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.
I think referees and players have always adapted the game to their own preferences, regardless of changing trends, and some are now publishing their own ‘old-school’ variants of D&D. It is important, I suspect, for friends playing together to be on the same page regarding content and tone. I personally give my game a rating of ‘M’ and state that the cultures characters face may be as challenging as the monsters and traps they encounter. Adversity is part of adventure after all. And I’m a progressive. But for me it makes sense for adventurers to find some things worth resisting or having to negotiate with. Consider the following: * Local townsfolk are prejudiced towards the Vistani camping outside of town, but the adventurers help broker an alliance between the two groups once it transpires that both are in danger from the vampires that have awoken in a nearby castle. This… Read more »
As one of the positive aspects of Candlekeep Mysteries, Christopher Ferguson notes that “the new adventures de-emphasise the idea that good or evil motives are inherent traits of monster races,” as “a response to those who have protested that the attribution of inherent bad traits to this group is analogous to racism in real life.” I have seen that as also a problem with much science-fiction, from H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” onward, which all too often assumes (or gives the impression) that evil traits or motives are inherent traits of hostile alien races, with every individual member of such a race presumed to be innately, incorrigibly vicious. I myself have long seen this as closely resembling our real-life earthly human racism.
Although of course I abhor Breivick’s murderous actions, I do entirely disagree with the term “paranoia” in the article’s title being used to describe his mindset at the time, and prior to it. In fact, I would argue that the man is intelligent, meticulous and was genuinely disgusted with the paths and actions that the Norwegian government had taken. Were his actions justified? Of course not. We’re they understandable in his desperate attempts to call attention to what he and millions of others saw/see as the ways to self-destruction? I can understand that, yes. Here in the US, the actions and behaviors of our current, illegitimate Federal…and many State government(s), for reasons to permanently alter the character of our country and to take utter control of everything that we Patriots hold dear, has and is fomenting a rage among millions of us that I have never seen even approached in… Read more »
I don’t think DND can ever be woke enough for the woke, since even if people play in some kind of actively antiracist way, what they are doing is still escapist, yet there is so much work undone to dismantle systemic racism, etc. Having fun is not being antiracist, and the humorless woke will not abide it.
Andrew Sullivan’s observation, quoted by Christopher Ferguson, that “we all live on campus now,” also reminds me of a German philosopher’s critique of a life and world of “total work” quoted in another recent “Areo” article. Alex Tzelnic began his July 16, 2021 “Areo” article on “Why Slowing Down is the Key to Creativity” by citing the German Catholic philosopher philosopher Josef Pieper’s 1948 warning in “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” that modern Western society was drifting dangerously close to a state of what he called “total work,”—moving at an increasingly frenetic pace, prioritizing production and efficiency at the expense of stillness and receptivity, with even rest and relaxation only serving to help individuals to recuperate for more work. The “progressive,” “woke,” or “politically correct” outlook critiqued by Ferguson, with even fantasy games increasingly changed to reflect the norms of supposed racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and ability/handicap equity enforced in… Read more »
Christopher Ferguson, I think, has touched on a concern much broader than just his own focus in his article on the politics and ethics of role-playing games (or for that matter the closely related “Gamergate” brouhaha a few years ago about the gender politics of video and computer games). Ferguson quotes Andrew Sullivan’s observation that “we all live on campus now,” after observing himself that “many people play D & D to get away from stressful topics like politics and culture wars.” Most people, he remarks, “don’t play games in order to be lectured to about how they think,” likewise noting that many people feel “progressive” changes in role-playing games to be “an intrusion of politics into escapism.” They may “find the changes unpleasantly paternalistic,” and “they may feel lectured.” As I wrote a little earlier, I think most of us feel a need for spaces in our lives where… Read more »
I would go a bit beyond Christopher Ferguson to suggest that there is a basic human right to escape Andrew Sullivan’s “we all live on campus now,” to at least sometimes have a chance to play games without being lectured about how to think, to avoid the intrusion of politics into escapism. Ferguson is quite correct, most people indeed don’t play games in order to be lectured to about how to think. We all, or very nearly all, need spaces in our lives where we DON’T live on campus all day, where we DON’T have to constantly be on guard every minute against hurting someone’s feelings or making a politically incorrect remark, where we DON’T have to be ready every minute to debate someone whose opinions we’re not too crazy about, where we can sometimes just be free for a little while to be our own selfish, foolish, misguided, imperfect,… Read more »