Friday, January 23, 2009

A Response to "D&D and Racism"

Greg Sanders, author of one of the articles that inspired my article on D&D and Racism, has in turn responded to my article. Read that here.

I'm not going to talk at length about it, as the first article covered most of the points. However, there are a couple of notes I want to make.

First, his quote, "First and foremost because while DnD is about tactical combat, it is also about telling stories." I very much disagree on the first point, and I suspect we have different feelings about how the second is achieved.

Second, his response to my "Racism is not objectively bad..." paragraph starts, "The thing is, in practice different societies have different levels of health care, nutrition, and education available to them."

I believe these are two completely different things. Culture is not race (especially not in a modern cosmopolitan society), and certainly not all cultures in the world are of equal quality (with widespread racism being a prime qualifier for signifying a shit culture). He's arguing a completely different point than the matter at hand.

The next is how I've used race relations in my own campaigns:

I hit the race-as-divider button hard when it comes to my gaming. Humans and dwarves just don't get along - they tend to have overlapping territories (dwarven nations underneath, considering the land above to be theirs... and humans spreading all over the surface, not even acknowledging the underground as real territory to begin with) and are in competition for the same mineral resources.

Elves and humans have an even nastier time of it, because while dwarves and humans are in competition for resources, the humans' idea of resources is the elven idea of "home."

Both races get along fine with humans away from territorial borders, but there are always tensions, if not outright hostility, along the borders.

Yet I don't even suggest that PCs adhere to such attitudes (or even reveal them to the players at the start). Nor do I have any elf vs dwarf rivalry in my games (why would they?) but the players always introduce that on their own.

My year-long AD&D 1e campaign in Vaasa was in some ways completely centered around human-dwarven tensions, as an evil mastermind was poking them both hoping for a conflict which would then make it easier to move the goblin army from the north to wipe both nations out.

The campaign ended with the removal of the instigator, but with the underlying tensions (and the goblin army!) unresolved.

The first campaign I started after moving to Helsinki picked up a bit after the last campaign ended, and the first adventure involved the dwarves screwing around with the humans. A big arc later on involved running afoul of the dwarves and getting thrown into their prison caverns.

And I put this in there because racial tension, especially between "friendly" player character races, creates instant drama. It makes decisions harder to make, with more complicated consequences. Especially when you give a history that gives both sides plenty reason to be pissed with the other, and somewhat equal ground (dwarves can't win in open combat on the surface, humans can't invade the underground holds). There's no fixing it (without declaring race war, that is); it's something to work around as the players move towards whatever goals they have.

You don't have to throw a nasty monster or a deadly trap at the characters in order to make the players sweat. It's great fun when the different conflicting factions try recruiting individual members of the party to their cause, and the players aren't sure what they're supposed to do because they don't know who's right. Are they supposed to support one side or the other? Should their characters declare allegiance along racial lines or not? What kind of message is Jim sending with this campaign?

The trick is that there is no right answer or wrong answer for the campaign. I have no allegiance to these fictional people and kingdoms in my game, and the choices the players make can alter the balance of power in the way they think they should act.

It's a drama/stakes-raising mechanism specifically and only because it is a touchy thing in real life.

Lastly, his quote: "Ultimately games and stories have power. We learn from them even we don’t realize it, and we often don’t learn what the author intended."

It misses one important point: In role-playing, the author of the story is not the author of the game manual, but the players at the table of the particular session being played.


  1. /delurk
    "It misses one important point: In role-playing, the author of the story is not the author of the game manual, but the players at the table of the particular session being played."

    Hell yes. How do people miss this point? I'd been out of the rpg hobby for years, and when I came back I was very confused by some of the discussions on the various forums.


  2. I think the root of the problem is this...

    "Barry Hughes, one of my graduate professors and a man wiser than I, said..."

    Now, I don't want to be too hard on Greg, because I don't know him at all, but he has clearly taken D&D a little too seriously. Sometimes academic types (and I say this as an academic type myself) like to pick an issue and try to flex their academic mental muscles by "showing what they know" in the interpretation of something that may not be appropriate application in the first place. I think this is one of those cases.

    Without trying to be "too" dismissive, I would just dismiss anything Greg has to say about this. It's just mental masturbation, and disconnected from reality. It's not even something to take seriously.

  3. Something I find strange is your claim that D&D races "are different", making 'racism' understandable, while real-world races are "not different". The Tolkien-derived Player Character races are all very northern-European and seem to me much more culturally alike than the diversity of real-world ethnic groups.

    Also, you seem to define 'racism' as not-liking-each-other. That doesn't seem right; 'racism' is normally used to indicate an ideology of superiority and usually Nazi-style race-supremacism.

  4. I've given up trying to be specific with the differences between bigotry and racism in my writing. It's all skeezy in real life anyway, and it doesn't change the point to be specific.

    I can't think of an instance where racism didn't feed directly into bigotry anyway, and it's hard to be a bigot while recognizing the objective equality of the target of the bigotry.

    So I don't bother with it.

    As far as my real vs. fictional racism, in Tolkien we really don't see much of the dwarves' culture, and I think what we do see of the elves is pretty darn alien. Add in the racial ability bits like "various detections" and "see in the dark," not to mention that objective +1 or -1 to an attribute or two... I dunno, I think the similarities between humans and the demi-humans are overemphasized in gaming for the sake of playability.

    And I wonder if Tolkien would write Southron dwarves the same way as he did Gimli and the dwarves from The Hobbit. Somehow I don't think he would have fallen for the common "uniculture races" thing that a lot of gamers do. (or maybe that's part of what makes these other races not human - keeping a staid racial outlook no matter their environment... it is a common theme in fiction that humans are more varied and adaptable than the non-humans?)

    Not that near-cultures can't be violently opposed either... I wouldn't say the Germans and British were so far apart racially or culturally, yet they certainly didn't see themselves as very much alike in the early 20th century...

    I'm just rambling badly now and have lost the point as I've had breakfast, filled out online job applications, and done other things between starting this response and getting to this point. Hopefully I have a point somewhere in here. :D

  5. Having lived on a dairy farm, I hate cows and think they're all stupid. If that makes me racist, so be it.

  6. Jim:
    "I can't think of an instance where racism didn't feed directly into bigotry anyway, and it's hard to be a bigot while recognizing the objective equality of the target of the bigotry."

    Well, the 1e table you reference is about attitude between D&D races - hostile, dislikes, tolerates, neutral, likes. That doesn't say anything about superiority/inferiority - elves may happily admit dwarves are better miners, kobolds won't deny that gnolls are bigger and stronger.

    Where I'm from, Northern Ireland traditionally Catholics and Protestants don't like each other, attitudes may be 'bigoted', but there's not usually anything that could be considered 'racism', even when that hostility is murderous. Conversely, where I live, England, the English often hold or held what could be considered racist attitudes towards the Irish, seeing them as inferior, without generally being hostile to them.

    The point I'm trying to make is that hostility is not the same as racism. Often the two are unconnected.