Colonialism in D&D. A Rebuttal.

The Dweller in the Forbidden City blog posted about a Twitter poll they did on the question of colonialism in D&D. Here is a snip.

The author seems to be surprised by the amount of vitriol they received as a result of this poll question. I don’t find it surprising at all. The internet is an megaphone for jerks. Human beings respond most intensely to negative emotion. Look at your social media feeds. What gets shared the most? This guy said that crazy thing. That group of people did this awful thing. Divisiveness and negativity get clicks. It’s a fact that is well known by marketers.

Twitter is full of negativity, cynicism and people sniping at each other. Most people don’t use it because of the negativity. Many people who do use Twitter, enjoy that little burst of dopamine from the fights on the platform. That’s what they are there for. The behavior of such people drives away a lot of other people who are not interested in that. It is frequently commented, on Twitter no less, that the level of discourse is not particularly of value.

Any poll on Twitter isn’t going to get a representative swath of the gaming hobby, its going to get the people who can tolerate or enjoy Twitter battles. The way this poll was worded was going to piss some people off and was seen by many as picking a fight on a platform where word battles are the point of the platform. Not surprisingly, a fight ensued.

The way I read this poll question and a lot of other people read this question is as follows: Colonialism and racism are omnipresent themes in D&D. Do you think that D&D can be played without colonialism and racism?

Some very aggressive and frequent posters on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet are making the argument that can be summed up as: D&D is a colonialist and racist game: therefore anyone who plays D&D is a colonialist and racist. To me, it’s not hard to see how a lot of people would feel insulted after reading that poll question without the qualifier of “if you believe the underlying premise to be true.”

Here is a quote from the blog about what the stated intention of the poll.

“I wasn’t interested in whether or not people believed that those themes were actually there, I was curious to know, *for those who feel that they are there*, could they be separated or not?”

Assuming that the intent of the author was to find out the thinking “*for those feel they are there*” it was a badly worded poll. That phrase is really important to the context. Why not include it in the first place? Of course people are going to be pissed off by the question. Without that qualifier; The question sounds like, “Is D&D only a game for racists and colonialists?” Obviously, people who love D&D are going to be insulted. I’m willing to accept the explanation that the author overlooked the addition and would, in the future, do better in the wording of their polls.

The author goes on to insult the intelligence and reading comprehension of those of us who do not find colonialism in Dungeons and Dragons.

Colonialism doesn’t mean what you want it to mean, it means what the community of scholars who use the term say it means. Or at least that’s a great starting point if you want to have a conversation that can draw on the evidence and scholarly research built on the established, agreed upon definitions.

And if you read that scholarship, and I have read much, “killing people and taking their stuff” is a core part of colonialism. 

1

“Killing people and taking their stuff”, was a core part of warfare between peer level combatants in the ancient and medieval period. The practice of killing an opponent and looting their body is found in the oldest literature of western civilization. Here is Hector giving the Trojans a pep talk as he is donning the armor of Achilles which he looted from the slain Patroclus.

So saying, he shouted aloud, and called to the Trojans: “Ye Trojans, and Lycians, and Dardanians that fight in close combat, [185] be men, my friends, and bethink you of furious valour, until I put upon me the armour of peerless Achilles, the goodly armour that I stripped from the mighty Patroclus, when I slew him.”

The Iliad Book 17: Translation by Samuel Butler

There are multiple examples throughout The Iliad of warriors killing and looting each other. In this particular case <spoiler> it goes badly for Hector and Achilles shows up to get his armor back.

This was also common practice among knights in the Middle Ages. Armor was expensive and one way a knight could defray the cost of going to war on behalf of his liege was to loot defeated knights and sell the gear he didn’t want to keep.

Just because “killing people and taking their stuff” is one of the main activities of the game, doesn’t make it colonialism or racism. Every square is a rectangle but not every rectangle is a square. Just because “killing people and taking their stuff” is something player characters do doesn’t make it colonialism. All colonialism is violence but not all violence is colonialism.

2

Let’s return back to this quote:

And if you read that scholarship, and I have read much, “killing people and taking their stuff” is a core part of colonialism. 

Monsters aren’t people. Monsters are abominations. In the Christian tradition they are the children of Satan or Cain. In the Norse tradition they are the enemies of the gods seeking to bring about the Ragnorok. In Middle Earth, they are the twisted mockeries of Melkor. In folklore, they are spirits of faery to be appeased lest they get up to mischief but in no circumstance are they “people.”

D&D was very much inspired by the sword and sorcery tradition. Sword and sorcery was, in turn, inspired by the stories of the ancient world; the legends of monster slaying heroes. Dungeons and Dragons is part of the literary tradition of heroes slaying monsters.

The core activity of Dungeons and Dragons is a group of adventurers go into the underworld and return the treasures stolen by monsters from people. It says it right on the tin: Dungeons and Dragons. Dragons steal from civilization, killing people in the process, and taking the loot back to their lairs. Adventurers go to the dragon’s lair, in the dungeon, kill the dragon and take back the stolen loot.

Mythic stories were not just entertainments. They served very important cultural functions. They instructed the listener about how they were supposed to behave. They established a heroic ideal. Where Christianity was blended with older stories such as Beowulf, the stories became theological parables. It was the culture describing its values in story form. The monsters of myth were more than just entertaining foes for the hero (representing the cultural ideal) to do battle with. They were the contrast to the hero, a negative example of unacceptable behavior in society.

One of the fundamental purposes of monsters in myth was to serve as a negative example. We do NOT behave like this. This is monstrous. This is what monsters do. We are not monsters. This behavior leads to problems in the community and we will do anything, including kill, to discourage that kind of behavior. The monsters have stolen our stuff, we must kill the monsters and get our stuff back in order to preserve our community.

There is a significant literature in medieval studies about monsters and why they appear in these stories. Monster Theory edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is considered one of the most important recent works.

Conclusion

It must be acknowledged, particularly in the medieval period, that monstrosity and “the other” were often conflated. I think this is where the critics of D&D making the claim that colonialism and racism are a part of the game get confused.

It is true that monstrosity was a rationalization used by colonial powers to justify their avarice. If you view the people you are stealing from are monstrous then you have a ready made justification for your pillaging, enslavement or genocide. The primary motivation of colonial invaders throughout history has mostly been about financial and political incentives sometimes combined with theological imperatives. The point wasn’t to wipe out the natives. It was to acquire and extract wealth. Colonialists preferred to enslave the people they conquered because it made good economic sense if you believed that slavery was a moral institution. The great irony, is that the colonialists had used claims of monstrosity to justify their own monstrous behavior. That is NOT what is going on in D&D because monsters aren’t people.

The issue isn’t that colonialism can’t be in the game, it is that colonialism and racism aren’t the point of the game or intentionally built into the game. The brilliance of D&D, indeed all RPG’s, is that the breadth of human thought and experience can be a part of the game. Any theme you want to put in there, including colonialism and racism, can exist in the game but heroism was the core intended focus.

Again, this is obvious in the early versions of the game where high level fighters are given the level titles “hero” and “super-hero.” From in person conversations with TSR old timers and listening to Gary’s kids in interviews, Dungeons and Dragons, was intended to mimic those heroic traditions.

Heroes enter the underworld, kill monsters and return stolen treasure back to civilization. That is the baked in core of D&D.

4 thoughts on “Colonialism in D&D. A Rebuttal.

  1. Matthew Cmiel

    I think you may be jumping in too soon, here. Just a quick glance at the article on the Dweller of the Forbidden City blog shows that their post is part 1 of 2. Many of the claims you are discussing seem more likely to come up in part 2. Remember that early on in the article they said
    “almost half, so nearly 900 responses, voted that these themes cannot be separated from the game. I find this shocking”
    That seems to imply that they will end up agreeing with many of the points you make here (though likely not all).
    I find this shocking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ericscheid

      I do like the insight re monstrous beings and their role in culture, and that Travis here has made the distinction between “kill monsters and take their things” with “kill people and take their things”.
      I see Ian has his part 2 up. Worth the read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nesicha

    Except “Monsters” in D&D are people, even if fictional ones. They have cultures, they have brains, they have sentience, they have language, they are even playable for player characters in some editions. In your perspective, then, aliens in Star Wars should not be considered people, like the Yuuzhan Vong, just because they are antagonists in the Expanded Universal Mythos. Or, gosh, even the Sith.

    But I can see where you want to go: the world is full with stories of monsters, so monster’s depiction shouldn’t be considered by any form of criticism. To you, they are just are mindless toys to play nice tabletop stories. I can understand that.

    No one is saying D&D is KKK conspiracy to turn people into racists. And no one is saying the way you have been playing D&D makes you a bad person or a racist.

    However, both art and entertainment, as any subject matter in the world, should be passed by analysis and then, being under criticism. As a brazilian, I always found the whole idea of adventurers and explorer too near from the idea of “bandeirantes”. “Bandeirantes” were, roughly, Portuguese adventurers in Brazilian soil. They were sent to explore uncharted territory, they killed natives or captured them to send to slavery. They also received gold for that. In Brazil, we even have an adventure (for GURPS) to simulate their “bandeiras” (their “adventures”).

    Also, when people tries to play an Orc, a Half-Orc or a Drow, it is common they suffer from prejudice (in character, mostly, but really meany groups can be nasty at those choices). See how the line between a Player Character and a Monster becomes too thin. Yes, it may be realistic to portray a heroic Orc or Drow to suffer ostracism (and maybe the Player wanted to roleplay that), depending on Campaign Setting. Yet we would have trouble to different to draw the line between Monster and Hero.

    If actions and deeds are what differ between Monster and Hero, we can’t tell if all Orcs are monsters… or heroes. Maybe being a Monster is not so far from being a Villain. And to have a villain in your game is much more interesting, compelling and even in pair with all stuffs of legend than “he is an orc, so he is evil, we can slay him without thinking too much”.

    The idea of trying to make a sentient being, with culture, language, society… to pass a monster is exactly what colonies had suffer under Colonialism. They become dehumanized by invaders and settlers — at first, because the Catholic Church was against any violence to non-Christians in other lands. Except, of course, if they violated the “Natural Law”, postulated by Thomas of Aquines, and it was stuffed with European values. After the Enlightment, God was kicked out in name of the Reason; the Reason became the poor excuse to dehumanized people under Colonialism. The colonized was portraited as irrational, exotic, impulsive… like, you know, an Orc. or a Drow. Like a monster. In some colonies, natives were slaughtered; in other, enslaved.

    Yeah, in D&D… they don’t enslave goblins and don’t try to teach kobold the Common language, so it’s not colonialist? Are not enough for adventurers to being murder hobos inside dungeons? And to have all campaign settings portraing the massacres was justified, since the victim were actually “monsters”?

    D&D will not lose the essence if we just make a few tweaks. We don’t need to portrait adventurers as slayers of goblins and killers of giants. We need to portrait D&D adventurers as heroes who fight villains — it changes little to nothing of our beloved game.

    Like

    1. Hi Nesicha. I hope you are well and weathering the strange and challenging times we find ourselves in. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I appreciate your feedback. I do have some differences of opinion though.

      In general, I think that what you are trying to say is that there are some elements of the game, as it currently exists in 5E which could, at very least, be interpreted as racist or colonialist in nature and with a few minor adjustments the There may be some merit to that. I don’t play 5E. I own the core books and one of the adventures. I’ve read through the material and do not find it to be to my taste. As I am not an expert on the content of the game, in its current edition, I have no opinion as to whether it is racist/colonialist or not.

      I do NOT believe that colonialism is the core activity of the game. I’m not a mind reader nor do I have any sort textual documentation on the subject but I feel quite confident that colonialism was not intended to be the core activity of the game by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson nor do I think it was even a thought in their minds when they made the game.

      I have quoted your statements and responded to each one in turn.

      “Except “Monsters” in D&D are people, even if fictional ones. They have cultures, they have brains, they have sentience, they have language, they are even playable for player characters in some editions.”

      That was an error on the part of the designers and publishers of the game. Monsters are not people in the mythic traditions of nearly all human societies who have monsters as part of their mythic stories. Though it is possible that some culture somewhere doesn’t have a monster or monstrous entity as part of their myth and legend, I am completely unaware of it.

      Monsters are beings which disrupt or destroy organized society. They are metaphors for undesirable behavior. The somewhat recent trend in film,fiction and games of giving monsters some rationalization for their monstrous behavior upends that tradition. That designers of D&D decided to give monsters the characteristics of people doesn’t negate the original purpose of monsters in myth. I linked to several of my other essays about monsters and their function in myth and culture. You may have missed those.

      “In your perspective, then, aliens in Star Wars should not be considered people…”

      The various species in Star Wars are people. This is a strawman argument.

      “However, both art and entertainment, as any subject matter in the world, should be passed by analysis and then, being under criticism.”

      I never said or implied that monster stories shouldn’t be analysed or criticised. In fact, I linked to an entire book of essays analysing and critiquing monsters.

      “No one is saying D&D is KKK conspiracy to turn people into racists.”

      Another strawman.

      “And no one is saying the way you have been playing D&D makes you a bad person or a racist.”

      Here we get to the purpose of my essay.

      Yes there are people saying this precise thing.There was a month long Twitter fight about orcs, stating exactly that. You may choose to ignore such statements but there are indeed people saying, unequivocally, that D&D is racist.

      I’ll not give the individuals claiming D&D is racist any more bandwidth than they already get by linking to their posts, tweets and essays. They are out there if you want to look for them yourself. A search on any social media platform or search engine of your choice will turn up plenty of examples.

      “The idea of trying to make a sentient being, with culture, language, society… to pass a monster is exactly what colonies had suffer under Colonialism. “

      I acknowledged this in my post.

      If we follow the logic of your argument to its conclusion, where we arrive at is an absurd destination. Any idea used by human beings to rationalize violence and oppression for their own gain can never be used again by anyone for any reason, no matter how justified the argument is. That seems like a terrible logical bind to put oneself into.

      If you feel that adventurers entering previously civilized places like ruined cities, or the underworld lairs; clearing out the monsters and recovering the treasures that ancient cultures created is too close to conquistadors murdering and enslaving indigenous people for their own gain and glory; I’m not going to tell you how you should feel about it. Those are your feelings and that you have them is not something I’m going to contradict.

      I don’t think colonization and heroes recovering treasure and knowledge are the same thing.

      “Also, when people tries to play an Orc, a Half-Orc or a Drow”

      I don’t run games for people who want to play monsters. I don’t run 5E, but if I did, tiefling and dragonborn would also not be available. If they want to play humans who do monstrous things, that is different. That is actually interesting to me.

      I don’t use the majority of humanoid monsters in my games at all. Mainly because I consider them to be boring and one dimensional. It is precisely because they are simple monsters that I don’t use them.

      “D&D will not lose the essence if we just make a few tweaks. We don’t need to portrait adventurers as slayers of goblins and killers of giants. We need to portrait D&D adventurers as heroes who fight villains — it changes little to nothing of our beloved game.”

      “We” who? Wizards of the Coast owns the brand and they can do whatever they want with it. I make my own material, borrow (steal) from other hobbyists and buy independent products that have the sort of aesthetic appeal that I enjoy.

      Quite right, “we” don’t need to portray adventurers in any particular way at all. I think game masters and players can make those decisions for themselves, independent of what anyone else thinks, including and especially me.

      There are some very vocal people, getting a lot of attention, claiming that the game is, at its core, a racist game and the people who play it are racists. I think we both agree that this is not true. I stand and say that is false and will continue to do so.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. I appreciate your time and effort

      Like

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