Are orcs ‘racist’? The culture wars controversy tearing Dungeons & Dragons apart
Last September, Dungeons & Dragons diced with death. The world’s favourite tabletop role-playing game is today riding high with a new movie spin-off starring Hugh Grant and Chris Pine enjoying positive reviews. Six months ago, though, D&D and its publisher Wizards of the Coast were caught up in a bizarre racism controversy.
The flub that almost swallowed D&D revolved around Spelljammer – an expansion to the core game set in a fantastical version of outer space that owes a little to the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs and a lot to Seventies prog rock album sleeves.
Tucked inside the Spelljammer box was a book called the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. Here, D&D’s estimated 14 million players were introduced to a race of monsters, the Hadozee.
These were described as sentient beings with monkey-like features who were captured and enslaved by wizards. They were then auctioned to the highest bidder. Illustrations accompanying the text showed a Hazodee “minstrel” playing the lute. You can imagine what happened next.
“Is it okay for me to call the Dragon game racist now? Because the Hadozee are f–king atrocious and the fact that this was released is unconscionable,” tweeted one gamer.
“How did no one at WOTC read over the Hadozee origin being ‘yeah they were created to be slaves by a bad wizard but were saved by a good wizard, and now they like to work alongside elves who barely acknowledge them as people,’” said another.
We failed our adventurers, and we are truly sorry.
Our statement on the Hadozee. https://t.co/3EKI13EfTd
— Dungeons & Dragons (@Wizards_DnD) September 3, 2022
The debacle rippled across social media like a barrage of fireballs. Wizards of the Coast, a division of boardgames giant Hasbro, apologised. The Hazodee and their “background” had not been vetted since they originally appeared in the game in 1982. The offending paragraph disappeared from the Astral Guide. Wizards also pledged to hire “sensitivity” readers for future projects.
But the Hazodee hoo-ha is just one of several that have engulfed D&D. While its profile has never been higher among “normies,” within the gaming community it is under fire from all sides. To some, the Spelljammer incident speaks to a game behind the times. One that is prisoner to its origins as the plaything of white Middle Americans from the Seventies.
D&D Must Grapple With the Racism in Fantasy, went a headline in Wired magazine in 2021. Wired decried “the anti-black, anti-Semitic or Orientalist stereotypes” that defined races such as orcs and evil black-skinned Dark Elves, called drow.
Wizards of the Coast has taken steps to address these issues. Orcs and drow would, it vowed, “be portrayed as culturally complex”. It has also removed a controversial “racial bonus rule”. This had given players inherent advantages or disadvantages when playing a human, dwarf, gnome, elf etc.
But to other critics, D&D has come down with a fatal case of wokeness. They accuse it of pandering to a subset more interested in scoring political points than chucking dice and killing orcs. Such critics would furthermore point out that even killing orcs is problematic because they now have feelings, too, apparently.
“In a fantasy setting, some creature types should just be evil. No grey areas around it,” wrote Ryan Abram on the blog Six Sides of Gaming. “What I’m referencing is Wizards of the Coast’s attempt at being sensitive to racism and the notion of race-related negative stereotypes.”
These often veteran gamers believe their hobby has been stolen from them by activist Gen Zers and millennials. Increasingly, the hold-outs have abandoned the game altogether in favour of “old school” rule sets that mimic the early Eighties edition of the D&D
“The races in D&D aren’t the same as the races in the real world,” gamer and Conservative blogger Christian Twiste told me last year. “They are closer to different species, each with their own unique traits, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, histories, and gods. What is the point of playing an elf that’s the same as a human? Elves cease to be elves if they’re treated like dwarves. Ultimately, different races, or species if you prefer, are as fundamental to fantasy as aliens are to science fiction. In my opinion, eliminating the differences reduces the richness of the game instead of enhancing it.”
In the middle is a third group of players. They feel D&D, though historically significant, undeservedly overshadows other games. Dungeons & Dragons and table-top roleplaying are synonymous to the average person. That has leading to resentment in some gaming circles, where D&D is referred to derisively as “the dragon game”.
“Wizards of the Coast are far and away the largest entity in pretty much all of tabletop gaming,” says Michael Whelan, a game designer and writer for the Dicebreaker website, in an email.
“They’re so massive that they make up about 70 per cent of Hasbro’s earnings on their own. Roll20 [an online gaming platform] published a report in 2019 that showed over half of all games played on their platform are D&D with no other game breaking even 10 per cent of the share. With the release of their first ever feature film imminent it seems they’re pretty set up to dominate for a long long time.”
There is also criticism of the D&D’s rules. They’re too combat-oriented and don’t deliver a truly rounded gaming experience, say detractors.
“It’s overwhelmingly focused on combat with most of the progression you make in the game centred around either making you better at killing or giving you new powers to use in combat situations,” says Whelan of D&D. “That makes sense, it’s a combat-heavy game that was originally built as a miniature wargame, not unlike Warhammer.
“The problem most RPG players that sit outside of D&D’s play space have with the system is how it’s twisted and manipulated to suit the game that each table wants to play, whether it's a cosy slice-of-life campaign or a space opera,” he continues. “There are hundreds of RPGs that could fill that niche but players would, a lot of the time, rather keep to what they know and play football with a snooker cue rather than learn to lace up some boots if you’ll excuse a rather weird analogy.”
With Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves about to roar into the box office, these controversies will be lost on the public. But for D&D and Wizards of the Coast appealing to different generations of gamers is a growing challenge. It is one the company is doing its best to meet by rolling out rules changes for a new version of the game called “One D&D”. As that process continues the big unknown is whether it will do away with its traditional concept of “races”.
Whichever way D&D goes, it is sure to infuriate a huge segment of its player base. Wizards of the Coast no doubt wishes it had a magic wand that could make the controversy disappear. Yet in the real world, there is no such thing as magic – and that is a reality the world’s favourite RPG will have to confront sooner or later.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is in cinemas now