Years of playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me a very simple lesson about creativity: good work is original, great work is theft. Sure, we don’t use that word, we use other words like “inspiration” or “homage.” Writers give credit to their “influences” and songwriters their muses, but at the end of the day, it boils down to the same end. The act of making something up, the soul of creativity, is not some naturally occurring wellspring of an individual’s genius, but the ability to synthesize the world around us by stealing from so many different sources at once that the alloy is unrecognizable. It’s not our fault. Humans as a rule are just bad at making things up. We’re relative creatures. Sue us.   

In this magnificent tradition of creative licensing, the framework of Dungeons and Dragons is truly a master criminal. Like the fantasy epics of Howard and Tolkien that spawned it, Dungeons and Dragons steals anything that isn’t nailed down, drawing from centuries of diverse folklore, myths and histories. Those that disdain Tabletop RPGs or the epic fantasy genre it mimics will still recognize a unicorn, or a genie, or even a rakshasa, as they are drawn from millennia of storytelling traditions that span across cultural divides. This theft does not seek to diminish its various source materials, but seeks to bring together a glorious font of ingredients with which millions of new players can tell stories of their own, building with the familiar to create and share something new. 

As a teenager, the historical and mythological foundations of fantasy prompted me to explore curiosities and passions I would never have imagined for myself. I got into the habit of spending up to four hours every week being challenged to create a story, and like any good writer, this forced an examination of the world around me to see what I could nick without alarms going off.  My love of history, storytelling, performance, and writing are facets of my personality which were honed and explored while sitting around a table rolling oddly shaped dice with my friends, trying to come up with cool stuff to say. I was tricked into  not only paying attention to the world around me, but to then directly engage with it through revision, shaping and editing tropes and cliches to fit my own tastes (or to get the most sincere “Nice” from my friends). It was this process which got me to realize I had tastes, and through the safe refuge of camaraderie and fantasy, I could discover and test what, or who, I wanted to be.

This never-ending process of stealing and refining (what Pete Seeger referred to as the “folk process”) comes with its own risks, however, specifically when you have taken a little bit more than you bargained for. Just like a panicked Game Master calling a goblin “Boblin,” the sources that games like D&D have drawn from did not always make the most responsible of choices. Tolkien himself, in an attempt to make exotic new forms of life, heisted his inspiration not just from Nordic sagas, but also the fairly horrifying racialized worldview of his time, defining his “others” in terms his audience could understand. While this is most infamously evident in the use of Jewish stereotypes in the depictions of dwarves, perhaps just as telling is how important racial divides became in the fantasy genre in his wake. Countless properties have split sentient species into “good” races and “bad” races, with such sharp distinctions of intelligence, morality, and temperament that it seems almost natural that every fantasy world is divided along racial lines

The consequences of this narrative become even more nauseating when one steps out of the realm of the dated fantastical and into even the most contemporary of political or scientific discourse. We are still tangling with the legacy of pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics, which sought to stratify human society through a biologically-inspired caste system built on the foundational belief that some people were just not really full people. These discredited attempts to grant racial stereotyping scientific legitimacy were themselves a “creative adjustment” to preserve systems of inequality by wrapping them in the virtue of enlightened logic, but we can see just how perniciously they’ve clung to our culture in debates surrounding public education and policing. In the question of nature versus nurture, there are implications no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, and the tropes of fantasy demonstrate for us a vision of racial hierarchy that is overwhelmingly black-and-white. This makes for convenient storytelling, as slaying a villain is much more gratifying when they are not really like us, but that story is told too often in the real world to comfortably get into the practice of suspending that particular disbelief.      

D&D has historically taken this unfortunate tic of modern fantasy and doubled down, codifying the various racial distinctions of orcs, elves and halflings into stark numerical values–a hierarchization that my friends and I refer to as “radical fantasy racism.” Orcs are stronger, but dumber, and tend not to be orderly.  Elves are better than everyone in every way, and goblins are feral, greedy bastards. These lazy tropes are not the point of the game, but rather the tools that players use because those are all they know. These tropes were not designed to be interrogated; how could they be? While some do seek to exploit the realms of imagination for terrestrial gain (see the new prime minister of Italy), for the most part, these connections are far beyond the scope or interest of those that take comfort in the game. These tools of storytelling were passed down from people with different givens and different ends, and yet nostalgia and laziness have codified the dreams of ethno-nationalists from a hundred years ago into the very language of our wildest imagination. Their racialized worldview has profoundly shaped the kind of stories we think of as possible.  

Luckily, D&D has a sizable advantage over its source material in that it is a living thing. The game’s explosion of popularity–concomitant with the rise of the internet and the destigmatization of countercultures it brought about–has introduced a wave of new blood into a culture that had remained overwhelmingly male, white, and largely isolated from other communities for decades after D&D’s  creation. Wizards of the Coast has committed itself to tackling some of the game’s darker legacies, and queer expression has become a hallmark of D&D’s resurgence among a more diverse audience. But while some new creators of Tabletop RPGs are making a genuine effort to relax the legal definition of racial categories and its centrality to the stories it is possible to tell, other corners of the TTRPG sphere see such considerations as adaptations to the latest political trend that spoil their refuge. 

Since the days of the satanic panic and Revenge of the Nerds, D&D has broken full tilt into the mainstream, enjoying all the exposure and enthusiasm of generations raised on The Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with little to no stigma attached to these “nerdy” interests. With the decentralizing of culture brought about the never-ending content factory that is the internet, nerdom is now hip, and D&D is discussed openly by celebrities and played on streams watched by millions of people.  This new popularity brings in new perspectives that prove what can be an uncomfortable truth: imagination has never been timeless, and every story changes based on who tells it, and who is listening. More people are telling stories now, and they are using the toolbox of D&D to help them.

Despite the progress that has been made, however, it is still difficult to imagine a future for the fantasy genre that is completely divorced from its historic roots. Slaying the dragon, getting the treasure, and leveling up are going to take precedence over arguing the socio-political implications of the dragon-slaying-to-riches pipeline every time. But isn’t that a good thing? You can’t extract every problematic element from Dungeons and Dragons just like you can’t only reflect your best side in a mirror. We are made of all the parts of us, and that goes for stories as well as people. The value of escapism is that it’s never total. We bring ourselves into everything we make: our experiences, our hopes, our fears. The framework of collaborative storytelling gives us a unique opportunity not merely to escape the worst of our society, but to grapple with it in a way that allows us to cope. Encoded in our creative DNA are the assumptions made by those long dead, but we aren’t beholden to respect anyone else’s theft over our own. Don’t like it? Steal it, and make something new. 



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