“Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs

The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.

Let’s take an example I’m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who don’t know, I’ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and I’m in the process of naturalising.)

The important “racial” minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are “East Asian”. They disappear when “racial diversity” is being considered for an RPG. “Racial diversity” is used to mean “people from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhere”. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to “diversity”.

On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.

The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.

(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but women’s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of “more inclusive language”.)

I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.

So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be “no more Americans”. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.

Progress!

In the last week, I seem to have crossed a critical point with Kannagara. I now have a 6500 word draft of all the core mechanics, and I think they are both simple enough to be usable, and complex enough to support the sort of game I want to write. I don’t yet have anything I can share for playtesting, because the draft is too abstract. If we use Ars Magica as an example, the current draft says “You cast spells by adding a Technique and a Form together, then adding one Characteristic”, but it does not yet have a list of Techniques, Forms, or Characteristics.

(Obviously, that’s not at all how Kannagara mechanics work.)

The dice mechanic I mentioned earlier on this blog has gone, and so have most of the details of the proposed mechanics, but the basic thrust of the game is the same, and a lot of the concepts will be retained. The next step is to start preparing ability lists, and describing what they can do. This is also where I put concrete numbers on things.

While I was writing today, it struck me that these mechanics would also support the “School of Magic” campaign that I’ve tried to design in any number of systems, and never been able to do. I should really write Kannagara first, though.

Ars Magica and Kannagara

Today, Atlas Games publicly announced my retirement as Ars Magica Line Editor. It doesn’t take effect until the end of this year, and it’s been planned for about three years, but the public announcement is an important step.

What does this have to do with Kannagara? Well, the reason I am retiring from Ars Magica is that I have finished doing what I want to do with the game. Kannagara is (part of) what I want to do with role-playing games, but cannot do with Ars Magica. Obviously, Shinto cannot really be shoe-horned into Mythic Europe. Actually, that would be a very bad idea, given the way that the metaphysics of the game world are set up. Further, the rule structures I want to try out in Kannagara do not fit with the existing rules of Ars Magica. It is, from all perspectives, better to create a new game.

That process is moving along. I think I do have the rules for discovery now, and I’m part of the way through the rules for growth. (I’d like to say “half way”, but the second half normally turns out to be much more work than the first half.) When those are done, I need to create rules for creation that fit with all the other rules. I have vague ideas for how that will work, but the devil is in the details. I have no idea how long it will take to put together.

Once I have a new structure for everything, I’ll start talking about things in a bit more detail here. I’ll also be trying to set up playtests.

Not Even Resting

Kannagara is not dead. It’s not even resting. It’s just all been happening behind the scenes.

I know I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a long time, but I have been working on the game, along the lines I outlined previously. This has proved difficult.

It took me a while to identify the big problem, but I think I finally have. The structure I was working on was insufficiently modular. That is, it was not possible to make changes to one part of a scenario without changing the rest of the scenario to match, and each part of a scenario depended intimately on all the others. That made it impossible to write anything on a unit smaller than a single scenario.

That would have been bad enough, but as Kannagara is supposed to support long term development and growth, a “single scenario” quickly turned into a whole campaign. Designing something that large, all at once, with new mechanics, proved too difficult. If I can’t do it, then it will be impossible for other people to write for the game, or to design their own home campaigns. That, obviously, is a very bad thing. I had to find a way to make the parts of the game more modular.

I think I have now cracked this problem, at least for investigation and discovery. I have a set of mechanics that looks simple to use, and that will allow me to drop in any number of different things to be discovered. It still covers searching for evidence, and putting that evidence together to make a theory, even if you have some evidence that doesn’t fit. I have a straightforward way to deal with evidence that doesn’t fit, rather than having to design in the interactions between every possible version of the game world. It doesn’t involve complex mathematics, and normal persona statistics should stay in the 1 to 5 range, with 6 and higher for really skilled individuals.

As I have got a set of mechanics together today, tomorrow’s job is going to be putting something in those mechanics, and that something ought to be the first part of the demonstration scenario. If it all works out, I’ll move on to the mechanics for creation, and for interacting with other characters. That should be relatively easy, because I need to keep the same basic mechanical structure for all parts of the game. This is important to keep it easy to play, but also to make it easier to write.

I know this post is a bit vague, but I’m only part way through putting the first bit together. If I make progress tomorrow, I may have something a bit more concrete to post in the next week or so, but as it has been about six months since I updated the development job, I really felt the need to post something. Is my plan to finish something playable this year still realistic? I think so, but I’m not confident yet.

Choose Your Success

A lot of roleplaying games take the possibility of failure to be a necessary element of the fun. If you know that your characters will survive, where is the tension, the anticipation? That is the argument, but it has always had an attendant problem. If a character dies permanently, that player has nothing to do in the game until she creates a new character. Thus, permanent character death is always a difficult issue, and providing possible failures in which all the characters survive is not easy.

In Kannagara, personae are very unlikely to die, because the game isn’t about those sorts of stories. However, I have been working on the basis that the personae must be able to fail. I’m now less sure about this, and I think I might change it. The change comes from thinking about my experience of line editing Ars Magica.

In Ars Magica, magi are extremely powerful wizards, even when they have just completed their training. It is hard to create opposition with a realistic chance of defeating them, whether in combat or in scheming. Magi are not just powerful, they are flexible, and they can be subtle as well as direct. This means that, in an Ars Magica scenario, the question is not usually whether the magi will be successful. Rather, it is how they will succeed. Different approaches have different consequences, and take the saga in different directions.

Structurally, this has an important benefit for the game. It means that there are almost no choices, other than the players going on strike, that bring the game to a halt. The story always continues, and not always in ways that the players would have predicted.

How would this work in Kannagara? I haven’t worked out the details yet, but I don’t think I would reduce it to simply choosing the outcome you like best. Rather, there will be a basic success, which the personae can achieve without making any effort. This would come with problems for the future, such as strained relationships or missing items. Personae would be able to remove problems and add additional benefits, by using the abilities that they have. A certain group of personae might be unable to remove a particular problem, because none of them have the necessary abilities, but that is not a problem for the game. It just means that a future story will be about the personae dealing with that problem.

Since Kannagara has no GM, the players will also be describing the situations and the problems. The problems that come with a solution make good complications; something the personae do creates the possibility of an ongoing problem, and unless they resolve it, that problem is a lasting legacy of their actions. Nevertheless, the existence of a continuing issue in no way alters the fact that the personae have succeeded in resolving the primary problem.

This structure does mean that it matters what the primary problem of a scenario is. The primary problem has to be solved, while secondary problems might remain to cause the personae trouble in the future. This may be a feature, rather than a bug, in that it may make the game easier to play if every scenario defines a central problem, and each scenario ends when its problem has been solved. In the current introductory scenario, for example, the central problem would be “we are in a kamikakushi”, and the problem is solved when the personae get out.

As I continue to develop Kannagara, I will be looking at making success assured, but its consequences variable.

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.

Evidence, For and Against

This week, I did make some more progress on theories and evidence; I now have specific content for what happens in the draft scenario, and half of it is written up. I can see that this mechanic will be good discipline for people writing for the game.

In Kannagara, theories will define the world. The default assumption will be that the personae come up with true theories, but there will be rules for having the personae get the wrong end of the stick. (If I can manage it, there will also be rules for leaving things open, but I think that might prove to be impossible to run.) When the personae are wrong, the players define the world negatively, and most likely also determine which theory is true. Most setting fluff will, therefore, be in the form of theories that the personae could form.

The mechanics for theories involve gathering evidence, and then creating the theory. The evidence consists of specific, concrete things that the personae observe, and they should generally gather quite a bit before they come up with a theory. This means that an important part of the write-up of any theory is the evidence that the personae have for it.

This is good discipline because it enforces “show, don’t tell”. In Kannagara, you cannot just write that somewhere looks haunted. You have to give the specific observable facts that make the personae think that it is haunted. Further, it means that, for any theory, you have to give some thought to how the personae could figure it out. There are rules for making the jump from evidence to theory, so you do not need to fill in every step, but you have to have at least an outline of the steps. This is something that is often overlooked in roleplaying writing; the author knows the secret, and so just considers what happens when the players discover it, rather than concentrating on how they discover it.

If course, in Kannagara the author does not decide which theory is true. The players do that, in play. It would be bad practice to assume that the players will always reach a consensus on what the truth should be, so the rules need to make a decision.

This comes in two stages. First, the players can choose which evidence they discover, and each player can choose to discover evidence favourable to her own theory, and problematic for the other theory. If the players do not agree about the best theory, this will lead to ambiguous and confusing evidence, which is a good thing; real life is like that sometimes, and if the evidence found in the game were always clear and unambiguous, it would impair suspension of disbelief.

The next stage is the creation of theories. Each theory needs enough evidence to support it; there is a minimum amount of support a theory must have. However, the persona creating the theory also needs to incorporate the evidence against the theory. Incorporating this evidence means that the theory contains elements to explain it away. This does not support the theory, but if the persona does not incorporate that evidence, it weakens her theory. The amount of evidence a persona can incorporate depends on her knowledge of the field, so a more skilled persona can deal with a lot of negative evidence while still creating a strong theory.

The truth, then, is the strongest theory of those that have the minimum level of support. The evidence has an influence on that, but a very good theoretician could overcome a lot of negative evidence, as long as she had at least some positive evidence for her position.

Sometimes, of course, theories are wrong. Getting the theory wrong will be a form of complication, but complications are shaping up to be an important part of the game that need their own post.

A Bit About Theories

Things have been held up a bit by the need to work on other projects, but this week I’ve been able to make some more progress.

Today, I’ve been working on discovery. I’m now thinking of Kannagara as a roleplaying game of discovery, creation, and growth, so this is one of the three fundamental pillars of the game. As with the other parts of the game, the mechanics are likely to change from the first playtest draft, but the basic concept is the same. However, I am making changes even within the basic concept.

Because there is no gamemaster, and because all the players can read the whole of any scenario before they start playing, it is essential that the details of the background be determined in play. It must be impossible for the players to have their personae go straight to the answer, and the best way to make that impossible is to have them determine the answer in play.

This will work the same way as before: the personae will gather evidence, and then build theories on the basis of the evidence. Evidence that they do not choose to gather may not even exist. Some evidence could support more than one theory, although it might be better for one theory than for another. Other evidence might be strong evidence against one theory, without really supporting any rivals. The players would know in advance which evidence supports which theory, so they could choose to have their personae gather evidence that supports the theory they would like to be true.

If different players want different theories to be true, then they can discover different evidence. This will naturally simulate the reality that evidence is rarely clear and unambiguous. Evidence that clearly rules out a possible theory will be hard to discover, so that most players won’t want to do that. Each player can then try to support her favoured theory with the evidence. The theory that has the best support is the truth.

Within a scenario, this is relatively easy to do, although there are still a lot of details to work out. However, I would like this to work more generally. I would like to be able to provide theories and evidence in the supplements for Kannagara, so that players can choose evidence and theories from a supplement and put them together to build their own settings, rather than following a scenario. Of course, players can also create their own theories and evidence, but it looks like that will be a lot of work. If theories are modular, and can be put together in different ways, that will make things a lot easier for players. It will make things harder for me, but since I’m hoping to be paid for this, that’s not a bad thing. It means that players should be able to feel that they are getting value for money.

For the new playtest scenario, I am working on having at least two possible theories for personae to discover at an early stage, both to make the basic structure clear, and to give the players real choices. I have not quite got that fully worked out, however. I hope to be able to get the details sorted out next week.

Concrete Revisions

This week, I’ve started work on the new draft of the playtest scenario. Although the basic story is still the same, it’s going to be quite different in detail. For one thing, I’m over 3,000 words and I still haven’t got to the place where the previous version started. This is only to be expected, of course. One of the biggest criticisms of the last version was that it introduced too many ideas too quickly, and that people were expected to play personae before they knew anything about them. So this time, I’m taking things much more slowly, and introducing rule and background elements as close to one at a time as is possible. Obviously, because the whole system fits together, there are limits to how far I can do that, and some things do refer ahead.

One thing I’m noticing as I design this is how many conceptual parallels I can see with recent games. There are a things that resemble Conditions and Tilts from The God Machine Chronicle for the new World of Darkness, and things that resemble Aspects from Fate Core. I have things that are conceptually similar to moves from Apocalypse World or Dungeon World. I’m using cards and tokens to help with record keeping. There is no gamemaster.

This isn’t really surprising, as we are all working in the same environment, on the same problems. People should be expected to come up with similar solutions, particularly when they’ve read the other solutions and have them available. Of course, there are differences from all the previous versions, and they fit together to do something very different, but there’s clear continuity with recent game design trends.

Today’s breakthrough was part of persona creation. The mechanic lets the players define the persona’s personality, and gives clear mechanical consequences for it.

Each personality trait comes with four mechanical bits. One is an action that lets that persona gain musubi. Another is an action that other personae can do with that persona to gain musubi. The third defines a set of actions within which the persona can spend musubi on her own actions. (So, basically an Aspect from Fate.) The last one is a complication that can apply just to that persona. Three of them encourage that player to play along with the personality. One encourages other players to reinforce it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out.

Incidentally, in keeping with the general philosophy of Kannagara, all of the personality traits given as options are positive.

I think that the same mechanical structure should work for a lot of background traits, but background traits will also pull in abilities. Most likely, there will be minimum ability requirements to have a certain level of background. Since I haven’t written the part of the scenario that introduces abilities yet, I haven’t introduced this part of the background. Furthermore, since at least some of the possible backgrounds will be closely connected to Shinto, I need to introduce a lot more setting information before I can do that. Right now, however, things are progressing very well.

Fundamental Revisions

Today, I’ve made a start on the revisions to Kannagara based on the results of the first playtest. I’m looking at making quite a fundamental revision: I’m working on dropping the dice mechanic.

This is a bit painful, because I really like that dice mechanic. I think the probability distributions it gives have some very nice properties, and I think it would work very well for some games. However, I’m not convinced that it works well for Kannagara. I think it might create complexity in the wrong place. I’m not opposed to complexity in games, obviously, but it is important to make sure that the complexity is in the right place, supporting the mood and themes of the game rather than undermining them.

The only way to test this is to try putting the mechanics together without the dice mechanic. Fortunately, there was quite a lot of other mechanical structure in the first version of Kannagara, and I think I can keep nearly all of it. Gathering evidence, building theories based on the evidence, and creating things out of elements can all stay, as can different abilities. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m also looking at making heavy use of cards, and putting the various elements onto cards, so that players do not have to remember everything.

There was one big element that the dice mechanic brought to the game. That was the element of the unexpected. In my experience, this is an important part of the fun of roleplaying, and in a game with no GM the only way to introduce it is through randomisers. To retain this, I will still be using dice, but in a different way.

Whenever a persona gains kegare in the game, the player must roll a number of dice equal to the persona’s total kegare. If at least two of dice come up ‘1’, a complication arises. (Obviously, this means that a persona’s first point of kegare is safe.) Possible complications will be defined by the scenario, and by features of the persona. I think that a player will always be able to freely introduce a personal complication, but global complications will be a bit more involved. I think that they will come in ranks, and only a limited number will be available. The player can choose freely from the lowest available rank, but must have the agreement of all other players to choose from a higher rank. This is because the highest ranked complication will, in many cases, be the failure condition for the scenario. Choosing that early on would be what I believe is technically known as a “dick move”, but in my experience it is better for game rules to make it clear that you can’t do that. Of course, if that is the lowest available rank, then the player has to make the scenario fail, but that is a possible source of tension, and should only happen after a considerable amount of playing time.

As before, kegare will also increase the difficulty of matsuri, and I think it will have one further effect. I think that some actions will only be available to personae with less than a certain amount of kegare.

While working on this, I thought of a way to incorporate one of the more problematic traditional beliefs of Shinto, the belief that menstruation causes kegare. Players of female personae may declare that the persona is menstruating, and move any or all of the persona’s kegare onto the menstruation. That kegare then applies to matsuri, but to nothing else. It does not count against the limit for taking actions, nor does it provide dice to roll to see whether a complication arises. It does not count for harae, either; it cannot be removed by harae, and does not need to be for a harae to be effective in removing other kegare. The persona is effectively excluded from participating in matsuri, but can do things that create a lot of kegare without worrying. In longer scenarios, the condition goes away in a few days, like it does, and takes all its kegare with it. In sagas with strict timekeeping, the player then has to wait at least a couple of weeks of game time before using it again.

This may, in fact, be too good, in that it might mean that an all-female group would always succeed, but given the centrality of matsuri to the game I think it might be balanced. It is something for playtest, but possibly not the first playtest.

The other problem that came up in playtest, that of too much information too early, is very important. I’m addressing that by reorganising the scenario, but I’ve only just started on that, so I’ll go into detail next time, after a little more progress.