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Thursday, June 18, 2020

It Won't Be Your Dad's D&D


When I was around 9 my oldest brother introduced me to D&D. He played it with friends, and at times included me. I loved it then for much the same reason as I do now: it lets me participate an imagined experience with others that then becomes a real memory shared between us. There's creativity, strategy, an ingenuity involved. Also, unlike other games, and video games in particular, the possibilities for what can happen in a game are as diverse as the players, within what the DM will allow. However, I also remember a female friend in this group quitting the game, citing the demeaning way women were depicted in D&D art, illustrations and (at that time) statistics. While my brother didn't run the games in any way to put women down, the larger franchise is what put her off. She wasn't wrong.

As much as I've loved D&D and the fantasy genre generally over the years, I've been troubled by not only the portrayal of women wearing useless bikini armor, but also by the 'evil' races in the game. Theologically, I was never able to reconcile the idea of goblins or kobolds all being evil little monsters simply by birth. In realms where we imagine an afterlife existing, this would amount to a conveyor belt of souls being born into the world, dying, and shipping off to one of the hells without any other option. It's just so...Calvinist. 

R.A. Salvatore gave us an alternative take, with his character Drizzt Do'Urden, a drow elf from the Underdark city of Menzoberranzan, seeing the evil ways of his people and rejecting them. Salvatore showed us a way that an individual could rise above their upbringing and become heroic. Still, the remained the issue of all the other drow and their inherent(?) evil. It's not just the drow, either. There are orcs as well as the goblins and kobolds I mentioned above, along with other races, that seem bent on doing harm and always evil. For some, this doesn't pose a problem, and that's fine as far as I'm concerned. It is a game, after all. But then, if it isn't fun for everyone because of the issues or race, gender, and other matters, then it's not much of a game to them.

Yesterday, Wizards of the Coast published an article explaining the way forward they are charting to resolve these issues. What follows is a selection of quotes from that article, with my comments.
One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. "Human" in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.
Last year I went to a game shop in Brooklyn a few times to play TTRPGs, and I was impressed by the array of people around me, wrapped up in their games. Tables were crowded with mostly younger people of every shape, size, and gender. The skin tones varied, though they still skewed white. Everyone was having a good time. That's how it should be. If the worlds we imagine together can't be what we want them to be, places where people like us (but with better skill sets!) could exist, then why would we ever want to imagine them at all? There's no reason why there can't be a black elf, a gender fluid tiefling, or a pansexual half-orc. 

The article progresses into listing what the WotC team plans to improve.
We present orcs and drow in a new light in two of our most recent books, Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Explorer's Guide to Wildemount. In those books, orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples. We will continue that approach in future books, portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.
Since I'm unfamiliar with the books cited, I can't comment substantively on the depictions of orcs and drow in them. When I read 'morally and culturally complex' I'm hoping that doesn't mean flattening them out to a lukewarm, middle-of-the-road society. What I've found online about them in the Eberron setting does make them out to be more nuanced than their counterparts in other versions of D&D. I'd have to see it in action to see what it really means.

My homebrew world, Mhurwud, is based on the Basic Fantasy RPG system. There are elves, half-orcs, humans and other traditional fantasy races (no tieflings or tabaxi, although I'm not opposed to them generally). In this setting there is a human kingdom that is a wicked cult of personality, goblin clans and kingdoms that are more interested in trade (and/or scavenging) than violence, tribes of bison people and humans that alternate between cooperation and conflict, and more. In the real world an entire society can go toxic, leaving those who don't approve keeping a low profile or participating in the resistance. This can happen in Mhurwud. Orcs are naturally more chaotic as a group, but not necessarily evil individually. Elves tend to be more lawful, but they could still be bent towards evil. There is a version of the drow, called 'druas,' in this world that I adapted from The Atlantean Trilogy. There is absolutely nothing racially evil about them, and they don't live underground (well, some might, but as an exception rather than the rule). 

I have a feeling that WotC are headed further than I am in the direction of homogenizing the races, and that's fine.  
Later this year, we will release a product (not yet announced) that offers a way for a player to customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D's many other playable folk. This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.
How will this work? It seems like taking away some of what makes the folk types distinct and special. It could also make some characters overpowered if special traits that help them are kept, while removing negatives. There's already a problem with halflings and gnomes having many of the same stats as larger folk types, despite the basic physics that tells us they shouldn't be able to wield a broadsword like a human or orc could. We'll just have to see what WotC has up with when it's published.
Curse of Strahd included a people known as the Vistani and featured the Vistani heroine Ezmerelda. Regrettably, their depiction echoes some stereotypes associated with the Romani people in the real world. To rectify that, we’ve not only made changes to Curse of Strahd, but in two upcoming books, we will also show—working with a Romani consultant—the Vistani in a way that doesn’t rely on reductive tropes.
This is definitely a welcome change. The Romani are caricatured in the portrayal of the Vistani. Pretending that this is a different group than those it clearly resembles won't resolve anything, and the only thing to do is to fix it. 
We've received valuable insights from sensitivity readers on two of our recent books. We are incorporating sensitivity readers into our creative process, and we will continue to reach out to experts in various fields to help us identify our blind spots.
This part has to have certain angry white men enraged. The term 'sensitivity reader' would have absolutely rankled me as recently as 15 to 20 years ago. I would have called it censorship. Of course, it isn't censorship. People can publish any bigoted thing they want, it's just that no publisher is obligated to print and market it for them. Sensitivity readers help to ensure that books can be enjoyed by a wide audience, and that's just good business. 

Overall, as I said above, this is a positive change, and one that really should not upset RPGers. Not being discriminatory or prejudiced is paramount, but the older editions and gaming alternatives aren't going away. I personally prefer the mechanics and style of 3.5 over 5, although I'll play either. Some enjoy running old-fashioned AD&D games, or have campaigns going within the Dungeon Crawl Classics or Basic Fantasy systems. There are myriads of d20 RPG systems, new and old, to choose from. It's just more fun, I think, when there's room at the table for everyone.