The Case for Orc Wizards—and Why You Should Play RPGs ‘Wrong’

Can someone not remember their spells? Then suggest they write them down. What about forgetting their character’s backstory? Perhaps they could rehearse it before the session. Are they not contributing enough? Then give them opportunities to make decisions, find a way for the greater plot to feature them, or ask them what they’d like their character to do between sessions. Communicate!

If you can’t meet your fellow roleplayers in the middle, you’re not really roleplaying.

The common solution is to find like-minded players, and while that’s unfortunately the only option sometimes, it shouldn’t be. The community is divided enough, and it’s about time we spent a little longer examining what we consider to be the “wrong” way to roleplay.

The Discrimination Conversation

While perhaps beside the point, it’s worth mentioning how much work has gone into bringing diversity and inclusivity into media in our time, a trend that geeky interests have particularly embraced.

Last year, Twitter welcomed a small explosion of homemade content supporting the presentation of wheelchair accessibility in Fifth Edition D&D. Together with Thomas Lishman and Strata Miniatures, Russ Charles created a set of tabletop figures with personalized wheelchairs for use with Sara Thompson’s “combat wheelchair” rules.

Not long after, actor and producer Jennifer Kretchmer contributed to the release of the Candledeep Mysteries sourcebook, with an explicitly wheelchair accessible adventure, a style of play for which she has compiled many resources for free.

Speaking to Polygon, she explains, “As an ambulatory wheelchair user, I wanted people to have the opportunity to see themselves represented in-game. We have the ability in fantasy to imagine things. We don’t have to pay to make those accommodations.”

The terrifying backlash over these wholly optional resources shows how gatekeeping can be directed in the ugliest ways.

The inclusivity that creators have prioritized in fantasy has thrown open the doors for new people to feel safe at roleplaying tables. Nerdy communities have always been a refuge for those out of place or other, and the work to encourage minority, queer, neurodivergent, and differently abled people to feel included in adventuring with their own character is something to celebrate. Everyone should be welcome.

It doesn’t always work that way, though.

I can certainly recall being called the F-word at a table, presumably for being the only bisexual player present in the company of exclusively straight men, or for playing the sole character who wasn’t a straight, white, able-bodied man in the predictably Eurocentric and monoethnic setting of our campaign.

Whether that incident was a throwaway slur normalized into a regressive upbringing or a pointed statement about who was and who was not welcome to participate in high fantasy, I couldn’t say. I wasn’t much interested in finding out. But my experience is not unique. Many people can attest to the toxicity that can bubble to the surface with gatekeeping, revealing a more sinister side to the problem. One arguably being fueled by the source material.

The Evolution of Roleplaying

As with any culture in history, roleplaying has changed since its inception. Dungeons and Dragons was invented in 1974, in a form barely recognizable next to its interpretations today. Its continued evolution into new forms is natural and necessary, both as a game and as a tool for representing and inspiring people.

Adventure Zone alone has already bent the Fifth Edition formula around illustrating drag races, magic gameshows, and wrestling matches, all while maintaining a full cast of vibrant and unique characters. This isn’t to say that every game of D&D ought to be unrecognizable from the last, but goes to show how much the game can be used to do, and more importantly, how that cultivates the community around it.

“Playing the game wrong” is a start because winning isn’t everything, especially in roleplaying, where failure is only one dice roll away. Dice games are about catastrophe as often as they’re about triumph. But true evolution comes from redefinition. Players shouldn’t be punished for playing the “wrong” characters; the rules should be able to fairly accommodate what they want.

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