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D&D 3E/3.5 Diversity in D&D Third Edition

With 3rd Ed, our main goal was to return D&D to its roots, such as with Greyhawk deities and the return of half-orcs. By staying true to the feel of D&D, we helped the gaming audience accept the sweeping changes that we made to the rules system.

One way we diverged from the D&D heritage, however, was by making the game art more inclusive. People of color, for example, were hard to find in earlier editions, and, when they did make appearance, it wasn’t always for the best. Luckily for us, Wizards of the Coast had an established culture of egalitarianism, and we were able to update the characters depicted in the game to better reflect contemporary sensibilities.


A few years before 3E, the leadership at Wizards had already encouraged me to go whole-hog with the multicultural look of the RPG Everway (1995). In this world-hopping game, we provided players and Gamemasters with scores of color art cards to inspire them as they created their characters and NPCs. The art featured people and settings that looked like they could have come from fantasy versions of places all around the earth, and the gender balance was great. I once got an email from a black roleplayer who said that Everway had forever changed the way he roleplayed, so I know that the game’s multicultural look was meaningful to some gamers out there. With D&D, we took the game in the same direction, but not nearly as far. The core setting has always resembled medieval Europe, and we expanded the diversity of the characters while still maintaining the medieval milieu.

The characters that players see the most are the “fab four,” the four iconic characters that we used repeatedly in our art and in our examples of play. Two are men (the human cleric and the dwarf fighter) and two are women (the elf wizard and the halfling rogue). Given the demographics of gamers in 2000, the implication that half of all D&D characters are female was a bit of a stretch. The only complaints we got, however, were about the introductory Adventure Game, where the characters were pregenerated, with names and genders assigned to them. Some young men would have preferred fewer female characters and more males to choose from. None of us worried too much about those complaints.

In addition to the main four characters, we also assigned a particular character to represent each of the other classes, with that character appearing in examples of play and in art. The four human characters comprised a white man (the cleric), a white woman (the paladin), a black woman (the monk), and an Asian man (the sorcerer). The remaining four nonhuman iconics were three men and one woman. It was a trick to strike the right balance in assigning fantasy races and genders to all the classes and to assign ethnicities to the human characters, but the iconic characters seemed to be a big hit, and I think the diversity was part of the appeal.

Somewhat late in the process, the marketing team added Regdar, a male fighter, to the mix of iconic characters. We designers weren’t thrilled, and as the one who had drawn up the iconic characters I was a little chapped. My array of iconic characters did not include a human male fighter, and that’s the most common D&D character ever, so the marketing team gave us one. We carped a little that he meant adding a second white man to the array of characters, but at least he was dark enough to be ambiguously ethnic. Regdar proved popular, and if the marketing team was looking for an attractive character to publicize, they got one.

Back in 1E, Gary Gygax had used the phrase “he or she” as the default third person singular pronoun, a usage that gave the writing a legalistic vibe that probably suited it. In 2E, the text stated up front that it was just going to use “he” because grammatically it’s gender-neutral. Even in 1989, insisting that “he” is gender neutral was tone deaf. By the time I was working on 3E, I had been dealing with the pronoun issue for ten years. In Ars Magica (1987), we wrote everything in second person so that we could avoid gendered pronouns. The rules said things like, “You can understand your familiar” instead of “The wizard can understand his/her/their familiar.” In Over the Edge (1992), we used “he” for the generic player and “she” for the generic gamemaster, which felt balanced and helped the reader keep the two roles separate. That sort of usage became standard for Atlas Games’s roleplaying games. Personally, I use singular-they whenever I can get away with it, but 20 years ago that was still generally considered unorthodox. For 3E, I suggested that we tie the pronouns to the iconic characters. The iconic paladin was a woman, so references to paladins in the rules were to “her.” I thought we’d catch flak from someone about this usage, but I never heard fans complaining.

One topic we needed to settle was whether monsters that were gendered as female in folklore, such as a lamia, should be exclusively female in D&D. I figured we should ditch gender limits wherever we could, but an editor argued that gender was important for the identity of a monster like the lamia. I asked, “Is that because it is in woman’s nature to deceive and destroy men?” Luring and destroying men is a common trope for female-gendered monsters, with the lamia as an example. “Yes, it is” said the editor, but she was laughing, and I had made my point. You can see an illustration of a male lamia in the 3E Monster Manual.

While we incorporated Greyhawk’s deities into 3rd Ed, we had no intention of picking up Greyhawk’s description of various human ethnic groups, corresponding more or less to ethnicities found on Earth. For gamers who cared about the Greyhawk canon, the Asian sorcerer would be from a lightly described territory to the west and the black monk would be a “Touv” from the jungles of Hepmonaland. Touvs in 2E were defined as having a penalty to their Intelligence scores, and we sure didn’t want to send any players in that direction. In 3E, the Asian and black characters were just humans, full stop.

The good news is that the gaming audience rolled with the iconic characters featuring people of color and women. With 5th Ed, the design team picked up where we left off and have pursued diversity further. The diverse cast of characters goes a long way in making D&D look modern and mature.

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Jonathan Tweet

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish

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That seems right, and I can live with that. The three neutral alignments (LN, N, and CN) were also described as "best".

I didn't mean it that way and I apologize for giving you that impression. I used it to illustrate a point: The mere fact that you have diverse representation in D&D was most emphatically not an attempt by the authors to dictate to the reader how they must play their game. It was an absurd way for me to make the point I must admit.


Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Yes D&D is steeped in medieval fantasy lore, but D&D and fantasy in general is often best when it offers something new. A fully fleshed out culture of dark-skinned, nomadic human seafarers with a matriarchy based on ancestor worship would be an interesting addition to a world with elves and dwarves. It is much more interesting than copy and paste cultures stolen from real world history. I don't need another fantasy world Egypt clone.
This is a great point.
One reason I like Goliaths mostly as written is, they didn’t just copy a real world culture. I like to take that a bit further in my worlds and make Goliaths be oral lorekeepers, or believe that they were made by the Primal Spirits to bring the Dawn by singing the Sun from its slumber every day, or give them intricate rituals and beliefs derived from hermetic astrology, etc.

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