We, The People of +1 Dexterity

Posted by on Apr 1, 2010 in Fantasy, Promotion | 3 Comments

Earlier this year, I did the graphic design and layout for Hard Boiled Empires: Solara, for Brennan Taylor of Galileo Games. I wasn’t aware of any of the content specifics when I signed on for that job, but when I read through the Hard Boiled Cultures source material (originally released by One Bad Egg, and upon which Solara is based) I was drawn to its central premise that fantasy races could—or, rather, ought to—have cultures as diverse and interesting and meaningful as real-world human cultures.

Brennan has recently written a “personal explanation” of Solara on his LiveJournal, which is worth reading.

Real cultures are not monolithic, overarching creeds that define every single member. Individuals and sub-cultures break from the mainstream and create little pockets of different traditions, regional cultures, and countercultures. This is how the real world works, but most fantasy world-building treats an entire race or nation as a single culture.

Brennan is coming close, in that sentiment, to describing what makes me want to play human characters in most fantasy RPGs. He strikes a more positive note than I typically do. My thinking runs along the lines of the violent rejection of the idea that upright, intelligent, tool-using bipeds would be more interesting if they had pointed ears, great Dexterity, and a superior-to-thou attitude. What should be interesting, dramatic, culture-based choices wind up being relegated to the realm of the mini-max. An interesting background takes second fiddle to the stat bump you need to be an effective warrior. Can I use the word “hate?” I hate that. So I typically play humans to negate it.

Allow me to be the first to point out that there’s no necessary dichotomy at work, forcing a choice between a well-crafted character (mechanically speaking) and an interesting character (from a dramatic standpoint). But let’s not pretend that PC race in fantasy gaming hasn’t become a collection of typical stat bumps attached to a portable set of monolithic cultural ideas.

I never got around to writing the post I discussed briefly with Will when I got done reading Michael Chabon’s most excellent The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I probably never will get around to writing it, so I’ll simply note, here, that if you have any doubts about whether it’s possible to deploy non-racial culture, sub-culture, and counter culture into an incredible genre story, your imagination is impoverished and you’ve lost your library card. (And as if to slap the rest of us in the face, Chabon even makes the exercise look easy.)

So, more power to the ideas at work behind Hard Boiled Cultures, as embodied in Hard Boiled Empires: Solara. For those keeping score at home, both have my hearty endorsement.

3 Comments

  1. Brand Robins
    April 1, 2010

    A notable exception to this view of culture is easy to find — any game that is set in the culture (even if in a magical world version) of the people playing it.

    You’ll rarely find an RPG that gives Americans +1 to Dex because all Americans have fast reflexes from driving their muscle cars in death races across the endless desert that makes up the majority of the country. Or if you do, it’s being cute and ironic and shit.

    Generally it’s other cultures that get the structuralist treatment.

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  2. Kenneth Hite
    April 2, 2010

    Americans in Day After Ragnarok have one extra point in Shooting or Fighting.

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  3. Jonathan Walton
    April 4, 2010

    Glad you dig HBC, Jeff. It was a fun project and one that I hope will get Simon Carryer’s thoughts on culture in RPGs out there more. Structuralist solutions can only go so far (and HBC is still structuralist, just with greater variety), but maybe it’s a step in a more interesting direction.

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