Friday, June 26, 2020

The Orc Problem

Is this a bad time to revisit this conversation?

Fuck if I know. I'm just the guy who slings the wordcount. Then again, if other people are talking about it, why am I worried?

Also, you don't have to read the previous ramble on The Danger Zone, but these two are companion pieces of a sort. I'm hoping this one will be a little more refined than the last one, but we'll see.

Sometimes I just vomit words onto a page so I can be free of them.

The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ (discorcs?) has reared its ugly head again, this time riding the cultural wave of the Black Lives Matter protests. (I seem to remember The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ appearing earlier in the year, but I can't recall the context.)

For those of you who are reading this in the future or are unaware: the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder have prompted a re-evaluation of our culture, which is always a good thing to do. However, the fact that we revisit cultural sensitivity every few years or decades and then invariably just make a handful of token changes, throw up a couple of censor bars, and call the problem SOLVED invariably leaves me rather cynical with regard to all this. (Make no mistake: things are getting better, but the increments tend to be small, and the pundits who declare problems fixed invariably do so prematurely. The work of making a better world never ends.)

If you don't believe me, here's a Richard Pryor bit from forty years ago, wherein he describes George Floyd's murder. The murder might be shocking, but the problems of class imbalance and racial injustice that have been highlighted in the aftermath aren't new:

(An aside, so you understand my biases: Censorship and rethinking cultural taboos are all well and good, but these tend to be nice, safe, symbolic actions rather than any sort of praxis. They make us feel good, and give the sense that things are changing without actually changing anything. Outlawing racial slurs doesn't make racism go away any more than outlawing sex work makes misogyny disappear. If you want to change how people think, you have to put in the long, hard work to reform society and show people how things are wrong rather than sweeping the ugly parts of civilization under the rug. Also, censorship is usually evil, but occasionally a necessary evil: parents must do it for their children, for example. I know people are arguing for greater censorship — both in artistic collectives as well as from private corporations — in light of the current culture war, which begs the chemotherapy question. Will you kill the cancer before you kill the patient? Will you save the culture before you permanently poison it?)

(A second aside: Always do the work to understand the biases of the people you're reading. It will help you live longer, and help you avoid the predations of personalities.)

Enough ramble. The re-examination has brought the fantasy RPG community to revisit a question that I've heard bouncing around for decades: should we rethink fantasy races?

The basic argument is that bad thoughts and actions regarding fantasy races reinforce bad thoughts and actions about real races — that Othering in fantasy is a stepping stone to Othering in real life (or that Othering in fantasy will act as a speedbump if you are trying to avoid Othering in your personal life). That's a vast oversimplification, but we'll still be having this argument (or a variation of it) in 2025, so you can Google it to get a more nuanced take.

As you should always understand the biases of someone writing, you should never take persuasive anecdotes as reasons to change your thinking, but I want to provide a handful of reactions to the above thesis. Most of these will draw from my own experience, so again, make of them what you will.

1) The old "change the term 'race' to 'species'" argument. This argument usually emerges in any fantasy-race-is-a-backwards-idea conversation, but I always think this argument is backwards. Race is a synonym for species; that's why they called different lineages and ethnicities different races, so as to reinforce the idea that they were different creatures (and to reinforce the idea that some classes of people could be superior to others, given the whole Western obsession with the fallacy of Progress — another rant for another time). But words mean things outside their textbook definitions, so if "race" has become the preferred nomenclature for "ethnicity," then fine. Change it to species, but don't forget that the word "race" was originally there to control you anyway.

2) Context is key. This is one of those top-down societal things, and I know this is the reason why people think censorship is good, actually, in light of the current culture war. But as I said in The Danger Zone, art isn't bad or evil or dangerous — it's only dangerous when devoid of any other context. THOUGHTCRIME isn't a problem, but the lack of greater societal context is. We throw everyone into a culture saturated with information but give them no instructions on how to parse this flood. We have the ability to teach people critical thinking skills and media literacy, but we have yet to institute these as programs on any grand scale. You can argue about why that is, but regardless of the wherefores, the simple fact is that even the nastiest, most transgressive art ceases to be dangerous if people have a broader context in which to absorb it. (We can also get into the whole method by which people isolate and radicalize, but that's well outside the scope of this humble blog post. Still, our lack of cohesion as a culture provides a breeding ground for predators, and that's a conversation we'll need to have. One of these days. Along with all the other conversations we'll need to have about the various civilizations around the globe.)

3) Look at the intent. This is also another discussion for another day, but a lot of the discourse about "evil races" reflects the evolution of D&D and fantasy gaming over time. The game's fundamentals describe a world where the various races are on different cosmological teams, and although Law and Chaos don't get along, it doesn't matter to your warband, because you're just trying to get paid. (And don't forget that early adventuring parties often had members of radically different alignments, and it didn't matter because they were all looking to score the same treasure. Law and Chaos don't play well together unless they have a common goal. I severely doubt that Arneson and Gygax had any grand plans of promoting cultural egalitarianism in their work, but you can absolutely get a multicultural read on early D&D if you squint.) When you look at the AD&D Monster Manual and see orcs list Number Appearing as 30-300, you realize they're not there as dudes you're supposed to kill, but problems to solve. If you're hiking through the mountains and come across a warband of 165 orcs, you won't have the resources to fight them until high level, so you're going to have to figure out some other way of dealing with them, probably either involving fleeing or negotiating. (And if you have a skilled negotiator with high Charisma, they probably won't even be hostile, assuming you roll well on the reaction roll.) It's only somewhere in the 2e/3e era that violence becomes the assumed way you're going to solve your problems, and while 5e has done a little to scale that back from the 3e/4e era, it still isn't a common playstyle.

4) Art is subjective. Here's where we get into the personal examples. I still list H.P. Lovecraft among my favorite authors despite the rather exhaustive examination of his racism. Why? Because that's not my connection to the source literature. Lovecraft might have written through his racial anxieties with such hits as tribal cultures worship the Great Old Ones because they're stupid degenerates and the alien DNA in your lineage is a metaphor for mixed-race heritage disrupting your superior Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but when I was reading these stories as a kid, that sort of interpretation wasn't in my wheelhouse. I had the cultural context to know that so-called "primitive" cultures were just cultures with a different set of priorities than our own, so the sinister backwoodsmen and degenerate Bantu tribesmen of pulp literature were a metaphor for the frightening, hungry wilderness rather than people I actually thought I was supposed to hate or fear. (I admittedly thought it was weird that Robert E. Howard's N'Longa was treated as being sinister when he was both one of the heroes and more powerful than Solomon Kane himself, so it's not like it all went over my head.) As for the alien heritage that Lovecraft's protagonists constantly feared, that jibed with my understanding of Lovecraft himself — like Poe, Lovecraft had a lot of tragedy in his past, so the idea that one's family was a millstone around one's neck seemed a perfectly logical conclusion — as well as my interest in biology. It was a body horror thing for me: we do have alien ghosts in our genome, the hungry fragments of our ancestors, of proviral DNA, of faulty transcription that can result in cancer. That resonated, and even though the art may have been made with bad intent, my enjoyment of it reinforced a very different worldview. In the case of evil fantasy races, I never took it as people different from us are evil, instead interpreting the message as if we're extremely lucky, we'll be able to see evil intent before it arrives. It wasn't a warning or a fear, but a hope.

5) Sometimes you just gotta kill an orc. I understand why dark-skinned races that are dumber or more duplicitous than the "standard," European-style folk is intensely problematic, but I never saw those as stand-ins for real-world cultures. As mentioned in other places, I got my start with World of Darkness and other sorts of horror conspiracy games, and those games are all about moral relativism — asking hard questions, and realizing that every faction tends to think it's the "right" one while they all have good and bad aspects in them. That's what RPGs were for me. So I came to see D&D and its related games as a welcome change of pace: sometimes you can identify the evil thing by looking at it, and sometimes you can solve your problems just by punching them. It's a sometimes food for me, but not one that I begrudge anyone from enjoying: the real world is infinitely complex, and the more you delve into an issue, the more likely you are to find common ground with your enemy, or that the issue is more complicated than you first thought. But being able to play a game that paints in broad strokes, and that makes its villains obvious, is a nice change of pace sometimes, and one that tends to get rejected. (Full disclosure: I'm absolutely a hypocrite in this regard. Despite the fact that I think you should just be able to punch an orc if you want, I'm not sure I've ever run a straight-up orc punching plot. The drow invasion of Scandshar comes the closest, but even then, that course of action might seem perfectly reasonable if your former elf clans drove you underground and into the arms of a demon-goddess — sometimes the real enemy is the imperialism we met along the way. Evil races usually have reasons for doing what they do, and devoid of that imposed cultural context, they usually turn towards good if given the opportunity. Even my standard fantasy plots that lean on "evil races" tropes tend to be subversions rather than straight adaptations.)

So, is the concept of "evil races" bad? As with most art questions, it depends. Are you using it as a dumb escapist fantasy thing to be used as a counterpoint to the complexities of modern life? You're probably fine. Are you doing something interesting with the source material, or using them as some elaborate metaphor for a real-world issue? Again, that's probably okay as long as your motives are well-considered. Are you using them as a metaphor for real-world cultures, or to desensitize your players to real-world racism? Well, now you might want to take a step back from the fantasy RPGs for a while, because you're getting into that danger zone where the line between fantasy and reality becomes exceedingly porous, and that's frequently a bad trip no matter what your motives are.

As with most of these posts, the dirty secret is that there's no good answer, no hundred-question quiz that will definitively identify whether or not you're using fantasy races responsibly. As long as your actions in a game don't make you more of a jerk in real-life — something to remember in the midst of your next Twitter argument — you're probably still doing okay.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

RPGs as Art: The Danger Zone

I've had this post brewing in my brainmeats for a couple of days, and then Cavegirl posted a thing yesterday about this topic, so I guess it's time.

With SARS-CoV-2 and the Black Lives Matter protests and Trump being homophobic, I've seen The Dreaded Discourse™ raise its ugly head again, this time regarding what content belongs in games. Is it appropriate to set a game during the coronavirus pandemic, or to set a fantasy game during a plague pandemic, or to have some plot dealing with the current anti-police brutality protests and rioting?

As is often the case, the answer is, "it depends."

The other day I found myself in a Facebook comments section (my first mistake, I know) reading a series of comments answering someone who asked if it was appropriate to set a World of Darkness game amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and to make the pandemic the result of some supernatural agency, or to have them otherwise profit from it.

The overwhelming answer was, "No!" The reasoning being that these events are too close and too raw, and to include them in a game is inappropriate to those who have lost a loved one, suffered, or died from these events.

(Contrast this with an answer that mercifully didn't occur in this particular comments section, but which you occasionally see: edgelords saying that SJWs are ruining games, and that you should run whatever content you want, that the World of Darkness should be dark, and that anyone who objects is a whiny little pissbaby.)

But both of these answers ignore the purpose of art and the social contract that goes along with it. (And RPGs are an artform, remember?)

The purpose of art is to express an idea or emotion and to hopefully convey something of that to the viewer. (Sometimes, you just make art for yourself to try to exorcise something from your head, or to remember something, or to try to grapple with an event you experienced. The definition still applies, but it just so happens that you're the only intended viewer; the artist observing itself.) People make art for all kinds of reasons, and people consume art for similarly diverse reasons, but the core concept is one of catharsis. You make and experience art to think and feel about things, and to avoid feeling alone — the fact that someone out there is grappling with the same emotions as you means that you're connected to the rest of the species, no matter how distant in time or space.

We make art to understand the world and our place in it.

That's the first half of the social contract with art. We make art to understand. And because of that, people make all kinds of art. There are seven billion living perspectives on this planet, all of them searching for the same measure of understanding. Some art is pleasant and mindless, while other art is savage and bleak and potentially offensive to you. But the key part of this is that you don't get to dictate what art gets made.

The trade-off is that you do get to dictate which art you consume.

(And I absolutely know the long list of caveats here: the capitalist system favors art that can draw investors and generate revenue; social media lets someone thrust art at you in a way that might be disingenuous and you may end up consuming art that you did not want; the long debate as to whether or not art is harmful, particularly in the context of the modern culture war. In a broad sense, though, you still get to choose what art you consume, even if the permutations are a little more complicated.*)

Out in the world, if you dislike a piece of art, you can walk away from it. What's more: the modern world has enough resources to give you context before you consume a piece of art. You can ask about the content of art on message boards, or browse Wikipedia summaries, or even check out for comprehensive coverage of triggers across multiple kinds of media.

You cannot prevent art from being created, but you can curate your own interaction with art. This is the second half of the social contract. Some people might make art for malicious reasons, or they might make art that deals with taboos to better help them grapple with the state of the world, but if you find these things offensive, you can walk away.

(We can get into the morality of whether or not art that is designed to be actively harmful should be allowed, but in many cases, you won't have that kind of clarity. Somebody might find understanding and empathy from making something horrible, and they might be doing it without malice. You don't have to watch it.)

All this rambling is to return to the main point: what content belongs in role-playing games?

And the answer is: whatever you and your group are comfortable exploring.

Coronavirus is real and scary, and a lot of people probably don't want to deal with it. But if your gaming group thinks it would be cathartic or interesting or "fun" (for certain values thereof) to include it, then you should. Some groups will even find a heavy catharsis in the idea that they can solve the crisis, or that some supernatural agency is behind it. (Using the World of Darkness as an example, however, most players and GMs will advise against this — as will I, frankly — and the books themselves tend to recommend against turning real-world tragedies into grist for the supernatural mill. But if your player group is on board, sometimes it can be cathartic to think that our problems aren't fully our fault or our responsibility. Just don't go throwing your ideas around where they will offend people.)

Likewise, there's a lot of question about whether it's right or proper to play people of other cultures, genders, sexual orientations, or what-have-you. This, again, depends on the individual group: everyone needs to be okay with it, and ideally, you're doing it with an eye towards empathy and understanding. But it's ultimately your group with your friends in it.

While you're only beholden to your small group of friends at the table, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • If you talk about your game outside your circle of players, you might get pushback — remember, those people didn't agree to the same social contract, so they're going to have different ideas about what is appropriate in a game. Related: if you add a new player, you have to go through this rigmarole again to ensure they're on board.
  • Absolutely make sure everyone is on board without exception. The dirty secret is that, even with safety tools, you might have a player who feels uncomfortable drawing attention to themselves by using safety tools. You might want to have some conversations one-on-one to avoid peer pressure, or solicit feedback through Google Forms so the data is anonymous.
  • If you're a publisher or a streamer, though, you have to think about your wider audience. That's the third part of the social contract implied by the other two parts: once you have an audience, you have to decide how much of a duty you have to them. As with your home group, you don't just want to drop potentially upsetting or offensive on them without warning.

A lot of wordcount to say: make the art you want, but make sure the people involved all consent to the experience. Even if someone on the outside would look inside and be horrified, it's okay as long as it works for your group.

* Important permutations for generating and consuming ideas:

  • Every author has an agenda. Make sure you have a good grasp of the author's biases as you consume their content. You might only learn their background as you go along, but they'll probably let you know in some fashion.
  • We're a species that deals poorly in abstract concepts but very well in concrete certainties. As such, most models — metaphors and frameworks for understanding a complicated series of concepts — tend to simplify the enormous complexities of life to a few key components, and that means that any given model or explanation will have a whole host of exceptions or edge cases that don't fit the theory. (For that matter, the pointillistic structure of humanity means that some perspectives might be totally unique, found only in a single individual or a small group. Not every idea is equally applicable.)
  • Just because you disagree with an idea or are offended by it does not mean that it's invalid. Even an abhorrent idea might just be the author's way of grappling with something alien to their background. Don't assume malice where carelessness is more likely.
    • The caveat is that you shouldn't feel the need to engage with an idea that offends you, even if it has merit. Life is too short, you know?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Tales from the Dungeon #1

A couple of my dear, old friends released a zine yesterday. Designed with fifth edition D&D in mind, Tales from the Dungeon #1 focuses on the concept of death, featuring mechanics, magic items, NPCs, and a dungeon adventure based around the theme.

You can find it (and Name Your Price!) in pdf on, or buy it for $11 in print+pdf on gumroad.

The mini-review: It's rough. It's their first published work, and it could have used more attention on layout and editing. You can tell the authors are passionate, but aren't terribly comfortable with the writing part of the zine.

But the art is top-notch (I'm a sucker for sweet lineart, and Andrzej Rybus provides), and there are bits of brilliance in there: I love the hangman's rope cursed item, and the included dungeon, Temple of Vanth, has some neat ideas.

And the whole thing is pay-what-you-want over on

I'm particularly keen on seeing where they go with this zine as they get more comfortable in their writing and acquire more contributors.

Go support new art!

Print Friendly