Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Other

A modest proposal to Wizards of the Coast: how about including a more diverse representation of ethnic background in your core product? You’re working on Dungeons & Dragons Next — some call it D&D Fifth Edition — and I think now would be a great time to welcome new players. A product where white wasn’t the default would be a welcome addition to the hobby. I’m not talking about niches like Oriental Adventures either; I mean in your main bread and butter books.
A short essay by Mordicai Knode at Tor.com lit up tabletop roleplaying forums last week by suggesting that fantasy roleplaying game artwork should be more inclusive in its depiction of ethnicity. While many gamers expressed support for the suggestion, others decried what they consider forcing roleplaying games to pursue a "politically correct" agenda, with a few ignorant, hateful cranks pathetically descending into outright racism.

Sadly, this conversation isn't new among gamers. The perception, and even support for the perpetuation, of tabletop roleplaying games as a hobby by white guys for white guys runs deep, and as such extends into discussions of gender representation in roleplaying games as well.

I've thought long and hard about this with respect to historical roleplaying games in particular. The 17th century, in which my Flashing Blades campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier, is set, is anything but egalitarian - it's rife with religious, ethnic, and gender intolerance, rigid social stratification and vast wealth inequality, so in putting together a campaign, I have choices to make. I could flip the switch to full alt.history, and run a fanciful egalitarian campaign in which, say, women can join the King's Musketeers without raising more than a couple of scandalised eyebrows at court who tut-tut about how things were different back in their day.

I can also hew closer to the actual history, which means that potential prejudices abound. A few gamers have suggested that this is tantamount to endorsing racism, sexism, and intolerance - why bring all of this into what is supposed to be a leisure activity when it can leave women, gays, or persons of color feeling marginalised during play? Shouldn't roleplaying games be an opportunity to escape prejudice and social restraints?

While I'm sympathetic to this view, I find it problematic in that it presumes that all gamers want the same experience from playing roleplaying games. One of the reasons that players enjoy playing historical roleplaying games in particular is to capture the feel of the period in which the campaign is set - they want not just historical trappings but a chance to pretend to be a character in that time and place, including the historical mores. Prejudice and inequality are features, not bugs, in such a campaign. To leave out the mores of the period would diminish the experience.

But given that players do approach games with different expectations, I believe it should be made crystal clear that historical campaigns will hew closely to those mores, so that prospective players can make an informed choice about whether or not it's a game they want to play. In the players' guide section of my campaign wiki, I describe the role of history in the campaign, and touch upon prejudice and intolerance.

Finally, a note about ‘-isms.’ Part of the appeal of historical roleplaying for many gamers is exploring the past. Recapturing the experience of living in another era may include cultural values different from our own. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and in particular religious intolerance are prevalent in the Early Modern era, and as such they may be encountered in the course of the game.

It’s important to bear in mind, however, that exceptional individuals are a feature of every era, and an attempt to recreate the experience of history cannot overlook these figures. For example, women owned businesses and property, served in the armies and navies (sometimes disguised, sometimes openly), founded religious organizations, and ruled great states in the seventeenth century – a few even fought duels; using the idea of sexual discrimination against female characters to unduly limit their options would make
Le Ballet de l’Acier less historical, not more.

And though it shouldn’t need to be said, here it is anyway: while racism, sexism, and the rest may be encountered in-game, they will not be tolerated out-of-game; any player who cannot treat everyone else at the table with respect will be asked to leave the game.
I've found a tendency among gamers who take issue with including gender, ethnic, and religious prejudices in historical roleplaying games to assume a setting painted with a broad brush, but in my experience they miss the significance of exceptions to the prevailing mores of a period. If we accept that prejudice and intolerance are facts of life in an Early Modern setting like that of Le Ballet de l'Acier, then we must also account for exceptional individuals who overcame those limitations, such as Juan de Pareja, Hortense Mancini, and the chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont.

In fact, two of the player characters in my campaign can be numbered among those exceptions: a Jewish woman masquerading as a Catholic swordsman, and a gay physician and polymath.

I believe that women gamers, LGBT gamers, and gamers of color should be able to see their own reflections in the world around them, and there's no reason why this shouldn't extend even to something as trivial as roleplaying games. The muse behind the blog Sarah Darkmagic, Tracy Hurley, has a Kickstarter project, Prismatic Art Collection, aimed at facilitating just that.

Prismatic Art Collection is a free library of art representing heroes of all backgrounds. In geek culture, there are plenty of Lukes, but not enough Landos or Leias. We want to change that. We're raising funds to hire a diverse group of artists to create fantasy art depicting heroes of all backgrounds.
I'd like to see more Leias and Landos - and more Juans and Hortenses - in roleplaying games.


  1. Excellent essay, Mike. I think this also strikes to the heart of the badwrongfun arguments that are often leveled against "old school" gamers—that sometimes, more complex fun can be more fulfilling.

    Capturing a historical atmosphere is part of that complexity, when one plays a historical game. And it should be noted by all and sundry who think this is an endorsement of historical values: adding things to a discussion is not tantamount to supporting them. Depiction of racism is not racism itself, and should be treated very differently, albeit carefully.

    1. Well-said, Josh - couldn't agree more.

    2. Nice one. Like this post very much and am now going to go away and brood on it before replying properly. Josh makes a great point.

    3. I've been introduced to roleplaying by a gay gamer and gay characters were always included in our games. In "modern" settings like Shadowrun or Vampire that is not much of a problem, but when I play a gay or a black character in a "historical" game like Cthulhu or Deadlands, I actually expect my GM to make things hard for me. You make a good point, though, don't hit the player with the rascism/sexism hammer at every turn, things are hard, but not impossible.

      There's a line between depicting racism/sexism in your game and being a racist and I think it's quite a thick line not easily crossed. But it can touch sore points with people, so it's best to talk about it before the game.

  2. Great call on the Prismatic Art Collection! The artist that is doing the character portraits for my game (http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/a-god-rebuilt) is one of the artists there. A great project!


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