D&D’s Drizzt books were built on racist tropes, R.A. Salvatore wants to change that
Despite their popularity among fans of genre fiction, Dungeons & Dragons’ The Legend of Drizzt novels have been fairly criticized for reinforcing racist fantasy tropes. R.A. Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt, tells Polygon that the time has come to set things right.
Salvatore’s next novel, Starlight Enclave, will expand the franchise into new territories. At the same time, it will broaden the identity of the drow, the race of dark-skinned elves that have been a part of the original role-playing game since the 1970s. It’s a change to the drow that’s part of a larger reckoning with race in Wizards of the Coast’s D&D and Magic: The Gathering properties. Salvatore isn’t reluctant to be part of that change, which he says is long overdue.
“I did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Salvatore told Polygon in an exclusive interview. “It’s an update that was greatly needed — for things that I didn’t even know were a problem when I first wrote the books.”
The Legend of Drizzt began in 1988 with The Crystal Shard, Salvatore’s first published novel. It tells the story of a drow named Drizzt Do’Urden and his adventures among the inhabitants of Icewind Dale, a northern region in D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting. While the humans, dwarves, and other fantasy creatures that inhabit the Dale present as vaguely Nordic or Viking, Drizzt has black skin. That feature, which marks him as a member of an inherently violent and untrustworthy race of elves, casts him as the other and invariably sets him at odds with his neighbors.
Savatore says this othering was always his intent. What he did not fully comprehend when he created the character, he said, was how Drizzt’s blackness would contribute to how that othering was perceived by his audience. Today, the black-as-other and related tropes are widely viewed as a problematic narrative devices. But they’re also a symptom of longstanding issues with the lore of D&D.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the game has codified racism, in the form of strict inequalities between its fantasy races, within its ruleset. As writer and game designer James Mendez Hodes wrote in 2019, “D&D, like Tolkien, makes race literally real in-game by applying immutable modifiers to character ability scores, skills, and other characteristics.” Historian Paul B. Sturtevant goes even further, calling race as a gamified concept “the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre.”
In his essay, Sturtevant writes that the some D&D’s earliest art featuring the drow appears directly inspired by edgy portrayals of real-life Black actors. One campaign module even riffs on Tina Turner’s appearance in promotional posters for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But, as the public perception of these kinds of problematic, exploitative stereotypes grew, public facing images of the drow changed as well. Sturtevant writes:
Later illustrators of D&D products, perhaps more aware of the optics, have made them a purple-black or dusky-grey-black. But let’s be real. They have black skin. If you can’t see the problems with this, I can’t help you.
Making “races” like orcs and dark elves inherently evil does two things. First, it presents a world in which good and evil are so simplistic that an entire culture, race, or species can be inherently evil. If someone were to transpose that way of thinking onto cultures or races today, it could lead to the worst sort of prejudice.
Race as a gamified concept was present in the 5th edition of D&D when it launched in 2014. Wizards of the Coast once again cast the drow — as well as the orcs, and the vistani — as inherently evil. A reckoning came for the publisher after receiving pressure on social media and amid the backdrop of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Last year, the company issued a formal apology and promised to make changes to its mechanics and to its lore. Alternate rules for race were added to the game with the publication of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and alterations were made to the description of the drow and other races in the game.
Now, Salvatore is making what he says are much-needed changes of his own.
“I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten over the years, from people who have said, ‘Thank you for Drizzt.’” Salvatore said. “‘I finally have someone who looks like me.’ On the one hand, you have that. But on the other hand, if the drow are being portrayed as evil, that’s a trope that has to go away, be buried under the deepest pit, and never brought out again. I was unaware of that. I admit it. I was oblivious.”
“This is something I hope more younger people can understand,” Salvatore, who is 62 years old and white, continued. “You’re seeing all this stuff and it’s obvious to you. If you grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it wouldn’t have been obvious. Some things are obvious, but it’s the subtle things that you learn about as you continue to grow and learn. And now, finally, we’re seeing it being played out there in the correct way with people saying, ‘This is bullshit.’ And I love it, and I feel like I’m growing.”
As a result, the canonical image of the drow is growing. A new website, launched by Wizards in May, expands the drow into three different factions. What fans previously understood to be the only drow in the Forgotten Realms — evil elves living in the underground city of Menzoberranzan — still exist. These Udadrow are clarified with additional detail revealed over the course of Salvatore’s novels. They are “elves who became tainted” by the demon Lolth’s “insidious teachings.” The Aevendrow, on the other hand, live in the frozen north. They rejected Lolth, thereby “remaining true to their innate integrity.” Meanwhile, the jungle-dwelling Lorendrow “draw their wisdom from the environment; the generosity of earth; the mastery of sky and the complex harmony of the forest.”
The backstory for the Udadrow, Salvatore said, remains consistent with his existing novels. When his next novel comes out on Aug. 3, fans will learn more about how the Aevendrow and the Lorendrow came to be and what they represent. Salvatore said the concept of this drow diaspora was the result of a high-level meeting he had with Wizards of the Coast about four or five years ago, but that no changes were forced upon him.
“Nothing’s being dictated to me,” Salvatore said. “I am not retrofitting or retconning the drow. I am expanding the drow.”
Additionally, he said that no changes are planned for any of the dozens of novels already written about Drizzt and his companions. Salvatore supports that decision, and sees it as a sort of public record of his transformation as an author and as a person.
“These aren’t game books, they’re novels,” Salvatore said. “Novels are supposed to reflect the time period they were written in. […] There’s no reason to [make any changes], because there’s nothing in my early books philosophically that’s different than who I am today. I’m just more aware of certain things in the books that became problematic. But philosophically, that’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been. I just try to be better.”
Fans and critics alike will get their chance to see just how impactful Salvatore’s changes are when the next Drizzt novel arrives on Aug. 3. You can pre-order Starlight Enclave at your local bookseller and online, or directly from R.A. Salvatore’s personal website.
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