One of the things that becomes immediately obvious to those who know me in person is that I am a huge, unapolegetic geek. A good part of my childhood and adolescence was salvaged by the existence of (occasionally brilliant, often unspeakably trashy) sci-fi and fantasy novels, and I had longer and more emotionally satisfying relationships with people I met through MUDs and other online refuges than I did with my ‘peers’. This is not so unusual now, as we’ve entered the so-called Age of the Geek, but it’s a necessary preamble for what I really want to write about - racism/discrimination and RPGs.
Yes, both of those together.
Continuing this mea culpa of geekdom, I have often dipped into the well of escapism that is tabletop role-playing. Originally I was deeply enamored with Shadowrun, having read the 3rd edition core book in the late 90s and deeply dug its unique fusion of Tolkienesque fantasy and Gibsonesque dystopia. From there, it was a slippery slope down to the World of Darkness system (Exalted, to be precise) and then to Dungeons and Dragons. Every step of the way I have resisted attempts to convert me to any kind of ‘orthodox’ game world - these are games almost universally created by and marketed towards a narrow demographic. I’ve created games of my own devising on and off throughout the last 15 years (jesus, that’s a long time), always seeking something that reflects my desire for engaging fiction as well as my knowledge of the many small miracles and tragedies of real life.
If we use DnD (arguably the most well-known and popular of all tabletop RPGs), anyone with half a mind or half an arts degree can see some fairly major flaws. Why are certain races good and others evil, when the very connection of ‘race’ with ‘evil’ evoke memories of the worst acts of human history? Why are drow corrupt and depraved, -as a race-, when their most obvious feature is that they’re BLACK? Why is the basic model for every game built around the idea of a handful of pseudo-European explorers desecrating tombs and invading foreign settlements?
Yes, a great deal of this can be hand-waved away by stating that the DnD world is one in which good and evil are not arbitrary notions but actual forces given power and permanence by the presence of their respective deities. But after hearing enough of that particular line, it’s begun to occur to me - why is it ok to give that explanation? Why is the most recent edition, designed to be accessible to more than the usual clichéd basement-dwelling male gamer, still towing this line of transparently-veiled cultural imperialism? I’m not trying to imply that Wizards of the Coast, or Gary Gygax, or any of a number of people involved in the game’s conception, are purposefully attempting to inject racism and imperialism into it - there’s no conspiracy, unless one considers conspicuous blindness to issues of cultural impact to be a conspiracy. Maybe a compiracy of complacency.
What’s that? You still think my examples are circumstantial and not evidence of an inherently racist product? Well, look at any character art done in 4th Edition. Heroes? Overwhelmingly white, with shades of Mediterranean colouring for variety. Villains? Dark and dusky, my multiracial friends. I recently read a comment thread where a particularly pigheaded fan of the game defended DnD from accusations of racism/sexism by stating that the earlier editions were far more diverse in their portrayal of races.
Like what books, I wonder… maybe, I don’t know… Oriental Adventures? Maybe this was an OK word to use when the first one was published, in 1985, you would think that by the time of the second and third editions (early 2000s) they’d have learned that it’s -pretty goddamned racist-. Additionally, if you happen to have any kind of creature catalogue from the earlier editions handy, flip it open and enjoy the cultural stereotypes and objectifying sexism that leap from the pages. It’s really quite endearing.
So where does that leave us? How does one resolve the dilemma of love of the game but hate of the industry built around it? I’m sure I’m not the first to take issue with these things, and I certainly hope I won’t be the last. I’m also fairly sure that my predecessors resolved their difficulties in one of the following ways:
a) Broke away from DnD and adopted a game with more modern sensibilities
b) Broke away from DnD and created a similar but less discriminatory game/setting
c) Homebrewed a campaign setting for their games and appeased their consciences
d) Stopped playing
My first instinct, and most of the work that I’ve been doing for the DnD campaign that I’m planning for my friends, has led me towards option c). Tweaking the various details of ‘vanilla’ DnD to be less offensive is a frustrating and exhausting job, however, and led to this post and to a realization - there is nothing to be gained if I make a system for myself and my friends that affirms what we already believe. Similarly, I can’t expect WotC to change core elements of a hugely successful and profitable game just to appease a vocal minority, even in the service of better-socializing the majority. Instead, I’ve decided that I’m going to continue to develop my world, crafting every detail of it to work within the familiar DnD system but highlighting the flaws that I believe exist within its mythos. Since it would be pointless to embark on this kind of project just to scream ELVES ARE RACIST from the towertops, I’m going to attempt to make it a compelling and realistic setting. The realism, in this case, will be derived from history - I want a world that has every bit of hate and horror that we deal with, but laid over the familiar framework of DnD’s races and gameplay. I want to create the RPG equivalent of a shadow cabinet, to ceaselessly defend against the negative stereotypes and assumptions that seem to infect so much of the gaming community - and I want to release it all online.
While certain races and the DnD mechanics are obviously copyrighted, I believe that I’m well within my creative rights to develop a setting and post it for anyone to use. That’s not really of as much concern to me as this - when I sit down with my kids, some day, to play DnD or whatever game takes their interest, I don’t want them to ask why the darker races are evil.