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Many published roleplaying settings reflect our own cultural biases, for example, by putting white people in the "core" of the setting with "exotic" (i.e., not white) cultures around the less-detailed edges.

Many home-brewed settings end up being disproportionately full of white people too. I catch myself doing this, even though I'm well aware of my bias and try not to make my geopolitical setups "just like Europe/North America, but with all the minorities moved to the edges of the map."

A trend toward whiteness in settings comes out in many other subtle ways, for example how by default NPCs are assumed to be white unless otherwise noted as "other than white."

For GMs who want to avoid the obvious and subtle ways they can end up with an overly-white settings:

  1. What things can these GMs do during world-building to defeat a bias toward making cultures white and to make their own game worlds more inclusive?
  2. What things can these GMs do during play to make the world feel more diverse and less culturally monotonous to the players?
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14 Answers 14

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Directed towards your second question, assuming you aren't running a real world campaign, make sure you clearly detail not only the differences between your world cultures, but perhaps the background / history of the differences.

Create cheat-sheets for players playing characters from those cultures, which you (and maybe with the help of the player) update and add to as the campaign continues - perhaps even toss in some interesting wise quotes that exemplify some aspect of a culture. For example, a saying from Japan such as "The nail that sticks up gets knocked down" as contrasted with "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" tells a lot about the importance of conformity. What about differences in courtship, marriage and achieving "honor" within the culture? Are the sexes segregated? What's up with relations with elders?

If you have non-human races, zero in on the differences from humans and spin culture from it, and again, make notes for your players so they know how to run with the differences. How does the long life of elves impact the culture of the elves in your campaign? Maybe elf hair keeps growing even after it is cut, so there is a ritual associated with burning cut hair.

A little more on cheat-sheets - Id make this a simple bullet list, divided into sections that start with "What You Know About..." or "What Your People Think About..." or "What Your People Say About..."

For example, consider a Shogun era Japanese game -

"What Your People Think about Foreigners"

  • Real foreigners are knuckle-dragging barbarians, but since they do not know the proper way, give them some mercy

  • Chinese, Koreans, Ainu are known barbarians who may make mistakes but should know the proper way of doing things

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The cheat sheet idea is a good one. Can you elaborate more? –  anon186 Oct 24 '10 at 13:44

The first thing to remember that culture develop through Larmarkism not Darwinism. That through processes like syncretism cultures develop over time. Consider each cultures we know about as a descriptive list. From time to time not only culture add and subtract from their own list they grab stuff from neighboring culture list. Mind how this happens varies and it is not always voluntary (i.e. conquest).

The approach I found to be the most gamable is to go through what I know about real world cultures and make up descriptive lists of the one I am interested in. This includes customs, rituals, beliefs, religion, government, and so on. Whatever you think is you can portray in a roleplaying session.

Then for your setting you take these lists and make unique combination that represent your in-game cultures. For example my Ghinorians in the Majestic Wilderlands are a hybrid of Hebrews, Western Medieval, and Roman culture. Basically the hebrews found my setting's equivalent of the Roman Empire and later fragmented into medieval states. But they are not entirely hebrew as I borrowed elements from India, China, and Japan. The first two for the Imperial phase of their history and the latter for one of the successor kingdoms.

If you want more non-western culture elements then read up on those cultures, make the lists, and draw more from those lists then the ones based on western cultures.

I strongly suggest you do not deal with skin color in your setting. I also refer to things like "You see a Ghinorian, a Tharian, and an Elessarin talking together). Rather than a black skinned individual, a fair hair white skinned individual, and a freckled red haired individual talking together.

First whether we like or not race is a charged issue in western society. If you don't have to get into it don't.

Second physical descriptions are a burden on your players. Not only they have to remember what a Ghinorian is but also that they are dark-skinned. I cut them some slack and just jump to the label and go from there. In the end what important that they react to what the culture is not play a guessing game. So when I say they they see a group of Thules walking down the street they suspect they may be dealing with Setites as their culture is noted for the worship of the Lawful evil god Set.

Remember that people are people. Human being have common considerations that cut across all cultures. For example the rules of hospitality are fairly standard. The few tribes/culture we know of that don't practice these rules are considered jerks by their neighbors and even by the anthropologists that study them.

Non-humans in contrast may have different consideration. The trick here to make up the list what all members of that race are concerned about. Then the various cultures of that race have a baseline from which they add to or vary from. For example my Dwarves have a low fertility rate with makes their culture very clannish and obsessed with protecting the females and young compared to the human norm.

Whatever you come up with remember to keep it playable and understandable. It is not always the same as realistic and accurate.

Last but not least, the RPG Hobby was fortunate that one of it's earliest setting is still perhaps the most non-western of all. M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel. They still sell it on their website and at RPGNow.

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+1: "Human being[s] have common considerations that cut across all cultures." Anthropology professor Donald E. Brown has compiled a list of 369 "Human Universals." You can see the list here: condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm –  A. N. Other Oct 25 '10 at 2:21

Answer to question 1:

Personally, when I want to start a new world, I call on a group of players at Greater Immortal level, that play once in a while.

I pick one of them and I ask him/her to "build" a new "world" (according, more or less, to D&D Immortal rules): they can choose if the want the world flat or round, full or hollow, how many moons, heliocentric or not, mainly earth or mainly water/air/fire, how many planets, asteroids, planets with rings, etc. I encourage "creative" approaches.

That Immortal will be "the Creator" of that world, that is a nice title to have, but it can also costs a lot of "power" (i.e. XP) to build a nice new solar system with plenty of nice objects.

For a while I allow "the Creator" to develop the world almost as he likes (it's a bit like the early stages of Sim Earth) until sentient races are generated. At the beginning, all sentient beings worship only the Creator, that is the only Immortal of that solar system.

However, soon a number of other immortals "discover" that "cool new system" and fancies having worshippers there as well. In total I usually allow twelve immortals (just because several old religions, like Greek, mentioned 12 main gods), more or less equally divided between the various alignments (witha general higher power to Neutrality). Typically, I play the Neutral Immortals as NPCs and the PCs split between Order and Chaos (each with its own take on "order" and "Chaos" and aligned to the various "Spheres" as well).

I then let the players role play the situation as per Immortal rules (simplified and made faster), allowing at first greater power of direct intervention to the Immortals, that can raise new continents, races, civilizations, heroes and also act directly in first person or through avatars, while Neutral Immortals are usually more powerful but "lazy".

At some point there is usually a Chaos Gate directly in the new world, allowing free entry to demons and horrors, or we can have a Order Gate, allowing entry to angels with flaming swords and similar.

When one faction appears to be winning and defeating the other (whether it's Order or Chaos), then Neutrality comes into play with full strength and in a big stroke changes the balance (typically banning the demons (or angels, or both) in a parallel dimension from where they have minimal access to the world and closing the Gates.

Now it's more time for indirect control of the world, with schemes and heroes raised in order to re-open or keep closed the Gates, and with Empires of the World Order ruling the world, until again Neutral Immortals change the situation and barbarians invade the empire or the new Emperor turns out to be a bloodthirsty tyrant, or plague devastates all the lands, etc. etc.

Basically, I allow some titanic swings from Law to Chaos and then smaller and smaller (under Neutral Immortal supervision) until there are enough histories and legends (of course in line with the world creation and history) to generate a number of cultures and at least one sentient race (could be a mammalian race as well as amphibian or a bird race... like in Sim Earth! or it could be a world very simmilar to our, but in another timeframe...).

Then the twelve Greater Immortals (as usual...) lose interest in the toy and start looking at other, new worlds where they are allowed greater direct interaction, leaving the "old" toy to lesser immortals... and to the new first level players, that finally can start their campaign!!!

Of course, depending on the players' age and capability I'll put them in easier situations (younger players tend to understand better polarized worlds, with Good/Evil facing each other frontally, clear definition of good and evil creatures and lots of relatively easy fighting) or in more complex (more mature players tend to prefer complex plots with the various "Spheres" of power taking more importance than Order/Chaos polarization, where you never know where next betrayal will come from, where you fight seldom and when you fight you have always serious chances of dying, where there is not a right/wrong approach to things...). I also like to allow the players to develop a number of different characters in the same world, making them play a bit all the races and situations, just to have fun and experiment.

The creative interaction between the GM, the "Creator" and the Greater Immortal Players often generates interesting and funny world, then it will be your call to stop the development of previous civilizations, cultures, artifacts, archeology etc. and to start the proper campaign over that.

If you think about it, it is something that is done random by the computer at the beginning of every campaign of Dwarven Fortress, where even mythology and older civilizations are generated, as well as geographical features.

PS: it's fun ;-)

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I'm not asking how to include players more in the process of world-building (that's easy), I'm asking how to avoid racial, cultural, gender, &c. bias when building a world, together with others or alone. Does this help with that in some way that you've left out of the answer? –  SevenSidedDie May 25 '12 at 0:53

I value the bunch of suggestions made above from the radical liberal perspective of traversing society's problems to traverse a game's problems. I don't think they're immediately relevant to a number of role playing problems, and, in fact hinder a full traversal of society's problems by failing to fully engage with the game's problems.

1) Aristocracy is never fully imposed on the PCs. Status and background are never imposed on PCs. It is time that it were. Level 1? Just liquidated the farm? Guess what, it wasn't bourgeois property to liquidate and you are still the baron's property. Your first adventure is evade / escape against humans with four levels on you. Welcome the other members of the party on the fly.

2) The problem of evil. Avoiding engaging with the structure of fealty and infeudation leads to the projection of the aristocracy onto the goblin. The real people who raid and rape the stereotypical village are those who own it and occasionally live inside it. The classic village myth if a backwards projected myth of "self-liberation" except casting the class other as the racial other.

3) The problem of eurocentrism. Firstly, there isn't enough eurocentrism. Fully traversing eurocentrism results in a divided european nature: Byzantium, Islam, Nordics, the Baltic pagans, the Slavonic pagans. Europe is the exclusion of Europe is space. And holy hell, if we go through the mythic backgrounds of these groups with serious intention, we discover other ways of gaming early, high and late feudalism. Secondly, Europe is the exclusion of Europe in time. Particularly the exclusion of antiquity, and the exclusion of the boundaries of antiquity. Finally, Christianity itself has never been adequately interrogated—rather it has been ignored. Your sourcebook for this is Luther Blisset's /Q/, a standard sparks rise up peasants campaign. YMMV, but I never really get the sense that Clerics have a concrete attachment to the outer trappings of religion: their Greek or Latin rite; rather than merely a direct and perversely post-Calvin direct connection to the revealed God.

4) The problem of eurocentrism continued. There isn't enough mimicry of the racialist/imperialist project of remythologising the past (ala Tolkien). If we pull a Tolkien on antiquity, we get Robert Graves' disturbingly freudian world of the sacred male and female and the horrific breakdown of a sacral economy. Graves myth is about inflicting patriarchy—what better a world to play in to traverse patriarchy (throwing babies of cliffs is just a bonus). If we pull a Tolkien on the mahabharata (I'm going to use the Western film version, due to its accessibility) then everybody knows everybody because they're all related, evil is in the heart of each and every character and is the problem—the problem isn't massacring every family member you're opposed to at the end of the story arc. The acceptance of a bowdlerised version of a handful of Western myths has meant the exclusions of a bowdlerised version of a handfull of non-Western myths.

5) The first step to traversing the racism inherent in the social text, or in the concrete text, is to actually inflict the system of oppressions implicit in the text onto the players, and see how they like it to be the common, racially other (even within the same Community, they're Provinçials instead of Lang d'oui), unmanned (actually enforce the heavy armour rules). Use the plot hooks inherent in the feudal setting and make the background for heroics the tableux of everyday evil that is economic exploitation. Seven Samurai should hold tips here on the relationship between "noble heros" and their anonymous objects requiring saving.

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This doesn't answer the question. It… rebuts it? instead. It's an interesting counterpoint in a conversation, but this isn't a conversational forum. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 '12 at 20:11

Answer to question 2:

I think that, after all, the fact that lots of campaigns and material look White/Anglo centric is due to the fact that JRR Tolkien developed the inspirational Lord of the Rings on the general British/Nordic mythology (that, like most mythologies, is racist, black vs white, confrontational, sexist, etc.).

A lazy GM can use "pre-cooked" campaigns based on that cultura scenario: they will appeal to the inexperienced player that just read the Lord of the Ring and require less work. The same player will also somehow accept that this game is about Elves and Trolls...

Of course there are plenty of other culture/mythologiess, sometimes older and more developed than British/Nordic cultures: from Pharaonic Egyptian, to Mycenean, to Greek/Roman, to Arabian Nights, Timbouctu, several Indian, native American, Buddhists, Chinese, Japanese, Easter Island, Aztec, Maya.... there is a huge wealth of other mythologies with different cultural centres (and most of them, anyway biassed in a way or another). I'd suggest to try them in order to have some different flavour and fun or you can "invent" your original culture.

I'd suggest also to allow your players to play every role (not only the "good boys" against "the bad boys" (depending on their age: the older players are, the more compliex setting they can handle).

This may require some extra-work for the GM as there are some pre-designed campaign settings in different cultures (Arabian Nights, etc.) but not a wealth of them and this, we have to say it, is due to the fact that Fantasy literature and products is sold mostly in Anglo Saxon countries, where the players find more familiar (and buy preferrably) a British/Nordic mythology setting, rather than an Easter Island one.

After all, as you can see, a similar situation can be found in comics :-)

It's all marketing, demand and supply... even in RPGs...:-S

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Play up tribalism. It's only really in retrospect in later centuries that we are able to identify all the subcultures of Europe let alone identify with them. As far as, say, a Saxon was concerned, those damn Franks were as different from them as Hottentots. Later, Christian vs Muslim was more important than skin color or country of origin. Now in our more culturally inclusive and world-travelling 20th century we are more tempted to group the world together into white/black/hispanic/asian categories but strangely when you go there they often don't see it that way (cf. Chinese vs Japanese, Hutus vs Tutsis). Avoid racial homogeneity in terms of culture, behavior, etc.

Run a campaign primarily in a different part of the map. If you set something in the real world, if you set it in Africa it looks like the "center of the world" is black with weird snow-people lurking on the periphery. It's not like there's not entire game settings published for African, Indian, SE Asian, Egyptian, etc. cultural analogues. Nyambe, Hamanaptura, the vast mass of Oriental Adventures/Legend of the Five Rings and knockoffs...

Run a game without humans at all. Be careful with this though, you really have to step up. I had a GM run a Savage Worlds game where the four major races were nonhuman, there were some humans on the fringe as a slave race but that was it. Unfortunately he didn't carry through on the burden - he'd say "four guards wander up," and we'd be like "Are any of them the ones with wings, or the ones that want our limbs to graft to themselves, or what?" Stepping out of RL cultural analogues puts a huge additional burden on the GM to continually describe/explain everything. (This question isn't tagged fantasy, so I'll note that a variety of SF games end up kinda requiring this... Especially transhumanist games where even humans aren't exactly pure-strain any more.)

A more gentle variant of that, just run the game without whitey. Have everyone be various shades of brown (or green, for that matter, depending,it is a fantasy world). From the "setting construction" part of the question, just "don't do that." As in the "no humans" answer, though, it does not necessarily address your question #2 which is to make things less monotonous.

When it comes down to it, if you want interesting homogeneity you need various races and cultures. And unless everyone is mind controlled to be super nice a la Blue Rose, there will then be cultural bias and racism. If you just don't want default whiteness, make the predominant race not white (or at least the predominant race from wherever your PCs are from.)

Personal experience: We ran a fun Savage Worlds fantasy game where most of us were various flavors of Indian. When we were in our homelands, we tended to assume (in terms of needing something to mentally visualize) NPCs were Indian unless they were specifically described differently, and when we travelled into the Europe analogue lands we tended to assume NPCs were white unless described differently. At some point, you have to assume something unless the GM has a bit of boxed text including skin color about everyone you meet. And is that really post-racial? "Twenty town guards attack you! And they're white!" That's certainly not accomplishing the goal of making race matter less.

In the end, "all NPCs look alike." They're kind of a grey color. Players are usually desperate for anything the GM drops or anything their mind latches on to try to create some sort of visualization. Cultural defaults are a powerful tool to do that. Balance 1. In your mind, making the NPCs diverse, 2. Actually conveying that diversity to the PCs, and 3. Not getting silly about it.

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Although I'm not sure the problem is "the players care about skin color," it seems more of a ideal driven "I want to portray a racially egalitarian society." –  mxyzplk Oct 23 '10 at 3:30
    
@Elisha Abuyah I somehow doubt @SevenSidedDie is doing this to combat anti-non-white racism in his player group. It sounds (specifically from how he frames the question in the OP) like it's being done as an exercise in political correctness to construct a "postracially ideal setting". Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it drives a different kind of answer. –  mxyzplk Oct 23 '10 at 13:20
    
+1: Your suggested re-wording of the question to "How do I make a postracially ideal setting?" is both simpler and more P.C. than the original question. Your proposed solution to "Construct a pre-racial setting" is highly inventive. –  A. N. Other Oct 23 '10 at 19:49
    
@mxyzplk I didn't wear my politics on my sleeve in the question because it would be a distraction, and this question certainly doesn't need more distractions. I'll say that aiming for post-racial isn't it. An example of the kind of world-building I'm aiming for, that makes its cultural setup less dependent on Earth analogies so much, is "Heluso and Milonda" in Greg Stolze's Reign. To that end, your answer is excellent, and for a variety of different setups. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 24 '10 at 17:22

When we run RPGs I believe we tend to start with the familiar and work our way out in an attempt to explore and experience the unknown. Which is fine. If you want to make your game feel more exotic I'd work my way there instead of plopping them down in the midst of something to which the game should build, in my opinion.

In my RPG campaigns, I let the players start out in a familiar, safe, environment where they feel at home and can identify with their surroundings, then as they play the game I expand their horizons by putting them into more exotic and alien locales.

In a recent campaign, I had the world be the 'classic white fantasy world', except with a slight twist - I made it a female hegemony. It wasn't explicitly stated at any point, but the players caught wind after a few sessions, and were excited about it. I would reveal it in subtle hints such as the female player always being talked to first as if she was the leader of the group, women in prominent positions (judges, high priests, The Empress ruling the nation, etc.), statues of heroines of ancient battles, etc. It was a pretty neat experience.

In another campaign, I set up the players again (i like doing that) with the familiar ol' world, but where the story line twisted so that a middle-eastern type people who at first were made out to be the textbook villains were the ones the players really would like to side with. Also here I made it very subtle. I really like to let players form their own opinions, BUT I do like to "taint" their thought patterns by being their subconscious. By that i mean, I would drop little hints of what their character perceives. In this case, their characters (except one) were raised in a comforting, noble, type setting, so whenever I described these strangers, I used dark, mysterious language and verbiage to make them seem shady, unreliable, shifty, strange and foreign, but whereas their actions were always "good". For example, if one of them were talking to the players, I would describe it as "The scarred man grins wickedly at you and in a strongly accented [player's language], tainted by his guttural mother tongue, hisses at you ... " And this was an NPC who had good intentions for the party, but they had to look past these descriptions to see his real intent. fun stuff.

To make a long story short, I think it's all in the storytelling to build diversity and avoid boredom.

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I like the part about including the characters' subconcious perceptions in how you describe their surroundings... relating to them what they see through a 'tainted' lens. –  yhw42 Oct 22 '10 at 18:31

Answer to Q1:

In settings with inter-species tension, ask whether the "human" position is automatically the unmarked/default one.

Default, White-centred example: Star Wars - humans are and have been the political majority, non-humans often live in ghettos. Humans form the majority of any multispecies political alliance. Humans do not have to fight species-stereotypes, oppresion, enslavement, etc.... Droids are slaves and no-one seems to object. Here, "humans" are very much akin to White folk in Anglophone America.

In addition, the humans are disproportionately Euro-looking.

An alternative: In "Uplift," Earth is an unimportant planet that more powerful empires would like to own. The alien species have imposed a caste system where humans have and will continue to have more rights than genetically engineered non-human Earth creatures, but humans are still not seen as equals by most non-Earth species. "Earth" is akin to a barely-independant nation trying to resist colonialism.

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Fantasy scenarios look too White-Anglophone because they are mostly generated from British/Nordic mythology. Just have a look at Arabian Nights and uyou'll find a different mythology centered into another setting/race/culture, or have a look at Greek/Roman mythology etc. the options are all there, just take them and develop your campaigns:-) –  Yaztromo May 5 '12 at 19:46

I want to respond to SevenSidedDie's challenge to provide "practical, rubber-meets-road [world-building] techniques" to make the world feel more diverse. I'm listing these ideas in a separate answer, because I feel its important to have an underlying philosophy that renounces the very assumptions that make racism (and other -isms) possible, and I believe my first answer provides such a framework.

  • Religion: In AD&D 2/e Dark Sun, clerics drew their power from elemental sources. There weren't any true gods. Dragon kings weren't gods. They were simply extremely powerful casters, having attained the 10th level of magic. In such an atheistic world, all religions are false religions.
  • Gender roles: There is actually a species of ant that has 3 sexes. Slimes molds have 13 sexes. Many plants and fungi reproduce asexually. Using just 2 sexes is setting yourself up for sexism: the "superior" and the "inferior" gender.
  • Skin color: Why use the visual paradigm at all? Maybe sight isn't a sense in your game world. Perhaps hearing or smell or some psionic sense is primary.
  • Language: Perhaps there's only one universal language, or direct mind-to-mind communication removes the need for spoken language.
  • Race: In D&D 3/e Ebberon, being an "orc" or a "troll" doesn't necessarily make you a monster. Being a monster is a choice.
  • Social stratification: Egalitarianism or radical democracy might provide a better foundation for society in a diverse pluralistic game world.
  • Campaign ideas: Perhaps the PCs are freedom fighters, struggling against racist colonial powers. In other words, racism exists in your world, but the whole intent is to overcome it.
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I had the impression that, for you, RPG player end up playing with the role that they would like to have in their lives (the Prince Charming rather than Lancelot etc.). I find this a bit childish and boring. I like also more complex situations (think about Gundam complexities, for example...) and I find it funny to play "the baddie"! For example, I enjoyed playing the Orc or the Goblin (and maybe they were nicer guys than the White Knight)... the game is there to be fun and you can safely try playing every role. –  Yaztromo May 5 '12 at 19:38
    
Think about the game as a kind of theatre, where the Knights of the Round Table can be interesting, but Hamlet or Othello, in their complexities, can be even more interesting, even if, after all, they are both murderers. A play with only Parsifals or Siddharthas in every role and nobody opposing to them would be, eventually, boring. –  Yaztromo May 5 '12 at 19:42

So far, everyone's answers have been very insightful. This is not so much an answer to the question, as it is an opinion.

As a black male, who has been gaming since the early eighties, I have always been aware of the 'euro-centric' trend of RPG gaming and fantasy literature. I always figured that the author, writer or GM was weaving a story from a perspective that he or she was most comfortable with (and I am very OK with that). The only fantasy stuff I have been exposed to, that was from a 'different perspective' was what I actively sought out. Heroes of color are out there, you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them.

Having been primarily exposed to the d&d fantasy world for so long, one begins to see this as the 'norm'. The same goes for sci-fi as well. In my youth I don't think I ever went out of my way to create characters that were black or brown or anything else. It was assumed that, unless the campaign explicitly called for human characters of another race (Kara Tur), all humans were assumed to be white. Keep in mind that in my high school days, I played with other black males 90% of the time. And this probably had to do a lot with young guys playing 'by-the-book' as they saw it.

Once I started college, I was exposed to other cultures and people, including gamers of all races, of course. And I would be wrong not to say that this was a weird experience at times. It seems as though many people in general seem to 'stick to their own kind' still these days, because its in their 'comfort zone'.

So anyway, to make a long story not as long as it could be, the friends I game with these days make characters of all types of racial backgrounds. I also make it a point to let my players know that the world in which their characters are a part of is populated by many types of humans. As I have grown older, I have become a big fan of choice and options- the more the better!

It seems to me that many fantasy non-human cultures are derived from human culture anyway, so why not add some much-needed flavor to the human side of things. In recent years I have had campaigns that were arabic in nature, a mixture of asian influences, afro-egyptian, roman-greecian and celtic. And not to mention the usual typical fantasy races thrown into the mix (except no haflings or gnomes!).

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If you want to make your game worlds more inclusive, make your gaming groups more inclusive and solicit input from the "Others" you invite to play. You can get amazing little cultural details from natives of a culture that you won't find as colourfully detailed (if you can find it at all) in books.

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Yes, exactly. To make your games more inclusive, talk to the people you want to include. –  Graham Oct 22 '10 at 14:32

Step one is admitting there's a problem.

The genre upon which fantasy RPGs are based has a problem with bigotry. To see how badly the fantasy genre is infected with bias, I recommend the very excellent article called Conservatism and High Fantasy, whose thesis is that in general high fantasy is characterized by

  • Racial Essentialism: Monsters are stereotypically black or semitic
  • Racial exclusion: Heroes are white
  • The male saviour: Frodo, Harry Potter, etc.
  • External threats and nation states: The world is crumbling due to contamination from foreign races
  • Gender roles: Women are there to be rescued by men, not to take leading roles
  • Nuclear family: The norm of high fantasy literature, but not of real-life
  • Inherited Wealth: Aragorn inherits the Kingdom of Gondor, and Harry Potter inherits his magic
  • Heteronormative: Where are the openly gay characters? Would you even know Albus Dumbledore was gay based on the books if J.K. Rowling hadn't outed him?
  • Glorification of war: The tragedy and hardship of war are marginalized; total war is seen as the total solution to society's problems
  • Genocide is cool: This invariably follows from racial essentialism and jingoism. When destroying your external enemies does nothing solve your society's problems, its only natural to try and root out the enemies within
  • Libertarian or authoritarian communities: Monsters often have a classless society run by a strong man

The author focuses on Tolkien's LotR. But the same argument can be made about H. P. Lovecraft.

Step two is to understand the root cause of this bigotry.

The modern philosopher Slavoj Zizek has developed a theory of racism, based on Hegelian metaphysics. In his Science of Logic, Hegel said "Everything is inherently contradictory," meaning everything contains within itself internal contradictions; these are the primary cause of motion, change, and development in the world. Everything is in the process of becoming something else. The mind struggles with this dialectical "law of the unity and conflict of opposites" because our rationality is constrained by Aristotle's three laws of thought: identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Tension between "the law of the unity of opposites" and "the laws of thought" lead to unhappiness with the inherent imperfection in all things, including society.

In reality, society can't be perfected. But the mind insists it can. So it concocts a myth that the world was "all good" "in the beginning" and then "the Other" ruined it. If only "the Other" were destroyed, then there would be no crime, war, etc. And society would once again be a harmonious whole. So, "the fantasy racist figure is just a way of covering up the impossibility of a whole society." We would have to invent new racial figures to scapegoat for society's ills, if we ever exterminated the current batch.

Even our views of "the Other" are inherently self-contradictory. Zizek says our racial unease originates from our fantasy that the ethnic other (1) wishes to steal our enjoyment and that (2) he enjoys differently than us. For example, racists think foreigners come to our country to (1) steal our jobs and at the same time (2) go on welfare because they don't value work like we do: so they're "workaholic idlers," a dialetheia or cognitive dissonance on the part of the racist.

In sum, bigotry is caused by contradictions in our selves.

Step three is to uproot the causes of bigotry in our selves.

Zizek says that we need to learn to "traverse the fantasy" of racism, i.e., "acknowledge that fantasy merely functions to screen the abyss or inconsistency in the Other." In other words, we can liberate ourselves from bigotry only by eliminating the delusions we hold about our world, society and rationality.

Step four is ending bigotry in our RPGs: The eightfold path

  1. Gameworld physics must be based on the reality pure self-difference:
    • The universe is an integral whole in which things are interdependent.
    • All things contain within themselves internal contradictions, which are the primary cause of change.
    • Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes.
  2. Ignorance of reality leads necessarily to greed and hatred.
  3. "Monsters" are defined by their willfull ignorance. Not by the color of their skins, their language, their nationality, their religion, or their traditions.
  4. "Evil warlocks" are the guys who make up their own mythologies, religions and political ideologies as a substitute for the reality they hate so much, to gain temporary power over the ignorant masses.
  5. The "gods" and "saints" are the guys who have freed themselves from their delusions about reality.
  6. The "heroes" are the guys who are in the process of freeing themselves from their delusions about reality. Commissioned by a god or saint, they are on a quest for something that symbolizes the truth, e.g., the Holy Grail or the Spear of Destiny.
  7. The heroes should be rewarded for avoiding violence, looting, boasting, womanizing, and heavy drinking. If they engage in these things, there must be meaningful, tragic consequences. And they must do some kind of penance to make things right.
  8. The evil warlocks should tempt the heroes with all of the above, as Klingsor tempts Parsifal, to distract him from his quest.
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This is a very detailed treatment of a philosophy and would make an interesting blog post, but it's slim on practical, rubber-meets-road techniques that can be directly applied. (The solution section also assumes the protagonists are male, which is somewhat self-defeating in this context.) If this could be distilled down into an answer of the form, "GMs can do X, Y, and Z, which will have the effects A, B, and C on their games," it would be a much more useful answer. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 22 '10 at 7:19
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For me, this is an interesting answer. There are implicitly some practical techniques here: for example, it implicitly suggests you look at your game to see if monsters are stereotypical of other ethnicities. –  Graham Oct 22 '10 at 9:38
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I was about to say "I'd play this game!" and then realized I had - Galileo Games' How We Came To Live Here is the closest I've seen to a sensitive and fun answer to this particular dilemma. it does it, in part, by completely removing the possibility of Eurocentrism, but otherwise maps well to your fourth step. –  Jmstar Oct 22 '10 at 13:35
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There is so very much wrong with the first portion of this answer, that a comment can't contain a suitable response. The rest is pretty interesting though, and the citations are neat. –  AceCalhoon Oct 22 '10 at 13:36
    
Interesting answer, but the fundamental point is that Fantasy literature somehow originates form some mythology and, maybe, some fairytales, that are for sure biased and fruit of a biassed culture. We can play Fantasy games under different points of view because it's fun, different and "out of the box", but we won't change the original cultures that generated that mythologies and fairytales :-) –  Yaztromo May 5 '12 at 19:25

In my personal experience, cultural biases start at the fundamental assumptions of the world. When I wanted to make a novel world, I started by asking myself "what mythos can I take the shape of the world from?" Consequently, I envisioned a world that was set in a giant flower, the petals around the edges thousands of klicks tall providing light, humans an ignored minority sailing around the edges of the world on rafts of seaweed.

The essence here is to try to create a world as others see it. Who says the world is round? Who says the sun is a star in the sky? Look at what ancient myths say and steal from them. If you steal the shape of the world from them, everything else follows. It also helps if you minimize the impact of humans, as they're too easy to link to our world.

During gameplay, the trick is to import the social structures of the myths as well. Feel free to echo, twist, distort them, but if you're using the Native American mythos, tribes are the name of the game. On the other hand, they also had theocracies and so forth. Don't let the players play generic fantasy characters. Make sure they detail their home cultures in a way that includes alien elements, and so forth.

But, at the end of the day, everything follows the shape of the world and the myths of its creation.

This discussion of the rate of change in the word and how we have spent most of our existence as tribes is very very relevant to fantasy world creation.

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Well, the obvious answer is to not put the non-whites around the less-detailed edges.

The less obvious answer is a question: are you worried about cultures or about colors? You say culture, but you also say color, and they’re not the same thing. Most fantasy game worlds, while they retain the trappings of a fantasy Europe, are not in any sense a historically even semi-accurate Europe.

This means that it’s easy enough to have the fantasy setting include peoples of different colors interacting normally and every day; like an “inclusive” movie that includes many people of different colors working for some faceless organization, those peoples will all interact under a single culture. They don’t have to. But they will, because it’s easier for your players (just like it’s easier in real life to assimilate).

That’s the way I do it: the history of our world is such that there are many people of many different colors living under the same culture.

If what you want, however, is to have a highly multi-cultural setting in which each culture interacts relatively equally, you will need to create a setting—at least, the starting point of your setting—in which each of these cultures are all meeting without falling under the aegis of a dominant culture (unless, perhaps, the dominant culture is inaccessible to the player characters).

In that case, you still need to make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of having one culture for each color—except for whites, who get the Irish, the French, the upper-crust British, the cockney, the American, etc.

The long answer is decide what you want. The short answer is to just do it, rather than agonize over how. Nothing and no one is stopping you.

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Both of these are the sort of thing I'm looking for, yes. Which direction of those two (I'm sure there are more) is going to depend on what the GM wants to do with their setting, so covering both is great. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 21 '10 at 23:22

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