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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Desis & Dragons Puts South Asians Front and Center in TTRPGs

When people of color, specifically South Asians, pointed out the orientalism in tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), and in actual play sessions like Critical Role, the backlash was palpable. Some fans dismissed players’ concerns about representation in the genre. But Desis & Dragons, a predominantly South Asian tabletop role-playing community founded in India, is hard at work to bring their lived experience to the gaming table—and in the process, they're creating a safe space for everyone, especially marginalized groups, to come and play.

Part of that work is actively protecting their communities by locking out bigotry of all kinds. Indrani Ganguly is a cofounder of Desis & Dragons, and she does community, marketing, social media, and public relations work for the project. She points to harmful stereotypes in standard Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, which have been present since the game’s creation, as part of the reason the community needs a fresh start—one specifically built by the people who've been marginalized.

Orcs being a “savage” group with bloodthirst, Drow being dark-skinned “evil” elves, and more recently, the Hadozee in the the Spelljammer: Adventures in Space D&D expansion, being caricatures of Black people and associated with in-game slavery, are all examples of how the franchise’s roots need reimagining. Wizards of the Coast, the company that publishes Dungeons and Dragons, apologized and promised it would edit the Hadozee for future releases to mitigate these caricatures, but for some players, the damage is already done.

These setbacks do not deter Ganguly from her goal of creating a better gaming environment, one with gameplay or world-building mechanics that show people of color, and South Asians specifically, in a more positive, nuanced light.

“D&D has historically had issues of how they have portrayed people of color or taken from our cultures,” says Ganguly. “These sorts of things change when people of color are in the room when decisions are being made. If I shut myself out, or if publishers shut communities of color out, it seems like the same things will continue. I would rather voices from South Asia, or queer [and transgender] voices—from people who have been historically marginalized—take up space and showcase what it truly looks like.”

Desis & Dragons’ priority is not just hosting live play sessions. The team also involves other TTRPGs, and it aims to build an entire community of thoughtful, inclusive role-playing gamers. Ganguly says, “We have an open table of 30 to 40 people playing Masks. We do weeklong events and play 20 different TTRPGs. We have themed weeks, such as Powered by the Apocalypse week, and an old-school renaissance week.”

Ganguly even mentioned Halloween-themed sessions, which caught me off guard because India does not celebrate Halloween, but many newcomers also came into the Desis & Dragons community because of the popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things in India. “We did an intro to Dungeons & Dragons sessions, but a large portion of that session wasn’t actually about Dungeons & Dragons. Here are 30 or 40 TTRPGs, if you want sci-fi, modern day, cozy cottage-core.”

Ganguly feels that Desis & Dragons shouldn’t be shoehorned into one specific game. So instead, she and her community set up care packages and put together resources for new players in their Discord server with a list of options, aimed at people looking for a variety of campaigns and settings. “Dungeons & Dragons is not the only TTRPG,” she reminds us. “It is one of many.”

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And finding new games to play is just the first step. The community also invites its members, many of whom are South Asians, to create, unite, write, star in, and spearhead their own TTRPG projects, all with the goal of elevating the medium as a whole.

“The opportunity to invite new perspectives and redefine TTRPGs to create a more inclusive genre is exactly why we're here," says Jasmine Bhullar, the dungeon master of DesiQuest, an actual play show that features an entirely South Asian cast, including stars like Sandeep Parikh and Anjali Bhimani, among others. (It is currently on KickStarter.)

“As a developer and writer in tabletop, I am also a big proponent in reclaiming things. If it does have problematic aspects, or if I feel people are using this as an excuse to cosplay colonialism, that’s where as a creative team, we have the freedom to write that out,” Bhullar says.

So far, the community has responded to the team’s call for support. “Lots of emails come in with people being like, ‘How can we help you?’ ‘Can we be a product sponsor?’ ‘Can we be involved in some way?’” says Parikh, who both stars in and directs DesiQuest. “I think players are thirsty. They are thirsty for authentically diverse entertainment, representation entertainment—whether they are South Asian or not. I am seeing a lot of people stepping up. I feel it has been the opposite of challenges, we’ve gotten great favor.”

Bhullar says that when you create a world from scratch, especially one with nonplayable characters of South Asian descent that the cast will interact with, there are many different aspects to take into account to have DesiQuest flourish as a natural setting for the players involved, and for the people watching at home. The weather, animals, weapons, climate, and clothing all take precedence to create an authentic South Asian experience. Bhullar herself lived in India at the age of 9, and that experience is a strong impetus to make sure her lived experiences—and those of her cast and community—lend authenticity and realism to an audience eager for something new, diverse, and different.

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