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'Dungeons & Dragons' Tries To Banish Racist Stereotypes

Jun 29, 2020
Originally published on June 29, 2020 5:09 pm

Dungeons and Dragons is reconsidering what it means to be evil.

The classic role playing game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, recently announced some changes it was making to the game in response to the ongoing protests over racism and police violence. While this includes editing some past racist descriptions, as well as adding more diverse writers, the game's designers are also making a fundamental change to the way certain playable characters are portrayed.

When you play Dungeons and Dragons — usually referred to as D&D -- one of the first steps is to create a character. They can be a human or an elf or a gnome or some other mythical creature. These classifications each come with their own backstories, as well as their own baggage. While it's generally up to you if your character is good or evil or somewhere in between, historically some of these characters were depicted in a villainous, monstrous light. Orcs were brutish savages. Drow (dark elves that live underground) were dark skinned and inherently evil.

"It is this thing lurking under the surface that really is painful for people who have faced those sorts of stereotypes in the real world," says Jeremy Crawford, the principal rules designer for D&D.

Lauren Frazier is game developer and a massive D&D fan. When she first started getting into the game, and was trying to encourage her Black friends to do the same, she got a certain amount of hesitance.

"It's hard to see yourself in any role playing D&D if you're a person of color — specifically Black and brown people," she says. "A lot of the characters that are black or brown or blue ... they're evil, they're very one dimensional. And D&D is a game about being yourself and being anyone you want to be."

Of course, any good game needs its villains.

"It's just they will be villains because they have made villainous choices, not because they were born villainous," says Crawford.

The announcement of these changes was met with mixed reviews by the fanbase. The world of tabletop role playing games — like many other communities — is currently figuring out its role in the broader dialogue about racism. Frazier approaches the changes with a cautious optimism, saying that one of the most important things Wizards of the Coast can do is bring on more diverse writers onto its roster.

"They have a staff that's going to read over things for sensitivity and that's great," she says. "But I think you can't polish that out at the last second. I think that the writing itself needs to come from a place of inclusivity and diverse ideas versus just the same stuff that they always write and then have someone go over it with a highlighter to try and fix the racism at the end."

This story was edited for radio and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the classic role-playing game "Dungeons And Dragons," you and your friends take on the roles of paladins and rogues, and you traipse around, looking for adventures. Generally, the game allows your characters to be whoever you want them to be - good guy, bad guy, somewhere in between. But that was an option only afforded to certain races in the game until now. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: One of the first steps in starting a "Dungeons And Dragons" campaign is creating your character. You can be a human or an elf or a lizard person. These classifications come with their own backstories and sometimes baggage. Here's Jeremy Crawford, principal rules designer of "Dungeons And Dragons," aka "D&D."

JEREMY CRAWFORD: They have stories associated with them in "D&D's" 50 years of history, and some of those peoples have been traditionally depicted in a villainous light.

LIMBONG: Orcs were brutish savages. Dark elves known as drow had black skin and were inherently evil.

CRAWFORD: It is this thing lurking under the surface that really is painful for people who have faced those sorts of stereotypes in the real world.

LAUREN FRAZIER: It's hard to see yourself in any role playing "D&D" if you're a person of color, specifically black and brown people.

LIMBONG: Lauren Frazier is a game designer and a huge "D&D" fan, but she says when she first tried to get a group of black and brown friends to play, she ran into some resistance. It wasn't just these depictions themselves but the very idea that a role-playing game where you're supposed to be able to see yourself do anything was putting certain types of characters into a box.

FRAZIER: I think good and evil is very interesting. You can make good and evil very nuanced. You can make it very blunt. But making it based on if you look like this, if you are from this race, if you're from this place, you're automatically on one side or automatically on the other side - that is really harmful.

LIMBONG: The game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has been working on changing these descriptions for orcs and drow for a while but only recently announced them in response to the massive ongoing protests over racism and police violence. The company also announced they'll be editing out some previous racist descriptions as well as hiring more diverse writers. Frazier is cautiously optimistic about these changes. She says that hopefully, having a more diverse roster of writers will inform the very conception of these games.

FRAZIER: I think that the writing itself needs to come from a place of inclusivity and diverse ideas versus just the same stuff that they always write and then have someone go over it with a highlighter and try to fix the racism at the end.

LIMBONG: That same stuff - your paladins and goblins and bows and swords - has been well-trod territory in "D&D's" 50 years. Jeremy Crawford says he hopes that not just "D&D" but all fantasy games can start expanding that vision.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG, "DRAGON QUEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.