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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?