Category Archives: Random musings

Racism in Role-Playing Games

Recently there was a discussion on social media about whether the depiction of orcs in some (if not most) tabletop roleplaying games was racist. As with all discussions of this nature on social media things got pretty heated quickly. It also showed that there’s a divide among RPG fans. There are the ones who want to break certain old conventions and make tabletop roleplaying more diversive, more open, less racist and less misogynist. And there are the ones who don’t see the problem. A common idea among those folks is that “games are fantasy” and so there can be no real racism be in there. This is of course bullshit.

Initially I didn’t want to comment on this controversy, but – you know me – sometimes I just can’t keep my mouth shut. Let’s start with making one thing clear: humans are racist. Period. Some of this has to do with how we – as humans – evolved. We tend to trust more in people who look like us, talk like us, are perhaps closely related to us – and we fear “the other”. This comes from a time when the largest social structures were large families or clans. If you believe you never had a racist thought, you are probably wrong.

A lot of racism also comes from our upbringing. If you look back one generation, two generations, etc. you notice that racism becomes more widespread, more common, accepted even. Everyone has that racist uncle everyone ignores at family gathering, or that grandpa who spews racist nonsense while watching the news. Racist ideology is all around us and even if you had the most sheltered childhood you probably have been affected by it.

If you look at some classic children’s books, fairy tales, etc. through a modern lens, you notice quite a few racist motifs. These motifs are also visible in fantasy media. Orcs are often portrayed as an evil horde (usually coming from some steppes to the east) or as noble savages. Gnomes and Dwarves often share traits who were traditionally attributed to Jews. Modern fantasy borrows a lot from traditional (mostly European) myths and fairy tales and so it inherited some of its racism.

Ok, what do we do about it? We realize that humans are prone to racism because of our evolution and our upbringing, and this also lead to a lot of racist tropes in our favorite hobby. The important part is to always be aware of that, always question ourselves and never act upon these urges. If you think you are immune to racism, you are wrong and you will probably not understand what all the fuzz is about. After all, YOU don’t see skin color…
Being aware of an issue is the first step in actually solving it.

When it comes to tabletop roleplaying games we can stop or at least reduce using those common tropes. Treat orcs like individuals and not like a faceless horde you can kill without feeling any remorse. Avoid tropes like the money-grubbing gnome or the greedy dwarf. Think twice about topics like colonialism and slavery before introducing them into your game. Most importantly listen to what members of minorities and people of color tell you – don’t doubt their experiences. If there’s something problematic within your game and some one points it out to you, treat it as an opportunity. The idea is that we make our hobby a better place for everyone. Being aware of the problem and taking responsibility is the first step. Then you can roll up your sleeves and start changing things.

One last thing: You may share your thoughts on the subject in the comments below, but be civil and respectful. Thanks!

“May you live in interesting times”

Even though this is not a traditional Chinese curse as often claimed, it makes for a perfect title when you intend to sum up what’s going on right now. The current times are interesting indeed, and with a global pandemic in full swing at the moment, all of our lives (and our hobby) have been severely affected in one way or the other.

Roleplaying games are social activities and even though playing games online is a thing, nothing beats the face-to-face experience with a group of friends sitting around a table, munching snacks, and having a blast. Personally the effect on my gaming was pretty slim since I was playing in a number of online games even before the current crisis and most of the other games went online as soon as “social distancing” rules have been in place.

Times are tough and the current circumstances have definitely messed with a lot of my plans including the ones for my blog. Things have been pretty stressful at work. My employer – a German university – had been victim of a major malware attack earlier this year (we were hit hard by a new variant of Emotet) and now we’re struggling to facilitate online lectures and the like. As you can imagine this is not a great situation to be in.

There are a few games I really wanted to review, but at the end of most work days I am just too tired and emotionally drained to do anything productive. Hopefully things will get better in the future, but don’t expect daily posts from me anytime soon. I actually had planned to write more about the various methods you can use to play RPGs online, but there are already countless posts on this topic available which would make any additional ones quite redundant.

If I have to give any advice, it would the this: don’t take social distancing to literally. Use online tools to talk to your friends, play games together, have fun. Sure, it’s not the same as really meeting at a friend’s place, but it’s definitely better than having no interactions at all. And if you go outside, make sure you follow the rules: keep your distance to other people, possibly wear a mask, wash your hands properly, and cough or sneeze into your elbow.

I am sure even these “interesting times” will eventually end, and things will go back to more or less normal. Just make sure you stay safe in the meantime. And if playing tabletop RPGs online can help with that, don’t hesitate to try!

Image credit: NIAID

Mental Health in Roleplaying Games

Please note that this post contains mentions of mental illnesses, ableism, and suicide.

When it comes to the roleplaying games community there’s no shortage of scandals and constant drama. The latest controversy is about Evil Hat’s decision to include a section about the team’s stance on H.P. Lovecraft’s racism and antisemitism in their upcoming game “Fate of Cthulhu“. They also decided not to include any “insanity” rules but opted for a corruption mechanic instead. A lot of very vocal fans of Lovecraft’s work and the roleplaying games based on it, quickly shared their displeasure online. Personally I think Evil Hat made the right decision. Even though I enjoyed some of his writing, his blatant racism is hard to stomach. And don’t get me started on “insanity” rules in games…
Ok, let’s look a bit closer at the subject of mental health in RPGs.

Let’s start by giving you a bit of context. I have struggled with my mental health for many years. My wife has and is still suffering from mental disorders, as are many of my friends. My best friend suffered from depression for most of his life and when he couldn’t cope with it anymore, he took his own life. The prevalence of mental illnesses is about 25%, which means one in four people will suffer from mental health issues at least once in their life. This is no joking matter.

Unfortunately many roleplaying games treat it like one. This is especially a problem in most games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. I am mostly looking at Call of Cthulhu here, since it is one of the most well-known examples of using mental health in a game, but there are many other culprits out there.

You may argue, that the gameplay is informed by the limited knowledge of mental health people had in Lovecraft’s time, but that is a very weak excuse. Especially since there’s a pretty high chance that someone at the game table may actually suffer from something the Call of Cthulhu rules so nonchalantly calls insanity, a term which is often if not always used derogatory.

In games like Call of Cthulhu each player character confronted with gruesome events, the supernatural, or Cthulhu Mythos creatures loses some “sanity points”. If more than a certain threshold of points are lost the character may suffer from short or longer “temporary insanity” which may include effects fainting, stupor, homicidal or suicidal mania, strange sexual desires, paranoia, compulsions, amnesia, and so on. Not only does mental health not work this way, it also takes control away from the player. At the very least a GM should ask for a player’s permission to force something like that on a player.

From my own experience I know that these effects are also often played for laughs. Sure, this is a problem caused by the players and not necessarily the game itself, but this might not happen if there weren’t any “insanity” rules in the first place. People often forget that what they might consider a funny quirk added to their player character, might be a real and constant struggle for someone else. You might think that playing a compulsive disorder in a game is fun, but for someone suffering from it, it’s hell. And now imagine that some one jokingly plays out the “insanity” you or someone at your gametable is struggling with in real life.

Do I think that mental health should never be part of a roleplaying game? No. But you have to a) make sure that everyone at the table is ok with the subject and b) that you treat it respectfully. A good start is not to explain evil behavior away by calling someone insane, crazy, mad, or something similar. Atrocities have been committed by people a psychologist would consider fully sane. One might feel comforted by the idea, that people who commit evil deeds are “different”, but many studies have shown that this is not the case.

So, how can we deal with all of this at the game table? Personally I’d probably just ignore the “insanity” mechanics in most games, or look at what Evil Hat came up in for Fate of Cthulhu and adopt it for the games I play. I’ll also try to avoid such common tropes as the mentally-ill villain. The least any GM can do is think twice before adding mental health issues to one’s game. And don’t forget to make sure that everyone at the table is on the same page when it comes to this issue.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think we should refrain from using mental health issues in roleplaying games or do you think this might even help raise awareness? Please share your thoughts below!

P.S.: Unsurprisingly I already covered this subject in a post from 2014. You can check it out here.