Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons

Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons

On August 18th, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast released Unearthed Arcana: Character Origins, a free document that provided fans of the tabletop roleplaying game with their first look at a new, updated ruleset currently called “One D&D.” It is game design in flux: 21 pages of preview material highlighting changes to the way characters are made and the game is played.

It is, essentially and effectively, a first draft, one the publisher released early in order to request feedback from fans, particularly in regards to changes in the way the game handles the thorny topic of race. It is also, unfortunately, not nearly enough to divest the game from the racial bioessentialism that has dogged D&D game design since its inception.

“Dungeons & Dragons will continue to fail unless — or until — they fundamentally change their approach to race,” said tabletop RPG designer Connie Chang. “Which I don’t think they’re going to do.”

In a series of interviews exclusively with people of colour, Gizmodo has attempted to aggregate the current response towards how race is presented in this document, from praise to criticism, and outline the ways that One D&D could move forward to create a game that is more inclusive and better reflects the diversity of the player base.

Wizards of the Coast declined to comment for this article.

Wizards of the Coast knows it’s got issues

In June of 2020, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) issued a statement about their commitment to diversity in Dungeons & Dragons. They identified commonly-cited pressure points, and said that “throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow being two of the prime examples — have been characterised as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.”

With this one statement, WotC confirmed what most people already knew; that the fantasy of race in Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes racist in a way that reflects the racial dynamics that continue to oppress people of colour across the world. To depict an entire group of people as “monstrous and evil”–e.g. because orcs are born to orc parents, they are evil–is the very definition of racial bioessentialism. To do so, even in fiction, is reductive and monolithic, and encourages real-world stereotyping at the expense of the racial “other.”

Wizards of the Coast also said that in striving to do better, it changed text in reprintings that was identified as “racially insensitive” in initial editions. For example, it cited the adventure Curse of Strahd, which included a people known as the Vistani: “Regrettably, their depiction echoes some stereotypes associated with the Romani people in the real world,” the company wrote.

More recently, on September 2nd, Wizards of the Coast publicly apologised and removed parts of the new Spelljammer core book after players pointed out offensive racial coding. But some fans were frustrated that the response didn’t identify how the error happened or lay out any plan to prevent it from happening in the future. Much of the goodwill that had been built up between fans of colour and antiracist players after the release of Adventures in the Radiant Citadel (a Dungeons & Dragons anthology primarily created by people of colour) was undone.

It is clear that D&D understands that they draw on real-world cultures, ethnicities, and racial stereotypes in their attempts to create a wholly fictional, fantasy world. As D&D moves incrementally towards a game that more respectfully reflects a diverse community of players, it has the opportunity to change gaming culture for the better.

The legacy problem with race and D&D

Racial bioessentialism is a core design crutch for Dungeons & Dragons. Across fifty years of tabletop roleplaying games, multiple novels, supplements, and additional tie-ins, D&D has continually established monolithic culture building as part of its lore. The alignment charts that Gary Gygax (and many designers) focused on as a method of easy-to-understand character building did not help matters; entire races were designated as Evil using this alignment chart, and Gygax himself can be seen in many old forum posts defending this monolithic, bioessentialist perspective.

In one post, Gygax states that it is morally within a Lawful Good character’s precepts to kill prisoners who have surrendered–including innocent women and children–as long as they are of a race that is of Evil alignment. He defends his explanation with the invocation of the “old adage” that “nits make lice.”

The quote is a reference to Colonel Chivington, a genocidal murderer made infamous when he told his soldiers to massacre women and children of First Nations people. Chivington apparently said, “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

It’s important to note that this interaction with Gygax was from a forum post in 2005, not an interview conducted in the the 1970s. But this regressive worldview has been present in D&D since the early days. In a 1976 article in Dragon magazine, the official periodical of D&D’s original publisher TSR, an article titled Notes on Women & Magic offered rules that assigned female characters a lower maximum strength than their male counterparts, and replaced their Charisma stat with a Beauty stat. These adjustments were eliminated in AD&D second edition in 1989, which gave no bonuses or adjustments based on gender.

In some way, we can see this original, incremental shift from “women must be weaker” to “women can be as strong as men” as a template for how One D&D seems to be treating bioessentialism when it comes to racial traits. The improvements are good, but the changes feel small. “The bar,” said Liana MacKenzie, a game designer and TTRPG publisher, “is on the floor.”

What did Wizards of the Coast get right?

The big change in One D&D from fifth edition (and every edition previously) is that race has been decoupled from ability score increases (ASI) such as ‘+1 Strength’ or ‘+2 Intelligence’. In past editions, ASI was often used to narratively shoehorn certain races into certain classes–halflings became rogues, dwarves become fighters, and elves were often magic users. Now, ASIs are associated with your character’s background.

MacKenzie sees this as a positive thing. “Racial ASIs have always been terrible. They have always served to funnel characters into an optimal build, rather than allowing players to create a unique, interesting character.”

Basheer Ghouse, a TTRPG writer who has worked on D&D products, agreed. “It’s a move that needed to happen. Paizo’s already removed ASIs from race, but I think this is the way a lot of the industry is going.”

Players also applaud how One D&D is currently available as a playtest, and that Wizards’ designers are expecting and excited for feedback from the community. Legal Kimchi, a lawyer who makes videos about D&D on YouTube, said that he’s optimistic about the feedback phase. He recalls that when fourth edition was out and WotC solicited feedback for fifth edition, he saw “a lot of positive change… and while I’m not satisfied with this rough draft, I recognise that it is a rough draft.”

The open feedback period for the first One D&D document is open until midnight on September 15th, 2022. But after that, WotC has not specified how feedback will be incorporated, how it will be addressed, or who will be in charge of the project. Unearthed Arcana: Character Origins is written by Jeremy Crawford, with Christopher Perkins and Ray Winninger. Crawford has been at Wizards since 2007, Perkins since 1997, and Winninger since the 80s. These designers are the old guard of D&D.

There have also been no announcements made about how the final product will exist, and the assumption is that One D&D isn’t going to be published in physical books until 2024. Wizards of the Coast’s acquisition of DnDBeyond from Fandom means that there is a strong possibility that One D&D could become a dynamic online document. Designers say that would be a positive shift, as it will allow faster feedback implementation.

“It could be a living, breathing game,” said Noir Enigma, who works in the communications side of the TTRPG business. “I think that’s what we need in order to be as safe and accessible as possible.”

One D&D still has a lot of problems with race

Despite getting rid of ASIs, there are still a lot of places where One D&D continues to maintain bioessentialist perspectives and espouse racist stereotypes. The very first point of contention is a matter of semantics. While Dungeons & Dragons uses the word ‘race’ to describe a character’s traits, they really mean something more akin to ‘species.’

“But the fact is,” said cosplayer and TTRPG fan Isa, “D&D still uses the word ‘race.’ While it might not have the exact meaning in the context of the world of Dungeons & Dragons as it does in our own… [we] are the ones who read this product and play this game. So, obviously people bring their own real-world baggage and connotations and understandings to that word.”

Kimchi said he was disappointed to see the word ‘race’ used, especially since it’s something that a lot of people have complained about and sought to remedy. “It seemed like the most basic change they could have done so that everyone could move on, but they didn’t go that far,” he said, describing the shift from ‘race’ to ‘species’ as “low-hanging fruit.”

And even if WotC did change from the word race to the word species, Isa said, that would still be a problem, “because there would still be a lot of racial coding.”

Racial coding is when language used to describe something that is seemingly race-neutral (in this case, literal fantasy) imitates stereotypes associated with racism without a direct one-to-one association. Racial coding allows for subtle racism because it allows people to be racist in ‘safe’ ways that can be dismissed by pointing at the race-neutral stand-in. There are many ways in which Dungeons & Dragons unintentionally encourages racism through racial coding.

Orcs are the easiest example. When Tolkien represented them in Lord of the Rings, they were described as “degraded and repulsive versions” of “Mongol-types,” which in his era referred broadly to Asian peoples. When Gygax reinterpreted them for D&D, he used racially coded language that tied orcs to Indigenous and Black stereotypes, and that interpretation hasn’t changed much in fifty years. So when Noir got his hands on One D&D, the orcs were the first thing he looked at. “It’s no secret that the orc has become the poster child for everything that’s wrong with race in D&D,” Noir said. “I thought that if they could just get this race right, they might be on the right path.”

Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons

What he read was not convincing. Orcs are, in many ways, more monolithic than other races, as they don’t get lineages or sub-species in their description. The text also says that young orcs “often wonder” when their god will call on them to fight against the other races, making them one of the few races to canonically crave violence. “I think the crux of my issues with One D&D is not so much what they’ve done, but it’s that there’s still a lot of cleaning up to do as they hold onto the prior editions,” Noir explained. “People that have been in the hobby long enough remember where this lore came from.”

Skill packages emphasise that race impacts outcome

When you choose your character’s race in One D&D, your character is assigned a set of skills. Many of these skills are fairly innocuous, and taken out of context, seem unremarkable. But the fact that race determines whether characters get skills like bravery, the ability to use tools well, or even the inherent knowledge of specific magical spells, regardless of any backstory or class, seems absurd. There isn’t a race of people who are all naturally brave, or who all know the same language. And even in a fantasy world, being magical is one thing, but being able to automatically perform a very prescriptive magical spell just because your ears are pointy is ridiculous.

“All of this is stuff that I (as a character) would culturally learn,” explained V.J. Harris, a TTRPG author. “This isn’t stuff I would be born knowing. Like halflings are all naturally stealthy? That doesn’t make sense! It’s not in anyone’s heritage to be naturally stealthy.” Having skill packages at all is reductive, and continues to push certain races into certain classes for people who want to find the “optimal build” for characters, rather than creating their optimal character.

There are reasons to keep skill packages. Anthony Joyce-Rivera, a game designer and consultant who has worked on D&D, explains that these are “guard rails” designed to keep the game accessible. Sometimes you want to know what the base model looks like, he said, before you can really customise a character. A massive list of traits and skills, decoupled from race, might be a barrier for new players attempting to create a new character.

Decoupling all skills from all races may seem like an extreme solution, but it’s how designers can begin to remove the bioessentialism from character creation. It will also open up possibilities for the fantasy of D&D to truly become fantastic. Why shouldn’t a dragonborn trance? Why can’t some orcs be naturally stealthy? Why don’t we have tieflings fly as a bonus action? “When you start to break down the mechanics of how One D&D approaches race,” said Chang, “you realise very quickly that this is a prescriptive model for worldbuilding disguised as a toolbox.”

Dungeons & Dragons encourages players to roleplay racial dynamics

“One of the problems of having people choose their race first in D&D is that it becomes a defining trait within their world, regardless of intention,” said Rue V. Dickey, a game designer and activist. “Making race a core tenet of your character can be really uncomfortable, especially as a person of colour.”

Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons

Chris Nammour, a lifelong roleplayer, described how people often codify racial dynamics onto their fantasy unintentionally. “[I’ll ask players] what does an elf sound like? What’s their accent? And people say, Oh, well, they sound British, and dwarves sound Scottish and so on,” he says. “It’s always associating historically heroic races with Western and Northern European traits. And then my immediate response to that is what accent does an orc have?” The responses, he noted, are not ‘they sound British.’

“Another problem is mechanically couching language to race at all,” said Simon Moody, a TTRPG designer. “There is still a lot of coding that goes into attaching racialized languages–like orcish or dwarvish–to backgrounds.” While the backgrounds provided in One D&D are only examples, each one already has a language skill and a feat attached. The Gladiator background can speak ‘orcish’ as a skill and gains ‘Savage Attacker’ as a feat. “You don’t have to dig very deep to see how bad that is,” Moody said.

Dickey and Isa specifically pointed out that by creating a codified experience of race, Dungeons & Dragons encourages players to roleplay out racial dynamics in their game. If elves and dwarves hate each other in the lore, the game is expecting that conflict to be a part of your game. By giving GMs tools to address the inter-racial conflict presented by fantasy lore, D&D is creating a world that models these conflicts. By racializing language, it further divides the characters based on arbitrary, non-cultural skills. There is no place in the new One D&D that this issue is more clear than in how the rules define mechanics for mixed race characters.

Mixed-race characters should not be exotified

There are two stereotypes that frequently occur when talking about mixed-race people. The first is that mixed-race people must feel conflicted or traumatized by their multiple heritages, and feel completely isolated from a part of their cultural background. The other is that a person of mixed-race is seen as ‘exotic’ and is sexualized explicitly because of their heritage. The rules for creating a mixed-race character in D&D somehow emphasise both stereotypes.

The problems start when this section describes mixed-race children as the product of the “magical workings” of the universe, and the birth of a mixed-race child emerging from a “wondrous” pairing. “Both of these things imply a kind of toxic positivity towards mixed-race people,” Isa explained. “This language is turning mixed-race people into this magical, exotic, unknowable thing.”

“There’s also the problem of having mixed-race characters choose abilities from only one parent,” Dickey said, because it plays into the idea that mixed-race children never really fit into both worlds and have to fight to fit into either place.

“It discourages mixed-race people from playing out their identity in a fantasy setting,” Dickey said. “Instead of letting mixed lineage characters experience a mixed lineage life instead, One D&D is basically forcing the in-game mechanical equivalent of blood quantum rules. By choosing to give aesthetic choice in either direction, One D&D emphasises that if you are even a little bit mixed, you don’t get all the things that single-heritage people get.”

“I feel there is a dramatic lack of understanding of the mixed-race and multicultural background,” said MacKenzie. The fact that multiracial children continue to be a rapidly-expanding demographic means that this kind of framework is particularly harmful. By looking at the places where race is involved in the game mechanics, “you can really tell where these designers are exposing their limitations.”

Backwards compatibility is holding One D&D back

One of the biggest sources of pressure that sources identified was that One D&D aims to be backwards compatible with fifth edition. It attempts to stay in line with a multiverse of 5e lore, which means that designers are invested in creating monolithic races that you can use in any setting, further emphasising that racial traits are biologically inescapable, no matter where you are.

“One D&D feels so beholden to fifty years of worldbuilding, and the rules, and the mechanics, and the legacy of the past that I feel like it’s preventing them from stepping fully into the future,” said Chang.

“This isn’t a step forward,” MacKenzie clarified. “It’s more of a step to the side.”

Being backwards compatible, Ghouse said, “inherently limits the changes you can make. I think it’s probably the right move for business reasons. But it’s the wrong move if they’re interested in trying to fix some of the overarching problems.”

“They could fix all of this with One D&D,” Harris said. “But it would be a lot easier if they were going into sixth edition, saying fuck it to all this history, and bringing in a whole new team to create a new game.”

There seems to be a consensus building that in order to move beyond the racism currently entrenched in D&D, designers should let go of the past. Let the fifth edition be the fifth edition. Design One D&D to be an entirely new edition.

Why do these problems keep happening?

One D&D is built to cater to legacy players who are already playing the game, rather than looking ahead at the next generation. “Wizards doesn’t want to risk another Pathfinder problem,” MacKenzie explained. “When Fourth Edition came out, Pathfinder swooped in and took a lot of the market because people didn’t want major changes to the format. I understand the drive to stick with 5e in One D&D. But I can smell the fear on the developers.”

But the legacy player has shifted dramatically since 2014’s fifth edition release. They didn’t grow up playing in basements and card shops. “Your legacy players are Critical Role fans,” said Ghouse. “They’re fans of a third-party press. They follow Dimension 20. Those are the people that you want to keep around.” If they shift One D&D too far, the actual plays and third-party publishers might not make the move with them.

Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons

One D&D is also striving to be accessible. But as it attempts to keep the new edition as approachable as possible, it ends up playing into stereotypes in order to ease newbies into the game.

Many of the problems in One D&D, and in Dungeons & Dragons in general, comes from the need to sort things into a clear taxonomy, said Zedek Siew, a TTRPG writer and designer. “Ultimately you will always be splitting characters across various lines, usually determined by traits. And while you might want to do that because you’re playing a game and you need this scaffolding to facilitate ease of imagination, there is a desire that people have to categorise others.”

One D&D is over-designed and underthought,” Chang said. The design needs to have guardrails, therefore it needs to have stereotypes, but the stereotypes are bad, so they need to explain them, but they can’t remove them, because the design needs to have guardrails. “They keep eating their own tail.”

Dungeons & Dragons has an opportunity to change

“I want to emphasise that we critique things because we love them,” Kimchi said. “There’s this idea that people who bring up these issues inside D&D do so because we hate the game or we’re just trying to chase clout.”

Moody concurs: “We’re not critiquing D&D because it’s fun. We get blacklisted. We get harassed, we get death threats. This isn’t fun.”

Joyce-Rivera said that he can see where D&D is wrestling with its depictions of race in game. While D&D’s identity is rooted in these design structures and tropes, it’s also developed into its own tentpole of the genre. “It’s incredible that a TTRPG can have the kind of massive cultural impact where it could help reshape the fantasy genre in a positive way.”

Dungeons & Dragons is the industry leader in the tabletop roleplaying space. It’s making more money than ever, and enjoying a fanbase that’s larger than ever. The cultural currency of the game has increased with its inclusion in hit television shows like Stranger Things and Big Bang Theory, and is likely to get another bump next year following the March release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, an original film with a cast full of A-listers. If D&D improves its approach to race, it could help shift the needle in culture at large.

What’s the way forward?

There are some critical points of game design that would help remove inherent bioessentialism and move away from racial coding; the removal of prescriptive skill packages, the decoupling of traits from race, the elimination of bloodlines and blood quantum mechanics, better mixed-race mechanics, and elimination of racialized language. All of these things can be done, and many players have already done so at their own tables.

Austin Taylor, a TTRPG writer and streamer, also points out that creating a core rule book and a setting book are two different things. “If they just created basic rules and then continued to put out settings and adventures, I think that would solve a lot of problems,” he said. “Removing the multiverse from the core rules would help D&D move past the issues they have created by refusing to move forward.”

“Wizards of the Coast has gone out of their way to hire some amazing people,” Noir said. “I feel like part of the problem with Wizards is it’s the same people writing the same thing. The old guard refuses to move.” The game’s three lead writers, Isa said, are the same three men who write everything. “I want them to hire mixed-race people to consult on this. And I want them to take that feedback seriously. It’s important for D&D to change, because it means that the product itself will feel more welcoming, progressive, and diverse over time and these problems can actually affect the real people playing the game.”

Across all these interviews with people of colour, there was a sense of optimism. Most people thought that D&D would improve and do better. But the optimism is measured: Nobody believes that D&D is going to make huge sweeping changes with one iterative edition. But Dungeons & Dragons does have the opportunity to change. They just have to listen.

“It’s going to be so important that we give feedback,” Harris said. “If they want to hear what we have to say, we have to say it.”

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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