Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Race in D&D - Touching it with a Barge Pole

Monte Cook had some interesting things to say yesterday about race and sex in D&D. (Well, he said 'race and gender', but that word has always pissed me off. Like when people say 'guesstimate'.)

When I worked at TSR [he writes], there was always basically a truism in cover art--the central figure had to be a white male. Most of us actually helping to create the cover art, either by conceiving it or actually creating it, hated that kind of outlook, but the powers that be believed that our audience was entirely white males and they needed someone that they could identify with on the cover.

As he rightly notes, this was absurd for two reasons - the audience weren't all white males, and more importantly this is a game in which people pretend to be elves, dwarves and halflings. He then goes on to detail the creation of Regdar, the iconic fighter from the D&D 3e core rulebooks. Apparently at the time of conception Regdar was supposed to be a dwarf, but at the last minute, without any consultation with the writers, he was suddenly changed into a human white male by nefarious marketing types. And thus the racist undertones in D&D were perpetuated.

Let's say straight away what needs to be said: Monte Cook is being a bit disingenuous here, because despite his excuses about nonhumans being nonethnic and "just dwarves" (or elves or whatever), it's quite clear that the initial dwarf version of Regdar was going to be a white dwarf - i.e. a short, stocky, muscular bloke with a beard, but one with caucasoid features nonetheless. So Monte Cook can hardly claim to be a paragon of political correctness or racial equality. At best, he just tried to avoid the issue by making the iconic fighter a dwarf and thus sweeping all issues of race under the carpet.

That said, the whole issue of race in D&D is just about the biggest minefield for well intentioned people that you can possibly think of. Let's imagine that the 3e designers had decided to make the iconic fighter a black male; you only have to think for about five seconds before obvious nightmare accusations become apparent. The D&D designers think that black men are only suitable to be meatshields! They're just trying to throw a bone to other ethnicities! They're just pandering to the political correct lobby! And so on and so on.

I have two conflicting feelings about this. Firstly, D&D is undoubtedly at root a European fantasy game. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, given that it was written by descendants of Europeans and its setting is broadly 'medieval Europe'. In view of that, I don't really mind it being mostly about white people. People can create settings that are based on other areas of the world if they wish (and it's something I've often done in the past) in which case obviously their characters will be of other ethnicities, but in its standard form it makes sense for the art in the core rules to feature mainly white people.

But on the other hand, it is also undoubtedly the case that white people are a minority of the world's population. Now, fantasy worlds are fantasy worlds, so that shouldn't really be relevant. But I suppose there is a school of thought which says that the core rules of a role playing game should be as generic as possible, and if that is the case its art work should contain people of different ethnicities, in amounts proportionate to the populations of all the different ethnicities that exist in the world. That depends on whether or not you think D&D should have an 'implied setting' (or should just be a neutral set of rules).

At the end of the day, I suppose the "game where guys with beards pretend to be elves" point is the most telling. D&D is about make-believe. I most often make-believe that I'm a dwarf. That doesn't mean that I want to be a dwarf. Equally, if I play a blond Teutonic paragon, that doesn't mean that I'm an Aryan supremacist, and if I play a Zulu it doesn't mean I'm making a political statement about how we're all just the same underneath. All I'm doing is picking characters who seem like they are fun to play.

So while I take the point that always having human white male fighters on the covers of core books is slightly dubious, nor do I see it as a serious issue that strikes at the heart of the game. A better solution would be to just have a dragon on the front, actually. In a dungeon. That would be the most representative.

(It should be noted that the 4e PHB has a sexy woman of unknown racial origin and a Dragonborn on the cover, which if you are of a certain disposition is much worse than a white male fighter. It seems to imply that women are only allowed on covers if they're sexy, and combined with the Klingon-esque Dragonborn it states in no uncertain terms that "This is a game for adolescent boys." Luckily I'm not of that certain disposition, so I just think it's a nice picture.)


  1. My current group is the most racially diverse collection of humans I've ever encountered in a social setting: 1 white dude, 1 white Jewish guy, 1 white girl, 2 Puerto Rican guys, and 1 black dude. It's awesome - no topic is off-limits!

  2. Have you read the comments to Cook's post?

    It's impressive the amount of sexist and racist comments uttered there, by people that are patting themselves on the back by being so non-discriminative.

  3. patrick: Is anybody playing a white male fighter? ;)

    edsan: Well, there are some misguided people out there. I sincerely doubt the commenters actually are racist and sexist. They just haven't thought out their position properly.

  4. I liked the iconics at the time, because it was neat learning them and recognizing them in the books, but this kind of thing makes me think they're more trouble than their worth. Much better to use a dragon for flagship purposes, and just use a broad variety of characters in the art. That seems to be the strategy 4e is taking.

    The 4e PHB cover does kinda bug me, but only because the woman is weirdly contorted and sort of off balance. It's not bad enough that I noticed it without specifically looking, and otherwise it's a pretty good picture. I'm normally all in favor of sexy, fireball wielding women on RPG covers.

  5. Odyssey: Yeah, she looks like she's deliberately sticking her arse out. Maybe in an effort to distract the orcs before she blasts them with a fireball.

  6. I think race and D&D is a direct result of Tolkien being the prime inspiration. When you examine Tolkien's work for racism, you uncork a jar of old school European racism, as everyone is white, yet there are still these divisions between the Men of Númenor and easterners,that start to seem like a shout out to the fantasy works of Adolph Hitler (A short pause for a round of applause to Mr. Spinrad, here,here) You start to see a lot of it as the western German vs. the "oriental" Slavs, and the only brownish people who show up seemed hired from the Barbary coast and work for the evil dude himself. Tolkien has a half dozen different races which seem to have the color range of everything from off-white to eggshell.

    Which truth be told is head and shoulders above the the second greatest inspiration for D&D, Robert E. Howard, who's works are filled with overt racial theories and assorted crack pottery, a much more familiar brand of racism to Americans.

    Given the basis of the game in scifi and fantasy, which wasn't exactly the most liberal genre even in the 70s, I'm not that surprised they had trouble with the issue. I can remember a friend of mine complaining that the only black man in the books was wearing a leopard skin at some point.

    I admit, I've been called on it a few times over the years as well. It's not as if I set out to make my scenarios look like a Romney family Christmas album. It's just that I often find myself modeling my medieval worlds on the Celts or the Northmen, usually both. The same goes for divinities. Last time to my Norse lords and Celtic peasants, I added in a trading people who I'd modeled on the Phoenicians and then had a player bust me on the fact that they were Henotheists, named the Traders, who dressed differently, and who were the victims of periodic riots and hate. I'd honestly set out to make some Ba'al worshiping "beaker people" in my pseudo-England, only to subconsciously produce medieval Jews. I don't really know how I'd add in black people in such a scenario. It's not as if it's a cosmopolitan empire, so in the back of my mind they'd be like when Morgan Freeman shows up in that Costner Robin Hood movie. The only black people I have is an enclave of Dark Elves. That world is fairly narrow one.

    I've had other worlds, with diverse race mixtures in a cosmopolitan empire. Where the barbarians came in all sorts of shades and so did the civilized peoples. I've run adventures where everyone was Indian, East Asian, or Polynesian as well. Oddly enough, I once designed a cave man scenario, where no one even asked what their characters looked like. I don't think it's ever been much of a subject at all in the scifi games I've played and the scifi worlds I've designed. It's hard to not include race in games based in historical periods, it's easy to ignore it in the future ones.

    With two exceptions.

    The first was deliberate. We were playing the Morrow project and the prime villains were a group of White Supremacists.

    The second would be the some what weird vibe of Gamma World, where "Pure Strain Humans" were often members of the cryptic alliance known as the Knights of Genetic Purity. Which was either lifted from John Wyndham's the Chrysalids or a riff on Klan. I'm sure some cultural historian could claim that the "race" set up of that game was some deliberate attempt By Jim Ward to promote racial harmony or something, given the majority of players always opted for mutated human, as every could use a "The" Gamma Eye.