Can racism be fixed?

Torero, relaja esa postura
Ahórrate los aires de entendi’o
Cuando hables de mi cultura
-Gata Cattana, Tientos

Tristan is troubled because orcs are racist.

Disclaimer: This is not an attack on Tristan. If my tone denotes anger, it’s because I’m angry. It’s not an attack, it’s a pretext to write about this topic, and it’s not about all white people either, it’s about systemic racism, but Tristan, he just happened to be the catalyst, although I have written about it before. So, when I say “Tristan”, sometimes I mean Tristan and sometimes I mean eveyone with a similar mindset. Read on, it explains itself. Note: Since I wrote the first draft of this article, and today that I am posting it on the blog, Tristan has sort of aknowledged that his text is problematic (to use an euphemism and avoid saying that it is bad).

Second disclaimer: This article is partially about orcs as racism, but that’s not the point. Neither this is a defense of Tolkien. Fuck Tolkien! There are far better writers.

Part One. In which the author rants on real-life racism

Tristan is troubled because orcs are racist.

In his article, he basically says: Orcs are racist and if you don’t think orcs are racist, I don’t care about your opinion.

I am Mexican. I, due to my nationality, have been the target of racism. Not many times because most online are not aware of that fact.

I am Mexican and I don’t agree with the “orcs are racist” meme*, at least not in the whole. It’s not that simple. “Are orcs racist?” “Yes, but…“, and it’s that but what matters most.

But Tristan doesn’t care what I think about racism, unless my thinking is exactly the same as his. Yet, sadly, Tristan is not the only one.

“Oh, but good old Tristan here means white people”, I hear you say.

Yeah, I know. White universaility. He thinks only white people can have an opinion on racism, he doesn’t consider we, the victims of racism, or people outside his country, can have a voice of our own, can have our own opinions. That doesn’t mean my own experience with racism, as a Mexican, is the same as the experience of Asian or African people, or even other people from Center and South America. It’s clearly not the same. Also consider that some non-whites might not have an opinion concerning orcs, since struggling with real-life problems, including factual racism, consumes most of our time.

What did he do instead? He has impossed himself the duty to save us (to save those he sees like orcs, perhaps?), he wants to be our white Jesus Christ, our fair-skinned messiah. Thank you, o’, our own personal Tristan, someone to hear our prayers, someone who cares (not).

This is not to say he’s being overtly, or even consciously, racist. Racist attitudes, when they are the norm, are seldom recognized as such by the people who have them. He’s not the problem. He’s a symptom. But we are here to discuss evol orx and how they turn good christian people into evil colonialists.

Part Two. In which the author rants again

Was Tolkien racist?

Yes. Probably. There’s nothing to prove otherwise. Not that you can ascertain what doesn’t exist, just like you can’t prove god doesn’t exist (hint: god doesn’t exist; if you think god exist, you need to show evidence, and so far no one has showed none); probability is the answer: almost everyone wiz racist in England, so he must have been racist as well. And there’s enough evidence to ascertain the claim that he indeed was racist. But that’s not important; what’s important is his body of work (no, I’m not referring to the misunderstood concept of the “death of the author”; that’s an entirely different topic)**.

I mean, almost everyone in his country, and in his times, wiz a racist. Colonialism wiz in their blood, and blood wiz in their money and way of life. And he likely made orcs as a counterpart of humans he deemed inferior (or more likely, inherently evil). So let’s say that Tolkien was racist, therefore bad.

Yes, but… But his books don’t promote racism. They promote, if at all, Christian values (fight the devil and his minions). In The Lord of the Rings, there are clear good and evil, a vision that doesn’t conform to reality. His description of orcs include that they look like Mongols and that they are swarthy. Pretty offensive to be sure. But that’s not the end of it. He also said orcs are sallow-skinned and had squat, broad, flat noses. He was not trying to portrait orcs as an allegory for Asians, he wanted to make sure they looked evil and exotic, that is, to embrace the features of otherness. For a colonialist, otherness and exoticism came to enbody evil, and for them and the generations before him, exoticism was linked to Orientalism.***

For Tolkien, it was clear what was black and what was white from his Christian moral point of view (evil and good), and, perhaps not by intentionality, he ended up granting whisteskins (humans, elves and dwarfs) the features of good, and swarthy orcs the features of evil. So, racial black and moral black coincide, just as racial and moral whites do.

But in Tolkien’s stories there are also evil white men and “exotic” people that are good. This means non-white, non-western/germanic peoples are not inherently evil, and white/germanics are not inherently good. This doesn’t refute Tolkien’s racism, just makes the subject more complex, not easily solved with a black = evil and white = good dichotomy from a manichean wordlview. Still, evil whiteskins were evil because they served swarthy gods; and good people of color were good because they opossed the swarthy gods (relevant bit, minute 21:20, about Hadir).

So, yeah, Tolkien was racist. That’s still not the point.

Are D&D orcs racist?

When Gary took orcs for his game, there is nothing to imply he did so as an allegory of black people. To think otherwise is simply preposterous. In Chainmail and 1974’s D&D, orcs are given tribe names, based on the two-word names Tolkien uses (Red Eye, White Hand), and in AD&D, orcs were described in a way that assumes they are no inherently evil, containing shamans and witch doctors in their ranks.

Also, they are given their first portrait as pig-men. To be clear, Gygax’s orcs are not Tolkien’s orcs, just like Gygax’s gnolls are not Dunsany’s gnoles. D&D orcs are not Asian or African people, they are monsters. Sometimes evil and sometimes not inherently evil.

Using orcs, even inherently evil orcs in your games doesn’t imply you are a racists or are promoting colonialism. If Vikernes says Tolkien inspired him to kill Øystein, well, that’s entirely another thing (hint: Vikernes didn’t say such a thing). He probably was not well in the head to the extent that he thought killing another person was the correct decision to make; pehaps he’s human all too human and capable or killing other human being for whatever reason. How many people have you killed since you read Rings? How many countries have you invaded since you first played D&D?

A small digression: Vikernes goes by the name of a Tolkien orc, Grishnackh. Why would a white-supremacist identify himself with a monsters that is a caricature of Asian and African people? Well, I don’t know. This doesn’t refute the “orcs are racist” meme, it’s just another complication.

Are, then, D&D orcs racist? There’s no reason to think so, except that Chainmail/D&D orcs were made by white men in the late 60s, early 70s, and basically all white men then were racists (“not all white men”, I hear you say; it’s true, there are some good white men; this is not about them, this is about the racist white men). But let’s imagine for a second that, yes, orcs are racist. Although in this sense, choosing this definition of racism, meets the classical definition of trolling: a deliberately inflammatory choice that prods at the edges of definitions.

What then? I wonder if Tristan was not a racist before he read Rings (or watched the movies). Did playing D&D make him racist? I doubt it. Racism pervades North America and about the whole of (white) Europe, it’s his culture, he eats, breathes and drinks racism every day of his life, whether he likes it or not, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not. Just like Lovecraft and Tolkien and Gary, Tristan is a man of his time. He’s a symptom. An agent. He disseminates racism even when he tries to attack racism.

Racism is a very real thing. But, Tristan, all Tristans of the world, stop blaming a fantasy monster, and above all don’t speak on behalf of others. Instead, start listening what we the subjects of racism, we “the other”, have to say about the topic. Stop threating with silencing us (“if you comment disagreeing about this, I will delete your comment, because I don’t care”) (sure, you meant other white people, but by omission you also included me, by not considering a person who knows racism from the inside would have an opinion of his own: by that omission, you imply racists and victims of racism are the same, the other, the object of your hate). Because it doesn’t matter if you think the world is black and white. It’s not. And above everything else: We don’t have any obligation to adjust to your own worldview.

Evil books

Anyway, Rings is not an evil book. Wanna know which books are evil? The Bible. Mein Kampf, of course. The Quoran. American Dirt. What does the first three books have in common? They are moral treatises. They teach you how to live. And they tell you to kill people based on their beliefs, color, sex or nationality. But American Dirt also kills Mexicans, albeit in a more symbolic manner. Jeanine Cummins’s book was published to portrait “real Mexico”, it’s not about oompa-loompas or evil orcs, it’s about Mexicans, real Mexicans, and it literally states that she, the author, gives us poor voiceless Mexicans a voice, she says that we don’t have a voice, that we can’t possibly have opinions of our own, that we are unable to tell our own history, whether of racism or otherwise. And Tristan is doing the same. White universality. Whites think whiteness is universal, but non-whiteness is always exotic or the otherness. That’s why they speak in general while at the same time they mean white.

What should we do with these books? Nothing. When people stop being evil, these books will stop being purchased and therefore, published. Censorship it’s their weapon, not ours. And the point is not the book, the problem is not the book. The problem is racism, for fuck’s sake!

If Tolkien orcs were really made out of racist tropes (and I believe they were), that doesn’t mean using orcs in a game derived from a number of sources, including that one written by a white man who maybe was a racist, makes you a racist or helps spread racism as though it was a virus.

If you really think a book that says “kill orcs” will cause you to kill human beings, the problem is not the book, the problem is your brain and you need help.

Why delete a book from history, or a monster race from a fiction book? I think I know why. Because it’s easier, and less commiting, than changing what fundamentally is wrong with you people: your culture, based on colonialism and murder and bigotry. There’s no evidence that playing D&D or reading Rings, contributes to racist behavior. Racism is not an illness, it’s culture. You can’t cure racism, but you can change culture. That you really don’t want to change culture, well that’s another thing.

To paraphrase Jacob Geller:

When people prescribe games to a specific set of qualities, and attack everything that lays beyond those lines, we have to understand what they’re doing. Those qualities, they just so happen to perfectly align with the dominant cultural ideology. They’re not showing respect for the craft, the’re not trying to “uphold the meaning”, they’re enforcing a hierarchy, they’re attemting to define a cultural narrative, and above all else: they are not talking about games.

Not talking about games, Jacob? What are they talking about, then?

Worldview

Yes. They are talking about their worldview. They say their worldview is right and true, and those who don’t share the same worldview, are wrong. White universalism, again. And being wrong, as History has taught us, “means” being evil. By trying to impose their worldview on others, they take the “i am good” position, and enforce us the “you are evil and must change” position. You know? Like the christian church? Like the inquisition? Like the puritans that hung women? Like the nazis? These are the same people who, when someone talks about politics in a gaming group, are the first to say: “Take your politics out of my game”.

But trying to stop racism is not a bad thing, right?

Right.

Wanna make amends? Wanna make justice? Give back the gold, all the gold! And take back your gods. Give back our lands. Go out and make protests to return Mexico and other lands their territory your countries stole and that you personally take advantage of (“But we don’t stole it, you gave it”, says the racist). Campaign for real justice, not to change a monster in an imaginary world which only exists in a bunch of games only a bunch of people knows of or cares of.

What is something that we don’t need? We don’t need you, white person, to give us a voice or speak on behalf of our peoples; we need the opportunity to publish our own words, with our own voices on them. Because, even if you don’t like to hear it, we have opinions and voices and ideas. We can think. And we can complain if/when we are offended. Don’t speak in our stead.

Both would help solve the problem that troubles Tristan.

Notes

* “An idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme”.

** When Barthes writes of “the death of the author” he uses as an example a 15th century collection of Arthurian legends written by multiple authors over several centuries and then collected and heavily edited by Thomas Malory, which means that “the author” is not a person, so a biographical analysis is irrelevant.

Barthes does not speak of a flesh and blood person sitting at a desk in front of a blank piece of paper. The concept of “death of the author” does not apply in cases where that person does exist. The biography of this flesh and blood author is relevant, even indispensable in some cases (Garro, Kafka, Rimbaud, Pound), for the analysis of the work.

Barthes’ concept is more a clever play on words than anything else: the book of Arthurian legends is called ‘Le morte d’Arthur’, and Barthes’ essay: ‘La mort de l’auteur’. As if to justify his joke, he wrote an entire work, a work that although it has its value, only has its value when you analyze a work like Malory’s, in which “the author” is not a person but a single concept. It is also valid in works such as movies or video games, where usually it is not one person, but tens or hundreds of them who participate in its creation.

*** “A general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies.”

Glorantha, or game as art—but not really

Daniel Sell is making people fight over on Twitter. So I recovered an old post I made somewhere else concerning the same topic, are games a form of art?

Click. Come on, click.

First, a quote:

Glorantha is one of the richest and most vivid created worlds in fantasy, a world where everything from the dirt to the stars is literally made of mythology… (Greg) Stafford did more to advance the art form of role-playing games, and in more roles—as publisher, designer, editor, world-crafter, and inspiration—than anyone else after Gygax and Arneson.

EDITORIAL, The New York Review of Science Fiction, June 2019

This quote was taken from a Chaosium’s newsletter, and it’s an abstract of what you can find in the cited article from The New York Review of Science Fiction.

It sounds great, right? But there’s a problem. RPGs are games, not works of art. We must stop trying to convince others and ourselves that rpgs are art, as though not being art meant they are second category. Do you know what other great things in life are not art? Sex. Food. Sleeping. Chess. Amusement parks. Tacos. Being healthy. Pure water. Slam on an Atari Teenage Riot gig. They are not second category, right?

Of course there is a link between RPGs and art: fiction, artwork, the aesthetic, but a game is still a game without these, and these don’t make the game. Greg Stafford doesn’t need to be regarded as an artist to be regarded as a great creator. Greg Stafford was neither better nor worse than Diego Rivera just like Michael Jordan was neither better nor worse than Juan Rulfo. The four were the best in their own thing, but there is no comparison between the four.

Other great passages from the NYRSF:

December 2018 was the fifty-first anniversary of the ancestor of the modern role-playing game, Dave Wesley’s Braunstein, a Napoleonic miniatures scenario which offered character-based roles for multiple players. First played in 1967, it expanded over the next three years to include scenarios set in Central America and the Wild West written by his friend Dave Arneson. Arneson then adapted the basic Braunstein idea into Black Moor, a fantasy game heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings and based on the medieval miniatures game Chainmail by Gary Gygax. In 1974, Gygax’s new company, Tactical Studies Rules, published the first edition of Gygax and Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Although TSR was based in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the first copy of D&D ever sold ended up in the hands of Greg Stafford in Oakland, California. Stafford had begun writing stories about the fantasy world of Glorantha while in college in the mid–1960s, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and Joseph Campbell. In 1975, he launched a small company, The Chaosium, to publish board wargames based on Glorantha. He published two titles—White Bear and Red Moon and Nomad Gods—while he worked with Steve Perrin and a team of other designers to create a role-playing game set in Glorantha: RuneQuest was published in 1978.

But, what do you think? Is roleplaying games a form of art? And if so, why?


In conclusion: people see the separation of game as product or as art, as a good/evil dichotomy.

But that’s not the case and I tried to make it as clear as possible. I understand Jeff Richard, he thinks that when I say games (specifically the games the company he is Vice President and Creative Director at publishes) are not art, I mean they they are not as good as Mozart or Egon Schiele or, I don’t know, Blake, Shelley, Rodríguez Galván, Borges. But that’s not what I am saying.

Since you’re here, you should read “Near the End of the World“, a Gloranthan short story by Greg Stafford. And buy Daniel Sell’s Troika!

Old-School Saving Throws Are Rad!

Old-School saving throws tell you against what you are defending; the “how” is left to your imagination.

Like everything in these games, saving throws are a mechanism and not a narrative; the player rolls the dice and the player or referee interprets the result (success or failure) according to the context, or he can ignore the interpretation and it doesn’t matter, the game moves on.

For example, an attack roll doesn’t represent the same in all cases; if successful, it can represent different forms of attack and defense made in a round: thrust, feint, riposte, swing, parry … The important thing is that the dice tell you if you succeed or not, whereas the form of the attack (the “how”) is irrelevant. It’s up to the players to describe it or ignore it and move on with the adventure.

The same applies to saving throws.

While, since 3e, the saving throws tell you the “how” (a reflex save meaning that the character throws himself aside to dodge an attack, a fortitude save meaning the character receives the attack but resists it as would a boxer being punched, a willpower save meaning … well, who knows what the hell it means, that your soul is hard as steel, perhaps?*), old-school saving throws are a mechanic to represent what you are defending against and what are your chances of success, leaving you the responsibility to describe the way your character does it (a responsibility, however, completely negligible).

Thus, we have the 5 categories of old school saving rolls, specifically Basic/Expert Sets (B/X, BECMI), and most OSR retrcolcones, like Labyrinth Lord and Old-School Essentials:

  • Death Ray or Posion
  • Magic Wands
  • Paralysis or Turn to Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Rods, Staves or Spells

And these are the categories of AD&D 1e:

  • Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic
  • Petrification or Polymorph
  • Rod, Staff or Wand
  • Breath Weapon
  • Spell

And, just for fun, those of LotFP:

  • Paralyzation
  • Poison
  • Breath Weapon
  • Magical Device
  • Magic

Although the categories vary from one version to another, the mechanics are identical: you make a saving throw when you are in imminent danger. In normal combat, if an enemy attacks you with his sword, your AC protects you, which not only represents your armor, but also your ability to defend in combat.

But in the face of other dangers, such as a dragon that throws you fire, a basilisk that looks you in the eye, ingesting poison or being the target of a spell (or magic wand), your AC (defense capability plus armor, remember?) does not come into play, but you still have a chance, even if it is small, to avoid damage.

Save Versus Something

Save versus Poison. The adventurer probably did nothing to avoid dying poisoned, the roll is passively successful, the reason he didn’t die can be anything from the poison having no effect or the creature failing to inject it to the adventurer being immune to this specific poison, even divine intervention, or maybe those luminous mushroomes he ate that morning neutralized all toxins.

In 3e, this saving throw would be a fortitude save, and in 5e, a constitution save (which come to be the same, actually). This can only be interpreted in one way: the poison didn’t kill the adventurer due to a powerful immune system.

Of course, the old-school allows this same interpretation, but not only this; it gives you the freedom to interpret the numbers as you see fit.**

Save versus Spells. A damn magic-user attacks you with a fireball. To avoid damage (or, well, half the damage), in 3e or 5e you must make a reflex or dexterity save, meaning that you dodge the fireball (the spell’s description makes this interpretation unlikely, though), but in the old-school we really don’t know how you do it other thank making a save versus Spells (i.e. we only know the mechanic, but we are not offered a narrative interpretation***); maybe the agile thief jumps to the side, yes, but think about that heavy fighter with full armor, can he really dodge? Most likely his armor protects him, but if the idea of a hot metal armor not causing severe damage bothers you, then you can say that he used his sword to deflect the explosion, or he punched the ball of fire like those Dragon Ball fighters do all the time.

Now imagine that you are on a cliff, there is no space to dodge without falling from a great height (and no doubt die), but anyway you make a successful saving throw. Did you dodge the attack? I don’t think so. In the case of a magic-user or an elf, it’s easy to imagine that they know a mystical handsign that works to counter or deflect a spell, reducing (or denying when appropriate) its effectiveness.

The thief and halfling are lucky and that strange, outer, chaotic force known as luck interferes with the spell, reducing its effectiveness. A cleric is protected by his faith (which is another form of magic, or anti-magic if you consider magic as something unholy). The fighter, like the dwarf, relies more on his instinct, his strength, his ability, and in general “sheer defiance”, all of these tangible or demonstrable things, not abstract, philosophical things like magic, and that confidence makes them face magic with disdain, reducing its effectiveness.


* It doesn’t matter, the game moves on.

** Of course you can interpret 3e and 5e saves in any way you see fit.

*** To be honest, 1e offers both a narrative option (“Defensive Adjustment refers to the penalty or bonus applicable to a character’s saving throws against certain forms of attack [such as fire ball, lightning bolts, etc.] due to dodging ability.” PHB, p. 11) and the old-school option (“If some further rationale is needed to explain saving throws versus magic, here is one way of looking at it … A character under magical attack is in a stress situation, and his or her own will force reacts instinctively to protect the character by slightly altering the effects of the magical assault … So a character manages to avoid the full blast of the fireball, or averts his or her gaze from the basilisk or medusa, or the poisonous stinger of the giant scorpion misses or fails somehow to inject its venom. Whatever the rationale, the character is saved to go on.” DMG, p. 81)

A Descent Into the Odd

Into the Odd is one of the best rules-light* OSR systems in the market, and with good reason.

Warning: If you need the manual to give you the precise instructions to determine if the Player Characters can or can not do something, you most likely won’t like Into the Odd. Chris McDowall, its creator, designed the game for the referees to determine what’s possible in their campaign worlds, and how to resolve every unforeseen situation. It’s a game of imagination and problem solving.

A second warning? Well why not!? This is not a review but a commentary on what I like most about this game and its rules-light approach. If up to this day you don’t have idea what Into the Odd is, I can only refer you to these two reviews: [1] [2].

Few and simple rules are a feature, not a flaw. This approach to game design allows the referee to design their own adventures with the necessary freedom to include whatever content they want, either their own or taken from another source. Do you like that RuneQuest Classic Edition adventure where you have to protect a pawnshop from an attack by baboons in alliance with a group of non-human outlaws led by a centaur, but don’t have the time or energy (or interest) to learn the mechanics of the game? Very simple. Convert it! Converting it, even converting it on the fly into playable material for your Into the Odd campaign, is, if not trivial, very easy. Of course you need to familiarize with the original source before you try it.

While Gary Gygax throws a tantrum in his grave every time someone introduces non-AD&D material to his campaign (“[a]dding non-official material puts your game outside the D&D or AD&D game system … [E]xtraneous tinkered material onto the existing D&D or AD&D campaign will quickly bring it to the lower level at best, ruin it at worst.”**), Chris (like most Old-School Renaissance designers) believes that the referee is the only one who can say what is valid in his or her own campaign world. They are right.

This flexibility is what has allowed us to have works like Silent Titans (mini-setting for Into the Odd) and Troika! (a complete game based on Fighting Fantasy), both being works that don’t adhere to the precepts of the well-thinking heads—gamekeepers—who claim authority—albeit false—to say what is valid and what is not valid in the games of others.

This same flexibility is what I have sought to exploit in Goddess of the Crypt, a mini-dungeon that I wrote for Into the Odd which combines Egyptian and Mayan themes (subtle and not so subtle), weird fiction, non-Euclidean geometry and a touch of gonzo oddness.

Using the rules that are included in Into the Odd, it is possible to extrapolate your ideas to create the content you need, or want, and assign ad hoc mechanics to solve the (in-game) conflicts that occur due to the “extraneous material tinkered onto” the game you are playing.

One idea that Into the Odd allowed me to perform better than other systems, was this list of replacement adventurers, useful for those times when you need a new character for a player or want to try a concept different from those included in the book but there’s no time (or energy) to create a new concept.

So, what are you waiting for? If you didn’t abandon this article after the warning, then it would be unfair to not descend into the odd world of this little gem of a game.

*Traditional OSRs, like Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, are not included in my definition of rules-light system even when they’re actually light and easy to learn. In this case, rules-light systems are those that contain their rules in a few pages, have few stats, and minimum bookkeeping.

**Gary could be such an asshole at times.