D&D: Orientalist Landscapes of American Tabletop Games
By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Writer
Dungeons and Dragons, or as it is commonly abbreviated D&D, was first published in 1974. What is D&D? Well, it is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG), created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. A group of players come together to cooperatively build a story through improv, chance dice rolls, and the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is the world builder, the narrator of the story, and the game master. They build worlds, around fantasy scenarios, that can change at the roll of a die.
In the past, D&D had a reputation as a game for nerds, or those who were slipping away from God. Satanic Panic was very strong against this role-playing game. Surprisingly, Pop Culture has brought it back into the spotlight in recent years. Inclusion in the popular show Stranger Things really put it on the mainstream view. Not only that, but the popular web series Critical Role’s success has also brought much attention to the game.
Orientalism and Damaging Stereotypes
These fantasy scenarios firmly rooted in Western culture, and traditionally written by middle-aged white men in the 1970’s. This has inevitably driven the franchise into problematic issues of orientalism, exoticism, and perpetuation of false, damaging stereotypes. Edward Said‘s Orientalism can be explored further here for those who have limited knowledge of the topic.
The Advanced D&D expansion books contain many game settings that loosely linked to real-world cultures viewed through a fantasy lens. Some examples are Oriental Adventures and Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures. Wizards of the Coast has posted a disclaimer on many of these legacy products, which are still available for digital purchase. They note that the products may not reflect appropriate modern cultural sensitivity.
Dungeons and Dragons Revisions
Since 1974, the franchise has gone through multiple revisions to try to improve it, currently on 5th Edition (5e). These revisions include changing game mechanics, character creation elements, and more recently an attempt to remove the more orientalist and disparaging themes from the game. One of the more recent examples of these changes is with the Al-Qadim setting.
Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures
The Al-Qadim campaign, is a setting for D&D developed by Jeff Grubb and Andria Hayday. While the name surprisingly is accurate, Al-Qadim meaning the old or ancient in Arabic, it fails on many other levels. The setting uses Arabian themes modeled in the fashion of One Thousand and One Nights and takes place in the ambiguous land of Zakhara, the land of fate.
“Adventure in an exotic land of sultans, scimitars, and genies….”AD&D Al-Qadim Arabian Adventures
Describing the Arabian landscape as “exotic” while displaying Jinn, men in turbans riding horses, and Islamic-esque buildings in the background of the raging Sahara. The imagery is reminiscent of Disney’s Aladdin with more serious and intense artwork. Thematically it is clear that the writers emphasized the elements of superstition, Arabian/desert lore, and anglicizing Arabic words and names to suit the atmosphere.
Orientalist Landscapes and Features
Some of the key focus features of the Al-Qadim setting that make it less savory and perpetuate the harmful stereotypes areas follows:
- Arranged Marriage: This is the traditional norm in Zakhara, although love-matches are not unheard of.
- Exotic Extended Marriage: Harems and polygamy are central themes in this edition.
- Honor Killings
- Exotic Dancers
- Themes of importance of “Purity”
The list could really go on all day. One of the biggest issues with these games is that the creators were not in any way part of or knowledgeable of the cultures they were attempting to fuse. While they focused on some interesting characteristics of Arab Culture such as the idea of Honor, Family, Hospitality, and the bond of breaking salt. While those are certainly admirable qualities to focus on, they certainly are admirable. There was one passage in the narrative discussing Honor, that was particularly hard to get through.
Reactions from the Asian and Arab Communities
“Aside from murder, only one crime is great enough to warrant punishment by death: amorous impropriety. Contrary to popular belief among foreigners, no honorable desert warrior would ride off with his enemy’s screaming wife – even in the midst of a feverish camel raid. (Such raids, incidentally, are not considered stealing.) Nor would he ride off with his enemy’s unwed daughter unless a marriage were to be arranged somehow. In fact, if a desert raider were to return to his camp after committing such a crime, his brother might strike him down on the spot-thereby sparing the family honor.”Al-Qadim Arabian Adventures
If you were to look past the atrocious stereotyping of “Arabian” themes, then it is possible to argue the writers were attempting to denounce racism. Poorly executed, this attempt only left a bad taste in the mouths of many readers and players. A group of Asian gamers, Asians Represent that break down the issues with pop culture and orientalism touched on this setting. Check out their session on this particular game.
Although the past of this game is laden with orientalism and exoticism, the game is what you make of it. The players seen in the video above are currently playing through the campaign and addressing the issues related to it. Discussions based around these games have brought to light the issues embedded in these tabletop landscapes.
Zakhara Adventures in the Land of Fate
With the changing of times and editions, Wizards of the Coast has been righting many of the mistakes of the previous generations of Dungeons and Dragons. As stated before, Wizards has been placing advisories like the following for Al-Qadim:
We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.Wizards of the Coast
They have also created an entire campaign, whose authors are diverse and under represented. The evidence also lies in the release of the unofficial Campaign Guide to Zakhara: Adventures in the Land of Fate. Unquestionably, this edition is much more tasteful if you are seeking a fantasy adventure in the world of 1,001 Nights. While it is not official D&D campaign, it is evidence that players and content creators see the problems and want to fix them.
Making a Difference
First, Brock Sayre and GM hired Ahmed Aljabry, a well-known and respected member of the TTRPG community, along with 2 other native speakers to assist with this project. Ahmed served as a transliteration and cultural consultant for the campaign. In fact, here is an interview with the writers discussing the issues they faced with the original Al-Qadim setting and how they worked to fix the issues.
Aside from the release of new content that is culturally appropriate, and putting out advisories; Wizards of the Coast also has been removing content from being purchased digitally. This was the case with Oriental Adventures for example. More discussions surrounding the issues of “othering”, orientalism, exoticism, and the other “‘-isms” is needed to bring awareness to the broader audience.
Some changes that Wizards could implement that would address issues of this nature would be changing character alignment. For example, those who are playing racist, bigoted, homophobic, and in general distasteful characters to an evil alignment. You cannot change the way people play; however, you can influence them to be more mindful.
Unfortunately many fantasy boardgames and tabletop games tend to have overarching themes of racism, orientalism, fetishization of the “other”, and other less savory qualities. As time passes, we have started to see that these themes are not appropriate. We are actively working to address the issues and make the enviorment more comfortable. Dungeons and Dragons is in truth a wonderful tool for exploring your imagination, spending time with friends, and working out life problems. As long as it is done tastefully and appropriately!
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