Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?
IIt’s full of monsters, chaos and magic. But could it be that the real villain of Dungeons & Dragons is institutional racism? That’s the accusation leveled at the popular tabletop role-playing game, with many in the gaming community expressing discomfort with its historical portrayal of fantasy races such as orcs and “dark elves” as inherently stupid, brutal and diabolical.
D&D is in the spotlight like never before thanks to stranger things, which introduced the game to a new generation. And its notoriety will increase again next year with the release of a Dungeons & Dragons film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Thieves, starring Chris Pine and Hugh Grant. With a D&D TV series and other films planned, the ultimate goal of the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, is a multi-headed fantasy franchise – a sort of Marvel Extended Universe complete with swords and ball spells. of fire.
But to get there, Wizards of the Coast must first confront what many see as its problematic legacy around race and representation. The issue first surfaced in the summer of 2020 as Black Lives Matters protests unfolded across the world. In June, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that portraying orcs and drow — dark-skinned underground elves — as inherently evil was problematic.
“Throughout D&D’s 50-year history, some of the game’s peoples – orcs and drow being two of the prime examples – have been characterized as monstrous and diabolical, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how the real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated,” Wizards of the Coast said in a post on its website. “It’s just not fair, and it’s not something in which we believe.”
The statement was welcomed by gamers who have long felt disturbed by a fantasy universe where some individuals are inherently good and others evil. The question rumbled, however. Wizards of the Coast hopes to remedy this with its latest collection of D&D sources, Journeys through the Radiant Citadela compilation of adventures that draw on non-Western cultural traditions, released in the UK on Tuesday August 9th.
But some D&D fans say just holding the publisher to account isn’t enough. Players must also do their part. “Don’t just brush racism off like it’s ‘just a game,'” says D&D fan and co-author Paul Sturtevant. The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past. “We players are always looking for other people to take our hobby seriously, so we have to treat it seriously as well.”
Yet for others, Wizards of the Coast sucks all the fun out of fantasy role-playing. Orcs in D&D perform the same function as Stormtroopers in star wars, goes the argument. They are cannon fodder for players, who gain experience points and level up by overcoming opponents. Change that and you’ve changed the game. “It’s myopic and counterproductive,” says Christian Twiste, science fiction and fantasy author who runs the blog Confessions of a Conservative Atheist. “A game like D&D requires an adversary for players to compete against and ultimately win, especially when so much of the gameplay is spent fighting and killing monsters.”
Journeys through the Radiant Citadel creates the story as the first D&D textbook written entirely by minority authors. In doing so, he rejects a Eurocentric view that defined fantasy until Tolkien (who described the inhabitants of the far south and east of Middle-earth as swarthy and warlike). Within its pages are adventures inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead and the bazaars of the Middle East. The “Written In Blood” chapter meanwhile takes place in Godsbreath, a fantasy realm steeped in the black experience of the American South. “A lot of my family tree is rooted in the American South, so I immediately knew I wanted to draw inspiration from that aspect of the African diaspora,” the ‘Written In Blood’ author says. , Erin Roberts, in an interview on the official D&D website. . “I wanted to create a great area to explore…in the Southern Gothic tradition.”
Radiant Citadel is a welcome first step, say those who think the game needs to change. “It’s a wonderful thing that Wizards has hired more people of color to write for the official D&D books,” Sturtevant says. “It’s especially heartening that it looks like Wizards has hired these creators and given them a platform to write from their own experiences and create fantasy worlds that reflect their cultures with honesty and specificity.” The problem, he continues, is that ultimate control still rests with Wizards of the Coast and its parent company, board game and toy giant Hasbro. “The writers are brought in as freelance writers for one-time adventures, which means they’re not the ones making the editorial decisions about their work, or being able to change some of the game’s structural issues, like character types, which perpetuate racism.”
The conversation around race and the appropriation of non-Western cultural traditions are ones that D&D and the tabletop hobby have been able to skirt around until recently. D&D was a prodigious niche for most of its history; its fan base is mostly (but certainly not entirely) male and white. But the defense of role-playing games in Netflix stranger things and the rise of D&D podcasts such as critical role introduced a new audience to this world – many of whom were struck by the promotion of racial archetypes and the portrayal of orcs and drow as naturally deviant. The controversy is set to continue with the release next year of the aforementioned D&D movie, starring Chris Pine, Hugh Grant, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and Sophia Lillis.
Two years ago, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Wizards of the Coast hoped to avoid questions about race by changing these problematic rules regarding orcs and dark elves, so they were no longer inherently evil and/or stupid. For example, players choosing to play as a half-orc character no longer suffer an automatic intelligence penalty. He also rewrote racially insensitive material from older playbooks, including a segment in the Curse of Strahd adventure in which a Roma-like culture, the Vistani, was branded lazy and untrustworthy.
But while many players applauded these changes, others accused Wizards of the Coast of pandering to a subset of players. Christian Twiste argues that D&D is simply not the appropriate forum for discussing racial and class injustices. D&D is all about adventure and escapism, he says. What is there to gain by turning it into something else? “You can fight your way through a dungeon without worrying about killing an innocent orc. If the monsters are no longer bad, the players are no longer good. This does not increase the moral complexity of the game. It compromises the morality of the characters, making them something less than heroes defeating evil.
He fears that D&D will become unplayable. “I don’t see how the game will be much fun if your morally compromised, human-centered dwarf has to interrogate each monster to determine their cultural history and potential culpability for attacking the nearby village before engaging in battle. “says Twiste. “When the local innkeeper informs the party that the town was beset by kobolds [goblin-like monsters] nearby hills, are players supposed to do police training or something? Was it really the kobold that killed your daughter, or was it just a misunderstanding? It seems like these questions are much more suited to a college dorm or faculty lounge than a game where most people aspire to be heroes.
This argument, however, is disputed by others in the gaming world. “Taking representation seriously makes it a more inclusive hobby, of course,” says Gwendolyn Marshall. Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University and author of Ancestry and culture: an alternative to race in 5E (i.e. for the “fifth edition” of Dungeons & Dragons). “It also makes for better stories. Without more inclusion in the creative space, ideas become stale, the same storylines get recycled, and the hobby slowly dies… A lot of people complain about [Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel] just don’t want to do the work of thinking new thoughts and trying fancy new forms; they prefer to lazily fall back on the same few tired and problematic tropes.
What the conversation ultimately tells us is that D&D is no longer a secret affair. In the 80s and 90s, when it languished in nerd obscurity, no one cared whether or not D&D was politically correct. Most people had barely heard of it — other than when it was briefly, mistakenly, hilariously linked to devil worship in the United States during the short-lived “Satanic Panic.” But now the hobby has grown. In doing so, he was forced to wrestle with very adult questions about privilege and historical injustice. With Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, Wizards of the Coast have demonstrated that this is a debate they are willing to have. As is always the case in D&D, what happens next is up to the players.
“Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel” is released in the UK on August 8