Dungeons And Diversity – Representation And Tolerance In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
Waterdeep Dragon Heist shows off what good representation looks like. And honestly, it’s better for it.
Alright gang, let’s do this. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist might not be a perfect adventure, but it does such an amazing job of leading by example. Whether it’s showing off how to handle adventures in an urban setting, or telling DMs, ‘hey it’s okay to hand out lots of treasure if you give your PCs things to spend it on’ you can find Waterdeep setting an example for others to follow, adapt, tinker with, and play from. I think this is probably the greatest strength that Dragon Heist has–any DM can run it, have a wonderful several sessions, and be set up for success afterwards, whether a total newbie or a veteran. There’s a lot of good groundwork laid on the streets of the Crown of the North.
And that’s what brings us to the matter at hand today–Waterdeep: Dragon Heist also shows off how easy it is to represent a variety of peoples and perspectives in a campaign setting without having to make it a big deal. A big part of it is just coming up with people with interesting personalities, with characters that are fun to interact with in the first place, and then just finding ways to include everyone in that list. Thumbing through its pages you can find people of all shapes and sizes.
And amid the Crossbow-handed Dwarves and Mind Flayers who breed Intellect Devourers…
…you’ll find folks like Vajra Safahr, the newest Blackstaff. Inheriting the title from Khelben Arunsun, she now wields the Blackstaff from whence the former archmage took his nickname. Guided by the spirits of all the previous Blackstaves, she’s the new High Wizard of Waterdeep, and is a capable Wizard in her own right, but fairly new–viewed as something of an upstart but more than capable of holding her own against some of the more hidebound wizards. She’s presented as one potential ally for the Adventurers, or a potential foil, depending on their allegiances and actions, and she’s also a woman of color in a position of power.
Her story is pretty fun, she’s a maverick who isn’t afraid to call on adventurers or other resources to get the job done–but also her being in a position of power and so plainly accepted/included in the game is pretty amazing. It’s a big step towards visibility, which is a big step towards making the game feel open to a lot of people. Sure, in your imagination you can be whatever you want–there are grey-skinned elves, and red tiefling children scampering around–but I can tell you firsthand that seeing yourself represented in the official art is pretty empowering. It makes it easier to see yourself there.
Just like in Chapter 2 where amid the shops of Trollskull Alley you’ll find Avi and Embric, a water and fire genasi couple. Avi is a skilled armorer who spends his spare time working for the Splendid Order of Armorers, Locksmiths, and Finesmiths, while Embric is a weaponsmith who claims he’s descended from the efreet of Calimshan. And just having characters be a gay married couple like that does loads of work. It’s a very small section of the book and it doesn’t make that much difference to the progression of the story, right? But, finding them there specifically and intentionally says a lot about the world.
It says, “yeah gay people aren’t persecuted in Waterdeep, gay marriage is legal and you can just be open about it and not have to hide things,” among other things. Because whether you explicitly put gay characters (or bisexual, or transgender, or of different skin color, or different body types) in the game or not, players who identify as them will imagine they’re there. And so they’ll look for them. And if they don’t see them, that sends a message all its own. If they’re not mentioned, are they in hiding? Do they not exist? What are the signs of a closeted character–and then, intentional or not, you’ve said something about your world. I know, it’s a lot for such a little sentence, but that’s a big part of why it’s so important, and why these articles keep cropping up.
It’s text boxes like this that explicitly say “hey you’re welcome here, at this table, in this game, in this community” that express one of the best things about D&D. It’s a game for anyone. It’s a game for everyone. Whether you’re shy and trying to find your place in the world, or a character actor who was in Hackers; a police officer who spends his time in between traffic stops coming up with dungeon crawls or Dame Judy Dench, you can play Dungeons and Dragons.
But one of the fruits of this effort to have more diverse representation is the wider variety of characters you can find in this adventure. Like the aforementioned crossbow-handed dwarf, who is a relentless opponent players will likely face.
Or perhaps you prefer Magical Construct Don Quixote, aka the Nimblewright, who features heavily in the chase for the Stone of Golorr, a magically transformed Aboleth that will tell you secrets but also steal your mind.
Or all the friendly faces that hang out around the Yawning Portal, reaady to swap stories and share tips, rumors, and on occasion, lend a hand in a scrap.
Though you might want to watch out for Meloon Wardragon, he’s secretly had his brain eaten by one of Nihiloor’s Intellect Devourers, and now he’s a secret sleeper agent for the Xanathar’s Guild.
And that’s just some of the diverse and wondrous people you’ll find in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.