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D&D’s attempts to root out racism in its books have taken a step backward

Spelljammer’s interpretation of the hadozee is not great

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Adventurers stand on floating bits of asteroid while a rock-like beholder sneaks up beind them. Image: Shawn Wood/Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dungeons & Dragons’ newest campaign, Spelljammer: Adventures in Space, has been hailed by critics as a return to the game’s joyful and satirical roots. But now that the content has been circulating for a few weeks, fans are pointing out something else: a character background rooted in racist archetypes. The issue has plagued D&D since its inception, and it has returned to sully what is an otherwise exceptional new release.

The offending passage in question comes from Astral Adventurer’s Guide, which effectively serves as the Player’s Handbook of the three-volume Spelljammer set. On page 13, the book introduces the hadozee, a spacefaring mammal that looks like a primate.

“The first hadozees were timid mammals,” the passage begins, “no bigger than housecats. Hunted by larger natural predators, the hadozees took to the trees and evolved wing-like flaps that enabled them to glide from branch to branch.” From there it tells the tale of a wizard who trapped and effectively enslaved these creatures with the intent of selling them “to the highest bidder.” Eventually, the wizard’s apprentices befriended these hadozee and set them free.

Fans on social media have been pointing out the parallels to the Black experience, and the history of slavery in the United States and abroad — including the setting’s reliance on antiquated sailing ships, the same kinds of vessels that brought enslaved people to North America in the first place. Critics have also found images in the book that hearken back to racist minstrel shows. Amid this controversy, some have dug even deeper into the archives of D&D’s original publisher, TSR. Wizards of the Coast purchased that company in the 1990s. In those archives, things really go off the rails, with additional background information about the hadozee evoking many other racist stereotypes of Black people.

Wizards is fully aware of that problematic back catalog. That’s why it includes a content warning on those materials at DriveThruRPG and the Dungeon Masters Guild:

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.

Wizards has recently reiterated its commitment to inclusivity. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Wizards came out firmly against racism and the role the company has played in fostering it. It vowed to do better going forward for fans of D&D and Magic: The Gathering. It altered several 5th edition D&D books, and stood by author R.A. Salvatore as he expanded the cultural footprint of the drow, the black-skinned race of elves that counts the hero Drizzt Do’Urden among its number. It also published Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, an anthology of adventures written exclusively by writers of color. Its creator, Ajit George, went on to win the coveted Diana Jones Award at this year’s Gen Con.

Following those progressive actions, many fans, as well as other tabletop game designers, have been vocal in their criticism of Wizards’ choice to reintroduce the hadozee in this way.

This all raises the question of why the hadozee were even included in this new book. They weren’t part of the original setting, but were instead introduced in an even earlier game called Star Frontiers, first published in 1982. Wizards is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with another publisher who is attempting to reboot Star Frontiers without Wizards’ permission. That litigation is expected in court in October 2023.

Polygon reached out to Wizards prior to publication, and the organization declined to comment on the situation.

Update (Sept. 6): Wizards of the Coast apologized Friday for the offensive content in Spelljammer: Adventures in Space. The content pertaining to the hadozee has been edited in all digital copies of Astral Adventurer’s Guide, and future printings of the book will include this updated material.

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