Dungeons & Other Things

I recently got super into 5e D&D. Because, if I’m going to get really into a socially-focused role playing game, I’m going to pick the middle of a pandemic, when I can’t be around other people, to do it. (And no, I haven’t yet tried Roll20 or its ilk, though I’m sure it’s on the horizon at this point.)

I have played, to some greater or lesser extent, every version of D&D since at least 2nd edition, but that doesn’t mean I liked most of them. I think 3.5 is probably the one I played the most, and I hated it, which is why I never got into Pathfinder, in spite of all the fun art by Wayne Reynolds that graces their covers, which have always had the energy that I feel like a D&D encounter needs.

(Please note, I don’t mean to diss 3.5 or Pathfinder. I know a lot of people love them. 3.5 was just very much not my particular cup of tea.)

In some ways, I picked a good time. I’m here just in time for Wizards of the Coast (the folks who make D&D) to finally catch up with how I (and every other GM I’ve ever played with) have always run games since forever, by getting rid of “evil” races, among other changes.

Here’s the thing that plenty of people who have thought and read and written way more about this topic than me have already talked about at great length: D&D has some problems that are baked into it from its very core.

Those of us who play the game and aren’t horrid bigots tend to ignore them or create homebrew workarounds or just not play the game that way, but the core ideas of D&D are based in colonialism and the “othering” of different peoples, and it’s hard to unring that bell. But it’s good that they’re trying.

Something I’ve seen Pathfinder doing in recent editions is to refer to player character options as “ancestries” rather than “races,” which I like. The word “race” is so fraught, and it’s so easy for things to fall into gross stereotypes in games like this anyway, that the way “race” has been deployed in D&D to, say, give bonuses or penalties to certain traits like Intelligence, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And that’s not even getting into the idea of having whole races that are “evil.”

Word is that D&D is looking to make some changes to how they do ability score increases at character creation, which is probably not the worst idea. But it’s really a band-aid on the bigger problem of how ideas of “race” are often used in this kind of fantasy world-building, and have been since Tolkien, at least.

I’m not predominantly a fantasy writer, and though I’ve worked in tabletop gaming a bit, I’m far from an expert in the field. As I said before, lots of people much smarter than me have written extensively about this, and I recommend that you go read some of them, if you’re interested.

None of this is meant to denigrate D&D, a game that I’ve been trying to love for most of my life, and finally managed with 5e, its best incarnation yet. The way I ultimately got into 5e is actually kind of a funny story…

I was approached about doing some work for a possible product that would use 5e’s system (via the Open Gaming License), but I had, at that time, basically never played 5e. So I started doing some research, and found that I really enjoyed the new system.

(Whether that side project will ever come to pass or not it’s too early days to tell, and COVID-19 has disrupted, y’know, everything.)

As I was digging into the system and setting, the protests around the murder of George Floyd were happening all over the country, and so it felt like high time that the makers of D&D finally stepped up to try to address some of the colonialism and baked-in racism of the game.

None of this is really going anywhere. I’m just writing to say that, hey, I finally found a version of D&D I like, and that I’m glad to see probably the world’s biggest tabletop gaming platform at least trying to address some problems that have needed addressing for a long time now.

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