By Jess Wind
In spring 2020, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, institutions were being called on to respond to deeply ingrained structural racism. Media organizations drafted commitments towards building more equitable and inclusive spaces for both creators and audiences. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) issued their version of a commitment to anti-racism on June 17, 2020. The announcement, ‘Diversity in Dungeons and Dragons’ led to varied responses online, from praise and excitement for the coming changes, to warnings that WotC risks harming its product and alienating ‘true players’ to appease the current social conflict. The responses illustrate a familiar tension within ‘geek culture’ and gaming communities, marred by racist gatekeeping, and yearning for an imagined past where social and cultural diversity are conversations for ‘the real world’ and the fantasy worlds of games and play are for escape.
Some players appealed to their agency to adapt and extend official rules (‘homebrew’) to create the fantasy worlds they want to play in, partly, as some have suggested, to distance themselves from the conversation regarding diversity in D&D. Yet as well as the risk of foreclosing diversity, homebrew content can allow players to develop characters and worlds in ways not offered by D&D’s standard rules, an opportunity which for marginalized individuals allows for a kind of visibility and player agency still rarely seen in mainstream media, and going substantially further than the changes made by WotC so far. While some responses to WotC’s commitment to diversity suggest a player’s relationship to homebrew content insulates them from shifts towards more inclusive content, I argue the practice of developing homebrew content positions players as active participants in D&D’s political and cultural economy, and that they are therefore affected by similar tensions around diversity and inclusion that WotC has committed to addressing.
Roleplaying game scholarship has focused on the history of racism in D&D‘s commercial content and other RPG products or on the experiences of players during gameplay. In her examination of gamers with marginalized identities, Adrienne Shaw argues ‘representation is part of a process of meaning making, but textual analyses tend to focus on the finished product’ and proposes that more attention should be paid to representation within play practices. Tanner Higgin urges that research about racism in representation must turn its focus toward the industry that produces content rather than only documenting and evaluating practices of racial representation. Antero Garcia similarly argues that games ‘cannot be studied as if [they] are isolated from the cultures that influence them or in which they are embedded.’ Yet there is a paucity of research that addresses the community of homebrew creators despite their crucial role in the development of D&D content and culture.
I situate this research between well-developed feminist game studies scholarship which critiques the long-standing tradition of white cishetero patriarchy, and critical fan studies scholarship engaged with unpacking racism and marginalization in fan spaces and cultural production,, to examine the vast community of D&D players that tell stories based on rules in a book, extending those rules to create sprawling social cultural fantasy worlds.
I begin by framing the discussion within broader contexts of racism in the fantasy genre, and within D&D specifically, through the case study example of Arcanist Press’ Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (A&C). While A&C is by no means the only homebrew publication that responds to social issues in D&D in this way, it has been chosen as a relatively recent and popular example — at the time of writing, it is listed fifth among the most popular titles on DriveThruRPG with the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ tag.
Homebrew is distinctly part of tabletop roleplaying games, and has long been an encouraged practice in D&D. Where video game modding and writing fanfiction have at times been clouded by conversations about authorial control and copyright infringement, homebrewing elements of your D&D game is part of creating new and different worlds to play and tell stories in. The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, official rulebooks published by WotC,both include caveats that the rules are guidelinesmeant to give your game a sense of structure and balance. With the release of the third edition, WotC went further, encouraging third-party publishers to create content based on D&D‘s ruleset using their Open Gaming License (OGL). This is distinctly different from players deciding among their friends at the table to adopt certain ‘house rules’ or abandon published rules that don’t fit with their home game. The System Reference Document offers D&D players foundations that they can develop into their own commercial D&D products. WotC makes space for the active homebrew community through their partnership with OneBookShelf on the homebrew marketplace Dungeon Masters Guild, and the Guild Adept program. Homebrew is not only encouraged as a legitimate way to engage with D&D products, but includes a significant proportion of the D&D player community. Therefore, while WotC’s diversity statement addresses the changes they’re making to their commercially available products, this only goes part of the way in addressing discourses of harm and marginalization in the D&D player community. By examining homebrew content as a legitimate extension of D&D’s transmediated franchise, and by positioning creators within the wider D&D labour economy, we are better able to examine discourses surrounding inclusion and diversity in the D&D player community.Continue reading “‘Putting Racism Aside’: Dungeons & Dragons, Ancestry & Culture, and Race Discourse in the Homebrew Community”