It’s Not About Winning
First published: December, 1993. First posted online: January 09, 2006.
There are no shadows in the Underdark.
There is no room for imagination in the Underdark. It is a place for
alertness, but not aliveness, a place with no room for hopes and dreams.
R.A. Salvatore, Starless Night
Fantasy is supposed to be a liberation. Tolkien wrote, in his famous rebuttal to critics that called fantasy mere ‘escapism’: “Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say ‘the land you loved is doomed’ to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.”1 Those who belittle fantasy likely enjoy their prisons… those who run them likely fear that some escapee will return with imaginative ideas to set everyone free.
But there is the sinister possibility of using the fantastic not to liberate but to oppress. Playing upon mythic fears and bigoted wish-fulfillment. Hitler used Wagner to glorify his industrialized butchery. Constantine folded Christ’s parables neatly into the service of Caesar.
Many have written how fantasy races battling one another is thinly disguised bigotry, or a call for race warfare. Many women gamers have legitimate complaints, every day, over the narrow, usually chauvinist, “choices” they are stuck with when trying to play a character of their own sex or against puerile opponents of the opposite.
The enormously popular Drow of Dungeons & Dragons have been the default epicenter of these issues, having inspired versions of dark elves in many different games.
These accusations of bigotry are not without merit.
In 1977, TSR Hobbies released Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which was greeted with such reverence by the first generation of roleplaying younglings, that to this day, all editions are referred to aloud as “The Monster Manual”.
Up to this very point, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Dungeons & Dragons. Parents had barely heard of it; it was a “hobby” and therefore healthy! Teachers took it as just another faddish distraction, and the Monster Manual was hardbound: This meant it was a “real” book, and if you wanted to read it over during study hall… well, that was just fine by them. Sorry, nerd-bashers, D&D was teenage gold.
Of course, Chris was going to read this thing cover-to-cover. Don’t let your referee convince you that reading up on every monster for maximum advantage is anything but instinctual. This has gone on since Day One.
Chris progressed alphabetically. The going was slow not because of the fine print, his eyes were quite young at the time but because of the hot succubus listed under “Demon”. The listing would require lengthy consideration.
Eventually, he managed to turn the page. This was “study hall” after all. There were others, even actual girls, nearby, and someone just might notice. So, on towards “Elf”! The main description of Elves pointed out that they were “slim of build and pale complected.”
But halfway along the listing, the purity of the fun, the joy of the creativity, and the power in the knowledge that structured roleplaying was a new frontier our generation would own… all came to a cold, chilling pause.
Drow: The “Black Elves,” or drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The drow are said to be as dark as the faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.
Note, boys and girls: “Black Elves.” In the tiny print of those rulebooks, it must look like an almost casual oversight, nothing to worry about. Except, this was the very first mention of what the drow looked like. And the term “Black Elves” never appears again.
Now, the word “black” (and the word “dark”) has bounced around the dial of acceptance over the last 100 years. “Black” has been, in turns, an insult, a source of pride, and a standardized description. But in the still-charged atmosphere of the 1970s, saying a Black race was Evil, while a White one was Good, meant only one thing.
Immediately, Chris wondered why other skin colors couldn’t be found among the elves, and what that had to do with whether they deserved hate.2 And wouldn’t a subterranean people be abnormally white? Years later, he would be told by artist Lissanne Lake that when she had first played the Giants module series, without the benefit of the Monster Manual, everyone assumed the elusive “drow” elves were pale, because they lived underground.
The hits kept coming. This from Module D3: The Vault of the Drow, 1978:
Ages past, when the elvenfolk were but new to the face of the earth, their number was torn by discord, and those of better disposition drove from them those of the elves who were selfish and cruel. However, constant warfare between the two divisions of elvenkind continued, with the goodly ones ever victorious, until those of dark nature were forced to withdraw from the lands under the skies and seek safety in the realm of the underworld. Here in lightless caverns and endless warrens of twisting passages and caves hung with icicles of of stone, the Dark Elvenfolk, the Drow, found both refuge and comfort. Over the centuries they grew strong once again and schooled themselves in arcane arts. And if they were strong enough to face and defeat their former brethren in battle, the Drow no longer desired to walk upon the green lands under the sun and stars. They no longer desired a life in the upper world, being content with the gloomy fairyland beneath the earth that they had made their own. Yet they neither forgive nor forget, and above all else they bear enmity for all of their distant kinelves and faerieswho drove them down and now dwell in the meadows and dells of the bright world.
The text goes on to describe the “black skinned” Drow (“…but this does not make them unhandsome”). Purple prose aside, a race war is being described. Either it was based on skin color to begin with, or the drow… became black-skinned… apparently as part of their deserved ‘punishment’.
So someone who worked on this wonderful, liberating masterpiece of a game was either racist or simply, stunningly ignorant of the times. Chris, a suburban white liberal kid, wasn’t crushed, but he was deeply disappointed.
And then he grew angry.
Very, very angry.
One thing the D&D drow seem to have going in their favor: Seventies-brand women’s lib. Bet that wasn’t part of ancient Shetlands Islands folklore. The ladies are in charge.
When R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland, a prequel among many many volumes starring angsty rebel drowboy Drizzt Do’Urden came out in 1990, we read it, but were not very impressed. We didn’t feel compelled to pick up the Menzoberranzan box set when it came out in October, 1992, about the same time we were submitting the first of our dark elf plot tangents to Dragon. We did, however, make a list of “Matron Mothers” with Anglicized names of equal or greater absurdity to the name given Drizzt’s mom (“Malice”. Yeah. Matron Mother Malice.) but also ones which angry gynarchs would more likely give themselves, like Cramp, Dentata… and Stress.
But there is no denying Salvatore is a megastar yarnspinner. He has repeatedly conquered the New York Times bestseller list, often with said drowboy. We have watched his fan-legions trail in a vast single-file out of the Wizards castle at GenCon, blocking our expensive booth frontage, and yet we bear him no malic… er, no ill will or jealousy. Seriously, he is a fine fellow. So why weren’t we impressed?
Because we had played the male drow traitor plot, in game, back in 1982. Chris can’t even chalk this one up to his being a refereeing maestro: A player came up with it on her own.
And we weren’t the only gaming group to do so. Because that’s the set-up. Secret world of powerful women? Male traitor threatens to expose and overthrow them! Invented matriarchies of straw women existing solely for a he-man to show up and overthrow them have sold for millennia.3 They’re literally classic.
But in today’s fantasy, the magic impossible is allowed to happen, and be explored. How hard can it be to imagine the simple switch of a woman-dominated society that actually succeeds?
Exactly what fancy is being expressed by this portrayal of the drow? Whose fancy? Because it plainly has its audience. It’s the audience of the status quo. Any ad agency will tell you that’s what you’re aiming for: Sell with excitement, but deliver the product with comfort. The Drow are powerful dangerous women! but not so much to upset you, really. Out of the Underdark comes a hero, a rebel, the mightiest of his kind the turncoat male, who is invincible… because the rest of his people can never win.
We thought “they were strong enough to face and defeat their former brethren in battle”?
And yet in a game that is not about winning, their most popular creation always, always loses.
It’s like saying powerful black-skinned people always lose.
We claim no patent on wisdom.
When Chris was 16, around the time he was being challenged by the unwelcome description in the Monster Manual, he and a friend embarked on a complete, cover-to-cover parody of the D&D “blue book”, entitling it Caverns & Chameleons. It was a labor of love, not vengeance: One little paragraph wasn’t going to scuttle everything that was great about the game they loved best. And yet, the first draft of C&C itself contained prejudiced zingers of its own, especially at gays. Seemed funny to them. They eagerly sent this draft to Judges Guild, who responded, as adults, that those passages were hurtful and should be reconsidered. Suitably chastised, the coauthors could only agree, and they would never consider such shallow territory worthy of humor again.
This is the ignorance of the public school corridors. Either you outgrow it fast, or you’re creepily stuck like that until your hair falls out.
If there was any actual malefactor at TSR, inserting insults into their products, either deliberately or subconsciously, by the time the years turned and Barbara and Chris approached Dragon with some funnies, anyone involved with the original Monster Manual business was no longer central, or gone. The
politically correct politely considerate revisions were well in place, and everyone we met on the phone or at GenCon, Kim Mohan, Roger Raupp, Roger Moore, Lori Svikel, Larry Smith, and dozens more we will or should list here none could possibly be interested or involved in the elements that disappointed and angered Chris a decade before. We liked these guys.
Still. Having an established voice in D&D‘s flagship magazine… meant we could put out a rebuttal to those hateful descriptions, still lingering on gamers’ shelves. Comic strip satire rebuttal always tricky to use against a status quo but it was our forté. And things published in Dragon had the imprimatur of being official.
We had to decide how to say what needed saying. Something egalitarian? From early on, the image of the androgynous Corellon Larethian, supreme god of elvendom, was that of the noble equality of the sexes. There was always a lot to like about AD&D, and there always will be. Equality is an ideal, held in balance with other great ideals, that needs to exalted and defended in every aspect of real life.
But, oh, this isn’t reality. This is fantasy. And that calls for stronger stuff.
See, white men live in a default cultural state, an unspoken presumption of being best race and best sex. …Maybe it’s an “unfortunate” legacy from less enlightened times, but what can you do. It’s not like they ever bothered to rank them any other way. Once world-wide superiority was established, for the last 500 years, there’s almost nowhere on the planet that white men couldn’t call the shots.
And like Europeans invading other continents, the logical conclusion of a massive drow assault on an ill-prepared surface world is… the drow win. Yocchi conquers the world. Because behind those Max Fleischer eyes, she is smarter, and stronger, than you.
She just took the simple, obvious step of fighting the common enemy first. Ignoring all petty distractions.
See, drow women live in a default cultural state, an unspoken presumption of being best race and best sex. …Maybe it’s an “unfortunate” legacy from less enlightened times, but what can you do. It’s not like they ever bothered to rank them any other way. Once world-wide superiority is established, for the next 500 years, there’s almost nowhere on the planet that drow women can’t call the shots.
Ruling Wyhtl forever won’t be easy. But the challenges ahead are just part of the dark elf’s burden.
Hard to imagine things working any other way.
1 “On Fairy-Stories,” 1938.
2 Chris was then unaware of the precedent in Celtic and Norse legends of “black elves”, and the Seelie and Unseelie courts, but TSR didn’t point those out at the time, either. Nor did Wikipedia exist, only something called “libraries”.
3 Part of this phenomenon is AD&D‘s baseline game mechanic of “monsters” existing to be defeated by “player characters,” i.e. the heroes. In this light, the drow stand no more or less of a chance than the mightiest dragon, or god, for that matter. They are just another means to a wealth of experience points, but there are deeper issues in this case.
4[2011.06.18] When this link was originally posted in January 2006, there were zero hits for the phrase “matriarchal victory”, and over 100 for “patriarchal victory”. At this writing, it seems to be 51 vs 193 for matriarchal vs patriarchal victory. Perhaps that’s progress, though few matriarchal hits look like real victories.