Decolonizing the Dungeon: Gatekeeping
Decolonizing the Dungeon: Gatekeeping
"Elves aren't black – only Drow have dark skin."
It's lunchtime in my high school cafeteria. We're sitting at a corner table, surrounded by backpacks, thick hardcover books. Most lunchtimes we'd be playing Magic: the Gathering, today we’re trying Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Like everyone save for our GM at our table, what little I know of D&D is based off BioWare's Baldur's Gate 2, but we are all well-versed in fantasy realms – J.R.R. Tolkien, G.R.R. Martin, et al – and we feel mostly comfortable slipping into our Forgotten Realms personas as we are guided through the character creation process.
I'm 14, and only really beginning to navigate a lifelong journey of bi-racial identity and self-acceptance in a predominantly white environment. I'm light-skinned, but get "where are you like, from from?" on the regular. I don't fit in with the affluent whites at my school on any level, and feel more comfortable with the other "outcasts," even if they, too, don't look like me. Nobody does – there are few enough black kids or kids of color at my school, and even fewer biracial ones.
My first D&D character is a dispossessed elf noble named Amraith Amrin'thalos. He is a Fighter/Mage/Thief, because I cannot possibly limit myself to one of those archetypes. His adventuring motivations are of loss – his once-affluent family has fallen on hard times, and his options were reduced to selling his own family's mementos, or delving through dungeons for treasure He is fast but not strong, and fights with clinical precision. His hair, like mine, is long and braided. His skin is as black as I wished mine was.
"Elves aren't black – only Drow have dark skin."
I remember the Drow as depicted from Baldur's Gate 2, a storyline that involves infiltrating the evil subterranean matriarchal society with the aid of a White Dragon. They were sadistic and cruel, kept slaves, operated fighting pits for their amusement, and existed in a rigid hierarchy where the men were oppressed in the manner of a Men’s Rights Activist’s fears come true. They get blinded by the sun and have to wear thick cloaks and hoods in the daylight, or move around the surface at night, like a vampire. Despite the admittedly cool spider aesthetic, they struck me as a caricature, a moustache-twirling level of comic book villainy.
"You can be a wood elf, or a high elf, but they have, you know, normal skin," our GM informs me.
I ignore this. "Why couldn't they be black, though? Or brown?"
"They aren't, though."
"But this place, here - "I point to the map of Faerun in one of his books. "Tethyr. Or Calimshan. These are desert nations, right? And they presumably have elves living in them? Why wouldn't they be brown? Or black?"
"Because," our GM says exasperatedly. "Elves are white. They just... are. Only Drow are black. If you want to be a Drow, you can use the rules in this book, on page..."
"I don't want to play a Drow, though," I explain. "I don't want to be a dark elf, I just want to be a black elf."
"They don't exist." He closes the book.
Despite the cultural and popular revolution that tabletop role-playing games are currently going through, the visible demographic of the genre – and the fantasy genre in general – remains largely homogenous: it is white, and it is male. Most of the "story" characters throughout Magic: The Gathering's long and complicated meta-plot have been white and male, like those of the Warhammer Fantasy and 40,000 tabletop wargames. The cast of Critical Role, a D&D Actual Play podcast with a veritable who’s who of prolific voice actors for a cast, is entirely white and mostly male. I think back to the fantasy writers and characters whose works I was initially inspired by for my own writings and characters – the elvish lords Glorfindel and Fingolfin of Tolkien, Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. White writers, white characters.
There are, of course, black people, indigenous people and people of color of all genders and sexual orientation in roleplaying and fantasy/sci-fi writing, and there always have been. We write (and read) comic books, graphic novels, fantasy and sci-fi novels. We create and play wargames and role-playing games, video games and movies and poetry and songs about these fantastic worlds that we've grown up in and love. We been here.
So why are we constantly shuffled out of the picture when it comes time to show who's actually representing the hobby?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but gatekeeping rooted in prejudice.
The term ‘gatekeeping’, for those unfamiliar, refers to selective entry into a space, enforced by the occupiers of that space. Gatekeeping is women being interrogated on obscure comic book knowledge for daring to express an interest in comics, or black cosplayers being told they can only cosplay black characters. It can be as blatant as a black woman in a games store being condescendingly spoken to by a group of all-white all-male TTRPG players, or as subtle – relatively speaking – as the exclusion of black and brown bodies in a fantasy genre for the sake of "historical accuracy." Whatever the shape or form of the gatekeeping, the message behind it is "This is what a TTRPG player looks like. You don't belong here."
Gatekeeping in TTRPG spaces most often works under a pair of assumptions. The first is that straight white males make up the majority of those interested in TTRPGs, and therefore marketing TTRPGs only to straight white men makes the most "business sense." The second is the notion that the straight white men that are drawn to TTRPGs - and fantasy/sci-fi in general - are an underclass, oppressed and unloved, often by the same people they so vigorously "defend" their hobby from, and that any encroachment or ‘infiltration’ made by non-white/non-straight/non-males into their spaces is performative at best, and most often disruptive or destructive.
The actual, numerical cultural demographics of TTRPGs is likely impossible to actually quantify. It certainly may be true that the majority of TTRPG players of the more visible games – Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, et al – may be white, straight, and male. And while those games certainly command the majority of the financial market share of TTRPGs, there exists an incalculably vast space for independent games for the "everyone else" audience. The beauty and freedom of TTRPGs is in the ability to do anything and be anyone, and to share and revel in stories told collaboratively, from our unique perspectives and life experiences. The umbrella of TTRPGS has expanded far beyond the Euro-centric fantasy origins of "an elf, a dwarf, and a human meet in a tavern.” Do you want to play as a group of teenaged sleuths, solving mysteries between high school classes? BUBBLEGUMSHOE has you covered. Do you want to play a heist game where the players are literal, actual bears? Honey Heist got you, fam. Do you want to play a game where all of the players are voices in a shared protagonist's head? Everyone Is John is on that, bruh.
Black people, brown people, indigenous people, people of color, women of color, trans people, queer people – every color, every preference, every identity is coming together, now more than ever, to create excellent games about our lives and our experiences. The existence of a healthy and growing independent game scene effectively disproves the assertion that TTRPGs are "organically" by and for straight white men. And this isn't even going into the many and prolific women and BIPOC heavily invested in and working for those traditionally white-male-dominated TTRPGs like D&D. Gatekeepers surround themselves with a smokescreen of ignorance, ignoring and erasing the existence and efforts of the people putting in work for their hobby because it doesn't fit their narrative of what a TTRPG player looks like.
All of this is fuelled by the gatekeeper's sense of entitlement. They perceive their social status to be a lesser one, marginalized by a society of bullies. And rather than making that marginalized space inclusive to other marginalized social groups facing discrimination for more significant matters than preference of hobby – for example, racial, sexual and gender discrimination – the gatekeeper instead mimics the same toxic social. The perpetuation of this toxic masculine/white supremacist hierarchy in TTRPG spaces really jumps out any time any women or BIPOC have the audacity to question or challenge existing tropes, traditions, or conventions within those spaces. Any deviation from the "norm" of what TTRPGs and the worlds that TTRPGers create – a norm that is explicitly white, male, heterosexual and Euro-centric- is seen as an attack on the hobby as a whole. "These people were never interested in TTRPGs before," the gatekeeper thinks, "and all of a sudden, now that it's popular to be into this sort of thing, they're here, trying to change everything and inject their SJW politics into my escapism!"
These traditional white Euro-centric fantasy spaces – the stories written by white hetero men, about white hetero men, for other white hetero men – most often feature narratives dominated by (surprise) white hetero men. There are few, if any, black, brown, or indigenous people. There are few, if any, women of agency. They are generally rife with White Man’s Burden/Chosen One narratives and other colonialist traits. These narratives are seen as "natural" and "default." This is what a fantasy story is supposed to be about. But by establishing the white hetero male Euro-centric narrative as the "default," the gatekeeper has effectively determined that any deviation from that narrative is atypical, and thus its inclusion is political. The inclusion of anything or anyone that doesn't mirror the gatekeeper himself is immersion-breaking. It isn't "what a real gamer looks like."
This is, of course, bullshit.
The rigid adherence to a sense of "traditionalism" in a fantasy space is inherently at odds with the whole notion of a fantasy space in the first place. TTRPGs exist to create and share and revel in worlds of imagination limited only by our creativity – so why limit that creativity? Why, in a world with limitless potential, with magic, with dragons, where the supernatural is the default – why would we ever accept the statement "a brown elf? Inconceivable!"
The worlds that we create in our TTRPGs can and should have consistency in the metaphysical "rules" of how they exist. But those rules should not be based on exclusion, or homogeny of appearance or experience. The challenging of harmful and problematic tropes in the TTRPG community make the hobby better, richer, more accessible, and more interesting. The idea of a "default," of a demographic specifically entitled to choose who is allowed to inhabit these spaces – fantastical or otherwise – doesn't protect the integrity of the hobby, it destroys it. And those cultural gatekeepers who feel entitled to the entirety of the TTRPG spaces they inhabit? If they feel threatened by a growing, enriched, diverse TTRPG community that doesn't reflect their narrow-minded bigotry? They're welcome to lock the doors to their gated, exclusive TTRPG communities, and throw away the key.
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