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?
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.
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.
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.
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.