There’s a tiny controversy in D&D land. A pair of people wrote a pretty great West Marches document with an excellent primer on Colonialism and Racism in Dungeons and Dragons, which you can find here. Unfortunately, someone else took umbrage at this primer and wrote an article trying to claim that the Colonialism never existed. You can find the reddit discussion on it here, and the comments section has some solid posts about why the article is, to put it kindly, deeply unconvincing. However, while the article primarily serves to illustrate the biases of its writer, there is still a valuable discussion to be had.
So let’s have it.
D&D is Colonialist. It has Colonialist roots it has never outgrown. That doesn’t mean the end of your game, or that everyone needs to boycott WotC. I do D&D freelancing, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if that was my position.
What it means that you need to be aware of that and handle it in your game.
Dungeons and Dragons is Colonialist
When people say Dungeons and Dragons is Colonialist, they mean that the world and interactions outlined by the product present and promote Colonialist lies about the world. They are not saying that Dungeons and Dragons is a polemic in favor of Colonialism, merely that the world it presents is defined by a Colonialist mindset. The locals are vile savages to be killed and driven back. The wilderness is to be explored, colonized, and exploited. Racial differences are taken for granted and as an excuse for violence and plunder.
That this is the case is obvious. Monstrous species are described as dark-skinned and filthy. Occasionally they’re even openly based on some PoC ethnicity. The differences between various people defined in racial terms, ones that determine vigor, and intelligence, and other physical stats. Keep on the Borderlands was Dungeons and Dragons first official module and is entirely about colonizing a region under the assumption that you’re going to kill the locals. Smarter people than I have talked about the specifics of its racial politics, mechanical baggage, and more recent mistakes. The Izirion document has its great section on Racism. Even Courtney’s article politely lays out many of the ways in which Dungeons and Dragons echoes Colonialist thinking, it just aggressively refuses to make the most basic of logical connections.
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?
The problem is simple: Courtney supposes that Dungeons and Dragons cannot be racist or colonialist if such things are not intentional on the part of the writer.
This is incorrect.
Whether or not the writers’ intention is to propagate these ideas, their works do so. The Colonialism of Dungeons and Dragons may be Wild West instead of European, but it’s still Colonialism. The racism of Dungeons and Dragons may be unintentional (And it was perfectly intentional in a lot of cases, like the art and modules that Courtney cites), but it’s still racism. Same with the sexism.
The fact that you didn’t mean to do it, or that you did it because of unexamined prejudices rather than because you’re an out and out racist, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
The reason Courtney fails to connect the dots is clearer in the reddit thread than in the article, but it’s a common mistake and worth talking about. So many of these defenses are borne out of the idea that if the thing I enjoy has problems then I am also being accused of those problems. I have been infected by some deep rot that makes me a Bad Person.
So let’s get that out of the way quicklike.
I’m Not Accusing You of Jack
The fact that D&D works on Colonialist assumptions does not mean anything about you, your group, or your campaign. It does not mean that every game of Dungeons and Dragons ever played is Colonialist, it does not mean that your game of Dungeons and Dragons is Colonialist. That shit’s case by case and I’m not interested in litigating it or arguing with every individual who wants to tell me about why their campaign is fine.
There is no unique oppression being aimed at you, no jackboots here to steal your 1E books, and no conspiracy to kick you out of the hobby for not recognizing the obvious. Acknowledging colonialism doesn’t mean any of that.
What it means is that the base setting regurgitates a lot of terrible things and you should be aware of that and try to do better in your own games.
Let’s Define ‘Doing Better’
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge that there’s a lot of racist, colonialist shit in Dungeons and Dragons you’re going to want to use this knowledge going forwards. You are going to play in games, plan campaigns, or even write modules and systems. When you do, you should use this knowledge to try and avoid bringing that shit with you.
When you’re designing your world, consider the meanings of the things you do. What it says if all the Orcs are evil, if your race determines your intelligence or charisma or dexterity. What it means when you declare your species your ‘race’ instead of ancestry, and the sorts of thinking that is reinforcing. The precise dark corners of Western thought these things come from. Make non-white people as diverse and human as white people. Make non-human cultures have variety similar to human cultures. Ask questions.
Does your west marches game actually need to be about killing the locals and settling their lands? Should a race of sapient beings, any race of sapient beings, be wholly evil and what does that say about your setting? Why are there no Gnoll cultures besides the ones that eat corpses and terrorize people?
I’m not asking for anything extraordinary. I’m just asking you to consider the terrible bullshit perpetuated in the past and then, Fi Sabilillah, to try and avoid reproducing it.