A Brief Note in Response to The Angry GM’s “Stop Playing Against Stereotypes!”

(The Angry GM writes a ton of stuff that makes the lives of RPG players better by improving their GMs. Linking to his site requires the same sort of disclaimer one gives when linking to TV Tropes, except that instead of sending you on an endless hyperlink chain in order to understand what the hell the article is talking about, Angry’s site is full of amazing content that has you reading every word and desperately clicking for more. Angry also writes a weekly column for The Mad Adventurers Society. His latest entry, “Angry Rants: Stop Playing Against Stereotypes!”, got me thinking about humans and nonhumans in D&D. Here’s an open note in response to the article.)

Dear Angry,

I don’t think you were wrong in your recent article about characters who play against stereotype. I just think you weren’t right enough. You essentially say that playing against stereotype a) renders the character’s cultural background meaningless and b) loses out on opportunities for nuanced conflict. Both of those are true, but I felt the article was a bit shallow, so I spent some time thinking about why I got that impression. I concluded that you didn’t get to the root of what a nonhuman character really is and the true value of nonhuman stereotypes. To illustrate what I mean, I want to talk about Tolkein and Star Trek, and I think I can get through it without exceeding the Chandrasekhar limit of nerd wankery and devolving this post into a black hole.

There’s a moment in your article where you touch on what I’m going to say… and then you drop it and never return to it, even though I think it’s the most important point. This short paragraph reads:

And that’s why the races are ultimately a collection of stereotypes. Because they are all a matter of “what if human, but…?” Because they couldn’t work any other way. And that’s why humans are the most adaptable, most diverse, and most widespread race. Because once you create races by amplifying certain human traits and downplaying others, the only thing left for humanity is “a hodgepodge of all the middle grounds.”

That “what if human, but…?” line immediately brought Star Trek to mind. Star Trek isn’t hard sci-fi with truly weird aliens and post-singularity human-computer blending. Star Trek is American mores in space. Hard sci-fi wasn’t an unknown quantity at the time, but Gene Roddenberry specifically chose to take a different route with his show. He wasn’t interested in describing inscrutable intelligences from distant stars; he wanted to tell human stories in a novel setting. Having all the aliens be generally human in appearance was not only a practical matter for a show with a limited budget but also a deliberate choice to literally humanize the aliens whom the crew of the Enterprise met on their journey. Gene wanted to ask, “what if human, but…?”

In fact, the more removed from human experience the aliens were on Star Trek, the more they appeared as plot elements rather than characters. Most of the alien species were small portions of human life writ large, and unashamedly so: Vulcan cold logic, Klingon hypermasculinity, Ferengi greed, and so forth. Beings from those species can be great long-term characters – Spock, Worf, Quark – because they can have the full range of human experience filtered through that slightly warped lens. Contrast that with the Horta, the silicon life form from the TOS episode “The Devil in the Dark”. She’s about as far from human appearance as you can get, and she serves as a device of the story rather than a true character, even if she has relatable motivations and goals. Further, there’s Q from TNG and DS9 (I haven’t watched most of Voyager, so I can’t account for him there), who looks entirely human but is 100% plot device with one notable exception (“Déjà Q”, a TNG episode where Q loses his powers). Since Q is a driver of events, not a character navigating those events, it’s important that the audience not identify with him, so he’s written as over-the-top and unfathomable (with John de Lancie doing a commendable job of bringing that intent across).

It’s the same thing with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Nonhuman beings who are primary characters – Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, the dwarves – are like humans with the dials tweaked. Other nonhuman characters – the elves and the wizards – are part of the setting, not truly members of the cast, and are more comfortably dehumanized as a result. Legolas and especially Gandalf are a hazy middle, acting with the hero parties but also standing apart.

The key to making nonhuman characters who are identifiable for a human audience seems to be adding a bit of unyieldingness. Klingons don’t budge on honor; Vulcans are anti-emotion hardliners; hobbits are generally upset if they’re not in a comfortable setting (I guess duty-bound and uncomplaining Frodo is a mutant in that regard). Those are sources of conflict that make for good stories, and that’s what you were talking about in your article (“It’s inherently interesting when two racial traits come into conflict”).

Both TV audiences and RPG players are like Tinkerbell: we’re only big enough to absorb one emotion or aspect of human experience at a time. These stereotypes help us narrow things down to the important bits during critical decision points. The satisfaction in those critical points isn’t simply whether the character feels sufficiently nonhuman to allow for an interesting conflict, but rather whether the character is just nonhuman enough to show that conflict in a more focused way.

We don’t come to the table to play a nonhuman story (usually); we come to experience the adventure with our human minds. The relevance in playing a nonhuman character is ultimately how it translates to human experience. Therefore the best nonhuman characters help distill aspects of human experience into a concentrated dose for the human player to absorb. In other words, the point of nonhumans is to tell a human story better than a human character could.

Like you said in your example of a dwarf balancing loyalty and honor when a friend disrespects her people, nonhuman characters come preloaded with potential for interesting conflict. But a human from a culture that valued both honor and loyalty could have that conflict as well. The real value of a nonhuman character is in her alienness. Because we perceive the character as removed from ourselves, we use the sticky-out bits to help categorize her in our minds – the parts that differ from our own experiences, like an inflated sense of honor. Since the perceived gulf is greater between nonhumans and humans than between two humans from different cultures, that stereotyping tendency is likewise greater. It doesn’t take much to play that up, as Worf and Spock showed us. Just letting everyone know, “Hey, I’m an alien,” is enough to prime the audience to receive the character’s alienness.

The difference between Star Trek and RPGs is that the player is not passive. The experiences of the character have a degree of reality beyond simple vicariousness by nature of the active investment of the player. By succumbing to the filter of “what if human, but…?”, that investment pays off big time in the reward of novel experience. Our brains love that stuff. Elves-in-name-only don’t provide that added payoff because they don’t prime the player (or the rest of the table) to experience the adventure with an alien eye.

I feel that this, Angry, is a stronger and more focused response to egregious anti-stereotype characters. The purpose of those stereotypes is to provide an altered but relatable filter through which the human experience can be better shared. A good GM can write great encounters using nonhuman cultural stereotypes as sources of conflict; a good player can use nonhuman cultural stereotypes to get more satisfaction out of those encounters and in the process provide more fun for the table as a whole.

And now that I’ve figured all this out, I’m going to go try to apply it to my own campaign. 🙂

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