D&D, Torchbearer and Colonialism

Originally published at: https://www.torchbearerrpg.com/?p=905

Hello friends!

For the past few years, and especially recently, there’s been a lot of discussion in online circles about colonialism, racism and D&D. Last year there was a 100+ page thread on RPGnet about decolonizing D&D. Lately, I’ve also been stumbling across apologia that attempts to disavow the existence of these things in D&D. Given Torchbearer’s debt to D&D, this is a topic Luke and I take very seriously.

I want to be very clear that I agree that D&D is embedded with colonialist and racist assumptions. I want to be equally clear that I’m not claiming Dave and Gary were racist or that D&D is some crypto-white-supremacist work. What I am saying is that unconscious support for colonialism and racism is systemic to American culture and so it is part of D&D whether Dave and Gary intended it to be or not.

It’s a part of Torchbearer too.

When I say ‘colonialism,’ here’s what I mean: Controlling a land, occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically.

This is the heart of the American story–going west and taming the savage frontier. Except that “savage frontier” was not empty. It was full of indigenous civilizations. The original American colonies grew on settlements and farms that had been tended by indigenous people for generations.

In D&D (and Torchbearer) players assemble their adventurers and send them out into the unknown (to them at least). There, they fight monsters and seize treasure to bring back to civilization.

You don’t really need to even squint to see that these stories are cut from the same cloth.

But orcs and gnolls and drow are evil, right? That’s the difference, right? They have to be killed or driven off to protect civilization from their evil and rapaciousness. That’s a good thing! I understand that argument, especially in a game that explicitly tags peoples with a good or evil alignment. I’d give that point more credence if the same justifications hadn’t been used for genocide, enslavement and forced migration of indigenous peoples all around the globe.

Fellow game designer James Mendez Hodes has written on these topics at length. I highly recommend you check out this and this to start if you want to delve deeper. James also cites this piece, by Paul Sturtevant, which closely examines the concept of ‘race’ in D&D.

Look, the point is that D&D is problematic. Torchbearer is too, for many of the same reasons. There is a hateful narrative embedded in these games. Does that mean I think you shouldn’t play D&D (or Torchbearer)? No! Do I think it’s bad if you enjoy them? No! I do, however, hope that you’ll think about the narratives that you’re creating with your games and characters and try to minimize or rehabilitate the harmful aspects.

In Mendez’s second article linked to above, he provides some excellent ideas for reclaiming and rehabilitating the stories of orcs, which I think provides a good starting point. How would you decolonize your Torchbearer games?

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Thanks for posting this, and I appreciate the links to further reading. It’s great to see that level of scholarship brought to bear on this topic.

I’ve struggled with how to handle the colonialist narrative in D&D and related games. My gut reaction is that I’d be best off trying to humanize and give some depth to the peoples and species that are encountered in your average D&D adventure. It’s hard to come up with a way to make that work though, since (as you mentioned) D&D explicitly casts morality as a concrete stepped scale (two-dimensional or otherwise). I know when I run other old-style games like Moldvay or DCC, I try to make the Chaotic/Lawful split less obviously evil and good. Still, it’s hard when there are already pre-arranged mechanics and storyline written around that split.

Even if I do find a way to give some more depth to the standard opponents of adventurers, I’d be nervous that the structure of the game itself will put players in a position where they are outright encouraged to subjugate and exterminate others. “Yeah, the orcs seem like they might have some real claim on these Caves of Chaos, but I only level up when I bring back gold, and they seem to have it. So…”, etc. I’ve been trying to do some more reading on how to handle this topic, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

P.S. Hopefully it’s okay for me to use D&D as my reference here. I’ve run more of that, and my Torchbearer experience is more limited in comparison. I think there is enough through-lines between the two games that it’s still relevant.

P.P.S. A friend of mine was planning a D&D game a while ago that focused on all the standard D&D “bad guys” banding together to try and repel a wave of colonizing adventurers and nations. He was planning to let everyone pick one of the different factions and come up with a way that their culture had been misunderstood and demonized by adventurers, along with the reality of what that culture actually was. Never got off the ground, but it seemed like a neat approach to the problem.

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Hm, interesting.
I am currently playing in a dnd campaign (Tomb of Annihilation) in which similar themes come up a lot, though they are not nearly as black and white.

So I guess what I am wondering is this:
Can games be truly called racist or colonialist if they simply provide the setting and rules set to emulate such conflicts? Or rather, can they be used to explore the morality of expansion, economic exploitation and colonialism?

To my mind, many of these tropes are older than dnd itself.
Even The Lord of the Rings has been accused of promoting racist ideas.
And even older than that, many such themes appear in mythology, much of which has inspired fantasy literature. (The Asgardians deffinetly screwed over the giants, the Olympians screwed over the Titans and even the Bible will paint an entire people as morally corrupt to justify taking their lands and lives).

I think simply referring to DnD (and by extension, Torchbearer) as colonialist is oversimplifying matters.
The idea of justifying our own expansions by painting those who stand in the way as subhuman or evil is, unfortunately, part of the human condition.

While it deffinetly warrants confronting and dealing with these ideas, I very much dislike the notion that this is some unique, stand-out feature of RPGs.
Rather I believe, the RPGs are a reflection of the stories we tell and how we like to see ourselves and our people in the context of history.

Edit: I realize, I should take the times to read the links. Will do so, once I am off work and see if it changes my outlook on thins.

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@Manicrack

I think the example articles Thor linked would indeed be worth checking out. The two part article on orcs lays out a lot of the ways that The Lord of the Rings was explicitly set out to represent racist dynamics, and ways that D&D and derivative games perpetuated and expanded on that model.

Also, I don’t think anyone is saying that a colonialist viewpoint is unique to RPGs. Far from it, in my experience. However, just because the viewpoint and tropes are popular in media as a whole, doesn’t mean that they aren’t present, harmful, and worth addressing in this specific example. Media changes and is changed by the culture(s) that it is created in. If we don’t stop to address how harmful viewpoints have crept into our media, we don’t stand any chance of recognizing the damage they do, and how we can work to shift them.

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I see a difference between actively seeking to support colonialism as virtue/“the white man’s burden”/&c. and creating something that passively draws upon the same underlying Othering of groups.

The pseudo-medieval insularity that causes “all orcs are evil” also drives the fear of everything beyond the (dying) firelight that gives characterful tension to fantasy RPGs, so I find the easier approach is to diffuse the underlying hard binary from the other side: have characters strongly aligned with both good and evil represented among the player’s in-species; thus, if there can be truely evil dwarfs and truly good dwarfs, then the message is there that species isn’t morality without weakening the “everything out there is dangerous” feel by introducing pleasant orcs.

Admittedly, the groups of roleplayers I’m familiar with are almost obsessively unwilling to accept anyone other than the forces of law and order are truly evil: have an orc charge toward them chewing the body of a missing child and they’ll attempt to ally with the orc against the town guard who must be oppressing it.

So, I took the time to read the whole thing and I get it, though I don’t agree with all of it.

My main concern is quite frankly this. Implying conscious racial elitism on older works when systemic subconscious racial stereotypes (very much prefer the term “systemic racism”, but that’s personal) are a perfectly legitimate explanation is somewhat of a leap.
Also measuring figures of the past and their works by today’s standards and understanding of universal rights and respect is also a somewhat slippery slope.
Taking the example of orcs. Does anybody still see anything resembling asians, or more specifically, Mongolians, when thinking of orcs? Does this staple of fantasy still subconsciously influence our perception of other ethnicities? Personally, I would say no… Mostly because I often imagine 6 feet tall pugs, walking upright (or something like that).

But orcs are elementally evil. It may be more complicated that that, and Burning Wheel is so very excellent at giving these characters depth, but this is the role they have occupied in most mainstream media.
And that is something many people long for I believe. A fantasy in which good and evil are simple choices, not existential questions of morality, so that it is simpler to feel heroic.

On the other hand, yes, we need to confront certain rather uncomfortable truth about the origins of the things we love. And now I totally want to play a campaign subverting the typical colonialist tropes…

PS: The first RPG game I ever played was the German “The Dark Eye” in which orcs are more of a shamanistic warrior culture. Not particularly peaceful, but far from the typical “born of evil, to do evil” trope.

Sorry for doing the stereotypical itemized quoted response thing, but it seems like the easiest way to focus on what I’m responding to.

My main concern is quite frankly this. Implying conscious racial elitism on older works when systemic subconscious racial stereotypes (very much prefer the term “systemic racism”, but that’s personal) are a perfectly legitimate explanation is somewhat of a leap.
Also measuring figures of the past and their works by today’s standards and understanding of universal rights and respect is also a somewhat slippery slope.

This isn’t an implication of conscious racial elitism though, it’s explicit. The author of the article on orcs quotes Tolkien’s own words in what he wanted to reference with the orcs. Also, while I agree with you that it can be tricky to judge people in the past by current standards of morality, you need to be very careful in how you handle that. First, that you are being accurate in how you portray the amount of racism at the time, and that there really was no agency on the part of the person creating the racist art, and second, that you aren’t somehow giving it a pass in the modern era.

There’s a lot of art that is wildly racist by modern standards that is still considered worth studying for its historical significance. This doesn’t, however, give us a pass to incorporate that racist subtext into our completely new work. If we know that the traditional portrayal of orcs is racist, then when we write something new about orcs we should be very careful we don’t bring the racism too. Just saying “Well orcs are always ‘savage’ people who live in tribal bands and breed rapidly” is endorsing that racist portrayal, whether our portrayal of orcs is accurate to the historical media influences we are calling on or not.

Taking the example of orcs. Does anybody still see anything resembling asians, or more specifically, Mongolians, when thinking of orcs? Does this staple of fantasy still subconsciously influence our perception of other ethnicities? Personally, I would say no… Mostly because I often imagine 6 feet tall pugs, walking upright (or something like that).

Just because the underlying anxieties that formed a racist portrayal don’t resonate anymore, or aren’t relevant to an individual viewing the media, doesn’t mean that they aren’t still racist. Do I personally think of people of Mongolian heritage when I think of orcs? No, probably not. But the fact that they are based so heavily on traditional western fears of Asian invaders means I’m probably at least subconsciously influenced by those tropes. The amount that people are influenced by the racism and prejudice around them isn’t always apparent at first glance. I’ve been called out many times (and rightfully so) for things that I didn’t think were prejudicial. A lot of those times, I was simply playing along with tropes that I had known forever, but had never taken the time to think about.

And that is something many people long for I believe. A fantasy in which good and evil are simple choices, not existential questions of morality, so that it is simpler to feel heroic.

I get that urge, but it’s really risky to play into that. Reducing something to good and something else to evil is a very common trope of enforcing racist and prejudicial concepts. While I get that people might want to have less complicated views of the world in the media they consume, that can get really gross in a hurry. Especially when you are trying to represent the concept of evil with stand-ins that reflect real-world cultural prejudices. I mean, even the concept that someone is “born evil” is pretty sketchy, since it’s been used throughout all of history to explain away why people who society failed turned out the way they did.

On the other hand, yes, we need to confront certain rather uncomfortable truth about the origins of the things we love. And now I totally want to play a campaign subverting the typical colonialist tropes…

Dooooo iiiiiit. Even just the planning process of the game I mentioned above (but never played in) was interesting. Trying to subvert tropes is a fun exercise in and of itself, especially when there’s a payoff that your fiction becomes more inclusive.

Edited: because even when quoting racist discussion points, it’s best not to use the racist terms.

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The dungeons and wilds in my campaign are split between several competing factions with varying degrees of approachability and objectives. I think this gives players more choices, so sessions are a little more interesting than simple good and evil. Examples near the remote village of Piper’s Quay:

Hills
Crag trolls are hungry and cruel. They want to torture and devour smaller things.
The harpy is proud and imperious. She commands the shrikes and wants the trolls gone.
Shrikes are curious and mischievous. They want easy prey and dumb pranks.
The necromancer is desperate and cunning. He wants to escape his prison.
The hamadryad is sleeping and growing. She wants to contact her magician friend.

Forest
These goblins are curious and superstitious. They want more magic.
Dire wolves are proud and hungry. Their pack wants a thrilling hunt.
The stone spider is hungry and cautious. It wants prey desperate and wriggling in its webs.

Coast
These pirates are desperate and greedy. They lost their ship and want a new one.
The wyvern is vengeful and wary. It wants to protect the nest.
Sahuagin are hungry and cautious. They want intruders out of their waters.
The sea serpent is proud and greedy. It wants tribute.

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