D&D General The Art and the Artist: Discussing Problematic Issues in D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
A topic that has been regularly arising recently has concerned the continuing use of certain material in Dungeons & Dragons; sometimes the question is whether the material is problematic (as in legacy material), sometimes whether the material should be updated (as in material in newer books), and sometimes questions regarding use of outside material in the game itself (such as conversations about an updated 'Appendix N'). A lot of these discussions involve questions as to whether that material is itself offensive in some way, or whether that material comes from an artist (an author) who has views that are offensive. Notably, there is a recurrent conversation in both D&D and the greater sci-fi and fantasy community regarding H.P. Lovecraft, the Cthulhu mythos, and the presence of same in D&D (Great Old Ones, Appendix N, etc.) as well as wider popular culture.

I think that these are useful conversations to have! Albeit difficult. But I also think it would be helpful and illuminating to look at these issues in the context of other controversies and see if they help illuminate why there issues can be both contentious and nuanced.

Please note that I am not prescribing any particular opinions, and simply posting some thoughts that I continue to wrestle with. Please do not use this post as a launching point to write about anti-inclusive content. Enworld's Faq is here: Terms and rules There is a section titled, "Keep it inclusive". Thank you!

I'm going to go through the following sections in my post; as usual, I will name the sections according to whatever bizarre reference happens to be going through my head at the time.

A. An examination of the issue using the Potterverse as an example
B. An overview of the offensive and/or problematic nature of people, and artists
C. A discussion of the general issues of separating art and artists (text and author)
D. Thoughts on why individual and collection action matters, and why it doesn't
E. Concluding opinions on the relevance to D&D


A. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes; that way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away and you have their shoes.

From approximately 2000 on, the Potterverse was fantasy. Yes, yes, Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings movies, and all that. But I hope that I don't need to go into a long digression about how the Harry Potter books were the lingua franca for a new generation. There were the books, which were devoured by kids and adults alike. The blockbuster movies. An entire theme park in Orlando. Video games. The Potterverse, for many people, came to define substantial parts of what we think of as fantasy. It has wizards and wands and monsters, oh my! And it all came from J.K. Rowling. A writer who was seen by many, and championed by many, as a hero. I don't think I need to clarify why this is important to D&D- while there are many reasons that D&D has blossomed in the last seven years or so, having a whole generation of kids raised up that love to read and that love fantasy certainly didn't hurt D&D.

...and then came 2020. Well, there had been some glimmers before it, but 2020 was when the controversy that shook a lot of the community happened. I am not going to cover it in detail (you can google JK Rowling Controversy if you'd like), but Rowling has been embroiled in an endless series of issues regarding her continued statements regarding gender and trans issues, which culminated in the publication of a book (Trouble Blood) that has a plotline that certainly staked a position- and it was not one friendly to the transgender community.

So given this background, the controversy seems clear. If you are trans, or a trans ally, it is difficult to countenance the harm being done by Rowling. And this applies to a number of arguments we often go though- you can't say that it isn't present in any of her works given that she wrote a whole book premised on the idea of promoting her thoughts. You can't say that she isn't "worse" than the average for the time, given the number of people (including most of the stars of her films and other authors like Stephen King) who have spoken out against her. You can't say that she isn't causing harm, given that her writings on the issue have been used by people to defeat bills that would support trans equality. So a lot of people are struggling with this, especially fans of the Potterverse. And we see this in all sorts of discussions; we see that JK Rowling is marginalized from most Potterverse releases, announcements about projects will stress that she was not involved and/or discuss Warner Bros.' position on inclusivity. But that makes it difficult for many people to know what, if anything, they should be doing. If there is a new videogame about Harry Potter, can they buy it? A lot of people that aren't Rowling worked on it, and it doesn't have her viewpoint ... but is it still supporting her?

....it gets complicated, because the artist who created a work that is loved is flawed. And Rowling is flawed, as are most people. As are most artists.

I will briefly mention that this issue seems to keep popping up in both the culture as a whole, but also D&D and RPGs. We have people from the past that were influential on D&D, and controversies regarding people involved in the industry today.


B. If you look carefully at my lips, you'll realize that I'm actually saying something else. I'm not actually telling you about the several ways I'm gradually murdering Joan.

People .... people suck. That is a general truism. Even the best of them. Mother Teresa? Might want to research that. Your friend Jake? Cheated on his first wife. And so on. No one is perfect- it's just that the more famous the person, the more likely we are to have documented instances of them being .... imperfect. To go to H.P. Lovecraft, for example, the reason we know he was an odious racist was because, unlike the millions upon millions of odious racists at the time, he wrote about his beliefs! And why did he do that, and why are those writings saved? Because he's a writer.

Picasso? Terrible to women. Wagner? Racist. Hemingway? Chauvinist and racist. Burroughs (W.S.)? Degenerate junkie that killed his wife. I could keep going on, but the idea should be clear. I remember talking to a friend once, who said that they could never listen to David Bowie again because they had read a biography of him and he had slept with underage girls in the 70s. I remember that my first thought was- if you're going to rule out music produced by rock musicians in the 60s and 70s who engaged in intercourse with underage groupies, you're not going to be listening to the classic rock station anymore. My second thought- Led Zeppelin was his favorite band, and I sure hoped he never wanted to learn about them. It's like the person who remarks that they are shocked to discover casual misogyny in a 1980s teen film- were you never paying attention? If you rule out antisemitism and racism and misogyny (not to mention homophobia or transphobia or dislike of other religions), there are going to be very few artists left from the past. The only question is whether it has been documented, and (perhaps) how severe it might be.

And all of this is before we even get into the issue what should matter in terms of offensive behavior on the part of the artist? For example, H.P. Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and wrote about it. But it does not appear that he ever acted on his racism in a criminal manner, or that his writing were used as propaganda to hurt people, or that he participated in discrimination or lynching (!!) or other racist acts of his time. How would that compare to a Burroughs (shot wife) or Roman Polanski (sexual assault) or a Michael Jackson (ahem) or a Picasso (repeatedly abused women) or even an Anne Perry (best-selling writer who has killed someone when she was a teenager)?

...actions, words, views ... current and past, they all make up a mélange of indistinct issues that are difficult to parse.


C. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.

"The author is dead," is a rallying cry that is known to any college student who has taken a critical theory course. Personally, I am a strong believer in it- when it comes to criticism. And yet ... it is difficult to separate the text from the author, the art from the artist. The entire concept of the director as auteur (born in Cahier du Cinema) that championed directors like Hitchcock and the French New Wave speaks to that- there is something necessary and individual about specific artists. No one would confuse a Wes Anderson film with a Stanley Kubrick one, for instance. Dostoyevsky is not Tolstoy, and Hemingway is not Henry Miller. If someone tells me that they are watching Primal, I will assume that they like the stylings of Tartakovsky.

...and yet, to ascribe everything in a text to the author is the way of madness. In some cases, that is because the work is collaborative- music is not just the artist, but also the producers (not to mention the other musicians that might be playing), for example, and movies have cinematographers, and sound designers, and editors, and costume designers, and numerous others who put their own individual touches into the film in addition to the director. But even when it is the work of an individual- a painting, or a book, it can still be madness to read the sins of the author into the work. Picasso was a terrible misogynist, which is sometimes reflected in his paintings, yet Guernica (to use one example) is free of Picasso's misogyny.

But the issue often goes deeper than that. Good art often provokes, offends, or at a minimum shocks the people of their time. We celebrate Lenny Bruce not for his tragically short life, or even funny humor, but because he demanded that his art be heard despite official censorship. Burroughs (W.S.) had his book, Naked Lunch, banned in much of the United States for its explicit content, including homosexuality, yet it is often considered one of the best works of the 20th century. While it seems quaint today, Rites of Spring caused outrage and protests (if not quite causing the riot that some state happened) when it was first performed. I note this only because it is easy to be outraged and demand the removal of things you don't agree with because they offend the orthodoxy (whatever that might be) of the time, but it is never clear what that propriety might be.

Finally, the text/author issue can always run into the "Air Supply problem". Let me explain- once, a long time ago, I knew a group of people. And every now and then, we would listen to Air Supply ("I'm all out love" etc.) because we thought it was hilarious. We enjoyed Air Supply ... but in an ironic fashion. We would talk about how, "Air Supply is the greatest band ever," and "They should re-name the Grammies, the Airies" and so on. One of our friends, Jason, would always listen to Air Supply with us. Over a course of several months, we began to realize something with growing horror. Jason loved Air Supply. Jason wasn't enjoying Air Supply ironically ... quelle horreur ... Jason was just loving them! Jason was making his love for Air Supply, out of nothing at all! Air Supply was the one that he loved ...

Ugh, anyway, the Air Supply problem is a generalize version of Poe's Law. Sarcasm, parody, irony, black humor, and so on ... many times, a text will mean the opposite of what it appears to mean on the surface. For that matter, sometimes art will traffic in problematic tropes in order to dispel them; is American History X a racist, or anti-racist film? Is Fight Club fascist or a send-up of hypermasculinity? Does Tropic Thunder traffic in blackface and ableist tropes for jokes, or mock the way Hollywood and actors exploit these tropes (or both)? Is Spinal Tap misogynistic (Big Bottoms) or against it? Is Showgirls a masterpiece of self-aware parody that forces the viewer to confront the sins of capitalism, or leering misogynistic trash? And what do you do with Blazing Saddles? I don't have the answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.

And the reason that those questions are worth asking is because you end up with a fundamental divide, at times. There are those for whom the only measure that matters is the offense caused. For others, the proper measure is the intent to cause offense. The author's intent ... the text itself ... these are often intertwined within these conversations.


D. There’s an old Chinese proverb: "Lies are like tigers, they are bad." I guess it’s more poetic in Mandarin.

A while back, I used to give to a particular charity. A friend asked me about it, saying, "Why do you give to that charity, Snarf? There are so many other more important things to give to!" And while I understood what they were saying, it didn't matter. This charity was important to me. And if I didn't do something, who would?

There was a great show called The Good Place that recently ended its run; if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. It is rare to get so much philosophy in your sitcom. Anyway, one issue that they broached (without too many spoilers) is the interconnectedness of morality. Essentially, if we are on the hook, by our connections, for every possible bad thing ... then because the world is so inter-connected, we can't exist in the world without immorality. Too high-level? Okay, think of all the electronics you have purchased. Your iPhone or Android device. Your computer. Monitor. TV. Now, imagine being responsible for all the labor practices of not just the company that made it, but also all the subcontractors, and their subcontractors .... and so on. But wait, there's more! The shipping companies that brought it to you. The mining that got the rare elements for certain parts. The plastic bits that end up in the ocean (they don't get recycled). The oil companies that get the oil to make the plastic bits ... it gets overwhelming quickly.

And it applies, in much the same way, when discussing some of the issues for the art and the artists. Do you want to show how much you disagree with Rowling's pubic stance by not purchasing the latest Harry Potter videogame? Well, what about the developers? If the company that is actually making the game inclusive, should they be punished because the original author has views you don't agree with? Should you boycott Batman because it contains both references to HP Lovecraft (Arkham) and has a storied connection to Frank Miller (who has issues of his own)?

That's where we get into the issue of individual and collective action. In this world, we want positive change to happen. And given the capitalist underpinnings, the best way to do that, many times, is to vote with our wallets. To not buy things we disapprove of, and to purchase things we approve of; moreover, to tell companies what we are doing. "I am not buying your products because they demean (this group)." The issue is, we are all hypocrites to greater or lesser degrees. We will campaign for the environment while driving an SUV (or flying in a plane). We will bemoan the use of plastic bags in a store while remaining blissfully unaware of the uselessness of so-called recycling of plastic for the many, many plastic containers that hold the food we just bought. We will talk about this director or that singer being objectionable, solely because we aren't aware of what other artists have done.

.... and that's okay. In the end, we can only do what we believe to be right and correct. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and trying to be better in some things doesn't require being the best at everything. It does, at times, require patience for the way that other people view the issues.

There are Harry Potter fans that still like the Potterverse while not appreciating Rowling, while there are those that cannot separate the two. There are those that can still love listening to Billie Jean or Thriller, while not appreciating what Michael Jackson did - and those that can't. There are people that can still read and appreciate Mists of Avalon, and others that are unable to.

No approach is incorrect.


E. Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion man.

D&D was created from a specific place and time- 70s America. Because of that, early D&D necessarily contains artifacts that are of its time; whether it is the "cheesecake" art that made the game less welcoming to women, or the causal exoticism of the other (such as descriptions of cannibals and savages in certain areas), or the gender-based maximum ability scores. Today, D&D (and 5e) incorporates a much wider range of influences while retaining a link to the past of the game. We continue to struggle with what aspects of D&D are necessary to maintain that continuity (to make it "D&D") and what aspects are necessary to throw into the dustbin of history.

I've observed this play out in three different "types" of debates here which I would contrast, but which all have similarities and are tied into the VERY LONG PROLOGUE above. The first is on "race" in D&D (or the continuing use of alignment, or should we kill orcs, etc.). The second is on the continuing use of Cthulhu tropes, but would apply to the continued use of anything that was derived from a questionable source. The third, and final, debate that keeps returning is regarding the continued presence of legacy products in D&D- as we see because of their presence on DriveThruRPG. I think that it is worth examining all three issues, because they are different and arguably call for different approaches.

1. For race (ancestry, folk, lineage), we have the issue that while it was not intended to be offensive at the beginning, it is increasingly seen as anachronistic. I would say that, IMO, D&D has traditionally been very inclusive in terms of making humanity a monolithic single race. That said, even the term "race" can easily rankle today, and combining it with static bonuses and the like (all of a "race" is the same) can reinforce stereotypes, however unwittingly. I can understand a desire to move away from that term and game usage.

(I would add that while I am using 'race' as a proxy, this applies to all the conversations about the desirability of certain aspects of D&D, like alignment, or killing humanoids, that have a history with the game but are increasingly viewed unfavorably.)

As a general rule, it is my opinion that the game can, and should, evolve when it comes to the rules of the game. People can do whatever they want to in their own games, of course, and always play past editions if that's what they really want ... but the idea that "we've always done this, so we must always do this," usually is a poor argument, and would mean that we would still be playing with cheesecake art and gendered ability maximums. Change is a part of life, and I think that everyone wants D&D to live. :)


2. On the other hand, I would disagree with those who would argue for removing any possible reference to the Cthulhu mythos, root and branch, from D&D as I have seen argued here. Not only because it would cause interminable squabbles as to what it is (what aberrations and other aspects of cosmic horror are we to remove?), but also because there are times when you can remove the creation from the creator; are we to edit the movie Apocalypse Now because it contains a snippet of Die Walkure and Wagner could be a nasty piece of work?

As a general rule, it is my opinion that if the problem is because there has been some incorporation at some point, and the original creator is 'problematic,' but the actual material within the game is fine, I wouldn't worry about it. Everyone has a different tolerance for things, and I cannot speak for everyone, but I prefer to focus on the actual material used in play and ensuring that it is of the highest quality.


3. Finally, there are the recurrent conversations on the threads about the legacy material in D&D. We've seen this with, inter alia, Oriental Adventures, GAZ10, and many other older works. This renewed emphasis comes primarily because these works are now available; as hard as it might be for some people to believe, for long periods of time (both pre-internet, and before WOTC agreed to allow their catalog to be available) you simply couldn't just get a digital copy of these works.

As a general rule, it is my opinion that for legacy products you provide an appropriate disclaimer, and otherwise let it be. Products are, for better and for worse, a product of their time. If a product is to be re-released (to 5e, for example), then it should be updated. But otherwise, people should see the original just like it was, and marvel at it in much the same way that people might be perusing youtube and stumble on Into the Night by Benny Mardones and say to themselves, "What ... the ... actual .... HE**?????"


In short, I think that these conversations are hard, but necessary, and there isn't a categorical imperative on most of these issues. We should be striving to be better, but cognizant of the complexity of these issues. But hey, maybe I'm wrong.

This is where I'm throwing it out for discussion. Please keep the discussion focused on D&D.

Do you think that those are three useful categories? Would you treat them differently?
 

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payn

Legend
Once again, nice essay, but im not sure what there is to discuss? I think you highlight three aspects of popular argument without really siding in any particular direction. Are you looking for folks to actually dig into these topics, or to just discuss on a meta level these types of discussions?
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Very interesting write up, I appreciate the effort to present various points of view. Thanks in particular for the "Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes" and the "people are not perfect".

As for myself, I am a huge believer in tolerance. People are products of their time, and their work is the product of that exact same time. And I'm absolutely sure that people criticising people of the past for what they did will find themselves criticised by the next generation for having missed something too.

So something was produced in the past that does not meet your current standards ? Do you really think that anyone at that time lived by our current standards ? Of course they did not, and for the same reason, you will see that you do not live up to the standards of the future generations. Unless, of course, you do believe that you are perfect ?

Anyhow, D&D products are exactly the same. D&D has almost half a century of existence and of course some products show their age, most of them actually. It is a reason to criticise them of their authors for having lived in a age with different standards ?

So if a product offends you, start by putting yourself back in that age and see why it might have been written that way. It might be that, by your current standards, it is flawed beyond redemption, but criticism of the past is pointless, the past has happened, these products exist, so criticising them purely for existing in the light of your newfound "wisdom" is worthless.

Or it might just be that you can transform the product to views that are acceptable to you. It does not mean that you accept that what the author wrote or did at the time was good, it just means accepting that, had you lived at that time, you might just have done exactly the same. Because, you know, you are just as imperfect and you certainly can't claim that you would have been a prophet at the time. Otherwise, why are you not one now about what still needs to be done in the world ?

As for me, I have absolutely zero problem with the Chutlhu Mythos, and I'm the proud owner of a 1st edition Deities and Demigods that include it, and which I am absolutely happy to use now and then in my games (because it's an incredible supplement with in general magnificent illustrations).

Does this mean that I endorse everything what Lovecraft wrote at the time ? Does it mean that I endorse what the artists might have thought and done at the time when the DDG was produced ? Certainly not, but I recognise that they are products and authors of their time just like I'm a product of my time, that I'm imperfect and that they were too (and actually, in a lot of domains, they were far better than I am), that I'm not better than they were, simply with a different perspective, one that took decades to forge and that I can't even claim to have really contributed to in a meaningful way.

And honestly, I'm far more tolerant of these authors who at least contributed something than of the little j..ks who come often to these forums and others just being offended about D&D products of the past without having the humility to recognise that, contrary to these authors, they have probably produced nothing of value to others in their life, they are unlikely to anyway, they have no right to criticise people for having lived in their time and I simply hope that living a bit will teach them a bit of humility and perspective.

As for me, I will continue to enjoy my large collection of D&D products of the past, reusing and adapting them, including with my daughters who have both the patience to teach me new perspectives and the tolerance for my old habits of the past. :p
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I think this is a very interesting post that pokes at a lot of interesting issues. I'll briefly say that I go through this experience a lot with music: Nina Simone, Cat Stevens, and a lot of other favorite musicians all have huge issues... and yet are still important to me. As you said, it doesn't have an easy answer.

D&D is in an interesting spot because it is a game, a toolbox, a tradition, and its own genre.

Because it is a toolbox, it is giving players a kind of palette with which to create their own art. If those tools include racist or misogynistic tropes, then those tropes are being used again and again and again by players and DMs. It's like if Picasso was an art supply retailer and all his paints were named "Be Cruel To Women Blue" and "Take Your Mistress To The Beach With Your Family Yellow." I truly believe WotC has a moral responsibility to not provide players with rules or materials that recreate prejudice.

On the other hand, D&D is a tradition. People are often able to handwave prejudice when it comes from tradition, in art and culture and their own lives. When my friends and I played d20 Conan, it included a warning that the rules were not balanced and the material was not cleaned of prejudice, because the book was meant to recreate the world of Conan. Whether that's the right move or not, the game was justifying their decision based on the value of tradition.

Finally, D&D is a genre. That means it's not the product of a single creator. And we are seeing new artists in this genre create things that don't carry forward a lot of the old biases of the original creators. And in 20 years, we will see new creators make things that don't carry forward the biases of this generation! Lovecraft is a great analogy here. A lot of modern Lovecraftian art uses the xenophobia and paranoia to comment on racism and prejudice, rather than practice it.

I honestly think WotC have been good stewards of D&D. I think they've made a lot of efforts (and some mistakes) in attempting to make D&D more inclusive, open it to a broader audience, and respect a diversity of voices. It's exciting!
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Thank you for that @Snarf Zagyg

I have nothing useful to add.

Jack Handey has some great quotes. Is there part of a generation where Percy Jackson has outshone Harry Potter. Air Supply was awesome - I hope you are served pineapple pizza.
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
And honestly, I'm far more tolerant of these authors who at least contributed something than of the little j..ks who come often to these forums and others just being offended about D&D products of the past without having the humility to recognise that, contrary to these authors, they have probably produced nothing of value to others in their life, they are unlikely to anyway, they have no right to criticise people for having lived in their time and I simply hope that living a bit will teach them a bit of humility and perspective.

It's interesting to me that you have tolerance for people of the past, whose perspective is very much a product of their time, but not people of the present. Aren't people writing on forums now products of their time as well?

I see critique as a form of participation in art. Those who analyze both the flaws and features of past work know that their own work will be critiqued in the future. It's like a flow of conversation through time.
 


Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
As a general observation, I like what you have to say Snarf, but man, sometimes it just gets too verbose and I don't have an opportunity to read it (because I flip to read replies when I have a brief break in whatever I'm doing). :D
 




Lyxen

Great Old One
It's interesting to me that you have tolerance for people of the past, whose perspective is very much a product of their time, but not people of the present. Aren't people writing on forums now products of their time as well?

That's why I said who I have more or less tolerance for. :)

And you can be a product of your time and realise that it does not entitle you to judge everyone in the past according to your present criterions.

I see critique as a form of participation in art. Those who analyze both the flaws and features of past work know that their own work will be critiqued in the future. It's like a flow of conversation through time.

Critique is something else, you can certainly critique something of your time using criterions of your time. After that, there are good and bad ways of doing critique, being judgemental for example is not an example of good criticism.
 

Myrdin Potter

Adventurer
I summarize the current issues with issues as conversations that used to pretty much only occur in colleges spilling over into social media where the level of discourse is raw and people discussing issues can be poorly matched in ability to express themselves.

Under bright lights in public there is no room for shadows and grey like the OP expresses.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Back to the OP, I think I agree. You don't even need to go back decades in history. Rowling, Whedon, etc? Seems like many of the creators of our cherished material were/are not good people.

So put the disclaimer and leave it at that. Know better, be better going forward.
 

Is there anything new from the last time this was posted?

 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Is there anything new from the last time this was posted?


I didn't realize I was being sold minor updates of something old as a new thing here. Is this necro-cloning?

There appears to be some tweaking here and there.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Is there anything new from the last time this was posted?


Yes. Some edits throughout (to avoid a few issues), some updates (for the time), and some expansions.

And not posting it on a Friday. That's really the main one. :)
 



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