Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Decolonizing Your OSR Game

So the issue of whether or not D&D is racist and/or colonialist with overtones of 80s American capitalism seemed to have reared it's head again as it seems to every couple of months.

I'm not going to write about these views in particular. Other people have written about them in better ways than I could at length.

I always find myself feeling like a middle child when this topic comes up, kind of stuck between my older sibling (hardcore TSR oldschool grognards) and my younger sibling (5th edition fanboy's) as they argue vehemently all over twitter while I just kind of stand to the side ignored by mom and dad.

I do think there are some problematic themes in D&D. But I don't think the issue is as polarized as this topic is often treated and talked about. Where either you run your table with all the problematic content in it's 80s glory, or you remove anything that could be seen as problematic to anyone and run a game that begins to not resemble D&D much anymore and is firmly family friendly.

I don't think the issue is so stark and there are multiple ways to decolonize your game and keep it interesting. In fact, some of these things I (and I think the OSR sphere) have been doing for a while and have been doing so not for any particularly 'woke' reasons (at least not initially) but because they lead to a much more interesting game.


1. Use the Early Modern Period as Inspiration instead of the Medieval Period or Tolkienesque Fantasy

I know this is kind of a general point but I find a very useful one. In terms of the general level of technology and political/cultural organization that goes on in most D&D settings and games, it more closely resembles the Early Modern Period (approximately 1400 or 1500 to 1800). 

It's kind of the sweet spot. You have individualism becoming a thing, the printing press and rising literacy, the beginnings of capitalism, the beginnings of scientific investigation, and the rise of the nation state. 

Anything earlier and it's really hard to understand the thinking and perspective of the people who lived back then. Anything later and technological development begins to change things so much it wouldn't really be D&D.

It may seem weird to suggest this time period to decolonize your game as it's kind of when colonization was happening and the slave trade was in full swing.

But I find reading up on actual history of this era really forces you to discard general romanticized ideas it, of both the oppressor and oppressed that are often formed after colonization happens. It also gives you an idea of how and why colonization happened and who benefited. And it often gives you gives you insight into what these colonized societies were actually like before they were colonized, (as pre-contact history of colonized places can be fragmented). 

If you're going to play a game set in the past with multiple cultures, being knowledgeable on how colonialism happens and what leads to colonialism, can help you portray the setting in a way that's sensitive and multifaceted rather than pretending that colonization as a form of conflict simply doesn't exist or is a simple affair.

Knowing how and why colonialism happened also helps with coming up with reasonings as to why conflict between nations and cultures is not taking the form of overt colonialism and racism. If you know what societal structures, institutions, and forces lead to colonialism, then you can probably come up with societal structures, institutions, and forces in your game that prevent it. I don't think colonialism and racism are inevitable, but a certain degree of conflict, posturing, and cultural misunderstanding is. 

I tend to take this approach in my games. I don't like to have any systemic colonialism or racism in my games. But I do like to have multiple cultures and nations and am not going to pretend like racism and colonialism is not an inclination of humankind and that individual cultural conflict can't be handled in a way that creates interesting and engaging situations and stories.

Like, do we really want to help or sign on with these pirates? They were all once captives themselves and half were refugees, but they do seem to like to raid costal villages of an unfriendly nation a lot.

Or, this trading company has opened an office in this foreign city. The two cultures get along okay, and exchange needed goods, but there's been cultural misunderstandings and conflicts in the past. Do we want to side with one over the other? Do we want to even get involved? Which cultures is better? Can one culture be better?


2. Get rid of evil humanoid races and just have humans

One common criticism of how D&D may be racist is it's depiction of evil humanoid races as inherently evil who, depending on what art of what edition you're looking at, may resemble people of colour. 

It's part of the whole Civilization vs Wilderness theme in D&D where the 'civilized' cultures are generally modelled after European ones and the 'wilderness' cultures are modelled after indigenous or nomadic cultures.

A great solution I find to this is just replace them all with humans. Humans are pretty good at being awful to each other. Banditry and groups of people living outside the law were also very common in the early modern era. Simply replace all your generic bad guy humanoids with actual humans. You don't need to have an actual untamed wilderness to have dangerous people about. Bandits in the countryside kind of ensure that even in the middle of a settled, western European nation state, you can still have an area without a lot of law and order.

As an added twist you can vary encounters with them to make some of them morally gray. Like are these bandits bandits because they were farmers and their crops failed and they need a new way to feed themselves? Or are they ex-soldiers who don't give a fuck commanded by a sadist who genuinely loves his job? 

Also, by having humans as your generic enemy with interesting motivations it makes the actual monsters and strange creatures more strange and interesting in comparison.


3. Have starting cultural backgrounds instead of races or ethnicities

A lot of games will let you play as other races with racial traits or abilities. Some games which tend to use humans more will let you pick a starting ethnicity.

I tend to just let players roll a local starting culture for their character instead. This local culture represents experiences a character has had and communities that they have been part of that have granted knowledge about a particular place, way of life, and social class. Culture tends to be the main thing which ideals, attitudes, and practices are transmitted from human to human anyways. More so than race or ethnicity. This stuff isn't genetic after all.

I tend to opt more for a local culture that is reflective of a certain lifestyle in a certain geographic place than one defined by a nation state. While the idea of a nation state was forming during the early modern period it was still all somewhat ambiguous. People probably identified first and foremost with the local village and lifestyle they were from and then larger more collective things like the nation state they found themselves part of. 

I use this chart and let my players pick their nationality after based on what area of the world the game is set in:

1d12

Name

Description

1

Agricultural

You grew up in one of the many small agricultural villages that dot most landscapes. One of many brothers and sisters, you worked the farm and life was hard. Life was dictated by the seasons, both spiritual and earthly, a time and place for everything.

2

Nomadic

You grew up taking care of your families herds. Moving with the seasons you brought them to graze upon the open grasslands in the summer and sheltered in the forested vales in the winter.

3

Itinerant

You grew up with your family living in a wagon, trading items here and there, your father doing odd jobs where he could find them. Whether because of persecution or the call of the open road, your family lived in many places and spoke many languages.

4

Religious Urban

You grew up cloistered in a tight knit urban religious community. You attended religious schools and celebrated religious holidays with your community. At times persecuted, the pain of one was shared by all within the community.

5

Seafaring

you grew up on a small town or village on the coast. The open sea called to you every morning and the gulls awoke you. Songs were sung as the catch of the day was delivered and all eyed the ocean carefully when storms rolled in. Some people in the village would even go on fishing expeditions that lasted months or even years.

6

Nobility

Once upon a time you had it all. You lived in an ancestral hall with a silver spoon in your mouth. Then one day it was gone, the rest of your family killed by your uncle.

7

Free Town

You grew up in a tall house in town. Your father was a tradesman and your life was filled with the gossip of the town. It was a small but industrious community, proud of it's work and civic ethos.

8

Impoverished

You grew up in the streets of a big filthy city. Wild dogs your only friends, cats your competitors, other orphans your comrades.

9

Servant

Your mother was a scullery maid, your father unknown. You grew up in the servants halls of your employer. Working for them just as your mother did until you decided enough was enough.

10

Mountain Folk

You are from the mountains and of the proud folk that fill them. Forestry, mining, it doesn't matter, you learned much from the hard but friendly folk that you grew up among. You can drink almost anyone under the table.

11

Pastoral

You took care of your family's flocks, letting them graze upon the hilly meadows in your youth. Long hours you spent guiding them, making sure none got lost. Most of the time spent outdoors you learned how to navigate and survive in the rocky landscape.

12

Militaristic

Coming from a long line of men who have served, you grew up playing with toy soldiers and hearing stories of war. You longed for the day when you could serve gallantly and bring honour to your family.

So if the game was located primarily in Western Europe and two characters rolled a 6 one might be a minor ex-noble from Lyon, France while another might be a minor noble from Genoa, Italy. They've have insight into local intrigue and would probably have more common understanding with each other than a pastoral goatherd from the French Alps even though the two French characters are from the same nation state. 

I find this creates more flexible and interesting backgrounds than race. 


4. Have your world be post-apocalyptic

In most OSR games the players are delving into ruins and looting treasure. At heart this is somewhat problematic as that treasure probably belonged to someone. While this is a core part of OSR games I think it you can make your games a lot less problematic if you make the culture the treasure comes from long dead culture. 

While characters are still looting treasure (they aren't exactly conducting archeological excavations) it's generally a little less problematic if the people they are looting it from has no real living descendants or cultural connection. 

It's also less problematic if the culture is some weird culture like the dungeon was built by an alien culture from the stars on a windswept isle. Or a bunch of giants made from living stone living deep within the mountains dug out the dungeon and then abandoned it.

And less problematic if the culture was kind of evil, like the strange religious cult that inhabited the dungeon practiced human sacrifice and used to raid others.

These aren't perfect solutions but I find most players are willing to accept them.


5. Have no land be truly uninhabited

Humanity has pretty much spread all over the globe and lived in just about every type of geography you can find. I'm not talking about modern times, I'm talking about pretty much the last couple thousand years. While population density may vary greatly, there are very few parts of the earth that have ever truly been unclaimed. No matter how few people there are living in a place, no matter how spread out they are, generally someone will consider every part of the earth their home and belonging to them. 

This may make it seem like it's hard to have wilderness but it kind of feeds into making the world post-apocalyptic. If every part of the earth has had humans living on it and considering it their home, as time goes on and cultures drift and conflict happens, you're going to end up with tons and tons of ruins and remnants of these old cultures, regardless of how few people live in the region currently. 

Indigenous peoples in an area should be seen as more than just obstacles or potential conflict. They are the ones who best know how to live in and navigate the geography. They are the ones who probably know where the ancient ruins are that the players are most interested in and what is dangerous about them. 

If you read the accounts of expeditions of early explorers, most times they survive purely by the help or advice of the natives. Navigation and exploration of an area should be very, very, difficult for the players if they don't get to know the local indigenous people and their culture. Doing so can create a lot of interesting gameplay. Like how do they feel about the ancient culture that built the ruins? Do they see the treasure as a resource to be exploited or lost technology to be regained? Something to be protected as a heritage treasure? Something that can help them understand their forgotten past? A painful reminder of the past? Do they actively re-use parts of these ruins (stone from ruins used to build present day buildings etc.)? 

Additionally, frontiers tend to from not because a land is empty wilderness but because it's the rough geography and mutable borderlands in-between two, often competing, cultures. They tend to be full of competing factions and interests and ripe for adventure as the two competing cultures press up against each other. Instead of having a civilization vs wilderness setup, make it a borderlands. 


6. Keep the weird things relatively uncommon and very weird

This is another big one. Have a firm distinction between your weird or strange elements and your recognizable more normal elements.

I personally hate the overall trend that seems to be present in most WOTC materials to normalize the fantastic or weird elements in fantasy in order to present a setting that seems well thought out where fantastic things are part of daily life. This is both present in low magic stuff like the Forgotten Realms and high magic stuff like Eberron. 

In my settings people are aware that there are weird things in the world. They're aware that occult magic is real and exists. That strange creatures can be found in certain area's. That there is much unknown about the world. But is the average peasant really exposed to all this? No, probably not. In the early modern era people rarely travelled more than 30 miles from their village. While weird things exist, it's really not part of the daily lives of most people and most people in my setting are fine with that. They avoid the weird because it's dangerous and likely to kill them.

I find integrating the fantastic elements of the setting into the daily lives of the people to much makes the interesting parts of the setting way less interesting and tends to open itself to problems. If you want to try to explain everything about your weird elements and have everything logically congruent you're going to have to fill in a lot of 'gaps'. When you fill in gaps you tend to draw upon what you know about the normal real world to make it feel realistic. This creates real world analogues. The more you do this the more you open yourself up to interpretation that these fantasy elements represent real world things and thus comparison to these real world things.

The easiest thing I find is to just draw on and use actual history for the normal stuff in your game and keep your weird stuff very, very weird, at times without much of an explanation to the players. The weird stuff just is

I find the work the OSR is doing to make the weird things weird again has, whether it intentional or not, helped decolonize D&D and remove problematic elements in some ways more than the work WOTC is doing by simply rewording references or removing material.

Patrick Stuarts conception of what the Drow could truly be like and how strong their hate could be to me does more to remove a lot of problematic elements from the Drow, more than anything WOTC has done. Where after reading his description of them it's pretty clear they aren't just dark skinned BDSM themed matriarchal goth elves. They are something different, something that feels beyond the human range of emotion, of expression, of thought. Something that feels alien because it's so irrationally extreme.


4 comments:

  1. These are cool ideas, and they will be useful areas to check when writing sessions. I especially like the idea of highlighting colonial circumstances (including setting IN a colonial era), thus creating player thought/choice, and replacing races with backgrounds. I'm definitely nicking that table, and appreciate the linking to further resources on the topic, as well.

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    1. Yeah, I've done a fair amount of reading on the Early Modern period. Lamentations of the Flame Princess kind of got me into it. I'll probably post more about the Early Modern Period at some point.

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  2. Came here from Reddit. Thanks for writing this. These are really good points and I appreciate the effort you put into it. Gonna share this around. Blessings!

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  3. Gives me a lot to mull over. Thanks very much!

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