Monday, September 28, 2015

The Van Dyke Papers, Part 1: D&D Only Allows You to Play White People

This morning I was reading an old article put up by Chris Van Dyke about how racist Dungeons & Dragons actually is and how we should be aware of the assumptions the game makes about race. The article has an odd sort of logic to it that I would like to discuss for a few moments.
". . . In D&D, humans are the normative race, and given the Anglo-centric depiction of human culture in the game, humans can be interpreted as representing “white people.”  They are “normal,” while all other races, whether good or evil, are to some extent “exotic,” and otherized.

First, lets just look at race as it relates to the real world.  How are different human ethnic groups – black, white, Asian, Latino – depicted in the world of D&D?  In a word, they aren’t, and their presence is felt strongly through their near total exclusion.  This isn’t a great surprise, as the source material for high fantasy primarily stems from Anglo-Saxon and European folk-lore. Additionally, the vast majority of players are white males.  I actually have no statistics to back this up, but anyone who wants to argue that point can after I’m done.  In a game based around “role playing,” players are encouraged to take on the part of elves, dwarves, half-orcs, assassins, and warlocks, yet it is assumed that in all these roles they will still be white.  Not that this is ever stated, of course, but this assumption lies both in the lack of any mention of human ethnicity in the character creation process and the illustrations of player characters found in the core texts . . ." (Van Dyke)
In certain segments of our hobby there is the belief that Dungeons & Dragons is a game where racial prejudices are given free reign by allowing us to place the non-white man in the place of elves, dwarves, and other humanoid races. These proxy races then allow us to freely kill, maim, and defile the other with wanton abandon. For these people, and it's clear that Mr. Van Dyke should be counted among them, unless it is expressly mentioned that there are Black people, trans-gendered people, homosexuals, or any other minority group present in the game than they are excluded from the setting and are then shoved into the category of the "other." This "other" category represents anything that your character cannot expressly be allowed to play and into it are shoved all the repressed minorities that you find in the real world so that your white characters can go about smashing their brains in.

As you can imagine this is all complete bullshit.

The argument that games like Dungeons & Dragons are creating an assumption that all your player characters are white - half-orcs, drow, and all the other playable races included - is ludicrous. D&D isn't a game that says, "You can only play one type of character here, kids: white." It's a game that let's you build any sort of character that you want. Would you like to play a gay, trans-gendered, Hispanic Wizard? You got it! Want to play a Black, female Barbarian who rides a mechanical horse in search of treasure and male booty to plunder? Do it! Thinking about rolling up an Asian Rogue who only speaks in riddles? Get on it! The only person preventing you from picking any sort of minority group to represent in your game is you.

Van Dyke then moves on from this series of false assumptions to bring up outright misinformation:
". . . In the over 100 illustrations of adventurer’s in the 2nd Edition Player Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1989), there are NO non-white adventurers.  Finally, after 25 years the 3rd edition, published in 2003, makes some passing mention of race in the character creation process
". . . Most humans are the descendants of pioneers, conquerors, traders, travelers, refugees, and other people on the move. As a result human lands are hom to a mix of people - physically, culturally, religiously, and politically different. Hardy or fine, light-skinned or dark, showy or austere, primative or civilized, devout or impious, humans run the gamut . . . Thanks to their penchant for migration and conquest, and to their short life spans humans are more physically diverse than other common races. Their skin shades range from nearly black to very pale, their hair from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight), and their facial hair (for men) from sparse to thick . . ." (Tweet, 12)
There you have it – “dark” and “kinky” are they only two adjectives in the first 25 years of D&D core texts that acknowledge that PCs might be something other than fair-skinned Anglo-Saxons.  Yet the illustrations still show an almost purely white world.  In 80 illustrations spread over the two core books of 3rd ed., there is one black woman and no black men.  Coming across this picture after flipping through 982 pages of rules, I wasn’t sure whether the correct reaction was to be glad that the editors of the 3rd edition were broadening the concept of who a PC might be, or wonder why the first trace of race was a scantily clad, busty black female warrior . . ." (Van Dyke).
Van Dyke presents the passage he quotes from the 3.5 revision of Dungeons & Dragons as the first time in "25 years of D&D core texts that acknowledge that PCs might be something other than fair-skinned Anglo-Saxons;" which is outright false. Three years earlier the 3.0 version of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook was published with the exact same text. Going even further back my Second Edition Player's Handbook, which he apparently only examined the illustrations from and not the text, expressly states that: ". . . Although humans are treated as a single race in the AD&D game, they come in all the varieties we known on Earth . . ." (Cook, 32). If we do as Van Dyke suggests and limit our inquiry into D&D's racial bias to the core books than it is clear that the game has explicitly acknowledged the wide variety of racial differences possible for human beings since 1989, eleven years after the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Yet even if we were to ignore those earlier, explicit acknowledgements of humanity's racial diversity in the game we would still have things like Oriental Adventures (1985), The Greyhawk Boxed Set (1983), and the myriad of Setting supplements that came out after the publication of First Edition that had peoples in a wide variety of hues that would contest with Van Dyke's assertion.* From this point forward Van Dyke is so wrapped up in his misinformation and false assumptions that he wildly jumps to conclusions that are not supported by evidence he has presented.  

More later.


* Van Dyke will later mention Oriental Adventures in his article by first making a snide comment about the term Oriental, as though everyone in 1985 had the same understanding of the term and it's offensiveness as we did in 2008, and then quoting a Something Awful post that said ". . . it wasn’t until 1985’s Oriental Adventures that you could even play an Asian person and when you think about it they are just smaller magical white people, which is what elves are . . ." (Sumner). He then follows this up by stating that ". . . 1992 saw the publication of the Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures.  And really the less said about that the better . . ." (Van Dyke). He might as well be saying, "I know that I'm wrong here but I feel like I'm right so rather than present you with evidence that I am correct I'm going to malign the two things I know about that punch holes in my theses - especially since I missed illustrations of clerics from different races in the AD&D Player's Handbook from 1978 and there are lots of other illustrations in products before 2003 that I'm ignoring because they undercut my point as well."

Works Cited

Cook, David "Zeb." Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. USA. TSR, Inc., 1989. Print. pg. 32

Sumner, Steve "Malak." Is Faerun Ready for Its First Orc President?. Something Awful. Something Awful, 25 April, 2008. Web. 27 September, 2015

Tweet, Jonathan, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams. Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. Core Rulebook I v.3.5. USA. Wizards of the Coast, 2003. Print. pg. 12

Van Dyke, Chris. "Nerd Nite Presentation – November 18th, 2008" Race in D&D. Race in D&D, 28 November, 2008. Web. 27 September, 2015. 

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  1. I must have been doing something wrong those times I played an Aztec, Eskimo, Indian (from the subcontinent of), Arab, Egyptian, or Bushman (not to mention a whole host of Chinese and Japanese characters).

    1. Yeah, it's a weird claim to make and I think that's why it captured my imagination enough to actually write this response to it.

  2. Of course it's bullshit. This shit is beneath us. It's the chick tracts of the present.

    1. Where the fuck is my "High Five" button on this shit?

  3. It's not the first time I've seen guff like Van Dyke's, although it is the first time I've seen it attempted in the form of an academic thesis. More often I see people complaining about -- for example -- black characters in fantasy settings as being ahistorical, which is nonsense on all sorts of levels, and wastes everyone's time.

  4. Race as we view it in the real world is not implied in the text of any D&D product I have ever read. A fantasy character can be any description the player likes.
    This kind of "D&D is Anglo" logic just speaks of a dreadful lack of imagination.

    1. "Race as we view it in the real world is not implied in the text of any D&D product I have ever read."

      No offense meant, but I guess you have not read the Greyhawk boxed set, where Gary goes into great detail about the human "races" of the Flanaess and the combinations thereof. The Baklunish are described as basically a blend of Asian and Middle Eastern types. The Flan seem to be a cross between Africans and Native Americans. The Oeridians are "Mediterranean" European types. The "whitest" race, the Suel, are also the most villainous, being responsible for both the savage northern barbarians and the 'kung fu Nazis' of the Scarlet Brotherhood. Gary lovingly details the various hybrids possible between these races, their skin tones and eye colors, and where they can be found in the Flanaess.

      All of which is to say that I don't think the idiot who wrote this paper has read the Greyhawk boxed set either.

    2. You are correct sir, I have not read the Greyhawk boxed set. No offense taken.
      Out of curiosity do any of those racial descriptions for humans carry any mechanical bonuses or penalties?

    3. Not in WoG (1980,1983), but in a later product, Player's Guide to Greyhawk (1998), that was supposed to supersede it they do:

      A campaign’s DM may choose to make optional adjustments to the abilities of
      individuals based on racial background. Adjustments may raise a score to 18, but never higher. An adjustment that would lower a score to 3 or less is ignored. The DM s
      permission is required to play a Rhennee; for information about playing a Rhennee
      character, see “Roleplaying Rhennee Characters,” on pages 44-45 of this book.

      Baklunish +I Wis, -1 Cha (applied to non-Baklunish observers)
      Flannae +l Con, -1 Int (for purposes of learning new spells, if a wizard)
      Oeridian +I Dex, -1 Wis
      Rhennee +I Str, -2 Cha (applied to non-Rhennee observers)
      Suel +1 Int, -1 Cha"

  5. I think it's implied that the base setting for D&D is Europe, be it in the Forgotten Realms or the Nentir Vale. I see no reason why this is negative given the (obvious) source material and will add that "European" culture is hardly monolithic. This is one of the better aspects of the Realms, actually. Its basically Europe, but in several varieties.

    As you note, though, Charles, there are other settings even in the FR that are explicitly NOT Europe (Halruaa as an example), and more to the point, it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to argue that the depiction of most FR races besides humans are non-white. Drow, for example, have dark skin but are explicitly designed as a society of competing crime families ala the Medici period of Italy.

    I think the game is mostly "white" because that's most of who plays it in America, and they play out of their own experience. Which makes me wish I'd gotten a game going when I was stationed in Korea, but that's another story...

    1. And now I'm wondering how you would tailor a D&D ad campaign to an Asian (specifically Korean) audience. It doesn't take a lot of effort to imagine the game's basic appeals--statistics-based storytelling--succeeding overseas.

    2. I assume you have references for this, Dan?

      From the beginning, the base setting was explicitly stated to be a fantasy world drawn from your imagination and Gary Gygax's. I suppose that if one is so lacking in imagination that all they can come up with is Europe and their education so deficient that they have never heard of Moors, Huns, Mongols, Levites, ... then they might be able to make such a claim.

      The first published setting, Greyhawk, was derived from Gygax's home game located on an alternate world called Oerth (pronounced "Oy-th" with a horrible Pittsburgh accent). The first large scale world map for his game was hand-drawn over an upside-down map of the Great Lakes region of the U.S.A. -- hardly Europe.

      Mr. Van Dyke is free to wave his ignorance and prejudice like a flag, but that doesn't make it true, nor does it mean anyone needs to pay attention to him.

    3. "I'm wondering how you would tailor a D&D ad campaign to an Asian (specifically Korean) audience." I don't know about Korea, but for Japan, one need only look at Record of Lodoss War (which started as a collection of session summaries in a game mag). Sweet sweet occidentalism!

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  7. Dude must have skipped over the Basic versions of the game from way back in the 70s. Playing the Moldvay RAW you couldn't play a white dwarf if you wanted to. Moldvay explicitly says about dwarves that, "Their skin is earth-colored and their hair is dark brown, gray, or black." (Moldvay, B9).

    The first rule of Social Justice Warriors strikes again.