On Oriental Adventures

Image Copyright WotC

A recent conversation has emerged on Twitter and YouTube over the 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons product Oriental Adventures, written by Gary Gygax and David “Zeb” Cook back in 1985. 

In addition to the dated and offensive depictions of people from Southeast Asia in this book, part of this larger discussion explicitly deals with the continued sale of the book on the Dungeon Master’s Guild (affiliate link purposely not included). This protest has been spearheaded by Daniel Kwan who presented the initiating ten-part YouTube series on the subject of Asians in D&D.

Recently, Wizards of the Coast addressed this by including a disclaimer on several of their products on the DMsGuild: 

We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.

I’m writing this blog largely because a friend saw the disclaimer and was impressed that WotC included it, and was immediately perplexed that so many people were unhappy with WotC despite their apology for a book written long ago.

Why Is Oriental Adventures Bad?

Why is the book problematic. Because it’s racist AF. 

Oriental Adventures is racist in innumerable ways, both large and small. While it was written as a love letter to the culture (or rather, the tropes of the culture as seen through western eyes) it was still unintentionally offensive. The inherent design of the book presents “Oriental Adventures” as being removed from the norm of fantasy adventure, and positions the people who live in such a realm as different from the norm. (In this instance “the norm” being the Western Europe in a vague anachronistic Middle Ages.) And by extension it is also declaring gamers of Southeast Asian descent as “different.” Referring to human beings from Southeast Asian in terms of “the Other” or presenting them as mystic asians is deeply problematic at best. As is writing a book on Asian cultures and mythology where no one of Asian descent contributed.   

Image Copyright WotC

I’m not an expert on this matter by any regard, but as a rule “oriental” is a perfectly fine word to use to describe rugs, but a terrible word to use for people, a region, cultures, or literally anything but rugs. And it has been for a long time and well before Gygax wrote Oriental Adventures. Honestly, for anyone who wants to know more or doesn’t feel convinced, I’m just going to redirect back to the award nominated Asians Represent Podcast and Twitch Stream that started the whole conversation. 

At the end of the day, Oriental Adventures is just a giant hodge-podge of “the Other”, the mysterious East, yellow peril, noble savages, cultural appropriation, and so much more. No matter how you feel about cultural appropriation, Weeaboos, and the wuxia genre, Oriental Adventures is a whole mess of problematic writing and tropes. 

Without question.

The real question is how to handle the book. 

Ban Hammer?

With Gygax’s Oriental Adventures clearly and inarguably identified as a problematic piece of literature that is full of racist tropes, the question remaining is “now what?”

This is where my opinion becomes controversial. 

Image Copyright WotC

Okay, it’s racist. But it continues to be available for purchase on online stores. It continues to make money for Wizards of the Coast, and by extension, they continue to profit from the distribution of racist material. This is the primary argument for removal of the book and dissatisfaction with the “empty words” of the disclaimer on the product. 

So, should it be removed? 

This is a hard issue. Because it involves censorship and free speech, which are massive triggers for many. 

As a general rule, whenever someone invokes “free speech” I tend to become instantly jaded. Whenever the best argument and defence a speaker can make regarding something they’re saying is “it’s not illegal to say it” then it probably wasn’t remotely worth saying. 

However, this issue is significantly more complicated when you’re dealing with a published book in the public eye, let alone a historical document of some kind. Because removing that book becomes a form of corporate censorship. 

There’s always someone arguing that a book should be banned. Fifteen-odd years ago, schools and parent groups were up in arms trying to ban the Harry Potter franchise for satanism and promoting witchcraft. And in the modern day people are equally concerned about the books because the author is deeply transphobic and a bigot. If it wasn’t okay to ban the book in the first instance, why is it a good thing in the second? If it’s solely because I believe in one cause versus the other then it’s actually about silencing voices I disagree with. (For the record, trans rights ARE human rights, and if you agree how about throwing a buck or two to someone in need

While Daniel Kwan believes he’s right and that Oriental Adventures is racist (and, again, I don’t disagree with him or dispute that conclusion) the mothers who formed Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1980s believed just as strongly in their convictions regarding the morality of D&D and were just as convinced they were in the right to demand the books be pulled. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons or the wrong reasons, you’re still doing the wrong thing. And that’s my personal opinion as well as my professional one. Because my opinions are influenced by the fact I’m a librarian.

Freedom to Read

As a librarian I am expected to uphold Intellectual Freedoms, as outlined in the American Library Association’s statement:

“Intellectual Freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive, and disseminate ideas.”

This is mirrored in the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ statement.

“Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny 

Books are challenged all the time. Banned from schools. Banned from stores. Banned from libraries. But it’s vitally important that people be allowed to read whatever they want.

Why should people be able to purchase and read a racist book? 

Here’s the thing, the ten-part YouTube series dissecting this book and which prompted the disclaimers to be added to old D&D products was enabled by legal digital sales of the book. If Daniel and Steve of Asians Represent hadn’t been able to purchase the book, they would not have been able to dissect the product on their stream. If the book is removed, anyone doing a similar review in the future will not be able to without tracking down a physical copy or resorting to illegal digital piracy. The ability for someone to easily research or review the history of Asian representation D&D games or the evolution of the portrayal of ethnicity in tabletop gaming will be reduced. Their ability to choose to read the book or not has been taken away from them.

Oriental Adventures is also an important book in the history of the game. The non-weapon proficiency skill system was introduced to AD&D in this product, which led directly to 2nd Edition. Anyone delving into the history of D&D and the evolution of the game from OD&D in the ’70s to the present will likely look at Oriental Adventures.

It’s important that people have the choice and the ability to read and research what they want. 

Morally Right Action

Image Copyright WotC

I am still bothered by the idea that Wizards of the Coast is profiting from the sales of Oriental Adventures. It isn’t a massive success like a modern book; as a Mithral best-seller it has only sold between 2,500 copies and 5,000 copies. (It was less until recently: the negative reviews significantly boosted its sales and people decided to read and evaluate it for themselves.) It retails for $5, split roughly evenly between OneBookShelf (who operate the DMsGuild) and Wizards of the Coast. Assuming the book has sold in the upper end of the band, it might have moved 4000 copies. That’s $10,000 made for Wizards of the Coast. Not a small figure for me or most small publishers, but relatively minor for D&D, let alone WotC as a whole. 

What WotC should do is identify a few of the more problematic books (such as Oriental Adventures and Maztica) and donate a large percentage of the sales to charity. Allow people to still purchase the books if they want and give people the freedom to read but not benefit from the sales. They already do something similar with their charity adventures, like the recently released orc adventure Return to Glory.

This preserves the history of the game and allows people to retain their intellectual freedom and choice, while also making things better. By providing funds to charity, the world is improved and people can be helped, while just banning the book won’t enact any change or improve anyone’s life. 

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income, which is necessary to buy RPG products, is entirely dependent on my sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including The Blood Hunter Expanded. Others include my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician a level 1 to 20 class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.