Dev Notes 18 - Roleplaying the Other

In my previous two Developer Notes, I have discussed assumptions that people have about both game settings and the writers of game settings. These are certainly among the barriers of entry that come up when players try to explain why they avoid “Asian-themed” settings, or indeed any fictional setting with real-world cultural elements that are not their own. But I think the biggest barrier lies in the assumptions of play. Yes, there are some pedants who believe it is their job to police what games are written, but we can easily ignore such folks. The people we really want to reach are the people who don’t think they can play realistic games as characters unlike themselves. So in this last installment, I want to address the idea of roleplaying the “other” - that is, playing as a character unlike yourself in a world unlike your own.


Of course, when I put it like that, suddenly it doesn’t sound so hard, does it? After all, our industry began with a game in which people played elves and dwarves and halflings (and later they would play orcs and half dragons and people with crystals for hair and so on). With the incredible variety of aliens, monsters, superheroes, and fantastic creatures that people have roleplayed for decades, why would it be so hard to pretend to be a human from a different part of our own world?


A completely familiar and relatable scene. It looks like my commute.


The answer to this is already there, actually. It is in the roleplaying that we all have seen and done, and it comes down to two major issues:


1 - We don’t actually roleplay real differences.

Most often, our choices for which fantasy race to play are made for purely aesthetic reasons (and sometimes mechanical ones) and not for any unique life experience that race offers. We might develop a backstory that taps into the flavor text for the race, but when we are roleplaying in the moment, most of us end up making very human decisions. We rarely make an effort to take on the drastically different attitudes and cultural norms of a fictional race, even though such things must exist. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we insert mores of ourselves into our roleplaying, making our character’s race or species largely irrelevant.

The most common counterexamples for this problem occur when a game system specifically calls attention to the issues inherent in the identity of the race or creature in question. The White Wolf/Onyx Path games do this with varying degrees of success. (For instance, most of the Vampire games I have seen and played over the years really do examine the nature of monstrousness vs. humanity, whereas most of the Werewolf games I have seen and played leaned more towards what I would call furry superheroes.) However, given the freedom to choose character race from a broad spectrum of possibilities in a game that does not specifically demand awareness of the differences between them, we rarely consider all the implications of our choice.

D&D 4E seemed to bring this problem out quite a bit in me personally. Among my characters were an Elven Avenger (king of rerolls), a Wilden Invoker (for the mechanical flexibility), a Warforged Runepriest (because I like automatons, as you may know), and a Githyanki Hybrid-class (just for giggles). I never went very deep into the racial implications of my choices - except perhaps with the Warforged, but that was because I had already begun writing Steamscapes at the time. I just went on roleplaying these characters how I wanted without really considering what it would be like to actually be, for instance, an anthropomorphic tree in a civilization made largely of wood.


2 - We paint fictional racial identities with a ridiculously broad brush.

Quick...describe anything about a dwarf besides height or facial hair. Did you point out that they live underground and work with metal? Now, name the most important character traits for Vulcans and Klingons. You said logic and honor respectively, right? But why do we always assume that’s all there is to dwarves, Vulcans, and Klingons? As much as we like to give the Star Wars universe a hard time for its portrayal of planets (and moons) with mono-ecosystems, many of us do the same thing with our alien and fantasy races. There are countless fantasy and sci-fi settings that distinguish internally between groups of humans but generalize to the point of absurdity when it comes to non-humans.


At least Endor has some trees with Ewoks, and some without.


Of course, the reason for this has been discussed at length in other places. Nevertheless, I will state it again here for clarity - fantasy and sci-fi races are far too frequently used as stand-ins for western stereotypes of non-whites (or even whites that are not Western European). This tendency pervades both our fiction and our gaming, and it makes it harder for us to question the generalizations we use for those fantasy races, but the more dangerous effect is that it feeds back and makes it easier for us to justify other racial generalizations. We are used to thinking “all dwarves are like this,” and that kind of dismissive categorization becomes a habit.


When these two factors operate together, it typically looks like this - I design my character to be of race X, but the things that make that race unique usually don’t come up. On the rare occasions that they do, it is because I am falling back on the most obvious traits and stereotypical assumptions about the members of my race. I am not trying to examine the life and experience of someone other than myself - I’m just trying to dress myself up in a costume to play and make jokes. It’s essentially a minstrel show.

But - and here’s the key issue - no one ever calls us on this when we’re playing a dwarf or an elf. There are no real Klingons who might be offended when we put on what might be described as “ridgeface.” Everyone knows that it’s all in fun...but only because those races do not actually exist.


And that’s where we run into problems with real-world settings.


Once we start thinking about playing a person other than ourselves who could actually exist, these seemingly harmless roleplaying habits (which frankly weren't all that harmless to begin with) become glaring flaws. Making grossly stereotypical assumptions about a character from the Underdark is very different from making such assumptions about a character from Vietnam. Likewise, inserting my own biases and experiences into a character from Baldur’s Gate is very different from doing so to a character from Delhi. Most people (I optimistically hope) do not like to see themselves as racist. On some level I think we all realize that these practices are indeed racist when applied to real people, and I believe our discomfort in roleplaying the other comes from our difficulty in escaping these problematic tendencies.


So what’s the solution?

Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that playing the other with respect and genuineness works similarly whether the other is a member of a fantasy race or a real person with a background different from your own. Start from a foundation of common personhood with a reasonable set of needs and wants, and then do a little bit of research and practice a little bit of empathy to try to place yourself in their shoes without imposing your own core assumptions. However, do not assume that your research can give you all there is to know - keep learning and be open to the fact that there are many things you don't (and maybe can't) understand about that person's life. But above all, focus on the idea that the experiences of the character - though different from your own - are equally valid and normal, not "exotic" simply because they are unfamiliar to you.

The bad news is that if you haven’t been doing this in your fantasy and sci-fi roleplay, you might have a hard time jumping in and doing it in a realistic setting. So maybe don’ least not right away. Try exploring otherness by really thinking about how to play your dwarf less stereotypically. Or try building a character outside your own gender and/or sexuality, not as a gimmick but as an honest attempt at understanding (maybe even try playing a game like Kagematsu). Start with settings that are familiar to you so that you have other anchors on which to rely besides a shared identity.

Most importantly, as long as you are aware of your own habits and flaws, then you are ready to try. You may very well slip up at times, and people might call you out on it. But that’s okay. No one can be expected to be good at something without a lot of practice, and this process may be particularly challenging for some of us. Just be honest with yourself and others, apologize when appropriate, and keep at it.


Good luck, and enjoy exploring!

-Fairman Rogers