Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK would be...proud?

Today is our country's holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.; a great man who preached peace, brotherly love, and economic equality and social justice for all. As with his predecessors (Jesus, Gandhi, etc.) he was murdered for espousing these beliefs.

Why are people such assholes?

Today, I am celebrating MLK's birthday in my usual style...hanging out at home, drinking coffee, doing a little reading, a little writing. Yes, I am about as self-centered and lazy as the average person when it comes to enacting social change in the world (or even my own neighborhood). At least I went to church yesterday...maybe I'll get around to mailing the Washington Council of the Blind this check I promised 'em last month (the envelope is sitting on my kitchen counter). *sigh*

Back to the subject of MLK: my friend, Jon, knows I play (and write sometimes) role-playing games and still respects me. He himself has never played Dungeons & Dragons (or any RPG), though he knows what it is. He's only a few months younger than me, and grew up in Chicago...closer to the D&D Heartland than I ever was as a child. But he is much more of a "sports guy" than myself...probably something to do with being from a town that has two baseball teams and hockey in addition to the Bears and the Bulls...and in addition to talking NFL (he's a Seahawks fan these days), we see eye-to-eye on most of our political and philosophical idealogies, even if he is a damn atheist.

I asked him why he'd never played D&D, or if he was interested in gaming sometime and his response was something along the lines of the game being a bit too "caucasian-centric" for his taste.

[Jon, I should note, is caucasian himself...however, he is very deeply interested in promoting racial and ethnic diversity whenever possible. Call it a personal cause of his, in addition to promoting the Cubs]

I was a bit taken aback by this, but it is true that most everyone I've gamed with has been a whitey like myself. My wife is, of course, an exception but she's hardly what I'd call a gamer (she's played more as a favor to me than out of any actual interest in role-playing).

Now I'm sure part of this has to do with the town in which I live. Seattle has a significant non-caucasian population, and the African-American population is equivalent to the country's average (about 10-11%)...but the level of diversity here is nothing compared to other large cities in the U.S., like Chicago, New York, L.A., D.C., Cleveland, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Atlanta, etc. Yes, we have a larger percentage of Asian-American folks than some of these towns....but, you know, despite having many friends in high school and college who were of Asian ancestry, all the people with whom I gamed were white-white-white.

Not that non-caucasians don't role-play...I've seen them at the local conventions (in very, very small numbers...). And I would guess many "folks of color" have the same interest in fantasy and magic and swords and such as their pasty, European cohorts. It is fantasy, after all.

Still, at least out here in Seattle, there would seem to be an "under-representation" in the role-playing community. Other parts of the country? Well...

I am currently thumbing through my copy of Haven: City of Violence, an RPG from LPJ Design. LPJ Design is Louis Porter Jr., an African-American gamer, born in Chicago and currently residing in Florida. An independent game designer since circa 1997, LPJ has continuously put out material, both in print and PDF form, for 15 years. That's before D20 and the OGL made it easy for people to jump into the industry.

Haven: City of Violence is LPJ's first full-on RPG, now (unfortunately) only available in a D20 format (downloadable at RPGNow). My copy is pre-D20 and despite having the 90s penchant for extensive skill systems, there is a decidedly "old school" flavor about it. Indeed, Mr. Porter writes in the first sentence of his introduction:

"When I first started working on this game, I wanted to make a game similar to the old TSR role-playing game of the early 80's, Top Secret."

You can see the influence of Top Secret, right down to the cumbersome melee mechanics of that game's 1st edition, throughout the game system. Haven: COV models the ultra-violent, ambiguous morality tales that were so popular in the 1990s...Frank Miller's Sin City is the immediate reference point, but the Hong Kong action of John Woo and films like New Jack City and The Crow would also be influences. Haven is subtitled A Role Playing Game of Modern Violence and that theme is readily apparent in the tone, the setting, and the artwork found throughout the book. If anything, the game is more "mature" (as in "not for children") than even the sometimes-cartoony-inspirations on which it's based...but still, the thing is a bit over-the-top (which is par for the course with the RPGs of the '90s, if you ask me).

Unfortunately, despite its Old School influence, the system has the over-complicated nature I've come to loathe in most games of the last 20 years. Character generation is point buy and looong, which renders a game with high mortality rates a bit silly...same with the over-detailed combat system (the "example of melee combat" takes up close to four full pages of text). If I was still of a mind to play this type of ultra-violent modern game the setting isn't too bad (a pastiche of a variety of things, though well thought out), but the system would need to be stream-lined or discarded entirely for something quicker and easier.

Of course, I'm not as into this kind of thing as I once was (I don't listen to Nine Inch Nails anymore, either) and the "Evil versus Evil" thing seems, well, a little passe at this point anyway (i.e. anti-heros versus "real evil" has been done to death, in my opinion). Still, I've seen worse games, and for 200 pages (10% of which is an adventure, and much of which is devoted to artwork), the book feels positively "lean" compared to some of the bloated monstrosities found on the game shelves.

But that's not really the point of the post...the point is that there are people of non-white European ancestry working and gaming in the RPG industry, and while I may be a little geographically isolated, it's something to keep in mind when designing games. Interests can be similar (certainly I was looking for something like Haven: COV back in 1995), and despite disparate backgrounds, everyone is equal when it comes to the playing field of imagination (the usual arena for the table-top role playing game). the dream of Martin Luther King. Ha!
; )


  1. Tabletop RPGs are squarely in "stuff white people like" land. It's rare to see black folks at Gencon (been going for 10 years). Like 1 in 500 people, if even that.

  2. Thank you for a timely post on an important topic that few gamers take the time to contemplate, and about which even fewer really care.

    I attribute the persistently oppressive whiteness of the RPG community to the several historical factors:

    1. the almost total absence of nonwhite protagonists from the fantasy literature that inspired the hobby;
    2. the incredible paleness of the wargaming scene that spawned D&D;
    3. the fact that RPGs initially proliferated primarily through mostly Caucasian colleges and high schools;
    4. the rampant cronyism of TSR, which tended to recruit its employees from the kith and kin of a few white guys in and around lily-white Lake Geneva, WI.

    This perfect storm of albinism became self-perpetuating.

    I recall no depictions of nonwhite characters in TSR products of the '70s, and few from the '80s. Some of those depictions are regrettable, like the cannibalistic black tribesmen in Gygax's Isle of the Ape. (Just because the original King Kong inspired the module doesn't mean that the module had to reflect the racial prejudices prevalent in 1933.)

    Asian and Native American cultures received generally respectful treatment in Deities & Demigods and in Oriental Adventures--despite the regrettable title of the latter volume. Even in the '80s, at least in the Seattle area, people friendly with Asian Americans generally knew not to drop the O-bomb... had TSR conducted a little market research, they could have chosen a better title. WotC's decision to reuse the title in 2001 for 3e showed that nostalgic marketing continues to trump cultural inclusiveness in our hobby.

    But no one was excluded more thoroughly from the hobby than black people. Excluded not just by a relative lack of access to the income and education required to participate in the hobby, but also excluded by the choices made by the hobby's founders, because no sub-Saharan pantheons made the cut in Deities & Demigods, and because no module or campaign setting in the '70s or '80s attempted a respectful depiction of a quasi-African cultural area.

    As far as I know, neither WotC nor Pathfinder nor the Olde School Renaissance has done much to address the racial RPG Gap.

    Since our country's demographic destiny is to be majority nonwhite, the failure to market RPGs to those who are now racial minorities may ultimately rank among the most important causes of our hobby's likely demise.

  3. Pathfinder has a female black Halfling in a few illos. But overall not too much at all. But I'd say the all-white thing is far more pervasive than RPGs. Fantasy in general is that way. Look at all the great fantasy novels and how few non-whites are included. It's almost like authors think "you can't have a black elf!"

  4. What sucks about Brian MacKenzie's correct observation that there are few people of color portrayed memorably in early D&D is that, in the World of Greyhawk, there are actually few white people. In the Guide book from the boxed set, the various peoples are given general descriptions: the Baklunish are "golden-hued", the Flannae are "bronze-colored", varying from "a lighter, almost copper shade to a very dark tone which is the deepest brown", the Oeridians, by far the most common people among the civilized states, are described as "tan to olive". Only the Suloise, a people mainly relegated to the fringes of the Flanaess (except in the Duchy of Urnst and, maybe, Keoland, though some might consider that latter to be "fringe"), are fair-skinned, and even there some branches (the people of the Amedio Jungle and Hepmonaland) are "tan to brown with heavy freckling". If only the artists had paid attention to such details when creating their works.

  5. @ Fumers: That sounds about the same ratio I saw at Dragonflight out here.

    I'm not familiar with "stuff white people like" land...I mean most people like the stuff white people like, perhaps with the exception of certain films of English cinema ("The Remains of the Day," "Howards End," "A Room with a View," etc.).
    ; )

    @ Brian: Not sure how "timely" a post it is. If this is a rut for the gaming industry, we've been stuck in it for decades!

    Regarding wargaming: I think it's fair to say that few cultures celebrate their wars and martial history quite like Americans and Western Europeans. Sure the Japanese celebrate their bushido tradition in cinema and literature, but most other folks aren't quite as proud of their history of blood spilling...especially nations that were former European colonies (do people reenact battles from the Anglo-Zulu war?).

    It's funny that there are several notable black superheroes, in comics and cinema (Luke Cage, the Falcon, Spawn, the reinvented Nick Fury, Blade, Hancock) and several protagonists in SciFi fantasy cinema (Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly)...even post-apocalyptic characters (Fishburne in the Matrix, Denzel in The Book of Eli). Even in horror films one finds black protagonists...all settings that translate to fantasy RPGs.

    The ones who get the shortest stick are Asians (generally relegated to some sort of martial arts shtick) and especially Latinos who have like ZERO "heroic archetypes." I mean, Zorro was a white Spaniard defending the indigenous people of California-Mexico. Who's a kid going to aspire to be: Champolin Colorado?

    [actually, there is Kaliman...and maybe the odd luchadore]

    But then, the American idea of heroism doesn't always translate to a similar value structure in Latin America. Where's the family-oriented superhero anyway?

    @ George: Well, when you knock off European folklore, you get European protagonists. Too bad there isn't more fantasy based on other cultures.

    On the other hand, there's the issue of supply and demand not to mention, "write what you know." I'm sure I'm offending plenty of Scandahoovs with my "pseudo-Norse" campaign setting.
    : )

  6. Seela, one of the iconics of pathfinder: Also,

  7. @ Faol: Sorry...cross-post.

    Interestingly enough, when I played AD&D as a kid (ages 10-14) we used the World of Greyhawk as our campaign setting, at least in part, and we DID pay attention to the coloration of the various peoples. The main (human) play character of the game was dark (olive) skinned. My own PC was the only blonde caucasian...but then my character was a half-elf who had the hair and eye coloration of his grey elf father (see the description in the Monster Manual).

    1. Yeah, I probably should have touched on demihumans, but they're supposed to be unrepresentative. It's a swords & sorcery thing.

  8. @ Mandramas:

    And cross-post again!

    Yes, I'm aware of the iconic "characters of color" - in both Pathfinder and 3rd edition (Ember and Hennet). For what it's worth, I think Shadowrun has always done a fairly good job of including "fantasy races of color" as well, since racial types (elf, orc, etc.) are all just different types of "human" (and thus include all the normal human tonal variations).

    I think RPGs in general have done better at including non-white characters (in illustration and example) over the last 10-15 years...Vampire the Masquerade and White Wolf in general was one of the principles in this regard. However, just including illustrations has not been (to my knowledge) enough to attract people to the game...just as I'm guessing that it's not enough to DETRACT most folks from playing if they're interested.

    For example, there are plenty of women who (in the early days) were find and dandy playing D&D, despite a fairly chauvinistic bent to the artwork in the early days. They played IN SPITE of that, due to an interest in fantasy and role-playing. Now the artwork has somewhat caught-up to being politically correct and inclusive.

    There may be something more than just the image/portrayal of white bread heroes at work here.

  9. Mike Pondsmith of R. Talsorian Game is another example of non-white success in RPGs.
    I would also note that I was pleasantly surprised by the racial diversity in the core 4e books.

    1. Ha! Didn't know that...and I own SEVERAL of Mr. Pondsmith's games!
      : )

  10. Does Drizzt count as a person of color?

  11. Sorry I only got to read this post of yours JB (and the thread that followed thereafter). Reading this certainly gave me a lot of food for thought, so to speak. To be honest, being a non-caucasian asian gamer never really stopped me and my players from fully immersing ourselves in the hobby and enjoying it to the max. To us, it didn't matter that most of the artwork associated with the games we played predominantly portrayed caucasian characters. I attribute this to the attitude we adopted, being that role playing games take a lot from one's vivid imagination so if my players could imagine themselves as dwarves, half-orcs, vargr or some such creatures, it really did not matter if we were role-playing human characters who looked just like the white folk pictured in the artwork of our game books.

    I must admit reading what you posted did make me sit up and think. I'm all set to move out of my home in Southeast Asia to North America and take up residence there for good. While I always took it for granted that I will be continuing my gaming in my new home, I admit it never crossed my mind that I may find myself to be the only asian gamer in our gaming group to be (or in my neck of the woods, when the time comes). That said, I don't really expect this to be a problem for me.

    Thanks for the points you raised in your post - they certainly gave my a lot of reason to pause and do some thinking.