Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grumpy RPG Column: Blacks and Gaming

Episode 8 – Blacks in Gaming
  • For Black History Month, this column discusses the role of blacks in tabletop role-playing games.
  • The essay employs the term black rather than African-American or Africa because most fantasy settings do not have an America or an Africa, even if they do include black people.
  • Race is an important part of character creation, though there it usually refers to what should be called different species (elves, orcs, humans, etc.) and there is no real mechanical difference between blacks and whites.
  • The default assumption of both the text and art of most RGP games is the characters are white.
  • White Wolf Games are transgressive and progressive, making an effort to include blacks in the text and art of their games.
  • Some fantasy versions of Africa do exist, though your mileage may vary as to the quality and results.
  • RPGS lag behind other areas of society – such as business, sports and politics – in terms of including blacks. This will change only when fans make it change.


Greetings from February 22, 1911.

February is Black History Month in the United States, a month designated to acknowledge accomplishments of black men and women in all occupations, from sports to business to science to politics and so forth. However, the presence of blacks in gaming is thin on the ground, so to speak.

In this column, I will discuss the issue and while a conclusion is reached, this is a podcast column and not a comprehensive study of the subject.

Black People in Gaming

Where are the black people in gaming? Why are there not more of them?

Of the black people who are in gaming, who are they and where they? Where is the African themed material?

Related to those questions, how many black people do you see at your local gaming shop? How often do they make an appearance and/or a purchase? Why are there not more of them participating in the hobby?


Where are the black people in gaming?

It is worth defining terms. and white in this column refer to races as they are understood in an conventional sense, namely issues of personal characteristics defined in part by skin tone over which people have little choice. African refers to the cultures that have traditionally called that continent home. Black and African are not interchangeable, though they are related.

Arguably two of the most important decisions in terms of character creation for most RPG systems are class, or the stand in for class depending on the system, and race. Game books frequently use the term race in incorrectly as elves, lizard people and humans are different species… or at least they should be, given their physiological differences. The physiological differences between a black man and a white man, assuming they are of similar body size, age and general health level, are largely cosmetic. The differences between a male human and a male elf, even assuming similar body size and general level of health, are profound.

Yes, I did just employ scientific terminology when I discussed RPG mechanics and I know that means God killed a Cat Girl. We can only hope it was an ugly cat girl.

In any event, the standard player character races include humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and sometimes half-orcs. Most fantasy RPGs includes these races or close analogs. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and friends developed these races for D&D to reflect the same races in traditional legends, folklore and fiction. Their early efforts also sought to provide balance in terms of game mechanics. While establishing mechanical differences between elves and humans makes sense, attempting to establish mechanical differences between whites and blacks (or any humans not augmented by magic or some similar forces) would be bewilderingly stupid. Fortunately, the game never went that route.

Nothing in any of this precluded including black characters or African themed settings in the game over the years.

In Chris Van Dyke essay on the subject, he states that of…

“…the roughly 100 illustrations that depict adventurers in the 1st Edition Player Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1978), there are NO non-white adventurers. In the over 100 illustrations of adventurer’s in the 2nd Edition Player Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1989), there are NO non-white adventurers.”
That is a recording of Van Dyke by the way – for some reason he always sounds like he’s putting on a bad southern accent.

Van Dyke writes;
“How are different human ethnic groups – black, white, Asian, Latino – depicted in the world of D&D? In a word, they aren’t, and their presence is felt strongly through their near total exclusion.
Van Dyke further asserts that of 80+ illustrations spread over the core books of third edition, a single black woman and no black men appeared. My study of 4E shows the only black character to be the duke or lord depicted in the art of the DMG. These numbers include images of elves, dwarves, gnomes and halflings that art depicts as quite white even when the text frequently described them as brown.

In context, the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual literally provide the core of D&D and in many ways a cornerstone to the RPG hobby itself as pretty much all other RPGs are created as a reaction to D&D. The examples listed above do not include supplement D&D books, accessories, modules, campaign world materials or products for other systems or from other companies. The appearance of blacks in those books highlights their absence in the core books. When the other books take their own path, the description of the differences always comes across as a discussion of culpability, as something requiring explanation and apology.

The core books have shown more lizard people than black people. It is a pity then, that being fictional, lizard people cannot participate more in the RPG hobby.

Some of the more popular and problematic “races,” to use the term the way the books do, include the half-orcs and the drow.

Half-orcs were a player race in first edition, dropped out in second edition and reappeared in 3E, 3.5 and are currently iffy as a basic player race in 4E. The 3E description of half-orcs reads that they “prefer simple pleasures: feasting, singing, wrestling and wild dancing. They have no interest in refined pursuits such as high art and philosophy.”

Van Dyke asserts this description sounds a “lot like a 19th century anthropologist describing an African tribe.” Perhaps, but to me it sounds like an apt description of rednecks. For that matter, what would the reaction be to depicting orcs as hill billies? How far are they from that description now, upon examination? Consider the facts, they are clannish, illiterate, violent, live in desolate mountains where normal people do not, get drunk a lot, like “feasting, singing, wrestling and wild dancing” and “have no interest in refined pursuits such as high art and philosophy.” They also do not like it when people from the city intrude into their territories. Kind of sounds like those motherfuckers from Deliverance. Speaking of that movie, just imagine an orc telling an elf “he’s got a real purdy mouth” or playing that movie’s banjo theme.

How did you react to that comparison, to making orcs a bunch of green-neck stand-ins for violent white trash?

The drow are also problematic. However, they are inhuman and are do not actually possess any black human physical characteristic or African cultural motifs. Specifically, black humans are usually some shade of brown and drow are the color of coal dust, live underground and think giant spiders are awesome. So they get lumped in with other distinctly non-human groups, like beholders, fomori, mimes and so forth.

In any event, white is the default depiction of standard player races in the core of D&D and throughout a great deal of RPGs the monsters are… not white. Steve Sumner asserts in his essay on this subject that a D&D game could become a proxy race war, with a group of player characters filling the shoes of, at best, the noble white power crusaders seeking to extinguish filthy mongrel races. At worst, a D&D session turns into Blood Meridian, the RPG.

Van Dyke writes:
“Of course its ‘just a game,’ but most of our forms of entertainment, while being ‘harmless’ and ‘just fun’ can say very important things about who we are and what values we espouse.”
Perhaps this is one reason homosexuality is coming out of the closet these days – it does not want to be stuck in the same tiny room as drooling genocidal fantasy.

Yes, I did just say that – what are you gonna do about it?


Of the black character that are in gaming, who are they and where they? Where is the African material?

White Wolf Publishing, the producers of the World of Darkness, broke ground in the early 1990s in many ways, including placing the image of Dante, a black male, on the cover of their Mage book. Dante was a William Gibson-esque character developed by Travis Williams, an early employee of White Wolf and himself a black man. Williams has since gone on to work as a Senior Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment America. Previously 3E D&D offered Ember, a black female human, as the iconic monk character. Piazo has the black female paladin Seelah. Roy Greenhilt from Rich Burlew’s on-line comic Order of the Stick is worth mentioning because while that is a comic, rather than an RPG, it directly relates to D&D.

However, character’s like Acererak from Tomb of Horrors do not count as they started a white boys trying to act all getto and things got out of hand in terms of them tricking out their crib and getting the bling bling all up in their grill. Just think about how awesome an episode of MTV Cribs would be if it were set in the ToH.

While Ember, Seelah, Roy and Dante are black, none of them is particularly African. Art does not depict these characters as wearing traditional African tribal garb or using African weapons. In terms of Dante, the character came from a dark and ugly fantasy version of contemporary America. Ember, Seelah and Roy are depicted wearing usual D&D costumes – for example, Seelah appears wearing full plate armor. These three use European style swords or staffs as those weapons as depicted in the core D&D books. Dante used magic or contemporary weapons.

The point to this is a fantasy Africa and the cultural baggage of centuries of racial conflict and exploitation are not prerequisites for the appearance of black characters. Which is not to say those issues should be dismissed, just that they are not required. If the trappings of African culture are not a necessity for depicting a black character, then the depiction of a black character arguably becomes easier. Yet the depiction of black characters is still rare.

One of the few distinctly African settings is Nyambe, which started as a labor of love and persistent internet effort by Chris Dolunt before it was picked up for a limited run by Atlas Games, where it is still available.

However, while the mechanic system 3.5 D&D, a third party publisher released Nyambe. To date there is no official supported products or line to have a distinctly African theme. TSR did publish settings with distinctly Meso-American, Arabic and Oriental themes. While your mileage may vary in terms of the quality and usefulness of those products, it is still worth noting these existed.

White Wolf’s World of Darkness did provide black characters and African themed materials. For one there was the NPC Dante. For another, the setting and company being what they were, room was made at the proverbial table in Mage game line for a class of shaman mages who were often black and/or African, in Wraith – the game for ghosts – the continent of Africa had its own underworld kingdom and black characters frequently appeared in all the books, especially the Werewolf and Vampire game lines. Some of the most noteworthy and powerful vampires were black NPCs. The flip side of that issue is the fact the Setite vampires, consider evil bastards vampires even by other evil bastard vampires, were usually depicted as black and the Mage class of shaman wizards lumped all of Africa together with the indigenous tribes of North and South America and Australia as a single cohesive cultural entity. Werewolf books described Africa as home to many changing breeds, or shape shifting animals aside from werewolves, such as were-lions and were-hyenas. Lastly, before the original World of Darkness wrapped up, White Wolf released Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom, an interesting interpretation of the game’s vampires through an African lens.

Palladium also detailed the African continent for its Rift game line, though it is as mad as any other Palladium Rift’s product. The small third party company New Breed published “Dark Continent: Adventure & Exploration in Darkest Africa,” which to judge from the positive reviews was a better game than the name indicates. Unfortunately, it is out of print.

Black characters and African setting material do appear in RPGs. However, they are more likely to appear as the material gains distance from the core works of D&D and even the core of the games from other companies, where they rarely even rise to the level of tokenism.


Related to those facts, how many black people do you see at your local gaming shop? How often do they make an appearance and/or a purchase? Why are there not more of them participating in the hobby?

Recent U.S. Census reports states blacks constitute a better than 12% of the population. Further, they will have purchasing power exceeding $1 trillion by 2012, meaning the consumer power of this market demographic is already considerable and is growing.

If RPGs are a business – and if you doubt that fact, go discuss the issue with whomever runs your local shop – then why are RPGS not marketed better to a significant portion of the population with a growing purchasing power? There are not as many blacks participating as there could be and the relative lack of them probably relates to the relative lack of black characters, black artists and black writers.

How many black artists, writers or developers can you name active in the business today or in the past? The only name that comes to my mind is that of the aforementioned Travis Williams – it has been some time since I read his material, but I recall enjoying it and it being well thought out and well written. William’s contributions to RPGs occurred primarily in the 1990s, before he moved professionally to video game development.

In terms of white creators, Monte Cook, one of the living patron saints of D&D and the creator of the Arcana Evolved material, made an observation about gaming art;
“When I worked at TSR, there was always basically a truism in cover art--the central figure had to be a white male. Most of us actually helping to create the cover art, either by conceiving it or actually creating it, hated that kind of outlook, but the powers that be believed that our audience was entirely white males and they needed someone that they could identify with on the cover. This was absurd for two reasons:
“1. You're talking about a game where you pretend to be elves, halflings, or other things that are different from you, is it so hard to believe that the people who engage in this hobby might be able to see beyond themselves?
“2. It's not only incorrect to assume that the audience is all white males, but it just makes the issue worse when the artwork only fixates on white males. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy, in other words.”
However practical this marketing decision may appear, it is not popular with the creators. Related to this are the fact subversive elements always creep into to material in a number of unexpected ways. In this case, D&D iconic character Redgar began appearing dead, dying or in immanent peril because the artists and writers disliked the character and his bland honkey status, or at least so says Cook;
“Regdar intruded his way into 3E, empowered by marketing and sales people… Not only was Regdar on the scene, he was in the spotlight. This was the character that would be on the cardboard standees and other promotional items, and would usually take center stage in the covers… Now, to his credit, the initial Regdar artist, Todd Lockwood, made Regdar's ethnicity kind of vague… It's only in later artwork that Regdar seems to be pretty clearly the white male fighter we tried to avoid. And to the credit of a number of people--artists, art directors, designers and editors alike--our disdain for Regdar made its way into a lot of art. If you look closely, Regdar is getting thrashed on most of the early pieces he shows up in.”
Cook also says;
“We already knew that unless you specified non-white, non-male, that's what you would get from most artists. In other words, if I asked for a drawing of a warrior, I'd get a white guy unless I specifically asked for something else. And I'm not trying to be harsh toward any artists--it's just the stereotypes of the genre that we need to loosen.”
The appearance of black characters in RPGs is something I note because of it rarity and it is not something I find to be off putting. Personally, I am far more put off from games and game shops by the appearance of a foul smelling neck beard who, when he goes off about something trivial related to geek culture, seems to be vomiting a torrent of razorblades. You know the type.


Why are there not more black people involved in the RPG hobby?

If racism, no matter how casual, is called out for making an appearance in other media, then why not when it occurs RPGs?

If the art, graphic design, composition and game mechanics have developed in RPGs over the last 30 years, why not racial presentation?

Quoting Van Dyke again, “…I can’t imagine that Gygax or the other creators over the years have had any implicit, racist message they wished to get across…”

However, many RPGs remain guilty of tacit racism because they fell into a trap of reinforcing an unthinking Anglo-centric view of the world. The issue has improved since D&D appeared in the 70s, as time has passed and new games have appeared on the scene. Currently, the problem largely seems to be an issue of not trying hard enough to communicate and offer the opportunity for inclusion.

When it comes to interacting with others, we should have more self-control than a four year old. This includes reactions to discussions of the appearance, or lack thereof, of black characters in RPGs.

Communication, business, creating art and game composition, like most endeavors, require work, commitment and extra effort. If your game material does not include minority groups, you probably need to try harder than you are right now.

Over the last 30 some odd years, blacks have made considerable headway into many areas, sports to business to science to politics and so forth. The country, the economy and more besides are better for their inclusion and blacks have brought much to the proverbial game. Unfortunately, their appearance in RPGs is lagging behind others areas of society.

The appearance of more blacks on the books and in the stores will be the result of extra effort. Humanity being what it is the reaction to attempt to include blacks will be resentment or empty promises of doing better while the reality will be a sullen satisfaction with the status quo. Sullen satisfaction with the status quo will not actually produce more of the same, except where “the same” is a sad and slow decay. Such as state of affairs will also further typify the hobby as something distasteful.


Risus Monkey said...

On of my favorite gaming supplements ever is C. J Carella's Gurps Voodoo. It's a fabulous modern horror setting with my favorite magic system ever developed for an RPG. The focus is (obviously) on African, Afro-Carribean, and African-American characters with the white establishment cast largely in the role of villains (or at least out-of-touch dupes of cosmic horrors).

Jedediah said...

Excellent post. I never thought about this much, until now. I have that nagging suspicion that I won't be able to come up with any examples of black/non-white NPCs or artworks, even though I play at least two games that should have some (Deadlands, a Western game, and 7th Sea, which includes a Carribean setting). I'll take a look and let you know if I find anything.

The Grumpy Celt said...

Risus: I missed that book in my research. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. GURPS is a resource I too often overlook.

Jedediah: Thank you for your comments. I've never played the games you've listed, though I am (only a little) surprised by the absence of blacks in art for 7ths Sea.

Heder said...

Nice post! You just forgot to mention Mike Pondsmith, the author of Castle Falkenstein and Cyberpunk 2020... :)

Pieter - said...

Thanks for this post - yeah this comment is two years after the offing - but the content is still relevant and the message is one not heard often enough.

Post a Comment