D&D’s Drizzt books were built on racist tropes. R.A. Salvatore wants to change that

Cover art for Timeless: A Drizzt Novel, published in 2018.
Image: Harper Voyager
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Despite their popularity among fans of genre fiction, Dungeons & Dragons’ The Legend of Drizzt novels have been fairly criticized for reinforcing racist fantasy tropes. R.A. Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt, tells Polygon that the time has come to set things right. Salvatore’s next novel, Starlight Enclave, arrives on Aug. 3 and will expand the franchise into new territories.

At the same time, it will broaden the identity of the drow, the race of dark-skinned elves that have been a part of the original role-playing game since the 1970s. It’s a change to the drow that’s part of a larger reckoning with race in Wizards of the Coast’s D&D and Magic: The Gathering properties. Salvatore isn’t reluctant to be part of that change, which he says is long overdue.

“I did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Salvatore told Polygon in an exclusive interview. “It’s an update that was greatly needed — for things that I didn’t even know were a problem when I first wrote the books.”

Drizzt as shown in the video Sleep Sound, a poem written by R. A. Salvatore and performed for YouTube by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Image: Wizards of the Coast/YouTube

The Legend of Drizzt began in 1988 with The Crystal Shard, Salvatore’s first published novel. It tells the story of a drow named Drizzt Do’Urden and his adventures among the inhabitants of Icewind Dale, a northern region in D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting. While the humans, dwarves, and other fantasy creatures that inhabit the Dale present as vaguely Nordic or Viking, Drizzt has black skin. That feature, which marks him as a member of an inherently violent and untrustworthy race of elves, casts him as the other and invariably sets him at odds with his neighbors.

Savatore says this othering was always his intent. What he did not fully comprehend when he created the character, he said, was how Drizzt’s blackness would contribute to how that othering was perceived by his audience. Today, the black-as-other and related tropes are widely viewed as a problematic narrative devices. But they’re also a symptom of longstanding issues with the lore of D&D.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the game has codified racism, in the form of strict inequalities between its fantasy races, within its ruleset. As writer and game designer James Mendez Hodes wrote in 2019, “D&D, like Tolkien, makes race literally real in-game by applying immutable modifiers to character ability scores, skills, and other characteristics.” Historian Paul B. Sturtevant goes even further, calling race as a gamified concept “the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre.”

Original cover art for The Crystal Shard, published in 1988.
Image: Larry Elmore/Penguin Books

In his essay, Sturtevant writes that the some D&D’s earliest art featuring the drow appears directly inspired by edgy portrayals of real-life Black actors. One campaign module even riffs on Tina Turner’s appearance in promotional posters for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But, as the public perception of these kinds of problematic, exploitative stereotypes grew, public facing images of the drow changed as well. Sturtevant writes:

Later illustrators of D&D products, perhaps more aware of the optics, have made them a purple-black or dusky-grey-black. But let’s be real. They have black skin. If you can’t see the problems with this, I can’t help you.

Making “races” like orcs and dark elves inherently evil does two things. First, it presents a world in which good and evil are so simplistic that an entire culture, race, or species can be inherently evil. If someone were to transpose that way of thinking onto cultures or races today, it could lead to the worst sort of prejudice.

Race as a gamified concept was present in the 5th edition of D&D when it launched in 2014. Wizards of the Coast once again cast the drow as typically evil. A reckoning came for the publisher after receiving pressure on social media and amid the backdrop of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Last year, the company issued a formal apology and promised to make changes to its mechanics and to its lore. Alternate rules for race were added to the game with the publication of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and alterations were made to the description of the drow and other races in the game.

Now, Salvatore is making what he says are much-needed changes of his own.

“I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten over the years, from people who have said, ‘Thank you for Drizzt.’” Salvatore said. “‘I finally have someone who looks like me.’ On the one hand, you have that. But on the other hand, if the drow are being portrayed as evil, that’s a trope that has to go away, be buried under the deepest pit, and never brought out again. I was unaware of that. I admit it. I was oblivious.”

“This is something I hope more younger people can understand,” Salvatore, who is 62 years old and white, continued. “You’re seeing all this stuff and it’s obvious to you. If you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, it wouldn’t have been obvious. Some things are obvious, but it’s the subtle things that you learn about as you continue to grow and learn. And now, finally, we’re seeing it being played out there in the correct way with people saying, ‘This is bullshit.’ And I love it, and I feel like I’m growing.”

As a result, the canonical image of the drow is growing. A new website, launched by Wizards in May, expands the drow into three different factions. What fans previously understood to be the only drow in the Forgotten Realms — evil elves living in the underground city of Menzoberranzan — still exist. These Udadrow are clarified with additional detail revealed over the course of Salvatore’s novels. They are “elves who became tainted” by the demon Lolth’s “insidious teachings.” The Aevendrow, on the other hand, live in the frozen north. They rejected Lolth, thereby “remaining true to their innate integrity.” Meanwhile, the jungle-dwelling Lorendrow “draw their wisdom from the environment; the generosity of earth; the mastery of sky and the complex harmony of the forest.”

The backstory for the Udadrow, Salvatore said, remains consistent with his existing novels. When his next novel comes out on Aug. 3, fans will learn more about how the Aevendrow and the Lorendrow came to be and what they represent. Salvatore said the concept of this drow diaspora was the result of a high-level meeting he had with Wizards of the Coast about four or five years ago, but that no changes were forced upon him.

“Nothing’s being dictated to me,” Salvatore said. “I am not retrofitting or retconning the drow. I am expanding the drow.”

Additionally, he said that no changes are planned for any of the dozens of novels already written about Drizzt and his companions. Salvatore supports that decision, and sees it as a sort of public record of his transformation as an author and as a person.

“These aren’t game books, they’re novels,” Salvatore said. “Novels are supposed to reflect the time period they were written in. [...] There’s no reason to [make any changes], because there’s nothing in my early books philosophically that’s different than who I am today. I’m just more aware of certain things in the books that became problematic. But philosophically, that’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been. I just try to be better.”

Fans and critics alike will get their chance to see just how impactful Salvatore’s changes are when the next Drizzt novel arrives on Aug. 3. You can pick up Starlight Enclave at your local bookseller and online, or directly from R.A. Salvatore’s personal website.

Update (July 26): Our original story did not make it clear how the drow were portrayed at the launch of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition ruleset. We’ve updated the story to reflect that, and removed mention of the vistani for clarity.


Comments

…honestly to me this is taking it too far. Yes, the black skin on Drow is a problem and should be corrected.

But saying Orcs are problematic as an evil race is just being silly. It’s a fantasy world where some races are simply born evil, due to demonic influence or similar. The Drow are evil not because they are Black (which again is an unfortunate mistake IMO, not intentional). The Drow worship a literal demon goddess who encourages assassinations and betrayal to move up the ranks of her priesthood and society in general, and calls for mothers to sacrifice their children on altars for power. There are other intelligent races in D&D who are out to enslave/eat/torture for funsies other intelligent races.

Putting ridiculous limits on fictional worlds like "no race is allowed to be evil by default" is frankly limiting and stupid. Tolkien started the Orc trope and they were evil by default because their evil creator made them that way (by twisting the earliest elves into something foul). That created a powerful enemy to the forces of good, and that’s not a bad thing.

…You don’t see anything wrong with saying an entire race of people is evil solely because of their race? How that might have… implications on how people view the real world? Especially when the evil-by-default race happens to have darker skin than most other races in that world?

I think OP already answered questions 1 & 3. As to your other question, I read the first book or two a decade ago and didn’t immediately draw comparisons to the real world, but I do understand how someone with darker skin than mine might not see it the way. That said, it sounds like they’re trying to address all of your questions with this new book.

Yes, I realize they already answered them, I am just flabbergasted that someone can be so naïve about the impact the media we consume can have on how we see the world. Salvatore made a mistake, he wisely realized he made a mistake, and he’s trying to fix it. That’s an admirable thing.

Further, I fundamentally disagree that saying a race cannot be evil-by-default is limiting. Perpetuating racially tinged fantasy tropes is not only harmful, it’s lazy. It’s bad storytelling. It creates the least interesting kind of villain.
"Why is the antagonist evil?"
"Because they have no other choice."
"…oh, neat, so like, no motivation? No conflict?"
"Nope, just evil."
yawn
Give me a villain with depth, with layers, with inner conflict that’s just as interesting as the conflict they bring to the protagonist. Evil-by-default is boring.

The Joker is evil just because, and he’s one of THE most evil villains and one of the most entertaining villains of all time. Furthermore, this is a universe where there are literal gods of chaos, order, good AND evil, why would the idea of a race being predisposed towards being evil be so ridiculous?

Depending on which incarnation of Joker you’re talking about, he isn’t evil "just because." That’s one of the main ideas behind The Killing Joke – he went through his "one worst day," and thought that if he did the same to Gordon, Gordon would become like him. Even for versions where his origins aren’t explored (like Nolan’s), there’s a difference between not knowing why he’s doing evil stuff, and being told explicitly, "He has no choice but to be evil because that’s how he was born."
And that’s what it comes down to in D&D-worlds as well. Saying that entire races are evil because they are evil races removes their agency. It makes them boring. If there’s no possibility of change, there’s no real agency. It’s lazy writing, and it perpetuates dangerous ideas that exist in the real world about human nature.

I don’t disagree re the joker, but I disagree that a purely evil race/character is "boring".

It’s actually fascinating in the Drizzt books to read of the purely evil characters, in another post I mentioned the often recurring enemy Errtu. His home and activities are awful but very interesting. Same when the main character is enslaved by illithids, the look into the evil and alien culture there is anything but boring. Same went for the Yochlol and other denizens of Lloth’s plane.

Depending on which incarnation of Joker you’re talking about, he isn’t evil "just because." That’s one of the main ideas behind The Killing Joke – he went through his "one worst day," and thought that if he did the same to Gordon, Gordon would become like him.

I feel like you kind of missed the point of The Killing Joke. The "worst day" the Joker subjects Jim Gordon is intentional and full of malice, the Joker’s "worst day" was borne of his own bad decisions and tragic happenstance. And despite him and his daughter being subjected to deeply personal, inhumane punishments, Gordon still chooses to do the right thing. The contrast between them is intended to show that having "one bad day" isn’t a justification for Joker’s evil, and that he is the way he is because he was simply looking for an excuse to act the way he always wanted to. He essentially is evil "just because."

I disagree. I believe that TKJ demonstrates that everyone has agency in the face of their circumstances. The Joker believed that our circumstances make us who we are, and he put that hypothesis to the test (though why he didn’t kill Barbara is still an odd character choice… he certainly isn’t above killing folks for less). Gordon proved him wrong by showing that, even at the worst of times, people can choose to come through. Joker chose to give in. He didn’t have to, he chose to.

But as you pointed out, Joker’s hypothesis failed; the circumstances he subjected Gordon (worse circumstances than the ones the Joker was dealt, I’d argue) didn’t result in Gordon choosing to break his moral code. So why did Joker make the choice to break?

Don’t get me wrong, I actually agree with part of your original argument – on his own, I happen think the Joker is the most boring fucking bad guy maybe in the history of fiction. He exists solely as an avenue to enact whatever the most fucked up shit the writer can think of at any moment. Which is why the Joker doesn’t kill Barbara – paralyzing her and sexually assaulting her is seen as worse in our eyes than outright killing her. And the Joker’s treatment of Barbara’s isn’t even about her, it’s about emasculating Gordon and Batman for failing to protect her (which is why I’ve always seen The Killing Joke as misogynistic trash. Well written misogynistic trash, but misogynistic trash nonetheless).

The Joker is there to provide an opposing force for Batman and other protagonists, simply to be evil – and there are effective uses for these kind of villains in stories. The best depictions of the Joker get this; the conflicting origins he gives of his scars in The Dark Knight tell us there’s no point to in caring about his origins or reasons for being, he’s only there to force Batman, Harvey Dent, Gordon, the cops, and the mob to bounce off of each other in interesting ways.

Similarly, the goals and desires of an omnipresent and inherent evil like Sauron and the orcs are irrelevant to what The Lord of the Rings is actually about. The looming specter of the armies of Mordor is there to play Gondor, Rohan, the Elves, the Fellowship, and others off of one another. The actual characters depicted as evil or antagonistic in Lord of the Rings (Gollum, Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor) are all reacting in all too human ways to that same omnipresent threat, responding to it with either greed or fear. Even the nameless human armies that fight for Sauron like the Wildmen of Dunland and the Easterlings are doing it not because they’re inherently evil like the orcs, but because the power that siding with Mordor offers them the opportunity to settle old scores against Rohan and Gondor.

I’ve never read Salvatore’s work, so I can’t speak to his use of the dark elves in this capacity, but the value of an inherently evil race like the Orcs or character like the Joker is ultimately not that different from something like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction – they’re there to move the characters the characters in interesting directions. There isn’t a need for such characters/factions to exist beyond that purpose.

This isn’t about what’s true in the real world. It’s about what fits the setting. To quote Epic Rap Battles of History: "News flash, the genre’s called "fantasy"! It’s MEANT to be unrealistic you myopic manatee!"

it’s 2021 jesus christ

My main counterpoint to this is that the Joker is not, in fact, compelling or interesting at all. While its often very fun watching different actors ham it up over the decades (especially Romero and Hammil), the character himself is boring in every media he’s been in. I like to think I would never inflict such a tedious antagonist on my players.

I think he’s at his best when he’s less "evil" and more an agent of chaos.

Existing just to cause chaos isn’t much different than existing just to be evil. It’s super unrealistic. But this is a fantasy genre. IT’S MEANT to be unrealistic.

Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean there is no relation to our world. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings still resonates so powerfully today is not just because of the wonderful fantasy world Tolkien created, but because of the real emotional connection we see between his characters. The one ring, a piece of jewelry that can decide the fate of the world with its power? Yeah, that’s unrealistic. The love of the four main hobbits is not unrealistic, though. It’s a very real thing.

So behavior between characters and relationships they have is "realistic"? Sure, that’s fine, but stuff like alignment isn’t meant to be in, again, a world where there’s literal forces of evil and gods of chaos and the like. It’d be like arguing "I buy the existence of tentacle-headed creatures who eat brains and dragons and spells that can cushion your fall with feathers but that some races are inherently evil, THAT’S just too ludicrous!" Okay, why? Why is it too ridiculous or too out-there to believe when there’s literally all this other weird, not-of-this-world stuff here in this setting? If there can be GODS devoted to evil or chaos, why not races?

critically, the joker isn’t evil because he’s belgian or something.

also, characterising a race as "predisposed toward evil" is a juvenile and overly rigid way of engaging with morality. far more interesting, i think, to make morality itself flexible, and say that a race’s culture values things that are at odds with other cultures and generate drama that way. but just saying "race X is evil" and "race Y is good" is boring

Great points. My gut is to often think "but they’re evil, because they’re evil, so it should be fine," but the point is that as these "evil" races are a creation of real humans, those same humans have the ability to dig deeper and literally rewrite that rule so that my gut instinct no longer stands. Rewrite them as a diverse race, create a new precedent, and go nuts with that new standard. If heaps of them become pure evil due to a great written thread, then awesome, I love some villains. These are the opportunities to literally rewrite the rules so that we no longer have to essentially follow a tradition of "they’re evil just because."

You seem to be forgetting something. There’s a reason why every antagonist isn’t a multi-faceted being with his/her own motivations, who cannot really be called good or evil nor painted by a single brush.

Look at your audience. Look at the kinds of media that command the largest consumption(let’s put aside dollars for a moment). Notice how many people don’t necessarily want a complex story where they have to stop and think, and decide for themselves whether this person is wholly good or bad, and need to rationalize to themselves why they feel that way.

No – people want stuff that’s simple. They paint people as good or evil. Just look at politics over the last 4 years, or even the way people behave. They want active, and easy conflict…and consume something that’s simple and digestible. In short – they don’t want to think.

Even by yourself saying "I want a villain with depth" you’re already simplifying things by calling that entity a villain. Why did you make that snap decision that this has to be the bad guy? Is there a reason why you didn’t instead, choose to have a conflict between two entities, each with their own motives, reasons and backstory, with neither of them wholly good nor evil, but rather…it’s up to you to experience side, then decide later, who you like more?

With ideally, the end result being…well you like some things about one, but feel more for the other, but understand equally why each are at the other’s throats?

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