Why Dungeons and Dragons Is Getting Rid of Controversial Half-Races

A change to Dungeons and Dragons' half-race system has sparked another debate over the game's allegedly racist past.

Dungeons and Dragons Orcs
Photo: Wizards of the Coast

While quite a lot of news came out of the recent D&D Summit, the idea that the tabletop role-playing game is entirely getting rid of half-races and half-species due to concerns over racism has quickly garnered a lot of attention. Try to be surprised, but it turns out that many aspects of this situation are being misconstrued by those who are either working with the wrong information or have simply chosen a certain interpretation of the right information.

Actually, this is one of those stories where you need to take a step back and first look at two key things: what is actually being done and what was actually said about it.

See, in most versions of D&D, it is possible to create Half-Elf and Half-Orc characters. As the name implies, these characters split both the physical traits and attributes of their two base races (humans and elves and humans and orcs). In other words, these characters physically looked like combinations of orcs and humans or elves and humans, and their stats/attributes were also representative of both “parent” races.

Those combined attributes offered some unique role-playing options. For instance, Half-Elfs benefited from a pretty generous base stat distribution and useful base skills. Half-Orcs also offered similar statistical advantages, though one of the best reasons to play as one was to access certain Orc abilities without having to play as a full Orc and navigate all of the tricky (often hostile) social interactions Orcs sometimes have to deal with.

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While there are other half-races in parts of D&D lore (it’s a big universe), the Half-Elf and Half-Orc are notable for being specifically outlined during the character creation process in many versions of the game. They even had their own race sheets that explained their unique attributes. That’s one of the big things that will be changing moving forward (at least in some versions of the game).

Actually, this change was confirmed quite some time ago. As far back as 2022, the D&D team noted that One D&D (the next phase of D&D) will remove the old Half-Orc and Half-Elf character creation options from the game. Instead, players will be able to create a physical combination of various races. The keyword there is “physical.” So, if you want to create an Orc/Human hybrid character, you can make a character that physically resembles both races. When it comes to stats and attributes, though, you will have to choose either Orcs or Humans for your characters’ base information.

In some ways, this change addresses both balance and role-playing issues that have long existed in the game. “Half” character creation options will (ideally) now be treated a little more evenly since the Half-Elf and Half-Orc won’t have separate pages/options available specifically to them. This change may also help address some potential balancing issues. Half-Elves have long been a pretty powerful character creation option, while Half-Orcs have long offered that aforementioned workaround to some of the potential downsides that come with playing a full Orc character.

It’s also important to note that this change applies to the upcoming D&D update. Those who use older versions of the game (most notably, the 2014 Player’s Handbook and D&D Beyond) will still be able to create traditional Half-Elf and Half-Orc characters with all of their usual attributes and features.

So why is this change causing such a stir now? Well, this reignited debate seems to stem from this comment on the change that was recently made by D&D Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford:

“Frankly, we are not comfortable, and haven’t been for years with any of the options that start with ‘half’…The half construction is inherently racist so we simply aren’t going to include it in the new Player’s Handbook.”

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I don’t want to put words in Crawford’s mouth (he didn’t elaborate on that explanation beyond that quote, to the best of our knowledge), but it’s worth noting that the potentially problematic nature of those race options has come up before. In most instances, the complaints/problems come down to the fact that Half-Elves and Half-Orcs are specifically identified as separate races in certain handbook versions whereas other combinations are not. Why those two? Well, it’s not 100% clear, but it is worth noting that a lot of early D&D concepts were lifted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Tolkien mentioned Half-Elves and Half-Orcs as separate races, so D&D treated them separately as well. That at least seems to be one of the more likely explanations for the origins of this design decision.

For some time, there have been general concerns about why those two half-races merit being treated as separate figures when no other combinations seemingly warranted such notable distinctions. It was an especially hot topic in the case of the Half-Orcs who, again, were sometimes chosen so that players could “pass” without having to deal with all of the social issues that come with playing as an Orc. You can probably see why that could be an issue. There’s also the matter of the implications of the generally derogatory term “half-breed” and how the negative implications of that term could be applied to those race options.

Again, though, this decision also seems to be based on statistical and character creation balancing changes as much as (if not more than) concerns over the social implications of those older designs. The quote from Crawford just seems to have drawn a lot of heat over a change that was actually confirmed quite some time ago.

As with all D&D modifications, we’ll see how this one shakes out from a mechanical perspective. Some are already lamenting losing out on the unique aspects of the Half-Elf and Half-Orc races, while others seem unconvinced that this change will fulfill its seemingly intended function. Others would just prefer that more race combinations had unique attributes as the Half-Orc and Half-Elf options had. I personally believe that these changes seem to stem from good intentions from both a balancing perspective and a social perspective, but it’s important to know that the suddenly popular talk of the “half-race” or “half-species” concept being scrubbed from the game entirely isn’t accurate. Like so many things in D&D, it’s just changing.