Roleplaying: Race & Design

Last week I saw a Twitter thread which discussed how to explain to young people that Dungeons & Dragons was a progressive thinking company when they still use ‘race’ and ‘racial traits’ as a measure of ability.  This thread made me think about how the Table Top RPG Shadowrun uses racism almost like a mechanic, with prejudice being a recurring theme in the lore of the Shadowrun universe, yet it (from my knowledge) has never been called out on this. Why? Well, today I’m going to provide my thoughts on why that is and I’ll be exploring how Dungeons & Dragons have managed to have different fantasy races as playable characters with statistical differences through its various editions, before taking a look at how Shadowrun utilises racism as a theme & exploring what Dungeons and Dragons could do as a response to the aforementioned twitter discussion.

 Dungeons & Dragons

In 1974 the first Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) manual was released, this version of the game featured several races: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Hobbit (now known as ‘Halfling’), Half-Orc & Gnome. In this edition of D&D, each race had a class restriction, meaning a player Halfling could only be a fighter, thief or a multiclass of both, while a player Elf could be a fighter, magic-user,  thief, assassin or a multiclass of any two previously listed classes.

In 1977, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) was released. In AD&D each race had a positive and negative stats, an example of this being the Dwarves who received a +1 to their constitution but a -1 to their charisma, whilst Orcs received a +1 to strength and a -2 to charisma. AD&D also featured minimum/maximum stat system, where a Dwarf had a minimum strength of 8, with a maximum strength of 18, though it should be noted, every race minus Half-Orc has a differential maximum stat, depending on whether the character was Male or Female.

Male & Females
A depiction of each playable race.

Interestingly enough, AD&D also features a limitation on character progression by setting a maximum level limit depending on the player characters race/class combination, an example being a Dwarf can only achieve Cleric level 8, whilst a Half-Orc can only achieve Cleric level 4. The player characters would also get different benefits for their race in the Thief class, such as Dwarves getting a +10% to their Lockpicking rolls, while the Half-Orc thief would get a +5% instead. A Dwarven Thief would also get a -10% to wall climbing and a Half-Orc Thief would receive +5% to their wall climbing.

Player characters were also proficient with different skills and tools based on their races, such as Dwarves being proficient with mining/geology related skills & having infrared vision, whilst Half-Orcs lack a proficiency they have the ability to multiclass and also had infrared vision. It should also be noted that Dwarves had a bonus to hit against Half-Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins & Orcs.

AD&D also featured a racial preference section, which details how a Dwarf or Half-Orc might interact with the other races.

  • Dwarves 
    • Prefer the company of other Dwarves
    • Have good will towards Gnomes
    • Have good will towards Stout Halflings (Halflings with Dwarven Blood)
    • Have good will towards Tall Fellow Halflings (Halflings with possible Elven Blood)
    • Have a sense of tolerance towards Halflings
    • Have neutral feelings towards Half-Elves
    • Have neutral feelings towards Humans
    • Have feelings of antipathy towards Elves
    • Have a strong hatred towards Half-Orcs
  • Half-Orcs
    • Prefer the company of other Half-Orcs
    • Have a sense of tolerance towards Humans
    • Have feelings of neutrality towards all Halflings
    • Have feelings of antipathy towards Elves
    • Have feelings of antipathy towards Half-Elves
    • Have a strong hatred towards Dwarves
    • Have a strong hatred towards Gnomes

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (AD&D2E) the minimum/maximum stats remained relatively the same, although it should be that the older a Player Character is (regardless of race), they suffer from a -1 to Strength  & Constitution, however a +1 to Intelligence and Wisdom. AD&D2E also featured a lack of a playable Half-Orc race.

D&D3.5E is still played to this day

Due to the lack of Playable Race changes between Dungeons & Dragons 3 and Dungeons & Dragon 3.5, I have prioritised looking at Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. In 2003 Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition (D&D3.5E) was released, it brought back a Playable Half-Orc race, though this came with a major statistical disadvantage to Intelligence & Charisma, which both suffered -2, however, had an advantage with a +2 to Strength with the book describing them as ‘Dull and crude’. Half-Orcs are also susceptible to the same weaknesses as a full-blooded Orc in regards to special effects that affect Orcs specifically; Half-Orcs had the benefit of being able to use magical Orc items.

D&D3.5E also featured a racial preferred class section, with Half-Orcs preferring the Barbarian Class. Half-Orcs do not receive a multiclass experience point (XP) penalty on the Barbarian class. D&D3.5E also removed the Racial-Class (Dwarven Thief/Half-Orc Thief) bonuses. Some notable racial bonuses/traits include:

  • D&D3.5E also introduced a Size Classification system, which provides
    • Medium size races receive no advantages or disadvantages due to their size
    • Small size races receive a bonus to Attack Rolls, Armour Class (AC) and a bonus to Hide checks. They also are required to use smaller weapons and have three quarters the maximum lifting and carrying weight of a medium race.
  • Elves received a racial bonus to Listening, Searching & Spot checks.
  • Gnomes received a racial bonus to Alchemy & Listen checks.
    • Gnomes (similarly to Dwarves) also receive a bonus to hit against Goblinoids, but rather than Orcs, they receive this bonus against Kobolds.
    • Gnomes also have a bonus to casting Illusion spells.
  • Halflings received bonuses to Climbing, Jumping, Listen & Move Silently checks.
    • Halflings also received a bonus to all saving throws.
    • Halfling Subraces (Tall Folk & Stout) were not present in D&D3.5E
  • Humans receive a free feat at level 1, extra skill points at first & each additional level
    • During character creation, Humans can learn any language except Secret Languages.

In 2008 Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (D&D4E) was released and as it progressed, it brought a myriad of Playable Races, although these are not all of the races introduced in D&D4E, these are races which have been (at the time of writing) continued in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D5E).

  • Dragonborn
  • Dwarf
  • Elf (Wood Elf)
    • Eladrin (High Elf)
    • Drow (Dark Elf)
  • Half-Elf
  • Halfling
    • Lightfoot Halfling
    • Stout Halfling
  • Human
  • Tiefling
    • Infernal Tiefling
    • Abyssal Tiefling
  • Gnome
  • Goliath
  • Half-Orc
  • Genasi
  • Goblin
  • Kobold
  • Svirfneblin

D&D4E features the most diverse of races to pick from while also removing most negative stats for Player Character races, although some exceptions still apply.5ephb

In 2014 Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D5E) was released, D&D5E has arguably been the most commercially successful version of Dungeons & Dragons and has appealed to a wider audience, thanks to its inclusiveness and progressive presentation. D&D5E follows in the footsteps of D&D4E in the sense that it does not include negative racial stat advantages/disadvantages, allowing players to play whichever combination of Race/Class they like. D&D5E also makes use of a ‘Racial Trait’ & ‘Racial Feats’ system, where characters of a certain race can choose what their Racial Bonuses are, though these are still limited by race choice they provide players with the ability to customize their racially-driven benefits.

Most races in D&D5E have a subrace which presents players with a different racial trait and stat bonuses, such as Stout Halflings and Lightfoot having different racial traits, ability score increases and  each race also has an excerpt which describes their thoughts on the other races of Dungeons and Dragons, though these are more like lengthy opinion pieces than the preferential race list featured in AD&D.


Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun first appeared in 1989 and was dripping with the cyberpunk aesthetics, it’s also a game where finding  a copy of any edition before the 5th, has proven to be a nigh impossible task, so I’ll be taking a look at how Shadowrun 5th Edition (SR5E) & Shadowrun: Run Faster (SR:RF) handles racial traits and race itself as a measure of ability.

A chart depicting the height differences of different playable Shadowrun races

In Shadowrun, they use a racial system similar to AD&D with a ‘level limit’ (though really it’s a stat limit) on a character depending on their race, an example is the fact that (on the levels of the extreme) a Troll will never be as charismatic as an Elf and a Human will never have the endurance (body) comparable to a Dwarf.  This isn’t because of some discriminatory system, as (in the individual sense) a Human Street Samurai (a fighter/beserker with guns & melee weapons) could still be more durable than a Dwarf Decker (a hacker who can enter Virtual Reality) and a Troll Face (Someone who is essential in handling social situations) can still be more charismatic than an Elf Mage.

Shadowrun character creation has a mechanic which helps define itself when compared to Dungeons & Dragons, this mechanic being: Qualities. Almost every single character who is of importance in a Shadowrun Campaign will have a quality or two, a quality is something that makes up the personality, psychology and health of a character. They come in three forms:

  • Positive Qualities
    • A positive quality is something which benefits the character, examples of these qualities are as followed:
      • “Hawk-Eye” which grants the character better natural vision.
      • “Sharpshooter” the chance to hit with called shots are higher.
      • “Quick Healer” is self-explanatory, really.
  • Negative Qualities
    • Negative qualities are your characters flaws, these are the hindrances, the physical/mental limits and some examples include:
      • “Poor Self Control” this is exactly as it sounds, whether you’re vindictive, an attention-seeker or sadistic. You need to take a willpower check when applicable.
      • “Allergy” this quality can range from mild allergies to rats, to severe allergic reaction to grass (which is pretty rare in the Shadowrun world).
      •  “Albinism” you have virtually no pigmentation in your hair, eyes or body and when you’re in bright light you get a negative impact on your rolls.
  • S.U.R.G.E Qualities
    • SURGE qualities are essentially mutations, you have three categories of SURGE:
      • Class I
        • The player pays 10 Karma for 30 Karmas worth of positive and negative SURGE qualities, which are all picked via Dice Roll.
      • Class II
        • The player pays 20 Karma for 30 Karmas worth of positive and negative SURGE qualities, the positives are picked by the player and the negatives are picked via Dice Roll.
      • Class III
        • The player pays 30 Karam for 30 Karmas worth of positive and negative SURGE qualities, the player picks both negative and positive SURGE qualities manually.
      • SURGE Qualities include:
        • “Bioluminescence” your character glows in the dark and suffers negative modifiers when trying to sneak around in the dark.
        • “Corrosive Spit” your character has developed an organ which can produce a corrosive spit, causing acid damage against targets it hits.
        • “Unusual Hair” your characters hair is naturally an unnatural colour, has unusual colour patterns or is similar to an animal.
All of the core races (AKA ‘metahumans’) players can choose from

Depending on which race a player picks, they will have natural qualities such as an Elf naturally having Low-Light Vision or a Dwarf both having a natural resistance to toxins/pathogens & Low-Light Vision.

Players aren’t just limited to choosing from the five default choices as each Race/Metatype has what is called a ‘Metavariant’ (in D&D these are ‘Subraces’), these metavariants have different stat limits to their parent metatypes, here are a few examples:

  • Dwarf – Gnome
    • Gnomes are a metavariant of Dwarves, Gnomes have a lower maximum Body (endurance) & Strength but a higher Logic, Initiative &  Reaction. Gnomes also have different natural qualities, as they lose the resistance to Pathogens/Toxins and instead gain the negative quality of Neoteny & the positive qualities of Arcane Arrester, Adept & Thermographic Vision.
  • Elf – Nocturna
    • Nocturna are a metavariant of Elves, Nocturna has a lower maximum Charisma & Body than Elves but have higher maximum Agility. Nocturna also have the Natural quality of Low-Light Vision but in addition, have the Keen-Eared positive quality, whilst having the following negative qualities: Unusual Hair (Coloured fur), Nocturnal & Allergy (Sunlight, Mild)
  • Human – Nartaki
    • The Nartaki metavariant is the only metavariant available to humans, these humans represent Shivas with the positive quality Shiva Arms (1 pair) and the negative quality Striking Skin Pigmentation. Statistically, Nartaki’s are the same as humans, with one less Special Attribute.
  • Ork – Hobgoblin
    • Hobgoblins are a metavariant of Orks, Hobgoblins have a lower maximum Body & Strength but have a higher Charisma. Hobgoblins also have the Fangs & Low-Light Vision quality but also have the Poor Self Control (Vindictive) quality and start with five extra karma.
  • Troll – Minotaur
    • Minotaurs are a metavariant of Trolls, with no lower maximum skills, but a higher maximum Body and Initiative. Minotaurs also have the positive qualities Thermographic Vision & Goring Horns, while starting with two extra karma.

Interestingly enough, however, is that certain Races have specialized needs, such as Orks & Trolls (possibly also Dwarves, though I’m not certain) requiring specifically fitted seats in vehicles to accommodate for their large stature and requiring a higher lifestyle cost (in-game monthly payments). This is where Shadowrun really takes the idea of different racial needs and works with them in some interesting ways. The aforementioned qualities players can choose from includes a one called “Prejudiced” which allows players to choose if their character is prejudiced against a specific metahuman/metavariant (I.E a Human prejudiced against Trolls specifically or against all non-human metahumans), this quality also comes with a variety of degrees too, from biased to outspoken and even Radical.

The book Shadowrun: Run Faster introduced SURGE, Changelings & the ‘Freaks’ effect.

The Prejudiced quality can be especially dangerous as it might influence a player character to sabotage a job just to kick someone of their prejudiced race down or they might even flat-out refuse to work for a non-human. As a gameplay standpoint, a prejudiced character will suffer a -2 to all rolls when interacting with someone from their target metatype.

It’s not just specific Metahumans/Variants who suffer from the social stigma either, as any character with a SURGE/Changeling quality noticeable enough will also suffer from the ‘Freaks’ negative effect, where people are less likely to cooperate with them or others may be more inclined to attack them due to their unusual appearance. This all oddly fits within the motto of the game, however, as “everything comes with a price.” and being able to exhale a deadly gas at will is pretty cool, but you’re now walking around with a lions mane for the rest of your life and nobody will look at you the same.

 Bring it all together

Okay, so we’ve now had a look at both the modern editions of Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun, so why is it that Shadowrun can use Prejudice as a mechanic and D&D is receiving questioning glances for using Race & Racial Traits as mechanics? I believe it’s a collection of multiple factors:

Factor One: Audience

D&D has a much bigger audience than that of Shadowrun and is often the very first thing people think of when someone mentions Table Top RPGs/Pen and Paper RPGs. It has gone from being something exclusively associated with the highest calibre of nerdiness to this hobby that is enjoyed by a large number of people from all walks of life. I believe this success is thanks in part to the simplicity of D&D, as setting up a character can take about thirty minutes, whereas Shadowrun (when just starting out) can take days and has a collection of rules not present in Dungeons & Dragon, which can be quite intimidating to anyone wanting to try the latter after experiencing the former.

This difference in complexity creates a divide in the more casual players and the ‘hardcore’ players, as the latter players are more likely to put in the work to learn & play with the new rules that define Shadowrun from D&D.

Factor Two: Setting

Shadowrun (as a setting) is a dark place, with events such as Dryads being literally farmed and sold as (presumably) sex slaves, Hobgoblins being herded into death camps in Arabia and “The night of hatred” which was a racially/species-driven attack against Orks and Trolls. Playing with a setting like this, it’s easier to accept social stigmas and prejudice as a part of the game. However, D&D is a fantasy setting that is most commonly used as a guide than an actual setting, players can ‘homebrew’ (a term for homemade content) their own stuff for campaigns, which many often do. I frequently use Roll20 and have even seen a campaign listing for ‘Curse of Strahd’ which the DM has specifically chosen to exclude xenophobic content – something that I personally disagree with, given the context of Curse of Strahd – however that’s the beauty of D&D campaigns, DMs have the freedom to homebrew or cut out content they do not personally agree with.

Shadowrun doesn’t really have any official campaigns, rather having ‘Missions’ which DMs can use to weave together through an over-arching storyline or the official ‘Seasons’ which are used as part of the official Shadowrun campaign, whereas D&D has campaign books and the Adventurers League.

Factor Three: Phrasing & Design

If there’s one big thing that helps manage the presence of prejudiced themes in Shadowrun, it’s the way Shadowrun subverts the use of the word ‘Race’, by calling the different Races of Shadowrun ‘Metahumans’, ‘Metatypes’, ‘Metasapients’ and ‘Metavariants’, half of which are given their own scientific names to further push the idea of this being a definitive development in the Shadowrun world. Homo sapiens robustus, Homo sapiens ingentis , Homo sapiens nobilis, Homo sapiens pumilionis & Homo sapiens sapiens, or as they are more commonly referred to as Orks, Trolls, Elves, Dwarves & Humans. 

Shadowrun manages the racial differences between its races by making the defining differences matter only in the extreme, as reaching the stat limitation of your race can be a difficult task requiring a lot of karma and time. It isn’t unusual for a player character to die before they hit their racial stat limit, either as Shadowrun is extremely high-risk when it comes to combat encounters. This is also in thanks to the high-Karma cost of upgrading a stat and the low-Karma payout, creating a real sense of importance whenever a player character obtains Karma as they need to think carefully on what to spend it on.

D&D5E however, only really provides races with positive stats and lacks a monetary system such as Karma, meaning that players may be influenced to play more stereotypical race/class combinations such as a Half-Orc Barbarian or a Halfling Rogue, because of the stat advantage they can get on top of their rolled stats – though this is by no means representative of all D&D players. Basing ability score increases on a level is also something that may factor into a player making a ‘stereotypical’ Half-Orc barbarian, as they will be focusing on improving what they need to be better with their class or (after reaching a certain level) they could instead choose a character ‘Feat’, which are boons and situational bonuses to characters, but generally they don’t add much to the Player Character themselves, unlike the Qualities in Shadowrun which can craft an entire personality and have mechanical impacts to boot.

So what can be done?

Unlike Shadowrun, D&D is in a complicated position, as it has already been expressed that changing ‘Race’ to ‘Species’ may feel too sci-fi, which brings up the question: What can be done in this situation? It’s easier to use ‘Race’ because of the diverse cast in Dungeons and Dragons as it ranges from the always cheerful and harmfully innocent Halflings to the interbreeding respect-driven titans of the Dragonborn; There simply isn’t really a similarity between every single playable race in Dungeons and Dragons… So the way I see it is like this: D&D has two ways they can approach this – another mechanical overhaul of how the choice of character race impacts the player characters or a disclaimer to be put somewhere inside the character race chapter.

A potential mechanical overhaul could be that (for the most part) choice of Race is entirely flavour, with racial abilities being limited to what makes sense for the race biologically/historically. An example of abilities being: the Dragonborn’s breath weapon or Halfling Luck being exclusive to those races. The decision of stat increases/bonuses could be put down to a ‘heretical’ or ‘lifestyle’ selection, where a ‘Warriors Heritage’ would increase Strength and Endurance and the ‘Scholars Heritage’ would increase Intelligence and Wisdom. Some players may disagree with implementing this, however, as there is already an ‘origins’ step to character creation, where players receive knowledge/skill/tool-based proficiencies based on their choice of Origin.

The disclaimer is a much faster & easier solution, where the writers include a few lines as a disclaimer in the Race chapter explaining that Wizards of The Coast/D&D does not support the notion of one ethnicity/race being superior to another.

If you enjoyed this opinion-piece and would like to see more from me in the future, please consider buying me a kofi, though you are by no means obligated nor expected to do so. 

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