Rolling the dice on race in Dungeons & Dragons : Code Switch Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most popular tabletop roleplaying games of all time. But it has also helped cement some ideas about how we create and define race in fantasy — and in the tangible world. We take a deep dive into that game, and what we find about racial stereotypes and colonialist supremacy is illuminating.

Rolling the dice on race in Dungeons & Dragons

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Chicago, what's good? We have missed y'all, but allow us to rectify that. So we are coming your way for our very first live show since the pandemic shut everything down. So we have some very special guests, including a special musical guest. So come rock with us November 2 at the Studebaker Theater. Tell your mama. Tell your friends. Tell your people. They and you can get tickets at nprpresents.org. We'll see y'all soon.

And in the meantime, let us take you to a different city, a mythical one in a different world. CODE SWITCH's producer Jess Kung is here to guide us.

JESS KUNG, BYLINE: OK, Gene, are you ready?

DEMBY: Oh, for sure. Let's do it, Jess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUNG: In a world filled with magic and mystery, someone looking for adventure might find themselves passing through the once prosperous city of Phlan, deep in the harsh northern frontier. To navigate the unruly city, those adventurers might head to the tavern to grab a drink or a hot meal and possibly some work, as long as they can keep it under the table. In these lands, if you look tough enough, the work just seeks you out.

(CROSSTALK)

KUNG: Tonight, the drinks and gossip are already flowing.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah. A little mead, a little Casamigos at the medieval watering hole.

KUNG: An older man, a gnome, enters. His clothes are a little patchwork, and he grips a floppy hat tightly in his hands. His head is held high, though, sizing up the patrons in the room with purpose. He spots a odd trio - an elf with a glorious, shimmering cape, a big guy with glittering golden scales and a very creepy looking bug-eyed human. But they look competent enough, so he approaches.

Are you adventurers? My little girl's in terrible trouble. Will you hear my story? I can pay.

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: What do we say? Yes? Yes.

DEMBY: What's wrong with your girl?

DEVARAJAN: How much money do you have?

L A JOHNSON, BYLINE: Is she hot?

DEVARAJAN: Is she hot? (Laughter).

KUNG: The gnome hesitates. Maybe there's still a better option than these three clowns. He scans the room again. There's a tough-looking dwarf doing a keg stand, a giant woman picking her nose with a knife and a mean-looking horned man arguing with a book? OK, this trio will have to do. And so he lays out his ask. There's an order of knights that keep the law in Phlan, though they're cruel and corrupt. The gnome's daughter has been getting in trouble with them more and more. She was arrested last night - not unprecedented, but this time, she isn't in the castle jail as usual. This time, she's nowhere to be found. His task for the three in the tavern is to find her and, hopefully, to bring her home. The group weighs the task at hand, and each responds.

JOHNSON: Well, I'm a little drunk and kind of bored. So I say yeah.

DEVARAJAN: I'm kind of broke. So I'd say yeah.

DEMBY: And I am compelled by valor and my sense of duty to say yeah.

KUNG: And so their quest begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Rest assured, y'all, you are not tripping. You are actually listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

KUNG: And I'm Jess Kung.

DEMBY: They're one of CODE SWITCH's producers. You've probably heard their name in the credits. And as I mentioned earlier, this week, we're going on a little adventure. Well, it's an adventure in which a bunch of us at CODE SWITCH were, like, in our own homes, talking on Zoom, eating takeout because we were playing Dungeons & Dragons - some of us, like myself, for the very first time. And, Jess, you were our guide on that quest. You were playing dungeon master.

KUNG: Yeah. And I will also be your guide on this episode.

DEMBY: Yes, because D&D, that's your bailiwick. This is your world.

KUNG: I guess, 'cause - OK, there's, like, a whole universe of role-playing games out there. But for most people, Dungeons & Dragons might as well be the center. The game's been around for about half a century, and its publisher made over $1 billion last year.

DEMBY: That's $1 billion with a B on Dungeons & Dragons. Bananas. Bananas.

KUNG: It's not just Dungeons & Dragons. Like, they publish other games - notably, Magic: The Gathering. But D&D is definitely one of its pillars. In 2020, they had estimated that over 50 million people have played D&D.

DEMBY: Damn. So Dungeons & Dragons is basically, like, the NFL of tabletop role-playing games.

KUNG: I'll have to take your word for it.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KUNG: But yeah, it is the 800-pound dragon in the room. And beyond sales, it has this huge sphere of influence in game design, in the fantasy genre and also just as, like, a cultural touchstone for a specific kind of '80s nerdiness - like, you know, like "Stranger Things."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")

FINN WOLFHARD: (As Mike Wheeler) The Demogorgon. Will, your action.

NOAH SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) I don't know.

CALEB MCLAUGHLIN: (As Lucas Sinclair) Fireball him.

SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) But I'd have to roll a 13 or higher...

KUNG: There's even a Hollywood blockbuster coming out next year based on it with, like, big-name actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES")

CHRIS PINE: (As Edgin) We didn't mean to unleash the greatest evil the world has ever known. But we're going to fix it.

DEMBY: OK. OK. So I get that D&D is a big deal. But, Jess, this is CODE SWITCH, so you're going to have to tell us why we are going on this wild ride through the magical realm of Phlan.

KUNG: Well, Dungeons & Dragons is loaded with rules about how its alternate reality works, and in those rules are systems that create and reinforce ideas about race, spelled out super clearly.

DEMBY: So I definitely noticed some of the race stuff coming up when we were playing the game. So can you walk us through what was going on there?

KUNG: Well, if you want to start playing D&D, you need a rulebook. These rules outline how you play and the way this fantasy world works. And in D&D, those rules and lore range from fun and epic to what even the people who make the game have acknowledged are, like, at minimum, racially insensitive...

DEMBY: OK.

KUNG: ...Or that, you know, still reflect the biases of the white men who created it 50 years ago.

DEMBY: OK. OK. But in this case, Jess, we were actually playing the game and making our own decisions in response to the scenario that you gave us. You were guiding us through it. So I'm kind of sure that we don't have those attitudes. Like, we don't have those biases. So doesn't that change stuff?

KUNG: Yeah, totally. The game is kind of just a framework, and every table is a group with their own dynamics and sensitivities and interests. But they're also part of this, like, wider culture and community of people who like nerdy hobbies. And I don't know. That culture has been kind of dominated by a real particular kind of white guy.

DEMBY: Oh, you mean, like, the "Rick And Morty" gang.

KUNG: (Laughter) I mean, before all that, we should get into how the game works.

DEMBY: OK, listeners, so I can tell you from my one time playing this game, one of the first things you have to do when you're playing D&D is you have to, like, choose your character. But this is not Monopoly, like, where you play as the top hat or the wheelbarrow or the car. I always want to be the car.

KUNG: For me, it's the thimble.

DEMBY: In D&D, you have this whole, like, Cheesecake Factory menu situation, like, where you can just pull all of these character options that the game gives you to build this person that you're pretending to play as and that you have to give a whole backstory and skills to.

So let's get back to our adventure. For the purposes of this game. I'm not Gene Demby, podcast host and beleaguered Sixers fan. No, no. Today I'm Thicki Waters (ph), which means I'm a dragonborn paladin. I came up from the mud. I like to hang around with the common folks 'cause those are my people. That's where I grew up.

So basically, I'm like a big humanoid creature with a dragon's face, with scaly skin. Oh, and I'm gold. I'm 6' 3". I'm 250 pounds. People are fearful of me, but they needn't be 'cause I'm on the side of the people, baby.

And those of y'all who are regular CODE SWITCH listeners might recognize the voice of one of my compatriots on this adventure.

DEVARAJAN: My name is Casper (ph). I am a human monk, and I'm kind of tortured by old memories. I'm really creepy.

DEMBY: Casper is Kumari Devarajan, one of our producers here on CODE SWITCH.

DEVARAJAN: I kind of look like Smeagol...

(LAUGHTER)

DEVARAJAN: ...But, like, just, like, a little larger and, like, a full head of hair - like, hotter than Smeagol, obviously.

DEMBY: And rounding out our little party is LA Johnson. She's CODE SWITCH's art director. But in this game, she's a wood elf.

JOHNSON: My name is Volanthe (ph). I am 200 years old, and I've had a lot of loves in my life. And I have a specific weakness for humans. I just - I find them endearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Essentially, when we're playing this game, we're all writing or improvising a story together, like, in character. So we got the yoked dragon dude. We got hot Smeagol. We have the horny elf. And Jess' job, as the dungeon master, is to keep this unruly story on the rails.

KUNG: Yeah, I'm doing things like narrating the settings and scenes and voicing the characters you meet. I'm kind of playing God.

DEMBY: It's like a normal Tuesday for you then.

KUNG: Yes, me and my complexes. But, like, I am in a position that kind of has a lot of power. I lay out the scenario and environment for you and your compatriots, and I move the story along by introducing new challenges and characters, like your search for this troubled gnome girl.

The party finds themselves guided to the sewer path to the secret prison, and it's there that they're greeted by their first challenge - a closed door.

DEMBY: Should I knock? Or I guess we don't knock at a prison.

DEVARAJAN: Am I strong enough to break the lock?

DEMBY: We also don't want to, like, alert anyone to our presence, right? So...

DEVARAJAN: That's true. We're being sneaky.

JOHNSON: Yeah. We want to catch them by surprise.

DEVARAJAN: Room service - that's what we should say.

KUNG: The party decides to scope it out first. Someone - well, Volanthe the wood elf, is going to press an ear against the door and try and listen through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: As dungeon master, Jess, you're, like, part narrator, but also you're part referee. We need a referee here because, you know, as I learn, there are so many rules.

KUNG: So many rules.

DEMBY: And you got those weird-ass dice.

KUNG: Yeah, yeah. Even people who don't know D&D probably know about the dice. And actually, these dice are going to be our main entry point to the systems about race that we're unpacking.

DEMBY: OK. Say more.

KUNG: Well, there are seven different dice, all with different numbers of sides, but we're going to mostly focus on the most used one, the D20.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE ROLLING)

DEMBY: That thing is kind of wild.

KUNG: And we're unlocking the next levels of the game now.

DEMBY: OK.

KUNG: When Volanthe pressed her ear up against that door, she had to roll the dice to figure out how much info she could pick up through the wood.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, so the thing you really need to know here is that if you want to do a lot of stuff, like, action-y stuff in the game, you got to roll these dice. So let's say you roll the dice, and you get a one.

DEVARAJAN: Oh, my God. These dice are cursed.

KUNG: Critical fail - the thing you want to do is going to go badly in probably the worst way possible.

DEMBY: But let's say you roll a 20, which is the highest score.

Oh, my God.

Then your character knocked that action - whatever it was that you wanted to do - out of the park.

KUNG: And so Volanthe wanted to listen in to whatever was happening on the other side of the door.

JOHNSON: And I got 17.

KUNG: That's a pretty good roll. So that means Volanthe can hear quite a bit from the other side. It sounds like there is a bunch of people in there, some whispers and babbling and maybe another set of voices bickering.

DEVARAJAN: So they're off guard. They don't know what's up.

KUNG: With this info, Casper wants to bust down the door. And so they roll and get a tremendous 18. And that means...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

KUNG: ...The door pops open like a can. And the three of you see what look like prison cells and a doorway ahead. And it sounds like there are people preparing to come out and meet you with weapons probably.

JOHNSON: So we need to act fast.

DEMBY: Way to go, Casper.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

KUNG: Over about 30 real-world minutes, we figure out how to do battle in this game.

Everybody roll for initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE ROLLING)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, so just imagine we're swinging swords and axes - you know what I mean? - and dodging and pairing attacks. And there's knights in full body armor.

DEVARAJAN: OK, it seems like my only move in this world is just attack.

KUNG: And the whole scene ends with a sweeping breath of fire from Thicki Waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

KUNG: Yes. So imagine that.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KUNG: But in reality, the battle is a lot of, like, dice rolls and questions.

DEMBY: I got a two.

JOHNSON: I got five.

DEVARAJAN: A three.

KUNG: That's including your bonus?

DEVARAJAN: No, I got a four with the bonus.

DEMBY: Right. And we also have to do some math because the number we roll on the dice isn't the only number that matters here in the game.

KUNG: Exactly. Each character is built out of traits and skills that affect their strengths by literally adding or subtracting numbers from your rolls. Every character is built out of six basic stats - that is, strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma.

DEMBY: Nice. Good job (laughter).

KUNG: So one reason Volanthe aced that perception check earlier is because she had advantages. She could add four to whatever she rolled. Actually, all wood elves have bonuses when they roll perception, thanks to their keen senses and wood elf wisdom. In the game, these are racial traits.

DEMBY: Uh-oh. So my janky race science detector is going off real, real loud right now.

KUNG: What does that sound like?

DEMBY: Beep, beep, beep. Hey, man. That's racist.

KUNG: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I mean, because the point of, you know, alarms is that they ain't subtle, right? (Laughter).

KUNG: I mean, it's not a coincidence. Literally, one of the most prominent founding designers of Dungeons & Dragons, like, the guy who's considered the father of role-playing games, was a self-described biological determinist.

DEMBY: Wait. What?

KUNG: Yeah. So his name was Gary Gygax, and he was constantly sharing his opinions about the game. And among them were things like, girls don't enjoy games as much as boys because male and female brains are unquestionably different.

DEMBY: Oh, so he was one of those?

KUNG: Yeah. Biological essentialism is the belief that people's abilities are inherited, that your skills are kind of, like, baked into your body.

DEMBY: Right.

KUNG: And we can see this thinking in how the game treats race. And again, what it means to be a wood elf or a dragonborn or even a human is written into the D&D manual in some ways that can be kind of unfortunate.

DEMBY: And we're going to get into those unfortunate ways after the break...

AARON TRAMMELL: I don't think I realized how much human there was very code for white.

DEMBY: ...And what actual human players are bringing to the table top. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

KUNG: Jess.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And we're playing Dungeons & Dragons, like some big, old nerds. And before the break, we were talking about how some, let's say, less-than-great ideas about race are built into the texts and mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons.

KUNG: Yeah. So the characters in the game - dragonborn, gnomes - have different innate numerical advantages assigned to them from the get-go.

DEMBY: Right.

KUNG: And those traits are based on their race. That's basically how it's gone for most of the game's 50 years of existence.

DEVARAJAN: Half-elves combine what some say are the best qualities...

DEMBY: Half-orcs, grayish pigmentation, sloping forehead...

JOHNSON: Elves are a magical people of otherworldly grace...

KUNG: Tieflings are like...

DEMBY: Dragonborns look very much like dragon, standing erect in humanoid form.

KUNG: ...Descended from devils.

DEVARAJAN: Plus two charisma, plus one to two other ability scores - that doesn't mean anything to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUNG: Listen; I know there are going to be fantasy pedants out here with bad-faith readings. Like, the way they're using the word race here isn't, like, real-world human social constructs. It's just an escapist fantasy game. Chill out. And, like, sure, in this setting, races have really distinct biological differences that make them more like different species. And yes, they are imaginary.

DEMBY: I mean, yeah. But, like, in real-life janky race science, people used to really think of people of different races as basically different species.

KUNG: Yeah. And then, in practice, the races in this game are all, like, people. Like, humans, gnomes, dwarves - they have cultural interactions, learn each other's languages and, really tellingly, have children with each other.

DEMBY: And on top of that, there's definitely some like real-world racial coding going on with the game's pretend races, you know?

KUNG: Yeah, until very recently, D&D manuals threw around words like exotic and uncivilized and alcoholic to describe certain cultures.

DEMBY: Yikes. Not alcoholic - oh, that seems very specific.

KUNG: And for a long time, there were races designed to be evil, specifically orcs and drow elves.

DEMBY: Like, just straight-up inherently evil?

KUNG: Yeah. So the classic example that's, like, been in contention for decades are drow elves.

DEMBY: OK.

KUNG: They're this cruel, edgy culture who live underground and love, like, torture and stuff.

DEMBY: OK.

KUNG: They're one of the only races who are, by default, dark-skinned, like literally black or dark gray or purple.

DEMBY: So, like, some real, like, biblical fundamentalist, mark-of-Cain-type colorism. Yikes.

KUNG: And evil orcs were this, like, you know, default disposable enemy. They're consistently described as savage, less civilized, filled with an uncontrollable urge to destroy things.

DEMBY: Oh, man. It's like - it's giving Manifest Destiny. It's giving scramble for Africa. Ugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUNG: And like how evil races come about in the real world, the designation is functionally a pass to have enemies you don't need to feel bad about killing.

DEMBY: Right. So in the game, the orcs and evil races are like the goombas in Mario Bros., like, just mindless grunts that you stomp on and you merc (ph) as you go on your adventures. But like in real life, we go through these cycles of, like, fictional bad guys as cannon fodder in our popular culture. Like, it's usually some real-world other that exists to be squashed by the good guys. It was the Japanese during World War II, Native Americans in Westerns. You had Soviets during the whole Cold War. It's a kind of, like, dehumanization that happens whenever countries in real life ramp up for war.

KUNG: Yeah. I mean, speaking of war, that's also baked into the origins of Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax, the biological determinist, and the other creators of D&D started in the historical war gaming scene. Like, they were loading up tables with miniature figurines and simulating real-world battles.

TRAMMELL: You don't just play a war game because it's fun, but you also play a war game 'cause it authentically lets you peer into a piece of history.

KUNG: This is Aaron Trammell. Aaron's an assistant professor at UC Irvine, and he edits a scholarly journal about, quote, "analog games" like D&D. He's spent years studying the interplay between tabletop games and race. Aaron links the war gamer's idea of historical accuracy to this adherence to all-white histories.

TRAMMELL: They value things that are what they see as authentic. This becomes one of the big excuses of the fantasy war gaming community to not add more inclusive rules.

KUNG: Aaron says even real-world medieval Europe had more racial complexity than people tend to imagine it. But in fantasy games like D&D, we aren't imagining real-world medieval Europe.

DEMBY: Yeah, this kind of reminds me of the controversies around the new "Game Of Thrones" show and the new "Lord Of The Rings" show, like, you know, these giant high fantasy intellectual properties. And after the first episodes of each of these shows aired, there was all this drama around people who were upset that there were brown people in, like, Middle Earth or in Westeros. Like, oh, no, it's more woke propaganda being shoved down our throats.

KUNG: And they were, like, saying it wasn't historically accurate.

DEMBY: Like, in shows full of dragons and magic (laughter).

KUNG: Ugh. OK, so that's the implications of having bad-guy races. You know, for most of the game's history, the starting ruleset did not provide ways to play as an orc, presumably because they were too evil. But you could make your hero a half-orc.

DEVARAJAN: I'm gravitating toward the half things because of the halfness.

DEMBY: And just for reference, y'all, in real life, Kumari - or Casper in the game - has a Sri Lankan father and a white mother.

KUNG: And what we're hearing is some of the table chatter from when we made these characters together.

DEMBY: When they say half in this game, is it like the way people say half in real life, when they just say what the part that isn't white is? (Laughter).

KUNG: To really hammer this home, this assumption that the unstated half is human is basically exactly a way people talk about mixed-race identity in real life.

DEMBY: Right. Like, somebody is described as half-Japanese, and the implication there is the other half of them is, you know, regular or normal.

KUNG: Yeah. As we were playing, Kumari read out the racial traits for humans as described in the rules.

DEVARAJAN: (Reading) Humans are the most adaptable and ambitious people among the common races. Whatever drives them, humans are the innovators, the achievers and the pioneers of the worlds.

It seems like human is white because they're the pioneers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KUNG: Playing D&D with CODE SWITCH is amazing. So this conclusion that we kind of reached together at the table, I really wanted to run it past Aaron. Are humans the white people of Dungeons & Dragons?

TRAMMELL: I think they are. I definitely think they are. I'm mixed. I grew up half-white and Jewish and half-Black and spiritual. And growing up as a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons, I don't think I realized how much human there was very code for white.

KUNG: Aaron told me that, as a kid, he was drawn to playing human characters because, to an extent, he wanted to feel normal.

TRAMMELL: I really think I went to the identities that I felt I couldn't access in school. So there must have been part of me at that time that was trying to fit in, trying to be normal.

KUNG: And in Dungeons & Dragons, part of what made humans so normal is that they used to be, like, the statistical baseline. This is in older versions of the game, but if your character wasn't human, the numbers given to their traits and stats were defined, like, against the zero point of humans.

DEMBY: Right. So, I mean, I get the weirdness here, but that also kind of makes some sense - right? - because humans are real people, we have more of a sense of what an average human being can lift as opposed to, like, what an average orc or elf can.

KUNG: Yeah. But on top of that, in the game, humans could do anything, be anything. And all the other races had, like, restrictions on what jobs they could take...

DEMBY: Oh.

KUNG: ...Or they'd have specific racial bonuses and penalties that humans didn't. So, like, humans had this unique freedom of choice.

DEMBY: Yeah, like white people do.

KUNG: I'll say, a lot of the messy racial logic that we saw in our game is more of a shadow of how straight-up racist the game could be.

DEMBY: Yeah, seriously.

KUNG: There are all kinds of examples that we could pick - maybe cherry-pick out of D&D's huge archive of officially licensed materials. There was, like, a rule book in the '80s called "Oriental Adventures."

DEMBY: Not "Oriental Adventures." What?

KUNG: There was this culture of people called the vistani who were, like, a very thinly veiled Romani, like, stereotype. Earlier this summer, actually, Wizards of the Coast released and immediately had to apologize for a race of ex-slave monkey people...

DEMBY: Oh, no.

KUNG: ...With art that a lot of people said just looked like minstrel art.

DEMBY: Like, in 2022?

KUNG: Yeah. So, I don't know, despite these, like, really, really egregious examples, I mean, players at the table are the ones who decide how the game actually goes.

DEMBY: Right. OK.

KUNG: But - another but - is that you might have a really particular image of who's sitting around a D&D table, especially if you're going off pop culture. You have basement tables dominated by nerdy, suburban white boys.

STEVEN DASHIELL: I've been playing for nearly 30 years. And people are always shocked. There was always this sense of like, oh, well, you were probably the only African American playing the game. No, I wasn't.

DEMBY: Whose voice is that, Jess?

KUNG: This is Steven Dashiell.

DASHIELL: I'm a postdoctoral fellow at American University.

KUNG: Steven looks at how men interact when they play together, and that includes a lot of D&D tables. To illustrate, he told me a story about how he got into D&D.

DASHIELL: In a household with six other kids, Dungeons & Dragons was something that was particularly mine.

KUNG: It was the '80s, and Steven was a kid in eastern Maryland who got his own Dungeons & Dragons starter set. He studied these books for, like, a year and a half, all by himself, before he was able to find people to play it with. It was this group that met at the comic shop that had just opened up across town.

DASHIELL: They were older. Some of them had graduated from high school where I was in, like, the sixth or seventh grade. I just remember there were so many "Monty Python" jokes.

KUNG: Because Steven was, like, 12, his dad was his ride to the comic shop. And he remembers one day, his father got there to pick him up much earlier than planned, so he saw Steven in this backroom filled with mostly 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. They're, like, smoking and cursing and, you know, rolling weird dice and talking about magic. And Steven is, like, the youngest in the room and the only Black kid.

DEMBY: Oh, my God. I know his dad was hot.

DASHIELL: I turned around, and I almost fainted 'cause I was just like, oh, crap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: It was the '80s, and you had the whole satanic panic thing, and you had stranger-danger hysteria. So his dad probably thought it was, like, some weird, occult shenanigans out there.

KUNG: (Laughter) Yeah, his parents wanted him to throw out the D&D books, but they couldn't keep him away for long. So looking at this scene with his social scientist hat, Steven says being accepted at the D&D table meant understanding things like "Monty Python" references.

DASHIELL: I was an African American kid who grew up in the '80s. I had never even heard of "Monty Python."

KUNG: And if he admitted he didn't know what those dudes were talking about, it would just be a signal that he didn't belong.

DEMBY: Right. So those jokes were kind of a way to gatekeep around the table.

KUNG: Exactly. And that gatekeeping didn't just show up in reference to very specific jokes. In D&D, knowledge of the game itself helps keep the game exclusive.

DASHIELL: The game master makes a decision, and somebody points out, well, on Page 27 of the rulebook, it says you can't do that.

KUNG: It's called rules lawyering.

DEMBY: So it's like the well-actually brigade.

KUNG: Yes, exactly. And I know I'm, like, blowing everyone's minds that nerdy hobbies attract pedantic people, but...

DASHIELL: One of the arguments that I make in my research is that a lot of these knowledges and a lot of these ways that we expect people to speak, they're a lot easier for men than they are for women, and they are a lot easier for the dominant racial group than they are for other racial groups.

DEMBY: So this is how so many spaces work, Jess. Like, if you think about something like, I don't know, dressing professionally or behaving professionally, that seems like, you know, a neutral, objective thing. But that really means that you share and understand the right references and the right kind of humor or maybe that you have a certain kind of hair or body type that doesn't need, like, accommodations in order for you to do your job.

KUNG: Yeah. It's kind of bleak.

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DEMBY: OK Jess, what do we do with all this?

KUNG: (Laughter) I was afraid you'd ask. OK. So even though there's this stereotype of white guys dominating the game, I mean, people of all kinds have always been present in playing. And an exciting thing is, over the last 10 or so years, there's been a growing wave of D&D fans who want to see more and better representation. This wave is tied to the popularity of internet shows of people playing tabletop games. They're called actual plays.

DEMBY: So it's kind of like what we were doing.

KUNG: Kind of. But we, like, severely abridged our, like, three-hour game. These shows give you full sagas for hours and hours. They can feel like TV shows.

DEMBY: Interesting. So, OK, what makes representation here different from, say, I don't know, putting brown people in "The Lord Of The Rings" show?

KUNG: Well, when you play Dungeons & Dragons, everyone at the table is part of telling the story. So if we're comparing it to TV, players aren't just the cast; they're also the writers room. So I don't think the premise of actual plays inherently attracts, like, more diversity. But since they tend to be independent productions, the spotlight is way more accessible. And it's become a scene where you know you can find marginalized people taking control of genre fiction.

DEMBY: So do these shows affect anything about how people who are not, you know, recording the shows, how they actually play the game?

KUNG: I think so. Lots of people are inspired by these shows just in terms of seeing more creative, dramatic ways to play. They can also model inclusivity to the wider community. Like, all that, like, colonial stuff we talked about with, like, orcs, an actual play might demonstrate how to write that stuff out of the world so that you don't have to deal with that coding. Or they might confront those themes head-on.

DEMBY: OK. But that's all among players in the player community, right? Like, does that change anything about these rules that we've been talking about?

KUNG: Well, the people behind the game have been moving on this, too. In 2020, the publisher, Wizards of the Coast, rolled out a bunch of pledges that they would make the future of the game more inclusive.

DEMBY: OK.

KUNG: They've released various rules that got rid of things like racial traits in the current edition of the game. And this year, they started testing rules for the next iteration, which doesn't have inborn racial traits at all. Though there's still weird race stuff in there (laughter).

DEMBY: OK. But this hits on something that we talk about a lot, right? Like, if the source code of a thing, whatever that is, is so thoroughly racist, is there any kind of software update that can, like, actually undo that foundational jankiness? (ph) Like, if you move beyond tinkering at the edges of the thing to mitigate some of the really bad stuff, like, you might just break the thing altogether. Like, at what point do you remix the thing enough that it's not, like, Dungeons & Dragons anymore?

KUNG: I mean, the thing about games is that you can break the whole thing and tinker with the underlying systems and play things that aren't D&D. Some of the massive institutions that run our real lives - governments, economies - we can use games like this to play out what it's like to change them or exist outside of them completely. I mean, I don't know if you can tell, but I'm personally really interested in how rules and restrictions affect the kinds of stories you can tell in a game. And there are thousands of other tabletop role-playing games out there that show all kinds of mind-blowing game design. And it helps me peek outside of the forces that shape everything about, you know, real life.

DEMBY: Right. Like, if you had the space to imagine a world, like, why not start by imagining one without racism or colonialism or violence?

KUNG: Yeah. How is that harder to imagine than magic spells and dragons?

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DEMBY: Thicki Waters, Casper, Volanthe - their adventures in the land of Dungeons & Dragons may continue, but unfortunately, this episode will not because that's our show. You can follow CODE SWITCH on IG and Twitter @nprcodeswitch. I'm on Twitter @GeeDee215. If email is more your bag, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to our podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

KUNG: This episode was produced by me, Jess Kung, with help from Kumari Devarajan, Christina Cala, Summer Thomad and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. It was engineered by Josh Newell. It was edited by Gene, Christina, Leah Donnella, Dalia Mortada and Steve Drummond. In our game, I ran a module called "Defiance In Phlan."

DEMBY: And we'd be remiss if we did not shoutout the rest of the CODE SWITCH adventuring party - LA Johnson, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Karen Grigsby Bates and B.A. Parker. As for me, I'm Thicki Waters.

KUNG: I'm Jess Kung.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

KUNG: Bye.

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