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Author Topic: Race in Heroic Fantasy  (Read 12708 times)
Uncle Dark
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« on: December 14, 2002, 07:48:59 PM »

Iíve been re-reading some Conan on my commutes recently, and itís got me thinking about a touchy subject: Race in Heroic Fantasy.  Specifically, Ron points out in Sorcerer and Sword that writers of modern/D&D-esque fantasy use non-human races the way authors of Heroic Fantasy (especially the early authors) used different human races.  If this is so, then how does the use of race translate to gaming in worlds inspired by and imitating that fiction?  For purposes of argument, Iím assuming ďthe canonĒ is the recommended reading list from S&S.

First, two things I do not[/b] want to discuss:
Racist tropes in the literature.  Yeah, R.E. Howard was a racist, though arguably not more so than any other man of his time and class.  Some of this came through in his fiction.  So letís just take it as read that there is racism in the canon, and that racism is a bad thing, and move on from there.

Racism at the gaming table/in the rules of certain games.  An acquaintance of mine wrote a final paper in college on the way in which the various D&D races and their standardized presentations mapped onto real-world racist stereotypes.  Iíve looked at this before.  Sometimes itís a problem, sometimes itís not.  This isnít where I want to go.

What I do want to talk about is the way race, as used in Heroic Fantasy, can be a feature in games (specifically, though not exclusively Sorcerer and Sword), especially in character creation.

ďRaceĒ was once used in a much broader fashion than it is today.  Today, it speaks to certain difficult to quantify variations in human biology.  Used to be, the word combined several ideas now commonly referred to by terms like culture, nationality, and ethnicity.  To speak of the ďGreek raceĒ was to refer to a body of people who shared cultural and linguistic features as well as physical features.  This is the way I believe the term is used (at its best) in the literature, and thatís how I want to define it for this discussion.

For instance, one could use this definition to say something like: Cimerians, as a race, are hardy wilderness survivors, natural hunters, and fierce warriors.

So, looking at it that way, how does race figure into character creation?  In other fantasy games, a player chooses a race (say, an elf), and with that choice comes a set of advantages and disadvantages that affect the game-effectiveness of the character.  What if a GM allowed the same sort of thing for choosing to play a Pict or a Shemite or a Hyrkraninan?  Would it add anything to the game?

In S&S terms, would such racial tags be used as attribute descriptors, and how?

And what about concepts like racial purity?  While they might be important to some NPCs, would it add anything to the game to have a characters bloodline affect the characters performance in the game in some way?

How would a particular racial background be worked into the game?  As descriptor, as past?

And how could race be included in a game without being offensive or trite?

Lon
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Andrew Martin
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« Reply #1 on: December 14, 2002, 10:24:45 PM »

Quote from: Uncle Dark
So, looking at it that way, how does race figure into character creation?  In other fantasy games, a player chooses a race (say, an elf), and with that choice comes a set of advantages and disadvantages that affect the game-effectiveness of the character.  What if a GM allowed the same sort of thing for choosing to play a Pict or a Shemite or a Hyrkraninan?  Would it add anything to the game?


In my fantasy and furry game systems, character have the extremely broad skill group of Species (or Race) and Culture (along with Career or Profession). These contain the basic skills and such that all members of a particular Species or Culture have. In Fudge, the character sheet is like (using your examples):

Human Species: Fair
Cimmerian Culture: Mediocre
Warrior Profession: Great

That seems to fit the needs of my players and helps players to not be paranoid that they've missed out important skills that their character logically would have. These three broad descriptors form a core part of most of my game systems, those that aren't specifically for one setting.

For games that are specifically for just one setting, I haven't worried about race, as that's usually not a concern in the settings.

I separated out Species and Culture (originally they were combined), because in early play tests, I had players wanting to mix cultures and races. With the separation, I had maximum flexibility to fit the character system to the player's character concept.

Perhaps a similar technique could be used in the S&S game system?
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Andrew Martin
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: December 15, 2002, 12:09:25 PM »

Hi there,

Judd (Paka) is developing a mini-supplement right now which does a beautiful job of using "race" via the descriptors for Stamina, Will, and Lore. At least one, but never all, of the available descriptors for each score pertain to a given racial heritage. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable that if one takes more than one of these, it reflects racially-diverse heritage.

The text and rules for this material go very, very well with his setting, which is best described as Clark Ashton Smith does Barsoom.

Best,
Ron
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Judd
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« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2003, 11:42:00 PM »

Thanks for the kind words, Ron.

I've had alot of fun making the descriptors for my mini-supplement and can't wait to see how they pan out in play.

I would stay away from racial purity.  If a character wanted to make his bloodline and pride in such a bloodline a part of his character that would be fine but a game mechanic for "pure" Cimerian blood seems rather pointless.

Race is a part of who these characters are, it is a piece of the puzzle and there's nothing wrong with noting and having fun with it.  Sword and Sorcery bases itself on literature that wasn't watered down in political correctness.

In the mini-supplement I am working on, Dictionary of Mu, racial descriptors are an option but one among many.  If you want to run someone who is a good ole fashioned mutt, that is more than doable, either by choosing racial descriptors of different races or by electing to go with descriptors that don't mention race at all.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2003, 07:07:44 AM »

Hi there,

Let's take a look at the role of ethnicity (the best word for all this) in straightforward, action-oriented, occasionally-chilling fiction of any kind.

Basically, it's code. What "black" means to say, an ancient Roman, is almost certainly not what it means (or the range of its meaning) to a modern American. So if I'm reading a novel or watching a film set in ancient Rome, and if a black guy is introduced, it means something (or a range of somethings) to me that's coded in my terms.

This is a lot subtler than one might think. The character's blackness' code in those ancient people's terms is either utterly irrelevant to the story and ignored, or it is itself explained so that I can compare it with my code. The former tack is taken by most movies - we see "black guy" in a movie like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and it only has meaning as a modern statement of one sort or another. The latter tack is taken by Gene Wolfe's Soldier books (Soldier in the Mist, Soldier of Arete, third book shamefully and sorrowfully never completed): when the character meets one "black man," who's an African character, the modern significance is strictly delimited and separated from the characters' reactions; and when he meets another, it's a bit of a shock to the modern reader to discover that he doesn't mean African descent at all.

Another subtlety comes from that bugaboo, "intent of the writer." We probably all know that this is one of the great vortices of discussing stories, from which whole departments and schools of thought have never emerged. The way I like to look at it is that Text has content, some of which we shape ourselves, and some of which is undeniable given the story's internal logic and demonstrable (not inferred) assumptions, and to leave the author out of it unless he or she is really the topic of discussion.

So let's look at the codes of race/ethnicity in pulp fiction in terms of Lon's questions.

1) What are the codes? We know the answer to one layer: our own. Of course, one's codes about race (etc) isn't going to be revealed through slogans or discussion but rather through action, and System is Action in the sphere of role-playing. The other layer is the internal set of codes: what the characters think about it, and that would be Setting (and to some extent, Character, obviously).

2) Descriptors are the key, in Sorcerer. The fun part is to think about whether the Descriptors are in modern terms/codes or in setting terms/codes (because remember, characters can't "see their own sheets"). That's a damned interesting question.

Best,
Ron
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Bailywolf
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« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2003, 06:42:12 PM »

I would argue that the concepts of race and region are blended in much of heroic fantasy.  "Men of the North" are great, long haired, rune-cursing, barbarian warriors.... "Men of Lost Karan" are thin to the point of being skeletal and sharpen their teeth to better eat human flesh... and if a character grew up and was raised- or even simply lived among- peoples of a different region, he is likely to demonstrate both the culture and the physical prowess of that "people".  The idea of race and blood are less significant than regional upbringing and experiences.  Howard makes constant reference to Conan's crimean upbringing- his childhood of climbing cliffs and his wilderness-keen senses.  Off the top of my head, I can't remember his actual breeding ever coming up.  

In my pet S&S setting (based on some of the ideas found in Lovecraft's Dreamworld & my own likes and dislikes) there are strong regional differences in not only score descriptors, but in the nature of Sorcery and to an extent in how Humanity is defined.  The Witchfolk of the North are slight and tall and born to sorcery- everyone in the scattered tribes possesses at least 1 level of Lore- and the rituals of sorcery are indistinguishable from the rituals of their social order... but if an adventurer from the Western Kingdoms who maries into a Witchfolk clan and adopts their ways might be described with a blend of Northern and Western trait descriptors.

-Ben
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Uncle Dark
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« Reply #6 on: January 07, 2003, 12:15:53 AM »

Ron,

Unsurprisingly, you've stated my questions better than I did.  That's pretty much where I was trying to go... the interaction of the levels.

Ben,
How does Humanity differ from one race to another?  How does that affect play, choices during character creation?

Lon
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Bailywolf
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« Reply #7 on: January 07, 2003, 09:34:01 PM »

The idea I had is that Humanity picks up a descriptor, and your humanity descriptor determines the type of sorcery your practice (or the other way around- chicken and egg).

For example, in the Eastern Empire, Humanity frequently has the "Honor" descriptor, and the eastern style of sorcery (well, both styles) challange this.  I was trying to find as simple and unobtrusive a way as possible to distinguish sorcerers of different regions who practice different styles of sorcery.  Because these culturaly aspected methodologies hinge on a particular system of values- represented by the humanity descriptor- one character can not learn the sorcery without internalizing and owning the values it depends on.

Sorcers of the Eastern Empire come in two types- Martial Artists and Courtiers.  Martial Artists persue mystical styles of combat- demons- which demand constant practice and desire domination over other styles... "learning" these styles tempts a warrior mightly to sacrifice his honor to follow the cheap and simple path to mastery.  The Courtly school of sorcery is blended into the politics of the Golden Court, which extends seamlessly into the Celestial Court.  Through manipulation, deciet, betrayal and other dishonorable social acts, a Courtlly sorcerer can curry favor with Celestial Personages.

A Knight-Warlock from the Wester Kingdoms could not learn the Eastern sorcery- it is as alien to him as the ingrained social customs on which it depends.  He commands his demon-squire and the other creatures of his retinue, in accordance with his sorcery syle based on the Humanity descriptor of Obedience.  Knight-Warlocks are often tempted to make  summonings at their Lord-Wizard's Hellpits, and their demon-retinue is always egging them on to rise in power, dominate their betters, and violate their society's strict social hierachy with social climbing.

But a traveler from the West who lives for a time in the East and adopts the Eastern ways- goes native- might learn to grasp Eastern sorcery.  And this sort of mixed-mode character is entirely legit.  You pick regional descriptors for your Stamina and Will describing where you are from,  and descriptors for your Lore and Humanity from the region you have made your home.

Combined with good use of Pasts, and intresting cross-cultural characters can be created.
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Uncle Dark
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« Reply #8 on: January 07, 2003, 10:48:08 PM »

Ben,

Very cool.  I'd thought about descriptors for Humanity, but not quite in that way.

Lon
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: January 08, 2003, 07:28:30 AM »

H'm,

I confess that I find descriptors for Humanity to be counter-intuitive, or perhaps, diluting to the mechanisms of play. That view might also arise from my thoughts on theme and story creation, in that I don't think a multiply-themed story is any good. (I'm not a very postmodern kind of guy.) I also think relativism, and by this I mean the absolute technical term, not just "tolerance," is a low-worth concept.

So ... h'm. I'm open to being challenged or surprised by a new angle on this issue. Ben, what is the value of adding Humanity descriptors to the game? I still can't see why Lore descriptors don't carry all of the content that you've described so far.

Best,
Ron
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Bailywolf
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« Reply #10 on: January 08, 2003, 10:26:52 AM »

Funny you should say that... when I was typing out the example above, the exact same thought struck me... the element of humanity challanged by a particular style of sorcery & the cultural components of both can be represented in the definition of Lore descriptors & sorcery methodology.  I am all for the elemination of redundancy, and this seems like a bit of an oversight and perhaps the bones of my first iteration of the concepts I'm working with for Vakandiverold- the cultural/regional aspect to how sorcery and humanity conflict.  The basic theme for all sorcery is that it erodes what you value- replacing your love for normal things (as defined by your culturre) with a love for power, dominion, domination, and control.  The Martial Artist forgets his honor and comes to crave nothing but victory and the desruction of challangers- his sorcery is the way of Technique.    The Witchfolk Matriarch abandons her cultural love of freedom to become an absolute ruler over her family- her sorcery adds demonic members to the mundane family.

The rituals of sorcery follow the cultural aspecting as well.  The Witchfolk's rituals are tied into the rituals surrounding birth, marrige, divorce, adjudication of dispute, declaractions, oaths, contracts, and treaties.  Some demons are Adopted as if they were children.  Some are Wed as if they were mates.  Sometimes an unrully demon need be Divorced & banished from the family.  The Witchfolk- nomadic and proud people- value freedom and mobility, cooperation for mutual advantage & survival.  As sorcery erods their humanity, they come to seek stability, control through tradition, and absolute control over others.

I can pretty mutch ditch humanity descriptors in favor of well defined Lore descriptors.  

Thanks Ron.

-Ben
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