15 thoughts on “How Dungeons & Dragons Appropriated the Orient”

  1. Really interesting piece. As a game designer and D&D fan, there is a lot for me to think about here.

    I didn’t realize the lasting impact of OA going into later editions. And certainly the exotic is a dangerous concept in a lot of RPGs still.

    I don’t see the connection that you do between the non-combat mechanics and Orientalism specifically. I think you make a good point about how non-weapon proficiencies are still placed in a context of warfare, but warfare is not strictly a symptom of Orientalism. Similarly, your comment that warfare is necessarily expansionist seems to be unsupported. It could be correct, but it’s a big point to simply drop in without examination, and your connection to Orientalism seems to rely on it.

    In regards to 5th edition, I feel that most of the exoticism has been curtailed, but you seem to feel that several features perpetuate it. However, I didn’t understand why. Does the mere presence of things like samurai in a fantasy game strike you as appropriation?

  2. So… one of the two main pieces of evidence presented to expose the racism and so on underlying Oriental Adventures is the invention of the “comeliness” stat, but reading between the lines of the carefully-worded footnote 27, you are clearly aware that the stat previously existed. Let’s remove any ambiguity, as “comeliness” had appeared on D&D character sheets distributed by TSR a decade before Oriental Adventures; most tellingly, see Gygax’s article about comeliness as a stat three years before OA in Dragon #67, which makes it clear he saw it as neither inherently oriental nor feminizing. As such, “comeliness” is not “the result of a racist discourse that reads Oriental men as feminine.” The attempt to conceal this in footnote 27 raises the question if the argument here is actively disingenuous.

    Similarly, “non-weapon proficiency” skills were not “newly minted” for Oriental Adventures nor “derived from a classist understanding of what Oriental culture is,” they too had existed for ten years in various forms, including in AD&D, and perhaps most importantly in the prior game Bushido (which incidentally came out in 1978, not 1979). And yes, in probably their earliest form (in EPT) these proficiencies are divided by social class, though probably not because the author of that game happened to be a Muslim university professor. The assertion here that these system mechanisms were coined for Oriental Adventures especially to reflect the designer’s attitude towards the “Orient” is simply an error.

    That this study glosses over well-known examples refuting its core evidence points to a larger error of omission: its silence on the many amateur and professional experiments with various East Asian setting elements that preceded Oriental Adventures. Engaging only with a product that largely appropriates from earlier games (the quantification of honor follows the “on” of Bushido) is mismatched with the ambition of this essay; more fundamental answers about the representation of this setting lie in groundbreaking games like Bushido and Land of the Rising Sun (1980) by Lee Gold, a work that reflects the time she spent in Japan. The absence of any examination of the motives for designing these games is sorely felt: at least we must acknowledge that Gygax himself originally positioned Oriental Adventures as a way for D&D to break into the East Asia market, and that selling it to Americans, Canadians, and Brits was initially only a secondary consideration.

    I might venture that the social issues this critique strives to identify are not promoted but rather are set back by cherry-picking examples that don’t stand up to scrutiny – I gather similar concerns have been leveled at Said over the decades. There are serious questions about the reductionism and appropriation inherent in simulating both the real and the imaginary, but we can’t engage them through a distorted historical lens. This is becoming tiresomely familiar as the method by which Analog Game Studies approaches D&D.

    1. Well said, Jon. The reading of ‘comeliness’ as feminizing to Asian men really is clutching at straws. It sounds like the author has read Said, wants to have a go at Dungeons and Dragons through that lens, and it deliberately ignoring plain facts that stand in the way.

      How is it known that Barker’s 1975 game was influential in Gygax’s decision to have a Comeliness statistic? If Comeliness is inherently racist, why did TSR present it for all types of characters and not just Oriental ones? Are all modern games that have a Comeliness or equivalent attribute racist? Or is it only the presentation of that statistic in a book about Oriental Adventures that is problematic?

      I really think there a lot of highly selective analysis going on here, to suit a decision the author has already made, before approaching the facts.

  3. This is an interesting piece. I think you make some valid points — the use of comeliness as a core stat in Oriental Adventures where it was supplemental in previous uses, and nearly dropped soon afterwards does suggest the stereotyping of East Asian cultural attitudes towards beauty. I think it is entirely possible that we are looking at a coincidence given that Gygax was trying to promote his new ideas (including comeliness and nonweapon proficiencies) prior to the publication of the book, and probably just put them in because it was the first published supplement that gave him the opportunity. But the timing was unfortunate at best.

    Moreover, you are certainly correct that there is significant stereotyping in OA, and failure to engage with the particularity of different east asian cultures — my understanding is that it was criticized at the time for merging Chinese and Japanese cultures, then using that to represent all asian cultures. I think it would have done better to present options for engaging with the history and lore of specific periods in the history of specific countries, and that the approach it chose was certainly orientalist.

    But I also have some concerns about your article.

    First, You cite visual representations of asian cultures / people of asian ethnicities in the most recent edition of D&D as evidence of continuing orientalism. I think you need to provide more evidence than simply the fact that such representations exist. I would be much more unhappy with the book if it limited itself to white people and the representation of white cultures, given that its target audience is multiracial and multicultural at this point in time. My friends who were born in east asia / of east asian descent who play with me were happy with the greater inclusivity, even if they still had objections to specific elements (such as the magical form of monk with silly faux-chinese names for martial arts maneuvers). Further — to suggest that simply the choice to represent people of colour or non-white cultures in the work is inherently orientalizing is to give up on the idea of inclusivity or cross-cultural communication.

    Secondly, your article takes the product of 197X, and treats it as though it is reflective of the game today. Your only mention of a work created after the 1980s is the brief discussion of pictures in 5e that I criticized above. You are ignoring the possibility that something could become less othering/stereotyping as time goes. Is it possible to evolve away from orientalism rather than be inexorably tainted by it? Does the fact that a farming mechanic was first implemented in the context of a work which contained orientalism inherently undermine the legitimacy of that mechanic? Without answering these questions, I think your article is overclaiming substantially.
    Relatedly, I feel like you don’t address the the sensitivity of the project to the possibility of stereotyping that it created. I think a quote of someone saying they will never fully understand Japanese culture, but that they will enjoy trying is a weak support for the claim that this person is claiming to create an authoritative representation of that culture. Similarly, if Gygax pointed the readers to high-quality literature on the cultures he was writing about, and suggested that more / better quality representations could be created with reference to those, does that suggest an attempt at dialogue rather than an assertion of authority? D&D books (especially setting books) have always been a starting point for the creativity of the individual player rather than an assertion of authority over the game that player plays (see rule 0 — the primary rule is that if the GM doesn’t like a rule or mechanic then it doesn’t have to apply in their game).

    Lastly, I didn’t really understand your point about skills/non-weapon proficiencies reducing other cultures to a set of skills that are then used to further western colonial logics. NWPs were not intrinsically orientalist — they were simply a mechanical representation of ANY skill that was not specifically skill at swinging a weapon. I can understand discussing the specific competencies that they addressed in terms of orientalism, but the mechanical category of doing things other than swinging a weapon doesn’t seem to be intrinsically (or even contextually) orientalist to me.

    Overall, I think your article would have done better to unpack the orientalism of specific texts more thoroughly, and substantiate in depth those specific arguments. I felt like many of your examples were hastily chosen or cherrypicked outside of your central thesis re: Oriental Adventures, and I felt like you didn’t give enough consideration to the difference between mechanical structure (i.e. NWPs) and content in deciding what qualified as orientalist.

  4. “For Edward Said, “orientalism” means many different things. Orientalism is an antiquated yet pervasive (in 1978) academic way of understanding the Orient. Orientalism is also philosophical mode of comparing western (known) culture, people, customs, and society to the exotic eastern unknown. Finally, orientalism is the practice of reducing the people, religions, nations, geography, and cultures of east to a singular and stereotypical imaginary. In Said’s words”
    I’d like to note that Gary Gygax was an American, not European!
    European culture isn’t his culture.

    As a Pole, I find his treatment of European history and culture as no different to his treatment of Asia history and culture.

    3rd and later editions of D&D are especially offensive.

    There are few RPGs that respectfully show the European history, or even martial arts alone.

    When it comes to historical aspect, I can think only about Codex Martialis, that actually got a well-researched supplement whose action is happening in my country and who is being made by a renaissance western martial arts practitioner, not someone who is just aping Hollywood.

    When it comes to martial arts there’s also the Riddle of Steel. But it’s action also happens in a pseudo-medieval world.

    Oh, there also used to be Warhammer Fantasy which kinda had some recognisable European stuff. But then it was made by British company, so it at least has some European roots.

  5. I admit, there are thorny issues that emerge in cases like these, but we’re veering dangerously close to authentic efforts toward inclusion being treated as some sort of inherently hostile act. The understandable reaction to the accusations made here would be a withdrawal of all inclusionary efforts and a default ‘whitening’ of game systems…which was once seen as the actual problem.

    Players today are a far more diverse group than they were 40 years ago, with a game group at a table I’ve regularly attended reflecting that change not just in gender (half female), or race (with about one third of players at present non-white), but also with regard to sexuality (4 out of a dozen regular players non-heterosexual and 1 not identifying with their physical or ‘birth’ gender.) If this were indeed the world of the 1970s, and the solitary purpose of the included material were for the titillation of a handful of white, male, heterosexual dilettantes…then perhaps a case for exploitation could still be made…but times have changed dramatically.

    The reality we see today at the gaming table now makes material of non-European origin essential because it is directly relevant to players who aren’t European ancestors and genuinely want material that welcomes them as different. Are we to flee from yesteryears entertainment pandering into the trap of a new era of racial exclusion because some sensibilities may be bruised in the process?

    Closed cultural enclaves ARE the breeding grounds for racism, for bigotry, and for violence inspired by same. Let’s try to let gaming be a place where all gather, not a place where many seek new ways to implement isolation or exclusion.

  6. David Cook has said that the vast majority of this book was written by himself and Gygax’s name was put on it before publication. Judging from the diction and style of the writing plus the similarities between the rules advanced here (eg. skill proficiences) and 2e AD&D on which Cook was head designer this sounds not only feasible but likely. If anyone is looking for a ciatation I believe it was made in his Q&A thread on the Dragonfoot forum.

  7. As you mention, the Honor mechanic in the original OA is a Western reductionist misunderstanding of Confucian ethics, and its successful implementation at the gaming table was dependent on the DM and players either actually studying Confucian ethics (highly unlikely for most groups), or else applying its principles through a Western (Judeo-Christian/Greek ethical) lens.

    However, you then go on to compare it to the “Western” standard D&D alignment system, but then fail to point out how that exact same alignment system affected the classes of OA. The Honor mechanic is just a quantification of social status, as it hinges on how much respect others show you (win a contest, gain honor) as it does on how well a PC follows Confucian ethics (serve your lord/clan well, gain honor). The Eastern religious and ethical views are also represented through the traditional alignment system. All samurai characters must be lawful. Wu Jen (as outsiders to normal human society for having learned magic) may NOT be lawful. Yes, this is again reductionist, but then this is a game. It couldn’t really be any other way and still have a playable system.

    One other point I’d like to bring up is that I wonder how well you actually understand the social structures of Ancient/Medieval China, or Medieval Japan (not to mention Korea, Vietnam, etc.). You criticize the decision to divide the NWPs into elite and common groups. Do you realize that Tang/Song China, or Japan before the Meiji Restoration were heavily stratified societies? Of course the common people had their arts and entertainments, but they were not always shared by the upper classes. Of course, Medieval Europe was much the same in that regard.

    You make an assumption early in this essay that D&D players in the 80’s were intent to invade the barbaric Orient with their Western characters, and plunder its wealth to return to their homelands. Maybe that happened in some gaming groups, but none that I’m aware of. Most OA campaigns were set in Kara Tur (or a homebrewed Asian themed campaign world), with native characters adventuring in that setting. And a sampling of the (yes, abstracted, reduced, merged, and sometimes misunderstood) cultural systems of Kara Tur presented in the original OA (both in the campaign notes chapter, as well as inferred from details in the mechanics) show that the developers did not consider “Oriental” society to be barbaric.

    My final note will likely read as quite passive aggressive or snarky to you, which is not my intent, so please take it as a serious question (as I hope you take my comments above as constructive criticism to improve your argument). Would you be interested in applying the same critical lens you just applied to OA to an “Occidentalist” RPG such as Sword World? I’d be interested to see how much ‘violence’ you feel it commits upon the West.

  8. Good essay. OA was problematic from day one, just like the inclusion of the monk. D&D has come a ways recently, but still lags badly behind other games; largely I think because of the weight of its biological determinist and essentialist baggage.

Comments are closed.