The Chult Event

DD-Logo“The Chult Event” is my term for the events that occurred during the retcon and revamp of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for 4e D&D. The Chult Event was the last straw for me, it was one of the catalysts that brought this blog into being. As with most things, it’s best to start with some background on racism in fantasy. It’s not unfair or hostile to say that the genre of fantasy is riddled with racism. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not, it is mostly achieved through the aggressive use of stereotypes and writing tropes, racism by omission, and through substitution (of monsters for human ethnicities). [1][2][3] For all intents and purposes, it happens to further the immersion in and to carefully maintain the comfort zone and status quo enjoyed by the main audience and producers of the product, namely, a White audience. Given the increased and increasing plurality and integration in modern society, where more and more minorities and POC are asking for recognition and fair depiction, this has lead to a clash in the roleplaying and gaming subculture. It has also lead to game companies like Wizards of the Coast (WotC), to (hopefully unintentionally) commit some fairly racist actions that make it hard for POC to invest themselves in their product.

Forgotten Realms is, arguably, the most popular and most well known setting for the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop roleplaying game. It is also one of the most heavily supported settings, with well plus of 100 supplemental books for the setting being produced between AD&D 2e (under TSR) and D&D 3.5e (under WotC). Its novels have been consistent money makers, and have, at times, driven and directed world development and detailing; which has resulted in shaky and uneven coverage. It was also something of a dumping ground for interesting non-Eurasian settings that would have otherwise withered on the vine. Maztica (an Aztec and Mesoamerica analogue setting), and Al-Qadim (an Arabian Nights themed setting) are prime example of this, with Maztica coming from a novel trilogy that gave the conquest of the Americas a fantasy tone, and the latter being a setting that was initially stand alone, then added. Throughout the years of AD&D 2e and D&D 3.5e, the novels ran fairly tame, treading well worn, eurocentric paths and not doing too much to rock the boat. Then D&D 4e came out, and everything went pear shaped.

“Race” is, and in the foreseeable future, will be, a problem in roleplaying games. When handled ham handedly, or without care, it becomes a tinderbox. The last edition of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide and Player’s Guide, the ones that set the tone and history for the new edition, are that tinderbox. Why? Because Forgotten Realms is (at the time of this post) the new edition’s default campaign setting. With the development of D&D Next moving into closed play testing, I got a hold of and read the 4e FR books. After reading through them, I wondered why they didn’t have the subtitle “Where it’s Good to be White” on the book cover. Using the old Races of Faerûn book (3.5e), I determined that there were 29 different ethnic groups of humans, of which 12 were White, 4 were Arab or Middle Eastern, 3 were Black African, 4 were Asian, 1 was ancient Egyptian, 1 was Turkish/Near Eastern, 1 was Inuit or Eskimo, 1 was Aztec, 1 was Mediterranean/North African, and the last was a buffer mixed-ethnicity group between the White region and one of the Arab areas. Of those, one of the White and one of the Black groups were effectively no more. Then I perused the nations to see how things were going, and the the pro-White bias hit like a sledge. 

What had occurred could best be described as a combination shoehorning, whitewashing, and streamlining. Non-human player races introduced in 4e D&D were crudely inserted into the setting. The parts of the realms that lacked extensive support in the form of game supplements and novels, namely the areas that weren’t white, were decimated seemingly out of hand. The streamlining brought even more destruction to the non-White areas of Faerûn, as it surgically removed or utterly destroyed several areas that didn’t match the general ethnographic or cultural picture of their region. Then three White nations were resurrected and established. Quite literally, the vast majority of “bad things” happened to the darker skinned parts of the realms, in a frequency all out of proportion to their presence on the continent. As an added bonus, the in book art was almost entirely, lets say over 90% (probably higher), of White adventurers, despite more than a few POC surviving in the borderline re-imagined Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

To put this into perspective, lets examine the three African Analogues and their North African companion. All but one of which is located on the unfortunate Chultan Peninsula.  In AD&D 2e and D&D 3.5e, the Chultan Peninsula had a lot going on, but had its potential squandered through lazy writing and a lack of effort and interest within WotC to develop or market the setting to the gaming community. Chult itself (containing two of the African analogues, the Tabaxi and mostly dead Eshowe) has had no book since AD&D 2e. Meanwhile,  Samarach, Thindol, and Tashalar (all of which home to the mediterranean/North African group, the Tashlutan) were described in passable detail in the Serpent Kingdoms book. And by passable detail, I mean they were portrayed as dusky or dark or olive skinned people worshiping dark gods in the mode of the Roman propaganda against the Carthaginians. [4] Classy stuff! The other African analogue, the Turmani, share Chult’s lack of game support, the last time they had a book was in 2e AD&D as well; and despite being an economic power located near several better documented and supported areas, is seldom mentioned or referenced.

In D&D 4e, the Chultan Peninsula is no more. The writers selected a magical nation to explode for plot purposes, and they blew up the one by the non-Eurasians. Tashalar and most of Thindol were blasted into sandbars and open ocean in a heart beat. Scratch off one mercantile nation and its serpent man infested neighbour. The Chultan Peninsula is now reduced to an island with the tattered and remains of Thindol and Samarach attached, both of which are described only as “wholly or partially drowned” or “spellscarred”. As far as canon goes, the Tashalutan people are effectively gone, with no centres of learning, development or trade left. With the callous stroke of a pen, the Tashalutan are excised from game, without even the courtesy of survivors trying to rebuild or hanging on in hopes of re-establishing their homelands anew. Those actions and narratives are for Whites only in seems.

Chult proper is even worse off. Reduced from a book to a few mentions to a racism laced entry, it’s not a pleasant or warranted series of developments. The only non-White settlement of note, the city of Mezro, was destroyed. Literally dropped 200ft straight down with what I assume are 100% casualties, given the fact that there has been no reconstruction efforts or attempts to recreate the city. In an unsurprising turn of events, the two White held colonies survived intact and good to go. “Human civilization is virtually nonexistent here, though an Amnian colony and a port sponsored by Baldur’s Gate cling to the northern coasts, and a few tribes—some noble savages, others depraved cannibals—roam the interior.” This a direct quote from the FRCG. The strong implication here is that only the White colonies are actually civilized, an idea backed up by the fact that only they get write-ups and descriptions. The language is charged too, using “noble savages” and “depraved cannibals” to describe a people who, until recently, had the most peaceful, intellectually oriented city on the continent. Interestingly, the term “savage” appears the majority of times in the book when describing either the land, monsters, or threatening humans; which seems to greatly dismissive of the Tabaxi as being people to interact with, as opposed to another combat encounter or physical obstacle to overcome.

Turmish is effectively turning into the fantasy equivalent of Somalia, or any other failing state in Africa. Once a prosperous trading nation, it has been reduced to a few cities on the verge of collapse, surrounded by enemies with no way of restoring itself, and has become unfriendly and paranoid towards outsiders. In the FRPG, it gets a single mention, as being a nation where an Untheric language is spoken. In fact, while it did rate a full write up in the FRCG, it didn’t warrant a section or even significant mention in the FRPG, and neither did Chult. Which brought up this gem:

“This chapter presents the most interesting lands of Faerûn from the perspective of adventurers, focusing on the areas from which such characters are likely to hail. Each section contains the following information:

✦ Regional Benefit:  A benefit granted to player characters who come from the region.

✦ Common Knowledge:  General facts about the place that every resident of the region knows, including an overview of the region’s notable features, both civilized and natural.

✦ People of the Region:  A look at the region’s populace, along with possible backgrounds and motivations for player characters who call this region home.”

That was a direct quote from the Backgrounds section of the FRPG. Note the phrase about where characters hail from. On the list that follows, there are no Black ethnic groups listed. Not one. It is completely Eurasian and Arab. As a POC who, on occasion, likes to play a character who is not White or Arab or Asian, this is troublesome. And doubly so because this is the template they’re using to build the next iteration of the game setting. There it is, The Chult Event in all its whitewashing glory. Eliminating POC from being supported options, or desirable options, for player in the Forgotten Realms setting. Frankly, I’m at a loss. WotC has effectively told me, as a POC, that I’m no longer welcome to play in a game world I’ve known and loved for years as a POC player character. Through thoughtless acts, they’ve expunged or limited most of the non-Eurasians from Faerûn. Worse, they’ve thrown away the potential of Chult, reducing the Blacks there back to comfortable stereotypes after years of being a potential contender in the area, while curtailing possible interest in playing POC from other locations through deliberate omission.

TSR was no great shakes at writing about minorities, but at least they had them and they were willing to flesh them out with books like “The Jungles of Chult”, and “Vilhon Reach”. WotC seems more content to simply pander to the largest part of their target audience without even bothering to try for anyone else. With actions like this, combined with an ever increasing lack of human diversity in their art, how do they expect to get POC to commit the money and time to their product? [5][6] Racism by omission is bad, but racism by omission  (and elimination) after you’ve had years to build up something from a preexisting framework? Even worse.

Inevitably, posts like this get push back from gamers who swear they “aren’t racist, but”, or who feel threatened that their fantasy will somehow be lessened by the inclusion of minorities or females not in skimpy outfits and in peril. They’ll point at Turmish and say “Who cares if Chult and Mezro are gone, you still have Blacks to play as!” or play the “Well, it was a catastrophe, and everyone got hit hard, it’s only fair.” card. To that I reply, how would you like it if two thirds of your potential choices as a player were casually eliminated, and then had someone tell you to be happy that it wasn’t 100%, and then say that you can just play a non-human player race if you don’t want to be a human with a similar complexion to your own? Probably a bit pissed off. To the second, no Eurasian group was wiped off the map and off the radar so utterly and completely as the Tabaxi and Tashlutan civilizations were. There is more information on the two White colonies on the north shore of Chult than there is about the POC who live there in the 4e D&D books. How does that make any sense?

I’ll wrap up this monster post with a final rebuttal to an inevitable challenge. I will not shut up and just play because everyone else is having fun. I’ve invested enough time and money in this hobby that I’ve earned the right to complain about its shortcomings. Doubly so when they directly affect my ability to enjoy the same levels of immersion and emotional investment in the game that White players seem to be entitled to. What WotC did in the D&D 4e FRCG and FRPG was racist, whether they intended it or not. There are literally no POC in the FRPG’s art, and only one picture of POC in the FRCG. They destroyed four of five Black civilizations and crippled the fifth, and then resurrected three White civilizations. It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why I’m writing here now.

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