How to respectfully roleplay a POC as a white gamer in D&D
March 6, 2019 8:25 PM   Subscribe

I am new to D&D and have developed a character I would very much like to bring to games in the near future. She is ostensibly a combination Josephine Montilyet and Vivienne de Fer from DA:I. I feel very strongly that, like the characters who inspired her, she should not be white, because whitewashing her will rob her of so much of what makes her interesting. But I am white. Am I in dangerous waters by hoping to RP a non-white character? How can I check myself on this so I RP responsibly?
posted by Hermione Granger to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This tweet thread by Kienna might be helpful?
posted by juv3nal at 8:42 PM on March 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

because whitewashing her will rob her of so much of what makes her interesting.

I think it depends on why she is interesting to you.

Is she interesting to you because she's not white?

Would a white character with a similar life story be less interesting to you?

If so, then it might be helpful to examine if, for you, whiteness is operating as a default, and thus makes non-whiteness "interesting" or "new" or "special". Or, if your interest in her as a character is because she represents an Other.

If not, then what aspects of the character are you interested in? and why?

(on preview - juv3nal's thread is SPOT ON)
posted by suedehead at 8:43 PM on March 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

In my experience, it's not just you but also the group you're playing with. I've experienced situations where someone was trying to play certain aspects of a character as serious and respectful, but the group dynamics were such that people really wanted to make not very appropriate jokes. I'd say in addition to your own personal attitude about who you're playing as, be ready to shut that sort of thing down if other people's attitudes are less than stellar.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:11 PM on March 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I will note that it's possible for a fantasy setting to explicitly not recapitulate the circumstances that make groups marginalized in the real world. By default, I would say most don't do that (or do so only by displacing those axes of marginalization onto fantasy races like drow, goblins, or orcs which don't even get me started on alignment systems and monoculture species blah blah blah), so it's worth talking to a potential DM about how that stuff works in their world.
posted by juv3nal at 9:13 PM on March 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

So I am a white person fwiw.

General people play D&D in pretty fantastical settings where there are a ton of races in addition to variations within races, whether it's subraces or just individual variation. And depending on the campaign, it doesn't usually matter much. The canonical party is mixed-race and walks into taverns and such and everyone gets down to the business of figuring out what they're going to go kill next.

Then we move on to the murderhobo and genocidal parts of D&D, which are legitimately disturbing. If you're new to D&D let me explain some of the tropes. A party of adventurers, perhaps of various races (but the right races!) is exploring a bunch of caves. They come across a couple lizardmen, who they kill! because that's what you do when you're exploring caves. Heck, maybe you find an entire tribe of lizard people, maybe including children. And you kill them all. This is the literal plot of one of the first D&D modules ever published, Keep on the Borderlands. The stereotypical D&D party is literally a bunch of homeless super-people, vastly stronger than the average person, who roam the countryside killing things more or less at random. (Thus the only-sort-of-joking label "murderhobos"). Oh and then taking their stuff. And getting stronger from it. Why is it OK to kill a tribe of sentient, but perhaps not that smart lizardpeople, when it would definitely be weird just to walk into a human village and kill everyone? Well, yeah, it's not really OK and the original designers of D&D were not trying to build a game about the finer points of ethics. It's a wargame. Fighting is the point. Someone needs to die. Maybe I'm explaining stuff you already know here, so apologies if this is not news to you. "New to D&D" can cover a pretty wide range of knowledge of D&D's mechanics and narrative tropes.

So against that stereotypical background, being a white person playing a non-white character is the least of your possible ethical issues.

All that said, D&D is a vast world of worlds. Not all campaigns are combat oriented or devolve into murderhobo-ism. If your DM is running a campaign heavier on character development and roleplaying then you're asking a good question. I guess it depends what themes the DM and you want to explore. I guess to do it ethically, embed yourself in the game world. There may be parallels with things in the real world, but what are the issues in the game world? I don't know what the themes are in Dragon Age and if there's something there you're trying to replicate. But I would say don't just take issues facing POC in the real world and then replay in-game. Unless that's maybe what you and the rest of your group are going for. My suggestion would be to focus on your character as an individual. Don't have a couple racial-based go-to points that come up in every character interaction. Don't go with racially-based stereotypes. Be careful doing non-European accents. Maybe skip that altogether. Again, I'm not really sure where you're coming from here and maybe this is grossly obvious.

Again, I am not a POC voice but I thought this essay gave a good criticism on more structural issues of the portrayal of race in D&D. I think as a player your best bet is to tread lightly, I think the DM and the setting writers have a much greater responsibility and I would agree with the writer of that piece that the D&D writers are getting better but are still a little ways off. Here's a good piece on the 'tragic mulatto' trope which really isn't what you're asking about, but is perhaps helpful in seeing another negative racial trope get repeated in a fantasy setting.

But again so much depends on your DM and the other players and what you're all setting out to do in terms of role-playing and narrative.
posted by GuyZero at 9:13 PM on March 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

Again, I'm not sure how to read "new to D&D" so let me add a bit more here. Racial dynamics in fantasy campaigns generally play out between literal different races (elves vs orcs) , not between humans of different skin colours. Try not to bring real-world racial stereotypes into D&D races. The roots of D&D in Tolkien already do this and the D&D designers have not always improved the situation over the years (i.e. the way the Drow were written) But again, your campaign could be very different from the stereotypical setting.

And as a tangential note, if this is really your first D&D experience, one thing I can say generally is that new players tend to be a little precious about their characters. Long backstories, perhaps a detailed drawing, prepared talking points about things that matter to your character a lot. This is a lot for most groups. You need a couple central character touchstones that differentiate your character from the generic version of whatever class you're playing. Find those, stick to them. Time in a D&D game can simultaneously crawl and go by very quickly and you'll get less chance to bring every facet of your character to the table than maybe you're hoping for. You probably won't be having a long discussion with every NPC you meet. You won't get to make really meaningful decisions all that much. The life you breathe into your character should serve to bring you some role-playing pleasure that goes beyond the mechanics of D&D as a miniatures combat boardgame. But it really doesn't take that much to do it. A lot of racially-informed character development may end up being backstory that never really makes it to the table.

but all that said I'm going to repeat my disclaimer one more time: that could all be the perfect opposite of how your campaign will run. I am speaking to generalities here.
posted by GuyZero at 9:31 PM on March 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

These days, I would tell you not to risk it. Period. It's really, really not worth inadvertently hurting anyone's feelings or pissing anyone off. I fear that even with the best of intentions, you will end up doing that and I'm not even sure it's possible to think out every possible problematic issue ahead of time to not hurt feelings.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:55 PM on March 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

GMs pretty routinely have to take on roles that aren't a fit for their personal experience and that offer a lot of ways for things to go wrong. I think best practices there are to start out with few attachments, read the room, avoid obvious stereotypes, come up with characterizations that seem consonant with what others are doing, and be flexible on changing things. I know playing just one character seems to put something like this more into focus, but it's typical of many role-playing groups for people to sort of hint about what's fun and to edit the game's continuity mildly as things unfold. So if you haven't made a big deal out of it and get some clue it's not a great idea, just say OK sure and go in another direction.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:53 PM on March 6, 2019

I'm a POC & relatively new to RPGs (though I used to play a lot when I was younger). I want to echo a few things that have been mentioned already: that it'd be problematic to want to play a POC just because you thought they were 'exotic' or 'cool.' But on the other hand, it's also problematic to play a POC just as if they were white, with their race being only a cosmetic difference. Just as you'd take into consideration other aspects of your character's background, race will play a role in their life, how people respond to them, etc.

I also agree that the rest of your group will affect this. You may not be interested in perpetuating stereotypes, but if the other players react in that way, how will you react? Do you have POCs in your group? Are you open to receiving feedback/critique from them (or any other POCs you may talk to about this)? Are you open to being called out if you cross from trying to make a character from another culture true to that culture and (intentionally or not) descending into caricature? How familiar are you with concepts like white privilege, unconscious bias, cultural appropriation, etc.?
posted by diffuse at 2:44 AM on March 7, 2019

Whiteness as such is not a thing in most D&D campaign worlds. Whiteness is a constructed "racial" identity that involves (among other things) giving up your own heritage and roots and taking power, oppressing those who retain their own heritage and roots.

Now as rootless wanderers with large amounts of power, adventurers can slip into some of the pitfalls of whiteness. So don't oppress people. Know where you're from and care about it. Don't judge people racially (don't assume any given bugbear is evil). And don't play a drow. Drow culture is messed up in a lot of the same ways as white America, except they have dark skin, of course, and the women are the oppressors, not the men (so edgy!).
posted by rikschell at 5:00 AM on March 7, 2019

The twitter thread linked above is good. I'd add that if you don't know this group well, talk about some of this with them, or at least with the DM. Roleplay in the sense of acting or mentally inhabiting a persona by yourself is quite unlike being understood as that persona by people around you.

I would argue that whiteness is at least as present in all roleplaying settings as masculinity and heteronormativity - to whatever extent these notions are ground into player minds, they're not going to vanish for a few hours a week.
posted by bagel at 7:38 AM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

As someone who is white but who has generally played with a mix of diverse/not your stereotypical white gamer dude folks, I feel like the race of human characters has literally never come up. I'm honestly not even sure what real-life earthly race my non-white husband would play if he rolled up a human character. This obviously is a quirk of who you play with, so I'm sure it sometimes comes up in some contexts. But it is exceedingly easy to just not involve this somewhat tangential matter at all.

Players who want to add a bit of exoticism to their gameplay or get outside "just a basic person like me" tend to go for a non-human character like an elf, dwarf, etc. You can also choose a lot of potential classes that aren't actual things that exist in the real world. For example I play as a halfling sorcerer, which is fun because magic isn't real and casting spells is exciting and different from my real life. I've also always wanted to try rolling a ranger character despite the fact that I am the least outdoorsy person ever. I don't need to co-opt a real world different race from my own in order to take on the "playing a role different from myself" feeling that an fantasy setting RPG inspires.

As someone who is new to it, you might want to keep your character fairly simple until you actually see how gameplay works, or maybe talk to your DM about the kinds of characters that would be appropriate for this campaign.

I definitely agree that there is a default whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity that is cast over the entirety of D&D, much the same way that is true of video game, SFF, etc. culture. But that's not really germane to your specific "should I play a different human race" question.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 9:34 AM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

So much of this comes down to who you'll be playing with. In the rules of the game, whiteness is not a thing, there are no mechanical differences between genders (and genderfluidity is built into the rules), and there is no expectation of heteronormativity. Wizards of the Coast, while not perfect by any means, has taken some major strides in making the published material reflect progressive values (though a recent adventure took a lot of heat for exoticizing jungel-dwelling cultures).

Of course, all these things still exist for the players, and the players often bring them into the game. If you play with a bunch of obnoxious dudebros, toxic masculinity will be in your game. But if you play with a bunch of rad gender nonconforming folks, it might not be (or it might be the thing you're fighting).
posted by rikschell at 2:55 PM on March 7, 2019

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