Monday, January 9, 2017

Nature as Identity    

There are a lot of ways to define it, but in this post I'm using the word "identity" to mean the sum of all the things that you were born with that help define who you are.  Players often prefer to play characters who share their own identity (their own gender and sexuality, for example), but may also want to roleplay characters with identities that are different from theirs.  Because identities are things we have in the real world, how a fantasy roleplaying game treats different identities can be very important.  By making a judgment about an identity within the fiction of the game world, or within the rules of the game, we are also judging players who have that identity and potentially making them feel unwelcome at the table.

I'll use gender identity as an example.  In the old days of early Dungeons & Dragons, gender was a limiting factor for adventurers.  If you were female, you had handicaps (in physical strength, for example), as compared to male characters, which were the assumed default.  The rules tell players of the game: "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender matters, and women are weaker than men, and are only rarely fighting adventurers."  At some point in time, the story goals changed.  Writers of Dungeons & Dragons wrote rules for "comeliness," for example, that allowed particularly beautiful women to magically charm male characters.  These rules tell players of the game:  "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender matters, and women have advantages based on their appearance, and those advantages relate to their sexual power over men."  Regardless of how you think about these rules, which are clearly sexist, you can see the effect that fantasy stories have:  those two genres of fantasy ("male-dominated fantasy world with few women of power" and "fantasy world where women's power is based primarily on their sexuality and attractiveness to men") are very well-represented, and the gender rules were created in order to tell stories that fit neatly into those genres.

In most modern fantasy games, there are no (or very few) rules about gender.  This tends to tell the players of the game:  "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender does not matter."  The presence of gendered characters in the source material and art, and how they are presented, is the only guide that the players have as to what sort of stories might be told in the game.  Personally, I like this approach.  But as a writer, I want to be very aware that the absence of rules makes the fiction and detail that I add to characters that much more important.

Certain facets of identity are probably easier to handle in this way than others.  Gender can be made visible through writing and art, as can many aspects of physical appearance, such as skin color.  Other, facets of identity may need direct support in the rules.  For example, how do the rules of a fantasy game support a story about a character with a disability?  These are harder questions that may be best approached with several different solutions that players can choose from.  The important goals for me are:  don't write a set of rules that excludes a real life identity from the story, and don't let the absence of rules make a real life identity invisible.

Nurture as Heritage

Heritage, as I'm using the word in this post, is everything about how a person was raised, what they were taught, who their family is, and the events of their childhood.  I feel that these things are integral to storytelling in a fantasy roleplaying game.  I may not know everything about every character's past, but for a character not to have a past at all makes them appear flat and uninteresting.  So much of storytelling is about human interaction, and so much of human interaction is based on differences and similarities in how we were brought up.  Heritage is rich with possibilities for story.

In my house rules, heritage takes the place of race.  "Human," by contrast, is something that describes your identity.  There are no explicit rules for it.  I don't draw a line between humans over here and elves over there.  But there are rules for heritage, which grants skills and abilities just as race does in Pathfinder.  I try to avoid having heritage affect attributes (such as Strength and Intelligence), for a few reasons.  First, those things seem more tied to identity than heritage (to me).  Second, the practical effect of racial bonuses and penalties to attributes is fairly small in the Pathfinder rules.  Most bonuses total out to an overall +2, which, when you can choose where to place your ability scores, is of little effect other than a small increase in the starting cap.  Class is a much higher predictor of any given attribute than race is, as players will tend to maximize the attributes that they need for their class's abilities.  And by the time a character is level 8, they will likely have been able to compensate for any gain or loss of an attribute due to their starting choices.

Let's look at elves to see what an example heritage might look like:

Elven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Elven
  • Nocturnal:  low-light vision
  • Wilderness Dwellers:  +2 Perception, +2 Knowledge (nature)
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
Now, my elves may not be the same as your elves, which is fine.  There are a lot of different stories about elves!  But each of these things tells something about how a character with elven heritage grew up.  They probably lived in the wilds, far from cities.  They had to be relatively self-sufficient, but probably had to also trade to get things they needed.  Thus, they know the Common trading tongue, but at home they probably only spoke Elven.  They were not farmers, but rather hunters and gatherers, venturing out at night and resting during the day.  They were taught from an early age to be watchful for predators and recognize poisonous plants.  This potentially harsh life was made easier by the benefit of magic: at least one person in the family was probably an arcane spellcaster, if not more than one.  The words of magic would have been a familiar sound to this character as they grew up.  Even if they did not study magic themselves, they are familiar with how it works.

Imagine this character in a bustling city marketplace, during the day!  Their heritage gives the player an idea of how they might roleplay the character and what they might do in the story.

Magical Birthrights

Because this is a fantasy roleplaying game, we need to look more closely at the circumstances of our character's birth.  What if they are a fairy princess?  What if they are a seventh son of a seventh son?  What if they have bat wings?  What if they are a giant?  All of these things make for great fantasy stories, and so we should think about how to support them with the rules of the game.

Here are the ground rules I use for this broad category, which I've called birthrights.  First, birthrights are not heritage.  If your character were snatched from the cradle as a child and raised by wolves, they would still retain the same birthright, but they would likely have an entirely different heritage.  (Yes, "raised by wolves" is a heritage that I will cover in a future post.)  But second, birthrights are not identity.  It is true that a character born with a birthright cannot change it, but birthrights should be seen as a gift and a responsibility.  One that a character has not earned, despite the name, but one which they must live up to in some way.  Some birthrights might even be the result of a curse (although they are all advantageous for an adventurer.)  Third, birthrights are magical or supernatural in some way.

Not all characters need to have birthrights.  And for those that have them, they may or may not be particularly important to the story.  So the rules for birthrights can be divided up into feats, which can be taken by any character class, but which will have a relatively small effect, and class abilities, which are reserved for certain classes (such as bloodlines for sorcerers), and will have a large effect on what the character is able to do.

Certain birthrights will be suggested as matching up well with certain heritages.  However, a character might have been adopted into a heritage, or have a distinct and unusual birthright for some other reason, so all birthrights should be available regardless of the heritage you choose.  Providing an explanation for these will likely result in some interesting back story for your character!

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