Invoke ̶P̶r̶e̶j̶u̶d̶i̶c̶e̶
June 23, 2020 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Wizards of the Coast is addressing racist stereotypes in Dungeons & Dragons [Polygon] “Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast has acknowledged the existence of racist stereotypes in its sourcebooks, and pledged to make changes to ameliorate the issue. In a blog post published on June 17 titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons,” Wizards of the Coast said that depicting a diverse array of human beings — beyond “fantasy versions of northern Europeans” — is “one of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D.” The developers noted that while they want to feature characters “who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs,” the game still contains problematic depictions of fantasy races. Among these races are the orcs, who are often characterized as a savage horde of creatures who lust for battle, and the drow, an evil dark-skinned subrace of elves who dwell in a subterranean matriarchy.”

• Wizards Of The Coast Bans 7 Racist Magic: The Gathering Cards [Kotaku]
“The company behind Magic: The Gathering is apologizing for racist cards that have been part of the game for decades. Seven cards will be removed from competitive play and from the game’s official card index. “The events of the past weeks and the ongoing conversation about how we can better support people of color have caused us to examine ourselves, our actions, and our inactions.” Wizards stated. “We appreciate everyone helping us to recognize when we fall short. We should have been better, we can be better, and we will be better.” The affected cards are Invoke Prejudice, Cleanse, Stone-Throwing Devils, Pradesh Gypsies, Jihad, Imprison, and Crusade. These cards are banned from all tournament sanctioned play. Their art will be removed from Wizards’s official card index site Gatherer and replaced with the following statement: “We have removed this card image from our database due to its racist depiction, text, or combination thereof. Racism in any form is unacceptable and has no place in our games, nor anywhere else.””
• Staff Quit After Board Game Site Refuses To Support Black Lives Matter [Kotaku]
“At least 17 staff (and counting) contributing to Everything Board Games have left the site after its current owner, Lake Leafty, not only refused to issue a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, but said such a statement would be “virtue signalling”. In a statement released on June 17, staff say that in response to recent events in both the wider world and the board games community, they “asked directly when we could expect to see even a simple BLM statement from EBG”, and were reportedly told “This is everything board games, not everything politics”. The full statement, signed by 17 staff at the mostly volunteer-run site. In response, Everything Board Games’ owner, Lake Leafty, issued a statement of his own, and it’s...something. Leafty calls their statement “false and defamatory”, despite the fact it’s merely calling for something that was never forthcoming, and calls their publishing of the above statement on Everything Board Games’ community page “a coordinated attack”. He then says the lack of support for BLM on the site is because he wants to “refrain from getting involved or advocating certain positions in regard to politics”, before showing his true colours by calling any statement in support of BLM “virtue signaling”, which would require “the membership of our community to prove their moral and ideological purity, and all the other nonsense that comes with adopting that kind of mindset.”
• How Tabletop RPGs Are Being Reclaimed From Bigots and Jerks [Vice Gaming]
“Fate of Cthulhu is an upcoming RPG where players take on the role of time travelers trying to stop a Cthulhu-style apocalypse. It’s inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who was racist and anti-semitic—vehemently racist and anti-semitic. Because of that, Evil Hat Productions is publishing a content warning on page six of Fate of Cthulhu that calls out the author, and highlights the work of writers of color who’ve reexamined and reinterpreted the author’s work. Racism and fear of the unknown powered Lovecraft’s work. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Yet his work is still compelling to many, including myself. The weirder the world gets, the more popular his work becomes. “We can acknowledge the fear behind his imagination while also re-examining what came out of it,” Evil Hat Production said in its content warning. The responses were predictable. Thousands of people replied to the tweet. Some praised Evil Hat’s decision, while others logged on to defend Lovecraft from criticism and heap scorn on Evil Hat for daring to point out that a racist was racist. “Since the predictable edgelords and apologists have now shown up," Evil Hat said in response, "a quick reminder: If you don't like the politics included in our games, don't buy them. We literally do not want your money. We are committed to diverse and inclusive gaming. We're not perfect, but we're trying.””
posted by Fizz (115 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's a step in the right direction, but I think that part of addressing the root cause of some of D&D's racist legacy is Wizards of the Coast actually hiring POCs, especially black folks, in prominent positions. As the most dominant force in tabletop RPGs and card games, WoTC is still dominated by the perspective of white dudes.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:20 PM on June 23 [19 favorites]


I'll be honest, a while back for unrelated reasons I began playing Paizo's Pathfinder, which began with a similar base to AD&D 3.5 but for business reasons had to pretty much reinvent the entire world and environment.

Similar classes, some similar (Tolkein, etc) origins, but even as it was reinvented you could see some of the absolutism of D&D (and its fantasy sources) being buffed out.

In the most recent core rules the entire concept of "race" is - thankfully - replaced with flexible backgrounds.

And - know what? - it tells a better story. Sure you could previously have been "the one good Orc" and fought with your GM to make an exceptional backstory work. But now you have a background that grants plusses and minuses.

Oh and the "half breeds onlyresult from rape" implications are also thankfully just gone.

It's not perfect, there's still some weird essentialism employed to create a differentiated and flavorful world, but when I dipped back in to 5e with all its other advancements, the character system felt *so regressive*.
posted by abulafa at 5:20 PM on June 23 [15 favorites]


I think that part of addressing the root cause of some of D&D's racist legacy is Wizards of the Coast actually hiring POCs, especially black folks, in prominent positions.

I just googled the phrase: "magic the gathering artists" and the results were very very very white. I'm sure there are some non-white artists that contribute to these table-top/card games but that also needs to change. It was a very depressing google.
posted by Fizz at 5:23 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]


On the subject of racism in tabletop gaming, I present your periodic reminder that Red Dragon Inn 3, published in 2011, is racist as fuck.
posted by sugar and confetti at 5:25 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]


Wow, that Invoke Prejudice card is shocking!
posted by potrzebie at 5:26 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


Also, those cards and their art are super fucked up. "All White Creatures Gain +1/+1" Like COME ON!?! I don't play these games but jesus, they're not even trying to be subtle about this kind of shit. But I guess that's the point.
posted by Fizz at 5:27 PM on June 23




I just googled the phrase: "magic the gathering artists" and the results were very very very white. I'm sure there are some non-white artists that contribute to these table-top/card games but that also needs to change. It was a very depressing google.

I'm having trouble finding the thread, but there was a recent twitter conversation about how there might be only two or three current Magic artists who are black. I don't know what Wizards corporate makeup and writing staff looks like, but I defy you to find a black person on the employees shown on their corporate website.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:34 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Yeah, those cards are worth the additional context of them having been done by Seattle-area "Literally has art of Hitler as Jesus on his site" neo-Nazi artist Harold McNeill. He did a bunch of 90's game art, and it's been way too long of a "Yeah, that was bad, but let's not draw attention to it" issue with Magic, White Wolf, etc.

The Zaiem Beg open letter is really needed for context there, as there's a whole lot more systemic issues with Wizards, and them pulling these cards was the postscript "Look how long this has stuck around, this is literally the least they could do and they haven't up to this point" coda.
posted by CrystalDave at 5:35 PM on June 23 [16 favorites]


It's been said in other threads by many people but worth reiterating here. This company already knew which cards were problematic and it's only because of the recent pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist activists that has pushed them to finally remove these problematic artifacts from production. They could have removed these much much sooner, they KNEW and they just didn't care. So I'm not going to give them a pat on the back, this is the LEAST that a company should be expected to do: don't be fucking racist. It's not a hard company motto or article to put into your charter.
*exactly what CrystalDave wrote up above while I was typing*
posted by Fizz at 5:38 PM on June 23 [15 favorites]


You all just reminded me of an indie adventure supplement called Swordfish Islands that someone I know was complaining about. In it a group of ogres, depicted of course as primitive and savage, kidnap humanoid women and polymorph them into ogre women to be used as breeding stock. Check out the comment by a familiar name and the creator's clueless response. Also do check out the preview PDF of The Dark of Hot Springs Island, which on page 13 has a depiction of said ogres.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:47 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I don’t know the exact history of how WotC acquired D&D, but it occurs to me that a lot of those folks are involved in a literal white savior complex, as the young and plucky card giant saved the musty old RPG brand from oblivion (at least probably that’s how it looked to them).
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:53 PM on June 23


Orcs need to go. Just get rid of them for fuck's sake. They don't add anything to the game except racist baggage.
posted by benzenedream at 5:55 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I'm honestly still boggled that they thought it was fine to slip a 7/11 joke into Kaladesh, and only narrowly missed making a 'convenience' joke in the flavor-text. That's *recent* willful "how could anybody think poorly of this joke that carries no stigma to me, someone unaffected by any of this" jokes in poor taste.
posted by CrystalDave at 6:03 PM on June 23


Wow, that Invoke Prejudice card is shocking!

It's Klansmen! The art on the card is KKK members! And it has its effect "whenever an opponent casts a creature spell that doesn’t share a color with a creature you control..." WTF!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:05 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


"All White Creatures Gain +1/+1" Like COME ON!?!

I 100% am glad WotC is getting rid of these cards, but there is the tiniest bit of context to this one, and only this one. The game functionally has five factions, referred to by color -- White, Blue, Black, Red, Green. So, a card saying, "All [Faction] Creatures Gain +1/+1" is not totally out of left field.

Of course, it gets immediately racist as fuck when you name the card giving a bonus to White: "Crusade".

And that doesn't even remotely dig into a lot of problematic shit with what kinds of creatures end up in White vs. what end up Black.
posted by tocts at 6:06 PM on June 23 [16 favorites]


Orcs need to go. Just get rid of them for fuck's sake. They don't add anything to the game except racist baggage.

I'm fine with jettisoning orcs. They have a long history of being a repository for a variety of racist and xenophobic tropes. That doesn't really solve the problem though. Some other "race" in roleplaying games will just be saddled with the same tropes. See the halflings (you know, like Frodo?) in the Eberron setting, who are depicted as primitive nomads (who ride dinosaurs) with the same sort of "noble savage" flavor applied by racists to the indigenous people of the American plains or the Asian steppes. Eberron is a setting that was created in the 21st century.
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:12 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


These two Black AF Roundtable sessions with TTRPG creators were very good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5LvppNUmas and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7T4_yaQ760
posted by (parenthetic me) at 6:21 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


So much of what is toxic in fantasy role-playing is tied up in the concept of race (D&D has made much greater strides in gender and LGBTQ+ representation than with race). Orcs and elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and many more. So much Victorian taxonomy mixed with stereotypes and monolithic cultural descriptions. Meanwhile, “humans” are just broad and generic. Is there value to be kept in long-lived and aloof elves, in gruff and earthy dwarves, in playable “monstrous” races? They provide easy tropes to play when acting out your character, but they tend to be shallow at best.

In the myths and folktales fantasy draws from, there tends to be only one separation: the one between “people” and “magical people.” Those magical people may be called fairies or elves or dwarfs or any number of names, and may have particular distinctions and powers in particular places, but much about them is unknown and unknowable. They are tricksters or antagonists, not heroes. They do not share a society with people.

It was Tolkein who brought these magical folk out of the shadows and turned them into deeply constructed cultures sharing the same space with “humans.” And in doing so, he used the concepts of race that he’d grown up with. His elves are written to be superior to humans and dwarves, who are superior to orcs. Gary Gygax, though he claimed to disdain Tolkein, adopted this pattern wholesale for his game.

A starting point in decolonizing fantasy games would be to just count all humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, etc., as different kinds of people who each have their own culture and general look. But without making a cleaner break with tradition, it’s too easy to fall back into the racial stereotypes built into these inherited groups (the savagery of orcs, for instance). We should be playing in weirder worlds than warmed-over Middle Earth, with cultures that can draw from (but not appropriate) the diversity of our world.

The deeper problem is that the fantasy genre leans heavily on a set of common tropes that everybody is supposed to be familiar with in order to play: Tolkein, of course, but also Monty Python, and lately Game of Thrones, and European fairy tales and whatnot. But these tropes and stories are not universal and set up barriers for nonwhites (and non-nerds, for that matter). We need to cast wider nets in the kinds of material we use to tell our stories.

Fantasy stories are heavy on Destiny. Characters are Chosen Ones, Saviors of their People, Epic Heroes. This reinforces that the world revolves around them and can leads to toxic ways of thinking. As an example, consider the way the term “NPC” has come to be abused by some in real life, as if everyone around them is a cardboard cutout whose priorities can be completely dismissed. D&D seems to get more and more epic with each edition, and some return to humility and smaller stories would be welcome.

In most fantasy, autocracy is seen as both normal and good. Let’s be real, though: it’s a system of oppression. There are other models not based in feudalism. What if your homeland is a collection of villages, sharing relations of family, with various levels of support and/or antagonism between them? Each village has its elders who maintain tradition and its youth who stretch boundaries. Councils can be called, but no one is “in charge.”

And of course, the central problem of a game about killing monsters is: What makes someone a monster? According to the rules of the game, that might be an accident of birth or "alignment" or race. Good and Evil are never really defined in the current edition, and since so many of the mechanics center on combat, fighting is seen as the primary tool for conflict resolution.

I honestly don't think D&D is salvageable as a positive game. I think fantasy gaming might be redeemable with the right set of rules and the right set of players, but too many of the people I meet think that playing "an evil campaign" would be great fun. I'm reconsidering a lot of the received notions in the games I play now, and trying to plan for a future campaign that can be a force for good in the world rather than white-supremacy-flavored escapism.
posted by rikschell at 6:32 PM on June 23 [34 favorites]


Games Workshop is also going through a similar clean up having posted a "Warhammer is for Everyone" statement earlier in the month where they promise to continue to diversify their characters, decried prejudice, hate, and abuse, and essentially told anyone who did not like it they could fuck off. I doubt they can go as far as to tackle alien races as stereotypes, but it's a start. I agree they need to work on more diversity in their hiring and hope by opening the game up to more people, they'll get a more diverse pool of candidates in the future.

The reactions of "How can Warhammer be for everyone if you're saying it's not for me, a bigot shitstain?" were to be expected. Still, it seems like the bulk of the community is cool with it which is a positive note. Even more positive was the reaction lead me to discover one of my new favorite reddits: Sigmarxism.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:04 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


And that doesn't even remotely dig into a lot of problematic shit with what kinds of creatures end up in White vs. what end up Black.

Quite the understatement.

I haven't kept up with M:tG in a long time so it's possible this has changed (and if so, I'd be fascinated to hear how!), but in the game's original design, each of the five colors had strongly associated themes. Blue was the color of the intellect, green of nature, and red of chaos and destruction. And, basically, white was good/life/civilization and black was evil/death. Obviously those associations did not originate in M:tG, but they are so deeply ingrained in the game that I don't see how they could ever be excised without starting over.

Crusade had a counterpart in the original game, a card that gave all black creatures +1/+1. Here it is.
posted by aws17576 at 7:06 PM on June 23 [10 favorites]


Alignment is a horrible mechanic that really needs to die, preferably in a fire. It really gives little meaningful information about your character, in large part because there's no real agreement as to what "lawful good" or "chaotic neutral" actually mean.

And of course, the central problem of a game about killing monsters is: What makes someone a monster?

One of my favorite bits of FFXIV lore is Undefining Beastmen, an essay that's pretty blunt about stating that the term "beast tribe" is just out and out racism.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:07 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]


Gonna be harder to get the racism out of Fantasy than to get the colonialism out of Science Fiction.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:15 PM on June 23 [16 favorites]


I honestly don't think D&D is salvageable as a positive game. I think fantasy gaming might be redeemable with the right set of rules

I was initially skeptical of this point, but the more I think about it, the more I reckon you may be right. I have been a tabletop RPG player for upwards of forty years now, with D&D dominating the first few years. I have written before on the blue that I found it pretty welcoming but I was a straight white boy, and if any of those things were different, I would have had a less easy entry. My early games were full of other straight white boys like me: it was a very white city in those days (my high school had ~1200 students of whom maybe fifteen or twenty were not from European families) and gaming was a very gendered thing forty years ago.

I moved on from D&D by the mid-eighties but I have picked up the occasional book for it since then. I remember thinking a few years ago that the newest (fifth) edition had made some strides to welcome people who were not 1980 me (i.e. cishet white boys) but I wasn’t really in a position to say how successful the new system was... until eighteen months ago.

Now, the last time I ran a face-to-face role-playing game was about five years ago, for a group composed mainly of mefites. The group was about one-third POC, which is kind of in line with my social circle.

At the beginning of January 2019, I was invited along by a (white) university acquaintance to join a regular game of D&D he was playing in. I was curious to see fifth edition in play, so I said yes.

When I arrived, I found myself at a table of six or seven socially maladjusted middle-aged white men. I stuck it out as best I could, but after a couple of sessions I tired of their vaguely racist-sexist-homophobic humour and wacky accents that seemed pulled from a 1970s Dean Martin roast panel’s back catalogue. Maybe it was one of those, “well, we’re all white here, so we can talk freely” deals.

I didn’t return and told the guy who had invited me why. So far as I know, he is still there, chuckling at the sly wit of the DM putting on an Apu accent for shopkeepers.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:17 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


and if so, I'd be fascinated to hear how!

I'm in a weird position where I played the game as a teenager, from like '94 through '98, and then a tiny stint in like '01 through '02, and then not at all till the pandemic. With a lot of free time on my hands, I've been playing the online version (via MTG Arena) for the past couple months.

I will try to find time to write up something more complex, but in short: a lot has changed, but some has not. They've actually done a lot of like, legitimate writing and worldbuilding (actually multiverse-building) in the intervening years (whereas when the game started, nobody playing had any real concept of what the cards were except kinda generically "fantasy"). As a result, there's a lot of well-loved characters and factions that are in each color that are a lot more nuanced than "White is Knights, Black is Demons". (In fact, there's a bunch of stuff in White that's more like, Lawful Evil taxing/tithing, both in the lore and mechanically).

So: it's way, way better, but also still woefully inadequate in many ways.
posted by tocts at 7:20 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


D&D 5e is 7-10 years old depending on how you want to count. It is a vast improvement in increased representation and decreased isms over 4e which was also a pretty big improvement over 3e. We have come a long way since the only non white male characters represented in the book were half naked white women. Good to see WotC keeping the pressure on.

As the recent announcement shows there are still ways to improve. The depiction of orcs/dwarves/elves/gnomes/kobolds etc. are still not great and that is a tough nut to crack considering the modern Ur type (J.R.R. Tolkien) was explicitly racist and the insane popularity of the most recent films. One of the things that are helping is an increase in less human looking player races that don't come with that baggage and aren't just short/tall/stout/small humans. EG: Kenku, Tengu, Shifters. There is lots of room for truly innovative player races that aren't just substitutes for racist tropes (even though they have often been portrayed that way in the past).

You also have the problem that the basic concept essentially requires evil groups (there are systems that are players vs environment so it isn't 100%). I'm not sure there is anyway to get away from that so you'll always be guarding against slipping into stereotypes with those groups. EG: in a modern setting I'd have no problem considering Klansmen to be default evil. Doesn't mean you want your group marching into Atlanta and razing the place.

Having said all that there are many better role playing systems out there now. Many of them written by women, BIPOCs, LBGQT+, etc. 13th Age is my go to and it side steps a lot of these issues just by not being rigid about roles. It also has pretty diverse art and stories.

One of the things I like about 40K is how IMO the grim dark environment/society of the humans defacto makes them the evil bad guys. A lot of Space Marine fan boys aren't going to agree but at best they are jingoistic, war crime committing, colonial criminals. And the Orks are having the most fun, regularly hand the white boys their ass, and are psychic to boot. They are only "evil" in that they oppose the humans for the same property. And it's the humans who are making deals with Choas/classical evil. The roots are classic Tolkien but they've managed to develop past that.
posted by Mitheral at 7:31 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I honestly don't think D&D is salvageable as a positive game.

I currently run two D&D games and play in three others and I very much agree that apart from its problematic depictions of race, culture, sexuality, and gender, it's also a system that has always been about how good your guy can hit exotic animals and people from different cultures and steal their shit. It feels very limiting. There is a place for that sort of game, just like I think there's a place for action movies in cinema, but it takes up so much of the cultural landscape of RPGs that it's hard to for anything else to thrive.

I think the rise of the World of Darkness games by White Wolf Publishing in the 90s is a direct reaction to D&Ds dominance in the 80s, but of course they had their own problems. They often embraced "edginess" for its own sake to show how mature their games were. Sort of like the rebellious teenager of game systems.

Recently, I've been having a lot of fun trying out different systems late, especially ones that are in the category of "one page RPGs" (previously on MeFi). My favorite find so far is a game system called Troika!. It's not pro-actively anti-racist (which is a shame) and it does have one or two problematic bits in it, but it's like a breath of fresh air compared to D&D while still retaining a sort of "old school" flavor of sci-fi/fantasy RPG weirdness. Combat is an option but one that players will be hesitant to choose once they realize that combat is extremly deadly. It encourages creative solutions to problems that aren't just "I hit it with my sword". I really recommend it and it happens to be included in itch.io's Bundle For Racial Justice and Equality (previously), which also includes the Carly Rae Jepsen cult RPG (which I haven't played).

Also, check out the charity bundles that DMs Guild put out as well: BLM Charity Bundle.
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:32 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]


Of course, it gets immediately racist as fuck when you name the card giving a bonus to White: "Crusade".

The fact that the knights on that card are rocking the Flag of England doesn't exactly help either.
posted by whir at 7:43 PM on June 23


I love fantasy and my entire childhood and adolescence was spent drinking up whatever books and games from TSR I could get my hands on. As a non-white person living very far away from the places classic fantasy is based on (and really, most English children's books), this has affected (infected?) my imaginative space quite a bit. Heroes were always white, adventures always took place in rolling fields of grass or snowy alpine mountains. I could not imagine a story worth reading that involved an Asian character in a tropical rainforest. When I starting world-building, my worlds were always fundamentally Europen in nature, from the landscape to the buildings and culture and society. But I always pictured the people with black hair, perhaps because I felt at some subconscious level they needed to have some connection to me.

After growing older, learning to introspect a bit more deeply (and also reading lots of Metafilter), I realised my imagination had basically been colonised. I try to fight it, now, but in some ways the damage is done; I still feel an inexplicable affinity for places like the Scottish highlands, and much less for the tropics that I gew up in. Nevertheless, I'm trying to read more fantasy that is set in places that are not clones of medieval northern Europe. I also totally re-configured the fantasy setting I had created (which I still hope to write stories about one day), to be centered in an Asian-like culture, with Asian characters, and a tropical environment, while avoiding some of the Orientalist tropes and exoticism that I find very easily infect fantasy stories set in Asia. It's not easy.
posted by destrius at 8:06 PM on June 23 [26 favorites]


I like to play a campaign a year. last was village of hommlet. and this, tomb of horrors. other then that, it's nostalgic.
but, yeah, it took 20 years in the fictional timeline for a woman be be admitted into the circle of eight.

. I'm not sure there is anyway to get away from that so you'll always be guarding against slipping into stereotypes with those groups

agreed but stealing from a red dragon can be a blast.
posted by clavdivs at 8:09 PM on June 23


Yeah, it's kinda bullshit that Drow and Derro are dark-skinned, Elves and Dwarves light and fair, because THAT IS NOT HOW IT WORKS WITH CAVE-BASED SPECIES, SENTIENT OR NOT. Dude, they're looking at you with infravision, they can't even see how black you look in the sunlight... BECAUSE THEY'VE NEVER SEEN SUNLIGHT.

I know it's a fantasy world, but when racism conflicts with biology in a fantasy world, biology always wins. Roll for wiz.

Also can we talk about that one plane of hell that's on the slope of a super steep mountain, and the demons on it have one leg shorter than the other to chase you down efficiently? Just turn around and walk away. It will fall off the mountain if it tries to follow. Or hop around hilariously. Win/Win.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:16 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I'm having trouble finding the thread, but there was a recent twitter conversation about how there might be only two or three current Magic artists who are black.

It's here, started by Eric Froehlich looking for Black M:TG artist to buy from, and was highlighted in Zaiem Beg's open letter that Crystal Dave posted above.

This company already knew which cards were problematic and it's only because of the recent pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist activists that has pushed them to finally remove these problematic artifacts from production.

To be clear, none of these cards have been in production for some time. Wizards of the Coast has banned them from organized play, removed the images from their database site and replaced them with a statement, and has also changed the database ID of the KKK card so it's something other than 1488 (!?).

That these actions were decided on and accomplished so quickly after Beg's letter makes me question what took them so long. That none of the cards were even currently being printed means they didn't even have to mess with production lines or anything. None of the cards were seeing any significant amount of play so the banning was symbolic more than anything, but symbols can be important.

Hopefully this is a first step and not meant to be their last word on the subject. I guess we'll see. Magic players I've talked to don't seem too optimistic. They've been generally in favour of the bannings, and if they were against them it was because they didn't want to give Wizards of the Coast cover to make a superficial change and keep on as if everything were fixed.
posted by ODiV at 8:20 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


The fact that the knights on that card are rocking the Flag of England doesn't exactly help either.

The knights are wearing the St. George's Cross, which the English flag is derived from. St. George is basically the patron saint of the European Christian crusades to conquer the Holy Land and take it from the Muslims. The knights on the card resemble St. George as a crusader knight, and St. George is further referenced in the card art with the dragon banner.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 8:41 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Wow this is a fascinating topic that hits very close to home for me and I want to make a dozen comments, but I'll try and keep myself under control as best I can.

1. A (slight) defense of the use of colors in MtG:

As a long-time player / follower of the MtG franchise, the game does have a lot of casual racism in its early history. The Invoke Prejudice card with the racist artist is really just the low hanging fruit, I'm surprised the whole Arabian Nights set didn't get brought to the forefront during this conversation. A bunch of the names of the djinn and efreet names are anagrams of English names or things made up to sound foreign without any regard for the actual Persian language.

As to the whole white vs black as colors in MtG conversation, it's always been a thorny issue because of MtG's reliance on piggybacking in their worldbuilding and storytelling. Zombies in pop culture are slow but relentless, and so they purposefully make a lot of zombies in the game feel like that when you play with them. They've done better at adding nuance to white and black, where white isn't necessarily "good" but nowadays more associated with community (though this does often have the unfortunate side-effect with white being often associated with civilization) while black is associated with self-determination and self-improvement. MtG's approach to villainy in each color tends to be the color's virtues taken to their extreme, so the white's villains tend towards fascists, zealots, fanatics, and dictators. The black villains are usually overly selfish or overly ambitious, taking their love for their self to the point when you are actively hurting other people.

The colors are each represented in that kind of way, but none of the other colors are as racially loaded as black and white. Where this also gets mixed up is that white and black are associated with a lot of other things that MtG likes to piggyback on. White and black have always been loaded with the whole dichotomy of life and death, good and evil in Western culture so that wound up getting baked into a lot of the earlier MtG worldbuilding. They've gotten better at it as time progresses, with more heroes in black, and more villains in white, but there's still a long way to go.

2. Absolutism in escapist media

Just like a lot of other people, I do enjoy an amount of absolutism in my escapist media. Most video games or tabletop games need to give you a bunch of things to kill and just make them irredeemably evil to skip all of the thorny moral questions revolving around murder and self-defense.

The reason why I enjoy this is because it's difficult to justify murdering hordes of monsters if each had a deeply empathetic backstory, that would just make it "too real." Which of course makes me wonder if all of this absolutism in our escapist entertainment is ultimately coloring our worldviews and how we put together systems in real life. I enjoy the genre of fantasy in my entertainment, but the absolutism inherent in it is pretty foundational. Pratchett is the only creator in the genre I can think of right now that manages to confront some of those issues head on, but I do wonder if his use of dwarves in Discworld is going to be viewed positively or negatively a generation from now.
posted by C^3 at 9:00 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


I remember a great essay from Le Guin about how one of the advantages of fantasy is that you can turn abstract concepts into real things. So you have a monster, and the monster is a metaphor for greed and corruption, and you have heroes representing our own conscience fighting it. But once you start fleshing things out, giving the monster a name, a family, and society, a culture... then you start turning it human, and then it can no longer be just a metaphor. I think Pratchett explored that in detail in Discworld. But if we want to go back to Le Guin's point, then I guess it means we need to sometimes avoid the temptation to create a backstory? The monster just is.
posted by destrius at 9:31 PM on June 23 [20 favorites]


I've never played classic or advanced d&d. But I do like the illustration for human in the Earthdawn 2nd edition book (source page for image).
posted by jb at 9:39 PM on June 23


Yeah, it's kinda bullshit that Drow and Derro are dark-skinned, Elves and Dwarves light and fair, because THAT IS NOT HOW IT WORKS WITH CAVE-BASED SPECIES, SENTIENT OR NOT. Dude, they're looking at you with infravision, they can't even see how black you look in the sunlight... BECAUSE THEY'VE NEVER SEEN SUNLIGHT.

I feel like that's just such an inconsequential side detail, the root of the problem is the combination of the fact that the drow exist as a monoculture and that the culture is one that is canonically tied to intrinsically being evil. You make there be multiple types of drow who can culturally be at odds with one another, and make none of them intrinsically any more evil than humans or elves and you're at least 50% of the way to problem solved.
posted by juv3nal at 9:47 PM on June 23


I appreciate the framing of this reporting - Vice (!): " while others logged on to defend Lovecraft from criticism and heap scorn on Evil Hat for daring to point out that a racist was racist."

Kotaku: 'He then says the lack of support for BLM on the site is because he wants to “refrain from getting involved or advocating certain positions in regard to politics”, before showing his true colours by calling any statement in support of BLM “virtue signaling”...'

If the reporters were trying to pretend to be 'objective' or 'neutral' in this reporting, it would have upset me.
posted by el io at 9:59 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


root of the problem is the combination of the fact that the drow exist as a monoculture and that the culture is one that is canonically tied to intrinsically being evil.

Yep, the most basic-ass racism possible - there are dark skinned races but they're all savage and evil. There are light skinned races, and they are pure and good.

I've only just started playing D&D, and I was struck by how racist the base material is. I know you don't have to keep it, but it doesn't help. It's good that WotC are taking this step and I hope they keep going.

Our campaign is about a fantasy battle of the bands - any NPC that says something racially insensitive has to engage my enormous black minotaur drummer character in a conversation about racial justice and if they don't shape up he gores them to death.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:27 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


But the "races" in most fantasy, aren't. They are different species, for the most part. Do Tolkien Elves breed with Dwarves? Might have happened, not sure. But always felt to me like they were totally different species of humanoid creatures.

And as for Invoke Prejudice, who is more prejudiced than Klansmen? Seems somewhat appropriate. Even with a racist Nazi-artist apparently. But as mentioned above, giving all creatures of a certain color +1/+[ doesn't feel racist, it feels like a fairly standard game mechanic. And, Crusade seems historically appropriate, as all the Crusades were done by White people.

When I saw the post about WotC banning those cards, some didn't really seem that egregious, at first glance. Pretty much lore-based effects. When it's White versus Black, that has become more noticeable of late, obviously. And I think it is good that we are starting to look at the underlying tropes of fantasy "races".

But stay away from my Greenskin Orks... WAAAGH!!!

Never felt they were representing African stereotypes. Nor Tolkien Orcs either really. But, good to see that our assumptions are starting to be questioned.

EDIT: Haven't played MtG in 20 years, so don't know how the colors have developed, lore, themes, etc.
posted by Windopaene at 10:33 PM on June 23


But the "races" in most fantasy, aren't. They are different species, for the most part.

Making all white-skinned races good and all dark-skinned races bad is a choice.

It is a choice that occurred in the context of our society.

And as for Invoke Prejudice, who is more prejudiced than Klansmen? Seems somewhat appropriate.

Why do we never have fantasy worlds in which racism isn't a factor? What is this 'realism' we are apparently striving for? I am reminded of the arguments that Game of Thrones had to be full of rape and misogyny because that's what it was like 'back then'. We have dragons and magic and shit but we can't imagine a world without racial prejudice?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:43 PM on June 23 [26 favorites]


Well, that is the world we have lived in for centuries? Fantasy and RPGs that took current cultural assumptions and put them into their worlds doesn't seem out of line, except with 40 years of hindsight.

And to my point, are they "races" or species?

I don't know D&D lore that well, do recall "half-orcs" and "half-Eli's" and such, and never spent more than the first book of GoT, because I hated it so much. So let's go Tolkien. Were Dwarves white folk? Always felt that they were "Swarthy", olive -skinned folk, which makes no sense, as they lived in caves, but...

Does Tolkien say Orcs are black? Movies did with the Uruk-Hai boss dude, but didn't get that from the books.

Warhammer, yes, High Elves, (good guys), versus Dark Elves, (bad guys), (who totally are awesome BTW), is obvious, but feels more like a comment on good versus evil than white versus POC. Agreed that most Warhammer "good guys" are white folk, though, Lizardmen, but the bad guys are all green, grey, or undead. Really not many black races at all there, (which is an issue as well, but GW, what would you expect).

If you imagine a world where there were a bunch of different sentient species, assuming they would take sides and fight each other doesn't seem like a stretch. And so condemning all of fantasy RPGs based on this just feels extreme and retconnish. Can we do better going forward? Let's hope so.
posted by Windopaene at 11:16 PM on June 23


Why do we never have fantasy worlds in which racism isn't a factor? What is this 'realism' we are apparently striving for? I am reminded of the arguments that Game of Thrones had to be full of rape and misogyny because that's what it was like 'back then'. We have dragons and magic and shit but we can't imagine a world without racial prejudice?

FWIW the MtG development team did come out about a year ago and say that interhuman racism was not going to be a part of their worldbuilding going forward, but that stuff like humans vs elves or elves vs goblins type of racism would still be fair game. Even though the announcement was fairly recent it really has not been a feature of their settings for a long time. Notably, one of the main elven protagonists during the last big story arc had her anti-human racist background retconned away which caused a small uproar in the community. It feels like they're probably not going to lean hard into the inter species racism either, at least not for the characters that the player is meant to empathize with.

Also, the lack of interhuman racism also plays a large part in the Ankh-Morpork Discworld stories too, as it is always noted that all humans have united to be racist against Dwarves and Trolls.

I feel that interhuman racism generally isn't a huge feature in a lot of high fantasy type of stories because it winds up getting sublimated into the inter-species racism between humans and either elves, dwarves, orcs, or insert fantastical race here. Often times this still isn't the most responsible use of metaphorical storytelling, but that's part of the conversation that we're all having right now.
posted by C^3 at 11:19 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


And as for Invoke Prejudice, who is more prejudiced than Klansmen? Seems somewhat appropriate. Even with a racist Nazi-artist apparently.

We don't need to remind black people of the KKK in an escapist fantasy card game. Especially with a racist Nazi-artist. The real world has enough of that shit.

Nor Tolkien Orcs either really.

Tolkien describes orcs in racist terms in one of his letters. Unfortunately that link tries has a bit of apologia for his description. I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid, but just imagine how ot would be to read a book where black things are relentlessly associated with evil and white things with good, and when the leader of the white dudes shows his corruption he decides to call himself 'Saruman of Many Colours'.

Maybe all of that was of its time, but we live now and that shouldn't get a pass anymore.
posted by Mister Cheese at 11:22 PM on June 23 [15 favorites]


I will probably re-read LotR again soon. Whatever his letters may have said, I never felt like Orcs were "black people" as written. Perhaps I will notice that in a current re-read.
posted by Windopaene at 11:34 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Tolkien describes orcs in racist terms in one of his letters.

Tolkien also told Nazis to get fucked. A man of contrasts, I suppose.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:39 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I just finished watching the documentary Eye of the Beholder, which was a bit of a nostalgia kick. All the "classic" artists they interviewed were indeed white males. They did make a point of including some voices of currently active creators, and they spoke warmly about the fact that 5e art made a conscious effort not to be all white, male or European.

Never felt they were representing African stereotypes. Nor Tolkien Orcs either really.

There was a strong European narrative tradition of brave defenders holding out against tough odds. Tolkien was very much drawing on this, whether explicitly or no. The original "hordes" were Ottomans (e.g., at Rhodes, Vienna, Malta, and Vienna again) but in the colonial era Africans and Indians were absolutely cast in that role. To the extent his orcs weren't especially African, it's because they are more generically all sorts of foreign races bundled together in Tolkien's imagination.

I'd be fine if orcs were never mentioned again in published manuals or adventures. I think individuals at a good table could make use of them as PCs, but in printed stuff how do you navigate that baggage?
posted by mark k at 11:41 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I got distracted by the discussion on the thread and missed the point I wanted to make.

Evil Hat includes The Ballad of Black Tom on their list of recommended reading. Of course they did, because it's superb and highly recommended if you like Lovecraftian themes without too much Lovecraft.

Also I love this so much:
“Since the predictable edgelords and apologists have now shown up," Evil Hat said in response, "a quick reminder: If you don't like the politics included in our games, don't buy them. We literally do not want your money. We are committed to diverse and inclusive gaming. We're not perfect, but we're trying.”
posted by mark k at 12:12 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


Does Tolkien say Orcs are black? Movies did with the Uruk-Hai boss dude, but didn't get that from the books.

Not Orcs, but as a black man who has read LotR too many times, I immediately thought of this line from The Return of the King:
"…and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues."
And a reference to it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I found relatable:
He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, "Here, try this," and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 12:37 AM on June 24 [21 favorites]


It's very much not the same in magnitude, but it reminds me of when I was 13 and tearing my way through the Chronicles of Narnia and reached the line about "pure white Narnians" (I can't remember what it was exactly anymore) and felt this sinking feeling in my stomach.
posted by destrius at 3:17 AM on June 24 [8 favorites]


Were Dwarves white folk? Always felt that they were "Swarthy", olive -skinned folk, which makes no sense, as they lived in caves, but...

Tolkien’s letters refer to the Dwarves specifically as Jews: “ ""The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.""
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 3:48 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]


I feel like that's just such an inconsequential side detail, the root of the problem is the combination of the fact that the drow exist as a monoculture and that the culture is one that is canonically tied to intrinsically being evil.

I have thought, for about 20 years now, that an actual evil empire would look a lot like America. They obviously can't be constantly cackling and stabbing each other in the back. You'd need a civilisation that's so thoroughly committed to independence that they can excuse any amount of suffering and bury their many atrocities as being not reflective of who they are.

Individuals in that system wouldn't have to be evil themselves, while making them easy and uncomplicated antagonists.
posted by Merus at 4:16 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]


I have thought, for about 20 years now, that an actual evil empire would look a lot like America.

There's no need to narrow it down, evil can easily be pluralistic. Stalinist Russia & Nazi Germany are obvious competitor candidates but Czarist Russia, Imperial Britain/France/Germany/Belgium, pre-revolutionary France and others are also in the mix.
posted by biffa at 5:52 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


destrius, I love that LeGuin reference. It reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which worked well as a series when the demons were metaphors of the personal demons of high school life, and worked progressively less well after the students graduated and the worldbuilding got deeper and the demons got "more real."

There are "easy" kills in fantasy: mindless undead, soulless constructs (like Mickey's animated brooms), dangerous beasts (if you're not vegan). But one of the reasons I like to play is to navigate moral complexity, to be forced into making hard choices. But a lot of care should be taken in creating sentient enemies. The old rule of thumb that punching up is good, punching down is bad applies here.

There are a lot of tropes that are traps. An invading force should be hated because they are colonizers, not because they are different. History tends to lionize the spread of the Roman Empire and denigrate the Vandals who overtook them. The Mongols and Muslims are historically depicted as “invading hordes,” but Alexander the Great is hailed as a unifier. One good way of avoiding these tropes is to expose your players to the enemy’s propaganda. Let them know just how wonderful the Empire thinks it is, while exposing its hypocrisy in practice at every turn.

It's easy to dehumanize enemies. They may commit terrible atrocities (though you should avoid bloodthirsty and traumatizing descriptions of such), but each individual is still a person with their own motivations. This does not mean the party should be able to talk everyone onto their side, no matter how just their cause may be. History proves that many are willing to die for unreasonable reasons. But not every cultist has to fight to the death.

I think D&D itself has accumulated so much cruft and baggage (plus it's been a hack of wargaming from the start) that looking to a stripped-down alternative as a new starting point is reasonable. I've been really enjoying the system in my weekly PbtA Monster of the Week game, so I was looking at Dungeon World. One of the writers of that system has been grappling with the same legacy on Twitter. There are a lot of good ideas going around for building fantasy campaigns that are free(r) of the toxic history we've inherited.
posted by rikschell at 5:59 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


Whenever I heard about WotC as a company, I remember this article in Salon from 2000. (Part 2 doesn't seem to be at the link in the article any more, but the Internet Archive has a snapshot.) Good on them for trying to evolve a bit from Klansmen and rope bondage porn on card art.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:47 AM on June 24


A few links and thoughts:
- Orion Black is a Black RPG designed who got hired by WotC a while back, after making a game called Mutants in the Night and doing a lot of writing. Worth a follow.

- If you want to keep going with 5e, here is a post from D&D Beyond about particular ways to make the mechanical aspects of racial ability scores less awful.

- I recommend the Hieron seasons of Friends at the Table. They played Dungeon World in a post-post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where the orc culture we see is mostly focused on building a giant archive so they can do strange magic based on quotidian patterns; the major antagonists, in a sense, are a colonialist empire and God; and generally all the fantasy elements have been reconfigured in a way that keeps them feeling like Fantasy but not a romantic Tolkien-ass self-mythologizing fantasy.

- As the DW threads from Sage LaTorra above noted, Dungeon World does require a lot of heavy lifting from the GM (+ players) to make a world that's not the local maximum of current tropes. However, because it's a game that has much less going on mechanically, it may be easier to make good scenarios than in 5e or other D&D-types which could require a lot of stat-block work.

- Also look into the Spire RPG, “a roleplaying game about desperate revolutionary dark elves caught up in a secret war against the high elves, or aelfir, who rule the towering city of Spire.” Explicitly anti-colonial themes here.
posted by Maecenas at 7:18 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Wizards of the Coast may have banned those cards recently, but they have been committed to diversity and inclusion since well before the most recent BLM issues:

https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/why-diversity-matters-game-design-2019-08-19
posted by hypnogogue at 7:26 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Except that (as pointed out above by several posters) WotC has very much not been dedicated to diversity except in very shallow ways, as their treatment of PoC creators and willingness to work with outright Nazis demonstrates.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:04 AM on June 24


Also, this news just broke last night:

Wizards Of The Coast Cut Ties With Sexual Predator [Kotaku]
“Noah Bradley, an artist known for his contributions on over 100 Magic: The Gathering Cards, has been cut off from all work with Wizards of the Coast after a number of serious sexual assault allegations were made against him over the past week. Bradley, who has also worked with companies like Disney and Valve, issued a statement on Twitter in response, admitting that he was a “shitty, creepy sexual predator” who “preyed” on younger women and “pressured them into sex”.”
Also, this:

Wizards Ends Their Relationship with Terese Nielsen [Hipsters of the Coast]
“Nielsen, who lives in Carson City, NV with her wife, was one of Magic’s most popular artists and began illustrating cards in 1996’s Alliances expansion set. But in 2018, people noticed that Nielsen had been following members of the alt-right and conspiracy theorists on Twitter. Those follows ranged from alt-right activists like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, to InfoWars—home of conspiracy theorist and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones—and the white nationalist Stefan Molyneux. She was also found to have liked a number of racist tweets that spouted anti-Semitic theories and made memes about white power.”
I'm glad to see all these people being expelled for their toxic views and behavior.
posted by Fizz at 8:10 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]


I do not regret a single instant of playing Paranoia, that is all.
posted by elkevelvet at 8:24 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


And as for Invoke Prejudice, who is more prejudiced than Klansmen? Seems somewhat appropriate. Even with a racist Nazi-artist apparently. But as mentioned above, giving all creatures of a certain color +1/+[ doesn't feel racist, it feels like a fairly standard game mechanic. And, Crusade seems historically appropriate, as all the Crusades were done by White people.

When I saw the post about WotC banning those cards, some didn't really seem that egregious, at first glance. Pretty much lore-based effects.


There's NOTHING appropriate about that card or it's illustration. And you may feel that they're not egregious but that so many POC have chimed in to share their disgust and distaste should tell you how wrong their inclusion in this game is.

It also might be worth some consideration to reflect that the lore you reference is inherently biased and built on a foundation that privileges' white people and their reflection of culture & society, a reflection that doesn't often consider what it's like to be at the bottom and not have the same power and privilege those at the top have.
posted by Fizz at 8:27 AM on June 24 [10 favorites]


One thing I feel is worth saying is, while I don't think WotC's actions have been sufficient (and I think they are largely in reaction mode), the M:tG community has been ... good-ish, about it? Like, I don't want to be handing out cookies, but I do honestly find it refreshing how many people in the community care about diversity and inclusion.

In particular, the biggest subreddit for the game (/r/magicTCG) has a mod staff that has seemed highly focused on the game being an inclusive space that cares about racial justice. They have for example in past weeks had pinned posts such as "Black Designers Matter", discussion of Zaiem Beg's "The Wizards I Know", Lawrence Harmon's open letter to WotC and the magic community, etc. They've also been very blunt that racism will not be tolerated, and have shown no compunction about banning people quickly and locking threads over it, such as in the very predictable outrage over the card bannings mentioned in the article at the top of this FPP.

I'm not gonna say it's perfect because it's not, but I have found it to be noticeably better than anything I remember from years past, and better than a lot of online gaming spaces.

(side note: /r/mtg exists and is ... not the best? AFAICT it was a thing, then went dead for a while, then /r/magicTCG became a thing, then /r/mtg returned less than a year ago as an alternative to /r/magicTCG. it isn't like, white supremacy central, but they definitely either don't have the mod staff or the will to nip racist shit in the bud and you will if you go there find comments like "I don't know why the art got banned, I like the art and don't care who made it", which, ugh. so, be warned)
posted by tocts at 8:44 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


And not to keep commenting on the community, but to not abuse the edit window: I mention /r/magicTCG because I think they have been a force for good for pressuring WotC, and I think a lot of the action that is finally happening is because of the signal boosting they provide. WotC for sure reads it (there's staff members who comment), and there's been a number of issues that have been pinned or super highly upvoted that WotC has ended up having to finally take action on.
posted by tocts at 8:45 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


So I lost it to the edit window this morning and didn’t have the time to type it all back in before work, but regarding the Tolkien Dwarves as being Jewish:

Growing up, I was a kid who needed fantasy and sci-fi. I think a lot of us here were. It’s about escape, it’s about immersion, it’s about looking at our experiences through different lenses. How we see ourselves reflected on the page and in the games and on screens matters a lot especially to kids.

I hate antisemitism in fantasy and sci fi settings, and it is EVERYWHERE. What makes the dwarves Jewish to Tolkien? Well, their ancient traditions and Semitic language! And also their greed and begrudging, grim nature and their xenophobia and their greed. That’s not subtext, he outright says it in his letters. Thorin gets so obsessed by a diamond that he goes mad. And Tolkien is By. No. Means. The first or the only to use these backhanded tropes. Every damn setting we’ve got these big nosed, diminutive, greasy, clever little species with motivated seemingly entirely by greed and nihilism and malice; if it’s not dwarves it’s goblins or the Ferengi or Watto. And they always disdain the common good and have to be tricked out of something or overcome by force. Harry Potter is rife with it; those greedy, cruel goblins controlling everyone’s money! How dare they want wands and equality! How dare they want to keep the things they have made! They’re just not like us.

Antisemitism is just baked into Jewish consciousness because we are swimming in this constant culture of antisemitism. Even when we try to find Jewish role models for our kids that are ‘cool’ we look to the Maccabees and Masada and Mossad; we look to White, Western machismo and violence as though to say “look, we can be thugs too!”. This damn internal disdain has shaped Israeli culture and underpinned so much of our minds that it’s something we can only deprogram ourselves out of.

And for me a lot of that programming happened in these fantasy settings: clever minorities are greedy and insular and self involved. Tall, white, nobility is the bearer of virtue and Good. Other cultures are all Noble Savages or Just Plain Savages or Aliens. It had an effect on me.

I would love to see a setting that says “Dwarvish culture centers around ancient ritual, learning, and charity; Dwarves are heavily involved in education and food security and opposition to xenophobia because their deity has commanded them to heal the world.”

I am running a campaign right now in 5e, in my own setting, and I think I need to go back to the drawing board with my players because this thread has made me think about all of the colonialism and racism baked into my setting and game system even though I have already tried to avoid that. Maybe 5e just won’t work for us and we’ll need to find a different engine. Maybe we’ll find enough balanced mods to focus the game on conflict resolution and examination of power.

And with all of the above: as a Jewish person I am White! So many issues and crises are present even with my relatively small ‘deviation’ from White Western Christian CisHet Patriachy Culture. I literally cannot imagine the alienation felt in these settings by others. Everyone deserves fantasy. Everyone deserves sci-fi. Everyone deserves to celebrate themselves and others in those settings. I guess I have to think real hard about what I can do in my small ways to take the meaness out of these worlds. It’s the least I owe to my fellow nerds.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 9:41 AM on June 24 [44 favorites]


> Antisemitism is just baked into Jewish consciousness because we are swimming in this constant culture of antisemitism. Even when we try to find Jewish role models for our kids that are ‘cool’ we look to the Maccabees and Masada and Mossad; we look to White, Western machismo and violence as though to say “look, we can be thugs too!”. This damn internal disdain has shaped Israeli culture and underpinned so much of our minds that it’s something we can only deprogram ourselves out of.

god this is smart. like i read this paragraph and pulled a keanu-reeves-saying-“whoa” face.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:45 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


> Does Tolkien say Orcs are black? Movies did with the Uruk-Hai boss dude, but didn't get that from the books.

orcs are black. but also they’re definitely definitely middle-easterners and south asians as well — read the description from return of the king of the forces of sauron mustering for battle against gondor, of the orcs and irredeemably corrupted men from the south and east. tolkien is dripping in the antisemitism and antiblack racism common among comfortable white englishmen of his day, but we must also note that he was deeply orientalist as well.

but really i think it’s important to note that. tolkien was antiblack, but the definition of “black” to a mid-20th-century well-off white englishman was different than the definition of black used among americans today
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:54 AM on June 24


It's been a long time since I played it, so I could be wrong, but I played Earthdawn a lot back in the day and I felt like it gave all of the species (human, elf, dwarf, troll, etc.) really interesting cultures and backstories that didn't feel racist so much as *diverse*.

They are still based on Tolkien to some extent but are better fleshed out as "equal" (it seemed to me) but different in attributes and outlooks. Elves tended to be arrogant and machiavellian; dwarves tended to be traditionalists and builders; humans tended to be obsessed with prestige and power struggles; orcs were hard workers with an elaborate culture who face prejudice from many. Within each race there is some diversity of skin colors.

The manual specifically had each species describe itself in its own worldview. Anti-colonialism is a huge theme, and the game specifically addresses the prejudices that some species face from others. Earthdawn wasn't without its issues, to be sure, but it was so much better than D&D/Magic.
posted by mkuhnell at 10:07 AM on June 24


So I say this as someone who likes D&D. and has played it on and off for 40-some years: those who say the game is irredeemable are not wrong. There's a ton of stuff baked into it to such a degree that you just can't ever get it out. Race essentialism. Repeating tropes used to other ethnic groups but with pointy ears. Colonialism. Weirdly hardcoded notions of good versus evil. Not to mention the stuff that's just nonsensical: the mismash of Anderson's and Moorcock's notion of "law vs chaos" then applied as an axis of "good vs evil" when those two things don't completely apply to one another. (Not to mention that "law vs chaos" was just those authors trying to freshen up good vs evil with some better word choice). I also wish that we talked less about Tolkien and D&D and more about its weird fantasy roots with Anderson, Moorcock, Vance and Howard (edit: and Leiber) - and how each of those is just chock full of super problematic tropes of their own, mostly misogyny but also xenophobia and a general pro-whiteness (for lack of a better term).

So IMO it's good that the D&D authors (they're stewards of a cultural artifact that goes beyond any one person at this point) acknowledge that it's full of problems and try to fix at least some of it. Rewriting the Vistani in Ravenloft is great. And it's amazingly low-hanging fruit! But ultimately you can't extract tropes around "exotic" cultures and primitivism vs civilization from a game and a literary tradition where these are the primary themes.

So you either have to be willing to like D&D for its numerous flaws and work around them to your comfort level or just do something else. And what's crazy to me is that after 50 years of role-playing games as a hobby, there are so few big alternatives to D&D! And that's not to say there are no alternatives, but there are so few really big ones. I really wish that Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia or Traveller or literally anything was one-tenth the size of the D&D fan base. I guess maybe Vampire already is, I don't know how popular it is today after its big heyday in the 90's. Maybe the various PbtA games out there are killing it. It's hard to tell. It really is too bad that the whole hobby is so centered around D&D and that D&D continues to suck the air out of the whole space. I wish I knew a way to fix it.

In the meantime D&D should continue to be more inclusive and it's the job of everyone who plays it to make sure the hobby is approachable and inclusive to every player out there. I don't know how to say it without sounding trite.

Also: as a bonus WTF: in the upcoming D&D annual adventure-release-blockbuster, Ice Goddess Auril is based on the neopagan Triple Goddess and has a mechanical statblock that reflects that as three physical forms. The typical names for these three forms are Mother, Maiden and Crone. (I'm neither a neopagan or a Wiccan so I just get what I get from lit classes and wikipedia) This somehow gets reworked into her three forms being "cold crone, brittle maiden and ice womb". Which.... eh. going from "mother" to "womb"... never stop boiling down those mythic tropes until you have syrup burned to the bottom of the pot, D&D writers. But this adventure had a record setting number of women credited in the writing, so hey, I guess things are improving.

On the plus side, it has three kobolds in a trenchcoat.
posted by GuyZero at 10:21 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I wish I knew a way to fix it.

To be a bit more upbeat on reflection: if you are new to role-playing games but don't like D&D for whatever reason, things have really never been better in many ways. There are more good non-D&D games out there to choose from than ever. From old out-of-print classic that are available as PDFs now to new(er) games like Tales from the Loop or any of the Powered by the Apocalypse derivatives to tiny indies on itch.io it's really a new golden age.
posted by GuyZero at 10:26 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


three kobolds in a trenchcoat

New sock name?
posted by hanov3r at 10:33 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


Moorcock, Vance and Howard - and how each of those is just chock full of super problematic tropes of their own, mostly misogyny but also xenophobia and a general pro-whiteness (for lack of a better term).

Don't forget self-hating homophobia (e.g. Elric).
posted by benzenedream at 10:38 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Wizards of the Coast may have banned those cards recently, but they have been committed to diversity and inclusion since well before the most recent BLM issues

For any who didn't click on the link, it's a blog post from 10 months ago about how a diversity of products that cater to a diverse set of audiences is good from a design perspective and makes a game more successful. Diversity is presented as a useful life hack ("adding diversity to your game will make it better") but says nothing about diversity in hiring practices or among the members of a design team, which is a major issue raised in this thread. It's not a bad article otherwise, and has some great design lessons!

Anyway I don't think there's much evidence that WotC have been like, trailblazers in the fight for racial justice here. Glad they're recognizing the work they have to do! Glad they've disavowed some bonkers offensive cards! Sure hope they do more. Lots of good ideas in this thread.
posted by sugar and confetti at 10:58 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I have no doubt the game Paranoia has its own share of flaws and built-in problems, but it starts as a basis to mock some of the excesses of the D&D culture at the time and it's just so much FUN.
posted by elkevelvet at 11:38 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


This is not in any way defending the whole White/Blue/Black/Red/Green thing; just a bit of context for what a creature being White or Black means in the game.

Magic (the gathering) has it's roots in classic fantasy tropes. You had White (good) magic and Black (bad) magic. Blue is the color of mind magic (psychic powers and enchantment), red is elemental magic (specifically rock and fire) and green is nature (growth, healing). When the game was first developed, they used color as a way to divide up the resources in the game, and it was pretty haphazard split. I suspect that apart from white/black the colors were as arbitrary as the colors on a monopoly board. Invoke Prejudice was a blue card not because police are blue but because Invoke Prejudice was a card that affected the entire game over multiple turns and back then blue was the color of effects that changed things.

Over the years Magic has shifted from the White/Black good/bad into more of a Enforcement/Liberty framing. A White/Green faction is a mind controlling (destroying your way of life or individuality to enforce 'order' and 'civilization' is White ) expansive fungal (Green) gestalt, a White/Black faction is a Mafia (White, because a Mafia is a community outreach project that tries to rope you into their racket if you want it or not) /Necromancer (Black because necromancy) bank that enforces labor contracts beyond the grave. There's a White/Black/Green faction that is attempting to repair the environment (green) using regenerative magic (white) while utilizing the wisdom of their ancestor ghosts (black).

The player-base of M:tG has expanded greatly over the years to include many of my best friends and there is very little tolerance for the gross nerd bullshit that has been associated with the hobby for so long.


edit: oh, the art for Invoke Prejudice is pretty gross, and the naming of the card was unfortunate. When I saw the card as a kid I immediately saw the comparison to KKK members in their hoods but I always thought it was something of a snipe at the KKK. You, as a wizard, are summoning up some evil dudes to harass and make things difficult for anybody not in your faction, seems pretty spot on for the KKK. Only as an adult some 20 years later did I learn the backstory of the artist involved.
posted by kzin602 at 12:40 PM on June 24


Invoke Prejudice was a blue card not because police are blue

You do realize that the issue with Invoke Prejudice has nothing to do with its color, right?

You had White (good) magic and Black (bad) magic

You do realize that that specific color-based essentialism is EXACTLY what people are rightfully complaining about, right?
posted by hanov3r at 12:49 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


I haven't played MTG in decades, but I'm kinda amazed they decided to do away with racist cards and came up with a list of... 7 cards. There are over 20,000 unique cards, not to mention multiple versions of art for many cards. But don't worry, they looked really hard and found all 7 culturally offensive ones!

Just a cursory search comes up with stuff like the artwork for Disruptive Student (yes, I know they later turned the Teferi charcter into a planeswalker) or Nameless Race (what exactly is this meant to insinuate?). Then there's the problem of "protection from black" cards being called things like Absolute Grace or White Shield Crusader. There are 20+ cards with "Crusade" in the title. Nothing at all wrong with Tivadar's Crusade, nope!
posted by oulipian at 12:57 PM on June 24


I'm hesitant to say it because I am super not intending to be WotC's defenders (they have fucked up; they continue to fuck up), but they at least claim that this is just a starting point, not an ending point. How far they actually go remains to be seen.

It's also worth pointing out that the 20,000+ card backlog adds a wrinkle to the player perception of these things.

Put simply: there's different ways to play the game, and the primary difference between them is, which cards can you use. "Eternal" formats (where you can use any card ever printed, or every card from some specific starting point 10+ years ago) are much more expensive to get started in, because you're competing with players who have old, often overpowered (by current standards) cards. Getting your own copies of those cards is expensive because they've rarely or never been reprinted.

Because of this, many (most?) players' experience with the game is with "rotating" formats, where the only legal cards are those printed recently. Some cards get reprinted every time a new "core" set is released (I would bet Serra Angel has never fallen out of legality within rotating formats), but most do not. Invoke Prejudice, for example, was printed in 1994, and never reprinted. For people not buying into eternal formats, cards like it functionally don't exist, in the same way that the races from the original D&D box set printed in 1974 don't exist for someone playing D&D 5th Edition.

That said, should they never have printed these cards? Yes. Having been racist fuckups in that regard, should they have done something years ago? Yes. And should pressure be kept up to go further? Absolutely yes.
posted by tocts at 1:31 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: the Arabian Nights expansion contained djinn cards in every color except white. MtG creator Richard Garfield explained this by saying "They didn't seem to belong in white--while not always evil, they were never good." (There have been multiple spirits and other supernatural beings in white since the beginning of MtG.) An article on the WotC website from 2002 explains that "White is too orderly and pure to be home to one of the chaotic and unpredictable Arabian spirits."
posted by sugar and confetti at 1:35 PM on June 24


I think the most recent printing for any of the recently banned cards was Crusade in Duel Decks: Elspeth vs. Tezzeret in 2010.
posted by ODiV at 1:39 PM on June 24


skookumsaurus rex , I flagged your comment as fantastic. (heh). Thank you for that.

Hoping this really is the starting point that leads to a huge rethinking.

I can't even begin to tell y'all how angry I used to get at people who would insist that BIPOC characters couldn't be in these settings as anything but savages/others, since that would take them [the white player or reader making this claim] out of the story because of how ahistoric to the fantasy world's "realistic" base of Northern/Western Middle Ages Europe that would be.

I used to find myself thinking "If your game or novel is a favorite among the Stormfront crew, you really ought to do some hard thinking about why that's so and whether you're comfortable with that" about many writers and game manufacturers.
posted by lord_wolf at 1:42 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


And what's crazy to me is that after 50 years of role-playing games as a hobby, there are so few big alternatives to D&D! And that's not to say there are no alternatives, but there are so few really big ones.

There probably won't be much expansion in the numbers of big players either. The diversity of new product all by itself would probably guarantee that in the same way there's unlikely to be many bands as dominate as the Beatles; people just have way more accessible choices now.

But the whole RPG genre doesn't really lend itself to great big successful dynastic product. Even D&D couldn't manage that having been near bankrupt several times in it's history only being saved the last time by MtG money and the deep pockets of Hasbro. The root of the problem is that while the player base can be large the vast majority of those players are going to buy _one_ book. As time goes on additional materials have less and less uptake. Even well known properties have trouble getting people to continue buying. This is why D&D over the years has pushed into areas like miniatures, magazines, subscriptions services, licensing (both of the system and of the IP for books/movies), video games etc. They needed something to prop up their core business.

The good news is there is lots of independent choices outside of WotC. Some of the small game studios have figured out how to make a profit (or at least pay salaries) on small systems. Which means there is lots of options for game mechanics and lore. And because these are small shops at least some of them aren't staffed by vanilla middle class white guys.
posted by Mitheral at 1:45 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


So I sent this thread to my Saturday group and let them know that we will be taking a look at some changes to, if not actively confront racism in our escapist game, than at least working towards decolonizing it. It’s a good time in the campaign to check in anyway.

In addition the resources above (I’ll look closely at the DMG bundle too) does anyone have suggestions for mods to 5e mechanics that can help? Setting-wise I think we can figure it out but we are unlikely to move away from 5e for the moment, and i don’t give a damn about alignment, so I would be interested in hearing about balanced and playable changes to racial mechanics or combat mechanics or even ideas for alternative encounters that will allow us to play D&D in just but still escapist ways.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 3:03 PM on June 24


Just a cursory search comes up with stuff like the artwork for Disruptive Student (yes, I know they later turned the Teferi charcter into a planeswalker)

Wow, that card looks different out of context!

Disruptive Student is from the period when I was still playing M:tG (when "planeswalker" still just meant the dueling players themselves). Even at that time, Teferi was a major character in the storyline, a time-manipulating wizard/genius with a trickster streak; of course he would have been a pain in the ass in school. The flavor text on the Disruptive Student card alludes to all that ("no appreciation for constructive use of time" is a great pun, and the implication is that the "problem student" is smarter than his teachers). In that context, I think of the card as one aspect of a well-realized, mostly positive characterization, and WotC making the character black seems more like representation than stereotyping. But someone at the company should have said, "Uh, this card is kinda problematic if you take it by itself," and the fact that no one did probably has a lot to do with the company's very white workforce -- just another reason representation on the cards is not enough without representation in the company.
posted by aws17576 at 3:09 PM on June 24 [6 favorites]


Oh wait I also should say that I used language above that I did not think through: where I said “as a Jewish person I am White” I conflated Whiteness and Jewishness which is absolutely a common attitude but is absolutely a prejudiced mistake. Ashkenazi Jewish Ethnic Identity is held mostly by White people like me but Jews of Color and Jews by Choice are absolutely part of our faith and community and we have done a very poor job making spaces for them, including in the language I used above. Sorry if this is off topic because it doesn’t have to do with games, but it is important to remember that all identities are complex and intersectional and by lumping everything into the mean we deprive ourselves of the richness and depth of plurality. And that, I think, actually has quite a bit to do with games.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 3:20 PM on June 24 [7 favorites]


I've played tabletop games other than D&D way more than D&D, and I lean towards minimalist rules-light systems, but I have a lot of headcanon about the D&D setting, because I've never met a boring, reductive fantasy trope that I didn't want to pick apart like lego and rebuild into something cooler. I'm particularly drawn to "always evil" "races" because that's such a clearly stupid idea with so much rewrite potential.

And so, paradoxically, despite not being a fan of the D&D system, I'm quite fond of a lot of D&D-specific setting elements, just not as they're written down in the sourcebooks. For example, I see the Drow as a somewhat ruthless and backstabby civilisation in the vein of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy (or rather the pop culture depictions thereof), but matriarchal, subterranean and with spiders and magic.

Interpretations like this have been a given within the groups of friends that I typically play with, to the extent that it actually throws me when I encounter someone who uncritically assumes that the book canon is literally true.

It's still a problem that the reductive depictions are in the published text, for the same reason that the existence of fix-it fanfiction doesn't negate problems found in the original works. I think that tabletop games have an advantage over media like novels or TV series because of their level of interactivity. The text doesn't have to be an immutable framework that you're only allowed to colour in. You can change as much of the source material as you want, if that's what your table agrees on.

I've thrown away vast swathes of some settings for purely practical purposes -- the old Legend of the Five Rings setting, for example, was constantly updated based on the outcomes of collectible card game tournaments, which led to as much elegance and cohesion as you might expect, and actually trying to incorporate all of that ridiculous history spaghetti into a serious game was untenable. You almost always have to pick and choose which bits you like and which bits you're going to ignore because they're silly or overly complicated or just don't fit the theme or genre of the campaign.

As a result, I know that the actual experience of playing a game is about... 30% what is in the book, and 70% what the people around the table contribute to the worldbuilding and the story. Two different groups can play the same game using the same sourcebooks and do it so differently that they're unrecognisable to each other.

But in order to be aware of all of this you need to have some degree of past roleplaying experience; you need to be a GM or play with a GM who can generate their own material and uses the books as a suggestion, not as a bible -- and most importantly, you need to be playing with like-minded people who are on the same page as you when it comes to interpreting the text. And I realise that if you're a complete newcomer to the hobby, and the source material is all that you have to go on, you may not be inclined ever to get to that point if you open the book and the first thing you see is some racist bullshit.
posted by confluency at 4:06 PM on June 24 [3 favorites]


There are "easy" kills in fantasy: mindless undead, soulless constructs (like Mickey's animated brooms), dangerous beasts (if you're not vegan). But one of the reasons I like to play is to navigate moral complexity, to be forced into making hard choices. But a lot of care should be taken in creating sentient enemies. The old rule of thumb that punching up is good, punching down is bad applies here.
Before coronavirus, my current group is about 50% "here for the roleplay and talking through complex moral scenarios" and the other 50% is "here for hobo murder and the simple satisfaction of being a hero who can punch the problems of the world in the face." But now, (in these challenging times) that ratio is more 33%/66%. We care about justice and wrangle with the challenge of living in a complicated, messy, unjust world on a daily basis. My friends want the biweekly weekend game to be a reprieve from that messiness. As a player, I'm all about getting into the complexity, but as a GM, have had to be sensitive to everyone's preferences to ensure it's fun for them. I'm glad that we're talking about how problematic orcs and dark elves have been, and also the colonialist trappings around "taming the frontier, establish 'civilized' villages, and defend them against the 'savage' humanoid raiders". But, man, I struggle with how few "easy" kills there are without recycling through undead, constructs, wild beasts, and other things that just want to eat you.

I'm setting up a dungeon for folks to explore on Sunday, and thinking through who lives there and where the excitement for exploring the dungeon will come from, and there's only so many traps, undead, and skill challenges to work in before it feels repetitive. I'm 100% down for us eliminating the concept of murder hoboing, but also want to talk about what we'll put in place to replace it.

I am a person of color who discovered D&D when I was 8 and have been playing it off and on for a few decades, and while my imagination is diverse and non-colonized, I do think the D&D system limits our concepts of challenges to situations that need to be solved with violence. How many spells are in a wizard's spellbook that are about damaging things versus fixing things? How many of a paladin's class features are about punching bad things in the face vs mediating disputes? And, as the discussions around warrior police culture have shown us, if our main toolset is violence that how does that predispose us to looking at everyone else as targets?

Rethinking orcs and drow are start, and I'm glad that D&D is hiring more diverse voices, but what are we doing about the fact that adventurers are the cops of a D&D universe and they get away with a hell of a lot more shit than cops in our world get away with?
posted by bl1nk at 6:54 PM on June 24 [7 favorites]


skookumsaurus rex , thanks for your comment! I had never seen the connection between dwarves and Jews before, but now that you mention it it's really obvious.

So, on the topic of how to "redeem" D&D, one of the things I've been doing in my setting is invert the stereotyping, in a way; put Asian-based cultures in the centre, and turn the European cultures into strange, foreign barbarians that have invaded and colonised "our" world. In some ways, I do that to make a point, but I also wonder if it's not really helping any to replace orientalism with occidentalism. Similarly, when I try to draw inspiration from Asian myths and legends, there is inherent racism in those stories too that need to be dealth with.
posted by destrius at 7:08 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


House ruling and game to game variations are one of the many strengths of most RPGs I think though I'm not sure how much of that in my case comes from having played AD&D for years (which no one played 100% to the book; I'm not even sure if it was possible). My group has always been "This rule is stupid" and "that rule isn't any fun" (encumbrance I'm looking at you) and we'd just ignore or modify until they weren't stupid or weren't getting in the way of fun.

This is in pretty marked contrast to MtG which I understand is pretty much RAW.

If you want to keep going with 5e, here is a post from D&D Beyond about particular ways to make the mechanical aspects of racial ability scores less awful.

13th Age still has ability score bonuses for races but you also get a +2 you can apply anywhere that doesn't stack with the racial ability so you can always get a +2 in your class stat. Also no penalties. Which is some combination of option 1 and 2. And ya, you get Dwarven mages, Orc clerics, Halfling barbarians and Warforged sorcerers without out it being a Role over Play decision.

I really like 13th Age because it is IMO well thought out and it allows you to do anything you could think of as a roleplayer without enabling Min/Maxing much. There just aren't any must build, optimized to the max combinations that just happen to play to the strengths of white men. EG: All weapons have 1 of 4 damage profiles (there are some special abilities sprinkled around) so every fighter isn't wielding a long sword because it's not the only viable choice.

How many spells are in a wizard's spellbook that are about damaging things versus fixing things?

One of the things 13th Age has is a separate ritual mechanism for magic users. It allows one to bend the power of offensive spells to peaceful uses. They take up to an hour so not really a combat thing but they don't make people choose life saving damage spells over role playing spells. So for example you might take the fact you know magic missile which involves accurately placing a pointy object to thatch a roof, fire ball to repair a set of hinges.

Key though is to play in a group that isn't rigidly bound by the rules. If a character comes up with some set of actions outside the "Hit'em with my axe" rules figure out how to let them do it. Realize it's not the olympics, no one is keeping score, and just have fun.

All that is easy for me to say with decades of experience and not much disenfranchisement by the white patriarchy. I'm really glad games are moving to being more inclusive by default and not require hours of house ruling to minimize isms. Especially a focus on being inclusive; representation matters.
posted by Mitheral at 7:17 PM on June 24


bl1nk - this is something I have been thinking about a LOT as I started to get burned out on D&D. In my own gameplay, I tend to want more investigation and diplomacy and less violence. That's partly personal preference - some people get really into weaponry and combat tactics, and I really don't - but it's also partly that the more convinced I am about police abolition and prison abolition, the less I can believe in fun escapist violence.

And D&D can tell stories that are more focused on investigation and diplomacy, if that's what the players and GM can agree on, but... the rulebooks are so combat-focused that it feels like cooking spaghetti in a wok. You can do it, and you can do it with good results, but it's clearly not using the tool for its intended purpose. I know that D&D has its origins in tactical wargaming, and I'm not trying to make it something it's not -- and that just might mean I'm better off playing games that aren't D&D. (And being sad that I'm not in a roleplaying campaign, and feeling like a jerk when my friend asks me to play D&D with him and I don't want to!)

I don't want to derail the conversation from "D&D should be more inclusive of people of color" to "D&D should be more inclusive to my personal preferences" but I do think the murderhobo thing is connected to the larger issues - I remember being on RPG newsgroups in the late 90s - early 00s, and seeing people argue seriously that it's totally fine to murder goblin babies and children because they're destined to become evil, and if you're a Paladin you can murder as many creatures of evil races as you want without giving up being Lawful Good, and... I don't want to play with people who think that's a good time.
posted by Jeanne at 7:22 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


I think if you set up a world with threatening violent factions, you can totally justify violence against them. They can be total cartoons like the space Nazi Daleks of Doctor Who, or something more nuanced. But even justified violence has consequences. If you’re looking for free-and-clear murderhoboing, maybe look at demons and/or devils?
posted by rikschell at 9:08 PM on June 24


That kind of makes me wonder if Planescape might be the best D&D setting, in that case. My only exposure to it was Torment so I don't know it that well; are there any problematic things about it?
posted by destrius at 3:01 AM on June 25


Before coronavirus, my current group is about 50% "here for the roleplay and talking through complex moral scenarios" and the other 50% is "here for hobo murder and the simple satisfaction of being a hero who can punch the problems of the world in the face." But now, (in these challenging times) that ratio is more 33%/66%. We care about justice and wrangle with the challenge of living in a complicated, messy, unjust world on a daily basis. My friends want the biweekly weekend game to be a reprieve from that messiness.

I had a player tell me yesterday that he's taking a break from the organized D&D play (online only, currently) at my Friendly Local Game Store because the store posted a statement on its Facebook page that gaming was about inclusivity and that if people wanted to take their business elsewhere because of that stance, so be it.

Not, he emphasized, because he disagreed with that stance, but because he plays D&D to escape, and he doesn't want the place where he plays getting involved in politics.

(I'm pleased to say that the group that runs D&D for cons like GenCon makes very clear that existence is not politics, and that everyone gets a seat at the table and anyone who would hassle someone for who they are can take a hike.)

Something else kicking around in my mind is that a good adventure can be based on inverting tropes and subverting player expectations. Many an adventurer has ridden to the rescue of a village beset by raiding goblins -- but what if the goblins are just minding their own business and the villagers want to expand into their territory, and plan to use the adventurers to do their dirty work?
posted by Gelatin at 4:31 AM on June 25


Seen on Twitter:
@liamlburke
the reason D&D doesn’t start with “come up with a material, nonessentialist reason the orcs are in conflict with the townsfolk like a dispute over limited natural resources or something” is that it would make it clear that adventuring parties are an inappropriate solution
posted by rikschell at 6:18 AM on June 25 [4 favorites]


This is interesting because when I think of D&D I do not think solely and exclusively of the card game, Magic: The Gathering. I think of the Forgotten Realms and books and video games and fantasy in general. Yes, there are a lot of problematic issues with representation, and as someone mentioned upthread 'colonizing their imagination'. However, as confluency pointed out, that is pretty much how the Drow and their city of Menzoberranzan is described in the Daughter of the Drow trilogy.

I do admit, when I pictured Liriel's father, I assumed he was white.
posted by VyanSelei at 8:00 AM on June 25


yeah, to be clear, my group is all in for de-racifying D&D and being inclusive, and I still want to play with them. We're just at a laborious time around reprogramming our adventure ideas to weed out the colonialist baggage and rethinking what dungeons should be. Having new adventures around, "the village is threatened by seasonal floods, and they need to build dikes, but the closest source of logs is in a forest inhabited by hobgoblins who've kept a truce with the village." can be interesting, but it's only fun if people find diplomacy and mediation exercises fun.

Centering antagonists around motives and and less around race will be better for the game overall as it will give us more interesting and complex adversaries and adventures. As would adding a little more depth and fun mechanics to non-combat play. It's just not a thing that the system has a lot of support for now, but I hope that they keep going in this direction.
posted by bl1nk at 8:18 AM on June 25


A problem with making demons/devils the bad guys is either your bad guys are all western Christian (and probably quasi Catholic) centric or you risk appropriating the equivalents from other cultures and likely doing a bad job of it where the bad guys are caricatures of the source material. Look at what happened with zombies. Or the drow for that matter.

Starting with a clean sheet could work. Care would have to be taken not to slip into lazy inaccurate and/or offensive stereo types (Like all the neo-Daleks are black, talk with a "funny" accent, or like watermelon.) It happens over and over again in fiction.

what if the goblins are just minding their own business and the villagers want to expand into their territory, and plan to use the adventurers to do their dirty work?

This is of course a well worn trope [TVTropes, take whatever precautions you think necessary] in fiction. I don't think I've ever played a module/campaign were the characters come to the slow realization that they have been operating on the side of evil. "Hans... are we the baddies?" indeed. Might be fun though I'm not really sure if it would be ethical to impose that on your players. I think at least one of the guys I game with might be pretty devastated.
posted by Mitheral at 8:24 AM on June 25


We're just at a laborious time around reprogramming our adventure ideas to weed out the colonialist baggage and rethinking what dungeons should be.

Yeah, I think sometimes what you want is just a way to turn the complicated things that haunt you into concrete physical beings, so you can stab white supremacy in the face with your +5 dagger. I think that's an important part of the appeal of fantasy.
posted by destrius at 8:26 AM on June 25


Might be fun though I'm not really sure if it would be ethical to impose that on your players.

It would be pretty heavy if it happened over the course of a whole campaign, but I think there are probably ways to handle it with a lighter touch. It's practically traditional (though not necessarily unproblematic) to have your players run into mimics to teach them not to rush in and open every treasure chest they see, or to throw overpowered monsters at them to teach them that some fights need approaches like retreat, trickery, and finding reinforcements, rather than rushing in Leeroy-Jenkins-style. "Don't be THAT quick to believe the story of everybody who comes to you asking for help" could be a lesson along those lines - if you do it a little gently and don't try to trick your players into doing a genocide.
posted by Jeanne at 8:38 AM on June 25


Also wanted to mention Drizzt because he was a cool Drow, the first actual character that led me to the books and lore of D&D. I prefer games like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale that let you experience D&D in a visual way that is more structured with a set game storyline.

I played a few actual games with a piece of paper and rolling for my stats but they weren't as fun. Probably because of the tropes and cliches and not feeling particularly welcome or wanting to play in a different play style than the group. Same with Magic to be honest.
posted by VyanSelei at 8:40 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Now is a good time for a campaign featuring a Chaotic Evil Illusionist who gets himself elected Mayor.
posted by benzenedream at 8:49 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


Also wanted to mention Drizzt because he was a cool Drow, the first actual character that led me to the books and lore of D&D.

If memory serves me correctly, Drizzt is singlehandedly responsible for dispelling the "you can't play a good drow!" trope, because "what about Drizzt?"

I heard his creator R. A. Salvatore speak at GenCon, and he said Drizzt was created on the spur of the moment, when an editor asked him if he was including a companion for his popular dwarf warrior Bruenor Battlehammer, and Salvatore, claiming that oh, yes, he planned that all along, made up the character on the spot.
posted by Gelatin at 8:52 AM on June 25


(Salvatore also described running a game where the party met a drow carrying two scimitars -- Drizzt's trademark -- who proceeded to slay the whole party, because they presumed he was Drizzt and trusted him, but he never said he was...)
posted by Gelatin at 8:54 AM on June 25


I haven't been able to look into this in depth or keep up with this thread because I'm on day 7 of migraines, but this came across my dashboard and seems relevant, apologies if it's been posted already: Ancestry and culture: an alternative to race in D&D 5e
posted by brook horse at 6:02 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


presumed he was Drizzt

I don't metagame much re:monster powers/abilities etc. but it sure was funny the first time the group I was playing with encountered empowered skeletons a) had way more hit dice than regular skeletons and b) had spell casting capabilities.

Also fun: Watching the Cavalier get gooned by like 15 ratlings; 10 of them grappled with him and the other 5 took the opportunity to stab the heck out of him. You know you are having a bad day when you call down a fireball on your position.
posted by Mitheral at 9:45 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


I don't metagame much re:monster powers/abilities etc. but it sure was funny the first time the group I was playing with encountered empowered skeletons a) had way more hit dice than regular skeletons and b) had spell casting capabilities.

I've written some adventures for a local con under organized play rules, and one is not allowed to change monsters in a way that adjusts their challenge ratings.

But one can reskin existing monsters as much as one pleases. So it's easy and fun to create a monster that doesn't look like much of a threat but is tougher than it appears (using an orc stat block for a goblin, for example).
posted by Gelatin at 6:36 AM on June 26


On a semi-related note: something I didn't mention in my original comment is that most games that I've run and played have skewed heavily towards diplomacy and investigation. Partially this is because I can't be bothered to run combat and don't find it very interesting, but also... that's how real life works.

The assumption that >75% of gameplay is hitting the monster with a sword until it runs out of hit points, and then stealing all its money, is very much not the only way to run a game, and not even the only way to run a D&D game, although [insert a lengthy offtopic discussion about how while you can run any kind of game using any system, certain systems lend themselves to certain game styles].

(Because of this I see more interesting and complicated antagonist cultures as a feature, not a bug -- they're not an annoying way to make murderhobos feel bad about murder; they're a source of plot points and hooks for negotiation and compromise. Why would you not want that? It's so much more fun! I love my fanon Drow and Yuan-ti and illithids and keep putting them in modules even though it makes them unpublishable-for-money for copyright reasons.)

Some of the modules I've written are a steampunk / D&D mash-up with player characters that are cops. I'm much less enthusiastic about that premise now than I was when I wrote them.

A few years ago I ran a space fugitive game (in the vein of Farscape or Blake's 7, but in an original setting). For my next campaign, possibly during lockdown, I was planning to run a space cop game using the Ashen Stars setting of the Gumshoe system -- partially because the system sounded like something that would mesh well with the kind of game that I always end up running, but also as an interesting counterpoint to the space fugitive game. But my enthusiasm for that idea is also wearing off.
posted by confluency at 10:18 AM on June 26


A problem with making demons/devils the bad guys is either your bad guys are all western Christian (and probably quasi Catholic) centric or you risk appropriating the equivalents from other cultures and likely doing a bad job of it where the bad guys are caricatures of the source material.
This assumes a western/Christian designer. It's not true at all if the designers are actually from other cultures and literate in other source materials.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:17 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Good point. Still kinda weird to have a bunch of white guys sitting around a table fighting a different culture's gods or god equivalents.
posted by Mitheral at 10:47 AM on June 27


But on the plus side, gamers of color (we exist!) and other minorities would get to play games based on their own cultures or heritage.

As I’ve argued previously, “some of the people who consume this will be white” does not make something into appropriation. If your strategy for avoiding appropriation is to only produce content from the majority culture… Well, I hope it’s obvious how that is harmful, not helpful, to minority creators and minority consumers.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:40 PM on June 27 [3 favorites]


the designers are actually from other cultures and literate in other source materials.

If you take from other source material then you get some people upset over cultural appropration.

Locally an old German couple ran a Chinese food place for over 35 years. The food was meh and the prices were higher than they should have been for passable food. Shortly after a new place opened up 1/2 mile away there was a multi-person posting effort on the "new" internet social media about the established place having cultural appropration and at the point where the local paper asked them about it they came to the conclusion to just close up and sell the land/building than keep trying to explain themselves.

Humans brains are pattern matching engines and use exposure to past elements to attempt to rapidly form a response to a new thing. Thus a "creative" can attempt to create something new and spend time explaining it OR they can just go with something they assume the consumer of the art which has been created will understand and use that.

In the case of Orcs and D and D they came via Gygax who snagged them from Tolkin. Now Tolkin had a couple of traits - a Catholic, what would be classified as an Environmentalist, and his other writings stashed at the Catholic College Marquette University indicate he was not in favor of the Nazis or Socialism. The various works about the man do show racist views as should be expected of someone from the end of the 1800's of but Tolkien felt there was destruction of the environment and a common comment is the Orcs of his world were about environmental destruction and the corruption of man is why the environment was being destroyed. The use of "mongol" when describing an orc could be considered racist AND/OR abilist depending on if one wants to match orcs to those with Downs Syndrome. In one more racist bent he told someone he was not Jewish by saying he was not "of that gifted people" which seems rather tame for someone who was a young man in the 1930's. So exactly how does one write about "corrupt man" without tripping over a past racist or ablist language in an attempt to be concise to another human?

Now one can take a cultural item and read INTO it whatever you want. Pepe the frog being an example that is new enough and covered on the blue enough to be a useful pattern matching example. And perhaps Orcs have had a new meaning read into them VS what Tolkien/Gygax have had for positions on the record. But in all the orc/ork claims I've not seen the case layed out beyond a claim made "this is the meaning now" when the people at Stormfront make a comparison of orcs to blacks via World of Warcraft.


(There is also some quotes from Tolkien about how he was not into writing allegory or how no one should read into his work but that smacks of "please stop asking about X meaning Y in the work". )
posted by rough ashlar at 3:26 PM on July 1


So exactly how does one write about "corrupt man" without tripping over a past racist or ablist language in an attempt to be concise to another human?

You have to start by not relying on simplistic categorization of the all X are evil sort, which is done to simplify response and allow people to not have to think about their attitudes. It doesn't matter what you call a given "race" or group if they all are created to act more or less uniformly in order for the "good guys" to be able to destroy them without qualms.

The problem lies in not treating the other, no matter who that other might be, as if they had either full rationality/emotions or in treating rationality and emotions as if they were something that can be limited to set patterns in some groups but not others. If one looks to popular media around demons, for example, no can see how this tends to play out. The "heroes" first encounter demons as inherently evil, beings that basically deserve to be killed on sight without any deeper consideration. As time goes on that becomes repetitive, so to spice things up, they introduce a "good" demon, or one with some deeper sense of moral conscience that the heroes come to see as an exemplary individual within an otherwise depraved "race". This then tends to lead to disturbing allegories about racism, not judging all demons by the traits of the many as there are the exceptional few that share the same values as the heroes.

That this works off an analogy between race and demons is intrinsically problematic, that it posits the heroes dominant ideology as the proper one that determines "good" and "evil" is likewise deeply troubling and that it so often turns on the heroes "teaching" the evils of prejudice to groups who suffer from that same is even more fucked up. The assumption of good and evil being intrinsic qualities rather than choices and treating rationality, consciousness, and emotions as being able to be slotted by dint of lineage is just not workable as it goes against the essence of morality, that there is choice involved and people aren't just slotted into roles they can't change.

There'd be no point to trying to make the world a better place if that were so, and it clearly isn't the case notwithstanding the many horrors of human history, as there are as many opposing examples of people choosing to act selflessly or for the betterment of all. Ideology has to come from choices and values, not race or birthright. Unfortunately all too many fantasy/sci-fi/action works don't do that because it isn't as easy to write or for audiences to enjoy as making a something fun to kill without having to think about it.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:33 PM on July 1


If a goal of your written work is to express the corruption of man and its effects how does one express what a corrupt man looks like without using words which have been used by others before you to describe slaves or other humans who are supposed to be lower in some social or class structure?

I don't really have a dog in this fight since I haven't played RPGs in many years (and reading about MtG has been a real education!), but I think an interesting response to this would be to argue there's no such thing as corruption in this sense--that is, a work of fantasy that wanted to grapple with the effects of power and degradation might point out that no amount of degradation results in a permanently-soiled group, but rather that the myth of that corruption helps perpetuate victimization of that group. ("Look at what God has wreaked onto these wretched souls--now there's nothing to be done but destroy them and put them out of their misery" is a theme that has played out far too often in both real life and fiction, and goes hand in hand with the animalization themes we see with orcs and other Bad Guys.)

This gets back to gusottertrout's point that it's possible to write a scenario where there are simply no evil species. That conceit--all demons are evil, let's kill them--is convenient for a game that's just copying wholesale from nearby fantasy novels and mythology (and god knows I've played enough games and read enough books whose plot is "Start at point A, slaughter everything to point Z"), but interesting things happen when you back off from that and ask why we're doing it in the first place.

What you're talking about with the brain creating categories is really half the story, and it misses an strange habit we have, of generalizing bad things and individualizing good things. It's easier to imagine a horde of 10,000 evil, depraved orcs, than it is to imagine a horde of 10,000 intelligent, good paladins. We immediately want the good guys to be individual, named, with deep personalities. In fact the minute we individuate one of the bad guys, he becomes a beloved villain and a sort of hero in his own right, and far more likely to survive the slaughter. And that's a pretty rich vein of dissonance, and not an unprofitable one (in either sense).
posted by mittens at 7:50 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


What you're talking about with the brain creating categories is really half the story, and it misses an strange habit we have, of generalizing bad things and individualizing good things.

I would say brain science shows the opposite. Bad Memories Easier to Remember Negative Memories May Be More Vivid Than Happy Onesas an example.

This gets back to gusottertrout's point that it's possible to write a scenario where there are simply no evil species.

And that is a fine enough goal. The idea for D&D of getting rid of alignment has been a thing for a long time.

games and read enough books whose plot is "Start at point A, slaughter everything to point Z"), but interesting things happen when you back off from that and ask why we're doing it in the first place.

The older mechanics of D&D offered EXP for gold or killing things thus prompting such behaviour. Like most human behaviour what gets rewarded gets done. If there is no rewarding the players for other behaviour then you are going to get that style of plot.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:05 AM on July 2


[Deleted one comment. I'd like to push back on folks coming into the thread with a long list of reasons why it’d be too complicated to address racist tropes in fantasy gaming. There's a lot of wonderful thought going into this by folks and so let's work to maintain space for those conversations.]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 9:55 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


Relevant: a post from Orion D. Black, a Black writer, on why they left Wizards of the Coast. It's not encouraging.
posted by zompist at 1:02 AM on July 4 [3 favorites]


« Older Blackwashing, Policy, And Social Media   |   BlueLeaks: Distributed Denial of Secrets 269gb... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.