Amid some frankly awful news in the D&D community this week, I’ve decided to focus on one of the most positive announcements from Wizards of the Coast recently: namely, that One D&D will be dropping the term ‘race’ from its ruleset.
I’m not crazy-happy about the alternative they’ve decided on, ‘species’, which sounds to me like a science-fiction term and if anything sounds even more deterministic, but apparently they have checked it with sensitivity consultants, and this term was deemed the best.
Why is this good news? Well, apart from the fact that ‘race’ as a term just doesn’t really apply to fantasy peoples like dwarves and elves, it’s also part and parcel of a long problematic history in D&D where personality and morality have been seen as ‘baked in’ characteristics based on biological origins. Thus, all orcs are evil, all drow are evil, and it’s OK to slaughter them based on, essentially, what they look like.
I’m keen to move away from the idea that certain humanoids are automatically evil, but not just because of this problematic history. It’s also kind of boring. Keeping the idea open that ‘evil’ humanoids can be neutral or even good-aligned just feels more imaginative and allows for a greater range of encounters besides combat, combat, combat. Moreover, as many people have pointed out, the idea of ‘evil races’ isn’t even consistent within the lore of the game. 20 years ago, the Monster Manual listed orcs as ‘usually chaotic evil’, and the 5th edition tells us to ‘feel free to depart from [the default] and change a monster’s alignment to suit the needs of your campaign.’ So non-evil drow etc have a long tradition. It also just seems odd that some intelligent humanoids exhibit a moral range and others don’t.
Here, then, are around 20 humanoids from the Monster Manual, reimagined as non-evil.
These hulking goblinoids are described as ‘born for battle and mayhem.’ They ‘bully the weak’ and survive by ‘raiding and hunting’. But what if they are peaceful but misunderstood nomads? Perhaps they have a close affinity to beasts and the natural world.
‘Always hungry and thoroughly evil’, the Monster Manual tells us, ‘life as a bullywug is nasty, brutish, and wet.’ Yet in many cultures, frogs are associated with fertility (due to their huge number of eggs) or rebirth (due to their ability to transform from tadpoles). Maybe in your world bullywugs are mystical protectors of the wetlands who have a mysterious connection with the spirit world.
Cutthroat slavers and demon-worshippers? I think we can do something more original here. I like the idea that drow cities are beautiful and otherworldly and that the drow protect the people of the surface from the threats of the Underdark. Much of what we associate with other elves – elegance, magic, dexterity, martial prowess – is just as true of dark elves. Instead of Lolth or other demons, perhaps the drow worship a guardian deity or a goddess of magic, and instead of the spider being a symbol of something sinister, perhaps it becomes a symbol of art, industriousness, and delicacy.
In the same way that drow resemble the other elves in many ways, so too do duergar resemble other dwarves. They are honourable, hard-working craftsmen, but perhaps they are more isolated than other dwarves. I like the idea that living in such deep isolation would make them great thinkers and philosophers, perhaps explaining the origin of their Psionic Fortitude trait. A steampunk aesthetic could also be fun.
The main thing that comes through for me with the githyanki backstory is their collective trauma of their enslavement under the mind flayers. I see them almost as freedom fighters. Githyanki are lawful evil by default, but what if we lean into the lawful and away from the evil? Maybe the githyanki are proud, honourable traditionalists like D&D Jedi.
I struggled with this one a bit, because the lore of 5th edition gives gnolls a demonic origin. They should probably be fiends rather than humanoids. But if we’re to keep them as humanoids, perhaps we can lose the demonic stuff and play up the idea of them as nomads, maybe like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones or the Nomads of Dune. Given how few D&D monsters have definitively African origins, and most species of hyena are native to this continent, it could be cool to incorporate African aesthetics as has been done with the excellent Wagadu Chronicle, or even an Afrofuturist aesthetic as in Black Panther.
‘Small, black-hearted, selfish humanoids’ who ‘crave power and regularly abuse whatever authority they obtain’? Let’s see if we can do something more interesting. I like the idea of goblins as energetic and mischievous rather than malevolent, and if they’re cowardly, they’re still brave when it counts (maybe like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings). They could be plucky and resourceful, capable of surviving where no one else can. Their clothes are full of patches and they make jewellery out of beads and coins.
These guys are clearly based on the Morlocks of H G Wells, and are described as ‘degenerate’ and ‘monstrous cannibals’. (They are also one of the most underused ‘monsters’ in the official hardback adventures – so I wrote my own adventure about them.) Like the githyanki, the grimlocks have been brutalized by the mind flayers, and maybe they deserve to be pitied, not vilified. We could recast them as peaceful survivalists, misunderstood by the known world and cast out to its fringes. Perhaps, like the duergar, they might have an affinity for psionics that goes largely untapped. Indeed, given how closely they lived with space-faring illithids, could they even have a proficiency in advanced alien technology?
Like the githyanki, we could lean into the honourable side of these ‘aggressive humanoids’ and play up their strategic side as brilliant engineers – perhaps a Roman aesthetic? Or we could reimagine them as explorers, traders, and travellers like the Federation in Star Trek.
‘Craven’ toadies who ‘infest’ dungeons? Poor kobolds. They deserve better. The two traits I love about kobolds are their ability to work together and their brilliance with building and mining. Perhaps a kobold society is limited by space and resources but they work collectively to build impressive sprawling tunnels. Keith Baker has this idea that goblins in Eberron are eusocial, and I think this could work well with kobolds, too, working together like ants in a hive. None of this means they have to be evil!
Hmm. Insane fish-people, another casualty of the illithid empire. Perhaps, like bullywugs, we can imagine kuo-toa as watery guardians whose homes have a kind of aquatic beauty full of iridescent colour. Instead of cultists, they could be highly spiritual and ceremonial.
There’s already a healthy tradition of orc revisionism which can be seen in Eberron, The Elder Scrolls, and Warcraft to varying degrees. If I were redesigning orcs, I would portray them primarily as self-reliant nature guardians, but I might give them an individualistic streak. I could see orcs working well with a Viking or pirate aesthetic, or even in a Western. (Imagine an orc ranger like a character from Red Dead Redemption. Wouldn’t that be cool?)
‘Sea devils’ with ‘no compassion in them’? Or something new? Again, like githyanki and hobgoblins, this is a honourable and traditionalist society, albeit an underwater one. Perhaps they aren’t necessarily evil but prefer to be left alone, powerful and mysterious.
‘Perhaps the most loathsome of all humanoids’ according to the Monster Manual: ‘savage’, ‘degenerate’, ‘foul’, ‘simpleminded’ . . . OK, not cute, then. They stink, too. It’s a pretty tall order to make these guys appealing. Maybe they could be like the Yaaxil in Shadow of the Tomb Raider: ancient protectors from a forgotten age.
Snakes . . . why did it have to be snakes? There’s a reason snake-people tend to come up in fiction as bad guys. Their sinister associations are ancient and widespread. But maybe there are other ways we can see yuan-ti. In many cultures snakes are seen as wise and knowledgeable, as in the Chinese Zodiac. They have been revered in Cherokee culture and in Hinduism. Snakes appear in the symbol of medicine, the rod of Asclepius, because the shedding of their old skin symbolized new life. So perhaps we can rethink yuan-ti as a mysterious, ancient, even immortal civilization, older than the world and destined to outlast it: a noble culture with a deep understanding of magic and healing, not cold-hearted cultists.
It’s worth noting that several ‘monstrous’ species are actually not evil and never have been. Lizardfolk, for example, are neutral by default: territorial and xenophobic, perhaps, but not evil. Quaggoths (‘deep bears’) were only evil in 3rd edition and have otherwise been neutral or unaligned. Githzerai, kenku, merfolk, svirfneblin, and thri-kreen are all neutral or good-aligned by default and can easily be incorporated into a campaign as non-evil characters.
This list is by no means exhaustive. For example, there are lots of creatures from Monsters of the Multiverse that I haven’t included: derro, firenewts, grungs, meazels, nagpas, sea spawn, shadar-kai, and xvarts to name a few. I also haven’t included lycanthropes, at least three of which have a tendency towards evil (wereboars, wererats, and werewolves). Your world might have other evil fantasy species in your world that I haven’t covered.
If you’ve read the whole post, you’ve probably noticed a few recurring themes. If you want to reimagine an ‘evil’ species, try using some of these ideas below, or roll a d20 to get your creative juices going.
- Attuned to nature
- Clan-based, traditional
- Deeply spiritual
- Dwell in beautiful places
- Honourable, traditional
- Industrious, engineers, inventors
- Magical, mystical
- Martial, pragmatic
- Mischievous, tricksters
- Misunderstood, alien, otherworldly
- Nomadic, wanderers
- Peaceful, philosophical
- Pitiable, suffering
- Reclusive, isolated
- Self-reliant, individualist
- Skilled, artisans
- Struggle with empathy
- Territorial, protective
- Traders, mercantile
- Traumatized, survivors
As always, let me know what you like and dislike in the comments below.
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2 thoughts on “How to reimagine evil species in D&D”
“personality and morality have been seen as ‘baked in’ characteristics based on biological origins” – What about the kingdom of Many Arrows, where orcs lived peacefully with dwaves? What about Drizzt and the other good Drow? I’d say they are ‘baked in’ by culture origins, not biological origins.
I mean in the sourcebook they are listed as “evil” under their race details, with little mention of culture beforehand. I think that’s where the problem is.