Thinking about Race and RPG’s

“When we all sit down together and gather around the multi-cultural table, what do white people bring?

The answer is: The Table.”

– Tim Wise

Last month I was talking about a game of Misspent Youth that we played last year. In it, we all worked for a corporate fast food chain that was the Big Bad of the game and it was called Murdah Burger. They had entirely commodified hip-hop culture; had re-packaged it and were selling it right back to the people they had stolen it from. While telling Janaki about the game, she got really uncomfortable.

Instead of asking her what about the game’s premise made her uncomfortable or talking about the issues the game’s setting we specifically designed to bring up, I attempted to shut the conversation down.

“You weren’t there. The game was fine. It was awesome.”

Later, I apologized and checked myself and eventually we sussed it out together. But in the following essay, when I write about these techniques used to put off discussion and dialogue about race issues, I am not talking about some bogeyman under the bed, some mythical privileged person far away who we can all tut-tut. I am talking about many of us, myself very much included.

We tried to shoot a Sons of Kryos show about race and the new video format’s limitations did not allow for it to work, despite Jeff’s prodigious skill and Storn’s wonderful contributions. While hashing it out, I wrote an e-mail to them, just kind of get my thoughts in order.

It went a little something like this:

RPG’s are built on the fictions of Tolkien and Howard. These are works that are really messy, at best, in their depictions of race. The House of Gaming is built on shaky, shaky foundations. To make matters worse, our own country’s media has its own issues with depictions of people of color in film. This isn’t a pass for gaming, though and it isn’t an excuse for intellectual laziness.

If we can’t agree that it is kinda odd that many of our fantasy worlds have a nation of black-skinned immortal evil women who live underground in an empire run by slavery and ruled by a demon queen, than we are in trouble. I don’t care if St. Gary was just basing his Drow on the black elves of Norse Myth. This isn’t about what Gary Gygax meant or did not mean in creating the Drow. It is about what they have become, how they are depicted and have become a symbol all their own.

Fantasy worlds are metaphors, whether we are aiming for pure escapism or not. Metaphor is the blood of what we do. Metaphors use symbols and symbols are powerful. It isn’t that we should be careful, far from it. I think the metaphors and symbols should be a total mess. Make fantasy worlds that make you wince. But be willing to talk about it. Don’t shrug it off, don’t look away from the messes we make and be willing to own them. It doesn’t make you a bad person to have taken part in a messy metaphor, far from it. I would argue that it makes us very human. Just do not cop out.

Do not say that fantasy worlds “do not mean anything” or that it is “just fantasy.” This is weak sauce. It doesn’t matter what you meant or that your best friend is black and he loved your game. Do not run from a messy fantasy. Embrace it. Use it. Talk about it.

I am not saying you cannot play your Drow Ranger with two katana. Play that damned ranger! But don’t look away from the mess that ranger is built on and do not use the dozens of techniques people in privilege and power (y’know, those people…like ME) use to keep from ever having think critically about race and the fictions we use to play our games.

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75 thoughts on “Thinking about Race and RPG’s

  1. Judd, this is one of the few gaming articles about race that I can really get behind. Very cool, and I’d love to see some development of thought along these lines.

  2. Roadblocks

    Yeah, we discussed it and hashed it out. There is no not discussing things with her. She isn’t some kind of delicate flower that can be put off. But it blew me away that even after writing down and saying the things above I threw roadblocks in her way.

    • Re: Roadblocks

      I would be keen to hear of this.

      In a Sorcerer game set in NYC with an all-white all-Commonwealth group I played a black guy. I very deliberately did it as a challenge to myself, to my “right-on liberal” self-image, and to my belief in RPGs as a way to engage with cross-cultural/cross-ethnicity experiences in more than a superficial way. It was an interesting experience for sure, and while I think I walked out with my dignity intact I am still processing the whole thing several years later.

      So your discussions here would be appreciated as they might help me draw understanding out of that game.

      • Re: Learned

        “You might learn something about what you feel about some issues surrounding said minority or persons of color.”

        Plural you, where “you” means “all y’all at the table” right?

    • Re: Roadblocks

      I would be keen to hear of this.

      In a Sorcerer game set in NYC with an all-white all-Commonwealth group I played a black guy. I very deliberately did it as a challenge to myself, to my “right-on liberal” self-image, and to my belief in RPGs as a way to engage with cross-cultural/cross-ethnicity experiences in more than a superficial way. It was an interesting experience for sure, and while I think I walked out with my dignity intact I am still processing the whole thing several years later.

      So your discussions here would be appreciated as they might help me draw understanding out of that game.

    • Re: Roadblocks

      I would be keen to hear of this.

      In a Sorcerer game set in NYC with an all-white all-Commonwealth group I played a black guy. I very deliberately did it as a challenge to myself, to my “right-on liberal” self-image, and to my belief in RPGs as a way to engage with cross-cultural/cross-ethnicity experiences in more than a superficial way. It was an interesting experience for sure, and while I think I walked out with my dignity intact I am still processing the whole thing several years later.

      So your discussions here would be appreciated as they might help me draw understanding out of that game.

  3. Dear Judd,

    Drow elves don’t mean anything. Except whatever they meant in Scandinavian literature. Where they were nothing like drow. So that just means they mean nothing at all.

    After all we like what we like for no reason at all and with no consequence or meaning at all. That’s why we like it, because it means nothing.

    Yours,

    The Intertron.

  4. Dear Judd,

    Drow elves don’t mean anything. Except whatever they meant in Scandinavian literature. Where they were nothing like drow. So that just means they mean nothing at all.

    After all we like what we like for no reason at all and with no consequence or meaning at all. That’s why we like it, because it means nothing.

    Yours,

    The Intertron.

  5. Dear Judd,

    Drow elves don’t mean anything. Except whatever they meant in Scandinavian literature. Where they were nothing like drow. So that just means they mean nothing at all.

    After all we like what we like for no reason at all and with no consequence or meaning at all. That’s why we like it, because it means nothing.

    Yours,

    The Intertron.

  6. Re: Roadblocks

    I would be keen to hear of this.

    In a Sorcerer game set in NYC with an all-white all-Commonwealth group I played a black guy. I very deliberately did it as a challenge to myself, to my “right-on liberal” self-image, and to my belief in RPGs as a way to engage with cross-cultural/cross-ethnicity experiences in more than a superficial way. It was an interesting experience for sure, and while I think I walked out with my dignity intact I am still processing the whole thing several years later.

    So your discussions here would be appreciated as they might help me draw understanding out of that game.

  7. Re: What has the intertron done with Brand?

    (Help me, I’m stuck in here and can’t get out.)

    (No wait, Neo is telling me that Morpheus has a pill that will get me out.)

    (Hey, wouldn’t it have been cool if Morpheus was the One?)

  8. Learned

    Let’s start with my thoughts with playing a minority or a person of color or a metaphor for those things when you aren’t one.

    You are not, not, not learning what it is like to be a person of color or minority.

    You aren’t.

    You might learn something about what you feel about some issues surrounding said minority or persons of color.

    Learning and digging into what you feel is powerful mojo, though.

    So, did you feel you learned anything and if so, what?

  9. Re: Learned

    (I don’t know what I was asking either. I think I was just *reacting*.)

    Not learning what it was like: hell yes. I don’t know if I expected to get that, probably on some level I did, but it was very clear that was not going to happen.

    Let me try to construct something about what it was like:

    * Race was not an explicit issue in the game content. However, my character was embedded in his milieu, so it was an implicit issue, obviously to all.

    * I was very, very conscious of not being a dick. I felt vulnerable before the group, and feeling like I would be judged harshly if I slipped into cliche/media representation/wish fulfilment/etc rather than just playing honestly. (“Honestly” seems like the right word.)

    * I was determined to make the character a human being first and a member of his ethnic/cultural/racial category second.

    * I approached it in some sense from an authorial perspective. I’m a writer; I like to think that, with sufficient research, I could write a good character from any number of cultures. In the same way, I wanted to play a character that “rang true”.

    * I approached it in another sense from an anthropological perspective. The most important thing I learned from my Anth major was that a real grasp of a culture other than my own is far beyond reach without enormous work. You can learn bits and pieces, even some really important bits and pieces, but the more you learn the more you realise how little you get it.

    * I absolutely think I got into the head of this character – that I knew what it was like for that character in those circumstances. You need that to play a character honestly I guess. But – and maybe this counts as something I learned – this was circumscribed in some pretty definite ways. I knew how this character interacted with family, with friends, with work people; I knew some of his hassles and privations. But the more general experience of being who he was, particularly the experience of being a minority, was absent. It just wasn’t on the table. To be honest, I didn’t miss it; I think without any conscious decision the group just steered clear of stuff that was too hard.

    Hmm. This reply seems kinda bloodless, and certainly defensive, but that last bit does seem like progress. I felt the character was so real to me in so many ways, but examining my memories, they were all “general being a human” ways and not “being a young black man without much money” ways. And that, in turn, might explain why I couldn’t reconcile the reality of the character with the sense that I was selling him short the whole time.

    I dunno. I hope this has made some sense. I hope I haven’t fallen into the trap of being too defensive; maybe I have. Do challenge me if you think I’m talking BS, someone had better do so.

    My question: how did you resolve Janaki’s concerns about the Misspent Youth game?

  10. Re: Learned

    That’s some of the things that bother me in RPGs, with Fantasy Races (which are races, non-humans; Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Outsiders, etc.).

    Usually there are two ways in which they are played:
    1. They are played as cliches. “The Dwarf”, “The Elf”, it’s like someone took a page from Jung. There is <>The<>, and that is what you see, and you’d see the same thing in a fantasy book from 30 years ago and in a gaming session 3 continents away.
    2. They are played as fully realized humans. I think that is infinitely better than what we have above, but sadly, it’s still no good at all.
    A Mature Silver Dragon in human form is not a human, does not think like a human, and does not feel like a human. In the table it will be another human, when it all comes down to it.

    But the thing is, it’s probably inherent. In the end, if we are humans, and humans are all that we know (and when we look at non-humans we ascribe human motives to them; listen to National Geography about familial love, about revenge), then everything we produce will be, well, <>Human<>.

    From that is a question one can raise, and let me hope it will not be discussed here (it invariably leads to flame-wars), about the similarity of humans here on Earth. In what aspects they are the “same” and in what they are “different”.
    But what we can see from above is, that when we play, we’ll end up playing what we know. Whether that is a “Human” character, or a “Human white male” is a question, with unclear answers (We know what we will play, we don’t know what it means).

    Sure, playing an outsider can give you a picture of what it is to be an outsider, just not what it means to be that type of outsider. You get the general, and only a picture, and you should remember that this is what it is. But then again, we uncool kids probably know what it is like to be a generic outsider.

  11. Two questions:

    1. You say the metaphor becomes a thing all of itself; if the Drow become a thing of themselves, if they leave their historical roots (begging Weber’s “Foundationing”, I have no idea what the term is in non-Hebrew, I will strive to find out), then does it matter from whence it came? If it no longer has a connection to its source, what do you gain from referring to the source? Or do you not re-create the relation, and some may say the complex (I avoid the term “Mess” because mess usually relates (for me) to unclean, and well, unclean definitely has bad connotations)?
    1.5 One could say that they are a mess so long as it does not become “truly” a thing of its own. So long it retains its ‘historical’ connection or as long someone creates one for it.

    2. Connected to the above, what about locations where there is no culture of “Black-face”, there is no common relation to blacks, or of any painting of oneself to another colour. What do Drow mean there? I think this is a continuation of the above, because there it (Drow race) is not connected to any group of people.
    2.5 This makes me wonder, if you give D&D to people in other locations, and have no pictures of humans (or their names) in it, when they play the game, will their characters be “European”? Or will they be what the players happen to be?

  12. Two questions:

    1. You say the metaphor becomes a thing all of itself; if the Drow become a thing of themselves, if they leave their historical roots (begging Weber’s “Foundationing”, I have no idea what the term is in non-Hebrew, I will strive to find out), then does it matter from whence it came? If it no longer has a connection to its source, what do you gain from referring to the source? Or do you not re-create the relation, and some may say the complex (I avoid the term “Mess” because mess usually relates (for me) to unclean, and well, unclean definitely has bad connotations)?
    1.5 One could say that they are a mess so long as it does not become “truly” a thing of its own. So long it retains its ‘historical’ connection or as long someone creates one for it.

    2. Connected to the above, what about locations where there is no culture of “Black-face”, there is no common relation to blacks, or of any painting of oneself to another colour. What do Drow mean there? I think this is a continuation of the above, because there it (Drow race) is not connected to any group of people.
    2.5 This makes me wonder, if you give D&D to people in other locations, and have no pictures of humans (or their names) in it, when they play the game, will their characters be “European”? Or will they be what the players happen to be?

  13. Two questions:

    1. You say the metaphor becomes a thing all of itself; if the Drow become a thing of themselves, if they leave their historical roots (begging Weber’s “Foundationing”, I have no idea what the term is in non-Hebrew, I will strive to find out), then does it matter from whence it came? If it no longer has a connection to its source, what do you gain from referring to the source? Or do you not re-create the relation, and some may say the complex (I avoid the term “Mess” because mess usually relates (for me) to unclean, and well, unclean definitely has bad connotations)?
    1.5 One could say that they are a mess so long as it does not become “truly” a thing of its own. So long it retains its ‘historical’ connection or as long someone creates one for it.

    2. Connected to the above, what about locations where there is no culture of “Black-face”, there is no common relation to blacks, or of any painting of oneself to another colour. What do Drow mean there? I think this is a continuation of the above, because there it (Drow race) is not connected to any group of people.
    2.5 This makes me wonder, if you give D&D to people in other locations, and have no pictures of humans (or their names) in it, when they play the game, will their characters be “European”? Or will they be what the players happen to be?

  14. Two questions:

    1. You say the metaphor becomes a thing all of itself; if the Drow become a thing of themselves, if they leave their historical roots (begging Weber’s “Foundationing”, I have no idea what the term is in non-Hebrew, I will strive to find out), then does it matter from whence it came? If it no longer has a connection to its source, what do you gain from referring to the source? Or do you not re-create the relation, and some may say the complex (I avoid the term “Mess” because mess usually relates (for me) to unclean, and well, unclean definitely has bad connotations)?
    1.5 One could say that they are a mess so long as it does not become “truly” a thing of its own. So long it retains its ‘historical’ connection or as long someone creates one for it.

    2. Connected to the above, what about locations where there is no culture of “Black-face”, there is no common relation to blacks, or of any painting of oneself to another colour. What do Drow mean there? I think this is a continuation of the above, because there it (Drow race) is not connected to any group of people.
    2.5 This makes me wonder, if you give D&D to people in other locations, and have no pictures of humans (or their names) in it, when they play the game, will their characters be “European”? Or will they be what the players happen to be?

  15. Q&A

    I don’t have answers to your questions, Guy and don’t have problems with any of the questions as long as they are used to start a conversation and not end one.

    Make sense?

    Let me read it over later and see what I can come up with.

  16. Re: Q&A

    Makes a lot of sense.

    I thought to myself after posting about “Questions that start flame-wars”, and I might make a post about it, but to be brief: I ask questions, I am less interested in the answers, as in, so long as the person thinks of the issue, I am glad; if they post these answers, that is a “bonus”.
    As for them starting flame-wars, I think neither answer nor question start flame-wars. The flame-wars start when people cannot agree to post theirs as complete essays, and must confront the answers of the others.

    And to be clear, I don’t think what I just said is clear enough, or transmits my thoughts in a satisfactory manner, but it is something.

    Or, put it another way. I want a discussion, so long as it is a discussion. I want a discussion, specifically an internal one.
    I don’t want to stop conversations, so long as they are between two or more sides, and not a series of monologues masquerading.

    And cookies are good.

  17. The race question in fantasygaming does botherme, and a lot of it ties in with how there’s very little anthropological thought put into how the races behave and who they are. Orcs and Drow are Evil[tm] because the world needs bad guys, and because the D&D was based on the conceptsof alignment. they don’t dothe things they do because of cultural mores and geographical seperation, which means they do stupid evil shit for the sake of being evil. That’s a terrible mirror to hold up to the real world, one that looks like hate and racism to me.

    Does that make sense?

  18. I think themes of adventure, encountering other races and developing fictional languages are inseparable from colonialism. Much of the fantasy out there is stuck in a dusty 19th century armchair, paging through books about the Middle Ages. It’s so limiting.

  19. Interesting thoughts. I experience this personally when it comes to religion, but race is right up there, occupying a parallel level. Being a minority (ethnically and religiously, even though I could pass for white if I don’t speak up and wear a hat) these are themes that strike a chord internally. I’m chewing on it, and looking forward to further thoughts you may have.

  20. Sure — but the question is, when you decide what those evil races look like, when you adorn them with cultural trappings borrowed from literature and history, what does it say when evil habitually gets skinned by things that are non-white?

  21. How do you propose someone engage in the hobby and walk away still enjoying it and without guilt? I’m seeing a lot of opportunity for, I dunno, self-loathing in your “hey, be constantly mindful of this stuff” exhortations. There’s a point at which things turn away from being about fun and start just being work.

    I’m not advocating a “hey, never be mindful” perspective on this, either. That’s clearly the most poisonous option, here.

    To give a de-racialized example that still gets at what I’m talking about: I think it’s gotta be okay sometimes that some kids are playing cops and robbers and making “pew-pew i got you!” declarations without ripping out all fun and joy from play by digging deep on what it all says about society and our attitudes towards violence.

    I think it’s just as dangerous to tell Mr. Privilege that he can’t turn his head and NOT look at the mess occasionally. To make it a necessity to exercise constant awareness of it risks a new kind of dogma.

    I’m just concerned that there are a lot of absolute musts and shoulds here. Liberal-minded folks react pretty poorly to that sort of thing when they hear it come out of non-liberal-minded folks, but too often I feel like absolutism is exercised on both sides of that particular fence.

  22. When to look…

    I am not saying that we must keep our eyes firmly locked on social issues every moment of every day.

    I am not even worried or talking about online discussions.

    I am talking about someone at your table, or a friend of yours, seeing a game happening or hearing about the fiction or being in a game and being upset by it.

    When that happens, the time for looking away is over. It is time to look and not brush by it.

    Shit, we played half a dozen or more SotC sessions without tripping over the myriad social issues going down in the 20’s. We didn’t deal with them because we were too busy dealing with time travel, alternate worlds and the Tyrian Deathlords. That is fine with me and was fine with all of us.

    But once your friend or loved one wrinkles their nose, then it is time to take a hard look at what it stinky.

    • Re: When to look…

      Whoa! Okay, that’s entirely different from what I was (thinking I was) reading in the original post. I saw the thing with Janaki as the stepping-off point for a more general application of principle — not as a specific illustration of the specific situation where things can’t be ignored.

      Case closed, man. We’re 100% in agreement, with this clarification. 🙂

    • Re: When to look…

      Heh.
      It’s like in our Greek Philosophy lessons, trying to wrap our heads about people who didn’t even have the “Object” concept that we do.

      But it is an interesting story. And it does ring for people who say they’re “Roleplaying”, but I did write a piece somewhere about the embodiment in LARP, and if you look at some stuff I heard at the uni lately, such as “The Body” as the “Space” we move through, well, it fits*.

      * Note, “Fits”, not “Correct”.

  23. When to look…

    I am not saying that we must keep our eyes firmly locked on social issues every moment of every day.

    I am not even worried or talking about online discussions.

    I am talking about someone at your table, or a friend of yours, seeing a game happening or hearing about the fiction or being in a game and being upset by it.

    When that happens, the time for looking away is over. It is time to look and not brush by it.

    Shit, we played half a dozen or more SotC sessions without tripping over the myriad social issues going down in the 20’s. We didn’t deal with them because we were too busy dealing with time travel, alternate worlds and the Tyrian Deathlords. That is fine with me and was fine with all of us.

    But once your friend or loved one wrinkles their nose, then it is time to take a hard look at what it stinky.

  24. When to look…

    I am not saying that we must keep our eyes firmly locked on social issues every moment of every day.

    I am not even worried or talking about online discussions.

    I am talking about someone at your table, or a friend of yours, seeing a game happening or hearing about the fiction or being in a game and being upset by it.

    When that happens, the time for looking away is over. It is time to look and not brush by it.

    Shit, we played half a dozen or more SotC sessions without tripping over the myriad social issues going down in the 20’s. We didn’t deal with them because we were too busy dealing with time travel, alternate worlds and the Tyrian Deathlords. That is fine with me and was fine with all of us.

    But once your friend or loved one wrinkles their nose, then it is time to take a hard look at what it stinky.

  25. When to look…

    I am not saying that we must keep our eyes firmly locked on social issues every moment of every day.

    I am not even worried or talking about online discussions.

    I am talking about someone at your table, or a friend of yours, seeing a game happening or hearing about the fiction or being in a game and being upset by it.

    When that happens, the time for looking away is over. It is time to look and not brush by it.

    Shit, we played half a dozen or more SotC sessions without tripping over the myriad social issues going down in the 20’s. We didn’t deal with them because we were too busy dealing with time travel, alternate worlds and the Tyrian Deathlords. That is fine with me and was fine with all of us.

    But once your friend or loved one wrinkles their nose, then it is time to take a hard look at what it stinky.

  26. Re: Learned

    I didn’t think your reply was bloodless at all.

    We resolved it by continuing to talk about it for a while and eventually, after some distance, by me admitting that I was being extremely defensive.

  27. And reacting poorly…

    I see the internet as a tremendous glass house and this livejournal is the living room in my glass house. If I were to offend someone I care about, someone who has my phone number or who I have shared a meal with, I’d want to get off the internet and has it out.

    If some internet yahoo strolls across this and decides to get nerdragy about it, such is life.

  28. I guess i’m saying that I don’t really have Evil[tm] in my games. Not as a racial characteristic. For me evil or Evil[tm] has always been a sort of person to person thing. That’s how I satisfy myself on the question, anyway.

    If you meet an orc in one of my games he might have some nasty cultural customs, but evil isn’t in it, hell it might even be a good conversation.

    I’ve always had a strong streak of answering the difficult questions in gaming by applying my own values to them.

  29. I guess i’m saying that I don’t really have Evil[tm] in my games. Not as a racial characteristic. For me evil or Evil[tm] has always been a sort of person to person thing. That’s how I satisfy myself on the question, anyway.

    If you meet an orc in one of my games he might have some nasty cultural customs, but evil isn’t in it, hell it might even be a good conversation.

    I’ve always had a strong streak of answering the difficult questions in gaming by applying my own values to them.

  30. Re: When to look…

    Yah. In terms of actual gaming, I’ve been involved with these types:

    1. Set in some facsimile of the real world.

    This includes Oscar Rios’s Call of Cthulhu adventure “Rising Sun, Setting Tide”, which was one of the edgiest games I’ve played in, and one of the best. WWII, doomed Japanese soldiers, racism definitely on the table. It was up front as an element — an important one, but not the only one, and we all knew what we were getting into. If it matters, none of us were Asian, but we weren’t all white or all male.

    It includes the larp-in-progress And All that Jazz, based on some of the darker musicals. We’ve (we=gm and those of the players who want to help construct the lapr) been talking about how to handle racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and so on. It includes the larp Torch of Freedom, where social class is a huge issue, to the point where the GMs said, “Okay, while spitting on each other is going too far, if you’re upper class, try to remember to treat the lower class as something other than your equals”, and it was amazingly hard to bear this in mind, let alone do it.

    2. Set in the kind of typical fantasy world where we often just don’t think about this sort of thing. While I think it’s good to think about it once in a while and to deconstruct one’s assumptions, I’m basically with Fred on this. When I read the source material, yes, my authors have feet of clay. Yes, I want to be aware of this. Okay, check. Now, I’m going to reread these books, which are more than examples of racism at work. Or, to put it another way: I love reading. I love analyzing. I want to be able to switch back and forth between the two.

    3. Things that, for whatever reason, make me sit up and go, “Now, just a minute!”

    This includes Victoriana, a game written and sold by lovely people who did not comprehend why the treatment of orcs bugged me. See, in Victoriana, the orcs pretty much are the Africans. The man who ran the scenario I played in explained that all races could be found in all countries, so the orcs were not really Africans; they just tended to be found more often there.

    Er, no. This doesn’t do it for me. And, it doesn’t help that “orc” is apparently not available as a PC race, for no obvious reason. I mean, they are neither intrinsically evil nor overpowered, so why the heck not?

    The elves are the upper class. The ogres are just stupid. Okay, nice or nasty, wide range of personalities — but stupid. The beast men don’t bug me, because, while people in the game world will assume lionmen are noble and ratmen are shifty, it is explicitly stated that this is prejudice on the part of society and arrant nonsense.

    I also get tired of games that file off the serial numbers of history, have a Christian and Muslim analog — and, conveniently leave out the Jews. I know we’re terribly inconvenient, and I know the authors don’t mean anything bad by it. But, I notice, and it irks me. 7th Sea and Fading Suns are the ones I have in mind here.

    Note that the above peeves clearly reflect that I’m a middle class, middle aged, white Jewish woman from Queens. I am utterly blind to what will ping someone who knows from Asia, India, Russia, and, oh, all those other places of the world.

  31. Re: When to look…

    For which forum or venue?

    On the one hand, I find I have limited patience being told that I Must Be Socially Conscious when I game, that artists in all mediums must consider all possible consequences and subtexts, et cetera, ad nauseum. Past a certain point — exactly where this is being way, way open to contention — this is declaring war on art, and I’m on art’s side. Actual talented artists, from Neil Gaiman to James Branch Cabell, have phrased this much better, of course.

    On the other, when asked if the hoary old Women in Gaming panel that shows up at a lot of sf cons that have actual gaming tracks, like Arisia, weren’t obsolete already, and despite my having had very few negative gaming experiences, none of which, I think, had anything to do with my gender, I said, “It will be obsolete when I stop hearing horror stories about how some asshole male GM decided it’d be peachy for an NPC to rape a woman player’s female PC.”

    Meanwhile, Lee Gold is still running fantasy campaigns set in Iceland and Japan, and taking the time to do enough research to get the feel right. (No, it doesn’t substitute for having lived in those countries during the centuries in which the games are set. But, to borrow Le Guin’s terminology, it means you know you’re in Elfland, not Poughkeepsie.) This includes things like explaining to the players, “Okay, the samurai who just killed the little boy who pulled his sleeve? He was being merciful, because he didn’t have the entire family killed.” It includes things like the Icelander PCs regularly taking thralls.

    On the writers’ list for the larp, the current bone of contention is not whether to have antisemitism, racism, and homophobia in the game, but how this should work, given that most people assume that players just won’t play bigoted assholes. And, this is true of the larping community as a whole, although there are plenty of exceptions. Hm, I think it boils down to this: you can find someone who will play, say, the evil Nazi general, but it’s much harder to find ten larpers to play ordinary shopkeepers who will get more hostile towards Jewish / gay / gypsy PCs over time. The players will find reasons for their PCs to be good guys.

    Gordon Olmstead-Dean ran an amusing mini-larp about the end of the twentieth century. The larp was written as if by folks living a century or two later, folks who weren’t that good at history. So, the singer Madonna was the champion for that well known twentieth century cause, Puerto Rican Independence.

    After the game, Gordon said, “Fully three quarters of you guys had material on your character sheets indicating that you were supportive, or, at worst, neutral towards Puerto Rican independence. Yet, when Madonna made her pitch, everyone blew her off — just like real twentieth century people. I’m very proud of you guys. Now, the next time you’re playing in a Victorian or Civil War era game, and someone comes up to you to try to get your support for universal suffrage or to end slavery, remember this!”

    Bundles of prejudice that we are, we can’t even play worse prejudice correctly, it seems.

  32. Hey Judd: Are you quoting Tim Wise in that quote above even though it says Tim White?

    -Matt W

    p.s. I love Tim Wise. I think his one-off articles are better than the books, though.

  33. Hey Judd: Are you quoting Tim Wise in that quote above even though it says Tim White?

    -Matt W

    p.s. I love Tim Wise. I think his one-off articles are better than the books, though.

  34. Hey Judd: Are you quoting Tim Wise in that quote above even though it says Tim White?

    -Matt W

    p.s. I love Tim Wise. I think his one-off articles are better than the books, though.

  35. Hey Judd: Are you quoting Tim Wise in that quote above even though it says Tim White?

    -Matt W

    p.s. I love Tim Wise. I think his one-off articles are better than the books, though.

  36. Re: When to look…

    “Yet, when Madonna made her pitch, everyone blew her off”

    That’s awesome.

    And yea, we’re all taught to follow the dictates of a certain paradigm set. Stepping outside it, really stepping outside it, is fuck hard. And often not fun. Which pretty much means its not something going down all that often.

  37. Its interesting to note that in the early 20th century it was “non Anglo.”

    I mean, by the time we rolled around to D&D and such, we get the “non white” — but in some of the pulps it was the drunken brawling Irish, or the idiot but idealistic Polocs, or the superstitious Italians who got used as the basis for the bad races.

  38. Re: Learned

    Ah, yea, sorry, that’s one that the wrong emphasis came across through text.

    What I meant wasn’t that you can’t learn something individually, but if you’re open enough you can learn about the ideas and opinions of the other folk you are playing with.

    Much of what happens at an RPG table is, actually, individual. But when it comes to learning about ideas and perceptions it is possible to do more than simply reflect on ones own position — you can learn and interact with the ideas and positions of others at the table.

    Which is still different than learning what it is to be a person of color, or a woman, or whatever. Even, I dare say, if you’re playing with folks of one of the groups you’re exploring. So, I was full with you on that.

  39. Re: When to look…

    Yes, exactly.

    It happens. One guy told me about how he played a KKK member in a classic (i.e., 1920s) CoC tabletop game, and I’m not sure I could do that. I managed, for four hours, to pull off a German psychiatrist from the 1920s who did not think women should be working in dangerous places like asylums — something like that, something very carefully limited by the text on the character sheet. And, I had to focus hard to remember to that.

    The ten hour larp Across the Sea of Stars is tales-within-the-tale style. That is, we have our main characters, play them for certain periods, then, for the periods in between, we are telling tales, simulated by playing a series of 5 to 15 minute mini-mini-larps. We don’t know what the tales will be about or who we’ll play, until we get handed one by the gms.

    So, in one tale, I got handed a character who was a despicable villain, an alien who considered members of a neighboring alien species vermin to be exterminated. I looked at this, and at his previous dastardly deeds, and his goals. And, I decided that the best way to play this was utterly unsubtly.

    I could have played the character as covering up, pretending dismay as horrible secrets came out, disavowing all knowledge — I might, perhaps, have convinced the other players and characters. But, that would not make for as fun a game as playing a smirking, despicable villain that they would enjoy taking down. If I’d had a mustache, I would have twirled it. If I’d had a fake mustache and spirit gum, I would have used them.

    I don’t think I could have kept this up for more than the 15 minutes of the tale.

    In the WWII CoC larp, one man talked about the bigotry found in Japan. (He had dark skin, and I am totally forgetting whether he was Black, Indian, or what. I remember him as the guy who told this story, played that character, got into a silly (and thankfully) short argument with the gm, and who dislikes no-win scenarios — but still signed up for CoC.) He explained that his brother, walking down streets otherwise jam packed, everyone walking shoulder to shoulder, always had a wide space around him, because of the color of his skin.

    “It gets old fast,” he said.

    He did a good job playing a bigoted Japanese soldier, exactly as described in his character sheet. This was not loud, obviously obnoxious bigotry, but the kind that just permeates a person — the kind where someone simply knows that his people are the best, everyone else is just inferior, and that’s just how it is. I don’t think I could have done that one justice.

  40. Re: kicking colonialism in the junk

    I think we touched on this a bit when we talked about ideas for Spirit of the Century by using the theme of immigration, where the U.S. becomes the strange, exotic country that player characters are exploring, and the “strange exotic culture” they encounter is that of mainstream America. While it’s not necessarily kicking colonialism in the junk, it definitely gives a different perspective on the whole “brave adventurer/explorer” pulp trope.

    • Re: kicking colonialism in the junk

      Yeah, I thought of the same thing but I am not sure how to explain to someone else how to arrive at that kind of spot.

      I know how I would subvert Lord of the Rings using Sauron as the only gleaming light of multi-culturalism in Middle Earth but I am not sure how to explain to someone else how to get there, how to take tropes that are problematic and twist ’em.

  41. I hope I’m not being rude to responding to your comment here – it reminds me of something.

    Why is it, when humans are presented in fantasy-based RPGs, they are usually white? Why is “race” presented as Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, etc, often (in my experience) with sub-races (like water elves!) but humans are always one colour?

    I see the same thing presented in a lot of fantasy books as well. There may be different societies, but everyone’s still all one colour. (I’m thinking of The Fionovar Tapestry and Belgaraid at the moment, but to be honest it’s been a long time since I’ve picked either of them up.)

    To further it along a bit, when one of the background characters in Harry Potter was revealed to be (omg) Black, there was huge buckets of people protesting it wasn’t possible – in a world where there are unicorns, vampires, giants, and centaurs, there couldn’t possibly be black guys in Scotland! *headdesk*

    These are the sorts of things I’ve been thinking about wrt gaming and fantasy writing. I keep forgetting other ways of looking at it, too.

  42. Race =/= Species

    Anna,

    I don’t think you are being rude at all.

    The word -race- being used for fantasy species is a pet peeve of mine but one I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for my girlfriend pointing it out years ago.

    Anyway, I hear ya.

  43. great text. i just think that putting howard and tolkien in the same sentence vis-a-vis race issue is a little bit tricky. i would argue that tolkien’s ouvre is really anti-racist and modernist in that sense that it ends myth and introduces history (basically he is destroying myth in order to persevere it) while howards opus is about mythologizing history.

    elves, orcs and others are mythical being that explicitly do not have place in the history (that begins with the end of the third age). howard is basically espousing spenglerian cyclical history thesis in which races and ethnic strains compete in unbridled savagery.

    but i like your point. it is not useful to pretend that something is not there. this metaphors you are talking about are really points of contention and in our historical world tolkien can be appropriated by both hippies, christian leftists, pot enthusiasts and right wing white supremacists. it is not his problem but only ours and it tells us something about our society and challenges us to interpret him and engage in politics of our respective community.

    of course, sometime a nazi is just a nazi.

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