Erin Roberts knows the lived experiences we bring to the table shape the stories we tell.
Roberts is a Black woman who loves the South. That passion comes through in the stories she wants to tell as an author – even when that story is told in a fantasy game based entirely on a group of people fighting monsters in a world of make-believe.
Roberts is one of 16 writers who had a chance to tell a new story in the latest Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook, "Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel." All are people of color, a first for D&D after nearly 50 years. The book hit shelves Tuesday and carries adventurers through an anthology of tales shaped by the lived experiences of the most diverse group of writers ever assembled by Wizards of the Coast.
“The cultures we're raised in, the types of stories we're told growing up, are different from group to group, from culture to culture,” she said, adding representation “makes deeper and broader the types of stories we're telling.”
Bringing those lived experiences to the table is exactly what co-project lead and writer Ajit A. George wanted. An Indian American, he knows all too well the struggle of trying to see yourself in a fantasy world written by someone who doesn’t have diversity front-of-mind.
That’s why he pitched the idea in the first place. He was frustrated after he attended a convention 10 years ago and struggled to find Black and Brown people in attendance.
“It made me reflect about how often I saw myself or people who looked anything like me in D&D products or in just larger geekdom,” he said.
After working on other projects, George met with D&D senior designer F. Wesley Schneider. George, also the director of operations of the nonprofit Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, was given the chance to work on another D&D product, he said, and during that time, he thought about what would eventually become “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel.”
“As I’m writing, I’m thinking, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be awesome to have an entire D&D book written by people of color talking about our own cultures, our own people, our own histories, our own myths, the foods we eat, the arts we appreciated – what would that look like?” George said.
The idea was quickly green-lit by Jeremy Crawford, game architect of Dungeons & Dragons. Schneider, who became the project’s other co-lead, said he wanted diversity at the forefront of the book.
“Even when playing with fantasy, so often writers are drawing upon what their experiences are,” Schneider said. “Tolkien pastiche is practically a genre. The high-fantasy knights against ‘spooky evil thing,’ and there’s probably a MacGuffin to be destroyed. We’ve seen it thousands of times.”
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He added, “It’s not until you start branching out, either into genre or into truly different regions or – and this is the case in ‘Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel’ – through the experiences of different storytellers that you start breaking away from a lot of these tropes and cliches.”
In total, 50 people of color “worked on the book or supported the book in some way,” George said. Aside from the stories, the book itself is beautiful, Schneider said. The book has two covers, both designed by women of color.
The diverse writers room meant there was an understanding between the writers that comes from being used to being the only person of color in a room in a working environment, Roberts said. That rapport meant the ideas flowed almost constantly during the creation of the book, despite the team working remotely during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, there was pressure to deliver, Roberts said. George agreed – the project brought “incredible joy,” but also “enormous stress,” he said.
“When you don’t see a lot of representation of your culture, it can put a lot of weight on you,” Roberts said. “When you’re bringing that representation to the table, you don’t know how people will take it. You don’t know how people will react to it.”
With a laugh, she added, “You don’t want to feel like you set the struggle back. You want to feel like you did right, and you moved things forward and you did your part.”
A radiant journey
Of course, the writers focused on delivering a thrilling set of adventures for players to travel through. Players with characters level 1 through 14 can pick up “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel” and play.
Want a creepy story inspired by the American South? It’s there. Hoping to travel through a city-state ruled by an angel? Have fun. Want to battle a giant shrimp? Prep your spells for the day and go for it.
“These are not works of first-timers,” Schneider said. “These are not amateur works. Everybody threw themselves into this.”
Roberts wanted to break away from common tropes about Black culture in urban fantasy and sci-fi. Usually, she said, it’s either based in urban or African areas. The story of Black people in the South, over time, has been lost, she said.
“The setting is definitely inspired by Black culture in the American South, but it’s not the oppression that people associate – rightfully so – with that area. It’s just Black people there. Just the people who came there are there and they’re living their lives. The things they’re dealing with are the magic and the monsters.”
For Justice Ramin Arman, another writer recently hired by Wizards of the Coast as a senior game designer, working on “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel” gave him a chance to see himself in a fantasy work – something he said he was mostly denied growing up as an Iranian American.
“To show people, especially when you have a region that is so often the boogeyman of Western media, to show them there’s beauty in Iran,” Arman said. “There’s beauty in more than just Persian rugs, but in the food, in the philosophies and the poetry, to bring that to a Dungeons & Dragons location and an adventure is extremely special and I’m very proud.”
‘A celebration of people of color’
Roberts, Arman, Schneider and George are eager to see responses from players.
There’s an intro that invites players to use the book a bit differently, Schneider said. It invites players to immerse themselves in the story even if they don’t come from the background of the writer. Players are invited to experience the world as their characters would and maybe try a different character archetype from what they’re used to.
“The whole book is an invitation to not just tables who match these backgrounds, but especially to those that don’t,” Arman said. “That is the foundation of education. We all grow by learning things outside of our comfort zone.”
The writers are hopeful the book brings real-world inspiration.
“The book is just a celebration of people of color,” George said.
Roberts, thinking of young D&D players of color who might pick up “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel,” said she’s excited for what the next generation of diverse players brings to the table after reading stories from people who look like them.
“There’s nowhere you cannot dream yourself to be,” Roberts said. “See that in this book. See yourself. See people like you. People not like you. This is such a big world. It’s such a diverse world and you’re a part of it. You’re a part of the dream. You’re a part of the fantasy.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel': D&D book celebrates diversity