Dungeons & Dragons & Decolonisation: Can we fix “the world’s greatest role-playing game”?

This post is written in lieu of a weekly Sunday reflection. It contains a combination of my own thoughts and experiences with links to articles for further reading, written by people with far more expertise than I have. Some of the details of this post will only make sense to people who are familiar with D&D 5e, but I hope that the general points about decolonising fantasy and tabletop gaming will be accessible to everyone.

I started playing a tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition) in October 2018: in the last 18+ months, I have played 9 different characters in a mixture of one-shot sessions and longer campaigns, and taken on the role of Dungeon Master for three different groups. Although D&D does not directly relate to my academic studies, it has become a significant part of how I socialise with other postgraduates in my department, and an upcoming campaign book – Mythic Odysseys of Theros, based on a world from Magic: The Gathering – is, like many unofficial and homebrew campaign worlds, and like several of the monsters presented in the Monster Manual, inspired by classical antiquity. However, despite the amount of time I have dedicated to coming up with cool ideas and familiarising myself with the rules, I find myself increasingly reluctant to engage in D&D (and especially reluctant to take on the role of DM) much further, due to the discomfort I feel as a person of colour committed to diversification and decolonisation. This post will combine my own thoughts with links to other blogs, articles and Twitter thread which have covered these issues in more detail and with more expertise than I can offer.

D&D was first published in the mid-1970s, and by the time I heard of it, during my early teens, the game was on the second version of its 3rd edition – known as 3.5. I played a brief one-shot at the house of one of my mum’s friends, and I remember almost nothing of that session, but as an avid reader of fantasy fiction, part of me fell in love with it. Despite having nobody to play the tabletop game with – I doubt that anybody at my predominantly South Asian school would have even heard of D&D in the early 2000s – I soon bought a rules-light introductory boardgame version, and that Christmas the only presents I asked for were the three core rulebooks: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. Their primary appeal lay not in the rules and mechanics, but in the pictures and fantastical descriptions. However, tabletop is not the only way to play D&D, and I have spent countless hours over the last 15 years on the digital versions (CRPGs): iconic series such as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment, which have all been re-released as “Enhanced Editions” in recent years (ensuring I can still play them, despite the loss of my original CDs), testament to the fact that storytelling and dialogue can be more important to a game than high-quality graphics. I’m very excited for the release, hopefully later this year, of the brand-new Baldur’s Gate III for PC, and will probably invest in a new gaming set-up just to be able to play it properly. I was drawn into trying out the tabletop version after stumbling upon and greatly enjoying a couple of liveplay podcasts, and have found the creative roleplay aspects even more enjoyable than in a computer version.

Yet D&D has a long-standing problem with race and representation which the 5th edition, as much as it has simplified the rules and made the game more accessible to new audiences, has failed to address. The artwork used in official 5th edition materials, and the appendix of suggested names from different human cultures in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, present a greater diversity of human ethnicities than in previous editions, but this is just one small improvement. (If you’re interested in playing a character from a different ethnicity to your own, James Mendez Hodes has put together an excellent guide.) The most obvious issue is the language used to describe so-called “evil races”, such as half-orcs and drow (subterranean “dark elves”); amidst current discussions around racism and anti-Blackness, the company behind the game (WotC) released a lackluster statement pointing out that a few campaign books which are not set in the primary world of this edition (Forgotten Realms) are less problematic in their descriptions, and promising to remove some specific stereotypical language from future reprints. However, the problems in D&D go much deeper than this.

Let’s start with the idea of fantasy races in general. D&D has been heavily influenced in this regard by Tolkien (whose own use of racist tropes has been discussed in detail elsewhere), but it adds to Tolkien’s problematic descriptions the harmful bioessentialist idea that some races are stronger, or faster, or smarter than others. 5th edition has at least removed a problem of earlier editions, which actively penalised characters who didn’t fit into stereotypes: in 3.5, a dwarf, for instance, is mechanically more hardy and more surly than other races (+2 Constitution, -2 Charisma), meaning your dreams of a dwarven storytelling bard a near impossibility. The game’s presentation of other races and cultures, not just the monstrous races, remains deeply problematic. The human race in D&D has, in recent years, been shown with a degree of ethnic diversity, but other groups are presented as monocultures with, at best, sub-races based on things like the kind of environment they live in – there is no such thing as an eastern culture of elves which differs from the elves of the north-west, only “high elves” who live in cities, “wood elves” in forests and “dark elves” underground. Many fantasy fans may object at this point that a fantasy “race” is much more like a species than an ethnicity, but this ignores the racial coding which suffuses this fantasy. Another common defense is the claim that you can make the world your own, if you want to remove these elements, which is true: but as much as you can make an intelligent half-orc wizard, if you stick to the core rules, that character will still be less effective than a high-elf wizard; and in a collaborative game which is often played between near-strangers in gaming shops or online spaces, it can be very difficult to persuade an entire group to change the rules to avoid such problems.

The lack of cultural diversity in 5e is partly a result of the cultures which WotC have focused on writing about (which itself is probably a reflection of the lack of diversity in the team behind D&D). The world of the Forgotten Realms should theoretically have as much cultural diversity as Earth, and earlier editions published information about a range of settings; but not only are books such as Oriental Adventures outdated in mechanical terms, they are also full of horrific racist tropes and stereotypes. Rather than release setting books to present these areas in a new and modern light, the majority of Forgotten Realms tabletop books have focused on the world’s analogue for west and northwest Europe, the Sword Coast, which is also the region covered by the CRPGs which made me fall in love with D&D as a teen: Lost Mine of Phandelver in the starter set, the first half of Tyranny of Dragons, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Storm King’s Thunder, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and its sequel Dungeon of the Mad Mage, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and the upcoming Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden are all set in this area. Princes of the Apocalypse avoids major cities, but is still roughly set in the same northern area of the world; Out of the Abyss takes place in the subterranean Underdark, but in the area beneath the Sword Coast. The only official campaign set in the Forgotten Realms which goes beyond this area is Tomb of Annihilation, set in Chult – which came with its own issues.

Earlier in the year, after backing the campaign book on Kickstarter, I spent a few months playing in a game that a friend (with a doctorate in the history of classical Athens) agreed to DM, set in a world inspired by the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. The world and its mechanics were well designed, with cool sub-classes and playable races inspired by the setting that appealed to me as a classicist. When we started playing, we discovered a major problem with the plot, which was based on the premise that the land had been colonised by humans, elves, dwarves and the like who, with the help of their gods, had defeated the “evil” gods of the “monstrous” native races, and that the heroes would join forces with the colonisers to prevent these evil gods from returning. At several points in the story, the heroes were expected to side with the “civilised” races against the natives, such as when an army of centaurs was camped outside the walls of the human city, or when a city led by one or these new gods hosted a large population of enslaved minotaurs. From conversations with my DM, it seemed that the book gave no options for the party to rebel against this basic premise, which meant it was a bit of a problem that our entire party ended up being comprised of “monstrous” characters. This campaign setting is unofficial, but it isn’t a rogue outlier: its lead designer has worked on CRPGs for the last two decades (including many of the iconic games mentioned earlier) and remains closely affiliated with the company behind D&D, and the crowdfunding initiative raised over £350,000. To my mind, it is as mainstream as you can be without being an official D&D campaign, and it represents quite a mainstream view in the community that labelling a setting as “fantasy” makes it completely divorced from real world racial dynamics.

Dungeons & Dragons could diversify by covering a wider variety of settings and by hiring a broader range of people to work on them (and on all of their products), and could also go further to remove the racist implications and stereotypes underlying its playable character races. These steps, however, are not enough to produce a decolonised D&D, which would require a fundamental reworking of power dynamics and the methods of othering at the heart of the game. Most iterations of D&D are based around the idea of a team of adventurers entering into the homes of supposedly “monstrous” races, killing then with superior magic and technology and taking their stuff, on the justification that they are uncivilised and worship evil gods. Sound familiar? Although alignment plays very little mechanical role in 5e – again, an improvement on earlier editions, which barred characters from progressing in certain classes unless they stuck to a narrow moral code – characters are still encouraged to define themselves, and therefore their enemies, on the alignment grid. The bulk of the rules are devoted to combat, including the rules for levelling up through XP (although there are suggested variants for milestone levelling which circumvent this), and most of the class abilities which differentiate characters and mark the way your character advances are based on combat skills; meaning that while it is possible to play a game that isn’t based around killing sentient enemies with impunity, if you try to do so, either your character suffers from a lack of progress and new equipment, or it tends not to feel much like D&D. A game like Dungeon World, while it carries over much of the baggage around “fantasy races” and “monstrous races” found in D&D, at least benefits from a levelling system in which XP is not based on the number of things you kill. There are other systems which integrate combat and non-combat much better.

Another strand of decolonisation involves rethinking relationships to power and knowledge. There is certainly a largely-unrealised potential for “own voices” storytelling which can redress some of the epistemic injustices in fantasy, but that project is made more complicated by D&D’s long use of “monsters” from different cultures, connecting traditional names to often untraditional presentations of mythical creatures. An obvious example of this for classicists is the gorgon, which in D&D is a monstrous metallic bull which can petrify with its breath, and is wholly distinct from the medusa, a race of monstrous humanoids with snakes for hair whose eye-contact can either petrify (for female medusae) or daze (for males). This twists the Greek myths in which the Gorgons are three monstrous sisters with serpentine hair, and Medusa is the name of one particular Gorgon. Similarly, while the rakshashas of Hindu myth and literature are a varied group of warriors, shapeshifters and illusionists who can side with either good or evil (with many of the evil ones said to be man-eaters), the rakshasha of D&D is a (much more uniform) race of evil fiends with magical abilities who have the heads of a (suitably “exotic”) tiger in their natural forms. This creature, like the gorgon and medusa, are separated from any specific local mythology and can appear anywhere in the world, with the rakshasha being an extra-planar creature without roots on the material plane. Any author who wishes to integrate their own culture and mythology into their game must first tackle the way that official D&D sourcebooks decontextualise and adapt stories from around the world.

D&D also encourages a specific power-dynamic in which the Dungeon Master creates (or reifies, using a published campaign book) a world and plot from a position of authority. While many of the best DMs will adapt the adventure to include threads connected to a character’s backstory, and will give players a chance to shape the world by describing the cultural background of their own characters and inventing settlements or organisations which connect to this, the established culture of D&D means that some DMs feel justified in preventing players from having this kind of input. Many tabletop games work on a process of open-world collaborative storytelling, and it’s certainly possible to do this well in D&D, but the amount of time required to plan encounters and plotlines can make this kind of adaptiveness more difficult. Power structures can also be dismantled through safety tools, such as the popular Lines & Veils technique, the X-button, and the RPG Consent Checklist from Monte Cook, each of which focus on encouraging players to speak out when aspects of the game make them uncomfortable (or trigger trauma), and I would encourage DMs to explore which of these options work best for your group. I have some experience using the checklist, but while I found it useful in the planning stage to make sure that everyone was on the same page, and I don’t run campaigns with graphics descriptions of violence or erotic encounters anyway, it’s very difficult to remember in the middle of a session whether people said they were comfortable with certain things; so the next time I run a game, I’m going to try something else. With all of these issues, it becomes a lot easier to talk about what works and what doesn’t if you play with friends and people you know; but as many people experience D&D by playing with near-strangers in their local game shop or online, it’s important for more top-down measures to fix the issues and imbalances that might be encountered in a game. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to decolonise D&D – at least, not without the kind of massive overhaul which would require several years of work and a whole new edition – but there are plenty of things which players and especially DMs can do to make an individual table more inclusive and welcoming.

I have focused in this post on my problems with the rules and published materials of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is another issue which is important to recognise. If you look at the team behind 5th edition, or the writers and contributors to any official rulebooks or setting books, you’ll notice a stark lack of diversity – the game is mostly run by white men, and that reinforces the idea that it’s also only for white men. The most popular and best-supported liveplay streams and podcasts are also overwhelmingly white (although cf. Rivals of Waterdeep and the Asians Represent Podcast, which ran an irregular 5e game until very recently) – an issue raised in an open letter way back in November 2019, so it’s not a new issue. As with classics and ancient history, if people of colour can’t see active role models who look like them in the community, that reinforces the idea that we aren’t welcome. The diversity statement referenced earlier in this post mentions the company making use of sensitivity readers on its most recent books, and having “brought in contributors who reflect the beautiful diversity of the D&D community” – which is, I suppose, better late than never. However, in recent weeks, people such as Zaiem Beg and Orion Black have spoken out about their experiences of tokenism and institutional racism while working with WotC. Without a radical overhaul of the company and its working practices, no amount of rewriting will make the game more inclusive. Testimonials like these make me very reluctant to give WotC any more of my money.

I’m happy to keep playing the game with friends and groups that I trust, but I can’t see myself running any official campaigns – the only thing keeping me from quitting as a GM for good is the thought of running an independent campaign (by independent creatures) in a more diverse setting, such as the Sina Una setting based on the pre-colonial Philippines which I backed on Indiegogo – and which, for instance, takes steps towards decolonising the magic systems of D&D by creating new classes and sub-classes which are inspired by the culture of the Philippines but which can be taken into other settings too. I know plenty of people who want to fix the problems of D&D spend a lot of time and energy creating a homebrew world and plot for private usage – for instance, working to make the game more queer-friendly and welcoming to trans and non-binary players at their own tables – but if I’m going to come up with my own setting, I watch to match it to a system which requires less reworking. In the light of recent discussions about the problems of WotC, I wouldn’t be surprised if other players and podcasters also start looking for different tabletop systems, even knowing that it means convincing your gaming group to learn new rules and perhaps appealing to a smaller audience.

For as long as WotC places the onus on individual gamers and individual tables to fight against their own marginalisation, rather than making the necessary changes to its company, rules and settings, the game will continue to be exclusionary. If the company wishes to maintain a broad appeal, including to people who have played since the 1970s and are resistant to change, or to white supremacists who don’t see why they should stop murdering monsters coded as ethnic minorities, and believes that diversification and decolonisation will prevent this, then it should say to those groups what it currently says to us: your fantasy world is your own to make, and you can consider the rules as adaptable guidelines if you wish, or buy different settings and consume different forms of related media which are unaffiliated to us; but our official material is going to take a position which is not interested in your views and experiences.

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