The new Satanic Panic has arrived at our door. In the wake of events in the US (and some actions in the UK) I expected the flash point to be the phrase “Dungeon Master” but instead it has mainly come from the use of “orcs” in the game.
WotC have decided that they need to act as if orcs are a substitute for black people in the game. As a subsidiary of a faceless multinational corporation WotC have no choice (assuming that they wanted a choice) but to be careful about anything which threatens sales - even imaginary ones. So, just as TSR before them removed demons and devils from the game because some strange people felt that they encouraged devil-worship, WotC are going to make sure that “orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples”. Isn’t that generous of them? I’m sure the oppressed members of these fictional races will celebrate this date forever in their imaginary but terribly complex social structures.
This process is in itself not new - the D&D brand has suffered for a long time from the “everyone’s the same” disease which makes player choices in such things as race, sex, and even in some cases character class meaningless. This leads to the paradox that choice in these areas is demanded as being vital while at the same time treated as completely without actual significance. What’s new is the fear behind it and that fear has grown as a response to an insidious totalitarian thought pattern that has been growing in society in general for some time. It is a trend that should - must - be resisted.
Postmodernism is primarily a belief in the unimportance of context. There are no facts, there are only assertions and views. Each idea or proposition is seen as a “story” or perhaps a view point. Everything becomes relative. Everything. This is a powerful idea and it certainly can have a positive aspect.
“Votes for women!”
By shaving away context one shaves away “tradition” as an excuse. But something else creeps in.
“The world is flat!”
“No it isn’t.”
“That’s my view; you have no right to cast shade on my point of view.”
“But you can see it’s not flat. Go up a hill; go to the beach and watch the ships come over the horizon.”
“Don’t you oppress me.”
Saying that all bets are off and that we start on an even playing field has facilitated an approach to public debate which is simply a room full of people asserting their “story” as being as valid as any other. And some people have been asserting that D&D is dyed in the wool racist because it is possible to draw parallels between how orcs are presented in the game and how some human “races” were presented by members of other human “races” in our world.
Arneson and Gygax never draw this parallel (mostly because it’s moronic) and Gygax seems, at least in Greyhawk, to mostly take the view that racism based on skin tone hasn’t really occurred to anyone, at least so far.
But in the postmodern view an author’s opinion or explanation when alive is largely irrelevant to discussion of their work, and a dead author may as well not have existed. The text stands alone as it was printed; a rather bizarre notion given that language changes over time. The only value an author’s words have is in confirming (rarely in denying) the conclusions of the analyst of their works.
Which brings us to things like James Mendez Hodes’ blog post about “Orcs, Britons, And The Martial Race” which takes at its starting point a comment by Tolkien in a letter to a film producer that orcs might be portrayed by taking what 1950’s Europeans would regards as the ugliest of “Mongol-types” and imagining them “degraded”.
Hodes immediately takes this as Tolkien saying that he and his mother’s family are exactly what he had in mind by the word “orcs” and then asks the simple question “why would he say that?” to which the equally simple answer is “he didn’t”.
Hodes then mixes this misunderstanding (and it’s hard to believe that it’s not a deliberate misunderstanding) with a load of extrapolation, a shallow understandings of history, generalisation, and of course a huge dollop of ignoring what Tolkien was doing and what he actually meant.
By the time we’re a third of the way through the first post (there are two) the question that Hodes is asking is which forms scientific racism most influenced Tolkien. Not “if” or “might have”.
The whole screed is illogical but pivots on a type of selective reading that is implied in much of the material floating about concerning racism in D&D. Because Hodes has no interest in other parts of the same letter from Tolken which portrays Sauruman as hopelessly corrupted and wanting only “cling to life to its basest dregs”. This is the wizard who starts the story as Sauruman the White!
Tolkien, this supposed white-supremist, discusses in this letter the importance of distinguishing between hypnosis and what he intended as seductive and “persuasive” words from Sauruman the White and the fact that listening to him is “dangerous”, not “inspirational” or any positive adjective.
In all three of his Middle Earth works, Tolkien consistently presents racism as a negative thing, a tragic mistake that divides people who should be working together and which allows Evil to thrive.
But Tolkien’s own words are only useful if they can be twisted to bolster the argument, otherwise they are ignored.
As a footnote to looking at Hodes’ paranoid delusion we see a neat version of the double-standard he works with when he presents this (rather bad) Elmore image:
In it Drizzt is shown as…an elf with black skin. Which, basically, is what drow have always been. As far as I can see, Hodes thinks that if you have black skin then you “should” have facial features like a person of recent Sub-Saharan African descent. Hodes has such a hard-and-fast notion of what proper (“pure”, perhaps, is the word) races are that he can not cope with the idea of a fantasy world where skin colour is not part of a package brought about by evolution to cope with an environment.
Elmore, it should be noted, does not depict humans that we would recognise as of recent Sub-Saharan African descent very often, which we’ll come back to below.
2 Sympathetic Racism
Another approach that comes up in these discussions is that orcs are portrayed in the same way that black humans are in certain circles. This resonance is stated as if it in some way mattered, if true (although in fact very few negative depictions of black people I have seen have really resembled anything I’ve seen in depictions of orcs).
If you say to me “orcs are an evil race of marauders created to destroy civilisation” and I reply “Oh, you mean like black people?” then clearly the problem is with me, not the orcs, and I’m unlikely to have been so polite as to say “black people”.
If you say to me “Drow are an evil dark-skinned race who dwell in a subterranean matriarchy” and I reply “Oh, you mean like black people?” I think you would be within your rights to ask to see my discharge papers from the local secure mental facility.
The postmodern mode of “thought” makes this sort of racism-by-resemblance possible by removing context. If the reader tries to introduce reality by saying that there was no intent to link orcs and humans with black skin or that black people don’t live in a subterranean matriarchy, the old refrain is rolled out that the dead hand of the author is powerless to clarify that no parody or attack was intended. Offence has been taken, that's all that matters.
In computing, we’ve had a lot of this too. GitHub has recently stated that it will no longer use the word “master” for the master branch of software under development. The fact that the word was being used in a way entirely unrelated even to the type of slavery that sees one database being a slave of another was not considered worth discussing because they thought that the online mob who are crusading on this point instead of doing anything worthwhile about real slavery would not leave them alone until they did it. Truth is not a defence in the postmodern world.
GitHub is a subsidiary of a faceless multinational corporation Microsoft, by a strange coincidence.
2.1 Which Racists, Exactly?
Like the Satanic Panic before it, one thing the racist RPG witch hunt (sorry, perfectly harmless wise woman hunt) lacks is any real evidence for a problem.
To be blunt, racists are generally stupid and certainly lack the imagination and empathy to spend time sitting at a table playing even a 5e D&D campaign. I’m sure there are some somewhere, but it’s not really their bag.
What is a problem is online forums and to some extent online gaming. These venues do allow trolling to take place without much effort, or intelligence, or empathy. As such, they attract a lot of weak minds who mainly just want to kick someone and hear them cry out.
While I personally think that even within this group real racism is thin on the ground (real racists stick together on their own groups and places where there isn’t a crowd of people telling them they’re asshole losers), it does not make the online scene very welcoming. It may be true that the dickhead who called you a fat bastard or a nigger, or an ugly bitch would have called you anything they thought would hurt you and did not in fact care about any of those things, it’s not something that people should have to put up with.
But this is not caused by D&D (or whatever game you might be playing). It’s caused by (generalising here) the need of human males to try to prove that they are not at the bottom rung of the social ladder by showing that there is someone somewhere they can spit on. In the past such behaviour would have been restricted to their home town or village, now they can roam the world from their laptops trying to find people to attack.
Racists are not playing D&D because they’re either playing it with other racists, in which case they will become bored and stop, or because the group of decent people they managed to get involved with will eject them, possibly before the end of the first session.
There is something of the classic abusive relationship here were one person makes another suffer so that they can then stop the suffering and look like a rescuer. First, tell people that they are being misrepresented and insulted and then start a campaign to end the misrepresentation - instant social champion. Along the way of course you’ve told a load of innocent people having fun playing a game that they are vile racists, but hey: social champion badge!
3 The ’R’ word
One major source of difficulty is the word “race” itself. In our world it is outmoded and basically meaningless. To talk about “the black race” or even “Asians” is not to talk about a real thing. It’s the same as talking about “the ginger race” or “people from Reading”. People have black skin and there are people living in Asia, but they are not actually different “races” in any meaningful sense. At best the word introduces a package of generalised physical features and at worst it suggests physical ideals compared to which other “races” and in particular mixing of races are judged inferior or wrong.
On the other side of this fence, the races of, say, Greyhawk are actual things in the gameworld. Because this is a fantasy, race can be a real thing. Gnolls are not orcs, which are not storm giants, which are not beholders. All are intelligent species - which is as close to a working definition of race as I can come up with both in fantasy and reality, the difference being that it has no useful application in reality as there is only one intelligent species on Earth - the Scot (joke).
The most common casually racist term I see on a day-to-day basis is “African American”. This euphemism is annoying because it simply means “black American” and uses the wholly inappropriate word “African” as a replacement for “black”. Everyone in America is descended from Africans - including the native Americans - just like everyone everywhere else.
Using the word “African” introduces a fig-leaf of objectivity to the discussion of race - instead of talking as if having a different skin tone makes you a whole difference type of human being (a nonsensical ides) we’re talking about people from a whole other continent. Who have probably never been there and who’s great-grandparents probably never went there either. But, hey, they’re from Africa! Of course they’re a different race!
I suspect that this “African American” euphemism is behind the complaint that Elmore’s Drizzt is “in black face”: “black” equals “African”; "African" equals "black". It does not.
4 Hand Yourself In - The Totalitarian Approach
We are at a point now where there is an assumption in some very vocal corners of the Web that using certain races (beholders still seem fair-game) is racist and that therefore the DM who does so is either racist or pig-ignorant.
It is not enough to argue that your game is not intended to be x, y, or z. Your context does not matter, only that of the player/reader and, thanks to the miracle of postmodernism, they can never be wrong because everything is subjective. Except your racism. That’s definitely a real thing and saying it’s not real proves how racist you are.
The fact that you are offending someone is enough to show that you are at fault. No one, it seems, should ever be offended and it is clearly the height of madness to suggest that seeing insult where none is intended is a character flaw.
The above is, in truth, deeply believed by many people I see or interact with online. “Throwing shade” on someone else by saying that they are wrong or mistaken is a new taboo which is deeply and sincerely felt by people who have been brought up on it. It negates the ability to engage in anything but the most stunted of playroom debate - “play nice or we’ll stop”.
So the DM is expected to follow the classic Stalinist formula: “The party says I am a traitor; I do not think I am a traitor but it is impossible that The Other is wrong, so it must be that I am a traitor even though my name is spelt differently on the arrest warrant; I must have been spelling it wrong myself all these years.”
To look at how this affects play decisions, I’m going to take as an example Dr. Ian Slater, AKA “Ulan Dhor” on Dragonsfoot and other places.
Here’s some extracts from a blog entry, the second in a set about “race in D&D”.
Colonialism is a project of resource acquisition that involves the use of military force to seize land and engage in cultural genocide.
Part of the colonialist project was a justification of widespread violence and outright theft. How do you justify mass slaughter and subjugation? The primary method for this was a process sometimes called “othering”, in essence, you claim that a group of people are lesser than you, somehow flawed, thus justifying treating them as less than human. You can do whatever you want to the “other” as they aren’t really human, they are corrupt, primitive, animalistic, uncivilized.
The message is obvious so I’ll not quote more: the non-human races in the game are representations of real “races” which were treated this way and the game excuses this - indeed extols that treatment as worthy of reward in the form of levels, wealth, abilities and so on.
Once again, similar activities are set as being of similar motive and moral value. Chopping wood is seen as an endorsement of the death penalty because necks. And, also as usual, “The Other” is shorthand for “the noble savage who is never wrong, always peaceful, and always innocent”.
Now it’s hard to generalise even about AD&D games, let alone all the games of 2e, 3e, 4e, and 5e that have been played under the banner of the name “D&D” but a lot of settings, especially in the early days, were post-almost-apocalypse. Something happened and the monsters nearly took over.
Let us look at that from a different angle:
Something terrible happened on Earth and a war started between those who believed that human life was expendable if ending it would garner political support for those who ran society, and those who had decided that slavery was wrong and who were trying to achieve more fairness in their societies even against internal resistance. Even today, long after this near apocalypse, the borders of the nations that were fought have not been pushed back to extinction. There are still Syrias, there are still Saudi Arabias, there are still Azerbaijans and there is still internal resistance. But we’re at a better place than in 1939.
Ian’s thesis comes apart immediately as we see that here there is an alternative representational model that can be applied. The Other are not “POC” as he calls people who’s skin is not some arbitrary level of lightness (when they don’t have a tan - racism can be very long-winded if nothing else); they’re Nazis and STASI and KGB, The Klu Klux Klan and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt’s, they are the thugs in vans that smash windows of Jewish shops and beat up homosexuals.
We can go further. The PCs represent the victims of colonisation. The orcs (pig-faced in D&D) are the brutal police that are trying to keep them in their “humans only” ghettos, gnolls are perhaps the British, bugbears are the Spanish etc. The game setting is an analogy for the period when the European empires had grasped almost the whole world, but this time some people have stood up and are fighting back; the apocalypse is resisted.
Now we have two alternative metaphors for the Evil races of D&D to place beside the one being peddled by the postmoderns. If we have to pick one (and we certainly don’t), why is it assumed that we are all picking the one where the orcs are black people?
You may say that this is nonsense and I would largely agree. The three options are all arbitrary and there’s no reason to pick any one of them as the model for your game, and even less reason to claim that they represent the meaning of the game as a whole.
All three interpretations are weak, although the second and third ones stand up to more scrutiny. For example, if orcs are supposed to represent black people, why are they shown as slavers? If you try hard you can justify a lot of the problems with the race theory but the comparison of orcs with the intolerant of our world is distinctly closer than the analogy with the oppressed. But the similarity in both cases is largely projected, in my opinion. Where Ian sees “historical precedents” I see mostly meaningless surface similarities.
There’s also a subtle prejudice in this claim of historical precedents. If we were to accept that the game encodes something about race relations, it is perhaps odd that we are to assume automatically that the relationship being replayed is the one that casts the “White Man” as the strong and noble one, because the game is rigged.
D&D assumes that the PCs are going to “win”, if the players are skillful. All monsters exist to be defeated. A particular group may not eliminate all monsters in the world, but the explicit expectation in D&D and AD&D was that the borders of what is settled and safe would be pushed back by them - the so-called “domain game” phase of early play.
Why are we to assume that the losing side of this conflict represents non-white peoples? Or turn the question around: why is the assumption that non-whites are always weaker than whites? What sort of enlightenment is this, exactly?
Let’s look at a player who Ian discusses thusly:
The first camp finds inherently evil humanoid races to be a problem. The coding is too strong and too unpleasant. I realize this is hard for someone who is not a POC to understand, it was hard for me to understand for the longest time as well. But this isn’t people being “snowflakes” or “triggered”, this is a real, visceral dislike for something that reminds them far too much of real world prejudices.
This certainly smacks of thought-crime: if you can’t see the problem, it proves you’re racist even if you didn’t think you were. The clue is the common usage in this area of the word “coded”: if you can’t see what the poster sees it’s because you’ve not been let into the secret meaning which is hidden from the ignorant and foolish. Yes, foolish people like you, sir.
But the coding isn’t quite as Ian presents it here. The suggestion - made explicitly by Hodes and others - is that a race which is presented as avaricious, brutal, base, and militaristic must be a “code” for the representation of people in our world distinguished by skin tone. Here’s the main issue with that:
In all these examples predominantly white-skinned nations present other white-skinned nations as avaricious, brutal, base, and militaristic beasts (including an allied hydra, interestingly). There are mountains of this material. There is nothing about being presented in this why which is uniquely or distinctively associated with black people.
I personally am white-skined, especially on one side of my arms for some reason. But, if you think I don’t know about dehumanisation think again. My upbringing under “white privilege” like many others was not very privileged. In the time and place I grew up, people with anything other than white skin and brown or black hair were functionally non-existent. What did exist was a bigotry that cared nothing about skin colour but everything about what you called the 8th letter of the alphabet.
I personally have been blown up into the air by two separate terrorist bombs and had my home damaged by another one; I lost my business to an attack; my grandmother was shot dead in her own home; a friend was blown to bits by what would now be called an IED. I now work in a multi-cultural office with very few colleagues who are as pale-skinned as I am.
I have a “real, visceral dislike” for anything to do with the Republic of Ireland’s political and religious leaders, including to some degree the flag of the country. But I don’t imagine that every scenario with a plucky band of rebels facing an Evil Empire is an analogy for the history of Ireland or is supporting the killing and/or exiling of my family just as I don’t assume that everyone from Boston supported the bombing campaign that killed thousands of people in my homeland.
So why are non-white people supposed to automatically take on the weaker side of the game milieu when it is presented to them? Why, even if they are told to view the games in terms of real-world race, should we expect them to identify with the oppressors that are being driven back instead of the pluky band of survivors that are pushing them? Something deeper is wrong here, I think, and once again the problem is not with the game.
If you are going to be respectful of others and work to ensure that POC have a voice at the table you can’t just ignore POC voices that don’t fit the narrative.
There is trauma and there is paranoia and there is immaturity. The desire that the world be rounded off to prevent you from being offended is the latter; the first two need treatment. Either way, the issue is not with the game itself.
Should we, as DM’s, simply pander to people who project these values and fears onto our games? The answer is, it depends. For Ian it is a commercial question as he charges to run games and it’s natural for him to see what side his bread is buttered on. For others it’s a question of whether putting one person’s irrational feelings above one’s own self-expression for the sake of a game or a friend. That’s a personal decision.
What I do believe is that DMs who do not intend humanoid races to be stand-ins for supposed real world “races” and who continue to play normally should not in any way have to apologise for it."Monster" has a root in the Latin word for warning. It is not the role of monsters to be sympathetic or fully-rounded. It is their role to say "to act like a troll is to become a troll". Intelligent monsters are still monsters - as Stalin and Pol Pot demonstrated.
5 A History of Western Art
It’s noticeable that none of the blog posts I have read on this topic seem to seriously consider that human player characters can be black and how that fact can be harmonised with the imagined racist celebration of colonisation.
However, there is some justification for that.
Picking on Larry Elmore for a moment, you can search his website and find out of maybe a hundred or more illustrations about 2 featuring people who look like real-world people of recently Sub-Saharan African descent. There are maybe a couple more of dark-skined drow.
I’ve not looked at Jeff Easley or Keith Parkinson’s sites for a while but I don’t remember either, or Dave Sutherland’s work being replete with people that didn’t look like me - pale with dark hair. There were a few blonde women.
It is hard to believe that the original D&D “crew” were not all people living in areas which were almost completely populated by “white” humans who’s last non-European ancestor was a thousand years in the past. None of the artists were, as far as I know, living in anything larger than what would be a medium-sized town by British standards and multiculturalism, especially when they were growing up, was not something they probably had a lot of experience with.
The artists painted and drew what they saw around them, and they probably imagined, if they thought about it at all, that the people buying the products looked like them.
If D&D had been invented in Sri Lanka the same thing would have applied and among the snakes and nagas all the adventurers would have looked fairly like the people who generally live in Sri Lanka.
There were some exceptions. Arneson lived in Minnesota and was a friend of M. A. R. Barker, who had travelled much further afield in Africa, Asia, and South America than anyone else associated with the early days of role-playing.
But Arneson didn’t draw and Barker was focused on Empire of the Petal Throne, a game notable for it’s overt celebration of everything that is being questioned in D&D at the moment - colonisation, slavery, conquest - but which, perhaps because of its baldness or just obscurity, doesn’t seem to be attracting much flak. Or maybe it’s okay because the colonisation, slavery, and conquest are not being done by while-skinned people.
This artistic background set D&D up with a very very “white” public face. It has not generally been a game which a kid with black skin would look at in a shop and think “these adventures could be about me!”
As the option to play basically anything you like has gradually taken hold among the owners of the name “Dungeons and Dragons” it seems to me that an odd thing has happened - few of the later artists have thought that “anything you like” could include alternative human “races” with the exception people from China or Japan.
You can have scales, horns, or wings. But, strangely, black skin is substantially rarer in the art than any of these things, I believe (I’ve not done an in-depth survey but I see a lot of fantasy art and a lot of gaming art every week).
This is something that should be looked at, I feel. I would not expect a Japanese RPG to feature many Europeans in its artwork, given how extraordinarily homogeneous Japan is, but Britain, France, and the US for three are not like Japan and have substantial numbers of people who have neither horns, wings, nor white skin.
6 Old School is Old
D&D is in its roots a backward-facing game. With the exception of the orc, every intelligent race, and a lot of the others in the original game was drawn from folklore and stories that pre-dated the 20th century, sometimes by millenniums.
Additionally, a large proportion of this folklore was drawn from very genetically monocultured regions such as Tudor England. Black people did exist in Europe in the past, but they were certainly a small minority and their existence is further hidden by the fact that many of them were poor. Othello is a remarkable work that places not only a black man at the centre and gives him power and wealth, but which portrays the white lead as a deeply evil man who, despite sharing quite a lot with the audience, never really reveals why he’s prepared to drive Othello to murder and suicide.
Othello stands out because there is nothing else like it before or for a long time after in Western literature.
|Not Historically Accurate|
This is a world divided into the known and the exotic, with the latter comprising for normal people almost everything farming. And even then, foreigners grew some weird crops.
Appendix N likewise shows the literary roots to be quite old - a lot of it pre-dating World War II.
So when someone like Graeme Barber says in a blog post that D&D has a “tradition of exoticism, racism, and problematic practices” it certainly doesn’t sound unlikely. But that tradition isn’t very well exemplified by the original games by Arneson and Gygax, despite Barber’s pointing the finger at Gygax for things that happened after he lost control of the company and the game he created (in the case of half-elves and half-orcs, something Barber seems to really dislike, the concepts actually predate Gygax by some time; half elves go back over a thousand years).
D&D is nostalgic for a fantasy past but generally speaking it is focused on the opportunities for a small group of people to do something about what is wrong- to overthrow the dictator, or free the slaves, or stand up for the Right Thing against brute force. The game even gives the label “Good” to those who do these things, and “Evil” to those who oppose them - hardly an endorsement of the latter. Once again we find that a BtB game of AD&D presents slavers as bad and those that free slaves as good; what mental hoops do we have to jump through to make the bad people represent both the black human and the slave trader at the same time?
Saying that an interest in the past means that someone supports racial segregation is the sort of idiotic non-argument that Barber seems particularly keen on.
Evil human cultists living in squalor and being obscene? Clearly an aberration from normal society. Goblins or Orcs living in squalor and being obscene? Normal and how they are because they’re Goblins and Orcs. That last example has some roots in racist depictions and narratives of POC that were used as rationalizations for colonialism.
It’s hard to see what Barber is trying to say here, given that both evil cultists and goblins and orcs are equally valid targets for Good characters to combat and, almost certainly, kill. Mainly, though, his problem seems to be that he thinks goblins and orcs are real and should be covered by the international declaration of human rights. Goblins were invented by people who probably never met one of these "POCs" and orcs were based on goblins. Barber continues a theme which is that he has the process backwards. The depictions of people he is talking about have their roots in goblins, werewolves, and other monsters including the actual bogyman, not the other way around.
7 The Problem of Race in the Actual Game
By far the biggest actual problem with race in D&D is that the players are human. In the comments to Barber’s post on decolonisation and integration in D&D a poster (who uses the word “coded” to show that he’s been illuminated) says:
Thank you so much for sharing this point of view! As a 36 year old white guy I am legit going to make my PC and future NPCs more well rounded as people.
What he means is that he’s going to make his non-human character more human.
Human players can not genuinely play non-humans as completely rounded individuals. They have not been non-human and no one else has. There is no basis or possibility to have non-human thought patterns. Since they are fictional, each author has a different view of non-humans and there is no possibility to do any sort of rational study of them and their culture.
When I looked at rebuilding the demi-humans into more alien races the best I could do was to try to formulate some new motivations around reproduction, since that’s something that everyone can relate to.
But for thought patterns and deep behaviour differences, we can do very little more than take “human” and slap on some modifiers: “obsessively logical”, “very aggressive”, “very passive”, “intellectual”, “empathetic” or whatever.
The new Racism Panic brigade see this through their lens of racism and back-project once again that these are labels being applied to real-world people. If we say that tinaliya are unable to understand humorous metaphors and therefore jokes, the characteristic is wound back from the tinaliya to whatever race the paranoid thinks is being parodied and then accuses the speaker of depicting <race> as being humourless.
Sometimes the hunt for who is being maligned can be quite convoluted - Hodes feels that the Maori are being insulted by “warlike” races, despite the fact that the Maori at the time of Cook’s voyages were proudly both warlike and tribal. But the important things for Hodes and those like him are that: a) someone somewhere in the real world must be intended as a parallel, and b) those people must and should feel insulted. In a similar way to how women should be insulted by Red Sonja.
Everywhere we turn, the basic problem, it seems to me, is the fantasy element. Any fantasy element is created by humans living in the real world. As such, it will have parallels with many things, people, and events. If your DM is able to work without referencing anything she or he has read or seen before, get a DNA sample so we can do some cloning.
8 Real World Problems
I recently came to realise what the deepest problem with postmodern analysis of history and art is:- removing context allows the worst interpretation to be put on anything while at the same time making it very hard to argue against it because it’s not literal invention or lying. It’s just picking and choosing bits and, again without the restriction of contextualisation, comparing and judging them in relation to completely different times and places (i.e., today).
This fits with another axiom of postmodernism and the nihilistic philosophy of people like Kierkegaard: there is no such thing as progress. “Primitive” and “civilised” are labels applied by people higher up the power-structure, so the theory goes. Anything presented as progress is propaganda and lies to make the reader support some elite. A small extension of this leads us to dismissal of “experts”, since “expert” presupposes the ability to move from ignorance to knowledge, something that can not fit within a worldview that rejects objective facts and the notion of progress. How can you be an expert in something that is subjective?
Generally the people who come out with this crap don’t choose “primitive” options over “civilised” ones when they have a root canal abscess. They tend not to ask passersby to treat their cancer. Pain has a way of focusing ones mind on question of whether everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
There is progress, there has been progress, and there will be more in the future, if we want it.
Race in D&D could be a parallel for unpleasant views in the real world. It could also be a parallel for the fight against fascism. It could be about the fight for women’s votes, or the roll-back of the Age of Empires. None of these are off the table if you are prepared to look hard enough and hit enough things with your one-idea hammer.
D&D could even be escapist fun!
But maybe the real issue is that a school of thought is growing up that is more concerned with proving that everything is shit rather than doing something about the shit. A school which organises marches about long-dead slavers no one had heard of and film it on their Apple phones made in the sweat shops of China for a fraction of their own minimum wage and who wear pre-ripped jeans made by children using caustic liquids in horrific conditions.
A school of thought that says that all patriotism is nationalism and all nationalism leads to gas chambers and slave mines. That certain words or even numbers should be abandoned because some half-assed group of right-wing survivalists in a hut in Montana once used them for disgusting poster campaign.
A school of thought which says that having fun is wrong - that all anyone should ever feel is guilt about not being miserable and shame about how someone you never met was badly treated by someone else you never met. That says that the value of your despair or pain depends on the colour of your skin.
It is a perverse doctrine which preaches anti-racism while one foot is founded on on the Myth of the Noble Savage, pretending that there was something special and innocent about the people that Europeans conquered and colonised from the 15th century onwards. That, having found the right combination of factors in their own nation first, the Ethiopians, Zulu’s, or Aztecs would have not set out to conquer the world, despite having been fighting for control of their local regions for centuries.
It replaces meaningful change with cheap gestures and meaningful dialogue with cries for boycotts and ostracising. Linguistic clarity and subtlety is traded for a list of prescribed words and thoughts seemingly drawn directly from Orwell’s Newspeak appendix in 1984.
Above all, it seeks to build a structure of guilt and fear which is unjust because it seeks to engender guilt and shame for the actions of other people.
It has an insidious corrosive effect on everything it touches because it creates racist context where none existed before. It asks people to take sides; it says “you are either with us or against us”, creating groups and excluding middle ground from discussion. In fact it attempts to make everyone either Us or The Other. I have seen people online say that anyone who objects to this digital burning of material would be better off dead. Almost, one could say, as if they were “inherently evil”.
History is all we have to guide us - specifically the bad parts. If we ban ideas and words because they reminds some people “far too much of real world prejudices” we lose the ability to talk about them and the chance to learn from them.
As an example of this from outside the hobby, take Armando Iannucci’s “colour-blind” The Personal History of David Copperfield. Iannucci has adapted the Dickens story and cast it with whoever he felt would be good in the part, regardless of ethnicity without changing the time period. The result is a gross visual lie about the past which gives the impression that racism was not a problem in 1850. Just 17 years after the abolition of slavery the viewer is shown a rainbow of skintones in a Dickensian Song of the South swapping bon mots and smiling at funny little dogs and their funny little owners.
The Sydney Morning Herald declared that “Dev Patel’s David Copperfield decolonises Dickens’ classic”. David Copperfield was never colonised in the first place! Unless the reviewer is still worried about the treatment of the native Britons by the invading Romans.
How can a young viewer of this form any notion of the reality of race in 1850’s Britain? How can they contrast their own modern experience of multi-cultural Britain with a sea of white faces in 1850? How can they ask “why?” if they’re not shown the reality? The existence of racial tensions has been whitewashed and with it the chance to examine it, to see what has improved, and what has not in the course of 170 years.
These are real problems in the real world and the Iannucci example shows how dangerous it is to start self-censoring, calling in the airbrushers from time to time to ensure that the past is always presented in a light that is acceptable to whoever has power in the present.
In the name of avoiding unpleasantness, we make the claim of no progress both apparently true and, eventually, actually true. Everything becomes an equally valid “story” and no reason can be given for change except that of force, whether in the form of arms or in the form of online hectoring, bullying, and bans. That which is awkward is "fake news"; alternative facts create alternative pasts; ugliness is removed from sight lest it offend someone.
This is a dragon that needs slaying. Possibly a dragon of colour; I’m not sure.