Monday, 22 June 2009

Touching It with a Barge Pole

Let's lighten things up around here and talk about racism.

Somebody put up a thread over at with the provocative title Playing in a Racist Campaign the other day, and I just had to break my self-imposed pointless-debate vow of silence. Namely here, here and here.

Partly because, to be honest, it's a pet hate of mine when people on internet forums drop in the middle of a debate with a self-aggrandising "I am clearly on the side of the angels" post which adds absolutely nothing substantive. But also because, really, I had to know whether or not I'm alone in thinking that there's something strange about the moral compass of a great many D&D players.

Namely: there seems to be a tendency among a large group, let's call them a sizeable minority, to eliminate issues of racism (I suppose sexism too) in the campaigns in which they play - that is, to give characters the attitudes which young, urban, middle-class types in the real, modern day world profess to have. Bob the dwarf and Lothario the elf might be non-human mystical beings from a pseudo-medieval world in which dragons exist, but hey, deep down inside they're not really any different to Bob the SOAS lecturer and Lothario the Dentist from Dublin in our reality.

What's weird about this is not the laudable attitude that racism and sexism are bad and it would be nice if everybody did have the tolerant attitudes of Bob the SOAS lecturer. What's weird is that Bob the dwarf and Lothario the elf have probably killed dozens of orcs in their lifetime just for being orcs, have probably either first or second hand knowledge of rape and torture, think nothing of pillage and burglary, and regularly engage in bouts of violence against unthinking animals which in our world would bring the RSPCA and PETA down on them like a ton of feathers. In other words: Nothing about these people is at all like a modern day, real world, young, urban, middle-class person - either in attitude or experience. Apart from the fact that they're carefully and deliberately not bigoted.

Does anybody else think this is odd, not to say morally contradictory? Why is it that issues of bigotry are swept under the carpet, but ultra-violence (usually racially motivated ultra-violence at that) is a critical part of almost every single D&D campaign that has ever been? That is to say, why is racism apparently ranked higher than murder in the heirarchy of things that are bad?

I'm not arguing that D&D shouldn't be violent. Nor am I arguing that it is, or should be, racist. I am arguing that it's rather unrealistic and strange for a D&D campaign to not even deal with the idea that, hey, people of difference races probably don't get along so well together, especially given all the sectarian and racially motivated killing that goes on. That the issue should not even be explored requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Moreover, it is kind of worrying to me that squeamishness about racism is a commonplace in the gaming community, but squeamishness about murder generally isn't.

Also note: I hate having to say this, because it should be taken as read, but of course I think that real-world racism is a blight on society that needs to be got rid of. Just to make that clear.


  1. In my experience, the PCs aren't killing monsters because they're monsters, they're killing monsters because those monsters pose an immediate threat to their lives or the lives of innocents. Furthermore I find that many campaign settings put the good races in sort of a Federation sort of mentality, in that they have their petty rivalries and such but they'll still accept anyone who wants them to.

    But maybe my games are unusual in that regard.

  2. Having just watched "Trekkies" I can say this:

    In order for certain of your more self-righteous or self-deluded Star Trek fans (or Star Wars fans, or Spider-Man fans, or China Mieville fans, or Tolkien fans, or anything-fans) to claim that their entertainment of choice is NOT ONLY interesting/fun to watch but also that it "teaches" important moral/ethical lessons--like, in the case of Trek, racial tolerance (sometimes)--they feel they ALSO feel they have to subscribe to the idea that a fiction could also teach negative moral/ethical lessons.

    Further, most people (accurately) figure the "don't murder people" lesson is already about as "taught" as it could be--socially speaking, whereas the "don't be racist" lesson has yet to be absorbed, socially speaking.

    The problems with this line of reasoning are manifold, and include:

    -in DnD you're presenting a specially tailored fiction to 2-12 people who you know are basically agreeable and who agree with level of intellect and your moral POV enough to hang out with you, not to a mass audience of millions which probably, statistically speaking, includes some few people dumb enough to base a moral code around a game or tv show or a book.

    -whether or not it teaches a positive lesson is no way to judge the quality of a work of art.

  3. Interesting...

    Personally, I came to D&D in 1977 from the origins of being a fan of comic books, Star Trek and Star Wars and not from the position of a Tolkien or Vance fan. My father was a Police Officer. As a result, from day one, round one, I thought the purpose of D&D was to be a hero who saves people, defeats villains and rights wrongs, not someone who kills sentients indiscriminantly and takes their stuff.

    It was until my second or third year playing that I discovered 'traditional' hack and slash play as most people know it.

    In relation to the topic, my group of male and female players, from 4 or 5 ethnic backgrounds, just aren't so prone to portraying their heroic characters as particularly racist. Oddly, their not particularly PC either. Go figure.

  4. Having now actually read your board post comments now I think I can restate myself more clearly:

    Most people feel as though rape, murder, stealing, etc. are pretty well clearly defined as "bad" to the level they need to define it in their everyday real lives.

    Most people do NOT feel like racism is--that is, there are a lot of issues around the edges still that are blurry--such as "Iranians believe ____" or "The Eastern worldview suggests____" or, "Statistically, Mexicans prefer ____". And not only that, but these blurry things are LIKELY TO COME UP in the players' real home and work lives, unlike, say, the fine-line between murder and justifiable homicide.

    With murder, the players feel they are not likely to be playing with or joking around about something that might remind them of their real day-to-day experience.

    To have murder in a campaign is not usually to "deal with ethical issues surrounding murder" (unless you're playing a Forge game), to have racism in a campaign is, quite possibly, to raise the specter of:

    a-having to discuss the difference between the players' POV and the characters' and

    b-having to play a campaign that FOCUSES on addressing an ethical issue, which is, for, (say) me, way less fun than focuses on addressing the issue of how to steal the Jewel of Ulthragowazzoom

    the second is also related to another issue, which is that murder is an adventure-related action, whereas racism is a static motivation that limits your characters actions, not a verb.

    Racism limits your possibilities in Old School mode, crime (like murder) expands them:

    Blixa is a little racist about halflings (have you noticed?). None of the players, including the one playing Blixa, really give a shit, and so it's just funny. However, if we took the idea seriously and Blixa started, like, trying to lynch halflings during off--moments, then we'd be dealing with a bunch of tedious role-playing crap instead of trying to murder bad guys and steal from them.

  5. Dungeon looting, killing and pillaging is basically what white middle class people would call a Home Invasion if it happened to them or someone they knew. Think of it from the orc's perspective for a second. Here he is, sitting in his home, the Temple of Elemental Evil, just hangin' with friends, kickin' back a brew, and suddenly the door bursts open. Next thing you know your friend Bob is dead from an arrow in the throat, and a fireball blows up all around you. Kinda sux.

  6. Zak, I don't mean people have to take racism seriously as in wringing their hands and using their game to explore the issue or anything stupid like that. Just acknowledge that it is there.

    The Blixa/Antonio level is exactly the level at which I would expect in a mixed-race group. Who wants to have inner-party conflict beyond petty bickering anyway?

    But at the same time, I'd expect racism to be more prevalent, and something which PCs have to deal with at least indirectly, in society at large. e.g., NO HALFLINGS signs on shop doors, because the stereotype is that halflings steal.

  7. BarkingAlien: I came at it from that perspective initially too, and to be honest I can still see the attraction of a 'heroic' campaign. (Antiheroic ones too, of course.)

    As I said to Zak, I'm not really talking necessarily about PCs being racist. I just mean that in a world in which internecine warfare is pretty much the dominant mode of race relations, it doesn't make much sense to assume there wouldn't be widespread discrimination, hate, and general unpleasentness.

  8. If the "blixa/antonio bickering" level is where you want it to be at, than I think it;s fair to say that;s pretty common and normal.

    "Never trust an elf", the "racial attitude" table in Unearthed Arcana, etc.

    Publishers and people who post on blogs are probably less likely to touch the subject than actual players for the reasons in my earlier post--i.e. they don;t want to risk someone bringing the complex and tedious subject up to the level where they have to argue about it seriously.

  9. This has niggled me a few times, but unless the setting is far enough removed from modern or near-modern forms of racism (or ones particularly close to home for the players) I just leave it alone.
    For example, if I ever played a western rpg it'd sting like hell to whitewash racism from the game, but what I lost in a feeling of verisimilitude, my players probably wouldn't notice or wouldn't care. Not that they're ignorant or have weird moral views, but they just find murder and theft fun, but racism is a more sticky issue no one wants to deal with.
    However, in my current Warhammer campaign, racism is something I intend to show up (gently). I've already given them a taste of the Kill the mutant, the witch, the heretic" attitude that very nearly makes total sense in the Old World: they saw a burned heretic by the side of the road. Funnily enough, an Elven Wizard took umbrage even to this and tore the body down. I didn't stop him or punish him, but I took the chance to show him that this wasn't the done thing: several minions they'd dragged along took off because they felt they were involved with some sort of mildly heretical group.
    Next stop, an ear tax for the Elf!

  10. In our current and previous campaigns, my group always plays as an amoral company of mercenaries, generally more concerned with profit, than with racism.

    It's a mixed blessing, then, that the fell races provide us with opportunities for both, as they are no use to us dead - but alive, fetch a pretty copper as servants.

    Through trial and error, we have found that Goblins make the best toadies, as they by nature submit to the strong, are already culturally indoctrinated as slaves and are close to the floor, ready-made to lick boot.

    The funny thing is, Goblins are better off as living coin, rather than dungeon fodder. Rather than scrounging for food, or being food, in some lousy cave somewhere, our goblins are well-fed and cared for. Oftentimes having families of their own, of which we care for in the same fashion.

  11. I had to read these comments to fully understand what you meant.

    I make certain that all of the unsavoury realities of life as we know it are present in my games, and I have been known to play morally-complex characters in others' games, especially when their games clearly have some sort of agenda. One, in particular, in Jacksonville, FL., was run by a hugely screwed-up racist and his white lackeys, but sadly, with one black guy. I asked him why he was subjecting himself to the emotional upset, and he said that he liked the system and the way the GM ran the world in general. I had to leave.

    Yet, when I played with a bunch of nerdy SCA types in a FGU MERC game set in then Rhodesia, I played 'The Celt' --a Pict, Roman, Celt, who-knows-what mongrel who did really despicable things (beyond gunning down 'rebels' like the other PCs), and the GM and players had to keep asking me what and why my PC was acting that way.
    I was stunned with disbelief that players couldn't see I was magnifying the barbarity of the mission (to wipe-out the entire village), by committing up-close atrocities.

    So, I think it is really more that folks don't know/understand themselves, what makes up their belief-system, and how they look to others, more than blithely disregarding the issues.

    On Dragonsfoot, someone just today asked if there was something wrong with male players playing female characters, and then went on to make clear what sort of ass (presumably he) was. The responses were measured, but clearly demonstrated that most of the DFers had their heads screwed-on a bit tighter than the poster.

  12. Great post, as usual. Here are my 2 cents (or yen, in our corner of the world).

    Vices, sins, and whatnot are always readily excusable when performed in the service of the "state," however you wish to define it. "Murder" performed on behalf of a nation is called "war." Sex, when given the blessing of the Powers that Be, is "marriage." Outside of that it becomes problematic and naughty naughty naughty.

    Killing orcs is all all well and good because you can claim to be doing it on behalf of the "State" (the kingdom, the gods, the greater good, ad nauseaum). You can even loot the bodies after and keep your lawful good guy badge. Kill some regular schmuck in the street and steal his goodies, and you are a bad guy. Anything and everything gets excused if you can claim you are serving the mob and not yourself.

    Historically, the "I have only been following orders" excuse has been used to brush all kinds of this rubbish under the carpet.

    D&D players are no different from any one else in this regard. They get to satisfy (vicariously of course) the primitive human emotion to bash things, but pat themselves on the back that they were doing it to save Minas Tirith from the forces of Mordor. This is a fraction, at least, of what divides High Fantasy fans from Sword & Sorcery guys like moi. Moorcock touched on it in his "Epic Pooh."

    Racism in games, like society, is bad only when the mob tells you so. Bias against say, Elves, or Dwarves, or swarthy folks from the fantasy kingdom of Al-Jhabik is bad. Bias against Orcs and goblins is good. Why? The state/mob/rules say so. That's enough for most folks.

  13. In such a mentally conservative era even to think about exploring taboo subjects in the context of a game is deemed noteworthy and scandalous. Just look at l'affaire Carcosa as an illustration of how hidebound by existing mores geeks actually are when you scratch the surface.

    Among gamers the behaviours of killing monsters and evil cultists, and looting ancient, trap-infested tombs are seen (rightly or wrongly) as macho and heroic. Bigotry beyond the self-parodic level ("Never trust an elf!") is seen as being reprehensible, and wholly without merit. Even that time-honoured S&S staple of sex (other than the most vanilla) is seen as being a bit eyebrow-raising. I doubt 90% of us even stop to consider these things though.

    I suppose this goes to intellectual fashions and to the list of things you can't say that dominate contemporary (largely Americanized) culture. There's likely very little conscious thought about these things; it's largely just kneejerk reaction to the values we've grown up with. Japanese people - to cite a culture which is noted for not sharing western mores - would, I imagine, see these things differently...

    Personal anecdote: I once introduced to my (then) game group the idea of a society where aliens sold themselves into slavery for the betterment of themselves and their families (think the practise of educated Greeks under the late Roman Republic/Early Empire: slavery was the quickest route to a cushy number in Imperial service). My players reacted like well-trained bien pensant 21st century liberals and decided to free the slaves Spartacus-style. The outrage and disbelief around the table at the idea of slaves who colluded in their own enslavement was palpable.

    Where am I going with this? I'm probably fumbling towards the admission that gamers are - for all their self-image as enlightened explorers of strange cultures - very much products of their society. It takes a conscious effort to confront and question the cultural assumptions you bring to the table; and this is a degree of mental effort that a lot of gamers simply don't want to invest.

  14. It is a role-playing game. I have generally stuck to playing chivalrous types my whole gaming career, but once, on a MUX, I played a racist character. It was interesting to explore. The group for which his race felt that most enmity he wanted to do nothing but kill. The groups with a lesser level of enmity, he felt suited for slavery.

    In the process, I provided an excellent foil for one of the peacekeepers responsible for maintaining peace between the races in a city built upon diversity.

    It's fun being the man people love to hate.

    Remember, it's just a game.

  15. In my first gaming group, me and another player went through a phase of playng up the elf/dwarf rivalry with in-character insults and put-downs. We still cooperated in combat/etc, but the characters clearly did not get along well. Had things gone on long enough, the characters may have gotten over their initial distrust and prejudice and become Gimli/Legolas-like buddies.

    Except we never got the chance to play that out - the DM told us to knock it off and get along, ignoring our "we're playing in character" claims (backed up by rules-quoting the racial relations table in the PHB/UA).

    And then we got on with killing dragons for their treasure hoard. Not that it was as much fun as when "pointy-ears" threatened to give "stumpy" a shave with the magic sword that was poking out of the pile of coins.

  16. I suppose I misunderstood exactly what you were describing, though I will go on to say its still somewhat unusual among my D&D players, largely due to the superheroic nature of our campaign world. I'll also harken back to a statement I've made many times and still stand behind - D&D has little to do with an actual medieval setting.

    Believe it or not, I find it more prevalent in our Sci-Fi games, especially Traveller and Star Trek. Eh? Star Trek?! But how?

    Simply put, most people these days think of Star Trek in regards to the Federation's nigh-utopian society. In truth, it is only by showing those who struggle to overcome their 'human' shortcomings that the stories endure and the message is delivered. In the LUG Star Trek RPG a common disadvantage is Species Enemy and another is Intolerant. Most players who come across these quirks will choose hostile governments/species appropriate for the era (Klingons, Cardassians, etc.). Some of Star Trek's most popular characters (Kirk and Miles O'Brian) had issues with other species initially.

  17. There are some things you (especially if you have a Y-chromosome and not much melanin in your skin) do not talk about. Racism and sexism and rape and pregnancy and slavery top that list, unless it's to offer an uncategorical condemnation.

    But killing and torture? That's just wholesome, good ol' fashioned fun.

  18. I think I'm in agreement with BA.

    Actually, to be honest, the thought of killing an Orc or Hobgoblin for being an Orc or Hobgoblin, rather than for being a clear and immediate threat to the well-being of my character or another, I can truly say has never crossed my mind before now.

  19. I disagree with a lot of the people who posted.

    I'm still sticking to the murder-and-theft-are-methods-of-problem-solving-racism-is-a-problem-to-be-solved-and-therefore-less-of-an-adventurey-thing theory.

  20. I've only ever played a seriously racist character once. I had originally decided to play Halbo Hornbuck, an incredibly racist halfling fighter in a single-adventure campaign two years ago.

    The DM told us we started as prisoners in jail and instead of buying gear, should pick the offense that landed us in the slammer in the first place. Mine was inciting a race riot to try and free the halflings, dwarves ,and gnomes from their Big Folk oppressors: those scheming, conniving, power-mongering elves and humans.

    As it happened, the entire rest of the party bar one guy decided to play dwarves, gnomes, or halflings (And all characters were rolled completely independently, might I add). We got to talking, and the entire rest of the party started to come around to my point of view - even the human, who wasn't too happy with his kin for throwing him in jail.

    We decided to break free at the first opportunity, and under the banner of the new nation of Subtetrapodia, recruit and equip some stout men, and start a rebellion against our imperialist overlords.

    We liberated a whole village from our oppressor's iron gauntlet before getting caught up in a plot that ended in our capture and magical enslavement by the only human we really went out of our way to help.

    See the really awful thing about that game was this: *EVERYTHING* my character had been saying about humans and elves was one hundred percent true, because the DM had cribbed the plot off a Warhammer novel.

    Damn you Warhammer! Damn you forever!

  21. I think this depends on a lot of things implicit to the group. For example, casual racism may make non-white members of the group feel uncomfortable even if it's clearly not about them. I have a German player who was really uncomfortable when other players started trying to angle the group towards committing genocide (there's your sandbox role-playng right there!)

    Also I think a lot of players and DMs want racism out of the group because it makes them uncomfortable to engage in it themselves in interaction, but when they engage in racist pogroms against orcs they aren't actually saying anything so they don't notice.

    Despite my having obviously talked about the problems of racism and conservatism in High Fantasy, I do think we play these games because of the lure of the simplicity of good vs. evil, and it's a fun escape from the complexity of daily life to just mash the guy who disagrees with you. But it makes a lot of people uncomfortable to explore the obvious ramifications of this escapism (racism, inequality, gross injustice, etc) so they gloss over it. I think that's fine, it's part of the escapism. But I do think it's helpful to understand why one is doing it.

    In my campaign there's a fair amount of anti-French racism (it's the 18th Century!), and a lot of anti-Indian slogans are bandied about; but I counter this by making both the French and Indians a kind of Noble Other, so it's clear to everyone in our enlightened (hah!) group that no-one actually meets the stereotypes being bandied about, so it has an ironic or post-colonial understanding lying over it. I think most gaming groups play this way, though I'm sure some must be just blatantly racist.

    In the end I think it's something that needs to be decided by mutual consent within the group, and I'm not too concerned by hypocrisy (it's not the world's worst sin). But I do think that the underlying assumptions of a lot of D&D role-playing are pretty nasty and don't bear up well under proper analysis. I also don't think that proper analysis spoils the fun, though.

  22. Oh, and I just remembered: I played a campaign in Middle Earth 4th Age once where the characters were manipulated by Elven fascists into stealing Dunlending land and turning it into a new Elven kingdom. I think you can play racist characters in a way that subverts the prime racist assumptions of the original genre, and still have fun.