The impetus for this post was something Nausicaa Harris wrote. It kind of ballooned beyond the point that would be appropriate for a reblog of her, so it’s going here.

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What was D&D first about?
    1. Go team Lawful!
  3. The reason for ‘evil species’
  4. The role of race
  5. On monsters in general
    1. Where do problems come from?
  6. Compare videogames
  7. The role of authorship
  8. What has become of ‘monster races’ in the present?
  9. What to do about it?
    1. And what about Wizards of the Coast?
  10. Final thoughts

Introduction

Let me quote Nausicaa’s post:

I’m really glad to see the move towards representation of real-world humans in more recent editions of the game. However, Wizards of the Coast can’t have their cake and eat it too. If they say, “no human is any more inclined to evil or good than any other, no matter what they look like”, then the only acceptable position is to also say, “no natural humanoid is any more inclined to evil or good than any other, no matter what they look like” – without that follow-up, it creates a double standard and gets into the messy territory of coding.

(As a side note, check out Lindsay Ellis’ great video on allegory and coding in fantasy fiction.)

Wizards of the Coast is great about saying, “no human individual, or human society, is any more inclined to evil than any other.” In D&D, it doesn’t matter whether your skin is pinkish, brownish, goldish, or any of the other color combinations we see on Earth. But in D&D, it does matter if your skin is greenish. Or orangeish. Or grayish. Or scaled. Or black as the night under the world. And for me – and a lot of other people in the D&D fandom, so this isn’t at all a “personal” narrative – that’s still really bad. For many people, D&D is escapist fantasy, where we don’t have to deal with the idea that you can know that someone is bad because of what they look like – even if they don’t look like anything on Earth, we don’t want any of that kind of sentiment, because it’s not fun! It doesn’t matter if orcs, as written, do evil deeds – it’s not fun if they’re written that way, because then it just says “all the green-gray people do evil”! That’s still what we came here to escape!

If the only kind of people in D&D were humans, I’d say Wizards was doing great – but D&D doesn’t make that the case. The “humanoid” type says that humanoids – all of the creatures I’ve mentioned here – have language and culture, which in my mind, makes them people. And, before you bring up fiends, which have language and culture to some extent: fiends are created out of raw evil, whereas orcs are created the same way we are, namely, in the womb. I can’t recall any edition of D&D where that was ever in question – drow, duergar, goblinoids, kobolds, orcs, yuan-ti, and so on all have babies. The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook essentially states that all of those species/subspecies are born with their evil god’s voice in their head, cajoling them towards evil, and quite apart from any questions of coding or prejudice, I don’t want to play in a world where a baby can have any tendency towards evil.

I largely agree with what Nausicaa wrote, but the problem of an ‘evil species’ as an expression of racist narratives doesn’t go away if you were to say, oh, ‘orcs’ are just demons made out of Pure Evil. I think the problem runs much deeper. But this is a meditation on the subject, not necessarily an attempt to simply make that point (which wouldn’t need this much elaboration.) This subject is something I’ve thought about a bunch since coming back to D&D, and I want to get my thoughts down in one place. Fair warning: this piece is more than 10,000 words long and I’ve been writing it for the past… 10 hours?

In the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, we see the ‘orcs’ be popped out of sacs in the ground by an evil wizard, but that doesn’t change the way orcs are presented as racialised figures, and their appearance, affect etc. contrasted with the good noble white humans so we feel comfortable celebrating when they are cut down.

The character Lurtz from 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers', covered in mud after being cut out of a muddy pod.

The design of the baddies in those films - the ‘ugly’ orcs, the humans with face-covering masks - is a standard way to make sure we feel comfortable with the heroes shooting down dozens of stormtroopers without questioning like, isn’t that a person there that they’re killing without even thinking about it? I mean that on a gut level; maybe we can safely conclude that in the scenario presented by the film, it is clearly right to fight the war and shoot the enemy soldiers, but like… character design is still used to remove the possibility of empathy and make the conflict into one we can cheer for without discomfort. To do this, film-makers will use all the tricks they can think of to dehumanise their villains.

It is a similar situation in D&D.

To me, the problem of D&D-as-written, and -as-expressed-in-official-fiction, is part of the foundations of the game, and this is kind of why it’s been so hard for WotC to shed that legacy and make a version of ‘D&D’ without it.

What was D&D first about?

This is how I understand it: in the earliest and therefore most inescapable forms of D&D, the protagonists’ purpose is to gain wealth and power by going into a dangerous location and robbing, perhaps killing whoever lives there. Of course, right from the start, people started doing other things with the format, but that’s always been a huge part of what the rules are trying to cater to.

In the ‘little brown books’ D&D, later collected into the ‘single volume edition’, there isn’t the usual ‘what is a roleplaying game’ intro that becomes standard in later roleplaying games; the introduction seems to assume you’re already playing D&D, and know what it is. The closest we get to an explanation of what the game is about is this paragraph, on preparation:

The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his “underworld”, people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level. This operation will be more fully described in the final section of these rules. When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the “huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses”. Before they begin, players must decide what role they will play in the campaign, human or otherwise, Fighting-Man, Cleric, or Magic-User. Thereafter they will work upwards - if they survive - as they gain “experience”.

This suggests that, to Gygax and Arneson, the essential elements were:

Later, the rules acknowledge the possibility of ‘wilderness adventures’ also:

The so-called Wilderness really consists of unexplored land, cities and castles, not to mention the area immediately surrounding the castle (ruined or otherwise) which housed the dungeons. The referee’s map is a wilderness map unknown to the players. It should be for the territory around the dungeon location. When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and  as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area and thus be able to select a site upon which to build their castles. (Castle building and its attendant requirements will be covered in Section 8.) Exploratory adventures are likely to be the most exciting, and their incorporation into the campaign is most desirable.

So the wilderness is an unexplored territory to be conquered, and have castles built on it; c.f. the genocidal conquest of ‘America’.

This all seems to owe more to characters like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser than to a battle of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The characters’ motivations aren’t all that different from the players: they’re out for adventure, to fight challenging opponents and go to dangerous and interesting places, and risk their lives trying to get richer and more powerful than everyone else and set up their own castles. With the addition of hirelings, adventuring almost becomes a business.

While I’m not sure how the players of early D&D saw their characters, much like a heist movie, the premise doesn’t inherently require that they’re ‘good people’, just entertaining people with a suitably grand ambition. And because there’s no requirement that they’re moral people, it doesn’t follow that their enemies must be villains.

This seems to be true in at least some of the novels D&D is drawing from. In Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, the protagonist Cugel is utterly amoral, but so is just about everyone else. And Conan, who is mentioned explicitly in one place in the rules, is a conqueror for little other reason than conquest’s sake. The characters are at best ‘lovable rogues’ rather than ‘heroes’ per se. (This is not to get into the miserable subject of gender and sexual violence in those novels, which destroys the sympathy we might have for Cugel or, from the summaries I’ve read, Fafhrd.)

So, it doesn’t need to be explained, at this point, why the characters are conquering the dungeon beyond straightforward greed. There’s very little need, even, to explain the ‘monsters of horrid aspect’; they’re there because they need to be, determined by random dice rolls.

But there’s another side that D&D draws on…

Go team Lawful!

We also have the division of the world into “law” and “chaos” factions, which draws on Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts, Three Lions. In Anderson’s novel, an accidental time traveller from WWII is drawn into a battle between the heroic forces of ‘Law’, represented by the Holy Roman Empire and ‘Saracens’, and ‘Chaos’, represented by various magical creatures from the ‘Middle World’. Anderson is at least doing better than Tolkien, in putting the ‘Saracens’ on the side of the goodies, but that’s saying very little! Especially when he’s got ideas like ‘cannibal hillmen’ in there. It’s very clear that ‘law’ is good and ‘chaos’ bad.

Michael Moorcock, another influence on D&D, would take the whole law/chaos angle and run with it to some strange places, but apparently it’s Anderson who first expressed it.

In any case, in D&D, this was expressed as:

Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take - Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.

The following table shows that ‘law’ mostly lined up with the standard ‘good’ roster of fantasy creatures, and ‘chaos’ the ‘evil’ ones. The alignments have their own languages, and hearing the wrong alignment language, we’re told, will push a creature to attack.

It’s not assumed that the protagonist should be Lawful. In fact e.g. thieves (added with Greyhawk, then ported back into the LBBs) are not even allowed to be Lawful. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what role the ‘alignment’ system was intended to play in this game, except as another tool for the referee to fuck with the players.

So we’ve got a game where…

Rules such as ‘experience points’ are largely built around those assumptions.

Questions like ‘are orc babies evil’ don’t even come up in this context. You don’t ask why there are orcs in the dungeon, or perhaps you can blame it on an evil wizard or something; the point is, it hardly matters what sort of people the orcs are, what they want, where they come from. They’re obstacles rather than characters.

If you look up orcs, it gives you various rules for generating numbers of orcs, types of stronger orc, what kind of defences an orc village might have. About the only thing we can discern about orcs is that they have inter-tribal conflicts. You get little more if you look up goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds and so on: mostly just how they fight. In general, the most that is said of any monster is how ‘intelligent’ they are, and a few negative adjectives: e.g. trolls are ‘thin and rubbery, loathsome’.

The player characters, likewise, are more or less game pieces: in the example of play offered by Gygax, the conversation is between the referee (later, DM) and a ‘caller’ standing in for the party. Neither of them refers to any character by name; they just say ‘the elf’. Something similar happens in this video of the ‘white box’ game.

The reason for ‘evil species’

But before long - almost right from the start - the hobby developed and people wanted to flesh out their characters as characters in a story and not just tokens with a list of abilities. As an example, Wikipedia describes the development of Forgotten Realms:

Greenwood discovered the Dungeons & Dragons game in 1975, and became a serious role-playing enthusiast with the first AD&D game releases in 1978.[13] The setting became the home of Greenwood’s personal campaign.[14] Greenwood began a Realms campaign in the city of Waterdeep, then started another group known as the Knights of Myth Drannor in Shadowdale. Greenwood felt that his players’ thirst for detail made the Realms what it is: “They want it to seem real, and work on ‘honest jobs’ and personal activities, until the whole thing grows into far more than a casual campaign. Roleplaying always governs over rules, and the adventures seem to develop themselves.”[13] Greenwood has stated that his own version of the Forgotten Realms, as run in his personal campaign, is much darker than published versions.[15]

So now you’ve got a kind of tension. The game calls for you to be fighting, exploring, and acquiring wealth; that is what all the rules concern. But these characters who you’re playing, if they are to feel like real, fleshed-out people, probably need a more compelling reason to fight than just ‘loot treasure, build castle’. Who are they fighting? Why?

Generally speaking, we want our fictional characters to have a good reason to be fighting. Yes, shounen anime gets a lot of mileage out of people fighting just to become stronger, or its own sake… but for the most part, even if the fights are what we’re here for (and for many players, they wouldn’t be), we expect violence should be in service to a larger goal.

There’s also a need to provide ‘campaign settings’, to do some of the heavy lifting for a DM; the idea of building one’s own sweeping fantasy world in order to set stories in was part of the game from the start. The popular ones grow further, becoming not just instruments but grand projects in their own right. Settings such as Forgotten Realms snowball into vast media franchises with their own lines of books, unique characters, and so on; it becomes a point of pride to memorise the most information. So there’s a need to answer questions like ‘who are those guys’ beyond ‘the bad guys, right now’.

My girlfriend, who knows more about the early history of the hobby,​ tells me official that efforts to flesh out the monsters began in the pages of Dragon magazine, with 4-5 page articles on ‘monster ecology’; she’s not sure when this began, but it was happening by the 80s. At this time, D&D had grown into a franchise sold by TSR; the business model to this day requires selling not just the rulebooks themselves (a one time purchase), but various supplements, magazines and so on.

And yet… people still want the dungeon crawling experience, albeit one linked up to that ‘fleshed out setting’. Since it’s a bit too uncomfortable to crawl a dungeon and kill the people there for no reason if they’re ordinary humans living their lives, you need to justify it.

And we’re building this on a substrate of authors like Howard, who looked to the ‘frontier myth’ of regeneration through violent - in fact, genocidal - conquest, and were obsessed with the rise and fall of different ‘races’ (if you try to find critical consideration of Howard’s racism, you’ll find a whole lotta apologetics and some dead links).

Or hell, Tolkien, who gives us elves, dwarves and so on in an existential conflict against ‘orcs’. Tolkien himself was actually troubled by his concept of orcs whose evil did not come by choice, though I can’t find the relevant quotation, but the idea of an army of evil orcs that must be defeated stuck pretty hard, and the good people divided into particular ‘races’ became cemented. We’ve long reached the point that orcs, elves and dwarves have become almost inescapable, necessary tropes of the ‘fantasy’ tradition, especially in videogames. Even when ‘orcs’ aren’t around per se, the idea of an evil species making armies often remains, just renamed to some fantasy word like ‘darkspawn’.

In general, the writers of this game were obviously white guys living in a settler-colonial society founded on genocide and slavery. They don’t exactly have the best standpoint to question the notions handed to them.

The role of race

Now the need for an ‘evil race’ has been established, they could of course go about creating one. The way they did this was, perhaps inevitably, by drawing on racialised stereotypes of various kinds. The orcs are kind of people that are ‘uncivilised’ despite the fact they form armies; they are muscled, hypermasculine and sometimes even directly given dark skin; their faces don’t look like white people; they are inherently prone to violence and only answer to violence; they are untrustworthy; they live in tribes ruled by violence and threaten the lands of ‘civilisation’; they are a problem to be controlled rather than people.

Over the last several centuries, the ideology of racism, ‘scientific’ or not, has been born and mobilised these images against various people Europeans hoped to enslave or exterminate for the land they lived on. The exact forms varied, from lurid stories of Aztec human sacrifice to modern claims that police execution is in service of a ‘thin blue line’ between white society and ‘superpredators’ and gangs.

There’s kind of two dimension here: first, the idea that the world can be divided into various ‘races’, each with particular traits: elves live in trees, dwarves dig tunnels; lately, orcs are where you project your image of an idealised butch girlfriend (“I want her to beat me up, I want her to step on me!”). This is a weird sort of mapping of the enormous variety in human culture and belief into ‘thin, arrogant white people with pointy ears, Scottish white people who live in a hole’.

Then, on top of that, there’s the characterisation of ‘evil races’ with those outright genocidal concepts.

Depictions of ‘orcs’ vary in what, exactly, they’re drawing on. The ork ‘lads’ of Warhammer 40,000 are a ‘playful’ exaggeration of stereotypes of working-class British men (‘football hooligans’ etc.), with whom the original audience is probably expected to identify to some degree; like most of 40k, they started as a kind of dark joke playing around with hypermasculinity and then somewhere along the way, the joke turned into something Very Serious to sell manly soldiers to young boys. But orcs etc. are not usually a consistent metaphor for one particular group of people. They might, according to convenience, draw on negative stereotypes about Black people, about Native people, about Mongolian people…

We never write in a vacuum. If we write a story about aliens coming to visit Earth from space, we’re in some kind of conversation with stories that deal with people from ‘Other’ lands as well as other science fiction. Fantasy stories may not depict ‘humans’ within the world’s particular divisions, but the people we fill them with are reflections of our relationships with and understanding of ourselves and other humans, and have something to say to us in our human lives.

So I don’t think there’s any ‘safe’, ‘clean’ way to write of a species with an inherently violent nature.

Does this necessarily mean that people who read fantasy novels and play D&D are irredeemable racists? Or at least, that D&D is encouraging racism in its players? I’m not sure cause and effect can be isolated so clearly. Consciously, of course, people can distinguish reality and fantasy. If we can speak of D&D as being part of the ‘superstructure’ that conditions and maintains the material/economic ‘base’… well, I don’t know, that seems too grandiose. Obviously D&D has many racist fans, and part of the reason it has had such a hard time shedding this legacy is the need to keep those fans playing the game rather than denounce its authors as sjw cucks or whatever.

What I think I can say is that, having become conscious of all this, I find playing ‘unreconstructed’ D&D a very difficult experience.

On monsters in general

While ‘orcs’, ‘goblins’ etc. remain the most overtly racialised figures, there’s a question left of like… devils and mind flayers and all the rest of the D&D bestiary. This is something I’ve had some long and unfortunate arguments about when it comes to taking ‘mind flayers’ and making of them some kind of sympathetic character.

Monsters in fiction can serve various metaphorical roles. The ‘mind flayers’, for example, are written in some texts as a slave empire, reflecting the real history of Black chattel slavery at the hands of European people on which our present economic system was founded. So I’ve seen some discussion that sees attempts to write ‘redeemable’ mind flayers as being apologetics for slavery.

I think there’s two things that make me uncomfortable, there. One is the idea that any group of people - since we’re talking about beings who can use language, are evidently conscious - is a monolith. So the idea that ‘mind flayers’ aren’t just presently complicit in slavery, but must only be slavers, that there could be a people whose nature is to take slaves, such that

The formerly-enslaved gith hunt the mind flayers across the universe because they know that any advancement in the mind flayer agenda spells the doom of that universe. If the mind flayers regain their foothold, if they can be the savior of their species, then they will pursue their goals without fail. Those goals are subjugation and slavery of everyone else.

Rather than a social and economic system here that produces people as slavers, we have a species which is only capable of slavery. The only way to prevent the re-enslavement of the world is the complete extermination of all the ‘mind flayers’. This, to me, is just as much ‘moral quicksand’ as attempting to sympathise with a character who aspires to own slaves. While the Waypoint article may not be wrong as a criticism of Mearls’ module, if it doesn’t change this premise, neither side seems to really address that problem.

Where do problems come from?

The second issue I have is the way we construct the enemy Other. There is a contrast between ‘normal’ people, who look like ‘us’ (or a version of ourselves that better fulfils our society’s beauty standards), and their enemies are ‘monstrous’ people, who have tentacles growing out of their faces and reproduce in the most gross way possible. In Lovecraft, the monstrous, betentacled Other stands in for the horrifying outside to what Lovecraft conceived of as ‘rational’ civilisation.

I basically can’t stand a story which sets it up so that what is good is ‘people like us’ and what is bad is ‘weird monstrous people fundamentally unlike us’. Perhaps this comes, in part, from that history of using transness to characterise e.g. serial killers, what Rani Baker the ‘bad queer’ role. I guess I can’t help but see using ‘monstrousness’ to mark an Other for destruction in that light.

But also, I think, there’s an element of like… I want to tell stories that are about something. And especially that stories that challenge rather than accept the social formations we live in, in this world ruled by capital, white supremacy, gender etc. For a kind of paradigmatic fantasy story, particularly in film, the enemy is an outside threat, and the heroes’ project is to uphold or restore a happy status quo. With the grimdark turn inspired by novels like A Song of Ice and Fire and The First Law, which presented itself as reacting against these kind of stories (Sansa Stark suffers endlessly for the crime of being sentimental), the pastoral fantasy was rejected in favour of a portrayal of people living miserable lives ruled by self-interested cruelty. It’s a return to the territory of violent, pulpy sword and sorcery novels, if fantasy ever really left it.

There was a time when I related to these stories as more ‘truthful’, and enjoyed stories like The First Law and Warhammer novels. In Warhammer 40,000, ‘there is only war’, there will only ever be war, eternal fascism under the Imperium or miserable death to its various enemies. But in treating such things as natural and inevitable, they justify the present just as much as ‘lets save order from chaos!’

When I get the chance, I don’t want to tell stories like this, about rallying to the defence of a familiar society, or presenting suffering for its own sake. (Perhaps my fave Yoko Taro could be criticised for this, especially in Drakengard, but I feel like he manages to handle the tragic themes in a better way than e.g. Joe Abercrombie? But don’t ask me to say why, I would struggle to make a convincing case!)

It would probably be silly to imagine we could prototype social systems through a roleplaying game as some kind of simulation. But it is a collaborative storytelling medium. In my various attempts at fiction, this is kind of the question that’s always there: how can a world that feels so miserable and cruel be changed?

To finish the line of thought about monsters, much horror fiction does not try to go the kind of elaborate backstory of a roleplaying campaign setting. The monster, if there’s a monster, tends to be supernatural; trying to give it an explanation would cheapen its role, its unknown capabilities make it scarier. But in a D&D campaign setting, in ‘expanded universes’ in general, it’s not possible to simply leave something unexplained. Mind flayers, already a pretty stupid idea - it does more damage if you’re smart! - got this elaborate ‘ecology’ with giant brains and brain slugs and so on, and this whole slave empire concept.

I am much more comfortable with monsters that someone can become, such as D&D’s ‘lich’; the monster is a problem that arises from the society and calls it into question, not something from outside that it must defend against. Even so, I want to reject the hierarchy of beautiful (in the right way) = good, weird and ugly = evil.

Compare videogames

Videogames, too, face this problem. To a far greater extent than even film, in which action movies are just one genre, videogames tend to revolve around killing many, many, many enemies. There are various reasons for this: that it is easier and cheaper to create a convincing AI-driven combatant than conversation partner being a major one. In film, it is easier to shoot conversations than action sequences; the opposite tends to be true in games, and conversations are still limited to branching paths while combat and platforming can be generated by the game’s programmed systems.

I play these games, of course. I don’t know how many fictional people I’ve ‘killed’ in games, or how many times my own avatar has died. In Warframe, where nearly every 5-20 minute procedural mission sees hundreds of enemies killed, the total is in the hundreds of thousands; but because the enemies are instantiations of a particular ‘type’, this number means very little. Killing is just a symbolic activity. Trying to take it seriously makes the narrative incoherent: why is killing the named NPC treated as so much worse than the dozens of enemies you cut through in the previous level? The protagonists seem to ‘know’ on some level which of them is considered a real person. (This is not necessarily ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ as originally defined, but might be in the more popular sense.)

Some games attempt to directly address this difficult tension: Yoko Taro’s Drakengard and Nier games are particularly known for it, asking among other questions what would make someone capable of killing people the way videogame characters do - a question he approaches in various ways. But as he says, he’s ‘failed’ to really find an alternative. An action game can be made, like NieR: Automata, to serve a powerful story about the struggles we all face, one that sees a way to transcend the inevitability of tragic outcomes… but only in so many ways.

spoilers for NieR: Automata

It’s worth considering where NieR Automata decides to end the story. The player has, with the help of another player’s sacrifice of their save file, helped the pods overcome their programming and reject the tragic ending where (in one of two outcomes) A2 and 9S die in each others’ pooling blood on the top of the Tower - by metaphorically shooting their way through the developers who inflicted this scenario on them. There is the possibility now that the resurrected androids will not repeat their miserable fates, but will find a new way to live. This is, however, where the story ends, and the player is asked if they are willing to delete their save file to help another person reach this ending. Even if the player refuses, there is no way to see that future, just to chapter select to the story seen so far, collect the weapons, see the end of Emil’s story and so on - events which are presumed to have happened before endings C/D/E.

Yoko Taro did in fact write some extra post-ending-E scenes, and write a timeline, which were performed at the music concert, but they barely advance the story further. The game part - the bit where we take a hand in the androids’ and machines’ struggles - ends there. It’s a brilliant ending, but I think it also has something to do with there no longer being room for the action game core. If playing the game was taking part in the tragic conflict, to escape the conflict is to stop playing, and such a game can’t present what happens next.

Character action games such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta use the violent spectacle as a way to express their protagonist’s intensity and charisma. To quote from the HG101 review of Bayonetta:

More broadly speaking, a given character action game’s ethos is defined by whoever its lead character is, every aesthetic being made in service to that protagonist. Why do the Devil May Cry games emphasize highly technical play? To give Dante a stage on which to perform and to demonstrate how in control he is. Why is this important to him? Consider what ideas he’s meant to evoke: A rock star. A bad boy who does what he wants and doesn’t care what other people have to say about it. The kind of guy who guys want to be and girls and to have. A person who’s dripping with power and sexual charisma.

No doubt this was the format PlatinumGames began with when they designed Bayonetta. Hideki Kamiya’s instructions to character designer Mari Shimazaki suggest what he had in mind was “a female Dante.” However, they were likely aware that changing the protagonist’s gender would change a lot of that character’s dynamic, and so wrote her accordingly. The cool, disaffected anti-hero aspect of that character remains, and judging by her spinning around an ax like a stripper pole, suplexing a conga line of Angels, and surfing an Angel’s corpse while shouting, “Henshin a go go, baby!” (a reference to Viewtiful Joe, one of Kamiya’s games during his tenure at Capcom), it’s safe to say that the performer aspect remains unchanged, as well.

What has changed are the nuances of how all of this is expressed. Where Dante was modeled after a rock star, Bayonetta shares more in common with a dominatrix. With a few exceptions, she’s never seen without her high heels, skin-tight leather bodysuit (actually made from her hair) and horn-rimmed glasses. She attacks her enemies with Inquisition-turned-BDSM armaments like a breaking wheel, an iron maiden, and a wooden horse. Yet the weapons she uses the most frequently in her fights are also obvious signifiers of her feminine beauty: her legs, her high heels, and her hair. It’s also worth noting that this last weapon requires her to dismiss her makeshift clothes and expose her naked body. When she double jumps, she sprouts butterfly wings; she replenishes her health with lollipops. When she runs, she turns into a panther.

As tempting as it might be to interpret her sexuality as the centerpiece of Bayonetta’s characterization, her power and her calm sense of control precede both. Whether she’s pointing a gun at someone as she walks toward them with her hand on her hip or evading Luka’s grasp like it’s the easiest thing in the world, Bayonetta exudes power in her every moment on screen. In fact, there are few if any moments where control is wrested out of her hands. Not even the story can control what she does: while she’s searching Vigrid for the Eyes of the World in theory, in practice, she jumps from performance to performance until she happens to end up where she needs to be.

The enemies in these games tend to be angels and demons, which don’t really require explanation, and can be killed without qualms. Their role in the story is to provide a stage to perform on.

Platinum’s Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is an exception, perhaps not surprising as an offshoot of the Metal Gear series which I’m not all that familiar with. Rival character Jetstream Sam confronts protagonist Raiden with the fact that the soldiers he is fighting, for what he insisted are noble reasons, are forced to become cyborgs by poverty and debt, and broadcasts the terror they experience when he kills him. The answer he arrives at is that his noble reasons were a front, that in truth he really enjoys killing as a result of the brutal childhood indoctrination he experienced in the ‘SEARS program’, and by accepting this fact about himself he can fight to prevent a bunch of kids’ brains in jars becoming like him. (Look, it’s videogames!)

Another, more controversial case is Spec Ops: The Line, which situates itself in the tradition of military shooters rather than JRPGs or character action games. Military shooters use real-world setting and imagery and are much more direct in presenting some kind of justification of military power, American exceptionalism, and so forth. SO:TL attempts a critique of these games by following the mould of Conrad’s infamously racist novel Heart of Darkness, swapping out Conrad’s African jungle for a futuristic Dubai. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s much of a critique; yes, you’re forced to use white phosphorus to bomb civilians then walk through their smouldering remains, yes the protagonist Conrad (do you see what you did there) goes mad from his experiences and the game reflects his state of mind, but I’m not convinced it actually meaningfully challenges the ideology of military shooters. YMMV.

In SO:TL, the enemies you fight are no less dehumanised, of course - though perhaps that reflects Conrad’s ideology and deteriorating state of mind.

What we have then, in the best cases, is stories that take the necessity that games be about violence to say something about that deals meaningfully with violence - at least on on some level. They are critiques of the medium they’re made for, but as yet we haven’t found an answer adequate to those critiques. And violence remains satisfying and compelling.

For the most part, games do not attempt to say anything so challenging. Bioware RPGs, for example, are a power fantasy - and being a powerful hero means deserving enemies to show your domination over. A lot of deserving enemies. So you get orcs darkspawn, crystal-possessed Templars, improbably enormous numbers of violent muggers on the streets, and so on. Other games offer zombies to a similar end, or soldiers from some ‘evil’ country such as North Korea (c.f. Crysis) or space aliens. I’m sure this goes a lot of way to explaining the relative popularity of the WWII FPS in comparison to other historical wars, because of the role WWII serves as a ‘heroic war’.

In Warframe, a game I’m more familiar with, the ‘Tenno’ protagonists are nominally fighting to protect the remnant civilian population of the fallen Orokin Empire from various terrible threats: the ruthlessly capitalist Corpus, the imperialist clone Grineer, the Infested who are your usual blobby space disease (c.f. Tyranids, Zerg, Flood, etc.). But if you actually consider what the game involves: the nigh-invincible Tenno go out to hunt and kill thousands of helpless enemies, who can never negotiate or surrender, mostly for the purposes of acquiring better gear that they can use to kill enemies faster, get even better gear, and so on. The level begins, enemies rush in, and you deploy your carefully engineered suite of abilities to kill them all as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

There’s a mode in Warframe added recently called ‘Sanctuary Onslaught’. One of the two amoral ‘Cephalon’ AIs maintains a virtual space where simulated enemies live, and you have to explicitly kill them as efficiently as possible (your efficiency being measured as a meter which drops over time and is restored by killing enemies). Cephalon Simaris occasionally speaks justifying words about how it’s serving the cause of science, that you shouldn’t question its motives - clearly you are supposed to find it questionable.

‘Sanctuary Onslaught’ is presently among the most efficient ways to level your character and get rewards it’s hard to acquire otherwise. If there is supposed to be a self-critique in the words of Cephalon Simaris, it’s not one they have any particular interest in exploring.

Some games dispense with the justifying story. There’s a series called Orcs Must Die, which seems to be about shepherding orcs into traps in various nasty ways.

I once described what you do in videogames to a therapist not familiar with the medium. She was pretty appalled. But apparently I still enjoy spending my time making imaginary people imaginary-dead - as are millions of other people. Sure, there are sports games, puzzle games, platformers and so on. But I don’t just play those games.

I just had a look and if you look at the list of the best-selling videogames, you have really quit a lot of non-violent games, or games where violence is not the focus. It’s a mixed list: you have Tetris, Minecraft, Wii Sports, Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart Wii, Wii Sports Resort… but also GTA V, PUBG, Skyrim, Duck Hunt, various Calls of Duty. (Not sure which list to count Pokémon on. It’s a game about fighting… but, it insists, not killing.) But if you look at the Steam store on any given day, or the titles on offer in a game shop, you’ll find a lot of shooters and action games.

The role of authorship

So if I’m comfortable playing all these violent games, or at least not uncomfortable enough to stop, why does D&D cause me so many issues?

I think the difference is, in a game, the only ways to engage are the ways the game permits you to. If given the choice, I’d negotiate with my enemies, or avoid killing them (the playthrough of Dishonored I streamed notwithstanding), but I’m not, and I want to see ‘what happens’ to these characters anyway. And because there is something fun about spectacular violence in games that I’m not at all immune to.

In D&D, it is a story I am telling with my friends. There is no longer any ‘excuse’; anything we’re willing to imagine can happen. The story we are telling is something I have to take responsibility for. And I do not feel at all OK telling a story where violence is treated as casual, where the message is at least partly that there are people who are by their nature deserving of extermination. I’m happy telling a story about less-than-heroic characters, but faced with such a premise, I don’t feel comfortable playing to its terms.

D&D does not have to be that way, but the rules are designed to ensure the possibility that it can be.

What has become of ‘monster races’ in the present?

Now, this is what, decades later, modern D&D (Fifth Edition) says is the object of the game:

In the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends). Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city, a haunted castle, a lost temple deep in a jungle, or a lava-filled cavern beneath a mysterious mountain. The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure.

and later,

The game has no real end; when one story or quest wraps up, another one can begin, creating an ongoing story called a campaign. Many people who play the game keep their campaigns going for months or years. meeting with their friends every week or so to pick up the story where they left off. The adventurers grow in might as the campaign continues. Each monster defeated, each adventure completed, and each treasure recovered not only adds to the continuing story, but also earns the adventurers new capabilities. This increase in power is reflected by an adventurer’s level. There’s no winning and losing in the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game—at least, not the way those terms are usually understood. Together, the DM and the players create an exciting story of bold adventurers who confront deadly perils.

and in a third place,

The adventure is the heart of the game, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. An adventure might be created by the Dungeon Master or purchased off the shelf, tweaked and modified to suit the DM’s needs and desires. In either case, an adventure features a fantastic setting, whether it’s an underground dungeon, a crumbling castle, a stretch of wilderness, or a bustling city. It features a rich cast of characters: the adventurers created and played by the other players at the table, as well as nonplayer characters (NPCs). Those characters might be patrons, allies, enemies, hirelings, or just background extras in an adventure. Often, one of the NPCs is a villain whose agenda drives much of an adventure’s action.

Over the course of their adventures, the characters are confronted by a variety of creatures, objects, and situations that they must deal with in some way. Sometimes the adventurers and other creatures do their best to kill or capture each other in combat. At other times, the adventurers talk to another creature (or even a magical object) with a goal in mind. And often, the adventurers spend time trying to solve a puzzIe, bypass an obstacle, find something hidden, or unravel the current situation. Meanwhile, the adventurers explore the world, making decisions about which way lo travel and what they’ll try to do next.

This strikes me as a pretty solid, if necessarily vague and a little purple, description of the various ways the game is played; obviously it’s broadened considerably from the description from the Little Brown Books above. It’s interesting to spot a few changes: monsters have dropped their ‘loathsome aspect’ and become ‘fantastic’.

The designers still seem to expect some aspects will be retained. Battling fantastic monsters, recovering treasure, and growing in might are still there. But the emphasis has changed a bit: a lot more mention of a story.

To me, there’s no question that 5e has managed to address many of the design flaws and bloat of 3.5e, and has priorities more aligned with mine than 4e did (4e being built around a solid if fairly fiddly miniatures combat game). I appreciate its measures towards simplifying and streamlining. But how does it handle that whole question of orcs?

5e was designed as an attempt to make a game flexible enough to appeal to fans of all the (significantly different) editions to date, puts as much stock in the ‘canon’ of D&D tie-in novels as early D&D did sword and sorcery authors. Each race features a short excerpt from a D&D novel at the beginning. Orcs themselves do not feature in the Player’s Handbook, but half-orcs do, and we have a snippet from Swordmage (lol) by Richard Baker. It begins…

THE WARCHIEF MHURREN ROUSED HIMSELF FROM HIS sleeping-furs and his women

and do I really need to say anything? ><

This is how the actual game text begins:

Whether united under the leadership of a mighty warlock or having fought to a standstill after years of conflict, orc and human tribes sometimes form alliances, joining forces into a larger horde lo lhe terror of civilized lands nearby. When these alliances are sealed by marriages, half-ores are born. Some half-ores rise to beeome proud chiefs of ore tribes, their human blood giving them an edge over their full-blooded orc rivals. Some venture into the world to prove their worth among humans and other more civilized races.

Holy shit guys. You’re gonna out-racist Gary Gygax at this rate. The rest of the text continues in much the same vein.

This is making me realise just how much my DM rewrote in the last D&D game I played. It’s kind of good I don’t have a physical copy of the book because at this point I’d throw it down in disgust lol.

Turning to the Monster Manual, we learn…

Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces with prominent lower canines that resemble tusks.

and it goes on like that, e.g.

Tribes like Plagues. Orcs gather in tribes that exert their dominance and satisfy their bloodlust by plundering villages, devouring or driving off roaming herds, and slaying any humanoids that stand against them. After savaging a settlement, orcs pick it clean of wealth and items usable in their own lands. They set the remains of villages and camps ablaze, then retreat whence they came, their bloodlust satisfied.

Ranging Scavengers. Their lust for slaughter demands that orcs dwell always within striking distance of new targets. As such, they seldom settle permanently, instead converting ruins, cavern complexes, and defeated foes’ villages into fortified camps and strongholds. Orcs build only for defense, making no innovation or improvement to their lairs beyond mounting the severed body parts of their victims on spiked stockade walls or pikes jutting up from moats arid trenches.

So you know, I don’t need to quote any more of this, you get the picture. This is, to my mind, far worse than the extremely dry non-treatment in OD&D. There are so many cruel, colonialist assumptions baked into this text - about ‘civilisation’, and what its lack would entail, and about how a ‘monstrous’ species should look: ‘stooped postures, low foreheads and piggish faces’ sounds like something a 19th century ‘scientific racist’ would write. No doubt Gygax had similar things in mind, but it least leaves room for the Orcs to have some other dimension.

It’s not just orcs, of course. Some other examples of the ‘monster manual worldview’:

Goblins are small, black-hearted, selfish humanoids that lair in caves, abandoned mines, despoiled dungeons, and other dismal settings. Individually weak, goblins gather in large—sometimes overwhelming—numbers. They crave power and regularly abuse whatever authority they obtain.

Gnolls are feral humanoids that attack settlements along the frontiers and borderlands of civilization without warning, slaughtering their victims and devouring their flesh .

Kenku are feathered humanoids that wander the world as vagabonds, driven by greed.

Born with horrific appetites, trolls eat anything they can catch and devour. They have no society to speak of, but they do serve as mercenaries to orcs, ogres, ettins, hags, and giants.

That last one… hold on, what? They have no society but they participate in wage labour, and implicitly trade? Did the author of this paragraph think for five seconds?

The only halfway positive way I can interpret these sourcebooks is that they’re self-serving propaganda from within the fiction. But that is obviously not what was intended: these passages have the same authoritative voice as the rest of the rules.

What to do about it?

It’s not that you can’t have violence in a story. If the videogame section didn’t make it obvious, I am not automatically uninterested in stories that concern violence.

I think what it is for me is that this attempts to make violence simple; to attempt to create a lasting scenario where it’s unquestionably right and always will be. It’s trying to brush aside our natural aversion to hurting and killing people rather than look it in the eye, a fictional mirror of the purpose dehumanisation narratives serve in the real world. Thankfully, overcoming our aversion to killing fictional orcs, while easier, has many fewer consequences.

If killing orcs is obviously not equal to killing any real person, then what’s the harm? I think for me it’s not necessarily some clear-cut case that playing D&D will make you more likely to condone your country’s next imperialist war, or support more intense policing, or anything like that; that would be difficult to prove, especially since the cause and effect could be reversed. And there are media such as the news which much more directly make the case for that. Rather, I feel like it’s a symptom of the society that produced D&D games, that makes the game very uncomfortable for me personally at least, and undoubtedly other people.

An excerpt from the game Unknown Armies, describing various possible ways to avoid escalating a confrontation into a fight.

This is an excerpt I saw on Tumblr for an introduction to the fighting rules in a game called Unknown Armies. The section ends:

Another excerpt from Unknown Armies ending 'here are rules for simulating the murder of other human beings. Have fun!

This is obviously a pretty pointed and sarcastic passage that would hardly be at home in every RPG system. But it does make the whole situation rather stark, I feel like. This is what we’re talking about when we put violence in a story; not the only thing we’re talking about, but present.

So what do we do with D&D? It would be easy to say ‘just play another game’, and that’s cool if what you’re feeling like is another game, but I think a lot of people still want D&D. There’s still an appeal in that brand of weird fantasy. And you know, I love Dark Souls, which among other things is a huge homage to D&D. So if we still believe it’s worth doing, how do we yet ‘simulate the murder of other human beings’ in a way that’s honest?

I think consciousness goes a long way. This is something that it is encouraged of DMs and players anyway; to make the world seem ‘real’, and attend to the motivations of NPCs, including those who oppose the interests of the party. Apocalypse World calls for this explicitly as one of the principles the MC is to follow: ‘name everyone, make everyone human’. Vincent’s example of this is a guy who cheerily burned down a town and likes bubble baths, which is kind of out there as a character, but it’s a good principle at least.

Second I think is, making it clear that this isn’t a videogame world where fighting is the only option. Have NPCs that attempt to negotiate and respond to attempts to negotiate by the players. I don’t mean like, if the players ask to make peace with someone, they should give them everything they want. Indeed, by not giving the players everything they want, you can say something: violence may be expedient, so how does this character weigh the deal that doesn’t give them everything they want against the guilt of killing someone for the extra thing?

Have NPCs with the sense not to just fight to the death like they would in a computer game, but can see when things are going south and run away or surrender - just like a person would. (Then, when a character refuses to surrender when they’re beaten, that’s a meaningful bit of characterisation rather than just something all the enemies do all the time.)

When it does come to violence, one approach would be to show the consequences; characters will grieve and demand justice in whatever way fits, injuries take time to recover from (or if there’s magical healing, the injury itself was probably still traumatic), inflicting violence is also unpleasant and upsetting (or if it’s not, that has been learned, the same way armies must turn soldiers into people willing to kill). If the players use violence or threats of violence to get what they want, have people respond appropriately to that characterisation choice. This is obviously a gritty framing compared to the sanitised violence of ‘standard’ D&D.

Alternatively, make it so it’s not about killing - like a magical girl anime or slapstick comedy. The focus is on the emotional arcs of the characters perhaps, or ridiculous antics. Or perhaps it’s in a social setting where fights can end without death, like duels to first blood or something. (How much better to have the characters show their reaction to being beaten!)

As far as the portrayal of violence, there’s various approaches. While I think the abruptness and brutality of Ashitaka’s actions in Princess Mononoke is particularly effective for that film, I’m not going to say drawn-out fight scenes are bad – hell, I wrote that whole huge article on trying to capture intense duels! My current feeling is that the focus is in the wrong place for my purposes in many RPGs, particularly D&D: so much attention is paid to the tactical minutiae that it’s easy to lose sight of the important questions of what’s at stake? and what is your character feeling? which is what makes a fight really compelling.

Dogs in the Vineyard has an interesting approach there, presenting just about every possible situation as a ladder of escalating stakes; when negotiation doesn’t go your way, you have the option to draw a gun, and so on. It even applies this idea to situations involving inanimate objects. I have somewhat mixed feelings about DitV for similar reasons to Vincent himself (who has unpublished the game and when asked why basically said ‘fuck Westerns’), but the resolution system is an interesting concept.

Chuubo’s Marvellous Wish-Granting Engine frames the entire situation differently, focusing on the character’s development through emotional arcs rather than the question of whether they get what they want at a particular task. CMWGE seems to be more about structuring and pacing the overall story: by deciding on a broad set of themes, a particular set of actions are identified which advance the story. Like Apocalypse World, it’s built out of actions that are triggered by certain events in the fiction; unlike Apocalypse World, which uses these as points to introduce new complications into the story, these are essentially just things you’re encouraged to do to advance your character’s storyline. For example, in the ‘pastoral’ genre, there is ‘shared action’.

Condition: Someone’s doing something simple and honest, like cooking, cleaning, or practicing their martial arts katas.

You’re hanging out with them, socializing or helping.

Or, you’re the one doing simple, honest stuff, and someone else is interacting with you!

Action: Reach out to them. Try to connect.

Obviously you don’t need rules to do this, but what I think CMWGE is doing is drawing your attention here; it’s suggesting particular ways to frame scenes which is incredibly useful in the heat of the moment. In D&D by contrast, in combat you are thinking: which of my spells will do the most damage/incapacitate the monster most effectively? Where should I stand? Is it worth spending x resource? If you’re quick, you can decide your action and still have time to figure out what your character will say, what flourishes you will add to the description, how they feel about what’s happening. If the circumstances change before your turn, you might have to adjust very quickly.

In CMWGE it seems to be all about expressing emotions, reacting to things people have done to give them weight, and developing a narrative arc or set of themes. Way more than flag systems like Burning Wheel’s beliefs.

god I really want to get a chance to play CMWGE.

But this is surposed to be a post about D&D’s dodgy history, not about my conversion to Jenna Moran fandom. So like…

without borrowing all the structures of Chuubo’s, that’s another technique to apply: refocus the story on what the characters are feeling. Ask the players directly. Show NPCs reacting.

This is, I think, part of what it takes to unfuck D&D for me. There are no non-persons; everyone you meet, even the cruellest, will have thoughts, feelings, aspirations, relationships, aesthetics and decoration that’s not just blood and skulls, sincere beliefs, a sense of humour. You don’t need to work all that out in advance, but like… be thinking of it. That way, you can make it clear that when someone is doing something evil, it is not because of their intrinsic nature, and that is obvious in the narrative because for any category, there is enough diversity to make any claim to ‘intrinsic nature’ untenable.

That might be necessary but it isn’t sufficient. The other antidote is education: to learn about the history of colonisation, the ideas that were used to justify subjugation and genocide. Address that and explicitly challenge their presence in D&D, or not, but don’t replicate it.

And what about Wizards of the Coast?

Wizards of the Coast has no business interest in unfucking D&D. 5e is a compromise, designed to capture as many disparate parts of the fractured fanbase as possible. It’s not surprising that it’s so contradictory: an effort at diversity of skin tones in the artwork, a passage about gender variance… printed alongside things like the orc passages quoted above. It’s perhaps easier to get away with the orc stuff because people can respond to a criticism around coding and metaphor with “what, are you saying they’re racist against orcs?” and the point will be lost.

D&D is a product. Whatever the goals of the designers, if they do not bring Hasbro more money back than they are given, they cannot continue working. D&D-the-rulebook has to lay enough claim to continuity with what came before that its fans won’t dismiss it as ‘not D&D’, and stick with their current editions, or spinoff games (the OSR movement, Pathfinder, etc.) WotC would have to be very secure in their position to explicitly take up a stance such as “earlier editions of D&D were a racist mess, and we’re going to have to heavily retcon most of these published campaign settings”.

That’s not to excuse WotC. It’s just to set realistic expectations of what we are likely to achieve.

WotC could take a less extreme measure than denouncing the entire project so far. In the next edition, writing in the Monster Manual not that orcs are ‘savage’ brutes out to destroy civilisation, nor simply making them into an ‘Orc kingdom’ in the mirror of the ‘civilisation’ of the ‘good races’, nor some kind of ‘noble savage’ cartoon, but a functioning, complex society with internal diversity that isn’t just essentially-identical “tribes” at war with each other because that is their nature. Perhaps even a framework for DMs to develop their own such societies. Perhaps discuss ‘elven propaganda’ or some such. Perhaps directly address how such narratives justify colonisation, though that might be asking a bit much. Most players would probably ignore it anyway.

Final thoughts

Given my feelings above, I’m sure it’s not surprising that I have very little interest in D&D without a heavy amount of work redesigning it, at which point I might as well just play a different game entirely, because the mechanics are adequate to their purpose but not particularly striking. But I have friends who enjoy D&D, and invited me to play it (though given how things went, for much of the reasons discussed above, I’m not sure I’d be so welcome back); I guess I still find it worth thinking about D&D, and trying to reckon with its history.