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Being the Enemy

I was reading a book about D&D and the book mentioned some of the racism that was foundational in some of the game’s structures. You’re part of “the civilization” carving your way through the lands of “the savages”, looting as much you can carry. It’s pretty messed up, and given all the more horrific realization when considering Gygax’ twisted view on, for example, the Sand Creek massacre.

I’m not gonna say the book’s name because for all it’s clarity about this issue with D&D, I’m not on board with its proposed “solution”, which basically was to embrace that racism, but ironically and detachedly and mockingly. And I’ve seen variants on that theme, like people who play B2 Keep on the Borderlands but with a hatred for home, realizing that there’s more gold in the keep than in the caves of chaos. Much droll. Colonial suffering depicted as idle playthings for those who can afford to laugh about it. The trope of the remorseful soldier. I’m not happy with that approach.

There is another way.

And weirdly, the solution came in those old early 90s “al-Qadim” box sets. No, not that it’s “fantasy Arabia”—that’s more a drawback, given that these Arabia-inspired books were primarily written by white Americans. To their credit, it’s less the clueless mid 19th century US Hollywood Arabia, and more the early 90s college nerd with a Saïd book in one hand and a post-colonial analysis in the other, as a reaction to the first Gulf war, and also of course it’s refreshing to see something else than the same old Euro nostalgia, but that only goes so far compared to real representation. It does feel super weird that they were like “OK we’re the right people to write this” and then they put this out there. And I’m weirder still for picking it up two decades later.🤦🏻‍♀️ So that’s not it.

Instead, the magic of this setting is that it’s not “us vs them”, it’s not “heroic humans vs increasingly monstrous disposable bad guys”. It’s a world where humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, hin, goblins, ogres, giants all live together.

There are lines of conflict: rural vs urban, various city state vs each other, religious schisms, poor vs rich, and that’s such a rich vein for adventuring and danger, but the PCs can come from any of those factions. We’ve had assassin PCs, we’ve had religious warrior PCs, we’ve had pirate PCs, we’ve had elemental mages, efreet tamers, horse thieves, village protectors, nature sages, besieged underclass. We’ve had them be desert nomads raiding a city or we’ve had them be city dwellers fighting off desert nomads. We’ve had the players run a dungeon vs intruding adventurers.

Yes, there are supernatural, non-human creatures like living plants and stuff but the 2e Monstrous Compendium for al-Qadim has more Lawful Good aligned beings than of any other alignment. In its monster selection, it’s a world of fairy tales and wonder, not a world of blasting shoggoths.

It is not a world where “good” lies on one line of the frontier, and “bad” on the other. It’s a world of people. People who sometimes can get along and sometimes can’t, and the player characters can come from anywhere in that big ol’ cruel rock tumbler called life.