On the Lie of Colonialism in Dungeons & Dragons

It's a golden age. I was casually browsing the internet and found this! A 215 page document about a West Marches campaign.

It's good. The biggest flaw of the work is its devotion to exhaustively developing tangential systems. As a work designed to introduce a new player who cut his teeth on 5th edition into the complexities of sandbox play it's very useful. There are moments of interest when they tease more creative results, such as the nature of the town or zone traits, but these are rare. It has solid ability to present what's actually going on in the design decisions made when developing a classic sandbox. Then again, if the whole concept is new the lack of novel or unique complications is a benefit.

You can move your finger in the tiniest way to instantly peruse this piece of work. But I came across this section, and realized that something that is clearly a misunderstanding is being taken as gospel. Let me quote.

Since its inception in the ‘70s, the base game itself has had profound issues surrounding racism and the colonialist mindset. Fifth Edition has done little to mitigate these issues, and if anything, the West Marches only make the longstanding rot more visible.

This sounds reasonable and true, except it's not.

This is an article that deals with colonialism, racism, sexism, violence, and other things that don't go particularly well with a morning coffee when you have a stressful day ahead at work.

Colonial Ignorance

I'm not trying to justify any inappropriate behavior. I was a counselor for 20 years working with native youth in rural low income communities, some of which are not reachable by road. I believe that all living people and quite a few animals possess infinite self-worth (in the Carl Rogers sense of worth) that is in no way related to any external, from income, to skin color, to education. I am aware of the many intersections of racism, bigotry, sexism, and systemic oppression for a wide variety of external features, and I believe in the equality and worth of all human beings.

I am just trying to stop well meaning people from repeating inaccurate sentiments.

Here are my points, I will explain each.
  • The game itself is not in structure or design racist. It is by (possibly accidental) design a model for the experience of the arc of experience of human life, a game that makes the psychological experience of playing mirror the experience of coming of age. 
  • The game does not represent European Colonialism, certainly not from the years 400-1800+. One of the smartest people in the tabletop role-playing game field (who backed my Kickstarter!!) recently said Dungeons and Dragons could not have ever been created in Europe due to the mindset of the game. It is much more accurate to say that the game is about the experience of western exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Game-play revolves around civilizing wilderness, not conquering and exploiting existing civilization structures. ("The 'frontier' moves, and bold adventurers move with it"—1st edition DMG, page 91) It represents the spirit of manifest destiny (c. 1845), i.e. the belief that due to american's cultural and societal superiority that it was america's responsibility to raise humanity to the pinnacle of human achievement.  This has been widely regarded as a bad move. This is not necessarily more moral, but it is more accurate.
  •  There is no rot within the game itself, only within the within the person where it occurs. This is not an argument of fact, but rather a statement that I respect the right of an individual to be responsible for their own actions, rather then attempting to control media or access. I am an artist and not an authoritarian. The arguments for freedom versus societal control are in the public record, and you likely have an opinion on it. This is the argument being made, and it is the argument I am responding to. You can play D&D without worrying about the state of your soul because there is no rot within it.

Game Structure and Racism

I am not courting outrage, I am not interested in proving some point for some external system of control. I am not attempting to promote any agenda but the truth.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game of fantasy adventure.

Fantastic creatures are stories and manifestations of ideas we have that represent our concerns or fears. I will list a few to illustrate my point. Werewolves are about fears of alcoholic behavior, giants are about our experiences of adults and our fears of them as children. a lich is a monster who denies your ability to achieve autonomy over your life, because the men before you refuse to die and make way for their children, vampires represent our fears and concerns over rape and death, zombies represent our fears of rampant consumerism and a loss of identity, the succubus is a metaphor for male fears in relationships, orcs are our fear of our memory of our ancient smarter, stronger, more athletic neanderthal companions,  dragons literally represent sin as an obstacle to spiritual purity, most often greed. 

This is not some hypothetical conjecture. Anxiety represented by nocturnal terrors is as old as humanity. They are literally our responses to fears and anxieties. There is a not insignificant body of work on this subject.

They are not representative of black people, natives, aborigines, or other indigenous peoples. In fact, making that claim, in and of itself seems quite spurious to me, because the way they are presented and used in the game is in no way representative of any of the historical interactions with native cultures. 

Racists absolutely play D&D. I was, and this is the correct word, flabbergasted at the sheer Illinois Nazism of the Bledslaw clan. Refusing to join the KKK is not what I would consider an affirmative defense! So these racists have clearly decided to co-op and gratify themselves by being fucking horrid human beings.  

To assume that this is what is coded in the work, misses both the literal and critical subtext, which is mythical threat to your survival and ability to flourish as a human being. To wit:

Under Preparation For the Game OD&D Volume 1
First, the referee must draw out. . . maps of the levels of his "underworld", people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly. . . When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the "huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses".
Under Character Alignment in Moldvay Basic D&D.
To a Chaotic creature, the individual is the most important of all things. Selfishness is the normal way of life, and the group is not important. Chaotics often act on sudden desires and whims. They cannot be trusted, and their behavior is hard to predict. They have a strong belief in the power of luck. Chaotic behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called evil. 
Under Approaches to Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's guide
Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the later school. It does not stress any realism . . . [i]t does little to attempt to simulate anything. It is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity. . . In all cases, however, the reader should understand that AD&D is designed to be an amusing and diverting pastime, something which can fill a few hours or consume endless days as the participants desire, but in no case something to be taken too seriously. For fun, excitement and captivating fantasy, AD&D is Unsurpassed. As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure. Readers who seek the later must search elsewhere
Let's assume you disregard both the structure of the early games, AND this snippet of the creators thoughts as he wrote the seminal work on running games, during the height of its first popularity.

Sure, neither the text nor his claims say he's racist, but that's just what a racist would say. Is the design or the text racist?


Under Alignment in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide
Thus, alignment describes the worldview of creatures and helps to define what their actions, reactions, and purposes will be. . . Good and Evil: Basically stated, the tenets of good are human rights, or in the case of AD&D, creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil, on the other hand, does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant. 
He defines good as the protection of rights extended to all good creatures. Goodness is defined as the rights of thinking creatures-not just humans and humanoids, but all good creatures no matter their distance from the human form.

This is fundamentally opposed to racist and colonial thought. They are completely incompatible. Racist and colonialism require removing rights from creatures. It requires a perspective of military superiority, moral arrogance and a desire to exploit less lucky victims. This is not the attitude of most D&D players, who encounter a world they can never conquer or tame, and only through dint of their gumption can they survive in.

But the Natives!

There's this thought in society, of the wolf in sheep's clothing. A missing stair. A sociopath who lairs, and attempts to make himself seem respectable so he can continue his degenerate abuse or assault. 

That's what strikes me as so odd about this claim, and leaves me wondering about the motives of the people making it, to say less of those that hear it and simply repeat it because they have not given it much thought. 

From The Campaign in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

After a few episodes of play, you and your campaign participants will be ready for the expansion of the milieu. The territory around the settlement—likely the "home" city or town of the adventurers, other nearby habitations, wilderness areas, and whatever else you determine is right for the area—should be sketch-mapped, and places likely to become settings for play actually done in detail. At this time is it probably that you will have to have a large scale map of the whole continent or sub-continent involved, with some rough outlines of the political divisions of the place, notes on predominant terrain features, indications of the distribution of creature types, and some plans as to what conflicts are likely to occur. In short, you will have to create the social and ecological parameters of a good part of a make-believe world. The more painstakingly this is done, the more "real" this creation will become. . .
It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on a life and reality of its own. . . Similarly, the geography and history you assign to the world will suddenly begin to shape the character of states and peoples. Details of former events will become obvious from mere outlines of the past course of things.  
and from Territory Development by Player Characters in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide
When player characters reach upper levels and decide to establish a stronghold and rule a territory, you must have fairly detailed information on hand to enable this to take place. You must have a large scale map which shows areas where this is possible, a detailed cultural and social treatment of the area and those which bound it, and you must have some extensive information available as to who and what lives in the area to be claimed and held by the player characters. . . . The player character and his henchmen and various retainers must now go to the construction site, explore and map it, and have construction commence. . .  Once these territories become settled and populations abound (relatively speaking) they can be used as centers for activity—good or evil or whatever.

It does not appear that the author of the game nor the structure of the game take any sort of stance on what should happen during play. It's explicitly a game, where there are threats to civilization, people you must interact with, and allies you must make happy.The people claiming that it's racist because you invade the homes of the natives and kill them and take their things is more a reflection of how they choose to play the game and not an expectation within the text. (Modules about such being a reflection of their author, and not some inherit racism in design)

My players put up with the alcoholic ogres because they were willing to pay the costs, they didn't kill them to a man. A contract was negotiated with the frost giant lich, and peace was signed by the orc tribes (in a game where you might portray them in the role of noble savage, itself a racist caricature, instead of as a malignant force upon the existence of man.)

It's even within the rules of the game. Monsters give very little experience, and you are better off finding a superior solution than fighting to gain the reward. Real success comes from solving the encounter creatively using your wits, strength, and will just like mythological heroes
It is outlined as a game, and given to player driven complexity. If you want to deal with those issues (orcs are natives on the land with wives and children) or not (orcs are representative of malignant evil) you have the choice. People have been dealing with this exact choice (the orc baby choice) and being blindsided to the fact that it's a choice for, well, as far back as the 70's.  To claim that the game itself decides what you must do isn't supported. 

But the Patriarchy!

I mean, I'm not making any kind of claim of purity. The game is astoundingly sexist. "race" and "Half-X" are racist vestiges of a dark time in America when the air was filled with lead. The game at times has had people produce art that is filled with stereotypical racist representations. It has had middle Americans tackle the task of writing about other cultures when Americans were still beating natives for speaking their own language in Alaska in the early 1980's. Could we get supplements for non-white non-human societies that aren't shallow?

I fail to see how the behavior of racists is somehow uniquely objectionable in role-playing, when the medium seems unrelated to the bigotry. There's a whole genera of slightly conservative military fiction that glorifies the subjection of the universe. If your argument is that it's racist because some people who played it are racist, that point flows to you, because it's a truism. Not a statement about the text. One could certainly start to make cottage industry arguments for papers about how D&D is akin to sexual violence because it models combat which involves weapon penetrating human bodies like the penis does for the sex act. But my daughter has after school activities and I don't have the time, so could you not? 

But the racism that's talked about above is not in the core structure of the text, unless someone classifies another person as a monster. The text explicitly doesn't.

This doesn't mean we don't need to do the work of making sure our games are not cliches that rely on stereotypical racist, warlike, western tropes. 

The game is about fighting fantasy monsters—monsters which represent our fears and anxieties, coming up with solutions to complex situations with creativity and panache, so that you can secure an ability for your character to flourish. It is the modern hunt for the grail. The knight doesn't face the dragon to remove a monster, he does so to purify his soul from sin. 

To complain that a group of monsters are 'evil' is to be upset that the aliens in Independence day were all bad guys, the Persians were represented as monsters to the greeks in 300, and the Chitauri were cut down by the thousands by the Avengers. Maybe you'd like to make the argument that is a problem, which sure. Maybe. But it's got f-$& all to do with Dungeons & Dragons.

Gaining control of a wilderness means not only clearing out malignant evils that desire nothing but the destruction of the world, but also meeting locals, managing contentious neighbors, and learning ancient history, giving you the opportunity to found your own better world. 

So, now you know. Don't be a stranger.

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  1. It seems that there are many intellectually superior people from positions of imagined importance and authority out there who have many solutions for problems that don't exist or things that are meaningless.

  2. I came across this same document recently and I was also taken by some surprise by the same section. I was immediately pretty skeptical but I think you're doing their argument a bit of a disservice. I don't think I would ever put a disclaimer like that in an RPG book I would write because I don't feel like it's necessary. Or rather, it belongs in a much bigger conversation about media studies and cultural studies in general and how ignorant people are of it. And I'd like to think that, of course, MY party never falls victim to accidental racism in play.

    But there's definitely something more to it than that. I don't imagine you're interested in getting into a big back and forth debate where we each cite lots of quotes and whatnot, but I have one main counterargument to many of your points that maybe you haven't considered.

    Cognitive dissonance is a HUGE thing, especially in the way we consume media. It is usually insufficient to say, "alleged negative effect cannot be blamed on the work because the work EXPLICITLY says otherwise in its text" [insert quote about alignment]. Artistic works often SAY one thing but accidentally encourage something else and audiences will often receive BOTH of these influences. And in gaming arts, this has been pretty well recognized now under the theoretical framework of "ludonarrative dissonance." D&D is absolutely guilty of that.

    Of course, the person who wrote that West Marches guide tried to claim that this goes back to OD&D but I have a strong feeling they didn't really do their history homework. The strongest argument I think they have is that, "PCs are incentivized to kill 'monstrous' (yet still sapient) NPCs because they are rewarded for it with XP." This is FAR more the case in 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition where that is absolutely your primary source of XP in the base rules. So if anything, you could argue that the dissonance with moralism and violence is more of a New School thing than an Old School thing. Another example is that New School character classes are given SO MANY COMBAT ABILITIES. Even the rogue (originally meant to be a treasure-hunter skill-focused type, right?) gets almost nothing but features to improve their combat performance when you play 5th edition. Even if you aren't required to use those things, you aren't playing to your full mechanical potential if you don't take advantage of those features. So there's an IMPLICIT incentive to resort to violence.

    Another issue is that there is a strong TRADITION of players killing NPCs for their treasure, and D&D doesn't do a lot to combat that traditional narrative. Your group's playstyle may be a lot more peaceful and diplomatic, but don't pretend that the RPG community doesn't encourage violent solutions or even just ASSUME them. There's such a strong cultural norm within the hobby to approach the game that way that it doesn't even occur to people to think peacefully. You say it doesn't reflect on the game, it reflects on the players. But I think it reflects on the prevailing narrative within the hobby, and no one has more potential to influence that than D&D itself.

  3. As I've been going through B/X and OSE to create some Encounter Activity tables for every monster, I've come across some of the vestigial depictions you mention. The Dervish, for example, brings to mind a particularly reductive representation of what something that clearly came from a real-world cultural source. Examples like these really seems to highlight that whole "arm-chair history buff" aspect of the hobby, and with that comes all sorts of cultural cruft from the sources they cite or stories they draw from in order to emulate or incorporate (in this case, I'd speculate that Dervishes come from Western works on the Crusades).

    Some things from the early days of the hobby really wilt when held under the lens of modern sensibilities, but excising things that don't fit your fun seems like it should be second nature. There are most definitely some egregious warts out there (like the Kara-Kara), and these emphasize the need to take pains to avoid perpetuating cliches and stereotypes of this nature.

    1. Dervishes were an insensitive entry, for sure (for what it's worth, I have immediate ancestry from that part of the world, I'm usually quick to call out orientalism, and the dervish entry has always gotten a raised eyebrow from me). In OD&D, I wouldn't call them racist because I don't think there's an effort made to present them as bad, evil, violent, etc.; describing them as "fanatic religious nomads" looks worse in hindsight, but I see that as drift in connotations since 1974. They're called out as lawful, which isn't the same as "good", admittedly, but it is opposed to "evil high priest" and typical "bad" monsters (goblins, ogres, etc.) explicitly , and it is aligned with hobbits/halflings, ents/treants, giant eagles/rocs, unicorns, etc., which carries positive implication (OD&D Vol 1 pg 9). So, ignorant, maybe insensitive (though probably no less than clerics being Catholic priests in all but name), but not racist to me. OD&D's berserker entry gets closer to racism in my eyes, depending on where one draws the line between mythic warriors and the actual people of those cultures.

      The dervish entry in Expert does strike me as racist, though.

    2. Yeah, my argument isn't that there isn't race-coding into D&D. I tried to be explicit about the detritus as an artifact of it's time.
      The original claim in the west marches document wasn't about actual issues D&D has with racism, it focused on a strawman, effectively: Racist people can play D&D as a racism simulator, which, you know. Ok. It doesn't happen (go to D&D twitch and find me an example, or any proof).

      Complaining about the issues around race coding, 'half' races, and more—these are real problems I've been taking a stance against for, well, over 40 years now.

      I'm saying, "You are supposed to kill natives and take their wealth" is a gross misrepresentation of both the rules and how the game is played.

      Let's do the work without using hyperbole to create outrage.

    3. I've wrestled more than once with the Monster Manual Dervishes being 'Lawful Good'. Doesn't really fit my impression of the Mahdists that killed old Gordon of Khartoum.

  4. Agreed completely. Racism in D&D may come up in execution (whether intentionally or by accident), but it's not part of the game's core.

    Your point about the symbolic backgrounds of fantasy monsters reminds me of a post I made about understanding the symbolism of monsters (focused mostly in vampires), since mismatches in the assumptions between GM and players (or more broadly between content creators and consumers) can lead to negative reactions:

  5. We can always count on you for a bit of a reality check Courtney! Love the new book BTW, it just came in the mail and I've already put it to use.

  6. What Gygax means by detailed social and cultural treatments surely can be found in his Chord books, eh.

  7. I can't believe people waste the precious time they have to spend on elfgames worrying about this crap.

    And this is coming from someone who studied anthropology and history at university.

  8. "You can play D&D without worrying about the state of your soul because there is no rot within it."
    Are you implying that if I still play games using books written or published by James Raggi, I won't necessarilly go to hell forever when I die?
    How about what Jelly Muppet and those guys from the OSR group Sword Dream say? They seem to be pretty decent people, and in Twitter they are more or less vocal if not actively trying to tell people that they should stop James Raggi (and others) from publishing his games. Is it possible that they might be wrong? Or that they mistakenly think they are exceptional, or possess cultural and societal superiority, or that it's their duty to raise fandom to the pinnacle of human achievement?
    Well, I hate the police in all their forms.

    "Anxiety represented by nocturnal terrors is as old as humanity. They are literally our responses to fears and anxieties."

    As a Freudian psychologist, I have always thought that people who say D&D orcs represent black people, or indigenous people, are the actual racists because that representation was only in their heads, not in Gary's or Arneson's. Or mine, as a referee. In my country, I see and sometimes experience everyday racism and discrimination. Killing orcs, exploring the borderland caves, releasing the undead in Death Frost Doom or looting those poor souls tortured and abused in Death Love Doom doesn't make me feel bad in the way everyday racism and clasism does. It makes me feel bad in the way a good horror movie or book does. And it also makes be feel good the same way those horror works do, like I had an adrenaline shot.

    I won't accept holier-than-thou (i.e. double standard hypocrites) Anglo-Saxons to tell me what games I can play and what games should make me feel ashamed. If they think these games promote... I don't know, they can't even claim clearly what these games suppossedly promote... killing children? Worshipping Satan? Reading racist author Lovecraft? Well, if they interpret these games as noxious, it's probably their heads which is noxious, not the gamee. They're of course free to choose what they like and dislike, and to express so. I want the same freedom. They fuck LotFP fans (https://i.imgur.com/1F6mjiH.jpg), so I don't have that freedom. I want to write about LotFP, or even about how I disagree with their opinions, without being fucked or harassed. Maybe it's too much to ask for from the self-appointed good ones, the saviors, the Matthew Hopkins with the reighteous duty of finding the modern witches.

  9. >Are you implying that if I still play games using books written or published by James Raggi, I won't necessarilly go to hell forever when I die?

    Nope, no-one mentioned LotFP. I (sort of?) get where you're coming from but aren't you shoehorning your own gripes into a different discussion?

    1. That was sarcasm, as it should have been obvious if you have read the next couple paragraphs.

    2. Oh I absolutely caught your sarcasm. I'm talking about you shoehorning in your gripes about people complaining about Raggi.

    3. I should clarify my point because it sounds rude and combative and I'm not trying to start a flame war, but first I want to say that I really like your blog and the content you produce. The OSR weapons race was a fun spectacle to behold in particular, and I highlighted your post "Ten things that happen when you inhale the ashes of an elder god" as one of my personal favourite of 2019.

      My point is that this is a post where the author is putting forward his reasons as to why he believes there is colonialism in D&D (which is weird when he explicitly states that it's about manifest destiny, a form of colonialism, but others have made that argument more cogently in these comments). You could have used this post as an opportunity to support Courtney, as I suspect you share his sentiments, but instead chose to get out into the weeds and start lambasting Jelly Muppet (as the sole representative of SWORDREAM?) for encouraging a boycott of Raggi, Venger and Pundit.

      I get that you feel attacked by the statement "fuck their fans", especially as you're now writing for LotFP, but you have your own platform to start a debate that really only tangentially relates to the content of the post, especially as the reason why sections of the OSR take issue with the aforementioned creators is because of their conduct on social media rather than the content of the games they produce (all their is of course bleed).

      I can imagine that as (if?) you're reading this, you might think I'm an idiot for not recognising how that topic feeds into this, but my assumption when reading the West Marches document linked above was that analysing games critically can add to not subtract from the fun. I don't think t's as simplistic as saying "orcs represent repressed minorities therefore = racist", though I agree with your point that expression of such sentiments (particularly by "holier-than-thou Anglo-Saxons") is usually an expression of their own latent prejudice. It's about having a discussion, something I hope we can all learn to do without losing our shit.

      It felt like the subtext of your comment was "SJWs RUIN MAH HOBBY" and I thought your were above that kind of thing.

  10. I like your idea of using D&D (or any creative endeavor) to create your own, better world, but I think that in setting up that charge in opposition to the "Izirion's..." race and colonialism disclaimer, you might be making an unintentional, but very real misstep in accounting for how insidious ideas of race are and how pervasive any cultural logic is. As DwizKhalifa said in their post earlier today, "cognitive dissonance is a HUGE thing," and so the intended neutrality or even the intended anti-racism of the creators cannot be assumed to counter their being born into a culture with racist logics and sensibilities. I would go further than this to say that if you are born into a culture with a certain logic, even when you are conscientiously fighting that logic, you are still at least partially reproducing it (e.g. one cannot address a history of racism, without at least partially employing the logic of racial categorization to discuss who was affected and how). What's more, maintaining awareness of and actively opposing so many different, deeply ingrained ideas (such as those you get with racism) is a herculean task. In effect, while you may have to intentionally employ certain pieces of racist logic, even to oppose that logic, there are likely to be other pieces you forget about and accidentally employ. So, facing down that existential gun barrel, when we are trying to create our own better world, we are stuck always fighting ourselves and our entire socializations when we are trying to conscientiously fight against the cultural logics which we are born into.

    Some of the specific things you discussed (for instance, leaning into the purely malignant orc versus the culturally derivative orc), could be examples of this effort to be anti-racist running up against how difficult racism is to avoid (in this case, the very possibility of a sentient species being inherently, biologically evil runs right up against foundational ideas of race). That said, I am not pointing this to finger point or blame, but rather just to point out how difficult it is for even well meaning people to get away from these nastier aspects of our culture.

    So then, in our gaming/creative efforts there is no harm in being particularly self-wary. It seems like the "Izirion's..." disclaimer is coming from this very perspective of thoughtful self-policing. So, I think it's fair to say that concern about ill intention toward the game system or the hobby as a whole isn't necessary, especially since the disclaimer includes mention of love for and interest in the game in spite of this inescapable trouble (not to mention the fact that the disclaimer is in the preface to an over 200 page text about the system).

    If we want to try to build better worlds than the one we are in, it doesn't mean ignoring the imperfections of this one. Indeed, we ought to be addressing those imperfections head on, since, regardless of our good intentions, those imperfections will follow us.

    1. If it's just the structure of thought policing without actually being accurate to the core issue, should we not speak out against that?
      Like, D&D has a lot of problems. Should we let people make up lies about what problems it has simply because it does have problems?

      I've been shocked at some of the responses. You talk about dissonances, but people assume "a better world" means murdering innocents. But the game doesn't say that, and neither does my play experience. They make a better world by helping the people in the area they are responsible for. Not killing them.

    2. I think I disagree with the premise that the "Izirion's..." disclaimer is unfounded in suggesting that D&D's system has racist and colonialist tropes written into it. I have a lifelong love for D&D, but it's also hard not to see some of the missteps the game takes. As I said in my above post, physical difference as a marker of mental and social faculties being locked into a certain alignment is tightly connected to racism (traditional and present) and it's early colonial pre-cursor ideas. Likewise, the thought that a place can be an untamed wilderness and also populated by sentient beings whose evil ways have them misusing or failing to make good use of the land is very much in-line with colonialist and racist ideas. It doesn't seem like it was the original designers' intent to align so tightly with those ideas, but they were ideas inherited and re-employed in the creation of D&D. Understanding this, I don't think it's fair to describe the disclaimer as malicious or as lies.

      To your second point, I don't think that removing the inherent evil from something that your player characters will be in conflict with is the same as "murdering innocents." It simply means that you will have to come up with different reasons or natures to the conflict. Likewise, it probably means that your player characters' actions will not be legible in a clear, easy to sort, moral structure (not that morally clean PCs was a goal of the original D&D). If anything, this new situation makes a space which is more story ripe, as the presence of sentient creatures with their motivations (without predefined moralities in relation to the PCs) forces both DMs and players to engage with the internal lives of the characters in the game world. And if all of that sounds different from the fun you want to have, you can always play with malignant sentients, occasionally reminding yourself of the history of the idea, much in the same way that we have to regularly remind ourselves of the other unpleasant histories behind other parts of our lives.

      Slightly tangential, but spawned by your second point, I think there is certainly some interesting conversation to be had about violence as a key trope of our "better world." Speaking to the inherent messiness of being human, I certainly like the thought of using my creative efforts to make "better worlds," but undeniably, I still take grim enjoyment in including, and often centering interpersonal violence in those worlds. That said, I have a growing curiosity in stories where people have magical abilities, super powers, and future tech, and their central uses are not focused on fighting (though it's hard to tell a story about humans without conflict and often that conflict tracks into violence, somewhere down the line). Something I have appreciated in certain OSR works is a turn towards an older idea, that was also very present in original D&D's conception of the dungeon as a sort of magically produced ecosystem, of the land itself as a character/friend/enemy (what immediately comes to mind are Veins of the Earth and Into the Wyrd and Wild). There's a funny way in which, in the context of conversation about sort of mindless sentients, these treatments of the setting transform the players into mindless or malignant sentients, encountering other beings that are much more comfortable in the environments and manage to have their own, complex desires that exist beyond the PC's sentiment of "at this point I will commit any act, just to live."

  11. To echo "victhedm" but in less...academic...terms:

    I completely agree with "the form of D&D is the Western." Which is pretty much what you've said with Manifest Destiny and Western Exceptionalism (although, hell, I'd go all the way: it's American Exceptionalism. It's a *goddamn Western*).

    I don't follow how that's not both racist and colonialist. I mean, sure, it's damn good fun if you're a (cis, het, Protestant) white guy, but...the Western is hardly an, uh, unproblematic genre, y'know?

    1. Conflict is assumed to happen in D&D. The way that conflict is resolved is not(*). In as much as I dislike many elements of Sup 1, reducing the XP gained through combat was one of the best things it did.

      (*): this is assuming you're not limiting XP gains to come only from defeating monsters

  12. All I can do is laugh reading this. thanks for the laugh.

  13. Let’s play a game of Who Said It!: “A D&D player talking about Orcs or a European talking about African or Asian peoples” Edition

    “We’re making a better world by helping the people in the area we are responsible for”

    It’s a trick question, there’s actually three answers
    That was the written justification of Colonialism by Europeans (“Our superior technology would improve their way of life!)
    It’s what the base D&D Game believes about races like Orcs that players interact with
    And you said it!

    Call me back when you’ve checked yourself

    1. Real talk: I agree that not all D&D games have these ideals right in there (There are probably considerably less racism-free games than you think, but that’s neither here nor there), but as it stands it is the responsibility of the DM to evaporate out the colonist ideals baked right into the default setting concepts.

      You can like something while admitting its problems.

  14. Colonialism can make for a grand campaign theme. As for orcs on the frontier, they're nasty and likely seek to kill adventurers, the colonists, and any indigenous peoples. Could such a theme arise in a world other than our own? There's the rub. But enough of a rub is a massage. And surely that's a message.

  15. I'm late to the article, I enjoyed it and I'm taking a look at the link. But what really struck me was this quote:

    "To a Chaotic creature, the individual is the most important of all things. Selfishness is the normal way of life, and the group is not important. Chaotics often act on sudden desires and whims. They cannot be trusted, and their behavior is hard to predict. They have a strong belief in the power of luck. Chaotic behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called evil."

    I had forgotten it, and as I read it I couldn't help but think of all the murderhobo complaints out there. This quote describes so many players' attitudes when put into games where they have little agency or meaning. When the players have to rely too frequently on dice rolls to get what they want, they naturally become chaotic.

  16. Saying D&D is about Manifest Destiny and not colonialism is like saying your litter of puppies are puppies and not dogs. One came from the other, but you're splitting hairs to elicit comfort for yourself.

    1. Why would saying it's about Manifest Destiny elicit any comfort? Blankets with small pox were given to natives. Africans, Chinese, and more were mercilessly raped and murdered, millions of animals were slaughtered.

      What world are you in where that is more comfortable?

  17. I don’t grock the distinction between European Colonialism and American Exceptionalism. Is the difference that one had to go by boat to exploit natives (and other Euro and Euro colonies) and the other could walk? They both have at their heart they idea of a “manifest destiny” to “take up the white man’s burden” and civilise the uncivilised regardless of the indigenous civilisation that was there before. As a settler Australian I am well aware that my privilege is built on the violence of my predecessors if not necessarily my direct ancestors but taking a longer view it is highly likely that the blood of both slavers and slaves runs in my veins. If D&D is built on they myths of the American frontier (which is and was endemic in American culture - creation myths do not have to correspond with history) then that contains the same elements that led to the European “scramble for Africa”, the British Raj and the Dutch East India Company, it’s just that Americans didn’t have to travel so far to do it.

    1. Well, they mean different things.

      The game is not about a political entity exploiting another countries resources and people (you know, colonialism) it's based on a divine right to conquer a wilderness (you know, manifest destiny). Neither of these are moral. One is just accurate.

      The idea of entering an unknown wilderness, the western, the retrieval and hunt for gold, all of these are american cultural concepts that coalesced into the Midwest and manifested within a libertarian insurance auditor into Dungeons and Dragons.

      These are not European concepts, they aren't focused on European myth, and like Gabor said, it could never have been developed in Europe.

      What's more, the very things you describe, in my broad experience, do not occur.

      No D&D players kill Meepo and the Kobolds. No one attacks the lizardman in U2. No one fails to pull up short at the orc children in the keep.

      What's more, it doesn't match reality.
      No interaction between a native people and invaders in the real world had the power balanced towards the natives. The players are considerably weaker and less prepared and have significantly less power then the people they are supposed to exploit. The game text is both explicit about it being a game, and specifically instructs you to *not* play in the way it is described.

      It's just incorrect.

      There are plenty of things wrong with D&D without making up things. If you can't understand the difference, I'd suggest you travel through central united states of america and the EU.

    2. If I can follow up on your paragraph about "No interaction between...", would you agree that much of the moral problems with colonialism/manifest destiny were the killing (whether through armed conflict or incidental exposure to new diseases), displacement, subjugation, exploitation, and assimilation of the native peoples? Off the top of my head, none of that is codified in the core rules of D&D beyond the general combat rules (if anything, most editions' reaction tables should result in about 35/36ths of incidental encounter beginning non-violently, and for those who actually used them, the 1E DMG disease rules expose only the PCs to that hazard for venturing out), and as you said, the PCs are explicitly the weaker party than most of who they encounter in the wilderness (be it 30-300 pirates or a 10th level cleric in a stronghold willing to compel them into a service via Quest). That all feeds into my stance on the matter, but I don't want to assume you feel the same blindly.

  18. Killing orcs is racist?

    You know who's racist? People who see racism everywhere. Normal people don't even notice this stuff, we just want to toss some dice, pretend we are elves, kill some goblins and take their stuff.

  19. Is it more or less racist when the PC Barbarians crush the corrupt forces of Civilisation beneath their sandalled feet?

    1. Does it depend on which side are the Evil White Men and which side are the Good Non-White Non-Men? In Avatar we know the baddies by their skin colour; obviously the giant blue natives must be the good guys.

    2. Needs more context. Why are they doing it (or, if you're running adventure-of-the-week style instead of sandbox, why are you presenting that as an adventure choice)? Is it a one-time thing or a recurring act? What motivated them to pick that target?


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