RA Salvatore’s new Drizzt novel will help overturn racist D&D tropes

Despite their popularity among fans of genre fiction, the Dungeons & Dragons novels The Legend of Drizzt has received enough criticism for reinforcing racist fantasy tropes. RA Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt, tells Playserver that now is the time to make things right. Salvatore’s next novel, Starry enclave, arrives on August 3 and will expand the franchise to new territories.

At the same time, it will broaden the identity of the drow, the dark-skinned race of elves that have been part of the original role-playing game since the 1970s. It is a change for the drow that is part of a more great calculation with race in Wizards of the Coast’s D&D and Magic: The Gathering Properties. Salvatore doesn’t hesitate to be part of this change, which he says is long overdue.

“I did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Salvatore told Playserver in an exclusive interview. “This is an update that was badly needed – because things I didn’t even know were a problem when I first wrote the books.”

Drizzt as shown in the video Sleep sound, a poem written by RA Salvatore and performed for YouTube by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Image: Wizards of the Coast / YouTube

The Legend of Drizzt began in 1988 with Crystal shard, Salvatore’s first published novel. It tells the story of a drow named Drizzt Do’Urden and his adventures among the inhabitants of Icewind Dale, a region in the north as part of the Forgotten Realms of D&D. While the humans, dwarves and other fantastic creatures that inhabit the Dale present themselves as vaguely Norse or Vikings, Drizzt is dark skinned. This characteristic, which marks him as a member of an inherently violent and untrustworthy race of elves, presents him as the other and invariably puts him at odds with his neighbors.

Savatore says this otherness has always been his intention. What he didn’t fully understand when he created the character, he said, is how Drizzt’s darkness would contribute to how this other was viewed by his audience. Today, black tropes like any other and related are widely viewed as problematic narrative devices. But they’re also a symptom of long-standing problems with the D&D tradition.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the game has codified racism, in the form of stark inequalities between its fantasy races, in its rule set. As writer and game designer James Mendez Hodes wrote in 2019, “D&D, like Tolkien, makes racing literally real in the game by applying unchanging modifiers to ability scores, skills, and other characteristics. characters.” Historian Paul B. Sturtevant goes even further, calling the race a gamified concept the “original sin of the fantasy genre.”

Drizzt stands in the snow, bending down to check for a trail of blood.  Behind him the fighter Wulfgar and a dwarf.

Original cover of Crystal shard, published in 1988.
Image: Larry Elmore / Penguin Books

In his essay, Sturtevant writes that some of D&D early drawings featuring the drow seem directly inspired by bold depictions of real black actors. A campaign mod even talks about Tina Turner’s appearance in promotional posters for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But, as the public perception of these types of problematic and exploitative stereotypes grew, so did the images of drow in front of the public. Sturtevant writes:

Perhaps more optically conscious later illustrators of D&D products made it a purple-black or a gray-black. But let’s be realistic. They have black skin. If you don’t see the issues with this, I can’t help you.

Making “races” like orcs and dark elves inherently evil does two things. First, it presents a world in which good and evil are so simplistic that an entire culture, race, or species can be inherently bad. If someone were to transpose this way of thinking to today’s cultures or races, it could lead to the worst prejudices.

Racing as a gamified concept was featured in D&D 5th Edition when it launched in 2014. Wizards of the Coast once again called the drow maleficent. A toll has come for the publisher after receiving pressure on social media and in the context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Last year, the company issued a formal apology and promised to make changes to its mechanics and traditions. Alternative racing rules have been added to the game with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and changes have been made to the description of drow and other races in the game.

Now Salvatore is making what he says are much needed changes.

“I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve received over the years from people who have said, ‘Thanks for Drizzt. “Salvatore said.” ‘I finally have someone who looks like me.’ On the one hand you have it. But on the other hand, if the drow are portrayed as evil, it’s a trope that must go, be buried under the deepest pit and never come out again. I wasn’t aware. I admit it. I was unconscious.

“This is something that I hope more young people can understand,” continued Salvatore, 62 and white. “You see all of these things and it’s obvious to you. If you had grown up in the 60s and 70s this wouldn’t have been easy. Some things are obvious, but these are the subtle things that you learn as you continue to grow and learn. And now, finally, we see that it’s playing out the right way with people saying, “This is bullshit.” And I love it, and I feel like I’m growing up.

As a result, the canonical image of the drow grows. A new website, launched by Wizards in May, extends the drow into three different factions. What fans previously believed to be the only drow from the Forgotten Realms – evil elves living in the underground city of Menzoberranzan – still exist. These Udadrow are clarified with additional details revealed during Salvatore’s novels. They are “elves who have been contaminated” by the “insidious teachings” of the demon Lolth. The Aevendrows, on the other hand, live in the frozen north. They rejected Lolth, “thus remaining true to their innate integrity.” Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the Lorendrow Jungle “draw their wisdom from the environment; the generosity of the earth; the mastery of the sky and the complex harmony of the forest.

The Udadrow’s backstory, Salvatore said, remains consistent with his existing novels. When her next novel hits August 3, fans will find out more about the birth of the Aevendrow and Lorendrow and what they stand for. Salvatore said the concept of this diaspora drow was the result of a high-level meeting he had with Wizards of the Coast about four or five years ago, but no change was forced on him.

“Nothing is dictated to me,” Salvatore said. “I’m not upgrading or reconnecting the drow. I extend the drow.

Additionally, he said no changes were planned for the dozens of novels already written about Drizzt and his companions. Salvatore supports this decision and sees it as a kind of public testimony to his transformation as an author and as a person.

“These are not game books, these are novels,” Salvatore said. “Novels are meant to reflect the period in which they were written. […] There is no reason to [make any changes], because there is nothing in my early books that is philosophically different from what I am today. I’m just more aware of certain things in the books that have become problematic. But philosophically, that’s who I am. This is what I have always been. I’m just trying to be better.

Fans and critics alike will have a chance to see how impactful Salvatore’s changes are when Drizzt’s next novel arrives on August 3. Starry enclave at your local bookseller and online, or directly from RA Salvatore’s personal website.

Update (July 26): Our original story didn’t make it clear how the drow were represented when the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition ruleset launched. We’ve updated the story to reflect this and removed the mention of vistani for clarity.

About Johanna Gooding

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