There are others who write better about bioessentialism in Dungeons & Dragons, and how it reflects real-world discrimination. Many of them are brought together here.
To summarise, there is focus on how:
Negative stereotypes about orcs (inherently strong, angry, and stupid) and drow (inherently cunning, dark-skinned, and bound to a wicked religion) reflect those in our world about real groups with real histories of discrimination and persecution (in which many notable figures in D&D’s history have participated).
Lazy fantasy mirroring of real-world persecution (such as discrimination against half-devil player characters, or enslaving empires), especially without discussion with players or a consideration of how those dynamics are formed in the real world, makes the TTRPG hobby an unwelcoming space for marginalised people.
There are (ongoing, often disappointing) efforts by D&D’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast to make changes in the hope of rectifying these problems and making their product more in line with modern values; especially those of its still-growing fanbase drawn by broadly left-wing Actual Play shows.
[It should be noted that the most obvious recommendation is ‘ditch all the old lore that was made in line with discriminatory values that entrench historic power dynamics’. This is usually rejected in favour of minor tweaks, the consensus being that the current top team overseeing D&D as a product are keen to keep the old lore they grew up with and view as a core part of the product.]
Anyway, a recent change was that all entities in the D&D universe would be changed so that, rather than having a descriptor like ‘Lawful Good’ or ‘Chaotic Evil’, they would have ‘Typically Lawful Good’, and so on.
It might simply be an indicator that, at your gaming table, you didn’t have to follow traditional lore. Excellent: there should be more of that.
But taking it at face value, it is vaguely interesting to me philosophically, since I’m not sure it reflects a great deal of engagement with the critiques of D&D. In particular, the idea that all beings (sentient and not) can be good reflects a very specific set of values.
I’m not entirely convinced that the solution to “saying all orcs are evil, strong, and thick reflects real-world racism” (therefore stop saying they’re all evil, allow them variation within their species and cultures) applies equally to everything in D&D.
That is to say: can a mind flayer be redeemed?
To briefly introduce alignment as a concept: D&D has historically categorised all beings by their relationship to Lawful-Neutral-Chaos, and Good-Neutral-Evil.
This often awkward combination comes from Gygax, the overtly racist and sexist founder of D&D as a hobby. Like many fantasy creators, he plundered from other sources.
The first categorisation comes from Morcock’s books, in which history is a struggle between Order and Chaos (Gygax filed off the serial numbers). Some things are innately bound to order, others to chaos. This is useful for his storytelling, and allows him to make some beautiful metaphors in his writing.
The second comes from basic Christian ethics, in which some things are good, others evil. While of course many cultures come up with such concepts, within D&D, where the ultimate ‘good’ beings are angels, and the ultimate ‘evil’ ones devils and demons, it is pretty clear that ethics (and religion more broadly, given the lack of Clerics of The Entire Pantheon) is taking place within a Christian frame.
Within Christian ethics, an important idea is that beings can be redeemed by choosing the right path (i.e. following the teachings of Christ, from whom the religion’s name is derived). This ties into ideas about free will (sentients have it, but they have to choose to use it the right way) and what ‘good’ means.
Broadly, ‘good’ means helping others. This includes both material help, like feeding the hungry, and spiritual help, like teaching people about the path to redemption. Different sects emphasise those two elements differently, from ‘give up all your possessions to the poor’ to ‘those who have not chosen the path are evil and deserve death, where they will face eternal punishment.’
Apologies for over-simplifying the above, by the way. But it will do for now.
Redemption For Your Sins
In D&D’s early editions, alignment granted certain powers. The best illustration of this is the paladin class, which was obliged to be Lawful Good (committed to order, and acting to help others).* Paladins remained stereotypes as the most goody-two-shoes class.
One could remain Lawful Good while killing many orcs, because orcs are evil and must be destroyed. You may now be realising why I included the section on how Christian ethics can include some counter-intuitive concepts of ‘good’.
A paladin could lose their powers if they stopped being good, such as by killing elves, who are good. They could regain those powers by being good again (within a broadly Christian frame of ethics).
That is to say, they could redeem themselves through free will. This is an idea rooted in a very particular system of ethics; it is not universal by any means.
The idea of being able to make up for past evils is far from exclusive to Christianity. However, it is fairly clear where D&D’s ethical system comes from.
While recent editions make efforts to re-skin that, describing different alignments in more neutral terms (broadly: pro-social structures (lawful) to anti-social structures (chaotic), altruistic (good) to selfish (evil)), the Original Flavour™ lingers.
Orcs are clearly sentient, cultured, and human-like to the extent that they can canonically interbreed with humans, suggesting they are a different branch of the same species.
They are also based on negative stereotypes about real-world groups.
It therefore makes a great deal of sense to say that orcs could be of any alignment. They have free will, same as any person. Most modern ethical systems accept that people from any group can be good or evil, and this is why there was pressure on Wizards of the Coast to make changes.
However, translating that onto non-humanoids led to some slightly odd corners.
The Redeemable mind flayer
An iconic villain in D&D is the mind flayer. It’s very clever, and eats sentients’ brains and thoughts for food. If you dig into the lore, they once had an evil empire that spanned the stars. Historically, they have been classed as Lawful Evil. Now, they are typically Lawful Evil.
It is… difficult to see a way to make a being that preys on sentients’ brains good.
First, we must establish why it is evil.
Is it evil because it eats sentients?
Or is it evil because it does not recognise the sentience of those it eats?
The first fits into most anthropocentric (human-first) systems of ethics. These say that humanoid life is special, because it can think. A being that devours sentients, even if vastly more intelligent than humanoids, is doing a not-good thing by most systems of ethics.
For a parallel, look at the alien in Alien. We do not consider it to be acting maliciously by slaughtering every human it can, but it is either:
1. Good, because it is doing what it needs to do to survive. This can be found in some extreme libertarian fantasies, but in general leaves very little in the ‘not-good’ category.
2. Irrelevant to moral debates, because it is a creature outside any humanoid system of ethics, like the Great Old Ones in Lovecraft’s work.
3. Evil, because it is killing lots of people and that is bad.
My personal preference is for 2. Protagonists in a game of D&D are nonetheless likely to stop it, on the grounds of 3 (the consequences are bad, even if the intention is not).
Eating brains has evil outcomes. Needing to eat brains means the eater needs to cause evil outcomes.
The second option (does not recognise sentience) is juicier. It is either:
1. Evil, because it is deliberately causing harm to another sentient.
2. Irrelevant to moral debates. mind flayers are very clever, far beyond humanity. They might view eating a human as being like a human eating a pig: questionable, but not within the same ethical scope as eating one of their own kind. Or just not recognise that moral frame at all.
3. Good, if and only if…
Here, some might say the mind flayer should feel guilt. Others might say that the mind flayer should make amends.
But in both these cases, the mind flayer would have to eat again at some point.
A mind flayer has to eat brains to survive. Is the only good mind flayer one choosing to starve itself to death?
That might fit within an ethics of self-sacrifice, but seems like an edge case. ‘Lawful Evil, unless choosing to embrace death’ is a rather unpleasant descriptor.
‘Typically’ encourages a fantasy where sentience inherently means something can receive salvation, all issues can be resolved through dialogue (most can, but ‘me having my brain-asset’ and ‘you eating my brain-asset’ are difficult to reconcile), and all things are covered by universal moral claims.
That the brain-eater might repent and be better.
That this one’s a nice guy; he’s going to change.
Some things might just not fit on an alignment chart.
‘Typical’ alignment’s flaws
There are, I think, three key areas in the above that are worth drawing out:
1. Giving everything a ‘typical’ alignment leads to some odd moral positioning. Nobody, to my knowledge, has argued that the brain-eating empire should be considered anything other than evil, or apart from humanoid morality.
2. It is important to distinguish where things reflect harm in the real world (orcs - racism), and where they do not (mind flayers - cosmicism). Conflating the two blurs very real criticism of major entertainment products.
3. Sometimes, really good storytelling means making living metaphors. The gold-hoarding dragon under the mountain is greedy, and it is harming people. The creature that eats everything it sees without limit is dangerous, and is similarly harming people. The brain-eating mind flayer is either evil, or outside morality altogether, and reality is beyond what we can conceive.
Most likely, the right answer is just to get rid of alignment to begin with. Let individual deities have their codes and expectations, and let everything else simply be.
But if you’re thinking that cosmic horror might be the way to go, with nice straightforward amoral antagonists… do read this earlier blog (in fact, written later) about fascistic fantasies of violence and D&D.
*Alignment fights are fun but pointless. While the word ‘Lawful’ implies adherence to a set of rules, I’d argue that looking at its root in Morcock’s ‘Order’ gives it a much clearer meaning. In particular, since the ethical system of D&D is rooted in an belief system in which adherence to mundane and spiritual laws is often considered very similar to being good.