Roll for Initiative! Let's talk Id(&d)entity

Dungeons & Dragons is back and its players are more diverse than ever. In this article we explore how Japanese American players navigate the fantasy world, D&D's problematic past, and what they've learned about themselves along the way.

This month I had the pleasure of chatting with dear friends and Dungeons & Dragons players Mariko Fujimoto, Michelle Hirano, Kurt Ikeda, and Mari Yamagiwa. While I’ve never played the game, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of Critical Role - a D&D live stream created by a group of incredible voice actors. As I watched, I found myself completely drawn into this world completely built completely in the imaginations of its players that marries storytelling and fantasy. But, of course, no good thing is without faults. D&D has also recently grappled with its racist source material, and I wondered how Japanese American players have navigated the traditionally white/cis/male fantasy space of D&D. 

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What initially drew you to playing D&D and how did you conceptualize your character? How are they similar or different from you?

Mariko: I’ve always liked fantasy as a genre and was curious about Dungeons & Dragons. Then, I started listening to podcasts and learning more about how to play. It’s a very comprehensive game with a lot of information available! But you can also throw the rulebook away if you wanted to. Because of that, the most interesting thing that I’ve seen playing this game is that every table is different, and that’s a really wonderful thing! 

I primarily run games as a Dungeon Master (DM) more than a regular player, but in the one campaign that I regularly play, I play a monk and we just hit level 5, which is really exciting because we've been playing for like two years. I’m not very good at the roleplay aspect of D&D, so I find it a little hard to step into a different character or put on a different voice, so she’s similar to me personality-wise. But, she’s more of an anime delinquent kind of personality - loud and obnoxious and always ready to start a fight.

Mariko, as someone who has a hard time stepping out of yourself to play a different character, as a DM, how do you play like 100 different characters?

Mariko: Alcohol. 

Fair! That’s a good answer.

Mariko: A lot of my non-player characters will have similar voices. You pick a few basic types of characters and shuffle through those- an angry shopkeeper, a spacey person, etc. and add a description that makes things different. 

That’s amazing. I'm always just really impressed by how DMs have to have an entire world built in their heads! Would anyone else like to share about how they started playing D&D?

Mari: When I started, I didn't know anything about D&D—I had only heard about it and saw references to it in Stranger Things. A friend invited me to play with other folks who’ve never played before, so I thought I’d take a chance and try, even though things like roleplay and improv make me so uncomfortable and awkward. But it’s one of those things where if you just throw yourself into it, you’re good! Everyone's into it too, so it's not weird, which was really freeing for me. 

Similar to Mariko, I had a hard time stepping out of myself, so my character is a forest gnome who’s very much like me: loves plants, nature, being nice and warm, and ends up being the mom of the group, taking care of other people. But my character is definitely a little bit more assertive and sassy than I am in real life. Reflecting on it now, it’s because I want to be more like that, but embodying that in my character is easier than in real life. 

Kurt:  I also started playing D&D in 2018. My best friend, who introduced me to Critical Role, also organized our first D&D campaign when I was living in Torrance. I live in Idaho now, and my best buddies are scattered across Oregon and California, so being able to play online has helped us stay close. Not that we wouldn’t have stayed friends, but it really gives us something to bond over. Today I’ll talk about my character Bernabus, who is a rock gnome bard with many instruments. I have a panache for playing old people and Bernabus is an old, old person with his owl named Sanders... you can probably put together where the inspiration came from, for a gnome who fights for the collective good and liberation of all people.

In terms of what D&D has meant for me, in addition to being a friend group, I am a huge Critter (fan of Critical Role). I have pictures with the cast, been religiously watching Campaign 2, and have paid just to go meet the cast at Seattle Comic-Con because I felt really immersed in the world. To be honest, I’m not really a fantasy person. I didn’t get into the Eurocentric Tolkein version of fantasy. But being able to pull from anime tropes or Miyazaki aesthetics, I understand that! That’s what my fantasy world looks like.

Unlike Mari, I’m very much an improv person. I could care less about rolling dice for attacks and stats. I love the character’s journey because I have had many career paths as a teacher to being a park ranger today, so it’s really awesome to see the progression of the characters. 

Michelle: I just started playing, and the group that I play with has a lot more experience than me and are so patient and kind in helping me. When building my character, I didn’t really know what I wanted to be and as our group was figuring out our characters, we realized we needed muscle. Our DM had already created characters for us that we could choose from, so I chose the half-orc and became the muscle of the group. I kind of gave them a back story of being raised by goblins, so they could speak Goblin, and they were also a master baker. I thought it'd be such a juxtaposition to have a character that's usually played pretty rough and dumb as someone who's soft and sweet. Also, in terms of gender identity, they’re not necessarily super masculine, but they're also obviously very strong! So one of the key character traits is that Bog always says some sort of bread or baking pun, but will also try not to use their strength unless the group is threatened.

For example, in our first practice game, we were faced with goblins and because I rolled a natural 20 for persuasion and could speak Goblin, we didn’t have to fight, and I persuaded them with bagels! 

 

You’ve all spoken a little bit about the groups that you play with and the inclusiveness in the spaces you play in. So, how has it been for you, as Asian American players, who play a game that was created by, and has traditionally been played by, white men? I know there have been some issues with racism in the community.

Mariko: I’m a moderator in the Discord server for the Dungeon Cast podcast. It started off for Dungeon Cast fans but has grown into a larger general D&D server, and that's interesting...sometimes in a bad way. As an Asian American and female player, those are two things that go against what’s thought of as a “standard” D&D player, who’s white and male. And it’s true, there are mostly guys on our server.

A lot of the new material that's coming out from Wizards of the Coast, the company that publishes the D&D sourcebooks, is leaning towards more inclusivity and freedom of choice for the players. They’re also trying to correct the history of building in racist tropes and how certain races of characters were tied to specific alignments. But there's a weird amount of pushback from parts of the community who feel that Wizards of the Coast are “ruining D&D by making it more diverse” and “catering to all these new fans.” It’s mind boggling, I don’t see inclusion as a problem. There is a sense of gatekeeping to this hobby.

On the other side, we do see a lot of people who are celebrating the changes. Luckily the other moderators and the creators of the podcast all push for a fun, inclusive tabletop experience. So we share the message, “This is a place where we celebrate diversity and inclusivity. If you’re not down, take your trash opinion somewhere else.”

I think that highlights a really important point about the game having racism baked into the sourcebooks. For example, drow/dark elves have traditionally had an evil alignment and are known for being selfish and cruel. How have you and your groups navigated this dynamic as Asian American players?

Kurt: Half of the party that I play with are people of color, and when I commissioned this artwork (@kendomey) from a childhood friend, he asked me to send pictures of our group to him for inspiration. It was in the first rendering of this art piece where I could see my Asianness in my character and my friends’ features in theirs, and that was really great! This helped me realize that my gnome bard was truly an extension of who I am.

Mari: Actually my group is mostly API men, two white women, and me. Because everyone in the party was a first time player, our DM wanted us to get a sense of the game itself but also an understanding of the community. So he had us watch some videos about D&D and some were about how some folks who’ve experienced trauma and who have been othered found space for themselves in this game. I appreciate those opportunities to think about what that means for me as a player of color and as someone new to this world. 

Sometimes things come up in our gameplay. Gnomes are looked down on or considered not useful in some of the cities we’ve visited. So I’ve ridden this very fine line of being empowered to be bold and speak out against bigotry in-game but at the same time, I have to check in with myself about whether these things could be triggering because of actual real life experiences I have to go through. I think if it was harmful, my DM would be very supportive of maintaining a safe space for our party. 

But I know of friends who play D&D who have experienced harm in their games from that kind of gameplay, specifically from white men. I’m also trying to process the concept of white folks “putting on a different skin,” particularly a darker skin or folks with non-white features in the game. I know there’s no “white people” in D&D, but it’s a dynamic I’m sitting with.

I totally agree, Mari. There’s something about the phrasing of, “wearing another skin” that feels triggering. Does anyone have thoughts about that concept?

Michelle: Really good question! I feel like our little group is very diverse in our gender identity, racial identity, etc., our DM was really supportive in letting us have freedom to create our characters the way that felt right to us. There’s a man in our group who is playing a woman, I’m playing a non-binary half-orc. So, we chose whomever we felt was appropriate for the campaign, which felt very freeing for me as someone who came in with no prior knowledge or biases about the game. 

We also all came in with accents or some sort of voice, which was interesting! Mine sounds like Shrek, but many people joined with British accents and I found it interesting because we already had a preconceived notion of what they would sound British, so based on whiteness, generally. Now I want to ask my group about how they came up with the accents for their characters.

Mariko: I’m liking the direction the sourcebooks are going in where they're building respect and inclusivity into the games. You can really do whatever you want in the game, but the rulebook is there as a guideline. If the rulebook is built on racist tropes that’s what people are going to think is okay, which parallels society. I think that’s why there’s been more pushback in correcting the games, especially as more people of color and women play.

One campaign in particular, Dark Sun, has a lot of mixed feelings surrounding it, but a lot of people really liked it and wanted to see it come into the most recent edition of D&D. It goes into themes of slavery and the subjugation of certain races, and I don’t think people should be promoting it. That’s why it’s really up to the people who are putting out source material, content creators, and DMs to set the bar for what is okay and what isn’t.

Kurt: I think everyone who’s played has heard someone say, “But this is what my character would do!” after they’ve done some terrible, depraved thing. And Michelle, I really appreciate you sharing about playing with a small group that you trust in the real world. It’s about who you have at your table because we all bring our identities to the table. I think we’re very fortunate because the people we play with are conscious of our identities. And if our identities weren’t honored, then it wouldn’t be fun. And, if in-game justice can overlap with fun, it’s a really good space.

There’s such a strong parallel between what’s happening in the fantasy world and the real world! To start wrapping things up, what is something you’ve learned about yourself in playing in this fantasy world?

Kurt: I’ve learned how much I value my friends, and it’s made me love them even more. Their faults and their strengths. I really feel closer to them as whole people and I’m really thankful for that. It's helped me cultivate friendships across far distances.

Michelle: I’ve affirmed for myself that I love to play! I love being able to explore, imagine, and collaborate. I’ve also learned that who I work with is really important. Sure, adaptability is great, but I can see how magic happens with the right people in the right roles. I’m really fortunate that this group took me in, accepted me, and were patient with me. I don’t know that I would have had that same experience with another group.

Mari: I really love what you said about play, Michelle. Because play is so formative for us as people and for me - it’s something I need in my life. It’s been so important for me to practice imagination and to imagine possibilities outside of what I’ve experienced. Through D&D, I’m able to practice imagining what possible solutions and pathways exist that we haven’t tried yet. I'm trying to bring that to my justice work too. How am I imagining new pathways and new futures for our communities? I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that worlds like D&D allow us to practice that kind of imagination for the future we’re trying to build.

Mariko: Being a part of growing a D&D online community and running tables myself, it reaffirmed the importance of creating safe and inclusive spaces for the community. The Critter community for Crit Role is really great and the community we’re trying to grow for Dungeon Cast is also really good. Trying to build a community where people are able to grow and brainstorm in such a collaborative space is the best part. Even as a DM it’s not like I have a plot and this is how the players will navigate it. It's a conversation that I’m actively having with the players.

Personally, I’ve learned more about what my personal boundaries are. As a moderator, I have to be more bold and speak up when people are saying things that are not okay. 

As a tip: No D&D is better than bad D&D. And bad D&D can be a toxic table.

Last question to both you and your character: what tips would you have for someone who’s interested in taking their first roll?

Mariko: If you’re interested in playing but you don't feel like you have a group to play with, ask your friends! There’s a really good chance they’ve been interested too, and you’ve all been too shy to say anything! It is intimidating to DM, but someone has to do it. So start by reading the sourcebooks. If you get a group of people who’ve never played before, they won’t know if you’re a good DM or a bad DM, so just ask around and start doing some research! - Mara (Spicy Monk): Sign a contract, that's what I did. I signed a contract to gather a bunch of artifacts for a king. If you want to get a job, you’ve got to sign a contract. 

Kurt: There’s D&D everywhere! We’re so fortunate that we’re not in the 1980s D&D satanic panic. Everyone is allowed to and should play if they want to. If you’re die-curious, start by watching some shows and build a character! - Zoe (Paladin seeking revenge): Find a grave evil and kick its ass!

Mari:  You already have everything you need in order to play. Mariko listed amazing resources, and in addition to that you showing up is the biggest step. You have access to everything you need to jump right in. The first step is the hardest. - Nyx (Has a beloved squirrel companion): Don’t go it alone! Go with someone you love.

Michelle: Once you’ve taken that first step, come with an open mind and open heart, and a “yes, and” attitude. Especially if you’re playing with people you’ve never played with before. - Bog (Master Baker Half-Orc): Follow your heart, look at your friends, and always remember, “life is what you bake of it.”

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What Kurt said about loving his friends even more after playing this game with them resonated deeply with me. After this conversation, I had an even deeper appreciation for these beautiful souls and the thoughtfulness they put into their characters and games, and all the value they bring as Japanese American players in the broader fantasy community.

As I said at the top of this article, I’ve never played D&D, but especially after this conversation I’m seriously considering taking my first roll, and feel lucky to be welcomed into the community by these wonderful folks. So, who knows, maybe you’ll see a follow up article of my experiences as a brand new D&D player in the future...

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