Systems of oppression in Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is the most common example of the popular genre of game known as the tabletop roleplay game (TTRPG). Created in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has been an outlet for people all over the world. It is a community builder where friends gather to be immersed in the daunting adventures and deep lore of fantasy worlds. 

In 2014 the most recent reimagining of the classic game was released: D&D 5th Edition. Because of its streamlined nature, making gameplay and game creation easier, as well as the resurgence of nostalgia for the 1980s with television shows like “Stranger Things,” the beloved TTRPG grew immensely in popularity. 

Now the world is filled with D&D fans. Need a new podcast? Try “The Adventure Zone,” a D&D adventure featuring Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy of “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” fame (now with its own comic books!). Need a new Twitch stream? Try “Critical Role,” where LA voice actors gather around a nerdy set to play the game like you’ve never seen before (also with its own comic books!).

The D&D discussion is spread throughout every crevice of the internet. Its original 1980s lore is widespread and studied like ancient tomes of the angels (please, don’t take this allusion to connect this harmless roleplay game as a fabrication for devil worshipers to hide behind). However, what does it mean for the fantasy setting when this lore is taken as scripture? 

Creating a character’s personality is one of the most exciting and important aspects of the game. When you open that Player’s Handbook, you’re ready to make a unique and fleshed-out character to take with you as you walk through this newfound adventure. 

The second chapter of the handbook deals with race. You can be anything from a human to a dwarf to a tiefling. Tieflings are the perfect place to begin this discussion. According to the lore found in their section of the handbook, tieflings are humanoid creatures derived from demons, devils and other hellish monsters. Specifically, tieflings are usually considered to be ancestors of the being known as Asmodeus, the ruler of the Nine Hells. Because of this, tieflings have hooves, tails, horns, red, purple or blue skin, and eyes with no iris or pupil. They quite literally look devilish. 

Now, your character can be whatever you want it to be; however, it is not uncommon for racism and other systems of oppression to be instilled into gameplay due to lore like this. Maybe the sight of your tiefling character terrifies nearby humans. According to the D&D Fandom Wiki, “Tieflings are distrusted in many human cultures due to their devil-like appearance and poor reputation. This common mistreatment does not cause tieflings to band together as it might among humans, but rather they respond by isolating themselves and becoming loners.”

An interesting note here is human Christianity does not exist within the lore of D&D. Yes, there are gods and made-up religions, but the concept of Satan and the societal implications created due to it do not exist. Would it even make sense for these fictional humans to be frightened by a character resembling a devil?

Because of this, a lore-loving Dungeon Master (DM) might encourage tiefling players to embrace their evil side. When the DM is playing non-player characters (NPCs), they might make a point to be prejudiced against these characters simply because of their fantastical race. 

This is just one example, and because the game often follows the style of a create-your-own-adventure game (meaning the DM will write the narrative of the story on his or her own), your campaign could hold plenty more. Orcs may be villainous monsters or creatures who are innately evil and have no choice but to be brutish. You might have a half-orc character, who is now encouraged to be an unintelligent slob of a barbarian.

Even beyond this idea of lore-consistent characterization, should we allow for oppression to exist within the fantasy world, or should it simply be an escape? Is D&D an escapist opportunity to leave the troubles of this world behind and pick up the heroic troubles of adventurers in fantasy? Should we keep these worlds separate?

An easy fix here would be to leave the campaign where the DM is insistent on staying true to the original lore and find a DM that allows for a more collaborative, home-brewed experience. Or, if you don’t see an issue with the expression of systemic oppression within your game, stick with your DM. 

However, these conversations are still necessary to have, whichever side of the debate you fall on, especially as the game continues to grow in popularity and move into the eyes of the greater public. 

For LGBTQ+ players who experience homophobia or transphobia in their day-to-day lives, is it altogether necessary to include that same element into the fantasy world? For players of color who experience racism outside of the game, should it exist within their hobby?

It all comes down to the writing of the campaign and the environment that is nurtured at the table. Do the players like each other inside and out of game? Do they at least respect each other? Has the DM allowed for a player to create a bigoted character? Does the DM play prejudiced NPCs? 

Let’s briefly take a look at William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” This play is filled with great dramatic and comedic beats, similar to how a DM would design a campaign. The overall plot has a mission: Hamlet wants to avenge his father, King Hamlet. It also has a clear villain: Claudius. Yes, it takes Hamlet some time to find this out, but that’s the fun of it. 

This story arc is convoluted and complicated, and that’s what makes it so enticing. That’s what D&D campaigns require. If a campaign is too linear and obvious, players will find it harder to be immersed into this imaginary world. 

If we forget what Shakespeare’s outer world looked like (a world filled with imperialism, colonialism and many systems of oppression sprinkled throughout) and focus solely on the world of “Hamlet,” there are no systems of oppression present. Yes, there is a war going on. Yes, there is death and ghosts. Yes, there are pirates and mysteries. 

However, there is not systemic oppression built into these plots and plot elements. “Hamlet” is one of the greatest plays ever written, and it continues to captivate audiences all over the world. Surely if Shakespeare didn’t have to use prejudice in order to “heighten dramatic tension,” then D&D doesn’t need to either. Conflict does not equal oppression. A campaign doesn’t need enslaved tieflings to make it more interesting, lifelike or dramatic. 

At the end of the day, the decision is in your hands, both as a player and a DM. However, I urge you to bring this up at your next session. Should we separate fantasy from the struggles so many are forced to deal with in our very imperfect world? Should D&D continue to be escapism of the highest, a place where we go to shed the weight we carry in the real world? 

I think we can play better. We can write better. Erasing these systems within gameplay will only work to make the sometimes elusive game a more inclusive and diverse campaign and outer community. Fantasy and the communities that stem from it do not belong to straight, white, cisgendered people. All people are welcome within the boundaries of D&D. Why? Because, at its core, it is make believe. Why wouldn’t we strive to make it more inclusive?

Katy Smith (‘23) is a communications major, theatre and writing minor at Hope. Her passions lie in the arts, specifically playwriting, poetry, performing, and any music that makes you feel wanderlust. She is so honored to be the Anchor’s Arts Editor! She strives to give Hope’s wonderful arts programs the platform they deserve.

'Systems of oppression in Dungeons & Dragons' has 1 comment

  1. October 22, 2020 @ 1:50 pm Allen

    No, I don’t think pretending oppression doesn’t exist is a good answer. People should be allowed to explore those issues in a fantasy world if they want to, since they have to deal with them anyway. They don’t stop happening when you pull out the dice. If a group wants to have it as an escape that’s always been an option, but telling people they can’t include issues they deal with constantly in reality for a game that’s meant to be immersive does not make sense.


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