Spring Break and Kobold Press
Someday, in some glorious future, white people won’t say stupid things that show how oblivious they are to the things that people of color have had to deal with, every day, ever since someone decided to define some people as white to begin with. That day is not today.
In case you haven’t discerned this from before, I’m a cis white man that has never been mistaken for anything other than that. I’ve had all of the privileges that come along with that, which means I need to examine the things that I assume, I need to listen to marginalized communities, and I need to internalize the lessons I learn. It also means that I need to address problems when they come up, especially when it’s in media I enjoy and promote, and when it was produced by people that have similar privilege to what I enjoy.
Why Does This Come Up Now?
Okay, that’s probably a silly question, because there is no shortage of people in the TTRPG industry that still make some pretty big mistakes when it comes to a wide range of undesirable viewpoints, from full on white supremacy to an intentional lack of empathy.
Specifically, today, however, I’m addressing a passage that came up, which appears in the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design, 2nd Edition. The copyright on this version of the book is from 2019. The essay in question was written by Kobold Press owner Wolfgang Baur, who at one time was a primary designer on the Al-Qadim Arabian Adventures line from TSR for AD&D 2nd edition.
The passage comes from an essay called What Makes a Night Arabian? The general point of this essay is to advocate for not overdesigning an adventure that is drawing on a historical setting for its tone. Since Baur was a designer on Al-Qadim, the example he chooses to expound upon is a MENA setting, and unfortunately, when using this specific example, it’s way too easy for this to come across as “if you’re white and you want to mine another culture for content, just pull on the cliches and stereotypes.”
If you think I might be mischaracterizing the tone of this essay, I’m going to present the following passage, which has been making its way through TTRPG Twitter:
Arabia is the D&D world’s version of Spring Break: you go there for a change of scenery. For this game, you don’t want or need to understand the difference between Shiite and Sunni, or the difference between Persian folklore and Arabian folklore. You just need to know whether the fire mages are on your side or not, and maybe a few simple rules of behavior: the bond of salt, the times of prayer, or the correct way to speed a camel through the desert.
That’s a pretty dismissive summary of how to use the cultural aspects from a culture from which you do not belong.
What Makes This Worse?
Wolfgang Baur is a well-respected voice in the D&D community. Not only has he been a designer on D&D projects for decades, but Kobold Press is one of the most successful third-party D&D 5e publishers currently in operation, and they have worked on the Tyranny of Dragons and Ghosts of Saltmarsh books from WotC.
In addition to working with Wizard of the Coast and producing a range of 5e compatible material, Kobold Press has also published two editions of their Southlands sourcebooks, the most recent being the Southlands Worldbook in 2021. The Southlands Worldbook for 5e, notably, was designed by Richard Green, Wolfgang Baur, Basheer Ghouse, and Kelly Pawlik, and had cultural consultants in Ahmed A Aljabry and Noordin Ali Kadir.
I’m not going to make any kind of personal judgment on Wolfgang Baur, other than to say the statement in the above-cited essay is bad and harmful for a white designer to espouse, unexamined when creating content. I will say that given the more diverse voices added to the 5th edition version of the product, I was surprised to see the quote from the essay above.
Because I was surprised at the lack of empathy and awareness in the statement in the essay, I did a little bit of research. In the past, I’ve read many of the Kobold Guide products, but I never picked up the Guide to Game Design. I did know that this was the second edition of the guide.
This essay was originally written for the Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume 1, Adventures, in 2010. The original Kobold Guides to Game Design were compiled into The Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design, released in 2012. That brings us to the current edition, which was released in 2019, which has the same essay, unchanged, that first appeared in 2010.
First, I don’t want to say that 12 years is too long ago to consider what a designer has written regarding their thought process in design. While I do think that people should have known better 12 years ago, I will also say that the RPG hobby has much more regularly checked the assumptions of designers in recent years, making it harder to have unexamined assumptions without intentionally holding on to harmful assumptions or dismissals. However, even if this isn’t indicative of Baur’s current mindset, I haven’t seen a repudiation of this commentary in the intervening time, and the company reprinted this essay in 2019.
Before I completely leave behind this “context” section, I also wanted to touch on a response to the most recent Kobold Press Kickstarter for their Wastes of Chaos project. There were several people commenting on how they disliked the new format for races that started in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, where ability score bonuses were decoupled from race, as well as skills, proficiencies, and languages, and alignment descriptions were removed from player character entries. The response indicated that Kobold Press wanted to stay with the “old” version of races, and that players can employ the Tasha’s modifications if they like.
I am a little concerned that this sounds like it’s catering to players that are aggravated by the attempt to remove biological determinism elements from the game. In one instance, a backer cited the ability to choose between small and medium size as a bad development, when that’s how human beings work.
What Do I Think, And Does It Matter?
The cited section, and actually most of the essay, is not good. I want to say that because the essay is 12 years old, that mitigates some of the impact of the statement, but I’m not sure that’s true if the essay’s point has never been directly addressed. I also think it’s very strange for an essay from 12 years ago to be reprinted without the company questioning if that essay might need to be reexamined. The main reason I want to bring up the age of the essay is only so that the full history of the essay can be entered into the discussion.
I think we’re at an important point in the development of RPGs, especially products related to the biggest game in the industry. The changes being made to races in the game aren’t being made because designers want to change things up mechanically, but because they want to address the worst ideas that the people that created the game originally hard coded into the game.
Given that I’ve been a big fan of Kobold Press’ monster products, adventures, and setting material in the past, I’ll be a lot more comfortable if the above issues are addressed. All of that said, I’m a middle aged cis white man, and things that make me comfortable aren’t anywhere near as important as things that are of concern to marginalized communities. People from those communities that want these issues addressed deserve to have their voices heard.
Kobold Press has posted an apology on their website, as well as a notification that the essay has been edited and a new version of the product is now live, reflecting the edit. You can find that statement here:
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