Monday, June 20, 2022

Demihumans are a Social Construct

Many folks have leveled the criticism (correctly) that non-human player options in D&D and its lookalikes are mostly humans with accents and funny hats. Solutions to this have been posited: removal of non-human player options, making everyone human but different species of human, or the much more labor-intensive method of applying major mechanical changes. I've dabbled in all three of these at some point or another and all have their place.

So here's a thought experiment to add to the pile: the title of the blogpost.

Before I get started, I'm going to establish a baseline premise. This is all within Generic Vernacular Fantasy D&D Land. There is a monarch, a military aristocracy, a church, and everyone else. Society is broadly patriarchal. There are old pagan gods worshiped out there in the hills and forests. There used to be an empire, or maybe it's still around and just too far away to matter. Ruins of bygone civilizations filled with monsters are everywhere. There are distant lands of which little is known and most of that is either misrepresentative or outright lies. Gunpowder and the printing press are Not Appearing In This Film Just Yet. It's theme-park medieval and that's all it needs to be for right now.


  • Freed from the obligations of the land-liege system; may own land in common among themselves as equivalent to a barony. Lands so held are not subject to marriage or succession-based changes in ownership
  •  Freed from military obligations, at cost of additional taxation.
  • Permitted to maintain heterodox religious practices, on grounds that such practices are not among those banned by the Council of Taragon. Accepting official baptism within the church nullifies this privilege.
  •  May not gain or be given aristocratic title, church office, or government position.
  • Have no specialized forms of address.



  • There are a limited number of positions allotted for elves - they are, in essence, a social Veblen good.
  • These positions are either purchased or gifted, and limited to a subset of the nobility.
  • May hold political, military, or church office, though most elves will give up these when assuming their position - it is considered unseemly for an elf to labor at anything. If they so desire, they may appoint a non-elf in their stead.
  • Few individuals will remain elves for their entire lives - either by their own choice or from lack of funds.
  • The church is ambivalent-to-hostile regarding elves, finding their idle pleasure-seeking to be fertile ground for sin and moral dissolution.
  • Among the lower classes those who live as elves but who are unable to afford the position (or the exemption fees for sumptuary laws), are derisively called "half-elves" and are commonly the targets of contempt and often violence.
  • Elves are referred to only by title and name; it is a grave social offense to use any pronomials. The appropriate address is chatelier / chatelaine (formal), or affixing preem / pree to their chosen name (informal, by express permission only). "This one" and "that one" are approved for convenience.



  • Are treated as men in regards to their rights and obligations under the law, regardless of sex.
  • Treated as free members of the third estate, and may own property of their own, but may not serve as liege-lord to any non-dwarven tenants
  • May be granted noble office, though with the same restrictions.
  • Inheritance of property is by election, and not limited to family lines.
  • The church facilitates a separate set of sacraments for dwarves, and will permit participation in general services without
  • All dwarves take the praenomen "Urist" upon their dedication, in addition to a chosen individual cognomen.
  • All dwarves, regardless of sex, use the pronomial set *khé* / *khén* / *khénnu*



  • Limited to times of open warfare. No one may live as an orc during peacetime.
  • The number of orcs is capped at a percentage of a lord's total levied forces.
  • Any adult might become an orc, regardless of sex.
  • Orcs make no distinction between station of birth, recognizing only deeds in combat as the basis for their hierarchies.
  • Are freed from the restrictions of the Truce of Gods, and accordingly have no right to imprisonment, trial, or ransom if captured by the enemy.
  • Orcs may take a doubleshare of booty recovered from battle.
  • Service as an orc typically comes with significant financial recompense given to the chosen's non-orc family - debt forgiveness being the most common.
  • May not receive any sacraments of the church.



  • Those who live as goblins live in a precarious position outside of the social hierarchy entirely. They are freed from all obligations of law or propriety, but likewise have no protection under the law. They may go where they wish, speak as they wish, act as they wish, and there is nothing - officially - that anyone can do about it. Unofficially, there is usually a mob involved. To avoid such violence, goblins usually band together in large groups and form their own living spaces, or forge close bonds with those who might offer them protection.
  • Goblins have no specialized forms of address beyond what they with for themselves.


  1. This draft has been sitting around for ages.

    The most important takeaway is that "what is the church's view on X fantasy thing" is very good fodder for writing and people don't do it nearly enough. Medieval theologians loved them some bonkers philosophical dilemmas.

  2. I really liked this when I first read it! but the more I dwelled on it the less it satisfied me, largely because it treats "social constructs" as something to be opted into. maybe you're pressured into becoming an orc by your financial situation, sure, but at the end of the day these aren't "social constructs" (in the way that irl race/class/gender are social constructs) but vocations, and vocations in a very modern sense to boot. the fact that they're all legally codified too doesn't help matters here-- these are legal categories, not social constructs😅

    (of course there's diverse examples of social categories that are or were-- at least ostensibly-- "opt-in," but treating them purely as such misses the more complex underpinnings at play.)

    fantastic premise, but it really just leaves me asking: what are the SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS of demihumans? is an orc recognizable in public as such on its day off, how do humans respond to it? what could a dwarf reasonably expect if khé rolls into a Holbytla settlement seeking shelter? (what if khé're AFAB?)

    the church's approach to demihumans honestly feels like the least interesting possible angle of approach, not to mention the least gameable.

    1. All fair points! This was very much a "shove this draft out the door it's been sitting around forever" situation so it is not nearly as polished as it could have been. I don't know if I will return to it but folks are certainly free to iterate on it.

    2. legit, legit! I might take you up on that 🤔

    3. "is an orc recognizable in public as such on its day off, how do humans respond to it?"
      I can confidently say yes, recognizable most of the time if we're talking social constructs. An officially sanctioned violence-user with special financial privileges that lives unrestrained by the normal law as part of a small, limited-number elite? That recognizes status based on acts of brutality committed, and lives in a constant warfare mindset? We have those already where I live, and any minority in a small town knows how to recognize them. How to respond depends greatly on what restrictions and penalties apply to orc violence against noncombatants.

  3. All dwarves take the praenomen "Urist" upon their dedication,
    Not sure if I should have laughed here, but I did.

    I definitely have to chime in with Crowbar--this is an interesting idea that needs a little more iteration from this point to work.

  4. I like this very much! I've seen goblinism treated as a communicable disease, but a social caste is new to me (unless you count Wells' Morlocks--which may have been the first stab at this conceit).
    It's all too easy to see society encourage and foster orcishness, but rare to see officially sanctioned rules. The de-orkification process after armistice can't be easy, and in fact the natures of social institutions and violence makes it likely an influential orc lobby works to sustain perpetual wars.

  5. I really like this - especially the goblins - but I'm with Crowbar that it feels too vocation-like. I like the social, legal, and religious restrictions and expectations placed on each of them, but, for me, it just seems to be too easy to switch between them (especially for elves and orcs).

    My change would be to model it more closely on an explicit caste system where one's demihuman status is pretty much always heritable, and where there is *enormous* societal pressure to conform to your family's demihuman status. Maybe one can *legally* break out of it - for example, upper bourgeoisie humans becoming rich enough to purchase official legal and religious status (Nobles of the Robe) - but unless no one knows who your parents were or you did some intense propogandizing saying that your great-grandfather was actually a famous elf, they probably won't ever truly accept you. But maybe it'll get better. Maybe if you prove to be a truly legendary warrior, they'll start to accept you and your descendants as orcs (often with the assumption that you must secretly have a great orc ancestor).

    And I think, if you were to use this setting, I think it'd be interesting to plop you down in the middle of a time where these castes are fragile and breaking down a little bit - more elven titles than ever are being sold off by a financially destitute monarchy, the size of the orcish caste has become a threat to the stability of the state so there's a push to "humanize" the most respectable of them (perhaps like the waves of emancipation and citizenship in the Haitian Revolution).

  6. This is super interesting and I was not expecting how *dark* it got. This line in particular stays with me "Limited to times of open warfare. No one may live as an orc during peacetime". There is so much in that.

    I think people may be underestimating the power of external perception when they suggest that this looks like an 'opt in/vocation like' situation. If the dominate power decides that you are an 'elf/orc/goblin etc...' then you are one. Good luck trying to convince anyone otherwise. You can get with the program and do what is expected of you or starve.