lIt is full of monsters, chaos and magic. But could it be that the real villain in Dungeons & Dragons is institutional racism? That’s the accusation directed at the popular tabletop role-playing game, with many in the gaming community expressing unease with the historical portrayal of fantasy races like orcs and “dark elves” as inherently stupid, brutal and evil.
D&D is in the spotlight like never before thanks to Weird stuff, who introduced the game to a new generation. And next year the profile will rise further with the release of a Dungeons & Dragons movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor 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-part fantasy franchise – a sort of Marvel Expanded Universe with swords and fireball spells.
But to achieve this, Wizards of the Coast must first come to terms with what many see as its problematic legacy around race and representation. The problem first surfaced in the summer of 2020 when Black Lives Matters protests took place around the world. In June, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that portraying orcs and drow — dark-skinned underground elves — as intrinsically evil.
“Throughout D&D’s 50-year history, some peoples in the game — orcs and drow being two of the most significant examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that painfully recall how ethnic groups are and are becoming in the real world. still denigrated,” Wizards of the Coast said in a post on 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 disturbed by a fantasy universe where certain individuals are naturally good and others evil. However, the issue has continued to rumble. Wizards of the Coast hopes to address the issue somewhat with its latest collection of D&D source material, Traveling through the radiant citadela compilation of adventures based on non-western cultural traditions, published in the UK on Tuesday 9th August.
But some D&D fans say it’s not enough to hold the publisher accountable. Players must also do their part. “Don’t just throw racism away by hand, like it’s ‘just a game,'” said Paul Sturtevant, a D&D fan and co-author of The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Are Abusing the Medieval Past. “We gamers are always looking for others to take our hobby seriously, so we have to take it seriously.”
But 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 the players, who collect experience points and level up by beating opponents. Change that and you’ve changed the game. “It’s shortsighted and counterproductive,” said Christian Twiste, a science fiction and fantasy author who runs the blog. Confessions of a Conservative Atheist. “A game like D&D requires an opponent for the players to face and ultimately defeat, especially when much of the gameplay is devoted to fighting and killing monsters.”
Traveling through the radiant citadel makes history as the first D&D manual written entirely by minority authors. In doing so, it rejects a Eurocentric vision that traces the fantasy back to Tolkien (who described the inhabitants of the far south and east of Middle Earth as dark and warlike). The pages feature adventures inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead and Middle Eastern bazaars. The “Written In Blood” chapter, meanwhile, takes place in Godsbreath, an fantasy steeped in the Black experience of the American South. “Much of my family tree is rooted in the Southern United States, so I knew right away that I wanted to draw on that aspect of the African diaspora,” said author Erin Roberts of “Written In Blood” in an interview on the official website. D&D website . “I wanted to create a large region to explore…in the Southern Gothic tradition.”
Radiant Citadel is a welcome first step, say those who believe the game needs to change. “It’s great that Wizards has hired more people of color to write for D&D’s official books,” said Sturtevant. “It’s especially encouraging that it appears Wizards hired these creators and gave them a platform to write from their own experiences and create fantasy worlds that honestly and specifically reflect their cultures.” 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. “Writers are brought in as freelance writers for one-off adventures, meaning they aren’t the ones making editorial decisions about their work, or in a position to change some of the structural issues in the game, such as character types, that persist. racism.”
The conversation about race and the appropriation of non-Western cultural traditions are issues that D&D and the table hobby have been able to ignore until recently. D&D has been a great niche for most of its history; its fan base is predominantly (though, by no means entirely) male and white. But championing role-playing games in Netflix’s Weird stuff and the rise of D&D podcasts like Important 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 the release of the aforementioned D&D film next year, 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 avert questions about race by changing those problematic rules surrounding orcs and dark elves so that they were no longer inherently evil and/or stupid. For example, gamers who choose to play as a half-orc character will no longer be automatically penalized for intelligence. It also rewrote racially insensitive material from previous gamebooks, including a segment in the Curse of Strahd adventure in which a Roma-like culture, the Vistani, was characterized as lazy and unreliable.
But if many players have welcomed these changes, others have accused Wizards of the Coast of giving in to a subset of players. Christian Twiste argues that D&D is simply not the right forum to discuss racial and class injustice. D&D is about adventure and escapism, he says. What is there to gain by making it something else? “You can hack and slash your way through a dungeon without worrying about killing an innocent orc. However, when the monsters are no longer bad, 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 slightly less than heroes who conquer evil.”
He is afraid that D&D will become unplayable. “I can’t see how much fun the game will be if you have to question morally compromised, human-oriented dwarf each monster to determine their cultural history and possible guilt for raiding the neighboring village before going into battle,” Twiste says. “When the local innkeeper informs the party, the town was infested with kobolds [goblin-like monsters] from the nearby hills, do the players have to do a police lineup or something? Is this really the goblin that killed your daughter, or maybe it was just a misunderstanding? It seems that these questions are much more appropriate for a dorm room or a faculty lounge than for a game where most people aspire to become heroes.”
However, that argument is disputed by others in the gaming world. “Taking representation seriously makes for a more inclusive hobby, that’s for sure,” says Gwendolyn Marshall. Associate professor of philosophy at Florida International University and author of: Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Racing 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 old, the same lots are recycled and the hobby slowly dies out… Many of the people who complain about [Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel] just don’t want to do the work of coming up with new thoughts and trying out new forms of fantasy; they would rather lazily fall back 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 1980s and 1990s, when it languished in geek oblivion, no one cared whether D&D was politically correct or not. Most people had barely heard of it – except when it was briefly, erroneously, hilariously linked to devil worship in the US during the short-lived “Satanic Panic”. But now the hobby has come of age. In doing so, it is forced to grapple with some very mature questions about privilege and historical injustice. Of Traveling through the radiant citadelWizards of the Coast has shown that this is a debate they are willing to engage in. As is always the case in D&D, it’s up to the players what happens next.
‘Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel’ will be released in the UK on August 8