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Decolonizing Tabletop Fantasy

Cai Kagawa explores the problematic racial representation in D&D

Tabletop gaming is the limitless practice of collaborative storytelling, where chaos and chance help guide the narrative. A group of people sit down with some dice, a book or two of rules, and tell a story. The rules and dice are just the agreed-upon mechanisms of chaos and order that ground everyone. The thrill of tabletop gaming is immersing yourself in a story with friends and family that is uniquely yours.

Wizards of the Coast’s (WotC) Dungeons and Dragons, originally published in 1974 and now in its 5th edition, is indisputably the most prominently known tabletop game. Tabletop gaming as a whole - brought on by booming interest during the pandemic and its constituencies becoming more diverse -  is in the midst of a renaissance.

The Player’s Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons, originally published in 2014

A part of this modern renaissance has been unraveling content that is linked to racism as well as religious and cultural appropriation. To that end, Dungeons and Dragons has been slowly removing and changing its core rules to reflect a more modern point of view, especially in regards to a character’s race and class.

Race is the most obvious place to start when it comes to deconstructing Eurocentric or antiquated points of view that have shaped fantasy tabletop gaming. In terms of D&D, race refers to the species of humanoid including Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and other iconic fantasy races. A character can be described using references to real-world ethnicities, but in terms of gameplay, the only thing race determines are abilities tied to your very nature.

When Dungeons and Dragons' 5th edition was first published in 2014, the Half-Orc race was one of the only races that came with specific notes that they were inclined towards evil, despite sharing a sourcebook with the tiefling race, an actual race descended from devils. In one of their first moves towards a more modern point of view on race, Dungeons and Dragons has removed any idea that some races are simply born evil.

A half-orc from the original Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook

Additionally, in a 2022 D&D publication Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, there was a piece of content that quickly flooded social media as problematic. A newly added race, the Hadozee, was an ape-like humanoid race that was created as a subjugated species to serve aboard magical ships. It was pointed out by many on the internet that they resembled minstrel monkey imagery and had many ideas wrapped up in them around the enslavement of African Americans. As of September 6th, 2022, Wizards of the Coast has issued a formal apology and removed most of the language that was problematic.

The original artwork published for the Hadozee in Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Though the Hadozee was a large misstep, there has also been a remarkable movement towards including other cultures in D&D, such as in the recently published supplement Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, where players can explore stories that include American, Central American, South American, African, and Asian-inspired stories, written by authors of those backgrounds. Among these authors is Miyuki Jane Pinckard who drew on Japanese culture to create Umizu, a region within the game’s universe. This is also, notably, one of the only recent instances where terms that are tied to real-world cultures appear, such as “ofrenda”, different from previous instances because it was included by people of Mexican descent in a narrative crafted by them.

Cover of Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel

Another core element of a D&D character is their class. Classes in Dungeons and Dragons are a reflection of a way of life, training, or particular innate abilities. Someone skilled in learned magic is a Wizard or Artificer. A person in tune with nature is a Ranger or a Druid.

Each class then specializes in more specific skills, known as a subclass. Subclasses are D&D’s way of giving you a chance to hone your character’s skills and give them unique abilities as a result: a Druid can become a Circle of the Land Druid that has power over the Forests, a Rogue can hone their abilities to become an Inquisitive spy, and a Fighter chooses their trained skills and abilities to become unrivaled in battle.

Most subclasses have fantastical names such as the Rune Knight or the Bladesigner. One particular Fighter subclass, however, stands out from all of the others: the Samurai.

Yes, that is a selectable subclass in the current, published edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

While WotC has done a lot of work to move away from generalizations about races and real-world cultures in D&D, this real-world term remains a feature, available for play in Dungeons and Dragons. The Samurai subclass is an incongruent reminder that while the worlds built in D&D are fantasy, they are impacted by the real world through the players and the game’s creators.

Published originally in the 2017 supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Samurai subclass is for a master with weapons who also uses his force of will and focus in battle. Mechanically it makes sense and offers an interesting perspective on the idea of the “noble knight” - but that is not what it is called.

In fact, Japanese culture has little presence in modern D&D outside of this particular subclass, which is presented without cultural context. There have been many unofficial publications for D&D about Japanese culture, drawing from Shinto, Bushidō, and the Shogun - none of which were written by those of Japanese descent. Unfortunately, the only official or unofficial means of representing Japanese culture in D&D is through the work of non-JA creators who admire the legacy of Japan or in one limited region in one very recently published work.

The Samurai were not just fighters; they were nobles, scholars, poets, and artists. They exclusively existed in Japanese culture. So why, then, is the Samurai subclass still in this European-based text that has been actively trying to divest itself of appropriation?

The Samurai Subclass image from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

It is yet to be seen what will come of this question as Dungeons and Dragons enters its new phase with the upcoming new “editionless” version of the game: One D&D. The inclusivity of Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel is promising, but with missteps like the Hadozee and old vestiges of Orientalist views still lingering in the texts, it is an uncertain time to be a BIPOC in the Tabletop Gaming community, especially playing Dungeons and Dragons.

For now, we ourselves will continue telling tales that allow for cultural nuance and exchange. The stories at our own tables can be free of any of the originally published negative stereotypes or borrowed cultural content.

That’s the best part about Tabletop Gaming: the rules exist, but the players get to decide what to do with them.

Image credits:

  • Players Handbook
  • https://dnd.wizards.com/resources/press-assets
  • This came from the official WotC press page and is probably good to go.
  • Half-Orc Race Image
  • Image from original Player’s Handbook (ISBN: 0786965606)
  • Hadozee Race Image
  • Images from Spelljammer (ISBN: 0786968168)
  • Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel (Alternate Cover)
  • Product image (original source ???)
  • Samurai Subclass Image
  • Images from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (ISBN: 0786966114)
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