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Dungeons and Dragons is Way More Racist Than You Realize

April 29, 2012

For the first time in a long time yesterday, I started a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The game takes place in the frontier kingdom of Brynlind, in its rugged northwesterly reaches called the Red Rock Vale. The player characters ended up in the busted boom town of Kordrak’s Bounty (though the sign now reads Kordrak’s Folly), where they encountered a howling horde of Gnolls that are threatening life on civilization’s edge.

This is a pretty standard set up for a D&D game. Since its very beginnings D&D has been obsessed with the boundaries of civilization and so called savage regions. Villages are described in the latest edition of the game as pinpoints of light in a shadowy world. The light of civilization in an unforgiving and savage country.

Language like this is why Dungeons and Dragons is irrevocably American. I don’t just mean American in the sense of the United States, but in the whole of the New World. It is a game of adventurers seeking gold and glory on the edges of the map. Sure, you can play out political intrigue in it, but the heart of the game rests in the idea of explorers that clash with savages and monsters undreamed of by the average citizen.

It’s no coincidence that John Smith’s biography as a soldier of fortune, who escaped his own imprisonment/enslavement in Eastern Europe, before becoming the man that was adopted by the mystic and savage Powhatan while carving civilization out of Virginia, might as well be a template for every high level D&D Fighter or Rogue. While not necessarily conscious, he is the archetype to which D&D characters aspire to.

Yet, I get ahead of myself. It’s easy when I think about Dungeons and Dragons, and its connections to colonialism, to just run off on a tangent about John Smith or Lost Cities, or what have you. Let’s break it down slowly but surely.

In Dungeons and Dragons, players control characters who are adventurers. Their reasons for adventuring are countless, and can vary even within groups. Some characters might adventure for the glory of their deities, or their countries, or themselves. Others might seek power, or gold, or merely the ability to tell a great story. A few seek to unravel the mysteries of the world, searching for hidden knowledge and lore.

All of these motivations bring them to the frontiers of the world, to lost cities where vegetation is overtaking once bustling metropolises, and to wide open plains which no man has ever recorded. In these places, they clash with monsters unknown, creations that fight wars long dead, and savages. Savage races of all shapes and sizes! There are so many brutish races in Dungeons and Dragons that believe might makes right that it becomes hard to imagine them as the other.

The point is, is any of this starting to sound familiar? Evoke images of your history courses in middle and high school, maybe?

If it doesn’t, it should. These motivations, these ideas, are what drove Europeans to colonize the known and unknown world. This is what the myth of expansion was based on.

Last week, I mentioned an article that called D&D racist because of the lack of non-white people depicted in the books. In retrospect, that’s a pretty surface level claim of bigotry to make against Dungeons and Dragons.

I once met someone who had been running games for years who had no idea that Goblins were sentient and sapient. Even though Goblins, Kobolds, Orcs, and so on, are tool using, magic wielding, races, he had no idea that they had thoughts and feelings like Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. To him, a Goblin was a philosophical zombie performing its actions without reflection.

Who should worry over the death of a Goblin? A Goblin’s organs are no different than the gears that make up a clock!

A lack of skin tone variety in a game is nothing compared to its ability to shape you into thinking like a conquistador from several centuries ago (though even they believed natives could think).

At the conclusion of my response to these ‘racism in fantasy,’ articles last week, I made a call for stories that tell different viewpoints, and perhaps even tell stories of interaction. Dungeons and Dragons is geared toward telling stories of interaction. The thing is though, stories of interaction are often bloody, and D&D’s viewpoint is quite clear.

D&D stands on the side of civilization as opposed to savagery. Look at various versions of the Monster Manual, though particularly the Third Edition. Elf and Dwarf Warriors can be encountered in Squads, Patrols, and Companies, while Goblins and Lizardfolk Warriors are encountered in gangs, bands, and tribes. Anyone who has taken a basic anthropology course will recognize bands and tribes! They’re the lower end of the structure of “increasingly complex,” societies as suggested by the idea of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.

The savage races travel about as nomads, and if they do take residence in some sort of permanent structure it will either be a natural structure such as a cave, or more commonly the ruins of a long lost civilization. Now, these civilizations are not implied to be the remnants of a previous Goblin or Lizardfolk group. No, they are most likely the remnants of the last great Human or Dwarf or Dragonborn (in 4th Edition) civilization. They are the Roman ruins to the current Spain or France or United States or whatever country the PCs hail from. Savages prey on frontier settlements, and oppose any efforts to be civilized. If they are civilized, expect the light of Pelor or another deity to have a hand in it.

Looking further, two of the best selling official adventure modules for the game (campaigns designed by TSR and now Wizards of the Coast), are Keep on the Borderlands and Red Hand of Doom. Keep on the Borderlands while a little more benign in the sense that it doesn’t emphasize a frontier land or horde, like Red Hand, it really doesn’t raise any concept that its savage/monstrous races (goblinoids, orcs, what have you) might actually be people. Red Hand of Doom goes full-on colonialist as the PCs must strive against a Hobgoblin horde being lead by the dark goddess Tiamat from overtaking a frontier region.

You better stop them before they can enact their villainous ritual they call the Ghost Dance!

Now, some people might try to argue that I am trying to project a “modern mindset,” onto a fantasy game but well… while the setting might be analogous to the world several centuries ago, the game is still thoroughly modern. Your beloved Dungeons and Dragons is racist, and the sky is blue. These are just facts of the world.

The real question is, what do we make of this? What do we do once we realize this?

Well, there are two things you can do.

One, you can draw more and more on the contested histories that exist in our societies to look for inspiration for your games. There are a lot of cool scenarios to get into, and grapple with that can make for a really awesome Dungeons and Dragons game. I’d elaborate on them, but I don’t want my players to glean anything about current or future games. Once you realize that D&D bases itself on colonial archetypes and language, you can better grapple with issues. Whether this be something as simple as having the PCs encounter a Good Aligned Goblinoid tribe, or something as complex as a world laid out in accordance with prevailing anthropological theories is up to you. The colonial period, and its successors are pretty awesome when it comes to stories you can tell, nor do they require the trappings of post-Medieval or post-Renaissance time periods. You can also always flip the coin too, and make the PCs the savages who are fighting against the encroaching “civilizations.” While this might get a little too revenge fiction if not handled correctly, it can also make for a really awesome game.

The other thing you can do, is try to deal with it like we deal with racism and bigotry in the real world. Strive to create a more cosmopolitan world. Maybe in your game, there aren’t any “savage” hordes that are going to overrun frontier regions. Perhaps the danger to frontier settlements are ancient constructs, or other nations (the history of Alsace-Lorraine comes to mind), or a new religious sect, or a quack wizard, or anything since this is a fantasy game after all. In your game, there don’t need to be frontiers, or lost cities, or any of these tropes, though at that point it sounds like you might be using a system other than Dungeons and Dragons since the game relies on these tropes somewhat.

Like I said, Dungeons and Dragons is racist. It is way more racist and bigoted than most people would even think to realize, because they either haven’t thought about it enough, or they just don’t indulge in this level of intellectual wankery. Knowing this though, all I can really say is, so what?

Rules were made to be broken, tropes were made to be subverted and lamp shaded.

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