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Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?

Thanks to ‘Stranger Things’, D&D is getting far more attention – but the spotlight is forcing bosses and players to reckon with the game's problematic legacy around race and representation, says Ed Power. While some welcome a new more inclusive chapter, others worry a focus on race could suck the fun out of it

Saturday 06 August 2022 06:30 BST
‘Stranger Things’ has introduced a younger generation to the popular tabletop roleplaying game
‘Stranger Things’ has introduced a younger generation to the popular tabletop roleplaying game (Courtesy of Netflix)

It is full of monsters, mayhem and magic. But could it be that the true villain in Dungeons & Dragons is institutional racism? That is the accusation directed at the popular tabletop role-playing game, with many in the gaming community expressing unease over its historical portrayal of fantasy races such as orcs and “dark elves” as inherently stupid, brutish and evil.

D&D is in the spotlight as never before thanks to Stranger Things, which has introduced the game to a new generation. And its profile will rise further next year with the release of a Dungeons & Dragons film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine and Hugh Grant. With a D&D television series and further movies planned, the ultimate goal of the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, is a multi-headed fantasy franchise – a sort of Marvel Expanded Universe with swords and fireball spells.

But to achieve this, Wizards of the Coast must first confront what many see as its problematic legacy around race and representation. The issue first reared its head in earnest in the summer of 2020 as Black Lives Matters protests took place across the world. That June, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that depicting orcs and drow – subterranean elves with dusky skin – as intrinsically wicked was problematic.

“Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game – orcs and drow being two of the prime examples – have been characterised as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated,” Wizards of the Coast said in a message posted to its website. “That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”

The statement was welcomed by those players who have long felt perturbed with a fantasy universe where certain individuals are innately good and others bad. The issue has rumbled on, however. Wizards of the Coast hopes to go some way towards addressing it with its latest collection of D&D source material, Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, a compilation of adventures that draw on non-Western cultural traditions, published in the UK on Tuesday 9 August.

But some D&D fans say it isn’t enough to hold the publisher to account. Players must also do their bit. “Don’t just hand-wave racism away, as if it’s ‘just a game,’” says Paul Sturtevant, a D&D fan and co-author of The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past. “We gamers are always looking for others to take our hobby seriously so we should treat it seriously too.”

Yet to others, Wizards of the Coast is sucking all the fun out of fantasy roleplaying. Orcs in D&D fulfil the same function as Stormtroopers in Star Wars, goes the argument. They are cannon fodder for the players, who gain experience points and level up by overcoming adversaries. Change that and you’ve changed the game. “It’s short-sighted and counter-productive,” says Christian Twiste, a science fiction and fantasy author who runs the blog Confessions of a Conservative Atheist. “A game like D&D requires an adversary for the players to face off against and ultimately defeat, especially when much of the gameplay is devoted to fighting and killing monsters.”

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel creates history as the first D&D manual written entirely by authors from minority backgrounds. In so doing, it rejects a Eurocentric vision that has defined fantasy back to Tolkien (who described the inhabits of the far south and east of Middle Earth as swarthy and warlike). Within its pages are adventures inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead and Middle Eastern bazaars. The chapter “Written In Blood” is meanwhile set in Godsbreath, a fantasy kingdom steeped in the Black experience of the American South. “Much of my family tree is rooted in the South of the United States so I immediately knew that I wanted to draw from that aspect of the African diaspora,” said “Written In Blood” author Erin Roberts in an interview on the official D&D website. “I wanted to create a big region to explore… in the Southern Gothic tradition.”

‘Dungeons & Dragons’ was a critical flop when it was released in cinemas in 2000, but the future of the franchise could be bright (Rex Features)

Radiant Citadel is a welcome first step, say those who feel that the game needs to change. “It’s a wonderful thing that Wizards has been hiring more people of colour to write for D&D’s official books,” says Sturtevant. “It’s especially encouraging that it seems that 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 corporate parent, boardgame and toy giant Hasbro. “Writers are brought on as freelance writers for one-off adventures, which means they aren’t the ones making editorial decisions about their work, or in a position to change some of the structural problems in the game, like character types, that perpetuate racism.”

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The conversation around race and the appropriation of non-Western cultural traditions are ones around which D&D and the tabletop hobby have been able to skirt until recently. D&D was stupendously niche for most of its history; its fanbase predominantly (though, certainly not entirely) male and white. But the championing of role-playing games in Netflix’s Stranger Things and the rise of D&D podcasts such as Critical Role have introduced a new audience to this world – many of whom were struck by the promotion of racial archetypes and the presentation of orcs and drow as naturally deviant. The controversy is likely to continue with next year’s release 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 head off questions about race by tweaking those problematic rules around orcs and dark elves, so that they were no longer innately evil and/or stupid. For instance, gamers choosing to play as a half-orc character no long suffer an automatic penalty to intelligence. It also rewrote racially insensitive material from past gamebooks, including a segment in the Curse of Strahd adventure in which a Roma-like culture, the Vistani, was characterised as lazy and untrustworthy.

Batiri Goblins attend the Wizards of the Coast introduction to the new Dungeons & Dragons storyline, ‘Tomb of Annihilation’, during a live streaming event in 2017 (Getty)

But if many players have cheered these changes, others have accused Wizards of the Coast of pandering to a subset of players. Christian Twiste argues that D&D simply is not the appropriate forum to discuss racial and class injustices. D&D is about adventure and escapism, he says. What is to be gained from turning it into something else? “You can hack and slash your way through a dungeon without worrying whether you might have slain an innocent orc. If the monsters are no longer evil, however, the players are no longer good. It doesn’t increase the moral complexity of the game. It compromises the morality of the characters, making them something less than heroes vanquishing evil.”

He is concerned that D&D may become unplayable. “I can’t see how the game will be much fun if your morally compromised, human-centric dwarf has to question every monster to determine their cultural history and potential culpability for raiding the neighbouring village before engaging in battle,” says Twiste. “When the local innkeeper informs the party the town was beset by kobolds [goblin-like monsters] from the nearby hills, are the players supposed to do a police lineup or something? Is this really the kobold that killed your daughter, or perhaps it was just a misunderstanding? It seems like these questions are far more suited to a college dorm room or faculty lounge than a game where most people are aspiring to be heroes.”

Without more inclusion in the creative space, ideas get stale, the same plots get recycled, and the hobby slowly dies

Gwendolyn Marshall, author of ‘Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5E'

That argument is, however, disputed by others in the gaming world. “Taking representation seriously makes for a more inclusive hobby, to be sure,” says Gwendolyn Marshall. Associate professor of philosophy at Florida International University and author of Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5E (that is, for the “fifth edition” of Dungeons & Dragons). “It also makes for better stories. Without more inclusion in the creative space, ideas get stale, the same plots get recycled, and the hobby slowly dies… A lot of the folks complaining about [Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel] simply don’t want to do the work of thinking new thoughts and trying out new forms of fantasy; they would rather fall back lazily on the same few tired, and problematic, tropes.”

What the conversation ultimately tells us is that D&D is no longer an under-the-radar affair. In the Eighties and Nineties, when it languished in nerdish obscurity, nobody cared whether or not D&D was politically correct. Most people had barely heard of it – apart from when it was briefly, erroneously, hilariously linked to devil worship in the US during the short-lived “Satanic Panic”. But now the hobby has grown up. In so doing, it has been forced to wrestle with some very adult questions concerning privilege and historic injustice. With Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, Wizards of the Coast has demonstrated that this is a debate it is prepared to have. As is always the case in D&D, what happens next is up to the players.

‘Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel’ is published in the UK on 8 August

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