Racist stereotypes in roleplaying

So, I have been keeping a wary eye on the discussion of Wolsung and with a deep breath I ploughed through the RPGnet discussion of it. Now, I haven’t read Wolsung and I’m not going to get into my opinions on the game. But there were some interesting arguments thrown around on RPGnet that I’d like to talk about here.

1. It cannot be racism if the target is a fictional, nonhuman race. This seems pretty obviously false. A blatant racist stereotype against a particular real life group remains just as blatant if you shift it wholesale onto a fictional race (particularly if you make the fictional race resemble the stereotype in question in an extremely identifiable way). Whether you did it on purpose or not is beside the point, though when the resemblance is very strong, people may find it hard to credit that it was accidental.

2. It isn’t racism if it’s about national culture or if national culture is just as important in the game as race. Well, ok, the term “racism” doesn’t apply to national stereotypes. This doesn’t make it better though. Cultural (and NB also religious) stereotypes seem to have somewhere along the line become the acceptable face of bigotry. But, you know, it’s essentially the same deal – painting an entire group with one brush, and a skewed and, uh, stereotyped brush at that. Focusing on the fact that genes aren’t involved is missing the point.

3. It’s ok because it’s an accurate representation of the historical period that the game is modelling (in this case the Victorian age). Well, this is kind of true. It’s true that some people, perhaps the majority, maybe even the vast majority[*] of Westerners in Victorian age held pretty horrendous bigoted views about foreigners. Note, of course, that the game permits you to play non-Westerners, so this argument is pretty much missing the point as well – why should the game be presented exclusively from the Western viewpoint? Indeed, why not select a few admirable exceptions to the (perceived) general bigotry to act as your perspective characters while noting, perhaps in a sidebar, the general prevalence of racism. In other words, why view the entire game through the lens of racism?

4. This leads me to a more difficult question, for me at least. Point 3 about is really an allusion to the fact that many of us like our fantasy worlds to model reality quite closely, warts and all. Now, the point has been made to me that if we’re happy to fill our games with orcs and airships, why do we suddenly insist on realism when it comes to racism? Well, I just don’t think the two things are the same; orcs and airships are essentially background colour, whereas realistic social behaviour is quite fundamental. I’m in the camp that tends to not want to gloss over real-life phenomena like racism. To be clear, my games have not been known for including racist themes or tackling racism – but I’d like to think I could do so, and I’m keen on the idea of games tackling such serious subject matter.

But it’s equally clear that if you’re going to tackle such serious subject matter in a published game, you want to do so in a careful, nuanced and respectful way. You should ideally have taken some serious study on the matter before charging into such murky waters. I’d go so far as to say that you should take this approach even if you aren’t publishing – if you’re just playing in your living room. If in our enthusiasm to be realistic, or to faithfully replicate a historical period (albeit with orcs and airships and so forth) we accept any old attempt at “serious” issues, even done in a cartoonish and badly thought-through way, then we’re pretty much betraying the principle of gritty realism in so doing, and we’ve trivialised the issue in the process.

One last thing. I think part of the reason people get so defensive about this is that they think “if this game is racist and I like it, then I must be racist; I’m not racist so the game can’t be either”. Well, racism isn’t like a disease that you have or don’t. It’s a spectrum of behaviours and cultural themes which permeate the whole of Western society. You are at risk of saying or doing stuff that’s racist if you don’t examine yourself, even if you yourself are not a racist. You can enjoy a game that covers racial themes, even in a ham-fisted way, without being a racist, but you owe it to yourself to give yourself some careful scrutiny before you do so.

[*] I’m really not sufficiently a historian to argue this point, but the idea that all Victorians were raging racists strikes me as also a possible stereotype.

Styles of Role-playing: expanding the model.

About a year ago I finally caught up with the Forge theory of role-playing and the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist styles of play. I spent a while attempting to categorise my own experience on this scale and felt I sat unhappily between Simulationist and Narrativist. I wanted enough internal consistency and simulation to create the suspension of disbelief I needed but I also wanted to drive the story my way and have my character’s own personal arc unfold. I said I sat “unhappily” though because I never felt that the 3 categories properly spoke to my own experience.

When I role-playing I do want an interesting story driven by me, the other players and the GM working together. But more than this I want to be emotionally touched by the experience of the story we create and during that creation I want to engage in interesting, stimulating and revealing conversations. I have written here about Conversationalism in role-playing games I run and the best sessions I have participated in have always been deep and meaningful, and changed the characters participating. Sometimes I role-playing just to enjoy inhabiting an interesting character and viewing the world through their eye. This style probably has more in common with Turku or Jeepform role-playing but I believe it is time to expand GNS to include Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

Therefore I propose two new classifications.

Emotionalism: your agenda when playing it to experience emotions thought the story and your character and facilitate other players experiencing emotions.

Conversationalism: your agenda when playing is to participate in and create an engaging conversation which deepens, expands or changes the relationship between the two characters involved.

Whilst Conversationalism has a passing similarity with Narrativism in that the course of the conversation will create a form of organic story, it is difference purely because the aim of Conversationalism is to enjoy the conversation not the creation of the story.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

The Unspeakable Oath has an interview with Mike Mason and Paul Fricker, developers of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, here. In sharp contrast to previous editions (at least the ones I’ve encountered), this is not just a glorified reprint. Oh no. They’re bringing the Call of Cthulhu rules up-to-date with what sound like some really sensible changes. These include simplifications like eliminating al the myriad different “hit a dude with X” type skills in favour of a single fighting skill. But also innovations like a rather evocative version of fate points where you get a reroll, but at a cost. Quite similar to some of the stuff we’ve been working on Black Armada, in fact! (Needless to say ours will be even better.) Anyway, I’m super-excited about it. Cthulhu is one of my favourite games in principle, but the system has always been a source of annoyance. I’ll look forward to even more sanity-blasting goodness from this edition.

Plot overload

During a recent playtest I encountered some serious problems with plot overload. At the start of the game I threw too many things at the player group, causing them to become confused, and sucking up far too much time dealing with the chaos. By the end I was trying desperately to draw things back and get the game back under control, but it was pretty much too late and I ran out of time to fix the problem, leading to a damp squib ending.

Point is: it’s easy to assume that the more there is going on, the more enjoyable the game is likely to be. But there’s only so much stuff a group can handle at once. As a GM whether you’re running a planned storyline or a more spontaneous, low-prep game (this was the latter) you need to think about these issues. Figure a group can maybe handle a couple of things at once, in a long-term campaign, but in a one-off or introductory session, you probably don’t even want to make things that complex. One thing at a time is probably enough!

You might be worried about the players having enough to do, and that’s a fair point. Nobody said the problem couldn’t be multi-faceted. But don’t force the players to concentrate on too many threads at once or they’ll lose the plot entirely. At best they’ll be entertained but confused; at worse, you’ll lose their interest altogether.

House of Ill Repute

I have completed work on my Fiasco playset, House of Ill Repute. Set at the heart of the UK Government in Westminster, it allows you to play politicians, bureaucrats and journalists with big ambitions and poor impulse control.

For those not familiar with Fiasco, it’s a GMless game in which the players collaborate to create a train wreck story about big plans gone disastrously wrong. The game is organised into playsets (many of which are available free at the link above) which provide random tables of story elements to get you started. You spend the first half of the game making a (usually very bad) plan and the second half smashing it to pieces. Mostly, the characters come of very badly by the end.

There’s a great video of some sample play over at TableTop.

You can download House of Ill Repute for free from our Free Games page. If you play it, let me know how you get on.

 

A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.