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Cultural consultants will play a bigger role in D&D following racist content in recent book

Dungeons & Dragons’ executive producer details the studios’ new review process

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Boo stares out of the cover of his Astral Menagerie. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
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.

In September, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast apologized for the inclusion of racist content in one of its campaigns. On Monday, during an hour-long interview on the 3 Black Halflings channel on YouTube, D&D executive producer Kyle Brink discussed the situation in detail — including what actions his team will take going forward to ensure it never happens again.

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is a reboot of a setting first published in 1989 for D&D’s second edition. In building the three-volume product, Wizards elected to bring forward an even older character species to fill out its ranks. That species is the hadozee, a simian creature first introduced in 1982. As originally written in the 1980s, the hadozee were clearly a thinly veiled caricature of Black former slaves. Wizards’ goal with including them was, in all likelihood, an attempt to redeem that intellectual property and introduce it to a new generation of players.

But the attempt backfired spectacularly. Shortly after Spelljammer: Adventures in Space began circulating in public, the hadozee were called out for their association with in-fiction slavery, as well as problematic themes and images that together served to reinforce racism against Black people. The episode prompted a formal apology from Wizards, a revision to the published content, and a promise to use outside cultural consultants going forward.

In Monday’s interview, Brink alluded to the fact that there were professional consequences for those involved.

“That was a mistake and was taken very seriously, and some internal actions were taken as a result,” Brink said.

But how did such a glaring mistake happen in the first place? In the interview, Brink gave the first real details on how the situation unfolded at the studio.

“There was a particular paragraph in there that really made the connection to past depictions that we really didn’t intend to,” Brink said. “A senior person who was very trusted wrote it, and very few eyes got on it before it got into the final draft. [...] So it was two breakdowns in process. One, we were not reviewing everything, and so nobody had reviewed it. And it even got in there outside the normal process.”

Going forward, Brink said, the inclusion of offensive content such as this is “not something that can happen again.” That’s because “every word” published for D&D since Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is reviewed by multiple cultural consultants — professional sensitivity readers — whose feedback is then integrated into the editing process before publication.

That kind of work, Brink said, will continue to be more important as the Wizards team mines its back catalog for new releases:

D&D has a long history. It’s got a long and deep lore that goes back to some pretty troubling stuff. And so we’re in a place where we want to acknowledge and bring forward some of the cool nostalgia, but also fix the broken stuff. Fix the stuff that was wrong about it. In that space, it’s very possible for somebody meaning well to make what they think is a nostalgic callback that actually dredges up with that hook a whole big wad of terrible stuff that we did not want in there in the first place. So while I can understand how the mistake was made, that does not mean the mistake was forgiven, and it does not mean the mistake was not acted on. So yeah, we took it very serious. And it’s not something that can happen again with the current structure.

The move toward using cultural consultants is not unique to Wizards of the Coast. Many publishers throughout the tabletop industry, including Gloomhaven and Frosthaven publisher Cephalofair Games, now make use of similar professional readers.

A revised version of Spelljammer: Adventures in Space is available digitally through platforms such as D&D Beyond and Roll20. Errata is also free to download online.

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