Dragonlance, Hasbro, Racism and Intellectual Property

News broke this week that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are suing Wizards of The Coast which is now and has been for a couple decades the property of Hasbro. This is not the first legal issue that Hasbro has seen lately involving employees. As a worker and a creator I tend to side with the workers, the creators who do the work and create the games and products more so than the company that holds legal power over the intellectual property and a right to claim the profit from the work of others. Here, the creators have put their labor into a product, not just any product but one they created and worked for decades on. I’m not a big dragonlance fan, but I knew quite a few over the years. I know the books and game was important to many fans. Now, the creators want to put out the final trilogy, fans want it, and it isn’t getting done even though at least the first book is written. Why? Because some massive corporation has power and ownership of their creation. This is why I am upset about the news of this lawsuit. I hope that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman win.

Let me be clear. I am a social justice warrior. It’s not a term I would use as it is largely a right wing pejorative. I am anti-racist and anti-fascist. I wouldn’t say it’s a thing I spend my time online being loud about, but it is a thing I’ve spent my time in the real world fighting for. I was a part of the coalition to convict Ray Tensing in Cincinnati, a killer cop who murdered a Black man here locally. This is just one example of an effort I have partaken in over the last couple decades. Anytime I hear or see some internet loudmouth type the letters SJW I pretty much assume I’m looking at the words of a racist ass. I find this important to bring up now because it seems to be a part of this whole issue.

Hasbro has been publicly posturing over racism against fantasy creatures, while in reality their business practices have been racist. Game designer Orion D. Black left the company earlier this year citing a hostile and racist workplace. Here we see workers facing prejudice and injustice at the company while the company is busy trying to put out an image of racial justice as a public front. Now I’m not making any comment on elves or orcs being racist here. I do think that a company that has managed to get a public debate over fantasy racism into the public discussion while ignoring actual racist practices has succeeded in whitewashing it’s sins.

I am all for examining the content of these games, books and publications and asking questions about things like racism, in fact I don’t think it needs to stop there. Hegemony is a real thing, and there is a certain hegemonic discourse that maintains a white supremacist capitalist nation can be found in tons of our literature and games, but that is not what I’m here to discuss. I have accepted this for a long time and pointed it out in many books, but as someone who has spent a good amount of time examining hegemonic discourse in society, writings and the language around us that is bound to be a thing I pick up on. If you want to go down that road I can give you plenty of resources, but again, that is not what I am am here to blast. Perhaps I could share some essays or write some posts on this in the future.

Hasbro is not the first to question race in the game. Even Paizo with newer editions of the game started to attempt to use heritage instead of race as a way to approach it. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a process of examining this stuff we can go down. Is there racist elements in Dragonlance? I can’t say as I’m not a fan of the books, I barely remember what I read of it 25 years ago, and I never ran any of the modules. But I’m not really interested in standing up for Dragonlance. I am interested in standing up for the workers who have been wronged by the company. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were just two that recently were wronged. If we look at the accusations and events from earlier in the year, many other employees have raised concerns of racist hostile working conditions as well, so not only do I feel the company owes the authors of Dragonlance and they definitely owe those who they discriminated against. Workers create all value. I’m a power to the people, fight for the worker type of guy.

Black is quoted “Most people in that group were not ready for me to be there, a nonbinary Black person who would actually critique their problems. Idk what they expected.” So, as things were brought to the forefront of public discourse after the public murder of George Floyd, Hasbro like so many other large corporations decided to say things like “Black Lives Matter” while having a history of showing that to their company black lives have not mattered, but they would like to make some random changes to present an image of being not racist in their marketing.

I don’t see the discussion of racism against orcs nearly as important as the real racism that exists systemically. I don’t think your fantasy racism is nearly as important as actual oppression.  If we are to address racism in the fantasy realm it would be wise to start with hiring and supporting a more diverse population of creators, and not as just a “diversity hire” as it was put in the article I linked to, but as actual creators with a voice that is heard and respected by their fellow workers and those in power. The answer is not to just screw workers over, which seem to the the Hasbro way. The changes need to be made in reality and the focus should be real world changes. If we can’t make real world changes then a bunch of rich white men in positions of power will not be able to make the changes needed in the fantasy game itself by paying some marketing department to give it a whitewash.

Might we need to look at stuff like Dragonlance to change things? Perhaps. That’s okay, we should do that then. A pretty cringe worthy video popped up in my timeline today placing blame on “SJW’s” for the Dragonlance betrayal and, well, that’s bullshit.  It was not “SJW’s” who screwed Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it was a large corporation. Let’s put blame and responsibility where it really is with those in power who make these bullshit decisions as ways to avoid being held accountable, as a way to sell their product to people who do care about actual injustice.

Now, let’s go back to the intellectual property of Dragonlance and Dungeons & Dragons. To do this I am going to shift to a quick discussion of Disney and it’s history of intellectual property. Disney’s early movies and empire was built on what would be legally copyright infringement today. All the tales they made were taken from other creators. Along the way they fought in the courts to change those laws to benefit companies like themselves. Hasbro is just another company that had a lot of money and was able to use this modern form of intellectual property to gain legal dominion over a game they did not make and a property they see as a cash cow. Hasbro doesn’t see the actual game as being profitable, because let’s be honest, Role Playing is largely a DIY hobby. They want that IP to slap a label on cheap products they can crank out for a quick buck. Kind of like Monopoly, a board-game created to highlight how horrible capitalism is was bought and turned to the icon of capitalism. They slapped every IP they could get their hands on to sell you a cheap product.

A quick search on eBay brought up Mario Brothers Monopoly, Pokemon Monopoly, Godzilla Monopoly and Hard Rock Cafe Monopoly. Hasbro seems to have been trying to sell D&D in the same manner with the new products being Rick & Morty D&D, Stranger Things D&D and D&D My Little Pony with a 20 sided die.  Instead of creating new content most of what has been put out for 5th edition is just repackaged old modules from Ravenloft rebranded as Curse of Strahd to a shiny new Ghosts of Salt Marsh. New content is often created by the community and posted on the D&D Beyond site where Hasbro takes a healthy chunk of the profit from your creations.

What would I like to see? D&D was created in peoples basements. The creators have not had any power over their creations in forever. Not just Gary Gygax, but the countless creators over the decades. They can’t sell their own creations and they can’t put out the work they did. What would I like? I mean in a perfect world I’d like to see all the IP owned by Hasbro to go to the public domain, but that is not happening. A second best? The D&D IP would be great if it were taken over by one of the many gaming companies that are out there ran by gamers for gamers, but that is not happening. Both involve the company and the power they have and the plans they have to make a buck. So, maybe a mass exodus from Hasbro? Yeah that is not happening either. Too many have bought into the companies bullshit marketing.BUT….

There are plenty of other companies and games to support out there. If you play the 5th edition most of the new content isn’t even being put out by the massive corporate conglomerate Hasbro. It’s being put out by independent creators. Buy from them. Support them, play other versions of the game put out by smaller independents. Buy and support other games and explore all the new creative stuff put out by actual gamers and game designers who do new and innovative stuff.

Put pressure on companies like Hasbro to put their money where their mouth is and change their business practices. Hiring BIPOC and actually having them have a say and power in the workplace might be a good start.

And, if by chance there is enough out there who start to get into the idea of leaving Hasbro behind, perhaps there might one day be an option to organize to target Hasbro to maybe shift things to something we might rather see.

Direct link to statement by Zaiem Beg: The Wizards I Know
Direct link to statement by Orion D. Black
Direct link to statement by Lawrence Harmon