In recent years, the culture wars have come for roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Role-playing communities are split on whether their game platforms are becoming what is often called too woke (what I’ll call progressive) or, conversely, are finally coming to grips with the racism, sexism, and other forms of bias that exist on these platforms. This split has intensified with the recent release of Candlekeep Mysteries, a collection of D&D adventures. Some players have praised its progressive elements, while others feel they are an intrusion of politics into escapism. Other role-playing systems have taken a progressive turn as well, which has provoked similar cultural battles.
I love D&D, and I’m interested in observing these battles, so I reviewed a copy of Candlekeep Mysteries to get a sense of just how progressive it is, and what exactly people are fighting about. It’s a collection of 17 stand-alone adventures, each written by a different author or set of authors. Each adventure unlocks mysteries that the player characters must explore. The adventures vary in quality and tone, but in general they are interesting and have received good reviews.
The collection is, indeed, progressive in tone. It has been noted that it includes a wheelchair accessible dungeon (a cause celebre for progressive members of gaming communities, though wheelchairs aren’t specifically mentioned in the book) and numerous nonplayer characters who use they/them pronouns. The collection also signals progressivism in other ways—for example, the new adventures de-emphasise the idea that good or evil motives are inherent traits of monster races. (This is a response to those who have protested that the attribution of inherent bad traits to this group is analogous to racism in real life.) And it includes a trigger warning of sorts: the accompanying book begins with a section titled “Be a Sensitive Dungeon Master,” which uses progressive buzzwords such as trigger and unsafe.
I see the “sensitive dungeon master” section as mostly driven by good intentions. It’s not unreasonable to offer to help dungeon masters make sure their players are comfortable with any edgy material. On the other hand, these types of warnings in adventure products have historically been rare, probably because it has traditionally been assumed that dungeon masters and players could handle such material without extra help, and that anyone who couldn’t handle would probably not be helped by including a section of this kind. Psychology research confirms this intuition: trigger warnings don’t help reduce anxiety—and may increase it.
In addition, the changes are arguably unnecessary to accommodate the kinds of diversity they seem intended to promote. Most of the changes seem like ones that players could have made on their own: “Hey, I’d love to play a trans character” or “I’d enjoy the challenges of playing a character with paraplegia.” These are reasonable character ideas that could be exciting to play out. For example, in my own D&D games, we’ve included trans and non-binary characters for decades (I’m getting old). If D&D players are inclined to play, for example, paraplegic characters, they have always been free to do so.
Ironically, though, in the D&D universe, paraplegia can be entirely cured or managed by using magic. And, after all, the whole point of dungeons is to create impediments—for all adventurers. The challenge of coming up with clever workarounds to one’s impediments is part of the excitement of the game. So, when the company designs or advertises dungeons that seem to be safe spaces governed by the regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it can ruin players’ immersive experience.
There are undoubtedly some game masters and players who hold prejudices regarding race, gender and disability, but I doubt that the word choices D&D uses in its products will fix that. And, worse—as we’ve learned the hard way from diversity training programmes in workplaces—when you foist progressive language on people, it can backfire, resulting in less tolerance for diversity rather than more. Indeed, I suspect that’s what we’re now starting to see. Progressives are injecting a lot of shaming into the debates. I’m concerned that the progressive changes to the games may have the effect of signalling that all gamers should have progressive cultural values. And gamers who prefer to avoid cultural signalling in their games may find the changes unpleasantly paternalistic: they may feel lectured. In addition, some critics of these changes argue—I think fairly—that progressive activism in this area is confined to making superficial changes in wording and symbolism that, by provoking resentment, may diminish goodwill and thus impede the kinds of progress that actually matter to marginalized communities, such as changes in material conditions.
Since most of the progressive modifications could have been made by individual D&D players within the worlds created by much older editions of the game, I suspect that, at a fundamental level, gamers’ debates are not really about whether to include wheelchairs or avoid stereotyping evil orcs. Rather, I think gamers are disagreeing about which worldview gets to predominate. The tone of their debates is influenced by wider culture war issues: the role of Critical Race Theory in education, what stories should be covered by the news media, how to tell what is actual science and what is advocacy.
I suspect that’s why reactions to the new D&D collection—and to the progressive turn in D&D products more generally—are eliciting such diametrically opposed reactions. If you happen to be progressive, it may be hard to understand why anyone would be against this unless they are racist, sexist or callous about disabilities, and, surely, if someone doesn’t like these innovations, they can always play their own way. But if you happen not to be progressive, the changes can feel like an intrusion. Many people play D&D to get away from stressful topics like politics and culture wars, and when those issues creep into gaming spaces, they can lose their stress-relieving quality: people who want to become immersed in a medieval fantasy world feel increasingly as if, instead, they’ve landed in an elite college dormitory.
Some say, “If you don’t like these changes, just play a different game,” but any gaming company that attempts to avoid making the progressive changes risks mobbing and harassment. Advising people who don’t like those changes to find alternative spaces rings hollow when activists are likely to seek out and try to destroy those spaces.
It’s hard to predict how much influence the progressive milieu will have on media in, say, ten years. Although the trend in recent decades has been in the direction of progressivism, since about 2014, the left’s “Great Awokening” has been notable for its aggressiveness, embrace of illiberal values, opposition to free speech and due process, embrace of cancel culture and moral grandstanding. This has, predictably, produced a backlash. Although some of the backlash has itself been harsh and illiberal, I believe that progressives have lost the moral high ground. They are pushing a moral agenda and forcing concessions from the makers of D&D despite little evidence that those changes have any practical value. And, though they don’t like hearing it, it is fair to compare what they are doing to the Satanist moral panic that the D&D community experienced in the 1980s and 90s. Cultural influences come and go: Christian conservatism eventually lost much of its cultural influence in the United States, partly due to its rigidity and censoriousness. Whether modern progressivism will suffer the same fate remains to be seen.
Of course, it will also matter how well Candlekeep Mysteries sells. Since all D&D products have a ready audience, I expect the collection has done well. It got decent reviews on Amazon (83% of the ratings are five stars), though this is actually low for a D&D adventure series. It’s unclear whether that lower average rating is a reaction to the progressive changes. My guess is that another company will position itself as a non-progressive alternative to Wizards of the Coast. TSR—the original publishers of D&D—seem inclined to try. That company has already encountered blowback from progressives, but, ultimately, the marketplace will decide.
The debate is playing out in other media spaces, as well. For example, should longstanding popular comic book heroes with detailed backstories and large, established fan bases be recast using characters of a different race, gender or sexuality? Or should the focus instead be on creating new characters who are more diverse, but who may not have that ready-made fan base? In the roleplaying world, D&D is that longstanding product with the established fan base. Should the progressive worldview be imported into D&D itself, casting non-progressives into the roleplaying wilderness? Or should progressives create new, different games and give them more progressive voices?
The culture war debates going on in the D&D community, like those in many other communities, are layered. There are the specific changes people are arguing about on the surface, and then there is the deeper question: in the end, this debate is about whose worldview will be the default and who will have to make adjustments if they don’t like it. I won’t be surprised if eventually the new progressive elements in roleplaying games lose their appeal, because most people don’t play games in order to be lectured to about how to think. The key question is whether medieval fantasy realms will become—as Andrew Sullivan once put it—yet another space in which we all live on campus now.