Comedy Racism in Historical Games

There is a genre[*] of roleplaying game that covers a mix of historical games that are trying to be faithful (in a strictly non-academic way[**]) to “real life” and pulp games set in historic-ish settings, more like Pirates of the Caribbean than the actual pirates of the Caribbean, if you see what I mean. This genre is pretty popular, at least amongst the internet forums I occasionally frequent. It also commonly includes elements of racism.

Woah there Rabalias! Where did that come from? Ok, let me say up front: I am not saying these games are racist, I’m not saying the people who play and enjoy them are racist. I’m talking about fictional racism.

Games set in World War 2 that include casual jingoism towards the “Jerries”. Games set in the old West where black slaves are commonplace. All manner of historical racism, sometimes brutal but usually casual and even humorous. These are fun settings for games, that many people enjoy. And of course, many roleplayers would not feel right about playing games in such settings without including the racism from the period. So we see players having their characters act racist for “realism”‘s sake. Usually this is done with a knowing smile – I’m not racist, the smile says, and this is all just good fun, why don’t you say something racist back and we can all laugh about it?

What I have discovered is: I am not at all comfortable with this. It is just a story, but I don’t want to be in a story where my character is a racist. I don’t want to play in a group where racism is common, even if it is strictly in-fiction, and even, perhaps especially, where it is done with tongue in cheek and a knowing smile. It makes me feel uncomfortable, and it inhibits me from fully taking part in the game. I can’t shake the feeling that by portraying heroic characters, or even just sympathetic characters, who are not merely just incidentally and occasionally racist, but frequently and casually racist, towards real historical victims of racism, I am on some level endorsing or taking part in that racism.

Unfortunately for me, games don’t typically advertise if they will be including such themes. I am lucky in that the people I roleplay with day-to-day don’t seem to be into playing comedy racists, but I can’t be sure when attending a convention or playing online that I won’t come across this. Sadly, I think I may have to avoid games from “historical” settings with notorious racist attitudes, unless I feel confident the group will tread very lightly indeed over those issues.

[*] Possibly too strong a word, but read it broadly.

[**] In my experience, such games are far more likely to be based on fictional accounts of history than actual historical knowledge. The result is that the social attitudes reflect those seen in movies and books. How racist were people historically? They may or may not have been as racist as the characters in “historical” games.

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

A stone’s throw away from the answer

An analogy I often come across when describing investigative games is the “trail of breadcrumbs”. That is, a linear series of clues each of which points to the next in the series. It’s an approach that reaches its apex in the Gumshoe system, which advises the GM to write a “spine” of scenes, each of which contains a core clue which is necessary to progress to the next scene. The game makes discovery of core clues automatic for any character with the relevant skill, solving a genuine problem with investigative games, which is that they can stall when the players miss an important roll.

This is not an approach I subscribe to. Notwithstanding the fact that the “trail of breadcrumbs” is rather demeaning towards the players, suggesting they are simply mindless birds pecking their way to success – well. That is exactly what they are in Gumshoe, it seems to me. The system deliberately removes any element of challenge in the process of discovering the Truth, leaving the players with the job of describing how they do it. Whether they peck at the breadcrumbs furiously or idly, I suppose.

Let me give you my own pointless metaphor for the process I follow. Imagine the villain of the piece is standing on the shore of a lake, throwing stones. The stones create ripples, which spread out in all directions and persist for a long time.

If the stones are the villain’s actions, and the ripples are the clues they leave behind, then you should start to see where my analogy is going. The players are presented initially with some information about the “ripples” – the key evidence that starts their investigation off. Now they are in a position to look for more ripples. They begin to be able to piece together where some of the stones fell. If they are watching closely perhaps they can even spot some stones landing. But I as GM don’t plan out which bits of the ripple they’re going to find, or which stones they will discover the location of. Or in other words, I don’t know which evidence they will discover or what clues they will deduce from it.

Instead, I make sure that there are plenty of stones being thrown, with a varied size of ripple, so that I can be reasonably sure that they will eventually figure out who is throwing those stones. Finally, the stones continue to be thrown as the investigation is ongoing, generating still more ripples. By which I mean:
– My villain is doing lots of stuff
– He is, therefore, leaving lots of evidence behind for the players to find
– Some of it is really obvious, some less so, so there is room for skillful play
– My villain carries on doing stuff while the investigation is going on, so the trail never goes completely cold, and (this is important) there are consequences to failure

Think about the difference between these two approaches. Under the Gumshoe approach, no matter what the players do, they will uncover the mystery, and without any role for intelligent deduction, clever investigation or even just plain good or bad luck. The game (I read Trail of Cthulhu) strenuously denies it railroads the players, but this feels like a game on rails to me. Even a standard “trail of breadcrumbs” (not Gumshoe) game will feel a lot like this.

Meanwhile under my approach the players are required to use their eyes and ears and brains to piece together what happened. They don’t get any free passes. There is scope for them to solve the mystery slower or faster, and there are consequences if they fail. It is unlikely the players will fail because there is lots of evidence and the villain doesn’t disappear off the radar, but they can still screw up properly, allowing the villain to commit more mayhem, and conversely they can score a roaring success, catching the villain early.

A trail of breadcrumbs investigation means you are roleplaying an investigation, but not actually doing one. The stones and ripples approach means you get to actually investigate, not just go through the motions.

Final thoughts: my approach is not without problems. It’s a lot of work, and it requires the GM to think on her feet about every player action and what clues it might uncover. It can mean an unpredictable game length. The GM must pay a lot of attention to whether there is enough evidence to go on (so they will probably succeed) but not too much (so it just feels like childsplay, ruining the challenge). I think these are a price worth paying to get an approach that feels like real investigation.