Making the Table Bigger: Diversity in Tabletop Gaming

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Making the Table Bigger: Diversity in Tabletop Gaming

This summer’s GenCon 2015 was full of excitement for fans of tabletop roleplaying games. Some of the event’s announcements, such as a fourth edition of Vampire: the Masquerade (Onyx Path/CCP/White Wolf) and the upcoming Fate Accessibility (Evil Hat), seem to indicate a trend in inclusion in major gaming sourcebooks, with Fate Accessibility being the more obvious of the two. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard talk about diversity in roleplaying games, though. Not at all.

Let’s take Vampire: the Masquerade, the older of these two games, as an example. Just this year, the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Dark Ages (hereafter V20 Dark Ages) was released by Onyx Path. This was meant to celebrate the anniversary of the first Dark Ages edition in the Vampire: the Masquerade line—a sourcebook that provided material for games set in the brutal times the game describes as “the dark medieval world,” particularly a version of the world of 1242 CE. In it is information about the various kingdoms and city-states of Italy and, to the east, the mortal principalities of Rus. It describes the brutality of living in this world, where death and disease were common and backbreaking work was ever-present.

Yet in describing hypothetical characters in this setting, and in describing the various fictional vampire clans and bloodlines, the writers seem to make a point of including the possibilities of travel, and of intermingling between groups. The medieval world was not isolationist; it might have been uncommon for commoners and serfs to travel out of the local region, but it was not unheard of for merchants, pilgrims and aristocrats to travel the world near and far. Even in Europe, where much of the V20 Dark Ages material is set, there were plenty of interactions with Africa, the Mediterranean, even India—the steppes were a constant danger and mystery to those in eastern Europe. The mysterious silence of the Arctic Circle and the cosmopolitan reach of the Byzantine Empire were no strangers to continental European medieval collective consciousness either. And while the material in V20 Dark Ages is a mixture of the fantastical and the factual, the book itself emphasizes that all of the material is included there with intention, even though role playing groups can feel free to discard it and go with what is best for the story. In any case, the fact that the groups included in V20 Dark Ages encompass the groves of Ireland (the Lhiannon) to the steppes of Mongolia (the Anda, Brujah and Ventrue), the bloodlines on the Silk Road (the Salubri and Ravnos especially) to Egypt, Mesoamerica, and further, means that there were conscious decisions to include those regions in the sourcebook, to make a point that “Dark Ages” did not necessarily mean “white” or “Western European.” Also furthering the inclusion, the Christian background and culture of Europe during this time, and how it might impact the story, are mentioned alongside the blossoming of the Islamic Golden Age in northern Africa and the Mediterranean (such as Spain) as well as the Hebrew language and references to Jewish mysticism, providing the seeds of story ideas for storytellers and players to then take further at their tables. The clan portraits also represent a range of skin colors and tones, even for the curious unlife of vampire characters.

But, you might say—V20 Dark Ages was published in 2015, so obviously, these were changes made for audiences in 2015. V20 Dark Ages was meant to be a compilation, a dusting off of a favorite party dress, as the writers themselves put it— but what about the original party dress?

The previous 20th Anniversary Edition marking the anniversary of the Vampire: the Masquerade line as a whole was published in 2011, and opens with a selection of stories from players and communities around the world: from the UK to Brazil to Israel to Sweden, and from a variety of players—women and men alike, all sharing their love of the game. The use of “she” to describe a hypothetical character starts as early as page 8, instead of defaulting to male examples. This points to efforts at inclusion as starting as early as 2011—and that’s in just the V20 line of Vampire: the Masquerade, not counting any other sourcebooks or previous editions of the franchise.

Speaking of the earlier books and supplements, although some editions had notable issues with inclusion—most particularly revolving around the depictions of mental illness with Clan Malkavian, and the Romani-inspired Clan Ravnos—earlier supplements and books still strove to portray non-Western European cultures nonetheless. For example, the optional supplement Kindred of the Ebony Kingdoms, published in 2003, featured bloodlines with different outlooks and organizations than their European brethren. It pointed out how the “Old World” vampires differed in terms of interaction, tradition, and outlook compared to vampires from the Americas, and how vampires from different regions in the Americas differed from each other. However, again, this was an optional supplement, not considered part of the core books. And while 1998’s Kindred of the East featured a World of Darkness version of Asia (most notably Chinese inspired), these “kindred” vampires were an entirely different class of supernatural being compared to their counterparts in Vampire: the Masquerade. While the game is not perfect, Onyx Path as a publisher seems to want to do what they can to include as many different kinds of people as possible in their games, and in doing so inspire more stories to be told. We can only see what will happen with the development of the fourth edition of Vampire: the Masquerade.

Other publishers of roleplaying lines, such as Paizo Publishing (who publish Pathfinder, and who I’ve done copy-editing work for in the past), Evil Hat Productions (known best for Fate Core), Wizards of the Coast (Dungeons and Dragons) and more, have voiced their commitment to diversity in some form or other. Sometimes it is through art, such as making sure example characters are represented with dark skin tones as well as light; sometimes it is through words, such as not defaulting to male when describing a character (player character or otherwise). Publishers are not new to striving for inclusion and representation. In the past some of these efforts have been optional, such as supplements for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons that included non-Western European fantastical settings like Oriental Adventures (originally published in 1985, with another edition based on 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons in 2001). We’re now gradually seeing inclusion efforts in major sourcebooks and the implementation of inclusion and diversity through rule mechanics, such as the Fate Accessibility update mentioned above, which strives to put a system in place for playing characters with disabilities and the devices they use.

While the gaming table will always have a storyteller or campaign master to oversee and guide the adventure, publishers of roleplaying games—with Onyx Path being but an example—are taking a pro-active stance to include a wider range of the human experience in their major sourcebooks, making it easier for prospective players and groups to have ideas and to spin grand stories. Imagine a gnome tinkerer engineering herself a prosthetic leg or arm—and using their skills and power to outsmart or battle an underwater cult? Now you can have resources for that very character. Want to play a genderfluid golem whose ambition is to become admiral of an airship fleet? Go right ahead. The publishers are asking and listening, and trying to improve their games to make sure everyone can have the opportunity to see themselves in the adventure right away.

Katriel Paige is a writer, lecturer and aspiring gamemaker. She is also co-chair of studyofanime.com, where she writes about Japanese culture, media and games/anime.

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