disabilities. Just because most fairies are born with wings doesn’t mean that all fairies are. This diversity can be highlighted by talking about common variations within the species. In addition, it is helpful to move away from absolute language that implies that all members of a species share the same traits and instead talk about common physical and mental traits of that species.

When depicting the mental traits of each species, research and consultation are particularly important, because it is easy to accidentally fall into ableist stereotypes. It can help to model the common mental traits of species on real-world neurodiversity. For example, there are similarities between anxiety and certain cat behaviors. Based on this, a catlike humanoid species could be created to incorporate some characteristics of anxiety, such as high awareness and being easily startled or overwhelmed. The process of researching anxiety for this species will make it easier to avoid the kind of false assumptions that come with stereotypes.

Update 2/27/21: This section has been changed to use anxiety as an example instead of autism, because the author’s personal experience with anxiety made it easier to clarify what is being suggested.

Recast Sapient Monsters as Villains

So if we aren’t going to use “evil races,” what do we do when we want sapient monsters for our heroes to fight? Use villains. I suggest reserving the word “monster” for any creature that has an animallike mind, while “villain” is used for any sapient being that does unethical things. Depending on the story, villains can be isolated individuals, like an evil necromancer living out in the wilderness, small groups, like a band of raiders, or large groups, like a faction of xenophobic political extremists.

Be careful when choosing what species the villains and heroes are. Because of the history of coding orcs as people of color and elves as white, it sends a harmful message if all of the villains are orcs, while all of the heroes are elves. There is no way to fully escape this history, so it is important to make sure that for every villainous orc there is at least one heroic orc, while elves are not exempted from being villains. Another thing to keep in mind when choosing character species is to avoid the white savior trope by having members of victimized groups be involved in stopping the people who are hurting them.

If a more epic villain is desired, create an evil power structure, such as an evil empire. Fascism and totalitarianism are worth opposing. When doing this, it is important to be clear that it is the ideologies, power structure, and people in charge that are evil. The everyday people within the society are trapped in a violent system that forces them to go along with their leadership, regardless of how they feel. While some of those everyday people will have bought into the power structure’s toxic ideologies, others won’t have.

When depicting an evil power structure, be careful not to depict a whole culture as evil. This is especially important when depicting people of color because a lot of real-world racism is expressed in judgments about non-European cultures being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” or “immoral.” One way to separate the culture from the power structure is to have a group of dissidents who oppose the evil power structure based on firmly held cultural values.

Explore Non-Ableist Strengths and Weaknesses

Certain types of traits can be used to make monsters more dangerous or horrifying, such as strong defenses or body horror. These traits are useful for replacing ableist traits. The following list is full of ideas for these replacement traits.

  • Animal Body Parts: In particular, insects and sea life are diverse groups of animals that are an excellent source of inspiration. For example, a monster could have centipede legs, fly eyes, a segmented body, stinging tentacles, a glowing lure, or transparent skin.
  • Built-In Weapons: Animals also provide inspiration for weapons. Extreme strength, claws, fangs, spikes, antlers, and horns are most common, but there are other options, like needles, stingers, suckers, poison, harpoons, and stunning electric pulses. In addition, some weapons can be used in unusual ways, such as blades that pop out from unexpected places, fangs that rotate sideways, and ratcheting club arms with a shattering punch.
  • Unusual Kinds of Harm: This can be direct harm, such as draining vitality, stealing breath, turning people to stone, absorbing abilities, or feeding on emotion. Or this can be indirect harm, such as starting a rockslide, collapsing tunnels, magically animating plants, controlling an element, or creating extreme weather.
  • Enveloping Forms: Some monsters can grab, envelop, or surround their targets. For example, oozes can engulf, snakes can wrap around, tar monsters can catch, packs can surround, swarms can envelop, tentacles can grab, and large monsters can swallow whole. Monsters can also use tools to envelop, such as webs, vines, pits, quicksand, and whirlpools.
  • Body Horror: Some body horror is ableist, but a lot isn’t. It helps to get inspiration from nature and to use things that aren’t possible in the real world. For example, a monster with no skin, swarms of parasites that chew their way into their victim’s body, a monster made up of internal organs, and a creature that slowly transforms its target into fungus.
  • Strong Defenses: Toughness, armor, spikes, agility, and regeneration are most common, but there are other options, like poisonous skin, slippery skin, wads of choking slime, corrosive blood, toxic feathers, body parts that fall off, ink clouds, and terrible smells.
  • Mobility Advantages: Monsters that move through their environment with great speed and ease have a significant advantage. Most often this is a fast land creature or flying monster, but it can also be one that climbs walls, moves rapidly through the earth, attacks from the water, or lives in a maze only it knows.
  • Unknown Forms: The unknown can be more frightening than the known, so any trait that interferes with the perception of a monster’s form can make it more intimidating, such as exceptional camouflage, being covered in shadows, or glowing so brightly that it can’t be looked at directly.
  • Harmless Appearance: The contrast between a harmless appearance and the danger beneath the surface emphasizes how threatening a monster is. Looking harmless also helps a monster get close to prey. Harmless-seeming monsters can look like a child, be cute and fuzzy, act frightened, sound like an injured animal, look physically fragile, make beautiful sounds, or take the form of a valuable object.

In addition to having useful strengths, monsters usually need weaknesses for characters to exploit. Treating disability like a weakness is stigmatizing, but fortunately, there are many other weaknesses that can be used instead.

For monsters, the most commonly used type of weakness is a vulnerability to a specific type of harm, such as an ice monster that is vulnerable to fire. However, things that attract or frighten monsters can also be used as weaknesses, as can mental traits, like an intense focus or distractibility. For example, the scent of a monster’s favorite prey can draw it to a specific location. Alternatively, a monster can be frightened away by the silhouette of a dragon circling overhead. Monsters that focus intensely will be easier to sneak around if their attention is fixed on something. Meanwhile, it will be easy to sidetrack distractible monsters.

In addition, it is worth thinking about whether a monster’s strengths have downsides. For example, crocodiles have such powerful muscles for biting down on prey that the muscles that open their mouths are left small and weak. As a result it takes little effort to hold a crocodile’s jaws shut, provided one can get into position. This principle can be easily applied to fictional monsters. For example, two of a dragon’s strengths are flying and having protective scales that provide it with armor. However, a dragon’s bat wings need to stretch as they fly, so they can’t be armored. That makes them a weakness.

In contrast, villains can have weaknesses that are individual flaws, like being arrogant, gullible, obsessed, fickle, greedy, or controlling. Another option is exploitable desires and fears, like a desire for recognition or a fear of losing status. In addition, conditions like anger, tiredness, and boredom make great temporary weaknesses. However, be careful when choosing flaws, because villains, especially major villains, need to be threatening.

A villain’s weaknesses can also be used to explain irrational behavior. For example, a controlling villain might lie to their underlings as a way to test their loyalty. If extreme behavior is desired, a magical explanation can be used, such as a cursed item that whispers lies to the villain.

Finally, groups of villains can have social dynamics that create group weaknesses. For example, if a main villain is a terrible boss, then their underpaid employees are more likely to slack off and get distracted. A group can also be ill equipped, minimally trained, disloyal, overconfident, sleep deprived, jumpy, overworked, or distracted by internal conflict. In addition, a leader’s orders can impose their personal flaws on the behavior of their followers.

Treat Disability as Neutral

To create disabled monsters that are respectful representations, disability needs to be treated as a neutral trait. This means that disability isn’t used to make a monster feel more or less threatening, nor is it portrayed as either positive or negative.

That means stereotypes must be replaced by accurate depictions of disability. Based on research and consultation, work out how the monster’s disability affects its life. Does this disability affect where the monster lives, how it gets around, the way it communicates, or how it gets food? How does the monster deal with any limitations created by its disability?

Delving into the skills and abilities that monsters use to meet their needs is helpful for avoiding stigmatizing depictions of disability that focus on limitation. While it is true that disability can create limitations, that isn’t the only way to experience disability, and many of the limitations experienced by disabled people are created by accessibility barriers. Disabled monsters don’t have access to accommodations and assistive devices, but they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have ways to address the most important access barriers in their lives.

Research is also important when psychological harm is being portrayed. Delving into the details of trauma, PTSD, and mental illness creates a more neutral and accurate portrait of the long-term effects of overwhelming experiences. For stories that focus on horrifying events, additional tools can be used to avoid stigma while emphasizing the impact of the story’s events. For example, the fight, flight, or freeze response is a universal response that can be used to highlight moments of stress, while conditions like “jumpy,” “fatigued,” “angry,” “sad,” and “overwhelmed” can be used after a big event to show its ongoing effect on characters.


In addition to being harmful, ableism makes for stale, predictable monsters. We can change this by learning how to spot ableism, ditching racial essentialism, swapping villains for sapient monsters, replacing ableist traits, using alternative weaknesses, and treating disability as neutral. By being more intentional about the choices we make when designing monsters, we can remove ableism and create fresh, vivid monsters that will strengthen our stories.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I’d say it’s not ableist in itself to portray terrifying experiences “driving people insane”. Terrifying experiences CAN mess you up mentally, and that CAN also include psychosis. (And psychotic people exist *raises hand*. It’s not the case that in the real world, everyone who’s mentally ill has something more “normal”, like depression or anxiety, whereas psychosis is an ableist myth. Psychosis exists, and it’s alright to portray it in fiction, as long as it’s done with care, as for any other illness, problem or disability.)

    The harmful idea is that once you’ve been driven insane, you’re basically not a person anymore. You’re no longer really human. You’ve crossed the line (perhaps forever). And you’re oblivious to what’s going on around you, since you’re insane! You might be locked up in an asylum and not even know it, happily laughing away inside a strait jacket, because you’re insane now, so you don’t even know where you are!
    Although psychosis can mean that there’s SOME extent to which you fail to realize what’s happening around you, where you are etc, that’s a far cry from being completely oblivious. The idea that psychotic people can’t suffer from mistreatment since they’re so oblivious anyway is a really harmful one.

    • Eli

      On a related point, if you look into asylums it’s horrifying. I can’t remember the name of it but there was an asylum that referred to all the people as children, were given injections to cause the most amount of pain without damage possible, and other stuff that I can’t remember. They would be called insane even though they were far from it. Having adhd, autism or something else (depressed people were probably there too)

    • Bellis

      Yep, you’re absolutely right, and I think that’s why it is important to think about WHAT mental illness (or comorbidities) you want to portray and do it accurately and respectfully. The problem isn’t to have a psychotic character, it’s the stereotypes and dehumanisation, and that “insanity” is often used to mean some amorphous thing that’s not like psychosis or any real mental illness, it’s just “whatever the author wants the character to do”. Like saying a villain is “psychotic” when you mean “evil and has no proper motivation”.

  2. 74c074c0

    I really hope that writers in the future will realize that it is actually possible to make awesome monsters without being ableist/racist/etc. I mean, I think a lot of people people would rather read about some kind of horrifying skinless bug person that can steal your breath right out of your lungs than a stock “deformed ogre monster.” Excellent article, 10/10.

  3. P

    I agree with most of this post, but I wouldn’t write off monsters/evil supernatural forces in fiction having elements of mental illness. Frodo’s struggle with the One Ring, which drains his energy, makes him lash out as people and not act like he wants to act, drives his friends and support network away, and traumatizes him, is something that a lot of mentally ill people recognize intimately, but portrayed through a fantastic allegory.

    A lot of these tropes(especially in the low-intelligence category) come from old folklore and creatures that are part of a culture’s heritage, like trolls and ogres being outsmarted by trickster heroes, so the combination of them needing to be physically intimidating(for the stakes of the encounter) + be dumb enough to be trickable cause an unfortunate ableist stereotype when perceived by modern audiences. A possible solution for this could be to, ironically, go back to the old folkloric concept of the world just being filled with odd creatures that aren’t human like you but still are intelligent and important to the part of the world they inhabit. Trolls and ents as supernatural beings of the world that can’t(and shouldn’t) be defeated with violence but by reasoning with them like the ents in Lord of the Rings, or when they are being unfair and need to be tricked, still portray them not as ableist stereotypes and instead as symbols of other things like greed or cruelty.

    The notion of there being creatures who “just are like that” I feel also isn’t innately harmful, like how most hobbits in Tolkien’s work are fairy-tale like creatures who are smaller than the world they must face, and have to use their wits and heart in order to succeed on their journeys, but still many of them like adventure anyways. Or dwarves being rowdy, meat and ale loving, headstrong beings who like mining and building(and the women of which are usually gender-nonconforming, if not outright having intersex features like beards). Ditto for elves being feminine and having gender-nonconforming men. And there are lots of deep and emotionally-human hobbit and dwarf characters, I feel like it’s better to not think of them as “human” in the terms of them being different races of human, but instead thinking of them as innately fictional and creatures created for the purpose of the story and to create a wonderous world. A lot of people resonate with hobbits and dwarves because they see themselves in them, too, since they’re portrayed as being just as sentient and human as humans are, but also different than them at the same time. I don’t feel that it’s wrong to have groups of creatures that are just “like that”, as long as they aren’t perpetrating any bigoted stereotypes.

    • P

      Whoop forgot to add, a lot of neurodivergent people empathize with creatures like changelings, fey, and androids for thinking a different way than “normal” and not understanding those Weird Social Rules, and empathize with characters like Penny, Data, and Peridot from RWBY, Star Trek, and Steven Universe respectively(me being one of them).

      • Tony

        I have ADHD, autism, anxiety, and depression, and same hat. The nonhuman characters I relate to the most are Remus Lupin and Princess Ariel.

    • Bryony

      You just gave me a whole bunch of ideas for trolls – what if because they are bigger, they experience time slower and therefore have a slower reflex time and take longer to do everything from talking to registering that they have seen something? As such, other species could think of them as less intelligent based on those surface features, and not know about excellent troll activities like poetry and maths puzzles and philosophical theories about butterfly migration. A bit like how the Ents talk in Lord of the Rings, but percieved differently. Perhaps they even see themselves as caretakers of the world. You may think that you slipped by a troll unseen, but in actuall fact, a troll just sucessful hid the nest of an endangered bird which is vital to the ecosystem by standing in front of it.

      Maybe troll culture could value long attention spans ond careful consideration over speed, partly becuase they don’t have a natural predator who they need to quickly defend against, but also because their planning and forethought has helped them advance in agriculture and renewable energy sources, which is now the center of their society.

      • Cay Reet

        Sir Terry Pratchett (may the clacks forever carry his name) had an interesting approach to trolls on the Discworld. On the first glance, they fall into the ‘stupid brute’ category, but the first glance is not showing the truth (with Pratchett, it rarely is). Trolls have evolved in very cold areas and their silicon brains (they are living rocks) are optimized for the temperature. If they come down to warmer climates, their thoughts get slower and they seem more stupid. It’s actually the clever trolls who leave their homes to seek work in the valleys, not the stupid ones.

        In “Men At Arms,” a dwarf builds a cooling helmet for a troll and the troll becomes significantly more intelligent as his brain is kept at a cooler temperature.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem is usually that monsters are shown like that – because it’s easy to equate the traits with ‘being evil’ in that case. There’s, of course, also a problem with ‘evil races’ aka ‘all X are evil’. Sentient beings don’t work like that, they’re not all ‘the same’ even if they look it to someone else.

      It’s true that folklore shows heroes who trick monsters by being more clever than them (often by being better at riddle-solving or finding loopholes). This happens often with the devil, too, though, who is usually not portrayed as dumb. As a matter of fact, the more clever the orc or troll, the higher the stakes (it’s much easier for the human to lose) and the sweeter the victory (because it’s much harder to achive). It’s not a necessity to have dumb trolls or orcs when it’s all about a riddle contest or suchlike.

      • Tony

        Also, if a story does involve outwitting a less intelligent monster, it might be better to design it as a comparatively intelligent animal (albeit one that’s still less intelligent than the humans) instead of as a comparatively dim humanoid. For example, one might base the interaction on distracting a guard dog.

        • Cay Reet

          Like in the classic myth of the sphinx, yes. The sphinx is not human or humanoid, but has the head of a human and the body of a lion and an animalistic behaviour. If he/she (Egytian sphinx is male, Greek sphinx is female) gives you a riddle or blocks your path, there’s no problem with having them overlook something which makes it easy to trick or overcome them.

      • P

        Very good point about smarter monsters needing to be tricked giving higher stakes.

  4. Bryony

    I love this, so many things I care about in there, and I will add my own advice to the mix!

    When creating a species, it’s easy to get into the human as default mindset. By that, I mean a six legged cat species probably won’t describe themselves as super fluffy with extra limbs. They would quite possibly think of humans as bald and surprisingly stable considering the limbs we are working with, though. I find it so important to take that seriously into consideration, not just for flavour, like in the heart of creating the species and narative arround them.

    A general rule can be “howerver unusuall the species is to us, we are just as unusuall to them”. There can be some variation, like how ostriches can be kind of confusing to look at, but they often fancy humans.

  5. Jarosch

    I’m not sure where it falls in this discussion, but Blindsight by Peter Watts is… kind of all over the place in this regard.

    It is the story of a starship crewed by people who mostly exhibit wild degrees of neurodivergence.

    On the one hand, it does well at giving the characters personalities beyond their conditions, and showing these conditions as the mixed bags that they are- there are drawbacks, certainly, but it also makes them exactly the right people for the job at hand. Who better to make first contact with an alien intelligence than someone who is already half-alien on their own home world?

    It drops the ball in certain other ways. Most notably, it makes the (not entirely unreasonable, but a bit of a stretch) that the neurodiversity movement, referenced by name as such is memory serves, would have the logical endpoint of literal out-and-proud sociopaths ruling with impunity and running the world into the ground.

    There is also some… outdated terminology with regards to some things.

    Anyone else who has read it?

    • Petar

      I read it (hard to read, but intriguing ideas).

      The book certainly put a very interesting spin on the whole “evil race” concept with its aliens. You already know them, but I’ll still explain for those interested.

      Blindsight’s plot is focused on a first contact mission with a freshly discovered alien race at the edge of the solar system. As it turns out, those aliens are utterly incapable of peaceful coexistence with humans. And that’s not because they are barbaric or stupid. In fact, they manage to be much smarter and yet much dumber than us simultaneously. That’s because, while they might be excellent at science, technology and problem-solving, they lack even the most rudimentary awareness an infant already has.

      The Blindsight universe operates under the premise that, evolutionary speaking, human consciousness developed by pure coincidence. Most intelligent races in the universe don’t have it because consciousness makes you invest in pointless stuff like art that distracts from passing on your genes to your offspring (as evolution wants it). Because they have no self-awareness, these aliens view any sign of communication they can’t understand as an attempt to waste their time and resources and thus as an aggressive action. And that’s why they want to kill us.

      Certainly an interesting twist on the whole “evil race/species” trope. The aliens aren’t evil because they are inferior to us, but because the very laws of the universe made them that way and we are the freaks. As one might expect, it’s a super dark cosmic horror story.

  6. Sam Victors

    Can evening out help?

    I mean what if the coded ableism was even out and neutral rather than one-sided?

    For example, I have several mythical creatures that have differences, from both sides; ugly and deformed Gruagach (Celtic fay) who is a kindly, helpful household spirit who blesses kind people with good luck, riches and prosperity, and punishes those who cruelly mistreat her with bad luck. The vile Beldams are scarred and warty old hags.

    The Seirim is a lecherous, large, knobby, hairy, rapey goat-man who feeds on women’s youth and internal organs. The Sheka is a hunchback dwarf with a limp foot, a kindhearted and jovial clown who helps lost children find their way back home and leaves food/money next to homeless people.

  7. Fay Onyx

    I just wanted to pop in here and make it clear that “insanity” is different than mental illness. “Insanity” is a negative stereotype. It is fine to have monsters and villains with disabilities, including mental illnesses, if it is handled carefully.

    When any disability is used to make something feel threatening, it is stigmatizing and encourages people to be afraid of disabled people in real life (something that happens with mental illness a lot). However a threatening thing that is threatening for other reasons can have a disability.

  8. J.Neira

    Despite their inclusion on your list not to use, “repulsive,” “freakish,” and “unnatural” are I think perfectly acceptable terms to describe a monster as, especially if the story is being told from the pov of a protagonist who finds the monsters appearance repulsive, freakish, or unnatural.

    • Fay Onyx

      “Keep in mind that some of these traits, like “insanity,” are inherently stigmatizing, while others can be neutral or stigmatizing depending on the context.”

      It isn’t actually a list of things not to use. It is a way to identify things that might be a problem so that people can check whether or not they are a problem. If it isn’t a problem in the context then its fine.

      • J.Neira

        Sorry, I misunderstood. I agree completely.

  9. Gwen

    I sometimes do the opposite of the species vs Race thing by not making them different at all. For example they are all the same species who had a particular magical plane influence them physically. So while they may look different, they predominantly share the views of the culture they inhabit.

    Elves don’t think differently (and I tend to shorten their lives to a normal span) they just get their dreams invaded by the fey so often that they develop defenses (resistance to charm and trancing instead of sleeping).

    Being a Dwarf is more a profession than a species as traveling outside the protective zones of the surface to mine makes their bodies prone to the effects of the elemental plane of Earth. And so on, even humans are not the base normal, influenced by the shadow realm, they have a harder time with magic and can get stuck in drudgery and routines easier than the other races, their dreams less vivid and less able to be interpreted.

    But by making the difference between the “races” fantastical and cosmetic vs genetic, it allows easier multiculturalism and can allow for evil cultures (much like the Romans would have appeared to the Gauls or the Vikings to the Irish or any imperialist nation to those they came across) If their elves, orcs, and dwarves are fighting your elves, orcs, and dwarves it highlights the differences between cultures being cultural rather than genetic.

    Also, the very idea that some species get bonuses to charisma/Intelligence/Wisdom is a bit uncomfortable. I tend to just give bonuses to the other three for some and then instead of a subrace bonus I give a cultural bonus. Races that wouldn’t get a bonus to strength/Dex/Con get two +1s to any stat instead. But any species can get the same bonus for culture and it can make for some fun world building seeing how different groups from different places react.

    • Cay Reet

      Biological, any beings who can successful interbreed (meaning the resulting being is fertile) are one species. Race, on the other hand, is a way used in the past to distinguish between different looks or ethnicities. While the word might not be inherently bad, the way it is used among humans makes it a bad one in that context.
      For instance, ‘dog’ is the species, but ‘poodle’ is the race. A poodle can breed with all other dogs successfully, but you can’t breed a poodle with a cat and expect viable offspring. Dogs and cats are species, poodles and rottweilers are races.

      • Jeppsson

        In Swedish, we use “ras” for both, e.g., black and white humans (and “racist” is “rasist”), and for dog breeds like poodles and rottweilers. I guess it’s the same in your native German?
        However, I don’t think you can call poodle a race in English? (Native speakers, feel free to chime in.) I think they’re only called “breeds”.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, German also uses ‘Rasse’ (our word for ‘race’) for both humans and animals.

          You’re right … English has a different word for animals than for humans with ‘breeds.’

      • Gwen

        In English as Jeppsson pointed out, we do not call animals of different types races but breeds.

        But the poodle is an excellent point in a different way. Just like the poodle is a creation of an outside force, I imagine so are all the fantasy races. But instead of forced interbreeding for particular traits, a magical influence that due to the chaotic nature of the planes has an influence on them physically.

        But the idea that certain biological differences can make you smarter/wiser/ or charismatic is just too steeped in eugenics to make palatable. Cultures can definitely emphasize and prize particular values that can make the individuals have better communication skills, or teach all their children the importance of practical skills and being aware of their surroundings but that is not innate.

        An elf is faster, only trances for 4 hours, and has a resistance to charm. None of that implies anything about the usual tropes about elves. Sure you can interpret that they are born with how to use bows, master archers without any practice because their infant brains had the knowledge downloaded in conception but I don’t think that is what the creators meant.

        Culture is more part of the stat blocks already. Do high elves, wood elves, and drow biologically differ so much that it makes sense for a Drow to be a baby knowing about poisons? Even if raised elsewhere? My point is D&D makes culture and biology synonymous and I think that is a bit backwards.

        If you do use the poodle thing, then it makes even less sense for them to be insular from each other. Poodles live in the same homes as any other breed. The idea that the races don’t make up their own separate cultures that are insular to each other is important. So then, you can have cultures defined as something other than “not human”.

        It also makes cultures more interesting to have more interplay between different types of people and show different sides of that culture.

        The woodsy “nature” culture can be more than just “elves”. It can be humans, gnomes, Orcs, halflings, maybe even a Dragonborn or Aasimar. They aren’t a nature culture because elves are biologically predisposed to like nature (which makes no sense in any context) but because they are made up of various people who have lived that way for a long time, or feel the need to protect it, or are rebelling against the city culture, or because a fey creature is making them, but any reason is better than “because elf.”

        • Cay Reet

          There’s always the question of ‘nature vs nurture’ when it comes to certain traits or skills. Are women naturally better at carework or are they just raised in a way that makes them gravitate towards it? Do men have a natural affinity for technology which makes them better at it or are they just pushed towards technical work by society?

          While a culture might push certain mental, emontional, or physical traits, that won’t make everyone naturally good at a skill – give them a certain talent for it, yes, but even having a talent means hours upon hours of training to hone the talent and turn it into a marketable skill.
          Elves who are master archers without any kind of training would be weird. Elves with naturally sharp eyes and steady hands growing up in a society where they are trained as early as physically possible would also make them all master archers, but in a more logical way. In the same way, elves from another culture might be good at magic or at poisoning. They are still no different races – they are the same race, just with a different cultural background (like, for instance, Americans and British have a different cultural background). Thus, a drow and a wood elf would still be biologically compatible, so they could have children together.

          • Gwen

            While I agree about nature vs Nurture, both of your examples are very much nurture instead of nature. Nothing about men or women even hint at technological or caretaking. In fact, when cultures change so do those specialties. Computers used to be a woman thing until the prestige made it male. Grandparents of all genders in many cultures did the caretaking while young women were associated with farm work and their husbands with hunting.

            Living in a place that has you train a particular skill day in and out is…cultural, in fact it is purely cultural. The Mongols were excellent at shooting from horseback. Because culturally it was so important they trained it day in and out from childhood. If they didn’t have a culture that prized those skills, they probably wouldn’t have excelled at them. The entire difference between High elves, wood elves and Drow is purely cultural. Even their write ups describe cultures and not actual differences outside of that.

            I think we are actually agreeing with each other, my whole point is the various “sub races” of elf are actually just different cultures of elves. And in a way ALL the “races” differences could be made purely physical and do away with homogenous cultures all together. I will also say, humans and elves can have children, and humans and orcs can have children so a very logical stand in is that orcs, elves and humans are all the same as well. What could make them that different? Certainly not different cultures. But, if magic was exerting an outside force… that would do it.

            All elves having the same culture to the point they all practice the same weapons just isn’t very believable and making them homogeneous makes them lesser for the effort.
            What if you want a wood elf raised in a city, or a drow who was raised on the surface? The poison and wood walk and even elven weapons make less sense.

            I also think because fantasy races have been used for too long as analogies for real cultures it is important we don’t portray a culture as “non human”. Why can’t the Vikings have elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and humans as part of the same culture? Can’t they all gain a bonus to show that outside of their “race”.
            If tribal cultures are always brutal “monster races” or mystical “elves” that’s kinda racist. It’s portraying that group as “less human”.

            I guess I am just uncomfortable with race and culture treated as synonymous. They need to be treated differently because they aren’t the same and treating them as the same has some troublesome implications.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, we very much agree.

            Seeing different ‘races’ such as humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs have the same cultural background, because they live in the same area would be great. It would also make much more sense.

        • Eli

          As much as d&d has a place in my heart, it really goes into supporting social darwinism which is… more than a bit problematic. Coming from this is how some races will have homelands which starts making things a little more sensical as “hey, they all live in the same place, surrounded by other people just like them and no one else, it makes sense they could develop a distinct culture” but that falls apart by how many are described as not having a homeland for… angst? Which furthure falls apart by: how many players are gonna want to be a raceA raise by a raceB.

  10. Jeppsson

    So here’s my own view on “evil species”…

    I do use an entire “evil species” in my writing, since the demons are all evil. I think it’s okay if
    a) don’t PoC-code them, or code them as disabled etc,
    AND
    b) make them different enough from humans.

    With b, I’m thinking that as long as a species both is a kind of animal (eats, sleeps, reproduces through sex, all that stuff that animals do) and have some kind of society, then they’re basically humans under another name, even if you give them a distinct look, and perhaps a few enhanced abilities to boot. And then “entire species is evil” comes with baggage.

    If your evil species is so different that it’s neither an animal nor have societies, I think that baggage is lost.

    • Cay Reet

      With demons in the classic sense, you might be in a grey zone when it comes to evil species. Traditionally, demons are not regular beings, but evil spirits given bodies, which means they are indeed evil by nature.

      If, however, your demons are born and live a regular life (an example would be the demons in the Artemis Fowl series who are one of the eight types of fairies), it’s not a good idea to make them an ‘evil species’ or ‘evil race.’

      • Jeppsson

        I’d say they divert in various ways from classic demons, but they’re not born and they don’t live regular lives.

        Even though humanity continuously learn more about them, I keep them pretty mysterious… but we do see at one point that at least some can “reproduce” at will and grow more numerous by just having more and more individuals pop up around them, out of thin air, fully formed and ready to go.

        They come from a different realm/dimension, which probably existed before the demons did, but later on some of them have the power to expand it and create new “realms within the realm”.
        They don’t need food, water, oxygen, or anything really that humans and animals need. All of them can walk through walls unhindered, some can teleport around quite a bit, and when in space, we see that they can also walk around and act independently of physical forces like gravity and acceleration.

        Once upon a time they were all mindlessly destructive monsters, but they’ve since had some kind of crazy-fast evolution where they keep getting new powers to match and beat any new magic humanity comes up with to protect themselves. (Even single individuals occasionally evolve new powers just like that.)
        Later on, some demons appear that look like humans and talk, but they can still not be conversed with or negotiated with, because they still don’t think like humans. At the end of the day, they alwas come back to killing humans just because.

        I have thought about Fay’s and Mythcreants’ advice (Fay has written on their own blog about ableist monsters before) not to PoC-code or otherwise problematically code their looks when they do look human. But I think everything else about them is just so far off, that making them all evil doesn’t give the same associations as making a more human-like species all evil.

        • Cay Reet

          In this case, I’d say you’re in the green with your demons as an evil species.

          • Jeppsson

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ve actually got a whole post on this topic if it would be helpful. https://mythcreants.com/blog/what-makes-an-antagonistic-group-problematic/

      • Jeppsson

        This post might subconsciously have been at the back of my head when I posted.

  11. Arix

    Speaking as a guy who has always always always connected more with nonhuman characters than with human ones, I could not agree more with everything said about essentialism. I always hate it when entire species are boiled down to two or three keywords – especially when it’s used as an excuse for humans to act all smug and superior (“Something something humans are the most versatile and adaptable” *blows raspberry*). And I especially despise it when nonhuman characters aren’t allowed to do anything important or have any agency because apparently people are deathly allergic to the idea of stepping out of the spotlight for half a second and letting someone outside of their group getting a modicum of glory. It positively reeks of white saviourism behind a very, very thin veil.

    • Bellis

      Right?! I feel the same way.

  12. Alex Lund

    Does this mean, that if we look at the quintessential evil known as Drow, that there should be not only entire cities of evil Drow but also entire cities of good Drow?

    How to distinguish them and what if the evil Drow kill any Drow they think is a good Drow? Not to forget that Llolth (their evil god) may also have something to say about this, e.g. sending a few of her avatars to hunt and kill good Drow?

    • Cay Reet

      There is at least one good Drow, so why not more?

    • Gwen

      Interesting you mentioned the Drow because their whole history of being evil is a complicated one. They were made decades ago and it shows. Why do the “evil elves” have black skin? they live underground, any logic should make them albino pale.

      We already know Drow are not naturally evil or Drizz’t would be impossible so not an evil species but an evil culture.

      So an evil culture. Instead of telling the good Drow vs Bad Drow by skin color or hair, what about the same way we tell evil humans from each other? Their actions and beliefs. Also any evil culture has victims. And those victims sometimes rise up. The Drow are so cruel to each other and their servants, people have nothing to lose. Try to think of every evil culture in history and not notice there was always a resistance movement within it.

      Also have the Drow be varied with lots of different elves who followed her. Maybe she has other followers. Finally, remember if LLoth is an evil goddess, than any good members can be protected by a good god/ess. In fact, they do have one, which once again stresses the point evil culture not race.

    • StyxD

      Aren’t there already good Drow? With their good Drow goddess? So what you’re describing seems to be the current canon of D&D.

      The whole split into good Drow and evil Drow only works in D&D because alignment exists (somehow still), and it makes it sound like there’s something fundamentally different between the two.

      In any other setting, this would be framed as Drows that buy into / suffer under the rule of a totalitarian religious ideology (Llolthism?) and those that are free of it. That’s not that different from how it works in real world.

      • Alex Lund

        Thanks for your comments.

        I like your points but you forget the history of the Drow.

        I base my comment on:
        https://forgottenrealms.fandom.com/wiki/Drow
        and
        Book. “Drow of the Underdark”

        Long ago there were elves and then came the Sundering (I hope I get it right) and a group of Elves followed Llolth and became the Drow.

        The first Drow knew that there were other Drow deities, but after looking them up, only one seems nice: Eilistraee

        But now, thousands of years later, the knowledge of other deities is suppressed or the Drow are told that this god wants to wipe them out.

        The Drow – forgive the words, but I dont find any more fitting – brainwash / programm their children to be piti- and mercyless killers.

        If a child shows compssion, love etc they are punished or even killed. And the Drow parents wouldn`t care because that child would have been exploited/ murdered later in life, so why waste resources on it.

        They are taught to betray and exploit anything aka the Sith rule “Treachery is the way of the Sith.”, because any other Drow will do the same to them.

        To break this cycle first you have to know that there is something better and then you have to go against everything you have been taught and learned. That is very difficult to say the least.

        Good Drow (who do not follow Llolth but the other gods and only two are not Chaotic Evil and only one of them is nice) make 15% of the Drow population

        I would like to quote the following sentences to make my point.

        Only truly exceptional good drow like Drizzt Do’Urden were capable of freeing themselves from Lolth’s society.

        Relationships – Elves: The hatred was reciprocated, to the point that, for an elf, tolerating an objectively good drow whose goodness could be objectively proven by magic, was a very high bar

        Drow children learned cruelty and bloodthirst both as a survival mechanism and as a defensive mechanism to escape punishment. As a general rule, these lessons scarred a drow and stuck with them for their entire life.

        • StyxD

          I still think it circles back to the original counter-point: the culture of Drows is evil, not Drows themselves.

          While the Drow upbringing is pretty over the top (as things in D&D tend to be), the core of it isn’t that unique. Every totalitarian system wants to condition the children as much as it can to propagate itself; to mention only Sparta and Nazi Germany as two well known examples.

          And perhaps, similarly to those examples, if some Drow city would be conquered by some other nation, and their system dismantled, in a generation or two (they’re elves, so that’s probably a very long time, but still) we might have plenty “normal” (from outsiders’ point of view) Drows.

          If other elves have problems accepting Drows simply because of their race, then it sounds like their cultures have some bigotry issues of their own to work through.

          • Alex Lund

            I do disagree with you.

            You say that if the Drow would be conquered then in one or two generations they would be good Drow.

            But who would conquer them?
            They live unter the ground and the only other groups living there and having a chance of conquering them are Duergar, Mindflayers, Fomori, Beholder and Dwarves.

            And except for the Dwarves the other groups all buy into this “Treachery is the way of the Sith” to the same extend as the Drow if not more.

            So it would be (to use an example) go from:
            “We Drow are the Masters and you Duergar are slaves!” to “We Duergar are the Masters and you Drow are the slaves!”.

            And to the Dwarfs and Elves (your last sentence):
            At the beginning the Elves may have seen the Drow as misguided and wayward children, but now?
            The only way a Drow interacts with the overground world is by raiding, taking slaves, killing, poisoning, starting wars etc.
            I have no evidence but considering the Drow tactics of exploiting everything to their advantage I would not be surprised if they hadn`t used the “Don`t fire, I am a good Drow, really.” at least once. With enslavement and death following for the Elves / Dwarves etc trusting the “good” Drow and a big laugh for the Drow. So, yes, not accepting Drow on sight seems like a wise decision if you don`t want to get enslaved or killed.

          • StyxD

            Does it matter who could conquer them, for the purpose of this discussion? Any reason why the Drows could not be conquered, or why their dystopia could not be dismantled, is a function of their circumstances and not biologically innate evil.

            If Llolth was to physically manifest before any Drow the moment they turned “good” and shiv them in the neck, it would still mean that Drows are not inherently evil, only that they have a very efficient Big Brother system in place.

            I’m not super convinced by your defense of not accepting Drows by other races. Sure, I suppose any Drows on the surface are more likely to be agents than not, due to all the previously mentioned worldbuilding, but still, there’s a possibility they were refugees fleeing their frankly shitty homeland.

            And saying “well, they’re just too dangerous to be allowed here, they could be secret agents of the enemy” based on race alone doesn’t sit well with me. We see too often how it plays out in real life.

            And sure, a writer could create any circumstance where acting this way is justified and wise within the setting of the story, but I would consider it a blemish. It perpetuates a harmful mindset, and seems to only make the potential conflict shallower.

  13. StyxD

    It’s interesting that we’re still talking about “don’t make your races essentially evil, stupid, etc.” when this trope seemed like a dead horse for as long as I can remember. Of course, D&D engages in this still, since they don’t seem willing to part with the wonky stuff from their history, despite that it seems nowadays more people want to play as those “monster races” than murder whole settlements of them guilt-free (as the “always chaotic evil” creatures were intended to facilitate).

    I’m not sure if substituting race with species would always work for fantasy. Species has a very clear definition (as Cay Reet cited), and with how happy fantasy creators often seem to be to crossbreed their creatures, it just doesn’t work. Like, are humans and the “classic” elves really different species, with so many half- and quarter- (and so on) elves running around in many stories? In D&D there are even half-dragons (who aren’t sterile as a rule as far as I know), which would mean that… humans and dragons are the same species in Forgotten Realms?

    The scientific definition of species quickly just loses any meaning in settings like that.

    I think the fact that race is socially constructed can even work well for some fantasy settings, because the author can just state “these are the races as understood by people in this fictional world” and not worry about what biology is supposed to underpin their differences.

    On the other hand, I get that using “race” like this in fantasy can perpetuate the misconception that it’s something based on tangible and objective differences. So I’m not saying we should change nothing; I’m just not convinced that “species” works well for fantasy (it probably does with no issues for SF). And I’m not sure what to do about it.

    Anyway, great article; I don’t want to make it look like I’m only complaining.

    • Fay Onyx

      Thanks! As mentioned in more detail in the comment below, being able to crossbreed doesn’t mean that they aren’t separate species, but if crossbreeding is common it does bring up questions about how they formed as separate species in the first place and how they continue to be separate.

      Honestly, I think the answer to this is going to be setting specific. The explanation for how separate species came about is going to have a big impact on what makes sense. Also, these are dynamic processes, so in some cases crossbreeding may produce a new species, and in other cases it may merge two species.

  14. Fay Onyx

    I’m jumping in again to mention that, while it is true that most separate species can’t interbreed with each other, there are lots that can interbreed. The best example is the species of the genus canis (dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals), which can all interbreed and produce fertile young.

    This is how I personally like to imagine different humanoid species working. They are separate species, but are genetically compatible enough to have kids together.

    For those that are unaware, the coywolf (a wolf + coyote hybrid) is really interesting hybrid that seems to be on its way to becoming a new species. There are some really interesting hybrids out there, and hybrids have become new species before (there are some examples with birds).

    • Fay Onyx

      For those who want to explain how elves and orcs and humans are separate species with all of the intermarriage, one option would be to make hybrid kids infertile. However, this does have a lot of social implications that would need to be addressed.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, it’s true that all canines can interbreed – which makes them an interesting way to look at different humanoids. Sometimes, the borders between what we categorize as ‘species’ aren’t as closed as we think – but that might also have something to do with our system of dividing the animal kingdom (or plants) into species. Perhaps all canines are one species.

      I’ve always assumed that humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and other humanoid species with not too much difference in mass (imagine a sprite and a troll ) should be able to interbreed.
      At the same time, I’ve always assumed that elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. are also sentient being who have their own culture and are individuals, so why shouldn’t they interbreed, if they find someone from another group interesting?

    • StyxD

      Good point. Maybe “species” is flexible enough to work after all.

      (“Coywolf”, however, probably sounds way too cuddly for what the creature is )

      Another option that came to my mind: coming up with your own word for “sapient creature” in the fictional world. It might sound tacky, but on the other hand it allows molding the definition to exactly what makes sense for the setting.

      As for why the species don’t all merge in time, one way could be some sort of asymmetrical inheritance when it comes to species. In the Elder Scrolls setting, IIRC, humans and the many, many kinds of elves can all interbreed with each other, but the offspring will always inherit the mother’s species.

      That’s not very realistic, but most fantasy creatures come to be not via evolution of any sort but by some magical or divine process, so it shouldn’t break suspension of disbelief.

      • Cay Reet

        I guess ‘person’ is always a good thing.

        • Kit

          Definitely. I’ve been considering my fantasy peoples to be technically human sub-species, since they can all breed to produce fertile offspring, but since some of the groups are predominantly composed of people of colour, that phrasing feels uncomfortable – it’s not scientifically inaccurate, but we normally hear the language around speciation used for animals, and it sounds jarring in a high-fantasy setting anyway. Referring to them as different peoples I think works well enough, though it might be easier in my case since all of mine are all more similar to your bog-standard human than, say, an orc is.

        • StyxD

          I suppose I wasn’t very clear with wording. I meant a custom word for a whole class of beings, like “species” or “race”, not a word for a single being.

          • Cay Reet

            That’s difficult. I guess you could use ‘elves’, ‘orcs’, ‘dwarves’ etc. Or you could talk about cultures. There’s not really a word for it without baggage.

  15. Sharl

    I’m writing an adventure where a bunch of the more obnoxious/insecure young men of a clan of Orcs throw in with the bad guys, whereas the rest of the clan assists the PCs and the locals in evicting their kinsmen’s heads from their posteriors. Not a thing is said about ‘orc equals evil’, more about ‘young, angry, and Feeling Hard Done By sometimes equals making bad choices’ (sorta like in real life)

    • Bellis

      I like it! Especially since you adress the question of “What does the rest of the species/culture/group think of and do about the evil ones?” It is frustrating to me that this is so often left out, and I always cheer when it gets adressed, same as with Star Trek: DS9 featuring a democratic Cardassian resistance movement.

      And you even have a realistic explanation for destructive behaviour! Another thing most stories with evil races™ lack…

      It would be interesting to see how this sort of thing plays out with in-world racism or stereotypes that might exist, for example how some Orcs go out ot their way to be mellow and polite (possibly to the point of becoming pushovers) to avoid the stereotype of the agreesive Orc, while others embrace the stereotype because they are rebellious or because they realise that they can’t escape it either way. But, that would require a level of detail and complexity for this particular aspect of the story that I totally understand most stories don’t explore it. (If they even have in-world racism.)

  16. Alverant

    On a similar note, I’d like to see people stop using “godless” as a bad thing. People can be good without a god and I’m sick of others equating being religion-free with being evil.

  17. Sarah Twycross

    Hey that segment about designing a catlike species after autistic people because autistic people are like cats made me genuinely sick to my stomach. As an autistic person and ties directly back into the “people with developmental disorders are often compared to animals” trope you even reference earlier in the article. Feels like a critical misstep in your article about fixing ableism in fantasy.

    • Jay Bienvenu

      Ditto. And they make it worse by invoking “Asperger’s Syndrome.” The author needs to make his point by itemizing things autistic people do that cats also tend to do.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Personally, I believe that Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism should never have been folded into a single diagnosis. (Disclaimer: am autistic and have been professionally diagnosed)

        Leaving it separate would help differentiate the different forms of autism, as higher-functioning autism isn’t the same as lower-function autism (source: am higher-functioning autistic, have at least two higher-functioning autistic friends, and know one other lower-functioning autistic individual.)

        I do agree that the way the article is written could come across as rather… insensitive, though.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Personally, I like the idea of a catlike species that have autism-like psychological traits (and I’m autistic).

      I understand how the way the article is phrased could be misleading, though. I see it as ‘cats have autistic traits’, not ‘autistic people have catlike traits’ but I can see how someone else might see it that way.

      • Fay Onyx

        I am really sorry that this section was hurtful!

        My inclusion of that example is based on community members who resonated with that specific book that is referenced, which is also the reason that the term Asperger Syndrome was used, even though it was outdated. However I can definitely see now that that choice was wrong and it should be easy to replace the term “Asperger Syndrome” with “autism,” but clearly that doesn’t resolve the entire problem.

        A Perspiring Writer is right that my intention was to communicate that ‘cats have autistic traits,’ not ‘autistic people have catlike traits.’ It seems that this was not clear in what I wrote. I would like to change things so that they are better. If the idea that “cats have autistic traits” was made clearer, would it make things better for you?

        Thank you for pointing this out,
        –Fay

        P.S. My pronouns are ze and hir.

        • Sharl

          I was also okay with the ‘cats have autistic-like traits’ interpretation because that’s how *I* personally (as an autistic person) saw it… but everyone’s experiences are different.

  18. Juan

    Concerning insanity, is it still stigmatising to use it in non-monsters settings ? I’m mostly thinking of the cosmic horror aftereffects, where the protagonist is left scarred for life, sometimes completely unable to even function because of what they saw.

    • Fay Onyx

      As far as I’m concerned “insanity” is a stigmatizing stereotype, not something that is real. However that doesn’t meant that real people don’t experience intense psychological distress. It is totally fine to represent the real effects of intense experiences, including people becoming non-functional.

  19. Jay Bienvenu

    Ironic that an article about ableism invokes the outdated, misleading concept of “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

    • A Perspiring Writer

      And how exactly is it “misleading”, “outdated”, or ‘ableist’?

      (I’m speaking as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s, by the way.)

      • Sarah Twycross

        Going to respond to both this question and your understanding of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autistic people. The privileging of autistic people who can act neurotypical is a longstanding thread in autistic discourse and psychology. This thread began with the delineation between “autism”, as a form of psychosis, and “asperger’s syndrome”, which was intended to explain ‘autism-like symptoms’ in ‘non-psychotic’ patients, at a time where ‘psychosis’ also included the diagnosis of ‘hysteria’, meaning ‘a woman is acting unladylike’. Neurotypical, allistic people continue to privilege autistic people based on their ability to act allistic, and continue to act as if being ‘visibly autistic’ is a sign of psychological failure rather than the expression of a viable and acceptable neurodivergence. Additionally, the idea of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”, aside from implying said psychological failure in so called “low-functioning” autistic people, means that supposedly “high-functioning” autistic people struggle to bring up or explain their struggles with sensory issues. For instance, I am generally considered “high-functioning” due to my social capability and lack of face-blindness, by my hypersensitivity is so severe that I frequently get migraines from persistent noises, no matter how quiet or far away. This has included the ticking of clocks, a fly in a lampshade a room away, and the sound of a minifridge cooler. It is stigmatising to autistic people to assign value to them based on their capacity to ‘function’, instead of seeking to accommodate them, and by creating a system where a more ‘functioning’ autistic person is privileged, you make autistic people ignore their symptoms and need for accommodation in order to seek the approval of allistic people.

        • A Perspiring Writer

          ok you’re right

        • Fay Onyx

          That is a good reminder. I think the title of the book and the fact that I know some people who use the label Asperger Syndrome for themselves lulled me into using that term instead of autism. I’m sorry about that.

          I’ll ask Chris if we can replace the term.

          Thank you!

  20. Greensleeves

    This article gave me a lot to think about, and I’ll separate my thoughts in two so as not to confuse any responses.

    First up, I want to ‘play the ball’. W/r/t writing about low intelligence (LI) in characters, the author got me thinking about how intelligence is depicted in RPGs and made me reflect on my own use of it. I started off by greatly disagreeing, but maybe I’m closer to agreement than at first I thought, and I probably ought to up my game too.

    It’s tricky because all RPGs that utilise PC abilities have to abstract to a certain extent, and any GM worth their salt wants to be able to present a range of intelligence amongst antagonists so as to allow space for clever problem-solving. (For example, a foolish Troll can be tricked into letting a group over a bridge rather than being fought, in the same way that I once tricked a security guard into letting protesters into an office.) So presenting a different range of intellectual firepower can also be another way of opening up options that don’t involve violence.

    A really-existing degree of intelligence is also self-evident in the world we live in, which is one of the reasons why cultural norms for the treatment of non-human animals are so wretched. (Actually, from outside of a humanocentric view there really is a continuum of intelligence.) I doubt that avoiding descriptions to do with intelligence are really going to have any effect. Maybe less-shallow depictions of intelligence would be better?

    One way to do this is also to emphasise just how cruel and callous those with high intelligence can be; raw smarts of the academic type don’t in my experience correlate with kindness or concern for others. (This is amply displayed in the archetype of the criminal mastermind, whose undoubted intellect usually runs alongside pure selfishness.) Ableism also works the other way, by presuming the greater virtue of the brainy. My own experience of “schooling for the gifted” left me convinced quite early on that there were basically two moral schemes being taught, with the “gifted” being encouraged to see the “non-gifted” as fair game for their manipulation.

    Another is to emphasise praiseworthy mental traits that have nothing to do with what you might call “pure” intelligence. In the RPG I’m playing right now, we have a Bard in our party with a very low INT. The person playing the PC depicts this by committing their character to being too trusting, jumping to conclusions, and acting without due consideration. It’s maddening at times, but doesn’t stop the PC being our most effective and beloved team-member, because he is also brave, loyal, kind and resilient.

    Abstraction of characteristics in RPGs in particular has its own effects, because the mere act of abstraction creates its own reality. (For a real world example of this look no further than IQ, a reified measure that has caused huge harm through misunderstanding: see Stephen J Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” for its tortured history.) It’s far too easy in RPGs to say “they have an INT of only 5” than to ‘show’ through actions.

    But sometimes greater depth can be implied through raw stats. Consider (e.g.) how D&D5 depicts abilities and skills. INT affects these skills (NB I’m not saying this is entirely deliberate on the designers’ parts):

    Arcana
    History
    Investigation
    Nature
    Religion

    You can immediately see that they all involve a good understanding of cause and effect/logic (esp. Investigation) plus memorisation (esp. History). Contrast the skills governed by WIS:

    Animal Handling
    Insight
    Medicine
    Perception
    Survival

    All involve mental acuity of a different sort, but I suggest that you’d have to have quite a minimalistic view of intelligence* to see these as not related to ‘intelligence’.

    So one could conceivably replace INT with “Education” and achieve the same result. And really, that may just be ideal, because then it better depicts why there would be such a range of endowments among characters of the same race/species/kindred**. Truly noxious antagonists are probably better depicted as lacking wisdom anyway, as it’s closer to a feasible moral scheme than the weak “some things are just born evil” trope.

    Beyond the abstractions, there’s the whole question of whether or not writing out the idea of lesser-intelligent is actually praiseworthy anyway. William Golding’s The Inheritors (however outdated its science) was written mostly from the POV of Neanderthals, and despite their lesser intelligence they in no way come across as less sympathetic for it. They are in anthropological terms “more primitive” than the Homo Sapiens who persecute them (in that their material culture is closer to step one, or “prime”), but their capacity to suffer is undiminished.

    I agree that some RPGs are overly facile in their depictions of monsters, but I think it’s a long stretch to then assert that an entire factor – that of intellect – in creative description needs to be avoided. I really don’t see how it is going to help improve the treatment of other animals to do so, and it might actually impede things, because if compassion means anything, then it means being able to have empathy for those with fewer privileges. (Literally the only encounter I can remember from my first-ever game of D&D when I was seven, is the cranky, scary ogre that helped my character out in a dark and dangerous dungeon. I took away from that the concept that even scary beings could help me if treated with respect.)

    Please correct me if I misunderstand (no, really, do! This whole bloated comment is intended as a contribution to a discussion, not a correction), but the argument appears to be that some people overidentify creatures of myth and folklore with real humans, and some then do so to push evil theories, so therefore we should eliminate depictions along this spectrum of observable behaviour.

    This seems a weak argument to me, and less defensible than an alternative argument that we should avoid depicting those with lesser/lower attributes than the norm as being therefore evil/morally unworthy. If the latter argument was intended then I would agree.

    Finally, I went back to the D&D5 Monster Manual that the author quoted in reference to the description of Ogres to see for myself if it was as bad as suggested. It starts with the sentence:

    “Ogres are as lazy of mind as they are strong of body.”

    This really sets the tone for what follows, a depiction of a being so powerful that it doesn’t feel the need to any put effort into thinking. Is it really “nothing less than a toxic stereotype of what it means to have a cognitive or developmental disability”? Sounds more like a right-wing politician to me.

    *To be fair, many people seem to really understand IQ this way.

    ** I personally prefer ‘kindred’ or ‘kin’ as a descriptor, which IIRC dates back to D&D’s younger sibling Tunnels and Trolls, itself important in gaming history for spawning the offshoot “Monsters! Monsters!”, the first RPG that allowed you to play one of the “baddies”.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Or most people in politics, for that matter.

    • Fay Onyx

      While it is true that different people have different cognitive abilities and ways of thinking, intelligence as a concept is full of oppression. This is particularly evident in IQ tests, but it is something that permeates the idea intelligence as it exists in our culture (I recommend googling “intelligence and ableism”).

      So, basically, I consider “low intelligence” to be a stereotype which shouldn’t be depicted. However, I think it is great for folks to respectfully portray people with cognitive and developmental disabilities. I’m not saying don’t portray disabled people. I’m saying don’t portray stereotypes.

      I do have concerns about creating gullible characters specifically as “low intelligence” characters that are there to be easily tricked by the main characters. To me, being gullible is a separate trait from “intelligence” that is more about how trusting someone is and how good they are at reading lies and I think that it is important to make that separation.

      • Firannion

        Perhaps part of the problem is that excessive immersion in the D&D model predisposes people to think of “intelligence” in the singular. My understanding is that recent neuroscience leans toward the interpretation that the human brain manifests myriad differing intelligences. We are all wired differently to be stronger in some (talents that “come naturally”) and weaker in others, with more persistent training needed if we want to compensate for such weaknesses. We are neurodiverse creatures, even when we are not “neurodivergent.”

        To use a crude example, I used to spend a lot of time hiking with a guy who always knew by his surroundings exactly how far along we were on a particular trail, and what we would find around the next bend, while I’d have only a vague notion of how far we’d gone. But his spelling was reliably atrocious. He had profound spatial intelligence, while I was much stronger in the verbal realm. Neither talent bears any relation to our respective capabilities in terms of being kind or empathetic, “good” or “bad” people. Nor was either type of intelligence emblematic of race/ethnicity/culture.

        I would respectfully suggest that we all try reframing our perception of “intelligences” in the plural, if we want to perceive our fellow humans and craft our fictional characters in ways that give fair weight to their strengths and weaknesses.

  21. Jarosch

    This might be the highest article-to-comment ratio on the site. This should be interesting.

    Anyway, if you want an example of something that goes utterly hog-wild on the weird monsters look up Goodbye Strangers and the Fearful Frontier. The titular Strangers are basically Lovecraftian Pokemon, with bizarre defects and inscrutable behavior.

    The project also heavily features themes of mental illness, trauma, substance abuse, and societal decay, with the Strangers being both catalysts of and allegories for these things.

  22. Alex Lund

    Unfortunately I found no REPLY button to the last comment of StyxD February 23, 2021 at 2:37 pm.
    The comment starts with: “Does it matter who could conquer them, for the purpose of this discussion?”

    Yes, it does. Here I refer to the real world. Nazi-Germany was conquered by the Allies, USA, GB, F and SU. While the western part, the Federal Republic of Germany (USA, F, GB) turned into a democratic country, the eastern part, German Democratic Republic (SU) did not. They became a communist dictatureship.
    So, if the Drow would be conquered by the Elves, Dwarf etc then they would turn to neutal or good in a few generations. If they would be conquered by Duergar etc then only who is master and who is slave is changed.

    And to “I’m not super convinced by your defense of not accepting Drows by other races. ”
    The point is: We have omniscience. We know that 85% of the Drow are evil. But the people of the D&D world do not know this.
    (And besides: I looked up the other Drow gods. Only one is Chaotic Neutral and one is Chaotic Good. All the others are Chaotic Evil.)
    Example: Maybe an Elf has heard from another Elf of the next forest who heard it from an Elf of another forest that there was one good Drow.He may share that story at the next village meeting and then follows a good laugh and the viillagers will tell of the 100 evil Drow the have encountered just the last 10 years.

    So, it is called common sense, survival instinct and Occams razor.

    Or to put it in another term:
    Imagine there is a person who likes cookies. Now this person is presented with 100 cookies of the most delicious sort imaginable.
    But the cook tells him, that 85 of those cookies are poisoned. The poison is undetectable and leads to painful and slow death.There is no cure.
    So, how many cookies does this person eat?

    • A Perspiring Writer

      It’s not possible to have more than a certain number of replies to a comment in a row.

      However, replying to the original comment in the chain works, and can allow for comment chains far longer than Mythcreants normally supports.

      (If this is unclear, just ask me for clarification.)

    • StyxD

      @Alex Lund

      I feel there may be some big misunderstanding between us about what point we’re discussing.

      This article talks (partly) about assigning negative traits as inherent or essential of certain kinds of people.

      By bringing up the example of Nazi Germany and saying “So, if the Drow would be conquered by the Elves, Dwarf etc then they would turn to neutal or good in a few generations.”, you imply that Drow aren’t inherently evil, but their culture / system of power is. Which is the point I was trying to argue from the start.

      Then we agree?

      As for “So, it is called common sense, survival instinct and Occams razor.”, I’ve already addressed in my previous comment that it’s possible to create circumstances where bigotry is justify. Drow in D&D are an example of that. I also said why I don’t think it’s good.

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