Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rule of Law: Race

One of my goals with the Rule of Law setting is to be able to explore some complex social, moral, and philosophical issues. So tying these questions into the basics of the fantasy world is a high priority to me. Race is one pretty clear way to bring up some of these issues, particularly social class and racism. But some philosophical issues also come to the fore.

First, the game is art. And art is one way that we not only try to express ourselves, but to explore how we feel. RPGs are a different kind of art, and they let us explore things differently than more physical forms like painting or sculpture. An RPG is also entertainment. But good literature or poetry both is an attempt to express the human condition and a type of entertainment. An RPG need not be any different in that respect. So when I write that I think racism is an interesting topic to explore, I mean that we can use RPGs to explore these all-too human feelings.

But racism exists in this world, and to assume it doesn't exist in a fantasy world ignores the sorrow that exists here and now. Portraying non-humans in an RPG, or at lest in the Rule of Law, should give one a sense of how marginalized people might feel, or how easy it is to hate someone just because they're different.

In order to facilitate this, we also need races to be different. Traditional D&D is a bit like the Mos Eisley Cantina. Its not just Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. Most editions also have gnomes and half-orcs. Plus, really, each of those races has a few subraces, including the subterranean "evil" version. Plus there's enemies, like orcs, gnolls, goblins, kobolds, and lizardmen. Not to mention troglodytes and centaurs and dryads and satyrs. But also goliaths, tieflings, dragonborn, genasi, shifters, changelings, warforged, wilden, shardminds and githzerai. There are literally so many races that it becomes hard to define each one as something other than humans with a different ear-shape and a penchant for certain classes.

To keep races distinct, I think a setting needs a limit. Humans are the major race. Elves, dwarves, goblins, and orcs are pretty common. Less common races like gnolls and gnomes and ogres could be about. But you should be able to list them without too much trouble. All told, I think a dozen total races would be good, maybe two dozen. Rarities might differ depending on the part of the world.

D&D 3.5 Monster Manuel
Beyond a well-defined number of races though, each race needs to be different. Sure, they are physically distinct. You can probably tell a dwarf from a halfling on sight. Ogres are clearly different than Gnomes or Gnolls or Orcs. Mechanically they'd have different ability modifiers and special powers. But they also need to "play" differently. I'm thinking of doing this by giving each race a doom.

The doom would be a mostly roleplaying aspect, either an absolute prohibition or a strong tendency or both. So take dwarves, for example. They're generally dour and dreary, finding happiness in toil, drink, and treasure. What if that's not just describing a tendency, but some hard-wired racial habits? Dwarves might be driven by greed and duty. These two aspects of their lives: collecting wealth and protecting their property (also families and communities) could be two themes that every dwarf must face. Dwarves are also an unromantic lot, so perhaps they have no concept of romantic love. Every dwarf is genetically incapable of feeling romantic love, so they tend to see everything as property to collect and protect. Dwarven men might be likely to acquire large harems (unless the ladies are really in charge, in which case each dwarven man would be pledged one of the handful of rare dwarven ladies) and jealously guard them. They constantly work to improve their safety and comfort. Ultimately, dwarves might even have some game aspects that encourage this.

Pathfinder Dwarf
The idea is to really make dwarves different. They're not just short humans who make decent priests and good fighters. They would be good at classes who take training and dedication (fighters, maybe wizards and thieves) but bad at those which rely on intuition or passion (sorcerers, berserkers). They might have mechanical bonuses for defending their property (and by extension, allies).

This type of race design, I think, actually will make races different in the game. You don't play a dwarf because they can use second wind as a free action, you play a dwarf to explore themes of devotion, dedication, and greed. Dwarves would be respected as workers and soldiers, but perhaps hated as merchants. Would dwarves have religion? Perhaps. They probably wouldn't be likely to be mystics or druids. As clerics, they might devote themselves to a god in exchange for the power, not out of faith. Similarly, dwarven shamans might devote themselves to their land and ancestors, binding them to their houses to protect hearth and home. Banned race/class combinations might once again help enforce these notions. Though there might be plenty of room for saying "yes, but..." rather than "no".
Pathfinder Dwarven Ranger
I'm reminded of a discussion with a friend a few months ago. We were talking about Old School games, and he mentioned that he had very little interest in playing any race but humans. This was in part because he thought they should have a very alien mindset. Also when races lost their level limits in AD&D, there's no reason that elves and dwarves shouldn't rule the game world, unless they are strongly isolationist or something. With incredibly long lifespans, why aren't they dominating the world? I'd like to answer these questions as well. Immortality breeds boredom and ennui. Chaotic natures lead to unstable civilizations. Overly orderly natures might be too brittle to survive natural disasters or otherwise prove inadaptable. The human evolutionary advantage might be an ability to move amongst the different races. Individual humans might not be as strong as a dwarf or live to master magic like an elf, but as a group their diversity combined with a willingness to work with others and to reflect on their own nature... Maybe this is what leads humans to dominate the world?

By looking at evolutionary advantages or stressing hard-wired genetic endowments, maybe the world that I'm building is more of a science-fantasy. I'm OK with that though.

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