Wednesday, March 11, 2015

50 Shades of Race

You all know the story behind Fifty Shades of Grey? Not the plot of the book...I don't even know that (something-something happy bondage couple in love, I think). No, I'm talking about the story behind the writing of the book. The author was a fan of the Twilight books (another series I haven't bothered to read) and started posting on-line fan fiction about the characters in sexy situations. That ain't all that unusual...plenty of on-line fan fic featuring non-canon sexuality between characters out there. What IS unusual is that the author took it a step further, "filed off the serial numbers" (anything recognizable as characters from the original IP) and self-published her fiction.

Okay, maybe that's not too unusual; the fact that the author made millions upon millions of dollars doing it and was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World (2012) is the really strange bit.

Anyway...I don't bring this up because I'm planning on publishing any fan fiction myself anytime soon (my fiction writing is terrible...I mean really, really bad. And there isn't all that much of it anyway). I'm thinking about it because of this Pendragon-Game o Thrones thing.

[yes, I really need a nice, succinct name for this project. I was thinking "Westeros," but I wanted to call it something that wouldn't involve folks contemplating "Easteross" and "Southeross" (or whatever it is Martin calls his other continents). Calling in "Game of Thrones" or "A Song of Ice and Fire" are, of course, right out of the running. And it seems silly to work on a project called "Seven Kingdoms" when I just published a work called Five Ancient Kingdoms. When I've got something good, I'll let y'all know]

*ahem* AS I was saying: I was thinking about "the project" and how to divide up the "world" (in this case, limited to the Westeross continent) in the same way that Pendragon limits itself to England (more or less), when I realized just how damn white this pseudo-fantasy world is. Again.

The Northlands: shaggy-haired, Cimmerian-style white people.
The West: blonde-hair, rich white people.
The Riverlands: red-haired, nice guy white people.
The Stormlands: black-haired, warlike white people.
The Reach: wavy brunette, savvy white people.
Dorne: hot-blooded, Mediterranean white people.
Iron Islands: grey-clad, Viking-style white people.

And of course the Targaryens: weird, platinum-haired white people with dragonblood (or whatever). Knock-offs of Melnibone or High Numenor or Ancient Atlantis or whatever...they're still just white people with magic and a taste for incest.

Now I realize that Pendragon is a white-whitey-white-white game ("green knights" aside) by design (it's based on literature written by white people for a white audience). I realize that Martin's main inspiration for his saga was the English War of the Roses which featured a lot of 15th century white people killing each other. I further realize that Martin's world does include "people of color;" they're just not found in the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, which is kind of my whole point of adapting a Pendragon game to the setting (i.e. to use the neat saga system found in Pendragon for a non-Aurthurian campaign).

The only "person of color" in Pendragon.
Why does it matter, by the way? Because a while back I was reflecting on my white privilege and made a decision to make a real conscious effort to not make/create/play games that take their whiteness as "a matter of course." Pendragon has a reason for being what it is, and that's "fine," but I don't need to remake (or knock-off) Pendragon AND proliferate its default stance on race. I mean, why bother, when there's already plenty of games already taking that stance?

[and why don't I just want to play/run Pendragon "as is?" Well, strangely enough, I kind of wanted a setting that was more inclusive...specifically with the idea of female warriors and female "lords"...and Martin's setting does have that. It shows a model of how to "do" it while still paying attention to all those "family concerns" (real, historical concerns that are conspicuously lacking in other games like, say, D&D) that Pendragon does so well. And, oh yeah...there are plenty of non-heterosexual movers & shakers in Martin's books, too...which is a good thing]'ve got this nifty fantasy setting filled with armored knights and weird magic and that's (fairly) unconcerned about breaking the traditional sexual and sexuality taboos of medieval European fiction...and then you populate it with a bunch of white people who are mainly distinguished by hair color. Really. Not all of the families are "all bad" or "all good;" there are honorable and kind-hearted people to be found in ALL the Seven (Nine?) Kingdoms of Westeross. And villainous scum, too. And incompetent imbeciles and well-meaning types that make stupid mistakes. The whole range of humanity. They just happen to all be of a caucasian persuasion.

*sigh* Anyway, that's what got me thinking of the 50 Shades book. Maybe I need to make my own version of Westeross, where houses come in different ethnicities. I mean, I'd have to redo it from the ground up, just like Ms. James (I don't think the characters in her books are still "shiny vampires," though perhaps I'm mistaken). I couldn't just say, "okay, the Lannisters are all black" because...well, obvious reasons, duh. And I can't make 'em the stupidly naive (if O So Honorable) Starks, either. Or the Baratheons, for that matter (it's so much easier to hide a mysterious bastard's parentage or the product of an incestuous relationship when everyone's got the same skin tone).

Ugh...white folk problems. I know there are tiny violins playing all over the world for my addled brain.

Okay...more regarding actual game-related design issues later (as the current project-of-the-week continues)!
; )


  1. Rather than changing the ethnicity of the medieval europe setting, I would recommend making some compelling reasons for different ethnicities to be present. Like a version of fostering or maybe some kind of powerful guild or organization that brings different ethnicities into the setting.

    1. @ Pierce:

      Not a bad idea, and I'm already toying with some "fostering" ideas in order to allow PCs from different houses to "adventure together" (consider Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon growing into knighthood together as fosterlings of John Aeryn, for example).

      Regarding ethnicity specifically: I'm considering simply using Pendragon personality traits/virtues/passions to be determined by house (or region), and allowing individual tables to determine what ethnicity belongs to which...really, there's no need to stick to Martin's canon if you don't want to.
      ; )

    2. Cool. I was thinking along the lines of like, creating some far away lands with the equivalent of houses- Like somewhere far to the East is a "Japaneseque" Empire with several great houses, and they trade with Westeros and send their sons and daughters to foster. So you don't HAVE to mess with the canon if you don't want to, just like adding to it. If done right it could really enrich the setting I think. It could add ANOTHER layer of political intrigue.

    3. @ Pierce:

      Hmmm...if I was doing something kind of "Land of Five Rings-y" I'd want to do a LOT more research.

      If you're interested in Japan-esque madness, start nudging Lord Gwyd to finish baking that Chanbara project of his.
      ; )

  2. Change the setting to Atlantis. Make it the cradle of humanity... all of humanity, including a couple of "lost races." Borrow some stuff from Theosophy (a la Burroughs and Howard).

    Each from the beginning was found in one region of the island (big, continent-sized island).

    White folk in the temperate north.

    Brown fold in the Mediterranean east (including Amazons).

    Red folk in the Mediterranean west.

    Black folk in the tropical south.

    Yellow folk on islands to the east.

    Blue folk (big blue demi-giants) on islands in the cold north.

    Green folk (big blue demi-giants) in the deserts of the south-central lands.

    The five ancestors of the modern "races" are all somewhat intermixed at this time, especially along the borders, though many noble houses are proud of their "purity."

    Add in the forthcoming "Doom of Atlantis" as a campaign element...

    1. @ James:

      As a long-time fan of Atlantean lore (if not Theosophy specifically), I totally dig your line of thought, man. Though I'd probably leave out "blue and green" folk, as that sounds a bit TOO Burroughs (i.e. like his Martian books).

      Plus I'm not exactly sure what a mix of blue skin pigment and "normal" would look like in mixed marriages...sorry, it sounds a little icky to me (yes, yes...I've got prejudice against blue people).

      I want the "Doom of Atlantis" (or the "Fall of Old Valyria" or whatever) to have taken place BEFORE the events in play...there's enough blood-letting based on politics without mixing in spiritual breakdowns in society and natural disasters.

      That's for a different game.
      ; )

  3. Gah. Damn sugar high...

    "Brown folk"

    "Green folk (big green demi-giants)"

    "The five ancestral races of the modern "races""

    There, that's better...

    1. Figured you meant that.

      (very familiar with the ancestral race theory, BTW, both genetically and metaphysically. Probably wouldn't use a direct translation to this fantasy setting)

  4. I always wonder why folks often have dwarves as comedy scotts with norse/germanic names and elves that are either pantomime french harlequins or hippy tree huggers pretending to be native americans.

    Correct me if I'm way off but isn't the map of literary westeros itself a rough sketch of england blown-up and stretched?

    1. @ JD:

      I really haven't looked at it close enough to tell...the north sure seems a lot bigger than Scotland though (like Greenland or something).

  5. I always wonder why folks often have dwarves as comedy scotts with norse/germanic names and elves that are either pantomime french harlequins or hippy tree huggers pretending to be native americans.

    Correct me if I'm way off but isn't the map of literary westeros itself a rough sketch of england blown-up and stretched?

  6. I also recently picked up Pendragon and I really like it. I was surprised that it doesn't mention non-white knights. Especially since early Arthurian stories did feature non-white knights.

    I know of two knights who were people of color, Sir Palomides was a Saracen who some tales called the greatest of Arthur's knights. His stories date back all the way to the 13th century.

    Sir Morien was Moorish and his stories also date back to the 13th century.

    It's interesting that people living in the Middle Ages would have been less surprised by a black Arthurian knight that people of the modern age. But then, they also didn't consider white a race. Tell a 10th century Welshman that he was the same race as a Saxon and you'll end up losing some teeth.

    1. @ Fractal:

      Huh...I've never heard of Palomides or Morien, either (though I'm not huge on Arthurian lore).

      Considering the amount of research/writing that went to each of the cultures presented in Knights Adventurous (French, Occitain, Roman, "Irish," Pict, Saxon, Cumbrian, Cymri) it's possible that Stafford felt it would have been too much for two exceptional knights...especially considering the setting's scope (i.e. Arthurian England...there were no crusades into the Holy Land in the 6th century).

      Your point regarding "race color" is well taken..."culture" was a much more prejudice-worthy trait in Jolly Old England.

      Still, the problem I've got isn't with Pendragon...Arthurian role-playing is its own niche taste. It was Martin's setting that was giving me pause.