Handling the Xenophobia of Hillsfar at your table
Dungeons & Dragons is a game of fighting against monsters and evil people. Many people play it as a way of escaping the problems they face in their everyday lives. Every so often, though, some of those real-world problems creep into the D&D world. One such example might be Hillsfar, a Forgotten Realms city known for it’s xenophobia against non-humans… a city that is also the main setting for the Rage of Demons D&D Expeditions adventures that premiere in the fall of 2015 and run through late winter of 2016. As a player or Dungeon Master at a public-play setting, you’ll want to be aware of appropriate ways to handle and communicate about how real-world perceptions of racism might affect in-game portrayals of xenophobia .
First and foremost, remember rule #1: HAVE FUN. This is a game where friendly people get together to have fun. That should be your guiding principle. If everyone is not having fun because someone feels marginalized by the racial tensions in the game, that is not good. However, the fight against xenophobia IS a key plot point to the story of Hillsfar, so we can’t hand-wave the entire idea away. Hopefully the following ideas might give you some tools to handle in-game xenophobia in a manner that will help everyone at your tables have fun.
Up-Front Communication. When you start a game that deals with Hillsfar and its xenophobia , talk to your players out-of-game ahead of time to let them know what’s going on. Make sure you talk to all of your players, too, not just the ones who look different from other folks at the table. This is a great chance to connect with our players, and provides us with an opportunity to learn which negative aspects we might want to “play down” as we tell our stories.
Separation of Character & DM. Don’t be afraid to make sure people know that, as a DM, you are not promoting the ideas that some Hillsfar characters might hold dear. Many of us DMs get really “into” our characters, doing voices and hand gestures and becoming emotionally invested. That may work against you if the character you’re portraying is a huge racist, so just be aware of where that line is and make sure your players know as well.
Heroes Vs Villains. At no point does Wizards of the Coast or the D&D Adventurers League want to promote the idea that racism is a “good” thing. The xenophobic characters of Hillsfar will often be painted as overbearing or villainous, and you can let players know that it’s perfectly okay (and even encouraged) to play characters who oppose the pro-human xenophobia of Hillsfar. That might not mean that they yet have the influence to topple the entire system, but part of what makes them Heroes is their willingness to stand up for what is right. And remember that D&D has components other than combat, so characters may stand up for what is right in other ways, as well.
Understand the History of In-Game Xenophobia. The humans of Hillsfar dislike non-humans largely because they always have. A couple hundred years ago, Hillsfar was ruled by an Elven kingdom that might have treated their ancestors poorly. The humans were “liberated” by a xenophobic human wizard named Maalthiir, who took power for himself and imposed his own laws, which still stand today. If Hillfarans feel like they are justified in their pro-human beliefs, it may be due to the fact that they were raised in this environment and don’t know better. However, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also be reasonable people who can be shown other ways. If a particular adventure offers an opportunity for it, perhaps your party can be the first to open a dialogue that starts to change minds without violence. The law of trade is also very important for the trading city of Hillsfar, so perhaps there might be economic ways to convince some humans that other races are worth interacting with, as well. An important concept here is the “point of light”… just because Hillsfar’s history has lead many to behave in a racist manner, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be exceptions to the rule.
These diamonds in the rough can be characters that the party interacts with more, or they might arrive to shield the party from interactions with more severe-minded characters.
DMs: Mid-Way Check-Ins. Because I work at the store in which I run games, I often call mid-way breaks at my table so folks can get up to buy snacks, miniatures, or other items (or to use the restroom). Many folks also may not be able to sit for 2-4 hours straight. A mid-point break can be a great time to check in with players, ask how they’re feeling about the adventure, and make sure everyone is still having fun.
Players: Don’t Be “That Guy”. We all thought it was funny in Lord of the Rings when Gimley made his comments about Elves. Many races in D&D have an innate dislike for other races. But especially this season, please don’t be the person who decides to play a racially bigoted character. A surface elf who hates dark elves is a stereotype, not a character concept. Work a little harder to come up with something new and interesting to play.
Avoid Specific Real World Racism References. It’s not helpful to use real-world racism examples to heighten the effect of in-game xenophobia. In fact, it’ll end up hurting the experience much more than it’ll help. Yes, Hillsfar is a place where the authorities harass people of certain races, and where people who are not human may be eyed with suspicion. You don’t need to get more specific than that. Usually specific trumps general in D&D, but in this case, vague xenophobia will serve you better.
Tyranny vs. Xenophobia. It is also possible to insert another intolerant attitude over the xenophobia. Maybe it’ll be easier at your table for the Hillsfar residents to be fearful of people not from their community, or of strangers, or of non-taxpayers, or of people that haven’t been vetted by the various trading companies they deal with. Maybe a Hillsfar officer of the law is just power-hungry and a jerk, but not specifically a racist jerk. If that plays better at your table, some of the examples of xenophobia can be transformed into the more general “evil” actions that you’d expect in any antagonistic fantasy city. The fact that racism is evil does matter to some of the ongoing plot with the demons in the Underdark below Hillsfar, but replacing some of the xenophobia with a different evil attitude shouldn’t hurt that plotline any.
The “X” Card. Many games that deal with sensitive topics use a mechanic like this. A single note card with an “X” on it is placed on the table, and if the topics start to sway into areas where someone at the table is uncomfortable, that person can hit the X card and everyone else will recognize and respect that discomfort and try to steer the game in a different direction. This shouldn’t be a first-resort, though, because as a DM you should hopefully be able to keep things from ever reaching this point. There are also occasionally less mature players who might try to abuse the X card whenever something bad happens to their character, so this tool is not a 100% fix-all. Read the X card by John Stavropoulos.
Final Debrief. As a DM, you know your table. As a player, you know yourself. If there are issues that arise during the game, make time after the game to talk about them. If you as a player were bothered by something that happened, talk to the DM afterward. If you as a DM feel like some dangerous topics were broached, check-in with your players afterward to make sure everyone is okay. As with most every interaction in D&D (and in life), communication is key.
If you see any widespread problems with xenophobia in the adventures as a whole, please bring them to your D&D Adventurers League regional or local coordinator. If you have individual problems at specific tables, try communicating with your store staff and the people at your table to see if there are ways to resolve them. And, as a DM, if you feel like a particular table is just not ready to handle the issues surrounding xenophobia for whatever reason, perhaps consider running a Lost Mines of Phandelver, Tyranny of Dragons, or Elemental Evil adventure for the group that week. Remember, our goal is for everyone to have fun.