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.