04 July, 2018

The Problem of Race

"Lovecraft was a racist"..."but he was just a product of his time"..."but he was overtly racist, even beyond other authors of the era. His stuff is problematic, was problematic, and as long as he is idolised always will be problematic"..."so you're saying he helped fuel the pulp-era's equivalent of the alt-right"..."no, maybe, sort of".

Identifying factors for characters can be descriptive or prescriptive. By my definiton here, prescriptive factors are applied to the character before the story occurs, such factors guide the intended actions of the characters, and in some cases a character's actions are even bound and limited by the identifying factor. Descriptive factors manifest as a result of the actions taken, a character who has a tendency to act in a certain way or repeat certain types of activities can be described as possessing traots associated with those acts.

A soldier, who has been trained to show courage under fire and remain loyal, has a prescriptive set of guidelines that shape their actions. A person who chooses to dress in team colours and attend sporting events screaming for the team corresponding to those colours to win can have a descriptive element of "sports fan" added to them.

One of those many splits I see between old-school gaming and newer forms is the attachment of character traits by prescriptive or descriptive means. Gaming in the old-school defines attributes, classes, races, and in some cases requires amy equipment to be prescribed along with "alignment" and other factors that may guide a character's course of action. Newer gaming forms lets the story guide things, or even let the characters guide things, with minimal definition at the start of play, but as the events unfold a depth and richness is added to the avatars in the imagined space. Freeform roleplaying (in the non-Australian context of the term) doesn't apply formal traits at all, we don't have any connection between the way the story plays out and any development of the characters within it (beyond an unwritten social contract).

I prefer a mix of prescriptive and descriptive play, I guess a lot of people do, but they all draw the balancing line at different points, and favour different games that define certain elements while allowing others to be discovered through play. Too much prescription feels railroady, too much description and it feels like there's no focus.


In the earliest forms of D&D, and games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, there's too much prescription in the rules as written for my liking. Even to the point that the traditional fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, and halflings are prescribed entire stereotypes based purely on their genetic heritage... A human can follow a class or profession, or even multi-class as changes in their story allow shifts in their direction, but these racial groups are pre-defined in the path that their journey will take, and in some cases are limited in the length of that journey through level caps. Virtually all of Palladium's games did the same thing, and that was something that locled them into the past when they were unwilling (or unable) to innovate.

Apocalypse World is also hugely prescriptive in its means of defining characters, to the point that certain means of modifying the flow of the story are completely off limits to characters who don't "have those moves checked off in their playbook".

I listened to a podcast where John Harper went through the iterations of development that underpinned Blades in the Dark. At one point in the game's development there were going to be prescriptive skills or other traits associated with specific cultures in the game, but it seems that this was deemed akin to racial profiling, and hence a bad sociological construct to integrate as an inherent part of the system.

(Race) "You're an elf, so you're expected to be good at archery."
(Gender) "She's female, so she must be naturally good at cooking."
(Race, or at least skin colouring) "He's black, so he must play bass guitar."
(Culture) "She's Chinese, she's obviously good at martial arts."
(Class) "He's lower class, he obviously has no idea about classical music or good art."
(Religion) "She's a Muslim, she must be a terrorist."

Profiling has been debunked in many psychological circles, but it remains a trope in lazy writing, so it remains in the collective public consciousness. The various elements that make up a person's identity are less about binary switches determining what can't be done and what must be done and what can't be done, and more about a menu and repertoire of inclinations. A member of a group of people is exposed more often to the types of traits that a specific group values...in order to gain value in their group, they see that it is in their interest to also manifest those traits. Outsiders who admire or ally with the group preach the virtues and positive sides of the group's traits  while those opposed to them focus on the negative sides of those traits.

The problem I find with race in most games is that cultural and social elements are often conflated with genetic traits. An elf might have more nuanced cells in their retinas, allowing better nightvision, finer resolution, and an ability to see into parts of the light spectrum assocoated with "magic". Such vision may make it easier to access magical abilities because they are  more sensitive to them, and the higher resolution might lead to easier targeting for ranged attacks, but it guarantees neither of those things. The character needs to take advantage of their racial heritage to gain it's benefits.

It's one of the things I've been struggling with in both my magical game about social inequality driving change at a metaphysical level, and this revisited project about miniatures. They both come at it from different angles, but it feels like the same stumbling block.
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