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:
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.