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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons' Racial Reckoning Is Long Overdue

Dungeons & Dragons is the oldest and most popular tabletop role-playing game in the world. As its popularity has soared, so has its player base. It’s a game that was dominated by white dudes for decades and, because of that, it’s got some baggage. Some of its concepts—evil races, descriptions of orcs and half-orcs that mirror racist stereotypes, and the concept of racial disadvantages—don’t make sense anymore in a modern context. The game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WotC), knows that and is trying to move Dungeons & Dragons into the future. But many of its efforts seem half-hearted, and a lot of the work of making Dungeons & Dragons more inclusive has fallen to its fans.

“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 characterized 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 blog post in June. “That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”

In its post, WotC detailed the changes it planned to make to Dungeons & Dragons. This included overhauling the way its books talked about orcs, drow, and other “evil” races, updating past books like Curse of Strahd with an eye to removing racially charged language and stereotypes, releasing new rules that deemphasize racial negatives during character construction, hiring sensitivity readers, and hiring a more diverse pool of freelance writers and artists.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Half-Measures

WotC is five months into its quest to diversify Dungeons & Dragons, and the results are a mixed bag. On November 17, WotC released Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything—a book of rules that has new spells, new items, new character classes, and the much-teased rules that allow players to customize their character’s origin. Curse of Strahd was stealth-edited on D&D Beyond, and republished as Curse of Strahd Revamped. WotC has hosted several roundtable discussions among fans and community leaders about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the tabletop role-playing space.

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Much of this is good work, especially the roundtable discussions. The Daniel Kwan-led panel dissecting the harm Asian racial stereotypes perpetuated by modules published under the Oriental Adventures label is particularly good. “Assuming positive intent, Oriental Adventures and similar products aren’t written with racist or malicious intent, but rather through the misguided appreciation of cultural tropes,” Kwan says. “The resulting content lacks nuance, context, and can be harmful when used to create an ‘other’ in a product that was originally designed to serve as an escapist fantasy for white people.”

The Dungeons & Dragons roundtables have been excellent, and they highlight the community-led efforts to make  role-playing games more inclusive. Less great have been WotC’s revisions and updates to its old material. Curse of Strahd Revamped is an excellent example of this disconnect. During a Curse of Strahd campaign, players are helped and hindered by the Vistani. As written, the Vistani are itinerant people who live in elaborate wagons, wear bright clothing, enjoy drinking, and try to scam the players every chance they get. Most, but not all, work for Strahd, the campaign’s principal villain. The Vistani are a paper-thin Romani stereotype, and WotC promised to update Curse of Strahd with the help of a Romani consultant. So what did they change or remove?

The original publication included the sentence “Although they can seem lazy and irresponsible to outsiders, the Vistani are serious people, quick to act when their lives or traditions are threatened.” The revised edition removed the lines about laziness and irresponsibility. The revised edition also removed a single use of the word “vardo” to describe Vistani wagons, a direct reference to Romani.

That’s the bulk of the changes to the Vistani in the revised Curse of Strahd. Aside from a few lines pulled, their characterization is largely the same. They still lay curses on people, use a power called the “Evil Eye,” get drunk in scripted scenes, and attempt to con the players out of their fortune. A few overtly offensive lines were changed, but the Vistani remain much as they were—a thinly veiled Romani stereotype.

It would be hard to remove or update the Vistani as presented without completely rewriting the entire Curse of Strahd campaign. This is a problem that permeates much of Dungeons & Dragons. Stereotypes, regressive ideas about race and thoughtless caricatures are baked into the setting. WotC appears to be trying to change things, but it keeps stumbling, and it’s often the fans who pick up the pieces. Reddit and other online forums contain dozens of revisions of the Vistani and the half-orc race, and they revised the concept of race and ancestry in D&D entirely.

Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e is a 70-page book of alternative rules written by D&D players that’s meant to pull the game away from racial essentialism. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, WtC’s new book that launches with alternatives to using race, opens with a page and a half that outlines new rules for using races. “The new supplemental rules in Tasha’s are nice in that they encourage more player choice and freedom in the character-creation process. However, players and DMs have been encouraged to change rules as they see fit for a long time in D&D publications—it’s the nature of the game,” Kwan says. “While players are now explicitly encouraged to swap ability score bonuses and languages in Tasha’s, this really doesn’t address the root problem—essentialism in how D&D races are portrayed. They simply tell players and DMs to ignore the problems without actually solving them.”

The view from inside the company isn’t great either. “I did some limited work for WotC on a project under the vast D&D umbrella in very early 2020. I cannot talk about the project directly or my experience in depth because of a strict NDA. What I will say is that, in my limited experience working with the company, my manager on that project fought for my ideas and listened to my critiques, and in fact wanted to work with me because of my prior criticisms of the company and its products,” Austin Walker says. Walker is the host of Waypoint Radio and Friends at the Table, a podcast where he plays tabletop role-playing games and discusses world-building with his good friends. “Legacy issues with D&D as a franchise and WotC as a company presented innate roadblocks towards addressing these problems, and I was often frustrated as I saw the limits of ‘reforming’ the franchise's relationship with race. Because of this, I would not choose to work with the company again in the near future.”

According to Walker, racial essentialism is built into D&D’s DNA, and its recent push for a racial reckoning is a long time coming. “Inside the space of nerd hobbies, D&D’s mainstreamification has come late,” Walker says.

Comic books are the basis for the biggest movie franchises in the world. Video games are a billion-dollar industry. Fantasy fiction like Game of Thrones dominates television. But tabletop role-playing games didn’t enter the mainstream until a few years ago. Stranger Things aired in 2016, and Critical Role, a web show where voice actors play D&D, began in 2015. These two shows, more than anything else, catapulted D&D into the mainstream. It still held on to a lot of baggage from its past when it broke big.

WotC is trying to make changes, but it often feels like lip service. Walker read the list of proposed changes and said to himself, “‘All of these are probably the right decisions, and also, I don’t think any of this is proactive or deep enough to address core fundamental problems and expectations,” he said. “It’s a difficult problem, I get it … I don’t think you can bowdlerize what was already there and say, ‘We’re gonna drop the slurs, we’re gonna make the yellow face a little less yellow.’ I don’t think you can remaster away racism. I think that’s a really difficult prospect, but it’s one that they should take head-on. But also, it’s hard to do that because you need people on the team who are as diverse as the world you want to represent.”

“No More Evil Races”

Other people of color have come away from working with WotC with a bad taste in their mouth. Orion Black was a freelancer who worked on contract for WotC from November 2019 until the summer of 2020. Like Walker, Black had a bad experience. Contractors at WotC are generally renewed in blocks. Even though they’d worked on several projects, they knew toward the end of summer that they weren’t coming back.

In a June meeting, Black says they watched someone else pitch a project they had created. “It was the most infuriating thing,” Black says. “It was so surreal because all of the ideas that I came up with I’d talked about extensively with other people. I had made documents. Jeremy Crawford [D&D’s lead designer] starts talking about a new product they’re coming out with, and it’s almost word-for-word stuff from my email.”

Watching their idea get pitched in a meeting was devastating. “That was one of the key things I was using to try to keep my job,” Black says. “The thing I thought was my ticket gets thrown back in my face as something that’s very valuable to them and they want to move forward with it, but I get left behind and sent back to poverty. That broke me.”

Black had been toying with the idea of releasing a statement about their time at WotC, but didn’t want to burn bridges. After the meeting, Black decided not to stay silent. They released a statement on July 4, 2020 detailing their unpleasant experience. WotC apologized in a Tweet.

Black said they were often approached by leadership to help them make revisions to problematic content. “Everybody would nod and say ‘that’s cool,’” Black says. “And leadership didn’t write it down. That’s how everything worked. It was very much ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and they’d walk away.”

“My worst example was the half-orcs,” says Black. “If you read the half-orc section from The Player’s Handbook, it uses language that is nearly one to one with language specifically used against inbreeding between black people and people of color. It sounds like I’m reading something about a black and white person from 1945.”

“Their human blood gives them an edge over their full-blooded orc rivals,” The Player’s Handbook says of the half-orcs. “Half-orcs’ grayish pigmentation, sloping foreheads, jutting jaws, prominent teeth, and towering builds make their orcish heritage plain for all to see.”

D&D is full of these stereotypes. As Walker said, The Monster Manual, Curse of Strahd, and Tomb Of Annihilation—even in their revised forms—are full of thinly veiled racial stereotypes. “Stereotypes are an act of creating category-level knowledge based on our desires for simplicity and to differentiate individuals from different categories in our mind,” Kwan says. “However, these practices can distort perceptions and create biases regarding the real-world counterparts to these fantasy creations.”

According to Walker, these stereotypes create a shortcut for drama and conflict in a D&D game. “The procedures that you undertake while playing a game help to create meaning,” he says. “Content and aesthetic do that too, but we can not underestimate the degree to which the verbs a player uses—the way in which they are incentivized to perform certain behaviors both through reward structures, but also just through the availability of action—produces meaning.”

“D&D fifth edition is a game about killing people,” he says. “I believe that to address the question of evil races, you need to revisit that as a core design element. Because dungeon masters around the world want a reason to kick in the door and kill people. That design requires antagonists for whom the solution of killing makes sense. When you have an evil race, that’s very easy to do. I don’t know that putting out a side book that says, ‘Oh, there’s no more evil races,’ is going to change the play.”

Teenage Power Fantasies Left to Fester

Black says that working on D&D was like attempting to make changes to a fundamentalist religion. “On a business level, Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins [D&D’s senior story designer] make all the decisions,” they say. “Those two praise this god of D&D, and the image they have of this god is very specific and they can not anger this god. Anything they can change, they have to work through their concept of faith and do some mental gymnastics.”

Crawford is gay and has fought to make sure men are represented in varied forms in D&D’s books. “This doesn’t interfere with the doctrine of D&D,” Black says. “It doesn’t interfere with the lore, because nothing that exists already has been changed. You’re not saying ‘no’ to anything that existed prior.”

Black says that Perkins and Crawford, in the real world, are ethical people who know right from wrong. “They know that things in D&D, if you take them out of that specific context, are wrong,” they say. “But because it’s inside of D&D, they will not touch it. Because, in that world, that’s the way things are, and it has to be right because it’s the deity’s world.”

Black, like Walker, identified the rules and structure of D&D as fundamental to the problem. “There is this rule structure that is for this white cis shitty guy, a power fantasy that is connected directly to the stereotypes that are a problem,” they say. “They exist so that this white guy, who thinks he’s not a jock, can look at every race and gender group in their high school, draw them into a character, and go ‘I rule this world.’ And that’s what really hasn't changed. They think that even changing the things that are wrong would be an affront to that. That singular thing is so important, even though they continue to drift farther and farther away from that type of thinking. It’s weird as hell.”

For people who love D&D but want it to change, promises to look at the alignment system and rework “evil races” often feel like one step forward and two steps back. The issue is complicated and fraught. It’s tied into a history of racial stereotypes and nerd power fantasies. But the conversions are happening, and the change is often led by the community. “I think more thought needs to be put into how we communicate the behavior of monsters, ‘races,’ and more,” Kwan says. “Belief systems and cultures are complex, as are the behavior of creatures in nature! While I welcome the effort that Wizards is making, I think it’s also important for them to introduce new ways of characterizing the entities that players encounter in their stories.”

The loudest voices criticizing D&D right now are doing it out of love. They don’t want to see it destroyed, they want it to change with the times. “If what I say has any impact on changing the things that I fought so hard for, that got ignored or pushed aside, if that can go away just a little bit, it’ll be worth it,” Black says.

Walker thinks D&D is an important entry point for tabletop role-playing but hopes it will push people to seek out other forms. “D&D crossed over, but role-playing games didn’t,” he said. “The space is incredibly vibrant right now. It’s better than it’s ever been. To its credit, part of that is that D&D is a great entryway into the hobby for many people. I just wish more people looked outside of it to see what the solutions for those problems were.”

Wizards of the Coast declined to provide any comment on this story and pointed me to its blog posts on the subject.

Correction 01/04/21 3:00pm EST: This story has been updated to clarify that while D&D Beyond distributes content owned by Wizard of the Coast, the site itself is not owned or managed by WoTC.

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