A Fierce, Fragile Utopia: A Conversation with Ajit A. George
By David M. HigginsSeptember 24, 2022
Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel by Ajit A. George
The visionary behind this project is Ajit A. George, who served as creator, co–project lead, and co-writer for the book. Outside the gaming world, George is the director of operations for the international nonprofit the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. He has spoken for TEDx, the International Monetary Fund, and NPR on topics including education, gender equality, community development, and poverty alleviation. As a game creator, he graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and he has written for a variety of gaming companies such as Bully Pulpit, Thorny Games, and Monte Cook Games. He has also organized international collaborative live-action role-playing events, and he is an energetic diversity consultant, speaker, and activist.
David M. Higgins, a senior editor for LARB, corresponded with George via email to celebrate the release of Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and explore its creative genesis.
DAVID M. HIGGINS: Can you say a little about what it was like bringing this book together once the pitch was accepted and you had the green light from D&D? Overall, how did you approach this project in terms of the direction you provided to the creators?
AJIT A. GEORGE: I did a lot of research in the pitch phase — scoping out what D&D had covered in the past and what was missing. I realized that much of the world’s societies had never been included in D&D — cultures, myths, legends, folklore, politics, history — by writers who came from those areas. So that was part of my pitch — explaining how powerful it would be to open up D&D’s audience to something fresh and new, something that hadn’t been seen before in the fantasy and fiction of D&D.
Once the project was greenlit, I worked with my co-lead, Wes Schneider, and our consultants on vision docs — I had some specific things I wanted to avoid, like centering war as a storyline, and what I wanted to see — like conflict without conquest. Those vision docs were instrumental in guiding the writers on the themes and ethos of the book. Simultaneously, I began to work through my list of contacts for potential writers. I knew a lot of people of color whom I wanted to bring onto the project from my past work organizing mentorships and networking events for Black and Brown people in games, so I had a long list of potential candidates. I always double-checked my choices with my co-lead, but Wes approved all my choices — he was very supportive across the board.
The entire project was very collaborative. I used some of the techniques I employ in my full-time work to set up the team for success. There were shared boards, messaging apps, co-working sessions, peer-review rounds, and more. The team was constantly riffing off of one another, and you can see this from subtle elements in each section that hint or allude to other pieces. That’s why we avoided giving individual credit for each section. The visual artists received specific credit for their work on the page itself. But for the writing, we felt it best to avoid giving individual credit to each writer — it’s an anthology that had many collaborators, including various editors, rules developers, and consultants. Though the primary writing for each section was done by one person, each of us had our fingerprints on every page.
I’m impressed by the way the stories in Radiant Citadel decouple the D&D concept of “race” (or species) from culture and ethnicity. To oversimplify somewhat, D&D (and high fantasy in general) has often racialized ethnicity: elves and orcs, for example, are traditional D&D “races,” and their cultures have often been treated as expressions of their supposedly inherent racial tendencies.
In Radiant Citadel, by contrast, we are introduced to a variety of fantastical ethnic cultures, but these cultures are almost always vibrantly multiracial (or multispecies). In “Wages of Vice,” for example, the ethnic culture of Zinda is very distinct, but the people of Zinda are a diverse mix of humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, halflings, and other nonhumans. Shared ethnic culture and heritage take center stage, and people with all kinds of different bodies (elf, orc, human, etc.) share that culture. The same is true in most of the adventures in the anthology — “race” rarely matters in relation to culture.
It seems clear that the central emphasis on culture and ethnicity in the book, and the way you decouple ethnicity from anchors to playable D&D races, is a product of both the diversity of the book’s contributors and the influence of recent conversations related to D&D’s tangled historical approaches to race.
I’d love to hear you comment about this! What sort of guidance did you offer contributors about how to navigate the tricky territory of D&D “races” for this project, and how did your conversations around this unfold with the creative team?
D&D has been moving away from some of those problematic elements, but there are challenges in doing so without alienating an older generation of players who grew up with those touchstones, and which are, in truth, anchored in Tolkien’s works. Lord of the Rings, which I deeply love, has all these racialized ethnicities with how men, dwarves, elves, and orcs are portrayed. D&D was heavily influenced by it, and that legacy still carries on today.
As a new addition to D&D, Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel had the opportunity to re-envision some of these stereotypes. This was something I wanted to do from the very start: I wanted each writer to begin with a culture they had in mind, to create the architecture for it and then populate it accordingly with the D&D races that existed. To be honest, this was fairly straightforward: Wes, who is a senior game designer at Wizards of the Coast, was wholly on board and agreed with the idea. There was never a discussion that elves would be one way and dwarves would be another way. Each D&D race would be reflective of the culture and the ethnicity they belonged to.
The writers, in part, accomplished this by reverse engineering. Stephanie Yoon really leaned into the dragon-based mythology of her fantasy setting of Yeonido, so the dragonborn made a lot of sense to her. But these are very different dragonborn than you’d find in other parts of the D&D multiverse: first and foremost, they are reflective of Yeonido’s culture and people. Similarly, when Felice Kuan created the empire of Great Xing, which was based on ancient China, she riffed on the idea that Chinese society trends towards more patient, long-term thinking. And because the people wanted to have leaders who were long-term strategists, the longer-lived dwarves ruled the land. Once again, her approach to dwarves was very different from other D&D portrayals. I hope the way the writers approached D&D races, cultures, and ethnicities provokes thought on what’s possible within the game.
Honestly, much of this came together organically once we created the base guidelines and goals of the book. Everyone was on board, and I was thrilled at the result.
I’m curious about your thoughts regarding cultural appropriation in relation to this project. I love that there’s a section in the introduction to help storytellers avoid falling into perpetuating harmful stereotypes about different cultures — this felt like a quick adaptation of Nisi Shawl’s book Writing the Other tailored for gaming. I also appreciate that there’s a section with specific tips to help players avoid insulting cultural appropriations (“one person’s culture isn’t another person’s costume”). It seems like one of the challenges of a book like this is highlighting and showcasing cultural diversity without inadvertently opening the door to harmful cultural stereotyping once the game unfolds in actual play. How did you and your team approach this issue as you crafted the book? What did you feel like you learned along the way?
I think we all had the issue of cultural appropriation in the back of our minds, but it wasn’t something that was central to our work. Partially, it’s because, while the civilizations created in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel are influenced by real-world cultures, they are still fantasy. And because we knew we were writing for D&D and that a lot of people from various different backgrounds would be playing within our material, we didn’t add anything in there that we felt would cause problems for people not of those cultures to play or be part of. The introduction was mostly designed to give guidance on how to play characters and within cultures different from the reader’s own background and hopefully lower the barrier of entry.
If anything, each of us deeply wants players of all ethnicities to play our adventures, and in the worlds we wrought. We don’t want our work to become a museum piece where people look from afar but are too scared to touch. That, in many ways, is much more damaging than any other mistake people could make. I think when you put a culture on the high shelf and don’t engage with it, it dies. We were meant to exchange, to share, to borrow from each other, and, in doing so, to understand each other better. In part, Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel is about creating empathy for one another and enjoying what makes each of us special.
I’m struck by the utopian elements of the Radiant Citadel itself in the opening chapter: the core of the book’s setting is a sanctuary for immigrants and refugees where food, housing, and healthcare are provided for all, and where peacekeeping and restorative justice take priority over punitive law enforcement. At a time when mainstream science fiction and fantasy often seem fixated on dystopia and apocalypse, the Radiant Citadel setting instead imagines bright utopian possibilities (and it invites gamers to explore those possibilities through immersive role-playing).
I think this takes a lot of vision and courage — it’s maybe much easier to imagine dystopia than to envision hope right now, for lots of reasons. What inspired you and your team toward this specific utopian vision? Do you feel that there are specific ways the diversity of your creative team helped shape the utopian elements of this setting?
I had a strong concept for the book from the start, and even before the team onboarded, I created guidelines and a vision document so that the writers understood the direction I wanted them to take and equally what I wanted them to avoid. For example, war was an element that I didn’t want in the book — at least not ongoing war as a motivator for an adventure. It was okay to have war as part of the history, but not in the present. Too much fantasy focuses on war to drive the plot, and often that leads to a good-versus-evil binary and an “othering” of one group — the “evil” group. In more than a few cases, of course, that evil group happens to be non-white. The continued perpetuation and consumption of this pattern in our literature and games shapes our way of thinking, and I wanted to break from it and offer alternatives. In most of the adventures, there is conflict that’s borne out of opposing goals but without the imperialistic bent that can be popular in fantasy literature. And there is genuine nuance even with the “villainous” characters, which makes the book richer for its complexity.
But the actual hopefulness that rings through the book, and the fragile utopian elements that the Radiant Citadel core setting embodies, emerged through the process of writing. I think we all realized, as we were working on it, that this book is fundamentally a book of audacious hope. There was tremendous joy, a delirious dreaming to make a book like this come together and come alive. We all felt it at moments: something bigger than us. So, when I took to writing the opening chapter, “The Radiant Citadel,” I wanted a location that reflected this feeling, reflected all of our own hopes and dreams. Equally, I wanted to respond to the hardships of our present day — the overwhelming feeling of dread and hopelessness that had permeated much of our daily lives. So much of our art is shaped by it — this sense that the only way forward is to embrace the darkness. Or that, to fight the darkness, one must be darker still. Or that our world is hopelessly lost.
To offer this beautiful, breakable, but still fierce, fragile utopia that is the Radiant Citadel felt like an act of defiance: a planting of a flag in the ground and saying things can be better. I wanted to dream something better, and I hope that dream will be contagious.
Is there any chance we’ll see this setting expand? Classic beloved D&D settings (like Dragonlance and Ravenloft) originally became popular because of novels, modules, and expansions. With the amazing writing talent on this project, I feel like you could create new novels and expansions that could accomplish for today what books like the Dragonlance Chronicles accomplished back in the 1980s (but for a new generation of fans). Of the great writers you worked with, who would you pick to be the R. A. Salvatore of the setting (so to speak), if you had the chance, and why?
I’d love to see the setting expand! Wizards of the Coast has many different departments, so even when we think of “D&D,” it’s really the design studio, and I don’t believe they have any involvement in novelizations. I honestly don’t know much about modern-day novelizations of D&D books, so it might be a bit of a wait. But I’d absolutely love to write a novel myself in the Radiant Citadel universe!
But if not me, wow, there was a lot of talent on the team, so it’s a hard call. I think I’d go with Erin Roberts. Her drafts were so beautifully evocative and moved me to my core. I knew we had magic in a bottle when I read what she created. And I know she has lots of ideas, much more that she wants to write for the Radiant Citadel universe. I think she’d nail it!
Which chapter did Erin Roberts write? What did you find particularly moving about her contributions?
Erin wrote “Written in Blood” which is set in the land of Godsbreath. Her piece is incredibly important, in my opinion, because she tackles, from a sideways approach, the forced relocation of Black people to the United States. Instead of anchoring this purely in trauma and pain, she gives a complex and complicated origin that allows for exploration without having to force Black players (or others) to play through it (or play in Godsbreath), from the incredibly weighty origin of slavery. I loved that she wanted to reimagine the Black Southern experience in a fantasy setting, and have it be hopeful and self-empowering.
Are there similar things you’d like to highlight about other chapters in Radiant Citadel — important, thoughtful approaches to specific scenarios that are worth shining a spotlight on?
This is a challenging question, if only because there are so many really special things the various writers did that smartly and creatively showcased their cultures in the adventures. I’ll limit myself to two other examples that resonate with me.
In “Fiend of Hollow Mine,” Mario Ortegón does a marvelous job of bringing to life a popular Mexican festival — Día de los Muertos — as a fantastical event called “The Night of the Remembered,” where the dead actually come back to visit the living. He also incorporates a Mexican home altar, the ofrenda, into the adventure in a way that the players can interact with and which is useful to them. All of this comes together beautifully and organically. Mario also draws deeply from Mexican culture in ways people may not catch right off the bat. For instance, one of the characters, Doña Rosa, plays out an arc that is popular in telenovelas. Unless you’re an avid watcher of telenovelas, you may not get it, but fans of the medium are going to enjoy her story.
Hitting very different notes, in “Between Tangled Roots,” Pamela Punzalan does a fantastic job of tackling the complex issue of colonization. At the outset of the adventure, a dragon attacks the city of Kalapang. The players are enlisted to stop the dragon from further rampages, and this may lead them to think it’s the familiar trope of an evil dragon terrorizing the countryside. As the story progresses, however, it’s revealed that the dragon is suffering from an affliction that has plagued the land since it was colonized and pillaged by a conquering force. In fact, various characters carry the scars — and the legacy — of occupation. Unlike other stories about colonization, the lens never shifts to the conquering force (which is long gone) but instead always remains focused on those who were conquered — it’s their story, and I found it to be an incredibly empathetic one. It’s a great chapter that takes on a serious topic smartly but also in a fun adventure format.
A purely fun question: is there any chance we’ll get miniatures for the Dawn Incarnates? I have to say, I absolutely adore them, and I might sell my comics collection for a Ruby Pangolin miniature, or an Amethyst Tiger. Seriously — super cool.
Oh, man, from your lips to the merchandising people’s ears! I absolutely want to see miniatures of the Dawn Incarnates, and I know other people do, too. They were one of my favorite things to create in the entire book, and they symbolize the tradition of oral storytelling, and of the passing on of the wisdom of elders — both of which are prevalent in many cultures of the world.
I hope it’ll happen. That’s out of my hands, but hopefully, it won’t be as long a wait as it was for a Brown Barbie. It’s always five extra steps to get support for merchandise for works that focus on people of color, but I am keeping my fingers crossed.
What else do you feel is important to say about Radiant Citadel? Is there a question you’re dying for someone to ask, or a topic related to the book that you haven’t been able to comment on in a public forum yet?
I’ve talked about how the Radiant Citadel itself is part of the solarpunk movement, and how the book is part of the hopepunk scene. So, I am not sure if it qualifies as new, but I do think it’s something important to mention.
The book began its journey in mid-2020. It was a pretty dark time — COVID-19 was sweeping the country and the world, and there was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air. There were migrant crises in the Middle East, in Europe, in the United States. I think, as a group of writers, we were deeply worried and maybe a little scared. And at the same time, there was a lot of grimdark and dystopian media out in the world. And that is certainly one way to respond, artistically, to times of trouble. But grimdark’s answer to problems seems to be that to fight the darkness, one must embrace the darkness. And dystopian fiction feels fatalistic, as if the road can only lead to one place.
The Radiant Citadel itself was meant to ask questions and provoke thought in a different direction. What would radical cooperation look like in a society that believed in the welfare of all who lived in it? What would it mean to live thoughtfully with one’s surroundings, to ensure the ecosystem and community were sustainable and restorative? What does a city look like when it isn’t consuming itself and its leaders aren’t trying to siphon off wealth and power? That feels like what the solarpunk movement is about.
At the same time, the very idea of the book, a major fantasy gaming book with the official D&D brand published by Wizards of the Coast, felt like an act of defiant hope in a time that was dark. When we had neo-Nazis and white supremacists openly marching in the streets, and oppressive autocrats in power around the world who espoused hatred of immigrants. The idea that the book could exist in such a time felt miraculous, and deeply hopeful, a counter to what we were seeing, and a balm for our souls.
The book is about empathy, about learning from one another. It’s about showcasing the wonderful differences we have as human beings, but also rejoicing in our shared humanity. Each adventure, each chapter, has its darkness, its hardships, and its challenges. It’s not the absence of darkness that makes it hopepunk but how each story and culture responds to those moments of darkness. Characters and storylines are complex, and they offer solutions that aren’t always about violence. There is always a sliver of hope, and the beauty of the culture that shines through. The book, its existence and what it offers to the world, is hopepunk.
David M. Higgins is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books and chair of the English department at Inver Hills College in Minnesota.
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