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Bringing Diversity To Our Imaginary Worlds

Sign post that says diversity

I remember the first time a player pushed a pregen player character back to me at a convention game. He said, “I don’t play women. I don’t know how they would act,” and I was left asking myself, “What the hell does that mean?”

I’m pretty subtle in my speech so I think I said something like, “What the hell does that mean? Half of the people on the planet are women.”

That was the beginning of an important conversation within myself. Why wasn’t I putting more thought into the characters that I brought to the table? It was a transformative moment that pushed me to purposely choose to reflect the world in which we live inside of the game worlds I create. My fellow Gnome Angela Murray [1] makes it clear in her own work that I’m not the only one that feels this is important. [2] Representation in pregens has been discussed [3] before but the conversation needs to continue.

Fear of racism

I’ve spoken to several GMs that are afraid of the possible prejudices of their players. They told me that they’re scared that having one or more African American or LGQTB+ characters on the table at a convention means that roleplaying stereotypes are inevitable. While I acknowledge that possibility is real I reject the idea that the fear of bigotry outweighs the need for representation in games. I’ve had some players try to lean into stereotypes and I dealt with it in the moment. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, depending on your personality, but it is a necessary one. Can I truly claim to be part of a welcoming community if I’m not willing to stand up and tell someone that is being racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist to stop?

I’m actively working to eliminate the idea that white male characters and a token white female are the only “safe” pre-gen PCs. The characters that I bring to the table must represent the variety of humans that I want to show up at my table. Some of my pregens will be like me, some different than me, but always as honest as I can make them.

A variety of PCs

It varies slightly from country to country but approximately 50% of the world’s population identifies as female. Around 63% of the United States’ population is non-Hispanic white people in the last census. That’s the lowest it has ever been. If you look at the non-Hispanic white population on a global scale that percentage drops dramatically. If games reflected our world as a whole they would be filled with Asian and African characters. If they represented the United States of America, where I live, they would be almost 40% people of color.

The PCs in the games that I run are thoughtfully created with representation in mind. The mix varies dramatically from games that feature all women, all African Americans, to a diverse mix of police officers. Other games fit a model that lets the players choose to be whomever they choose. The important part for me is that a historically underrepresented player has a solid chance of seeing a character that reflects some part of themselves. I have worked hard to include a spectrum of gender identities beyond the traditional binary roles in my characters but it’s still something that I struggle with. I’m getting better despite feeling like a confused fossil some days.

In the past couple of years I’ve seen an increase in representation found in the artwork and character options for TTRPGs. Many companies have made a commitment to diversity and inclusion in their games. If you look at the top RPG book covers you’ll often see, when humans are featured, a variety of skin tones and genders. I believe that the industry has begun the journey to creating more inclusive games and community. The tools, pictures, and intent are there so use them to create an imaginary world that includes all of the richness of our own.

Diverse games

There are an increasing number of games designed around the stories of marginalized groups. They tell honest and thoughtful stories that are not often told in the mainstream TTRPG world or by media in general. In the game Harlem Unbound by Chris Spivey [4] you’ll be playing an African-American character living in the Harlem Renaissance as seen through the lens of Cthulhu horror. Darker Hue Studios [5] has produced a great example of thoughtfully designed, extensively researched, and unexplored stories in a RPG. You can read John Arcadian’s review of the book here on Gnome Stew [6]Harlem Unbound

The most common reason that I’ve heard from GMs for not running Harlem Unbound is a fear that they will get the “black experience” wrong. They don’t want to run it without a person of color at the table to make sure that it’s more authentic. It’s important to realize that it’s not the job of a POC/woman/LGBTQ+ to be your mentor and guide you through the world of all things “different”. They may choose to do the labor but that should never be your expectation.

Mr. Spivey does an excellent job of addressing the racial issues involved in the Storytelling section of the game. Accept the guidance offered from the person that wrote the game! The humanity of the game is lovingly crafted into every part of Harlem Unbound. Read it, listen to those around you, and do your best. Insist that your PCs be played as human beings and not stereotypes. Don’t be afraid of the mistakes you’ll make. Learn from the struggles instead.

While I commend people for understanding that daily truths of the life of a POC and women are different than that of a CIS gendered white male, treating them as an enigmatic mystery does harm to everyone. It prevents exposure of these games to a wider audience, which hurts the creators financially. It reinforces the ideas that white GMs bringing diversity to the table is too dangerous of a thing. With as much energy as I put into representation I am guilty of pushing its importance aside too.

Velvet Glove RPG coverI am a vocal fan of Sarah Richardson’s game Velvet Glove [7] but I have struggled with the idea of running it. I had a chance to play the current ashcan version and loved the experience. I told myself I shouldn’t ever offer it as a con game because I fear making a mistake and dishonoring the heart of the game. I run games filled with female characters all of the time! Why is my initial reaction to push away the idea of running Velvet Glove? Why is there a disconnect for me? It deals, in part, with my discomfort with the sexual realities of being a teenage girl. All I can think of is every mistake I ever made with women. The truth is that I’ve kept myself from running this beautiful game because I can’t get over my own guilt at being a jerk.

Everything about that runs antithetical to the GM, gamer, person that I work to be. Ms. Richardson’s game needs to be celebrated and played as much as possible. I’m denying myself the chance to tell new stories and support a creator and friend that I admire. It looks like it’s time to make myself uncomfortable, learn, and grow.

Investing in humanity as a player

The one thing that I can bring to any character that I create or play is a sense of their humanity and an understanding that the color of their skin or gender identity is only one part of who they are. Figuring out how and why their marginalizing characteristics shaped who they’ve become is where the story lies. The why of the societal, social, and familial differences is where some of the best, most interesting, parts of humanity live.

Without a personal or researched understanding of these characters where should you start? When you don’t know what to do you should always fall back to their humanity. I keep repeating it because it’s true. Discover who they love and why they invest themselves in the people around them. Ask yourself what they have to lose and what price they are willing to pay to keep that from happening. Make them into real people and not caricatures based on media stereotypes. There are rivers that flow through all of us, despite different origins, that you can tap into. Maybe after you’re done with the game you’ll be inspired to read up or listen to folks talk about their real life experiences that are similar to those of the character you were playing. Then you can bring another level of understanding the next time you have an opportunity to play.

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine a stalwart gay female paladin with the ability throw herself into battle against a dragon. The courage in her imaginary heart should reflect the best ideals of the world that she lives in. If imagining a person from any marginalized group is an insurmountable barrier to you playing a pregen then maybe you should spend some time on a military base. You’ll meet real life warriors and see the diversity of bravery our world contains. If you visit firehouses, hospitals, or schools you’ll see that they contain the same spectrum of goodness and commitment to doing good. None of those places are perfect but they all contain flesh and bone heroes. Why would we want less for the people that we invite to share a gaming table?

Why is it important?

If I won’t demand diversity in the characters and scenarios that I create and play what does that say about my commitment to equality in real life? It speaks volumes to new players if they sit at my gaming table only to find a pretend world that is racially insular, LGBQT+ free, and limited in its gender roles and identities. It’s an ugly message that I would be sending if only a small portion of humanity represented my idea of heroism. I can’t expect players to feel welcome into our community if I present them with heroes and idealized worlds of adventure that don’t include them at all.

Kids need to see themselves represented as heroes. We all need it. A simple act of choosing character images that speak to the beauty and diversity of the world is a welcoming act. When we welcome the entire world to become our PCs, we also welcome marginalized groups to our real world gaming tables. That is important to me.

Do you have a favorite PC that you’ve created for your convention games? Do you have a favorite character from a convention that unexpectedly represented a piece of yourself? What steps are you taking to increase representation in your convention games?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Bringing Diversity To Our Imaginary Worlds"

#1 Comment By Josh Haney On May 16, 2018 @ 9:27 am

I recently ran several sessions of Harlem Unbound at a local convention in Indianapolis. I had a lot of the same fears that are mentioned above when I registered the game in the convention listings. I did a lot of reading (Zora Neal Hurston, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Chester Himes, Henry Louis Gates Jr., etc) and tried to be thoughtful about the characters and the scenario. I also took Chris’ advice to heart, that I was going to make mistakes, just make sure I learn from them and do better the next time.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by the players who showed up at my tables. They were respectful and curious, asked good questions, and generally engaged well with Harlem and it’s residents. I had fun and my players seemed to enjoy it as well. Maybe they even learned a little something by walking in some different shoes.

I’m now working on ideas for my next Harlem Unbound scenario. Chris Spivey and his team have given us a lot to work with and it’s obvious what a passion project this was for him. If you haven’t checked it out yet you’re missing out!

#2 Comment By Camdon Wright On May 16, 2018 @ 10:17 am

That’s great to hear! I love that you’re bringing it to conventions so more folks get to discover what a cool game it is!

#3 Comment By Josh Haney On May 16, 2018 @ 10:36 am

Thanks! Harlem Unbound is just too excellent to merely sit on my shelf and get no love. With all that Chris and his team poured into it, it deserves to get out there and live.

#4 Comment By Josh Haney On May 16, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Thanks! I’m just excited to get it out there, Chris and his team poured a lot of hard work and love into Harlem Unbound and it deserves to get as much exposure as possible, not just sit on my bookshelf. I hope it helps make our community a bit more welcoming to People of Color.

#5 Comment By Jonathan Konig On May 19, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

I forgot all about Harlem Unbound! I’ve played Trail of Cthulhu a handful of time and like both the traditionalist and pulp scenarios. Does Harlem lean more towards the traditionalist side?

#6 Comment By Cori On May 16, 2018 @ 11:57 am

Last year I was listening to the RPG podcast The Adventure Zone (three brothers and their dad play RPGs). I realized after two episodes that I didn’t know the gender of one of the important NPCs. Then as I paid closer attention, I realized that was a conscious choice on the part of the GM: He chose to make an NPC who was non-binary. I thought of my NB friends and my NB nibling, and it lightened my heart.

One of my favorite things at cons is when guys sit down at the table and play female characters with all of the energy and bravery and panache that they would put into a male character. It reminds me that there are plenty of men out there who really do see me as a fellow human, complete inside and out. There are so many loud voices in the world that make me feel the opposite that it really is a balm for my soul.

#7 Comment By Camdon Wright On May 16, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

I’m always happy when people have a chance to be decent human beings at the gaming table and they seize it. I’ll have to give Adventure Zone a listen!

#8 Comment By John WS Marvin On May 16, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

Excellent article.

Most GMs I know never go to a con, so they never need to make pre-gens, but they do have to make NPCs.

But how do you make diverse NPCs without falling into ethnic/gender stereotypes? By playing against stereotypes. Many modern writers do this all the time, think about books, films, and TV of today vs. 20, 40, 60 years ago vs. today.

* Sam, the calm black male professor from a wealthy family.
* Katheryn, the powerful battle-scarred guard captain.
* Otis, the dreadlocked, dark-skinned halfling bard.
* Karl, who just happens to be gay, is the werewolf protecting his village from vampires .
* Hiroshi the half-elf druid.

You also want to avoid depicting all members of a group as all evil or all good. When you have an evil mastermind from group X, include members of group X who want to take the evil mastermind down.

For example, when you have Elena the evil necromancer behind all bad things in your world, you also have Carmen and Isabella the good paladins who are sworn to bring Elena to justice. That way you don’t have to use only white males for evil masterminds in order not to portray all Hispanic women (or whoever) as evil.

If you get *that player* who wants their fantasy game with magic monsters and spell casting to be 905 AD England, just tell everyone in session zero that “before the fall of The Wizard Empire, magic roads mixed the people from all over the world, so now you can find every kind of people everywhere.”

Mix it up, and enjoy your game!

#9 Comment By Randy On May 19, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

FWIW, when I write NPCs, I flesh out everything EXCEPT for gender, race, and orientation.

After I’ve written up the evil wizard or friendly librarian, I randomly determine those things. This prevents me from falling into my own blindspots of stereotyping.

#10 Comment By Lazycat1984 On May 17, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

I once wrote a pithy blog post somewhere about how players in an MMO based on dungeons and dragons (the old and recently rebooted Neverwinter Nights) reacted to an online play server someone put together featuring the semi famous “drow”. How did people immerse themselves in a society where everyone is black and the women run everything? What did it mean that people grooved on this setting so hard?
Most RP gamers who have day jobs and families don’t get to do much tabletop gaming hav to get their fix in MMO games. My jam is Lord of the Rings Online. The role players of middle earth have a big fascination with Tolkiens fictional nation of Harad, which is sort of like North Africa. People invest a huge amount of time immersing themselves into the lives of harassers utterly I like themselves. I often wonder how many. Anita Sarkeesian haters are in the Prancing Pony, wearing the mask of a black woman.

#11 Comment By Sara quinn On May 18, 2018 @ 10:32 am

The last Savage Worlds game I ran, I moved away from the previous habit of making pregens “genderless;” that is, letting the players choose the gender identity of their pregens. Instead, I made a mix of genders, sexualities, and POCs. I did this after hearing advice from Camdon the previous year. The advice is basically what you just read in this article (which I’m super grateful you wrote, Cam!).

I really liked the result. The players didn’t overplay anything—they treated all of the people like people. I really got lucky with great players. I know it doesn’t always work out this well, but no one complained about having to play a black woman, or a gay man, for instance. It was really great.

In many games, maybe especially video games, we are often forced into playing a character that is a white male, or at least a white something. It’s so normalized that you may not even notice. It’s good for people to break out of that norm.

#12 Comment By Munindk On May 30, 2018 @ 5:19 am

I’ll be going against popular opinion here and say that I dont want to bring diversity to my game table for the sake of teaching people to embrace diversty or to be politicaly correct.

I think Inclusion and diversity are wonderful things that are sadly lacking in many places in the real world, but for me thats all the more reason not to make them an issue in gaming.

I usually play to escape reality for a while and creating characters or NPCs based on the real world morals seems counter productive. Since none of my players (as far as I know) are gay, introducing a gay NPC would make them pay extra attention to that person as they logically assume that something out of the ordinary = plot related.

For all I know half the NPCs I’ve encountered or created the past 20 odd years have been gay, dark skinned, transgender or something else, because if it didnt serve a purpose in the story those details were left out of their description.

If I went out of my way to describe every NPC as white, blue eyed, blonde and heterosexual (without a story related reason) then I’d have problem. These things simply dont matter to me in most games and when they do matter, I let the story dictate these traits.

I’m not against diversity, but I’m saying that the gaming table might not be the right place for airing your political views or teaching others lessons in what you think is the correct way to percieve and interact with the real world.

I dont think it says anything about how I think or act regarding diversity in the real world.

#13 Comment By amazingrando On May 30, 2018 @ 6:24 am

“introducing a gay NPC would make them pay extra attention to that person as they logically assume that something out of the ordinary = plot related”

More exposure to diverse people would teach you and your players to better accept different life choices. Sexual choices aren’t plot points. (Romances can be though) Also, being hetero and white is not “ordinary”, nor is it a baseline.

“Inclusion and diversity are wonderful things that are sadly lacking in many places in the real world”. All the more reason that it NEEDS to be included in gaming. The entertainment we consume has a large impact in defining and reinforcing our worldview.

“I dont think it says anything about how I think or act regarding diversity in the real world.” Everything you do is in the real world. Gaming is done by real people. Your stories reflect your values. If you have an issue with diversity in a fantasy world, you might consider reflecting on what that says about your “real” values because you are literally arguing against diversity. (I make this last point as a concerned friend, not as an attack.)

#14 Comment By Bob3000 On May 30, 2018 @ 7:08 am

I do not put that much detail into my NPCs, just a name, their job or function, and some defining characteristic as an anchor, unusually tall, odd colored hair, scar, odd pet, ect. I let the players imagine the rest.

I do try to include female NPCs that range from Captain of the Guard to the local Blacksmith and not just all bar maids.
My group is a pack of teenage girls who are all murder hobos. It still has not occurred to them to question henchmen for information.

#15 Comment By Munindk On May 30, 2018 @ 7:24 am

I dont think that not including diverse people in a game where everyone involved has accepted the premise that what is going on is an advanced version of make belief is the same as not accepting diverse people in my everyday life.

I did not define white and hetero as ordinary, at least not intentionally.
Unless I have a story related reason to I dont define my NPC’s ethnicity or sexual orientation, I honestly do not see the need to do so.

I strongly disagree that I’m argueing against diversity.
What I am trying to argue is that I prefer to keep my personal values seperate from what I bring to the game.
I think its important to try to seperate my values from the stories I tell as a GM.
If these things arent kept at least a little seperate there are so many stories I wouldnt be able to tell.

I dont have an issue with diversity in a fantasy world if its relevant to the story I’m telling. Who cares if the queen of the wood elves is a lesbian if its not related to the story? Now, if shes plotting with her lesbian lover to overthrow the homofobic king, that hired the PC’s we’ve got an interesting story and a reason for including diversity.
Thats fine, but I would never include diverse people (I’m using your term here, I honestly dont know the correct nonoffensive terminology) to try to make my players better people.

I tell stories with my friends for fun. If we learn things and grow as people during the telling of those stories thats good, but its not the reason we play and I find the notion of impressing my personal values on other people slightly condescending.

#16 Comment By John WS Marvin On June 1, 2018 @ 1:21 am

Unless magic/ultratech healing is super common, NPCs can have disabilities. Peg-legs aren’t just for pirates. I love the cover of “Eyes of the Stone Thief.” The main character is a dark-skinned halfling with what looks like an ivory peg-leg, casting something at something awful. He looks *bad ass.* Check him out: