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Emerging Problems with the Stewardship of Dungeons and Dragons

Depending on how closely you follow the RPG industry, you may or may not know that Wizards of the Coast has been facing stiff criticism recently. It has come from multiple fronts, and depending on who you ask, their response to the criticism has ranged from insulting to adequate.

Some of this criticism revolves around longtime issues regarding game elements. These criticisms revolve around the racial implications of biological essentialism represented with ability score modifiers, as well as the included narrative that often paints certain sapient beings in the D&D multiverse as being more prone to evil action due to circumstance of birth.

Sins of the Past

While much of this revolved around narratives that had their origin in earlier editions of the game, even more recent Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition products added to these issues. In Volo’s Guide to Monsters, for example, in addition to expounding on orcs as “savage” and willing to destroy “all civilized races,” they are one of the only character options that result in an ability penalty, in this case, intelligence.

More recent releases have seen different stats for player character orcs, such as Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, which give orcs a wider skill selection and remove the intelligence penalty, with both sources explicitly saying that orcs are not intrinsically evil by birth.

After these products were released, Wizards of the Coast issued this statement about upcoming products:

Diversity And Dungeons & Dragons [1]

In addition to addressing the narrative problems inherent how D&D presents people in the game like orcs and drow, the press release indicated that some problematic content that has already been published for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition will be changed in digital editions and in subsequent printings and a new product that will allow for ability score customization is in production. It further mentioned a bigger, more systemic issue.

The Road Forward

The press release mentioned Wizards of the Coast’s desire to hire a more diverse range of people to work on the product lines. The press release explicitly mentions both staff and freelancers as part of this initiative.

As of this writing, there have been changes made to the text of Curse of Strahd on D&D Beyond, including references to the Vistani being chronically drunk, as well as broad statements about their negative personal habits. There has also been text removed that indicates an NPC is ashamed of her disability.

Dungeons and Dragons Live 2020 seemed to be a bit of a breaking point. WotC has, for the last few years, hosted an increasingly more elaborate live event to announce their fall product release. This involved inviting online streaming groups as well as celebrities to join various games that were being run between the press announcements.

Emerging Trends

This year, the actual in-person event was canceled, and the event was instead entirely run by remote streaming. None of the previously invited streaming shows saw their cast members invited to the event. Almost all of the events involved celebrity participants playing with Dungeons and Dragon’s creative staff, interspersed with discussion of the upcoming adventure Rime of the Frostmaiden. There was no subsequent announcement of anything that resembled a player’s option book. The event did involve a panel on diversity, which involved many Black participants well known for being online streaming icons, as well as celebrities in their own right.

D&D Live 2020 #BlackAF Sidetable [2]

There is no guarantee that there will be multiple game line announcements at a D&D Live event, but the previous events not only announced Tomb of Annihilation, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Descent into Avernus, they also announced Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and Eberron: Rising from the Last War. While some of the disappointment surrounding a lack of a secondary announcement was based on consumer excitement, there was a great deal of anticipation for people to see what kinds of changes WotC was planning to address the issues mentioned in their press release.

This led some people online to start to question the level of devotion WotC had to the changes that they had announced. When asked about some of the limitations of the game’s story, Jeremy Crawford (Lead Rules Designer) and Chris Perkins (Senior Story Designer) mentioned that the content of the game is intended to be modified to fit the group’s needs.

While this discussion started with previous edition alignment restrictions, it changed to currently published problematic issues, with the two designers mentioning that until new options are presented, problematic elements can be revised to fit whatever story the group wants to tell. Many of the people in these conversations took this as further confirmation that WOTC was not as devoted to making changes as they had previously indicated, in light of a lack of specific details on what was coming.

The Magic Sideboard

As the Dungeons and Dragons side of the story emerged, there were other concerns about WotC’s commitment to positive change that stemmed from the Magic the Gathering side of publishing (now linked more closely to D&D through multiple published campaign settings). Despite receiving positive accolades about the more diverse settings and characters from settings like Ixlan, Kaladesh, and Amonkhet in recent years, the most recent novels set in the planes of Magic recast Chandra, a Planeswalker who was previously identified as bisexual, as “only having a brief crush” on a female character, and being otherwise “definitely attracted to men.” This was in the War of the Spark: Forsaken novel by Greg Weisman. He responds to that criticism here:

Chandra Nalaar [3]

Wizards of the Coast also faced criticism from various cards that had appeared throughout the game’s lifespan, and the fact that those card images and text could still be referenced via the Gatherer database. Some cards included ethnic slurs in the card names, images of what appears to be Klan members on the card Invoke Prejudice or reductive and inflammatory references to various cultures. Wizards of the Coast responded with this post.

Depictions of Racism in Magic [4]

Resolve and Actions

Wizards of the Coast appeared to be in a damage control mindset through all of this. The most recent issue, however, challenged their commitment to diversifying their hiring practices. Freelancer Orion D. Black stated on Twitter that at the end of their contract with Wizards of the Coast, they were not hired on as a full-time employee, and that they felt that they were not utilized, nor were they listened to regarding various issues that they brought forward.

I worked hard for a very long time. I got a lot of smiles and vocal support, but it was followed by inaction and being ignored. My coworkers were frustrated for me, and still are now. I confided in them often, cried on shoulders on a few occasions.

I realized at one point that leadership had given me 2 assignments over about 5 months. It was mostly me asking project leads for work, searching out opportunities. Leadership didn’t really care about me or my growth. I had to.

I firmly believe that I was a diversity hire. There was no expectation for me to do much of anything. I probably disrupted them by being vocal and following up. It didn’t matter if I was supported by seniors and positive.”

When Orion posted their story to Twitter, others who had worked under contract to Wizards of the Coast were vocal about their feelings on the current state of affairs.

James Introcaso, a designer who has worked on several D&D 5e third party projects, as well as having done contract work for WotC on several high profile Dungeons and Dragons adventures, had this to say about the situation:

Thank you for sharing your experiences, @/DungeonCommandr [Orion Black]. To say I am disappointed in D&D’s treatment of a brilliant designer is an understatement.

I would love to see an actionable plan from D&D to bring more marginalized voices on staff and in leadership positions.

I think a total overhaul is in order.

The other thing that gets me is that D&D was so dang lucky to have Orion. Hiring them was so smart. To not listen to their feedback is such a waste and shame.”

Given that designers that have worked with Wizards of the Coast and have been in a position to see how contract workers have been utilized, this paints a very unflattering picture of WotC, and their commitment to bringing in new, diverse voices, and allowing those voices to be heard.

Being Heard

 If there is a disconnect between message and actions, it may be the insulation that Wizards of the Coast has in place regarding its corporate structure. 

One emerging narrative from this situation is how to effect change. There have been many calling for an exodus from Dungeons and Dragons content, while others have cited that the many designers and freelancers working for Wizards of the Coast could be harmed by this course of action. What has been evident is that the designers that have previously had a presence on social media have borne the brunt of this discussion, despite not being in a position to affect the structural change required to address many of these issues. The following are the corporate leads for Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons and Dragons brand:

None of these individuals have directly addressed these emerging issues, despite being much more directly connected to hiring, assignments, and retention. If there is a disconnect between message and actions, it may be the insulation that Wizards of the Coast has in place regarding its corporate structure.

The Scope of the Problem

In addition to leaving the most recent issues unaddressed, Wizards of the Coast is still under pressure for Mike Mearls and his behavior towards several people voicing their concerns about the consultant staff when Wizards of the Coast was still developing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. In addition to providing the names of the people voicing concern to one of the consultants, Mearls directly impugned the reputations of various detractors by name. Even after the consultants’ names were removed from the later printings of the Player’s Handbook, Mearls has not issued an apology, and Winninger recently announced that Mearls would be returning to work on the Dungeons and Dragons brand.

All of this amounts to a mess for Wizards of the Coast, at a time when Dungeons and Dragons is at the height of its popularity. It has record sales, and is about to start reaching out into other media once again, with the video game Baldur’s Gate III on the way, as well as the ongoing work on a new Dungeons and Dragons movie.

It could be that mass audiences adopting Dungeons and Dragons will shore up the brand without any change to the corporate culture, meaning that any fans that are currently concerned about the direction of the game and the company could effectively be replaced. However, the brand may still be in a precarious situation where enough voices can still affect the degree to which Wizards of the Coast is feeling pressure to address these issues directly.

This is only my personal opinion, but I firmly believe that to even begin to set this right, we must hear from Cocks, Stewart, and Winninger, and hear definitive answers. Wizards of the Coast needs to communicate the following:

There may be enough money and new customers for Wizards to ride out the storm, but it would be nice for them to be concerned enough about the voice of current customers to feel the need to address these issues seriously, in a manner where the public can hold them accountable.

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#1 Comment By Mark Caliber On July 8, 2020 @ 11:58 am

This was a very confusing and weird article.

What’s the problem with Orks and Drow in D&D?

Further as to the MTG cards in question the only one that was “on the nose” was the invoke prejudice card. The other six cards in question contained nothing remotely that could be construed as a racial slur.

What gives?

#2 Comment By Jared Rascher On July 8, 2020 @ 1:24 pm

I would ask that you do the research to find out where all of these problems lie. Sometimes being willing to put in the effort to learn is the first step towards empathy.

#3 Comment By typhoonandrew On July 9, 2020 @ 4:11 am

It feels like separate problems, or perhaps its the same root issue, which is expressed in different ways; and needs different treatment to be addressed. Staff hiring policy is different from representation issues, and different again from the need for contractors vs perm staff. I feel like your post is mixing those items, without calling them out as separate items to be addressed differently.

ie. Deciding that races, particularly intelligent races should not be inherently evil or good is fine (drow vs elves & black vs white) imo; however there is an element of always evil and always good that the D&D setting requires. If all monsters are not evil, then your party is killing creatures for gold; … you might be the baddies.

D&D’s themes are a reflection of the novels and culture going back lifetimes, and it does not need to carry forward the derogatory art styles sometimes in the era, and also can skip the Orcs = black = drow = bad in some settings. It does too need to sometimes allow for elements of those stereotypes to exist on some level too though, so that they can be understood. Tolkien brought us evil orcs, and its valid for a group to decide they want to walk in that world for their stories.

There is an element of this social correction which feels like it goes too far. I’ve read the posts of representation, and publishers who are trying to alter their material to be inclusive are to be commended. Warhammer Roleplay introduced far greater female representation in the core book, and has material in the stories which suggests the introduction of gay characters; and some some of the audience freaked out like children. All games allow you to take or leave the setting, and if you are too stupid to alter the game to suit the group you play with, then you are your own burden. The social correction goes too far when publishers are vilified for not being perfect from day one.

Ars Magica rpg shows the medieval world, and uses European history as its base – it would be game breaking to ask that setting to publish core setting which reflects the values of 2020; but it would also be poor to not allow elements in the game to break those conventions, and challenge those ideals – which Ars does. It presents a framework for inclusive play.

From what I’ve read I think D&D has also made a good set of changes to be more inclusive and altered their framework – we should be supporting them, and saying “good job, and perhaps next time…” instead of attacking.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On July 9, 2020 @ 8:47 am

Due to a multitude of trolling comments, some from similar IP addresses and fake email addresses, we are turning commenting off on this post.