How the Keep on the Borderlands Taught Me About Racism and Hatred

250px-B2ModuleCoverI became a dungeon master in 1979 at the age of 7. My older brother was 10, and he and is friends decided they wanted to play, and of course wanted to be the heroes. They figured out they needed something called a Dungeon Master, and as the picked on nerdy kid brother, I was handed some books and informed I was going to be DM.

Yeah that went about as well as it sounds.

An adventure came with the basic DnD set called Keep on the Borderlands. You start at the keep, you hear about a cave system that has about a dozen tribes of humanoids living in caves cheek to jowl (which never really made any sense but hey) and then you go there, kill the bad guys get the treasure and go back to the keep as heroes. As DM, I had to read the adventure, and I quickly figured out that even though I was three years younger than the players, I had a lot of control on what they did even if not directly. As I read I tried to imagine what would happen in each room, and what I would steer my rambunctious players into doing there. All was going well until I came to this room.

10. COMMON ROOM: Here are quartered 12 male orcs (AC 7, HD I, hp 4 each, #AT I, D 1-6, Save F I, ML 8) and 18 females and 9 young (who do not fight). The males have 2d6 silver pieces each, the others have nothing of worth. The few furnishings in the room are likewise of no value.

That damn room, man. Do you see the problem? So I’m the DM. I’m imagining my brother and his friends, swords drawn, spells ready, charging into this room, slaughtering the twelve guy orcs. Their blades are dripping with blood, the air sizzles with burning orc flesh… and then…

Women and children orcs?



This bothered me for at least six months as I tried to figure out what the players were supposed to do with the women and children. Before I could coax my idiot players to something approaching the right decision I had to decide what the right decision was, and I had a seven year old brain to figure it out. I was running headfirst into the (imaginary) horrors of war and racism and child killing and some serious shit here man.

That damn room.

I decided that the women could perhaps fight, but the children clearly couldn’t. What should the players do with a bunch of orc kids? Killing children was right out. I decided fast that leaving them in the room was also not an option. A bunch of orc kids in a dungeon full of the rotting corpses of their parents were going to die fast. So that’s an evil act right? Murder by inaction or something? Okay so not that. What should the players do?

The next most obvious choice was gathering up all the kid orcs and taking them back to the keep to be raised in an orphanage. That felt less psychotically evil, but even then, wouldn’t the orcs turn evil as adults and have to be killed in town? I looked at the rule book and right there it listed them as chaotic evil. So taking them to town as babies was just delaying the inevitable wasn’t it? Would it really be ‘good’ to take a young evil creature to a town full of innocents?37083f348a86e53c3ff67be54072efb0

You see the racism angle rearing its head here right?

I saw that Half Orcs were a player race. A half orc could be of good alignment, so it seemed plausible that these orc kids were not predestined to be evil. If taken to town, perhaps they could be raised to be not evil. Finally a solution! The only readily available not evil choice for the orc babies was take them to town, make sure they find a good home, and are raised virtuously! Huzzah! These are the problems that develop when you take a literary symbol of evil and try to put it in a game like D&D and flesh it out.

Unfortunately, I was a curious and inquisitive child, so my brain still wouldn’t let go of this whole orcs and good and evil thing. I kept thinking about those orc babies raised in a town to be not-evil. If they could turn out good, why couldn’t other orcs be good too? Why were they listed as evil? It wasn’t ‘tends to be evil’. It wasn’t ‘CAN be evil’. It was EVIL. If you’re an orc, you’re evil. The only good orc is a dead orc.

It slowly dawned on me, that this was racism. The game was replete with casual, fictional racism toward fictional species like the infamous antipathy between dwarves and elves.

I got the idea for a game I’ve never had the guts to actually run. My idea, at probably… eight? Nine? was to run a game based as closely as possible to the American Old West, only replace pistols and rifles with bows and swords, and replace photogenic Native Americans with Orcs, Goblins and Trolls. I was curious how long it would take the players to hesitate, to say ‘hey wait a second are we SURE its okay to slaughter each and every member of the Shattered Fist tribe?’

I’m glad I never ran that game, because making someone participate in something like that, make them be one small part of that atrocity, make them see that no, they wouldn’t be the one guy who stood against it, they’d probably have gone right along with it if they’d been there… I couldn’t inflict that on someone, even as I inflicted that sick realization upon myself. I would have gone along. I would have justified it to others and even to myself. It’s easy to see this behavior in others but it’s harder to look within ourselves.

My big takeaway was how easy it was to designate someone as EVIL, as an acceptable target, how good people felt about it, how readily we all go along with it as long as we have permission from a person in authority to hate and mistreat the target in question.

Just look at how we talk about each other. How we talk about people on the other side, whatever that other side is. Its okay to be awful to that person, he’s (x) and you know how all of THEM are. This isn’t getting better, its getting worse, and we all do it, every day. Its so easy to see Orcs, and so difficult to see the humanity lurking inside the person you’ve been given permission to despise.

Stop looking for Orcs.

They don’t exist.