Archive for February, 2013


Maybe not the right question, definitely the wrong answers

February 17, 2013 : “What is the most inclusive RPG setting on the market?”

As some folks point out, “inclusive” by itself is a little broad. To really talk about this, we have to understand there are basically three levels we can set the bar at, especially since, if you read a lot of the replies you can see these are very different things:

1. Acknowledgement of existence (AKA – The Chinese people in Firefly)

Games that point out you “could play” any gender, or that you “could play” any race, or some kind of setting that says racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. is gone. The reason that this is such a low bar is that saying this without any further details basically puts all the onus on the group to try to figure out what that looks like. It also means no real thought was put into the setting itself if this is the only real place where it shows up.

If you SAY all sexual preferences are accepted, but your setting only SHOWS heterosexual relationships, you’ve now put all the work of actually making that true onto the people playing your game while not accepting the same responsibility yourself- a disingenuous ass-covering move if anything.

I’ve seen a few RPGs do this really interesting thing where they say the characters in question are supposed to be brown people, and then proceed to have no art depicting them, or, art that would suggest otherwise. In this sense, this is the same thing where it’s an invisible acknowledgement without actually having to have them there…

2. Portrayal

Ok, so you include the actual folks – artwork, characters, setting bits, etc. Good for you! Now come the harder questions – are the portrayals negative? Are they based on stereotypes? Are they only there to serve the privileged audience rather than the people who they’re supposed to represent? (The difference between lesbians as hot media icons for straight men vs. lesbians as characters for lesbians…) Are they only secondary or minor characters?

3. Good portrayal

If you get through the questions in the previous bar, you should reach good portrayal. What defensive privileged folks often confuses is the idea that “good portrayal” should mean some kind of spotless 2D idealized figure, when in fact, all folks are asking for is real humans who are not based on the caricatured stereotypes are NOT real.

Anyway, when we look at these 3 potential levels of inclusiveness, you can see that stuff like, “Play a transhuman game, you can play ANYTHING” is a shitty response that doesn’t really do much of anything.

Ben Lehman once asked why I enjoyed playing the highly problematic Legend of the Five Rings and I pointed out it’s one of the few games where I could play an asian character and no one would look at me and think, “You’re just doing that because you’re asian!” (Of course, the horrible white folks’ Japan fetish in that game scene is a whole other issue…) – but the point is that there’s plenty of games where problematic representation can be had, and it’s really kind of the roleplaying equivalent of “You can have space in our imaginary world as long as your heroes conform to our racist stereotypes.”

Escapism and fun for all, indeed.

Personally, I’d rather look at the 3rd tier as the one to aim for. Inclusive means it’s actually got people in mind, not appropriating things through a stereotype lens for the entertainment of the privileged nor simply hitting a checklist of inclusiveness for show.

In that space, I think of these games as inclusive – Dirty Secrets, Steal Away Jordan, Dog Eat Dog. There’s maybe 1 or 2 borderline games I’m waiting to see which way they fall. Maybe there’s some I’m forgetting, and if so, I’ll add them later, but, yeah, it’s a small small number.


Riddle of Steel – Path of the Nokwazi

February 15, 2013

Quinn Murphy has been doing a blog run on RPGs and Black History Month and we ended up brainstorming with a couple of friends an African fantasy setting that we’re running using Riddle of Steel.

Riddle of Steel, background and context

The Riddle of Steel came out about the same time Burning Wheel did, and both were parallel creations that hit similar places from very different angles – action + drama in a fantasy setting.

Both placed an emphasis on tactical combat, though Riddle of Steel leaned towards abstraction a bit more and ran quicker. More importantly, ROS had an amazing reward system built on motivations – “Spiritual Attributes” which became the inspiration for Keys in Shadow of Yesterday (and Lady Blackbird, which then also became Milestones in the Marvel Roleplaying game…)

Sadly, though, Riddle of Steel is currently out of print, and probably one of the biggest issues was that the game needed a lot of clean up in terms of cutting off crusty design bits and a better presentation, though the folks who picked it up after the creator, Jake Norwood, sold it, focused mostly on supplemental material.

Setting up to play, rules-wise

Anyway, it’s been years since I last played it, and in my head, I had remembered it as having a solid core and thought, “I’ll just have to cut a few spots and it’ll be good”. …well, I actually cut a lot and still am finding places where I’m like, “that’s… just a terrible rule.” and having to cut more. So it went from “cut a little” to “Just remove the heart and rebuild a body around it”.

This really came from a simple urge – “Do I really want to subject my players to this shit?”

Things still on the “to-do” list: rules for ranged weapons, rules for falling/throwing people that are better than what’s listed…

Structure and Premise

The Nokwazi have a rite of passage – youth reach the age of majority and leave the people for a year or two, traveling the world and proving their strength, courage, and intelligence by doing great deeds in the world and seeking to bring something home which will improve everyone’s lives – which could be anything from a magical artifact to a new way of doing architecture. Part of their belief system is a general skepticism – the world is magical, but not all of it, and a lot of people fall victim to superstition, therefore, investigating the truth is part of this process.

Gameplay-wise, I’m basically setting up different people with their own sets of problems that the PCs run into, and what the people BELIEVE is going on, both politically, magically, etc. and as we play, there’s a random roll at points on the magical elements to see if they are, indeed, magical in any way. As one of the players put it, “It’s like a fantasy X-files, maybe there’s something weird going on, maybe not.”

Our First Session

Things went really well. I was quickly reminded that fighting in Riddle of Steel is over quickly once you can get past someone’s defenses. The short actual combat was the PCs having gotten in on unprepared enemies and straight murking them. I’m looking forward to a more prepared fight where the enemies actually get a chance to try to attack back or a few rounds of back and forth before a killing blow.

Once the players started clicking in with their Spiritual Attributes, we started picking up momentum. What’s interesting is that some of the SAs I expected to hook into didn’t and others did, but at least it served to help me understand the characters better for the next time. I think with a few sessions I’ll be better able to home in on exactly what will be solid.

Setup-wise, I found myself using less than 1/2 of what I prepared, but that’s fine – most of it was simply a character name, title, and a motivation. I generally set up these situations with characters who are on different areas of the “reasonable” to “unreasonable” spectrum, but even unreasonable characters can be good as long as you give them an understandable motivation for their actions.

The other part is making sure that any of these places the characters reach, that the people are not completely hapless and helpless – they’re making choices to deal with their problems – maybe not the best choices, maybe not good choices, but choices still.

More to come!