For Shava and Iridys
When I was instructed to make a character and a corresponding sheet for Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, a wave of original creativity erupted within me. Shava Goldpetal quickly became my pride and joy. Not only did I create an elf sorceress to be adored, she also hailed from her home city of Asa Aiqua. I covered everything from the city’s origins, to its laws and customs, and even its religious practices. I booted up one of the dozens of dress up games made with Adobe Flash, and created her; a dark skinned woman with a wide nose (as wide as the options would allow) and curly hair. In Shava’s backstory I wrote that she had a girlfriend back home who was waiting for her to return from her rite of passage; a solitary quest anywhere in the world. When it was time to create another character for a different campaign, I got creative again. I booted up the same dress up game and designed a similar looking character to Shava. Iridys Balama; a kind and smart human cleric, though , a bit impulsive and possessing an annoying sense of needing to help others, she was chaotic good after all. Like Shava, she also had a girlfriend in the place she left before setting off on her journey, though it is still unclear whether they’ll see each other again. Sadly, for the time being both characters have been put on pause, but I hope to play with them again.
Though I’ve only played Dungeons & Dragons twice, I have a feeling that there is something of a Venn diagram of how people choose to create their characters. There are those who want to completely separate themselves from who they are in real life; choosing to be a monster with a vastly different alignment than they have. While others try to add reflections of themselves to their character, so it feels like they themselves are going on this grand adventure. Then there are some who leave it all to chance and make a randomly generated character. I fell into the second category, making characters that resemble me in some form or fashion. While DnD encourages people to step out of their comfort zones, I knew going in that I would always want to play a humanoid: so elves, half-elves, and humans. They would always be brown skinned and femme. I also love using magic, so my favorite classes are the casters, especially when I can apply magic to my backstory somehow. And, all my characters will be under the queer umbrella in some way, either already having a partner or met a special someone on their journeys. Reading these parameters, one might consider them hindering, and you may find yourself asking “but, Holly, always applying two unmoving options like that? That can’t supply you with a lot of freedom!” On the contrary, they actually allow me a lot of freedom. They allow me to be a character in a fantasy setting that I and many other Black girls dream of; an ethereal, humanoid being who can perform feats of magic that look like us.
You may be wondering why this is so important to me. It’s because lives like the ones I want to live are rare in fantasy settings.
There has been a very long and very insidious trend in the fantasy genre of doing Black and Brown folks dirty. Most of the time we are reduced to pawns for trauma porn, simply there to serve the narratives of white protagonists, or are erased from the story all together for the sake of “geographic and historical accuracy.” Whatever the hell that means. In this specific case of Dungeons & Dragons, Black and Brown people were coded as villainous, bloodthirsty creatures who cannot be trusted, and are reduced to harmful stereotypes. Now, obviously, one does not have to subscribe to these ideas, I’m confident that there are many campaigns that reject those conventions and choose to do their own thing. However, I can’t help but feel a bit iffy that these tropes were ingrained into the game’s structure to begin with. Additionally, if you will allow me to slip on my tinfoil hat of pessimism, I think it’s worth pointing out that Wizards of the Coast made a move to change their diversity mechanics in their games in the wake of demonstrations protesting the rampant killings of Black people at the hands of police during a period of time that many other corporations were participating in displays of solidarity. In my heart of hearts I’d like to think this gesture was one in the works for a long time, but a smaller, louder part of me can’t help but wonder if their decision to change the racial dynamics because everyone was trying to be less racist. Nevertheless, as a Black person playing a game where, up until recently, Black and Brown races were inherently evil, it makes me feel like I don’t belong, or that I do belong, but only in very specific, evil circumstances. How can I play a game that hates me?
Additionally, when playing DnD I would find myself performing the unenviable mental gymnastics of trying to figure out if I was playing into real life racist stereotypes. Have you ever had to think of whether the healing cleric you were playing was a Mammy Trope?! Well I have and it sure is a weird feeling! I just wanna have a fun romp in a fantasy world where we fight evil with the power of friendship, I didn’t want to have to think about real world implications damn it! Now, a point can certainly be made to not think too hard about this; DnD is a fantasy game that you make up as you go along, it’s not that deep. And while that is certainly true — for some people — it just isn’t that simple for me. I haven’t played the game in a long while, but there were multiple times when I was playing where I would feel conflicted, like I was actively fighting against a game that up until very recently had bigotry threaded into its foundations. I hate fighting. I have to fight in real life. I don’t want to fight while playing this game unless I’m fighting little monsters in a cave to progress further into the story I’m trying to tell with my party.
I get the feeling that because of the way DnD and TTRPGs are portrayed in the media up until maybe a decade ago, folks only thought of Dungeons & Dragons as being played by white, cishet men into all hours of the night. That’s simply not true. TTRPGs, just like anything in the nerd canon, have richly diverse and dynamic fan bases with people of all different backgrounds. As they grow, there is often a necessity for tough conversations if the media people love had a couple problematic missteps. No piece of media is perfect, I fully embrace that, but confronting the errors of the past is the first step to making sure everyone feels welcome and affirmed to partake in it in the future, so that the only conflict myself and other Black Dungeons & Dragons players will feel is having to choose between spells with which to cast.
I love fantasy. I love DnD. I long for the day when it fully and truly loves me back.
If you’ve gotten this far into my piece, thank you very much. I hope you and I cross paths in a game soon.