Greenskins & Colonialism

I’ve written at length in the past about the plight of the greenskin and the tableau of colonization represented by the press into the goblin frontiers.   One of the best lampshades on the tropes of fantastic racism and colonialism of greenskins comes from Order of the Stick, where one of the main villain’s motivation is to avenge his people’s cultural status as cannon-fodder.     Asparagus Jumpsuit wants to move past the colonial tropes of RPGs.  But I think it order to move past them*, we need to backtrack.  Before we fell in love with the Noble Savage Orcs of Warcraft and the Proud and Honorable Orsimer of the Elder Scrolls, there wasn’t near as much discussion about the plight of greenskins in fantasy rpgs.    Let’s go back much further than the tropes of dungeons & dragons influenced fantasy, further even than Tolkien’s Orcs, who were twisted creations of an evil god, to when “Fey” was what people feared in the wilds.

Greenskins were not noble savages, no race of different men, but rather the more twisted and deformed members of the Unseelie Court, malevolent in intent against humans, soulless and cursed, and bound to the Devil through the teinde, a pact which required them to offer the blood of infants every seven years.  We’ve projected our orientalist and romantic ideas onto greenskins in fantasy because it is no longer acceptable to project them onto non-western people.

The only way to rid RPGs of the colonial race trope is to treat monsters as part of Fey, wholly opposed to humanity, God and the Godly.  The problem in D&D and any RPG that features goblinoid races is that people will project two different things on the same being, things which are in direct conflict with one another.  A goblin cannot simultaneously be a creature of magic and malice whose nature is to act in defiance of God and Man and be a proxy for a brown person.  You’re going to need to choose in your setting and choose early, and you’re going to have to deal with that choice, but most importantly, you need to make sure that your players are on the same page.  If the goblins of your world are malevolent fairy-kind, make sure that the guy who is insistent upon bringing his white-burden everywhere he goes (including your game table) is aware that the minions of Oberon do not need his guilt sympathies.

*Personally, I enjoy using goblin-folk as nomadic hunter-gatherers who are in conflict with humanity at times out of necessity rather than an evil nature, but at the same time, I don’t use them as stock low-level enemies, either.

4 responses to “Greenskins & Colonialism

  1. I’ve never really used “stock” enemies of any sort in my campaigns, but from the research I’ve done into the ways other people run games, I don’t think my campaigns are the kind that USE stock enemies.

    From the time I started playing D&D, I’ve quite literally avoided dungeon crawls. I only recently learned I’ve been missing out all this time.

    I have run some encounters that were pretty close to “rote,” but even then I tended to improvise or customize monsters on the fly, so even if I was running an encounter with “orcs,” they had some kind of affiliation and motivation.

    Even if I never used it again.

    The “fey” that you’ve described here — monsters essentially antithetical to life — might help explain why I’ve always favored undead as enemies. Come to think of it, I’ve used loads and loads of zombies.

    I also have a fondness for nomadic/tribal goblinoids. I like bugbears in particular (D&D’s depiction of bugbears, anyway).


    • Yeah, I think that’s why I like the undead as well; there’s not really any moral quandary in fighting against them. I think one of the things that my players have enjoyed is the subversion of Elves as being evil fey-kind who delighted so much in the torture of mortals that their civilization was more or less wiped from the earth. So, even when “elves” are a stock enemy, they tend to manifest as skeletons, zombies, wraiths and ghouls. I’m stoked about when I’ll finally be able to reveal the big bad as an elven vampire riding on a giant luminescent blue 12-horned stag.

      • Since my home group cut their teeth on 3e/4e’s serial escalation pseudo-narrative campaign style, I’ve started gently breaking them into dungeon crawls. Marching order came to them immediately, and a clear leader / decision-maker emerged pretty quickly as well.


      • I wish I could show you the maps of the dungeon and the city that my DM in the game I just joined is using. The city is bigger than those giant sprawling towns in Daggerfall and more well organized. Literally hundreds of buildings (maybe 1/5th of them keyed). The dungeon map is even bigger. His binder of handwritten notes to go along with the ginormous subterrene map of his dungeon make me self-conscious of just how much I half-ass my own game in terms of prep work 😮

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