Recently, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) released an article explaining that they’re going to make more conscious efforts to add more LGBTQ characters to their written adventures. The effort is being pioneered by actual gay employees (it’s crazy that this even needs to be mentioned) who are making sure that the content is realistic and tasteful. Upon release, the article riled up the usual suspects: those who see no issue with the change and those who think that expanding representation into their fictional landscape is a horrible idea.
The battle being waged is an important one, and of course it was contention that WOTC expected. They’re firmly planting their feet on one side of an issue, as they have in the past with similar topics. The D&D Players Handbook sprinkles in some support to the historically disenfranchised by mentioning gender fluidity at one point and by portraying the “Human” racial choice with a fully clothed black woman. They clearly have good intentions. But honestly, much like most straight white culture businesses, WOTC misses the mark by a mile.
Dungeons and Dragons is set in a world of fantasy based in and around the world of Lord of the Rings. A classic title in the world of western fantasy that is also heavily rooted in sexism and racism. Although D&D has changed small features throughout the years to change or eliminate those aspects, the core of those principles are set in the European fantasy setting.
“So this game has knights and castles and dragons and elves in it, like King Arthur or something?”
“Yeah like that, but with more gay people.”
The method taken results in underrepresented groups seeming like an afterthought, instead of a core value of the world itself. Although it’s a move of good faith by WOTC, it feels the same way J.K. Rowling makes us feel when she “peppers in” new liberal-friendly facts about characters she wrote 15 years ago.
“Dumbledore was gay y’all! There’s nothing in the story making that an open fact, so it didn’t matter until I said it, but he’s super gay! Support my work forever! Maybe one day I’ll retroactively fix Cho Chang!”
Speaking of, the same issue exists with race. A group of white kids can gather around the table, see that the staple human used in the PHB is a black woman and tote her around for a few games, but it helps nothing. It’s a pat on the back for the player, but it doesn’t actually do any justice for the people you’re trying to market to. It’s a “hey look, we know black women exist,” head nod. Meanwhile:
Tieflings feel like a poor attempt at WOTC giving players a chance to feel like a disenfranchised PoC.
“To be greeted with stares and whispers, to suffer violence and insult on the street, to see mistrust and fear in every eye: this is the lot of the tiefling. And to twist the knife, tieflings know that this is because a pact struck generations ago infused the essence of Asmodeus—overlord of the Nine Hells—into their bloodline. Their appearance and their nature are not their fault but the result of an ancient sin, for which they and their children and their children’s children will always beheld accountable.”
Choose this, and be judged by society for the history of your lineage and physical appearance!
It would take a very skilled DM to make that choice something informative, accurate, and fun for the party at large, without pandering to some liberal white savior fantasies. I would pay good money to watch someone pull that off. But I digress.
Wizards of the Coast make some of the coolest bits of fantasy I have ever seen. And watching people play the game and use the tools given to them in such creative bursts of genius… it’s one of my favorite things in the world. I’ve written before about how tabletop RPGs have this unique power to bring people together, and to deal with real life issues through the depth of real conversation and conflict. But I hear diversity and see very little.
I go from Twitch channel to Twitch channel to watch games run by WOTC staff, Geek and Sundry, and many others, only to find a group of white folks playing out a white culture fantasy. I check out the pictures of production staff, writers, conventions, and gatherings, and I see the same thing. The lists of guest stars on these shows are fairly expansive, but follow the same trend.
They make some of my favorite content, ever. But as I wander through the D&D community, both in person and online, I see PoC waiting in the wings. We nod to each other and maybe geek out together for a while, but many have the same feeling:
This wasn’t made for us, and although we are free to join in, why does it also feel not-so-welcoming? If there aren’t already people like me there, there must be a reason.
The D&D community is playing out a living fantasy. One where white men (and thankfully women) can have games, a few incredible shows, and tons of convention space to be themselves. And a great deal of them are totally okay with any other type of person coming in and joining their adventure. It’s a welcome space, where they feel that anyone can feel comfortable and accepted.
But Matthew Colville once said, as advice to DMs out there, “Think about your campaign setting. What does it say to players who aren’t like you. Your fantasy is in there. Is theirs?”
David “DC” Collins