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.
Why an Alternative to Race in 5e?
Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (A&C) is a 70 page zine produced by Gwendolyn Marshall through Arcanist Press for D&D 5e. It can be purchased through DriveThruRPG, a platform for content creators to publish tabletop roleplaying games and supplements digitally and in print-on-demand editions. It was added to the site’s catalogue in June 2020, after being successfully Kickstarted in February. The project reached its Kickstarter funding goal of $300 in under an hour, and by the end of the campaign had raised more than $7500.
Marshall positions the zine as a direct response to character building options in D&D. A&C explores the racist underpinnings of the official system, and provides a thorough justification for its decision to separate ancestry and culture. It notes that this creates space for ‘more diverse characters, more interesting stories, and richer roleplay’ before turning back to a critique of biological essentialism, and defending its anti-racist approach against two common criticisms: that races are different in fantasy, and that fantasy isn’t real.
When a player wants to build a new character using D&D‘s official rules, the first choice they’re asked to make is to pick a race. It’s worth noting that scholars examining race in D&D agree this construction of ‘race’ is not a direct comparison to the ways race functions in society, but rather the term used to describe the myriad species of creatures that exist in D&D‘s sprawling fantasy landscapes, differentiating between humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and many more.
The relationship between D&D race and race in the real world is not straightforward. As Garcia notes ‘fixed assumptions about distinct races built into the ideology of the gaming system’ meant that, in early editions, most races were limited in their potential to reach higher levels, whereas humans were free to advance. While character level-up is no longer hindered by race selection, the ideology to which Garcia refers persists into D&D‘s current fifth edition. By picking a race, you are choosing a set of qualities tied to that species that come in the form of bonuses to ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma), and features that give can give you other in-game bonuses (e.g. Relentless Endurance, which allows half-orcs to resist falling unconscious once per day). Any such system of bonuses and special abilities risks associations with scientific racism, the pseudoscientific belief that people can be divided into distinct racial hierarchies of intelligence, athleticism, and so on.
Alignment is another problematic aspect of D&D‘s legacy related to character creation. D&D‘s alignment system describes possible moral orientations on two axes (good vs. evil and law vs. chaos). The 5e Player’s Handbook stated that ‘[m]ost races have tendencies toward certain alignments’ although these were ‘not binding for player characters’. For example ‘most dwarves are lawful good’ whereas ‘[d]emons, red dragons, and orcs are chaotic evil’. WotC later issued revisions which removed these recommended alignments.
Beyond the fact of the use of ‘race’ to differentiate abilities and moral qualities, there are the details of the particular races themselves, and the kinds of roles and stories that these encourage. There does not appear to be any one-to-one correlation between D&D races and racist stereotypes in the real world. On the other hand, D&D races do use many of the same ingredients of real-world racist stereotypes, even if they mix them in distinctive combinations. In the introduction, Marshall draws from well-known writers of colour within the fantasy genre — N.K. Jemisin and James Mendez Hodes — to critique the ‘problematic concept of race as it is traditionally used in character creation’ (p.4). Jemisin focuses on orcs, a popular and familiar fantasy figure first created by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings (1954/1955), and reproduced countless times in tabletop and digital RPGs. Jemisin describes orcs as essentially ‘human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology […] kinda-sorta-people’ and an ‘amalgamation of stereotypes’. Akin to the zombie horde in popular media, orcs are often framed as homogenous evil to bolster the heroics of the story’s main character. Helen Young examines orcs throughout fantasy’s history and finds that they were, from the outset, monsters. Monster theorist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains how monstrous difference works to police the boundaries of normativity, or in the case of D&D fantasy, good vs. evil — orcs were always political. In D&D, orcs also occupy an interesting intermediate position between the races players are invited to identify with, and the monsters they are sent to slay. Orcs have been inscribed with their own society and culture, and have also been offered as playable race in many supplements such as The Complete Book of Humanoids (1993) and Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016). The ‘half-orc’ has been a playable race in most editions. Crucially, orcs made the jump from fantasy literature to gaming early on, first appearing in the 1974 first edition of D&D, positioning players as active participants in the construction of the orc as a racialized figure, not long after Tolkien first introduced them. This suggests that not only were players actively participating in the racialized construction of the orc as a monstrous figure as early as D&D’s first edition, but that by doing so, were drawing the line between hero and disposable grunt, between human and monstrous subhuman.
What alternative does A&C propose? The central mechanic is to split D&D fifth edition’s races into ‘ancestries’ and ‘cultures’. Each race in the official rules is replaced by a corresponding ancestry and a culture. Players can mix any ancestry with any culture, opening the possibility of playing (for example) a halfling raised among orcs. The division between ancestry and culture allows players to think more deeply about their character’s origins, while removing biological essentialist logic from the game. Mechanically, cultures confer ability score modifiers, and ancestries confer a relatively limited number of traits (such as Darkvision) reasoned to be genuinely biologically inherited within the fantasy world of D&D. Players are freed up to select an ancestry for their character, and a culture that is different from that ancestry, or explore options related to mixed-ancestry and diverse cultures. Marshall also includes options to divest ability scores further from cultural generalizations in an appendix. Players have the flexibility to create characters that are from a particular culture but do not conform to its typical modifiers. Finally, both culture and ancestry are unrelated to alignment, as Marshall explains:
Ancestries have no innate alignments whatsoever, as behavioral tendencies toward goodness or chaos or law or evil are not genetically inherited. Cultures are not straightforwardly good or evil either, though values are indeed often a part of a culture’s belief systems. Even so, those values could never be reduced to simple concepts like goodness, evil, law, or chaos. What’s more, such cultural beliefs do not dictate the beliefs of an individual character, though some cultural norms might weakly influence an individual’s alignment, though it is up to the player whether such influences are present or if they instead reject them.
Throughout A&C, Marshall preserves (and extends) the diversity of options available to players in the official rules. However, she rejects essentialist understandings of this diversity, in favor of more historical explanations of how differences emerge and are sustained. For example, according to the official rules, when a player selects a dwarf they are given default characteristics that include dwarven resistance to poison and an increase in constitution score, among others — these features are simply stated as fact without reasoning. In A&C, dwarven poison resistance remains in ancestry, the suggested reason being that a resistance developed over time due to ancestral diets. By contrast, the constitution boost is separated into culture along with all other ability score increases because, Marshall argues, development within a culture, its structures and institutions, can affect a person’s physical abilities. In the case of dwarves, it is their underground living and physical labour-centric society that helps anyone living under those conditions develop a relatively stronger constitution.
The racist logic underpinning D&D‘s character creation is well established in scholarship, fan blogs, and media accounts of the topic. It’s the same history Marshall writes into the preface for A&C, before explaining her homebrew contribution to addressing this racist legacy. It’s the same history that is taken up in emergent discourses on the topic to both defend and challenge racism in D&D.
Emerging discourses on ‘putting race aside’
Young traces the construction and reification of whiteness through the history of the fantasy genre. Young prefers to use the term ‘genre-culture’ rather than just ‘genre’, in order to emphasize that the meaning of texts depends on the activities of a variety of discursive actors (writers, artists, publishers, critics, audiences, and others):
genre culture in popular fantasy places textual practices within a wider set of social processes that include not only Fantasy conventions, but the behaviours of authors and audiences, the ideological arguments that circulate around the texts, and the meaning and location of Fantasy within a political economy. By hyphenating genre-culture, I wish to draw attention to how firmly texts and “discursive agents” are tied to each other; neither would exist without the other
Applied to D&D, homebrew creators are crucially part of this system of genre making, responsible for deciding which rules and ideologies to adopt into their games, and which to reconfigure. It isn’t enough to examine content like Marshall’s A&C which deliberately works to challenge racist ideology in D&D, without also understanding how that content is taken up by players around the table. How do other homebrew creators respond to anti-racist interventions, and what discourses emerge about racism, D&D, and the homebrew community? While it’s clear A&C works to unpack racist logic in D&D’s legacy, there is still room to examine how homebrew creators participate in and reinforce culture through their worldbuilding and character creation.
I use critical discourse analysis to examine the reviews and discussions posted to A&C‘s product page on DriveThruRPG. At the time of writing there are 35 discussion posts and 28 reviews. Discourse analysis allows me to analyze the language use in these posts and the construction of meaning and purpose underpinning them. I limited my study to the DriveThruRPG website because reviews are limited to purchasers of the product, and you must be logged in to post on the public discussion board. This suggests that reviewers had made a financial commitment to the product and posters are invested in the homebrew creator community at least enough to create an account which allows them to take part in the discussion. For the purpose of this study, I am interested in discourse happening within homebrew creator communities in direct response to a product that addresses racism in D&D. Anastasia Kanjere’s exploration of race privilege online in response to anti-racist critiques is useful here, in showing how whiteness is strategically defended in public comments on racially critical content. The discursive examples observed in Kanjere’s work are present in posts attached to A&C,including appeals to the mainstream or ‘real world’; positioning critiques of racism as excessive or unnecessary; and framing whiteness (in this case the taken-for-granted whiteness of the D&D player community) as innocent, vulnerable, or victimized.
I divide responses to A&C into three major categories: ‘product,’ ‘culture,’ and ‘racism.’ Product refers to messages having to do with the mechanics of the game, balance, complexity, official rules, or the flexibility of homebrew. Culture includes messages that appeal to the history of D&D or the fantasy genre, claims about the poster’s identity, and assumptions about the D&D community and their preferences. Finally, racism encompasses messages that dismissed racism or appealed to biological essentialism, as well as those acknowledging racist ideology in D&D and its player culture and advocating for change. It was important to group the most overtly racist and anti-racist posts together, to isolate how discourse on racism is navigated in particular in this space. As we shall see, because A&C centrally works to challenge implicit racism in character creation, these three categories overlap and interact. Race and racism are navigated independently from product and culture, as well as through each in meaningful ways. In addition to these three main categories, there were also a few outlier examples of messages that did not fit easily into the main analysis, including posts by DriveThruRPG moderators about behaviour on the site, responses about deleted posts, or responses focused on WotC’s Open-Gaming License (which aimed to set legal limits to the use of some of D&D’s content, and which A&C adhered to). While these messages aren’t necessarily relevant to my findings, they did provide a deeper understanding about the legal and economic structures involved in publishing D&D homebrew content for profit.
Comments that land in this category make appeals to D&D mechanics, rules, and balance. They critique how well the supplement integrates with other 5e rules, make suggestions for a more complex character creation system, or make other technical suggestions to improve the product. In many cases these kinds of comments centre the mechanics and playability over discussions of racism (e.g. ‘putting the issue of race aside’) and include suggestions for more statistical complexity to the character creation process. Racism can operate through what is not said, as much as what is said. By focusing on the details of implementation, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing the reason for the intervention, such responses can collectively undermine A&C‘s critique.
This emphasis on mechanics and rules links to Evan Torner’s exploration of theorycrafting where RPG players discuss RPGs with other players in online discussion forums. Prior to online spaces, this behaviour took place within the pages of fan zines, and has always been a distinct form of fannish engagement. Torner notes that theorycrafting was ‘ground zero’ for developing shared language and definitions in RPG discourse. He posits three motives for theorycrafting behaviour: the joy of intellectual debate; the desire to design and play better games; and jockeying for social status. Each of these motivations can be seen in the posts for A&C. For example, one poster supplied a 1633 word review, the longest in the set, including reference to tweets from Marshall and examples from D&D’s official published rules to support their claims that A&C lacks game and character balance.
Jockeying for social status can otherwise be understood as asserting one’s social and linguistic capital. Steven Dashiell examines how players navigate and work for social status in RPGs through the concept of ‘rules lawyering’ — when a player ‘explicitly and fervently offers a different interpretation of the rules than the Game Master during gameplay’. This is most regularly observed around the table during play. Through Pierre Bordieu’s theory of capital, Dashiell examines discursive attempts to earn and maintain linguistic capital in a social/game setting. A rules lawyer in this setting must know what they’re talking about (evidence of their social capital), and be able to talk about it (evidence of their linguistic capital). This discourse is replicated in responses to A&C. One review encourages players to buy WotC’s 2020 publication, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, stating the rules for modifying a character’s origin are more sophisticated than what is included in A&C, adding that separating ‘inherent traits’ into culture is a mistake. The traits described as ‘inherent’ in this case are those deemed biologically essentialist in Marshall’s analysis and design. Other reviews and discussion posts suggest technical tweaks to individual features and traits, offer changes to the product to include more mechanical complexity, or like the example above, centre official rules and D&D products in ways that reinforce racist ideology.
Importantly, Dashiell notes that marginalized players with internalized social conditioning about behaviour in group social settings are less likely to ‘rules-lawyer’ for risk of losing social capital. In my research, posts that centre mechanics and official rules while dismissing racism are generally longer and more detailed than posts that acknowledge racism in D&D and celebrate the product’s goals. So, while the identities of commenters are rarely made clear, the veracity with which some leverage mechanics and official rules to support their response suggests a similar discourse to that observed by Dashiell, one that through social and linguistic capital continues to serve White hegemonic masculinity.
Captured in this category are those comments which make appeals to the broader cultural and community context of D&D. For example, some posters appeal to their identities as long-time players, or to their educational qualifications. Significantly, however, most posters didn’t racially identify when participating in the discussion. Reflection on the lived experience of racialized oppression and/or privilege was not a prominent dynamic within this discourse. This is also where we see reference to D&D‘s history as a 50 year old game that has evolved over many editions, as well as examples pointing to fantasy’s place in our cultural imagination with reference to the work of Tolkien as foundational to D&D’s fantasy legacy. Lastly, this category includes appeals to community, which are often made through sweeping generalizations and assumptions about the player community and its behaviour.
When it comes to D&D‘s history in the fantasy genre, there is little debate about the foundational influence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or about the lasting influence D&D has had on the fantasy genre since. Posters leverage this history to praise A&C for challenging a legacy of racist ideology, or as defenders in response to perceived attack on Tolkien and Gary Gygax’s (creator of D&D in 1974) character. One comment laments ‘and then the Tolkien and Gygax bashing. Ad hominin [sic] attacks against people who are dead. Do you have even proof of your claims?’ and another pushes back harder saying ‘It amuses me to this day that Academics on the matter have gone down a rabbit hole, attached themselves to one sentence Tolkien wrote and ascribing everything he ever did to that one thing’. This comment also points to Kanjere’s framing of appeals to whiteness as innocence by suggesting that academics have gone too far in their critiques of racism and similarly points to Young’s argument that audience members defend Tolkien and Gygax’s character ‘to legitimize their enjoyment of the creative works, enabling the whiteness associated with fantasy’s foundational authors and publishing milieu to reach forward into modern times without critical examination’. Young argues that the framing of Tolkien as either ‘racist’ or ‘a product of his time’ is misleading: what matters is the racist logic and stereotypes in his work and the ongoing impact of those legacies. In the same vein, Shaw argues that ‘critiques are not about personal consumption. They are about a world in which certain types of bodies are relegated to specific roles’. While many white players are quick to defend against racial critique, and in this case appeal to fantasy’s genre history to do so, they fail to see that the critique is not an attack on them or the game they love, but rather the systems of production that allow stereotypes to persist and become canonized over time. Acknowledging this would force players to likewise acknowledge their complicity in reproducing racist ideology in D&D.
Both those dismissive of racism and those acknowledging its existence in the game appealed to assumptions about the D&D community. Examples include: ‘Anyone that has bought this product would already be onboard with the ideals and reasoning’, and ‘nearly all of us have been homebrewing to make it all work […] for as long as we’ve been playing’, and ‘Everyone with some experience in D&D 5e could write much better house rules’, and finally, ‘I’m sure there are plenty of players and GMs alike out there doing this’. It’s worth noting that of these examples, two gave the product a five star rating, and two gave it a one star rating. The extent to which such comments are a candid reflection of the poster’s own experience is impossible to know. What these examples highlight is the construction of an imagined D&D player culture where everyone is already challenging racism around their tables. By constructing anti-racism as the status quo, these comments push the anti-racist work of A&C to the margins without critically analyzing whiteness at the centre of their fantasy worlds.
Pushing this analysis further, one comment says it’s a good resource ‘if you don’t plan on doing the footwork yourself’ and suggests that any ‘reasonable person’ would divide D&D’s races into ancestry and culture. They say ‘I probably would have drawn the same line the authors did if I spent an hour looking at the Race section […] obviously I didn’t do this because I didn’t feel like it.’ This points to what Kanjere describes as the construction of the mainstream as neutral. By suggesting that ‘reasonable’ D&D players would see the same division between ancestry and culture, or that most in the community are already doing the work to unpack racist ideology in D&D, comments in this category construct A&C as an unnecessary contribution to the genre community. They place themselves within this reasonable culture by saying they would have drawn a similar line, but didn’t because they ‘didn’t feel like it,’ pushing further the discourse that the product (and anti-racist D&D content) is unnecessary. This reinforces an idea that the responsibility for challenging racism lies solely with the players at the table, not with the products from which they draw their inspiration, while also suggesting that racism in the D&D community is an outlying issue.
On the other hand, some responses appear to acknowledge racism in D&D, noting that A&C helps ‘D&D correct its route and start removing racist legacy D&D rulings’ and that the supplement makes ‘D&D a much more comfortable space for all people’. These comments contrast other reviews by acknowledging a racist legacy and suggesting the community space may not have been comfortable for all players. One poster explains ‘it’s critical to put this stuff into writing. It “canonizes” the idea, so to speak, laying the groundwork for homebrew design in its very rules rather than leaving a player or GM to fend for themselves’. This highlights the linked relationship between a game’s content and the culture that is developed from it. If the content from which players are building their characters is designed from an anti-racist perspective then players are starting from this logic in their build — presumably players would need to add in racist elements if this was their goal. Players would need to actively choose racism, rather than ‘fending for themselves’ to choose anti-racism.
This category most directly engages with A&C’s main motive in offering an alternative to character creation: racism in D&D. Surprisingly, there are a similar number of comments acknowledging racism in D&D products and communities, as there are comments dismissing it. It was also interesting to see more acknowledgments of racism in the discussion posts, and more dismissals in the review space. There are a number of potential reasons for this. One post in the discussion board mentioned they received A&C as a gift and therefore couldn’t post a review. A number of posts acknowledging racism emerge through back and forth discussion between Marshall and commenters. (According to DriveThruRPG review guidelines, the publisher is generally not allowed to publish reviews. Though they can reply directly to reviews, Marshall does so sparingly).
In some cases, responses acknowledge the presence of racism in D&D and note that the commenter will be adopting A&C‘s alternative system. These comments indicate change or growth as a result, and exemplify players taking responsibility for addressing racism around their gaming tables. In contrast, many comments work to dismiss racism in D&D, suggesting that the game isn’t racist, arguing that pointing out racism is itself racist, or that there is no need for discussions of racism in the game simply because it’s fantasy. The most insidious of these comments reinforce essentialist ideology to support their stance. Shaw points out that it feels inconceivable to some that they have a social responsibility to think through who is and isn’t being represented. When posters are confronted with the possibility of racism in their game, many of them work to distance themselves from the issue, or dismiss it entirely, thus reinforcing whiteness at the centre of fantasy gaming.
When it comes to distancing themselves from the issue of racism, some commenters are quick to praise the product, before including an implied ‘but’. These comments, whether their general mood is positive or negative, often include forms of hedging that suggest hesitancy to fully agree and support A&C‘s central thesis. For example, they may include positive comments about the artwork. This isn’t out of place in discussions of D&D: the inclusion of fantasy artwork has always been a central part of how products are discussed and received. But comments about the artwork are leveraged in this context as distinct from the product as a whole. To praise A&C‘s art while remaining silent on its overall premise is to draw that premise into question. Connected to this are two discussion board posts which both say, ‘it’s a start’. Posters express they were looking for more options for crafting ‘unique cultural backgrounds’, before providing examples of geographical locations or magic features. Do they mean that A&C is ‘a start’ when it comes to unpacking racism in D&D? Or do they rather mean (as the lack of reference to Marshall’s premise) that they welcome the complex and versatile character creation system, but would prefer it without the anti-racist rationale?
Kanjere’s study also provides insight into how commenters defend their race privilege. She observes that ‘leaving race behind’ results in an assumed white identity that is applied to all participants. In my research, comments that begin by ‘putting aside race’ invoke this by suggesting that racism is not the central issue of the product, and that it can be separated from other elements of their critique. This relates to Higgin’s observations of representation in RPGs whereby removing specific Black cultures as playable options, players are left to assume Blackness holds no importance and thus disappears and is robbed of its potential for productive political commentary. In the sample studied, by ‘putting race aside’, even in otherwise positive reviews and discussions, commenters fail to challenge whiteness at the centre of fantasy gaming. This is pushed further by discourse that seeks to separate fantasy spaces from ‘real-world’ issues. One commenter closes their lengthy post by stating, ‘A lot of people, if not most of the player [sic], do not play RPGs to be constantly reminded of the real-world problems. Sometimes an Orc is just an Orc and nothing else.’ As Higgin also suggests, dismissing race in fantasy as ‘not real’ (‘an Orc is just an Orc’) means ignoring the role that fiction plays in constructing race in the real world — potentially framing race as a fixed biological reality, rather than the contingent outcome of historical forces. While fantasy is a genre of imagination, it is made from ‘reimagined signs with real and significant meanings outside of fantasy’. However, fantasy and our ability to understand and make meaning from fantasy has to come from somewhere — meaning cannot be made solely from fantasy’s own internal logic. It is made up of parts that carry meaning which ‘cannot be discarded without losing the decipherability of that product’.
When examined alongside other codes, there are a handful of comments that reference D&D‘s core rules or official products in an attempt to delegitimize the need for a product like A&C, or to recentre WotC’s products as the ‘true’ rules, and all other as extraneous. These kinds of comments continue the habit of dismissing racism in the game, suggesting that WotC has already ‘solved’ racism, or that homebrew content is less legitimate than official products, and therefore the attempts it makes to address gaps in D&D‘s official products are equally illegitimate. This places the responsibility of addressing racism in D&D squarely on WotC — an ironic claim to make in response to a homebrew product on a homebrew website. Finally, comments that were dismissive of racism overwhelmingly relied on appeals to official WotC game mechanics, and occasionally to the history of the genre, to justify their claims. By contrast, comments that acknowledged racism in D&D relied on varied appeals including mechanics and WotC products as well as notions of change, inclusive spaces, and homebrew flexibility. This suggests that posters are trafficking within the same discourses when it comes to D&D, but display different discursive approaches to discussions of racism. Likewise it points to diverse player perspectives in the homebrew community, which runs counter to the imagined homogeneity of fans in this space.
One thing that was mostly lacking within the comments were any critiques of A&C from anti-racist or decolonial perspectives — perhaps surprising, given that Marshall herself reflects on challenges, trade-offs and difficult decisions in the zine. She acknowledges, for example, that some players may find culture-based ability scores to still be too essentialist, or wonder why they can’t mix and match characteristics from an unlimited number of ancestries. Marshall presents A&C as walking a fine line: it aims to detoxify D&D while also preserving the ‘feel’ of the game. Although A&C is a worthwhile and timely intervention, there is no guarantee that it has succeeded on all counts, and the construction of race in D&D is likely to continue to evolve in the years to come.
In the introduction to her book on whiteness in fantasy, Young reminds us that fantasy is, at its core, about breaking from convention. It’s about conceiving of worlds limited only by our imaginations. It’s therefore ironic that so much mainstream contemporary fantasy has the habit of reinforcing its own canon, a canon which centres whiteness, denounces innovation or change, and polices spaces for new constructions within the culture. What might fantasy look like unbounded by the confines of white cishetero patriarchy? What might our gaming spaces look like if we’re left to imagine worlds as we want them among a similarly motivated community, instead of navigating bad takes online?
As a queer person, I am familiar with the opportunities and limitations for gender and sexuality in D&D‘s products, which share systemic inequities with that of other geek and gamer cultures. Gender is always already at the forefront of feminist scholarship in game studies and fan studies, given the white, cis-male dominated networked economies in play. However, as a white, able-bodied researcher my experience playing in these fantasy worlds still comes from a place of privilege. I am informed and guided by criticism within fan studies that addresses race and marginalization in the scholarship, communities, and institutions of fandom. Rebecca Wanzo calls for new genealogies of fan studies that retrace the origins of the field to include an erased history of Blackness while Rukmini Pande challenges fan studies’ overreliance on ethnography, requiring an outsider status that many fan scholars, myself included, are unable to maintain. Mel Stanfil positions whiteness as a racial category within fan studies and encourages scholars to ‘name whiteness as it functions in fandom and interrogate its workings. I acknowledge my privileged position that allows me to conduct this study as part of an ongoing responsibility to dismantle structural racism in feminist game studies and fan studies.
Going forward, there is a need to centre the experiences of homebrew creators in order to continue to expand our understanding of the myriad ways folks produce and engage with D&D. Shaw argues that media representation driven by market logic pushes already marginalized individuals further to the periphery. Instead they encourage an audience-focused approach stating that ‘true recognition of diversity […] could impact redistribution in fundamental ways’. By focusing on the actors involved, and not on the finished product we’ve a better chance at shifting away from a fantasy genre-culture with whiteness at its centre, and closer to fantasy’s true potential for unbound imaginative worlds.
Ancestry & Culture, <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eugenemarshall/ancestry-and-culture-an-alternative-to-race-in-5e>.
Antropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form. New York: Seven Stories Press (2012).
Arcanist Press, <arcanistpress.com>.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co. (2010).
Bulut, Ergin. ‘Glamor above, precarity below: Immaterial labor in the video game industry, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32(3) (2015), p. 193-207.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, (1996).
Cortijo, Brian. (@BrianCortijo, 17 June 2020), ‘As someone who did his first official D&D work in 2003, I have been waiting decades for this statement. Thank you. Finally. Thank you.’ (tweet), <https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/1273416468172902400?lang=en>.
Dashiell, Steven. ‘Rules lawyering as symbolic and linguistic capital,’ Analog Games Studies. 29 November 2017. <https://analoggamestudies.org/2017/11/rules-lawyering-as-symbolic-and-linguistic-capital/>.
D’Anastasio, Cecilia. ‘D&D must grapple with the racism in fantasy.’ Wired. 24 January 2021 <https://www.wired.com/story/dandd-must-grapple-with-the-racism-in-fantasy/>.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greig de Peuter, Games of empire: Global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (2009).
Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons, dir. by Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman(Cavegirl Productions, X-Ray Films, 2019).
Fortier, Zoe. ‘Wizards of the Coast: Diversity in D&D.’ Phenixx Gaming. 19 June 2020, <https://phenixxgaming.com/2020/06/19/wizards-of-the-coast-diversity-in-dd/>.
Garcia, Antero. ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.’ Mind, Culture & Activity. 24(3), (2017), pp. 232-246.
Gee, James Paul & Michael Handford (eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. New York: Routledge. (2012).
Hibbard, Lee. ‘Redesigning the tabletop: Queering dungeons and dragons.’. First person scholar. 19 March 2019. <http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/redesigning-the-tabletop/>.
Higgin, Tanner. ‘Backless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.’ Games and Culture. 4(1) (2009), p. 21.
Jemisin, N.K. ‘From the mailbag: The unbearable baggage of orcing.’ 13 February 2013. <https://nkjemisin.com/2013/02/from-the-mailbag-the-unbearable-baggage-of-orcing/>.
Jenson, Jennifer and Suzanne de Castell. ‘The entrepreneurial gamer: Regendering the order of play.’ Games and Culture. 13(7), (2018), p. 728-746.
Kanjere, Anastasia. ‘Defending race privilege on the internet: How whiteness uses innocence discourse online,’ Information, Communication & Society. 22(14), (2019). p. 2156-2170.
Mendez Hodes, James. ‘Orcs, Britons, and The Marital Race Myth.’ 14 January 2019. <https://jamesmendezhodes.com/blog/2019/1/13/orcs-britons-and-the-martial-race-myth-part-i-a-species-built-for-racial-terror>.
Montgomery, Jeff. ‘Product ratings, reviews and discussions,’ DriveThruRPG, 4 October 2021.
Pande, Rukmini. ‘How (Not) to Talk about Race: A Critique of Methodological Practices in Fan Studies,’ Transformative Works and Cultures, 33. (2020). <https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1737>.
Scott, Suzanne. Fake geek girls: Fandom, gender, and the convergence culture industry. New York University Press. (2019).
Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (2015) p. 157.
Stanfil, Mel. ‘The unbearable whiteness of fandom and fan studies,’ in Paul Booth (ed.). A companion to media fandom and fan studies. Wiley. (2018). p. 305-317, <https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119237211.ch19>.
The Zoot Cat (@Vorogabel, 17 June 2020), ‘Pandering to lunatics that don’t buy your products seems to be a mistake that companies always do. Spoiler: ever after the changes those people will say that it’s not enough and will keep moving the goalpost and never buy it.’ (tweet), https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/1273416468172902400?lang=en>.
Torner, Evan. ‘RPG Theorizing by designers and players,’ in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. By Jose P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding. New York: Routledge. (2018). p. 191-212.
Trammel, Aarons. ‘Representation and Discrimination in Role-Playing Games,’ in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. By Jose P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding. New York: Routledge. (2018). p. 440-447.
Wanzo, Rebecca. ‘African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies. Transformative Works and Cultures, 20, (2015).
Witwer, Michael. Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer and Joe Manganiello, Art & Arcana: A Visual History. Ten Speed Press. (2018).
Wizards of the Coast, Player’s Handbook. Wizards of the Coast. (2014).
Wizards of the Coast/D&D Team, ‘Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons,’ Dungeons & Dragons, 17 June 2020. <https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd> .
Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. New York: Routledge (2018).
Zambrano, J.R. ‘D&D: Orcs Trend On Twitter And Controversy Followed,’ Bell of lost souls, (27 April 2020), <https://www.belloflostsouls.net/2020/04/dd-orcs-trend-on-twitter-and-controversy-followed.html>.
 Wizards of the Coast/D&D Team, ‘Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons,’ Dungeons & Dragons, 17 June 2020. <https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd>
 Brian Cortijo (@BrianCortijo, 17 June 2020), ‘As someone who did his first official D&D work in 2003, I have been waiting decades for this statement. Thank you. Finally. Thank you.’ (tweet), <https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/1273416468172902400?lang=en>.
 The Zoot Cat (@Vorogabel, 17 June 20120), ‘Pandering to lunatics that don’t buy your products seems to be a mistake that companies always do. Spoiler: ever after the changes those people will say that it’s not enough and will keep moving the goalpost and never buy it.’ (tweet), https://twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/1273416468172902400?lang=en>.
 Suzanne Scott, Fake geek girls: Fandom, gender, and the convergence culture industry (New York University Press, 2019).
 In late 2022, Wizards of the Coast announced they would be dropping the word ‘race’ from future D&D publications, with the word ‘species’ a provisional replacement. D&D Beyond Staff, ‘Moving On From ‘Race’ in One D&D’, D&D Beyond, 1 December 2023.<https://www.dndbeyond.com/posts/1393-moving-on-from-race-in-one-d-d>
 Zoe Fortier, ‘Wizards of the Coast: Diversity in D&D,’ Phenixx Gaming, (19 June 2020), <https://phenixxgaming.com/2020/06/19/wizards-of-the-coast-diversity-in-dd/>.
J. R. Zambrano, ‘D&D: Orcs Trend On Twitter And Controversy Followed,’ Bell of lost souls, (27 April 2020), <https://www.belloflostsouls.net/2020/04/dd-orcs-trend-on-twitter-and-controversy-followed.html>.
 Lee Hibbard, ‘Redesigning the tabletop: Queering dungeons and dragons’. First person scholar, (19 March 2019), <http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/redesigning-the-tabletop/>.
 Antero Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games,’ Mind, Culture & Activity, 24(3), (2017), pp. 232-246.
-Helen Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, (New York: Routledge, 2018).
 Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co. 2010).
 Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 157.
 Tanner Higgin, ‘Backless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,’ Games and Culture, 4(1) (2009), p. 21.
 Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons,’ p. 243.
 Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, ‘The entrepreneurial gamer: Regendering the order of play,’ Games and Culture, 13(7), (2018), p. 728-746.
-Ergin Bulut, ‘Glamor above, precarity below: Immaterial labor in the video game industry, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32(3), (2015), p. 193-207.
-Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of empire: Global capitalism and video games, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
 Rukmini Pande, ‘How (Not) to Talk about Race: A Critique of Methodological Practices in Fan Studies,’ Transformative Works and Cultures, 33, (2020).<https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1737>.
-Mel Stanfil, ‘The unbearable whiteness of fandom and fan studies,’ in Paul Booth (ed.). A companion to media fandom and fan studies. (Wiley, 2018), p. 305-317, <https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119237211.ch19>.
-Rebecca Wanzo, ‘African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies. Transformative Works and Cultures, 20, (2015).
 Anna Antropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012).
-Scott, Fake Geek Girls.
 Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons.’ Controversy erupted in early 2023 when Wizards of the Coast announced changes to the Open Gaming License (OGL), used by many creators to share or to sell D&D-compatible content. Both the initially leaked OGL 1.1 and formally announced OGL 1.2 were widely perceived unduly restrictive and potentially exploitative. Following extensive community backlash, Wizards of the Coast reversed the decision and instead released the System Reference Document 5.1 under an irrevocable Creative Commons license (CC-BY-4.0).
 Ancestry & Culture, <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eugenemarshall/ancestry-and-culture-an-alternative-to-race-in-5e>.
 Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons and Dragons.’
 Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons and Dragons.’
 Wizards of the Coast, Player’s Handbook (Wizards of the Coast, 2014).
 Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, p.17.
 P. 122
 N. K. Jemisin, ‘From the mailbag: The unbearable baggage of orcing,’ (13 February 2013), <https://nkjemisin.com/2013/02/from-the-mailbag-the-unbearable-baggage-of-orcing/>.
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, p.88
 Jeffery Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture, (University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
 Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons and Dragons.’
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature.
-Garcia, ‘Privilege, Power, and Dungeons and Dragons.’
-Aaron Trammel, ‘Representation and Discrimination in Role-Playing Games,’ in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. By Jose P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, (New York: Routledge, 2018). p. 440-447.
 James Mendez Hodes, ‘Orcs, Britons, and The Marital Race Myth,’ (14 January 2019), <https://jamesmendezhodes.com/blog/2019/1/13/orcs-britons-and-the-martial-race-myth-part-i-a-species-built-for-racial-terror>.
 Cecilia D’Anastasio, ‘D&D must grapple with the racism in fantasy,’ Wired, 24 January 2021 <https://www.wired.com/story/dandd-must-grapple-with-the-racism-in-fantasy/>.
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, p.5.
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, p.5.
 James Paul Gee & Michael Handford (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis (New York: Routledge, 2012).
 Anastasia Kanjere, ‘Defending race privilege on the internet: How whiteness uses innocence discourse online,’ Information, Communication & Society, 22(14), (2019), p. 2156-2170.
 Evan Torner, ‘RPG Theorizing by designers and players,’ in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. By Jose P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, (New York: Routledge, 2018). p. 191-212.
 Torner, ‘RPG Theorizing by designers and players,’ p. 196.
 Steven Dashiell, ‘Rules lawyering as symbolic and linguistic capital,’ Analog Games Studies, (29 November 2017). <https://analoggamestudies.org/2017/11/rules-lawyering-as-symbolic-and-linguistic-capital/>.
 Steven Dashiell, ‘Rules lawyering as symbolic and linguistic capital.’
 Kanjere, ‘Defending race privilege on the internet.’
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, p. 32.
 Shaw, Gaming at the edge, p. 159.
 Kanjere, ‘Defending race privilege on the internet.’
 Kanjere, ‘Defending race privilege on the internet.’
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature.
 Jeff Montgomery, ‘Product ratings, reviews and discussions,’ DriveThruRPG, 4 October 2021.
 Shaw, Gaming at the edge.
 Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer and Joe Manganiello, Art & Arcana: A Visual History, (Ten Speed Press, 2018).
-Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons, dir. by Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman (Cavegirl Productions, X-Ray Films, 2019).
 Kanjere, ‘Defending race privilege on the internet.’ p. 2164.
 Higgin, ‘Backless Fantasy.’
 Higgin, ‘Blackless Fantasy.’
 Higgin, ‘Blackless Fantasy,’ pp. 10-11.
 Higgin, ‘Blackless Fantasy,’ p. 11
 Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature.
 Wanzo, ‘African American Acafandom and Other Strangers’
 Pande,’How (Not) to Talk about Race.’
 Stanfil, ‘The unbearable whiteness of fandom and fan studies.’
 Shaw, Gaming at the Edge.
This article will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.