23 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 15: Immigrant Song

I saw a post on another blog about the concepts of race as a trope in RPGs
So that’s lead me back to races in this setting.

Races don’t need to be a part of fantasy worldbuilding. Take Game of Thrones, where everyone is basically human (except for those giants north of the wall, and a few other notable exceptions). I even neutralised the notion in the setting of my Goblin Tarot deck by making every race in the labyrinth a variant of a highly mutagenic core goblin race. 

I’ve deliberately avoided details for races so far because it can be a controversial subject. I’ve seen raging debates about the morality of “murderhoboes” killing orcs and taking their stuff, the reflection of tribal goblin races as a substitute for natives in colonial history…all sorts of arguments that have degenerated into mudslinging matches, where terms like “cultural appropriation” and even “racism” have been flung around between the obscenities.

What most worldbuilding systems use races for, I tend to use cultures for. A culture is a system of beliefs, values and relationship connections, it tends to value certain traits and skills and therefore those who associate with such a culture have a tendency to acquire those traits and skills. A woodland culture would have a different set of values and its members would tend to develop a different skill set, as compared to an urban culture. A labouring culture among the lower castes of a society would value a different skill set to a caste of courtiers. There’s nothing stopping elves, dwarves, halflings, or orcs belonging to the lower caste culture, and nothing stopping them from belonging to the higher caste culture. There might be a tendency for some races to join some cultures, but this need not always be the case (Blacktooth has a tendency to join the family trade, but she could rebel against the family wishes).

Actual differences in races are an anthropological throwback, something that RPGs have inherited from pulp tales of adventure, predominately written for a young white male audience who didn’t know better. Like everything in this tutorial series, I’m not say “DON’T INCLUDE RACES IN YOUR SETTING”, I’m saying that you need to consider what types of stories are being told through the racial elements included. Once you do include races, you are effectively saying that there are different types of people who, by virtue of their genetic make-up, are better in some way and worse in some other way. Or, maybe a certain race doesn’t have a bonus (or doesn’t have a penalty), what does this say about your world? If your races don’t have specific advantages or penalties to make them different, why are they included at all? Why not just include a different culture?

I have the Stargate RPG from roughly the year 2000, the one that’s based on the Spycraft RPG, which in turn is based vaguely on 3rd Ed D&D. In this game, the basic conceit states that most of the operatives are humans, from various military forces. The emphasis of these military forces gives linked characters a bonus to certain stats. So the characters aren’t different races, they’re just humans trained in different ways. Sure there’s alternate races thrown in for players that really want them, but personally I found those races a bit off compared to the TV show that the game is based on. The game operates pretty well as an all human game, but using a twist on the “race” mechanisms from D&D.

In this setting, I do want races. I want there to be differences between people. I want this to be a multi-cultural multi-racial society. Forget skin tones, no actually include them, but don’t make the races defined by them. Races are physiological differences, but more than just defined by skin, or pointiness of ears, or eye shape. I want pale skinned courtiers mingling with dark skinned courtiers, while in another part of the city pale skinned merchants haggle with dark skinned merchants, round eyed scholars debating the finer points of mysticism with almond eyed scholars, but these are all humans.

The races in this setting are inspired by concepts woven through the classic World of Darkness, where every race has a mortal halfbreed. The Vampires have ghouls (or more specifically vampire-blood infused revenants), the Werewolves have kinfolk, and the Fey have Kinain. Each of these halfbreed races has successfully infiltrated vast regions of population, subtly acting as go-betweens operating in the shadows between the unknowing regular mortals for their supernatural blood relatives. These races operate across all cultures, though specific groups may occur when a certain race intersects with a certain culture.

For the purposes of stories where individuals find their allegiances in a state of flux, having races and cultures as independent qualities makes things more interesting. Certain story elements might flow along cultural lines, while other story elements might flow along racial lines, when matching parts line up or fit together in some way, custom stories develop.

With races defined as half-bloods of supernatural beings, we instantly circumvent the issue of half-races…half-human/half-elf, half-human/half-dwarf, half-dwarf/half-elf. Either someone has the blood of a single supernatural race in their veins or they don’t. If someone has the blood of two supernatural races in their veins, both types of blood cancel out and they end up as a regular human.

I’m thinking that the setting will offer players a few racially linked traits that can be bought with starting XP. These represent genetic advantages, and a character either has them or they don’t. If the player doesn’t buy these at character generation, they can’t pick them up later. While each race gains access to these genetic advantages, they need to spend XP to gain them, and may gain a penalty linked to the advantage in some way. Let’s expand our earlier descriptions. Most races have three abilities, Nullans have none, and purebloods have 4. In each case, the last ability (underlined) only becomes available if all the other abilities have already been purchased.

Nullans are found in every culture. They gain no bonuses or penalties wherever they may be found. (No special abilities)
Dhampyrs are fond of ritual and like positions of power, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Empire or the Church, and less likely to be found among the Settlers or Natives. (Abilities: Nightvision/Light sensitivity, Unnatural Strength/Hunger, Unliving)
Faeblood are dreamers and travellers, but typically work alone, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Settlers or the Cult, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Pirates. (Abilities: Empathy/Emotional sensitivity, Intuition/Fatebound, Dreamer)
Wyldkin border on the bestial, sometimes violent and usually pack oriented, they’d be more likely to be found among the Pirates and Natives, and less likely to be found among the Church or Cult. (Abilities: Animal Ken/Bestial Urges, Fear/Savage, Lesser Lycathrope)
Avatars often claim descent from angels and saints and are more likely to be found among the Church or the Cult, they’re less likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers.  (Abilities: Healing/Dependency, Aura/Faithbound, Demigod)
Incarnates are more natural in their spiritual origins, they’re more likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Church. (Abilities:  Sense Magic/Magic susceptible, Superstitions, Totem)
Purebloods are nomads who like to blend into a mixed crowd, they’re likely to be found among the Pirates and the Privateers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Natives. (Abilities: Negate Magic, Unnoticed, Purify, Eternal)

As another side effect, we could consider the way different races might tend to view each other. This way we could build up quite complex relationship patterns when two people interact, by combining their cultural views of one another and their racial views of one another. But if racial groups don’t impart specific knowledge, only passing on their genetic heritage, then this might be work that never gets used in play.

Bear with me for a moment, let’s call a specific combination of race and culture a “family”. If you were really enthusiastic, it might be possible to cross reference every family and define each family’s typical response to every other family…
7 races x 7 cultures = 49 “families”
49 “families” x 48 others that need opinions = 2352 combinations.
…but that’s probably getting a bit too specific and pedantic

A decent halfway point might be to use the common crossovers of race and culture (like we did when defining the signature NPCs for the setting). This makes sense because there are enough people in this “family” for group collective opinions to develop, but that’s still 19 families…with (19x18 = ) 342 opinions to define.

Nullan – Empire
Nullan – Settler
Nullan – Privateer
Nullan – Pirate
Nullan – Church
Nullan – Native
Nullan – Cult
Dhampyr – Empire
Dhampyr – Church
Faeblood – Settlers
Faeblood – Cult
Wyldkin – Pirate
Wyldkin – Native
Avatar – Church
Avatar – Cult
Incarnate – Native
Incarnate – Settler
Pureblood – Pirate
Pureblood – Privateer
(We’ll call these the major families…at a later date we might even give them names, but I’m just filling in ideas at the moment. The beauty of modular design like this is that you build up a framework of play and only really need to fill in the details later when they become relevant.)

Let’s narrow it down further, and only define relationships between families who share a race or a culture. I’ll write the name of each major family, and abbreviate the families that would need to be mentioned in a relational context.

Nullan – Empire 7 opinions (N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, D-Em)
Nullan – Settler 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, F-Se, I-Se)
Nullan – Privateer 7 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, P-Pr)
Nullan – Pirate 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, W-Pi, P-Pi)
Nullan – Church 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Na, N-Cu, D-Ch, A-Ch)
Nullan – Native 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Cu, W-Na, I-Na)
Nullan – Cult 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, F-Cu, A-Cu)
Dhampyr – Empire 2 opinions (N-Em, D-Ch)
Dhampyr – Church 3 opinions (N-Ch, D-Em, A-Ch)
Faeblood – Settler 3 opinions (N-Se, F-Cu, In-Se)
Faeblood – Cult 3 opinions (N-Cu, G-Se, A-Cu)
Wyldkin – Pirate 3 opinions (N-Pi, W-Na, P-Pi)
Wyldkin – Native 3 opinions (N-Na, W-Pi, I-Na)
Avatar – Church 3 opinions (N-Ch, D-Ch, A-Cu)
Avatar – Cult 3 opinions (N-Cu, F-Cu, A-Ch)
Incarnate – Native 3 opinions (N-Na, W-Na, I-Se)
Incarnate – Settler 3 opinions (N-Se, F-Se, I-Na)
Pureblood – Pirate 3 opinions (N-Pi, W-Pi, P-Pr)
Pureblood – Privateer 2 opinions (N-Pr, P-Pi)

That gives us 88 opinions to define. Still a lot, but these are the ones most likely to come into play. You’ll also notice that a lot of the more insular families have fewer relationships to deal with as a result of their focus, their privacy, and generally their lack of numbers.

We’ll leave it here for the moment, move on to other things, then maybe return later.
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