Hitting a Nerve

Tobold wants me off his lawn. He has a history of political posts that claim “centrism” despite being wrapped in the language of right-wing culture wars, and the recent Races are racist post is no exception. In it, he laments:

It is a sign of the times in which artists live in constant fear of being attacked for slights they never intended that Wizards of the Coast in the first playtest material for One D&D removes stat modifiers from races. In the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, choosing your race is mostly cosmetic. Orcs aren’t strong anymore, instead they “count as one Size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.”. And to avoid comparative negative stat discrimination, positive stat bonuses are gone as well. The “2-3 feet tall” halflings are now just as strong as the “6-7 feet tall” orcs, in order to avoid racial discrimination. We will have gnomish barbarians and orc wizards.

Gnome barbarians and orc wizards, oh no!

Let’s take a moment to talk about the game design topic though.

This change just reflects what modern multiplayer game design figured out a decade ago: prescriptive racial modifiers only encourage min-maxing and otherwise limit design space. Look at the state of endgame World of Warcraft. Does anyone still think it is a good idea that the race you chose on the character select screen should have such an impact on raiding or M+ or PvP 15 years later? Maybe you say “yes.” Well, the end result of that is a faction imbalance so massive Blizzard finally buckled, and is making most activities of the game cross-faction in the upcoming Dragonflight expansion to prevent the entire edifice from collapsing.

Which is good idea, by the way, because factions are dumb too. “Let’s divide our playerbase and foster different and hostile identities.” Oh, now people are quitting in droves because they are stranded on dead servers/factions and none of our world PvP systems are viable. *Surprised Pikachu face*

Compare all that with, say, Guild Wars 2. I think technically each race has a special ability, but they are irrelevant at all stages of play, which allows players to pick a race based on aesthetics or fantasy. Want to be an Asuran Warrior instead of Charr or Norn? Go for it. One of my first characters 10 years ago was a Sylvari Engineer, because the thought of a plant-person running around with a flamethrower was hilarious to me. Still is, actually. If GW2 was more “traditional” fantasy surely I would have negative modifiers for being around flames, if I were allowed to be an Engineer at all.

Was any of that what Tobold really wanted to talk about? Nope:

I am not sure what purpose races serve in a fantasy role-playing game if there isn’t actually any difference between them. If they are all the same and lack profile, races have been effectively removed in order to appease the thought police. But races remain nominally in the game, because a much bigger part of the D&D customer base would be deeply offended if you’d just remove all fantasy races. It is a bad compromise that will make nobody happy. The thought police will still be triggered by the mere existence of the word “race” in the rulebook. And the players will have lost interesting options in character creation. Can’t we just admit that the real world is complicated, and be allowed some refuge in much simpler fantasy worlds?

You would think that a centrist is all for “bad compromises that make nobody happy,” but the follow-up comments demonstrate that is not the case. When I pointed out that, historically, CRPGs gave female characters Strength penalties for similarly dubious reasons, he replied with:

So you are saying that god is sexist, because (s)he made women less strong than men? I don’t understand your objection to a game rule that reflects reality.

Well, there it is. A Rogue can make a successful Reflex Save in a broom closet hit by a Fireball (which also sets nothing on fire) to avoid all damage, but it’s important for reasons that fantasy game rules reflect “reality.” But only certain “realities.” And those certain reflections of reality are more important to a game’s design than, I dunno, any consideration of what the design leads to, e.g. prescriptive race/class combos that force players to choose between their own fantasy and numerical success. Nevermind the extra social pressure to be helpful that inherently comes from being a part of a group.

While I had been trying to avoid the bait, the third time was not the charm. In an unnecessary paragraph, I threw in this at the end:

“Of course, that’s not the real issue here, is it? I guess you’ve traded your armchair game designer hat for an imitation MAGA one so you can fill your retirement with Boomer culture wars. Which… OK, I guess. Perhaps you can make a little safe space around the D&D table where you can’t get triggered when the “thought police” removes your +2 modifier.

In retrospect, not my proudest moment. However, it certainly hit a nerve, with Tobold going off quoting “They came for the socialists…” and how evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

Here’s the thing though: if you use the word “woke” as a pejorative and talk about the “thought police” being “triggered” while also apparently defending gender-based modifiers as being a justified reflection of (fantasy!) reality… you may want to take a moment and ponder on what “left of center” even is. This is not neutral language. Unless it was being used ironically in a way I did not detect, it hits about the same as Ron DeSantis’ victory speech wherein he used the word “woke” 5 times in 19 seconds:

“At the end of the day, we were not going to let this state be overrun by woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We will fight the woke in the businesses, in government agencies, fight the woke in our schools, and never surrender to the woke agenda. Florida is the state where woke goes to die.”

Perhaps even pointing that out is ipso facto thought policing, in which case… weewoo weewoo, I guess.

I understand the desire to keep politics separate from one’s hobby. Although, that sort of presupposes politics weren’t already deeply ingrained from inception – art is usually a product of its time. What I do not understand is how or why this particular hill is the one to die on. Not only does it make no practical difference to the experience of D&D – you literally can make up whatever rules you wish or use any edition to run your game – it is not particularly interesting game design in the first place.

Indeed, here is a quote from the Principle Rules Designer for D&D, Jeremy Crawford:

“For quite some time, we have not liked how the choice of race in the game had often too much weight on the player’s choice of class,” Crawford admitted. “Fans often talk about this—that connection between race and class is not something we as designers actually desire. We want players to pick those two critical components of their character and choose the two that really sing to them so they don’t feel like they’re pigeonholed. [In Monsters of the Multiverse] people will get the floating bonuses we introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron. If somebody is making a character, and wants to recreate the bonuses that existed previously, the advantage of the floating bonus system is they can do exactly that.”

Here is another one:

“Contrary to what many people might think,” said Crawford, “those ability score increases that are in those different options, they’re not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going all the way back to the ’70s. […] It really has been just about archetype reinforcement, and because it’s not there for game balance reasons we give people the option in Tasha’s Cauldron to take whatever those bonuses are […] put them in any ability score you want.”

If you want a traditional, archetype-driven high-fantasy campaign wherein Orc babies light up when the Paladin casts Detect Evil, go right ahead. I personally ran D&D campaigns for six years that featured nary a dungeon nor a dragon. Do what you want!

But if you are insistent on being outraged by this change, irrespective of your ability to articulate a game design counter-argument, cloaked in the language of far-right cultural wars, maybe some introspection is in order. And if the notion of introspection itself feels like self-censorship to be fought with the strength of Niemöller… well, you kind of got your answer right there, eh?

Posted on August 26, 2022, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Some of the mental hurdles the right jumps through can be really impressive.

    For example, Covid isn’t real because they don’t personally know anyone who has died from it (or even if they DO, that person had X so it’s totally different…), but at the same time transgender ‘stuff’ at school is a direct and immediate threat they need to fight for because they saw a facebook shitpost about maybe one kid transitioning and OMG it might happen to their little angel.

    My favorite (in a sad way) comment I’ve seen floating around is that when we were young, our parents were worried about needing to protect us from the Internet. Turns out its the parents who really need the protection from being brainwashed and sold an alternate reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The extra sad bit was when he said that he is “equally” against the intrusion of politics in his hobby, right or left, but that the left seems to appear more often. It’s like… hmm… I wonder why that may be the case? When your baseline is “Strength penalties for female characters is just a reflection of reality,” of course any change is going to feel like an attack from the left.

      Never quite seen a fiscally liberal, socially conservative platform before.


  2. See, you went to read Tobold’s blog, that was your first mistake.


  3. Oh, it was you who rattled his cage! I did wonder.

    I long ago gave up trying to “discuss” anything in Tobold’s comment thread. I just go there to make snarky comments or offer short, factual rebuttals, then I leave and don’t look back, although I did make the mistake of going for a second round on the recent “Get off my lawn” extravaganza. It was too wild to resist.

    For someone who loves to sing the praises of compromise, Tobold is remarkably intransigent. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him admit to having changed his opinion on anything as a result of a conversation with another person although he frequently posts about how he’s reached various compromises with himself. As I pointed out to him, “Centrist” is generally seen as a provocative, even toxic position these days, not the sensible, middle path he seems to think it is, but as you say, he isn’t really all that much of a centrist anyway. The majority of his political posts are firmly to the right.

    The whole D&D race argument seems to be exceptionally pointless to me to begin with. As I pointed out to Tobold when he was banging on about it, D&D is a game that regularly revamps its rules to the point that each version is barely recognizable as the same game as the next. Most saliently, though, it’s a game which famously emphasizes and encourages those playing and directing to alter any and all rules as much and as often as they wish to get the experience they’re looking for. It’s not like FIFA issuing an edict that all goalmouths have to be a half a meter smaller, which every football club in the world then has to abide by. WotC can print whatever rules they want but no D&D player or DM has to follow a single one of them.

    Anyway, he’s laid down his own house rules about his blog now, so I guess at least we all know where we stand.


    • Yeah, the actual topic at hand was especially ridiculous this time around. In doing research for this post, I discovered that the 4th and 5th editions already did away with negative racial modifiers for player races back in 2008 and 2014, respectively. This was surprising to me, as the 3.5 books on my own shelf still show, say, Gnomes getting +2 CON and -2 STR, for example. And the big, hobby-destroying change this time around was… being able to choose where your bonus stats go. Which was a wildly popular variant rule introduced in 2020.

      All of which is clearly a leftist overreach, of course. What is a stalwart centrist to do but fight against the thought police trying to censor (by way of blog comments that prompt introspection) the free expression of… wildly conservative social mores as modeled through racial fantasy archetypes?


  4. I don’t think Tobold’s professed centrism has much to do with any specific bundle of political positions. The word is a cipher for ‘reasonable’. It’s his way of curating a local (somewhat antiquated) Overton window, so he gets the engagement and sport of hot-topic debate but only from a narrow and comfortable set of base assumptions. Which is his right as a blogger, I suppose.

    I will say that I’ll miss negentropic’s comments over there, and not because they generally agreed with me (although that doesn’t hurt) but for the sheer artfulness of their analogies and thought exercises. Much better Tobold-whisperer than I ever was, though in the end to no avail.

    On the subject of factions, fantasy teamship (particularly for solo and casual players less caught up in guild belonging) has a certain appeal, and I could swear we had a Meaningful Choices exchange about this long ago. I don’t think it’s a dead concept but, as you point out, this makes it doubly important that races (and even things like the geographic convenience of starting areas) be excruciatingly well balanced to prevent snowball effects stemming from small advantages. FFXIV goes all in on this, basically clones its three city-states perfectly in all aspects, and keeps the rivalries friendly lore-wise, and it seems to work. There are rumours that the new Riot MMO will do something similar.

    As to D&D, I don’t think WotC’s official materials are completely irrelevant because they set the default, and a less prescriptive default here is better for all the reasons mentioned. An emphasis on background/lineage rather than racial determinism opens up RP possibilities subtler than the traditional comedy gnome barbarian. Like an orc who is fine-boned and runty (but still quite orcish for the purposes of adrenaline rush, etc.) and decides by sheer will and grit to be a fighter after all. Or a swole halfling with levels of muscle fibre recruitment to shame a chimpanzee.


    • Absolutely. I am not against factions conceptually so much as the discrete divisions that occur amongst the playerbase as a result. The biggest crime WoW ever perpetrated against the genre was smothering the excitement of finding a fellow player out in the real world. “Oh, you play WoW too?! What server?” “Auchindoun.” “No way, me too! What faction?” “Alliance.” “Oh. Well, if you ever reroll…”

      Servers can still be an unfortunate impediment these days, but FF14 and especially GW2 have done things right, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It sadden me xmwhen two people I respect start a fight.
    First : I mainly agree with you on the uselesness of race stat modifier in rpg.
    But from previous post and exchange with Tobold, I understand that Tobold is rule-gameplay focus rpg player : if something does not impact the gameplay, it does not exist. And if something is allowed by the rules, it is acceptable even if the game suffer from it.
    On the more political thing, I guess the difference is also cultural : in Europe, approach to racism is very different than in the US. For exemple, in France, even doing racial statistic is illegal. In fact just using the word ‘race’ is considered racist. So fantasy races are more akin to species than human ‘race’. To be clear : racism is still very present but in a differemt shape than in the US. Thus the Woke movement is not very compatible with European culture and the one claiming it are a small part of the far left. For exemple most of the major anti-racist Association are not claiming wokism.


    • “Thus the Woke movement is not very compatible with European culture and the one claiming it are a small part of the far left.”

      Funnily enough, I read your comment just after I watched a Spanish news clip about a German publisher’s retirement (some would say ‘cancellation’, of course) of the once-popular Wild West books by Karl May, allegedly because of how they portray native Americans.

      For good or ill, Europe imports and adapts a fair chunk of New Rome’s culture wars; language, battle-lines and all. You must surely recall all the froth about ‘le wokisme’ from Marine Le Pen in the recent présidentielle.


  6. I thought the post was excellent, and then I came to the comment thread and kept going from there. A lot of Tobold’s posts on game design or whatnot I can generally agree with or at least see where he’s coming from, but his increasing old-man-yells-at-cloud politics posting is kind of funny as performance art, not dissimilar from Gevlon going further and further up his own ass.


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