Content of the article: "On Decolonial Worldbuilding"
This is going to be a bit long, so tl;dr – resist the worldbuilding pitfalls created by Orientalism by giving your fantasy cultures multiple (sometimes conflicting) beliefs, and by allowing each individual in that culture to relate to those beliefs differently. Revel in the generative ambiguity that comes with a nuanced, internally-varied people!
Background: Why Decolonize? Why D&D?
Hi, DMs. Perhaps some of you have been on Twitter these past couple weeks. If you have, you'll have seen that there's been a sort of cultural reckoning happening with regard to D&D. From the Asians Represent Podcast's MASSIVE (over 20 hours, total!)
of Oriental Adventures and their accompanying critical analysis of Orientalism therein to Dungeon Commandr's indictment of WotC's failure to support a diverse team working on D&D, as well as a number of other issues and WotC's responses, folks have been calling attention to the "fundamentally conservative" (in Matt Colville's words), exclusionary, and perhaps even regressive elements within D&D and WotC at large.
There's been a lot of talk of boycotting D&D and finding alternatives, and I think that conversation is necessary, but I wouldn't be posting here if I just wanted to say, "Throw out your D&D books and go play something else." I think there's work that we can do within our D&D campaigns, as well, and I think the current moment gives us a wonderful opportunity to consider how we can "decolonize" our games – in other words, how we can remove those elements that are based in colonialist racism and make our campaigns more receptive to ideas outside the white, cis-male, heterosexual fantasy tropes. Personally, I think we have an ethical responsibility to at least be aware of these ideas and think about what they reflect about the hobby if we want that hobby to be an inclusive one. We talk about making our tables more welcoming (and therefore fun!) on this subreddit all the time. This can go farther than simply making sure each player shares the spotlight. We can shed a lot of the modes of thinking that surround and permeate D&D and have held it back from being a hobby that welcomes everyone equally.
What Can We Do?
Change our modes of thinking? Decolonize the game? Re-imagine the hobby? That sounds like a ton of work, especially for a game we play when we want to relax because we already work so much! And on a certain level, yeah, it can be. That's why people have been spending so much energy discussing it for weeks (and long before that, too, frankly). But there are small things we can do right now, too, with the games we're already running. Kazumi Chin over on Twitter gives one really lovely example of a decolonial worldbuilding practice: simply giving your cultures a variety of beliefs that inform their behaviors, including seemingly contradictory ones. As they put it:
So your So your bird people build houses in the trees. Okay. But what do they know to be true about this practice? … For example: These bird people know that the further they ascend, the greater their blessings. But they, too, have a version of the story of Icarus. And so life is this work of ascent without hubris. And this becomes a metaphor for their living. But there are other stories, too.
Opening space for all these varied beliefs, including ones that haven't yet occurred to us, is part of decolonizing D&D, yes, but it's also explicitly worldbuilding, which is something we're all doing already anyway.
So give your fantasy cultures stories! Give them myths, give them beliefs, give them superstitions, and think about how all of these things come together to influence how they live in your world, how they make sense of it. Most importantly, make sure those beliefs aren't monolithic. That is to say, make sure different people in that culture have their own ideas about these beliefs: maybe they don't put any stock in some, or grew up with a different telling of one or more of them. How does an outcast youth think differently within these cultural beliefs and value systems than a powerful, respected elder?
If many of these recommendations and worldbuilding prompts sound familiar, they should: this is what we're already trying to do. Our whole stock in trade is building complex, layered worlds. All a decolonial practice is asking is that we do it more and better. That we allow our cultures – even and especially those outside what D&D assumes as the "civilized races" – to have as much nuance as our characters and ourselves. To do this we need to:
- Give a culture many beliefs
- Allow each member of that culture to understand, relate to, and live those beliefs differently
These two simple steps allow the characters in your campaign setting to be heroic or villainous based on "who they are, not what they are" (I heard this formulation from B. Dave Walters, but I'm not sure if that's who coined it), which is one of the most important steps in not only decolonizing your game and making it more ethical, but also simply making your campaign setting that much more compelling.
All of this has been some advice on how we can decolonize our worldbuilding, our campaign settings, and thereby the games we run in those settings. This is an important step in reconsidering how we portray fantasy peoples, which is another way of saying reconsidering how we think about those who are different from us. However, this SHOULD NOT be mistaken for "doing the work" of ending any of the various types of exclusion in the hobby in real life, nor for helping to construct a more just society for marginalized people. D&D is, at its heart, a game about solving problems through self-serving violence and looting, about overpowering others in the pursuit of your own goals, and about exterminating those who resist you. It is a game that draws stark lines between "civilized" and "uncivilized" peoples, almost always conflating the latter with "evil."
That's a hell of a legacy, one that WotC has leaned into with more or less enthusiasm over the years, but never sought to fundamentally break away from. And it's a legacy that has informed how marginalized people have been received in the hobby both by the company and by other fans. If we care about making this hobby more inclusive, which is to say more just, then we must confront that history and continue to put pressure on WotC to move past it by (for a start) hiring, retaining, and valuing the input of diverse creators. For the DMs of this subreddit who are just beginning to encounter these issues, though, and who aren't sure where to start in trying to make sure they're not perpetuating these harmful practices, I want to leave these small suggestions as a place to begin. You already have the skills of worldbuilding. You can put those skills to great use in creating a welcoming and inclusive game, and I think you'll find your campaign settings benefit hugely from the extra attention.
Thanks for reading, and if you've made it this far, have
as your reward.
- Is it wrong to like DnD?
- Making Languages More Special With Worldbuilding
- I made a bot that can show you the PSVR games on sale, I’d like your feedback
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