I recently ran across a thread talking about the treatment of women and minorities in Dungeons & Dragons in Astrid’s Parlor on Wizards of the Coast’s new Community Website. Once I began thinking about the subject, I realized that I had enough to say on the subject that it warranted a post.
Dungeons & Dragons has a very Eurocentric feel to it by default. When they first created Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson drew heavily from European myths. So the fact that the fantasy world feels like a fantastic version of medieval Europe should be no surprise.
As a result, how women and minorities are portrayed in D&D can be a pretty tricky subject. I would argue that Wizards of the Coast, as well as TSR back in the day, have tried a number of methods. Considering what a touchy subject this can be though, I feel none of which work perfectly.
The first is what I will call the color-blind method. For whatever reason, this tends to be used most concerning female and Black characters in D&D. The duke might be Black or that the captain of the guard might be a woman. Real world social constraints that might have limited the advancement opportunities of these minorities are simply ignored in the fantasy setting.
A good example of the color-blind method in TV is BBC’s Robin Hood series. Occasionally, Black actors are cast in roles, like a noble or an abbess, which would traditionally go to Caucasians considering the setting of late twelfth-century England.
There are some advantages and disadvantages to this method. One major advantage is that it avoids bad stereotypes (more on this later). It also cuts down on player frustration over limits being placed on their characters. After all, Dungeons & Dragons is a game and not a simulation.
The problem is that the color-blind method also eliminates the cultural identity of the minorities it is applied to. If the duke is Black, but acts and is treated exactly like any other medieval duke, it can be argued that it is pointless to make him Black in the first place. It can even be argued that it is harmful as it propagates the mindset that minorities are fine as long as they act exactly like Caucasians.
The other method Wizards of the Coast uses is to create a “stand-in culture.” Kara Tur and Zakhara in the Forgotten Realms are examples of stand-in cultures for Asia and the Middle East. This has the advantage of preserving a distinct cultural identity for these minorities while still finding a way to fit them into the Dungeons & Dragons world.
The biggest pitfall with this method is that it is easy to fall into stereotypes. After all, Asia or the Middle East are huge areas with complex histories and numerous distinct cultures. There is no way that any game book can do these diverse cultures justice, so they tend to be painted with very broad strokes.
Wizards of the Coast is obviously aware that this is a fine line and is treading cautiously. For example, they decided to eliminate the Ki power source, when they realized the only common thread between classes sharing the Ki power source was their Asian influence. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the decision to place the lost continent of Abeir over Maztica was at least partially motivated by the desire to remove a somewhat embarrassing mishmash of Mesoamerican myth from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.
So what is the correct answer on how to handle minorities and women in Dungeons & Dragons? I don’t have one. For reasons I can’t explain, I tend to favor the “color-blind” method with regard to women and the “cultural identity” method for different races and ethnicities. I will admit to having used both methods in my own campaigns though, and I know that both methods are far from perfect.
So what do you think?