Dungeons & Dragons: Ethics Edition
I have been gaming for the past twenty-two years and my games of choice remain those roleplaying games which require interpersonal human interaction. Live action roleplaying games have been my standard hobby, at least until I moved to a nation where open space and public dignity are both at a premium, but I started in the same place as most gamers who were gamers before gaming meant bleeding edge video games and annual massively multiconsumer conventions. I began when gaming meant sitting around a table in a basement or a living room or an outdoor dining shed (my experience) alongside four or five other friends who shared my affection for collectively working out a fantasy narrative over pizza purchased by our parents.
Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974 and - although it never really reinvented the war game genre - it created a new entertainment genre and market demand where none previously existed. It took the war game genre and shifted the control from many units to a single unit and placed each single unit in the hands of single players, and this ultimately created a more personal gaming experience which resulted in players becoming more dedicated to the stories that were being told. An aside, this same approach is what allowed World of Warcraft to become such a market success: It took a successful game series and shifted the control from many units to single units and immersed those single units in lore-driven stories that placed them at the center of the action. For these reasons and more, Dungeons & Dragons was so successful that its rule books could be found by the dozens in book stories across the United States, lined up neatly alongside other roleplaying games and the hundreds of fantasy novels which had been inspired by, and often tied in with, the Dungeons & Dragons campaign worlds and its other intellectual properties.
It has been thirty years and the rules books are still being published under new editions (despite the doomsaying that went on among fans when Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in 1997) even though their hallowed sections in the bookstores have essentially disappeared along with the bookstores themselves. Each subsequent edition has attempted to address the changing preferences of the gaming communities for which it is published, and I would argue that this is what has allowed it to persist in a genre where other games are embraced and later abandoned when something more interesting appears. For instance; more complicated algebraic calculations, a mainstay in earlier editions like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition and its contemporaries, have been replaced with ever more simple arithmetic.
Despite all these changes between editions, no edition has addressed the legitimate social issues which have been enshrined in the fantasy genre since before Dungeons & Dragons ever even hit the shelves. I do give the current writers credit for dedicating a portion of their word count to a statement that embraces diversity among genders and sexualities but the unfortunate fact remains that certain equally important issues remain unaddressed and that even the most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons has failed to catch up with the 21st century, which all leaves me inclined to make a joke about the product line possessing high constitution but low wisdom. I will not make that joke but anyone who wants to make it certainly could.
I have been avoiding a direct call-out up to this point for a few reasons. One reason is that I tend to be pretty verbose and it can take me awhile to make a point. Moreso, two thirds of my entire life have been spent telling stories and forging memories with friends through this game and I hate ever pointing out that it has problems beyond the standard minutiae which concern most gamers. I hesitate because I adore Dungeons & Dragons and I do not want to see it tarnished even though it insists on tarnishing itself whenever it fails to address the racism in its narratives. Whether it is in the role that goblins and other so-called 'goblinoid' races play as surrogate whipping children for fantasies of ethnocentric superiority, the all-too iconic Drow who have been cursed by the very gods with black skin in order to announce the evils inherent in their matriarchal society, or the more simple monolithic cultures and attitudes attached to all races except the versatile (Euro-American) humans; a false racial narrative used to oppress real people in the real world has consistently emerged within the fantasy world of the Dungeons & Dragons series since its original publication.
It would be unfair to claim that Dungeons & Dragons created this racism. It would even be unfair (albeit less so) to claim that the game bears sole responsibility for perpetuating these tropes over the last three decades. Dungeons & Dragons inherited the approach to monolithic fantasy races from far more popular iconic sources in fantasy, such as the works of Tolkien and Lewis, after all; and these racist tropes only persist in the game series because they remain unchallenged (sometimes even embraced) by the people purchasing its publications. Now that a new and fifth edition has made it to the shelves, new and long time supporters of the game are being presented with an opportunity to discuss the changes that have been made to the game. Likewise, we are also being given a chance to discuss the changes that still need to made to the culture that passes through, and surrounds, the game. Over the next few entries, I will be discussing specific themes which I believe must evolve if the people publishing (and the people purchasing) Dungeons & Dragons want it to evolve beyond the antisocial tropes that have burdened it for too long. I will not be doing this to tarnish my favorite game. I will be doing it because I am a gamer and this is - for me at least - the game that contributed to who I am.