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The Jail That Tolkien Built: the Oppressive Propaganda in Roleplaying Games and How It Stifles Creative Storytelling

Stories are a part of every culture. Every group of human beings that has ever existed has its own unique body of myths and narratives. According to an increasingly large pool of research (e.g., Emory University in Atlanta, researchers in Spain and France, U.C. Berkeley, etc.), stories actually alter our brains, triggering the primary sensory motor region, and thus allowing us to “experience” the contents of a given story and to “feel” what the characters in the story feel. In other words, when we tell or hear stories, the parts of our brains associated with a given action in the story (tasting coffee, smelling a dog, feeling scuffed-up leather, kissing a lover, etc.) are stimulated and activated. The conclusions of these scientific endeavors all agree that this is why humans are such junkies for stories: they’re psychoactive drugs that essentially get us emotionally high.

These current studies also seem to be proving what those of us who critique civilized narratives and the Monomyth have been arguing for years: because stories cause those who hear/read them to “experience” the events of the story, the ways we think, feel, and act are therefore informed by the stories we tell. Largely due to television, movies, and all the other forms of popular cop fiction, the average noob in the civilized world tends to think that cops are heroic defenders of law and order, saving treed kittens, thwarting rapists, killing evildoers, and helping old ladies cross the street. It’s because of the popularity and prevalence of these narratives that most people don’t understand the reality of police as violent, sociopathic enforcers of institutional hierarchy and systemic oppression.

The same is true with so many other narratives. Civilization’s earliest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, lays the groundwork for deforestation, urban culture, warfare, taming the wilderness, prostitution, religious control, and so on, and continues to inform the actions and direction of civilized society 10,000 years after it was written. So too with the myths of the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud and other religious texts. So too with Fox News, the state of the union address, the CIA’s recent torture report, internet memes… on and on and on.

The stories of civilization are many faces of one monolithic god of control, destruction, and misery. And these stories underlie and inform most people’s attitudes and opinions. However, as the title of this piece suggests, this is an essay about roleplaying. I don’t intend to tackle the civilized Monomyth here, nor to dissect and dismantle each and every shitstain narrative of the dominant society. Rather, this piece is about casting a critical eye upon the popular narrative tropes in roleplaying games and fantasy fiction, analyzing them and tearing them apart both from a radical political/ethical perspective AND from the position that they stifle real creativity and encourage mental laziness.

So in order to begin this discussion, let me just lay it out: I am a huge gaming nerd. I love fantasy fiction, and I especially love narrative and storytelling, hence my lifelong passion for roleplaying games. If the above-mentioned research is valid, roleplaying games are, at their core, a way of human beings connecting with one another, sharing experiences, and collectively getting story-stoned. Maybe this is why I and so many others find story gaming so appealing, or maybe not. But the fact remains that roleplaying games, as a form of storytelling, are a collectively beneficial and enjoyable activity.

Unfortunately, however, this form of storytelling, like all forms of storytelling, suffers from some deeply-rooted and extremely fucked up tropes and stereotypes. This sucks for two reasons: first, because the narrative stereotypes that plague roleplaying games reflect and reinforce the institutions of civilized oppression (i.e.: classism, sexism, hierarchy, and extreme anti-indigenous/pro-civilization propaganda), and second, these stereotypes suck because they limit the boundaries and growth of creative fiction.

I’ve been fortunate in my roleplaying experiences in that the gaming groups I’ve been a part of have largely been composed of radical folks with developed understandings of oppression and good imaginations. I’ve also never been a part of a campaign with an overtly racist and Tolkien-inspired system (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Middle Earth Roleplaying, etc.). However, because I’m a nerd and I love learning about fictional worlds and societies, I’ve read a ton of campaign settings and RPG rulesets.

And the unfortunate and near-universal trend I’ve noticed is just that point I’m hammering on in this essay: roleplaying games and campaign settings are racist as fuck, classist, Eurocentric, misogynist and patriarchal, and hateful toward traditional peoples and cultures.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at several popular RPGs and their corresponding campaign settings. At this point in popular culture, Dungeons & Dragons is a household name, even among people who know nothing about RPGs, nor have ever played one. D&D is a ruleset (the d20 system), and a number of campaign settings exist within the D&D umbrella. Forgotten Realms is perhaps the most popular and best-known D&D setting, and is indicative and typical of the whole fantasy gaming genre.

In the Forgotten Realms setting, we find a host of fantasy races, most of them borrowed almost directly from Tolkien. There are Elves, a fair-skinned (read: European), lithe, woodsie people who dwell in forests, love nature, and despise all the “evil” races of the world. Then, there are goblins and Orcs, vile green-skinned “savages” who dwell in filthy tribal hordes, raid and pillage the “civilized” peoples of the world, and revel in chaos and evil. Now, to those naysayers who don’t have comprehensive knowledge about the other races (and racial trends) in Forgotten Realms, this might seem like a coincidence or just one instance of lacking creativity and bad writing. So, to counter such easy dismissal and to drive home the point, here’s a nice little chart detailing many of the races in this campaign setting, the prevalent political form governing the society of those races, the color of that race’s skin, and that race’s typical alignment (i.e., whether they’re good or evil):

Race                   Skin Color                     Typical Alignment                    Political Organization

Human                 Typically white/European  usually Good                            Monarchies, feudalism

Calishite Human    brown, middle-eastern      Neutral, Neutral Evil                  Autocratic, caliphate

Rashemi Human    dark brown, African          usually Neutral                         Gynarchy

Halflings                white/European               usually Good                            Rustic European

Elves                     white/European               usually Good                           Monarchies, chieftains

Dark Elves             gray, jet black                 universally Evil                         Matriarchy

Dwarves                white/European                usually Good                          Monarchies, chieftains

Fey’ri                    dark red, gray, dark          usually Evil                             Meritocracy

Gray Dwarves        gray, dark                       usually Evil                             unknown

Gnomes               white/European               Neutral, Good                          unknown

Goblins                green                              Evil                                        Tribal, “barbaric”

Kobolds               red, reptilian                    Evil                                         Tribal, “barbaric”

Orcs                   green, dark green             Evil                                         Tribal, “barbaric”

Tanarukk            dark green                       Evil                                         Tribal w/ matrilineal influences

Although there are exceptions to the trends presented in the chart above, the rule in Forgotten Realms is clear: white Eurocentric cultures with feudal era societies are Good, and dark-skinned peoples with tribal societies (especially those with matriarchal/matrilineal tribes) are Evil. Whitey is good and chivalrous; darkies are savage, warmongering, bloodthirsty animals. Forgotten Realms is by far the most popular of the D&D campaign settings, and as such it is indicative of the general attitudes of racism, misogyny, and anti-indigenous/pro-civilization propaganda.

But it certainly isn’t a singular anomaly. A vast number of other fantasy campaign settings – especially D&D campaign settings – mimic and perpetuate this oppressive thinking. To name but a few such campaign settings, consider the following popular D&D worlds: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Planescape, Eberron, and Dark Sun (notable in that “progress” and wizardly meddling, arguably an analogy for civilization, destroyed the biosphere of the planet Athas, but still super racist).

Beyond the scope of D&D, in other fantasy RPGs and in non-RPG card and board games, the same tropes crop up again and again. All the elements of fantastic racism, misogyny, and anti-indigenous sentiment are present in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, World of Warcraft: the Roleplaying Game, ElfQuest RPG, RuneQuest, Rolemaster and Loremaster, Middle Earth Roleplaying, the card game Munchkin, Magic: the Gathering and its extensive mythos (with exceptions), Pathfinder RPG, Lone Wolf: The Roleplaying Game and the original Lone Wolf gamebooks, and just about every online MMORPG and fantasy-themed flash game ever made. And to drive home the point that this is a near-ubiquitous phenomenon in the fantasy world, keep in mind that the list above is but a small sample of the hundreds of games and stories that incorporate such suffocating bullshit.

To play devil’s advocate, the ubiquity of fantasy racism, sexism, and anti-indigenous propaganda can be in part attributed to Tolkien’s dire influence. Tolkien, with his Lord of the Rings cycle, is undoubtedly the progenitor of contemporary high fantasy, and his works have obviously influenced much of fantasy gaming. And within Tolkien’s work we find the very same racism and civilo-centricity. At the top of Middle Earth’s hierarchy are the Elves, nimble, graceful, beautiful white people who live forever, exult in their sylvan monarchy, frolic in their pastures of privilege and entitlement, and spit on all the “lesser” dark-skinned peoples, foreigners, and the Dwarven working class miners. Right up there with them are the Halflings, wealthy white aristocracy living in a pastoralist’s paradise, reminiscent of the delusional myth of “jolly old England”. Then, on the other end of the hackneyed dichotomy, we find the Goblins and Orcs, evil people of color who rape, destroy, and pillage everything they get their grubby paws on. Joining with them are the Eastron men (men, never humans, mind you), human beings who are so obviously a rip off of tribal African and Middle Eastern cultures it hurts, and who are likewise evil people of color. The cultures of Elves, Dwarves, and Men (all the good whiteys) are invariably monarchic, and feudal European in flavor; the cultures of the Goblins/Orcs, and wicked Eastron men are, unsurprisingly, tribal and “barbaric”.

Tolkien sucks, and Tolkien’s influence on all subsequent high fantasy fiction sucks worse. I’m with China Miéville, renowned author of Perdido Street Station and other amazing works of fantasy steampunk badassery, who quipped “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”. I couldn’t agree more.

Tolkien may be the origin of these pernicious trends, but he’s not their sole raison d’être. So, to what else do we attribute the pervasive racism, Eurocentrism, patriarchal misogyny, and anti-indigeneity in fantasy fiction? What else could it be except the bias and oppressive mentality of the writers of said fiction themselves? Having read an assload of roleplaying supplements and other fantasy material, I can accurately say the majority of writers in the field are white civilized men. Just so, this internalized enculturation and bias is entirely unsurprising to me.

I’m an anarchist, a feminist, and I’m totally and vehemently opposed to civilization. And so, as an avid gamer with radical politics, I’m completely offended and disgusted that so many elements of civilized oppression trickle into the realms of fantasy. But this essay isn’t just a political screed, and I’m not just annoyed to all hell by these tropes because they’re oppressive. I’m also enraged because these clichés are choking the life out of creativity and aborting novel ideas in fantasy fiction.

Do we really need to hear the boring-ass story of the Elf Ranger who fights with a bow, loves the woods, and hates Dwarves for the nine-thousandth time? Does anyone still give two shits about the Dwarf Fighter who wields a battleaxe, drinks copious amounts of ale, mines gems and metals, talks in a Scottish accent (although there are no Scots on his plane), strokes his mighty beard, and hates Elves? How about the story of the Orc warrior who is brutish, stupid, ugly, uncharismatic, and who loves to pillage and destroy? Does that story really need retelling? Again?

If we take another, even further step back, why do we insist on telling stories in worlds that are modeled after the European feudal era? Do we need fantasy worlds with self-righteous paladins and godly clerics, haughty, classist knights and power-hungry mages? What’s the collective fascination with telling the stories of such one-dimensional characters who are cookie-cutter archetypes – I’m a druid, I’m a fighter – when characters in real-life and in good fiction are multifaceted, complex, and have a variety of skills and passions? Do we need to constrain ourselves to worlds in which Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Goblins, and Orcs exist? Must we always defer to these over-used and outplayed afterbirths of Tolkien’s mythological plagiarism? Does anyone actually believe that a fucking chainmail bikini is a viable choice for protection?! And why the hell is everyone so interested in monarchy and knighthood? Should not the fantasy worlds we explore and create contain a multitude of nations and autonomous political entities with a variety of organizational forms? Do we truly believe that Humans are the only race composed of a diverse and broad spectrum of individuals, and that every other individual belonging to every other fantasy race fits the pre-ordained mold of that race? And if we are to incorporate all the elements above, why don’t we tell stories from the other side? From the eyes of the heretic, the nomadic Orcish horde, those fighting for their way of life against the forces of religion and state? Those stories are surely more interesting.

And what of the dichotomous morality that plagues our gaming worlds? Does any roleplayer (outside of religious halfwits) really think the world is black and white, Good and Evil? Are we stimulated by the story of the vigilant, sanctimonious paladin who always does Good? Or the necromancer who is motivated purely by Evil and the lust for power? Again, with the one-dimensional characters. What about the paladin who presents a faithful facade but who is secretly sinful in his thoughts and actions? What about the necromancer who only learned her arts because she can’t let go of a dead beloved? Is it not more engaging and better storytelling to create characters who have a variety of motivations, who do good and bad things because of their passions and desires, their secret obligations, and their own multi-dimensional morality and ethics? Can we not see beyond the racist notions of mighty Whitey and the evil Dark Skins?

Though these Tolkienesque stereotypes ooze from the pores of most every RPG in existence, it’s not all bad. There are some campaign settings and worlds that challenge these ridiculous and oppressive concepts. For one, if my readers will indulge me a moment of shameless self-promotion, all the campaign settings I’ve written and publish (free at yggdrasildistro.wordpress.com) break with these harmful traditions. China Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag, in which three of his novels unfold, is a brilliant example of real fantasy, creative, dark, frightening, weird, and diverse. The Shadowrun series of RPGs is also a wonderful and welcome change, incorporating traditional Tolkienesque elements (Elves, Orcs, Dwarves), and infusing them into a cyberpunk world of corporate hegemony and violent resistance to it, and encouraging players to create diverse characters within the races provided (Elven Street Samurai, Orcish Shamans, Troll Deckers, etc.).

There is also a growing number of radical gamers who reject the noxious stereotypes of traditional fantasy gaming. Among these is Wundergeek at Go Make Me a Sandwich blog, whose essay in three parts concerning offensive stereotypes in gaming was a major inspiration for this piece. I heartily encourage everyone to visit her blog and read said essays:

Part 1: How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings

https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/how-not-to-fail-at-writing-inclusive-games-and-game-settings-part-1/

Part 2: Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes in Your Work: Gender and Sexuality

https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/avoiding-offensive-stereotypes-in-your-work-gender-and-sexuality-part-2/

Part 3: Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes in Your Work: Race Edition

https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/avoiding-offensive-stereotypes-in-your-work-race-edition-part-3many-images/

Likewise, the blog post Five Destructive Myths Perpetuated by Roleplaying Games from the blog Mythcreants sheds additional light on these tropes:

http://mythcreants.com/blog/five-destructive-myths-perpetuated-by-roleplaying-games/

Let’s remember that the stories we tell have real impacts on our hearts and minds, on the ways in which we frame reality. And in remembering this, let us work together, as gamers and as folks with radical politics, to annihilate the constricting shackles of systemic oppression in our fantasy games. Only in breaking out of these mental prisons can we create fresh new worlds and campaigns, and move away from the bonds that tie us to the twisted abominations of civilization.

For fantasy to live, Tolkien must die! Let’s tear down the walls of the prison he built, and in its place erect thousands of new worlds and ideas!

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