Friday, January 6, 2017

Humans, Humanoids, Halflings, and Half-Orcs    

It is not a secret that Dungeons & Dragons has a race problem.  Going back to its roots in Tolkein's Middle Earth, D&D has kept a few concepts that many fantasy writers believe are essential building blocks of fantasy stories:
  • Humans are people that, in most ways, are identical to human beings in our world, in diversity of appearance and culture.
  • There exist some races, such as elves, that are based on myths and legends rather than real world history.  Each differs from humanity in substantive ways:  they look different, they tend to act differently, they have a different culture and language, and they may have different physiology and/or magical abilities.  For almost every feature they possess, as a race, they will be slightly superior to humanity.  In the areas where they have lesser abilities, they are often described in idealized ways, a "slim, but delicate physique," for example.
  • There exist some races, such as orcs, that are subhuman in nature.  They differ substantially from humanity and from the other mythological races.  In appearance and culture, they are lesser.  In the areas where they have greater abilities, they are often dehumanized, with "bestial strength" and "animal cunning."  In general, they are to be considered the enemies of the players and the villains of the story.
  • There are exceptions to these rules, elves who are evil and dwell underground, orcs who are good and civilized, but what makes these characters interesting to the story is that they are exceptions.  They are defined in contrast to the majority of their people, and are not like them.
Almost every iteration of fantasy roleplaying game addresses, in some way, this concept of race in fantasy.  Some excuse it, some attempt to improve upon it, some embrace it.  And there is no "right" approach.  One of my favorite fantasy roleplaying games, Earthdawn, has the idea that every standard fantasy race is interesting and should have a deep and rich culture for the players to work with.  It embraces the tropes created by fantasy stories, but starts from the position that all of the "Name-giver" races share the same qualities that we think of in the real world, when we think of humanity and all its potential.

That said, it is not enough.  As much as I love Earthdawn, it doesn't do what I want, in terms of accessibility.  I want a roleplaying game that does not need to make excuses or compromises, or keep the negative tropes regarding race in the game, simply on the basis of tradition.

Telling a Good Story and Creating Rules that Support It

What are the things that we want from a system of rules that describe the circumstances of a person's birth and parentage?  Birth is an important part of character development.  It's something that is immutable, but for many characters, it is something that they will rebel against or embrace.  That decision will be core to who they are and what story they will follow.  So the first thing that birth does, in a fantasy game, is set your character's baseline.  This is where you start out, which begs the question: where will you go from here?

Birth and parentage can also be important in world building.  Having diverse cultures in a fantasy world makes it feel more realistic.  It allows for new story elements when the players travel to a distant land.  It provides plot ideas for conflicts between cultures, and classes within those cultures.

Finally, birth is another way for the player characters to distinguish themselves.  Dungeons & Dragons, and most other fantasy roleplaying games, are ensemble stories.  There is no single hero and a few minor supporting roles.  Instead, there is a "party" of equals, telling a story together.  Anything that allows characters to be different from each other is useful, in story terms.

However, given these story goals, the word "race" appears to be a poor term.  "Race," as we use it outside of fantasy games, is a very limited concept created as a result of the relatively recent, real world history of colonization and slavery.  Identity is much bigger than race.  All of the story goals above could be equally served by talking about gender, about sexuality, about ability, about class, about nationality, about religion, about tribalism, and about cultural heritage.  In fact, since this is a fantasy world, we could also talk about magical abilities and traditions, or about people who can fly, or see in the dark, or live for a thousand years.

In my house rules, the word "race," defined as broadly as it is in fantasy games, has to go.  So do words that draw from the history of racism, such as "humanoid" and "half-breed" and "mongrel."  In their place, I'd like to talk in my next post about some characteristics of characters that can help us tell good stories:  nature and nurture.

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