So, there’s been a bit of Discourse going on lately in certain circles of the internet, which I happen to find myself in, regarding good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons.
Particularly, a description of orcs from the 5th edition rulebook has caught a lot of flak for being, um, pretty damn racist. There have also been people coming out and just saying that D&D has always been a racist and colonialist game anyway, so this is nothing surprising.
That statement, “Dungeons & Dragons is colonialist”, probably inspires one of three reactions. Either:
- “Ah yes, of course.”
- “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s a fantasy game that has nothing to do with real history!”
I feel that these kinds of critiques are often made in a way that is preaching to the choir, so to speak. You either get it, and agree, or you don’t, and it’s just meaningless noise. Someone criticizing something you like or even regard in a vaguely positive way really has to have a good argument, either logical or emotional, behind it for it to land. Especially when it’s about something as seemingly inconsequential as a popular tabletop roleplaying game.
So, what I’d like to do is explain where this is coming from, in as plain language as I can manage. It’s an interesting subject, I think, and it’s a worthwhile exercise to really tease out all the nuances of the connection. This is important not only because lots of people play Dungeons & Dragons to this very day, but because it is massively influential, so anything baked into its DNA is going to propagate through myriad other forms of media.
The thing about subtle influences like this is that they are a lot less effective when you are aware of them. If you know that D&D has a colonialist bent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to spurn all D&D content forever, just that you need to be aware of that slant, and you can work to counter it when you work within that space.
I’m not here to tell anyone they’re a Bad Person for engaging in a fun hobby with their friends. Just advising you to be more conscious of what sorts of messages you may be absorbing without your direct knowledge, like traces of mercury in a delicious salmon.
Making the Connection
So, all that said, what is the connection between Dungeons & Dragons and a bunch of people on boats running around in the 15th-20th centuries?
Well, as I said, it comes down to more to a mindset than any specific facts. The attitude that colonists had towards the land they were living on, the resources found there, and any people they happened to come across.
Let’s take these one by one.
One of the key aspects of a colonialist mindset is something I like to think of as “the myth of empty land”. The idea is that there is just… fresh land, out there somewhere, just waiting for people to come and inhabit it. It’s a thing that shows up all over the place once you learn to recognize it.
Now, why is it a myth? Because there is nowhere on earth that has been unoccupied, at this point, except the bottom of the oceans and the absolute coldest extremes of the north and south poles. Humans are extremely adaptable, and we’ve had a lot of time to spread out across all the continents already.
The thing is, it has been a long time since there was any empty land. Going back to extremely early examples of colonies, even. In ancient Greece, they would travel to distant lands and set up little colonies, but those areas were already occupied by “barbarians” (which literally means “people who don’t speak Greek”!) who had to be kicked out or dealt with in some way.
And yet, this cultural idea persists! How many times have you seen “empty land” in the premise of TV shows or movies or novels or games? The idea that you can go somewhere and experience nature in some sort of pure form, untouched by human hands. That there is some sort of “new frontier” that must be tamed and civilized by brave explorers.
This establishes the whole attitude of colonialism towards the new things they experience: These things are up for the taking. The myth of empty land is deeply connected to the American ideal of entrepreneurship and starting fresh. It’s all a fantasy. You cannot start fresh, and to assume that it’s possible is to simply ignore or erase all the people who already exist in the same space.
So, how does this connect with D&D? Well, think about dungeons, think about how the world is laid out for a party of adventurers, in general. The DM has all the knowledge of how things are, the players are at their whim. Exploring unknown lands is the name of the game, even if it’s explicitly not true. The players are not collaborators on the worldbuilding. Within the rule structure of D&D, that is exclusively the purview of the DM, who then reveals it in bits and pieces when appropriate.
So, the whole structure reflects this idea: the world out there is a mystery to be solved by explorers. It is not something to be approached as an existing system to be engaged with on an equal social level, but something to be challenged and conquered.
Which brings us neatly to….
This one is very simple: resources are things to be exploited.
Colonialism is deeply tied to the rise of capitalism, in an almost hilariously direct way. Some of the first corporations on earth were those that existed to exploit the resources of the British Empire’s colonial holdings.
So, the colonial view of resources is: take ’em by whatever means necessary. They are the goal, and you always want to be getting more, more, more. If there’s something cool around, it ought to belong to you, damnit.
From this, we get the whole concept of “treasure” and “loot”. You kill some goblins? Guess what, all their stuff is yours now! In the oldest versions of D&D, the way you calculated experience gains was literally the monetary value of the loot you brought back at the end of an adventure.
And greater risks bring greater rewards, right? You fight stronger enemies, you get better stuff out of it. Your herculean efforts are rewarded with cash, which gets you better gear for going out and getting more, thus one of the earliest gameplay loops is formed.
Of course, many campaigns are organized around some other sort of plot, but this is always a sort of side-plot. The only way for adventurers to get rich is by taking it from other people, much like how colonies can only thrive by stealing land and resources from others. This whole acquisitive mindset, that the way to advance is by taking things after violence, is always running in the background.
Steady work is for NPCs. The cultivation of land, the ability to create new works of art or useful tools, that’s all stuff that other people do, so you can come around and take advantage of it in some way. It’s part of the way that D&D keeps players at a distance from the society that they inhabit. Your options for interaction are implicitly limited by what is set forth in the rules.
Sure, you could ask your DM about it and work together to figure out rules for farming or blacksmithing or whatever, but it’s not what the rules are designed for. Just about every action is a single dice-roll check against an arbitrary number, except for combat.
Which brings us to….
Through a colonialist lens, any existing population is an obstacle to be overcome or a resource to be exploited. They’re in the way, or they can be captured and sold like any other sort of wild game.
Dehumanization is the name of the game here. Their perspective is not useful, except in the ways it may help you to exploit the land or get rid of them. This land is devoid of civilization, and thus anyone you find there cannot be civilized. At best, you may decide, out of the goodness of your heart, to allow them to be a part of your glorious civilization so that you may exploit them more efficiently.
But for the most part, anyone laying claim to the land you want is an Enemy and should be dealt with accordingly. A colonialist is looking to make a mark on a brand new, fresh place, so existing people must necessarily be dehumanized.
Now, how does this connect with D&D? Well, I’ve already basically said it up above: NPCs are necessarily an obstacle to the player. Any person not part of the party is something that has to be dealt with. They are obstacles imagined by the DM to throw wrenches into the plans of the player characters, or to provide information.
And if you encounter people in the field? Well, they’re probably just there to be killed. Again, combat is emphasized over all other gameplay systems, so the way you interact with a strange new person you happen to encounter is probably going to be violent!
But this is really just a way of getting into the main topic, which is….
Let’s come back around to the original topic of this Discourse: fantasy races and fantasy racism. It’s always a dangerous line to walk to depict racism in a fantasy story, it came end up giving some unintended implications of real racism or just be sloppy and uninformed. But that’s not even what I’m talking about! I’m talking about authors using fantasy races as an avenue to express real racist thoughts and worldviews.
This connects deeply to colonialism, because the big excuse for these European nations to come in and steal everything not nailed down is that the people they are stealing from are inferior in some way. Racism is the great justification for colonialism! It paints the rest of the world as an “other” that cannot be compared to the “real” people back home.
There is a very clear line between culture and biology, but fantasy authors cross all over it all the time with little regard. It’s one thing for orcs to be warlike because that’s just how their culture has gone because of historical context, and quite another to say that violence is “in their blood”.
The thing that’s so damaging about this is that it ends up reinforcing and teaching racist concepts to players, however subtly. I can see the utility of it! Telling a player that they have to be violent and angry, even if they themselves don’t feel that way, is a good way to encourage them to actually role-play instead of just acting normally, like 21st century teen placed in a fantasy world. But even this sends the wrong message, as it tells you that you can reduce a whole race of people down into some characteristics that you can play pretend in your head and fully understand.
What Is To Be Done?
So, what does this mean for tabletop roleplaying? Well, it just means you have to do a little more work. Think about what your characters are doing in the world, work to make them part of it and not just tourists within it. Consider the vast breadth of human experience in constructing your fantasy worlds, don’t just throw together common stereotypes or counter-stereotypes.
For example, maybe goblins are considered warlike because they are nomadic. You can look at the real, historical conflicts between agrarian and nomadic societies and draw inspiration from that. There is plenty of room for even traditional tropes, as long as you examine them in a way that honors the reality behind them rather than paving it all over with reductive assumptions.
Ah, I feel like it often comes down to this with my writing, but the thing about the world is that it is extremely complicated.
So, be thoughtful! Be mindful! Examine the very way that you yourself view the world around you, and the way that the media you consume does as well. You may be surprised by what you find.
Here’s a simple exercise: when you’re playing an RPG, compare the number of friendly characters to the number of enemies you kill. What sort of situation is being depicted here? Is it a noble guardian protecting their home, or is it an oppressor slaughtering the mob? What are the excuses being made on your behalf so you can feel powerful?
As Faulkner said:
The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.