Sunday, August 11, 2019

Decolonizing your D&D

This is going to be a long post, so I’ve broken it up into three chunks, the first discusses colonialism for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, if you already know the scoop you can skip this. 

The second part discusses why decolonizing D&D is important, if you already want to do this or think it is worthwhile you can skip this.

The third part discusses how to go about decolonizing D&D, the nuts and bolts of what to do at the table. 

Part 1 - Colonialism

There are ample academic sources discussing colonialism historically and conceptually, I warmly recommend that you go and do some reading if this discussion doesn’t do the job for you. Rather than do an extended history of the concept and its application, I’m going to focus and drill down on the essential elements of the concept here.

There are two concepts important to understanding colonialism: power relationships and othering. Both are key.

Colonialism is about power relationships between groups and individuals, specifically, colonialism assumes that certain groups have a right to power over other groups, that it is both logical and correct for certain groups of people to enslave, oppress, steal and control other groups. 

Colonialism also works through a process of othering, specifically treating certain groups of people as inferior, thus justifying the exercise of power over those groups. These two concepts are intrinsically linked, all examples of colonialism in history involve othering, marginalizing and dehumanizing groups of people in order to justify their treatment. 

There are other related concepts, for example colonialism is expressed by states and has a political dimension, and it involves resource acquisition so it has an economic dimension, but these two are the bare minimum to get an understanding of the dynamics of colonialism. 

Colonialism has often been enacted around categories of race, specifically white Europeans as colonizers and POC from various parts of the world as the colonized. Indeed, the history of North, Central and South America, the history of Africa, Australia, India, much of modernity has been defined by the relations of colonialism. In short, the desire for power, land and resources led many European nations to expand outwards and acquire colonies in the “New World” and the Asiatic world in order to extend and reinforce their state power. It wasn’t always about land and resources of course, in India it was also about cheap labor and a market for European goods, in Africa it was also about slavery. 

However, in every single one of these cases the exercise of power by one group over another was justified by the process of dehumanizing or “othering” the groups to be colonized. The English, for example, brought back indigenous peoples and displayed them like zoo specimens for European spectators. It was widely believed that indigenous people were inherently inferior, less intelligent, incapable of learning, brutish, wild, uncivilized and sinful. 

Indeed, so strong were these beliefs that for hundreds of years historians replicated the myth that South and Central America were sparsely populated before European invasion. We now know that there were millions of people living in these civilizations before European colonization, and that their civilizations were advanced. But the belief in the inherent inferiority of the “other” kept these facts from asserting themselves.

It is not possible to overstate how important this process of “othering” is to the project of colonialism, it continues to this day. Whenever you see discussions about countries with severe economic or infrastructure problems, it is almost inevitable that the residents of these countries will be described in such a way as to suggest that their inferiority or flaws lead to the current situation, rather than the structural elements of modern capitalism, the real culprit.

Colonialism has been practiced by states against individuals, groups and other states for hundreds of years, it has been a driver of the economy, population shifts, culture and politics for at least as long. Many modern conflicts break down along colonial lines, and many modern states are still throwing off the yoke of colonial rule. The roots of this particular disease run deep.

Part 2 - Why is Decolonizing D&D Important?
“So what”, you might ask. I just want to throw some dice and fight some monsters, where’s the harm in that? 

I think it’s important to tackle this question head on, for some people the answer is so obvious as to not need answering, but for others it is a stumbling block to seeing the problem. You could be, for example, committed to fighting against the ideas and structures of colonialism in the real world, but completely uninterested in addressing them in a fantasy game. 

Let’s do some unpacking.

Orcs are a good starting point. It has been shown that Tolkien intended the Orcs in his books to “stand in” for Asiatic races, just as he intended Hobbits to “stand in” for a particular class of British people. Having fantasy races that “stand in” for real world races doesn’t have to be inherently problematic, however, Orcs in D&D have a few characteristics that cause problems: they are inherently less intelligent and more “barbaric” than other races, they are a “threat” to civilized society (think the Ranger’s humanoid damage bonus here) and they are inherently evil, unredeemable and thus eminently slayable. 

The parallels with real world colonial attitudes towards POC are pretty clear, even if Tolkien didn’t intend Orcs to “stand in” for real world races. Orcs are paradigm cases of “the other”, a race of sentients who can be slain without moral compunction as they are inherently evil, uncivilized and a threat to decent, civilized people everywhere. 

The first concern is thus the following: if Orcs represent POC, and in the game you can gleefully slay them at will, the game is modelling harmful real world behavior at the table. 

Now, you might argue, so what? Isn’t this just another variation on the “video games make you violent” argument? We all know that argument doesn’t hold water, video games don’t “make you violent”, so why should we be concerned about this at the TTRPG table? Playing in a game where Orcs “stand in” for POC doesn’t mean that your attitudes towards POC in the real world will be any different.

Well, POC sit at the gaming table, they always have, and their numbers are increasing in the hobby. Presenting a race in game that is “the other” and also stands in for a real world group is thus suggesting pretty directly that you are comfortable with portraying violence against a particular group of real world people, “just for fun”.

But wait, the objection comes, just because I’m OK with slaughtering fantasy Orcs that doesn’t mean I would condone such a thing against POC in the real world, I can “other” an in-game race as part of the role-playing process, but that doesn’t necessitate me “othering” people in real life.

The concern is that the process of “othering” fantasy races that represent real races desensitizes one to the process in the real world. Role playing has strong, visceral impacts on the human psyche, ample psychological studies have shown that when assuming a role people’s personalities can change, psychologists have known this for decades, that is why role-play is often used in therapy. 

Just in case you think that you are immune to this sort of thing, consider for a moment your attitudes towards felons, the homeless, the disabled or the mentally ill. Many people who are quite “enlightened” about racial or gender issues will still treat ex cons as “less than human”. You might sympathize with an ex-con, or even believe that many of those in prison are there due to systemic racism, not actual guilt, but that doesn’t mean you would be willing to hire an ex-con.

You might realize that many mental illnesses are linked to factors beyond the control of those who suffer from them, but you wouldn’t choose to associate with the mentally ill or want them around you in public. We routinely consider denying basic human rights to people who fall into these categories as they are “less than”, think for example of how our built-up environment and infrastructure are incompatible with the mobility limitations of the physically challenged, we have for years been comfortable with creating a world where the handicapped were barred from access due to their physical conditions. Part of the reason why people are “OK” with these things is that the groups in question seem “less human” to them, flawed, “the other”. 

It is important to address depictions of any fantasy race as “the other”, uncivilized, inferior, violent and threatening, as these sorts of depictions in game fuel similar attitudes in the real world. Even if they didn’t, playing the game with people who are members of groups that have traditionally been marginalized in this fashion can lead to discomfort, feelings of rejection, and the sense that they are not wanted at the table. 

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that slaughtering Orcs makes you a racist, or anything similarly reductive like that. I’m arguing that portraying fantasy races as “the other” can desensitize one to the process of “othering” in the real world, and that people who are a part of groups that have been “othered” in the past can find these depictions in game to be uncomfortable, offensive and traumatizing.

Until recently it was probably reasonable to assume that many or most of your players at the table were unaware of the potential parallels between humanoid races and real world races. I know that I wasn’t aware of them until I read a piece on Tolkien a few years back. However, we are doing more these days to address the racism that is wound up with all of our media, and there is a good chance that a POC at your table is aware of the parallels, and failing to address them explicitly or otherwise runs the risk of suggesting to those players that you are comfortable with them in the real world as well.

Unless you have some super-important reason to want to leave things as they are, it is worth asking if you should address these concerns in game out of respect for POC who want to be a part of your game.

Part 3 - Putting it Into Action

The core of addressing colonialism in D&D is actually pretty simple, ensure that your game doesn’t “other” humanoid races. You could extend this argument to non-humanoid monsters or animals as well, but I don’t see this as being as important. The concern is that the groups you are “othering” in the game have parallels with real world races. That process is the one that can lead to desensitization and projection onto real world people. In short, treating a manticore as inherently evil and unintelligent doesn’t hold the risk of seeing or treating real world people in this fashion, treating a humanoid race in this fashion does.

There are a few potential solutions to this issue.

A. Eliminate the Humanoid Races most Associated with Real World Races
This was the solution I used in my game, I simply eliminated the inherently evil humanoid races from my game world entirely. There are no Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, etc. in my game, so there is no risk of someone seeing them in the game and feeling excluded, marginalized, etc., and there is no ‘othering’ of these races in game.

B. Remove the Characteristics of Humanoid Races that “Other” Them
The process of “othering” is the root of almost all the issues at stake here, so one solution is to ensure that you don’t “other” your humanoid races. So, inherently evil races should be off the table. That doesn’t mean that given races cannot have evil members, any individual person can be evil in their actions, but the idea of a humanoid sentient race that is inherently evil is definitely a problem.

Also, avoid the tropes that have been used to dehumanize groups of people in the past, so for example, don’t portray tribal cultures as inherently inferior, unintelligent or evil. Don’t have a humanoid race in the game whose only purpose is to be cannon fodder for your PCs. There are hundreds of potential opponents for your PCs that are not humanoid races, if you want “mooks” you have plenty of options other than monsters that look like people. Don’t have a race of “barbarians” whose only purpose is to attack civilized lands and be the “other”, give them legitimate grievances and complex motivations. 

If you want orcs, goblins and hobgoblins in you game then create cultures for them and give them interesting motivations and some depth. I don’t think you have to do this for all monsters, but for humanoid monsters it is a different issue, as they resemble people, and thus dehumanizing them can lead to desensitization as discussed. 

C. Treat Issues like War and Slavery with Care
War, conflict, slavery, these things have marked human society from its earliest years, and there can be good reasons to put these into your games. Try, however, to have some degree of sensitivity about this. For example, for some POC, a D&D game about busting up slavers might have appeal. Sometimes a fantasy world allows you to do things that you couldn’t do in real life, and that can be satisfying and fun.

However, it can also be traumatizing and make people feel on the spot, so if you want to have a game where racism is a factor (e.g. where there are slavers that target particular races or groups) then discuss this with your players, preferably in a session 0, so they are on board. 

I have simply done without racism, sexual assault and other such factors in my D&D games, if I want to motivate the players to hate an NPC, and that can make for a powerful gaming experience, I do it through the NPC’s actions, not through portraying them as some cartoon, over the top racist or having them rape a character or someone that the character knows or loves. 

Just to head off one particular objection to all of this, someone might say that what I am suggesting here is “unrealistic”, e.g. since racism exists in the real world, you should portray it in your game. I understand the objection, and on the surface it sounds pretty reasonable, but a bit of consideration shows what’s wrong with this line of reasoning. There are quite literally thousands of “realistic” things you don’t do in your game, games don’t have to be realistic. Your PCs need to go to the bathroom, but you don’t role play that. 

What you choose to model in your game is thus not simply based on “realism”, you choose what aspects of reality to mirror in the game, with the overall goal of creating some sort of immersion in the game. Racism isn’t a necessary component to a realistic game.

Again, this is the kind of thing that should be sorted in a session 0, if you decide that you want to have slavery in your game, racism, sexism, etc., then it is extremely important to discuss this with your players so you aren’t excluding anyone at the table, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Conclusions One of the benefits of this process is that it will take you as a DM out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to get player buy in when your opponents are racist tropes, stupid, barbaric and inherently evil orcs are well worth slaying, but achieving it when your opponents are civilized and intelligent but still opposed to you is much harder.

Also, making this change helps shift the game away from “murderhoboism” the tendency to slaughter everything in sight that can become part of a D&D campaign where the “mooks” are evil humanoid races. 

It also helps to create a form of consequentialism for your game, specifically, if at least some of the player’s opponents are not “inherently evil”, then opposition comes from their actions, not their inherent characteristics. This is an enormously important thing to model in a role-playing context. We as a species have a tendency to judge people for who they are rather than what they do. This is a problem in both directions, it leads us to prejudge people for things that are not their responsibility, and it leads us to allow unacceptable behavior to pass because the perpetrators are certain kinds of people. 

D&D has been described as a game of “killing monsters and taking their stuff”, characters are expected to amass huge quantities of gold and treasure from their violent actions, so at its very root D&D models colonialist ideas, forcibly taking things from others, enacting power over them is a key component of colonialism. 

However, the “othering” dimension of this process is also important to colonialism, and that can be excised from your game fairly easily. In short, slaying evil dragons and taking their stuff doesn’t mirror the process of killing real world people and stealing their land, it doesn’t suggest that any real world group is inherently evil, but fighting against barbaric, evil humanoid races like Orcs does reflect on real world races, the literary parallels are there and are real. 

When I first discovered these parallels my solution to the issue was to make clear to my players in no uncertain terms that Orcs did not represent any real world races in my game, they were unique to the fantasy setting and, though inherently evil, were not meant as a metaphor or a symbol for any group of people that actually exist.

It might be possible for that solution to work with the right group and complete buy-in, I can’t speak for how others might react to this. But for us it just seemed like a band-aid, when the inherently evil opponent looks like a person, the tendency to draw parallels is strong. You can keep inherently evil humanoid races in your game for the “flavor” and to motivate your PC’s to fight “injustice”, but considering they are only one small element of a huge, expansive fantasy world, and that their inclusion models behavior that has caused real world harm, it seems a small matter to either change them (so no humanoid races are “inherently” evil) or just get rid of them altogether.   Indeed, one of the things that has arisen organically through the years has been the tendency for a new generation of players to make these changes, perhaps unintentionally. So I see character art for orcs, with players running orc characters that are not inherently evil. I see people posting backstories for orc characters that portray them in humanizing, understandable ways. I see games where orc civilizations are not inherently evil, just different. Players have been railing against the inherently evil trope of orcs for some time now, so perhaps there is a re-appropriation of racist tropes going on as we speak.

At the very least a conversation with your group seems in order. As a society we discover new things about ourselves on a regular basis, the racial assumptions behind certain fantasy creations like orcs can’t be “unseen”, for better or for worse, Tolkien modeled Orcs on the Asiatic races. You may dislike this fact about his writing, you can feel that, for you, Orcs don’t represent anyone in the real world. However, the parallel is there, and your players may not be able to make this separation. D&D seems a big enough game to allow you to change this particular element and still have an exciting, dramatic and engaging role playing experience, and one that makes all groups of people feel welcome at the table.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Randomization and Role Play

There are many different ways to drive your TTRPG, as DM, or as a group, there needs to be some way to generate the ideas and events that populate your game world. Pure imagination can do the trick, if you are a particularly creative person and a decent improvisor you can sit at the table and make it up as you go along. I’ve done this myself, pure improvisation at the table can be invigorating and unpredictable.


Even the best referees get stuck, and sometimes it is nice for the game mechanics themselves to produce results for you. Also, and this is a less popular argument, it is HARD to continually come up with refreshing and new ideas for your game. This is particularly the case when you are playing for an extended period of time. Drop in games and one-shot’s aside, extended campaigns can suffer from a few problems in this area:

1. The DM gets stuck, for whatever reason they hit a wall and can’t figure out where to go
2. The DM has plenty of ideas, but they tend to be the same or similar after a while, so the players can predict what’s going to happen and find it boring

I find that both of these have been issues for me in the past. I’m a storyteller by nature, I like to tell stories and use stories to drive conversation and share ideas, I’m naturally curious too, it’s hardwired. However, storytellers don’t always make the best DM’s, as we have a tendency to bulldoze the game. It isn’t always conscious, and it isn’t generally malicious, it’s just the way we are wired. I suspect my arc in the game was similar to that of many others. 

When I started playing we were all about “BTB”, doing it by the book, and my level of interference in the game was minimal. I didn’t ever mess with dice rolls, I didn’t alter anything on the fly, it was “play it as it lands” and that was that.

Then, over time, that changed. We would be in a fight that was dragging out and I would reduce HP or fudge rolls to end things faster. One player had a bad run of luck and I would tweak the rolls so they would survive or thrive. I wanted “optimized” NPCs to present the greatest challenge to the players so I would pick the spells and items for all my NPCs. The party was having a bad run of luck so I would monkey with the treasure hoard to give them items that were tailored to them, etc.

I see discussions of this on Twitter all the time now. One thread will sing the praises of averaging HP for monsters to “speed things up”, another will bemoan that monster fights are too predictable and boring. Another will discuss adjusting things on the fly to “serve the story”, but others will complain about the fact that the PCs seem invincible.

The root problem is that monkeying around with things puts a lot of pressure on the DM, they have to become the master storyteller, the burden is on THEM to determine when to intervene, when to fudge the dice, when to save the PC, when to let them die. I find it surprising how often collaborative “story” oriented DM’s advocate for messing with the game results to help improve the game experience for individual players. There is nothing less collaborative than a DM arbitrarily and without consultation changing things to “help out” a player.

Even more strangely, I see people advocating for fudging dice rolls and changing results in such a way as to mimic the randomization of dice rolls, essentially: DON’T RESOLVE THIS WITH DICE, BUT MAKE IT LOOK LIKE YOU HAVE!


There are different ways to deal with these issues, no one wants a repetitive game, no one wants a game where the DM is constantly getting stuck for ideas. 

Fortunately, 1e has a solution for this that works and works well. 

Bounded randomness, dice + tables can help solve these issues. 1e is lousy with tables for almost everything you can imagine. These tables are not COMPLETELY random, they are structured to deliver a certain range of possible results, thus the “bounded” randomness. 

However, they do randomize results within those bounds, and that’s the key to solving these problems.

Randomization takes the decision out of your hands, there are a number of game relevant reasons why this is important. One, you already have a metric ton of influence on the game, other than the PCs you run EVERYTHING, so it is important to introduce a few points in the game that are not within your purview. 

Two, dice can add some fairness to a process that can be somewhat arbitrary, when you roll a die it decides for you with a random process, that’s about as fair as a decision can be.

However, in addition to helping you build your game world, and inserting fairness into the adjudication process, dice also provide inspiration and variety.

Which leads us to the topic of this post, RRTEI, or Roll Randomly and Then Explain It.

RRTEI is a simple principle, roll randomly to determine results, and then explain those results in the context of your game. 

There are a few important elements to this. First, unless you have a compelling reason not to, the idea is to use the result you roll. In short, if you are willing to roll on the tables you are putting your faith in how they were constructed, you don’t change the result of a roll like that.

Second, this will lead, very deliberately, to unbalanced play, monsters won’t always be “defeatable”, magic items won’t always be level appropriate. Sometimes things will be easier than you expect as well, if you roll for monster HP sometimes you get a monster with very few HP, and the fight is easier than you expect. 

Third, RRTEI is an explicitly NARRATIVE tool, it is the process of interpreting the result of a game mechanical dice roll in a way that “fits” the story of your campaign. You are forced to, as a referee, determine HOW that +5 holy avenger ended up in the treasure hoard of the bridge troll, rather than ensure that only “level appropriate” magic items are there.

At the heart of 1st edition and most old school games is this crucial narrative tool, one that generates new ideas for your game that you have to contextualize for your players. Remember this when people suggest that old school D&D is not a good fit for a “story focused” group. 

An example is worthwhile.

The party in my home game was on their way to an abandoned temple in the desert. Now, the tendency is often to “hand wave” the trip to get there, after all, the abandoned temple IS the adventure, so why bother with random encounter rolls at all, just start at the temple.

I rolled for wandering monsters on the way through the desert to the temple, on the last roll, as they were approaching the temple, they pinged for a random encounter. I rolled on the table and obtained a blue dragon. 

Right away I”m “derailing” the story here, as the story was them going to the temple, not getting tangled up in an encounter in the desert that has no immediate benefit to them. But RRTEI suggests that the encounter was to be used, so away we went.

I rolled for surprise and determined that no one had surprise, that too had to be interpreted, in this case I decided that the party, who had tethered their camels to trees and were looking for an entrance to the temple, were a short distance away when the dragon arrived, and it landed near the camels and started to dine. 

The party was trying to determine what to do, 1e dragons can destroy a mid level party with one breath weapon shot, they knew they were likely to lose a member or two if they engaged, but they were afraid to flee as they might get picked off from a distance.

Since there was no suprise, I was ready to roll initiative, but the party Paladin, with high charisma, decided to parley. He walked out from behind the sand dunes and spoke to the dragon. 

When two parties engage in parley in 1e you roll an encounter reaction roll. I rolled “enthusiastically friendly” and it stopped me in my tracks.

Why would a random, evil blue dragon be “enthusiastically friendly” with a group of tomb robbing adventurers that she could easily destroy and devour? 

Notice the chain here, random roll for encounters produces the blue dragon, something “above their pay grade”, random roll determines surprise for the party so they have the choice of how to start the encounter. Random roll determines that the dragon reacts well to the party.

Now I have to make it all make sense. Fortunately for me I’m decent at improvisation, so I decided that the dragon had wanted to enter the deserted tomb, but was concerned that a preponderance of undead would be too much of a risk. This party of adventurers thus presented her with the perfect opportunity.

There was some excellent RP for the next while, the dragon made it clear she could kill any member of the party pretty much instantly, but that it was interested in an alliance with the party as it “couldn’t fit” in the temple, it could get them in though. 

So it proposed a bargain, enter the temple, keep all the magic items, but give the dragon all the gold. The party decided to go along with it, rather than risking a direct fight, and hoped they could find something in the temple to give them an advantage against the dragon.

The campaign journal for this encounter is here if you want to see how this spun out:

The dragon used its breath weapon to blast open the doors to the temple and the party went in, things got crazy from there. 

Now I want to stress one thing, NONE of this would have happened without RRTEI. I have routinely hand waived random encounters before, and I didn’t always use parley and encounter reaction rules. I do now though, as they can produce this sort of thing. At the end of the adventure the dragon left the party after they honored their end of the bargain, and became a recurring character in the game, who showed up a few more times. 

I find that using randomization where it is built into 1e (random encounters, morale, encounter reactions, treasure tables, spell tables, etc.) is generative in this way, it produces results that are not always balanced or level appropriate, but interpreting these results for the game is a huge source of inspiration and exciting play. 

I think there is a place for game play driven by DM fiat or by negotiated group consensus, but similarly I would say there is a place for game play driven by bounded randomness. It challenges your expectations, gives you ideas would would not normally have, and can give the game a feeling of greater immersion as it will push you out of your comfort zone and break your patterns. Patterns of DM decision making can kill immersion, as players “see” the game they are playing rather than losing themselves in it.

I use randomization with tables for pretty much everything, magic item generation for treasure tables, randomized spell lists for NPCs and PCs, randomization of attacks for monsters against PCs and randomization of targets when firing into melee, rolled HP for monsters and NPCs, encounter reaction rolls and morale, etc, etc, etc. 

You can also mimic existing tables and create new ones of your own. Once you have a sense of how these things work you will find that adding tables to your game is fairly easy, you can even pinch them from other games. There are websites like the Dungeon Dozen that produce endless charts of d12 results for anything you can imagine. 

If you are “stuck”, if you find that you have trouble improvising, if your game is getting too “predictable”, you might want to embrace RRTEI to move things along.

Decolonizing your D&D This is going to be a long post, so I’ve broken it up into three chunks, the first discusses colonialism for ...