Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

A place to explore the races, cultures and beings of the Sea of Stars.

Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby rlyeh on 2nd Jul, 09, 09:55

Continuing the discussion from the Sea of Stars RPG Design Journal.
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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby Cripple X on 2nd Jul, 09, 22:57

Just to help discussion I'm going to paste all the comments posted so far here for ease of reference:

An interesting question and one I’ve explored myself.

There’s nothing more interesting to me than giving a thoughtful player, playing a good character, morally ambiguous choices.

What do you do with “little orc babies?” Have they already “learned” to be evil? Do you dash their brains out against the nearest rock? Or do you try to bring them up, like a certain “good drow,” in the path of the light? Which is “good” (for the player?)

The world is full of us-versus-them scenarios given to us by entertainment, the media, and politicians. I try to subvert that wherever possible.
by Russ July 1, 2009 at 11:20 am
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That’s a very good point, there …

I grew up in the UK, where the standard “evil fantasy race” was the Dalek, which is stretching the definition, I know.

But, from my understanding of Doctor Who’s history, I do know that the Daleks were alway’s and ever seen as — originally, anyway — representative of Nazi Germany. Something they’re somewhat left wing creator, Terry Nation, would have seen as evil.

I can’t help but think that any fantastical race is exactly the same, a symbolic representation of all we find objectionable.

However, I do know that in any game, TV shoe, or novel, the needs of the story is a factor in how we are entertained, and seeing a representative of a notionally “evil” race act against the races grain — I’m thinking of Seven Of Nine, in Star Trek; Voyager, here — is worth watching, as this may well tell us something of ourselves.
by Paul Downie July 1, 2009 at 3:36 pm
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I completely agree with you that the idea of “evil” races is completely ridiculous, but I think removing them doesn’t really do much to counter the notion. Why not leave in Drow, Kobolds, Orcs, etc. but have them be just like the other races in terms of their neutrality and motivations? Otherwise you’re suggesting that Orcs, Kobolds, Drow etc. must be evil and that you don’t want to deal with that, instead of portraying an “evil” race with the same fairness and balance with which the “standard good” races are portrayed.
by Bradley July 1, 2009 at 8:26 pm
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Because goblins, orcs and drow carry too much baggage. I would say that rehibilitating them within the context of the game would be a distraction from the player characters and their adventures. Besides, fighting evil dwarves, misguided elves and mercenary humans is just more interesting.
by seaofstarsrpg July 1, 2009 at 10:06 pm
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I can certainly see the reasoning there, at least in terms of a D&D player’s perspective. D&D moral absolutes might be hard to overcome for some folks. I always hated it myself.

It really seems like the problem you describe comes from the Gamist’s perspective that one traditionally sees associated with D&D. Those players that are more Hack-n-Slash oriented. A Fantasy game I’ve run in the past featured non-evil Orcs and I thought that went perfectly smoothly, it wasn’t a distraction in our game. None of the players seemed to have a problem with it at all. Those players were much more roleplaying oriented than hack-n-slash oriented. It just seems to me that the players who’d be distracted are the one’s looking for things to smash, not the ones interested in a strong, story or character driven narrative.

That’s just my two cents though.
by Bradley July 1, 2009 at 11:18 pm


My last comment really got me thinking about playstyle and how that relates to game tone. Honestly it seems to me that D&D's, in my opinion, overly simplistic and unsatisfying take on morality simply exists to facilitate a more Gamist approach to the roleplaying hobby. It simply says "Oh, its totally okay to smash this creature and I shouldn't feel bad at all." Perhaps the target audience of D&D simply doesn't care about the implausibility of an ontology of utter moral absolutes. If that's the case then such a player would not even bother to worry about the problem at all and probably a lot less likely to engage in a game where the problem was at the forefront of play and thef interaction of characters. Thus, it would seem that the potential for distraction due to the existence o races which don't fit their paradigm would not be a problem at all because a player who would be distracted by such a thing would not even be inclined to play a game in which such a thing were likely to occur. Does that make sense at all?
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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby rlyeh on 2nd Jul, 09, 23:33

While D&D is built on moral absolutes (objective good and evil), the 'real' world is rarely so clean cut. Which is why the Sea of Stars setting dispenses with the alignment system. Many players like simple, clear morality and there is nothing wrong with that. But I think you can have that without having to allow races that are just "conscious free" punching bags (or bags of XP, depending on your players).
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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby Zergplex on 3rd Jul, 09, 23:06

I don't think 'rehabilitating' them is necessarily the goal. Giving the 'evil' races their own IDENTITY is the goal. When a racial identity is evil for the sake of evil, that is a problem. When a races identity conflicts with another race in a reasonable way, that is a good story.

For some examples; Orcs are in essence 'evil barbarians' in normal D&D. In other settings Orcs may be more closely associated with nature, and the conflict between humans and orcs in that setting is more of a commentary on the battle between nature and civilization. This sets up conflict between the races, while not having black and white 'good vs evil'. Remember, every (sane) antagonist believes he is the hero. He is just a hero for the other side.

The best story isn't the story of a villain and a hero. It's the story of a protagonist and an antagonist. Both are heroes in their own way, and their conflicting ideologies are the basis for many stories worth of realistic conflict. Hell a good antagonist could be an amazing protagonist in another game. For the anime fans out there Gundam is a good example of antagonists that are heroes as well, Char Aznable from the original Mobile Suit Gundam as well as Zechs Merquise from Gundam Wing are great examples.

One series of games I once ran followed two character and their conflict;

Garun: An orcish shaman (actual class was barbarian, but flavored as a shaman to his people) who defends the holy forest of his ancestors. His holy forest is the birthplace of the covenant the spirits made with the orcs and desecration of this place would destroy that bond.

Tristan: A human knight who's kingdom is in the middle of a severe famine. Crops refuse to grow. The soil of the holy forest has magical properties that allow the plants to grow, and Tristan is sent to clear out anything from the forest and take wagons of the soil back to his kingdom to save his starving people.

Every player made 2 characters, one on each side (as well as the players of Tristan and Garun). Each game we switched which characters we were running and responded to what happened in the other game. It was an amazingly in depth game (pitting players against themselves was amazing, made DMing a breeze *grin*).

...I really went off on a tangent, not quite sure what that had to do with your post.

I guess my primary thought is that you are looking at it skewed. Don't think of them as evil races, think of them as antagonists. Exploring the dark side of the 'normal' races as antagonists is interesting design space, but so is exploring the light side of the generic antagonists. Don't sugercoat either side; barbaric orcs can be bloodthirsty but so can derenged eledrin (think unseelie court of mythology). They can also both be merciful as well. Humanizing the opponents, not just making them one-dimensional, is incredibly important. Just because the conflict involves the same race (human vs human for example) doesn't necessarily mean the villain will be any more dimensional then a race involving humans vs orcs. The second indeed could fall into the stereotype, but the first would need to break out of the stereotype that races only conflict with other races (which seems prevalent in D&D as well).

I guess what I'm getting at is everyone has motives. Some are simple and some are complex. The conflicts of those morals are what makes stories go. Whether it's the elvish prince who kidnaps a mortal women for his bride, the dwarven warrior who , or the orcish warchief who raids a human village to feed his starving people; all are antagonists with valid motives for their actions. And those motives make amazing stories.

Heh, hope someone can make any sense out of this. I shouldn't write when I'm tired.

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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby rlyeh on 4th Jul, 09, 11:49

I fully accept that orcs (or any other race) can have a complex and full history and make interesting characters, protagonists or antagonists. But they are still the "other" and easier to dehumanize than, well, humans. As identity should come from Culture not from genetics. Honestly, humans have had no problem justifying killing each other for the last 10,000 years or so, they can find ways just as easily in a fantasy world. I just want to take away as many of the 'props' that make killing other intelligent beings "morality free".

Off topic, that sounds like a fun campaign. I have always wanted to pit groups of PCs against each other but it has never worked out.
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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby Zergplex on 5th Jul, 09, 20:58

rlyeh wrote:I fully accept that orcs (or any other race) can have a complex and full history and make interesting characters, protagonists or antagonists. But they are still the "other" and easier to dehumanize than, well, humans. As identity should come from Culture not from genetics. Honestly, humans have had no problem justifying killing each other for the last 10,000 years or so, they can find ways just as easily in a fantasy world. I just want to take away as many of the 'props' that make killing other intelligent beings "morality free".

Off topic, that sounds like a fun campaign. I have always wanted to pit groups of PCs against each other but it has never worked out.


*nods* I wasn't trying to attack you or anything, honestly I was half asleep when I made that last post so it was a bit disjointed.

And it was a very fun campaign, I think anytime I can make the players do my work for me and have fun doing it then we all win *grin*.

Honestly I sorta see other races in D&D being the equivalent of other ethnicities/cultures in the real world. A D&D setting with just certain races could work, but you have to think of why you are removing certain ones and not others. Honestly the best campaign settings I've seen usually are eitehr just humans or a wide array of races. It's because if it's just humans when it's easy to get into the real world mindset of other countries being the major threats. If you have a wide array then the other races fulfill that role. But the roles get a little mushy when most races disappear leaving just a few, which may be what you are going for.

Just remember, the 'us against them' mentality exists in the real world too. 'Evil' fantasy races might make it easier to get into that mentality, but demonizing your opponents is going to happen even if they are the same race. Removing the props I don't think will change it much. The players who have been conditioned to think that way are going to continue to see any challenge as just a living balloon of EXP, while the players who want to be playing in the type of world you are trying to build wouldn't have been messed up by the missing races in the first place.

*grin* Either way though, I am really looking forward to what you guys are doing here. Everything I've seen so far looks amazing, and this is just a minor nitpick that is generally one of my sore spots in RPGs (I hated the lack of depth some races have and love to see settings that expand on them. I guess I see cutting the races out completely makes you lose out on some of the most iconic fantasy races. I think expanding and using them would be much more beneficial then losing them, as they would be familiar while still being different and fresh.)

Heh, as I said though, don't take me too seriously. ^_^

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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby Miegael on 17th Jul, 09, 22:29

After reading the original post I had a number of immediate and spontaneous responses to the concept. Let me try then to explain at least a few.

Historically, in any conflict, each side typically vilifies their opponents to such a degree that all people from that group fall into a stereotyped category. The "Huns" of WWI and WWII and even our current global conflict with "terrorists" paint ethnic, social and political groups as "evil". After watching a comedic report by the Daily Show with John Stewart, I was forced to really consider the nation of Iran. If you asked your average american citizen today about Iranians, their view would likely consists of gross generalizations and labels created by the media and society. We see Iran as evil (as a nation). I would imagine that US armed forces would have little compulsion attacking and killing Iranians. In fact, reports from the treatment of terrorists at Gitmo and other prisons confirms my theory. In every previous conflict, we have done the same. Our national view of Native Americans, though much changed, has been negatively colored by the US government, and before them the British government. Savages, barbarians and redskins are just a few of the labels that are STILL attached to our native brothers and sisters. From this perspective, as most games are humanocentric, it stands to reason that certain more militaristic and primitive races would be labelled as uncivilized barbarians. Far from being simplistic in gaming terms, this accurately reflects are common threat throughout human history. For examples, see how the Romans viewed Germanic and British tribes or how the Chinese and Japanese viewed (and view) everyone else. In this light, Right and Wrong races just expose a human centered thinking on the part of the designers.

I also considered the view that in gaming context, the view of races to races could also be a political reflection of the existing government or societal relationships among the races. Let me use the Iranians again. At the moment, we have very strained relations with the Iranians. However, in reality, we, Americans, to not actually have strained relations with the Iranian people. Yes, there are large segments of the Iranian population that do not like Americans and vice versa, but in reality, the average Iranian citizen does not appear to think Americans as servants of satan. That particular view is espoused by their ruling government. I imagine that in most D&D settings, the human Religious and Political structure would fundamentally disagree with, let's say, the Drow. They, the government, would do their best to label the Drow as evil and propagate that message. As the majority of people in a feudal society are illiterate and serfs, their only information would be defined by their rulers. So, a serf seeing a party of Drow would likely cross themselves before running for their lives. Much like the British did when the Celts came calling.

Then, of course, there is a simple fact of in group, out group bias. We tend to hate anything or anyone different from us. Racisim is predicated on this simple case of mental heuristics. So, humans hate orcs, orcs hate elves, elves hate dwarves, etc... The issue is, again, that the writers of games are humans so unless they fight against their own instincts, the games will be written with predominatnly human biases toward other races. D&D is also an older game, written at a time before many of our newer, liberal, racial sentiments were popular. This also colored the world from the start. How far back must we go in our own history before we have "good" and "bad" races in America (African Americans, Native Americans, Irish Americans, etc...).

Yes, it is ultimately unrealistic to have "Good" and "Bad" races in a world. Even so, from a particular point of view it is natural and ultimately realistic to have those distinctions. If you are a human knight of a particular faith then, yes, the Drow are evil. Christians are evil to muslim extremists. In that context, indiscriminate killing of Drow by humans makes perfect sense. What we, as designers, must do, is make sure that we give each group a rich culture and history. So, the knight who wantonly kills Drow must reevaluate his entire world view when a Drow nurses him back to help after a brutal battle. At this point, the human knight must reconsider his preconceived notions fed him by his church and state. Now, will he return to his kind and preach a new word, leave his kind completely or ignore this new information. That, my friends, is the seed of a fantastic campaign...
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Re: Fantasy Races, Rights and Wrongs

Postby rlyeh on 18th Jul, 09, 10:17

Well, a most detailed reply. Tempting to let that stand as the last word but . . .

Every culture tends to view itself as the 'right and good one' (the modern West may be one of the few that has a strong counter thread to that view), the question is how to best use that to create interesting stories. My worries with the classically "evil" race/cultures of fantasy RPG (primarily D&D) it is too easy to backslide into the us/them mentality, so I wanted to sidestep that in the Sea of Stars and make people/cultures have to put in at least a minimum of effort if they were going to demonize their competitors/ rivals/ enemies in the hope that it would help to show the ‘two-sides to every story’ nature of conflict.
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