RPGBlogCarnivalLogocopyRACES is the subject for the RPG Blog Carnival this year — hosted by Roleplaying Tips — and having perused a few of the entries, all of the entrants seem to have kept to the the safe zone of “species”, really — how to treat having dwarves, and elves, etc. in you game, along with a few excellent posts on building culture of these other races/species. But no one really has touched on race…because it’s like to cause a shitstorm if you stray outside the comfortably politically correct lines set up by critical race theory halfwits of the endless [your group here] Studies in academia.

I’ve already covered this in another post, and I’m going to borrow from it for this one. Please forgive my self-plagiarism. How do you approach different species or races in a game can be varied — from the “we don’t see color” notions of Star Trek to more accurate portrayals of race in historical RPGs. The key here is simple — if the players want to play color-blind, 21st century-style characters in medieval Europe, they can. If they want to embrace a period-specific game, that is appropriate as long as the table agrees to keep any racism and sexism in game.

But Scott! Racism and sexism are never appropriate! I agree. Neither is slaughtering people with swords, halberds, guns, and lasers. Queue the Schwarzenegger line from True Lies, “But they were all bad!” So is killing everyone in your way in a game an indication of psychopathy in your players? The first rule of thumb, when dealing with touchy issue in a game is to realize everyone has different comfort levels. Establish the ground rules before you start the game, and adjust if someone can’t cope with how things are going around the table. The first rule of gaming applies here: Don’t be a jerk.

For future-based games, most “racism” will fall under the category of allegory for modern issues. The players are likely to be the Star Trek-like heroes that find the notion distasteful and will gladly treat every new species, no matter how awful or culturally bereft as something to be taught how to love their neighbor in 48 minutes plus commercials. Hell, Peter Quill slept with an Oscararian (But it was just that one time…) Species and race, here, are conflated and makes it easier to approach the idea of hating someone or thing because they are different. There’s socially-acceptable padding to addressing the issue, and this second-hand racism helps to create verisimilitude — a feeling of reality.

Let’s look at a popular game setting for this blog: Battlestar Galactica, where the Cylons are “toasters” and “skin jobs”, and are viewed as a hated and feared “other”, despite their very obvious human characteristics and desires. Equally, the Cylons view man as obsolete — or “backwards” in racial or Social Darwinist terms — but we overlook the blatant racism as just part and parcel of the “fun.” Even when the show got heavy handed with the moral equivalence, you could fall back on “these guys killed 30 billion people…we have a few zeros to go before the score is evened up.” Can you address this aspect of the setting without being racism yourself? Yes.

What about modern games, however? Is there still racism rampant in the world today? Um…yeah, and addressing it from time to time can create a sense of realism, but don’t beat your players over the head with it (or let them do the same to the others.) It should be appropriate to the genre and flavor of the game. Are you playing a Tarantino-esque crime gang? Then the constant flood of racial, gender, and sexual preference epithets might help to create a faux 1970s flavor that particular director goes for. No my thing, but to each his own.

What about spy-fi or some other modernish setting? Is it always the imperialistic, peckish white male seeking to subjugate and ritual rape their lesser man? (I’m not kidding…I listened to this shit for six years.) No. Having traveled pretty extensively and having a fair bit of understand of several non-western cultures — racism is pretty rampant around the world. Trying being anything other than a pure Japanese male in Japan. That white privilege doesn’t even enter into the equation. How about being black or Muslim in China? Oh, you like to pick the “difficult” setting in the game of life! You can use this particular element of the setting’s culture to create a sense of reality. But here’s the thing: We play role playing games because we want to be something, if only for a few hours in the safety of fantasy, extraordinary. The brave fighters, the canny wizard or hacker, the fighter pilot, the plucky thief, the social diva — whatever…we want something larger than life. If addressing race or sex, or gender is uncomfortable, leave it out. Outside of your group, no one is going to know your incredibly artful approach to the issue of [insert pet issue here.]

Keep that in mind for games set in periods before modern day. Maybe your fantasy setting is the usual milquetoast Tolkein retread with the numbers filed off — you can ignore race/color, or gender issues, if you like. You can add a female lesbian elf warrior (and many a teenage boy does…) and no one looks askance. However, if the need for verisimilitude in a setting is important for the audience (your players) buy-in, you might want to approach the issue of race or sex more directly.

Race relations were not exactly stellar prior to …well, ever. And being a woman before the first sexual revolution of the 1920s was not conducive to a life of high adventure or being treated as an equal. And what if you were poor? Not a lot of crofters had the option to race off and explore the world unless they were wearing army red. The societies of pre-industrial nations aren’t known for their open-minded stance on gender, race, or sexuality. Combine that with class issues and the thought of living pre-1920 should put most people off. So how do you handle this? Set the reality dial too high and you will exclude certain character types, and by extension, certain demographics of players.

First off, no matter how real it is for the NPCs, the players are special. There are always exceptions to the rule in history. Boudica was a warrior woman who wasn’t about to take crap from anyone, but lived in a world where women were second-class citizens in the Britain of the Roman Empire. Joan d’Arc was a peasant girl and maybe a lunatic, but she was an excellent general. Mary Read was a successful pirate you didn’t mess with. Jane Digby and Lola Montez were different stripes of female adventurer when is was not acceptable, they knew it, and played to their eccentricities — to the delight of those that knew them (and the hatred of those who did not.) Tom Molineaux was a successful boxer, despite being black, in the 1830s and was the toast of town, getting away with things that no other black man could. The Lafayette Escadrille had a black pilot who was treated the equal of the others he flew with. (Plenty of women and minorities found escape in early aviation and motorsports. they might be on the harder setting of the game of life, as John Scalzi would put it, but they still got away with things most colored folks and women couldn’t because cars, and motorcycles, and planes, and jazz music, and movies were new — and this novelty insulated them to some extent from traditional values.)

The players’ characters are the exceptions, the special ones…and you can use this to also address racism or sexism because their vaunted position in the game allows them more latitude. Giving your players realistic impediments can (and should) be frustrating, but they should be able to outsmart, outfight, or out-politic their foes. They should have detractors who decry their stepping out of place or take steps to ruin the character socially, but there should always be those folks that back them. It’s actually pretty realistic, historically.

When dealing with different cultures and races (or species) it’s important remember this one uncomfortable fact — stereotypes exist for a reason. They are society’s “macro” for dealing with the other, but they are not always accurate, and there are plenty to folks who break the type. You should build up the expectations the characters might have for a foreign culture — be it the wogs in Sardinia, or those penny-pinching dwarves under Frosty Mountain, or the sneaky Romulans…then smash the prejudice with examples that defy the stereotype, or portray it in a different light. Those Sardinians have a very similar outlook and culture to your Scottish highlanders, just with a prettier language and better looking women; those penny-pinching dwarves actually believe that your have an obligation not to impose on other people — the cheapness is fiscal frugality designed to make you less a burden on your family in your dotage; Romulans aren’t “sneaky”, but adapted to life in a police state — they’re home life is loving, tight-knit, and suspicious of outsiders for good reason. Kind of like those thieving pikies. By using the racial stereotypes, you can break them by diving into why those traits exist, and why they were viewed incorrectly.

Here are a few examples of how race or sex was using in some of my campaigns, over the years:

Example 1: I often ran Victorian sci-fi games until my recent spate of ’30s pulp and space opera games. One of the players chose to play aristocrats almost exclusively. Why? Because of the freedom that money and connection gave her characters to flaunt convention and get away with it. She played almost exclusively characters that were socially adept and attractive — the sort that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the Victorian period.

Example 2: A young Chinese street urchin, female, who was able — because she was young, a girl, and Chinese — hence invisible, right or wrong — was the perfect spy and go-between for the Western male characters in 1936 Shanghai. She was always in danger of physical or official abuse, was often hungry and dirty…but her utility allowed her to tag along on adventures and gained her respect by from the characters. But that didn’t stop one from calling her “My little monkey” — racist and awful? Yes. Fully appropriate for the period? Yes…and that was all it was, part of the character, not the player (who was in a biracial marriage at the time.)

Example 3: A black woman who had gone into prostitution in our Victorian game, but who managed to seduce the right men, gain some level of financial stability and notoriety, then launched on a series of adventures with the other characters who — being the exceptions to the rule — were at least tolerant of the character.

Example 4: A female Martian in a Space:1889 game got involved with an American cowboy wandering the Red Planet. Despite their string of high-profile adventures and relative acceptance by Martians, human religious types viewed their union as “bestiality.” This caused them troubles, and was very realistic for the period, but these issues were not insurmountable ones because they are the heroes.