We’re in the middle of a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) renaissance. While streamed video and podcast campaigns for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) have been around for a hot minute — with well-known shows Critical Role and The Adventure Zone dating back to 2015 and 2014 respectively — the chaos and stress of 2020 has seemed to reinvigorate tabletop gaming and those related fandoms as sources of escapism.
Tabletop RPG games have always brought people together through collaborative storytelling and the way that players work in groups to defeat bosses. Prior to 2020, they were a way for people to connect with each other and have fun, whether it was as part of an active campaign with local friends or by joining the fandom for a streaming show hosted by celebrities. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, how we engage with these games and the fandoms for long-running campaigns has shifted to accommodate the ways that the world has changed, and how we’ve changed as a result. This means that many people are seeing and challenging how these fandoms and canons work for the first time, with streamers, podcasters, and a newer generation of fans coming together to make these spaces more accessible than they were in the past.
Across decades, the different tabletop communities and canons have always worked in a way that conveniently excluded marginalized people. Gatekeeping, in the form of knowledge tests from other players or the insistence that Black characters can't exist in D&D outside of the drow, was a frequent barrier to new players. For years, many parts of the TTRPG community took a “no girls allowed” approach to setting up their campaigns, making it difficult for many girls and women to even believe there was a place for them in these spaces until streaming opened the door to mode widely visible female players. That point of view has been reinforced in the demographics of pop culture versions of these games; in shows like Stranger Things and Big Bang Theory, their diehard D&D fans are depicted as geeky men and boys.
“I can only imagine what my relationship with D&D would look like today if I’d grown up with Twitch and YouTube, and seen this sort of representation exemplified,” The Mary Sue editor Valerie Kane pointed out back in 2018, “I grew up surrounded by D&D, but in a weird turn, it wasn’t until I visited Wizards of the Coast that I actually played my first game.”
While gaming communities and fandoms were a significant portion of the reason why marginalized players couldn’t get into these games, the canon served up its own roadblocks. In June 2020, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast posted a diversity statement acknowledging the racist histories behind several of their popular character types (focusing specifically on orcs and the drow) and how they had already taken steps to rectify their franchise’s racist past and make the game more accessible for players. But is that enough?
I had the opportunity to speak with Multitude CEO Amanda McLoughlin and head of creative Eric Silver about their D&D podcast Join The Party and accessibility in gaming and podcasting — and they shared their thoughts on the fraught (and frequently racist) history of D&D that stems from the fantasy genre itself. Starting with the dwarves. “The thing is I've written and spoken about the ingrained anti-semitism that is just like in a lot of things that we understand from fantasy,” Eric said during our conversation in April. “The dwarves that Tolkien made, they're just Jews, they're literally Jews. Like he said they were Jews. And they were gruff and stubborn and very miserly in The Hobbit. And then World War II happened, and he's like, ‘Oh, no, they're actually really cool, guys. They're still stubborn and miserly, but I love them’.”
Dwarves and goblins are portrayed via anti-semitic stereotypes across much of fantasy media, including D&D and media inspired by that game. In D&D and the decades of fantasy media it inspired, orcs have often been portrayed as a racialized (and racist) Other, pulling heavily from what Helen Young calls “colonialist discourses of Blackness” in the chapter on orcs in her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Beyond the way that the fantasy races in D&D have come with real world racist elements tacked on to them, D&D has also been a site for racist settings.
Reckoning directly with tabletop RPGs’ history of racist settings is Into the Motherlands, an RPG created by I Need Diverse Games founder and director Tanya DePass and led by devs, cast, and crew of color. In an interview with Polygon’s Charlie Hall, DePass and lead designer B. Dave Walters talked about the diversity designed into their worldbuilding. Walters noted, “Black excellence was a foundational idea, so we came up with a premise that would allow lots of different kinds of people of color to have a place where they flourish and are at the center stage rather than being in addition to, or as a ‘noble savage’ or something that was bolted on to the side [of a Euro-centric universe].”
Inclusive TTRPG games and shows go beyond pushing back against racist stereotypes and worldbuilding. Fans and creators alike have confronted the anti-queer history of many of these games, misogyny built into the games and pushed by the players, and ableism (both in gameplay and in the worldbuilding itself).
The rise in diverse casts, campaigns, and fandoms for D&D and other tabletop games over the past two years has created a shift in how people play these games and what their fandoms look like. TTRPG fandoms are spaces that gravitate toward the data-oriented game play and the transformative experience of making a world their own. In some cases, the fandom dynamics of these TTRPG spaces can turn out negatively, as with The Adventure Zone’s fandom; they’ve come under fire, in part, for an unofficial “no bummers” policy that leaves fans of color and other people with criticisms feeling like they can’t speak up.
So, how can creators — of TTRPG streams or podcasts — help make their fandoms more accessible and welcoming to new and fans alike? For this, I asked Amanda about how she and Eric make the fandom spaces they run for Join the Party more accessible to and safer for fans. “I would say as creators, too, we try to model the kind of engagement we are looking for from our community,” she said. “I’m not assuming anyone brings anything to what we're doing. Like I want to enhance their enjoyment however they want to bring it, which is really important to us.”
This sort of positive behavior modeling from creators and streamers (who are also fans themselves) makes it possible for the fans in these developing D&D communities — like the Discord servers for popular streaming shows — to replicate the behavior seen as acceptable and welcome. They also make sure that fans who have concerns or criticism can feel comfortable raising them without being attacked or otherwise punished by other fans.
At the end of the day, there should be room at the table for everyone to join the campaign and feel represented — and that depends on opening up these spaces to fans who can celebrate their gameplay and critique the rough spots. Having a good experience while playing or streaming a TTRPG shouldn’t be determined by a roll of the dice.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue