Updated: Sep 30, 2022
In my last post, I described how role-playing games can evoke the kind of emotionally intense engagement that inspires both life-long learning and deep personal connections. As a result, it can sometimes become a past-time that people deeply value and consider to be a part of their identities, much like football or live music.
Dungeons and Dragons, for better or worse, is the entry experience for most new gamers. For a new generation, it’s been promoted in media ranging from older shows like Freaks and Geeks to Stranger Things and even kid shows like The Amazing World of Gumball. I was surprised when, nearly 10 years ago, students in my high school classroom noticed my gaming dice and excitedly asked me “will you teach us to play D&D?”
All of which means that many people have a deep and abiding connection with the game, stemming from a combination of the hold it has on the popular imagination and the deep, personally rewarding experiences they and those close to them have had in a D&D game.
I don’t propose to invalidate any of those experiences. Rather, I’d like to examine, as a game designer and educator, how the game is built, and to make an argument that while D&D might be great fun for adults, it leaves a bit to be desired as an introductory role-playing game for kids.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS IS ABOUT COMBAT
One part of role-playing games that is often up to debate is how much the mechanics – that is, how the system guides play – actually matter. For beginning players, however, the first compelling game can shape the expectations they have about role-playing – what it’s about, how to engage with it, and how to succeed at it.
Dungeons and Dragons was based on war-games, and emerged as a way to play smaller battles between just a few heroic figures instead of massive conflicts which might take up more space and time. Though it has evolved quite a bit since then, the abilities which players select and develop for their characters are still, for the most part, centered on violence: how hard they can hit, how much damage they can resist, and spells and gear to help them dominate in a fight.
Further, the more you “win” by killing your enemies, the more magical treasure, gold, and personal power you accumulate. Though D&D does have an optional “milestone” leveling mechanic, a fundamental structure in the game is the amount of “experience” a kill is worth – in effect, nearly every living thing comes with a bounty attached that can be won by defeating them.
Most Dungeons and Dragons adventures center around an escalating series of “encounters” with “evil” creatures, who the players are expected to defeat, and often kill. Though one can try to “soften” violence, having enemies surrender, flee, or repent, it still suggests that attacking someone is an effective way of resolving a problem.
I have seen this push kids to default to violence as a first reaction to any problem, and to relish “killing the bad guys” as fun, exciting, and satisfying.
This is problematic in its implications, and contrary to my values as an educator and parent.
RACISM IN DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
The concept of “bad guys” is another point against Dungeons and Dragons as a game for kids. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “evil” orcs and goblins thanks toTolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and his fantasy structured Dungeons and Dragons and its approach to “monsters.” While you might love the trilogy, there’s definitely evidence of racism in the labeling of “monsters” and “evil men” in Tolkien’s work, and it bleeds into D&D in a direct form: alignment.
The mechanical concept of “alignment” is a marker in the game rules that tells the reader a creature’s approach to others. It is no mistake that a number of “races” (D&D’s word, not mine) in the books, particularly orcs and goblins, are labeled as “Evil”– not as individuals, but as a group, due to heredity and culture. In other words, the game encourages a “good race”/“bad race” mindset, teaching kids that they can identify enemies and feel justified attacking them without bothering to interact first. It even labels these “green-skinned” people as “savage” and “barbaric,” with penalties to their “Intelligence” and bonuses to “Strength.”
The parallel to racist stereotypes of Black and indigenous cultures is unavoidable, and there's evidence it's driven people of color away from the hobby. When placed into the Euro-centric art style of Dungeons and Dragons, in which “good” races, such as elves, halflings, humans, and dwarves are inevitably portrayed with white skin, the problem becomes even more painfully apparent.
Though the franchise has made some moves to begin resolving what is clearly a serious issue, it remains a lingering stain on the game that is difficult to erase, and pervades most published adventures (The Lost Mine of Phandelver, an adventure offered to many kids by Outschool GMs, has students attack a “lair” of “evil” goblins). Added to a structure which makes combat the emotionally engaging “win” experience, and you’ll understand why I began developing alternatives.
HOW YOU PLAY MATTERS
So if you’re a dedicated D&D enthusiast who loves playing with kids and is willing and able to address these issues at your table, I salute you. If you’re new to role-playing games and need a little help, the good news is there are games and designers working towards a less violent, more equitable kind of game.
My approach has been to design so that violence is impossible – you can make your character act aggressively, but there’s no value or move in the system that explicitly allows you to "attack." There are, however, moves for connecting with others, building relationships, persuasion, research, and coming up with clever plans – because that’s the way I encourage my students to interact with each other and the world.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Want to sign a student up? Check for open classes, or reach out to find your own time!
If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.
If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!