Sunday, November 19, 2017

De-Coupling The Idea of Race And Nation in RPGs

There is a particular trope in science fiction and fantasy that shows up a lot at our gaming tables. Chances are you've seen it, especially if you're a fan of a Tolkien-style setup. The way this trope works is that a particular culture (typically a non-human one, but human neighbors are not immune from this trope) is set up as having a particular thing that's noteworthy about them. You know, like how all Klingons (space orcs) are heavy metal tribal warriors, and how Vulcans (space elves) are aloof, logical, and tend to be generally better than humans at everything.

You know, like how ALL noblemen are inherently better than commoners.
Whatever the thing this race/culture/etc. is good at is referred to as their hat. It is immediately recognizable, completely unique, and every member of that population has it. And it's just fine for a generalized shorthand... but it sort of falls apart once you start interacting with people on an individual basis.

Things Get Better Once You Take Off The Hats

Fantasy games, especially games like Pathfinder, are loaded with hats. Having elven and orc as languages is a primary example. While we can largely blame Tolkien for it, the idea that all members of a given race inherently speak one language (except humans, of course, because humans are all different) is kind of ridiculous. Ditto the racial proficiency benefits that allow gnomes or dwarves to just naturally be good with certain weapons. Even if they come from parts of the world where those weapons would be improbable, unwieldy, or just not as useful. The biggest offenders, though, are when characters treat their race as the equivalent of a nation. Like there is only ever one culture, and one norm, and every member of that race you encounter will be aware of that culture, and those norms.

Here, I'll let Trope Talks explain the ins and outs of this one.

Got it? Lovely!

So how do you take off your character's hat? Or the NPCs' hats, if you're the DM? Well, the easiest way is to de-couple the idea of race from the idea of nation, and to introduce nuance and variety.

Adding Depth Always Helps

I hit on some of this a while back over on The Literary Mercenary with my post Tear Down The Monoliths, but that was meant more for writing than for gaming. So how do you introduce more depth and nuance into an RPG setting in order to avoid the idea that (except for PCs and the occasional important NPC) all members of a race, culture, etc. are more or less the same?

Well, the first thing you should do is de-couple the idea of race (the people) with the idea of nation (a physical location with specific borders). If you ever have an entire country that's made up strictly of only one kind of creature (the reclusive elven kingdom, the swarming orc horde, etc.) ask why? Because a small group of creatures, say a mostly nomadic tribe or even a small town, could easily remain homogeneous. Especially if they're self-sufficient, and have minimal interaction with outsiders. But in order to grow, they'll require a lot of resources. That typically means there will be trade, diplomatic relations with their neighbors (including war), and it means that people will want to come to be a part of what's being created. So the bigger a nation is, and the more land it brings together, the smaller the chances are of it being completely (or even mostly) homogeneous.

That is not to say that creatures from a given area don't share a culture. They absolutely do, even if as individuals they don't share all the same values, desires, goals, etc. But that area should influence who a character is in order to avoid playing into the excuse of the hat. For instance, you're playing a elf from Hardhome, so of course you're good with a longbow. So are many other folks there; archery is the nation's official national past time. So you're a dwarf who favors a hammer, eh? Well, yeah. When you were part of the Hilltop Guardians, you were a breacher. It was your job to batter down the door so your teammates could rush into the gap and capture criminals.

In short, make what you do about how you were raised, and where you're from, instead of using the excuse, "Well, I'm an X, so I'm just naturally good with a Y."

Another good step to take is to come up with alternatives to racial languages. It's more work on the DM's behalf, but try breaking them up into different dialects across the world. Yes, the Granite Kings popularized the characters and style of the Horrang language (snidely referred to by some as high-dwarven), but as the empire branched out, and citizens went to other parts of the world, it broke off and changed. Used mainly among scholars, and certain isolated pockets of the region, the language isn't dead, but it is rarely used in the everyday anymore. Make it clear that languages for other races are the same as for humans; they grow, they change, and they spread, becoming more or less common depending on trade, prominence of the home nation, the spread of its people, etc., etc.

This has the side benefit that skills like Linguistics, and magic like Comprehend Languages, become even more useful for those who invest in them.

Lastly, take the time to show players that given races and cultures aren't monoliths in your setting. Show NPCs as individuals, who may adhere to some of these sweeping generalizations, but not to others. Have a gnome who is calm, and difficult to excite, but who can fixate on objects of curiosity with an intensity that marks him as a genius in any field he chooses to enter. Give us a half-orc who uses his inherited strength and toughness to become a champion athlete, and who speaks out about non-violent solutions to the problems the world faces. Give us an elf who's damaged and volatile, who's seen hundreds of companions die of wounds and age, and whose unsurpassed skill on the battlefield is just as much a curse as a blessing as he forgets there is a way to live without a sword in his hand.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

This is, of course, assuming that having a nation or planet of hats is an issue you've had at your table. Some games work perfectly well when they lean on this trope. Especially if it's a way to make an entire group of creatures irredeemable, so no one raises the issue of whether it's morally acceptable to slaughter the bad guys wholesale. However, if you like the idea of mixing up the formula, and jettisoning hats that, while functional, can make parts of the game world feel stilted and shallow, it's often a good idea to follow that impulse.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. If you're in the market for even more gaming content from yours truly, why not check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to check out some of the episodes I have the privilege to be part of? If you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. $1 a month makes a big difference, and gets you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Hm. I guess as long as I'm imagining elves and orcs, I can imagine a pluralistic fantasy country. It's a stretch but it's possible.

    To me it feels like a lot of work for not a lot of return on investment. The stereotypes exist because they make things easier.