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

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I was introduced to the concepts of the mythos, well before I ever read anything that was his work, and way way before I found that he was a racist.

EDIT: In fact its been so long since I've read anything specifically Lovecraft, I cant remember the story that first had me think that the concept of cosmic horror, in terms of the scope of the cosmos and humanities insignificance, was interesting. I know I was young, and I haven't been young, in a long ass time. :D
Yeah, this is a very common experience because of how influential his work has been to the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. I would be far more surprised to meet someone who actually read Lovecraft before encountering his mythos.

I actually think that’s a great thing, because there is really great, worthwhile stuff in his work, and I’m really glad that modern creators have been able to recontextualize and reclaim cosmic horror from its racist roots.
 

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Scribe

Hero
Yeah, this is a very common experience because of how influential his work has been to the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. I would be far more surprised to meet someone who actually read Lovecraft before encountering his mythos.

I actually think that’s a great thing, because there is really great, worthwhile stuff in his work, and I’m really glad that modern creators have been able to recontextualize and reclaim cosmic horror from its racist roots.
Yeah now I'm stuck trying to remember what it was I had read of his first.

One about trying to sleep/insomnia? Another about a tree? Its been decades...
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I call it Schrödinger Offense. It's when something is simultaneously offensive and inoffensive until we find out who said it and know for sure one way or the other. But the truth is our surroundings and prior knowledge has an influence on how we interpret things. You can convince people fast food is gourmet if you feed it to them on fancy china versus paper containers.

It's a very good name, I think I'll re-use it. The thing is that we all have biases, it's hard enough to take them into account in our thinking, so consciously retro-adding a strong bias that might actually have little reason for existing due to the time of authorship compared to offenses seems extreme to me. If you could not detect it at the time,, maybe it was really almost non-existent, or maybe your sensibilities have since then been exacerbated into something that prevents you from judging the past rationally. It at leasts requires thinking about it rather than giving in blindly.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
In this case, it's more like: the thing could be interpreted two ways. Absent context, you have a default (assume the best, maybe). But then you learn the author/artist holds certain views in real life, so with that added context a particular interpretation becomes much more likely.

The problem is that it's generally way more vague than this, it's not even subject to interpretation, no-one noticed it, but suddenly some new things pop up and then everyone is "of course it was there from the start". If it was, how come no-one detected it ?
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
If people…both individually and as a collective…are improving, then the past will be contentious at times. It cannot be otherwise unless we stop improving.

I'd say changing instead of improving. There is no reason to assume the newest situation is systematically better than the old, except that our current value match exactly... our current values, so we perceive them as ideal.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
I'd say changing instead of improving. There is no reason to assume the newest situation is systematically better than the old, except that our current value match exactly... our current values, so we perceive them as ideal.

Although there are ups and downs, I would still say improving overall. The difficulty is that our focus changes over time and as crisis appear, which means that we leave behind things which are not entirely resolved. But globally, although painfully and with unwanted side effects, our awareness increases.
 

teitan

Legend
I think all these conversations are tantamount to telling people they are having "bad wrong fun" myself because it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it. In cases like D&D Gygax didn't have racist intent nor did he encode racist tendencies into the work. The Drow for example are a negative photograph BUT some later artist chose to interpret "ebony black skin" and "inky black skin" with brown skin tones for Gygax's demon worshiping, incestuous, murderous, genocidal underground dwelling cultists. Yes there are less than reputable people who play these games and see these things but we also have the "seer sees, prover proves" psychological theory where if you go looking for something, you will find it and once you switch gears to looking for something else you will find that something else. The big example of that that we may know from pop culture is the number 23 or the 11:11 phenomenon. Once we notice the "pattern" or we are told there is a "pattern" we begin to see the pattern around us and it becomes a very real thing and of exaggerated importance as seen in the Jim Carrey film, The Number 23. This is not to say that there aren't historical antecedents of racism that are the roots of the archetype, most often rooted in the fear of the outsider and xenophobia but the strongest fears are based upon actual experiences, whether the fear is legitimate or not. Orcs for example, in Tolkien, are rooted, by his own words, in the Mongol hordes invading Europe under Ghengis Khan and there was a very real phenomenon to this fear as the horde was brutal as it tore across the country side, implanting on the psyche of the Western mind. This doesn't excuse the idea of portraying the Orc as Mongolians, but the imagery of hordes of invaders also by extension stretches to Nazis, the Persians, the Goths, and even the European push in the the Americas, Africa and Asia. The D&D Orc to me always seem to have more in common with the Visigoth, especially in Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms where they would sometimes unite under a charismatic leader and go on raids into the less mountainous regions to claim resources before stretching themselves to thin and receding back to their homes.

Some people will read D&D and be offended and we have seen this since the beginning, people have looked for reasons to find the game and its contents problematic while similar games with similar content, or even more extreme content, were largely left unpillaged. In the Satanic Panic D&D was drug over the coals as Satanic and about demon worship and TSR expunged such elements from the game while other games continued to feature these elements unscathed or mentioned because D&D had the "name". Then it was the butt of jokes and swept under the rug and people played Vampire who were cool.

Now we have a similar movement to the Satanic Panic, which in itself was a moral panic. We have academics looking into things, talking about things like Critical Race Theory (which I am all for), and identity politics and understanding the origins of these ideas and their roots and then it, much like in the Satanic Panic, spreads to others who, having good intentions, begin to see things instead of taking face value and telling people how they are "wrong" or "doing it wrong". I had a Twitter D&D person block me because I had the wherewithal to disagree with their assertion that pre-2014 D&D players were all prejudiced grognards who didn't want female/transgender/POC players at their tables when you can look back through this very forum and see threads going back to 2000 where we discuss these things and ways the game can reach those audiences, from Blue Rose T20 being a project that could hopefully appeal to the LGBT crowd and BESM being a gateway product that could be wonderful for bringing in women who were a primary manga audience at the time with Shoujen and similar genres being big releases for that game (as examples).

D&D has indeed had it's share of problematic content from the aforementioned Drow portrayals with traditional African skin tones instead of the black, inky skin tones intended by Gygax to the Red and Yellow Orcs of the Mystara setting. Books like Oriental Adventures though I think get a bum rap though because it was produced with an intention to respect and emulating the fantasy stories and materials available to western audiences from Asian producers. It is a valid discussion but has become exceedingly broad to discuss "problematic". Problematic would be portraying Nazis as "good guys" or literally using "Birth of a Nation" as the foundations of a campaign setting. It would be continuing to cast European descended actors in Asian or Native American or African roles and vice versa.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
I think all these conversations are tantamount to telling people they are having "bad wrong fun" myself because it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it.

Just to mention that I completely agree with what you said, and to reinforce the message about the orcs, I don't think people today have specifically a problem with the Red and Yellow Orcs of Mystara as these are, I think, shrouded in the past (not that they are not problematic, just that they are very much under the radar for being such a small part of an almost long forgotten setting), but they have a problem with the orcs since they were portrayed as very black in LotR, in particular in relation with blackface. The thing is that, in D&D, Orcs have never been really dark of skin, being more greyish or greenish, and in some cases really green. As for LGBT, although the proportion of women at our tables has never been high, I can say that, on the other hand, the population of trans both at our TTRPG and LARP games has always been way higher than those I could meet outside the hobby, especially in LARP games.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
I'm here to point out that if people are feeling uncomfortable with reading/recommending Harry Potter and similar books by J.K. Rowling, and want to substitute a young-adult book series at least as good and made by a person that isn't a total douchebag, read Rick Riordan's books instead.

Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan's other series are a perfect substitution for them. Diverse characters, especially in his later series, with great personalities, playing with/subverting standard fantasy tropes/clichés (The Chosen One, always-evil-monsters, and similar examples), and far less plot holes and changes to how magic works than there are in the Harry Potter series. And you can tell that he does a ton of research into real world mythologies when writing his books, and how he engages with his community shows that he's legitimately a good person (he wrote the series as a way of supporting his son that has ADHD and dyslexia, writing a series where someone like him is the main protagonist and these "disorders" are actually helpful).

If you want to support a popular fantasy author that has books aimed at the same age group that Harry Potter was, Rick Riordan is your guy.

Just . . . don't watch the movies. Those never happened. They're a prime example of what not to do when converting a book series to the big screen.
 
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MGibster

Legend
I see some iffy race stuff in it, but I’ve always seen that, and have been able to enjoy the show in spite of it. Lovecraft’s work on the other hand, has his racism all over it. Miscegenation is like one of the core themes of his work.
When I first read Lovecraft in high school, I didn't see the fear of miscegenation. And a big reason for that was because the idea of being that fearful about interracial relationships was a foreign concept to me. Oh, I knew some people who would make snide comments about interracial couples, but it wasn't an overriding concern of anyone I knew. And, honestly, I don't think I was even familiar with the word miscegenation until I was in college. At the time, I interpreted The Shadow Over Innsmouth more about the fear of inheriting negative traits from your ancestors. Things like mental illness, drug & alcohol abuse, or diseases. Don't get me wrong, I'm with you on interpreting the miscegenation angle on some of Lovecraft's stories now.

And it makes a lot of sense to me that a modern audience might interpret a story much differently than those who were around when it was first produced. Even today, whenever I fill out a medical form for a new doctor, I am consistently asked about whether or not various conditions or diseases are common in my family. Did either of my parents or grandparents have cancer, heart disease, or diabetes? Is this a history of mental illness? Is there some unknown genetic or learned trait that I have, perhaps without even realizing it, that's going to bite me in the butt one day?

I think some of Lovecraft's stories can be interpreted different from what he intended. And I think that's why they continue to resonate with some people today.
 

I think all these conversations are tantamount to telling people they are having "bad wrong fun" myself because it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it.
Can you take another stab at connecting the two clauses joined by 'because?' I'm not seeing the linkage/argument. How is acknowledging these issues telling others that they are having badwrongfun? What is the it in 'it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it?,' and how does it suggest that the conversation is telling people they are having badwrongfun?
In cases like D&D Gygax didn't have racist intent nor did he encode racist tendencies into the work. The Drow for example are a negative photograph BUT some later artist chose to interpret "ebony black skin" and "inky black skin" with brown skin tones for Gygax's demon worshiping, incestuous, murderous, genocidal underground dwelling cultists.
Whatever intent Gygax had with the drow in his own mind, the drow that came out of TSR and into the hands of the people consuming the media decidedly did not (or did not consistently) reflect this. From what I understand, there are other things that Gary didn't intend or didn't passionately embrace (IIRC, he says he put in different Strength limits by gender because someone else thought it important and wanted it more than he had energy or interest to resist). What exactly does that get us? People who were telepathic at the time would have known that the media they got wasn't intended to be X, Y, or Z? That gets back to the Death of the Author discussion. Does creator intent matter, and if so, when and how (especially when people would have to ignore that with which they'd been presented and take as primary secret creator information to which they would have had no access at the time)?
D&D has indeed had it's share of problematic content from the aforementioned Drow portrayals with traditional African skin tones instead of the black, inky skin tones intended by Gygax to the Red and Yellow Orcs of the Mystara setting. Books like Oriental Adventures though I think get a bum rap though because it was produced with an intention to respect and emulating the fantasy stories and materials available to western audiences from Asian producers.
So wait, you do think these are problematic? I'm really having a hard time figuring out your position.
It is a valid discussion but has become exceedingly broad to discuss "problematic".
It is valid, but doing so tells other people they are having badwrongfun? I am serious that I don't get your position. Is this an acceptable or unacceptable topic of discussion in your mind?
Just to mention that I completely agree with what you said, and to reinforce the message about the orcs, I don't think people today have specifically a problem with the Red and Yellow Orcs of Mystara as these are, I think, shrouded in the past (not that they are not problematic, just that they are very much under the radar for being such a small part of an almost long forgotten setting), but they have a problem with the orcs since they were portrayed as very black in LotR, in particular in relation with blackface. The thing is that, in D&D, Orcs have never been really dark of skin, being more greyish or greenish, and in some cases really green.
The Mystara orcs are probably not well known, but they were part of a trend (also propagated by AD&D 2e's The Complete Book of Humanoids) or conflating orcs (and other humanoids) as stand-ins for IRL tribal societies (often with patently obvious Native American or Sub-Saharan African or Pacific Islander trappings). I don't know which, if any, of these caught on (or if, D&D-adjacent media like Warhammer and Warcraft carried some of the water), but the conflation exists. It's really what D&D (the brand) does now that will be how they are judged, and honestly their doing... well, okay.
 

payn

Legend
I think all these conversations are tantamount to telling people they are having "bad wrong fun" myself because it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it. In cases like D&D Gygax didn't have racist intent nor did he encode racist tendencies into the work. The Drow for example are a negative photograph BUT some later artist chose to interpret "ebony black skin" and "inky black skin" with brown skin tones for Gygax's demon worshiping, incestuous, murderous, genocidal underground dwelling cultists. Yes there are less than reputable people who play these games and see these things but we also have the "seer sees, prover proves" psychological theory where if you go looking for something, you will find it and once you switch gears to looking for something else you will find that something else. The big example of that that we may know from pop culture is the number 23 or the 11:11 phenomenon. Once we notice the "pattern" or we are told there is a "pattern" we begin to see the pattern around us and it becomes a very real thing and of exaggerated importance as seen in the Jim Carrey film, The Number 23. This is not to say that there aren't historical antecedents of racism that are the roots of the archetype, most often rooted in the fear of the outsider and xenophobia but the strongest fears are based upon actual experiences, whether the fear is legitimate or not. Orcs for example, in Tolkien, are rooted, by his own words, in the Mongol hordes invading Europe under Ghengis Khan and there was a very real phenomenon to this fear as the horde was brutal as it tore across the country side, implanting on the psyche of the Western mind. This doesn't excuse the idea of portraying the Orc as Mongolians, but the imagery of hordes of invaders also by extension stretches to Nazis, the Persians, the Goths, and even the European push in the the Americas, Africa and Asia. The D&D Orc to me always seem to have more in common with the Visigoth, especially in Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms where they would sometimes unite under a charismatic leader and go on raids into the less mountainous regions to claim resources before stretching themselves to thin and receding back to their homes.

Some people will read D&D and be offended and we have seen this since the beginning, people have looked for reasons to find the game and its contents problematic while similar games with similar content, or even more extreme content, were largely left unpillaged. In the Satanic Panic D&D was drug over the coals as Satanic and about demon worship and TSR expunged such elements from the game while other games continued to feature these elements unscathed or mentioned because D&D had the "name". Then it was the butt of jokes and swept under the rug and people played Vampire who were cool.

Now we have a similar movement to the Satanic Panic, which in itself was a moral panic. We have academics looking into things, talking about things like Critical Race Theory (which I am all for), and identity politics and understanding the origins of these ideas and their roots and then it, much like in the Satanic Panic, spreads to others who, having good intentions, begin to see things instead of taking face value and telling people how they are "wrong" or "doing it wrong". I had a Twitter D&D person block me because I had the wherewithal to disagree with their assertion that pre-2014 D&D players were all prejudiced grognards who didn't want female/transgender/POC players at their tables when you can look back through this very forum and see threads going back to 2000 where we discuss these things and ways the game can reach those audiences, from Blue Rose T20 being a project that could hopefully appeal to the LGBT crowd and BESM being a gateway product that could be wonderful for bringing in women who were a primary manga audience at the time with Shoujen and similar genres being big releases for that game (as examples).

D&D has indeed had it's share of problematic content from the aforementioned Drow portrayals with traditional African skin tones instead of the black, inky skin tones intended by Gygax to the Red and Yellow Orcs of the Mystara setting. Books like Oriental Adventures though I think get a bum rap though because it was produced with an intention to respect and emulating the fantasy stories and materials available to western audiences from Asian producers. It is a valid discussion but has become exceedingly broad to discuss "problematic". Problematic would be portraying Nazis as "good guys" or literally using "Birth of a Nation" as the foundations of a campaign setting. It would be continuing to cast European descended actors in Asian or Native American or African roles and vice versa.
There is a ton of gaslighting here to wave away folks criticism. Even if the material was unintended to be offensive, it still can be.
 

I think all these conversations are tantamount to telling people they are having "bad wrong fun" myself because it is the intent of the person perceiving it as much as the artist creating it.
Incredibly irony in that you're saying even daring to discuss this subject is inappropriate, just wild. Probably the most extreme statement on the matter I've ever read.

And re: EGG, whether he was racist or not I can't mind-read, but he certainly happily touted some nuclear-grade pro-genocide racist-originated beliefs and approaches as "how it is in D&D" as discussed at length elsewhere.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
I can't even remember what the word problematic used to mean before it became "I find the past offensive".
I don't think that's what it means today. I think it means that it has problems.

Lovecraft has great stories. The fact that if I try to read The Horror at Red Hook I'm going to be slapped in the face with his bigotry and hangups is an obstacle in enjoying his body of work in general. His poem To Templeton and Mount Monadnock is quite a good poem, and one I found myself revisiting for inspiration when I recently climbed Monadnock again, but there are bits of racism, glorification of "New England's race" and Anglo-Saxons in there which are a bit of a fly in the soup. I shared the poem with the person who climbed with me, but as that person is not white or of anglo-saxon descent, I did have to offer a disclaimer. Which was saddening.

R.E. Howard was less racist than Lovecraft, to my understanding. Some of the text in Solomon Kane's adventures in Darkest Africa are still yikes-inducing, even though he befriends N'Longa the shaman/sorcerer, and there are passages where Kane reflects on their fundamental equality and shared humanity, which communicates a much more egalitarian view than I had expected. These things complicate my relationship with the material, and make it take more work and consideration of how I use or recommend them.

I love the hell out of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books (or at least the first six or so of them, especially the initial trilogy), but the fact that John Carter fought for the Confederacy and the preamble tells us that everyone, including the family slaves, "adored him", always brings me up a little short, and again creates an obstacle to sharing these works with others.

Similar with Firefly or other Whedon works. Joss has turned out to be abusive. I don't want to support him as a creator. This means I need to put a little more thought into how I enjoy or use those works.

D&D has indeed had it's share of problematic content from the aforementioned Drow portrayals with traditional African skin tones instead of the black, inky skin tones intended by Gygax to the Red and Yellow Orcs of the Mystara setting. Books like Oriental Adventures though I think get a bum rap though because it was produced with an intention to respect and emulating the fantasy stories and materials available to western audiences from Asian producers. It is a valid discussion but has become exceedingly broad to discuss "problematic". Problematic would be portraying Nazis as "good guys" or literally using "Birth of a Nation" as the foundations of a campaign setting. It would be continuing to cast European descended actors in Asian or Native American or African roles and vice versa.
I (I hope politely) disagree. Problematic means there are problems with it which need to be addressed, that complicate enjoying it. Portraying Nazis as good guys or using Birth of a Nation straight up as a storyline wouldn't be problematic. They'd be trash. Those campaigns would need to be totally revised or chucked in the bin. "Problematic" is a lesser category.

I'm here to point out that if people are feeling uncomfortable with reading/recommending Harry Potter and similar books by J.K. Rowling, and want to substitute a young-adult book series at least as good and made by a person that isn't a total douchebag?

Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan's other series are a perfect substitution for them. Diverse characters, especially in his later series, with great personalities, playing with/subverting standard fantasy tropes/clichés (The Chosen One, always-evil-monsters, and similar examples), and far less plot holes and changes to how magic works than there are in the Harry Potter series. And you can tell that he does a ton of research into real world mythologies when writing his books, and how he engages with his community shows that he's legitimately a good person (he wrote the series as a way of supporting his son that has ADHD and dyslexia, writing a series where someone like him is the main protagonist and these "disorders" are actually helpful).

If you want to support a popular fantasy author that has books aimed at the same age group that Harry Potter was, Rick Riordan is your guy.
I always recommend Lloyd Alexander's wonderful Prydain books, from the 1960s. Although the fourth one is a bit more mature and was a bit of a struggle for me as a kid, compared to the others. I got into these soon after getting my first D&D set, and Prydain is a setting I've used for gaming inspiration more than once.
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
One thing to keep in mind is that an artist doesn't always use racism or prejudice in order to offend. More often racism and prejudice is used to maintain power.

This is why things like the drow can be so tricky. It's hard to imagine Gary Gygax sitting down and saying he wants to offend people of color. But it's easy to imagine him using tropes (black = bad) established by people who want to maintain a race-based power structure. By doing so, he is embedding racism in his work, even if he had no intention to do so.
 


One thing to keep in mind is that an artist doesn't always use racism or prejudice in order to offend. More often racism and prejudice is used to maintain power.
I'll go so far as to say that this is overstating it -

This is why things like the drow can be so tricky. It's hard to imagine Gary Gygax sitting down and saying he wants to offend people of color. But it's easy to imagine him using tropes (black = bad) established by people who want to maintain a race-based power structure. By doing so, he is embedding racism in his work, even if he had no intention to do so.
- he's not being racist on purpose. He lived in a world of institutional racism, which can be very hard to see from the inside, so did stuff that continues that institutional racism. No intent is involved, just a lack of intent to radically change the society he lived in. Heck, saying "he should have seen if he looked" is a bot of a stretch in the 70's.
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
I'll go so far as to say that this is overstating it -


- he's not being racist on purpose. He lived in a world of institutional racism, which can be very hard to see from the inside, so did stuff that continues that institutional racism. No intent is involved, just a lack of intent to radically change the society he lived in. Heck, saying "he should have seen if he looked" is a bot of a stretch in the 70's.
But what if we say, "He should have seen it if he collaborated with people of color."

Of course, the fact that there wasn't a lot of diversity in the genesis of D&D is also a product of institutional racism.
 

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