D&D game in progress. Photo by the author

I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, for over 15 years, and it’s been a joy to watch my beloved hobby become both more popular and more inclusive. But all is not well in fantasy land: online forums that use ahistorical understandings of the so-called ‘medieval’ underpinnings of fantasy can be mechanisms for the radicalization of white supremacists and white nationalists. Internet forums provide easy, often anonymous, tools for spreading racial hatred, and sometimes proliferation of white supremacy relies specifically on historical denialism.

In 2018, the right-wing website Breitbart published a brief article about an academic study by Stanford Professor Antero Garcia on how representations of race and gender within both the official D&D books and the D&D community over its forty-year history have bolstered misogyny and white supremacy. Since then, over 10,000 comments have been posted by Breitbart readers. Many responded defensively, saying that their D&D games have always been inclusive, while others found it an opportunity to heap scorn on ‘PC culture’ and ‘libtards.’ One commenter remarked, ‘You want a tabletop RPG for a non-white audience? Write and market your own. Good luck selling it.’ This comment, although it raises interesting questions about the relationship of capitalism to colonialism and racism, assumes that Wizards of the Coast, which produces the official D&D materials, and other large game publishers have no ethical obligation or even financial incentive to produce and market more inclusive or diverse games. Another comment argued that D&D ‘was INVENTED by Whites, drawing from all sorts of Middle Ages / Medieval fantasy ( You know: WHITE , and not the way Quentin Tarantino and his Blacks want to think it was )!!!!’

Tarantino aside, it is a common assumption that ‘medieval’ means Western European, and that Western European means white.  Indeed, the appropriation of the medieval by white supremacists has become more open in recent years, including the use of medieval symbols such as Thor’s hammer Mjollnir and the flag of the Knights Templar as identifiers at Renaissance Faires and historic reenactments. David Perry writes that this obsession comes from an imagining of medieval Europe as a  ‘pure, white, Christian place organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside, non-white, non-Christian, forces.’ Paul Walsh, a Unite the Right rally participant at the deadly Charlottesville incident in 2017, taught fellow participants how to use a medieval style shield, and claimed his experience LARPing (live action role playing) as his expertise. Similarly, the Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant fantasized about an all-white Europe in his justification for the mosque killings. In other words, this distorted view of a white Europe is explicitly linked to racial violence.

White supremacists clash with police at Unite the Right rally, Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo credit: Evan Nesterak

As many medievalists have been vocally protesting, though, medieval Europe was far more diverse than contemporary imagination and pop culture paints it. Several extensive collections of resources on race and the Middle Ages have been compiled to help researchers and educators. However, it is difficult to fight the weight of decades of white-washing by existing pop culture. This distorted view then becomes fuel for racist arguments based on so-called authenticity, especially for D&D games based in a quasi-medieval European setting.

D&D’s race issues are not particularly original; they are mired in the larger issues at play in traditional fantasy. Since the days of Tolkien and before, the genre of fantasy has relied on 19th-century conceptions about how race, culture, and ethnicity function that are both incorrect and damaging. For example, Hugo-award-winning author N.K. Jemisin outlines the ways orcs have replicated racist stereotypes throughout the last century in fantasy and then adds, ‘In games like Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a ‘fun’ way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them.’ The fact that many players do not recognize these harmful valances only makes them more damaging.

Some commenters use these racist tropes deliberately; one Breitbart commenter remarked, ‘Funny how the prevalence of White “racism” is directly proportional to the amount of shîtblooded orcs we let into this country.’ The comment implies that it is only the presence of these so-called ‘orcs’ with their dirty blood that causes racism to exist at all. It solidifies a white nationalist agenda by implying the country would be cleaner and less racist without immigration. The comment also, notably, uses the word ‘let’ to denote control over the movement of non-white people by white people without acknowledging the role of colonialism and the slave trade in that movement. This deliberate erasure of history is essential for the commenter’s argument.

The newest edition of the official Dungeons and Dragons rules has made significant advances in being more inclusive; the company Wizards of the Coast has hired more women and people of color, though there are still some problematic aspects of the official materials. Many D&D players and online commenters do actively resist whitewashing of history, especially in forums that actively moderate, such as the D&D 5th Edition Facebook group , where racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist posts result in swift bans. Gaming companies and gamers themselves are working on making their communities more inclusive. There are also many people who have created alternate settings to remedy the problems that D&D communities inherit and perpetuate.

So why does it matter what internet trolls say? The erasure of historical accuracy is deeply implicit in perpetuating racism. The more the idea of a white medieval basis for fantasy is left unchallenged on forums, masquerading as ‘reasonable’ or ‘historical’ argument, the more normalized it will continue to be. Changing the online environment matters, and the best antidote is better historical and cultural awareness – seeing and calling out racism, including the continued erasure of black people and people of color from medieval history and from the past, the present, and the future of the game.

Alaya Swann is Professor of English at Collin College in North Texas. She received her PhD in English from Arizona State University, and her research interests include medieval childbirth and women’s medicine, medievalism in popular culture, table top role playing games, web comics, gender, and racism/white supremacy. Her work has appeared in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine and the Journal of Popular Culture. She tweets @alayaswann.

29 Comments

  1. susan Jacoby

    Fabulous message. Very clear. How can I, as a teacher, present Medieval History more accurately?

    • Cedric Vander

      By not playing dungeons and dragons.

      • Cindy Hutchins

        By making DAnd D more accurate. In my games there are always many kingdoms with many races and predominate cultures. The game is designed to give people historical contexts and players are encouraged to bring their history and others to life. I’ve had moorish characters, zulu warriors and samuris and let the player learn and honor that culture and then try to back it up with a country and religious temple system and by mingles npcs of that race into urban settings. You will always find a temple to your god in a city.

        • David Hippchen

          The game is designed to be a fantasy tabletop game and rpg. The medieval stylings have been deliberately cut back or even removed as per the the mission statement in the third edition Players Handbook to make play more inclusive and free form.
          Any real world in-species racism present in a game full of legitimate separate species of sentient beings is on the part of those who engage in such things and are not facilitated by the game’s designs in any way other than being a ‘sandbox’ for ones own imagination.

  2. I am very active in the FB groups, and I am fortunate not to have seen any evidence of this in those groups. I don’t doubt it is happening elsewhere, and it is very sad to hear. Many DMs and especially sources on YouTube videos are very keen to portray historical accuracy and avoid racism. I will keep a vigilant eye out.

  3. Drexelhand

    “Orc Lives Matter!” – Unironic Self Identified Medievalist

    Fiction is a bizarre place to fight for social injustice. The fantasy genre is inspired by history and that history doesn’t often align with contemporary social values. I think that disclaimer is enough distinguish between moral absolutism of setting with definitively evil races and reality; where bigotry is rightfully discouraged. “Medieval Europe was actually very cosmopolitan and super not racist” is just an embarrassing counter argument for why your game needs to be more ethnically sensitive to gnolls and drow.

  4. The moderation team of the 5th Ed FB group is super pleased by this acknowledgement. We have 140,000 people in our group and we strive to make it inclusive. Not only is this our own personal philosophy, but it’s the direction that Wizards of the Coast, and the rest of the TT RPG hobby is taking.

  5. It is a bit strange how you say this is about r role playing games (D&D in particular), then spend the entire article (correctly) targeting racist revisionists and forums.

    Any fantasy genre shows racism it’s true, and as a bad thing. Most fantasy, of course including Tolkien, is very aware of that fact and uses it as a form of social commentary. That you seem unaware of this speaks more to your own bias than that of some unsociable racist cabal. When you go a step further to imply that so called “evil” denizens of fantasy are a vehicle for racism is simply denying the escapism of fantasy writing itself. Some authors have in fact embraced even this concept though, to show how only the overlords of disenfranchised orcs/goblins/etc. are to blame for “evil” behaviour.

    This is storytelling, inexperienced storytellers frequently show bias and lack of social consideration but improve over time. Assuming faux pas are intentional will help no one, and click bait like this pulls focus away from the actual concentrations of hateful behaviour.

  6. People who hate play all kinds of games, but I have never felt like Dungeons and Dragons has ever failed to be inclusive in their official game materials.

    While the gaming industry is often a dumpster fire of mysogony and cultural arrogance, D&D has always written stories about female heroes, different cultures and inclusive play.

    Is history whitewashed in North America? Yes. Does that make it a dungeons and dragons thing? No.

    This article appears to single them out, which is interesting single they are neither the worst, nor the most prevalent example.

  7. Dnd is a role playing, table top rpg. All you need is a character sheet and some dice. The rule books as of 5e inclise a whole host of races, classes, feats and so on. From the smallest of gnomes to the largest of green skinned orcs and blue skinned dragonborns.
    None are superior to any other and each individual player has the right to chose their gender and the way they look, wearing a persona of anything they can imagine.
    The books that WotC provide are simply tools to build your own world and your own adventure.
    This system is all about choice.
    If you chose to see an unfair, discriminatory world, that is all you will see.
    Dnd is the ultimate in choose your own adventure, in a world of your own fabrication. I’m sorry that a minority spoil it for the majority in this xenophobic manner, but you also have to understand that this small community does not represent Dnd, nor its community.
    I am so passionate about Dnd because its huge pool of resources and tools used to create. If this small group chooses to create a small minded community of discriminatory behavior, then they chose to make it with the tools they had. But there are thousands of other communities that have done the opposite.
    Focusing on the positive impact of Dnd, in my opinion, will hopefully help others to make this vastly more popular choice, and it won’t make people feel guilty about playing this game.

  8. This is a symptom of the American political landscape. I’ve never seen an Un-inclusive game of D&D played here in Norway. The thing about D&D is that you have a DM. If the DM is an uninclusive individual, then the game will go the same way. Even the official settings can be tweaked by the DM to make the story more interesting/appealing.

    Historical accuracy and fantasy settings don’t care about our morality, for better or worse. Please don’t screw that up – it teaches us by examples of wrong. Especially D&D is very aware of evil/good and lawful/chaotic, meaning that you’re never under the assumption that your genocidal maniac character is anything but deeply evil, because everyone around you hammer it into your head if you were in denial. Unless all your friends are racist. At that point, it’s not the game’s fault.

  9. The idiotic comments of trolls on Breitbart is insufficient evidence for the theory put forward in this piece. It is disappointing that anyone with a strong academic background would base conclusions on such weak foundations.

    Yes – I’m sure some role players take their real world prejudices into their game settings. But we are talking about fantasy here. Orc lives really don’t matter in your fantasy setting.

    Orcs really don’t have to represent something in the real world. They can just be orcs.

    If your elf character hates dwarves it doesn’t mean in the real world you are hateful.

    I would wager that D&Ders are an inclusive lot and rather less supremacist than the average person.

  10. TrollStomper

    So now D&D is racist? A _fantasy_ setting with a more diverse population of truly different races (elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins) than we will ever find on Earth, where we are one race, human. The divisions are cultural, and based on tribalism that is reinforced at every turn by every segment of the socio-cultural strata. In D&D there are humans, and most of the source material in the last decade has been fairly diverse, so is this just click bait and stirring the pot of emnity?

  11. I have been playing fantasy themed RPGs for 40 years now and in all that time, I don’t recall ever thinking of race or gender of my character, my teammates or whatever the current “roll to hit” enemy was beyond the fantasy implication of “wow, this is cool and would make a cool story.” An actual D&D player who brings real life “-isms” to the game is the are exception and nowhere near the rule, and the reality is that most gaming groups would immediately tell an idiot like that to put their real life nonsense on hold and actually play proper D&D.

    As far as the utterly absurd commentary on fighting orcs being a subtle racist metaphor for channeling hatred against people of color…all I have is LMAO. People who play RPGs fight a lot of stuff, not just orcs. There are literally hundreds, even thousands of different enemies in RPG play and I’d wager dimes to donuts that most players see/consider those enemies exactly as I do: what are their weaknesses, strengths, hit points, etc and how do we win this encounter and get xp and loot? I have never, not even once thought “aha, I shall smite thee, oh fantasy representation of marginalized group in real life that I hold in much disdain!!” That’s an SJW fever dream that not one RPG player I have ever run across in four decades of playing has exemplified.

    Internet trolls on message boards are not indicative of anything besides the behavior of internet trolls on message boards. They do not represent anything else, ever. Most gamers ARE the marginalized because not every geek in the world is as famous as Sheldon and Leonard. We are inclusive by default because before being a nerdy gamer was cool, it was most uncool and came with a ton of downsides common to the social outcast. So the “everyone is welcome, and we totally don’t care about race, gender, looks, etc” thing was part of our culture long before the SJWs decided to virtue signal with it. And it’s intellectual dishonesty only a claimed intellectual could possess to portray gamer culture any other way OTHER THAN inclusive.

  12. MariBiscuits

    Great article.

    I liked the fact that in addition to clearly explaining the issues, you also highlighted the positive changes being made my players, games companies, and online communities, and gave practical suggestions for tackling these issues going forward.

  13. Two comments now that won’t make it passed censorship on what appears to be an academic paper.
    Where is the intellectual diversity of thought?
    Glass towers and all.

    • Rachel Moss

      We do not publish comments that contain offensive language and hate speech.

      Critical comments are of course allowed, as you can see from the published comments here.

  14. Based URA

    It would seem the price of inclusion and appealing broadly is having the modern social commentary becoming center stage in core table top mechanics. Too which i say, leave, as you were never wanted in the first place and we all knew it was going to ruin D&D MTG, and now 40k

  15. WolfPaladin

    You do realize when you make your character your suppose to give a very description of them plus me and my group don’t care if your characters gay or not the reason we don’t play with liberals is because of a experience we had were he played as a druid and wanted to cast fireball all the time and we told him numberous time his class doesn’t have that ability

  16. I’d like to acknowledge that The Forgotten Realms, DnDs base setting is full of different ethnicities and the Player’s Guide even details all the various fictional ethnic groups under the Human section, with clear parallels to most real world ethnicities.

    The books themselves depict a black woman as the sample human, East Asian men and women act as the sample Soldier, Sorcerer and Monk. Black men appear as both the sample Wizard and Fighter. Page 156 has splash art with a Middle Eastern woman front and centre. 247 gives us a black man (dwarf?) casting a Shield spell. Helll, the very first page shows a black man in medieval arabic attire slaying goblins.

    Then there is the Tomb Of Annihilation Adventure module which depicts a very well researched and thought out nation known as Chult, a fantasy version of Africa.

    These days, the game itself is generally pretty good at depicting a wide variety of races.

  17. I think d&d hold’s the racial comments due to it reflecting a less developed society, I think that any possible reflection into the players actions is the responsibility of the dungeon master and players rather than the writers because a large part of d&d is the fact that it gives choice so that although someone might act distastefully, someone more intelligent can make something better out of it and even push a positive message as a number of people have done.

  18. Edwin Blommaerts

    How is playing a race and character closely related to your own ethnicity racist? Happy to argue this but D&D was mostly popular with the white population, not saying there were no exceptions. So I think it’s more related to that being the case than the need for historical accuracy in a game where you play dwarves, elfs and humans?
    I honestly believe you’re drawing wrong conclusions.

  19. dwayne butcher

    I really don’t know where to start with this very dumb rant. One D&D is a fictional role play game that literally let’s you be anything you want. And how is that racist, I have had real people of all types play and never once had them think it was racist to kill orc’s. As to forums, that’s it’s own thing and are the product of those who run said forums. I find trying to say that D&D is racist is like saying that blue is red. Because it’s not red it’s blue and just because you want it to be doesn’t make it so.

  20. Great article, anyone who can see the parallels between racist tropes and the irredeemable “evil” fantasy races isn’t really looking beyond their own experience.

    Whitewashing of medieval culture, particularly in Western Europe comes from the same root racism that sees images of a white Jesus as preferable.

  21. I am sorry but blaming the game for the way it is used is as wrong as blaming the gun and not the shooter. Especially when D&D is not even supposed to be used as a gun.

    I understand how the author is trying to address an existing and serious cultural issue but driving people away from D&D (and popular fiction like Tolkien) by calling them racist is almost like calling D&D (and popular music genres) satanic….oh wait….

  22. it’s always “medieval European fantasy” until you point out the potatoes and apples require the existence of non-white people, then it’s “not supposed to be accurate”

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