Monday, February 7, 2011

Go through the motions of exploring the familiar.

In my last post, I mentioned This Post of Shieldhaven's, and now Wombat's gone and responded here. So now, I must needs venture my opinions on the topic.

I have an odd position in the groups I game with, in that I'm generally the only Person of Color(tm; also, unless you count the Angry Cuban in our AE games). Incidentally, until having the conversation with Wombat (who is white, but a jew), I was also the only person who generally felt that the presence of humans was okay, sure, but not necessary in a game world.

So, how this conversation even started:

Shieldhaven was talking about the new races he'd created during his late night maundering, and mentioned that, in order to have people actually pick his classes, perhaps he should strip a game with them in down to just humans and the new races. To which my question was, "Er... why include humans?"

Now, as implied above, I realise that my question and feelings on the matter are solidly in the minority. Anyone who knows me even a little will not be shocked by this. Shieldhaven felt, at base, that giving the players something understandable and familiar-- i.e., humans-- was important, so as not to lose them. I marked that the new races-- the Veytikka in particular-- were written in such a way that they kind of did not make sense unless you had another, baseline race to compare them to. The Beruch as well, and the Rindari have not been written yet, but-- they were all designed to be minorities. And while this was not, from talking about it, a conscious decision on Shieldhaven's part, it was... curious to me.

And here is where I will dispense (for the moment), with the issue of player investment and whether or not players will buy into a game setting where there's no human baseline. I, personally, would like to play a race in the context of what they're like internally, _without_ comparing them to a human genero-culture. As is pointed out in both of the posts I mention, there's sort of a problem with humans-- they typically wind up with their racial trait being, "generic". Of course we know what humans are like-- we are humans, aren't we?

Thing is, as game designers are themselves human, apart from some physiological details, and a pointed attempt to make the things that they feel, do, or care about completely unrelatable, any new race is going to be some variety of "like humans, but..."

Take the Veytikka. They have certain physiological features (claws, snout-like faces) that make them inhuman and change the way they interact with their environment, but as far as their attitudes and actions go, they're actually pretty darn human, but...

...They eat carrion. They're well designed for it, and for them it is the right and proper thing to do. Thing is, a human culture could just as well do that, out of some philosophical inclination, and then we get into trickier issues of intra-species race. Apart from that, the racial culture is given as tribal, and they are suited to some specific classes, like most D&D races. They're statted to fit into 3e and 4e D&D, so they'll be further colored by the rather familiar expectations of the classes they choose. Tl;dr, the text already explains the ways that Veyttika differ from humans in the context of the player's own person and culture, so why would there need to be humans in play to underscore the difference?

As part of my objection to the philosophical part of the "people need a familiar race to be the point of reference" is actually the "point of reference" part. Because I am human, I will automatically be thinking of how this race is different from a human. It bothers me, to then have to, in play, be ever conscious of my character in the context of, "I am different from this other group, which is normal."

I realise that this does not address the issue of turning off players through an excess of difference, but I feel that that aspect of the question is dealt with at length and better elsewhere, and I'd like to deal with the aspects so avoided, which are, frankly, relevant to me. Let it also be said that I don't blame anyone for choosing not to deal with stickier issues and assumptions when it comes to race in gaming, but... well, I think that it's just possible that part of the reason for my preferences in story telling and roles therein might have something to do with my own background, and the same for other folks. This doesn't say anything about myself or anyone else as people, but is objectively interesting to me.

Let me use another example, which has about an equal chance of refuting or supporting my point: the 4e race, Wilden.

Wilden are supposed to be a new race just out of the feywild, terribly curious and eager to learn about new cultures and races. They're a tablua rasa, looking for things to ape so they can learn how to be actual people. They have a hatred of abominations, but apart from that... well, they're plant people.

And let me tell you, they're hard as hell to play, esp in the party I'm in.

I picked one up in Chessenta as a power gaming option-- I wanted to play a Protection Shaman, and they had the best stat options, and were also something I've never played before. Now, I am in a party with two humans and an Orc-- fighter, avenger, and rogue. Given that my racial MO seems to be, "try to be like the others you're around," how do you suppose I play my character?

Answer: Well, like a bear shaman. Because that's what I'm actually doing, leaves or no leaves. The role of the Shaman is much stronger than the role implied by my race, except in the (hasn't actually happened yet) incidence where I need to use a racial power. And the same is true for humans, actually-- except in AE, where humans are marginalised as compared to Giants, I generally see human players playing the trope for their class. Only Grish, the Orc, plays a racial trope to any extent, and even that is second to his outstanding thievery. Well, and Ullentarni the Dragonborn, but that's because his racial story was supported by the game, and the circumstances in which we encountered him. For the rest of us, race doesn't actually matter, or much inform how we play.

So... what does all of that mean for the presentation of a game, before and during play?

First of all, I have the strong temptation to strip stats from races, and give them basically the human stat choice. If including humans in the game, I'd be further inclined to write specific racial abilities for them which were something other than, "I'm so generic, I can do anything with my generic self," depending on the setting. That is to say-- If other races have specific, geographically or otherwise bound cultures, it makes more sense in a given setting to have the humans be so too, than otherwise. In my game, I get around it by having most races be pretty much ubiquitous-- only races of a fey or outsider sort of origin are in any way concentrated, or have cultural norms outside of the norms for their region. I did not go so far as to change up races that much, mostly because my game is at least partially about teaching 4e to its players. But I think next time, I might, so as to make the race choice more purely about preference, vs. optimization.

And I'm tempted, especially if offering a setting where it makes sense to do so or I am offering all-new races, to just not have humans in the game. Now, it's at this point that the Player Investment issues come to the fore. We'll go ahead and take it as read that players dislike having high barriers to entry, and/or having to do a lot of reading in order to play a game, or understand their characters, unless doing said research was their idea in the first place. So let's think about how to address this.

1) First of all, sticking to a well known system, OR a system where everyone is expecting to do reading because it is all new. Personally, I prefer the former, partly because I like D&D so well and well... I am used to it. This could, however, work okay in a system where the expectation of newness is working for you. Nonetheless, I think that changing as little as possible about a system that the players (assuming all the players are familiar with said system) know, and explaining early on the conciets of the setting, you'll probably have a better chance of not throwing them off. In particular, I would not introduce any new classes, but have everyone stick to existing stuff.

2) Keep written material to a minimum. At most, I'd keep the info about the size of any racial write-up in a character creation book. If the setting is such that it demands it, include info about how the race fits into the world, how they behave amongst themselves, and what, if any, prejudices and assumptions they have about the rest of the world. This is the part where you're pretty much highlighting what makes them different from humans, what sorts of stories they are likely to have as a race. In all other ways, it should be clear, or at least safely assumed, that they are just like any other people.

3) Support the races in-world. Once you're in the game, the structures and social constructs of the world should reflect the people who live in it, and the GM's job is to convey this to the players in as seamless a manner as possible. Players are likely to look to NPCs for clues on whether a thing is common or unusual, good or bad if they have no other guide, and a couple of lines of dialogue can speak volumes about how the players should feel about a given situation or people. It's all right for there to be minorities and marginalized groups, or majorities that are not generic, but it's important for the world itself to convey that that actually means.

The example I can think of at the moment is actually pretty problematic-- Karnath, in the Eberron setting, specifically as run by Wombat. This is a place where Undead Soldiers are the norm, and the whole country supports that construct pretty completely. If we, the players, had been playing all Karnathi, the world did a very good job of playing this particular social construct up as normal, and we'd have had to do some twisting to not be at least tolerant of it. As it was, we all played people from elsewhere, at least one of whom had character reasons for objecting strongly. My character, being from a country that had formerly allied with Karnath (and which no longer exists), didn't really have an opinion one way or the other until very late, though she had some very strong in-game pressure to find the Karnathi Military Structure pretty darn appalling. I am marginally curious as to what would happen if we _had_ all been playing people who were raised to accept this situation as normal.

Permit me, for a moment, to refer to a thing that I mentioned earlier, about my problems with a culture that can only be viewed through the lens of a somebody else. That can be done well, and the ways in which it is done, interestingly, change the "point of reference" race/culture. Let's look at the Veytikka, for example. In a world where this race is common and reasonably accepted, it'd make a certain amount of sense for some non-Veytikka races to say, be all right with having established places to dispose of their dead, for Veytikka to come and clear away, in a symbiotic sort of way. Or to have some shady characters try to scoop up all the dead things before the Veytikka can get to them, and try to sell them back at a profit, controlling their food supply. It all depends on where you want to go with them, and if you're having the Veytikka be hunters who kill and eat their food raw, or if they say, disdain hunting and prefer finding as a cultural Thing.

But anyway, there is a certain point to be made there about the usefulness of humans-- it is easier to change them, and the way they see things or act, to accommodate their relationships to other races, than it is to do the same for races where one's understanding of them is learned. When we're talking about human vs. non-human, that's pretty much all of them.

I'll save this topic as it relates to non-European-based cultures amongst humans in Sci-fi/Fantasy/Gaming for another post, as this one has gotten really quite rambly and long.


  1. I have never been a fan of the more extreme non human races in any game. Elves and Dwarves in D&D have always been handled as Humans, with this change or that change. Shardminds (the new race for 4e) on the other hand are so alien, I can't believe for an instant that a human can accurately reflect how their minds work. Even the most brilliant and imaginative mind is still limited by human experience. When I see someone play something truly inhuman, it makes my skin itch. I want to start an argument and debate how they are conceptualizing the characters mindset and behavior. That is of course distracting to me and distracting to the other players if I give in to that urge.

    I strangely don't have this problem with warforged or other "created" races. I think it is reasonable to expect that a race created by humanity might have their thoughts shaped by their creators. Also the traditional fantasy races as I mentioned at the start, are more acceptable to me. They are strangely more like a cultural difference than something completely inhuman.

    It is possible, that were I to create my own fantasy world i would just make it a human only world with bonuses people could select to reflect their interests or cultures. I may be alone in that.

  2. part of my point was that these different races are really people with some unique challenges/abilities, and the stories of people are relevant here. I completely agree that being too alien, that is to say, actively trying to make a race that thinks in a way that is just not-compatible with Being People, if a Bad Idea, and Creates Problems. Having relate-able stories is important, and how those stories play out amongst groups that are not human is interesting to me.

    I think that it is weird that you want to argue with people as to how they're playing their race... 'doing it wrong' is kind of a dumb idea to me, unless someone is being a drama queen or otherwise disruptive. But basically, I wanted to point out that I specifically said above that the thing about which you're complaining is /not/ what I'm talking about.

  3. You know, I'm not sure a game or fiction setting has ever actually managed to make a group of sapient non-humans believable without making them too human. You can allude to strange and alien behaviors stemming from an inhuman mindset, but as soon as you try to give them real characterization, much less playability, it all goes away. We simply don't have any other sapient races to model things on.

    That said, the habit of creating "races" in the first place has always skirted dangerously close to, well, racism. But you can't just give people of a different skin color superpowers without it mapping strangely, so the attempt is to make them different enough to really qualify as alien beings... when all we wanted was a fantasy culture with superpowers.

    Fantasy is sorta hoist on the petard of its own anti-egalitarianism. In order for some men to not be created equal without it being obviously non-PC, they have to be strange enough to not qualify as men. But then you can't manage to write them convincingly because we don't have a frame of reference.

    Maybe we should just stick to making humans as focal/playable and leave alien beings to be loosely filled in and ineffable so as to preserve their mystique.

  4. It was pointed out in another post that there is also the opposite school, "Why would I want to play a human in my fantasy escapism?" And I lean a bit more that way, with, as mentioned before, the caveat that while a being may be not-human, they are still essentially people, and are likely to have similar motivations.

    I.E.-- people want things, and like things, and dislike things. The story is generally about the relationship of people to what they want. Or have some other feeling in regards to-- fear, hatred, obligation, whatever. The effort to strip emotion from a given race or culture was interesting in Star Trek for a hot minute, but there we're in a controlled environment-- a story, pas a game-- and it's easier to accept.

    I think perhaps we should look at our settings and consider whether they are the sort that would make good speculative stories, because they are too specific and nuanced to translate well into a shared world, or if they are sufficiently broad to be interesting when looked at from a variety of angles-- to wit, to be played. You know-- are there enough stories in a given setting, and for the various potential characters who might dwell in that setting, for a good game.

    This, incidentally, has been sort-of my issue with Conan RPG games, and Age of Conan in particular. There's _sort of_ enough there to extrapolate other characters, but it's in the title-- if you don't get to be Conan, what's the point? And the nature of the setting is such that you can't really have a world full of Conans.

  5. When we say humans are "generic" in this context, do we really mean generic? Or do we mean "so diverse we can't nail them down in a few sentences"? You can usually convey the gist of every other fantasy race in a few sentences, but attempt to do the same to humans and it comes off as biased, saying more about the speaker than those spoken about. It's an eldritch abomination problem: we try to trim something's dimensions enough that we can actually make sense of it, rather than go insane accounting for all the possibilities.

    Could an easily-summarized race interact reasonably with humans? Could elves with a noticeable slant towards forests, or dwarves with a blatant favor towards mining, grasp what makes humans tick? Or would humans have so many conflicting ambitions, emotions, and needs they would come off as insane and unpredictable to any race who didn't have similar diversity?

    Perhaps the best way to make a realistic fantasy world would be to only use the natural slants as a starting point and just let the races spread out from there, until they reach a point where it's hard to make a general statement about them without several contradictions cropping up. Elves could be the closest to this, if people wouldn't make them a completely new subrace the moment they (gasp) didn't skew to their predecessor's general summary!

  6. So true. Personally, I think the only... I dunno, real and genuine differences are the physiological, and the ones that stem directly from same. Elves don't really have that much in terms of the physiological that differs them from humans, except for their typical longevity, and something which makes them theoretically friendlier with magic. What these might mean-- the latter especially-- changes hugely depending on the setting.