30 September, 2009

Racism in Gaming

One of the inspiration words in the Stockade's game design challenge is "Gypsy".

I haven't really done a gypsy inspired game, but I've considered it a couple of times. I love the unusual cultures of the world and like the chance to do some good research in a field that I haven't explored too thoroughly.

Over the years I've had a couple of ideas for unusual mechanisms that might be used in a game and I thought I'd really like to tie the gypsy concept to the token bag.

I started with my usual method of opening up a word processor document and starting to type away with a stream of consciousness style of writing that often gives some great insight as I start digging through the words later.

Brigaki Djili is a romani/gypsy term meaning "Sorrow Songs".

I'm using it as a name for a new project in which players take on the role of Gypsy seers who reveal the past through communal storytelling.

Each player takes on the role of one of these gypsy seers, while the GM takes on the role of someone who has asked the seers to reveal a hidden story of the past. Each seer takes on the twin roles of narrating the story and playing out the actions of characters within the story, the GM purely acts as a prompt in case the narrative related by the players starts to slow down, or needs a new impetus.

The basic mechanism of the game involves something I've been toying with for a while, drawing beads from a bag.

Each player has a bag and a dozen or so tokens of a specific colour (each player's colour is different). There is also a pile of threat tokens representing the difficulty of different stories being pursued by the characters.

At the start of a session of storytelling, each player may place their tokens into their own bag, or into someone else's bag. They also apply threat tokens into their own bag. The more threat tokens, the more chance of failure, the bigger the risk for the character, but the bigger the pay-off if they succeed. The character who applies the most threat tokens to their own bag and who survives their story earns some kind of reward at the end of the round.

The play of storytelling follows the draw of tokens from the bag...

At the beginning of a story a single token is drawn to set the tone of the narrative.

Own Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character explores the world around them, using the skills at their character’s disposal to avoid problems or complications. Nothing beneficial or detrimental occurs to the character through the narrative. Before the next token is drawn, the character must be faced with some kind of a critical story point

Other’s Token followed by…
The player whose token is drawn begins the narrative, they may choose to describe events that occur in the character’s favour, or may describe events that cause problems for the character. explaining

Threat Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character has immediately encountered a problem, arriving at a situation where their skills weren’t appropriate or where they simply failed miserably. Nothing majorly wrong happens to the character, but from the outset they are on the back foot and must react defensively to the next token draw.

Once the initial scene has been set up, a second token is drawn. Further scenes are described through a combination of the last two tokens drawn.

Own Token followed by Own Token followed by…
The current narrator continues with their scene, showing how their character has successfully resolved the issue they have just faced. They show how the character gets another step closer to their goal, or how the character overcomes a setback they have suffered. The scene is concluded by setting up another issue where the character could face a turning point.

Own Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The current narrator shows how their character has faced their issue unsuccessfully, and how things have put them on the defensive. They must now describe how the character faces up to the issues at hand and tries to get things moving forward again. They narrate a new turning point that might allow the character to take destiny back into their own hands.

Own Token followed by Other’s Token followed by…
The narration duties pass to the player whose token has been drawn. This new player now describes a twist in the events, a way in which the scene has changed away from the current character’s intended plans. Not necessarily for the worse, but certainly deviating the characters path. The character’s player gets the chance to react to the changing circumstances, offering a course of action to be determined by the next drawn token.

Other’s Token followed by Own Token followed by...
The narration duties are resumed by the player who controls the character. The character doesn’t specifically get an advantage from the situation, but they are able to get things back onto the right track.

Other’s Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the player whose token had been drawn last. The twist in the storyline has led the character into trouble. The character suffers a setback due to this unexpected change of circumstances, if they wish to continue a sacrifice will need to be made on the character’s part.

Other’s Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the same player. The character’s actions have in some way advanced the agenda of that player’s character (they may be present in the scene, or the actions may be helping in a more obscure fashion). The character may or may not realise what they are doing to further these goals.

Other’s Token followed by a different Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties move from the former player to the new player whose token was drawn. Another new twist has developed, and the character’s path has turned in yet another new direction. Once again, the character doesn’t specifically suffer a setback due to their change of circumstances, but they do find things shifting around them in such a way that they probably haven’t anticipated.

Threat Token followed by Own Token followed by...
No matter who may have been narrating the events leading up to the drawing of the threat token, the character’s player resumes the narration duties and describes how the character has overcome the issues at hand and has resumed control of their destiny. They may now narrate a new critical point to drive the story forward.

Threat Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
Narration duties do not change, the same player continues to describe the events as they get worse. The setback previously suffered has escalated and has now dealt a permanent injury to the character involved. In most cases, the characters story draws to a temporary conclusion unless they are able to draw upon a specific strength or special ability which helps them in the immediate situation.

Threat Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The player whose token was drawn takes over the narrative and may describe how the character has failed in their attempt to overcome the threat, or they may describe a new complication that has the potential to make things even worse for the character.

I'm working on some ideas for incorporating character abilities into the system (if a character has a special ability the player gets to redraw certain tokens, upgrade threat tokens to other's tokens to own tokens, if they have a weakness then they might be forced to redraw successful tokens).

But first I'm just seeing that this core concept makes sense.

Ask as many questions as you want, I'm still trying to work through this in my mind and any queries that other people have might help me to really get it clear...


With my first set of thoughts out in the open and sorted into a rough semblance of sense, I posted these ideas to the Forge to see what ideas might strike a chord. There seem to be a few people around who are interested in my designs and ideas.

I didn't expect one of my bites to be a claim of racism on my part.

I never really thought of myself as a racist, and I know of many games that are actually far more ethnically stereotypical in their depiction of minority groups. Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of HP Lovecraft, and in many of his stories, the native Americans (and pretty much anyone of non-white/protestant background) tend to be worshippers of dark beings, deranged cultists (or at least sympathetic to them). What little I know of the indie game "Steal Away Jordan" indicates that it's about slavery, particularly the Negro populace of historical America. Other games play up manga stereotypes, which could easily be considered denigrating to certain minority groups...

...or how about treating every Nazi as an occultist?

It's got me thinking though.

A little bit of research indicates that the Rom have been the butt of racism for centuries. I know a Hungarian person who considers Gypsies to be the scum of the earth (and that's when he's putting it politely and not swearing about them). The way I understand it from him, his family and many of the Hungarians I've met through him, virtually all of the mainstream Hungarians think the same way.

Personally, I'm more interested in learning about them, and using this game as a possible touch-stone for other people to do some research into the subject matter. I'm probably a bit more inclined to make sure I get the game to work well, to do justice to my subject matter and to really get the immersion factors right.

I guess that means my game won't sell well in Eastern Europe, but that would only be an issue if my games were selling well in the first place.
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