Tuesday, August 18, 2020

 Race, Colonialism and Dungeons and Dragons - Part 2

I spent my last post clarifying what colonialism is, based on a lot of wild ideas I was seeing over the last few weeks.

This post will deal directly with D&D.

Just to start off, I want to be clear about a few things, as a few of the responses to my previous posts have missed things that were later in the argument. This is a big, complicated issue, I can’t write a 250 word summary, so it will be long. But here are three important points before I start.

1 .Playing D&D doesn’t make you a racist or a white supremicist, any more than video games make you violent, or reading about socialism makes you a socialist. If my discussion of colonialism and racism in D&D makes you feel accused or called out, you are mistaken. Other people may be making that claim, that’s their business, not mine. I am not labelling anyone here.

2. Orcs aren’t real. I know that. I know they are “made up”. 

3. When I say “D&D” here I’m talking about early edition D&D, not 5th edition. I will leave it to someone else to decide how much these ideas apply to the most recent edition of the game.

OK, now on to the discussion.

I’m going to ask for your patience. I’m starting this off by identifying the colonialist elements of D&D, then I will say why I think that some of them are based in part on a misunderstanding of the game, and how others are not integral to the game in any way. I discuss why having those elements in your game does not make you racist or a white supremicist. I will finish by explaining why all of this is important. This is a LONG post.

What Aspects of D&D are “Colonialist”?

First off, violence doesn’t make the game colonialist. Violence existed long before colonialism, and far outside of its purview. The reason I spent some time arguing that colonialism was violent was that this was being denied. That’s preposterous, you can think that violence exists outside of colonialism without denying how central it is to colonialist thought and action. So “killing things” isn’t necessarily colonialist.

Theft and looting are also not necessarily colonialist. In D&D you can steal treasure from dragon hoards and from powerful wizards, these are not examples of colonialist actions. And there are a far greater number of things that can give you loot in D&D that aren’t the subject of colonialist actions than things that are. So “taking stuff” isn’t necessarily colonialist either.

Colonialism isn’t a stand in term for “bad stuff”, it is a historical term with a specific set of meanings.  This discussion of liberalism and colonialism from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is illuminating:

Highlights mine.

What makes something colonialist in the sense of interest to D&D is this idea, the idea that there are groups of sentient beings, with their own societies, religious beliefs, institutions and ideas, that are “lesser than” more “civilized” people’s. With this sort of set up, which is incredibly common in fantasy settings, you have two forces, law and chaos, civilization and the wild. Adventurers are assumed to be at the margins between these two worlds, defending civilization against the barbaric, lesser hordes of the “other”, as civilization spreads outwards into the “wilds” of the game world. 

There are tons of examples of this sort of theme in D&D, the hordes of barbaric humanoids that raid and attack the peripheries of civilization. Why is this theme colonialist? Because it specifically demonizes one group of people and justifies their removal in the name of expanding civilization. 

But wait, you say, groups have been demonizing their opponents since time immemorial, what’s different about this? The difference is that we are living in a world that has not fully extracted itself from the impacts of European colonialism. We live in societies that have benefitted from the colonialist project and still have institutional and structural features shaped by colonialist ideals and power structures. This is not history for a lot of people, it’s real and now. So when you mirror this in the game, even with the fantasy conceit of “inherently evil races”, it seems to valorize colonialist ideas. 

These ideas are reinforced by popular culture. Media that until recently showed primarily white people and made them the norm, stories that featured white people when the various nations that housed the authors had many non-white citizens. Medicine that focused on diseases of the white population, science that used white research subjects and skewed research data, colonialism has left us, intentionally or otherwise, treating non-white people as if they were not even there.

So when the game is filled with hordes of inherently evil, uncivilized beings that beat on your doors and threaten chaos, the game reinforces and replicates ideas that have been at the forefront of genocide and destruction for years in the real world. The idea of a nameless, faceless horde of inherently evil humanoids that you have to kill to expand civilization is certainly a colonialist theme in the game. 

How central is it to the game, and what would it mean if it wasn’t there?

D&D and the Myth of the Frontier

One of the most treasured and well known early modules in D&D is Keep on the Borderlands. And indeed, it fits the mold almost perfectly. Here expanding civilization bumps up against the evil humanoid hordes. That’s pretty on point.

And as most of you already know, when you run low level games you get a lot of “mooks”, low HD enemies that provide a challenge but don’t necessarily overwhelm the party. You can’t fight dragons at first level (well, you can, but good luck), so low level humanoid monsters are a good substitute.

So, since most people’s understanding of D&D is shaped by early, low level play, they come away from the game with the idea that this is what the game is about. Add to that the image that D&D is primarily about killing, and it seems like a slam dunk.

But it’s not. 

For one thing, the expanding civilization into the wilderness theme in D&D is certainly there, but definitely not in all of the modules and adventures that have been published. Even in old school games, the motivation for entering dungeons and the lethal wilderness is rarely to slaughter humanoids to expand civilization, that is sort of a background assumption in many cases, instead it is often to destroy some sort of evil sorcerer or monster that has been summoning demons or transforming people into frog creatures. It is to find a rare and powerful magic item that will heal the land. That sort of thing. 

D&D can certainly be played by focusing on the expansionist theme, but it is not necessary to the game. For example, I run a city setting, and intrigues within the city, factions competing with each other for power and influence drive events in the game world. There is no theme of expansion or conquering of “others” needed. 

Even the violence that people attribute to D&D is nowhere near as pervasive as it is claimed. Yes, the game has mechanics for combat, and yes, it is certainly a violent setting, fantasy settings are always violent. But the violence isn’t the focus, nor is it the most advisable course of action in the game. Old school games like 1e don’t even reward it well. You get the least XP for slaying things, the most for avoiding threats and getting the loot. 

So even as designed the game need not focus on expansionist themes, the number of non-humanoid and non-evil humanoid monsters in the monster manuals FAR OUTNUMBER the number of evil humanoid monsters. If you paid attention to Twitter claims, you would think that the game was mostly orcs vrs PCs. But I’ve supported four campaigns over a total of 13 total years of regular gaming without ANY evil humanoid races. 

The main reason to have them is tradition, they are part of D&D’s history, and they are part of much of the literature that inspired it. But the game can tick along nicely without them. PCs can be opposed by bandits, or mercenaries, or soldiers, or giant insects, or wolves, or other good aligned parties with opposing goals, or powerful sorcerers, or dragons! 

And the “civilization versus the wilderness” theme in D&D is not needed either. D&D can be set literally anywhere you like. Vance’s stories were told in the dying days of Earth, millions of years in the future, where science looked like magic. There was no ‘civilization against the barbarian hordes” stories in Vance, but there was plenty of adventure. Vance is certainly D&D! Exploration, alliances, discovery and wonder, strange mythological beings, D&D has it all.

So here is the first takeaway, you can eliminate the “uncivilized other” (read evil humanoid races) and the theme of civilization versus barbarity without losing one iota of what makes D&D an exciting and rewarding game. People are treating a theme, a trope, a style of narrative, as the whole of the game. 

To say this is reductive is too mild, it’s preposterous. Check out the conversion tables in the AD&D DMG. There are conversion tables for Boot Hill, but also for Metamorphosis Alpha. For every Keep on the Borderlands there is an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. D&D is a pastiche of different influences, mythological to fictional, and only a certain slice of them share the colonialist perspective. D&D is a game WITH violence that isn’t ABOUT violence. Indeed, played as deadly and dangerous as old school D&D is written, parties that rely mostly on violence to achieve their ends will end up dead! 

This is actually one of the reasons why I find it interesting that people criticize old school games for their violence, as if you PLAY THEM AS WRITTEN, without HP kickers and dice fudging and starting off at mid-levels and such, then they are VERY deadly. One of the reasons why D&D has become so associated with violence is that the rules are ignored to allow PCs to survive what would otherwise be the lethal consequences of their violence.

And this contributes to the idea that D&D is a game that glorifies violence. If it wasn’t so damaging to the hobby this would be funny. I know this as I have run a game using the rules as written (at least with respect to the violent parts!) for 7 years now, and my players KNOW that attacking everything gets them minimal XP and often gets them dead.


I want to now say a few words about “taking their stuff”. In D&D wealth acquisition is a component of level advancement. Gaining gold and magic items gives you XP that raise your level and give you power. So the way the game is structured, it rewards greed. Since colonialism is very much about wealth acquisition, forced wealth acquisition, it can certainly fit the colonialist theme.

However, wealth acquisition alone isn’t colonialist. What makes it colonialist is WHO YOU ARE STEALING IT FROM. If you are stealing land from existing communities, if you are stealing artefacts from other cultures due to the belief in your own superiority and for your own entertainment or advantage, that’s colonialist.

However, there are ample sources of loot in D&D that are not of this kind. Monsters are the most obvious one. Stealing gold from a dragon’s horde is not a colonialist act. Dragons are not people, they are monsters that will quite happily kill you and eat your cows. This is a simple but important point. The number of targets you can steal loot from in D&D that aren’t “inherently evil humanoids” or “other cultures” VASTLY outnumber those that are. If you look at the treasure tables it bears this out. If you spend your time raiding orc bands for loot you will level up glacially. The real wealth is found in the fantastic treasure hoards of powerful monsters or the complexes of evil sorcerers. Indeed, evil sorcerers aren’t “lesser than” the party, they are most often far “greater than” the party in terms of power. D&D parties don’t “punch down”, they most often “punch up” and take on existing power structures, often power structures that oppress others.

It is also worth noting here that D&D has no racial categories for “humans”, all humans are one race in D&D, there are no racial antipathy adjustments for “whites” versus “blacks” in D&D. So the kind of systematized race based differences that color so much of the fantasy literature and the real world don’t apply to D&D unless you put them there yourself. 

So if you remove inherently evil monsters and religious relics as your goal, you still have a whole game world full of possibilities to give you loot. Players seem to recognize this pretty early on. They don’t organize raiding parties to steal magic items from the peaceful island tribes, they don’t raid orc villages for loot, they don’t break into the temples of other people’s gods, and many modules avoid these themes as well. Adventurers seek out the sorcerer whose dungeon complex hides a portal to a demon plane, and who has been feeding innocent villagers to demons for years. Or the warlock who has unlocked ancient knowledge and is using it to transform innocent travellers into monstrous beasts. Or they break into a wizard’s tower to steal his magic staff. 

The list is endless. Again, there is NO NEED to make securing loot a process of taking away from other cultures  or slaying evil humanoid creatures, the game works perfectly well without these. I run four concurrent sandbox games, where the players regularly go places and do things I have not anticipated. Four open worlds (well, two game worlds divided up between four campaigns), each of these campaigns have run for 2 years, and I haven’t once had the PCs steal from “uncivilized” societies or inherently evil humanoid groups. D&D doesn’t need these things to be fun, dangerous and entirely within the scope of fantasy gaming. 

Here is a partial list of the adventures my players have been on over the last year:

1. Retrieving the Mask of Horus, an artifact from the Temple of Horus that was stolen from them

2. Clearing the name of a warlock who was accused of murder

3. Retrieving the dead body of a merchant slain in the swamp by bandits

4. Finding and slaying a vodyani (underwater umber hulk) that had been eating fishermen

5. Reestablishing trade with an underwater village that harvested squid ink for a warlock’s scrolls

6. Protecting a caravan heading through the mountains from bandits

7. Stealing a powerful magical tome from a warlock on behalf of another warlock

8. Finding the thief who stole gold from a city merchant (who sells mounts)

9. Retrieving a rare component for a powerful spell (a flower from a remote location)

10. Helping two villages who were cursed to be invisible to each other break the curse

None of these involved stealing sacred religious artifacts, slaying evil humanoid monsters or beating back the “barbarians” from civilization. All of them were pure D&D, and all of them worked with the existing XP system and game mechanics. 

There is no real limit to the kinds of stories that D&D can tell, to suggest that the only stories it can tell are colonialist stories is just baffling, with magic and an open world, there are more possibilities than one style of play can contain.

So far I have argued that there are colonialist themes in the game, namely the idea of civilization versus barbarism, and that it is entirely separable from the game if you so desire. You don’t need it to run the game, the mechanics don’t need it, and the settings don’t either. I have also argued that they are only one part of the game, a vast, expansive, open ended game that brings in themes from many places. It doesn’t need to focus on these themes to be D&D. I would further argue that the violence in the game is overstated as it is often run in such a way as to dampen the consequences of that violence, thus making it more likely in play.

D&D is a game of exploration, wonder and the imagination. You get to decide what elements of the game to retain and what elements to excise. 

D&D as Chess - An Analogy

Here is where I depart from much of the current discussion of colonialism in D&D. D&D is being treated like a text, or a story, there are a lot of reasons for this that I’m not really interested in at the moment. Suffice it to say that this is a mistake. Because D&D is not a story, or a text, it is an emergent gaming experience. More simply, it is a game. Yes, it’s a role playing game, you adopt the “role” of a PC and adventure in the game world. 

But this does not mean that you have to treat the entities in the game like real world entities. Think about chess for the moment. In chess there are different pieces, the knight, the rook, the Queen, the pawn. They all have different moves in the game, and different values, the game can end if you lose your king, but not a pawn.

However, people don’t argue that chess is colonialist, or racist, or oppressive, as it is understood that although the pieces have real world analogues (the knight, the pawn or soldier, the bishop) the game isn’t meant to model anything in the real world.

Chess pieces are just opponents with features that map onto aspects of their real world correspondents, they are partially isomorphic, but that’s all. So a knight can move in an “L” shape, jumping over other pieces, the pawn only moves one square at a time, the Queen can move in all directions. Each one of these “mechanics” mirrors some aspect of the real world correspondent. Horses can jump and are maneuverable. The queen holds significant power, so in the game the Queen can move in any direction. The king is the seat of royal power, so if the king is taken the game is over. 

No one suggests with a straight face that chess exemplifies or promotes a monarchy.

The reason for this is that people playing chess have tacitly accepted that chess pieces only peripherally resemble their real world counterparts. However, since role playing games are more immersive, since they tweak a different part of your brain, they allow for people to think of elements in the game as representative of real world entities.

They don’t have to be that way. D&D can be like chess. Opponents are just that, opponents, they don’t have any greater meaning than that. I would argue that a VAST NUMBER of old school players run their games treating the elements of the game world in exactly this way. Because we have gone so far down the “story game” road, and have imbued our game worlds with so much “verisimilitude”, and have abandoned the adversarial gaming style, we have forgotten that the elements of the game can be entirely removed from reality, orcs can just be “mooks”, no more meaningful than a checker or a chess piece.

For some people, that is their experience of D&D, so to them, orcs aren’t analogues for real world groups any more than dragons are. They are just opponents in the game, other challenges to match traps, tricks and monsters. 

Take a thought experiment for a moment. Imagine a fantasy setting with no humanoid races, just humans, and giant insects. Lots of them. Hoards of giant insects that are always pressing up against the civilized world, always attacking and increasing in number. They have no culture, art or language, they create no lasting items or artifacts, they just eat and expand. As they are in opposition to humanity, they seek to destroy it at all opportunities, they are classified as evil.

If that was the default D&D setting, this conversation wouldn’t be happening. The only reason that we are interested in orcs is that orcs are humanoid monsters, they resemble people, so parallels are drawn. 

This matters as a huge swath of D&D players have treated orcs like chess pieces for years, for them, this conversation is not only seen as a personal attack but also seen as almost incoherent. It’s like arguing that it is oppressive to use pawns in chess as they are destined to die.

A similar argument applies for games where there is war and conflict and slavery in the game world. This need not be a glorification of those things, or a promotion of those things, instead it can be a background against which the ref creates exciting adventures. Many old school DM’s remember running the A series and KICKING SLAVER’S ASSES! It would be absurd to suggest that fighting slavery in the game was promoting it in some way or normalizing it, or that having a war in the campaign is promoting killing and death.

I want to be clear about this, it is perfectly valid to play D&D in this way, to treat it as a game and treat the elements of the game as self-referential. When you play D&D this way and fight orcs you aren’t a racist, as a matter of fact some of the most activist, left-leaning, anti-racist people I have known over the years, people I met in college, played traditional D&D this way for decades. It’s just a game for them. I don’t see any value in labelling these people racists. And that is the direction I see a lot of the dialogue on this topic heading. 

Why Does This Matter?

So as I mentioned, I have removed all the evil humanoid races, the “civilization against the savages”,  themes from my games, and I have not put players in a position to have their PCs loot sacred items. If I think you can play with these elements and not be racist or promoting colonialist ideas, then why take them out?

This is the part that is, I think, hardest for people to understand. And I get why, it seems disingenuous, if something isn’t “wrong”, why change it?

My claim here is simple, these things matter based on the group you play with. If you play with a group that all agree that this is just a game, and that the creatures in the game don’t represent anything in the real world, and that looting artefacts that are part of other cultures doesn’t suggest approval of it in the real world, then that’s fine. It’s your game, and everyone at your table can be on board with this way of playing. I’d say it's actually quite common to play this way. I would also add that I have played with and played in games with POC who play this way and have absolutely no issue with inherently evil humanoid races or any of this.

However, there can be people at your table that don’t play this way. When I started up my home campaign again 7 years ago after a 5 year hiatus, I assembled a group of 7 players, 4 of whom were POC, and 2 of whom were LGBTQ+. Before the campaign started I asked what kind of fantasy setting they wanted to play in, Greyhawk? Forgotten Realms? Jorune? High magic, low magic, that sort of thing. 

Two of my POC players spoke with me about running a game without orcs and tribal cultures being a primary source of opposition after we discussed if we were going to have rangers in the game. Part of this discussion was framed by the fact that indigenous history was becoming a more integral part of the curriculum in Canada over the last 10 years or so. They had read about colonialism, they had read about cultural genocide, residential schools, and the parallels to other cultures that had been decimated by European colonialism. 

In short, the players at my table are not the players that were there 30 years ago, they were more concerned with how games, stories and such depicted the game world, and to them, orcs felt wrong. We discussed this a few times and I told them that I was happy to run a game where humanoid races were either non-existent (e.g. only humans) or where there were no evil humanoid races and "civilizational" imperatives to extinguish them. There is conflict between nations, there are individuals who do terrible things, there is justice to be achieved, wrongs to be righted and lives to be saved. But we didn’t use colonialist themes to achieve these things.

In short, this is something to be decided by your table, not by outsiders, or WOTC, but by you. If you are comfortable that your group thinks of D&D like chess, then there is no need to remove anything from the game.

If however you share a table with POC, you might want to check in to see what they think. And that means people you have been gaming with for years. One thing I had to learn many years ago is that POC often don’t speak up about their concerns to white people for any number of reasons, just like women are often silent about things around men. Of course, you know your group, and in many cases you would already have known if there were issues, but it is worth thinking about that.

Also, if you stream or play in a public space, or design a game, you are putting out something beyond your own table, and into the world at large. You can assume that your group has good intentions and doesn’t see the game in a particular way, but you can’t assume that about a public game or product. I can’t speak for others, but if a POC came to me and said that orcs in the game made them uneasy as they reminded them of real world oppression, I would simply remove them from the game, rather than telling the person that they could “play elsewhere”. I did exactly that. I didn’t argue and say “but they don’t have to mean that”. I think they don't have to mean that, but it's not my job to tell others what to think.

Let me give another brief example of why this matters. Sometimes, once you learn something, it colors your experience forever. Case in point, a few years back a friend of mine said to me, “have you ever noticed how many car advertisements there are on TV?” I hadn’t really thought about it, but then, once mentioned, I started seeing them everywhere. Every time I watched TV I noticed the car adverts. Then another time I noticed that so many ads featured white people. I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and my life is filled with people of every color, but most of my advertising (at least up until recently) was predominantly white.

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Colonialist themes are like this for me in D&D, I learned about them in the real world and then I saw them in the game. Now I can’t ignore them, and they bring to mind real world colonialism. I find them repugnant to me now. I gamed for a long time with these themes in the background, I didn’t think much about them or make them prominent in my games, they were there, but they didn't bother me. Now they actively bother me when I see them. Part of this is that I know how repeating ideas, even ideas you don't endorse or believe, can reinforce those ideas in people's minds, consciously and unconsciously. But part of it is just recognition, there is no going back for me.

However that’s me, I have no expectation that everyone will feel that way. I don’t judge people for how they play, I judge people based on their actions in the real world. If you actively support policies and institutions that oppress others, if you make excuses for and justify violence against POC or LGBTQ+ people, if you actively exclude people from your table based on disability or gender, these things will lead me to have an issue.

Playing D&D like chess will not, because it’s a game, and sometimes games signify things in the real world, and sometimes they don’t, that’s ultimately up to the group in question and how they play the game.

I hope this discussion has made clear that there are colonialist themes in D&D, that they can be excised from the game and it does not become so different that it is "no longer D&D", and that keeping them in the game doesn't make you a racist, or mean you are promoting colonialism. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Race, Colonialism and Dungeons and Dragons - A Story in Two Parts

I'd say that about 90% of what I blog about is more or less directly game related. Occasionally though, I branch out, when an orthogonal topic touches on an area that I know something about. I'm a historian by training and profession, so sometimes the D&D discourse traverses into areas where I spend my professional time.


A few weeks ago on Twitter I got into a discussion with someone about the degree to which critics of D&D felt that it was irredeemable. Specifically, given that claims of colonialism and racism have been levelled against the game, is it possible to separate those features from the game and still have something that is recognizably D&D?

I wasn’t interested in whether or not people believed that those themes were actually there, I was curious to know, *for those who feel that they are there*, could they be separated or not? The poll pulled in almost 1800 responses, far beyond what I expected, and almost half, so nearly 900 respondents, voted that these themes cannot be separated from the game.

I find this shocking.

D&D is a game that has, from its inception, been “house ruled” by those who play it, indeed, the proliferation of variations on D&D are almost comical, there are over 100 retroclones of D&D available, 5 official editions, and many imitators. To say that colonialism and racism are “baked in” to the game and can’t be removed goes against the very grain of how it has always been used. 

Or at least it seems so to me.

But put that aside for a moment, that’s for part 2 of this post. 

There were a few complaints about the poll, it was “disingenuous” as it didn’t offer a “D&D doesn’t have these themes” option. I didn’t put one in as I know that there are people who think D&D doesn’t have these themes, I was interested in knowing how many people thought these themes were baked in and couldn’t be removed. I am well aware that many people deny the idea. I wasn’t interested in what those people think about the separability claim, as they don’t think the themes are even there. It seems obvious to me that there is no need for a poll option about this as the poll was about separability, not the existence of the feature.

But next time I will include a “I don’t think X is true” option so people don’t feel left out.

What I wanted to do here, before tackling the question of colonialism in D&D again, was to look at the concept a bit more closely. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a lot of people making claims about colonialism. As it happens, I have some knowledge of this concept, so they interested me:

1. People who ask about colonialism in D&D “don’t know what colonialism is”

2. People are making up definitions of colonialism

3. Colonialism is people who believe themselves to be morally superior telling others what to think and say

4. The people criticizing D&D for colonialism are the real colonizers

5. Colonialism is NOT about “killing people and taking their stuff”

6. Critics of D&D forget that colonization happened before the Europeans did it

I wanted to address all of these claims, made in tweets, DMs and blogs/social media posts.

I agree with number 2, people are making up definitions of what colonialism is, or rather, they are focusing on one aspect or another while ignoring the bigger context.

Take 3, yes, *one branch* of critical theory holds that *one part* of colonialism is the control of language and ideas, using the belief in the inherent superiority of one group over another to shape social understanding of social institutions, laws, etc. So yes, a colonialist power will control institutions, ideas and education to reinforce those concepts of superiority and inferiority. So too will media, and literature, and art, and all parts of society, intentionally and unintentionally. 

Colonialism, however, is far, far more than that.

But before we get to that, why would anyone use so narrow a definition of colonialism?

Well, those who are concerned about the hobby being destroyed think that “SJW’s” are taking over and trying to control what you think. Since many feel that’s what is happening in the broader culture and the hobby, they are redefining colonialism to mean that. That way they can accuse others of doing what those others are accusing D&D to be doing, which in social media terms, is a “burn”. That explains all the “the people criticizing D&D about colonialism are the real colonizers” stuff in 4. It’s a classic technique to deflect criticism.

I suggest that the problem here is that people want to defend D&D, and it is true that critics of the game have claimed that D&D is about “killing things and taking their stuff”, and that colonialism is about “killing people and taking their stuff”, so now the goal is to show that “killing things and taking their stuff” is not what colonialism is. That way it can be claimed that the very ideas being discussed are nonsense, and D&D doesn’t have a colonialism problem.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. 

You don’t just get to select which aspect of a technical term applies and which does not. That is decided by scholarly consensus. Colonialism doesn’t mean what you want it to mean, it means what the community of scholars who use the term say it means. Or at least that’s a great starting point if you want to have a conversation that can draw on the evidence and scholarly research built on the established, agreed upon definitions.

And if you read that scholarship, and I have read much, “killing people and taking their stuff” is a core part of colonialism. Here a definition would be useful, and rather than going with my gut, or to Wikipedia, I refer here to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (if terms are being defined, sources are mandatory, scholarly sources are preferred)

Highlights mine.

The colonization of the “new world” by European powers is the single largest shift of population and wealth in human history, full stop. People were killed in the millions, indigenous populations were almost completely wiped out (they estimate that 95% of the pre-contact populations of Central and South America were wiped out by European colonizers). So, “killing people” was central to colonialism. Subjugation and political control involves violence, it always has. Permanent settlers displaced local populations, usually with violence involved/ To suggest that colonialism isn’t about killing is completely opposite to what every scholarly source has to say on the subject.

European nations also took over land on an unprecedented scale. Europe was pushing up against its agricultural limits in the Early Modern Period, and although the “New World” was an accidental discovery while looking for alternate trade routes to Asia, once discovered, land acquisition for both production of natural resources and eventually the creation of new consumer demand for the industrial production of Europe was a key factor in North American colonization (it was also a key factor in the colonization of India).

Even a cursory read of an introductory textbook on colonialism would tell you that one of its primary motivations was economic, appropriation and control of the resources of other peoples for the benefits of the home country. Every instance of European colonialism was about wealth acquisition, whether in the form of natural resources, people or land. 

In other words, “taking their stuff”.

Interestingly, I don’t think D&D is primarily about killing things and taking their stuff, I think that’s a misunderstanding of the game. But rather than focusing on that people are arguing that colonialism somehow isn’t about wealth acquisition when any meaningful definition of the term says it is. So that’s a hard no from me. If you are going to start accusing people of not knowing what a term means, you don’t get to make up your own. 

That brings me to claim 6. The claim critics of D&D don’t know what they are talking about as there was colonialism before Europeans started taking over the world! This is of course true, there were expansionist powers long before Europe sailed across the ocean, there was also slavery and war. None of that was new. However, historians usually distinguish between older forms of colonialism and European colonialism. Again, from the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The reason European colonialism is treated differently is that it was substantively different, it allowed far distant nations to control colonies, extract resources, and create huge new markets for the output of their production. It is no coincidence that capitalism emerged around the same time as colonialism (and that the Industrial Revolution followed soon after), they emerged together and had a reciprocal relationship. This marriage of capitalism, technology and colonialist ambition is one of the key markers of modernism, one of the reasons why modern colonialism is treated differently from that of the past, that’s World History 101.

So, in short, this critic of D&D knows what colonialism means, if people want to define it differently, LIKE THOSE POSTMODERNISTS DO, then he they are welcome to do so, but that doesn’t change what it is generally known to mean.

Now, just to finish up, I want to clarify something. I’m a historian by training and profession, so I find it particularly vexing when people talk about historical concepts and ideas but clearly haven’t read what any historians have to say about the subject. It pains me. There isn’t a single living or dead historian who would define colonialism as narrowly as 3.

I don’t mind when people say, “colonialism is X” if they are just speaking colloquially, that’s fine. You can talk about an idea with a rough concept and use that to have a discussion. 

But to suggest that some other group of people don’t understand  what X means when you haven’t bothered to see what experts in the field say X means, well that just steams my greens. If you want to play the language police ("you don't even know what X means") then you better know what you are talking about. Colonialism is about a lot of things, securing natural resources, creation of new agricultural land, creation of colonial markets to purchase produces manufactured in the home country, military power, cultural dominance, believed superiority, but it is CERTAINLY about killing (all instances of colonialism involve killing) and about taking stuff (all instances of colonialism involved wealth acquisition). 

So before I explore colonialism in D&D a bit further, I want to be clear about these things, colonialism has political, economic, religious, race and gender dimensions, and modern, European colonialism is different than colonialism in the past. Also, we currently still see the structural consequences of European colonialism all around us, it’s institutions and ideas have not disappeared, and are manifested physically in things like the prison industrial complex in the US and globally in the existing trade and capital networks. We are only partially in a postcolonial world, something institutionalized to such a degree and reinforced with the twin pillars of capitalism and science is not so easily dislodged.

Part 2 of this blog post will look at the question of whether D&D is colonialist or not, and the answer is, perhaps surprisingly, yes and no. I don’t think that D&D is primarily a game of killing things and taking their stuff. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the game as it is designed. But there are colonialist elements in the game, mainly around race related issues. In short, D&D replicates the literature that inspired it in its use of the clash between the “civilized” and “barbaric” world. This was a key component in colonialism, so a source of the connection. I think these elements are easily excised, or can be contextualized in individual games in ways that make them unproblematic. 

But that’s part 2, for this part I will stress that you can quite easily go out and independently verify everything I have said here about colonialism, it’s all there if you want to find it. I would also recommend that you exercise caution when people on Twitter tell you what something means. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Warlock's at Play

Finished up our summer camp today. Yesterday we finished when the party was hit by a fireball. Nothing gets your attention quite as fast as a large AOE damage spell. Suddenly everyone is praying to the saving throw gods and hoping their PCs and items survive the next 5 minutes

Three party members went down with that fireball, I run my one shots and summer camps with two PCs per player, so no one has to sit out any game time because a PC was either incapacitated (e.g. paralyzed) or killed. The warlock Leptor was now in front of them. Out in the open in the courtyard, in the sights of an opposing warlock, with the mercenaries and their leader (recent allies) watching but doing nothing. One party fighter at 1 hp, another fighter at 18 hp. What do you do? Three of them surround the 1hp fighter and they take off.

The fighter shouts at Leptor. “Stop your attack, I have a proposition” Recap, last week the party made a deal with a fallen ranger named Antarcus, go in and take care of the warlock Leptor, then unlock the secrets of Baltron’s keep, and Antarcus leaves them alone.

Their plan was to offer a deal to Leptor, if he didn’t take it they would take him down. So the lizard man fighter told him, “I have a jewel, the Eye of Set, I want to destroy it in the Black Flame.” That got Leptor’s attention, as he knew of the Black Flame, so he didn’t attack.

“You attacked me on behalf of Antarcus, you were sent to kill me, I have no reason to let you live”. PC responded, “If you destroy the jewel, it will unlock Baltron’s secret lair”. He made that up, but I thought it was a plausible and interesting lie. I rolled an encounter reaction, negative.

“How would you know this? You are lying to me.” Pause, PC looks very nervous, the rest of the party has left to safety with Antarcus, they are getting healed and attended to. The PC fighter keeps talking, “Behold the Eye of Set”, the PC takes out the Eye, a black diamond encased in a globe of volcanic glass, Leptor eyes it greedily. “Why would you seek to destroy this item, it emanates power.” PC: It is evil, and would consume you.” Leptor: “Give it to me, and I will reward you richly”. PC: “You haven’t paid your men, how could you pay us?”

I rolled another encounter reaction roll for that, Leptor is arrogant, he wouldn’t like being challenged that way. I rolled high however, so I continued. “Ha, you are a brave mercenary lizard, standing alone in the courtyard, and speaking to me so. You have earned my attention.”

The player shouts out, “Yeah!” and it continues. Now, in AD&D, when you roll for encounter reaction, you have to interpret the results in terms of the current situation in the game. At this point we had 2.5 hours to finish the module. I knew that even if they worked this out

They could never cover the entire module contents, two underground complexes, in the time allotted. So one the spot I made a decision. In the module, Leptor hasn’t been able to make it into the underground complexes as he hasn’t found the keys for the teleportation discs

So I decided that he had found the keys, but he wasn’t going down there, as he would have to go with most of his henchmen (a 7th and 4th level fighter) and if any of them died or he was wounded, he would be vulnerable to Antarcus when he returned. He needed others to go in.

And here is the party, wanting to access the flame. It was perfect, they go in, either they die, or they use the flame, return to him, inform him of what is there and what challenges he will face, and they leave. He then accesses the facility, gets what he needs, and pays Antarcus

So I now have a reason for him to need the party, and thus not just kill them. So he tells the lizard man. “You, and only you, come into the tower, we’ll talk. I think we can come to an arrangement.” The lizard man PC nods, and walks forward. Leptor holds up his hand, “Stop”

He then reaches into his spell pouch, smudging his finger, then he draws a line under one eye with talc and under the other with powdered silver. Then he speaks, “Skrytý nic víc”. His eyes turn a deep shade of sapphire blue, and he scans the courtyard.

“Thin air spoke and a hammer appeared out of nothing. No more tricks mercenary, I will kill you where you stand if you cross me. Why do you think Antarcus and his motley crew leave me be? I am Leptor the Lazuli, scourge of the Hggeath Pass, Slayer of Turam Bhag the Marred”

The PC entered the tower, he was escorted to Leptor, Leptor tells them he has a way to get down to the flame, but hasn’t gone, and explains why. So he offers the following deal, the party goes in and burns their jewel, report back on what they find, so Leptor can plan.

This was the pivot, by doing this Leptor can give them access to the bottom underground layer, and they would have just over 2 hours to explore it by this point. The player told Leptor he would take the offer back to the party. Leptor told him to gather them in the courtyard now 

This meant no sleeping and rememorizing spells, but they would all be healed back up. So he went back to the party, they agreed to the deal. And Antarcus agreed to let them go, and also agreed to cease hostilities against Leptor if he found any loot fairly quickly. 

We were on! They were shown the teleport pad, and sweated whether this might just be Leptor using a disintegrating machine on them. That occupied at least 15 min. Then they were off. They arrived in a room with 4 doors and 4 statues, stepped of the platform and the room starts filling up with water. About half the party can drown, the rest are lizard men. They check for traps on one door, open it and it leads to a wall. They check the wall. Go to the nearest door, it opens to a wall. The PC hits the wall to check it, and it's a secret door.

So I figure it’s time for a secret door check. 2 in 6, the PC rolls it and I tell him, “The wall isn’t very solid, it gives a bit when you hit it.” So he takes out his maul, breaks it down, and they find a hallway. The floor is flooding and the hallway is now flooding. They go down the hall, 

End up in a room with a round raised pad and a bulls head. One of them steps on the pad and touches the bulls head. Mist comes out, save versus petrification. He rolled, it, reeled out of the mist. And it dispersed. He asks, “Did anything happen to me”. I say “you felt like your insides were becoming hard, everything constricted, then it faded as you pushed back against it in your mind”. He says, “I made my save, but maybe its a bad effect if you lose but a good effect if you win! I should try to hurt myself and see if I’m invulnerable!” I don’t make this stuff up.

They decide against that, look in the nearby hall and there is a circular door with no handles. The decide that will take too long to sort out They walk back to the room of statues, flooding, and then the PC priest asks me, “Can I cast Detect Evil”. 

I say, sure, he asks, “what’s the range”? In 1e AD&D, Detect Evil has a range of 120’, so I look at the map, a few areas are insulated from detection spells, so it homes in on a room full of mummies… and the Black Flame. FOR REAL. So I immediately go into, “check the rules” mode

When something fortuitous happens, I review the rules, so when it is over, I can show them that the rules gave them the advantage, not me helping them out. I know that the spell detects the degree of evil, and sometimes the kind (70% chance for this priest). So I tell him,

“You detect evil to the north west, and to the south west, the evil to the north west is the evil of the chain and the whip, the evil of the south west is the evil of the tooth and claw.” Northwest is lawful evil (a quartet of mummies), Southwest is the Black Flame (chaotic evil). 

And I add. “The evil in the South West is malignant, destructive and consuming, the evil of the North West is vengeful and mad, but the evil to the South West is far, far more intense. It is primal, it would taint your soul to touch it.” That’s the degree of evil bit. So they figure it out.

That was unexpected by me, they hacked the exploration of the dungeon with a 1st level spell, and it just so happens that the thing they are after is not in a detection proof area of the dungeon. SWEET. So they now know where to go. They head West and see a hallway of 2 foot 

Wall spikes covered with black tar, on both sides, with a 4 foot space between them. They talk that one out for a while and decide to just walk through. BADASSES ALL. Nothing happens, in the module nothing happens here, it’s just a hall of poison spikes. They come to a door.

They check for traps then unlock it. It leads to complete darkness that soaks up a magic swords light and torchlight. They don’t think to cast continual light (which works but much dimmer), so they can’t see. The priest still has detect evil on for 40 minutes. That’s 1e baby. 

He decides to walk through the darkness towards the evil of the flame. BADASSES ALL! So he walks. And an invisible stalker tries to knock him into a hole. The stalker misses. “A breath of cold wind rushes past you” The PC says, “We are getting close to the flame, evil wind!”

He talks so the rest can follow his voice. The stalker gets two more attacks at their movement rate, and their path takes them by but not in the hole. The stalker misses again, I describe it the same way, then hits, “The wind buffets you in the chest, lifting you through the air”

“And you plummet down, down, down to the cold embrace of chilled, fetid water.” The rest of the party is IN COMPLETE DARKNESS ABOVE AND THEIR GUIDE IS GONE. Delicious. They freak. I then continue, “You see down into the pool below, it’s lit by a heavy green glow”

“You see skeletons in the filth, LIZARD MAN SKELETONS!” Note: the PC is a lizard man, and the module specifies lizard man skeletons, it felt perfect, it referenced the PC but I didn’t put it in, it was already there. These happy accidents are role playing gold. The next moment…

Was role playing dynamite. The player of the PC priest had asked me to use this piece of art for inspiration for his character. I haven’t been able to credit it, but I found it on the Forgotten Realms Wiki. So he takes out his holy symbol, that three bladed dagger with the tassels

That’s a holy symbol. He’s a priest of Mictlantecuhtli (pron. Mict-lan-te-cuht-li), Aztec god of death, so I tell him, “These creatures are particularly offensive to your god, they are insults to his domain and power.” So he tries to turn them, it ends up that a 7th level

Priest in 1e blasts skeletons out of existence. So I tell him, “The skeletons flash and burn under the water, maroon flames wreathe them as they turn to dust and wash away.” They thought that was cool. So the PC cleric calls them all down there

They all follow his voice and jump, the party druid transforms to a flying squirrel to ride down without taking damage, everyone else rolls damage for the fall. The lizard men discover the underwater staircase, and they unlock a door, leading to a room

With a throne, a frog demon, a teleportation disc, and a chest.  I look at the clock, we have about a ½ hour left. I could give them hints, but I let it lay, and see what they do. They assume its a fight, step in the room, and the demon springs

The party fighter runs at the demon and gets initiative, tags it on the side, just barely. It screams and jumps on to him claw, claw bite. The lizard man keeps most of it away but does get bitten a bit. 

The party ranger drops two shots from her +1 bow at it, but it is only hurt by +2 or higher weapons (the fighters sword was +1/+3 vrs giant sized creatures), so it worked. The arrows hit but fall harmlessly. There is howling. Another uses his +1 scimitar, rolls a 20…

It does nothing. More player howling. Demon tries to polymorph the fighter, he saves and fights it off. Everyone decides to bolt, demon gets an attack of opportunity and tries the CCB but fails. They head to the water, the demon is bound to the room so “it snaps back as if held by an invisible chain.” So they now are stuck. Where to go? What to do? I could jump in… but I wait. They talk. One of them asks if protection from evil would hedge out the frog-demon

I told them it likely would. The priest has protection from Evil 10’ radius. Boom. Sometimes they have the hack, and that’s a sweet thing. It shows them that you need lots of different spells to survive. They put it on and get to the pad in the room

They use the key and it takes them to a secret compartment behind the statue in the room with the black flame. I kid you not. The way the module is set up, if they go through the secret door from behind the statue, the only thing they can “set off”

Is a chime, if they walk within 15’ of it, then it rings, and a jewel shatters releasing a demon and four mummies awake and come to the location. If they stick to the wall of the chamber, and walk to the flame, they could stay out of the range of the chime

I show them the illustration, they study it and talk. They see all the stuff in the room, they are deciding what to look at. One of them says, “We go right for the flame, nothing else”. They all agree. Then the ranger says, “Stick to the walls, there may be

“Things that work at a range. Traps and stuff.” For real. We have 10 minutes left. I ask them what they do. There is some chatter, and the party ranger says, “We are going along the wall, then to the back of the flame, and dropping it in the fire”

We have 5 min left. They do that, they drop the Jewel in the fire. “Black flames greedily envelop the Jet Black Jewel, it’s volcanic glass globe shatters and is consumed, soon the Jewel itself shimmers, and GROANS, and there is a movement of the ground

“And then everyone’s mind is filled with the image of a jackal headed man.... The Jewel dissolves as if never there.” With about 2 min to spare. It was awesome. Three fatalities, mission accomplished, 4 days of play, 12 hours at the (virtual) table.

This was an example of a perfect fit for my game. A small bit of reskinning and Baltron’s Beacon fit my campaign world like a glove. TSR products were often this good, the right balance of flavor and ideas but enough modularity to modify it. 

There were factions given that worked beautifully for my group, they navigated equal to superior forces to survive when they were almost wiped out. They were alternately clever and savvy and then wildly reckless and thoughtless. They expected magic to save them, when it only does so… sometimes. They did do some excellent role play, they eventually all took crazy risks, and there were some great moments. When the party warlock reduced a troll to action figure size then stomped it flat.

Boss move. 

When the party priest uses detect evil to find their destination? Awesome. When that same priest blasts skeletons out of existence? Lots of great moments. All earned, I pulled no punches, re-rolled no results, all in the open on discord. 

When a party fighter ended up with 1 hp after the fireball, he saw that roll happen, he knew he just pulled his luck. He was back in the game after that I’ll tell you. They bargained, fought back and pulled it out. Awesome sessions. Awesome game. 

I run a game of Vancian flavor, in the sense that warlocks are powerful, Antarcus did not move against Leptor because he could easily slay all his men from a distance. Warlocks are not to be messed with. I got to RP this one as arrogant but enterprising

I always make deals with the PCs and factions, violence is wasteful, get opponents on as allies and cut ties when it serves you, evil uses you, it doesn’t just kill everyone. So I love it when the PCs want to bargain. This is where “rules light” on social interaction

Works well. I didn’t need an extensive mechanic for this, encounter reaction rolls placed at strategic junctures, then I adhere to those roles and interpret them for the game. Ref discretion on when to roll them, and clever player moves can be rewarded without dice

I feel energized. I have the tone and mix, the system and the world. I get to play in it every week, run games with kids who have infectious enthusiasm. They always scream when they roll well or get it done. You should be able to bottle that.

Telling a Story in D&D Another week, another Twitter drama. The TTRPG Twitter space has become so unhinged that people can express opini...