by: Christopher Brennan
CW: Race, Power, Violence, spoilers for Adventures in Umbranthal.
Are Kobolds People?
Dungeons & Dragons is a game in which fantasy violence is a central tool for problem solving. Canonically, within the official Source Material from Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), it is the only mechanism for problem solving which is codified by a rule set.1 This raises two important questions for me as a Dungeon Master: first, what makes the use of violence legitimate; second, who is a legitimate target of violence. For me, philosophically and politically, these resolve to a single question: within the meta-structure of the game who is a person?
A Quick and Incomplete Analysis of Personhood
Personhood is the moral, political, and legal status from which individual creatures are recognized as having agency. Historically personhood has been an exclusive status retained by the few. Depending upon your place in history and the political system into which you were born, race, sex, and economic status were all qualifications which were assessed to determine whether you would be regarded as a person. Philosopher Carol Pateman observes, “Historically women and nonwhites were seen as lacking in all kinds of agency and thus excluded from the legal and political standing of ‘persons,’ an exclusion that is part of the history and practice of contract.”2 This understanding is one which we recognize as primitive (though by no means remedied or remediated) in the context of modern political and moral philosophy. There is much yet to be done to secure the agency of persons-of-color, those who express their gender in any way other than cisgender heterosexually male, and who lack the economic power of the property ownership.3
While a majority of humans were denied personhood historically, and many remain disenfranchised today, the problem of personhood is not limited to Homo sapiens. Non-human animals have been excluded from both the legal and moral spheres of personhood, effectively, for all of history. Animals are classically viewed as property – either private or communal – and there to be exploited for their labor, consumed as food, or simply relocated or destroyed to make way for the expansion of human settlement. While individuals have pushed back against the abuse and exploitation of non- human animals, and in some cultures actively engaged in practices to respect the agency of these creatures, throughout history a concerted movement to establish political and moral rights for animals is a relatively new phenomena. Martha Nussbaum observes that, “The fact that humans act in ways that deny animals a dignified existence appears to be an issue of justice… there seems to be no good reason why existing mechanisms of basic justice, entitlement, and law cannot be extended across the species barrier…”4
For me as the creator of a fantasy world, Umbranthal, in which the Hp2Xp Dungeons & Dragons campaign Adventures in Umbranthal is set, the concepts of personhood have been at the core of philosophical and moral themes I want to explore. I believe all art is political.5 In laying out my vision of the world for my players before Session Zero I established boundaries regarding personhood.
Common races are found across Umbranthal, though they may be more welcome in some areas than others, but are recognized as “persons” regardless of where they roam. Common Races have the least number of limits on where your character may be from and how they have come to the class they have.
Uncommon Races are found on the continent of Ulottava principally outside of the Imperium. Races are designated as being common in the Alhberg Kingdom (A) Faljar
(F) or Both (BOLD). Each of these races faces prejudices outside the regions they are common to, upto and including outright violence or criminalization. Uncommon Races deal with – at times significant – prejudices. If you want to play an Uncommon Race from a region where they would be perceived as uncommon you will have more limits on your playable classes depending on the backstory you develop.
The “Monstrous” Races are native to Clausthal and have rarely interacted with the races of Ulottava before the continent’s discovery. Their presence in the colonial hamlets, villages, and cities of Clausthal is uncommon, and they will generally face significant prejudice from some factions. However, the “Monstrous” Races are generally treated as persons only on Clausthal. In much of Ulottava they would be regarded as villous on sight and be in fear of their lives.6
This framework was established for two reasons. First, from a world building standpoint to ensure that issues such as race, power, and violence as they relate to personhood would be explored through role-play and collaborative story telling. Second, to establish a set of expectations and boundaries for the players as they began formulating character concepts so they would have a background knowledge of the role personhood would play in our game.
I used the language of race because that is the language used by WoTC in their source material.7 We use the conception of race as a sphere of power and domination in the game setting for the same reason. To communicate with an audience, you must use language that is commonly understood.
Adventures in Umbranthal is a work of dramatic, improvisational, collaborative storytelling. It is not a philosophical essay written from the perspective of ideal theory. The world of Umbranthal is a non-ideal place.8 As the principal creator I have elected to create dramatic tension and establish a world in which depending on who you are and where you are from you would have different understandings of personhood based upon your species. This set of initial conditions allows for the players to uncover realities about the world – and by their actions impact them.
I believe that as I write this, having just finished our eighth published episode, the players have begun to see the wide spectrum of how personhood is viewed – even in the small circle in which they have traveled. They have been received with welcome by the majority of the quest givers and NPCs they have interacted with. They have had success in obtaining work and the hospitality of inn keepers and tavern keepers. They have – in some cases – been greeted with skepticism or hostility because of their races, but they have not been excluded from personhood. That is not to say that those conditions will maintain. Depending upon what part of the world they explore they may confront more direct hostility and discrimination. They may be treated as unworthy of personhood. Those moments are there not to condone the depersonification of the various fantasy species but to provide a framework for story telling from which – I hope – dialogue and discussion will emerge.
A play is not a lecture. Nor is it the domain of the author to be the critic of their work. While I think this essay provides some context regarding the design I have for our exploration of personhood, neither I nor the players are entitled to assess the success of that design in achieving those aims. It is my hope that, when we have reached the conclusion of this story, a generous viewer will judge us as having presented a living world which prompts the viewer to ask themselves questions about many topics, personhood among them.
1 Tasha’s Caldron of Everything (2020) provides us with thoughts on Player Characters (PCs) ”Parleying with Monsters” (p.148) rooted in those creatures desires, but it does not contain specific rules for successfully negotiating with these creatures.
2 “On Critics and Contracts,” Contract & Domination, 2007.
3 My conception of property ownership here is rooted the critiques of Private Property by writers such as Pierre- Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx, Pyotr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and other anti-capitalist thinkers. Property in this sense is not the ownership of personal goods or even land which you use for shelter or homesteading. Rather in this context Private Property is the claim of rights to surplus value derived from property (Landlords, Corporations and their owners, Slave Owners, and the like). A full description of this political and moral framework is beyond the my scope here but I would recommend starting with reading Chapter 1 of Proudhon’s 1840 What is Property? https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/proudhon/property/ch01.htm
4 Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006)
5 I’m paraphrasing Toni Morrison who said “All good art is political!” “The Spirit and the Strength: A profile of Toni Morrison,” Kevin Nance, Poets & Writers, (Nov 2008), https://www.pw.org/content/the_spirit_and_the_strength_a_profile_of_toni_morrison. My conception that all art is political is extended by the thoughts of Frankfort School philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Particularly Marcuse’s The One Dimensional Man and Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”
6 “Playable Races,” this author 2020.
7 I, like others, believe that speciesism would be a more appropriate lens through which to view the distinctions of peoples in Fantasy Worlds. Race is a political framework of oppression, it is not a scientific framework distinguishing peoples.
8 I refer here to John Rawls’ conceptions of ideal theory and Charles Mills non-ideal theories of justice.