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What we can learn from WotC’s Core Book Sensitivity and Inclusivity Changes

Art from the 2014 5E Players Handbook, depicting an open book, feather, candle, and scroll.
Art from the 2014 PHB

The language of games evolves, just as our society evolves. Seeing the language improve over time is important to me. Our hobby has grown tremendously as RPG companies have done a better job of diversity and inclusivity, creating a game that better represents our society and is more welcoming to all kinds of gamers.

Change isn’t easy. Any particular individual won’t necessarily agree with every change when they first see it. The point of this blog post isn’t to agree on every one of these changes right now. Rather, the point is to share these changes so we learn, grow, and progress. By seeing how the largest company in RPGs approaches these changes, all creators can benefit. As more creators and companies adopt similar approaches, our gaming industry improves.

I’ve made a video walkthrough of this blog post, should that be helpful!

Click to watch!

WotC Changes the 2014 Core Books

Back in March of 2023, I was discussing on the Mastering Dungeons podcast how WotC had begun making changes to the rules without issuing errata. An example was how, during the Spelljammer Hadozee incident, WotC also changed how the ancestry could glide. This fix at first was not in any errata document. An example from just a couple of weeks ago is the blasted goggles magic item in The Book of Many Things, which was corrected when it used a saving throw but then had a feature based on an attack roll. This change was made on D&D Beyond and again received no errata. I’m a fan of errata documents! I want to know what changed, understand it, and learn from it.

A show listener contacted me after the episode aired. They had looked into the issue we mentioned and noticed a huge amount of other changes between the three core books on D&D Beyond’s website and how the same books appeared on the mobile app. Surprisingly, the two platforms are refreshed through a different process, and there is a delay involved.

We took a look at the changes, finding a few we might call errata. For example, a mention of Cormanthor was corrected to Cormanthyr. WotC also changed how they credited staff for the Monster Manual. These types of changes were the minority. The vast majority of the changes were around sensitivity and inclusivity.

In April at the Creator Summit, I told WotC staff that I had noticed these changes and that I wanted to share them, though I would rather WotC do so. They have said they plan to, but it has now been more than seven months. So, here is my guide to the changes. Language continues to evolve, so we can expect further changes in the 2024 versions and every year after that. Still, we can learn from this round of changes and decide which ones to adopt in our games and our creations. I’ve grouped the changes by topic.

In Place for Months

As you read over these, keep in mind that these changes have been in the app and web site for months now. I haven’t heard anyone mention these changes. Which makes sense. Most of us didn’t notice the problems either, because such changes and impacts are subtle. It is also worth noting that these changes are also guiding how all recent books have been written.

Savagery and Civilization

Decolonizing games is a common topic, seeking to address how both fiction and non-fiction writing has historically portrayed non-Western cultures and non-urban areas as lesser. The language of our RPGs still has these depictions. The barbarian who wears animal skins and is portrayed as uneducated. The quest to tame the dangerous wilderness and any sentient creatures dwelling there. Most of us like playing barbarians and exploring wilderness in our games! It can be hard to think through how to preserve what we enjoy while improving the language.

WotC updated the 2014 core books in many ways to address how language painted creatures or cultures as savage or uncivilized, and to remove comparisons to civilization as being preferable. Here are some examples of how the topics of civilization, savagery, and barbarians have been addressed:

In the images of changes you will see below, the line in yellow is the old text, and what is removed or changed is in red highlighting. The line in green is new, with green highlighting for an addition or change. I also indicate the book where the changes take place. (For some images, you may wish to click on them to see them at their full resolution.)

DMG:

In all three cases above, the word savage is substituted for a word that connotes the terrible nature of the creatures. Or, in the case below, they just use a name describing what they are doing. The evil part of the creatures isn’t a lack of being urban dwellers, it’s their evil and violent character.

MM:

In these Monster Manual changes, often the simplest approach is to remove the problematic language and let the rest of the description speak for itself. The use of “civilized” or “savage” is often extraneous if we have already stated their nature.

PH:

These next examples have a number of changes, showcasing how to improve the language while still carrying the important themes behind being a barbarian. (Click on the image to see it at full size.)

Relatedly, we can look at changes WoTC made when describing orcs.

MM:

We can also see language removing mention of hordes:

Madness, Insanity, Crazy

A better understanding of mental health issues has resulted in stepping away from using these terms to describe evil foes, incomprehensible situations, or loss of control over one’s mind due to magic or other events. Here is an example in the DMG:

While the above example removes the term, below we see examples that swap madness for better terms and more carefully and exactly specify what is taking place.

I’ve provided other examples below, first from the DMG, as these various cases may be helpful references for creators.

MM:

PH:

Bioessentialism

Language has been changed or removed where it describes characteristics related to culture or individual experiences and assigns them to all members of the species. We also see changes in the MM when it describes the deliberate breeding of intelligent creatures.

Racial Purity, Comparisons of Lesser:

Similarly, problematic language has been cleaned up around ideas of racial purity or negatively characterizing another species as lesser. These examples are from the MM.

Low Intelligence as a Species

Broadly characterizing humanoids or similar creatures as being dimwitted or animalistic can be improved upon. I’m not convinced some of these examples are a significant fix, but often we improve in phases.

DMG:

MM:

Gender

RPGs used to almost exclusively refer to gamers as being male, before advancing to finally include women. Now we recognize that male and female can be limiting as well. The examples from the PH below are useful in thinking through further improvements. (Click to embiggen!)

The above examples have very limited applications. D&D tends to use “it” for monsters such as beholders or mind flayers, and it uses “it” when discussing monsters in general within a stat block. MCDM and many other companies use “they” when discussing monsters in a stat block. Mike Shea and Scott Fitzgerald Gray and I used the same approach for Forge of Foes.

We want a wide representation that reflects society. The language to describe particular expressions of gender and sexuality, such as same-sex partnerships or being transgender, can change (and has changed in just the past five years). I would recommend researching the current approach on a per-project basis. It is worth the effort to ensure the language we use is the best it can be.

Blinded as Unaware

Disabilities are gaining more attention. We have seen some examples in the Unearthed Arcana playtest material for 2024 change how blindness is used. Avoid using any term or descriptor that is a disability when not describing a disability. One example appears in the 2014 changes.

Fat

References to fat have been either removed when the word does not add meaning, or revised to a better way to explain the creature’s size. This in the MM:

Asian/Honor

We have seen that the 2024 rules will change how monks are characterized, removing mentions of ki. For the 2014 DMG, we can see a small adjustment to this very specific parallel to honor as being related to Asian culture. We should in general avoid mentions of real-world culture, especially when the mechanic is unlikely to properly speak to the complexities of a real-world culture.

Phylactery

I believe Pathfinder removed any reference to a phylactery, which has Jewish cultural origins. WotC has kept its use, but changed how it is described in the MM.

Slavery

Slavery is an incredibly complex issue. I was surprised to see that WotC has retained some uses of it. Speaking to folks more knowledgeable than myself, many sensitivity consultants and advocates make very specific recommendations in how to use the language, differentiating between the impact of slave and enslaved, for example. I personally would remove any mention of slavery. However, you may wish to consult the examples below or do further reading into the current approaches for discussing the issue in fiction.

DMG: (Discussing Efreet, Dao, Drow)

MM:

Dark

We see some examples above as well. The use of dark can be problematic for its association with skin color. We can easily change our language to a different descriptor that is clearer to begin with. This is in the PH:

Final Thoughts

I am glad Wizards has made these changes, though ideally they would share their approach with the industry. They don’t have to do so, of course, but it would have a positive impact on the hobby and encourage dialogue amongst companies and freelancers.

If we are serious about creating a better hobby, we can benefit from examining the latest approaches. Sharing approaches and discussing them with creators and communities you trust is a great way to improve as a creator or GM.

The changes above shouldn’t be treated as the only approach or the final approach. How we address these issues is changing rapidly. I may have described items above imperfectly, though I have made the effort not to do so. When publishing a product, we want to hire a sensitivity reader who can ensure our product is well written and reflects the latest approaches.

(Edit: A fellow creator shared this style guide for various categories (class and social standing, gender and sexuality, etc.)

Click to order the Forge of Foes!

12 comments on “What we can learn from WotC’s Core Book Sensitivity and Inclusivity Changes

  1. Jacob
    November 17, 2023

    Phylactery is a tricky one.

    It’s unclear in what context Gygax and/or Kuntz encountered the word. The Hebrew term is actually Tefillin. The Greek phulakterion meant an amulet or reliquary. Tefillin was translated to phulakterion by Hellinistic jews around 300 BCE. Phulakterion already had a pre-existing meaning, and you will still find that definition for phylactery in modern dictionaries. Words originating from phulakterion have found use describing a wide variety of amulets and reliquaries over the last 2000+ years.

    I think this is less likely a case of cultural misappropriation and more likely a symptom of Gygax’s pernicious case of Roget’s Disease, but there’s no way to be certain.

  2. Language grows and changes over time. This is normal. Younger generations decide to modernize how they speak, and older generations rebel, but it’s not up to them. Not for long.

    For example, the word “balcony” has a surprisingly controversial past. In Italy, the word balcone was pronounced “bal-CO-ne,” using the romantic language standard of emphasis on the next-to-last syllable.

    But for whatever reason, younger people started pronouncing it “BAL-co-ne.” Older generations rebelled, claiming the change was vulgar and classless. they claimed the young were destroying the language.

    And progress always wins, because we never went back to pronouncing balcony the old way. Tradition is the illusion of permanence.

  3. Tom
    November 18, 2023

    Thanks for a really great and thoughtful analysis of these changes Teos!

    Another dimension here that might be worth exploring is what didn’t change with these updates. Comparing the context around the things that changed and the things that didn’t may give further insights into the thinking behind these updates.

    For example, a quick text search of the DMG shows four instances of savage remain, three in chapter 1 and one in chapter 2.

    In chapter 1, there are three uses of savage (one as savagery). Entry 6 of the Invading Forces table remains “A savage tribe”. The third bullet point in the “Campaign Theme” section contains “A campaign featuring troubled heroes who confront not only the savagery of the bestial creatures of the world, … “. And in the “Tiers of Play” section there a bit that reads “where they fight savage balor demons”.

    In chapter 2, there is once instance in the very last paragraph that reads “On Mystara (a heroic-fantasy world born out of the earliest editions of the D&D game), diverse cultures, savage monsters, and warring empires collide.”

    Where these instances differ from those that were noted above is in their connection to location. Each of the instances that were changed came from sentences or paragraphs that described the PCs venturing out into the “wilds” in one form or another. So while all can be viewed as a description of the creature’s brutality or ruthlessness, only the ones that were changed could also be read as “uncivilized”, which may be the reason for why they were the ones changed.

    • Alphastream
      November 19, 2023

      That’s really interesting, Tom! Another designer shared that they had recently decided to note all the places where the core books mentioned Madness. Searching in DDB, they found there were basically no mentions and couldn’t understand why until they read my blog!

  4. Gary Kuntz
    November 20, 2023

    Hopefully, this does not cause them to alienate people like Disney has done so. Instead of putting out high quality products they’re worried about semantics.

    • Alphastream
      November 22, 2023

      The changes have been live for several months and no one even noticed, so I think the vast majority of gamers won’t have any issue at all with them. Over time, we could expect more and more folks to appreciate them… the same way 5E itself has made early versions of these changes and ended up the best-selling edition of D&D by far.

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  6. Robert G. Scumaci
    November 20, 2023

    These are some impressive and thorough changes. My initial instinct was this was likely too much and not really all necessary – but reading it all together really identifies the extent and cumulative effects of this language and the changes make the text and the game better.

  7. Roger
    November 22, 2023

    The problem is, what is the underlying principle being applied here? Whatever that is, it seems to be applied selectively.

    Presumably, they stopped referring to the hill giant chief as fat because someone deemed that to be insensitive towards players, such as myself, who struggle with weight issues.

    Why then does the game continue to have an Intimidation skill when many players have at one time or another been affected by bullying?

    And then there is the bigger question, which is what remains of the game once it has been stripped of everything that might be insensitive to someone, somewhere?

    • Alphastream
      November 22, 2023

      I don’t feel there is a need for any concern. “The dark altar,” now “the foreboding altar” – none of the fun is gone. It’s simply a different word choice. The game still has teeth, still is interesting and filled with danger. The hill giant values size, and that may manifest in any number of ways, from bodybuilding to overindulgence. The DM gets to decide that, but the game didn’t limit you. The beholder has dreams and thoughts beyond our understanding, rather than due to insanity… which, really, is more fitting with how we approach beholders historically and presently as tactical foes that are quite alien but not necessarily suffering from mental health issues. These changes have been live for over half a year without anyone being troubled by them, so I don’t think it’s likely to negatively impact our hobby in any way.

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