Saturday, August 6, 2022

Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?

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IIt’s full of monsters, chaos and magic. But could it be that the real villain in Dungeons & Dragons is institutional racism? That’s the charge leveled at the popular tabletop RPG, and many in the gaming community have expressed unease about its 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 stranger things, which introduced the game to a new generation. And his profile will continue to rise next year 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 more films planned, the ultimate goal of the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, is a multi-person fantasy franchise – a kind of expanded Marvel Universe with swords and fireball magic.

But to do that, Wizards of the Coast must first grapple with what many see as its troubled legacy of race and representation. The issue first surfaced in earnest in the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matters protests erupted around the world. In June of this year, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that it had problems portraying orcs and drow – dark-skinned subterranean elves – as intrinsically evil.

“Throughout D&D’s 50-year history, some of the game’s races – orcs and drow being two of the best examples – have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of real-life ethnic groups, has been and continues to be vilified,” said Wizards of the Coast in a message published on its website. “That’s just not right, and we don’t believe in that.”

The statement was welcomed by those gamers who have long been bothered by a fantasy universe in which certain characters are inherently good and others bad. However, the topic has gotten around. Wizards of the Coast hopes to do something about this with its latest collection of D&D source material. Travel through the radiant citadela compilation of adventures drawing on non-Western cultural traditions, released Tuesday 9th August in the UK.

However, some D&D fans say holding the publisher accountable isn’t enough. The players have to play their part too. “Don’t just wave your hand at racism like it’s ‘just a game,'” says Paul Sturtevant, a D&D fan and co-writer of The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past. “We gamers are always looking for others who take our hobby seriously, so we should take it seriously too.”

For others, Wizards of the Coast sucks all the fun out of the fantasy RPG. Orcs in D&D perform the same function as Stormtroopers in war of stars, is the argument. They are cannon fodder for players who gain experience points and level up by defeating enemies. Change that and you’ve changed the game. “It’s short-sighted and counterproductive,” says Christian Twiste, a science fiction and fantasy writer who runs the blog Confessions of a Conservative Atheist. “A game like D&D requires an enemy for players to face and ultimately defeat, especially when much of the game is dedicated to fighting and killing monsters.”

Travel through the radiant citadel makes history as the first D&D manual written entirely by authors from minority backgrounds. In so doing, it rejects a Eurocentric vision that defined fantasy as far back as Tolkien (who described the denizens of the far south and east of Middle-earth as dark and warlike). Its pages feature adventures inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead and Middle Eastern bazaars. Meanwhile, the Written In Blood chapter is set in Godsbreath, a fantasy kingdom steeped in the black experience of the American South. “A lot of my family tree has roots in the Southern United States, so I knew right away that I wanted to draw from that aspect of the African diaspora,” said Written In Blood writer Erin Roberts in an interview at the official D&D site . “I wanted to create a large region to explore… in the Southern Gothic tradition.”

Radiant citadel is a welcome first step, say those who feel the game needs to change. “It’s wonderful that Wizards is hiring more people of color to write for the official D&D books,” says Sturtevant. “It’s particularly encouraging that Wizards appears to have hired these creators and given 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 hired as freelance writers for one-off adventures, which means they aren’t the ones making editorial decisions about their work, or being able to change some of the structural issues in the game, like gameplay. B. Character types that persist Racism.”

Talking about race and appropriating non-Western cultural traditions are what D&D and the tabletop hobby managed to sneak around until recently. D&D has been an amazing niche for most of its history; his fan base is predominantly (though certainly not exclusively) male and white. It’s championing role-playing games on Netflix stranger things and the rise of D&D podcasts such as critical role introduced new audiences to this world – many of whom were impressed with the promotion of racial archetypes and the portrayal of orcs and drow as inherently deviant. The controversy is likely to continue with the release of the aforementioned D&D movie 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 clear up racial issues by tweaking these problematic rules for Orcs and Dark Elves so that they were no longer inherently evil and/or stupid. For example, players who choose to play as a half-orc character will no longer automatically suffer an intellect drain. It also rewrote racially insensitive material from previous game books, including a section in the Curse of Strahd Adventure in which a Roma-like culture, the Vistani, has been labeled lazy and untrustworthy.

But if many players have cheered 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 appropriate forum to discuss racial and class injustices. D&D is about adventure and escapism, he says. What’s the point of turning it into something else? “You can hack and slash your way through a dungeon without worrying that you might have killed an innocent orc. However, when the monsters are no longer evil, the players are no longer good. It doesn’t increase the moral complexity of the game. It affects the morale of the characters and makes them little less than heroes who defeat evil.”

He’s worried that D&D might become unplayable. “I can’t imagine how much fun the game will be when your morally impaired, human-centric dwarf has to question each monster to determine its cultural history and possible guilt for raiding the neighboring village before going into battle.” says Twiste. “When the local innkeeper informed the group, the town was infested with goblins [goblin-like monsters] from the nearby hills, should the players make a police lineup or something? Is that really the goblin that killed your daughter, or maybe it was just a misunderstanding? It seems like these questions would be much better suited to a college dorm or faculty lounge than a game where most people aspire to be heroes.”

However, this argument is contested by others in the gaming world. “Of course, if you take representation seriously, it’s a more inclusive hobby,” says Gwendolyn Marshall. Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University and author of Ancestry and Culture: An alternative to racing in 5E (ie for the “fifth edition” of Dungeons & Dragons). “It also makes for better stories. Without more involvement in the creative field, ideas become stale, the same plots are reused, and the hobby slowly dies… A lot of people complain about that [Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel] just don’t want to do the work of thinking new thoughts and trying new forms of imagination; they’d rather lazily fall back on the same few tired and troublesome tropes.”

What the conversation ultimately tells us is that D&D is no longer staying under the radar. In the 80’s and 90’s, when it languished in nerdy darkness, nobody cared if D&D was politically correct or not. Most people had hardly heard of it — other than being briefly, erroneously, and hilariously associated with devil worship in the US during the short-lived “Satanic Panic.” But now the hobby has grown up. In doing so, she was forced to wrestle with some very mature questions about privilege and historical injustice. With Travel through the radiant citadel, Wizards of the Coast has shown that it is ready for this debate. As always in D&D, what happens next is up to the players.

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel will be released in the UK on August 8th

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