We recently had a chance to play an interesting scenario, set in an interesting time. We played a Deadlands: Noir scenario set in 1935 New Orleans. We’re a group that has played together for years, though our Savage Worlds experience isn’t extensive.
While the characters were new to us (we were testing out pre-gens for a con scenario), we’re quite comfortable with each other as players. Despite that advantage, we hit a rough patch where one of the players felt de-protagonized due to the intersection of a character flaw and his character’s race.
We each selected characters based in large part on a quick description and an image. We wound up with a diverse cast; a 16 year old black girl, a locally famous black boxer, a limping white bartending Texan, and a society woman who concealed her intimate relationship with a black singer.
At the table, some of those elements were concealed; Dill (the society woman) kept her secret for the first two thirds of play. Similarly, the bartender concealed his huckster powers throughout, while the girl’s voodoo abilities proved pivotal when she brought them into play.
The characters played off each other and the setting well; their backstories gave them all ties to accept each other’s aid and abilities in our search. The strong hooks for characterization encouraged us to play from the personalities and flaws. The investigation was interesting and played off of the segregated nature of New Orleans in the setting; when the group was in black neighborhoods, black characters tended to lead, while at the snooty banks, the society woman led.
Unfortunately, while the advantage of each pair leading in their respective neighborhoods made sense, enduring slights passively didn’t work for the black boxer’s player. He noted a flaw on his sheet that he wouldn’t back down, so he refused to sideline himself when his presence was challenged in the wealthy neighborhoods. It was tense, because we as players were all rooting for him, but most of us expected it go poorly. When confronted at the bank, the character was faced with a terrible choice: to back down and betray his deeply held beliefs, or have his evening of play come to an early end (via police interference—getting detained or arrested for refusing to meekly go on his way).
Unfortunately, that frustrating choice cost the player his engagement for the rest of the night. Later it made sense for the boxer to lead, but the player had checked out. Figuring out those relations, and approaches the GM could take to challenge the group while retaining the feel of a complex setting, proved to be some of the most useful play testing feedback.
Race, sex, and identity can all be difficult to discuss with people you know; for example, watch just about anyone’s discussion about roles, stereotypes, or prejudice go horribly awry within a few comments on any social media platform. While it’s easy to laugh about how aliens and elves are played without hesitation, there aren’t real hobbits at your table to quirk their eyebrows and ask, “Is that really how you see me?”
While it may be artificial, the player characters should all be able to get along—at least to a Legolas/Gimli level of deep respect over superficial teasing. There are going to be plenty of reasons for blame later when the dice betray you—don’t sabotage the game by creating a group that won’t function before the first session even begins. Messy settings can be tricky, but you can build very gameable cultures that are intriguing, interesting, and full of unique flavor.
I suspect many of us have played at tables where race and sex have gone awry—but have you played at tables where it was handled well? I’d love to hear examples of rewarding play in comments.