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Monday Lab: Halfbreed

The recent discussion in Actual Play has prompted me to what may be quite a lot of pointed looks at racism in role-playing content. I've made a little video to set local boundaries & standards for all of them, beginning right here. You'll be seeing that link again.

To repeat one of the points from that, because the temptation to stray from it will be so strong, we are discussing fictional characters' racism and racist acts, rather than assessing authors and texts as potentially racist persons and objects.

Here's the first Monday Lab for the topic, which I decided would do best by going in obliquely, as it were, with a focused angle of attack: the half-human player-character.

  • Part 1 (embedded below) concerns mostly orcs and half-orcs
  • Part 2 examines the transformation of "monster races" into the Noble Savage
  • Part 3 examines the edgy minority or the familiar/friendly minority with reference to half-elves
  • Part 4 expands the topic to the wider range of science fiction and pop culture
  • Part 5 digs into the heart or meat of why "half"-ness is its own issue in fiction
  • Part 6 addresses the conundrum of making a half-X "type" when-and-if critiquing it

I've also made my own presentation of the games I mentioned, looking at them in more detail: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. The attached file diagrams and annotates my spoken points.

Please contribute your thoughts! I would especially appreciate some accounts of real-play experiences.




Sean_RDP's picture

When I saw the new material for what is being called One D&D come out, I was curious what they might be doing with several the rules. One caught my eye: no more hybrid races. You can in fact play a hybrid character, but they have been erased from the mechanics of play and are now mere affectation. Instead of making a new thread, I thought it would be relevant to comment here.

The Rules

Long and Short, a player now chooses the race that will give them their game traits, and then layers in any physical traits from the other parent.

The Good

You can now be a dwarf-orc or gnoll-halfling. Gnolls are not one of the offered races, but we all know people were thinking that. More variety, while cosmetic at best, does create potential background to be considered for prep.

The Bad

For myself, I am not a fan of erasure of the half-elf and half-orc. I can understand the problematic nature of this, but being a “half-“ X is a conversation starter. It recognizes and codifies relationships within the greater world that are more than mere cosmetics. And this does not change any the larger issues. At least in my opinion.

My thought is that this was not well thought out from a design standpoint and is a pure marketing strategy to get more people to come to church. Perhaps I am being too cynical in that regard. But D&D as a phenomenon undergoes changes that are mostly designed to make it more successful from a monetary standpoint, and less to make real change.

Here is the link to the PDF.

Ron Edwards's picture

You’ve raised a really interesting point for me.

In one sense, there’s a design principle here that I find perfectly serviceable in many games, not least among them the original Traveller. Basically: call yourself whatever you want, look however you want, but your rules are the same “play my character” rules as everybody else’s.

Consider playing any D&D of your choice using all the races listed in the relevant book, but everyone uses the human rules for everything. Frankly, not much is gained or lost by this, certainly not in comparison to character class. (I’ve always been irritated by the player obsession with matching ability +2’s from race to class optima in D&D 4E; it’s trivial and not even very effective min-maxing. The human method would work fine for everyone and remove time-wasting distractions.)

Or if that bugs you due to D&D purity concerns, fine, I’ll play a … let’s see, my guy is a “golliwog,” and he looks funny, but, who knew, golliwogs have exactly the same rules as humans. Other player: cool! My gal is a poox, and, by the mightiest of coincidences, pooxes have those same rules too! Please tell me you see that this is not a big deal and potentially quite fun.

If Hasbro wants D&D to go that way, for whatever reason, fine: (i) it’s a completely viable design option and (ii) Hasbro doesn’t care about my opinion anyway, so why bother having one.

Then there comes the other sense … and here, yes, I feel a twinge. Because just as you say, “halfbreed,” “half-“X, is loaded. For one thing, one never says, “half-human-half-elf,” any more than people call Spock “half-human-half-Vulcan.” Sometimes people call him “half-human” and sometimes – sometimes even the same person – calls him “half-Vulcan,” and they mean something by it either way. It’s always half-Other.

That’s why a “half” as construed for most games’ fantasy-races isn’t just another option. It’s deliberately breaking the designated rules-packages systemically just as it’s breaking the social categories and concepts of the fictional characters. My video in the post is very to the point in this regard and I would very much like anyone’s thoughts on its content, some day.

So never mind D&D in terms of latest publication, “what they’re changing,” et cetera. Let’s think in terms of playing anything. Do we want to eliminate Otherness from our role-playing? Or more accurately, do we want to trim away this particular loading (“half”) as fictional content? I am fine with anyone saying yes. But it is definitely a choice and quite likely answered differently for different games and concepts even among the same persons.

In-fiction racism, as opposed to racist authorship, is something I wanted to address in a later seminar, and perhaps sooner rather than later.

Sean_RDP's picture

I did not address part of the character design. All races are (mostly) equal now in terms of there are no ability score benefits from race. There are some minor differences" infravision or breath weapons. But for attributes, everyone is the same.

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