Mechanically Addressing Racism in Fantasy RPGs
I was 13 when I first fell for dungeons and dragons. I fell hard. Years before I would run my first campaign I was poring over the 3.5 players’s handbook, dungeon master’s guide, and monster manual like they were scripture. I invented places no one would ever see and countless people no one would ever talk to all for the hell of it.
Back then, my favorite things to think about were the fantasy races. To this day, when I think of iconic d&d art, I’m not thinking of Jeff Easely or Larry Elmore. I’m thinking Lars Grant West’s eerily taxonomic pencil drawings depicting the naked bodies and skulls of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, and Half-Orcs. Set against what I know now about d&d’s history of racism, and the history of racist pseudoscience’s preoccupation with measuring skulls, those old drawings project a disquieting aura.
When I first began building a world, I had no intentions of filling it up with the races-as-written from the player’s handbook. Unbeknownst to me, Iwas having my first encounter with racist d&d shit. I remember thinking to myself:
“What if someone wants to play a smart Half-Orc ? A wizard Orc, perhaps? That intelligence penalty just won’t do.”
Of course, I went about solving that problem completely ass-backwards, Inventing 40+ “subraces” each with their own bonuses, penalties, characteristics, and weapons they were trained to wield from birth.
It’s been a little over a decade. I’ve learned a lot about roleplaying games, and I’ve discovered I have a lot to learn about race. There are much more qualified people than I are out there to tell you that a person’s race has nothing to do with their strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. If you claim to have found tests that prove it, I would suggest you hold your tests to a higher standard.
I’m half white and half black, and as a mixed person , the way most people conceptualize race never fails to get under my skin. This shit is important to me. I pass for white often enough that I enjoy considerable privilege. All the same I’ve had some particularly fucked up experiences. People really do think its okay to just put their fingers in your hair if its texture looks fun to touch. I woke up an hour early every day in high-school to straighten it so people wouldn’t interact. Some people (some teachers) would question if my father and I were really related- publicly. I’d get asked if I was a “halfrican” or any number of other subracial classifications like they were trying to figure out if I was immune to sleep spells or If I could sense secret doors. Fuckers.
Frankly, I don’t like how our roleplaying games continue to validate the idea the idea that races of people have universal inherent qualities. You would be surprised how many rpg players think that way - how many people would tell you in confidence which races they think get which +2 bonuses irl. I imagine it is comforting for some people to believe that our characteristics are inherent to us- that our virtues are evidence of good breeding and that our flaws are just the way we are. It’s at least less terrifying than the prospect that you would be a completely different person if you were brought up in a different country- or if you went to a different school- or if your parents made less money.
So I feel like I have a responsibility.
Dungeon World is an excellent game. One of its writer’s Adam Koebel has expressed on a number of occasions that he would like to move away from the way race is mechanized if there were to be a future edition of dungeon world. Since I was hacking the game anyway for LLTD Presents: Dungeonpunk, the mechanics of a character’s identity were some of the first things I set out to address.
I invented a system I’m still tentatively calling “Axis”. This system has gone through several iterations which you can observe throughout the show. It’s current iteration works like this:
Characters have 3 Axes and they are defined as follows:
-Race: an intersection of Species and Culture
-Gender: Identity, Presentation, Performance.
-Baggage: Who I've been- What I've done- What I must do.
Axes are written as “I am ______” statements followed by a description of what that identity means for that character. For instance a Race Axis could read like this:
”I am a Magnarin Orc of the Blighted Peaks. Humans fear me for my size and assume I am sympathetic to the cause of the rebel warlord, Gazaad”
When characters “make camp” and take some time to reflect, the GM asks if their axes got them in trouble. If they did, that character becomes “Driven”. If they are already “Driven”, they gain 1 xp. A character who is “Driven” can make a roll twice and take the better result. After this, they cease to be “Driven”.
This system mechanizes a character’s identity in a way that doesn’t reduce it to statistics. It encourages player to create characters with identities that will chafe against society, and then rewards them with the ability to fight back more effectively.