The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days

I was delighted yesterday to read Fat Goblin Games announcement of renewed support for Castle Falkenstein, a long-time favorite of mine. I still fondly recall purchasing it at GenCon and sitting, ensconced, in one of the side halls of the convention center pouring through its contents, losing myself in its graceful, romantic, and magical setting.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian-era alternate history RPGs and generally love my historical roleplaying, but one thing I’ve increasingly grappled with is reconciling the romance of a bygone era with its often harsh realities, particularly with regard to things like gender and sexual equality, colonialism, racism, and the even harsher human brutalities of our shared history. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point about my “spoiling” your enjoyment of a good fictional romp through Steampunk Victorian London, medieval Europe, or the Roman Empire or whatnot, feel free to click the “close” or “back” button and move on. Otherwise, consider with me:

How do we, as gamers and designers, treat the ills of the past? Do we aim for accuracy in our fictional history, portraying things largely as they were? Not necessarily glorifying them—although I think there’s fortunately tiny minority of the hobby that does—but also not flinching from the facts? I think that’s a valid approach, but I also wonder what that says to our modern day audience. Sure, you can play an “exceptional” woman who is a knight in a medieval setting, or “exotic” African or Asian characters in a white European setting, or a rare outspoken and determined queer character in almost any setting, who somehow manages to avoid societal prejudice, but are designers also making these opportunities explicit? Are they saying “Hey, we realize this setting as-presented kind of excludes some people, so here’s how to address it?” Also, even when that is the case, just the notion of having to take our real world struggles with society into our fantasy entertainment can be exhausting.

Do we create fantasy worlds where inclusion is the norm and some or all of the social ills of the real world don’t exist? Castle Falkenstein goes a bit in this direction, for example, making it clear the “fairer sex” is viewed with greater equality due in part to the fact that the ability to wield magic is equally represented between the sexes, and because of various faerie beings who take on feminine forms and identities. Still, no mention of how those things affect, say, the fate of the Oscar Wildes of the era, or whether faeries (as formless energy beings) are inherently non-binary and bisexual or asexual. Plenty of fantasy settings make efforts to do away with racism, sexism, misogyny, and the like, at least as much as our cultural awareness allows, but elements of those things are still so deeply embedded that they can be difficult to root out. Where “historical” settings are concerned, such changes start to diverge so far from history as we know it as to begin to become complete fantasies.

The challenge for me, as a queer gamer, is that I love the notion of playing characters like a dashing (and somewhat foppish) Victorian mage, or a two-fisted Mysterious Avenger in the Roaring ’20s, or a gee-whiz true-blue patriot fighting Fascism in the 1940s. What I don’t love is having to check myself every time I consider such a character, asking: Do I want to play someone who is like me and either deal with the world as it was then or ask the GM for a fantasy variant where homophobia and misogyny (which spring from the same root) don’t exist? Or should I play an asexual character—or even a heterosexual one—in order to fit in and dodge the issue? They’re the same questions queer people have to ask themselves about their real lives all the time, and that can be wearisome when it comes to something that’s supposed to be just fun. I imagine much the same is true for any non-white, male, heterosexual gamer looking at historical and real-world based settings.

There is also, of course, the tantalizing potential of fictional settings where “normal” is measured by an entirely different standard: African, Arab, and Asian fantasy worlds where white Europeans are “exotic foreigners,” a game of playing Amazons in a mythic fantasy setting where a male character would be an exceptional rule-breaker, or settings that subvert gender and sexuality, such as a culture where bisexuality (or omnisexuality) is the expected norm and “monosexuality” (whether hetero- or homo-) is on the fringes, or a transhumanist setting—fantasy or sci-fi—where notions of gender are entirely fluid and changing and individual. Of course, even those settings are embedded in our real-world culture, and often require a lot of education and explanation to get potential players up to speed and immersed in the world, if you can get them to buy-in to the notion at all in the first place. Often far easier to fall back on the standard cultural tropes.

I’m not saying there’s a “right” approach or necessarily one right answer to all of these questions, but I think they’re questions worth considering, especially as creators of stories, whether professional designers or hobbyist gamemasters and storytellers. If, by chance, you’ve read all the way to the end of this and find yourself thinking, “Wow, that sounds like it would suck all of the fun out of things. Do we have to deal with such heavy stuff in our games?” Well, then you have some small idea of how it feels for some of us all of the time. While it must be nice to have the option to just ignore it, but some of us don’t. Consider that as you create your next world.

4 thoughts on “The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days

  1. I read all the way to the end and I _don’t_ think that these considerations suck all the fun out of things. On the other hand, I don’t think that rhere’s only one fun answer. I have run games set in the 1930s in which the racist and sexist bullshit was in full force (giving the PCs ample opportunity to righteously smite the more egregious racists and sexists), I have run games where racism and sexism were NPC-code for “this is a villain” (because no one else in-game was like that), and I am currently running a weekly Scooby Cthulhu game set in 1973 in which racism and sexism are commonplace, but largely played for laughs (the people displaying such points of view are seen as obviously foolish, and there aren’t any serious in-game limitations on PCs).

    And they were all fun games (for me, anyway).

    • For what it’s worth, Brandon Blackmoor, I agree. I don’t think I said these things necessarily suck the fun out of gaming (I believe that’s Curt Thompson’s excellent musing on “the fun tax”) and I concluded by saying there isn’t necessarily a “right” answer, beyond perhaps a willingness to take privilege into account and consider the impact of these things on one’s fellow gamers, both from a design and gamemastering perspective. I, too, have derived some excellent game-play from the unfortunate realities of prejudice, but I think that should be an “opt-in” (as Curt puts it) rather the default choice.

  2. Pingback: & Yore | Inclusivity, old days, fun taxes, and empathy in gaming

  3. When designing settings, I approach these questions from two angles:

    1) What is more fun for the players? (and I’m assuming they’re a diverse bunch: when it comes to my own table, we have a female majority and almost half the players would probably be considered nonwhite in the US)

    2) Is an anachronistic sensibility more or less plausible than a dragon? (or a vampire, or magic, or superpowers, or whatever weirdness is present in the game world)

    Point 1 is tricky. Sometimes it can be fun to play in a prejudiced society and fight against social norms. It makes for good drama. Of course, limiting PC choices can suck really bad for players, especially those that already face discrimination on a day to day basis. I’ve found fantastic prejudice to be a good alternative. For example, the human-centric Empire in Star Wars games.

    Point 2 is easier: in a world with dragons, it makes no sense to impose “realistic” rules, gender roles, and 21st century stereotypes. Would there be prejudice against transgender individuals in a world where Polymorph spells are relatively common, for example? Old editions of AD&D had a Strength cap for female characters, but is really a superstrong woman harder to buy than an elvish wizard?

    The only genre in which I might be a stickler for “realism” would be historical roleplaying. And I say I “might” beacause reality is often “unrealistic”, and throughout history oppressed individuals have succesfully crossed social barriers

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