A modest proposal to Wizards of the Coast: how about including a more diverse representation of ethnic background in your core product? You’re working on Dungeons & Dragons Next—some call it D&D Fifth Edition—and I think now would be a great time to welcome new players. A product where white wasn’t the default would be a welcome addition to the hobby. I’m not talking about niches like Oriental Adventures either; I mean in your main bread and butter books.
I don’t think this is a particularly insightful idea, and it shouldn’t be a controversial one, but it bears saying. How about we have a broader representation of heroes in the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons? I remember being pretty put out by the underwhelming racial portrayals of the Fourth Edition, so out of curiosity I went back through the last few editions of Dungeons & Dragons, just to see what the demographics are like.
Huge Disclaimer: This is hardly a scientific process, and I bring my own biases to the table; I’m a white male, so how I perceive race is going to be a tricky wicket, anyhow. Still, I sat down and went through to try to get some rough numbers; I discounted monsters and just tried to be intuitively accurate. Me flipping pages and jotting down notes on the figures depicted in inherently going to be subjective, I don’t want to imply that it isn’t. My observations are also tilted toward a “black” and “white” dichotomy that isn’t really reflective of reality, either. I don’t want to minimize the impact of Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and other backgrounds or marginalize them in any way. Simply put, it was easier to deal with the extremes of the continuum of skin color.
That being said, I think it is useful for some rough generalizations. Like the fact that in the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook there are only four black characters. There are more diabolically red skinned people—tieflings—then there are dark skinned people. By a fairly wide margin. Still, an improvement over the Third Edition Player’s Handbook in some respects. In the third edition, you’ve got Ember, the human monk—but other than her initial appearance under the class description, she’s absent from the rest of the book. Some artists have depicted Regdar as black, and he along with some of the other character have a generous color palate, by which I mean that their ethnicity is fluid on the page. They are hardly pale but neither are they a deep brown in skin tone, lending them a lot of flexibility for reader identification. (Scott McCloud of Understanding Comics would be proud.) And just for kicks, I flipped through an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook; there is an illustration so purple it could be ambiguous, but no, that book, like so much of yesteryear, is entirely Caucasian. Lots of crazy mustaches, though.
I wanted to go through the Pathfinder Core Rulebook for the same comparison, but I got as far as the class breakdown and gave up. I’m on the record as liking Pathfinder, and I was worried I would be seen as partisan when I continued giving them their due accolades. I got to the classes and their iconic characters and realized that four out of the eleven classes are represented by people of color (well, five out of eleven, if you count the green and yellow gnome druid, but you know what I mean). What is more, the characters aren’t all depicted as coming from some homogenous near-European cultural background, either. There is a wide spectrum of skin tones between pale and dark, which the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons used ambiguously, but Pathfinder goes the rest of the way by including a range of cultural cues. The iconic characters inform the rest of the book; from them on out the representations of adventurers are diverse, because they are based on a diverse foundation.
I’ve heard a litany of excuses for why there are predominantly white people portrayed in roleplaying art, but I’m not buying it. Maybe your claim is that the people buying the game are primarily Caucasian? Since when did it become a bad idea to have a product that appeals to a wider demographic? Dungeons & Dragons exists in the real world. A world where there are people who aren’t white. People who might want to start playing, if they saw themselves reflected in the product. Why artificially limit your profits by only pursuing a narrow demographic? and what, do you think white players are incapable of identifying with people of color? I don’t agree, and I’d point to the widespread acclaim that Order of the Stick has gotten; even if your motive is unmitigated greed, I can think of 1,254,120 reasons to support a diverse cast and complex story telling.
Maybe your claim is that Dungeons & Dragons is based on a fantasy feudal Europe? Maybe your game is, but the whole point is that you can make whatever game you want; a diverse cast in your illustration just encourages that. And for that matter, are you seriously telling me that you think having a person with darker skin is somehow more of a strain on your suspension of disbelief than a lizard lady or a devil dude? That somehow a polytheistic world of high fantasy is somehow inherently Caucasian? Pull the other one.
You wanna see a neat trick? “The now-vanished Nerath was a highly cosmopolitan empire encompassing many tribes and kingdoms, with immigrant populations from the far flung corners of the world.” There; just like that. Fixed.
In a nutshell—maybe the makers of D&D should take some of the effort being put into bending over backwards to explain why they don’t need to reflect the diversity in the real world and put it into a flowering of diversity in their imaginary one.
(Ember art by Tom Lockwood; Seelah, Sajan, Kyra, Seoni by Wayne Reynolds; Roy Greenhilt by Rich Burlew; Green Lantern #76 panels by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.)
Mordicai Knode knows that when you start something with “a modest proposal…” it usually goes on to be cut throat satire, and he’s sorry that he isn’t a modern Twain or Swift or Juvenal. He’s still sort of charming on Twitter though, if he does say so himself.