Diversity and Inclusion in Dungeons & Dragons
On Monday June 15th I had the privilege of being invited to an official Dungeons & Dragons press conference as part of my work for The Digital Fix. The conference revealed the new campaign book, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frost Maiden, as well as giving more information on the upcoming Dark Alliance game and the collaboration with Red Nose Day for the D&D Live 2020 event that ran from June 18-20.
As a big fan of D&D and an avid player I was very excited about this opportunity. The Zoom call gave the press the chance to ask questions, but there wasn't enough time to go through all of them. When mine ended up being one of the few that actually got asked, I was almost giddy with how cool I was finding the whole thing.
My question was: ‘You have been talking a lot about how diverse the D&D community is. How are you actively including this diversity in the book?'
The answer I received was oddly vague. There was a lot of use of words like ‘diversity’, but no actual use of words to identify minority groups whose inclusion hasn't always been standard in D&D. Jeremy Crawford, for example, is an openly gay man, but when talking about diversity in the game one of his colleagues said that he was invested in including 'people like him’. As a queer person myself this felt so weird. Not knowing how your gay colleague is comfortable being identified seems like a huge oversight, though I don't personally know these people so this may be an identifier that Crawford is comfortable with.
There was also discussion of diversity in the art in Rime of the Frost Maiden, but, once again, what this diversity meant wasn't spoken about. I am also, like everyone who spoke at the press conference, white, so I do understand not wanting to accidentally offend people by using the wrong language to talk about their minority group. But being an entertainment company whose creative team is very public facing, it is surprising to me that there isn't a company investment in making sure that they are all up to date with the correct language, especially right before a large scale press conference.
Another part of the answer to my question that I found uncomfortable was the way that Christopher Perkins described Icewind Dale as removing people's identity. He was talking about this is relation to the thick clothing that most NPC's in the harsh tundra setting wear. Meaning that, no matter who they are, most people aren't easily identifiable at first sight because their bodies and faces are fully covered. But this felt like the opposite of inclusive. Considering how long D&D has had baked-in fantasy racism and biological essentialism, anything other than explicit representation of BIPOC seems like a cop out. The same goes for women and disabled people.
The way each of the speakers in the press conference answered the question definitely made it feel like they cared about D&D becoming more diverse and inclusive in its canon representation. It also, however, conveyed that they didn't really have the language or knowledge to fully enact that change. Which isn't that surprising considering everyone speaking at the press conference was white, with all except the CEO of Comic Relief US also being men.
Then, two days after the press conference, Dungeons & Dragons issued an official statement on 'Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons', which can be found here. This statement is in reaction to increased pressure and complaints from the community about the racism surrounding various aspects of the game, such as racially-inherent stats bonuses and the idea the all people of one race are evil, such as with Orcs and Drow.
Where the answer in the press conference was vague and avoided any identifiers, the article is the opposite. It doesn't shy away from admitting to D&D's past racial stereotyping and biological essentialism. It also acknowledges that 'this isn’t about getting to a place where we can rest on our laurels, but continuing to head in the right direction'.
The article also sets out the actions that the Dungeons & Dragons team are taking in order to improve and make their content more inclusive for their ever-growing community. This includes the information that a publication being released later this year - I'm assuming this refers to Rime of the Frost Maiden - will include the option to change the ability score increases that are given by a character’s in-game race to more closely reflect each character as an individual.
The actions they are taking to no longer stereotype certain races and peoples refer to how Orcs and Drow have had much more culturally complex representation in two of their most recent books; and to how they are working with a Romani consultant to work on how the Vistani people are portrayed in their previous and future publications.
The actions list also reveals that sensitivity readers have been used on two recent books, and that Dungeons & Dragons plan to continue to use them on future projects. Sensitivity readers are a very important part of making inclusive content and are becoming more commonplace in many creative industries.
The final bullet point in the article states a commitment to increase the diversity of the people working on Dungeons & Dragons' products. Without a diverse range of genders, races, ages, disabilities and sexualities working on a product, it is unlikely to be as inclusive as you want it to be as the people making it aren't as diverse as the world at large. My only concern with this bullet point is that a lot of people in the D&D community have already been making the effort to fix the things in official D&D publications that are not inclusive. Black creators have been working for years on alternatives to race-based ability score increases, and it would be devastating for the work they have been doing not to be acknowledged by the D&D team.
So, in enacting this final bullet point, D&D should be careful to employ those people from the community who have already been doing the work that they have now, as a company, committed themselves to. There is a wealth of diversity in the D&D community, it would be a disheartening shame for those making such important contributions to not be employed and recognised for their work.
All of these things are good, there is no way to argue otherwise. It is amazing that Dungeons & Dragons is openly talking about their past problem with diversity and racism in their game, whilst also telling us the practical steps they are taking to be better. But they are still just words, it will take time and effort over the rest of the games existence for them to show that they are actually enacting everything they said they would. I know this sounds cynical, and I do really want to believe that everything written in the article is true, but so often large companies make promises that they then don't keep. So until we see these promises come to fruition I will sit in tentative hope for a better and more inclusive future from a game that means so much to so many people around the world.