There’s been an understanding in previous editions that most NPCs are neutral. That is, neutral is the default of the universe for any creature with the ability to have an alignment (as opposed to fiends, celestials, dragons, etc. who are born with certain moral and ethical predilections). PCs are no different; characters tend toward good because players like being heroes and because books and DMs shy from evil characters, not because evil is any less likely to acquire class levels than any other alignment.
Given this tendency toward neutrality, let’s see how the common PC races in Dungeons and Dragons: Mordenkainen Goes West deal with it:
Dwarves are mostly lawful and tend toward good.
Elves are mostly chaotic and tend toward good.
Halflings are mostly lawful good.
Humans tend toward no alignment.
I could rant all day about how the arithmetic of “most creatures are neutral, also most races are good” works out, or how limiting “PCs races have free will, except most of the time” is. But getting into the mindset behind those design decisions is just depressing. Instead I want to talk about the fact that humans are the only common PC race that doesn’t lean good and what that means.
There are a lot of traits rulebooks apply to humans to differentiate them from other races: adaptable, ubiquitous, varied, ambitious, and other words that mean “humans are harder to define than other races because we can’t just create them from whole cloth as something simple“. But one traits humans have never had is “good”. Other races are allowed to lean toward one alignment or another, but humans aren’t. They’re supposed to be the average, the baseline by which other races are measured. When we say dwarves are short and and rigid, and when we say elves are lithe and haughty, we mean in comparison to a Platonic universal human. It’s what we as players understand the best, so we phrase things in terms of their differences from us.
But what’s happening here is that all of the common PC races are “good” as compared to humans. All of them. This shifts the baseline, and now humans are the outlier. It’s more accurate to say “humans lean evil more than every other PC race”*. It’s just one metric but it’s an important one especially with how 5E treats alignment.
Perhaps things aren’t as dire as all that, because there are other PC races even if they’re in the “uncommon” section. So let’s consider them:
Dragonborn tend to be either incredibly good or incredibly evil.
Gnomes are good, specifically neutral good.
Half-elves tend toward chaos.
Half-orcs are mostly chaotic and often evil.
Tieflings tend toward chaos and evil.
A few of the uncommon PC races lean evil (one might make the argument that this is why they’re uncommon races, but that’s neither here nor there). But look at it more closely. Tieflings lean evil, and they explicitly descend from fiends. Half-orcs lean evil, and per 5E rules this is because that’s how orcs are and they’d better like it. Dragonborn can lean evil, and while it’s not called out in the rules it’s hard to ignore that they also have born-evil dragons in their ancestry.
So to be a PC race that leans evil, or more specifically a race that does not lean good, one of the following must be true:
- The race is made of the progeny of an explicitly, inherently, unfailingly evil creature.
- The race is part human
This is not good company.
It’s a fairly common trope to lambast humans, mostly because we invented every other race. Elves are allowed to say “How uncivilized human are!” because we’ve written them to be enlightened. Dwarves are allowed to ask “Why do humans kill each other?” because we’ve written them a history with no internal conflict in hundreds of years. Usually there’s no opportunity for debate; humans are just worse and that’s the way things are. It varies by the author whether we do this to point out how terrible humans are to each other, or to use an idealized race in a storytelling role, or because we’re making a comment about conflict inherent in differences, or out of sheer laziness, or some other reason.
But I’m not used to seeing it in D&D rulebooks. Normally all PC races have the capacity for all alignments, with trends one way or another but noting too strong. In 3E we called this “often [alignment]“, which represented that a plurality but not a majority of a given creature fit that alignment. Dwarves were “often lawful good”, which meant about 50-60% were other alignments not counting further adjustments for subraces. Changing this to “most dwarves are lawful good” not only morally elevates dwarves as a race but damages a race like humans that shows actual variance.
I have seen plenty of systems, games, movies, etc. that specifically call out humans for being awful to each other and to the rest of the world. Almost universally, these are depressing, often dystopian worlds where conflict is inevitable if not encouraged and the threat of evil looms large if it hasn’t already won. If you’re the sort of player who takes pleasure in being a real-world race your fiction actively despises, you’re probably the kind of player who also takes pleasure in very dark media. There are plenty of systems and D&D worlds where that’s true, but they tend to be dark for everyone: dwarves are more militant, elves exercise their ancient grudges, etc. It changes the tenor of the game when humans, and only humans, are as a race unable to rise above the alignment median.
Of course, elevating humans in kind doesn’t much work. If humans tended good, we’ve moved our baseline, and “good” no longer means anything because that’s where we’re supposed to be. Instead of good / neutral / evil, we have normal / evil / Dick Dastardly.
I think it comes down to the story the game wants to tell. Unfortunately, that story is that races are morally better for not being humans, and that race is a strong factor in determining worldview. It’s a nature versus nurture debate where 5E comes down hard on the side of the former by presenting it as the latter; elves are born chaotic and good, and luckily they tend to be raised in a society that emphasizes chaos and goodness and there’s no reason to consider what would happen if they were raised elsewhere. For all the vaunted “free will” that PC races tend to have in choosing their alignment, most of them sure don’t show it. It’s a cartoon version of alignment, where you can kill the orc because it’s an orc and you can trust the dwarf because it’s a dwarf and there’s no reason to put any more thought into it than a simple knee-jerk racial stereotype.
So the question is, why? Do we have Saturday morning morality because we asked for (or the designers thought we asked for) something simple? Are the races set up this way to appease people who want racial alignment with the expectation that many DMs and players will ignore it? Is this just so the variants, like a chaotic evil halfling, seem that much more important because they’re unusual (though, see the “all of them are unusual” argument)? Did we just really, really want halflings thrown out and hobbits in their place?
I don’t know. But I strongly suspect that this is the inevitable result of having a primary design consultant who believes that race is the most important part of a character, more than personality, alignment, class, backstory, goals, flaws, or achievements. And the more we tie character traits like alignment to race, the more correct that view gets at the expense of player freedom and a realistic world.
* — Is this contraposition? I didn’t do well in that class.