# How to tastefully convey racism in RPGs?

I will use Eberron as my example:

Eberron is a DnD game that has a player race known as Warforged, which are essentially living constructs. At the end of the last war (2 years ago in game) the Warforged were granted citizenship among the 5 Kingdoms.

However, it is widely seen as a political move, and many do not accept the judgment. The nations are rife with racism to warforged working harder then normal people are capable (day terk ar jerbs!).

What in game events could properly portray the frustrations and reality of racism, while not becoming so frustrating as to aggravate the player, or hindering the story?

-
Before including racism in your game, make sure that all of your players are okay with it. If they aren't, don't include it. Every D&D player expects non-graphic violence as a part of the game, but other themes will go beyond what some players consider an enjoyable evening of play. These include racism but also sex, torture, and drug abuse. Err on the side of caution, because some players will feel uncomfortable without showing it. The best way to find out what suits your group is to discuss it in private with each player beforehand. – Jakob Feb 22 '12 at 20:52
Your warnings are very well said. The question should have been stated as such to imply that everyone understands that difficult situations may be dealt with. – Pyrodante Feb 22 '12 at 21:15

The thing about racism is that you really can't portray it accurately without making it frustrating for the players involved. In most cases, there's nothing wrong with scaling it down to the point that you can give the players an idea of what racism is like and still make the campaign understandable and playable ... think about the standard Hollywood script as an example of this. (People from different races unite against a common enemy and win, learning in the process that everyone is equal.)

I think the key in those cases is to not hinder the story. Unlike in real-life situations, you'll always need to provide a path for the story to continue. If shopkeepers won't deal with Warforged, then there needs to be an NPC somewhere in the city who will. If the party can't find a place to stay, then you need to have a sympathizer somewhere who will share their floor. If the party can't find "work", someone needs to overhear their conversation and explain the situation while suggesting a possible solution. (The lord's son was killed outside a bar last month; witnesses pointed to a Warforged, even though he wasn't the guilty party. Finding the perpetrator and getting him to confess might open up some quests even if it doesn't completely change the lord's mind.)

Remember that with rare exceptions, reactions with a town will be mixed. Some townspeople will be sympathizers, even if not openly. Not all Warforged will be interested in fighting to gain true equality, even if only because they simply can't believe it will happen. Having said that, don't make the party search for the one person in 100 who'll help them; make it clear from the first conversation what the general attitude is. ("You get the idea that most people in the marketplace are bothered by your presence; some appear to be neutral, but you can't tell if they'd take your side or if they just want to stay out of it. As you head past the last stall, someone in the alleyway just beyond clears her throat. 'So your money's no good here?' she asks.")

Even scaled down to playability, racism should never disappear. If you do find the true killer, the lord will not suddenly accept a Warforged in his court. If your party fights off a wave of bandits that has been picking off merchant caravans, there will still be merchants who won't trade with you or who will charge higher prices. Make sure the party is always aware of racism in this setting ... but again, make sure they always have a way to accomplish what they need to do.

In some cases, though, you simply won't be able to introduce racism successfully, particularly if you're not playing in a real-life homogenous group. It's easy to inadvertently offend someone from a different race by trying to portray racism within the campaign: after all, it's entirely possible that they've experienced much worse situations in real life than you'd want to depict in-game, and they might not be interested in roleplaying situations that they experience in real life (even if they're not actually playing Warforged characters).

I've only played in groups where everyone's real-life backgrounds were similar, so I can't say from experience how to handle the latter situation. The best suggestion I can make is to be especially sensitive to your players' concerns with respect to Eberron. If one or more players seem reluctant to play in that setting, talk with them after the group has left (and ideally before you actually start play) to discuss their concerns.

Remember, the most important thing is that everybody has fun. Maybe that means that Eberron isn't the right setting for your group: if that's the case, put it aside and find another setting.

-

If you don't want it to be part of the story or to entice the players into acting on it, simply make it part of the flavor.

You come into town, sell your loot, and load up on supplies. Players, you can purchase items up to 500gp here. Bob, you get a lot of dirty looks and the occasional stranger spits as you pass.

Leave it just as that. Bob can buy and sell just as the rest, but he gets an extra line of description. It adds flavor without any actual consequence. If the players asks if there's any trouble buying stuff, fake a roll, and tell him that he finds a merchant who's a little more cosmopolitan then the rest.

Now, if it were me, I would go out of my way to entice a conflict with Bob. The merchants would refuse to deal with him. In smaller towns they may do it openly, even threatening to run him and "his kind" out of town. This is the sort of stuff that makes for a good role-playing session. Rewards would be halved once they client saw it was a war-forged. Mothers would scream "get the death-machine away from my baby". Drunks would start fights and the cops arrive it would be the player being hauled away. And occasionally, the war-forged sympathizer would go out of their way to help. In short, I would play the racism card in spades and probably be frustrating as hell to the player. Because racism really WAS worse then a couple of lines of fluff. I think it could add an interesting aspect to a game.

The bigots would have to grudgingly accept that he saved the town. The cop who arrested him would have to apologize. The merchant who did business with him would profit while the one who refused would lose business. It's another type of reward that you can give that player, acceptance.

-
Your answer gives a lot of focus on the negative side though, with only a little on overcoming it. The first point though is really good. – Pureferret Jan 30 '12 at 22:08
Well it's racism. It's kind of a negative thing. And despite all the player does to overcome it, some people will still be racist no matter what. It would be a long LONG road for one person, or even one party, to overcome widespread racism. And unless it's the main plot, I wouldn't tackle that mountain. – Philip Jan 30 '12 at 22:31
It is indeed a negative thing, and yes some people will always be racist. But change can happen, and the more you make players aware of the fact they can change the world, the more they will enjoy it. – Pureferret Jan 30 '12 at 22:33

Racism is a touchy topic, but I say play it up. There might be life lessons to learn and carry away from the table.

In game, with warforged PCs, this could be in work or guild rules that prohibit the PCs from finding work, or limiting work choices or outright no hire rules. Many PCs aren't going to be looking for the kind of work "atmosphere NPCs" fill, but maybe all the warforged that they see are doing rote and demeaning work: shoveling horse stalls, clearing sewage grates, patrolling the street for manure (the same street, over and over, like a 'robot'), or longer work hours for warforged. These are all story elements and world flavor. The PC might see his/her "people" downtrodden.

To put the PC in this world, have bar keeps ignore them or outright "not serve there kind in here" a la Star Wars.

I rant'd on this topic on my blog (don't downvote me, this answers the question and provides personal experience as well as provides additional perspectives in quotes by designers and GMs) in 2007: It is a game

-

When I used to DM Eberron, I made racism against the warforged something engrained in the social scene and everyday life, not anything major, but always there in one form or another. A look, a muttering under some fat rich gnome's breath, a dead warforged body lying in an alley with two Guard officers taking notes, rallies of the pro-machinates (those supporting warforged rights, and animate construct rights in general) in the streets, with banners and shouts.

The group didn't have a warforged, so there was no direct effect on the party, it had a more of a background role, but if there was a warforged PC, I believe any of the following might occur:

• Denial of service (any kind of service you can imagine, from temporary accommodation to a drink in a tavern).

• Harassment from citizens and/or officers of the law.

• A general expression of fear and loathing (no pun intended) from the populace at the sight of the warforged.

An idea that I prefer to the above, as I find they might become tiresome after a while, is to base plot hooks on this sense of racism.

• If you're basing your adventure in Sharn, the City of Towers, you'll know that every good adventure starts with a dead body, so why not a warforged one?

• A pro-machina rally turns to a violent riot

• A Warforged noble fights for his people's rights in Court (Maybe he's the dead body the PC's find? )

• A new breed of Warforged, secretly forged in underground Forges, start to appear in the town, and they bare no Maker's Mark (The symbol each warforged has on their forehead, unique for each one).

• The forces of the Lord of Blades attack a city known to execute warforged/still use warforged as slaves

Whatever you decide to do with racism, make it a part of the world, don't just base it around the PC's (or just the warforged PC). This way it is more believable and the party have to deal with something greater than them, which is what it should be, really.

-

As ugly as racism is, there are plenty of real world examples to take from. For instance Segregation and discrimination. Rather than blocking the Warforged players actions, simply challenge them and make them part of the story, like Philip says in his answer.

Though I would go as far as to make it a skill challenge or check, involving the party in defending the Warforged. It has the possibility of ending badly (they have to take the other magic train around the city) but you give the option of success, and team bonding.

Once they succeed they don't face that trouble again and pick up the image of being an adventuring party not to mess with in terms of racism. This reputation can set up lots of encounters in the future, and even gain the party some friends who don't believe in racism. Not everyone has to be racist.

Finally, don't use this as a one-trick pony to flog whenever the world needs some flavour, use it sparingly.

Edit; if you want inspiration from another setting, look at the Discworld Golems. Books to look into are: Feet of Clay, Going Postal and Making Money (they don't cover this issue in grave detail, but it is touch upon).

-

Racism can be found in antiquity, as it can be found in the present day. This can be traced to the fact that it is not only because certain groups are different, but because people fear this difference. This has been always amplified by misinformation (there was a time were black people were thought to be genetically inferior to white people), and stereotypes.

While a controversial subject, racism can be an excellent source for roleplaying, or even adventures and campaigns. Simple cold stares and name-calling could be a mild way of touching the matter, but it is not so realistic. The barman could always ignore the player of the certain different race, the merchant could scold him to get away from his trading table because he scares people off, authorities may be preoccupied, but lets face it, if these are the only things a character of an uncommon race encounters, he is plain lucky.

Real life has many beautiful (ironic) examples of racism. Groups of haters gather together and form whole "organisations" in order to drive away the minority in question with means not so pure and clean, people from the minority are being banned from places or are kicked out, they are beaten or challenged to fights because of their origins, or accused falsely of crimes due to their nature and how it is perceived by the majority of "normal" people. They may be used almost like slaves from employers, they may be harassed and not being seen as credible when they talk about it, and last (but not least), as a man named Adolf Hitler showed to us seventy-something years ago, whole nations can be united under the vast stupidity of the belief of superiority (yes not all racism is targeted on one group of the population, there are times that multiple ones are targeted, mainly because of the belief of superiority mentioned above).

So, if your main concern is realism of racism (which can lead to terrific roleplay), don't take the easy route, make the character fight to prove that he is not inferior, or to just get past the ones that believe he is. If your main concern is the "smoothness" of playing and the character not facing a real danger/dilemma when he openly shows his nature, some fluff could be good, but I would dismiss this as taking out a really good roleplay hook (I currently play a hagspawn, and I am actually frustrated when I am not seen as a monster from the majority of the population in towns as I should be, I chose the hagspawn so I could be a pariah, someone that other people prejudiced and were scared of, taking that away is like snatching away half of the race's flavor).

-

Racism can often be kinda tough to put in a game, but warforged are a bit unique when played well since they are basically born as L1 fighters & such, property trained/used for war and just dumped on the street being told they are "free" leaving them kinda confused about how to integrate into society. If your 'forged players are plying it like a normal human with the personal development that comes with things like childhood, family, etc to produce a well rounded member of society without always knowing when they are being taken for a ride or getting shortchanged.

If they are far int the fish out of water element, just feed their attempts to go with it & give bonus RP exp.

If they are better integrated & more like a human polymorphed into a golem, think about how people would act towards a virtually 3/5th's person that could (and often does) work 24 hours a day in hazardous conditions without trouble or needing to do things like stop to eat & drink. Toss in the fact that they are an extremely visceral reminder of a WW2 style war that ended when something happened to cause the day of mourning right where WF's happened to be getting built, not only did people suffer from the influx of WF troops during the war under command of most/all factions. But the post-war recovery often used cheaper WF laborers over starving fleshies desperately in need of employment.

If the party WF doesn't have a craft skill, think about letting him have/giving hi whittling as a class skill with an extra skill point free/level since it allows for interestiing interactions like "no nothing happened on watch, I saw a man that looked like [holds up mind flayer/whatever horific thing sculpture] while you were sleeping, we talked for a bit and it left" A WF can be totally unaware of what it should to consider a threat when you include things like the lack of culture/past beyond simple fight in war with the lack of eating/drinking/breathing & immunities. As long as the player doesn't go too far & you don't actually screw the party, their paranoia trying to keep the WF from endangering them will help you & infuse a bit of "look to the party & trust them when confused" in the WF at the same time defeating the kender/halfling style problem. If you regularly include things that allow the group to take advantage of the WF's differences like underwater/poison/no air/etc or make his "meh,it's only a 'forged" nature let him get in places the group needs to get without raising suspicion letting his out of touch nature be both a hindrance and a boon to the group. For that sort of thing to work, you need to have a player willing & interested in buying into it.

If you aren't familiar with WF, that +1/level in whittling is prettycrap for any other race, WF ca use it to repair themselves at a rate similar to natural fleshy regeneration during downtime though. Horrifically slow true... but otherwise it would be horrifically nothing. It's not exactly nothing

Wf ca dish it out as well as they take it too though, look at the lord of blades less extreme, fleshies have disgusting biological habits & lots of ridiculous weaknesses like needing to stop to sleep & eat or talk their way around a point instead of just saying it outright. If the WF knows the party keeps him from crossing the line too far or getting taken advantage of too badly, he will want to avoid pushing too much against them to keep things harmonious.

-
Maybe I'm missing something, but this answer seems to be more about portraying a race than about racism. – GMJoe May 25 '12 at 5:31