Day 6

Dungeons and Dragons is tackling its history with racism, but this D&D master says more needs to be done

A long-time Dungeons and Dragons player says the tabletop role-playing game's latest sourcebook is a positive step toward acknowledging its history of racism. But he wants more done to address the ways the game has failed in the past. 

'It's a good first effort,' says Shawn Taylor, who's played Dungeons and Dragons for over 30 years

While Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game, its portrayal of race has come under criticism. Many are now arguing that D&D is just the latest example of fantasy fiction that needs to confront its history of racism. (Wizards of the Coast, dnd.wizards.com)

A long-time Dungeons and Dragons player says the tabletop role-playing game's latest sourcebook is a positive step toward acknowledging its history of racism. But he wants more done to address the ways the game has failed in the past. 

Shawn Taylor — a founding author of The Nerds of Color pop culture website, a founding organizer of the Black Comix Arts Festival and a lecturer at San Francisco State University — has been playing D&D for well over 30 years.

"I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with a whole lot of white kids, because Black kids in Brooklyn weren't really playing," he told Day 6.

Taylor was thrilled at the chance to play a game that at its core, only required some dice and a meaningful story to play. But he says he quickly grew dismayed when his fellow young adventurers began exhibiting "unconscious racism."

Shawn Taylor is a founding author of The Nerds of Color pop culture website, as well as a founding member of the Black Comix Arts Festival and a lecturer at San Francisco State University. He's also been a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master for over 30 years. (Submitted by Shawn Taylor)

"It's like, you're Black, so you have to play the duplicitous character," he said. "Or, you're Black so you have to play someone who comes from a villainous family. Or, no, you can't be a wizard. You can be a warrior because you can be big and brawny, but you couldn't be intelligent and sneaky," he recalled. 

Prior to the introduction of the latest D&D book on Tuesday, players were required to create characters that have pre-set strengths or weaknesses based on their species.

"Elves are angelic, orcs aren't," Taylor explained. 

As a response to player criticism, Wizards of the Coast released the Tasha's Cauldron of Everything sourcebook. While introducing streamlined changes to core D&D gameplay, the optional add-on also gives players the option to expand personality traits for in-game races. 

"They've actually allowed the orcs and the [dark elves] to have more varying personalities — not just have some type of negative cultural determination," Taylor said. 

Drizzt Do'Urden is among the very few virtuous Drow in Dungeons and Dragons canon. Shawn Taylor points to the characterization of dark elves as evil in Dungeons and Dragons, as well as fantasy more broadly, as an example of the game's and the genre's struggles with race. (Wizards of the Coast)

The new book also introduces new subclasses for virtually every class in the game, effectively allowing players of any race to take on almost any role.

But it wasn't just players introducing real-world stereotypes while playing the game, Taylor said he also became weary of having to constantly explain aspects of African or Eastern mythology to people while he was making decisions in-character.

"I [wanted] to talk about Anansi and Oshun and Olegba, and even code those things as other types of gods," Taylor said, even though those deities didn't exist in D&D when he first began playing.

With a group of fellow nerds of colour, Taylor eventually crafted a campaign that lasted from middle school until about his sophomore year of high school. 

"I'm pretty sure we weren't playing as correctly as people would like us to have played, but our campaign that we had was fully representative of who we were," said Taylor. 

Fantasy literature's complicated history with race

Taylor believes part of the racism he experienced while playing D&D has to do with the very roots of the game's fiction.

"The genre of fantasy itself is so steeped in European mythology and folklore, so steeped in a cultural default of whiteness," he said. "It just carried over into the game. I mean, Dungeons and Dragons was made in the early '70s by a bunch of white guys in Wisconsin … who were influenced by [J.R.R.] Tolkien and [H.P.] Lovecraft — [the latter of whom] was a blatant racist."

As a result, Taylor says racist tropes — like those of dark-skinned brutish orcs, virtuous light-skinned elves and conniving "dark" elves — made their way into Dungeons and Dragons and other games or stories that drew from the older fantasy texts.

Orcs, like the one pictured here, are often portrayed as evil, treacherous characters in fantasy literature. Shawn Taylor says even the simple portrayal of an orc as a jester can influence people's perceptions of real-world race. (Monolith Productions/WB Games)

"If you're pulling from material that has no latitude for diversity of multiracial representation, you're just going to recreate the same real-world problems in a game setting," Taylor said. 

Those concerns reached a head earlier this year when Wizards of the Coast — the company that owns the D&D brand — was accused of racism for its depictions of certain characters. 

Taylor pointed a group of dark elves called the Drow as an example.

I would urge any person of colour, any marginalized person to get into a role-playing game and … inject who you are into it.- Shawn Taylor

"They're almost exclusively evil.... You have the Drizzt Do'Urden series, where it's one lone, good black elf coming from a race of horrible black elves," he said.

"Why aren't there different personality types among the Drow?"

Tasha's Cauldron of Everything changes ... not quite everything

Taylor called the changes in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything "a good first effort."

But he said he'd like to see Wizards of the Coast introduce "a source book completely devoted to the ideas of undoing the racial harm that Dungeons and Dragons has done for 40 some odd years."

"There's so many other things that players have done and have posted on Reddit … that I think go way further," he added.

While Tasha's Cauldron of Everything expands the official rules of D&D, the book is still an optional add-on for players. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

And while he acknowledges that some might think it trivial that orcs can now be jesters, Taylor believes that even small shifts in the game can contribute to real-world benefits. 

"That is a little bit of a shift in your ontology, where you may look at the real world and [say], 'Oh, I never knew that person could be a doctor,' and that's amazing to me," he said. "You saw how many people's heads exploded when we had a Black president, but you also saw how many Black kids lost their minds for that [too]."

Taylor added that he believes role-playing games are "a vital hobby" for marginalized groups, "because most of us have our stories told about us ... without having any authorial authority over our story."

"I would urge any person of colour, any marginalized person to get into a role-playing game and … inject who you are into it." 


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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