Thursday, June 26, 2014

D&D 5e: A few words on Diversity (or its lack)

UPDATE: Wizards of the Coast showed a sneak preview of Player's Handbook art that isn't just same old white guys in armor. I applaud them for taking the feedback from the play test community seriously. 

UPDATE 2: Since the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are out, WotC has proven that it can do artwork right. Interesting. Diverse. Not Sexist. Fifth Edition art is amazeballs.

When considering the races and classes for the OSR game I'm developing, I couldn't help think about the cultural impact on classes. Because my mind often follows stream-of-conscious threads, this started me thinking about diversity in D&D in a larger context... not just fictional diversity from an in-game standpoint, but how that diversity (or lack) impacts D&D culture outside of the game itself.

How inviting is D&D to a person of color? Are you a Black gamer? Asian? Hispanic? Do you feel well represented in the game? Do you feel included? My guess is probably not. My concern is that this unfortunate status quo will continue in 5th Edition.

We've only seen a small slice of the artwork as a whole, but I already have concerns based upon what has been shown. The Starter Set highlights an adventuring party. I'm not sure if these charactes are "iconics" that will be present in the rest of the rules, but certainly this party will is represented in the rest of art within the Starter Set . The party does not contain any non-Caucasians. Since the rest of the art in the set is likely to feature members of this same party, it is likely that no art in the Starter Set will contain a person of color, which is a real shame.

To me this is a really large missed opportunity. I cannot find the article now, but I recall diversity was mentioned during the development of D&D Next as an important touch stone from the surveys about the art. Unfortunately this feedback went unheard for the art direction of the Starter Set.

Shooting for a bit less red...
Pretend for a moment I have better Photoshop skills...
Wouldn't this be a little more inclusive?
When I brought this up on a forum (of a very popular RPG site) discussing the art, the WotC defenders came out with the following: Most of the party is non-human.

This is a ridiculous defense. Who says all Halflings, Dwarfs and Elves all have to be white too? Wouldn't those races have some skin tone diversity?  For the hypothetical sake of argument, let's suppose all the non-humans "need to be white" to match some kind of ridiculous fantasy stereotype. The Forgotten Realms has non-white humans, but we apparently never see them in any official artwork. So that still leaves 2 humans in the group which could have been modified. Imagine if they had modified just one or even both to be Black, Asian, Middle Eastern... How cool (and amazingly easy) would that have been to help give minority gamers the feeling that this is their game too?

Often the next thing that is stated in these debates is: D&D is based on medieval Europe and the art reflects the historic demographics/roles/biases/[insert rationalization here].

Baloney. Medieval Europe did not have dragons, magic, sentient non-humans, or small militia bands wandering around looting old ruins.The Forgotten Realms does not have European nations and does have human cultural diversity (which is rarely illustrated unfortunately).

Our fantasy worlds do not have to reflect European (white) colonialism. We should strive for a non-Eurocentric world view. We do not need to bring forward the race or gender based inequities present in medieval Europe, because we are not playing a historical game. This is D&D, not Napoleonic Wars.

And then, D&D is based on Lord of the Rings and Tolkien didn't have people of color.

No, it's not. It borrows from numerous mythologies from many different cultures. Even if it is influenced by Tolkien, we don't live in England in 1937. You may not have noticed, but the world has changed over the last 70 years. Our hobby should not reflect the racial attitudes of the pre-WWII era.

So, the last defense is: Wait for the other books to come out.

The problem with that defense is that the Starter Set is the gateway drug. If you are a member of the non-white gaming minority, the art in the very first release of 5th Edition already excludes you. I am hopeful -- extraordinarily hopeful -- the the other books will include more diversity. I will apologize to Wizards of the Coast right in this blog having been happily proved wrong... But based on the past record of D&D, I have my doubts. Oddly enough, the most diverse edition artistically appears to be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. There are some problems with the portrayals therein, but at least an effort was made.

Ember and Diana
Apparently, black women can only play bikini clad Monks in D&D.
Paizo also may not be perfect in portraying racial diversity in many of their Pathfinder products, but at least they have several iconics with a variety of skin tones, and for that, they get a huge diversity win over the competition. It's not much to ask Wizards of the Coast to try to add some diversity in their products.

Don't get me wrong, I like the art style of the Starter Set, but I think they could have made a few relatively small, simple changes to roll out the welcome mat and they missed the boat.

Am I completely off base, or was this a really simple missed opportunity? Share your thoughts in the comments, but please be civil. I know this issue can be sensitive and I want to start a constructive dialogue.

EDIT: Being a white guy, perhaps I'm not tuned into the needs of the gaming minority... so I am asking the question. If you are a gamer and a person of color, is it a step in the right direction to add more diverse art? Is that really only the tip of the iceberg?

Pathfinder says to D&D, "Umm... Yeah... You're doing it wrong."

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