Dungeons, Dragons, and Diversity


Watching their idea get pitched in a meeting was devastating. “That was one of the key things I was using to try to keep my job,” Black says. “The thing I thought was my ticket gets thrown back in my face as something that’s very valuable to them and they want to move forward with it, but I get left behind and sent back to poverty. That broke me.”

Black had been toying with the idea of releasing a statement about their time at WotC, but didn’t want to burn bridges. After the meeting, Black decided not to stay silent. They released a statement on July 4, 2020 detailing their unpleasant experience. WotC apologized in a Tweet.

Black said they were often approached by leadership to help them make revisions to problematic content. “Everybody would nod and say ‘that’s cool,’” Black says. “And leadership didn’t write it down. That’s how everything worked. It was very much ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and they’d walk away.”

“My worst example was the half-orcs,” says Black. “If you read the half-orc section from The Player’s Handbook, it uses language that is nearly one to one with language specifically used against inbreeding between black people and people of color. It sounds like I’m reading something about a black and white person from 1945.”

“Their human blood gives them an edge over their full-blooded orc rivals,” The Player’s Handbook says of the half-orcs. “Half-orcs’ grayish pigmentation, sloping foreheads, jutting jaws, prominent teeth, and towering builds make their orcish heritage plain for all to see.”

D&D is full of these stereotypes. As Walker said, The Monster Manual, Curse of Strahd, and Tomb Of Annihilation—even in their revised forms—are full of thinly veiled racial stereotypes. “Stereotypes are an act of creating category-level knowledge based on our desires for simplicity and to differentiate individuals from different categories in our mind,” Kwan says. “However, these practices can distort perceptions and create biases regarding the real-world counterparts to these fantasy creations.”

According to Walker, these stereotypes create a shortcut for drama and conflict in a D&D game. “The procedures that you undertake while playing a game help to create meaning,” he says. “Content and aesthetic do that too, but we can not underestimate the degree to which the verbs a player uses—the way in which they are incentivized to perform certain behaviors both through reward structures, but also just through the availability of action—produces meaning.”

“D&D fifth edition is a game about killing people,” he says. “I believe that to address the question of evil races, you need to revisit that as a core design element. Because dungeon masters around the world want a reason to kick in the door and kill people. That design requires antagonists for whom the solution of killing makes sense. When you have an evil race, that’s very easy to do. I don’t know that putting out a side book that says, ‘Oh, there’s no more evil races,’ is going to change the play.”

Teenage Power Fantasies Left to Fester

Black says that working on D&D was like attempting to make changes to a fundamentalist religion. “On a business level, Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins [D&D’s senior story designer] make all the decisions,” they say. “Those two praise this god of D&D, and the image they have of this god is very specific and they can not anger this god. Anything they can change, they have to work through their concept of faith and do some mental gymnastics.”

Crawford is gay and has fought to make sure men are represented in varied forms in D&D’s books. “This doesn’t interfere with the doctrine of D&D,” Black says. “It doesn’t interfere with the lore, because nothing that exists already has been changed. You’re not saying ‘no’ to anything that existed prior.”