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The world is not always nice place, and typically neither are our pretend ones. There are plenty of times in games where Characters may come across others who are prejudiced in some form. Perhaps mechanically, with Shadowrun's Prejudiced Disadvantage, traditionally, like how Elves and Dwarves tend to dislike each other, or how all Tieflings seem to get disliked on principle.

Now, I'm lucky enough to have a fairly privileged upbringing, so I've not had to live through much, if any, prejudice. This does however mean I don't know how to properly roleplay it, either as with a single character or as a GM showing entrenched prejudice in a society.

Obviously, I would need to make sure anyone I'm playing with is willing to deal with Prejudice before I put it in my game, but I believe defeating it would give them much the same satisfaction as saving the puppy orphanage from destruction, so it's something I want to include. How then, as a GM, would I present subtle/overt prejudice from individuals or a society in a believable way?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Iter: Don't answer in comments (regarding your first comment). If you have an answer, post it as an answer - and support your answer by citing evidence/experience. (Relevant metas: What are the citation expectations of answers on RPG Stack Exchange?, How do we ask and answer subjective questions?) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 30 at 10:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related but not Dupe: How do I encourage Drow players to not make Drizzt clones? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    May 30 at 10:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast see, I considered that more of a note rather than a complete answer, hence why it was a comment. But I suppose my expectations of answers may not match that of the site. Thank you for the link that I might learn. \$\endgroup\$
    – Iter
    May 30 at 13:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Iter: Partial answers are still considered answers; comments are for requesting clarification about the question, or suggesting improvements to the question. Anything that actually addresses the answer to the question should be posted as an answer instead. Thanks for understanding :) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 30 at 18:38
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Subtle prejudice

When PCs go to buy things, they have to pay 25-100% more if they are the wrong race. When they get near people they pull their purses/ children/ valuables closer. There are two tier services, and they are directed to the lower tier service. Neighborhood watches shadow them when they get in the neighborhood. Dirty looks at you. When you go to buy something they say "We require a 'local id' for immigrants, especially if the PCs are from the local area and have a local ID. A lot of questions about where you are from, and where you got your accent. People saying they can't pronounce your name. People telling you that they have a friend of your race, and asking if you know them.

These are the little things you can drop into scenes that add some ambience. None of them involve violence or direct racism, but from experience they let the players know the area has some racism without triggering fight or flight.

Overt racism

You know your players, their sensitivities, and their maturity. You should be careful about this. A lot of players are used to using violence to resolve interpersonal problems, and a lot faced racism IRL and want to use violence to punish such people in a fantasy land. From experience this sort of thing often ends in a bloodbath.

If you have helpful NPCs be overtly racist as well, there's a high risk the PCs won't want their help.

They may refer to the PC by a slur, like knife ears for elf, or pigs for orcs, or dire halfling for humans. They may refuse to serve the PC because they're the wrong race. Neighborhood watch might go up to harass the PCs, or summon tactical teams for them. They ask you offensive racial questions like "Do all you humans beat your children?" or "Was it your mother or your father who was a pig orc scum?". There are racist marches against PC races. There are lynch mobs formed to kill problematic members of enemy races. The authorities have a quota of racial minorities they need to arrest, and the PCs are on that quota.

Again, be careful of this. If you have too much overt racism, there's a big risk your PCs will just kill everyone. It's very disruptive of plots.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "... a big risk your PCs will just kill everyone.", I LOLed. But it is indeed a real risk. \$\endgroup\$ May 30 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Dire Halfling! :D \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    May 30 at 23:53
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Prejudice can be the same issue as horror

Let me explain: when someone plays a horror game (or watches a horror movie, or reads a horror book...) they expect to be afraid, but usually not the same way they dread failing at school, or being fired from their work, or that their kids have an accident while on vacation... What they truly seek is something scary indeed but not traumatizing: they can easily imagine that being in the character's situation would be horrifying but they know this is only happening to the character and not to them.

In the same way, prejudice can be fun to experience in a game, but making it realistic is not enough: to be enjoyable it must be both realistic enough that your players can pretend they believe it, but not realistic enough that it reminds them of truly painful things they experienced.

Sadly, this means what you can do or not will depend on your players. If none of them experienced any serious prejudice in their lives, then you can go wild with the realism, if not you should add some spice to it so that it tastes less like real prejudice to them and more like a part of the game.

How to add realism

Real-life prejudice is more complicated than "everyone is mean toward this part of the population for no reason": usually there are reasons to it, or at least they look like reasons to prejudiced people.

In the case of tieffling for example it could be as simple as: they look like demons, and demons are bad, so they must be bad. For the elf-dwarf hatred: maybe dwarves consider that honesty is very important and it means for them not saying something you think is despicable, while elves consider courtesy to prime: no wonder their encounters always end up badly!

As a general rule of thumb to write a prejudiced character (especially PCs) I find it more believable to add a line like "his grandma told him his parents were killed by kobold thugs" rather than simply stating "he doesn't like kobolds": in game it will make the way this character dislikes kobolds different than someone who "was raised by kobold hunters" or who "got bullied at school by kobolds".

Also, being prejudiced against doesn't always translate into people being mean to you for no reason: it is more like being given less credit for good things you do and less indulgence for bad things.

While it may be possible to solve the issue of one character being prejudiced, solving it at the scale of the world is realistically impossible at the scale of a normal campaign (if it was, considering the number of people who suffer from it everyday, you can bet someone would have solved it by now).

How to add spice

That say, you don't have to go full realism. Maybe you want to offer a satisfying way to your players to overcome this foe.

You can make "curing" people from prejudice easier than it realistically would be: if in a specific town people are afraid of magic maybe saving a child with healing magic could change their minds (while realistically it would just make the healer be kicked out of the town, or worse).

You can also instead not make "the Prejudice" itself the foe, but only have the Bad Guy also being prejudiced: maybe killing the evil dwarf-hater won't solve all the prejudice against dwarves, but it will feel good anyway.

I talked sooner about ways to help players make a difference between real-world prejudice they may suffer from and in-game prejudice. You can add specific things that only make sense because of the setting: having orcs called "boars" for example works well because IRL there is no ethnicity of people with tusks. The idea is to stay away from stuff that would make more sense IRL than in the fictional universe you play in (a typical example of such prejudice is sexism in settings where there are as many men and women in most jobs: it doesn't make sense to mock a fantasy guard because she is a woman if it is common).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I mean real life prejudice is often as simple as "everyone is mean towards a group for no reason". They have just been taught that that group is somehow lesser or wrong, not in the sense of "oh your grandpa was killed by x" but on the sense of "this is how things are" \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26 at 2:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Some real life prejudices are literally because "oh your grandpa was killed by x nation" or "their soldiers came, killed most of our men, raped most of our women and later they went home after messing our country". Those things happened. Some countries and ethnicities even hold grudges that are more than 2000 years old. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26 at 4:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DimitrisTz Except in that case it is not "no reason". It may be "because our ancestors disliked them, and obviously as our ancestors were super-cool they must have been right" or some other twisted logic, but still there is something that looks like a reason for the prejudiced. (Although I admit it may not feel like that for the person who is prejudiced against) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 1 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didnt say that this was always the case. I said often. Anne was the one who said it was always like that and its more believable like that. Which it sometimes is dont get me wrong, just not usually. And "this is how things are these people are just lesser" prejudice doesn't have a reason behind it. Instead people make up reasons after the fact. They begin from "this group is lesser" and then make up a reason why, not the inverse \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4 at 8:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DimitrisTz There are many examples of "these people are just lesser" prejudice that clearly comes from somewhere, (I am pretty sure that it always come from somewhere, indeed, but obviously that is impossible to prove). Take the nazi antisemitism: people already disliked Jews because they thought Jews controlled the banks and were basically keeping all the money for themselves (a prejudice that has its own causes). Saying they are lesser human being is the next step from that, not what caused the prejudice in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7 at 22:41
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First of all its good that you realize that this is something you need to check with your players first. There will be many who will not be interested in exploring such themes

We also need to further define our categories here. Prejudice in settings not whole based on reality comes in two flavors

A) Real world prejudice. Every type of prejudice based on a characteristic found in the real world is on the category. Things like prejudiced based on gender sexuality real nationalities etc

B) Fantasy prejudice. Every type of prejudice based on a characteristic not found in the real world. Things like prejudice based on Fantasy races, being able to cast spells, fantasy nationalities etc

This distinction is extremely important because the first type is much much harder to present in a game context correctly (in some cases its basically impossible) and many players will not want to deal with it, and a very significant subset who have personally experienced it will rightfully have an extremely negative reaction to it

Never use this without explicit player buy in, and make it clear that they should inform you if they are uncomfortable so you can dial it down.

Now the second type is usually much more palatable and is often presented in many games and settings as a part of the world requiring no player buy in many cases. Ofc not all forms of it are the same. Prejudice against spellcasters vs prejudice based on how you look (the tiefling example) is fundamentally different. IF you are going to explore the theme in depth for the first case, or at all for the second, ask for player buy in/inform them of how the world treats em before making characters. If everyone in your setting hates tieflings, just tell that to the players, so that only a person interested in having that experience makes one and so on and so forth

Now for how to roleplay this

My answer here will focus on the second category. If you want to gather info for the first, simply look into how such prejudice manifests now or how it was historically applied and go from there

Firstly for fantasy races.

A society that loathes a specific race will have that race in lower regard. Expect to see them living in ghettos, having lower paying job with little social capital, and the ones who have important and influential positions are better than average to be able to overcome the roadblocks and discrimination, as well as treated with contempt and as an aberration. Its often likely that there will be less of them in such a society

For example in the first book of the rune lords pathfinder campaign in the first city there is only a single half orc and he is the garbage man. This tells you a lot about how half orcs are treated there

Prejudiced Npcs should put roadblocks to the pcs progress, refuse or think twice about associating with them or asking them for help, talk about them behind their backs, spread misinformation and slander about and doubt their achievements and capabilities. They usually will not admit to doing this on purpose and if confronted make up excuses and then proceed to behave even worse

If you want to go more extreme, that moves us to the realm of pogroms, denying pcs of said race (and anyone who is their comrade or friend)access to goods and services, lack of rights etc. depending on the extend of the prejudice expect npcs to be hostile to outright murderous. Its perfectly likely for a guard to attack the tiefling pc in a place where tieflings are considered little better than devils themselves, while a normal citizen or peasant would either retreat and call the guard or literally try to form a murderous mob, unless they are too afraid of the pc

Then lets talk about classes and spellcasting.

Its often that fantasy settings include this type of prejudice. For many its one of the main things about them, such as dark sun

Usually this manifests as prejudice either for or against magic. In dragon age all wizards are locked up in towers, abused and used as chattel. In the netheril empire in forgotten realms non spellcasters were second class citizens

Depending on the views on why said trait is bad, npcs will have a varied gamut of reactions. If the idea is that magic is powerful and dangerous they will try to not anger the pc and simultaneously find a way to get rid of them and escape the situation

If the idea is that magic makes someone weak, expect npcs to take spellcasting pcs less seriously, test their power, make biting remarks about "the wizard that cant even carry a bundle of firewood" or deny them access to culturally significant events on the grounds they are unproven and unsuitable

Fantasy nationalities

Prejudice based on fantasy nationality doesnt really differ from prejudice based on real life nationality ( so same as my point about category A previously). Because of that it can often be equally off-putting to players and very often carries with it other real life prejudice such as racism. Another thing to consider is how is that in many settings certain fantasy nationalities are based on real ones. For example, you brought up shadowrun. Sure the geopolitical environment is different, but prejudice against someone from UCAS is almost indistinguishable for prejudice against an American. In other cases fantasy nations are stand ins for real nations and cultures, so for example prejudice in the forgotten realms against someone who is Su is very close to prejudice against someone who is chinese. Ofc the basis is usually on past snapshots of said nations and cultures, but it is nevertheless often indistinguishable from historical prejudice against said nations and cultures, and some elements from 500 years ago haven't really changed today

so examine how close the nationality in question is to real ones. the closer it is to real nationalities the closer it is to category A

Oh and remember that elements from one prejudice often come at play in a different one. Excluding someone from culturally important events isn't only at play in case they are a spellcaster, its perfectly likely that they might be refused entry in a ritual because that ritual is "not for horned bastards like yourselves"

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