I’ve had some less than complimentary things to say about Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve said them to my friends for years. I said them to Cecilia D’Anastasio at Kotaku when the latest Tomb of Annihilation adventure came out. As a tabletop gamer, D&D is almost unavoidable. It is the First Game for so many people, it inevitably comes up in gaming circles. So even as I went about adamantly not playing it, Dungeons and Dragons was something I always had to engage with. Why didn’t I play D&D for the majority of my years as a tabletop gamer? And why now, have I started?
The People Who Play D&D
Whew boy, let’s be honest — some of the white men out in the world playing Dungeons and Dragons are of the worst sort. My first experiences in D&D were like a handbook of gender/sexual harassment. Like my first D&D Dungeonmaster who ran multiple nights of the group in the town tavern, with various members hitting on the female bar serving “wench” because of course. I, the party elf, spent those nights sitting in the rafters of the bar as a look-out because the towns folks didn’t like elves. This was, exactly as much fun as it sounds. I’ve had Gamemasters, Black and white, railroad me into typically “feminine” character choices, insist my character serve food to the other male characters because “that’s the culture here”, and of course, assume I couldn’t make my own rolls because adding 3 numbers together is super-duper hard.
It is noteworthy that once I stopped trying to play D&D and started playing games set in modern and futuristic eras, much of that ceased to be an issue. I even found other women gamers and Gamemasters to play with. As a woman playing in an all-women game was a serious high-point for me in terms of creativity and hilarity. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
My experiences early in my gaming career, particular and non-universal as they were, taught me that D&D was a game that a particularly culturally regressive type of gamer liked to play, imagining worlds of rape and war, where the races were separate except for very specific “half-breeds” who were either rare, special, hated, or all of the above.
I’m sure all y’all have had better experiences than I. I’m sure you’ve played lots of great D&D games with white men who treated you and your characters as equals. I did not as a rule, and it turned me off from the game and the setting for years.
The Rules and Setting of D&D
I’m a Tolkien geek. Elves and orcs and humans and halflings was my first fantasy world, so I kept coming back to D&D, even as the other players of the game disappointed me. Reading the rule books and racial designations, I came to recognize that the philosophies around “race” that used to be central to the game, are essentialist and problematic. Paul Sturtevant writing for the Public Medievalist lays it out very well in his article, Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. In the article, Sturtevant illustrates how Tolkien, as exacting as he was with some details, conflated race, culture and ability in his writings. While you may be able to write that off as “a product of his time,” it is a generalization that has been inherited by D&D and other fantasy settings to this day. This means that your race dictates what you are capable of and your moral code, to such an extent that in many D&D settings certain races of characters *cannot be morally good/lawful*. This racial essentialism is difficult for me to just ride with as a Black woman who is so frequently assumed to be incapable of being on the right side of anything.
These racial challenges extend to multi-racial characters as well, as G.A. Barber from over at POCGamer talks about in an older article, Mired in the Past. It is baked into D&D that those players who do decide to create multi-racial characters, are fast-tracked to the narrative of a Tragic Mulatto. Forever to be “half-elf” or “half-orc” and never to be all-happy.
Further, as I got older and my taste in fantasy changed, I became less satisfied with an Eurocentric “medieval” setting. There is so much mythology and history to be explored all over the world. Continuing to privilege Western Europe as the best/only place to set a fantasy game is exclusionary, and in the end, boring.
These kinds of assumptions and role-playing guidelines around racial categories and Euro settings are hard-coded into the books, the images, and the rules to such an extent that playing against the type is an exercise in practically inventing your own game.
The Variety of Other Games Available
Let’s be honest, with all of this baggage, why should I struggle to play D&D when I can play any number of other tabletop roleplaying games? Unknown Armies is wonderfully weird. Eclipse Phase allows me to switch bodies every 30 days, to struggle with transhumanism, AIs, and to explore the edges of space. For fantasy, Burning Wheel gives me all the flexibility in character creation, along with a great framework within which to build my own world.
There’s also innumerable indie game systems to try. The Window is a system based not on numbers but adjectives, which was candy for a word-nerd like me. Dogs in the Vineyard, one of the most successful indie systems, is as complex and challenging as any game. And you can always play with the FATE system and any number of source books.
I and my friends have even tried our hands at making our own systems based on Heroes, Warhammer 40k (a great setting that has yet to produce a great roleplaying game), or Legend of the 5 Rings. Once you dig in and understand what you like in a game system, and what you don’t, it is easy to spend many a Saturday playing with rules and possibilities.
This Is Me Now
This is how after being a tabletop gamer for 20+ years, I’d never finished a game of Dungeons and Dragons. I said that to a new friend, a biracial tech in my office who we’ll call MJ, and he was floored. His answer? You haven’t played *my* game yet. MJ dared me to try again.
I reviewed the new 5th ed Players Handbook and found that many of my critiques no longer applied. The optics of the D&D rule books have changed significantly in the latest edition and become more inclusive across multiple lines. There are multiple people of color featured in the interior art, sex and gender is addressed directly in character creation, and there isn’t a chainmail bikini in sight. Wizards of the Coast invested some time and effort into listening to their actual, and possible, audiences and are making a good effort, even as some releases like Tomb of Annihilation, may fall short.
Together, MJ and I collected some other people of color who were interested in giving D&D another chance, along with a single white guy to balance things out. MJ walked us all through his gaming philosophy and really sold us on what has always been true: a roleplaying game is about the world the players and the GM create, not the one in the rule book. We threw the “racial” rules out the window and created the characters we wanted to play, weird and fey-touched and elementally attuned. Through the first game nights, we built our trust as a group. There were no wenches, though we spent a fair number of game nights in taverns. The world is multicultural and multiracial, both for humans and for the other humanoid denizens.
It is a year later, a hundred hours in, and I’m in love with our game, and finally finally after so many years, in love with D&D. The game has changed to get closer to something I can embrace. And I found a GM who shared my concerns and works to address them, so that we can create the game WE want to play. We are #TeamHalfsies (tongue firmly in cheek here) and I’ll be bringing you regular dispatches from our games going forward. We seem to kill a lot of NPCs, they totally deserve it, collect a lot of loot, and occasionally do good. Here’s hoping you enjoy reading our adventures almost as much as I enjoy playing in them.
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Love this! I am a GM – I mostly play pathfinder, and so far the vast majority of players in my games are queer and transfolk, and it makes it so much more pleasant tbh, to not worry about folks being terrible in that way.
I have checked with female players I GM with, if they are bothered playing in a historical like sexist culture. Making it clear that when the males in said campaign setting don’t think a woman can be a warrior they get to show them up Xena style. If a man in the tavern expects you to serve the drinks you can kick him in the balls and tell him to get his own damn drinks. I understand of course if some players are still not comfortable with such a culture in the setting and will not use it if they aren’t.
5754 Aluminium Circle
I do believe all of the ideas you’ve offered on your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too brief for starters. May just you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.
Ok so….I just recently joined a group using Microscope to create a world in which to play for a DnD podcast/vidcast. I have had my reservations since the beginning about playing with this group as there is not a single person of color (I’m a white woman) and I have no interest in perpetuating DnD being so white!!! But the process of world building before playing was too beguiling not to try. First two sessions were honestly fabulous. Two queer-presenting people (one woman one man), two cis-presenting women, two cis men. All white but gender balanced.
Enter the 3rd white man last night (minus one queer man who was absent) and everything feels fucked, out of balance, and worst of all BORING (oh the banal, low-hanging-fruit humor that took over…..). I’m glad I tried it and got a taste and now have an excuse to get out of a game I was dubious about to begin with. I’ll give it a couple more sessions but now I’m inspired to seek out other players, and definitely including players of color, to start a game with though I wonder about the ethicality of seeking out/”procuring” players of color. I only know one black DnD player where I live and he already has several games. Maybe I will contact http://www.contessa.rocks, an organization that promotes diversity and female leadership and participation in tabletop gaming. I met their event coordinator Ariel at a Level-eater event and she was by far the most interesting person there.
OK, sorry for going on so long. I’m just stewing about the difference one white dood can make….my favorite quote of his was, as i was having trouble deciding what to do my next turn and everyone was reassuring me to take my time him piping in with “or you could hurry the fuck up” joking….of course. This was made worse by the DMs laughing and “oooh”ing, “you just went pulp fiction on her” or something stupid…oh yeah lots of coopting of mostly-antiquated-and-now-so-very-lame-sounding black slang and other shit (the irony involved in a Quentin Tarantino via Sam Jackson quote triggering that complaint is not lost in me.)
I had emailed the group an article about the problematics and lameness of doing that after the last session but we were to busy last night orienting the new ass-hat to get to it.
Again so sorry to go on and on but this has helped me work out my thoughts and resolve to get out.
So glad you found a game and thereby love for DnD!
That’s why I still play 2nd Edition.
No victimhood. Only RPG.
I enjoyed both your article, and the one written by Cecilia D’Anastasio regards ToA, though I realize they were posted months ago. I’ve played Sci-Fi RPGs for years and always wanted to try D&D but I fell victim to the “Satanic Panic” so I never did.
Then after not rolling dice for like 15 years I had a certain personal epiphany about my beliefs and so I dove into D&D and found the water warm. Then, to my surprise my family of 3 jumped in too. We’re having a blast! I got them away from the TV screen! YAY! I am often mistaken for white because my dad is from Spain. My wife is Black. Like you, I’m happy to see PoC well represented in the current pages. My wife plays a Half-Elf Paladin with a beautiful complexion just like her own.
What I wanted to add was that the D&D world, for me, is not “the past”, “the Dark Ages” or “Medieval”. The Euro-tropes are out of place, despite the Gygax’s intent. Toril is what our world would be if magic were common place and so technology just stalled out. Toril is an older, more cosmically aware world than ours. Seasoned Wizards may well know quantum physics and advanced genetics, but in their world, Prestidigitation replaced the light bulb, teleportation replaced the railroad, planar travel replaced space travel, no guns because magic missiles… etc., etc. To assume “bar wenches” and chauvinism must be a thing (along with British accents for god’s sake), because that’s how it was hundreds of years ago (and decades ago) here on Earth seems very wrong. That’s not how I run Faerun anyway. Like D’Anastasio, I would like something more be done with the world beyond Faerun. African Atlantis (D&D Wakanda?) sounds awesome.
Thanks for your article!
Sharmane “MixedGirlMane” Fury
I so needed this. And I am now desperate to talk to you about this. I am a Mixed-Race geek that has only played with White Male friends DnD, Fate, Savage Worlds in a variety of backdrops, I absolutely have felt stereotyped in ways where I believe my guy friends were unaware they were doing it and sometimes when I felt they were aware. I have been looking to speak to Black and Brown players for my podcast as well and NO ONE responds. I don’t know if these comments get to you but if would be interested in speaking with a fellow Brown nerd, I WOULD DIE!
This is a very enlightening comparison for me. As a black man who role plays (& enjoys D&D immensely), I can see a lot of parallels between your gaming experiences and my own. A LOT.
I’ve been gaming with the same group going on 8 years now & it took a while for the white guys (all save myself and one white woman) to realize a)my knowledge of said system was far more vast than theirs collectively and b)just because I was black didn’t mean I cannot comprehend fantasy tropes
It actually took me as the DM delivering a TPK to them all for not taking my game seriously and the support of my local community for them to open their eyes. There are many black gamers in the world as you know.
We now run an after school thing where we use d&d to help mentor kids and our focus is on morality & social equality…2 things that I would not been able to do with this crew if I wasn’t patient with my influences.
I even addressed the racial & gender inequalities by playing a female drow and showing how the discrimination correlated to the real world.
Still…I wish more of us gamed. But I’d love to hear more about your experiences.
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Timothy S. Brannan
Thank you so much for sharing this.
Hearing more about the experiences of others in games can help us all make better ones.
Colin D Menzel
The fact that certain races have ceratain bonuses/limitations is, well was, a MAJOR aspect of D&D gameplay. Being creative to work within your characters limits while balancing you’re strengths and weaknesses with those of the other players. By homogenizing the races as much as they have in 5th edition it more or less defeats the importance bestowed upon what race you choose when creating your character.