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Author Topic: Mike's Standard Rant #2 - Species/Race/Culture/  (Read 14430 times)
simon_hibbs
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Posts: 678


« Reply #15 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
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Simon Hibbs
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« Reply #16 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.
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #17 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
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    simon_hibbs
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    « Reply #18 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
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    Simon Hibbs
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    « Reply #19 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.
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    Drew Stevens
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    « Reply #20 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. :)
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #21 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
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    xechnao
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    « Reply #22 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.
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    Christoffer Lernö
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    « Reply #23 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.
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    clehrich
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    « Reply #24 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.
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    Chris Lehrich
    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #25 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
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