Dungeons & Dragons made a big announcement over the weekend about future setting supplements. D&D senior director Nathan Stewart stated they wished to explore parts of the Forgotten Realms beyond the usual Euro-Fantasy tropes.
5th-ed. players will again play in the eastern realms of Kara-Tur, first published in 1st-ed.’s Oriental Adventures, to the southern reaches of Al-Qadim, a setting from the 2nd-ed. era. The goal is to expand fantasy to include Asian, African, and American mythologies and cultures.
As gaming and geekery continue to expand in representation and inclusion, this should be an essential step forward. Over the past 45 years, D&D has primarily focused on European fantasy and legends, so realms outside that norm would be a great addition to our games.
Unfortunately, this announcement brings with it no small amount of apprehension given Wizard of the Coast’s track record.
From the beginning, D&D’s non-European supplements have fallen victim to the usual “exotic” tropes. As expected, when authors aren’t part of the demographic they’re writing about, you usually end up with material that is cliché, ignorant, and even insulting at times.
1985’s Oriental Adventures was a prime example, from its name to its focus on every Western stereotype of Asia that’s graced our books and screens. Entire, complex cultures are boiled down to Kurosawa samurai, Bruce Lee martial artists, Mongolian hordes, and spice traders.
1992’s Al-Qadim: Land of Fate wasn’t much better, presenting the same anachronistic and cultural mish-mash found in Disney’s Aladdin. Although not a direct stereotype of Islam or Egypt, there’s no doubt the book was based more on Hollywood’s perception of Arabia than it was on Arabian history or mythology.
We could almost dismiss these stereotypes as products of their time (as if that were an excuse), except the writers have continued to make the same mistakes.
A mere two years ago, D&D’s Tomb of Annihilation brought back the land of Chult. A Pan-African inspired realm, it’s a mish-mash of Western and Central African jungles and trade set in the ruins of ancient empires.
Chult was bad enough in 1993, viewing Africa through a lens of colonial invaders, slavery, and “savages.” Modern writers attempted to give Chult more positivity, but only ended up making the same mistakes along the way.
Instead of fully researching the setting, bringing in African (or any black) advisers or writers, WotC just continued with the Pan-African clichés. We get the usual tropes about “recovering from colonialism” and an oppressed people rebuilding in a ruined empire; no Ooni Kingdom or modern versions of Wakanda here.
You can appreciate the irony of D&D announcing they’re moving forward into Asian, Middle Eastern, or American realms when they screwed up with their representation of Africa as recently as 2016.
Don’t get us wrong – we’d love to see these realms explored, and classic settings reimagined for modern audiences. One common demand from the ever-changing gaming population is interest in non-European fantasy.
If you’re going to do it, however, you need to do it right, and that means input from the peoples and cultures from which you’re drawing inspiration.
If you want to write about Kara-Tur, then include advisers/writers from China, India, Thailand, Japan, etc. Don’t just mash everything into some weeaboo fantasy about Asia, with samurai and ninjas or junk pirates and spice traders.
I’d love to explore more of the Americas, even beyond the realm of Maztica, to include the Northern continent. Without indigenous/First Nations input, however, there’s no guarantee this isn’t going to be yet another cliché of Mayan and Aztec empires.
If you’re going to explore non-European cultures and mythologies, you must be more than well-read (if recent authors are even that). D&D needs to include input from those experienced and involved with ethno-racial groups, especially actual members.
It’s the 21st century – there’s no shortage of Asian, African, Middle Eastern or Native American writers and experts. WotC and D&D need to take advantage of this, so they don’t have another step backward as they did with Tomb of Annihilation.