Sunday, March 6, 2011

What's in a Gnome? Fantasy Race-ism

The Gnome That Arose
So in my past couple of Geeklist-based posts, I've looked at or commented on the particulars of a list. Today I'm going to look at a list which stands for a kind of list- Matt Lewis' "All About Gnomes" list. Here he collects together the various gaming sourcebooks which present rules or details for Gnomish culture. There are other variations on this list, of course: the lists of sdonohue's Elf or trundorn's Dwarf sourcebooks lists for example. Oddly I didn't find any Hobbit/Halfling or Orc list in my searches. I think these types of lists point to one of RPG Geek's strengths-- the geeklist as a tool for users to bring together reference material across systems, game lines and eras. There are any number of typical niche books (planar-cross dimensional books, haunted castles, playing as demons, fantasy psionics) which can be brought together on lists like these-- a more useful approach than tags. In the spirit of these Matt's list, I want to talk briefly about the race in question, Gnomes, and then spin out a little to the question of fantasy races in general.

The list: All About Gnomes

Mommy, Where Do Gnomes Come From?

So while I'm going to talk generally about gamer love for particular fantasy races, I do have to address Gnomes in particular. You see, I don't "get" them. I have certain likes and dislikes for other races, but gnomes seem like frippery. I'm agnostic about them. They're some kind of strange stop-gap between Hobbits and Dwarves which appeared somewhere along the line. I'm probably remembering it wrong, but I don't recall Gnomes popping up until later supplements of the original boxed D&D and they weren't in the Blue Box IIRC. Then suddenly we had them, the figure standing in the background of most racial group shots ("Wait, who's that?" "Um...I think that's our Uncle Gnome...he's, an illusionist...I think?"). And who cobbled Illusions on them as a factor-- is that some weird riff from fairy tales? I recall those coffee-table red-capped gnome books from my youth- and a crappy Saturday morning cartoon- that can't be the source, can it? That seems a little bit of a reach. And then at some point that conception evolved into them as Tinkerers and Gadgeteers, something I usually pictured as a Dwarven thing (thanks WHFB). By the time Everquest came out, that had been pretty well solidified in the gaming mythos. I suspect some players like them, but I've always left them out of my games as unnecessary.

A GM's Gonna Hate
On the other hand, I've got some pretty active biases when it comes to other fantasy races. I don't like Hobbits or Halflings or Kinder or whatever you call them. That reaction comes out of the early days of my gaming, in the late 1970's when I played with a group that loved hobbits. Everyone played them and played them with a unified and clear method: back-stabbing, murderous, larcenous, awful, and unpleasant. Mind you, we were young and that was pretty much accepted as the way the game went, but it got on my nerves...about the fifth time I got ganked and had all my things taken by fellow PCs. From that point forward, I loathed hobbits in games. Haflings appear in my long-running fantasy campaign, but they're generally disliked and have a reputation for carts up on blocks out in the front yard of the mobile bolt-holes. So far, I haven't read any gamebook material which has pushed me to rethink that bias. I thought the Lord of the Rings movies might, but no. Ratling Snipers in the WH40K universe- cool and professional- were the only depiction that made me take notice. However now they're apparently "...small, loud, hungry and lecherous Abhumans" in the WH40K universe. So...yech.

My other bias creates more problems. I generally don't like Elves in most FRPGs. The material often uses the Elves as a contrast to humanity, and there's a haughtiness to many descriptions. With that also, an idea of that they possess simply by being Elves a superiority of aesthetics, morals and philosophy. In some cases, I can understand where that comes from. In the original Tolkien, they're representing a lost age, a people distinctly apart from humanity. They have their own weaknesses and biases, something which the whole Galadriel trip makes clear. However when Elves got brought over to other games it was with the serial numbers filed off. Elves can be haughty and superior, often gaining significant stat and ability bonuses or they may be haughty and superior but be the cultural equivalent of humans who live in the woods with funny ears. Beyond that perception of inherent superiority, I'm not sure I can put a finger on what bothers me about them. Ironically, I know that players in my group have their own set of biases. Some really despise the idea of Dwarves, while others react negatively to Orcs or Goblins being a playable race.

I Love My +1 CHA Bonus
On the flip side, its interesting to see how people gravitate not only to a race, but often to a class as well. Running longer campaigns means that spotting those penchants becomes harder, but within our group we have some expectations. I know who will play the spooky girl or the character in contact with the spirit world. I also know which players will likely be the swashbuckler, and what flavor of that archetype they're likely move to. The one thing I do want to suggest is that there's nothing wrong with that, even if a player tends to run an incredibly specific kind of character: disfigured loner with family problems, anger management issues, unrequited love and a highly specific artistic talent. But you have to wonder why. What keeps drawing them back to that- and what experience are they trying to squeeze out of the game?

In our group we have a running joke that Elves are the "starter race" that fantasy gamers first gravitate to. I think that's not entirely untrue- and we do have some players who really like the Elves. So as a GM who doesn't have the greatest love for them, how do I provide the best experience? How do I make them work where the player's vision of what it means to be Elf actually runs up against what I most dislike in their conception? One response on my part has been to make changes, but also to try to offer a diversity of Elf types- each with a different ethos and background. However, that runs into another problem...

Proliferation of Races

I’m not sure when it happened, but its interesting to consider the interaction of races in games. With that arises a confusion of terminology- for example, we have Elves as a distinctive "race" apart from humanity in most fantasy rpgs. However, in most cases, these races can cross-breed- resulting in half-Elves. Now that’s a detail drawn, of course, from Tolkien and to a lesser extent classic mythology. However that becomes interesting when that idea of cross-breeding then gets extended- so you end up with half-Dwarves, half-Orcs, half-Trolls, and so on. At the same time, we also have the fact of a distinct set of genetic and physical differences: Elves, Trolls, Humans, Dwarves- clearly different. So is it a question of "race" or is it one of "ethnicity"-- perhaps we’re talking about species, if that’s even a useful term.

At some point along the line of gaming as well, the desire to create more options, add more chrome and in general jazz up the place overcame designers. At that point we started to get things like Wood Elves, Mountain Elves, High Elves, Sea Elves and so on. Rolemaster would become one of the biggest offenders in this as it rolled along, beginning by splitting men into Common Men and High Men to start. Again, they borrowed a little from Tolkien, but it was still pretty odd. Of course in the case of Rolemaster, each race had its own set of bonuses for the different stats and other miscellaneous factors. If you let players take those straight up then you had some choices which were significantly optimal and some choices which no one should take. There’s the strange question of how much these divisions represent ethnicity again, cultural heritage or an actual division of physiology. I'm reminded of a chart I saw plotting the number of cat breeds over time, with an explosion occurring in the modern era.

That in itself leads to another problem and criticism, the Star Trek Forehead. The idea that essentially all the races essentially are humans with an accent and an FX prosthetic. In some games, I think that's not far off the mark. Where the design's lazy or where they've moved the classic fantasy elements over to another genre (Children of the Sun) the writers can fall into this trap. We also have the additional problem that the people running these non-human characters are themselves human. How do you give the players the keys to understand these roles? How can a game or setting avoid these problems? I'd say IMHO keeping a relatively small number of playable races, if there are classics then one or two of them should have a really new take, and perhaps one or two new races to play against those classic ones. Earthdawn for example, a game I've never played but have read, always brings me back because the background and races seem interesting. On the other hand, I'd also suggest designers really think through the purpose of the races in their game. Just having a deep history or the idea of these being Elves Xtreme doesn't really cut it. I've read a bunch of that stuff-- things that feel like they came out of someone's house campaign where they'd come up with a concept and then tacked things on to justify it. The best material manages to bring new approaches to bear at the same time as it makes sure that the races fit within the world. The best material has the munchkin cut out too.

Expectations
That fit is something that always concerns me. I've wrestled with the question of ethnicity in fantasy worlds before. Players have certain expectations about races- once you call something a Dwarf or a Drow, they'd better look like what the players have in their heads. If they don't, then the GMs job should be to offer a compelling and interesting take that the players can get behind. The reason needs to be more than just "I wanted something different". I've screwed that up in the past, but I've hit it better in some cases. I'm proudest of my take on the Drow. In my campaign, they were an ambiguous and isolated Elven people, keeping to a particular woods. Rumors suggested dark practices and the name itself helps create that bias in the player's minds. They would eventually learn that the Drow, while isolationist and somewhat xenophobic, considered themselves simply the oldest and most traditional Elvish groups. They'd rejected the changes and compromises of the other Elves. They're not evil Elves, but probably the most "Elfy" Elves of those in the campaign.

Expectations touch on the problematic question of nature vs. nurture. I have several Dark Folk races in my campaign who are not necessarily evil- they just have different ways. They've also been persecuted for having an ugly appearance and based on old legends. I don't like beating that drum too much however- some players really like the classic Orcs and Hobgoblins as bad guys. I tend to have a "liberal" and "modern" approach. I'll admit my sensitivities sometimes work against me; too much reversal of the "classic" material leaves players unsure and irritable. And my outlook means that absolutism of the factions and races in certain games really bugs me on a basic level. I've never liked the idea that certain races have inherent intangible talents. I think it was the Molday version of D&D which had races as classes, something I could never wrap my head around. Interestingly, I'm less bothered by something like race-specific classes, those which arise out of the culture of a people. For example, the way WHFRP handled those professions with things like the Dwarven Trollslayer. That made sense and came out of a vision of the people. But I keep getting stuck when we say that all or even most folk of fantasy race X behave like Y or can do Z.

Short Thoughts
* Racial definitions represent an easy way for a fantasy setting or system to differentiate itself. For example, I don't "get" Eberron except for the Warforged. I love the idea of those guys...which probably means I'll steal them for another setting and likely violate what I've been saying.
* Race books represent an easy book for a game company. They're a particular breed of "splat" book, easy to justify. On the other hand, how many books about Gnomes as a playable race do players need? How do companies break themselves out of that pack?
* Races become tricky in explicitly balanced or point driven games. In GURPS, the racial packages end up balanced by a set of disadvantages. But most games also have a cap on disadvantage points- so should GMs have those count against that or not? I've had players react negatively to both approaches.

Solutions in Search of a Problem?
So what's my approach for races? Well, I'm a little bit of a hypocrite in that I have a ton of them in my game, cobbled and patchworked together from various sources. A good deal of my effort over the years has been spent trying to create a justification for that- developing backstory, shifting race features and eliminating some that caused problems. In play, I usually suggest that of a group of 5-6 players, at most two can play non-humans. I do that for a couple of reasons. First, I want that choice to be important and distinctive. If you're the party Elf, then when we deal with things of the Elves, you can have ownership of those story moments. Second, too many races creates problems in terms of social interactions, limiting choices for the party as a whole. If they can't go into a city because they have someone of X race with them, that's bad. The potential limit on romantic options can be important, depending on the genre. It can create physical limitations, as in the case of the PC who ran a centaur. I've done the same thing with the Star Wars game I ran- limiting "distinctly" non-human PCs (humanoid don't really count). Chewbacca works precisely because of his alieness in those movies. Of course Tolkien acts as a counter-example to that approach. We have only one "human" per se in Lord of the Rings, Boromir and he gets gacked in Book One (no, Aragon doesn't count, he's a "high man" Numenorean, blah-blah).

Of course in some fantasy settings, I avoid the matter entirely. My wushu game sticks strictly with humans. But in some settings with non-human PCs, I ban them entirely. Legend of the Five Rings allows for Naga, Ratling and other races as PCs. I dislike that immensely. Even having a single PC of that type puts severe constraints on the other players and on the GM in terms of what they can run. Obviously the GM could push forward and run as usual, forcing the PC to deal with it. But that's not fun-- or at least it becomes less fun over time. And once that difference gets handwaved away, then what's the point?

Last Word
So what do I usually run? I think you can probably guess: humans. However, the next game I play in, I'm going to play a gnome. I think I owe it to them now.