In reading the discussions that have been popping up about Oriental Adventures, Orcs, Drow, alignment, and so on, and then (thankfully!) mostly avoiding them for a few days, I began to think of the prior conversations about so-called "problematic faves" that have been previously had and explored, and how these play into our understanding of TTRPGs in general, D&D specifically, and 70s and 80s D&D more specifically-er.
Introduction: Problematic Faves and the Dungeon Master's Guide
I'd like to give a h/t to an excellent podcast called FANTI (at maximum fun) which I've been blowing through recently- it's a series about how to reconcile being a fan of things that don't always love you back. It provided some of the impetus and underlying thoughts for this post.
To start with, I'd like to build on this brief article from 2017:
We know a problematic fave when we see it, but actually nailing down a specific definition can be hard.
I'm going to use the following pullquotes to move this along for those that don't like to go to other websites:
While I do agree with Taylor’s baseline definition that a problematic fave is something you have to recommend with a caveat—such as noting that Lovecraft is a big ol’ racist when recommending At the Mountains of Madness—Donnelly provided the best explanation by way of metaphor. Specifically, the metaphor of ice cream. Ice cream is delicious and easy to love, but eating ice cream all the time will leave you malnourished. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ice cream, of course, you just have to be upfront about what it is and incorporate it into a diverse diet.
More importantly, there is a detour into the idea of "affect theory." Basically, it provides a good description of why these debates over "offense" and "problematic issues" cause such a ruckus, and so many knee-jerk reactions:
So when someone comes along and points out its flaws—an “affect alien,” per Ahmed—we can feel threatened. Ahmed uses the stereotype of the “feminist killjoy” as an example of this. It’s not just someone yucking on your yum. Someone else being unable to find happiness in your happy object, especially for unassailable reasons like, say, “this story says terrible things about women,” can feel like a commentary on your own enjoyment of it. That your happy object is completely unworthy or that you’re wrong or a bad person to enjoy it all. To go back to Donnelly’s metaphor, you feel like you’re not allowed to eat ice cream and that you’re a bad person for even wanting it at all.
That is, IMO, a useful framing mechanism for conversations; it's the natural defensiveness a person feels when something they like is said to be harmful.
All of this circles back around to the interminable debates; what, precisely, is a problematic fave? When is it okay to still derive some pleasure from it, while acknowledging the problems? When is it permissible to keep liking a problematic fave? Or, to put it more precisely, when can you say, "I like Kanye, but ...." or "I read HP Lovecraft, but ..." or "I mean, other than the whole child thing, Michael Jackson had some good music ..."
In that context, I'm going use the following pullquotes from the Dungeon Master's Guide (AD&D, 1979) written by Gary Gygax:
Goodwife encounters are with a single woman, often indistinguishable from any other type of female (such as a magic-user, harlot, etc.). Any offensive treatment or seeming threat will be likely to cause the woman to scream for help, accusing the offending party of any number of crimes, i.e. assault, rape, theft, or murder. 20% of goodwives know interesting gossip.
DMG p. 192.
(Note: I could use a number of things, from the "Asian form" titles after the Northern European ones, to the terribly bad description of mental illnesses, but this will suffice).
I am going to use the "Goodwife Passage" ("GP" for short) along with some other pertinent examples (including the Oriental Adventures examples) to look at some of the common issues and points of contention I have observed when discussing "problematic faves" and, more importantly, what it means to be "problematic" or "offensive."
My goal is primarily to outline the areas of contention; while I will provide some of my thoughts, I'm mostly looking at where the primary fault lines of disagreement occur.
Finally, I would ask that anyone reading this please read the entirety before seizing on any small point to argue. I tend to state one position strongly only to then contradict it- and I'd rather not have to argue with people disagreeing with a point I've already contradicted or modified.
1. Who is offended? Does it matter?
During the discussions regarding Oriental Adventures (OA), one topic that came up extensively was the question of who, or what group, should be taking offense to the book in question. This was partly because most evidence indicated that Asians (as in those currently living in Asia) were not usually offended by the content (with exceptions), and that the primary offense was caused to Asian-Americans (or Asian-Canadians). But one example of the objectionable content in OA (that Asian cultures were blended together, with ) is unfortunately mirrored in this criticism; that a (for instance) Asian-Canadian of Chinese heritage would speak for an Asian-American of Laotian heritage, and make demands concerning the cultural appropriation from a culture that does not feel appropriated.
...and yet. To dwell too long on this raised the specter of Snyder-ism. Dan Snyder is the owner of the Washington DC American Football team. For years, he commissioned studies and gave money to try and keep his offensive team name by insisting that there were some Native Americans that were not offended; he was probably right! No group is a monolithic whole. We often refer to the LGBTQ (plus or minus some letters) community, yet it is a given that the experiences and views of a 50 year-old "G" man in Georgia will likely be different than those of a 33 year-old "L" woman in Vermont, and those will be different than a 21 year old "T" woman in Los Angeles, and so on. Nevertheless, you can speak generally about a community and their interests, even when they aren't monolithic. If someone used a homophobic slur, I doubt people would get caught up in demanding to know exactly what part of the LGBTQ community was "really" offended.
As such, sometimes the inquiry of who is offended can be of some usefulness in order to determine what is the cause of the offense or "problematic issue," but too often it is simply an excuse to deny the subjective experience of the person that cannot be experience by the person who is demanding the explanation.
Turning to the GP example above, this would be an example of misogyny in the following ways (and I apologize if I miss any): a) that a typical married woman is indistinguishable from a prostitute; b) that women (not men) are the ones to get gossip from; and worst of all c) women will make up accusations such as rape in response to offensive treatment.
The existence of one, or more, women that might defend this does not lessen the impact of this language; and if someone should point it out, it would be weird, indeed, to have to go through a poll and justify which women are offended and how offended they might be.
2. What about facts? Can someone be offended by something if they are wrong?
This is a little bit tricky, in my opinion. One common issue that you see in "offense" and "problematic faves" is the so-called "mistake of fact" debate. The reason that this is tricky is that individual offense is, by definition, subjective. Think of it in terms of horror films, or "the sexy," or the amount of violence you like in your action movies. The amount that one person loves and enjoys can be too much, or even offensive, to another person. In a weird way, therefore, it doesn't matter to the person offended if they are right or they are wrong about what is causing the offense, because their subjective offense is the same!
...but. To paraphrase the great friend of D&D, Sir Mix-A-Lot, there's always a but. If we accept that, pace (1) above, that groups aren't monolithic, yet we can try and evaluate language without having to demand the bona fides of those people who are hurt or offended by the language, that means that we have view offense in at least a somewhat objective manner; in other words, there has to be an actual basis for it that is not based solely in a mistake of fact.
This semi-objective standard is, however, cabined by having to separate out what are true issues of facts.
Since all of that is somewhat vague, I will use the "comeliness" example from the recent OA, and contrast that with the "Oriental" title. There are those who argue that "Oriental" isn't offensive (not many, but some, still). That is ... well, it's an opinion I guess, but it isn't a mistake of fact. Whether "Oriental" as applied is an offensive slur can be discussed (not productively, perhaps, but discussed) but it's not something amenable to a factual, dispositive, objective resolution.
On the other hand, the idea that comeliness was put into OA specifically as a feature of "Asian" D&D is a mistake of fact; while comeliness was a bad idea, it predates OA and has nothing to do with the Asian nature of the campaign material. It is no more specific to OA than "wisdom" is.
To take offense at comeliness in OA is to make a mistake of fact, in the same way that someone could be truly offended by a "Lee High School" and later learn that it was not named after ... a slaveholding Confederate general.
The issue, of course, is twofold:
1. Offense is subjective; a person can be offended even if they are mistaken in their belief.
2. People will often say that they are arguing about the underlying facts ("Is Oriental offensive? I just had Oriental Ramen Flavor!") when they are really reflexively disagreeing with the subjective offense.
3. Can we place the work contextually? Where does it rank in the context of its time? What about for its place?
This is where we can get into the GP more extensively, since this issue has been beaten to death in the OA threads (16 Candles, etc.). As a general rule, historical materials (defined not as "oh my, that's so important" but only as materials from the past) are, by definitions, products of their time. Some of them will seem incredibly advanced or "modern," and other might seem retrograde. But one of the ways that we sometimes view how problematic material can be is by determining how much better, or worse, it was than standard material for its time.
HP Lovecraft lived in a pretty racist time! There were people that were a lot (a lot!) more racist than he was .... but even so, he was pretty virulently racist. On the other hand, a book like Uncle Tom's Cabin
, which today seems really racist, was an admirable book of abolition ... for its time. Things change. Not to mention places! The views and opinions espoused by someone in Korea in 1900 are going to be different in many ways than those of someone in South Africa in 1900. The past is a foreign country, and foreign countries are also foreign countries.
When I brought up the GP in another thread, remarking that it wasn't controversial at the time, another poster mentioned that it came up in the 80s Demon/Satan/Corrupt the Youth scandals (aka the Pat Pulling special). But back then, it was used because it was one of the two (2) places in the DMG that mentioned sexual assault; in other words, the misogyny of the section was completely passed over, instead it was used to show that D&D was all about sexual assault and prostitution. Now, of course, that context has shifted mightily.
So how was GP in the context of its time? Well, as terrible as this is to say, it was not great, but it wasn't particularly bad in the context of the time.
I say this hesitantly, because I am using something that should be glaringly obvious to most people. And yet- in the late 70s, the idea that a woman might lie about sexual assault was not that bizarre; that they might gossip was fairly well-entrenched in popular culture; and the casual mixing between a woman and a prostitute ... well, that might have been a little bit odd, but not outrageously so in a sexist time.
On the other hand, it's not too hard to find things from that era that were better, demonstrably so. So while it wasn't much worse than the time, it was certainly no better.
It's a delicate balancing act; acknowledging the context of the time and the place does not make an excuse for it or otherwise mean that those mistakes would be acceptable in something published today.
4. Is the problem the text, or the creator? The act or the intention?
One of the issues that often gets played out and is rarely reconciled is the distinction between the text and the creator of the text; to put it another way, when does the quality of the artist overshadow the work? When can a work be excused by the good intentions of an artist?
To put that more concretely- think of any number of important artists from the past (Picasso, Micheal Jackson, Polanski, etc.). Many of them have issues that make them unpalatable personally, but those issue are not reflected in all (or most) of their work.
On the other hand, you might say that a text is problematic despite the best intentions of the creator (due to changing times, lack of knowledge, etc.); examples might include Oriental Adventures, or To Kill a Mockingbird. The creator was working with good intentions within the constraint of their time, but times change ... or maybe the creator was simply unaware of their own constraints despite their good intentions.
The reason that this matters is that it's important when evaluating the offensiveness of content to determine if the offense is caused by a dislike of the creator, or a dislike of the content- the two things can be, but are not always, intertwined.
Moving to the GP, the offensiveness is obvious within the text; arguably, however, it reflects the attitude of the writer at the time. Gygax was not known as being overly progressive when it came to those issues for the time; most people are familiar with the hiring practices of TSR, with the gender-based caps on attributes introduced by Gygax, the "fantasy" art used in early D&D products, and his sometimes-questionable statements regarding gender.
5. Is it a sin of commission, or omission?
This is a brief problem, but also worth detailing. Very briefly, errors of commission come from the inclusion of material, but it is done in a way that is offensive. Errors of omission occur because material is never included.
So, early TTRPGs might have an error or commission by including racially or culturally insensitive materal (such as a Dragon Article about the incorporation of themes from African folklore that refers to the "Darkest Continent" or the "Dark Continent"). On the other hand, early TTRPGs rarely, if ever, included material about LGBTQ characters- an error of omission.
Both issues can cause offense; both a lack of representation, or incorrect representation, but they also present very different issues.
6. Is there an issue with the whole or the part?
This is where most disagreements over offensive content and problematic faves, even those in good faith, tend to get bogged down. How much racism can you tolerate in an HP Lovecraft story before you say, "That's too much." Or do you measure it by his entire oeuvre? Does the racism in "The Horror of Red Hook," mean "The Colour Out of Space" is a no go? Or how about all of the Cthulhu mythos? Can I play Call of Cthulhu in an ethically responsible manner?
And how does this impact AD&D and the DMG? I pull the GP as one passage, but there are other problematic parts of the DMG. How many problematic parts does it take to make the DMG, as a whole, offensive? AD&D? When do the parts subsume, or become, the whole?
In raising the questions, i am not looking to provide a definitive answer, but only to outline some of the issues and thought, especially in regard to older material. I am, and always will be, a fan of OD&D and AD&D; but I also recognize that, as a product of its time, it contains problematic parts and is thus a problematic fave. I can still enjoy it, but I also understand that I cannot enjoy it uncritically.
So, for purposes of discussion:
A. Do you have an RPG "problematic fave?"
B. How do you handle it?