There’s been a bit of a stir in the online D&D community in the past few days, particularly on Twitter. Some people have raised concerns that Dungeons & Dragons, and tabletop RPGs in general, are geared towards players who are conservative, both politically and socially. In particular, several Twitter users pointed to aspects of the gaming system as dogwhistles for racist mindsets — something akin to “scientific racism” and phrenologic understandings of the sentient monsters in D&D.
Certainly, these tweets could be a point of concern for someone who is just getting started as a Dungeon Master or player character in a game of D&D.
This is not the first time that Dungeons & Dragons has come under fire for its presentation of a fantasy world. During the so-called “Satanic Panic,” most famously, many concerned parents saw D&D as a gateway (either literally or figuratively) to devil worship and eternal damnation. So, is the present concern about pen and paper rpgs just a reincarnation of that same concern? Or is D&D truly a game that — through accident or intentional machination — will indoctrinate some of society’s most vulnerable outcasts into racist or misogynistic viewpoints?
The Medieval Aesthetic of Dungeons & Dragons
By the very nature of being a post-Tolkien fantasy adventure, D&D is draped in the aesthetics of the premodern world. Mighty warriors cleave foes in twain with a single swipe of their broadsword, studious clerics hoist their will towards the gods and have faith that their will shall be done, and there are unusually large rats everywhere — textbook medieval history!
I kid, of course. Despite my sarcastic aside, it is true that D&D is heavily inspired by stories of the High Middle Ages, both apocryphal and not. It is no more an aberration of historical aesthetics than the tales of Arthur and his round table, nor more than Oscar-winning films featuring merry Hobbits riding atop the shoulders of sentient flora.
That is to say, the fantasy tropes on which D&D leans so heavily are decidedly medieval in their aesthetic — but they are not any more historically accurate than those in the fiction that inspired the game. Just like how you can create more engaging worlds using history, folklore and myth are equally deep wells from which to draw your waters of creativity.
This won’t come as a surprise to most. Dungeons & Dragons is, as implied by the name, a fantasy. Fictional. A complete fabrication. It may be adorned with swords, armor, and chivalry, but it is no more medieval than an unlikely band of vertically-diverse heroes rebelling against a flaming eye that sits atop a spiked, black tower.
So why bring this up?
Some have noted that these medieval aesthetics are popular among another group — white supremacists. The semiotic connection between folklore, the aesthetics of the middle ages, and white supremacy are well-explored, both in academic circles and speculative articles by untrained journalists on the internet. Alt-right protestors love to paint runes, black suns, and depictions of Thor’s mighty hammer on their plastic bulwarks, paired with bike helmets that have “Deus Vult” shittily scrawled on the temple with a magic marker. Nazi Germany conducted mystical experiments and utilized iconography of medieval military orders — most famously, the Teutonic Knights.
One explanation for the apparent connection between white supremacy and medieval aesthetics is the association of the Middle Ages with traditionalism, a return to form, and a misguided idealism about a time when Europe was “pure.” As many historians and medievalists are sure to point out, it would be a mistake to characterize premodern Europe as pure or homogeneous — at most, the internal divisions that ran through that culture like so many splitting rivers are simply alien to us in the 21st century.
However, it would be mistaken to label D&D as a gateway to hatred or bigotry simply because it shares an aesthetic fascination with “traditionalist” groups — especially because the DNA of D&D is so much more complex than a mere medieval tone.
Of course, most people who were raising Cain online were not necessarily outraged at the shared mythological heritage of D&D and bigoted folks in fringe communities. Which means that it’s time to talk about the orc in the room.
Why are people upset about orcs in D&D?
Some extremely online people have identified orcs as an analogy for marginalized groups in D&D. They point to depictions of orcs as bestial, chaotic creatures and claim that it is a dogwhistle for the same kind of logic that racists use to degrade people of color as “uncivilized” or “violent.”
So, does this line of reasoning hold water?
Not really, no. The orcs of D&D are classified as monsters in most editions — as such, they are often unavailable as a playable race (though player characters can cast themselves as the half-breed scion of an orc if they so choose). You certainly could tell an interesting, thought-provoking story about race relations between orcs, elves, dwarves, and men if you wanted, but that particular conflict is not baked into the fluff-as-written.
As you can see in the screenshotted tweet below, one particular point of umbrage that some users held was the placement of orcs within the chaotic evil sector of the alignment grid.
I don’t want to spend too much time going into the issues that I have with this here, because I am planning a later post about why the alignment system is broken in D&D. However, I will say 2 things:
First,this orcish classification is societal, not necessarily individual; the canonical religion of the orcs holds that their god was tricked by the others during the creation of the world, and his children were left with no home to call their own (hence, their nomadic lifestyle); in retaliation, he has tasked those that he created to raze the lands and creations of dwarf, elf, and man. Considering the fact that mythologies and religions in D&D tend to be demonstrably factual, it might be safe to say that the orcs in game are truly using this origin myth as a justification for their societal proclivity towards violence against outsiders.
Second, the alignment system is not necessarily a judge of objective morality. There are furious debates in gaming communities about whether the alignment system is a representation of actions or nature (one of many broken qualities of the system), but neither case necessitates drawing comparisons between TTRPG players and white supremacists.
Because here’s the truth about the conservative nature of D&D:
D&D can be anything you want it to be
It’s one of the most beautiful and attractive draws of Dungeons & Dragons. When you start as a Dungeon Master, you get to create whatever world you want, with whatever characterizations and societal distinctions seem the most fitting and engaging to you. No matter where you lie on the political grid — yes, even those dastardly centrists — you have the complete freedom to build a world that fascinates you and your players.
The D&D system is a toolbox, not a single-use utensil. If you disagree with the characterization of a group or race (monstrous or otherwise) in the game, you have the liberty to change it within your own game.
Header image by Ana Carolina Franco