Picture unrelated to text, purely to grab your attention
A number of things have been running through my mind lately about D&D, well really RPGs in general and D&D, my favorite RPG, in particular. D&D is the 600 pound gorilla of the RPG world, and some of it's modern controversies occasionally cross my field of view. Racism has been a big one lately, between the “Orcs are inherently evil, and therefore a racist stand in for non-whites” and the “Oriental Adventures is racist and should be taken down from Drivethru”.
I think both of these arguments are wrong, but I can understand why they were made, and I also understand that my feelings on this should not be the focus here, when people say that something is bothering them, we should listen, and try to help where we can. I think WotC made a good call putting a disclaimer on the old TSR stuff, not so much with the wording as with the intent behind it, even if it was maybe just to cover their own behinds while continuing to sell “offensive” materials.
I am the Admin for the AD&D Oriental Adventures group on Facebook. I created the group years ago when I saw there wasn't a group for OA fans already. I have never really had to actively moderate this group until the past couple of weeks. I had to add rules to the group, to keep things civil, and I have still had to delete a couple of dozen posts recently. It's frustrating for me, and I am sure for the people that have had their posts deleted for violating rules. I get it, you are upset that there has been a call to remove OA from distribution. I don't think OA is racist myself, and it was pretty enlightened as a treatment for east Asian themed AD&D when it was written. The name was a bit tone deaf in 1985, but not especially so (no real defense for the 3e version having the same name in 2001).
Having watched over 10 hours of the “Asians Read Oriental Adventures” videos, I found them frustrating, as they didn't seem to understand AD&D, and complained pretty ceaselessly about how AD&D wasn't the kind of story game they liked, and assumed that some AD&D rules were simply racist ways to play Asians in D&D. They also took serious issue with the fact the OA is a mash up of all east Asian cultures, which I found annoying, as it is exactly the same thing AD&D does with European cultures (along with elements from the rest of the world, but especially western Asia and north Africa), while they also complained that it was too Japan oriented. The Japan-centric focus of OA makes sense for the time it was produced as we had recently gotten the extremely popular Shogun novel and miniseries, the Karate Kid, and the ninja craze was in it's bloom.
Were there racist things in OA? Yes. Certainly there were. The implication that east Asians all have Ki powers, making them all more mystically attuned is certainly pretty racist, for example. Ki powers are also a pretty important part of a lot of the media we were getting from Asia at the time though, so it might have been odd to leave them out. In any case, I think Oriental Adventures was a product of it's time, and that at that time it was an American made love letter to the Asian fantasy were were getting from Asia. OA also stoked my love for Asian culture. I have studied a lot of Asian history and OA was probably at least partially responsible for that.
Now, on inherently Evil species, and Alignment in general. D&D has always had this Alignment based cosmology, and I think it's important here to note that it is literally a declaration of what team you are supporting in a cosmic struggle. In my opinion that's the more important part than the code of behavior that your Alignment dictates. I think that adding the Good/Evil axis to Alignment may have broken it a bit, mainly because Lawful was generally considered to be the “Good guys” and Chaotic was already seen as Evil; creating a Lawful that was Evil, or a Chaotic that was Good messed with the dynamic.
Now all Orcs being inherently evil smacks of biological essentialism, and that's the sort of thing that justifies things like colonization, slavery, or eugenics; all of which are bad (and I really wish I still lived in a world where I didn't need to state that). I get where these people are coming from when they say it's racist to have all Orcs be Evil. I also have seen Tolkien's statement about Orcs being like ugly Mongols, and he really is the father of that species in modern fantasy. The issue I have with this is that I never saw them that way. At worst I saw them as a generic savage “other”, my earliest DM used Orcs basically as Viking analogues raiding and plundering against our civilization, so I really have always cast them in the light of an implacable barbarian foe, the tribes of Germans that brought down Rome, or the Huns, or the Vikings, or the Mongols, or at least a caricature of those peoples. They were savages from elsewhere, seeking to destroy civilization and plunder it's wealth, usually thoughtlessly destructive, almost a force of nature. Looking at this I can see how it could be seen as racist, but most of the named savages are white folks.
Now we need to factor in one more thing though, the Gods are real, and there really is a grand cosmic struggle between Good and Evil (or Law and Chaos if you prefer). In my Garnia campaign this is a constant, real factor, although the struggle is referred to as one between Light and Darkness, which, apparently, has it's own racist connotations when Light equals Good and Darkness Evil. Anyway, Orcs, in standard D&D cosmology, are created beings, the minions of Gruumsh, of course they are inherently Evil followers of an Evil god. The same is true in Lord of the Rings, they are essentially slaves of Sauron, as I recall they were originally Elves that were corrupted. In my campaign Orcs are created beings used as shock troops by the real forces of Evil for use in their interplanar war. There's a lot of backstory there, but Orcs are a newer species in my game and haven't explored their full potential.
But, Humans are inherently Neutral. They have free will to choose which side to support, but most of them will happily enjoy the benefits of civilization without ever committing to it via a Lawful Alignment, both in my world, and in OD&D. Cosmologically speaking, Humans are free agents, their Gods come in all Alignments, and they have many, many gods, some petty, some mighty. There's a bit more to it, the plane that my campaign world is on is a good aligned one, albeit only in a minor way, so it slightly shifts the Humans to favor Good Alignments more than usual, but the choice is still there.
Also, there are examples of creatures breaking free of their pre-ordained Alignments. Dark Elves are an example of this (at least it's my campaign's explanation for Evil Elves), but I also have a single culture of Goblins that have broken free of their Evil Alignment, although they are not generally speaking Good Aligned, and some choose Evil, they broke free and got a choice.
And I assume that the stated Alignment for any given species is the general Alignment for them, not the only Alignment found there. Maybe 1% or fewer members of the species shake the stated Alignment, but it could happen. I assume that's what's going on when players choose a non-species standard Alignment for their characters. Dwarves are Lawful Good, per the book, but most PC Dwarves vary from that, in my experience. Elves, on the other hand, are Chaotic Good in AD&D, and you see that pretty regularly, occasionally dropping to Chaotic Neutral for the Edgy ones, or Neutral Good for the nicer ones. D&D literature already gave us Drizzt, decades ago.
I guess what I am saying is that a certain degree of bio-essentialism seems to make sense in a fantasy world, where there are real forces of Good and Evil out there creating sentient beings to do their bidding, and if all Orcs aren't inherently evil, where do we stop on the Evil food chain? There are a lot of Evil monsters out there. Ogres? Giants? Dragons? Outer planar creatures like Demons? How about the sentient and free-willed Undead, like Vampires or Liches?
Now, having said this, I heard about, but have not seen or read, a 5th edition D&D supplement that separates culture from ancestry (species). I don't hate this idea, although it does lean hard into some new ideas that are popular in RPGs, namely what I call the “no humans” trend, where it seems like every player wants their character to be somehow absolutely unique. I am guessing this comes from story games, and I was a little surprised when I watched the Asians Represent videos how strongly they seemed to feel that the DM should not be able to dictate anything to the players about what type of characters they might play. As a DM I found the concept intriguing, but also annoying enough that I would have smote them for their attitude if they'd brought it to me like that.
Anyway, I am guessing ancestry (species, race) is the genetic component of your character, and culture is how you were raised. In my campaign world I have Dwarves called “Broken Dwarves” because they no longer live within their culture, they live amongst the Humans that have come to dominate the world they live in, and have relatively little tying them to their ancestral ways. Where there are communities of Broken Dwarves they tend to dominate certain trades, based on their ancestral ties to those trades, but then again they might just become sailors too.
Now that I think about it, most of the PC races available in the 1st edition AD&D PH tend to live in Human communities in my world, which isn't to say they all do. There is still an extant Dwarven kingdom (really a bunch of smaller sub-kingdoms tied together by a shared past, but with large swathes of lost territory between them). There are entirely Halfling villages, although mainly under the protection of the nearby local Human communities. Elf PCs mainly come from a background in Human communities, their empire having long ago fallen, although some “wild” Elves exist in wilderness areas beyond Human reach.
Now all of these being different species, I am not sure how the cultural part works, but the genetic part seems pretty straightforward, Dwarves are heartier, so they get the +1 to CON. Elves are quicker than Humans, so a +1 to DEX, etc. Humans are the base line, so no +/- anywhere, my guess is the -1 to CHA for Dwarves is based on their comparison to Humans, but it seems like a CHA bonus or penalty maybe should have been a cultural thing, which implies then that either Dwarves are genetically predisposed towards gruffness, or maybe that penalty should go elsewhere. Half-Orcs even more so.
Speaking of Half-Orcs, they are somewhat problematic. Orcs being inherently Evil, and apparently super fertile, they clearly go around raping everything they can, which would imply a lot about the setting of D&D that I'd really rather not have to deal with. I like to keep the level of my D&D games roughly PG-13, although pretty much every D&D game would get a R for violence. I am not squeamish, but the rape backstory of the entire Half-Orc species is pretty bad, and kind of racist. I wasn't really comfortable with that once I gave it due consideration, and it was particularly awkward when I played with my wife and kids. I included them when I created this campaign setting back in the day, because they were in the PH as a PC race, but I would give them a pass these days.
I might consider them as a separate type of Human in a species plus culture context, essentially as Humans raised in Orc culture. I did that in another campaign with Half-Elves, I made them Elf-Karls, who were Humans raised by Elves in my Ostschild setting a couple years back. They weren't playable then though, but it makes for an interesting take on Half-Orcs, and it removes the rape background, as well as, quite likely, the racist connotations of miscegenation. Problem solved? Maybe. Maybe I'll revisit the idea of Elf-Karls for Garnia too, so it removes the “Star Trek” issue of every species being able to interbreed with every other species.
Maybe not though. I had previously explained the genetic compatibility to the species being related, Elves essentially being an uplifted variant of human, infused by the forces of light into a new species, nigh immortal, with a greater natural affinity to both nature and magic; Orcs, on the other hand, deliberately created from humans infused with wild boar via magic (Pig-faced Orcs in my world). The benefit of Half-Orcs was that they could act as 5th columnists in Human society. The ability to interbreed with Elves just a random accident of being related. Elves and Orcs not being able to interbreed being a function of the opposite natures of their creation.
If we're pulling apart culture and species though, I think we should also consider social class. Cultural values are important and all, but I think a lot more of what makes you comes from the social class you are born into. Even today in the USA the zip code you grew up in is a better indicator of how well you are likely to do in life than any other single factor. A rural peasant's background is going to give you an entirely different outlook on life, and a different skill set, than someone born to the nobility, or even a tradesman's child.