Friday, July 15, 2016

Ethnic Homogeneity in RPGs (Or, Why So Many Burly White Adventurers?)

I've been a tabletop gamer for a little over a decade now. That's a lot longer than some players, and a lot shorter than others. However, I've also gamed with all sorts of groups, and in all kinds of settings. In all that time, there's this weird tendency I've noticed, and that other players I've spoken to have also noticed. It is, in short, a knee-jerk reaction to keeping our game worlds, and the characters within them, in strictly segregated boxes. Like kids who enjoy all the foods on their plate as individual things, but if they touch even a little bit then we freak out and refuse to eat any of it.

Get your rice away from my grits, or I swear to all that is holy I will flip this table.
While we see this in lots of aspects of RPGs, nowhere is it clearer than when someone wants to play an ethnicity that "doesn't belong" in a certain part of the world.

They're People, Not Dishes

I'd like you to try an experiment, the next time you come to your gaming table. Build your character exactly as you normally would, but make that character ethnically different from what's considered standard for the region. Make it clear that you aren't looking to bring aspects of another culture into this region, and that you don't want special access to treasures or skills from the other side of the world. Your character is simply the child (or grandchild) of immigrants, and this is the way he or she happens to look.

Now, if you're part of a relatively open-minded group, you probably won't get any negativity for this decision. Some of your fellow players might even file this idea away for when they play characters of their own in the future. If you are not part of an open-minded group, though, you're likely to catch more flak than a British bomber flying over Berlin. Why do you have to be a special snowflake? Why can't you just be like everyone else, and play someone who looks like they're from here?

It often causes less ruckus at a table if you choose to play a tusked boar-man covered in ritual scars than if you want to be someone who has a different skin tone than the rest of the party.

Every World Has Multiple Cultures

Fantasy worlds have more than one culture, ethnicity, and religion. That's what makes them worlds, and not just nations. Even Middle Earth, which I continuously harp on for being bland, has diverse races of men. From the wild men in the north, to the desert dwellers of the south, there are variations in ethnicity. While no one in the main cast happens to be part of those cultures, or descended from them, that doesn't mean they don't exist.

You see the same kinds of diversity in good RPG settings. Whether you prefer Midgard or Golarion, The Forgotten Realms or The Known World that is the setting for A Song of Ice and Fire, there are all kinds of people, in all shapes, shades, and sizes. Despite their existence in the canon lore, though, it's like we forget that adventurers from all cultures travel all over the world. That they have children, and choose to settle down in places they weren't born. Merchants, caravan guards, diplomats, historians, and even seekers of magical knowledge may find themselves on the other side of the world from where they were whelped, and just decide there isn't anything at home worth going back for.

Especially since most adventurers have had their entire families killed off, anyway.
Unless there is something in your game's lore that specifically says a given nation is sectioned off, and that its people are not found anywhere else in the world, then why would you limit the stories players can tell?

But What If They're Not From Here?

The human mind likes things to be in nice, neat categories it can easily process. It's one reason why, when we have a game set in a given nation or country, and a PC that isn't from that region shows up, our brains glitch. Sort of like how you get used to seeing your teachers in the classroom, and when you see them out in public having ice cream with their kids, you tweak. Because it is a situation that feels wrong, even though you can't explain why.

It's 7:00 in the evening... why isn't she back at my school?
This is why I would suggest that, if the idea of PCs not all being from the same five square miles of ground is a problem, you ask yourself why. Why does it matter how the party got there, as long as the party is there when the adventure begins?

Explaining how a PC got to this place is the responsibility of every player. Some players might go with the ever-popular, "my character lives here," which is the simplest method regardless of your cultural heritage or ethnic appearance. Others, who want to have miles between them and where they began, might have more of a journey involved. Perhaps the fighter did a stint as a caravan guard, and decided he wanted to take a rest from traveling. Now there's this new opportunity on his hands, and he can make a far more lucrative career in this new land. Perhaps the wizard came across a continent to attend the city's arcane university, and now that she has completed her initial study, wants to put that knowledge to the test. The bard is... well... a bard, and this happens to be where he showed up after he left that last town. For undisclosed reasons.

A Closing Note

This post is not to suggest that anyone who has ever disagreed with a character's country of origin or ethnicity is somehow a cross-burning racist. I am not saying players, or DMs, who have problems with these kinds of characters are bigoted. What I am saying is that when we are presented with what, to us, are new ideas, or ideas that change things from our normal comfort zone, we often react by demanding the status quo remain the same. It happens every time a new supplement comes out for a game we like; there is always a group of players who won't allow it at their table, and who claim the rules and flavor as they were shouldn't be changed.

Often, though, once they've had some time to reflect, and actually look at what this new approach could add to their games, they find something they like. Even if they don't feel it's for them, personally, they can see the appeal.

That is the point of this week's Fluff post. Not to accuse anyone of having wrong-bad fun, or to demand that we all change our characters and games right now! I am simply remarking on a trend I've seen, and suggesting that if this is an issue you have encountered, that holding it at arm's length and really looking at it could lead to some new and interesting concepts, and stories.

Lastly, if this is a topic that interests you from a historical perspective as well (or if you're just tired of hearing that people want games to be "reflective of the time period they're emulating"), you should check out Medieval People of Color on Tumblr. It will raise some eyebrows if you thought the Middle Ages was just a bunch of white folks walking around in Europe.

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what I have to say this week. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, then drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it ensures you some sweet swag as well. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too?


  1. I may be extrapolating too much, but can this be, uh, an particularly American thing? I live in Germany and I have never had such an experience (active rejection of ethnically "non-standard" human characters) from anyone I've ever RPed with here.

    Much more often, however, I see a different sort of problem, which either less problematic or much more insidious, depending on how you look at it. It's when players create characters of "non-standard" ethnicities and then forget to play them out right, so if you looked at the actual play after session zero, you couldn't tell who was playing the Andoranian, the Quadiran, and the Mwangi guy--they'd all sound like they've all grew up in Absalom or some other cosmopolitan place. It's kind of like when people cross-play and forget about it.

    Now, it's fine to role-play a guy who embraces a different culture than the one he comes from, if that's the concept, but when everyone at the table unconsciously does it (maybe because they couldn't be bothered to actually read up on the culture they're playing), it creates a dangerous illusion of diversity instead of the real thing, because diversity is not about subtly steamrolling everyone into the same mold, but about acknowledging and accepting (read: "respectfully playing out") their differences.

    1. I live in Texas, and I don't have any trouble imagining it happening in some groups. Some people reflexively complain because they think about peasants living their entire lives in one location, or tend to think of nations the way science fiction makes up Planets of Hats. There's no bigotry intended, but I can certainly see why someone would feel excluded if he couldn't play a character of his RL race because they players are feeling rigid about their conception of the setting. It probably comes across sounding like an excuse.

      And, unfortunately, there's always a share of bigots. I'm lucky I haven't run into any, but I've heard stories of groups who pretty much play orcs as minority stereotypes they can kill without consequence.

    2. I'm in the American Midwest and I've been playing for a little longer than the author - going on 38+ years now - and I can honestly say this has not been my experience at all. In my time the groups I've played in included several white male character types but they've also included quite a few female characters (one of my favorites was a no-nonsense female Marine Gunny in a post apoc setting - she kicked butt, took names and looked good doing it!). Ethnicities didn't seem to matter, nor cultural settings, we've always basically played whatever we wanted as long as we could make it "make sense" within the game setting and we could RP the character correctly. Nothing ruins a good game faster than a PC who doesn't make an effort to fit in with the milieu of the game. A Japanese martial artist in an Old West setting can work (I played one once, I was a huge fan of the TV show 'Kung Fu' and based him off that), but if you're going to play one like that remember that most of the Asians in American during the old west were Chinese, not Japanese, and it should be common for NPCs and PCs alike to get confused as to the difference in ethnicity. That's part of a good RP setting, not an issue with diversity really. I think that if this is an issue then perhaps it is related to player longevity and experience - maybe newer players are simply more inclined to play characters ethnically similar to themselves and as they become older and more experienced in Role Play they're willing to branch out and try something different. Then again that could just be me.

    3. I would agree with you, only if you're in a game that is actively supposed to be the real world. A Deadlands game, for example, takes place in an alternate, but recognizable, American West.

      The obvious assumption being made, since I list only fantasy settings in the article, is that we are NOT playing a game set in our real world. So we can't point to our actual history and say, "in the real world, X, therefore in a completely unrelated fantasy world, things must also be X."

      And, while I'm glad it's never been an issue at your tables, not seeing something personally doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I've lost count of the number of games I've gone to where someone will tell me, "you can't play an Eastern character in a Western game." The idea that someone would emigrate from one nation to another, possibly a dozen generations ago, was too much for their suspension of disbelief.

      It's why I try to attack the notion that people always stay in the same place. If we can venture halfway around the world, what's to stop other adventurers from coming in the opposite direction?

  2. Agreed, people travel (or are chased, exiled, or even -shudder- purchased) which bring them into different area. A good game world, like our own, should have a variety of cultures and different shades of people.

  3. I have encountered it. I've been gaming since 1980, and while you can usually sneak in an Asian character (if the other players are anime fans), getting a black character in is difficult. Even worse is a black man who isn't some sort of savage or barbarian-- Egypt was the founding place of alchemy and engineering, so black men as wizards or alchemists is perfectly historically accurate.

    I've never had anyone seriously try the "They wouldn't have immigrated thousands of miles" argument on me, but then again I'm a minority. Hello, my family immigrated thousands of miles, how the heck do you think I got here? For that matter, so did your family, since I don't hear you speaking Cherokee."

  4. I'm not so sure this holds water. In my experience (35+ years of gaming) most people, after introducing each other and getting familiar with their back stories, mostly forget what the characters look like and react mainly, at least at first, to what the person playing the character looks like. First to go tends to be gender, reacting and calling the gender identifiers of the person, then generally correcting or being corrected to the correct gender. Race is generally remembered (human, elf, and so on, not the human perceived "race" of white, asian, and so on.) Very very last is any area specifiers such as skin color, hair color, tribal tattoos, not for any negative reasons (those can occur I'm sure) in as much as just from ease of memory. You are first going to react to what you see, not minor things you remember about specific characters. Think about it, even playing races that tend to experience racism in-game, such as Half-Orc or Tiefling, who should experience their fair share of friction tend to, for the sake of expediency, have fairly frictionless times dealing with other characters and NPCs during play. You have to REMEMBER to treat them differently if your race is one that does not get along with theirs.
    That being said, one of my favorite characters to play was an AL legal character I created as a Deep Gnome who, for meta play reasons, was transformed into a Drow Elf at level 4 (which is still allowed until level 5), but for story reasons still maintained her back story and memories. It delighted me to no end to have my fellow characters tell me that I would have no problem blending into the Drow society to do reconnaissance due to my race only to remind them that I had no association with the Drow and knew nothing of their society as I was very distinctly a Deep Gnome through and through no matter what I looked like.

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  6. i have played since 1995. and yeah, it is best to not play a member of a given ethnicity by the stereotypes associated with that ethnicity. the Stereotypes, especially the negative ones, can be seen as bigotry. and really, most players aren't usually roleplaying a member of their race as much as their class overshadows their race. because one's skillset is more indicative of their childhood experiences than their skin color.

    my Elves are anything but tree hugging hippies. and my Nymphs have a habit of Embracing Alchemy or Wizarddry as an Art form like any other gorgeous mural.

    i play a lot of small and petite female characters, regardless of class, plus, it is common for my characters to be involved in some form of bondage, whether as a slave, a prisoner, owing a debt, or a similar means of connecting them to the party. i remember a modern campaign where i played a hostage that was captured by the mob aligned PCs and worked with them out of fear for her life.

    the key, isn't to ask for the gifts or culture of a given race, but to ask for the cosmetic portion of the ethnicity, i mean, i have no problems with players of other skincolors, or people playing characters of genders or skincolors alternative to their own.

    i remember playing a D&D 5e game where i had a human "wizard" that praised the Dwarven Forgefather, because her surrogate father figure was a Dwarven Blacksmith in a cosmopolitan area. she wasn't a proper wizard in the collegiate education, but rather, was a wizard educated by the church of the forgefather and revered as the equivalent to a "monk". she didn't have literal monk levels, but she was a "monk" in the religious sense. a "monk" that used offensive spells like any wizard. note that she was a low ranking clergyman, not a kung fu master. and despite being human, she drank as much hard liquor as most dwarves and enjoyed dwarven cuisine.

    i also played an Italian Nymph who spent a huge portion of her childhood studying at the colleges of Alexandria. she was seen as an Alexandrian Scholar like any other, because she spent so long at the colleges and even learned a great deal about alchemy, engineering and wizarddry from an Egyptian Wizard. Alexandria is one of the more enlightened cities of Egypt, and well, it was fantasy Egypt, so sexism was less of an issue. she wasn't religious. but she wasn't a nonbeliever. as a nymph, one kind of has to embrace the existence of deities. and well, her mother was the goddess of order and harmony. so she really liked how neatly structured Alexandria was and could easily explain to tourists why structure was important there.

    i have other bits of Anecdotal evidence. and i have played characters who were the descendants of immigrants, or even traveled for education or work or something. in one of my current games, i play an Elf that moved to a port city a day South from her home to get away from a Stalker that kept annoying her. if there is any stereotype that can be said about me, it is that i play fae flavored humanoids on the feasibly smaller end of the human spectrum who grew up in human dominated areas

  7. I'm trying to remember the last time I played a /human/ or any core race under anything but protest.
    I often run part-humans though (love my my tieflings).
    Catfolk and kitsune are another thing I gravitate towards.