Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Of Drow, Orcs, Sewers, and Slanging matches...

Any gamer would have to have their head firmly in the sand to have failed to notice the changes being wrought on D&D in recent years, and not just D&D, other games have shifted too - all as part of making the hobby inclusive.  We're now in a position in 2020 where publishers are editing past products, adding disclaimers, and working towards standardising, or even removing, the concept of race from the games.  This follows on from the push in recent years to ensure more diversity of gender and sexuality within gaming products.

I have a problem with it all.  And judging by comments made by a lot of the old-school gamers, I'm not the only one.

Firstly let me take you back to my gaming roots.  I began playing in the early 80s.  I attended an all-male school for intellectually high-achievers, which is where I first experienced Dungeons and Dragons.  Given the environment, D&D was almost certainly more acceptable there than in many other schools, but I still got flak for my hobby from time to time.  Thus my little gaming clique was fairly tight-knit - geeks within a geeky environment, but still somewhat on the fringes.  And in my group, all male of course, there were no girls at the school, we had the gobby short kid with ADHD (me), a Polish immigrant, a ginger kid with glasses, and an outrageously camp lad.  Other gamers we also hung around with included a lad who parents were from India and the tallest guy in the school year (who also had an acne problem).  All we cared about was playing games.  Yeah there was plenty of banter between us, some which might be considered very offensive nowadays, but it was between friends, and it didn't prevent us from being such.

Roll forward several decades, and my gaming experiences are still with fairly diverse groups, and have featured people of all manner of races, genders and sexualities - and it doesn't matter.  Again, all that matters is the game. We all have fun!  Nobody is excluded from any game based on who they are.

So why do I take issue with the recent and current shift in the gaming world?  I'm going to focus on D&D to explain this.  As a child I loved history - give me a book on castles and medieval knights and I'd be gone for hours, then before I was 10 I read The Hobbit. Though I started with Basic D&D when I was 11, I quickly moved over to AD&D. These were my gaming influences.  It's obvious from merely a glance that AD&D has an expected period of history which it is based - albeit rather loosely in places. The weaponry, armour and general technology is late medieval.  Yes there are exceptions - some of the items are mistakes - Studded Leather armour for example - but that's easily fixed by crossing it out and writing Lamellar in its place. It's clear from the rules that gunpowder based weapons are in their infancy.  There are a few items that are a little out of sync, but by and large, it's all stuff that would have been seen on the battlefield of Europe and the Near East between roughly the 11th and 16th centuries AD.  There are other nods towards historical influences - lists of noble titles, the chapter on castle building, and what became the default game world - Greyhawk - with all its wonderful heraldry in the setting booklets.

But the biggest giveaway in the language that Gary Gygax uses.  He either had a vocabulary of Shakespearean proportions, or he wrote with a Thesaurus of Middle English terms by his side. This article discussed it in more depth.. http://phrontistery.info/disq6.html. Gygax's writing served to enhance the flavour. Much of it went over my 12/13 year old head at times, but that didn't matter - I loved it, and was so happy when I finally found out what each of the polearms looked like (1985 - Unearthed Arcana)!!

When online arguments kick off, which they invariably do when the topic of D&D vs history is brought up, there are always those who claim that D&D has never been historical.  This may be true, but early D&D certainly drew much of its inspiration from history, and any who deny this are simply wrong. Even in the 1990s, when the gaming was shifting somewhat, TSR published a number of Historical supplements based on the Celts, Romans, Vikings and others.

Celts Campaign Sourcebook - Wikipedia

Late in the 1980s, the Forgotten Realms was released as a campaign setting. I was a dyed in the wool Greyhawk fan and ignored it. Over time though, the Realms supplanted Greyhawk as the main game setting, and now 35 years later, D&D and Forgotten Realms are synonymous.  The current iteration of the Realms is a highly magical and fantastical place, much moreso than was Greyhawk.  Whereas Greyhawk (and AD&D in general) drew largely from the Tolkien trope of a humanocentric world, with traditionally aloof/arrogant Elves bickering with more practical, dour Dwarfs, the Forgotten Realms is presented a melting pot of racial harmony, expressing many modern day ideals. For me, the Realms feels awkward.  There are airships (1st flight of a hot air balloon carrying living creatures was in the 1780s), and cities have extensive sewers you can get lost in (a Victorian-era invention - previous sewer systems were much narrower pipes). Other material brings in handguns, and players seem happy recreating the Wild West...... All this with a basic background of castles, swords, and mail armour.  It feels like a mess.  Then on top of all of this, Wizards of the Coast have layered a number of aspects of modern society, with a focus on the visibility of gay characters, same sex marriage, specified gender pronouns, and are now discussing tweaking/removing 'race' from the game mechanics to some degree.

I'll openly admit I find it all very awkward.

Now of course, most gamers coming to the hobby now do not have the original gaming inspirations and interests that I or my peers had - more commonly they are inspired by comics, video games, Manga, and superhero films - so maybe the Forgotten Realms does not feel awkward to them.  And maybe this is always why the responses to any suggestion of D&D being based on history get such angry responses?

No I'm not a racist for keeping Drow evil, and Orcs savage.  No I'm not a homophobe for not having gay marriage in my D&D settings. No, I'm not a killjoy for running a D&D game without gunslingers.  I'm just an old gamer whose roots lie with AD&D, and Gygax, and Tolkien.  And I'm proud it.  And by the way, anyone is welcome at my gaming tables.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your post! The title reminds me of a video titled "Are Orcs and Dark Elves Racist" recently posted by the Adventure Review on YouTube, which discussed the issue of drow, orcs, and racism in (what I think) is an even-handed way. I’m also impressed by the diversity you’ve had at your table over the years. I wish I could say the same, but I think my gaming table tends to be more homogenous.

    As a straight white guy, I personally feel excited by the idea of more diversity in fantasy tabletop gaming. It’s my favorite kind of game, and I would love to see more kinds of people enjoy it. I think it’s no secret that straight white guys like myself have been well-represented in the hobby since its inception, for a multitude of complex reasons. I also think having more people with different life experiences from mine will produce more creative and innovative games. I see diversity as nutrients in soil that helps creativity grow, so to speak.

    In that same vein, I think offering more (and different) kinds of options for fantasy tabletop RPGs is important for inviting different kinds of people to the table. If my campaign setting only has white elves, white halflings, white dwarves, and (mostly) white humans, I think I can understand why a person of color might have a harder time joining as a player. The same might go for gender or sexuality. If a woman picks up an RPG rulebook and sees only men depicted in the artwork (or highly sexualized women), I’d understand her being less inclined to play.

    I agree with what you said about Gygax and Tolkien. They’re monumental to the hobby, and it would be a disservice to erase their influence. And just as you said, any medieval fantasy RPG will always be influenced by history, at least to some extent. However, although certainly my campaign settings will certainly be influenced by history, I also don’t want them to be limited by it, either.

    I don’t think an afterschool-special RPG where every session has some shoehorned, didactic message about tolerance and inclusion would be very fun to play. And I think some egalitarian, utopian campaign setting with no conflict would be terribly boring. But if I’m playing a game where myself and the players are playing (in part) to use our imaginations and escape the real-world problems that plague us, I also think some good can come from imagining a world that’s perhaps more welcoming and inclusive than the real one is or was.

    In sum: I love the older settings, like Greyhawk or Blackmoor, and I'm simultaneously excited by the possibilities that more diverse creators and players could bring to the table (literally and figuratively)


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