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November 19, 2008 7:18 PM   Subscribe

I do not want to spend too much time beating a dead war-horse, but your average D&D game consists of a group of white players acting out how their white characters encounter and destroy orcs and goblins, who are, as a race evil, uncivilized, and dark-skinned. To quote Steve Sumner’s essay again, “Unless played very carefully, Dungeons & Dragons could easily become a proxy race war, with your group filling the shoes of the noble white power crusaders seeking to extinguish any orc war bands or goblin villages they happened across.” I would argue with Sumner’s use of the phrase “could become,” and say that unless played very carefully, D&D usually becomes a proxy race war. Any adventurer knows that if you see an orc, you kill it. You don’t talk to it, you don’t ask what it’s doing there - you kill it, since it’s life is worth less than the treasure it carries and the experience points you’ll get from the kill. If filmed, your average D&D campaign would look something like Birth of a Nation set in Greyhawk.
- Race in Dungeons & Dragons by Chris van Dyke, a powerpoint talk given at Nerd Nite. Via Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog where there's a smart discussion going on about the essay.
posted by Kattullus (195 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ta-Nehisi Coates, by the by, is an old-school geek who's now teaching his 8-year old son to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah... that's 1st edition... ♥
posted by Kattullus at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Honestly? It has been a while but I recall getting tired of orcs and sending my players up against much bigger badder foes before any racial parallels manifested.

And I was 12.
posted by vrakatar at 7:23 PM on November 19, 2008


Humans have a fear of the dark by nature. Monsters tend to be personified as being dark, living in dark places, and sneaking up on you. There's nothing more than that, unless youre really, really into race baiting. Shame people cant enjoy D&D or Tolkien without bringing their politicized over the top "isms" into it. There's a smart essay to be written about that, but it seems to be much more hip to scream "racism" at everything.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:24 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Orc please.
posted by ND¢ at 7:25 PM on November 19, 2008 [44 favorites]


D&D?? What about CHESS??? WHITE always moves FIRST??? WTF!!!
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:27 PM on November 19, 2008 [40 favorites]


Hey, this guy's Bean Plate Of Overthinking +4 is even better than the one we got! I'm gonna bitch to the DM.
posted by vorfeed at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2008 [22 favorites]


Also it's always men saving fair damsels, or occasionally hot warrior chicks saving men! How heteronormative can you get?
posted by tkolar at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


orcs and goblins, who are, as a race evil, uncivilized, and dark-skinned

I love how it's the last one that gets the focus. They're not killed for being evil, no...

Anyway, aren't orcs green?
posted by rokusan at 7:34 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


However, D&D is guilty, as is much of our entertainment media, of reinforcing an Anglo-centric view of the world; a sense of western-superiority at the cost of fearing, distrusting, and looking down upon non-white and developing nations; and reinforcing stereotypes that go along with an essentialist understanding of race, culture, and ethnicity.

HAY GUYS I GOT THE +20 CRITICAL THEORY 101 CODPIECE!
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:35 PM on November 19, 2008 [32 favorites]


dda, did you RTA?

There's a lot more here than just "the bad guys all have dark skin." I would go into detail, but I can't say it any better than the essay you either didn't read or didn't care to cogently respond it. There probably is a smart essay that could be written in response to it, but it seems much more snarky and cynical to just scream "politicized" and "over the top."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:35 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


Oh, also, "troll thread".
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:42 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


If we're going to talk about D&D like this, there also need to be links to John Tynes' Power Kill and Greg Costikyan's Designer X's Violence: The Roleplaying Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:43 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Um. They're different species, rather than different races, aren't they? Or am I getting my terminology in a twist?

While I find that the easy moral certainties of what usually gets termed 'racial essentialism' in SF usually makes for rather dull, unengaging fiction, I'm not convinced that players are likely to start mapping their D&D experiences onto the real world in this very specific way. You might as well start arguing the same for players of Super Mario - 'everyone knows that as soon as you see a Koopa, you stomp on it.' The fantasy worlds of games do not offer a sound basis for a real world ethical code - and no one has ever claimed they do.

All of which is a circumlocutionary way of saying: this guy is a handwringing asstard.
posted by RokkitNite at 7:43 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


I read the whole article. It's still stupid. The complaints about killing and looting are not (in-game) race specific and apply just as much if you're killing unicorns and displacer beasts.

The only meat on the racial bone being picked is illustrations from the books, most of which are (a) black and white drawings depicting persons of indeterminate race and (b) from 1978.

You wanna blame someone, you should go back to the sources, not some cheap-ass book from 1978 that just ripped off the established tropes.
posted by rokusan at 7:43 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Read The Fucking Article, already.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]




Everything fun is racist, so stop it right now.
posted by Artw at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


With apologies to rokusan, who evidently did.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2008


This is so fucking stupid, everyone knows Orcs can't dunk.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


Obama is truly the Drizzt Do'Urden of our time
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:47 PM on November 19, 2008 [12 favorites]


And, for the record, the dialogue at Ta-Neishi's blog is eons beyond any Mefi-related discourse on race I've read in the past, oh, 7+ years. Sorry, kids.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:48 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


What would that guy think of the "Grand Theft Auto" series? It'd probably make his skull explode.
posted by Class Goat at 7:49 PM on November 19, 2008


You might as well start arguing the same for players of Super Mario - 'everyone knows that as soon as you see a Koopa, you stomp on it.'

You meant Goomba.

(Super Wop and Super Dago didn't make it into the final release version.)
posted by rokusan at 7:50 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The neat thing about playing games is they're not real.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


... and, yes, rules-mongers, I know I misspelled dude's name. I failed a saving throw for spell-check, get over it.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:52 PM on November 19, 2008


Orc please.

I'm partial to "Naga, please!" myself.
posted by jdotglenn at 7:52 PM on November 19, 2008 [12 favorites]


Remember everyone everything white people do is racist.
posted by Sargas at 7:53 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Remember everyone everything white people do is racist.

Naga, please.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:54 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Call me if he'll take bets that D&D players would consequently be statistically less likely (than non-players) to vote to have a black man as their leader and president of their nation.

'Cos if he'll take my bet, I've got a whole new meaning of "make a killing on the greenskins" to teach him.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:57 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Anyway, aren't orcs green?

Not in the early editions. I think they're grey or brown in First Edition.

First Edition goblins were: yellow, orange, or red. The official Ral Partha paint color was "Goblin Tangerine," believe it or not. (Hobgoblins were blue or green, I think.)

I'm not sure that killing the tangerine-colored guys can really be connected to a real-world bias.

Then Warhammer hit the market, everything there was green, and then everybody started thinking the D&D monsters were green, and then they were, because the 3E/4E writers didn't actually look at D&D rulebooks when they revising the game.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 7:57 PM on November 19, 2008 [8 favorites]


For fuck's sake at least some of you could post in a way that makes it plausible that you've read the damn article.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:58 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Call me if he'll take bets that D&D players would consequently be statistically less likely (than non-players) to vote to have a black man as their leader and president of their nation.

'Cos if he'll take my bet, I've got a whole new meaning of "make a killing on the greenskins" to teach him.


While there's a lot of cool gamers out there, there is about the same amount of libertarian and Republican assholery as in every other branch of nerdery.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:59 PM on November 19, 2008


I was always intrigued by which races get to be "half"'ed. Half-elf? No problem. Half-orc? Kind of a weird thought, but sure. Then they got into half-ogres and half-giants.

That's just fucking kinky.
posted by bardic at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Call me if he'll take bets that D&D players would consequently be statistically less likely (than non-players) to vote to have a black man as their leader and president of their nation.

Um, can't speak to D&Ders, but a feckless dude did poll the WoW folks, such as they are: here.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Um. They're different species, rather than different races, aren't they? Or am I getting my terminology in a twist?

Yeah, that was my first reaction, too. The van Dyke article does cover that, but suggests that it's worth looking at how it "encode[s] assumptions about race in the real world".

True, humans are the "norm" in D&D, and they've always been played up -- no level maximums when there were for others; they were the do-anything race. Thing is, that kind of playing up was always far more reminiscent of a Star Trek type condescension Kirk to Spock, humans are the shit, kind of thing. So unless I'm missing some deep "encoding" in Star Trek as well, this was a straight up humans conquering the universe, species pander. Not a racial thing.

Now, taking the game at face value, there are all kinds of meaningful "racial" differences. They're built in. Better or worse looks, dexterity, charisma, etc, etc. All the things absent from our observation of human races. Which means it's sensible to make those distinctions in the game in a way it isn't in life. I don't do a lot of dragon slaying either, day to day, so I don't have a problem with imagining that there are elves and dwarves and gnomes and they're all different from each other, and humans, in meaningful ways.

Added to all of that, if your group plays the setting and adds nothing, that's an impressively unimaginative way to play a game that's nearly entirely imagined. As soon as we started parlaying with the hill giants for their wares instead of killing them outright -- because hey, they can't be all bad, can they? -- you know you're moving beyond white hats and black hats. Can the paladin survive Vault of the Drow? Is it enough that he doesn't actively participate in evil, or does he have to prevent any he witnesses?

The game is as complex and nuanced as you want it to be. To be sure, sometimes you don't want that, and it's nice to be able to treasure hunt without worrying about little orcish orphans. But that's up to you.

No time for the "smart discussion" at present, but I'll check it out later. Cheers.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


hey, this game based on white people's folk lore has too many white people in it!

Does he also complain that there are too many black people into soul music?
posted by munchingzombie at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, I sometimes would like to ask the developers at Bethesda, who make The Elder Scrolls series of open-world RPGs (and most recently Fallout 3), why "Redguard" (dark-skinned humans) and "Nord" (white-skinned humans) are as racially distinct as "Argonians" (lizard-men) and "Khajit" (cat-men).

But then I smoke another bowl and forget about it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:02 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Tolkien's apparent sexism was always more interesting to me than Tolkien's apparent racism. Three women and six hundred men in the whole damn story.

(And then Peter and Fran made it worse by cutting the balls off one of them. Ick.)
posted by rokusan at 8:03 PM on November 19, 2008


Oh, also, "troll thread".

First it was orcs and goblins... now you have a problem with trolls?
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:05 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bethesda's "Redguard" race twigged me too, but not for the reason BitterOldPunk mentions: I mean they have three different "races" of elves, after all.

For me it was because they're "the most athletic" (strength) but "not skilled in magic" (intelligence).

The faux-Britons, whatever they were called, were the most skilled in magic but also the most susceptible to it... I'm not sure what that means.
posted by rokusan at 8:06 PM on November 19, 2008


And, for the record, the dialogue at Ta-Neishi's blog is eons beyond any Mefi-related discourse on race I've read in the past, oh, 7+ years. Sorry, kids.

All too true-- and they know their science fiction and fantasy.

Racism in f&sf is miles across and goes right down to the core-- but that could be said of all cultures and cultural productions I am aware of, with the last 50 years or so only relatively an exception.
posted by jamjam at 8:10 PM on November 19, 2008


Not to mention how black dragons are evil but white ones are...oh, wait, no, that doesn't work.*

But the authors have a good point. In D&D the races are almost distinct species, with primarily physical rather than cultural differences. It's a world where race works the way that racists think it does.

Of course, the world was created by white Americans in the 70s inspired primarily by a world created in the 30s, 40s, and 50s by a white Briton. On the whole it's not surprising that it would be a product of its times. To its credit, Wizards of the Coast created a diverse cast of 'typical' characters to serve as examples in its rulebooks.

Interestingly, D&D has (to my knowledge) always maintained equality between male and female characters, at least in terms of attributes. There are some game differences, such as susceptibility to seduction by different monsters. That is itself heteronormative, but it can be worked around more easily than the racial differences.

*(In D&D both White and Black dragons are evil)
posted by jedicus at 8:11 PM on November 19, 2008


This is why English departments suck.
posted by oddman at 8:11 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


That is a pretty good essay. After I overcame my initial LOL NERDS and PLATE OF BEANS! impulse to post, I went and read it. I like it.

One difference between TSR (and WOTC) and TV, is that you can not alter what you watch in TV.

As far as I can remember, in my D&D group we never had an open discussion on racial assumptions in the game rules, everyone just knew they were bullshit, but still played by the rules. I played a Dwarf Paladin, meaning that he did not get any of the bonuses, but always acted as a Paladin, and voluntarily accepted all the penalties and restrictions. There were several characters like that, and we tended to have all kind of ethnicities in our characters. At least we learned the lesson that if you are not of the right race, it will be harder to achieve what you want, unless you are content to conform to stereotypes.

My D&D group (have not seen them in 15 years) is still one of the most diverse communities I have belonged to (after you pass diversity through a nerd-pass filter). We had old, young, male, female, rich, poor, white, dark, straight, non-straight, professionals, manual laborers, etc. It was awesome.
posted by dirty lies at 8:12 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Okay. I haven't read the article. And I know his premise sounds moronic. But I will say that when I watched The Two Towers -- which, by the way, is a movie I loved -- well. You know. Something struck me as..yeah. (And let's be honest here: Without LOTR, there's no D&D, for better or worse.) And so just now I googled "Orcs Tolkien racism" and what to my wondering eyes should appear but:


Tolkien describes Orcs explicitly in one of his Letters:

"...they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."

In response to charges that the above comment is racist, Tolkienist Steuard Jensen writes in his Tolkien Newsgroups FAQ:

"At first glance this looks blatantly racist, but the qualifier 'to Europeans' casts it in a very different light: Tolkien explicitly recognized that different cultures have different standards of beauty, and that his impressions did not reflect any underlying superiority. Moreover, he made it clear that the Orcs were not in any sense actual 'Mongol-types,' but 'degraded and repulsive versions' of humanoid stock.

"Nevertheless," Jensen adds, "[Tolkien's] comment certainly falls short of modern standards of sensitivity."


So, you know. Make of that what you will. I'm comfortable saying that Professor Tolkien was a product of his times and leaving questions about his character at that; but we're also products of our times, and if that doesn't sound kinda gross to our modern sensibilities, I think we're just not paying attention, really.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:12 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


Smart discussion about a Something Awful pisstake?

Hold on, I think Fark has some serious points to make about the different media treatments of Clinton and Palin.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pater Athelas wrote...
There's a lot more here than just "the bad guys all have dark skin."

As with most of these things, someone had a single insight and tried to stretch it for all it was worth. In this case that insight was:
  • The basic mechanism of game play and world building in D&D reflects a race based view of the world.
It's an interesting point, but in attempting to extend it into his Sociology thesis the author manages to very quickly rathole himself.

Basically he ends up turning the Monster Manual into a Rorshach test of social commentary. What begins as an interesting insight very [very!] quickly deteriorates into a "let's extend the metaphor!" party, which are fun to participate in but never quite as funny the next morning.

Comparing and contrasting fantasy world "X" to real social phenomenon is a very tired trope at this point. I realize that for some people it never gets old but then, what's a nerd without a tired old topic that's been done to death?



[P.S. Han totally shot first]
posted by tkolar at 8:15 PM on November 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


Maybe if you read "An orc is an ugly human-like creature, and looks like a combination of animal and man... Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger." and think, "Hey, that sounds like black people", it says more about you than it does about the game.
posted by Neale at 8:16 PM on November 19, 2008 [9 favorites]


I played a Dwarf Paladin, meaning that he did not get any of the bonuses, but always acted as a Paladin, and voluntarily accepted all the penalties and restrictions. There were several characters like that, and we tended to have all kind of ethnicities in our characters. At least we learned the lesson that if you are not of the right race, it will be harder to achieve what you want, unless you are content to conform to stereotypes.

My female half-orcish cavalier would like to make the acquaintance of your dwarven paladin, dirty lies.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:17 PM on November 19, 2008


Something I ran across a while ago, same vein, but meant to be funny, about LOTR.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:25 PM on November 19, 2008


Maybe if you read "An orc is an ugly human-like creature ..." and think, "Hey, that sounds like black people", it says more about you than it does about the game.

Or maybe you have a really fucking naive view of (racial) history, grasshopper. For a white dude, I'm rapidly losing patience for explaining this to ya'll. One-drop, all that. Good night.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:26 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


See also Star Trek and similar, with the belligerent race, the thoughtful race, the race of big-nosed merchants...
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:26 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


If filmed, your average D&D campaign would look something like Birth of a Nation set in Greyhawk.

No, it would look like Lord of the Rings.

D&D and the rest of the fantasy industry are getting this from the very best sources. In Tolkien, race (species, if you prefer) is destiny.

China Miéville:
. . . you're talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. . . Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters--and often whole races--lining up to fall into pigeonholes with 'good' and 'evil' written on them.

[T]hat particular post-Tolkien stream is what most people these days mean when they talk about 'fantasy'. . .

Unfortunately, a lot of Tolkien's heirs--who may not share his politics at all--have taken on many tropes that embed a lot of those notions in their fantasy.
posted by Herodios at 8:30 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


you know what i don't get about orcs? where are all the girl orcs? and the kiddie orcs? no wonder they're so evil - they never have sex

but i think tolkien was every bit the product of his time (and let's not forget his early childhood was spend in south africa) and for that matter, so were the vikings and other europeans whose works he based his mythology around

it's not surprising that this article can make a fairly good case of racial thinking being behind d&d games, although i think it's more a matter of the source material not being examined critically instead of deliberate intent
posted by pyramid termite at 8:35 PM on November 19, 2008


Maybe if you read "An orc is an ugly human-like creature, and looks like a combination of animal and man... Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger." and think, "Hey, that sounds like black people", it says more about you than it does about the game.

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:35 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm a good guy in the game, does that mean I never get to acquire the +9 Veiny Bang Stick? Cause I heard all the bad guys get those.
posted by maxwelton at 8:40 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


White people: do the humpty-hump.

(Translation for white people: roll 2d10 and if #>2, watch HGTV)
posted by joe lisboa at 8:44 PM on November 19, 2008


Ok, so I've read the article and while I find parts interesting, it seems to me that the issue is not D&D per se, but most of the shrink-wrapped D&D campaign source books.*

I've played in game worlds where the white European types are decidedly in the minority (the Yin Sloth Jungles in Palladium FRP comes to mind). And my own most successful gaming group was actually one in which I made all the PCs play humans, because all of the other races were things you'd encounter, not play, and were pretty alien from the players' standpoint.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:49 PM on November 19, 2008


These D&D campaigns sound very, very boring. If no one is asking why the adventurers are doing what they're doing, or why the bad guys are bad, whether or not the game reinforces racist subtexts is the least of your worries.
posted by lumensimus at 8:53 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


The most dangerous enemies of all are blonde and Caucasian. There is only one way to defeat them in epic battle.
posted by Tehanu at 8:53 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


And please disregard that errant asterisk...it's obviously part of an elven plot to keep the half-orc down.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:54 PM on November 19, 2008


These D&D campaigns sound very, very boring.

He's talking about Forgotten Realms...I think that goes without saying.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:56 PM on November 19, 2008


Gelatinous cubes... Belgians, right?
posted by Flunkie at 9:00 PM on November 19, 2008 [9 favorites]


They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger." and think, "Hey, that sounds like black people", it says more about you than it does about the game.

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."


Weird. I thought that sounded more like rednecks.

We all carry our own Bags of Holding.
posted by rokusan at 9:07 PM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


To me, the thing the author is missing (or possibly simply discounting) is that in a 1st-Edition style RPG, the game mechanics more-or-less demand this sort of thing. Humans are the only race which can advance to high levels in any class precisely because that's the only thing they get -- without the restrictions, the other races would clearly be "better", and thus unbalanced. On top of that, the class restrictions are also needed to counteract the natural tendency for people not to play "boring humans" in a fantasy game. And in a game with just six base stats, all of which necessarily have culturally-determined baggage attached, your races are going to end up either reinforcing or playing-against existing cultural stereotypes no matter what you do. I don't disagree that the way these stats were assigned follows very white (and English!) lines, but that's probably because the game was invented by very white Englishmen, working in a fledgling genre which was pioneered by another white Englishman, based on his deliberately and radically medieval aesthetics and philosophy.

China Miéville can call Tolkien's tropes "vile ideas" all he likes, but frankly, he's as biased as Tolkien ever was, just in the opposite direction... and the idea that these concepts can or should be discarded out-of-hand is more than a little premature. The conflict between kings and The People, between "superheroic protagonists" and fate, and between absolute and relative morality is not finished, and likely will not be so as long as mankind still exists. On top of that, these concepts still inform the Western worldview and culture in deep and meaningful ways. At its best, fantasy exists to explore these issues, and to urge its readers (and players) to draw their own conclusions. And as dirty lies points out, crying about the rules in a game (or a genre) which is largely about imagination and what-if seems more than a little short-sighted. In the end, part of the point is that the rules themselves, including the tropes of the genre, are vulnerable to the same exploration and personal redefinition as the story itself is.

Also, few things set off my eye-roll-ometer more than someone who describes others' ideals as "vile", among them the very idea of absolute morality. If there is no absolute morality, no way to pigeonhole something or someone as good or evil, then what makes that person's ideals vile to begin with?
posted by vorfeed at 9:18 PM on November 19, 2008 [8 favorites]


So how does something like WoW fit in here? The mainstream playable orcs are an honorable and intelligent race.

The playable undead were raised against their will and forced to fight against friends and family. After being freed from compulsion, they have to live with the fact that the people they once cared for think they are monsters even though they did nothing of their own free will.

Could you learn to tolerate your brain eating zombie grandmother or would you call the local paladin to smite her?

The lore in the game shows case after case of various factions putting aside differences like that and fighting side by side against greater evils, along with a bunch of racist humans who just think orcs, trolls, or undead are just mindless monsters.

I think the article makes good points about how this type of thing has been handled in the past, but the cutting edge RPG games have a much more introspective take on the matter.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:21 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Doh, RPG Games. I'll have to go to the ATM machine so I can buy more.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:22 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


When you toss around phrases like "D&D usually becomes a proxy race war" people will dismiss you out of hand because their D&D games were more likely filled with "You're not THERE, you're getting DRUNK!" than "You enter the Dolomite cavern and swarms of Orcs from the Dark Puma clan swarm around you. 'Where all the Elven Women at?' they shout. Roll initiative."

D&D, like everything else, doesn't USUALLY become anything but whatever the group of people sitting around the table make it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:24 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The drow, as the first article pointed out, but the second article missed, aren't racist. Their misogynistic. The only group ruled in a matriarchy and they are inherently evil, with the women as the most evil. Everything to do with the drow has always bothered me. After all, shouldn't they be albino?

That said, I think D&D has clean up a lot of the racial crap that unwittingly was in the earlier versions. While half-orcs aren't in 4th edition, there are rules for playing as an orc in the Monster Manual (there are rules there for orcs, warforged, shadar-kai, minotaur, etc.). Orcs get a +2 to strenght and constitution. No negative modifiers anymore. However, their description is still of a barbarian race. And they still are always chaotic evil when encountered normally.

On the third hand, 4th edition has created a visible minority race who are outcasts- the Tiefling. While you could fault the designers for giving the Tiefling ancestors that made a deal with the devil (literally), that was a thousand years ago, and now they are just regular folk, trying to get by and persecuted all over the place.

I don't think D&D has completely shed its racial problems, but I think with each edition they do take steps towards fixing that.

(As a side note, I always like Shadowrun's (cyberpunk with a dose of fantasy thrown in) version of racism: "Who cares about that tan looking guy next to you when that thing over there has hands the size of your head?" being the view of the upper classes. Of course, being a metahuman was a popular choice in the groups I played as. I always liked playing as an ork.)

On preview, I agree with furiousxgeorge and haveanicesummer.
posted by Hactar at 9:30 PM on November 19, 2008


'Where all the Elven Women at?'

Dost thou mind if we parlay with thine consorts?
posted by boo_radley at 9:30 PM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


furiousxgeorge: So how does something like WoW fit in here?

There's a lot of discussion of World of Warcraft in the comments to Ta-Nehisi's post.

vorfeed: On top of that, the class restrictions are also needed to counteract the natural tendency for people not to play "boring humans" in a fantasy game.

This was always something that bothered me as a young geek (that and intelligence pluses and minuses... the other stat changes I could live with, but when DMing I threw those out). So I ask, what's wrong with not playing human characters? I mean, why is it important a plurality of players choose to role-play as humans?
posted by Kattullus at 9:33 PM on November 19, 2008


Scanning upthread, I didn't see any mention of Oriental Adventures, the 1st edition supplement from the mid-eighties. Characters in an OA campaign had an "honor score" in addition to normal hit points. If ignoble behavior or disgrace on the battlefield ever forced a character's "honor" to zero, the character was obliged to commit suicide.

In this, I see the game designers making some effort to grapple with AD&D's biggest short-coming - the limited potential for moral nuance and narrative complexity endemic to stat-driven simulations.

Ultimately, my frustration with so-called role-playing games is the lack of opportunities to actually play roles. The need to classify and express everything numerically tends to flatten any honest-to-goodness role play into a set of prescribed behaviors like fighting, looting and searching for secret doors.

But this point has been made already. So I'm going to bed.
posted by ducky l'orange at 9:35 PM on November 19, 2008


Wait, isn't D&D actually about exploring fictional worlds & creating new personae for oneself? Like elven princesses in chainmail bikinis who go about not killing orcs, but trying to seduce the other characters....?

At least, that's how I remember the one & only time I was ever asked to play.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:39 PM on November 19, 2008


Your DM sucks.

Why in the world would you mess with orcs? More likely they are being manipulated by those with real power into their stereotypical role as the poor unskilled worker...slave to the ones with the gold. Better off to fight the real power and stamp out the source of this institutionalized racism at its source!

I have a dream....
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:40 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


(And obviously the title and content of Oriental Adventures both suggest a fairly stunning level of racial and cultural cluelessness on the part of TSR, but whatever.)
posted by ducky l'orange at 9:42 PM on November 19, 2008


One thing... I really liked Al-Qadim, being someone who inhaled 1001 Nights as a kid. As Ovid says in the comments to Ta-Nehisi Coates' post: "But I did enjoy al-Qadim, so I'm not sure what the problem there is supposed to be. IIRC, that setting explicitly abolished the racial animosity thing between elves, dwarves etc., in analogy to medieval Islam's relative tolerance."
posted by Kattullus at 9:47 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger." and think, "Hey, that sounds like black people", it says more about you than it does about the game.

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."


Orcs are meant to represent jocks, not blacks.
posted by benzenedream at 9:58 PM on November 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


If there is no absolute morality, no way to pigeonhole something or someone as good or evil, then what makes that person's ideals vile to begin with?

Maybe he means that the ideals disgust him and excite his disapprobation.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:22 PM on November 19, 2008


I always thought the Belgariad was more disturbing with multiple genocides than LOTR. In any case, this discussion has forced me, yes forced me, to look at the D&D and AD&D sets on the shelf for reference. What I recall was a great deal of role play that involved definitely less enlightened views such as, the immediate killing of any and all drow by one character while a narrative sub-plot of can a drow ever be trusted being used by the DM for a more nuanced game.

But really, I was playing a game that seemed to have a lot of scantily clad but armoured women role played by really large men a great deal of the time. Good times. I shall be cremated with a pair of D10 in one hand and a D20 in another.
posted by jadepearl at 10:33 PM on November 19, 2008


I used to play Blackfoot, a Dark Elf.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:36 PM on November 19, 2008


Maybe he means that the ideals disgust him and excite his disapprobation.

If you read the article, I think it's quite clear that he intends it as a moral judgment rather than a relative personal opinion. The entire interview is a series of very strong moral judgments on all sorts of things: an interview where morality is absolute, with stories--and often whole authors--lining up to fall into pigeonholes with 'good' and 'evil' written on them, if you will. That's not very convincing to me, especially not coming from someone who denounces the very same behavior in another author.

So I ask, what's wrong with not playing human characters? I mean, why is it important a plurality of players choose to role-play as humans?

First of all, I didn't mean "it's important that a plurality of players choose to role-play as humans" so much as I meant "if we're gonna put humans (or any other race, for that matter) in the game, it's important that they actually get played".

Also, I suspect that the choice of humans for the "default" role has as much to do with human anthropocentrism and the fish-out-of-water trope (i.e. the single viewpoint character the reader can readily identify with, amongst a crowd of initially bizarre and unfamiliar types) as it does with anything from Tolkien. Making the "default" race the species we actually are in real life made a lot of sense, especially in the early days of role playing, when the entire concept itself was new.
posted by vorfeed at 10:39 PM on November 19, 2008


vorfeed: On top of that. The king is just a fucking plot device to get the small-town Hobbits into trouble. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are about four country gentlemen and the hired help who get pulled into a big war, and return heroes.

Granted, the Lord of the Rings is loaded with a whole bunch of assumptions about economic class. But the whole political subtext is that kings need the educated over-fed land-owning middle class a lot more than the middle class needs the king.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:48 PM on November 19, 2008


Or maybe you have a really fucking naive view of (racial) history, grasshopper. For a white dude, I'm rapidly losing patience for explaining this to ya'll. One-drop, all that. Good night.

-- + --

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."


No, it sounds like, "Hey those are monsters", which is basically what they were until someone went and wrote an elaborate back story for them. For the analogy to work, for the racism to be inherent, you would have to demonstrate that these monsters are all based on racial stereotypes, rather than being "not human".

Unless the depiction of being "non-human" is, by definition, being racist, which is like a racism hunt that can't fail.

It seems to me there is a conflux of ideas over time to which someone has come and applied the racist "brand".

1. Early humans invents "monsters", based on primal fears, become conception/perception of "the other"
2. Monsters converted into lore, eventually culture
3. Humans meet other humans "not like them" (race/colour/creed), find it easiest to describe them as "the other"
4. Racism demonises "the other" as monsters
5. Wait long enough, and "monsters" themselves demonised as racism

Or something like that.
posted by Neale at 10:52 PM on November 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


The fact that this guy read "Is Faerun Ready for Its First Orc President?" and thought it supported his thesis as oppossed to satirising it really says it all about this insipid essay.

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."

So? The racist view of black people is very negative. If you're creating an antognist group who are thoughtless, brutal and evil, or have other negative traits, it's going to be next to impossible to not have them sound similar to some racial sterotype. Hell, I've read people drawing correlations betweens Orcs and Native Americans, (although, these same people would correlate Orcs to black people as well, to get kind of a grab back of accusations that D&D is racist.) Any demi-human group in D&D can be correlated to just about any other. Tinker gnomes are little people who build technological devices, are they the Swiss? The Japanese? I don't know, what's the most offensive one I can use to prop up my thesis?

Just because racists describe a real group in a certain, false way, does not mean there is a connection to a fictional group described in a similar fashion, and it's absurd to draw a conclusion that the fictional group is a proxy for the real one.
posted by Snyder at 10:53 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


But my best-tank is black!
posted by YoBananaBoy at 11:01 PM on November 19, 2008


They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger.

This can hardly be considered to be exclusively, or uniquely, a description of black people. Who else might it describe, as a stereotype?

Israelis.
New Yorkers.
Grade school bullies.
Conservatives.
Punk rockers.
Heavy metal fans.
The KKK.
My grandfather.
Germans.
Australians.
Tasmanian devils.
The bad guys from the Die Hard movies.
Evil samurai.
Frankenberry.
That guy in the free mustache rides T-shirt.
Gremlins.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:11 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]


> Everything fun is racist, so stop it right now.

That's exactly the kind of thing a filthy Belgian would say.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:01 AM on November 20, 2008


We need a Nerd Nite in Portland, OR. This literate city, which is chock-full of cool nerds, is perfect for it. I'd even organize it if I had the time. I'm too swamped with academic nerdly pursuits at the moment, though.
posted by velvet winter at 12:06 AM on November 20, 2008


1. Early humans invents "monsters", based on primal fears, become conception/perception of "the other"
2. Monsters converted into lore, eventually culture
3. Humans meet other humans "not like them" (race/colour/creed), find it easiest to describe them as "the other"
4. Racism demonises "the other" as monsters
5. Wait long enough, and "monsters" themselves demonised as racism


Heh. And if you want a mash-up of all of theres this this Robert E Howard story, which is, um, not really something taht would fly these days.
posted by Artw at 12:08 AM on November 20, 2008


Tolkien's apparent sexism was always more interesting to me than Tolkien's apparent racism.

That terrible sexist Tolkien, with his being one of the earlier Oxford profs to accept female students. I guess the role played by women in his novels couldn't be anything to do with his desire to draw on Nordic and Old Germanic forms!

They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. . . Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within.

[...]

Unfortunately, a lot of Tolkien's heirs--who may not share his politics at all--have taken on many tropes that embed a lot of those notions in their fantasy.


You know, it's funny how many people who seek to cast aspersions on Tolkien's view of social classes don't seem to have bothered reading the fucking books. One of the major themes is, essentially, that the heretidary nobility and the great and the good all fuck it up. The only character in LoTR to be uncorrupted by the Ring is... Sam Gamgee. The armies of the west are only saved from massacre because one of the bad guys' greed results in the destruction of the Ring.

That was one of the most idiotic readings of LoTR I've read since David Brin's pile of shit.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are about four country gentlemen and the hired help who get pulled into a big war, and return heroes.

"Four country gentleman?" Perhaps you could try reading the book again. You mean "two country gentlemen, the adopted kid of the local eccentric, and the gardener."
posted by rodgerd at 12:10 AM on November 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


The vast majority of the rules are about combat and violence; and race and (fantasy)racial stereotypes define most characters. It can all be subverted by a good DM, of course, but by default, D&D is about defining an absolutely evil, subhuman enemy, and then murdering them and stealing their stuff.

Generic fantasy is a reactionary genre, unless the author (or DM) purposely sets out to subvert the standard tropes to prove a point.
posted by empath at 12:12 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


And, as it happens, equating D&D Orcs et al with Black Americans is a terrible misreading of the one of the tropes Gygax is hooking into - he wrote up something to the effect that DMs should think of adventurers as Wild West gun fighters, unwelcome in the more civilised bits of empires, and most likely invited to leave the small frontier towns as soon as they solved the local problem; in that context, the players are the guys exterminating buffalo herds and setting up the local Trail of Tears.

Which is a whole other pile of baggage.
posted by rodgerd at 12:19 AM on November 20, 2008


I don't think you need to compare them to black americans. The correct comparison is indigenous and aboriginal peoples of all types. It's a colonialist mindset.
posted by empath at 12:22 AM on November 20, 2008


(In D&D both White and Black dragons are evil)

Let's set the record straight here. In D&D, metallic dragons are good. Colored dragons are evil.
posted by darksasami at 12:24 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]



I think the article makes good points about how this type of thing has been handled in the past, but the cutting edge RPG games have a much more introspective take on the matter.


You don't even need to go cutting edge. Shadowrun had a much more modern take on racial politics (especially around Native Americans), the disruptive effects of magic as presented on race, religion, geopolitics... really thoughtful setting. The way some of the races emerged (orcs, dwarves, etc, being born to 'normal' humans) has obvious hooks into race and queer anxieties

Pity it's most recent incarnation is a shitty console FPS.
posted by rodgerd at 12:25 AM on November 20, 2008


What's a nubian?
posted by Artw at 12:25 AM on November 20, 2008 [4 favorites]



I don't think you need to compare them to black americans.


I don't, but that's how most of the conversation has gone to date.
posted by rodgerd at 12:26 AM on November 20, 2008



Let's set the record straight here. In D&D, metallic dragons are good. Colored dragons are evil.


Reach harder, you might strain something.
posted by rodgerd at 12:27 AM on November 20, 2008


The WH40K universe is clearly the best RPG universe based on racism.
posted by Artw at 12:37 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know all those horror stories about pale ghosts, and pale vampires?

All written by Black Panthers. Every one of them.

★ The more you know
posted by qvantamon at 1:46 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm partial to "Naga, please!" myself.

Orc please.


Yep, as long as you don't actually say Nigger, then it's ok to say Nigger.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:50 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nothing proves this guys point than the knee-jerk defensiveness on display in this thread.

I set up one D&D campaign for my kids once. I made it a puzzle rather than a "kill the monsters" type thing. Not for this reason, but now I'm glad I did.
posted by DU at 4:33 AM on November 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


This tendency towards racism appears so because of the mechanics of games. Games, which are designed for that tendency in humans called "play," tend to both simplify the wearisome moral and ethical complexities of daily life in favor of certainty and decisive and next abstract the details of reality away such that a win-at-all-costs mentality is favored.

Starting with Candyland, we have just one winner (I heard they PC'd the game up some, but there's still only one winner). We can charge unconscionable rent on our properties (Monopoly), ruthlessly sacrifice groups of soliders and political figures (chess), and generally behave like a scoundrel. To avoid it, the game must be completely unrepresentational. You take away another's hope of winning, knock them off the board, whatever it takes to reach the goal.

Once you realize that, pretty much any game after Connect Four is just a problem in search of an accusatory -ism. Looking at Gygax's original intent, one could don a small red beret and point to the fact that it's a hell run on capitalism — slithering through narrow tunnels (like mines), backstabbing your friends, and then blowing all of your gold in either exploitative, unseemly mishaps at the local tavern or using the gold to buy magical weapons and other capital so that you can acquire even more gold.

Perhaps his only telling observation is of the general whiteness of the players and their characters. This lasts until you look below the surface. We're starting with Tolkein and various other Western traditions in fantasy, of course it's going to be rather white. It's a war game started in the 70's in the U.S.A.; it'll be heavy on the whiteness because it's not a deliberately multicultural math textbook written in the late 90's. White players in the drawings? Let's be honest, for all of our attempts to find other people on the social fringes to play with us, RPGs for the longest time remained the province of middle-class white kids. About as far as our teenage outreach went was persuading a football player, a gay kid, and a burnout to play in the same room. Forgive TSR for drawing the players as young middle-class white guys when the players were young middle-class white guys. It's an obvious mistake seen thirty years later when looking back at 1978.

He spends seven paragraphs on Stormfront as well, not merely as a straw man, but one already coated in pitch. I'm sure I could spend some time on Stormfront and connect them to just about, well, anything I wished to demonize short of eating granola and hugging trees. Are we really supposed to turn against something reflexively because some right-wing loonies embrace it? One might note the conflicted relationship right-wing loonies have had with Mazes and Monst-, oh, sorry, I was just buried under a pile of Jack Chick tracts about doing spells on my parents.

He can point at Oriental Adventures and laugh, but it came out in 1985, before "Oriental" fell off of the euphemism treadmill. In thirty years, people I'm sure will be aghast if you refer to them as "Asian" instead of whatever less-appropriate substitute we find. As to "small, magical white people," let's break that down a bit. Suggesting that noting a statistically-significant, non-zero difference in height is somehow insulting seems to be an exercise in pushing fnord on people. As to the magical, it's D&D — every supplement was magical, and most of the few legends I know of that edge of the continent had a more integrated magical tradition: magic seemed to happen everywhere, and was within everyone. Compare against the western tradition of ordinary people, extraordinary magic (reserved for wizards, rare items, and those who were not human). His sally against a flavor supplement from the East (in Latin, orient) is soley designed to take in those who react on some kind of reflex level and disregards actual thought. I'm shocked he didn't go straight for the easy one: hey, in Oriental Adventures, even the ogres (oni) are smarter! Maybe I can sit next to one during a test ... if he doesn't eat me.

His analysis of character race and class is simplistic. Of course bonuses and minuses are based off of human; that's what the players already know. "More dextrous than an average human" is easy to comprehend. The alternative would be to, say, base everything relative to the halfling, and then state that humans and most everything are stronger than halflings, but clumsier, etc. That is more difficult for players and therefore not where a smart game designer would start — with what the player already knows. Class limitations? Why, yes, most every race, aside from its bonuses, had some kind of special ability associated with it. Class limitations for other races were the only way to gameplay that unique ability humans attribute to themselves, that of the adaptable generalist. How could we play that in any other fashion but by artifically limiting the play of other races? If that's protectionism, it's also the only rational way to ensure that humans are selected as races at least some of the time.

Oh, how terribly off the rails he goes with the orc thing. I suspect he's American, because Americans do not know just how deeply entrenched the "compensatory democracy by Fate" (CDBF) outlook is — the better you are at one thing, the worse you must be at something else, because otherwise it is not fair. Oh, you're smart, but you have no common sense. He does not get that, under CDBF, if orcs are strong, they must be dumb, otherwise it would not be "fair." And of course half-breed orcs are loathesome; he's somehow gone tra la la past the Uncanny Valley; that which is just over slightly different is more repellent than the actually monstrous.

And, well, non-white-skinned monsters. Sure, I had some albino critters in my dungeons, that's always a lot of fun. However, when you have nearly white skin, any variation away from it is dark-skinned. Place the Caucasian skin tone (a fuzzy group, to be sure) in any arrangement of HSL or HSV colorspaces and any deviation for the purposes of description is now dark or swarthy. The only alternative would be to have monsters all with human skin tone, which could then just degenerate into an argument about race because they have different facial features. Once you decide to play Handicapper General, it's a race to homogeneity.

4th Edition D&D, wherein just about everything you kill happens to be a biped capable of basic speech, must be espcially bad for him, but I'd love to see his face when someone shows him the game of, then drops the name for, Othello.

What a horrible little essay he's made.
posted by adipocere at 4:48 AM on November 20, 2008 [22 favorites]


adipocere: White players in the drawings? Let's be honest, for all of our attempts to find other people on the social fringes to play with us, RPGs for the longest time remained the province of middle-class white kids.

So? Since the early 90's a majority of those who listen to hip hop are middle-class white kids. Hasn't caused them much if anything in the way of cognitive dissonance to listen to descriptions of life among inner city African-American youths.

Nobody's attacking the players. No one's saying it isn't a game. The kids are alright. It's the way that various game mechanics are explained which is the weirdness. It's not that there's anything wrong with having a generalist race, it's the "others are too lazy" etc. stuff that's disconcerting. When I was first starting to GM in my early teens this was uncomfortable to me. I know plenty of other role-players who found it uncomfortable or weird at a similarly early age. My personal response to was to migrate to other systems (Mekton was an early favorite, a lot of kids I knew got into Cyberpunk) and then, once I picked up D&D again, to play around with the racial weirdness and use it as a generator of interesting worlds (I once created a world where humans were mostly an urban species, comfortable enough in all environments but never truly masters of any). The point is that you don't need to be a critical theorist or high-school English teacher (like Mr. van Dyke) or whatever to find that aspect of Dungeons & Dragons troubling. Kids like me and my friends, in Iceland, where made uncomfortable by it. The kids were alright and they still are and I bet there are plenty of 13 year olds now who find the whole thing a bit unsettling.
posted by Kattullus at 5:30 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bean-plate thoughts as I read the essay:

The author is not talking about True First Edition Dungeons and Dragons. He makes a big deal about all the character pictures in AD&D being of white folks, but in the True First rule book, you have on page four a picture of three wizards. One is a Gandalf knock off, the other is based on a Hindi mystic, and the third is either Egyptian or Babylonian. The art is not very good, and I'm pretty sure the fact that they didn't shade in any skin has more to do with that then any racial bias.

Again, looking at True First, there is no good or evil. It's Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. Orcs in True First can be Chaotic or Neutral.

In the True First I linked above there's a picture of an Orc on Page 24. That does not look like a black guy. It looks more like the white bum I see shouting at people down by the rotary near my house (minus the sword and shield, of course). The Goblin on 29 is wearing chainmail, hose, and a cape. Hell, the elf on page 32 looks blacker than the orc!

Once we get to the Monster description of the orc, in the linked True First, we don't see a physical description so much as a hint of orcish society - they travel in caravans, they can build catapults, they build palisades and towers, and have strong "leader/protector" types. Orcs can be Fighting-Men or Magic Users (something that dwarves, a "white" race, cannot be) and are tribal based. Orc tribes are just as likely to fight each other as they are to fight PC races. Maybe the orcs are like Colbert and just don't see race, prefering instead to act for the safety/benefit of their own people?

Okay, ending with a passage from a white supremacist is kind of a cheap shot. I get why the author did it, but the whole thing makes as much sense as quote a neo-nazi who learned to hate Jewish people through Monopoly.

Thinking more about Monopoly, I suspect that D&D condones racism just as much as Monopoly condones IP theft. When I land on Boardwalk, I am not supporting stealing other people's ideas to present as my own in order to become wealthy just as much as I'm not supporting racism when I kill an orc in a dungeon.

Sorry for the disjointed nature of my reply. I kept getting side tracked reading that True First stuff. The thing that really knee-caps this article is the lack of mention of Dave Arneson. Any nerd trying to be scholarly about D&D who doesn't mention Dave Arneson probably kissed a few girls back in highschool while the rest of us true blue nerds whacked off lovingly to crudely drawn nymphs.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:34 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Gelatinous cubes... Belgians, right?

Silly square creatures made of Jello that try to absorb whomever they touch? I was going to guess "Mormons".
posted by roystgnr at 5:47 AM on November 20, 2008


I cannot wait to send this to a friend of mine who runs four different D&D games a week. I've been trying to see if I can spike his blood pressure for years, and this might just do it and get him to relax.
posted by mephron at 6:01 AM on November 20, 2008


I dunno, the concept of 'evil races' always made me uncomfortable. But it wasn't that I saw it as a racist representation of another sort of human that curently exists, it's that demonizing the evil hordes (often by making them wear face masks) upsets me in films with large scale battle scenes and anywhere that the palace guards of the evil overlord are dispatched with no thought to the potential wrongness of killing a dozen people.

Of course I recall getting into a lengthy arguement with one GM about how if evil players weren't allowed at his table, I really couldn't play a character who actively went seeking monsters to kill them, as 'because they're evil!' was not a good enough justification as long as my character had an intelligence above stupid. I believe evil people exist in real life, but I'm not breaking into their homes, killing them and stealing their stuff.

And I was guilty of reading way too much into games, and know I'm guilty, though.
posted by Phalene at 6:09 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nothing proves this guys point than the knee-jerk defensiveness on display in this thread.

Thank you.

Now let's try again.

Much of the detail in the van Dyke article is too facile, but the central observation is valid.

The point isn't that "Hey, that sounds like black people" but "Hey, that sounds like the racist stereotype of black people."

Orcs are meant to represent jocks, not blacks.


What they represent is the actuality of a social stereotype in the work. Orcs or elves or dwarves don't have to be stand-ins for blacks or jews or gays or Belgians to be seen as validating racism. In these works, race is destiny. In these worlds, what race you were born into determines who you are and what you can be.

You can ignore that and just enjoy killing 'bad guys' if that's what draws your blade, but it would be silly to pretend it is not there.

But then:
So how does something like WoW fit in here? The mainstream playable orcs are an honorable and intelligent race. . .

I think the article makes good points about how this type of thing has been handled in the past, but the cutting edge RPG games have a much more introspective take on the matter.


Thanks for that, Furious. An interesting development that I was not aware of.
posted by Herodios at 6:25 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Drow rage! Drow rage! I'll kill any sun elves I lay my eyes on!
posted by fraxil at 6:57 AM on November 20, 2008


Dear god!

Who opened up this can and let all the worms out? I was saving that for a special occasion!
posted by Spatch at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


there are some pretty big responses his, i take it dungeons and dragons is popular?
posted by adamficekblog at 7:14 AM on November 20, 2008


What's wrong with being racy?
posted by fleacircus at 7:20 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Am I missing something here? Isn't D&D a "Role Playing Game" (played inside the imaginations of the players), and thus whatever role the player assigns himself, in his head, is the "race" of the "role" being played? I mean, why couldn't I play a black elf, if I was so inclined to think that way? The author of the first piece is projecting his own internal prejudices (or his looking for prejudice where none exists) onto a whole group of people, which in and of itself is a prejudice. His critical theory/critical interpretation? Not so critical.
posted by jivadravya at 7:47 AM on November 20, 2008


The vast majority of the rules are about combat and violence; and race and (fantasy)racial stereotypes define most characters. It can all be subverted by a good DM, of course, but by default, D&D is about defining an absolutely evil, subhuman enemy, and then murdering them and stealing their stuff.

This is true. Doesn’t take a particularly good DM, though. That stuff gets boring after awhile. In most campaigns I’ve known, it’s the occasional inclusion of a devil or demon (or daemon) that’s interesting, because the idea of “true evil” had mostly been thrown out ages ago, so to meet something where there’s no doubt is pretty different. However, you’re spot on about the inherent problem of the typical “quest” in D&D. It is, indeed, about killing creatures and taking their stuff. I wonder whether early problems having players stick to good alignments had more to do with cutting loose or was it really a realization that you can’t go around killing things for loot and call yourself good anyway. That being said, we’re talking about a setting where the most mindless of creatures like to carry the shiny stuff.

without the restrictions, the other races would clearly be "better", and thus unbalanced.

Damn straight. Hey, I can see in the dark, speak five languages, and get bonuses to skills. You? You can get higher than 16th level if we end up playing these characters for a few years. Good luck with that.

Anyway, where is this “most players play human” thing coming from anyway? It’s sad that just this week I replaced my user pic. It had been the classic scene from the original Players Handbook – dwarves with torches walking past a magic mouth. Nary a human in sight.

Oh, and as for the Star Trek thing. Do you really think that people didn't get into it to the extent that they were able to imagine, and feel real rancor at, the idea of a superior alien race? Spock (and Data, for that matter) were constantly used to reinforce the idea of humanity's dominant or defining role in the universe. To the extent that humans fill this role in D&D, it's just more pandering. But you're fighting dragons and running from giants and not able to imagine other species clearly enough for your prejudices to be species-ism rather than coded racism? Uh-huh.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:08 AM on November 20, 2008


The essay is about how D&D - and really fantasy in general - normalizes whiteness and that the construction of race in the game mirrors the construction of race in society. The section in the essay about half-orcs seems to me to be the clearest example of the correlation: "We also seem to have the fantasy equivalent of the 'one-drop' rule, with the monstrous, orcish nature nearly always overwhelming the 'civilized' human nature."

I don't think it's a coincidence that the culture surrounding RPGs remains a primarily white one.

Man. I was so excited to read all the comments in this thread, but there's, like, no decent discussion here. How disappointing.
posted by lunit at 8:10 AM on November 20, 2008 [7 favorites]


two stories from my own fantasy game....

I took great pleasure as the party, made up of players that included two recent mothers with toddlers playing together on the floor as we gamed, killed a mound of lizard people, including a wave of untrained fighters that burst out at the end in a frenzy. The PCs went in to loot the place and found the nursery full of younglings with no one around -- the last wave was their MOTHERS fighting to save their children. The PCs had to decide to kill every child since they'd die of exposure on their own now that their families were dead. I almost didn't survive as the DM that day.

The other story revolves around finding a trove of old books that includes a compendium of ancient orc literature that is far beyond anything the elves have accomplished, including treatises on war machines, governance by electorates, etc (modeled on Ancient Greek and Arabic sources). Each book is marked in red "suppress and destroy" in elven and common....

Needless to say, the PCs never know what to expect, but race wars aren't their gig.
posted by dwivian at 8:38 AM on November 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


I found the article insightful. My brother and I were deep into sci fi and fantasy as kids - novels, movies, and some D&D - but we both lost a good deal of interest around the age of 12. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I think it was because we both were getting sick of pure light-skinned hero beating down on the evil dark-skinned humanoid tropes. It was mirroring our own realizations of the racial ugliness of the world we were experiencing (the kids in my mostly-white community were pretty blunt about us being "different", even though we didn't feel different in any way). And not just color, but the refusal of complex reactions to situations. Like the article said, you don't talk to orcs, you don't reason with them and you don't think of how much you have in common with them. You just kill them. One of the watershed gaming experiences I had was in Ultima VI, a game in which the Gargoyle race was set up as the Great Satan to be eradicated by the European whites. As the game goes on, you come to realize that the Gargoyles are complex beings with compassion, intelligence, and (gasp!) their own prejudices. I'm not sure why so few fantasy settings seem to explore this, but I think it's kind of necessary, especially in a post-9/11 world.
posted by naju at 9:01 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nothing proves this guys point than the knee-jerk defensiveness on display in this thread.

Nothing proves my point then the whole "there is no good discussion here," from people who are pissy that not everyone is validating the essay.

The reason exasperation might be confused by the dim for defensiveness is that this discussion has been old since the first DM put Orc babies in Keep on the Borderlands. The moral ambiguities of D&D have been hashed out for ages, and I doubt the discussion is going to end any time soon, but this is essay is terrible, poorly researched, self-contradicting, and as full of reaches as any essay by an undergrad just discovering critical theory. There are interesting things to say about D&D's assumptions, and some have some remarkably prosaic reasons (the origin of the cleric class, for example,) but the author simply has not done his work and gone no deeper than skin tone and setting up fucking Stormfront as somehow being the most perceptive about the game.
posted by Snyder at 9:05 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


In any type of fiction that includes wanton violence as a means of resolving conflict, it's necessary to dehumanize the enemy so as to lessen the moral compunctions that the protagonists have about killing.

Let me revise that a bit... Anytime wanton violence is used as a means of resolving conflict, it's necessary to dehumanize the enemy so as to lessen the moral compunctions that people have about killing.

The first step in inciting war is to demonize the enemy. Look at the racist propaganda that surrounds any major war. The proletariat is whipped into a froth of racist fury, convinced that they are, by simple virtue of their origins, better than the people they're being sent to kill, and that the people they're being sent to kill are evil.

It's not a problem with the game. The game is simply an example of the harm done by the idea that there is absolute good and absolute evil. It's a lot easier to kill an evil monster than to kill another soldier who's just trying to ensure a good life for his wife and kids back home. If a D&D player had to deal with the realistic moral consequences every time he had to kill an orc, (the friends and family the orc left behind, for instance, the impact of the orc's death on his progeny, the financial ramifications of his death for his tribe...) the game wouldn't be about hacking and slashing. And hacking and slashing is all some people want from the game.

D&D conveniently defines entire races as evil so that the player characters can go kill with abandon, and without having to worry about moral gray areas. It also defines these killable creatures by geographic location (all of the people in this dungeon are evil, feel free to massacre) and by vocation (all necromancers are fair game) in order to create simple conflicts which are easily navigable in the context of an extremely simplified moral framework.

Because, let's face it, if you're an advanced enough player to worry about the moral implications of your actions, you've probably moved beyond D&D long since, and into a role-playing framework that allows for more moral uncertainty. (Savage Worlds, for instance.) Sophisticated, adult storylines necessitate a muddier morality than the D&D ruleset is capable of out of the box.

Most role-players I've known have undergone a long-term progression in their playing styles. They start as kids, doing the hacking and slashing, move on to more specific and grander heroism as they mature, and then they get interested in the consequences of their actions. With the right DM, and a sophisticated group of players, the moral aspect of a role-playing game needn't be simplified; it can be the stuff of high drama. Art, even.

This reflects the range of morality available in every medium, of course. There are pulp novels with simplified morality where the protagonist mows down dehumanized enemies, and there's All Quiet On The Western Front. There's Die Hard, and there's Schindler's List. If you want heroic action, you have to sacrifice moral complexity, and in order to do that, you have to dehumanize a set of enemies.

And that's always going to look like racism, because racism is dehumanizing a set of enemies.
posted by MrVisible at 9:06 AM on November 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


Remember, we're not fighting them because their Germans, we're fighting them because they're nazis!
posted by Artw at 9:09 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The essay is about how D&D - and really fantasy in general - normalizes whiteness and that the construction of race in the game mirrors the construction of race in society.

lunit -- if you want to discuss, discuss. I fail to see how the construction of race in the game mirrors the construction of race in society. As stated many times in this thread, the reality of race in the game resembles the construction of race by racists. That is, the game puts forward a setting where racial differences are real. Except that it does so to the extent that they're completely different species. (ok, humans, elves, and orcs are apparently not, since they can inter-breed, but the differences are extreme) What don't I see in D&D? I don't see disparaging characterizations of any race of demi-human. I do see disparaging characterizations of humanoids. The former is far more comparable to real-life conceptions of "race" than the latter, which are more about faerie-tale monsters from the forest. Goblins and ogres are nasty? Do tell. Next you'll be telling me you don't want a family of zombies moving into your neighbourhood.

Second, where is this "culture of whiteness" in D&D? The parties full of humans? If this is what you're surrounded by, then maybe it says something more about your group than about the game.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:22 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gelatinous cubes... Belgians, right?

Careful there, I married a half-Belgian.
posted by cereselle at 9:24 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Four country gentleman?" Perhaps you could try reading the book again. You mean "two country gentlemen, the adopted kid of the local eccentric, and the gardener."

Ohh, I think Bilbo qualifies. Bag End is an ancestral home, and he has no profession until Gandalf scratches one onto his door. The Baggins family line is well-connected by blood and marriage, Bilbo appears to live fat and comfortably on some sort of inherited income, and the Bagginses have some level of local prestige and respect within the small community of Hobbiton.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:42 AM on November 20, 2008


Man. I was so excited to read all the comments in this thread, but there's, like, no decent discussion here. How disappointing.

DM: Okay, you're in the room. For some reason it's painted blue.

PC1: We look around the room.

DM: As you approach the center of the room, you see a small altar. There appears to be some sort of dish on top.

PC2: I check for traps. (rolls a 15)

DM: No traps, but you notice that the dish is some sort of serving tray and there is a pile of small brown egg-shaped objects on top. In fact, they appear to be legumes of some sort.

PC1: I use my sword to detect good on them.

PC2: Wrong skit.

PC1: Sorry.

DM: Behind the altar you notice several skeletons of different races sitting together. All of them are missing their lower jawbones. If you had to guess, you'd say they talked themselves to death.

PC1: Magic Beans!

PC2: I inspect the beans carefully. Does there appear to be anything magical about them?

DM: No.

PC2: How about the plate?

DM: No. In fact, it appears to be a perfectly normal plate of beans.

PC1: Well if these skeletons all talked themselves to death over it, there must be *something* here.

DM: Not that you can find.

PC1: Are the beans in a special pattern? Could be a spell.

DM: Nope.

PC1: I look at each of the beans individually. Is there something unique about any of them?

DM: Not particularly.

PC1: Can I roll against my arcane knowledge for "plate of beans"?

DM: Sure.

PC2: Are you guys going to be at this a bit? I'm going out for a smoke.

(half hour later)

PC1: . . . what I'm thinking is that "Plate of beans" is an acronym, and if you put it together with the acronym for "Serving Tray Of Legumes" you get Stolpob. It's obviously not a coincidence that it's "Boplots" spelled backwards. Boplots . . . Bop lots . . . so some kind of tantric spell . . .

PC2: Anyone for a beer?

DM: Yeah, I'll come.

(they leave)

PC1: . . . on the other hand, the skeletons were just talking to each other so maybe it was some sort of charm spell and the reason the beans don't appear magical is that they were planted in magical soil but they themselves just contain magical DNA and . . .
posted by tkolar at 9:42 AM on November 20, 2008 [11 favorites]


The point being argued isn't whether Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson or Tolkien or Jack Vance or whoever are racists. No one is saying that role-players or game designers are more (or less, for that matter) racist than the general population. None of that is important to the point, really. The question is why, 30+ years after after Arneson, Gygax and the rest of the original role-players got the dice rolling, are we still stuck with this shit?

It's not like it's never been questioned, subverted or challenged, but it's still there and it disturbs me just as much as it did when I was 12.

There have been plenty of role-playing games that have had very different takes on the matter of race. Hell, just in terms of D&D campaign settings there have been much less disturbing ways of treating different races. I want to single out Mystara, or The Known World, which evolved from Arneson's Blackmoor setting. That had all kinds of different cultures and cultural difference was a lot more important than race, but it was discontinued by TSR back in the late 80's, early 90's along with the "color boxes" line The Known World served as a campaign setting for. It had all kinds of cultures modeled on different real-world and fantastic settings. You had fantasy Mongols, fantasy Arabs, fantasy Byzantines, Dwarven Kingdoms, Orc lands, Magocracies and so on and so forth. That's not to discount Dark Sun, Ravenloft, whatever that other continent on Dragonlance was called (Minotaur Roman Empire!) and all the rest. But in time all of these have fallen by the wayside. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are still there and Eberron is the new thing but I think it will disappear as well.

I have a really hard time understanding the attitude that it's somehow stupid or silly to discuss the issue of race in roleplaying games. It's not PC or "isms" or what-the-fuck-ever to think about this. I consider role-playing one of mankind's greatest, leisure pursuits. Hell, I'd argue that role-playing is the most egalitarian art-form there is, without any distinction between audience and creator. I'll be damned if I don't think about it critically like I think about anything that I love and cherish. I think that my teenage discomfort of racial stat-bonuses helped me think about race issues later when I first started to think hard about them. I also think that the accepted RPG convention of having males and females be the same stats-wise helped buttress my nascent feminism before my critical thinking skills had gotten better.

I love role-playing, it has shaped me more than any leisure pursuit of my life save literature. And goddamn it, if something rubs me the wrong way I'm going to think about it, discuss it and see if I can't use that knowledge to be a better role-player. And throughout my life, especially in my teens, thinking about role-playing helped me become a better human.
posted by Kattullus at 9:45 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Because beating up unambiguous bad guys is fun?
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2008


Nobody has a hobby of 'role-playing' on the BNP membership list...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:54 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


No, no, you have to "move beyond D&D" and have "progression in [your] playing style."
posted by Snyder at 9:57 AM on November 20, 2008


The game that I played the most as a teen was Shadowrun, which explicitly used orcs and half-orcs as racial metaphors, with their poverty and oppression being one of the sub-texts of the game. It may be because of that background that I come to this essay a little annoyed at what I see as knee-jerk liberal braying and undergrad sociology.

Start with the confused rendering of "white" within player characters—he posits white elves, white gnomes, etc., based on the illustrations, but then argues that it's the normative qualities that cement the whiteness of the humans. But whiteness is only arbitrarily normative, not inherently normative. So we have reasoning from tautology, where humans have to be white because whites, in reality, have normative privilege and humans have normative privilege so they have to be white.

Then, in order to keep with the racial thesis, he ignores the non-racial reason to play other races, and thus the ignores the in-game justification for a normative "race." The benefits of any non-human race are in specialization, which is pretty much necessary in any well-balanced party. It's the same reason that superheroes and video games break folks into squads. Your dwarf is a tank, your elf is your ranged support, etc. The human is the wildcard that fills in the rest of the group. Especially as a party progresses, the flexibility to change proficiencies, etc. is what shores up a group.

As to the glass ceiling, perhaps this is due to my experiences, but it was pretty rare to have folks routinely get to 12, and I don't think I ever had a human make it past 16.

Regarding the racial essentialism of class restrictions, there is a good point to be made there, but it's one that most tables resolve pretty easily—see the Dwarf Paladin above. While I understand the apparently problematic issue of only allowing humans to be paladins, the idea that only someone who grew up in the human culture could act as its epitome makes sense. Railing against paladins on this basis makes as much sense as declaring that the office of Dalai Lama racist because there's never been a black one—it's missing the point in order to make an accusation of racism.

Which brings me to one of my more serious complaints about this piece—it suffers from the blinkered idea that a) the only play of RPGs is non-reflective, and b) that racism in fiction can only be addressed by a removal of stereotyping in fiction.

Suppose we concede the point—the attitudes in D&D are a proxy for encoded racism. But the world-view of the Medieval was one of Orientalism (and honestly, Said would have been a better source here than Stormfront). Just as the way to overcome racism in real life is through a series of epiphanies about shared humanity even as we still live in a racially-coded society, the same can be true in a fantasy setting, even if (by now) all but the dumbest RPGers have already had to deal with moral ambiguity and open real-world analogies.

Finally, with the rise of the X-men model of minority conflict that has pervaded most of the more recent games (by which I mean universes like Rifts, which included both Palladium and TMNT, and the explicit treatment in Shadowrun, even though these games are now in their 20s), this is simply less of a salient issue in most RPGers lives.

I described this to Kattallus as "tossing the race-bomb," and I think that's still true, where the facile nature of many of these complaints is only made "important" by the racial nature of the accusations. I do think there's a lot of things that make me wary and require a deft touch regarding how race and "the other" are portrayed in fantasy settings, but that's true in myriad other places, including real life.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


So how does something like WoW fit in here?

And, of course, the race most-played is the blue-skinned night elf.

Granted, these players are despised by almost everyone else who plays. Maybe there is some hidden racism there.
posted by graventy at 10:04 AM on November 20, 2008


Killing zombies is basically just hating on the homeless.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Someone should totally put together a series of race-based role-playing games. Maybe a 'Song of Solomon' campaign setting.

But that someone should be other than me because I'm a-scared.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:11 AM on November 20, 2008


Yeah, I have to go with "meh". A game written by midwestern white guys sold to suburban white kids who were so distant from any issues of race that it might as well have been something NASA found on the moon. The "kill all the orcs" mode of adventures isn't a proxy race war, it's lazy, lazy storytelling. The whole lazy D&D sub-genre regurgitates hundred-year-old English fantasy tropes so yeah, it's kind of built around how awesome white people are. This is neither novel - I mean, write this essay 30 years ago and you've got something - nor is it especially insightful.

To quote:

It is true that D&D is just a game, and I can’t imagine that Gygax or the other creators over the years have had any implicit, racist message they wished to get across – I’m not suggesting there is any conscious attempt to turn our youth into white-supremacists.

So the creators are just a bunch of guys. Wow. Deep.

However, D&D is guilty, as is much of our entertainment media, of reinforcing an Anglo-centric view of the world; a sense of western-superiority at the cost of fearing, distrusting, and looking down upon non-white and developing nations; and reinforcing stereotypes that go along with an essentialist understanding of race, culture, and ethnicity.

Yeah, here's the deal. There's a point where the rules end and you begin. That's the point of pencil & paper role playing games: you're not a consumer. You're a creator. So create whatever you want.
posted by GuyZero at 10:34 AM on November 20, 2008




lumpenprole: someone has.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:40 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


And, for the record, the dialogue at Ta-Neishi's blog is eons beyond any Mefi-related discourse on race I've read in the past, oh, 7+ years. Sorry, kids.

Well duh. That's because his discussions on race always involve at least one black guy.
posted by electroboy at 10:47 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


joe lisboa wrote...
And, for the record, the dialogue at Ta-Neishi's blog is eons beyond any Mefi-related discourse on race I've read in the past, oh, 7+ years.

Then...

For a white dude, I'm rapidly losing patience for explaining this to ya'll.

I'm starting to doubt your credentials as a judge of racial discourse.
posted by tkolar at 10:52 AM on November 20, 2008


Careful there, I married a half-Belgian.
According to the Fiend Folio, a Gelatinous Right Rectangular Prism.
posted by Flunkie at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2008


They don't exactly make any new points about D&D, or at least not any points that trolls to rpg.net and rec.games.frp.dnd haven't been making for decades. I think a more interesting thing to look at though is the reactionary nature of fantasy in general, and fantasy rpgs in particular.

The settings are almost always an idealized version of feudal Europe, and it can't be emphasized enough how bizarre this is. The geography and history of the world may be very different, the cosmology and even physics may differ from our own. Yet the social structures, architecture and rough economy ends up looking like medieval Europe; not even the addition of magic and monsters changes that. Societies are feudal, and yet the rulers are absolute, and yet again, if someone becomes powerful enough or if they have the right destiny, they may become a ruler, without having to either worry about a "mandate of heaven", or politics.

So the racial aspects of D&D really are merely fairly small subsets of the entire whole of fantasy, that looks back to an idealized age when the Superior Man, unencumbered by the restraints of technology or modern civilization could gain power either through force of arms or sheer righteousness.

At least that’s what my multimedia presentation for my Postmodern Cultural Studies doctoral thesis will say...only using about 10,000 more words to do so.
posted by happyroach at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Careful there, I married a half-Belgian.
According to the Fiend Folio, a Gelatinous Right Rectangular Prism.


But is it the half with the skelington floating in it?
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2008


The question is why, 30+ years after after Arneson, Gygax and the rest of the original role-players got the dice rolling, are we still stuck with this shit?

Because that's the game, and most people like it that way, as proven by sales since the beginning. The games you mentioned "fell by the wayside" precisely because they were never as popular as vanilla D&D. Personally, I loved Dark Sun, but the idea that it was ever going to be as big as D&D is laughable. Specialist systems and settings are just that -- they're not for the average player who just wants to do a dungeon crawl in the secret cave under the tavern, and that's where D&D shines, largely because of the simplicity of its racial and ethical system.

Also, quite frankly, we're still "stuck with this shit" because every single game everywhere does not need to be changed to fit your worldview. Many players are not particularly interested in having a deep emotional and/or philosophical engagement with the Orcs guarding the treasure, and seeing as how RPGs are pretty much nothing more than a declaration of the essential right of every human being to re-conceive the world, you do not get to tell them they're doing it wrong. Or rather, you do, but they don't have to listen, and neither do the people behind D&D.

Your desire to "think about it, discuss it and see if I can't use that knowledge to be a better role-player" is admirable, but I can't admire your refusal to allow other people to go through that process differently, or not at all. Sorry, but D&D's system should not necessarily be changed just because parts of it bother you, and other people do not necessarily have to play it your way.
posted by vorfeed at 11:01 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, someone send this guy a copy of "Boot Hill" and watch is his head explode. Or Gamma World for that matter.
posted by GuyZero at 11:03 AM on November 20, 2008


The settings are almost always an idealized version of feudal Europe, and it can't be emphasized enough how bizarre this is.

How bizarre is it, given the roots in Tolkien?

Or do you mean how bizarre as a coherent setting? People are role-playing what they (think they) know. As kids, we really, really wanted to have a campaign set in the fantasy analogue of Japan, but "Oriental Adventures" didn't give us enough material to be able to fool ourselves into any interesting story. Still, we've tried our hand at desert cultures, attempts at the grinding subservience and poverty of a "real-world" medieval Europe, viking-inspired nordic adventures, and other planes of existence. What more do you want? The feudal structure isn't really a major part of the story (as is easy enough to see, since most adventurers are put in a position to ignore any sort of hierarchy) but part of a theme, the way people slap some copper bits onto something and call it steampunk.

Back to another issue for a moment, I currently play an eleven-inch tall leprechaun. If you want to play a system where there are no "racial" mods for being eleven inches tall, I have the right, nay the obligation, to call it a silly thing.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:15 AM on November 20, 2008


I currently play an eleven-inch tall leprechaun

The major antagonists in this campaign are children out to get your marshmallow cereal?
posted by GuyZero at 11:18 AM on November 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


I currently play an eleven-inch tall leprechaun.

Guy walks into a bar accompanied by a one foot tall piano player. . .
posted by Herodios at 11:19 AM on November 20, 2008


If you want to play a system where there are no "racial" mods for being eleven inches tall, I have the right, nay the obligation, to call it a silly thing.

Ooohhh... a GURPS fan. Perhaps Van Dyke should just give up on D&D altogether - I like it, but it's not religion or anything - and move on to GURPS where not only is there no proxy race warfare, but you can explore the influences of things like mental illness or illiteracy on your character.
posted by GuyZero at 11:22 AM on November 20, 2008


The settings are almost always an idealized version of feudal Europe, and it can't be emphasized enough how bizarre this is.

Yes, how bizarre. It's just completely inexplicable that people might want to explore, or even idealize, a millennium-long major era in the history of our own culture, from which (through either acceptance or rejection of feudal norms) much of our current culture stems! What were we thinking?

So the racial aspects of D&D really are merely fairly small subsets of the entire whole of fantasy, that looks back to an idealized age when the Superior Man, unencumbered by the restraints of technology or modern civilization could gain power either through force of arms or sheer righteousness.

Again, I can't imagine why anyone would want to explore ideas like that, especially given their complete and utter meaninglessness in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Why, it's like some kind of massive non-sequitur, given that there's no place on Earth which still works like that, nor any trace of these ideals in our oh-so-enlightened culture, nor an essential conflict between those older ideals and the world we find ourselves living in. Man, we are so over that shit, let's not think about it or put it in our art anymore!
posted by vorfeed at 11:25 AM on November 20, 2008


It's a war story, dude.

Leprechaun infantry does the dying. Pixies just do the flying.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:26 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


The settings are almost always an idealized version of feudal Europe, and it can't be emphasized enough how bizarre this is. The geography and history of the world may be very different, the cosmology and even physics may differ from our own. Yet the social structures, architecture and rough economy ends up looking like medieval Europe; not even the addition of magic and monsters changes that. Societies are feudal, and yet the rulers are absolute, and yet again, if someone becomes powerful enough or if they have the right destiny, they may become a ruler, without having to either worry about a "mandate of heaven", or politics.

I feel this way about most modern fantasy books. And the few authors who deviate from it aren't usually stocked in bookstores. And often not all that well represented in libraries either. Or they have one popular book that isn't their best work that is the only thing ever on the shelf.

So, intellectual property buffs, will there be a time when someone can go all Wicked on Middle-earth and tell the whole thing from an orc's perspective?
posted by Tehanu at 12:02 PM on November 20, 2008


Not that I... oh damn DIBS DIBS I CALL DIBS ON THE ORC.
posted by Tehanu at 12:03 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, intellectual property buffs, will there be a time when someone can go all Wicked on Middle-earth and tell the whole thing from an orc's perspective?

"Grunts" isn't exactly what you're looking for, but it's the closest you're likely to get. Good stuff.
posted by vorfeed at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2008


ASH is even better...
posted by longbaugh at 12:30 PM on November 20, 2008


I have been thinking a lot about my D&D campaign and Blood Meridian. That book is so close to being a fantasy novel - group of mercenaries patrolling the wastelands outside of town - and is completely repulsive at the same time.
posted by georg_cantor at 12:40 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


klangklangston: Start with the confused rendering of "white" within player characters—he posits white elves, white gnomes, etc., based on the illustrations, but then argues that it's the normative qualities that cement the whiteness of the humans. But whiteness is only arbitrarily normative, not inherently normative. So we have reasoning from tautology, where humans have to be white because whites, in reality, have normative privilege and humans have normative privilege so they have to be white.

You're unmixing your metaphors here :) No one who designed D&D was explicitly handling race in real life. In the real world race is a function of skin color (I know that's reductive, but that's the principal signifier, so bear with me). In fantasy, race means species and subspecies. The point is that on both counts falls far short of the ideal. Almost all player races are depicted with fair skin in the rulebook illustrations. That, coupled with the racial essentialism, especially when it comes to half-orcs, is troubling.

Shadowrun had a very different take from the get go. Someone, somewhere, I think in the comment thread over at Coates' blog or possibly in comments to van Dyke's essay, mentioned Shadowrun and how there was explicitly no in-game connection between human races and fantasy races. Basically, in Shadowrun magic is unleashed on the world again and suddenly human mothers start giving birth to orcs, elves, dwarves etc. Chinese women were no likelier than French women to give birth to orcs, Americans no likelier to spawn elves than Colombians, New Zealanders no likelier to have human children than Pakistanis and so on and so forth. After doing that they had a world emerge where orcs were an underclass and used it to mirror a lot of real world racial and class issues. Which was one of many things I found interesting about Shadowrun (too bad about the system).

It's not that hard to make an interesting, fun setting that appeals to teenagers that doesn't skirt the issue of race or reinforces the idea of racial stereotyping. Shadowrun did that back in the late 80's. Glorantha has always had a following and they certainly never ignored xenophobia and racism, but it was always the kind of system that people picked up as their third or fourth purchase. Shadowrun was often the second game people got into (the only game I've ever known a lot of people to start with other than D&D is Vampire). I never noticed anyone being bothered by the race and class aspects of Shadowrun, in fact it was something people loved to talk about. It was interesting, it was fun.

vorfeed: Because that's the game, and most people like it that way, as proven by sales since the beginning. The games you mentioned "fell by the wayside" precisely because they were never as popular as vanilla D&D. Personally, I loved Dark Sun, but the idea that it was ever going to be as big as D&D is laughable. Specialist systems and settings are just that -- they're not for the average player who just wants to do a dungeon crawl in the secret cave under the tavern, and that's where D&D shines, largely because of the simplicity of its racial and ethical system.

The reason I singled out The Known World (a.k.a Mystara) was that it was one of the two original TSR worlds. I'd actually argue that it was purely accidental that of the two Blackmoor descendants, Greyhawk survived while The Known World didn't. Back in the 80's TSR had D&D and AD&D. Eventually, because players would usually move from D&D to AD&D, TSR discontinued D&D and its setting, The Known World. However, had Greyhawk been tied to D&D and The Known World to AD&D, The Known World would probably be the other perennial setting alongside Forgotten Realms. The Known World had a very different treatment of race and culture than Greyhawk did.

vorfeed: Also, quite frankly, we're still "stuck with this shit" because every single game everywhere does not need to be changed to fit your worldview. Many players are not particularly interested in having a deep emotional and/or philosophical engagement with the Orcs guarding the treasure, and seeing as how RPGs are pretty much nothing more than a declaration of the essential right of every human being to re-conceive the world, you do not get to tell them they're doing it wrong. Or rather, you do, but they don't have to listen, and neither do the people behind D&D.

Your desire to "think about it, discuss it and see if I can't use that knowledge to be a better role-player" is admirable, but I can't admire your refusal to allow other people to go through that process differently, or not at all. Sorry, but D&D's system should not necessarily be changed just because parts of it bother you, and other people do not necessarily have to play it your way.


I'm not saying everybody has to play like me. For the record, I haven't played D&D in a number of years. Right now I'm playing Feng Shui set in 12th Century China and before that I played In Nomine, set in Providence where I live. The last game I GMed was D&D, however, set in a world of my own devising, that was very much going to be about the nature of race in that fantasy world (I was DMing Hampshire College alums, so that was pretty much the only appropriate way to do it) but unfortunately ended prematurely when the players moved away. That all works for me and those that I game with now (what up, lunit!) but I wouldn't play that way with everyone.

I don't want to force my own opinions on others because I hate it when people stuff their opinions down my throat. Frankly, I can't understand why you feel I'm "refus[ing] to allow other people to go through that process differently, or not at all." I posted a series of links I found interesting about a subject I'm fascinated by. I took part in the ensuing discussion, voicing my views. You may find my opinions wrong but I'm certainly not ordering anyone to agree with me. Raising an issue is not the same as forcing it on someone. As I mentioned above I love role-playing. I like to read about its history, I enjoy studying different settings and systems even if I don't necessarily want to play them and I like to think about it. I'm not trolling, I'm not being disingenuous, I'm not telling anyone to play it my way or that they're doing it wrong, I'm not asking that anyone change a single thing to fit my world-view.

I'm talking about what I perceive to be a problem in an activity I love. Is it any different from baseball fans talking about steroid abuse? Are they harming the enjoyment of baseball watchers by harping on and on about it? Yes, they are. If they weren't aware that steroids were used by professional players they wouldn't have to wonder if their favorite team had players benefiting from the practice. To use another example, are people who talk about Ezra Pound's anti-semitism hindering readers from having a pristine reading experience of Pound's poetry? Yes, they are. To read Pound after being made aware of his reprehensible views is to read Pound knowing that the passage that could possibly be about how bad Jews are probably is about how bad Pound thought Jews are. Is it wrong to raise either issue? No, it isn't, and I have never heard anyone make that argument.

Since David Wesely ran the first Braunstein gamers have been arguing about what makes and doesn't make a good role-playing game. Setting, system, style, et cetera, et cetera have all been discussed. Social issues, whether on the micro level of how a gaming group should function to the macro of how true a fictional world rings given what one thinks and knows about the real world, have always been a part of that discussion. Given what I think, know and think I know about real life that particular aspect of D&D, race, does not ring true to me. Never has. And I'm talking about it here, like I've been talking about it elsewhere throughout my gaming existence.
posted by Kattullus at 12:43 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Grunts" isn't exactly what you're looking for, but it's the closest you're likely to get. Good stuff.

Big ups for Grunts. Also on the shelf here in the US recently is Orcs by Stan Nicholls. Not the super-best fantasy story in the world, but it was fun to read while hiking about England this past spring.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2008


Given what I think, know and think I know about real life that particular aspect of D&D, race, does not ring true to me. Never has.

I think expectations for D&D are very, very low. A lot of things don't ring true. Alignment is a joke. The original magic system was a joke (sorry, Gandalf, you already cast that today). Hit points? A joke.

There are better systems and settings out there. D&D is the Atari 2600 of systems. Everyone knows it. It's easy to pick up and play. But if you're expecting an Intellivision or Colecovision experience, you're going to be disappointed.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:03 PM on November 20, 2008


That is, the game puts forward a setting where racial differences are real. Except that it does so to the extent that they're completely different species...What don't I see in D&D? I don't see disparaging characterizations of any race of demi-human.

Perhaps the characterizations aren't disparaging, but they're also not as favorable as the characterizations for (white) humans. That's covered pretty thoroughly in the essay.

Second, where is this "culture of whiteness" in D&D? The parties full of humans? If this is what you're surrounded by, then maybe it says something more about your group than about the game.

No. The idea that humans are assumed automatically to be white, and that the other races/species/whatever are racialized (as in, the non-RPG meaning of the term "race") similarly to how characters are racialized in all sorts of media (disney animal cartoons, etc).
posted by lunit at 1:07 PM on November 20, 2008


Has anyone made a game based on a world like Earthsea?
posted by Tehanu at 1:09 PM on November 20, 2008


Yes, how bizarre. It's just completely inexplicable that people might want to explore, or even idealize, a millennium-long major era in the history of our own culture, from which (through either acceptance or rejection of feudal norms) much of our current culture stems! What were we thinking?

Well it IS bizarre, at least from my personal suspension of disbelief point of view. We have a wide diversity of cultures based on minor differences in location, geography, and history. and then we have worlds where the continents are different, magic is present, there's a wide range of different nonhuman intelligences...hell depending on the fantasy setting, the basic physics may be different.

And yet we have feudalism practically straight out of the middle ages, more or less, and I can't get over that. And oddly enough, it's the more gritty game settings like Warhammer or (for books) the Song of Ice and Fire where the discrepancy is the worst. It's like if an author went to the trouble of creating a completely alien world, with an alien ecology and geology...annd the first time humans set foot on it, they find all the inhabitants are driving Pontiac Corvairs. Worse, the writer isn't being ironic or satirical; he simply thinks that all aliens have Pontiac Corvairs.

In any case, it's really a side issue to this whole discussion, and the major point, which is the reactionary nature of most fantasy. The whiteness of the characters is just part of it.
posted by happyroach at 1:10 PM on November 20, 2008


No. The idea that humans are assumed automatically to be white, and that the other races/species/whatever are racialized (as in, the non-RPG meaning of the term "race") similarly to how characters are racialized in all sorts of media (disney animal cartoons, etc).

Ok, I understand this idea now, but wow do I ever disagree. Maybe it's because my original group was raised on the D&D cartoon that we didn't assume human characters are necessarily white (go, thief-acrobat!). Characters in our campaigns tended to reflect this. Similarly, I understand what you mean about racialization of demi-humans in a Disney way, but I don't see it. Wish I had a better Irish accent for my leprechaun, but all I can pull off is bad Monty Python English. Dwarves and elves and gnomes are racialized? Someone is the jar-jar binks of the D&D world? Is it possible this is some kind of American/Canadian RPG divide, because I've never seen anything like this.

Furthermore, it seems to me that all the original demi-humans are "white". That's why you can have dark elves (drow), dark dwarves (duergar), and dark gnomes (svirfneblin -- I just like saying it).
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2008


I thought it was that if someone was portrayed in line-art and didn’t have a half-tone applied they’re assumed to be white?
posted by Artw at 1:32 PM on November 20, 2008


Durn Bronzefist: The original magic system was a joke.

The original magic system was straight out of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. The reason Gygax and Arneson chose it was a game-balancing thing. They were worried about making wizards too powerful and they thought Vance's memorization system would work well. I personally always liked it. It was dinky and annoying but made being a magician something of an effort. Of course, I'm also the kind of D&D gamer who prefers to roll 3d6 unmodified 6 times going down the line of attributes and then making a character from those stats (I never managed to convince a whole group of players of the beauty of this method) so I'm perhaps not the person to talk to about that.

Alignment is a joke.

Well... yeah. It's function, by the time 2nd edition AD&D rolled around, was a way to bludgeon PCs to roleplay. I can't remember a single campaign I played where anyone used alignment in accordance with the rulebook.

I don't dislike D&D. It does what it does very well and because it's familiar to everyone gamers keep picking it up well into their old age. It's still the lingua franca of RPGs. Kind of like how, when a bunch of people gather from all over the world, even if no one is an Anglophone, English will be the language people converse in. So, very often, when gamers with different backgrounds meet to play, D&D is the default. Now, that's not always the case but it's true enough. And D&D isn't that bad. It's dinky in places but because everyone broadly knows the rules they're rarely if ever a hindrance to role-playing.

Tehanu: Has anyone made a game based on a world like Earthsea?

Sadly, no one has. Ursula K. Le Guin has been approached but she's declined. Given what has been done to the series by TV producers I can't blame her for being reticent. Here are a couple of online discussion about role-playing in Earthsea.

I really need to reread Earthsea. And a whole lot of Le Guin.
posted by Kattullus at 1:33 PM on November 20, 2008


happyroach -- are you maybe drawing too much on the idea that D&D worlds are alien worlds? Because if so, then the humans really aren't humans are they? Ditto grass and trees. It's just all remarkably similar. I'd have a hell of a time layering that onto the experience and I'm not sure why I'd want to do it. Seems to me that the typical D&D campaign is set in an "earth-like" world. Or is your point that these worlds lack equatorial and polar regions with appropriately different cultures, etc? I'm not sure that they don't. But these are usually "Here Be Dragons" areas, off the map so to speak, unless the DM wants or permits them to go there.

Sure, it would be odd if you played Gaslight and an entire world looked and operated exactly like Maine and Rhode Island of the 1890's. But who does that?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:34 PM on November 20, 2008


I'm not asking that anyone change a single thing to fit my world-view.

To me, "the question is why, 30+ years after after Arneson, Gygax and the rest of the original role-players got the dice rolling, are we still stuck with this shit?" pretty clearly implies that you're disturbed by the fact that the game hasn't changed to fit your world-view. In fact, you seem to be directly asking why it hasn't done so. If I read that wrong, I apologize, but I have to say that you do seem to be expecting other people to meet your standards with regards to caring about race in RPGs.

You said earlier that "I have a really hard time understanding the attitude that it's somehow stupid or silly to discuss the issue of race in roleplaying games"; well, a lot of people here seem to have a really hard time understanding your attitude toward choosing not to discuss it. For you, it's a big deal, but for others, it's clearly not, and you seem to be really down on their point of view.

The difference between "steroids in baseball and Ezra Pound's antisemitism" and "racism in D&D" is that the latter is a perceived problem, not a factual one. There are steroids in baseball. Ezra Pound was an antisemite, by his own words. There is no comparable statement of certainty with regards to racism in D&D. Your problem with how the race and class system in D&D looks to you is your problem, and a failure to see the same problem does not necessarily reflect poorly on others, nor does a failure to take the issue as seriously as you do necessarily indicate an "attitude". To many people, D&D simply doesn't seem racist.
posted by vorfeed at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


All right, read the article. Here's the end:
CONCLUSION

So where does that leave us, in the end? It is true that D&D is just a game, and I can’t imagine that Gygax or the other creators over the years have had any implicit, racist message they wished to get across – I’m not suggesting there is any conscious attempt to turn our youth into white-supremacists. However, D&D is guilty, as is much of our entertainment media, of reinforcing an Anglo-centric view of the world; a sense of western-superiority at the cost of fearing, distrusting, and looking down upon non-white and developing nations; and reinforcing stereotypes that go along with an essentialist understanding of race, culture, and ethnicity. That this is also true of video-games, comic-books and movies makes it no less true of Role-Playing games. (Video-games, comic-books, movies, role-playing games . . . I believe I’ve just indict 98% of my leisure time).
At some point, I'm going to do an article about the lack of decent Latino characters in Bollywood films

All snark aside, the important point here is the part about lack of intent and how that doesn't necessarily absolve these various media for how race is portrayed.

Let me take a step back for a moment (and try my best not to create a strawman). Many of the responses I've read to this article here are similar to responses I've read to folks proposing that the Washington Redskins change their mascot. The intent, it is argued, was not racist, ergo the image is not racist. Furthermore, the nickname "Redskins" is a tradition at this point anyways. Etc. etc.

What's at issue, however, isn't actually the intent of the creator of the Redskins' team name (or the Indian's Chief Wahoo, etc) but the way the message is received. If the issue is that the Redskins nickname is genuinely offensive to a sizable portion of the community, the intent doesn't especially matter. At some point, the number of people who find it offensive will outnumber the ones who don't and it will be changed.

In the end, will anyone be hurt by the mascot being changed? Indeed, one imagines a new mascot would be a positive boon for sales of team-formerly-known-as-Redskins swag (and classic racist Redskins swag as it gets phased out - win/win).

To put it another way, you might bring your delicious pork meal to your Orthodox Jewish friend's potluck party with the best of intentions, but your good intentions aren't going to make feel obligated to eat it.

If what's at issue here is that, purposely or not, the fantasy gaming world's imagery has inadvertent racial overtones, who is hurt by making an effort to make the imagery more inclusive? Its a fantasy world, so why can't the publishers of the game make a minimal effort to make the images in the books and the descriptions of the monsters and humanoids seem a little more mutlicultural?

That doesn't prevent any of you from running a "everyone in my world is white except for those damn drow" campaign if you want. It just means that the images reflect out society a little more effectively. Win/win.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm going to do an article about the lack of decent Latino characters in Bollywood films

I know it's a joke, but I really WOULD like to read an article on racial stereotypes in Bollywood films. Hey, I've seen some pretty cringe-worthy stuff.
posted by naju at 1:59 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


No one's brought up how hetronormative D&D is yet?

the question is why, 30+ years after after Arneson, Gygax and the rest of the original role-players got the dice rolling, are we still stuck with this shit?

This is actually begging the question! Wow! I actually get to use that properly for once. Your question is based on a false assumption - that we are, in fact, still stuck with this shit. I expect that most of the posters in this thread can name several popular roleplaying games (Shadowrun has already been mentioned but there are plenty of others) that don't racialize the player's character choices.

You are no more stuck playing a genocidal white guy in D&D than you are stuck playing Trouble as your one and only board game.
posted by GuyZero at 2:02 PM on November 20, 2008


In any case, it's really a side issue to this whole discussion, and the major point, which is the reactionary nature of most fantasy. The whiteness of the characters is just part of it.

Yes, and my point is that there's nothing wrong with reactionary art. This is how culture sifts through the wreckage of what's gone before in order to keep the good stuff and throw out the bad. The fact that we keep returning to feudal settings in fantasy suggests to me that there are some positive things about feudalism-as-portrayed-in-fantasy which modern life is not providing, and which fantasy fans still value. Likewise, the fact that feudalism-as-portrayed-in-fantasy is still a rich ground for conflict and change suggests that there are things about the setting which fantasy fans find to be negative, and which need to be expressed -- and the fact that the latter are often the same things that bother us today is an added layer of critique.

You seem to think that people stick with these tropes because they're insufficiently creative as authors, but I suspect that "creativity" alone is not the point -- fantasy fans and authors aren't exploring alien worlds using feudalism as a trope, they're exploring feudalism (and, by reflection, our own culture) using alien worlds as a trope. It's not that the author "simply thinks that all aliens have Pontiac Corvairs", it's that the book is actually about Pontiac Corvairs, and the alien stuff is really just the setting the author is using to get people to think in a new way about Pontiac Corvairs.
posted by vorfeed at 2:11 PM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


God, what vorfeed is saying in this thread is more or less what I am thinking, and what I wish I was saying.
posted by Snyder at 2:30 PM on November 20, 2008


The fact that we keep returning to feudal settings in fantasy suggests to me that there are some positive things about feudalism-as-portrayed-in-fantasy which modern life is not providing

But we know exactly what this setting provides. Violent fantasy literature takes place in the dark ages ( or post-nukular anarchy / hyborian past / the old west / urban ghetto (or whatever the hell Grand Theft Auto is supposed to be)) because the setting serves to legitimize the violence that the story / game depends on. When there is no order, you impose your own (hero / villain) -- or take the situation as license to free your id (barbarian / monster). The specific anarchic setting chosen is a matter of fashion, decoration, and landscaping.
posted by Herodios at 2:33 PM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Has anyone made a game based on a world like Earthsea?

...which is interesting because the "default" skin colour in the books of Jed is chocolate (white people live in a repressive theocracy that worships blood-thirsty Old Gods).

There are settings in Glorantha which have a similar feel (though more polynesian), but to say that they are unsupported is a wild understatement.
posted by bonehead at 2:53 PM on November 20, 2008


JGed

darn it
posted by bonehead at 2:54 PM on November 20, 2008


But we know exactly what this setting provides.

I was talking about fantasy literature as well as D&D. As any fantasy fan can tell you, the violence isn't really the point of most fantasy (if it were, the average page of a given book off the shelf would read more like war fiction, and less like World Tourist: Ireland).

As for D&D itself -- yes, the choice of setting certainly has something to do with "legitimizing the violence that the story / game depends on"... except that you yourself pointed out that any anarchic setting will do just as well, which doesn't really explain why this setting is returned to over and over again. IMHO, this has a lot more to do with other aspects of the feudal/medieval setting than it does with the desire for anarchy and unfettered id, which is frankly much easier to indulge in a post-apocalyptic or pre-historic setting.
posted by vorfeed at 2:58 PM on November 20, 2008


question for fantasy fans --

Has there been any good adult-oriented modern/psychological/realistic fantasy since Thomas Covenant or Amber? I kind of enjoyed both of those, but they're decades old now. I grabbed a random paperback off the shelf a few months ago that seemed to promise a more adult take on the genre, but it turned out to be another 'chosen one collects widgets of destiny to defeat ultimate evil' trilogy.
posted by empath at 3:56 PM on November 20, 2008


I kind of liked the China Melville stuff, but then it disapeared up it's own ass a little. I'm not sure it's entirely what you are after. Obviously grabbing a random book is always going to be a strategy for faliure.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on November 20, 2008


(not sure I'd really entirely call myself a fantasy fan though, since I find the kings-are-great Tolkinesque golden age stuff utterly puke making)
posted by Artw at 4:07 PM on November 20, 2008


the question is why, 30+ years after after Arneson, Gygax and the rest of the original role-players got the dice rolling, are we still stuck with this shit?

Well, I don't think we really are. Pick up any issue of Dragon in the last few years and you'll see articles about running a monstrous party, and all the weird disabilities and abilities you get from that. (Sentient golem. Good: Can walk across the bottom of a lake. Bad: falls through most floors.)

And of course, D&D is slipping in influence compared to World of Warcraft, which sold 2.8 million copies in 24 hours this week. WoW has its own problems with ethnocentrism to deal with, but does something really interesting in turning five of the "evil" races into playable ones, and giving lots of storyline quests that challenge the rather simplistic notions of good/evil that has always plagued D&D.

Of course, WoW has the plate bikini problem, but that's another story. But IMO the genre is moving forward a bit.

I was talking about fantasy literature as well as D&D. As any fantasy fan can tell you, the violence isn't really the point of most fantasy (if it were, the average page of a given book off the shelf would read more like war fiction, and less like World Tourist: Ireland).

There are some out there. It does seem that the war story has better legs in science fiction than fantasy. But I also think Tolkienesque "high fantasy" adventure stories and D&D derivatives have been gradually losing their prominence in the market in favor of modern urban fantasy (Gaiman, Lukyanenko), police procedural/mystery (Pratchett), and industrial gothic (Melville).
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:17 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I kind of like the Stross Merchants stuff, but that's stealth sci-fi.
posted by Artw at 4:38 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


question for fantasy fans --

Has there been any good adult-oriented modern/psychological/realistic fantasy since Thomas Covenant or Amber? I kind of enjoyed both of those, but they're decades old now. I grabbed a random paperback off the shelf a few months ago that seemed to promise a more adult take on the genre, but it turned out to be another 'chosen one collects widgets of destiny to defeat ultimate evil' trilogy.


I've been enjoying "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin. It's not very fantastical in a lot of ways, as magic or monstrous creatures have little to no direct influence on much of the primary setting. There aren't really any designated badguys, either, and while some characters are more or less sympathetic or more or less despicable, there's no "Army of Light" kind of thing. Also it tends to focus on the politics of the setting, and notsomuch on "Quest for the MacGuffin" style plotlines. There are fantastic and mysterious things, with an emphasis on mysterious. I find it easy to forget that it even exists within the setting.
posted by Snyder at 4:49 PM on November 20, 2008


empath: Has there been any good adult-oriented modern/psychological/realistic fantasy since Thomas Covenant or Amber?

Well, it's hard to know exactly what you are looking for. Pratchett, in my opinion, has evolved from being just a pun-laden fanwank and started turning his satire on modern society and the myths that we have about it. Especially with Nightwatch his character of Sam Vimes has stopped being just a touch cop cliche and evolved into something different, while Monstrous Regiment is about the secrets, passing, and military service. Making Money was eerily prescient reading before the whole credit crisis blew up. It makes the argument that modern economic systems are an elaborate con-job dependent on a shared faith in the value of a piece of paper.

Lukyanenko's Night Watch series is sort of the anti-Potter and anti-vampire hunter. It deconstructs the whole epic good wizards vs. bad wizards conceit, mostly through the eyes of a cynical low-grade cop who accidentally keeps getting promoted. (The Russian movie has the best designed subtitles I've ever seen on a movie, but of course, the movie takes considerable liberties with the plot.) Most of the real conflict involves Anton's own questioning of the whole Dark vs. Light war, and the distinction between human beings and magical others.

Gaiman's Anansi Boys is primarily about a guy coming to terms with his father, who just happens to be an Afro-Caribbean god.

Peter Straub's In the Night Room is a book I read a few years ago, that I keep thinking "hrm."

It's old, but Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun so far as been worth the effort for its metafictional games. It's not an easy book, and the first hurdle is realizing that Sevarian is neither reliable or sympathetic as a narrator or protagonist. It's also one of those works that's difficult to classify as either sci-fi or fantasy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:53 PM on November 20, 2008


You know I read the article and I still agree with the snark.
posted by tkchrist at 5:28 PM on November 20, 2008


Hm. The last D&D game I ran was actually all about colonialism. I feel like the basic mythos of the game really begs for subversion. Someone on some message board somewhere wrote that in the Real World, good and evil are labels you slap on yourself and the guys you don't like (respectively). In D&D they are metaphysical truths, but seem to essentially boil down to whether you are interested in helping yourself or the village. Orthogonal to the good/evil divide though, is law vs chaos. Do you follow the rules of the government or seek to overthrow it? The two basic forms of government are the kingdom and the tribe; we can make our stories about the successes and vicissitudes of civilization, about the difference between a huge vertical hierarchy and a relatively flat tribal society. And it will be fun.

In any case, lawful good is still the most boring alignment. And for that reason, Paladins will always suck.

Act 0: Adventurers get kicked out of the city to do some detail in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Local logging interests attempting to meet the ever-growing demand of the Big City have broken a long-standing treaty with the local goblin tribes, and sent to the City to have said adventurers sent out to kill some goblins. After a series of dumb moves, the adventurers get captured by the goblins and traded back alive to the village in exchange for the head of the logging operation, who is never seen again.

Acts I-IV: The Big City is under attack from shadowy Wild Elves upset by the colonialist plunder. The ruling forces in the city war amongst themselves, while the adventurers must decide which faction to ally themselves with: the merchant class (out entirely to make a buck off the local resources), the really noxious ruling house that doesn't know much else than attempting to rule with an iron fist, the ineffectual liberals, or the anti-civilization resistance movement. They ended up siding mainly with the ineffectual liberals, as it turned out.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:30 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lukyanenko's Night Watch series is sort of the anti-Potter and anti-vampire hunter. It deconstructs the whole epic good wizards vs. bad wizards conceit, mostly through the eyes of a cynical low-grade cop who accidentally keeps getting promoted. (The Russian movie has the best designed subtitles I've ever seen on a movie, but of course, the movie takes considerable liberties with the plot.) Most of the real conflict involves Anton's own questioning of the whole Dark vs. Light war, and the distinction between human beings and magical others.

I adore the Watch series. It's urban fantasy, but there's more morality and philosophy than magic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:41 PM on November 20, 2008


Thank you for imposing your persecution complex onto my character sheet.

Besides, haven't we al lusted after/played/incinerated the busty half-drow sorceress at one time or another?
posted by HFSH at 5:55 PM on November 20, 2008


The essay/presentation isn't very good, really. This does not mean its thesis is wholly wrong, but it fails on a bunch of levels:

1) It explores the material in a fairly shallow, hunt and peck fashion. When it needs to, it heads back to a version of the game that hasn't been printed in 20 years. It doesn't explore supplements unless, again, it finds something that drives home the thesis. This is kind of a cowardly way of going about it, because game supplements have featured people of color in heroic roles and even a setting (Oerth/Greyhawk) where a stand-in Anglo ethnicity is the minority and also, usually the bad guys. There were nonwhite exemplar characters in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. On the other hand, the guy could have found some hideously racist material in The Orcs of Thar.

The trouble is that the role of race in D&D and fantasy RPGs is actually a pretty complicated topic. But this guy doesn't want a complicated topic. Exploring it would not lead t abandoning the thesis, which has merit, but it would certainly portray a much more dynamic, unsteady cultural movement that is less unified and self-assured in applying stereotypes. It also doesn't help that there are factual errors here and there that would allow any gamer in denial to ignore the whole thing.

2) It doesn't discuss how communities react to the material. This is relevant to any discussion of orcs and drow, since they have far different roles in the play community and in the cultural traditions that are part of bigger games like WoW. Orcs are not only consistently stand-ins for black stereotypes, but have actually had material released that reacted to that. Drow were portrayed as appearing vaguely African in two works by two artists in the entire history of the game, and the first instance was immediately seen as a mistake. (The second, in Eberron, is stupidly racist, and ironically, in another setting where a Northern European appearance is supposed to be rare.) The ideal of a bizarre evil matriarchy beneath the earth (the Drow culture) is rather broadly drawn from pulp fiction (or hazy memories of it), and in adaptation, the most popular characters have been good guys. Dark elves are only ciphers for black people in the long stretch that is powered by America's poisoned discourse on race, where bare colors are signifiers. Nevertheless, it's significant that some people are drinking the poison. Again: Complicated.

3) It doesn't deign to speak to game creators or even investigate the current of thought that went into the design of different versions. Instead, this thing insulates itself with remote citations. This is really an especially cowardly thing to do in the Internet age, where pretty much every creative ever involved can be reached by email. As a sometime RPG design professional, let me tell you something: We know about these issues. We even agonize over them. But there's a lot of inertia to overcome.

Interesting story: Game designer Monte Cook (who worked on 3rd Ed D&D) was among a set of designers and artists (including Todd Lockwood, one of the primary artists for 3e) who wanted a nonwhite iconic character. This was Redgar, the iconic fighter. The marketing department at Wizards of the Coast was very resistant to this. After a certain set of compromises, Redgar was redesigned to not have any distinguishable ethnicity after vaguely wandering through looking like a First Nations North American guy. Basically, Redgar is the Vin Diesel of D&D by design, so he can be read as white (and interestingly, this is what the author did, too), and eventually, later art crackered Redgar up. It's also no accident that staff disliked Redgar after that and often made him the butt of jokes. . Read http://montecook.livejournal.com/150303.html

At the same time, there have been other movements in the form in other games. Some have been constructive, some, not so much. I was happy to work on the Exalted RPG, which had a strong black woman as the game's icon -- but it also had at least one mind-blowingly sexist cover, too. A recent game called Houses of the Blooded made it clear that the default characters were not Northern European whitey-white looking - but promotional photography was of a pale-skinned woman. And last year, when I edited and published a modern fantasy game called Aeternal Legends, we wanted elves and such, but we wanted to get away from that -- we banned the term "race" and made it very clear that it was divorced from real world ethnic signifiers.

Ultimately, RPGs are a reflection on the broader discourse on race: race as exotic Other, race as political enemy, race as privilege signifier. Fantasy has the ability to shine a strong, unflattering light on all of it, but at the same time, that reveals complexities that make it no better or worse than the culture at large, because that's where it comes from. It needs to be criticized. Racism (and sexism and more) is there, but doing a bad job of talking about it does nobody any favours.

What really disappoints, though, is that this presentation is the kind of sloppy treatment that would only be tolerated in a popular artform. If thee same errors and omissions were made about a more cultured topic, nobody would tolerate it. But since the whole discussion was approached with preemptive contempt, the sloppiness seems to be implicitly justified on the basis that it isn't even worthy of talking about properly. But millions of people play the heirs of D&D and consume the media, and that means it is worth talking about.
posted by mobunited at 6:00 PM on November 20, 2008 [14 favorites]


I Learnt How To Be A White Nationalist From Dungeons And Dragons!
posted by HFSH at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2008


Has there been any good adult-oriented modern/psychological/realistic fantasy since Thomas Covenant or Amber?

A second for Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. It got me amped up about fantasy again.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:47 PM on November 20, 2008


A second for Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. It got me amped up about fantasy again.

Good luck with that. I'm approaching 100% certainty that either I or Martin will die before the series is finished. I'm not sure which yet, but one is almost certainly going to happen.
posted by Justinian at 10:38 PM on November 20, 2008


Has there been any good adult-oriented modern/psychological/realistic fantasy since Thomas Covenant or Amber?

It overlaps Covenant's publishing dates, but Tanith Lee's Tales From The Flat Earth books (4 or 5 of them, depending if you count the 'extra bits' book) are so remarkably better than her other work that I often wonder if she had a ghost writer or some sort of supernatural assistance.

It's one of the best-realized 'worlds' in terms of the feeling of history happening* since Tolkien, IMHO. And, apropos to this thread, decidedly inclusive when it comes to 'alternative' races and sexuality.

I bet there's a German word for this.
posted by rokusan at 10:52 PM on November 20, 2008


I was the only white person in my D+D group. The other 7 players were black.

Race was always an explicit issue in our games. The idea that race had something to do with forming character, and with how people interact, was hardly foreign to a group of African-American 13 year olds.

The game is much bigger than the shackles that narrow-minded people put on it. When someone says "I look at D+D and I see how it could be inherently racist," they are really saying "I look into my creative mind and I see how it could be inherently racist."

rokusan, I was just thinking last night that Tanith Lee is one of our neglected geniuses.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:46 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


mobunited wins the thread.
posted by chinston at 1:51 PM on November 21, 2008


Interesting story: Game designer Monte Cook (who worked on 3rd Ed D&D) was among a set of designers and artists (including Todd Lockwood, one of the primary artists for 3e) who wanted a nonwhite iconic character.

Reading his live journal entry, it seems that TSR was explicitly targeting the game to white males and excluded non-white males from marketing materials. That seems explicitly racist to me and implies a racist mind set at the co mpany.
posted by empath at 4:47 PM on November 21, 2008


I read it as that the art dept. wanted to break away from the trite cliches of the fantasy genre and the marketing dept wanted those same trite cliches very much (i.e. a Conan rip-off). Conflict between product development and marketing, trite business cliche.
posted by GuyZero at 4:57 PM on November 21, 2008


You think we're being racist, my Mom said so many times as I was growing up, when we went round and round about these weird books and movies. I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question: Why do you love a thing that won't even let you exist within their made up worlds?

How many other FoPs were driven to tears by this question they could not answer, despite painful struggles to do so? Am I the only FoP forced to develop a veneer of denial in order to function at the gaming tournaments, at the conventions other than the comic book fest in San Diego, or while watching "Buffy" and wondering if The Hollywood People who had ever actually been to Sunnyvale? Because, you know, if they had, there'd be five Asian/Pacific Islanders and at least three Latinos in the background. Am I the only FoP who was reduced to searching the people in the background because the people in the foreground were always a given? Am I the only one to wonder why the Los Angeles of "Angel" looked a lot like the New York City of Woody Allen's films?

What the hell did it say about my Blackitude that I just kept coming back for more, no matter how many times genre, in words and pictures, broke my heart? Any day now, the HNIC is coming for my membership card.

Le Guin's racial choices in "A Wizard of Earthsea" mattered because her decision said to the wide white world: You Are Not The Whole Of The Universe. For many fans of genre, no matter where they fell on the spectrum of pale, this was the first time such a truth was made alive for them within the pages of the magical worlds they loved.
- An excerpt from Shame by Pam Noles, an essay about growing up a black geek and what Earthsea meant to her and how disappointed the awful TV adaption made her.
posted by Kattullus at 2:38 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


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