Inclusivity: The Next Step

In “The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days” I talked a bit about the challenges of being a minority role-player looking to create characters in settings with even less equality than the modern world. After picking up a bunch of new games at Gen Con, taking part in some LGTBQ-focused events there and at GaymerX, and a bit of online discussion, I gave some thought to the ways of creating more inclusive settings for roleplaying games, and the characters who come to life in them.

One approach to the issue of equality and inclusion in fictional settings is stating “Racism, sexism, and similar prejudices do not exist in this setting,” or something that that effect. While that can help to establish the notion of equality, it shouldn’t be confused with inclusion. In fact, it can sometimes be used as an excuse to justify a lack of inclusion by taking a “mission accomplished” stance: If the problem of inequality has been “solved” simply by declaring it so, why do we have to continue to talk about it or, you know, any of the things or people associated with it? So goes the online joke of “You know what I’d like to see? The inclusion of a minority character that’s so low-key it’s never even mentioned. At all. Ever.”

It’s because equality is different from inclusion. You can include minority characters and themes in settings where they are not treated equally, and you can offer a setting that has equality (at least in theory) without including minority characters and themes, or including some, but not others. That’s another thing about inclusion: It can be unevenly distributed. You can have settings with both inclusion and equality—unfortunately, in that case, you’re into fantasy territory, since we haven’t even gotten there in the real world yet.

That’s one of the issues of the “no -isms” declaration. Not that it’s a fantasy—we deal with all kinds of fantastic elements in our RPG settings, after all—but that it’s often an unexplored fantastic element. The fantastic world of complete equality and inclusion can coincidentally end up looking just like the world lacking those things, the only difference being the prejudice is less overt, and should never be talked about or pointed out or questioned. For example, there may be “no sexism” in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, and yet curiously language, relationships, professions, and entire societies remain just as gendered and driven by heterosexist norms as ever. There’s “no racism” in a near-future setting, other than how the “global” culture of Earth still seems remarkably white, middle-class, heterosexist, and Anglo-American—even the punks and rebels.

So inclusiveness in setting is another example of the writing adage “show, don’t tell.” It’s not enough to just say that the issue of inclusion is dealt with, you actually have to deal with it, by including a broad range of characters, and considering how they fit into the world and what their experiences are like. That’s a part of inclusion as well: The stories and experiences of those diverse characters. What is it like to be a woman, a person of color, or a sexual minority in this world? How does it differ from our world and how do those differences affect the fictional world as a whole? Does the world differ from ours in those respects, for that matter?

That’s important, because you can have inclusion without equality in the setting as a whole, just as we can strive for inclusion in our world (as many have done) without full equality having been achieved as yet. This matters particularly for period settings. Take the Agent Carter TV series for example. The setting (post-WWII America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is far from equal: Peggy Carter’s challenges as a woman in a “man’s job” are a prominent part of the story, but at the same time, the series strives to be inclusive of women, minorities, and differently-abled characters, highlighting their struggles, while making it clear the societal prejudices against them are unfair and unjust.

Inclusion that shows what it is like to be a minority character in the setting provides not only examples for the readers and players of the setting, but permission. It says, “Look! Minority or marginalized people have roles in this world and its stories and they’re like this.” Just like you’d give players guidelines to play a fictional race (like elves or aliens) or a fictional class of people (like deep-space “belters” or members of an arcane order), give guidelines for character concepts and stories that don’t fit the default expectations of our culture. Not only do players who belong to marginalized communities need that, but players who don’t deserve the opportunity to not only see that, but to consider playing it.

In short, the next step beyond recognizing the value of and need for inclusion is actually doing it, and doing it as well as we can.

The Untouchables

A new Icons Narrator posted the following (paraphrased slightly) on the Icons Yahoo mailing list:

I have a problem: enemies with a Prowess or Coordination so low it doesn’t even matter if the player rolls the dice or not: even with a –5 roll, the hero can’t be hit! I get that superheroes are superior to mere thugs, but even Spider-Man gets punched once in a while. Knowing he didn’t need to roll to avoid a hit wasn’t fun for my player.

There are a number of solutions to this problem, although I’ll note up-front the only reason it constitutes a problem, in my opinion, is that it’s interfering with the player’s (and, apparently, the Narrator’s) fun. If you’re dealing with an “untouchable” hero, somebody with a defensive ability of 8 or more (putting them 5 or more above the average ability level of 3), here are some things to consider:

Challenges: This is the main one. Spider-Man (and other extremely capable heroes like Batman, Captain America, etc.) don’t routinely have trouble dealing with normal human-level thugs, but they do run into trouble from time to time. When that happens, it is usually more in the form of a challenge than a poor die roll; that is, the GM decides a bad guy gets a “lucky break” or the hero has an unlucky moment. So a thug manages to get the drop on the hero, he is momentarily distracted by something (usually thinking about some problem or the like), there’s an unforeseen accident, and so forth. These are all good examples of temporary challenges (Icons, p. 92) or compelling one of a hero’s existing challenges (“You’re concerned about wrapping this up in time to get to the hospital to see you sick aunt, so much so that you’re off your game and a thug tags you! Here, have a Determination point.”)

Teamwork: Lesser opponents might combine abilities (Icons, p. 57) in order to have a better chance against a hero. Even just the usual +1 may shift things from no chance at all to a slight one (on a +5 roll only) but enough to keep things interesting. You can even allow for greater teamwork bonuses for larger groups of foes, but probably not more than +2 or +3. You can even consider “overwhelming numbers” (or some similar aspect) an aspect you can tag to apply a +2 bonus for the foes, giving the player a Determination point when you do so.

Criticals: This is an optional rule for GMs looking for a bit more variability: a +5 roll (that is, a die roll that results in a +5 modifier) is always at least a moderate success, regardless of difficulty, and a –5 roll is always a failure (again, regardless of ability and difficulty). This means any test has at least a 2% or so chance of succeeding or failing, regardless of the normal odds. That’s not a lot, but may be enough to keep players on their toes, knowing there’s at least some chance. Now the “untouchable” hero always has to roll to defend, since there’s still a chance of that critical –5 coming up.

Cheat! Finally, do things to liven up the combat that don’t rely on dice or Determination points, but description and—frankly—manipulation of things behind the scenes. After all, the player doesn’t necessarily know his character cannot be hit, especially if some of the aforementioned options are in place. Even if you know there’s no chance of failure, make the player roll anyway and “interpret” the results to maintain a bit of tension. Describe a “near miss” or “grazing hit” that has no real effect other than some in-game color and to keep the players guessing. Apply modifiers to the situation or change the circumstances to make them more challenging. Would the hero walk all over a group of thugs in a straight-up fight? Give them hostages as human shields or a superior tactical position. Given them better weapons (supplied by a mysterious benefactor, as in the new Gangbusters! adventure), or put one of the heroes’ friends or loved ones in the line of fire (perfect challenge opportunity).

In using any or all of these ideas, keep in mind: an “untouchable” hero should get the opportunity to enjoy being such a superior fighter, just as an invulnerable hero should get to bounce some bullets or a super-fast hero should get to ignore the mundane limits of time or distance; that’s part of what being “super” is about! Spice it up to keep things interesting for you and your players, but also allow them to enjoy being able to take on hordes of lesser foes, secure in the knowledge that they can handle it … most of the time.