The Peculiar Case of D&D’s Built-In Prejudices

In the Fifth Edition books, you can really see a push to be more inclusive. Heroes of every ethnicity stand proud or duke it out with terrible beasts on the pages of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. The Player’s Handbook even explicitly acknowledges non-binary genders. Meanwhile, it’s been a while since official artwork portrayed female heroes wearing chainmail bikinis and bondage outfits (this is still a huge problem in third party fantasy miniatures, however).

This is all, of course, a great thing. There is most certainly still a long way to go before the roleplaying community as a whole is a safe and inclusive environment for all, but as the first among rpgs D&D can do a great deal to push that worthy agenda.

In the fictional worlds of D&D, however, things are not quite as rosy. Today I want to talk about an odd peculiarity of the game. To wit, certain races and cultures in the game really don’t get the respectful treatment they deserve.


Let’s start with the big one. It’s all in that word: “halflings”. It really drives me mad! So much so that I’m grinding my teeth just over using it as a subheading in this article. But I have to, to provide the necessary context.

Halfling was another name given to hobbits in the works of JRR Tolkien. It was inherited by the race in D&D because “hobbit” could not be used for obvious legal reasons. The chain of events makes sense, and the word “halfling” does a good job of evoking what the race is.

But, I ask you to think about what this word actually means. Let’s break it down into its constituent parts:


  1. being one of two equal or approximately equal parts of a divisible whole.
  2. being half or about half of anything in degree, amount, length, etc.
  3. partial or incomplete.

Note: I only included the most useful definitions for this context.

There’s no ambiguity here. Half means one half of a whole. Smaller than. Lesser.


  1. A suffix of nouns, often pejorative, denoting one concerned with (hireling; underling), or diminutive ( princeling; duckling).

I think we can be confident that in this case, the suffix is being used purely in the diminutive sense. The meaning, once again, is essentially “less than whole”.

It’s worth noting also that halfling is derived from the Scots “hauflin“, which alternately means either ” A half-grown boy, adolescent youth; often applied to a lad engaged in farm work” or “a half-witted person”.

So, from all this we can derive that halflings are called halflings because they are half the size of a human, they are less than a human, they are not whole.

Let that sink in for a moment. Can you possibly imagine a single scenario where a race of people would choose a name for themselves which implied they were somehow substandard compared to other races? It seems ludicrous.

The Forgotten Realms sort of resolved this, but not really, by giving halflings an alternative name: the Hin. However, it was always treated as just another option, not the default. And it seems to be a detail the significance of which has faded in any case—despite the Realms being the official setting of Fifth Edition, no mention of this fact appears in the Player’s Handbook.

The only logical context for the word “halfling” is as a racial slur. The Hin should show outrage any time someone refers to them as a “halfling” within their hearing. They do in my games.

In your own settings, I encourage you to invent your own name for this race!


This is a similar case. We already know “-ling” is diminutive, so that’s our first red flag. But what about “tief”? I suspect this comes from the German “tief”, meaning “deep” or “low”, in reference to their fiendish origins.

Before the fourth edition, tieflings were the children of humans and fiends. They were extremely rare half-blooded folk, not a race unto themselves. Fifth Edition has reverted to this interpretation of the tiefling. While the name does reflect the prejudice of other races, at least it fits their position in the lore of the game.

If you play fourth edition, then bear in mind that tieflings have been re-purposed into a whole race, not just infernal-blooded descendents of humans. Why should a proud people choose a name for their race that implies in any way that they are less than whole? That suffix “-ling” really has to go.


We’re moving on from races now. Barbarians are perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves in the game, and it all stems from that word choice. Let’s look at the definition:


  1. a person in a savage, primitive state; uncivilized person.
  2. a person without culture, refinement, or education.
  3. (loosely) a foreigner.

Have you ever considered how odd it is that the name of every other class in the game says something about a character’s skill set, while all “barbarian” says about your character is that they’re an outsider and a frothing loon?

The implications of a character being a barbarian matter, too: A barbarian is by definition “uncivilised”, coming from a “savage” tribe. The entire flavour text of the Player’s Handbook assumes this. The skill choices available to the class are based on it. One of their two archetypes essentially enforces it.

But where is it written in the laws that govern this world, the fantasy world, or any world, that the only people capable of flying into a berserk rage are people from the barbarian tribes? Surely there’s conceptual room for a knight with a terrible fury burning within? There must be potential in any warrior to stoke the fires of their rage?

Barbarian is also an unfortunate term which really ought to be retired in any context. If you call someone a barbarian, you’re saying they’re uncivilised, and in so doing you’re placing your own sense of civility above their own cultural beliefs. “Barbarian” is therefore yet another word that implies “less than”.

There is a far better word to describe what this class is and what it does, all while removing the negative connotations and opening the class up to wider conceptual possibilities.

Call it a Berserker.

Well, those are the three big ones. Can you think of any I missed? Let me know in the comments!