Dungeons and Dead Ends: How Mixed Messaging Starts Fantasy Wars
Dungeons & Dragons is an institution that will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary as unquestionably one of the most influential and successful games ever created. These decades have seen the game constantly change, with various sets of rules and permutations causing fans to go back and forth between fans over when it’s “best” or what represents the “real” D&D experience. The answer at an individual level is, of course, whatever edition you prefer. But change has always been a part of D&D and a big factor in why it’s still such a vibrant and successful fantasy universe.
The current Dungeons & Dragons design team announced last year that they would be looking at some of the ideas built into D&D lore and, essentially, excise material such as racial stereotypes. This may have been prompted by the Curse of Strahd campaign of 2016, which drew criticism for the Vistani, a group built on Roma tropes that had been in D&D since the historic Ravenloft mod of 1983. Times had changed and l D&D editor Wizards of the Coast then addressed the controversy by reviewing parts of Curse of Strahd in 2020.
Sage Advice is an occasional column by senior D&D rule designer Jeremy Crawford, in which he explains various changes and why the design team made them. A recent column entitled “Updates to the book“garnered a lot of negative attention, with some people upset that WotC was cleaning up old traditions and racial alignment for what they saw as a bad reason.
This explosion has the above context where WotC is increasingly wary of the historical aspects of D&D that people in 2021 see quite differently. A particularly tricky hot spot is the idea that races are inherently evil, due to the implications this has for actual racial stereotypes: for example, the idea that black-skinned drow are all inherently cruel and evil.
WotC has done things like changing the mechanical workings of the race before: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced custom lineages for character creation allowing, for example, your dwarf to have an intelligence or charisma bonus rather than the standard constitution. But he carefully chooses a path between his old-fashioned fan base and aspects of older games that may turn off a new audience. This particular topic is one that puts fans at each other’s throats, as it is emblematic of this clash between the more guardian elements of the fanbase and the shift to a more inclusive approach.
The point is, the real problem is, WotC doesn’t necessarily do what it’s criticized for doing. Contrary to some reports and many rants, the studio really didn’t remove much knowledge: monsters like Mind Flayers and Beholders lost a few paragraphs that made their personalities absolute, but it’s pretty clear that they still are. supposed to be evil. In that sense, people got annoyed that the roster went from “suggested as bad” to gone, which was done in order to make it consistent with recent books (and WotC hasn’t really addressed the roster. as an absolute since 3.5).
Other complaints are confusing: the context of this article includes the idea of ââthe D&D multiverse and some new settings to come, so WotC is trying to make more distinctions on how orcs from Forgotten Realms (default setting of D&D) act against those in Greyhawk, Eberron and soon. This is why Volo’s Guides to Monsters errata contains a disclaimer, as this book focuses on the Forgotten Realms.
This doesn’t mean that WotC is doing it the right way. The studio often receives criticism from fans, and arguably rightly so, for its top-down “we know best” approach to resolving tensions like this, and so one problem here is that we’re talking about books that are in many cases digital. WotC is literally going to change that stuff in the digital books that gamers already own.
To a younger audience this might not seem like a problem, but traditional tabletop RPG communities may view it with utter horror: it’s like WotC comes to your house and rips pages out of your volumes. Complaints about it seem legitimate, although also, rather sadly, it is now the way of the world.
Which perhaps alludes to the larger problem. Parts of the D&D community may overreact; Likewise, WotC sometimes does a pitiful job of explaining what it does. These changes should have been announced in a livestream or video addressing what the design team was doing and what they mean by it, with the opportunity for the audience to ask questions and seek clarification. Instead, WotC dropped a brief blog post with links to nine separate Errata PDFs, an post that days later needed its own clarification.
This is a personal goal. D&D undoubtedly has things in its history that are problematic, and WotC is right to want to solve this problem one way or another. Respecting the history of the game is not the same as keeping it in amber. But it feels like the company is going about it in the most awkward way possible, perhaps symptomatic of its own internal struggles over the issue, and leaving its communities confused as to what exactly is going on and why.
Some battles are worth fighting. Others leave you wondering why they started in the first place.