Friday, March 9, 2012

Proxies and Parodies: What Do Fantasy Races Do?

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER ELF
Reading through the Mystara Gazetteers has got me thinking about fantasy races more than usual. I’ve talked about this before. Since then I’ve seen a number of good posts on the problem of race as destiny in the blogosphere. By that I mean the problem with certain kinds of traits as inherent to a particular race. Some physical traits differentiate the races, but what about games which offer skills bonuses, abilities modifiers or even preferred weapons. There’s an argument that suggests these add flavor to a race, while another suggests they primarily serve those looking for min/maxing. I’m not sure where I fall on that- if Dwarves get a bonus to using axes, should a player be able to shift that bonus to something else to represent a unique member of their race? If so, where does that end? Does it undercut the intent of such bonuses? Some might ask: lacking mechanical elements for differing races, what’s the point of playing one?

But there’s an implication in the most recent gazetteer's secret history, known only to the Immortals. I mentioned it in
my review, and I want to look at it further. There’s the suggestion that the Orcs and other humanoid races were in fact the playing out of a kharmic debt. That an evil race had so transgressed such that they were forced to be reborn as a dim-witted and hated new people on the planet. That’s a pretty awful thing, both for what it says about the judgment of the Immortals and what it says about responsibility and agency for the Orcs & Company. Is there a way for them to break out of that destiny? Are they restricted to this destiny of violence, stupidity and hatred from their fellows? Would those kinds of limited instincts make them more animals than anything else? And if such races bring disaster to others, then where does responsibility lie?

That aside, I want to think about what fantasy races bring to an rpg. I think there’s a difference between playable races and more “NPC-centered” races- what they offer to the GM vs. the player. I’m also focusing on fantasy races, because I think they offer a different set of reasons and benefits from sci-fi aliens. I’m commenting, in part,
my earlier post from this week: Vegetable Elves & Sinister Hobbits: Playable Variations on Classic Races. So below is a list of ideas about what fantasy races actually do or offer- with notes on a few of those.

ROLES FANTASY RACES SERVE IN WORLD-BUILDING AND PLAY

*Signifies Fantasy: Fantasy races, especially the classics signify a fantasy setting- and often a high fantasy setting. In fact, we usually have to define an FRPG as being human-only rather than not. There’s expectations from some players that if they’re playing fantasy they’ll get some choice on race.

*Easy Moral Differences: …without having to go into a defense or explanation. Fantasy races can be given distinctive traits- Elven love of nature, Dwarven Greed, without worrying about the hows and whys of such a thing. Or if there are answers, they’re thin history or mythical explanations. On the other hand, describing an entire human culture with the same type and consistency of traits a fantasy race gets would likely feel strange. Consider the difference between making a race “evil” like the Orcs and a people “evil” like the
Red Wizards of Thay. Usually, it is easier to accept the proposition that they’re all evil in the first case over the second.

*Freedom: …from human standards when playing as a PC. Allows cover for some kinds of personality types. In some cases this is a variant on “I was just playing my character.” But in others it can offer a freedom to take on other characteristics: positive or negative. I imagine that in some cases this is a variant of the above. But I’ve also had players play races with neutral or positive cultural traits ( like “Chummy”) as an exercise to force them to try something new.


*Challenge: Extending the idea above, playing races with defects, cultural issues or lower status can offer players a test of their abilities. Half-races often fill this role in settings. But consider the state of the Elves in
Dragon Age. That’s a deliberate inversion offering obstacles to playing.

*Geography: Allows for clear geographic distinctions without having to go too much further into the details. For example, pointing to an area and describing it as the Mountains of the Yellow Dwarves or the Forests of the Elven Clan Terratis offers players a decent picture. Pointing to a human kingdom/region may require more detail, perhaps a real world analogue.


*Easy Player Distinctions & Choices: If you offer a player a quick list of choices for play, they’ll usually have some expectations based on races. In a solely human setting you have to rely on the single axis of “class” to distinguish them or else you have to take the time to explain the different human cultures.


*Clear Adversaries/Allies: This may be as easy as saying we’re enemies or friends with the Halflings. Then when players encounter a member of that race, they have a starting point to begin from. They don’t have to worry about which country a human’s from to establish a basis for response. Some of this goes back to the idea of moral differences and inherent traits. In LotR, if you see an orc, you kill it. I’ve had players say to me, especially when I’ve offered more complexity to the depiction Goblins or the like, “sometimes you just want to have bad guys and be able to kill them.”


*Reversal of Expectations: Related to the above point, GMs can use fantasy races- especially those with an established reputation- to flip things (often as a means of commenting on them). D&D began with many monstrous races with intelligence and culture, which leads to questions about the morality of just slaughtering them. So things like Industrial Elves, Druidic Dwarves and Altruistic Gnolls offer a way out of that. However, as I mentioned above, that can get wearing for players- especially if all of their expectations are subverted. Left with no ground to stand on they can become frustrated.


*Parody: Races can be used to parody of real world institutions, perhaps to address touchy subjects while maintaining a distance. Political positions could be enacted to extremes- an almost Swiftian approach to these ideas. I still think Greg Stafford’s Mostali from
Glorantha are at least a little swipe at rules lawyers and unimaginative players.

*Novelty: A new race or new take on a race can add novelty to a setting or place- make it clear that this isn’t your same old rpg. Both
Talislanta and Earthdawn focus on this as a selling point.

*Genetic or Physical Differences: This can take many forms- perhaps as simple as being able to see in the dark, or perhaps more radical like the stone-skinned Obsidimen of Earthdawn. Consider the advantages and limits of Insectmen or Centaur types. On a surface level, such differences might just establish a cool or distinct image. But on a more interesting level, the GM can consider the “What If” of the race. For example, what’s the implication of a race that can see in the dark? Is there an origin for that? (beyond being underground dwellers) More importantly what does that mean to the lives and culture of that people? Consider how much darkness means to human beings- how we react to it, what we associate with it. If we have a race that has never been in the dark (expect with eyes closed or blindfolded) how do they think about these things.

Take the Trolls from Glorantha, their sensitivity to the sun has a mythic origin and also shapes their life and sense of the world. As well the curse laid upon their people- with most trollish children being born as stunted throwbacks (trollkin)- impacts their identity and sense of martyrdom. What about races with relatively short lifespans? Is there anything about that which affects their approach and attitude? Contrast that to races with longer lifespans- that’s certainly a consideration for most depictions of Elves, for example.


*Theme: Races can be used to underscore the theme, point, or identity of a setting. The Warforged of
Eberron are particularly iconic, and they sell the point of the pseudo-steampunk of that world. The vegetable Aldryami and Stone Mostali of Glorantha can be read as a response to the static take on Elves and Dwarves coming out of other fantasy rpgs. The bizarre races of Planescape reinforce just about weird and different that setting is. In my own campaign, I used the idea of several different hybrid races, collectively called the Createds. Each has a small population pool, often combined with odd restrictions on behavior, such as loyalty or aggression. They served to illustrate the fallout and fragments from past dominion by Wizard Overlords who had created them purely as slaves and tools.

*Easy Description: Classic races can be used to easily define and remember certain traits or aspects. The swift Elf, the solid Dwarf, the mighty Troll, and so on.


*Tech Differences: Different races allows an easy way to divide and maintain parallel cultures with distinctly different tech levels or social development.


OTHER THOUGHTS

I’m usre I’m missing some other functions these races serve in a game. I’m hoping it will make me think more broadly about their function when creating a game world or running a setting. A couple of things do occur to me. First, Shadowrun mixes both sci-fi and fantasy. I wonder if Shadowrun could just as easily been done with only humans? What does the call back to old races add to that setting? Second, do all of these ideas apply to alien races from sci-fi games? Are there some different elements those add? Or is it a difference of origin and emphasis?

10 comments:

  1. I think Shadowrun would be better without the metahumans. I think they're there because (1) they signify fantasy, and (2) they allow some racism/discrimination without anybody's feelings getting hurt--but even with that cover SR plays it so tepid and safe that that's of little use.

    In his Sword & Sorcery book for Sorcerer Ron Edwards makes the off-handed comment that races (really species) feel the role played in older fantasy/S&S by cultural/ethnicity. I think you see that playing out in some of the uses mentioned here. It's unfortunate designers don't use it more to comment/parody racist attitudes rather than (perhaps) reinforce them. That may be something hard to accomplish in a game, though.

    Alien races in science fiction gaming I think tend to follow the seem lines as fantasy races, though they tend to be more "interesting/unusual" and less "thematic." Science fiction literature, though, seems to make much more use of species as commentary than fantasy lit does.

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    1. I think- and this is purely anecdotal- that alien races in sci-fi more often get used for political or social commentary purposes. I think Star Trek and other classic genres have actually conditioned us for that. But I don't think players come into fantasy games with a sense that these races might be stand ins for certain kinds of modes, beliefs or approaches. And not that I want to build "messages" into my games, but I do think there are a lot of "Why?" questions left unanswered by some fantasy games and settings.

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  2. I think of those, perhaps the biggest is Easy Player Choices. I've found that even if I try to use all different races, if I make any of them even vaguely similar to one of the standard fantasy races, in the players' hands they quickly converge on the most similar standard fantasy race with a different skin. E.g. I had a culture in one of my setting that was basically Swiss (mercenary pikemen, clock-makers, mountaineers), but because they were pygmies, they morphed into Dwarves once the players started playing them. It's too much effort and not how I like to game to keep telling them you're depicting your character wrong, so... Nowadays if I create a fantasy race, I do it precisely so the players can get an instant handle on culture and personality: these are cat people, over here are dog people, etc.

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    1. Absolutely- and I wonder if you experience parallels mine- that players gravitate to classic races or if new races, then those which can be grasped rather quickly. A cat race has a lot of implications to it, and you can seel and explain enough about it in a 30 second pitch, that people can probably play it. But for something more complicated, perhaps without ready visual clues, players tend to steer away from those.

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  3. At this point, I think, fantasy races are a recursive loop. People look for elves and dwarves because RPGs have always had elves and dwarves; they want haughty archer elves and greedy axe-wielding dwarves because that's the baseline of what they're given. So these specific races (and their kin the Sneaky Halfling and the Brutal Thuggish Orc) serve a slightly different role: Comfort. The quasi-Tolkien world is both a default and a foundation. People look to nonhuman races in order to make the setting feel right.

    I think Shadowrun could have been done without nonhumans. Bolting a magic system onto Cyberpunk 2020 would be pretty simple; add a few sorcerous skills, come up with spells that fall somewhere in the same power level as common weapons and cyberware, and you're good to go. But I doubt it would have sold as well as elves-included Shadowrun. Again, people like Comfort.

    (By the by, I just recently found your blog, and it's awesome. Thanks for writing cool stuff!)

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    1. It's interesting both you and Trey above suggest that Shadowrun could work without the older races. I've never been a SR player, but my assumption was that people would say that it wouldn't work without them. I'd always assumed the returning of the races signified a "return of the old world" to the setting, versus just magic returning. And your point about it being a sales hook is also a good one, and one I hadn't considered.

      I agree about your recursive loop model. I would like to see more consideration, especially in the case of newly minted races, given to what implications the physical, ability and attribute differences make to the outlook and lives of the different races.

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    2. That consideration, or lack thereof, tells us a lot about the designers' intent. When I looked at 4e D&D, the very first thought that struck me was "Hey! A race of teleporting elves! This is bound to affect their culture and their architecture and their religion. I wonder if there's something from The Stars My Destination going on here..."

      And there wasn't. Teleporting elves were designed with the battlemat in mind, and the (to me) obvious cultural implications were completely untouched. So I guess races can also serve as a summary of design goals, although I don't know that they're deliberately used that way.

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    3. I wasn't aware of that- I mean the implications of that ability..wow. We had a player suggest a new race when we were doing a session of Microscope- Night Elves, which sounds common but has a distinct difference. Essentially these Elves cease to exist during the day. When dawn breaks, they vanish, reappearing in the same place when dusk fell. We spun off talking about the implication of that for some time.

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