Inclusivity in Roleplaying Games

Recently (over the last year or so) there has been a lot of talk in gaming of the need to make products more inclusive, to provide options who are not straight white cis-men. This campaign seems to have started in computer gaming, where my limited experience suggests that it is really needed, but it has also spread to tabletop gaming.

Is this really a problem that tabletop gaming needs to address now? To be absolutely clear, I am talking about the inclusion of a variety of characters in products, not the diversity of authors or players. In addition, I think that diversity of characters is a good thing, and important. My question is over whether this is something that tabletop RPGs need to address now.

I’ll readily grant that it was a problem 30 years ago. The only non-white Companion of the Lance is metallic copper. However, even 25 years ago, companies were starting to address it. Early Forgotten Realms novels include a black protagonist in a series of novels in which racism is a recurring theme, and female protagonists. In the early nineties, White Wolf put a black man on the cover of Mage:the Ascension. He was the only character on the cover, and the iconic symbol of the whole game. In 1998, Fading Suns included non-binary-gender characters as an important option for a race that was primarily binary (the Ur-Obun). In 2000, D&D 3.0 had iconic characters who were deliberately designed to be diverse in terms of race and gender. Steve Kenson put an openly gay superhero in Freedom City in 2003, and in 2005 Blue Rose presented a fantasy society in which homosexual and polyamorous marriage were both normal. Games set in Japan go back to the earliest days of the hobby, and Nyambe, in a fantasy version of sub-Saharan Africa, was released in 2002. Disabilities have been standard character options in all games that have an Advantange/Disadvantage system since those systems were invented. Today, D&D 5e explicitly raises race, non-binary-gender, and multiple sexualities as choices you should think about in the free introductory set.

In short, I think the “inclusivity problem” was solved in roleplaying ten years ago. “Inclusivity” is the default position for tabletop gaming, and has been for a long time. Of course tabletop games should continue to be inclusive, but this isn’t something that needs campaigning for. There may turn out to be some groups who have not been included, and people will want to see more inclusion of particular groups, but the battle for inclusivity in general was won years ago.

There is a different problem, which is sometimes confused with the need for inclusivity. This is that the portrayal of some cultures in roleplaying games is not particularly good. To take an example I’m familiar with, Shadowrun 4e illustrated Shinto with a picture of a BDSM prostitute in Street Magic, and the Shinto pantheon in Scion 1e is really, really badly researched. (Although you can, at least, tell that they did a bit of research.)

First, I want to stress that this really is a completely different problem. This problem only arises because tabletop roleplaying games assume that you have to be inclusive. If Scion had only included white European pantheons, they would not have had a badly research Shinto pantheon to get bothered about in the first place.

Second, this is a real problem. It is also a really difficult problem, because researching something well enough to present it sensitively and in a way that is suitable for gaming takes a very long time. To get to that point for Shinto required learning Japanese, living in Japan, and spending about five years studying Shinto, including taking classes at the largest Shinto university (in Japanese). I can do the same for medieval western Europe, and that took several years with borrowing privileges at Cambridge University Library.

If you take the research requirement seriously, then a single author cannot write a diverse and inclusive book. A single human being cannot know enough about enough cultures to do it. A team of half a dozen authors is going to be really pushed to do it, particularly if they all have to be native speakers of English, familiar with the game, and willing to write for what tabletop roleplaying pays.

Now, I think that the research requirement should be taken seriously. If you are purporting to write about a real culture, you should know that culture very well. For a contemporary culture, you really need to have lived in it while fluent in the local language. For a historical culture, you need at least a couple of years of reading around it, including primary literature. For a prehistoric culture, you get to make a whole bunch of stuff up, because we just don’t know enough to be accurate in the first place, but you need to be very familiar with what we do know.

On the other hand, if you are writing a fantasy culture inspired by a real culture, you should be granted a lot more leeway. Rokugan is not Japan. It should be exotic, in a way that a portrayal of real Japan should not. The Southlands does not have to be an accurate portrayal of North Africa and the Levant, and indeed it should not be. I think fantasy games (including far-future science fiction games) should be allowed to pick elements from non-Western cultures and use them to make fictional cultures that acknowledge the existence of people and cultures that are not straight white cis-male, without being required to accurately reflect the cultures they are borrowing from. I think this is the only way to make broadly inclusive games and settings feasible in tabletop gaming.

I also think that there is an important role for a diverse range of games that are not individually diverse, where the authors know enough about one culture to present it accurately and sensitively.

I don’t expect many people, certainly not many people who produce tabletop roleplaying games, to disagree with what I’ve written here. That’s because I believe that virtually everyone in this business agrees that inclusivity and research are necessary, and regrets the times when they mess up one or the other.

Posted in Game Design.

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