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Archive => RPG Theory => Topic started by: Mike Holmes on February 15, 2003, 12:06:37 PM



Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on February 15, 2003, 12:06:37 PM
As with all my Standard Rants, I put this down here as a sort of shorthand to which I can refer people so as not to have to repeat the same ideas over and over (at which point they start to sound like Rants). The concepts of these rants are not ground-breaking, nor are they all that controversial. As such feel free to respond to them, or ignore them as you like.

I've copied the definitions that I'm using for purposes of this rant so that people do not get confused by my usages.

Spe∑cies
n. pl. species
Biology.
A fundamental category of taxonomic classification, ranking below a genus or subgenus and consisting of related organisms capable of interbreeding.

race
n.
A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the German race.

cul∑ture ††
n.
The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

eth∑nic
adj.
Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.
Being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries: ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia.

-------------
In good old Basic D&D, you could play a Fighting Man, a Wizard, a Cleric, a Thief, a Dwarf, an Elf, or a Halfling. And thus the problem began.

In Basic D&D there were no cultures. Yes there were races, but they served simply as classes. Everyone apparently lived together in a pseudo-medieval culture known as Town. As D&D progressed, Town evaporated and was replaced by much more complex cultures that resided in places like the World of Greyhawk. A world dominated by humans with a sprinkling of the other races.

And indeed races they were. Some people have said that this is an inappropriate term, but looking at it closer, we see that it's usually the correct term. That is, Elves, Humans, Orcs, Trolls, and even Dwarves and Halflings when it comes up, seem to be inter-fertile in these games (leading to ubiquitous half-breed PCs). As such, by the strictest of definitions that would make all of these races of the same species. Interestingly, the species is almost never named. I do recall one article from the Dragon Magazine that actually made this point, going so far as to give latin-ish names to all the races and their ancestors (I distinctly remember something like Australopithecus Orcus). Let's refer to humans and all these inter-fertile races as the "humanoid" species.

Anyhow, that's a side point. But it does help to think in these terms.

The most important thing is that either these races lived within the cultures of humans as in the case of the Halflings (paralleling, after all hobbits, who were themselves subjects of a human kingdom), or they had their own little kingdoms. As I recall, Greyhawk had one Kingdom of Elves, and the dwarves just had their little city states here and there in the mountains (again, paralleling Tolkien's dwarves of Moria). Now, the Greyhawk Gazetteer was not too in depth on describing the cultures of each kingdom. Each human culture was an obvious parallel of some Earth culture, that could be relatively easily discerned even by looking at their placement on the map (the nordics were in the north, and lived along the coast where there were fjords). As for the Elves and Dwarves, IIRC, the book left the description of the culture of these humanoids to that in the rules.

Which means that every single community, polity, kingdom, nation, whathaveyou, of these races was the same culture.

Well, if there really only is one, then, I suppose this is forgivable, right? But what about all those dwarven city states? Scattered across thousands of miles in some cases?

You know, I could accept an argument that elves and dwarves are long lived, and/or stubborn, or have some sort of characteristic that makes all their cultures the same. Perhaps they reproduce by cloning. It is fantasy, right; such a thing could be possible. Well, that's all well and good, but this was never explained. The problem is that the one non-human-culture per non-human-race paradigm became the norm. And games since have been repeating this error.

I call it an error since even in emulating Tolkien, they messed up. The Elves of Tolkien, despite being immortal, do have different cultures in different places. And that's key. Tolkien understood what it is that differentiates cultures. It's not race. One can have two races with the same culture. What makes for a differentiation of cultures is separation in time and space. A lack of contact. It's a simple concept, and one that's obvious when grasped. Still, designers repeatedly have the one for one ratio in their games. What is, of course, the most obvious error here is the assumption that humans would have diferent cultures, but that other races would not. What makes these races so immune to having more than one culture.

Now, if a designer looks at this critically, and decides that there is some very good reason, and puts that into his design, then bully for him. But why do this? I can see maybe simplicity as an argument. But I would not accept that as a reason from a designer who has many human cultures enumerated.

It most often smacks to me of laziness, or just repeating old designs. And it's often shocking to the disbelief suspension mechanism. Take Traveller, for instance. In a game that tries to make itself seem at least somewhat plausible, humanity is put on the map with 11,000 different cultures. One for each world. But the Zhodani? A race of humanoids? Nope, their 5,00 worlds have just one culture.

Aha! you say, but that's because of their psionics!

But the Solomani are also humanoid, and they have no psionics?

But they have an interstellar government that is essentially a dictatorship that prevents cultural dissent.

Well, then what of the Thousand worlds of the K'Kree?

Herbivores; a race of followers.

The Aslan?

Genetically predisposed in the ruling semi-sentient males to follow a preset course for societal development. Same excuse with the Droyne. Aha! what about the Vargr, they've got multiple cultures?

Look at the map of Vargr territory. For a species that's supposed to be more incapable of creating large scale governments due to their societal structure being built on the packing order, they have some very large empires.

I could go on. And I'm overstating the case some; Traveller does try to allow for multiple cultures to an extent within these larger ones.

But it's all a case of coming up with explanations when none seem necessary. If we can have 11,000 cultures for humans, why can't we allow the same sort of diversity amongst at least some of the other races? Because then they cease to be as easily understood? Isn't that a good thing? Because they cease to be coherent as generic enemies? I don't even want to think about the potentially racist connotations that this idea brings up.

Anyhow, the point is that it seems to me that a designer would do well to look closely at these issues before making any quick decisions. Following tradition by rote, here, is a very bad idea, IMO.

Mike

P.S. Thanks to clerich who got me thinking about this again by mentioning his Aurora project which seeks to be the exact opposite example of this phenomenon; a game which allows for all it's species to be just as diverse as makes internal sense for them to be.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: clehrich on February 15, 2003, 02:55:00 PM
Mike,

Boy, howdy, did you just hit all my buttons.  Whew!  :)

I agree with every one of your principles.  I have found that there are some serious difficulties in constructing alien cultures, however, and since of all the Aurora gang I seem to spend the most time trying to deal with culture per se, I think it might be useful to present a few of my findings.

THIS IS LONG!

1. Quantity: Aurora has six sentient species, including Humans.  This may seem a small number, but the comparison to real humanity is worth considering.  If you look at humanity across history, you're talking about thousands of vastly different cultures.  To detail all of these requires a great deal more than any encyclopedia has ever succeeded in doing; in fact, it takes the entirety of the disciplines of the social sciences, history, anthropology, and history of religions.  And even that isn't anything resembling complete.  On top of all that, as well, if your alien species are physiologically very different from humans, you need to factor in the hard sciences.  So to do this sort of thing comprehensively is simply impossible.

2. Simplicity: If you think about historically-based games, they are generally quite simplistic about culture.  For example, the average player wants to be able to say, "That guy's a samurai --- I now know a lot about him."  While this is true, if you were actually living in mid-Tokugawa Japan, "samurai" covers a really large number of people, and there is tremendous variation.  The bushido thing is a myth, a conscious reconstruction from (primarily) the Meiji era; the idea that every samurai in (say) the 17th century even had these notions to work with is simply not true.  But if you start with this kind of complexity, your players will have to take a course on Japanese cultural history before they can play the game.  Thus you need some way of pigeonholing and stereotyping, or else the game becomes unplayable.

3. Expectations: This is a part of what Fang calls "GenEx" (Genre Expectation) in Scattershot.  If you're doing a fantasy game, you're usually referring to a mental library of fantasy books --- not just Tolkien, but all those zillions of imitators and whatnot.  And there are stock tropes: the Warrior Race (cf. bushido), the Religious Race (cf. Islam), the Church People (cf. Catholic hierarchy), the Sea People, the Little People, the Ancient Elf People, the Mechanical People, and so on.  If your game refuses flatly to fall into these simplistic (and racist) tropes, you are running so counter to expectations that players may simply say, "Okay, but I don't get any of this."

4. Racism: This is a broad and blunt way of putting things, but if you look at the stock tropes out there, they are extremely racist and culturist (if you know what I mean).  NextGen Star Trek, for example, set up an entire species, the Ferengi, who represent the worst tropes of old antisemitic stereotypes: short, bald, big noses, bad teeth, concerned only with money, dishonest, cunning, amoral.  And while this is a particularly glaring example, the general conception is broad: cultures can be defined morally, and individuals can be identified morally by identifying their species.  To the extent that you try to combat this in formulating your own fantasy/scifi cultures, you end up taking stock tropes and twisting them to contravene prevailing moral presumptions.  While this can be fun for the designer, it does make things particularly weird and potentially unpleasant in play, as you see players project cheap racist moralism onto alien cultures.  If part of the point of developing culture-like cultures is to combat the racist assumptions of the fantasy/scifi genre (in whatever medium), then you end up antagonistic to a lot of potential players, because after all they don't think of themselves as racists.

5. Organization: The thread in Indie Design, about Aurora species reference books, comes out of this problem.  If you have to present the range of an entire species and its multifarious cultures, you are writing what amounts to an encyclopedia per species.  You must cut, but doing so requires you to be simplistic.  So which things do you prioritize as necessarily complex, and which do you let slide?  How do you lay out your encyclopedia so that on the one hand it is usable as a game supplement, but on the other hand actively discourages the monoculturist tendencies of players and GMs?

6. Other Assumptions: The catch-all.  If I write up a religion, for example, I have considerable scholarly training in the discipline in question, and will go to great lengths to present a religion that I think could plausibly exist.  To do this, however, I will have to combat a whole range of assumptions by my players.  For example, I might develop a detailed and complex religion that does not have faith or gods at all.  In order to make this work, however, I must in effect give a quick intro to the discipline, or else make what I'm doing so convincingly written (i.e. drop-dead brilliant) that it simply never occurs to the reader that there's anything odd about this religion as a religion.  Unless I have tremendous faith in myself as a brilliant writer, I can't claim to do this.  As an example of this effect, in one of the numerous threads about religion that ran a few weeks back here on the Forge, I presented a lengthy explanation of how one might design a religion that would be entirely within a fantasy world, but simply does not begin with things like faith, ethics, and so forth, beginning instead with ordinary folks' concerns in their daily lives.  Despite the heated nature of debate in those threads, there was not a single response.  Why?  Primarily, I think, because it didn't seem to have much to do with what readers presume religion to be.  In a similar vein, when writing up alien cultures, one cannot simply work from professional expertise to design something plausible, because plausible to a professional eye is often at odds with offhand "feel" from popular culture.

Another example here came up when we laid out some linguistic issues.  We wanted a language that everyone more or less spoke (a Common Tongue), but we wanted a reason for this thing to exist.  My argument was pretty practical: the Kosu language is a functional trade tongue because everyone recognizes how useful it is to have a functional trade tongue, since computer translation requires artificial intelligence, and that does not exist in Aurora.  But immediately there were two big objections: (1) computer translation is totally sufficient, given lots of processing power, and (2) why not just make Kosu a perfect language so you can't misinterpret things?  On both counts, we had to explain the basic linguistic problems: (1) processing power has nothing to do with it, because language is not a series of meanings attached to units, and (2) perfect languages cannot exist, for lots of reasons, ultimately boiling down to the recognition that a language which cannot be misinterpreted is not a language.  But in order to make all this clear, we have to give a quick primer in linguistics.

In short, presenting fully rendered alien cultures is a nightmare.  It requires enormous expenditures of time and creativity.  You have to be able to write very well.  You (or the team) have to have considerable expertise in a very wide range of disciplines.  You have to be willing to imagine things that you find morally repugnant, as well as ones you like.

Very few of these things, I think, are high on the list of priorities and interests for most game designers.  I don't know that they need to be essential, although certainly I sometimes think that if I see one more "warrior race" I'm going to go postal, but the fact is that to get around these problems fully is impossible, and get around them reasonably well will mean spending far more time on culture design than on anything else.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 15, 2003, 02:57:40 PM
Hi there,

Lon and I kicked a slightly more specialized version of this topic in the Race in Heroic Fantasy (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=4586) thread a while ago. Peruse as you see fit.

Best,
Ron


Title: Re: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: M. J. Young on February 15, 2003, 08:32:42 PM
Hey, Mike, there's a lot here, and let me start by saying that despite all the disagreement I'm about to throw at it, in the main I do agree that it's a problem.

Quote from: Mike Holmes
And indeed races they were. Some people have said that this is an inappropriate term, but looking at it closer, we see that it's usually the correct term. That is, Elves, Humans, Orcs, Trolls, and even Dwarves and Halflings when it comes up, seem to be inter-fertile in these games (leading to ubiquitous half-breed PCs). As such, by the strictest of definitions that would make all of these races of the same species.


I'm going to take issue with this on several levels.

Not all humanoids and demihumans were interfertile.

There is no reference of which I am aware in OAD&D to any half-breed dwarf, halfling, or gnome. Humans were able to breed with elves and orcs; elves only bred with humans. Orcs were said to be fecund and rather indiscriminate, able to mix with a large variety of humanoid creatures (goblins and hobgoblins are specifically named; there is an implication that there are others, not specified). The notion that all humanoid and demihuman races are interfertile is not supported in the text.

In Tolkien, there was interbreeding between humans and elves and between humans and orcs. The former was justified on some ancient notion of the relationship between the two races; the latter was because orcs were elves twisted.

In Star Trek, the interbreeding seemed outrageous. It was eventually explained, in an episode of The Next Generation, through the existence of an ancient people who had seeded the galaxy with their genetics so that all the sentient races that sprang up were actually their offspring, through a sort of guided evolution. (In the words culled from White Christmas, it's not good, but it's a reason.)

Yes, there were games in which all the humanoids and demihumans were interfertile. You can't really hold the game world to the decisions of hundreds of thousands of high school referees.

Interspecies propagation is a reality.

The most common example is the mule, a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Mules are generally infertile themselves, although I recall reading that about one in a thousand are fertile. Canaries are also known to produce infertile crossbreed offspring with a variety of other birds. It has similarly been theorized that a human/ape crossbreed is feasible, although for obvious ethical and political reasons it has not been attempted. It is thought the offspring would be infertile.

It is certainly reasonable to suppose that species with closer genetic structures could be interfertile in similar ways, and might produce fertile and reproducible offspring. If there were elves and orcs, it is likely that they would be genetically closer to us than apes. There is a great deal of debate regarding Neanderthal Man. Some claim that it is a distinct species, homo neanderthalensis; others that it is merely another race, homo homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Some claim that it died out, displaced by the superior Cro Magnon man that led to modern man; others believe that it was bred out of existence, that is, that Cro Magnon and Neanderthal intermating resulted in both races (or were they species?) passing into a combined modern man. If we lived when they shared the earth, and discovered that they could interbreed although they rarely did, would that settle the issue? Perhaps not.

It is inappropriate to insist on modern genetic rules in a fantasy setting.

Our understanding of where babies come from has advanced over time; but if we're talking about a fantasy world, we're talking about a world in which things are inherently different from our world. How could they be different? For one thing, they could be the way our ancestors imagined they were.

In ancient times, semen was called seed; it was called this for a reason. Ancients didn't understand the fertilization of an egg. They thought that the male planted his seed in the soil of the female's womb, and it grew into another person or creature. They recognized that that soil influenced how it grew; but they did not have any comprehension of the woman contributing the same sort of material as the man.

Given this understanding, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that if a man has sex with a horse, he could produce a baby centaur; impregnating a goat with a man's seed would likely result in a faun or satyr. Mermaids could spring from sex with fish. With such extreme examples possible, the idea that orcs, elves, and humans might be interfertile is nothing at all, and tells us nothing about whether they are "related" in a biological or evolutionary sense. In our fantasy world, there might be no evolution, no genetics, no spermatozoa or ovum. Insisting that they must all be the same species merely because the seed of one is able to grow in the soil of another is overlaying modern rules on a fantasy world. It doesn't follow. Some weeds grow easily in any soil; other plants must be placed in the perfect growing conditions. Orc seed grows anywhere; elf seed is very delicate. That explains it, without resorting to the "everyone is the same species" modernist rubric.

Quote from: Mike further
The problem is that the one non-human-culture per non-human-race paradigm became the norm. And games since have been repeating this error....

What is, of course, the most obvious error here is the assumption that humans would have diferent cultures, but that other races would not. What makes these races so immune to having more than one culture[?]....

If we can have 11,000 cultures for humans, why can't we allow the same sort of diversity amongst at least some of the other races? Because then they cease to be as easily understood? Isn't that a good thing? Because they cease to be coherent as generic enemies?


I think that the problem lies in this: we have an inherent understanding that an alien race would be alien, that there would be something about them that makes them all different from us and like each other that transcends the fact that they are different from each other. Yet that is incredibly difficult to capture at all. Clehrich has adduced several examples of fantasy/sci-fi races that are little more than stereotypes of segments of humanity.

If we look at ourselves, we find that we differ by geography. Asians have different cultural biases than westerners; northern Europeans see life differently from southern Europeans. Germans are different from each other, yet similar in ways that make them different, in the main, from Frenchmen, and both of these distinct from the English or the Norwegian. At the same time, nineteenth century Europeans, as different as they were from each other, were more like each other in certain ways than any were like twentieth century Europeans. Thus we find that we are different across space and across time. Yet we also find in all human culture similarities that make us human. When we turn our attention to creating an alien intelligence, we are faced with the perhaps insurmountable task of developing something that thinks in ways so fundamentally different from the way we think that as different as they are from each other, they would all seem similar to us--and, conversely, as different as we are from each other, they would see us as pretty much all the same.

Creating this kind of "other intelligence" is itself an incredibly difficult task. It's much easier to take a fragment of human culture and extrapolate it into an alien world. The great warrior cultures of earth become the Klingons; the scientific/intellectual realms are the basis for Vulcan; Ferengi are projections of colonial imperialism. But once you've done that, you're stuck. You've substituted a monolithic cultural conception for real alien intellect and values. Now your Ferengi are recognizably different because they are all dedicated to the rules of acquisition, and your Vulcans because they are unemotional rationalists, and your Klingons because they prize the warrior spirit.

There are only two ways to create diversified alien cultures.

The first is to really genuinely come to grasp how it is that your aliens think, what it is about their very existence that makes their values and thoughts different from ours. C. S. Lewis, in his space trilogy, spoke of thoughts "floating on different blood", the idea that if you really had three distinct intelligent species in your world, they would have inherently different ways of thinking, and would bring conceptually different views of every subject to the discussion, thus enlightening everyone. Yet in his world, the three species were still somewhat stereotyped. You must develop the thoughts, the very existence, of your aliens to the point that you understand how they think. Then, building on this foundational difference between human thought and alien thought, you can begin to construct diverse cultures which have the same variation as human cultures and yet show that core thread that makes them all part of this alien approach to everything. Of course, if you've done that, you've got a great race for a book or movie, possibly even something you could use for a TV series if you've got good dedicated writers who are willing to study your background material and able to grasp the thought patterns of this alien people--but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.

The other is to decide that ultimately Lewis is wrong, that there is no alien mindset, and that what we discover is that aliens really are merely humans in different bodies. If there is nothing that makes them think different from us, then they have cultures as diverse as ours, and we find that European Elves are more like European Humans than they are like Asian Elves. Yet at that point, what's the point of having them at all? They really break down to skill packages, and we can do skill packages without the baggage.

I don't think it's impossible to create an alien race with a distinctively alien way of thinking on which you can build diverse cultures; I do think it's a tremendous challenge rarely met.

--M. J. Young


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: clehrich on February 15, 2003, 09:26:47 PM
In that very detailed post, M.J. hits on a number of valuable posts, and touches on something I consider essential for designing alien cultures:
Quote
Thus we find that we are different across space and across time. Yet we also find in all human culture similarities that make us human. When we turn our attention to creating an alien intelligence, we are faced with the perhaps insurmountable task of developing something that thinks in ways so fundamentally different from the way we think that as different as they are from each other, they would all seem similar to us--and, conversely, as different as we are from each other, they would see us as pretty much all the same.

There are a great many ways to begin this process, but in a lot of ways it's simplest to start with one basic thing, and extrapolate from there.  The one basic thing, however, cannot itself be a cultural element as such, because then the aliens (or fantasy species) are simply arbitrarily limited humans.

For example, in Aurora, you have the Milrolk, a colonial organism made up of a lot of semi-intelligent fish which, when they school, intercommunicate and create an intelligence.  Or you have the A'wahch, who are from a biological point of view intelligent walking carnivorous plants (though they don't look it), and whose reproduction works by their dropping tiny eggs continually and also incidentally fertilizing eggs they pass.

Now in both cases, you start by extrapolating human concerns, on the theory that a lot of our concerns are really just intelligence concerns, but you are limited by a few factors.  Neither Milrolk nor A'wahch have a sex drive at all, nor any notion of family life; there's simply no biological justification for it, and it never evolved.  Among the A'wahch, there is also relatively little assumption of the value of life as such, since overpopulation is the natural outcome of taking too seriously every A'wahch life; among the Milrolk, by contrast, the inherent fragility of the intelligence makes it likely that Milrolk will value lives quite highly.

From my point of view, you now have an interesting starting-point, but you're also sliding into biological determinism unless you recognize that these limitations are (1) not absolute, and (2) not necessarily important parts of any local culture.

So for me, the next thing to do is to take human analogues and re-imagine them in a new context, revising from soup to nuts.  So suppose you decide to do the classic "Warrior Culture" routine, but put it among the A'wahch.  OK, you can certainly take a kind of social Darwinist stance here, whoever ends the day standing on her opponent's dead body wins.  Now what is going to be valorized here?  Because in the stock model, the Winning Warriors gain breeding rights (like lions or whatever), whereas that's not going to be at issue among A'wahch.  Again, what sort of combat will be valorized?  In what symbols might this be couched?  Now you lay all that out coherently, but then revise in order to make it a functional system, one that can achieve goals without total warfare, and in which not everyone takes murdering his fellows as a Good Thing, which would lead to perpetual and unhelpful anarchy.

At this pont, given my professional interests, I tend to throw religion in the mix, and start asking about things like ritual, myth, metaphysics, philosophy, and so forth.  If you really embed these things deep in the culture you're working on, it may start to feel like these folks are people and not just a strange sociology experiment.

This all leads to one of my big culture design principles: incoherence.  If it all seems to make perfect logical sense, and everyone agrees on how it works, and all the little bits and pieces can be referred to some solid bit of biology or whatever, then this isn't culture.  Culture is messy stuff.  People believe odd things that aren't coherently in line with their own apparent well-being.  If you've ever taken Microeconomics, where they still push the "rational choice" model, you may have noticed that it often seems that actual people don't seem to work by rational choice, and that a lot of the Micro calculations seem like special pleading; for me, this is noticeably true when it comes to things like religion, in that you just cannot have enough factors in play to be able to determine whether believing in God is a rational choice or not.  So if your culture has a certain coherence to it, but there's all sorts of messy ugliness and weird things going on, and people on this street don't agree with people on that street about something that really seems like it's a matter of fact and not opinion, and so on --- then you're talking culture.

And if you get that far?
Quote
but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.

Exactly.  It's a good deal of fun to work out, but you're really dreaming if you think all the people who play the game are going to bother thinking this through.  Why should they?  Too much damn work.


Title: Re: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on February 15, 2003, 11:36:36 PM
Quote from: M. J. Young
Hey, Mike, there's a lot here, and let me start by saying that despite all the disagreement I'm about to throw at it, in the main I do agree that it's a problem.
Good, because most of your "objections" miss the point entirely. I've intentionally made broad generalizations to support my point.

Quote
Quote from: Mike Holmes
And indeed races they were. Some people have said that this is an inappropriate term, but looking at it closer, we see that it's usually the correct term. That is, Elves, Humans, Orcs, Trolls, and even Dwarves and Halflings when it comes up, seem to be inter-fertile in these games (leading to ubiquitous half-breed PCs). As such, by the strictest of definitions that would make all of these races of the same species.


I'm going to take issue with this on several levels.

Not all humanoids and demihumans were interfertile.

There is no reference of which I am aware in OAD&D to any half-breed dwarf, halfling, or gnome. Humans were able to breed with elves and orcs; elves only bred with humans. Orcs were said to be fecund and rather indiscriminate, able to mix with a large variety of humanoid creatures (goblins and hobgoblins are specifically named; there is an implication that there are others, not specified). The notion that all humanoid and demihuman races are interfertile is not supported in the text.
One: What part about the word "usually" means "all".
Two: There must have been a dozen articles in Dragon magazine that discussed the idea of Half-Dwarves, and other racial mixes. Including the article that I cited. When I said "when it comes up", I meant in sources outside the texts.
Three: Who cares what "the text" said, anyhow? Whether or not the text said these things is irrelevant. People made mistakes concerning the subject. Mostly because the text didn't say anything about it. Thank you for backing me up on this.

Quote
In Tolkien, there was interbreeding between humans and elves and between humans and orcs. The former was justified on some ancient notion of the relationship between the two races; the latter was because orcs were elves twisted.
Price of tea in China?

Quote
In Star Trek, the interbreeding seemed outrageous. It was eventually explained, in an episode of The Next Generation, through the existence of an ancient people who had seeded the galaxy with their genetics so that all the sentient races that sprang up were actually their offspring, through a sort of guided evolution. (In the words culled from White Christmas, it's not good, but it's a reason.)
That would be the famed "Rodenberry Hypothesis" which was known by Trek fans well before the TNG episode that put it forward officially. Um, but your point was, anyhow? By the simple definition of species, these creatures were all one species, Klingons, Romulans, humans, etc. BTW, Traveller, and other sci-fi games use the exact same idea. Humans across the galaxy are the same species because they were extracted by aliens 200,000 years ago, and placed all over the galaxy. But no multi-cultural worlds to speak of (actually there are, but only as historical footnotes).

Quote
Yes, there were games in which all the humanoids and demihumans were interfertile. You can't really hold the game world to the decisions of hundreds of thousands of high school referees.
You seem to be under some assumption that the idea of interbreeding is bad. I'm not arguing for or against interbreeding being an in-game reality. Just that people understand the ramifications, and use proper terminology.

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Interspecies propagation is a reality.
Did someone say it was not? And the point is? That Orcs should be termed a species because were not sure that they are of the same species? Heck, if a person's skin color can range from near black to blue-white, I can see a person with pointed ears being the same species. Possibly. The point is that it's entirely possible.

Given that articles in Dragon said they were the same species, I think it's a safe assumption.

but again, I'm just trying to get everyone on the same sheet of music here.

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It is certainly reasonable to suppose that species with closer genetic structures could be interfertile in similar ways, and might produce fertile and reproducible offspring.
I think that's where biologists draw the line, actually, at what makes something the same species as another. Has to get drawn somewhere. Anyhow, if you want em to be separate species in your world, fine by me. I don't see a reason for concern.

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If there were elves and orcs, it is likely that they would be genetically closer to us than apes. There is a great deal of debate regarding Neanderthal Man.
I've ssaid, before and will again, that I feel that I am proof positive that Neanderthal Man was interfertile with Cro-Magnon (I also deny that you Cro-Mags are superior).

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If we lived when they shared the earth, and discovered that they could interbreed although they rarely did, would that settle the issue? Perhaps not.
What issue? Its a definition. Put the line anywhere you like.

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It is inappropriate to insist on modern genetic rules in a fantasy setting.
Fine. Again, I'm just trying to establish terms so that we can have a debate about a totally separate issue. While the genetic rules may not apply, they probably also don't have to deal with the idea of biology as a science. Thus, if Species is not an available term, then Race is all the more applicable.

But again, I'm not talking in terms of in-game here. I just want to advance the understanding of real people of the ramifications of these ideas.

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Insisting that they must all be the same species merely because the seed of one is able to grow in the soil of another is overlaying modern rules on a fantasy world.
Man you missed my point. At any point in here are you going to attempt to make the point that the term Race is inappropriate? If not, then that point, my only point stands.

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I think that the problem lies in this: we have an inherent understanding that an alien race would be alien, that there would be something about them that makes them all different from us and like each other that transcends the fact that they are different from each other. Yet that is incredibly difficult to capture at all. Clehrich has adduced several examples of fantasy/sci-fi races that are little more than stereotypes of segments of humanity.
Who could argue? Sure it's difficult. So, what, let's make it all the more unrealistic by making wacky assumptions based on RPG traditions?

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It's much easier to take a fragment of human culture and extrapolate it into an alien world. The great warrior cultures of earth become the Klingons; the scientific/intellectual realms are the basis for Vulcan; Ferengi are projections of colonial imperialism. But once you've done that, you're stuck. You've substituted a monolithic cultural conception for real alien intellect and values. Now your Ferengi are recognizably different because they are all dedicated to the rules of acquisition, and your Vulcans because they are unemotional rationalists, and your Klingons because they prize the warrior spirit.
Yep. How is that different from anything we've said? Or are we now into the agreement part?

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but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.
So, what, don't even try it?

Quote
The other is to decide that ultimately Lewis is wrong, that there is no alien mindset, and that what we discover is that aliens really are merely humans in different bodies. If there is nothing that makes them think different from us, then they have cultures as diverse as ours, and we find that European Elves are more like European Humans than they are like Asian Elves. Yet at that point, what's the point of having them at all? They really break down to skill packages, and we can do skill packages without the baggage.
Wait, so, either they're truely alien, and they cannot have multiple cultures, or they are just humans in disguise? And there's no middle ground? There's nothing that you can say about an "alien" psychology that makes it comparable to a human psychology that doesn't relegate the aliens to the status of men in rubber suits?

You'd allow that aliens might have physical bodies, no? You'd allow that they might have a survival instinct that would explain their continued existence, no? Are not animals alien intelligences? Are there not some things that we can find in common with them?

Sure, you can postulate the completely alien species. In fact, Aurora has one called the Ignorers. These make better non-player races to be sure. But it's certainly a good idea to have some such race. But I don't see that all races have to be so far from human in their behavior that they can't at least be described in terms of human behavior.

Perhaps culture is an improper word here. Perhaps what I mean to say is that I find it hard to believe that all aliens would be of such a mix of behavioral patterns as to be able to classify them all in one pattern the "size" of a culture. I call this a culture for the sake of ease. But what I'm getting at, is that, basically, peple use the idea of the monolithic culture (or behavior pattern) as a shortcut. So as to make the race easier to enumerate. When taken to the extremes that it usually is, it's simply intolerable. Either it's ignored, or every race is given some explanation as to why they are so monolothic, which is itself unbelievable. I'm not saying you can't have one, or two, or even most of such species. But to not have even one species amongst many that is as diverse as humans in their varying behavoir? I've read a whole lot of write-ups on Traveller races, probably more than thirty. And they all suffer from ths problem.

And, given a (well, lets say they're a different species just for argument's sake) species like Elves that are so similar in their description in every way to humans, why would we assume that they are so different as to not have multiple cultures?

I think I must be misunderstanding something about your arguments, because, I'm not seeing where you're agreeing with me, and where you aren't. Are you just messing with me?

Mike


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on February 15, 2003, 11:52:05 PM
Quote from: clehrich

Quote
but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.

Exactly.  It's a good deal of fun to work out, but you're really dreaming if you think all the people who play the game are going to bother thinking this through.  Why should they?  Too much damn work.

Um, so, you're giving up? Not going to do the cultures? Or do you mean that you're going to gloss them over? Or just not have aliens?

Mike


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: ADGBoss on February 16, 2003, 07:56:35 AM
Quote
clerhick wrote:
Now in both cases, you start by extrapolating human concerns, on the theory that a lot of our concerns are really just intelligence concerns, but you are limited by a few factors. Neither Milrolk nor A'wahch have a sex drive at all, nor any notion of family life; there's simply no biological justification for it, and it never evolved. Among the A'wahch, there is also relatively little assumption of the value of life as such, since overpopulation is the natural outcome of taking too seriously every A'wahch life; among the Milrolk, by contrast, the inherent fragility of the intelligence makes it likely that Milrolk will value lives quite highly.

From my point of view, you now have an interesting starting-point, but you're also sliding into biological determinism unless you recognize that these limitations are (1) not absolute, and (2) not necessarily important parts of any local culture.

So for me, the next thing to do is to take human analogues and re-imagine them in a new context, revising from soup to nuts. So suppose you decide to do the classic "Warrior Culture" routine, but put it among the A'wahch. OK, you can certainly take a kind of social Darwinist stance here, whoever ends the day standing on her opponent's dead body wins. Now what is going to be valorized here? Because in the stock model, the Winning Warriors gain breeding rights (like lions or whatever), whereas that's not going to be at issue among A'wahch. Again, what sort of combat will be valorized? In what symbols might this be couched? Now you lay all that out coherently, but then revise in order to make it a functional system, one that can achieve goals without total warfare, and in which not everyone takes murdering his fellows as a Good Thing, which would lead to perpetual and unhelpful anarchy.


Here I think is the central point.  We extrapolate from our own Human POLITICAL divisions to create an alien species, throw in a funny fore head, and call it good enough.  This is made based on the following assumptions

1) Eventually there will be one world STATE (notice I did not say Culture)

2) That a Species, or lets say the Sentient racial groups that exist on a given world, once they have the 1 world STATE, will then slide towards 1 World Culture and present a unified Cultural front to all others that they meet.

3) That the Culture of that Racial group will divide into two lines: Those who go with the status quo and those who do not. This is based on the idea that we see in almost every race, there are PAtriots and Rebels. Few is anyone in between.

We make many of these assumptions about Humans in the future. America will gorw to dominate the Culture OR America will not grow to Dominate the culture.  We are rarely just part of the mix. (David Weber's Starfire where US and Russia dominate the TFN culturally because owlrd unification put their militaries out of business vs. Trinity where America is some backward place with hi tech and high ambition)

The idea is that a Race or Species if ALIEN.  This could mean they do one one polity, one State, o rthey could haev thousands.  It is an extreme error to believe that it requires unified government of entire Race/Species to create and maintain Space Flight.  It certianly does not work that way on Earth, though the different Polities here do cooperate.

So when it comes to design, how do you begin to create cultures for the setting that includes different races ( I use race differentl then Mike's definition above, to mean different peoples, ie Human Vulcan whatever, though his definition may be scientifically correct NOW, tat could change if we ever do meet an Alien Culture.)

Well one can create 20 single culture races or 5, 4 Culture Races. You have put in the same work, creating 20 cultures.  It just seems completely illogical to me (and alsways has) that every Alien race we meet will have subdued their diverse cultures to mere foot notes.  One or possibly two? Well yes they are ALIEN after all.  But it seems illogical for all of them to be that way.

My apologies if someone else has espoused the above before and I have not credited them...

Sean
ADGBoss


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Bob McNamee on February 16, 2003, 08:23:35 AM
The problem with these truly Alien creations is going to be conveying them to the Players, and possibly the GMs too if they are not the ones creating them. This sort of thing was brought up as a problem any non-familiar Setting in the Sci-fi thread.

I remember one mixed genre Fantasy-Tech D&D game where you knew what the focus of the session that night was going to be... The Game master was very inventive and created quite a different setting and society, but, the GM would explain any aspect of the setting to us that was important  and different before he exposed us to it (since our Character's would know it already). For instance, we knew that tonight's mystery was going to involve finding the D&D version of Floppy Disks (crystals or something) because, in order to run the scenario, the GM explained all about the use Magic as Computers...

It made me wish there was a book series that I could read...to get the Setting in my head as a Player.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Jack Spencer Jr on February 16, 2003, 08:35:06 AM
Quote from: Bob McNamee
The problem with these truly Alien creations is going to be conveying them to the Players, and possibly the GMs too if they are not the ones creating them. This sort of thing was brought up as a problem any non-familiar Setting in the Sci-fi thread.

As well as the Where is "Not Here"? (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=5071) thread on the Adept Press forum. where the concept of Not Here, where demons come from is examined:
Quote from: Ron Edwards
"Not-Here" is a concept that many role-players and modern SF/fantasy fans are going to have a hard time with. At least as I see it, if you can define it in any sense that carries explanation, you're still talking about "Here." "Here" is the explainable, or even conjecturable, in metaphysical as well as physical terms.

Hell? Here.

Some other dimension? Here.

The seething Collective Unconscious? Here.

In other words, as soon as you give demons' origins/nature a context in the human scheme of things, you've missed the point. Not-Here cannot, by definition, be accounted-for.

To me, something "alien" falls under this same banner. What is alien? Bad ethnic stereotypes hidden behind an alien facade? Or is it something else?


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: clehrich on February 16, 2003, 11:38:06 AM
Quote
Um, so, you're giving up? Not going to do the cultures? Or do you mean that you're going to gloss them over? Or just not have aliens?

Mike, given my other posts, on this thread and the Indie Games thread we started with, you know I'm not espousing that.  All I was suggesting was that there are legitimate reasons why going into serious detail about alien cultures, thought through fully, may not be a priority for a lot of game designs.

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So when it comes to design, how do you begin to create cultures for the setting that includes different races ( I use race differentl then Mike's definition above, to mean different peoples, ie Human Vulcan whatever, though his definition may be scientifically correct NOW, tat could change if we ever do meet an Alien Culture.)

Sean, you're entirely missing my point.  When I suggest working from a human analogue and then extrapolating, I am referring to culture and not race/species.  The fact that one particular culture happens to conceive of itself as unified has nothing whatever to do with whether the species is unified.  You refer to state as opposed to culture, and then suggest that the stock assumption I make is that a unified state leads to a unified species-culture.  But in fact, I would say that "state" already implies a type of government or political structure that cannot necessarily be assumed among some group of aliens (or humans), and that "culture" is a usefully broad term.  At the same time, I do not see any reason to assume that cultures will become monolithic or otherwise entirely dominant; to the extent that they do so, in fact, they also necessarily seem to allow subcultures of extraordinary diversity.

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So when it comes to design, how do you begin to create cultures for the setting that includes different races ( I use race differentl then Mike's definition above, to mean different peoples, ie Human Vulcan whatever, though his definition may be scientifically correct NOW, tat could change if we ever do meet an Alien Culture.)

I'm not quite sure what you're saying here.  The possibility of multispecies cultures seems an important factor to consider, and greatly increases the potential number of cultures one needs to design.  But I do not see what this has to do with "race" vs. "species."

Given the basic difficulties of designing cultures (please see my first post to this thread), plus the fact that actual players will not generally be all that receptive to reading the necessarily long and complex presentations of these cultures, a designer faces an extraordinary problem.  On the one hand, it seems entirely plausible that non-members will tend to "pigeonhole" (i.e. formulate a stereotype of) members of a given culture.  For each such culture, then, we need to imagine some of what those stereotypes might be, and use them as a point of entry for players wishing to play members of the culture.  At the same time, if we make these stereotypes too central or accurate, then we have constructed not a culture, but a stereotype.

The level of disagreement on this thread does seem to suggest that these problems are not merely design issues, but touch on deeper concerns.  One of the nice things about certain kinds of scifi is that creators are encouraged by genre tradition to use an imaginary future to comment on the present.  From my point of view, this means that a designer of alien species and cultures (which are NOT THE SAME thing!) may have a responsibility to use those designs to encourage reflection upon our own modern world and its problems.  The examples I gave from Star Trek were from NextGen, for a reason: while Gene Roddenberry often used grossly simplified aliens precisely to make points of social commentary, I find that NextGen often in effect used racist assumptions to comment on how tolerant and wonderful American culture is, which I found repugnant.  When designing alien cultures in a scifi game, then, it is for me a legitimate point of departure to take some issue or question from the modern world and extrapolate it into an alien culture.  But the only legitimate justification I can see for having a species which genuinely does have a monolithic culture is to encourage players to recognize and reflect upon the racist tendencies of such cultures in other scifi, and more broadly to recognize and explore the ways in which the idea of monolithic culture lends itself easily to some very unpleasant effects.  This is one reason I really hate the use of the word "race" in this context: whether or not they can interbreed and whatnot, which I consider totally irrelevant, the fact is that if a setting identifies race with culture then that setting is founded upon racism.  I'd like to see that challenged, attacked, and denounced --- often.  To project the same thing into species instead of race should allow one to reflect on where racist ideologies come from, instead of (as is usual) to allow a designer to pretend to tolerance while espousing deep bigotry.

So if all these things are going on at once, where do the points of balance lie, and how can one encourage players to take seriously the carefully formulated cultures we create?  How, furthermore, can one encourage players to continue the "thinking through alien culture" process, rather than simplifying it all down to a set of stereotypes in the name of "playability."  If it's necessary to be racist in order to have aliens be playable, then yes, we should stop designing aliens.  I don't think it is necessary, but sometimes I really begin to wonder.


Title: Is There One Right Way?
Post by: Le Joueur on February 16, 2003, 01:02:39 PM
Guys, aren't we oversimplifying here?

The way I read Mike's rant is that he's tired of inconsistent treatment, in this case of race, class, or species.  He's saying that if humans can have 11,000 cultures why do a handful of alternative races only get one each.  It's a valid point; if you treat 'culture' as a subdivision of one 'race' then shouldn't other 'races' have such subdivisions?

The problem we seem to be getting tied up in is 'how much is enough.'  I say that question doesn't have an answer.  You're doing a sci-fi game and you want detailed races, fine.  He's doing a fantasy game and it's treatment of 'races' is more simplistic; that's fine too.

Each of us has different standards of 'how much is enough.'  Mentioning Ron's Sorcerer brings this point home; the game doesn't treat this detail at all, but makes it a 'toolkit' for its comsumers.  I mean, for me, a detailed treatment of races that goes to the point of saying one is "a colonial organism made up of a lot of semi-intelligent fish which, when they school, intercommunicate and create an intelligence" or one has "reproduction [that] works by their dropping tiny eggs continually and also incidentally fertilizing eggs they pass" and that neither "have a sex drive at all" fails for me because I believe that several species that have 'sex drive' would have beaten them out at the 'survival of the fittest' game.  (I have this problem with a lot of pulp science fiction species; I mean, 'a trail of eggs' sounds like a fine food source.)

So what?

It doesn't matter what I think is 'enough,' what matters it what the author or the reader thinks.  Furthermore, I don't think we can establish any kind of set standard for what is 'enough' across the board.  What Mike claims is something we can call for.  A kind of consistency 'within the game' is a good thing; if you give detail like numerous 'cultures' of one 'species,' it is inconsistent to talk as if the same isn't anywhere near true for any other 'species.'

This is a good point.

Fang Langford


Title: Re: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: M. J. Young on February 16, 2003, 11:04:50 PM
Sorry to ruffle your feathers, Mike. I'll try to clarify.

On the first part of my post, I suppose I put too much into saying that I don't think the use of "race" was ever meant in a technical sense, or that we were supposed to think that all humanoid and demi-human creatures were the same. We were supposed to think (and perhaps Star Trek's ideas had more influence here than has previously been considered) that they were distinct life forms that happened for some fantasy reason to be able to interbreed in ways that real creatures can't. Perhaps "race" was an ill-chosen word; on the other hand, I don't think "species" would have been a better word (it suggests something too scientific for the purpose).

I suppose that the idea of a "fantasy race" draws its meaning not from taxonomy but from the idea of an "alien race". No one supposed that E.T. or the Rilans or any other science fiction race was biologically related to us (at least until Star Trek started playing games with that), but we still called them "races" in disregard to the taxonomy. Goodness, most are probably not the same taxonomic kingdom, and a few aren't the same biological base. You're putting too much into the word, and too much science into your fantasy, in my estimation.

But I grant that this was not your point; and I tried to address your point as well.

Oh, and I'm afraid I never read any Dungeon or Dragon magazines. I couldn't afford them, generally, and when copies did somehow find their way to me I never found anything in them to hold my interest. Then, I'm not much of a magazine person. I use to read Omni cover to cover, but nothing else has ever really grabbed me for more than an article here or there. So I was not aware of the parole evidence in the case (although the lawyer in me would exclude such evidence anyway, based on the well-established parole evidence rule).

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Quote from: M. J. Young
...but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.
So, what, don't even try it?

Quote
The other is to decide that ultimately Lewis is wrong, that there is no alien mindset, and that what we discover is that aliens really are merely humans in different bodies. If there is nothing that makes them think different from us, then they have cultures as diverse as ours, and we find that European Elves are more like European Humans than they are like Asian Elves. Yet at that point, what's the point of having them at all? They really break down to skill packages, and we can do skill packages without the baggage.
Wait, so, either they're truely alien, and they cannot have multiple cultures, or they are just humans in disguise? And there's no middle ground? There's nothing that you can say about an "alien" psychology that makes it comparable to a human psychology that doesn't relegate the aliens to the status of men in rubber suits?


I think Clehrich got the point
Quote from: when he
And if you get that far?
Quote

but whether a referee, let alone a player, could capture such an alien mindset...well, let's say that most will never put the work into it.


Exactly. It's a good deal of fun to work out, but you're really dreaming if you think all the people who play the game are going to bother thinking this through. Why should they? Too much damn work.
(Quoting me.)

Or perhaps it was put clearer by Bob McNamee
Quote from: when he
The problem with these truly Alien creations is going to be conveying them to the Players, and possibly the GMs too if they are not the ones creating them.


In creating Bah Ke'gehn, a rather alien fantasy world in The Second Book of Worlds, I did something very like what Clehrich recommends. I created a species whose entire biology was unlike human biology in fundamental ways. For the Bah, the world is covered in grass, and sometimes, for reasons they do not understand, the grass grows tall and thick into bushes and then suddenly disconnects from the ground to become something which is best analogized to a baby, or perhaps a larva. More mature Bah tend these until they, or at least some of them, go through a morphic stage to become tenders; There are a series of morphic stages in which Bah have different abilities and different inherent interests, that is, at one stage they become insatiably curious and wish to learn about all things and share what they have learned with others (as a biological imperative, much as children do). Only some advance from form to form; very few reach the last form, and these usually take responsibility for the care of all others. But then, there's another twist. Only the larvae can eat the grass; they produce the food that feeds the rest of the population. Thus the entire chain is interdependent, and most dependent on its weakest members.

From this I built the primary Bah culture.

I also recognized that at certain points Bah had a reasonable likelihood of rejecting the culture and following a different path; I thus created a few subcultures which were primarily based on rejecting a few of the core assumptions of the Bah civilization.

Great. So I believe it can be done. I even believe that within the roughly fifty pages in which this world is expounded I've conveyed enough material that a person of ordinary intelligence could come to understand what makes the Bah "tick" as it were, so they can be played as creatures within the setting.

But I do not expect them in general to be used as a player character race. You're not going to find a lot of players who are really able to get hold of the mindset of the Bah and find them interesting to play from the inside.

In a sense, people want to use their alien and fantasy races to express aspects of their human selves. Sure, there are some of us who would really enjoy the idea of trying to play a completely alien character in a consistent manner; but can we relate to such a character, in the sense that we feel like it expresses something of ourselves?

Spock expresses something of me; I relate to him extremely well. He was always my favorite Star Trek character precisely because I identified with him. Yet in a sense it was because he defines a type of human, an aspect of humanity, that is close to who I am. He is really not alien at all. If he were, I wouldn't have that connection to him.

I believe, Mike, that you could probably play a Bah, and do it well, and even develop multiple Bah cultures based on an understanding of how the Bah think and feel and interrelate (you'd need more info than I gave here, but not much). I'm not sure whether at the end of the game you'd feel like you'd really gotten inside the character in a way that enabled you to identify with it; perhaps instead you'd have gotten into the character in a way that showed you just how unlike people they really are. A lot of players can't do that. A lot of players and even some referees who can don't have any desire to do so.

If all you want is agreement that 1) alien and fantasy "races" are confusing because of the general idea of interbreeding and 2) they should not have monolithic cultures, I agree on both counts. What I am trying to say in response is that it is extremely difficult to
  • create an alien creature and
  • give it a distinct identity that cuts across all differences between individuals and
  • provide multiple cultures which express it as a diversified intelligence despite that essential unity and
  • make it interesting to and playable by ordinary gamers.[/list:u]
    I'd love to see successes in this area. I'm very fond of trying to create and understand alien intelligence, but it's rarely achieved at all, let alone in a manner that permits such diversification within it.

    --M. J. Young


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: clehrich on February 17, 2003, 12:44:14 AM
M.J. wrote that it is difficult to:
Quote
    create an alien creature and
    give it a distinct identity that cuts across all differences between individuals and
    provide multiple cultures which express it as a diversified intelligence despite that essential unity and
    make it interesting to and playable by ordinary gamers.[/list:u]
[sorry, I don't know how to do bullets]

For me, this is exactly correct.  I think that the first three can be done, but if you accomplish it, many gamers will not be terribly interested.

What this discussion sparks in me, in the context of Aurora in particular, is a question about mechanics (and perhaps GNS).  Suppose one has written a game in which the alien species or fantasy species really do meet these first three criteria, and are worked out in loving cultural and psychological detail.  Could one formulate mechanics that would encourage and reward players for really trying to get into these alien mindsets?  Might such mechanics also reward the use of such species and cultures for reflecting on our own society (this seems to me less essential, but interesting)?  If so, how would such mechanics be constructed?

My current feeling about Aurora itself, you see, is that I haven't thought about GMing it because I don't feel that as currently written these are elements strongly supported.  (See Mike's comments to this thread.)  I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, actually, but it doesn't fill the needs described here in the present thread well.  In particular, it means that the current Aurora mechanics support a more traditional space exploration game, where I'd like to see a heavier emphasis on alien-character exploration.

At any rate, has anyone got some clever ideas about this?  At this point, I think we're mostly in agreement (with some divisions, certainly) about the intended goal of designing alien/fantasy species and cultures.  So what I'm wondering is what, mechanically, can be done about it?


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: C. Edwards on February 17, 2003, 02:06:12 AM
Now, keeping in mind that I havenít read anything on Aurora...

Well, from a scenario design perspective, if the players donít take the various aspects of an alien species and aspects of its individual cultures into account and that lack causes serious (read: bad for characters) consequences then hopefully the players will come to understand how important such details are to their characters success.  Learning about alien species and cultures would turn into something that the players actively pursue.  At least, thatís the idea.

In reverse, if a player is portraying one of these eloquently crafted aliens there should be a mechanism in place that rewards them for an equally eloquent portrayal.  Social Commentary as mechanic?  

Quote
Might such mechanics also reward the use of such species and cultures for reflecting on our own society (this seems to me less essential, but interesting)?


That seems to be what you are inferring.  A mechanism to reward players for throwing alien and human cultures into contrast.   Hmm...

...ok, just did a quick scan of the Aurora Quickstart.  Offhand, I would suggest linking it to Xeno-Psychology somehow.  Perhaps an inverted reward scale, whenever the GM deems that a characterís actions or portrayal justify a roll the GM calls for a Xeno-Psych roll.  The reward for success (some sort of advancement points I assume) would be lower the higher the Xeno-Psych skill, vice-versa for failure.  With the caveat that a fraction of those points gained have to be fed back into Xeno-Psychology.

Hopefully that made some sense, itís way past my bedtime.

-Chris


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: simon_hibbs on February 17, 2003, 08:00:41 AM
It seems to me that one element not being considered here is the narative purpose a race, species or culture serves. If we are creating settings purely as a practical excercise in the application of modern cultural and xenological theories then that's fine. On the other hand, many of the examples cited were created with specific narative goals.

Elves and Dwarves in D&D are merely there to emphasize the otherness of the fantasy setting while simultaneously borrowing from the best known fantasy author for easy familiarity. Sure, this ammounts to nothing more than a thin narative paint job so that the author can get on with the gamist nuts'n bolts that are D&D's stock in trade. That's great and dandy if you're a gamist.

Star Trek makes no claims to be scietificaly accurate or realistic and never has. It's plastic-eared aliens are merely there as vehicles for the twee moralising that punctuates every episode. That's fine and dandy if you're into cheesy moralising SF (and let's face it, who isn't? ;)

The cultures and races in Morrcock's many Eternal Champion novels are caricatures, but deliberately so. One of his themes is the generic interchangeability of culture - it's all the same basic human urges and needs dressed up differently. Moorcock has other narative and conceptual fish to fry, and deliberatley downplays this one to help make the point.

I also agree with whoever said that to the pre-modern mind didn't know about genetics and that in our fantasy fiction we shouldn't feel bound to strict scientificaly accurate models. Nevertheless this argument only goes so far. Sometimes it is fun and interesting to create realistic or at least complex and interesting cultures and species/race relationships. To this end we might pick and mix from a whole range of theoretical models from Campblesque mythologising, Freudian psychology and various magical traditions, etc to create mythic histories, alien psychologies and a panoply of religious practices to suit our whims. For example, Lamarckian evolutionary theory may be rubish, but I think creating a game world that obeyed it's rules could be a lot of fun. Nevertheless some kind of theoretical model is certainly helpfull to keep things consistent and I believe Mike Holmes was right in this.

Sometimes putting in so much effort is not worth it - for a one-off game lasting a few sessions for example. In which case I believe we should be able to reach for our stock generic cliches with a clear concience. Sometimes we want to create richly textured worlds with depth and complexity, in which case I don't think we should limit ourselves to any particular set of theorietical models, but should be able to mix and match them depending on our goals for that particular game world, or campaign.


Simon Hibbs


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Jack Spencer Jr on February 17, 2003, 11:20:32 AM
Quote from: clehrich
M.J. wrote that it is difficult to:
Quote
  • create an alien creature  
  • give it a distinct identity that cuts across all differences between individuals
  • provide multiple cultures which express it as a diversified intelligence despite that essential unity  
  • make it interesting to and playable by ordinary gamers.[/list:u][sorry, I don't know how to do bullets]
    ['sokay. I do. Use the list command with * for the bullets all in brackets]
For me, this is exactly correct.  I think that the first three can be done, but if you accomplish it, many gamers will not be terribly interested.

I think this may be moving away from the original topic, but I agree. I personally think an alien culture should be alien and my take on what is alien is similar to the concept of Not Here where demons come from in Sorcerer and is discussed in this thread. (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=5071)


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on February 17, 2003, 11:50:54 AM
Well, I had no idea that this would end up being as controversial a rant as it has. That said, it seems to me that we all sorta agree with the main point. That being, that in a setting with multiple species, and/or races, that to automatically assume that those that are not human have only one culture or pattern of behavior is to make them into stereotypes. I italicize the word "automatically" very specifically. As in my Combat Systems Rant, people assume that I mean to say that this behavior is always bad no matter what, despite the fact that I've caveated myself very carefully. Yes, if a designer intentionally goes into a game with the notion of having only humans with multiple cultures, and if he has a good reason to do so, then that's great. It's just that, "it's how it's always done," or, "It's easier," (both terribly common, I'm afraid) are not good reasons.  

Remember, again, that I write these rants so that I can point people who have not thought about these things to them (hence the disclaimer at the top). As such, most of us here, are probably already giving these things due consideration. At least I hope so.

Just a few specifics that I'd like to touch on at this point. MJ, people have tried to point out to me that the term race should not apply to Elves, Dwarves, etc, and that they should be called species. For the reasons that I pointed out, and for several other good ones that have been brought up here, I've tried to point out that this is poppycock. Race can serve well. The point is not that I want to force people to use certain terms. I want people to be aware of the potential meanings, and decide to use the best one in their game. Yes, I think that the phrase "Alien Race" is a contradiction in terms. In fact, such beings might be so alien as has been pointed out that even species or life form might be inaccurate (take the virus from TNE).

As long as people are thinking about this terminology as well as we are here, I'm satisfied.

As far as needing to identify with an alien, I'm not sure that's necessary. For instance, I'm one of those wacky Simulationists who really gets off on just creating action in the form of the facts of a character's existence put against the game's background. As such, sometimes I'm just good playing the Hiver, and being weird. I don't get into its head, but I sure have fun describing it.

Alien PCs. Hmmm. Tough subject. I never suggested that all the myriad cultures that I'd encourage being created have to be available as PCs automatically. Still, with the right caveats in place, why can't we allow players the choice. If you point out that it's an uphill battle, then at least it might weed out the players who are taking the alien for the wrong reasons. From the other POV, however, having the text disallow certain races could really emphasize this. After all, if a player really wants to play such a race, he can petition the GM, and then the rules can be bent to allow this. Hmmm. That seems wrong, though, somehow. Relying on drift to enforce a principle seems risky. I'd advocate allowing them but with strong methods of preventing players from casually taking such a character on.

In fact, the reward system idea may be one way to weed out players who aren't really suitable for taking such alien characters. Not a good system, but one that would obviously function would be just to go with the bog standard "role-playing" rewards. That is, give the player reward points every session for playing the alien "properly". Riffing off this old standard, I think we can come up with something better. Like instant rewards for doing something in play that points up the "alien=ness" of the character. That sort of thing. Or, for a Narrativist game, making decisions that point out the alien value systems as they relate to ours, or somesuch. Lots o room here. Like Chris said, "social commentary" and whatnot.

Yes, Simon, thematic reasons are fine for creating a race in a certain way, as long as you realize what you're doing. But even Tolkien had multiple Elven cultures. Making them monolithic seems to do little from My POV to increase "otherworldliness". Yes, these races make sense in a Gamist game. Which is why the Sim designers need to look out for the D&D presuppositions. You're point about theoretical models is well taken, however. All games need to be plausible, and such models are the basis for this.

Lastly, I would point out that it's my opinion that heavy settings are problematic at all. And as such, I'm not actually advocating that people make up lots of cultures (I feel a collective, "Huh?" at that). The why of this is best left for other threads. What I'd actually advocate is rules that create such detail as necessary guided by the same well thought out principles as have been discussed. That way, no effort is wasted, and whatever is generated is automatically pertinent to play (and if well designed, engaging). This was the original goal for Universalis, which was to be a game about exploring setting (the design of which got out of hand). Basically, we started with the idea that you'd have no map or anything, and that the character's skills would allow a player to make stuff up. I suggest that models like that would be an interesting way to go. That said, there have been a couple of sci-fi games that have started in that direction on Indie Design, but I've yet to see one in a playable form.

Thanks all for the comments so far.

Mike


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: simon_hibbs on February 18, 2003, 06:16:31 AM
Quote from: Mike Holmes
Remember, again, that I write these rants so that I can point people who have not thought about these things to them (hence the disclaimer at the top). As such, most of us here, are probably already giving these things due consideration. At least I hope so.


Even if we agree on the main points, as I think we all do, it's still helpfull to thrash these things out from time to time and expose ourselves to other people's preferences and opinions. Thanks for kicking this off, and with such a well concieved initial post.

Quote
Just a few specifics that I'd like to touch on at this point. MJ, people have tried to point out to me that the term race should not apply to Elves, Dwarves, etc, and that they should be called species. For the reasons that I pointed out, and for several other good ones that have been brought up here, I've tried to point out that this is poppycock. Race can serve well.


I agree, it may not be scientificaly accurate, but it is common usage in the real world and so I see no reason why it shouldn't be common usage in a fantasy (or SF) setting with correct usage reserved for accademicaly sophisticated characters in-game.


Quote
Alien PCs. Hmmm. Tough subject. I never suggested that all the myriad cultures that I'd encourage being created have to be available as PCs automatically. Still, with the right caveats in place, why can't we allow players the choice. If you point out that it's an uphill battle, then at least it might weed out the players who are taking the alien for the wrong reasons.


This last point is a real problem. Many players like to play weird non-humans and have little interest in 'getting into their heads'. May be that's lamentable to some of us game design purists, ut it's a fact. In these cases, rubber-suit aliens do fill a niche. Thus purely for gameplay reasons it might e advisable to have some realism-lite 'races' available to cater to such needs in most RPG setting aimed at a wide audience.

As an asside, while reward points are a reasonable mechanism to encourage appropriate character behaviour there are other mechanisms too. Traits and Passions as pioneered by Pendragon (but not for this purpose) are a usefull mechanism.


Quote
Yes, Simon, thematic reasons are fine for creating a race in a certain way, as long as you realize what you're doing. But even Tolkien had multiple Elven cultures. Making them monolithic seems to do little from My POV to increase "otherworldliness".


Tolkien had multiple Elven cultures for thematic resons - he created Middle Earth in large part in order to excercise his understanding of liguistics in an experimental mode, it didn't happen by chance. My point about D&D was that it used elves to give a sense of otherworldliness, not that it used elven culture to do so. They didn't so much deliberatley make them culturaly monolithic as merely neglect to develop their culture at all. hence it ended up monolithic by default rather than by design.

Quote
Yes, these races make sense in a Gamist game. Which is why the Sim designers need to look out for the D&D presuppositions. You're point about theoretical models is well taken, however. All games need to be plausible, and such models are the basis for this.


I'm very happy that you used the term 'plausible'. I don't think 'realism' is necesserily a laudable goal in it's own right, even when it's properly understood. It's a wonderfull feeling when you discover something new about a fantasy world simply by applying the reality rules of the game world itself to elements of the game world that you already know about. It makes the game world feel so much more real, even if it's patently unrealistic in a strict sense. I think that's realy the principle benefit of this approach - extensibility of the game world.


Simon Hibbs


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: JMendes on February 18, 2003, 09:31:53 AM
Hey, guys, :)

I thought I'd sprinkle a little something into the fray.

In my mind, a high-level mage is just about as alien as an elf. I can't seem to be able to imagine what it would be like to wield that kind of power. And I've played one often enough.

Now, if you share my view on this, that means that adding elves (or whatnot) just to create a sense of foreigness seems like misplaced overkill.

Anyway, I just thought I'd share that... ;)

Cheers,

J.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Drew Stevens on February 18, 2003, 10:22:13 AM
I don't know about that.

Power isn't quite the same thing as alien.  I mean, I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be, say, the Speaker of the House, or the President, or the Chairmen of the Fed- any of whom could potentially inflict the sort of devestation that a high level wizard could -but I can do that far more easily than try to imagine the motivations of a virtually immortal people who left Heaven for some jewels and stayed and died (when they need not have) after that task has been resolved...

Maybe I'm a weird one, though. :)


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on February 18, 2003, 11:14:25 AM
What's alien will differ for people. I think that's a safe assumption. And, yes, there is the threat of players doing ill with aliens because they do not understand. As a designer you have to take these things into account in the design. How alien? If very alien, will they be suitable PCs? For them to be so requires some sort of control to promote proper play, whether it be mechanical, or reward, or whathaveyou.

I think that too general statements on this subject aren't likely to do much good. Depends too much on the onerall design goals for the game, and the specifics of the alien's produced.

I have no problem with aliens that are "rubber suited" as long as that's what everyone wants, designer, player, and GM.

Mike


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: xechnao on March 14, 2003, 04:03:02 PM
I ve read some of the above, not all so I hope not to repeat someone else.
For the culture issue I believe it goes like this:
1)Organisms have their biologic cycles, eg metabolism.
2)Organisms are found in some environment .
3)The activities of the organisms are a function of their biologic cycles and their environment. This can be said in any combination. So biologic cycles, environment and the organism's activities are all function of  each  other.
4)Civilization can be considered the legacy that one generation leaves to the others even after it's decease.
5)Culture and civilization relation could corrispond to organism activity and environment relation(thus being each a function of the other).
5)So if diet receipts stood for italian food, thus for italian culture we can see that culture depends on the organism's biologic cycles itself and it's environment.

For instance, herbivores "think"(as M.J. Young says) different from "carnivores". Lions nutre with a small luch of proteins once every two days (this is their metabolism) while antilopes need to eat all the time to fulfill the huge quantities of cell. carbs they need(also due to their metabolism mechanics). So their activities are different. This for example could be projected to the culture of species with different biologic cycles.
For organisms with the same biologic cycles what remains is environment. So to test different cultures one should simply examine a diversity of environments.


Title: Re: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Christoffer LernŲ on March 15, 2003, 12:09:32 AM
Quote from: M. J. Young
In ancient times, semen was called seed; it was called this for a reason. Ancients didn't understand the fertilization of an egg. They thought that the male planted his seed in the soil of the female's womb, and it grew into another person or creature. They recognized that that soil influenced how it grew; but they did not have any comprehension of the woman contributing the same sort of material as the man.

Actually from what I understand, the most ancient belief was that of the mother being the sole creator of life. It took a long time to recognize the male had any part of it.

How much of this recognization (of the male role) was based on patriarchal revolution (and simple reversal of the roles rather than understanding of role of the male) of a matrifocal system rather than real insight is a bit unclear to me but the main point was that it was the "other way around" to begin with :)

It was very convenient for the patriarchal religions to reassign the role of the life-giver to the male, conquering god. An example on how vague the ancient's idea of how males could conceive you need look no longer than to Greek mythology and Zeus. If "the seed" was so universally recognized, how come Zeus need to give birth to Pallas Athena from his head and Dinoysus from his thigh (I think it was?)? They had to create really far-fetched explanations to replace the mother who conceived without a consort.

Anciently the female is usually regarded as the sole creator of all sorts of creatures without help of a male. Look at Tiamat who although having a consort is regarded as the matrix from which everything sprung - obviously a demonization of an even more ancient belief of the mother-creator. Have you heard about Shekinah, who co-created the world with Yahweh? And so on and so on.

But why do I bring this up? Only to show how cultures and beliefs keep on being reinterpred in terms of later cultures, and that there is no fixed thing. There is both natural assimilation as well as forced conversion of customs.

Even if we manage to layout the cultures of all the world, who can say how it was a thousand years back or a even a hundred? Looking at it as a static thing seems to be what's contributing to most errors (except for the problem with simple copying).

So maybe give the players and gm a lot of leeway in feeling out and interpreting the cultures within certain guidelines. Of course this happens to - not incidentally - mirror my preferences for world building.

This would also help dealing with the fact that cultures are more or less continous things in both space and time as the landscape and other cultures and events shape the thoughts and customs of people.

Just wanted to add that tangent.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: clehrich on March 22, 2003, 07:28:15 AM
Just to extend Pale Fire's comment, let me point out that "culture" is continuous in another sense: the line between one culture and another is internally defined, not externally.  That is, if I'm an alien scientist, I can't readily identify the line between American and French culture (just to charge this politically a tad).  Sure, there are a few things here and there that are absolutely one or the other, but from an exterior position the specific line is very difficult to draw.  

Strangely, the things that are absolutely one or the other are rarely a big deal for the cultures in question; rather, they fight constantly about the stuff that isn't really different at all.  For example, the far-right radio commentators have spent the last few weeks raving about "those cheese-eaters," as if the US were not one of the world's #1 consumers of cheese.

I would also extend this to cover race, although there are at least a few physiological hard distinctions there; at the same time, the real absolutes are rarely the things that are visible.  So for example, most African-Americans are of mixed "racial heritage," usually because of the complexities of the American slave trade and plantation structure.  But this does not make racist whites more willing to accept them -- on the contrary!

The whole point of Mike's rant, I believe, was that if you want to make species distinctions, that does not necessarily have anything to do with cultural or racial distinctions.  But when you flip this around, you realize that in many fantasy Heartbreakers (and a lot of scifi too), the actual distinction is (1) labeled racial, and (2) actually cultural.

For example, Elves and Humans.  They have different cultures, and they look different, but apparently can interbreed.  So they're just like humans from (say) China and Mexico.  But in classic Heartbreaker-world, you can never, never have a culture that is a functional synthesis of Elvish and Human cultures (this is unlike Tolkien, BTW: see Gondor and the Numenoreans).  In addition, Elf culture cannot change, nor can Elves change their minds to look at the world in a way not predetermined by Elf Culture, because it's a Race Thing.

Culture: internally defined, no important absolute markers
Race: internally defined, perhaps with important absolute markers
Species: externally defined, with important absolute markers

I think that's Mike's point, extended a bit by me.  For me, the point is that this shiftiness of terminology generally masks an unintentional but active racism, and it needs to be stamped out.


Title: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/
Post by: Mike Holmes on March 23, 2003, 05:38:44 PM
Quote from: clehrich

I think that's Mike's point, extended a bit by me.  For me, the point is that this shiftiness of terminology generally masks an unintentional but active racism, and it needs to be stamped out.

I'm not even making a judgement statment here on racism (though I have strongly held beliefs). But I am saying that your analysis id correct, and that, therefore, to do otherwise than to treat the issue with clarity and insight is to create setting that isn't internally consistent. Even if most people buy into it as a traditional form from RPGs past, you'll be doing yourself  a favor if you look beyond that tradition, and even the traditionalists will appreciate it.

Mike