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The Importance of Options

Oh dear, it’s been a couple of months since I updated this blog. I have continued working on the game, but I’ve also had to start editing the final book for Ars Magica, so I haven’t had quite as much time to work on Kannagara.

The problem I’ve been working on recently is the problem of offering choices to players. I am a firm believer in the principle that a choice is only a real choice in a game if it makes a mechanical difference. If something is just colour in the way that a player describes her persona, it is not really a choice that the player makes. This means that the rule system has to support a wide range of options.

Pathfinder is a good example of a game that offers lots of choices. There are all the classes, to start with, and then the choices of feat at each level. All of these choices make a game-mechanical difference. One could even argue that Pathfinder has too many choices. Similarly, in Ars Magica, magi can choose which Arts to emphasise, and those choices make the magi very different.

These are examples of choices that make the character different. Kannagara incorporated part of that by having different abilities for doing the central activities of the game (discovery, creation, and growth), but I wanted to add some more options, so that personae could take different approaches to the same ability. Overall, these approaches should be balanced, but each should have advantages in a particular situation. I think I have the framework for that, pending writing up and playtesting.

The framework goes like this. Each activity has two abilities. One determines how many times you can do something, and the other determines how effective each action is. The overall effectiveness of the activity is determined, effectively, by multiplying the two numbers together, so neither activity is better than the other, and, at this stage, the choice makes no mechanical difference. However, each environment limits both the number of times you can do something, and the effectiveness of each action. Normally, one of these limits is significantly higher than the other, but either can be higher. Obviously, if you have a high maximum effectiveness per action and a low number of actions, a persona who can take a small number of highly effective actions will do better. A persona who could, in theory, take a large number of less effective actions can only take a few of them, and so will get a lower total. The reverse is true if the situation allows a large number of actions, each of low effectiveness.

Personae can choose to favour one approach or the other independently for each activity, which means that there are a lot of options for a persona.

Another kind of choice is choice of action, and the environment provides that; the personae can use different abilities to resolve challenges.

Finally, there is choice of outcomes. As I mentioned way back near the beginning of working on this project, I want to set things up so that the actions of the personae change the context for the final decisions. I think I have a way to apply that to every major activity in the game, with the added advantage that it will be impossible for things to come to a halt because of failed dice rolls. However, I haven’t quite got that worked out enough to talk about on this blog yet.

“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.

Racism in Japan

Actually, the content of this post would be more accurately described as “reflections on the results of a survey of experiences of discrimination on grounds of foreign nationality in the municipality of Kawasaki”, but that isn’t snappy enough for a blog title, and quite a lot of what I say will be directly relevant to consideration of racism in Japan.

First, though, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, the survey of foreign residents that the city of Kawasaki conducted has completed its first phase, and the results have been published in Japanese. As promised, I have translated the analysis chapter looking at discrimination, which I wrote, into English, and I am making it available here. You should really read that before reading the rest of this post, because this post is based heavily on those results.

Experiences of Discrimination among Foreign Residents of Kawasaki

The translation is separated from the blog post in this way because the translated chapter was peer reviewed, in the sense that it was looked at by the Japanese academics on the survey committee, all of whom are specialists in this field, and the wording was approved by the city of Kawasaki, in Japanese. This blog post is neither; it is just my opinions. One simple example: the report translation does not use the word “racism” at all, because I was asked to avoid the Japanese equivalent. This blog post will use that word, because it is, for the most part, what we are talking about.

The first thing I want to emphasise is that, despite the limitations of the survey, these results are based on responses from around 900 foreign residents of Kawasaki. They are, therefore, better than anyone’s personal experience when it comes to the big picture. These data are flawed, but they are the best we have at the moment, as far as I know. The biggest unknown is how far these results generalise to the rest of Japan. Kawasaki has spent 20 years trying to make the city easier for foreigners to live in, and one would like to think that those efforts have had some results. On the other hand, as part of the Greater Tokyo area, Kawasaki has a lot more recent foreign immigrants than other areas of Japan. More data would be ideal, and I will be giving thought to ways to convince other areas to perform similar surveys.

The biggest and most surprising result of this survey is that Westerners face at least as much racism as anyone else in Japan. This is not the conventional wisdom, and not the result I was expecting to get. It’s not even that the results for Westerners are low, but not low enough for the difference to be statistically significant. On the contrary, in many cases the results for Westerners are high, and occasionally that difference is statistically significant. In particular, the results say that you are more likely to be stopped by the police for “walking while white” in Kawasaki than to be stopped for “walking while Filipino”. That question is also one of the more objective questions on the survey. On the other hand, it also shows that you are much less likely to be stopped for looking foreign in Kawasaki than in Europe, and rather suggests that the reason police harassment of foreigners in Japan is not treated as a major issue is that it is, in fact, not a major issue.

A less surprising, but still interesting, result is that the level of discrimination in Japan is roughly comparable to that in Europe. Japan is certainly not significantly more racist than Europe, and thus is probably significantly less racist than the USA. The fact that a number of white people who have lived in Japan have a different impression can be explained by the previous result: white people suffer at least as much racism as other minorities in Japan, and if you’re used to “none”, this doubtless feels like a lot. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that, in the section for comments on what you think is good about living in Kawasaki, quite a few people, of various ethnicities, mentioned the lack of any experience of racism. There were more comments about the need to get rid of discrimination, but it is possible to live in Japan as a member of an ethnic minority for years and experience no racism. That is my experience, as it happens, but it is now clear that such an experience is far from limited to white people. My impression is that ethnic minorities in the USA do not have that chance.

That brings us to an important analytical point. This survey makes it clear that, when considering racism, Japan is not the USA. “People of colour” is not a useful category for the Japanese situation, as it distinguishes one group that does suffer racism from a group that mixes up the majority who do not with other groups who do. “White privilege” really doesn’t exist here. Further, racism is not an omnipresent part of Japanese society. Far too many foreign residents have encountered it, but a large number have gone for years without noticing it at all. The analytical tools and ideas developed for the US are unhelpful at best and misleading at worst when applied to Japan. I’m not aware of any useful analytical tools for the Japanese situation, but the research is at a very early stage.

I probably won’t be contributing to it much, because I’m on one of the official committees that will advise the city of Kawasaki on how to respond to these results. Thus, I’m likely to be too busy trying to improve the situation to spend much time analysing it. From that perspective, the most important result is the prevalence of racism in housing. It’s one of the very few areas that really looks worse than Europe, and it’s a serious issue. It’s also something concrete that the city can plausibly do something about. I would like to see the city pass an ordinance making it illegal to refuse someone accommodation purely on the basis of their nationality, but that might be a bit difficult to get through. At the very least, however, I think Kawasaki needs to push their existing program to reduce such discrimination with rather more vigour.

The city is going to conduct interview surveys to follow up on the questionnaire, and supplement some of its weaknesses. Indeed, we had the meeting to finalise much of the design of that yesterday. The interviews will cover racism, if the interviewees bring it up as a significant topic, and I hope that it will tell us more about the nature of the racism that people face here. In the meantime, I hope that these results will inform the debate about racism in Japan, and inspire other people to gather more data, in other areas, to build up an accurate picture for the whole country.

Note added November 2016: The results of the interview survey have been published, and I have, once again, translated my section of the report for my blog.

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.