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.