Opening the Way

In this post, I want to write about practical things that publishers can do to increase diversity among the authors of tabletop role-playing games. I suspect that some, even most, of these points will apply to related fields, but I am writing based on my experience of 14 years as the Line Editor for Ars Magica; these are all things that I have tried, and that are practical. There is a further limitation: these are all ways to reduce the barriers to participation as an author of role-playing games. I am not going to write about positive steps for bringing people in for the simple reason that I didn’t find anything that worked well. I will return to this point at the end.

So, what should publishers do to reduce the barriers to entry for people outside the traditional range of role-playing authors?
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Starting the Playtest Scenario

I have started work on the playtest scenario for Universitas Magarum, the current name for the School of Magic game. I’m not absolutely confident that I’ll finish it by the end of this month, but that is looking entirely realistic, and even if I fall behind, I might well be close enough to motivate a final push to get it done at the last minute.

As I have mentioned before, this game has no gamemaster. One thing that has really come home to me while writing it is just how much conventional roleplaying games rely on the gamemaster’s creativity and knowledge of the game rules and world. This is particularly true when writing the playtest scenario, because this scenario has to be run by people with no prior knowledge of the game, its rules, or its setting. There is no other public information available, so they have to play it based entirely on the scenario. That makes the writing quite taxing.

Let’s take a couple of examples from contemporary game design. The first is from the 7th Sea Second Edition Quickstart. (The Kickstarter for that is still live at the time of writing, and arguably the most successful RPG Kickstarter so far; you should probably back it at the Scholar level if you have any interest in RPGs at all.) In the very first scene, there is the possibility that one or more of the characters will get no successes: “You (the GM) say what happens.” The GM is supposed to make it interesting and fun, and make the failure meaningful without seriously derailing the rest of the plot. Obviously, a good GM can do that, but it is not a trivial skill.

The second example is from Kult: Divinity Lost (which also has a live Kickstarter as I write this, and is also doing well). This is based on the Apocalypse Engine, and when characters investigate something, they have to roll. If a player rolls high, she can ask two questions about the scenario. If she doesn’t roll so high, she asks one question, but there is a cost. The GM sets the cost; maybe she puts herself in danger, or there is some cost. What sort of danger is appropriate? What would be a reasonable cost? For the most part, those sorts of questions are left to the GM to answer.

This is quite possibly a large part of the reason for the conventional observation that the quality of a game depends almost entirely on the quality of the GM, with a very weak influence from the quality of the rules.

In Universitas Magarum, the players are bound to succeed at the core part of their task, so the game always moves forward. However, that success might come with added benefits, or with associated problems. When that happens, and to what extent, has to be built explicitly into the structure of the rules, because there is no GM to whom I can turn and say “you decide!”.

It is not easy to make this work, but I’m getting there.

You Are The Hero

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of having diverse characters in fiction, so that everyone has someone to identify with. It is possible, nay, easy, to make this discussion sound really, really stupid.

“I can identify with an immortal, magic-wielding elf in an entirely fictional world, but only if it shares my skin colour and genital configuration!”

Of course, the discussion is not stupid, and the fact that it can made to sound stupid really easily suggests that something important is being missed. In particular, it is not important that characters in fiction are “like you”, in general. What matters, I suggest, is that the characters share features that are central to your sense of your own identity. People have trouble identifying with a character who is not something that they take to be fundamental to their sense of self.

I’ll use myself as an example. When reading the Lord of the Rings, I do not identify with either Boromir or Aragorn, despite the fact that they are the only human beings in the Fellowship. This is because “human” is not a fundamental part of my sense of self; apart from anything else, I am never required to define myself against others who are not human. This seems to be quite general, in that there has been no call for a purge of non-human characters from genre fiction. There is, essentially, no-one who finds a lack of humanity to be an obstacle to identification.

On the other hand, when reading Harry Potter, I do not identify with Harry; I identify with Hermione. Hermione is, essentially, me. There is a scene in the first film, in the potions class, where she is exactly me. Yes, I am male, and not remotely as pretty as Emma Watson (although I can probably stand up to book-Hermione), but neither of those features is particularly important to my sense of identity. I am perfectly happy with being a man (I’m definitely cis), but I have no problem imagining being female. This is not true of all men, however, and it would appear that a lot of women cannot easily imagine themselves being male.

That is not to say that I can identify with anyone. I can’t identify with characters who solve problems through physical force rather than mental power. I identify with Gandalf and Hermione, I play elves but can’t imagine playing dwarves or half-orcs, and I was the Line Editor for Ars Magica, a game that sidelines physical force, for 14 years. The primacy of the mental is a central part of my self-conception, so give me a choice between a straight, white, male barbarian and a queer, black, female sorceress, and I’ll identify with the sorceress. She’s the character who is like me in the only sense that really matters to me.

If we rephrase the initial idea with this in mind, it does not sound stupid at all.

“I can identify with any character, as long as they share the features I regard as essential to my identity!”

This, incidentally, is why nobody gets annoyed about the absence of redheads in all the Star Wars films, as far as I can recall. It is not something that people tend to regard as central to their identity (and if they do, it isn’t something they mention). It’s also why “black Hermione” is a bigger issue than “blue-eyed Harry”; race is often regarded as central to someone’s identity, eye colour almost never.

This might lead us to ask why race, gender, and sexuality are so important to so many people, but only if we have been completely failing to pay any attention to modern Western (particularly US) society. However, they are not the only important features, as I noted in my case, and they are not always important. For example, take a look at Japanese anime. Look at Studio Ghibli films, and note the lack of any consistent differentiation between characters who are supposed to be Japanese, and characters who are supposed to be Western. The “Rose of Versailles”, a classic anime from 40 or so years ago that is currently being rebroadcast, has no Japanese characters at all, because it is set in 18th century France (and the main character is a woman who presents as male). “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, another thirty-year-old anime, has European characters for the European audience, because it was a co-production, but no Japanese characters for the Japanese audience. As far as anime goes, it looks as though racial difference is no barrier at all to identification for most Japanese people.

When it comes to other important features, I suspect that my preference for intellectual characters is rather idiosyncratic, but there is another big category that is often central to people’s self-conception.

Religion.

For a lot of people, their religion is central to their view of themselves and the world, and they cannot imagine themselves as having another religion, or even imagine a world where their religion, or an analogue, is not true. Again, I speak from personal experience here; back in my teens I had a problem with anything I couldn’t read as Christian or a Christian analogue. I’ve also seen it from the other side; there are people who have a deep problem with the fact that paganism is, in an important sense, fundamentally wrong in Ars Magica (but the Mythic Europe analogue of Christianity, called “Christianity”, is right). These people cannot get into something that violates their worldview.

This is not, I think, any kind of bigotry or narrow-mindedness, any more than women’s problems in sympathising with male characters, or my problems in sympathising with physical characters. It’s not even necessarily impossible for those people to play games without an analogue for their religion; it is just more effort. In fact, I still face a similar situation, in that I find it very difficult to get into worlds where, by design, the actions of my character cannot significantly improve the world. (Horror games, or anything with Cthulhu in it, basically.) I generally play them differently, or make changes. This is more fundamental than a simple preference. I can’t easily see myself in such a world. The idea that I can do something to make the world a better place is, it would seem, a fundamental part of my self-conception. (There is evidence that unjustified optimism makes people more successful, which is good, because I need all the help I can get.)

It seems obvious that we do not want to write games that some people cannot imagine playing, but there is also an obvious problem here. An individual story cannot have a main character that everyone can identify with. Even if we stick to the “standard” categories (male/female, asian/black/hispanic/native american/white, straight/gay/bi, cis/trans), there are 60 possible combinations. You really can’t have more than half-a-dozen central characters in one story, and even in RPGs, where you can have larger casts of NPCs, 60 is going to be more than you have in almost any book, and many entire game lines. And that only gives you one of each, of whom a fair number need to be antagonists, which means that a lot of people are only going to be offered villains to identify with. Even the ones who get a hero only get a single token character. If we add “intellectual/physical/social” as another axis, we need 180 characters, which may be beyond the realistic limits of any roleplaying game, especially as they all need to be central.

The problem is even worse for religions and world views, because it goes beyond issues of practicality. It is simply not possible to write a game of nihilistic horror that provides characters I can identify with. It is not possible to write a world in which Christianity has no true analogue and make it accessible to Christians for whom Christianity is central. On the other hand, if Christianity has a true analogue, then many forms of paganism do not, and some people strongly identify with those. Further, a game that conservative Muslims will find accessible and inclusive must not include positive portrayals of queer characters.

The idea that you can write an “inclusive” game, one that does not exclude anyone, is an illusion. It is not logically possible, and in purely practical terms it is difficult to even get close. When you design your world, or write your novel, you have to choose an audience. A conservative Muslim audience will want something very different from Seattle liberals. You could also choose yourself as the audience, and from a purely creative point of view, that choice has a lot going for it. People outside your audience might not like the game. They might find that the game excludes them. They might even complain about it. Conservative US Christians have a long tradition of complaining about games that did not adopt a Christian worldview. They claimed that they led to devil worship, and tried to get them banned.

This is something that creators should recognise, and actively oppose. If a particular game excludes you, find one that doesn’t. Write your own, if necessary. (This is entirely practical for RPGs, unlike Hollywood movies.) The hobby as a whole should have games for everyone, so it is a problem if no games include women, people of colour, or queer characters. However, no individual game needs to do so. Someone may take the commercial decision to try to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend as few people as possible, but that approach has rarely been consistent with the creation of art worth the effort. (Also, I would note that the so-called SJWs are not doing that; they are creating games in full knowledge that they offend and alienate substantial groups of people, and doing so because they have an artistic and ethical vision that demands it. That approach has a track record of producing great art.)

Once again, this comes down to the need for more diversity among the creators of RPGs, novels, and films. That will naturally lead to diverse games, books, and movies, even though individual works might draw from a limited palette. I really should write something about how I think we can go about increasing that diversity.

Going to School

I have been a bit distracted over the last month or so.

First, I was asked to translate an academic paper into Japanese. That’s hard work. In general, it is a bad idea to try to translate things out of your native language. Fortunately, the translation was for internal use only, so awkward language is not a problem if the meaning is fairly clear. Even so, it took a lot of effort, so I couldn’t do any work on this for a couple of weeks.

Then, Wizards of the Coast announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild, which is an opportunity to write D&D material for the Forgotten Realms and get paid for it. I’ve wanted to do this since I was 15, so I’ve been getting myself up to speed on D&D 5th edition. (It’s good. It is notable that the elements discussed as things you might want to include in a game do not include any of the elements I’m working on here.)

However, I’ve not abandoned Kannagara by any means. I have, however, switched to the School of Magic for now.

Development there is going much more quickly than it did for Kannagara. It is quite easy to design situations, and I have a lot of ideas. This is a much better way to work out how the mechanics should go than doing Kannagara, where I also have to worry about accurately portraying Shinto.

And working out how the mechanics should go is important. I am still happy with the basic structure, but “game balance” is not easy. There are a whole bunch of things with numerical values, and I don’t have a good sense for how high those values should be. This isn’t really surprising, as neither I nor anyone else has ever played the game. I’m getting an idea for what sort of things make good elements of situations as I go along, and more ideas for how different situations can interact, but I do think I’m going to need to finish the basic rules for the school of magic before I can realistically do Kannagara.

Once I know how the rules fit together, I will know what I need to take from Shinto to make a workable game, and how the things I want to include can fit in.

In addition, from my point of view, the school of magic game is another one I have wanted to play for years, so I still get what I want.

I’m not sure whether I will have a fully playtestable version by the end of March, but it is still looking realistic.

This is a good example of how creative work is unpredictable. Given the brick walls I kept running into with Kannagara, and their complete absence in the new game, I think the switch is clearly going to be a faster way to complete Kannagara, even though there is a whole other game in the mix. I’m not going to commit to any schedules on Kannagara, but I want that one soon, as well.

School of Magic

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to look into whether designing the School of Magic game I’ve been wanting to make for decades would speed up the process of getting the mechanics into playtest. The only way to do that, really, is to try writing, and see whether progress is significantly faster, so I tried it out this morning.

The answer would appear to be yes.

The broader structure of how individual situations would fit together, and what the personae could achieve, was much easier to do in this setting. I guess twenty years of working on Ars Magica has made it rather easier for me to think about this sort of thing. (And yes, the broader structure in question does show the influence of Ars Magica. That’s not really something I could hope to avoid, even if I wanted to. It also has a very specific bit of influence from GURPS.)

I have a lot of background ideas, all of which can easily be made to work as story drivers given the system. Even exams fit in really easily as a major point of tension.

There is one important thing that I still need to test: how easy is it to design a specific situation? “Situation” is a specific term in the game system, referring to the units that serve the same purpose as “encounters” in other game systems. It has a different name because the personae are not typically encountering anything in a situation, so “encounter” is a bad name for it. A situation is quite elaborate, just like encounters in most other games, and has a number of elements that need to be designed. Players would normally take these from published material, in much the same way as they take Pathfinder monsters from the Bestiary, so the game needs to have a lot of them before playtest. This bit actually went quite smoothly in Kannagara, at least for some of the areas, so if this doesn’t go more smoothly in the School of Magic game (which will need a name, if I continue), there’s a good chance that I will go back to Kannagara. I’d really like to try this out this week, and my schedule suggests that I should be able to.

In practical terms, my thinking is this. If this week’s tests suggest that I will be able to finish a playtest scenario for the School of Magic by the end of March, I will do so. If they suggest that it is going to take longer than that, I will go back to Kannagara. I’d like to finish the playtest scenario earlier than that, if possible, but that’s the deadline I have in mind. I plan to continue working on Kannagara directly when the School of Magic is in playtest, and then fold the responses back in. However, if School of Magic continues to move more quickly, I will probably look at taking it to publication before I do the same for Kannagara.

My hope is that this change of tack will, in the long term, actually speed up the appearance of a playable form of Kannagara, as well as of the School of Magic game, but creative work is never that predictable. We’ll have to wait and see.

Strategy for 2016

Another year draws to a close, and Kannagara still isn’t finished. On the bright side, I didn’t run a Kickstarter for it. On the down side, I would have liked to be a lot farther along than I am at the moment. Writing a significantly different kind of roleplaying game turned out to be quite hard and a lot of work; who would have thought it?

Still, I have made some progress this year; quite substantial progress, in fact. I have a basic set of mechanics that seem to work quite well, and have an obvious way to incorporate facts about Shinto into the game. It’s now a matter of writing the material so that there is enough to play with, and getting people to try it again. I think this version will work better than the last one, but only a playtest will tell. So I need to get it to that point.

With that in mind, I have been considering a change in strategy. Actually, this is something I’ve been considering on and off for a long time. The problem is that I am designing a new kind of game about material that is almost completely unfamiliar to my target audience. Even people who know a lot about Japan tend to know relatively little about Shinto, and the details of rituals and matsuri that are important in Kannagara are a mystery to the overwhelming majority of Japanese people. I periodically wonder whether trying to do both of these at once is too ambitious. That is, it might be better to use a different setting, one more accessible to English-speaking gamers, to get used to the mechanics, and then write Kannagara.

If I did that, the setting would be completely invented, because part of the problem is working out how to fit real-world things into the game system in a respectful and informative way. With a completely made-up setting, I don’t need to worry about that. What’s more, there’s a game that I’ve wanted to play for years, decades, in fact. That is the “School of Magic” game. I think this goes back, ultimately, to reading A Wizard of Earthsea when I was about ten years old; in specific game terms it goes back to reading The Principalities of Glantri in my teens. The thing about the game that I want to play is that it is about learning magic and discovering magic, not about killing monsters in the tunnels under the school. I have yet to find a rule system that supports this. GURPS will let me create the characters, but does not really support the game, not even with the supplement on schools that came out recently.

The mechanics I have written for Kannagara would support that game. I could make up the magic system and the school system to work well with them, and “School of Magic” is a sufficiently well known trope that I would expect the game to be accessible to many gamers.

Eventually, I definitely want to write both games, because they are both games that I have wanted to play for years. The question is which to write first. I haven’t decided yet, and I will keep moving Kannagara forward until I decide definitively to work on the other one, but I may switch tack early next year.

Liberalism and Diversity

Recently, I have come to think that I have been confusing two desirable situations when thinking about tolerance, diversity, and liberty. Here, I will refer to them as “diversity” and “liberalism”, not because I think that is how the words are generally used (I think a lot of people confuse them), but because I think these words fit the respective situations quite well. Both concepts apply primarily to societies, and to individuals insofar as they support that kind of society.

A diverse society is one that approves of a wide variety of people and lifestyles. The opposite of a diverse society is a uniform society, which only approves of a narrow range of people and lifestyles.

A liberal society is one that tolerates people and lifestyles of which it disapproves. The opposite of a liberal society is a repressive society, which attempts to suppress people and lifestyles of which it disapproves.

As should be clear from my choice of labels for the positions, I think that a diverse, liberal society is the best, and that a uniform, repressive society is the worst. However, once written like this, it is also clear that these two labels are, in theory, completely independent. Diversity and uniformity are concerned with the range of things of which a society approves, while liberalism and repression are concerned with its attitude to the things of which it does not approve. Thus, a diverse, repressive society and a uniform, liberal society are both entirely possible. I think merging the two ideas makes it hard to see this; at least, it made it hard for me.

Let us be a bit judgemental. A uniform society is evil, just because it only approves of a limited range of options. Thinking about sexism makes this particularly clear. Being a full-time mother is not a bad choice for a woman. In fact, I would say that it is a very good choice. There is a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved, and such a woman is likely to make a large, positive contribution to the well-being of a number of people, not just her own children. Traditional gender roles are not an evil because they force women to do something bad, because they do not; they are an evil because they say that one good thing is the only thing that women should do. On the other hand, a diverse society is good. It allows people to choose from a wide range of good lives. Women can stay at home and raise their children, or they can become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Naturally, only the extremes are clearly good or evil. A society that gives women a dozen choices is clearly better than one that gives them only one, but not as good as one that gives them a hundred. We might be forced to say that societies in the middle are neutral.

Liberal and repressive societies should be described with different terms, so that we do not reinforce the confusion. A liberal society is chaotic. People are permitted to do things of which society does not approve, so plans for society keep getting disrupted by people doing things that society would prefer them not to. I suspect that it is not possible to produce a beautiful society in a liberal society, because someone will build an ugly house in the middle of your historic area, or insist on wearing hot pink to your goth gathering. On the other hand, a repressive society is lawful, because people only do what they are supposed to do. There may be a wide range of things to choose from within that, if the society is also diverse, but society only permits the options of which it approves. This means that you can have a diverse, yet beautiful, society. There can be many kinds of flowers in the garden, but you exclude the weeds. In a liberal society, almost anything is allowed to grow, so your ability to create any sort of pattern is very limited.

In a liberal society, people are willing to let people do things that they disapprove of, and that they think are bad. As long as they do not cause too much harm to other people, they are left alone, although other people may try to avoid having too much to do with them. Hate speech is a good example in Japan. We recently completed an interview survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki, and the general attitude of the Koreans to hate speech was that they didn’t like it, and would rather it didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t be stopped, because people have various opinions. They just wanted to avoid getting caught up in it. That is a very good example of tolerance in its pure form: they disapprove of something, but do not want to take active steps to stop it, as long as they can stay away from it.

In a repressive society, people are not willing to let people do things that they disapprove of. I could argue that this is an important source of the culture wars in the USA. Neither side is willing to let people do things of which they disapprove (practise homosexuality, or preach orthodox Christianity, depending on which side you mean). It is true that one side is typically called “liberal”, and uses arguments about toleration, but in the terms I’m using here, they are diverse, not liberal. The other side is typically neither diverse nor liberal, however, so if I have to pick one side or the other, it’s easy. However, while the choice between “uniform and repressive” and “diverse and repressive” is indeed easy, neither is my preferred option.

Indeed, if asked to rank “diverse and repressive” and “uniform and liberal”, I would have to say that “uniform and liberal” is better. No matter where your preferences are in relation to wider society, you can at least live according to them in a liberal society, whereas in a diverse and repressive society, you are in trouble if you fall outside the charmed circle of societal approval. A diverse and liberal society is better than both, of course.

The distinction between approval and toleration may not be entirely clear, so let me use homosexual relationships as a concrete example. A society tolerates homosexual relationships if they are legal, and if they are not generally treated as grounds for refusing employment, housing, or services. They are welcomed and approved of if homosexual relationships are portrayed positively in the media, and the law recognises gay marriage. It should be obvious from this why I think a diverse and liberal society is better than a uniform and liberal society; it is clearly much better to be gay in a society that approves of your orientation than in one that simply tolerates it.

This is not to say that diversity and liberalism are easy. Liberalism requires us to tolerate things that do small amounts of damage to other people, on the grounds that the damage is less serious than that inflicted by suppressing the behaviour. However, drawing the line is hard. It is, to me, obvious that we should tolerate comedians who insult, mock, and belittle [insert group name here]. We can disapprove and criticise (remember, that’s what “tolerate” means, as opposed to “welcome”), but we mustn’t try to silence them. On the other hand, if that comedian stands outside a school for children from the target group with a massive sound system every day, that’s much harder. To take a different case, people should certainly be allowed to make the claim that abortion is murder, and strongly criticise anyone who is involved in abortions, but should they be allowed to constantly picket abortion clinics? There has to be a limit, and liberals have always recognised this, but deciding on where the limit has to be is a very hard problem. It is hard to specify the standard by which we should decide, and hard to apply that standard to actual cases. Even worse, the hard cases are common in real life.

Diversity has a very similar problem: drawing the line around the things society approves of. If approving of more things is good, one can always ask why we should stop here, wherever here is. Liberals in the US are typically dismissive of the argument that allowing gay marriage will lead to the acceptance of polygamy and bestiality, but that argument is aimed at this problem. Diversity is good, so we should approve of homosexuality. But then, why shouldn’t we approve of bestiality as well? Diversity is good, right? Indeed, there is a substantial group of people (the poly community) who do think that the next step after allowing gay marriage should be to allow polygamy, because they want legal recognition of their relationships, as well. Should society approve of them? Just as with the line-drawing problem for tolerance, the far extreme is approving of people who rape and murder for fun, so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.

In a diverse and liberal society, this problem is mainly intellectual. People who get put outside the charmed circle can still pursue their lives as they wish to a great extent and campaign for change if they wish, and society asks them to tolerate the unaccepting attitudes of most people, just as most people tolerate their behaviour. Things are not symmetrical, but they are not obviously inconsistent.

However, in a diverse and repressive society, things are harder. There are people who do not approve of the things that society approves of, and society is demanding that they be tolerant. For example, conservative Christians do not approve of homosexual relationships, and society demands that they be tolerant: that they not treat homosexuality as grounds for discrimination in employment, accommodation, or services. However, society itself is not tolerant. It does attempt to repress the things of which it does not approve, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. Conservative Christians agree with society on some of these points; most of them think that sexism and racism are wrong and should be suppressed. On the other hand they, quite reasonably, do not see why they should put up with things that they think are wrong when society as a whole refuses to put up with things that it thinks are wrong. The result is likely to be a culture war.

In the context of roleplaying games, this distinction allows me to articulate exactly why I have a problem with the SJWs. They are pushing, energetically, for a diverse and repressive society. They put a lot of energy into increasing the diversity of RPGs, by actively seeking out authors who are not WhiCH American men, and by increasing the range of characters portrayed (positively) in games. On the other hand, they also put a lot of energy into trying to suppress things that they don’t like, such as chainmail bikinis.

I am entirely, 100%, behind the push for increased diversity. I am also entirely, 100%, opposed to the push to suppress certain games and elements in games. I think it is at least as important to stand up against the repressive side of the campaign as to stand up in support of the diverse side. However, the polarising rhetoric doesn’t leave space for four sides in the battle. This is odd, because roleplayers should have the conceptual tools ready to hand; indeed, I have already introduced them.

Diversity is good, uniformity evil. Repression is lawful, liberty chaotic. The SJWs are Lawful Good. They are paladins, the classic social justice warriors. I am Chaotic Good. I am happy to work with paladins, although I will work to channel their energy into promoting good, rather than law. Sometimes, we will get into arguments. And I think that, sometimes, it is very important to distract the paladin.

Harae

Today, I have had time to work on the game, and it felt very productive. I did two main things.

First, I tweaked the mechanics in an attempt to deal with the problem of near-redundant statistics I noted a few weeks ago. I think this approach will work, and make the rules significantly simpler, but I need to let it sit for a while and come back to it.

Second, I started working on actual content for the game. I have started by working on the mechanics for harae. I have a good way to fit harae into the game: in order to perform a matsuri while they have kegare, the personae must perform a full harae. This fits with Shinto practice, but also means that there is a solid game reason for the activity. If the personae have no kegare, then the harae will be a purely formal part of the matsuri, background colour with no game mechanics. If, on the other hand, they do have kegare, then the harae serves a clear game-mechanical role, which is important.

Because harae is a ritual, there are two stages. First, the personae must create or discover the ritual, and next they must perform it. Today, I was working on the rules for creation. Part of this was entirely generic, within the ruleset, and that was a good thing, because this is the very first part I have written to be generic. I got the feeling that it is going to work, and that things are going to fit together. This is a very good thing, although that sort of feeling can, alas, be wrong.

The other part was more specific, incorporating aspects of real-world harae rituals into the game. And it was easy. There is an obvious place for them, with in-game meaning so that they are more than just colour. I started plugging them in, and this is the sort of mechanical fiddling that I enjoy doing. I do need to work on how to fit them in somewhere else as well, but this is a very good start. I think I need to include more detail than my first write-up has, but that’s something for second drafts.

Once the rules for creation are done, I think the rules for discovery will be very simple, because they will be essentially the same. In the game, it doesn’t matter whether the personae get something by creating it or discovering it, after all. They would use different abilities, and there will be conditions on discovery that do not apply to creation, but fundamentally they will be extremely similar.

Performance will be different, but it offers potential as the other place in which I can include real-world elements with game effects. I still need to work on that, but I hope that I will be able to do that next week.

It is a little annoying that my other work, the work that actually pays, is having a busy period right now, because I think I’ve just got Kannagara out of initial development, and into the stage where I can seriously get on with writing it.

Core Mechanics

Today, I think I completed the rules framework for the game. It is nothing like the rules I described earlier on this blog, but it all hangs together nicely, and will, I think, support the sort of game that I want to design.

I actually have a track record of designing in this way. First, I do a lot of work on a particular design, putting in a lot of detail and making it quite usable. Then I throw it away completely, and start again from scratch. I did this on my PhD dissertation, where I wrote one 80,000-word dissertation every year, and had no words in common between the first and the last. I don’t think I even had ideas in common, other than the topic of the dissertation. I also did it a couple of times for sub-systems of Ars Magica 5th Edition, and I’ve done it for other gaming things I’ve written. I think I have to conclude that this is just the way I work. I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else, however. First, you should try working styles that don’t involve chucking months’ worth of work away.

I’ve also realised how much more I have to do. If we compare to Ars Magica, the current state of the rules is as if I had the core rules for Ars Magica, for Abilities, Arts, and Laboratory work, but did not yet have the Ability list, Arts list, spells chapter, or much of the Laboratory chapter. Of course, the background chapters don’t exist yet either. If we compare it to writing a setting for Pathfinder, I’m currently some way before the point at which you start work, because I don’t have any character classes yet. (There are not going to be character classes in Kannagara, but I’m missing the equivalent things.)

The remaining work should, however, be the sort of rule tinkering that I really enjoy. As long as this set of rules don’t fall apart under pressure as well, things should start moving forward nicely. I do have a fair bit of confidence in the rules this time, though, because they worked in the simple playtest, and they can easily incorporate a whole bunch of things that I really wanted to include, but couldn’t see a way to handle before. I might even be able to work effectively with smaller chunks of time.

Of course, the progress here depends on time available. Designing Kannagara does not immediately pay, so it has to cede priority to things that do. In addition, last week I took the week off because my local jinja had asked me to write them an English pamphlet, and that had also been pushed back by other commitments for far too long. However, I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off; both activities are about presenting Shinto in English, and the pamphlet for the jinja will have a more immediate impact than Kannagara. The leaflet is basically done, now, so that should not be a distraction any more.

I’m really hoping that the next few weeks will be calm, and allow me time to work on this.

Increasing Diversity in Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying

At the time of writing, Andy Kitkowski at Kotodama Heavy Industries is running a Kickstarter for the English translation of Shinobgami, a Japanese role-playing game about ninja battles. (You still have time to back it!) In the description, he emphasises that he has recruited a very diverse array of authors, including many from outside the USA, to work on expanding the game. Given that I have previously complained about the interpretation of “diversity” as “multi-colored Americans”, you would think that I’d be over-joyed about this. However, it still made me a bit uncomfortable, and that led me to think about why.

When it comes to writing in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, I am in a privileged position. I have written for just about all of the major companies, been Line Editor for an important RPG (Ars Magica) for 14 years, and won both an ENnie and Origins Award. Nevertheless, I think my concern is based on my experience.

The reason given for increasing the diversity of writers in TRPGs (table-top, as opposed to computers) is that it is good to increase the range of voices in the industry. Nobody is foolish enough to suggest that it will directly improve the overall social position of minorities; indeed, given that TRPG writing is socially and economically marginal, you could argue that minorities should be actively discouraged from getting involved, because it would only reinforce their marginality. However, being hired by a company run by white dudes does not, in fact, let you speak with your own voice in the industry.

This is true even if you are (like me) a white dude. Ten years ago, Green Ronin hired me to work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, so I was very happy to get the job. However, as I worked on it, and read Blue Rose, which Green Ronin released around the same time, I realised that I would much rather have been working on the latter game. The darkness and cynical violence of WFRP was not really the sort of thing I wanted to write, and the much more optimistic and hopeful tone of Blue Rose suited me much better. Nevertheless, I had signed on to write WFRP, so that’s what I did, and it was a very good experience, as well as the realisation of a teenage dream.

Further, a little earlier I became Ars Magica Line Editor, something else I had dreamed of as a teenager. (I have a good record of my teenage dreams coming true; dream medium size!) You might think that, as Line Editor, I would be able to do exactly what I wanted with the game. That was certainly true to a much greater extent than with WFRP. Ars Magica is now a lot closer to the sort of game I really want to write than it was when I started, and it started pretty close. Even so, there is still a gap, and that is one reason why I am retiring as Ars Magica Line Editor, and working on Kannagara. The existence of the game’s history, and the requirements (minimal though they were) imposed by Atlas Games, meant that I couldn’t fully express what I wanted to say.

If this is true for me, someone who is almost as privileged as it is possible to be within the business (I’m only missing “American” to have the full set), then how much more true is it going to be of members of a group that has not had a significant presence in the past? They are presumably going to feel even less able than I was to challenge instructions from editors and publishers and take things in the direction they want.

In other words, if we really want to hear the voices of minorities in the TRPG industry, they need to be running their own companies.

Fortunately, this is a realistic approach. There does seem to be a tendency to assimilate the TRPG and CRPG worlds, but they are completely different. A member of a minority cannot simply found their own development house to produce the next Witcher. It is not practical. In TRPGs, however, anyone can found a publishing house, and put their work on DriveThru. That is enough to become what passes for a success in this business, if your work is good enough.

Thus, we should really be encouraging members of underrepresented groups to start their own companies, and helping them to do so. Hiring them to write our games doesn’t really solve the problem, and that’s what made me uncomfortable about Shinobigami.

However, that doesn’t mean my discomfort was justified. Writing TRPGs is not easy, and publishing them is even harder. Doing it successfully without any experience, or contacts, in the industry might actually be as hard as founding your own triple-A CRPG studio. As an initial stage, we should be helping people from outside the mainstream to get that experience, by hiring them to write our games. The experience of writing things that are not really what they want to say will no doubt help them to work out what they do want to say, just like it helped me. Thus, the conclusion of thinking things through is that Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing exactly the right thing. Translating foreign works is itself a very important way to increase the diversity of voices, and giving a wider range of people that first step up onto the ladder will work the same way in the long term.

Nevertheless, it is only a first step. If we start to think that this solves the problem, then I think we are making a serious mistake. What else should we do?

The first thing is that the industry should be supportive of new publishers. Fortunately, it is. I also see very little evidence of prejudice in the people who are supported, beyond the in-group tendency to support people who have contacts and a track record in the business. That, of course, is why it is important to increase the diversity of the people we are hiring. Furthermore, even if there are people in the industry with prejudices (which, statistically, is very likely), they are not in a position to deny access. A new publisher needs someone to help them, but does not need everyone to help them. Unless a campaign could be mounted to exclude them on the basis of their race, gender, or national origin, the existence of a handful of prejudiced people is unlikely to be an important, practical problem. And I cannot see such a campaign gaining any traction.

I do still have a reason for concern, though. People from historically excluded groups might be worried that they will face a campaign to exclude them because of what they want to say. Consider Tenra Bansho Zero, another Japanese game translated by Kotodama Heavy Industries. The portrayal of Shinto in TBZ is, of course, exaggerated and fictionalised, like everything else in the game. It is, however, an exaggerated and fictionalised version of a widespread misunderstanding of Shinto that its practitioners find deeply irritating, at best, and actively offensive, at worst. (I’m at the “deeply irritated” end of the scale.) This is an accurate translation of the portrayal in Japanese (actually, I’ve just checked the English translation to make sure it is the same, because I’ve only read the Japanese), and thus an accurate portrayal of the voice of the author, but there is a tendency in role-playing to criticise inaccurate and negative portrayals of religions that have not been historically dominant in Anglo-American culture, in quite vociferous terms.

Now imagine a Japanese author who wants to publish a TRPG set in African-American culture. (This is not, in fact, wildly implausible, as I understand it.) Those of us who read both English and Japanese, and are familiar with both Japanese and US culture, know that there is a pleasing symmetry between US portrayals of Japan and Japanese portrayals of the US. The chances that a Japanese TRPG portraying African-American culture would strike African-Americans as a nuanced and accurate depiction are slim to none.

We can consider an even more extreme case. Suppose that a Somalian author writes a game that reinforces traditional gender roles, portrays homosexuality as wrong, and gives mechanical penalties to female characters who have not been subjected to FGM.

In these cases, I think that a campaign could, and probably would, be mounted to exclude these voices on the grounds that “we” (members of the dominant culture) do not like or agree with what they are saying. This campaign would include calls for boycotts, and for the permanent ostracism of the authors, as well as personal attacks on the authors.

Now, people might object that, of course, it’s only when WhiCH (white, cis, heterosexual) men say that sort of thing that we need to get angry, but I don’t think they will. Even so, that is beside the point. Anyone who knows enough about the TRPG industry to have a realistic chance of being a successful publisher also knows about this tendency. They know that its targets are a little hard to predict, but that there are particular groups whom it is very risky to portray in a way that they do not like, and that writing about anything other than what this public regards as “your” culture is dangerous. These people, whom we want to bring new and different voices to our industry, do not have the backing and confidence to take on such a backlash, by definition. If someone has enough confidence to take on a large scale internet backlash, they have enough confidence to break into TRPGs without any help from anyone, with trial and error and sheer dogged persistence. The people whom we ought to be supporting will be intimidated by the possibility of such a reaction to their work.

Right now, I think this is the biggest obstacle to increasing the diversity of voices in TRPGs. A diversity of voices will, naturally, want to say a diversity of things and take diverse positions, but there is a strong movement to only accept new voices if they say what “we” think they should be saying. There are other obstacles, but a wide range of people are working hard to reduce them. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people are actively working to make this obstacle bigger.

There is room for a debate here. Maybe diversity is less important than ensuring ideological correctness. As you might guess from the way I chose to phrase that, I don’t think so. I think that we should be working to make the hobby more tolerant of a diversity of opinions, including opinions that we, personally, find unpleasant and offensive, because people from other cultures are extremely unlikely to share all of our opinions on anything. I do not think that it is obvious how we should respond when we strongly disagree, but I do think it is obvious that we should not respond by threatening boycotts and attempting to exclude people from the market.

My conclusion, then, is that I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about what Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing. It is an essential step in opening up the TRPG hobby and industry to genuinely diverse voices, and when that step has been taken, I think that we already see a lot of the support necessary to make that diversity a reality. However, if we want the hobby to be genuinely inclusive, we need to find a better way to deal with people with whom we strongly disagree.