Should Dungeons & Dragons Deal With Social Issues?

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on June 3, 2011

Dungeons & Dragons is set in a fantasy world that draws on our own worlds history for inspiration. Sprinkle in some folklore and we have the role playing game we know and love. However, when we look at our historical world and even events that are transpiring right now in the world, we realize that there are some glaring differences. From race to gender roles, poverty to crime there are many issues that could be explored and discussed through the narrative of the story. Should D&D, through the role playing that is a core component of the game, deal with these are other social issues?

Role playing is not just the domain of gamers, it is very prominent in the real world as well, we just aren’t always aware of it. Trial lawyers frequently practice or role play how they will question witnesses. They want to ensure that they ask the right questions and the individuals pretending to be witnesses often provide uncooperative response to force the lawyer to think quickly on their feet. Police forces and the military engage in a different sort of role playing when they practice drills or mock combats. This is to ensure that each member of the unit knows what they are responsible for at any given moment. It might not be role playing in the traditional sense, but it does have some similarities. Most businesses that are in the customer service sector also feature role playing in their training, so employee’s can properly deal with upset customers and reach a desired conclusion. In essence we all probably engage in role playing more than we are aware of.

The Middle Ages, where much of D&D draws its inspiration from, was a violent time. It was repressive and allowed for few opportunities for those outside the ruling elite. Even women that were members of the ruling elite did not enjoy the same privilege as men. There are notable exceptions (Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria I’m looking at you), but for the most part this was the norm. Yet, when we play D&D male and female are considered equals. The only difference is seemingly the way we now describe the character from a physical perspective. Yet D&D has many female characters who break the mold of the historical roots of the game. Alustriel Silverhand and The Simbul are probably two of the most prominent female characters in the Forgotten Realms (not to mention the rest of the Seven Sisters). Strong female characters that break the mold.

Is this an opportunity to focus on the plight of women who don’t enjoy the freedoms that we in western society have? Is it an opportunity to celebrate the advances in equal rights that we enjoy? Should we actively incorporate aspects of this narrative into our games?

The topic of racism and D&D is not a new one, it does however continue to be one that receives continued debate. This post from Critical Hits on Dungeons & Dragons and Racism while a few years old hits the highlights of the debate. I’m not going to rehash the arguments on racism in the game here, however I would encourage you to read the post from Critical Hits. It does raise the question of whether issues of race should be discussed at the game table. Should a DM design encounters that force the players to deal with the issue in one way or another?

Slavery is another topic that comes up in various D&D games. The heroes are required to go and free some slaves from an evil warlord. In today’s world we know that slavery is wrong and you wouldn’t find a sensible person saying otherwise. However, it wasn’t long ago where slavery was considered a normal part of life. Go back far enough in history and some slaves actually enjoyed a better way of life than some citizens.

Should our D&D games deal with this ugly aspect of our history or are the social aspects of it best left unexplored as we take a high level view of things?

The mechanics of D&D are such that any problems or difficulties are handled through either combat or a skill challenge. Our games don’t often dig deeply into the issues surrounding our quest. Perhaps it is because we don’t want to deal with these issues at the game table and perhaps it is because D&D is not the proper forum to deal with and discuss these questions.

Individuals who play D&D are well versed in what is and isn’t acceptable in the world. We don’t often actively engage in the conversation, mostly because when we play D&D it’s during our down time. However, many of the quests that our characters accept do deal with social issues. The Paladin class is often stereotyped about not leaving an evil unchallenged, constantly getting the party into trouble by taking on those who would disregard the rights of others.

How do we as players of this game reconcile these and other societal issues? Should we address them in game or are we better off ignoring them? For my part I’m not sure that an active discussion in game is necessary. We get enough of that during the rest of our week. However, I do think that games that incorporate these challenging issues into the story as plot points make for more interesting adventures. These adventures also create more dynamic role playing situations by forcing players to think about the consequences of their actions.

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1 Jacob Dieffenbach June 3, 2011 at 9:59 am

A good question to ask is not “Should [play time] deal with harsh social issues?” but “Should it be dealt with anywhere else?”

Dungeons and Dragons might be an advanced form of play, but it’s nonetheless play, and play serves a purpose in (I hesitate to say all) mammals: teaching us how to behave by engaging in mock scenarios of actual situations.

“Civilized” humans today tend to ignore uncomfortable issues, pretending they don’t exist–I bet you that if you asked a bunch of people on the street how many nations still allow slavery, child labor, how many still discriminate by race, and so on–you would not get a very reliable answer. Why? Because they haven’t given it much thought, because giving it thought makes them uncomfortable. So, they pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Play-time is different though. That’s when you’re capable of putting those things which make you uncomfortable, putting them in a beaker, wearing some gloves, and poking them until you get more comfortable with discussing them. Play-time is insulation for real world problems, and it’s the BEST place for people to insert these harsh social issues, because that’s where we can deal with them in a comfortable manner. “It’s not respectful!” say some, but I say “So is ignoring it outright because you don’t have a comfortable way to deal with those issues.”

We put our human violence in video games, we put our human greed in them, lust after the ladies in them, give the NPCs some thick accents and play around with the issues of race with them… but nobody gets hurt, you get to experience a wide array of things which SHOULDN’T be in real life, but in a harmless environment.

Dungeons and Dragons is no different. It may be a more complex construct, but it’s nonetheless play-time, and mammals developed the need for play-time so that they could learn about life-and-death and other scary scenarios without actually having to experience them. It’s the best place for people to put their social issues–maybe just a touch of them, and maybe not treated with super seriousness–so that the players can get a feel for those topics, and get more prepared to deal with them in real life (because honestly, if you can’t deal comfortably with the topic in-game, how are you going to deal with it in real life?)

Just my two rambling cents.

2 deadorcs June 3, 2011 at 10:32 am

“Individuals who play D&D are well versed in what is and isn’t acceptable in the world. ”

I’d have to disagree with this statement. For my table of mostly mature adults this is true, but even then, some of them make statements that are inappropriate. I think in pick up games, a lack of common courtesy and knowledge of what is considered inappropriate is probably FAR more common.

I would just be careful about making that kind of generality.

3 William June 3, 2011 at 11:30 am

For me, I play D&D as an escape from the day-in, day-out world of my job. I come to work, deal with people (many of who are refugees) who have no monetary resources, and no way to better themselves, (many coming from an abusive or dangerous background) and try to help them get into school so they can support their family. I get plenty of social issues there thanks. I game so I can beat the piss out of Vampires (pardon my language). Personally I don’t want to sit down in the evening and deal with the same oppressive stuff that I deal with at work. I like to think I’m a pretty down to earth and together guy, and I’m not going to go all “Monsters and Mazes”, but for me sitting down and slinging dice is cathartic and satisfying. I don’t think you need to tackle social issues to run a good game.
A game might be a medium where we CAN explore ideas like this, and for some people it might be the only way they feel safe looking at those things. But at the end of the day you still need to move on to the big leagues and take care of stuff in the real world. A game should be fun first, and instruct second. Using a game as a tool to explore uncomfortable social issues that you can’t deal with in the real world seems like a form of therapy before a form of play.

4 Paik the Kenku Monk June 3, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Many of us use entertainment for an escape tool and not always one to better ourselves. We are “allowed” to act in a different behaviour that we would not use in normal life. Its called role playing. Its the basis of the game.

I agree with William’s comment “I game so I can beat the piss out of Vampires (pardon my language). Personally I don’t want to sit down in the evening and deal with the same oppressive stuff that I deal with at work”.

There is an element of racism and inappropriateness that it is the charm of the game but as adult we need to be aware that “little ears” may be listening. The fact that Tieflings and Dragonborn hate each other is a game mechanic, I find that that does not generally carry over with players (unless you REALLY love roleplaying).

Its all in fun people.

5 callin June 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

In the end I believe it comes down to your own group. Some groups enjoy exploring real world issues, some play to get away from them.

6 Sean Holland June 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Mostly echoing callin here. It all depends on what your group plays RPGs for, some people like immersion gaming, others are more ‘beer and pretzels’ casual players and everything in-between.

A little social commentary and facing the fantasy version of real-world problems is all good with me but I totally see other points of view.

7 Flink June 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

There are a lot of arguments to be made about if you should inject this sort of thing into your game, but rather than go in to that I’d rather talk about if it even makes sense within the context of the game world.

Trying to map real world social trends on to the Dungeons and Dragons universe usually doesn’t really work if you think it all the way through. Sure you can sort of force these structures in but they sort of fall apart under critical scrutiny. And really it all comes down to one thing:

Magic works.

In a world with functional magic you really cannot expect traditional societal mores to hold true. The historical roots of the game broke away the second that first wizard cast Magic Missile. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at how magic affects the topic of women in society specifically. Would women be relegated to second class citizens if some of them could call down epic firestorms on their oppressors? Probably not.

Regardless of whether you’re playing in a high or low magic campaign the presence of magic will radically alter the social fabric of the world. The fact that some people, regardless of class or sex, can bend the laws of physics like silly putty levels the playing field for everybody. Even the most misogynistic culture is going to rethink its views on gender roles when it realizes that it’s rivals have a 2-1 mage advantage because they let girls play too.

And this is just focusing on the Arcane power source. Primal and Divine powers will wreck the patriarchy even faster as those powers come from powerful beings with agendas in the world. Unlike earth pantheons, the gods and primal spirits of D&D have no real hierarchy of the sort that enforced gender roles for most of human history. Many of these deities, who grant magic powers to their faithful, are female and probably have some pretty specific ideas about women’s lib. So unless a culture thinks it can get by without the favor of luck, the moon, knowledge, the wilderness, civilization, and DEATH ITSELF they had better be equal opportunity. And that’s not even taking in account Tiamat or Lloth and their views on girl power.

So yeah, if you think that social issues will bring down your game, don’t use them, if you think they will make your game more interesting, sure go ahead and put them in, just make sure they actually work with the setting first.

P.S. Also Queen Victoria was an exception to women’s status in the middle ages not only because she was a ruling queen but also because she lived in the 19th century. I’m guessing you meant Queen Elizabeth 🙂

8 Wimwick June 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
Thank you for a well thought out response. You make a good point that if we can’t deal with these issues in a geme how can we deal with them in real life. Of course there are many others such as William who deal with them extensively in real life and don’t want to deal with them in game. I suppose it is a case of moderation and ensuring that the D&D experience at your table is something that everyone is comfortable with.

@ deadorcs
You are correct, I should be careful with my generalizations. I agree that pick up games are where the majority of inappropriate comments tend to be heard. These are also the situations where attempting to engage in a difficult issue is harder as everyone has gathered to play the game for a different reason.

@ William
Thank you for the comments. You make a good point about the game not turning into a form of therapy. I think it’s a fine line. Many of these issues make for interesting adventures or story lines. The question is how deeply should the adventure explore the social issue?

@ Paik the Kenku Monk
I find your comment that the “element of racism and inappropriateness that is the charm of the game” a little troubling. To me the charm of the game is beating the piss out of vampires. I actually find the issues of racism in game very divorced from what we consider racist behaviour in today’s society. You are correct, that when our kids are around the game table we should be careful of what we say, but that is always the case when our kids are around the table.

@ callin
Agreed. At the end of the day each group is going to determine how they want to play the game.

9 Wimwick June 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm

@ Sean Holland
I agree with you. The Dungeon’s Master regular game is all about the guys having a night to enjoy each others company, we just happen to play D&D while we do it. While we are all able to deal with these issues, for the most part we get enough of them day in and day out that we don’t want deal with them in a deep and meaningful way at the game table.

@ Flink
You make an interesting point about how magic works and how that changes the way the game world works. But slavery is still wrong and a magic casting slave isn’t likely to be a slave for long. I’m sure there’s a book that has this as it’s central story somewhere. So while the very nature of a fantasy world can change our understanding of some of these issues, it doesn’t alter all of them.

10 iserith June 3, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I frequently use racism, slavery, sexism, and all manner of hot-button issues in my D&D game, not because it’s edgy to do so, but because our own world is so fraught with such things, both past and present, conscious and unconscious, that is is nigh impossible to remove them from the story. I’d wager all of these themes feature in most games in some form or another, intended or not. If you were raised in the Western hemisphere, you draw upon a certain shared dark folklore and history that without substantive effort to the contrary will appear in your game in some way.

You could spend months making a squeaky-clean game world, but would it be D&D as we have come to understand it? No cultists? No slavers? No discriminating against half-orcs? No chainmail bikinis? So, I say embrace it and use it. Make no judgments upon it as DM when you’re writing your story. It just is. If your players are mature, then they will accept it as verisimilitude and likely enjoy it.

11 Victor Von Dave June 3, 2011 at 4:41 pm

It’s definitely a sticky subject, and I’ll agree with the others that it really depends on your gaming group. For me, I like to include some social issues in the game, but not have them be so prominent that they take the spotlight.
After all, one of the main attractions of the game is escapism, and I don’t want my players to feel oppressed in an imaginative world as well as the real one. In practice that means I include sexist NPCs, but female PCs are allowed to pursue whatever careers they like. I include half-orcs, but I let players choose their own origins and don’t insist on a non-consensual conception. I include racism, but PCs can have whatever attitudes they want (and maybe I even encourage scenarios where Tieflings and Dragonborn need to get along for the greater good).
The great thing about fantasy is that when we encounter these problems in the game world, our characters (with all their resources) can usually do something about them.

12 Morpho June 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm

NB: Queen Victoria was not alive in the Middle Ages.

13 Jerm June 3, 2011 at 8:25 pm

What consenting adults do in the privacy of their gaming table is of no concern to anyone else. So long as all involved do consent to explore or touch upon a particular social issue — in a context beyond black & white, good & evil, because at least that much is probably assumed in the roleplay, and if they are having fun, I say more power to them.

Should they? Is there some civic duty to do so? I’d say no to those questions.

14 Rabbit is wise June 4, 2011 at 11:37 am

Is it okay to touch on social issues sure, but which one’s… the one’s that dont have a strong tug at our group. For instance our group of player has both flaming liberal kooks and right wing nut bags in it, so we stay away from stuff like abortion. Everybody in the group is pretty indifferent to slavery (yeah its bad and all that, relax), so some themes using slavery our sometimes fun. Not so fun if say Timmys grandpa was a slave. I dont like using themes that are so emotionally strong that they are going to bring out Timmy’s personality, instead of Sam the half-ling who thinks he can cook, but actually cant tell a turnip from a potato, or Ilikan the goliath rouge who was raised among gnome’s and thinks he’s only 4’2. Catch what Im sayin

15 Kiel Chenier June 5, 2011 at 5:44 pm

As stated above, it depends on the tone of the game and what your players want out of it.

That said, a diverse and fantastical campaign world should certainly be steeped in a variety of social issues, whether the players confront them or not.

Take my homebrew campaign of Dun’Orta: a tropical island setting taking many cues from Dark Sun.

In that world, Humans are not the dominant species, and are instead treated with disdain by most of the other D&D races. They are used as slaves and forced labourers, good for little else (They’re like a combination of Elves and Dwarves, but with none of the benefits of either race). It’s not uncommon for an Eladrin noble house to have several ‘House Humans’ working as maids, butlers, gardeners, etc.

As for the issues of women, in Dun’Orta, only women are able to use the Arcane power source. This prompted a few discussions and odd looks from the players at the table, mostly guys who’re used to playing their brooding badass Warlocks.

I told them they could still play a brooding badass Warlock, and that she would be a brooding badass Warlock woman. Mechanically, there would be no difference.

Yet they seemed resistant to playing a woman at first, despite that it didn’t hold them back or limit them in any way. With a simple tweak to the world of story, I made them come to grips with their own preconceptions about the strengths of female characters, making them think of a social issue they normally wouldn’t have bothered to consider.

They played female characters, and in the end found it wasn’t restrictive or hard in the slightest. They played them exactly as they would their male characters.

Made me happy.

16 Chuck June 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

I’m with the “it depends on your group camp”. These issues come up in the narrative our games often but we’re mature enough to know that there’s a difference between game play and the real world. The thing is handle it maturely and don’t make it something personal.

17 Sunyaku June 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

I personally find the raw nature of the Dark Sun universe to be a particularly attractive environment to play out societal issues. In general though, tough issues aren’t necessarily “fun” issues, so if you want to play a game like this, I think it should be discussed with players at the beginning of a campaign in the same breath as lethality, prevalence of magic items, and other critically important issues for players to understand before session one.

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