Now everyone make an angry or pouty face (your choice), curl your fist up at the computer screen, and shout, “Damn you, racism! You’re bad and icky!”
(A note: I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be one of those posts that get read by people that don’t regularly read this blog, so I should mention that when I say “Dungeons and Dragons,” I mean pre-1989 D&D. I don’t want to hear about 3rd, or 4th edition (or non-core 2nd edition) rules, those editions’ depictions of race, or how much fun you have playing them, because I don’t care about those games (and for new products after 1993-4, for the most part I’m not even aware of what’s in them at all) and I really wish they’d been called something other than “Dungeons and Dragons.” Don’t argue about it; if you have a problem with it, just hit that red X in the upper right corner of your screen and go away.)
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, perhaps we can rationally discuss what racism in Dungeons and Dragons really means.
Racism is not objectively bad. Racism is only a real-world evil because people discriminate against each other on the false premise of racial superiority. There is no difference in the potential intelligence or achievement or emotional state or morality between a white man, black man, Hispanic, Asian, Eskimo, Indian, or any other person. None. The racist in the real world is a douche bag and a problem because his base suppositions are wrong: He is not superior, not by his blood, and if he claims racial superiority, not by his mind either.
In a fictional world, that often isn’t the case. Humans are different than elves are different than dwarves are different than orcs, and objectively so. Good and Evil exist as objective forces, and certain races are predisposed to a certain moral outlook. This does not mean that authoring, playing, or accepting this as objective fictional fact means endorsing or accepting this as truth in real-world ethnicities or that it's at all related to how the real world works.
Hell, in my Creature Generator, I explicitly talked about using racism in the last section of the book (although Goodman Games softened the section name to “Prejudice,” and I didn’t find it a problem to let them change it). I suggested one way of accentuating the fantastic in a game (and to give players more in the way of moral dilemmas to make their choices more meaningful) is to eliminate it whenever the mundane would suffice. So I suggested getting rid of all the humanoids and demi-humans and just replacing them with humans that are genetically hard-coded to be better or worse in ways and have racial (in the real-world sense) behavior.
“A referee,” I wrote, “should never allow comparisons between his real-life attitudes and how he handles orc analogues in his game.”
But then all this theory meets the real world. It’s all good and well to say this is all imaginary, especially coming from Mr. White Privilege Living Way Up North over here. All this talk about fiction and context means nothing if one minority gamer avoids gaming because they’re uncomfortable with some of the present themes.
Well, not exactly.
Fact: D&D rose out of the wargaming scene of the upper Midwest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It specifically came from the Fantasy Supplement of the Chainmail game. That game had a decidedly European focus, what with all the plate armor and knights and all those trappings.
That game was co-authored by Gary Gygax, who had a keen interest in things medieval. A friend of mine with whom I've discussed this subject a bit notes, "If Gary Gygax had been black, the game would almost certainly have been very, very different." Which is kind of my point here. Of course it would have been different. The game was written not by a corporate entity seeking mass acceptance and broad demographic penetration, but by a couple guys catering to their personal interests and their already-known audience. Folk creations are going to look like the local neighborhood, not the world at large, you know? And there's nothing wrong with that.
In fact, what a happy accident that I’m in the middle of my dissection of his Role-Playing Mastery book. This quote sticks out as particularly relevant here:
... I recommend the reading of works such as A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, Town Government in the Sixteenth Century, The Domesday Book, The Welsh Wars of Edward II, and Numbers in History. Armor, weapons, fortification, siegecraft, costume, agriculture, politics, heraldry, and warfare are the meat and drink of a serious participant in a game such as Dungeons and Dragons.Guys in their 30s in the upper midwest US writing about pseudo-British medieval fantasy? I can't imagine why D&D would seem rather white under those circumstances...
And then consider that D&D does not even pretend to present an idealized world. In fact, it presents (as a default, anyway) a fallen world, where ruins of a bygone age are filled with treasures unheard of in the present day, ready to be plundered. D&D’s influenced present worlds even less idealized (Lovecraft’s humanity is going to go away as soon as certain things awaken… Hyboria is doomed to fire and destruction to give way to our own prehistory… etc). The presence of racial preference tables (not to mention OD&D’s alignment by race charts) already shows that racism is real in book-standard D&D. The races are also objectively different, inferior and superior to the others in their own ways. We can decide that, “OK, this is a fictional fantasy world and those things happen.” We can decide that if the killing and looting and banditry and the decaying civilization that we would absolutely not tolerate in real life either are acceptable in our games, then maybe a fictional portrayal of race relations might be too. We can realize that elves and halflings and orcs and dwarves and the rest are not human, and more importantly not real, and that racial characteristics of D&D are not analogous to racial characteristics in real life.
(“Oh,” I can hear you saying, “Then what about half-elves and half-orcs? Aren’t those proof that D&D races are human-like enough?”
“Bite me,” says I. “I’ll concede the point when you explain owlbears, dracolisks, and thouls in terms applicable to the real world.”)
And then there is the blatant racism inherent in level limitations. What kind of message does that send to children? I can see the “game” explanation for them (balance), but to act like there is some sort of real-world racial propaganda laced within this way of doing things…
Who will speak up for the poor, oppressed orcs? The holocaust was built on this kind of silence, you know.
Is it some sort of thought crime to imagine a world where an intelligent being (fictional, no less) can be objectively superior or inferior to another? Haven’t we destroyed the very concepts of fiction and imagination if everything imagined is directly mapped and compared to the real world?
Seriously, what is more insane: Racism present in a medievalistic (not strictly “medieval” by any means) game which also draws from ancient mythology, or applying standards of modern Western liberal morality (let us not forget there is a whole world out there that does not share our base assumptions, values, or our perspective on things like race or imagination) to the same? Does medieval history or mythology of any stripe welcome the “other” as anything resembling an equal to the home tribe? Does multiculturalism make any sense in this context?
Here is a weird thought: A D&D player group consisting of white supremacists and a D&D player group consisting of strict medieval reconstructionists might well have identical-looking game worlds. Well, actually, the reconstructionists’ game world might well feature a more diverse selection of foreigners to fight with.
(Thought experiment: How does the Extraordinary Ordinary fit into this particular issue? I do think the more plausible and non-egregious your artwork, the less multicultural it's going to be in a standard D&D.)
So where does multiculturalism fit into D&D? Is it acceptable to say, "It doesn't?" nah, people spend lifetimes creating worlds and cultures in their free time. But if one is playing with base D&D assumptions (medievalistic world), multiculturalism is going to be a source of in-game conflict, with an attempt to "realistically" introduce different ethnicities into a game being at best a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves "Why is Morgan Freeman in this cast?" proposition. (not that I have a problem with Morgan Freeman's inclusion or the explanation of why there's a black guy running around medieval England... hell, my favorite Robin Hood is a cartoon with a friggin fox for the lead character ... The problem was the lead actor in that Prince of Thieves movie... ugh.)
Really, arguing that the artwork of early D&D isn't ethnically diverse enough is like arguing that Excalibur should have had a more minorities in the cast... it just makes no sense in context.
But the thing is, even if D&D isn't explicitly inclusive of non-white ethnicities in its basic form, it doesn't exclude them either. (One can argue that that the marketing actively discouraged anyone from getting into the game, and at least in 1982 there was minority representation in the advertising) The idea that people of different ethnicities need specific invitations or permission to participate in activities created by, and primarily engaged in by, white people... that is deeply offensive, and stupid, to me. That it might not seem welcoming because the faces in the books don't look like them, well, there isn't much I can do about that. The fliers I spread around town don't say, "Whites only," and it's not like I'd be spreading different fliers if I still lived in Atlanta instead of my current residence in Helsinki. All I can do, all anyone can do, especially when dealing with a game that's been out of print for 20+ years and long abandoned by its "owners," is welcome anyone interested. And if nobody of a different skin color is interested in the first place, well, my game table is for people that want to be there, not for people who I would have to go out of my way to convince just so I don't appear to be a racist.
Hell, in my games, I don’t know what skin color everyone’s character is. I don’t care. It’s not important. Another conceit of being white perhaps, but if everyone told me next session, “Our guys all have dark brown skin, didn’t you know?” I wouldn’t change a thing. Nothing would have to be changed.
Now I didn't just spontaneously decide to do this rant. (I didn't just spontaneously write it, either... the lack of posting the past few days is because this is a sensitive issue and I didn't want to completely bugger it up.) The articles and comments here, here, and here triggered it. Some of the stuff is thought-provoking, and some of it strikes me as thought-suppressing.
Some other issues entangled with Race and D&D:
Drow elves. I can’t believe the D&D and Race argument is so feeble as to seriously include drow, but there it is.
First of all, the common elf is a prancy little woodland creature in D&D. Whether it’s to be considered to be taken from Nordic mythology (or by way of Tolkien) or a relative of some Celtic fairy creature, it’s going to be pretty darned light-skinned. The drow, intended to be the evil opposite-in-every-way, are simply just negative elves. Also, drow are matriarchal (oh no, drow are sexist too!), highly intelligent, have a highly organized and efficient society (if plagued by factional infighting), and are clearly meant to be superior foes. Dark elves can advance to higher levels than their light-skinned counterparts (Players Handbook vs Fiend Folio comparison). Dark elves begin at a higher level than light-skinned elves. They all have specialized equipment. They have special abilities their surface cousins don’t have. While not having the potential top strength or constitution of surface elves (but being equal on average), dark elves have a (MUCH) greater average intelligence, wisdom (females only), dexterity, and charisma.
I’m having a difficult time seeing the drow as some sort of racist depiction of anything, unless we're going to consider elves' feelings. But that’s because absolutely nothing involved with the drow’s cultural makeup or individual abilities suggest any relationship with real-life culture. Hell, their appearance doesn’t even suggest it. Take a look at the illustrations of the drow in the early days. Pitch black. Slender. Pointy ears. White hair. I’m looking at the G1-2-3, D1-2, D3, Q1, Fiend Folio, and A4. Except page 25 of G1-2-3 where the drow is shown without any skin shading at all (and dark hair!), David La Force’s dark-haired drow on page 6 of D1-2, and Jeff Dee’s dark-haired drow on p21 of D1-2, the depictions are consistent. In case you blame the pitch-blackness on the “primitive” line-drawing techniques used in early D&D art, I direct you to the front and back covers of the color version of D3. Can anyone look at that Erol Otus cover painting and think that picture is depicting anything relating to our world? How about Jeff Dee’s back cover? And check out Otus’ frontispiece in Q1. That is some bad-ass shit right there.
As far as I can tell, the real problem, and the only reason why “evil drow = real world blacks” has any ammunition, came from Keith Parkinson’s cover of the GDQ 1-7 Queen of the Spiders “supermodule,” depicting drow women so “realistically” that they looked like spandex-clad, real-life black women out of a glam rock video. I can’t find a large enough pic online… do any of those women on that cover even have pointed ears? (Parkinson’s cover for T1-4 was also an aesthetic influence on murderer and church burner musician Kristian Vikernes. Parkinson did a lot of great work for D&D, but I am very, very glad we didn’t have to find out what evil he would have unintentionally inspired upon the world had he been the one to paint the cover of Scourge of the Slave Lords.)
(wait, let us not forget Larry Elmore's brown-skinned Drizzt on the cover of The Crystal Shard, but Drizzt can hardly be considered a racist depiction of anything, even at that early stage)
And the “Realistically, creatures that live underground would be pale white, not black!” argument? Yes, because when sitting down and designing an underdark, we need to think what color these elves-that-have-been-cast-from-the-surface-after-a-great-war-and-now-live-in-great-cities-and-worship-a-spider-demon-goddess-who-is-objectively-real-and-need-to-compete-for-living-space-with-squid-heads-from-outer-space-and-giant-mind-controlling-squid-fish should realistically be.
Is race relations really all about impressions that shallow? If it is, is it even really worth anything at all?
There is enough real, pervasive, painful racism out in the world, and bringing this shit up just creates a smokescreen, making one ever more suspicious of any claims of racism.
Examining the literary influences of D&D might be in order. Particularly, RE Howard and HP Lovecraft are hardly seen as progressive icons in literature, you know? Yet what impact do the racial attitudes of the authors have on their work and the message it sends? Lovecraft, he who owned a cat named, and wrote a character with a cat named, “Nigger-Man,” (Rats in the Walls) is an interesting study of race in literature. Blatant racism abounds, but changes over time; see the identification with aliens in At the Mountains of Madness. But the greater point of Lovecraft’s mythos writing is that humanity is insignificant in the face of the greater universe, and that to become part of that greater universe or to even become aware of it means breaking away from the ability to live amongst normal human society. Whitey as well as everyone else would be swept away into the cosmic madness. I would also argue that the racism in his works actually makes them work better as horror stories as a modern reader surely feels much more uneasy reading certain stories than people would have upon their original publication.
But does anyone believe that Lovecraft (listed as a prime D&D influence in the DMG Appendix N) contributed sociopolitical values to D&D? Or can we agree that Evil Cults, Monsters From Beyond, and tentacled brain-eating monsters and the atmosphere those things generate were the contributions?
RE Howard and his Conan stories are perhaps a bit more problematic. Conan was a prime inspiration for Gygax and D&D, and because of Howard’s background (1920s rural Texas doesn’t bring harmonious thoughts to mind) and wrote in terms of the real world, or real-world analogues (as the Hyborian Age nations and peoples absolutely were), the treatment of race in the Conan stories must be scrutinized. Howard’s treatment of the Picts and the blacks as more primitive than the Hyborian nations is unquestionable. It is highly questionable if that is a negative depiction. In a fictional universe where the overall (and explicitly stated) message is that civilization is an unnatural state of human affairs, a depiction of primitive savagery can’t be seen as denigrating.
Combine this with the facts that Conan often allies with non-whites, feuds with even more Vikingish folk than his own, and despises and acts against the ruling civilized (white) classes, you really have to stretch hard to find racism, while present, as a theme in Conan stories. You have to stretch really hard to ignore the absolute pile of real-world unacceptable behavior found in Conan stories just to highlight race relations as an issue.
And we have to talk Tolkien. One interesting factor concerning D&D and race is the discussion about Tolkien’s influence on the game. My belief, shared by certain others, is that Tolkien’s influence on D&D is completely superficial, limited mostly to some races and monsters (and one class). So if race and racism in the game is an issue, that superficiality isn’t so superficial after all. So what does that say about us players and pundits who consider race a superficial issue in the game?
Anyway, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was roughly based on Norse myths, so the staggering whiteness on the side of the protagonists is easily explained.
But, ah, what about the orcs? You can go research Tolkien and race on your own. The big question for D&D purposes is: Are the humanoid races stand-ins for real-world aboriginal races?
Answer: I hope so.
If goblins and kobolds and orcs and the rest are stand-ins, then it’s at the very least a tacit acceptance that portraying real-life native ethnicities, regardless of historical record or attitudes of the times, as evil and perfectly acceptable to be nothing more than targets to slaughter and rob, isn't such a good thing. I would hope that nobody thinks that Gygax or Arneson (or Tolkien) for that matter placed orcs and goblins so they could be slaughtered as a racial proxy to avoid real-life social scrutiny.
“A group of niggers and dagos draw their swords as you bash down the door. A mystic hebe behind them prepares a spell. Roll for initiative!”
Does even one single person believe this is the true motivation behind the inclusion of objectively evil humanoid races in D&D? That Gygax and Arneson were slyly inserting white power propaganda into their games and that numerous intelligent men retained this all in their designs over numerous editions between 1974 and 1989? Please. So… what then? What's the argument? That people might misunderstand? From here:
While doing research for this talk, I came across the Stormfront web-site. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this vile-corner of the internet, it is the world’s largest discussion forum for white-supremacists.
The guy then talks about how he read posts from gamers that frequented that site and quotes extensively from someone that saw parallels between D&D racial characteristics and real-life race.
I'll say that again: This guy went to a white power website (look at it here if you think this is exaggeration) and is using comments made by white supremacists to support his views on race. What a dumb shit! The fact that white supremacists use D&D racial characteristics to support real-world views of race is not indicative of anything. These people are white supremacists. These fucking idiots have a completely warped view of race in the real world, so how could their interpretations of how D&D relates to it hold any significance? Doesn't the fact that these idiots think that real-world race works as described in the Players Handbook pretty much invalidate anything they have to say?
The article also includes many other things that don't seem very well thought-through. "Here's some controversial stuff to think about... but I'll leave half the story out so it's even more thought-provoking!" instead of any real thought-provoking content:
If one is still doubtful about the thesis that humans are set forward as “the self,” the player handbook continues:
“Human characters are neither given penalties nor bonuses, as they are established as the norm upon which these subtractions or additions for racial stock are based. Human characters are not limited as to what class of character they can become, nor do they have any maximum limit.” (p. 16)
Imagine that humans living in a world with no orcs, elves, or dwarves exist would write a game where humans are "the self," and thus all the other races would be an exotic other. The nerve. And you can't take Mr. Nerdnite's assumptions that all the non-human PC choices represent the non-white, "exotic other" seriously either. Dwarves and gnomes I could perhaps see in that context, but what about elves? What the hell are Halflings? Is there even a way to interpret Tolkien's hobbit (which is what a halfling is) to make him some sort of "other" in real-world terms? And halflings are, thief class aside, the most restricted non-human race in D&D. That same site's rant about paladins is rather rich as well.
Only humans can be Paladins, because it is assumed only humans have the temperament and cultural background to understand the most important of “western European” values – law, order, god, and community.
Yet it is those same values, merely the 21st version instead of the medieval version, that the entire argument is based upon. And wait a second. "Law, order, god, and community" are western European values? That's mighty interesting. And of course paladins are going to be quite western European - they were ripped from Poul Anderson's novel about a world-jumping Dane and has been used as a King Arthur(fantasy)/Charlemagne (history) equivalent for fuck's sake!
In the world of D&D, non-humans are restricted in order to ensure a continuing human supremacy. The arguments against lifting the racial class restrictions sounds nothing so much arguments against ending segregation or giving African American’s the vote.
I could be cruel and point out that he's comparing "African Americans" (I refuse to use that term myself because it creates absurdities such as newscasters saying things like - and I witnessed this personally in Atlanta - "Canadian African American" and non-black African-born naturalized citizens being mocked for calling themselves African American) to things that aren't even human. And comparing real life civil rights struggles to the ability of fictional creatures to advance (by means of collecting treasure and killing things) in fictional professions. How is that not terribly offensive? Not to mention he gets his outrages mixed up.
Let me remind you that every basic player race is white – humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and gnomes – except for half-orcs.
That's fine when he's trying to show how racist the half-orc portrayal is. There is also:
In D&D, the possible professions and jobs available are limited by race – humans, the normative white race, can be whatever they like. The other races, the non-human/white races, are restricted, thought the game politely describes these restrictions as based on “natural tendencies of race.” And it goes beyond the simple stereotype as “Dwarves like war and fighting.”
But there's also this:
Not only are non-human characters limited to the jobs they can get, but they are limited to how high they can rise within those professions. The blame for this fantasy glass-ceiling, however, is set squarely on the non-human races themselves: they lack ambition. This lack of ambition is engrained by race – all elves lack the ambition to advance any further than the 12th level as a fighter. Never mind what character you want to make, what the individual you wish to play might desire – as an elf, he is inherently, due to race, inferior to a human warrior in terms of level advancement. When we make the obvious parallel to race in the real world, this is even more troubling than class restrictions. White Europeans have unlimited potential, while non-whites are severely limited in how high they can climb in the social order – not due to ingrained, systemic racism, mind you, but because they lack the ambition to rise any higher.
So are the demi-humans white or not? On whose fictional behalf are we supposed to be outraged?
I've heard all sorts of arguments against racial level limitations (the best being "They'll almost never come into play if you're playing properly because most campaigns don't last the years needed to advance that far."). "You're a real-world racist if you use them!" is a new one.
Now in the comments, you've got stuff like this, which is a truly shitty situation, but, ah, none of those offenses are based in anything printed in a D&D book. Putting some minority characters in the artwork isn't going to stop a moron from trying to push a player to be a thief because the player is black (although wouldn't it be a hoot if all that was just because nobody else in the group was a thief and they needed one?), or trying to make orcs rape a character because the player is female. Although it is notable that she later went on to play Vampire, when the entire idea of becoming a vampire is metaphorical rape...
Honestly, the entire thing makes me weary. D&D is guilty of being rather white. D&D does set up racial conflicts between fictional races in fictional worlds. But promoting or even illustrating real-world racism? No.
Up next: Addressing the concerns of animals rights activists who complain that D&D players don’t role-play the proper care of their mounts and pack animals and the harm that causes such animals in real-life.