What Makes a Good Campaign Setting?

clipart-tabletop-rpg-dice-set-ii-256x256-9f70After the diatribe of the last post, I think it’s time to talk about what makes a good campaign setting for a fantasy RPG. I’ll put this out now: this is my opinion, and I do not speak for the entire POC community on the topic. As a POC gamer, I look for the same things than non-POC gamers do in game. I look for fun, immersion, and emotional investment in what is going on. Some campaign settings make this difficult, others make it nearly impossible. I mentioned before that POC are demanding more recognition, and equal recognition in the worlds of SF&F. The same problems and issues acting as barriers to POC occur in both SF&F gaming and literature, where publishers gleefully whitewash (replace minorities with lighter or white characters) cover art for some books under the belief that people (read: Whites) won’t buy books with non-White human protagonists. [1] This trend carries on into interior art in the case of game books, and with the assumption that White is the “default” setting of humanity, and everything else deviates from that, and that gamers won’t or don’t want to buy or play games featuring non-Whites prominently. The subject of inclusiveness shouldn’t be an issue, but, unsurprisingly, it is.


The following excerpt sums up one of the biggest obstacles to POC in SF&F gaming.

“Here’s the thing: it’s a fantasy game. There is no logical need to deliberately seed a game with characters that resemble real-world ethnicities, because in the fantasy world they very well might not fucking exist. Human ethnic diversity palls beside the differences between races in a game with elves and centaurs and shit (except in Shadowrun, where the metahumans are explicitly independent of ethnicity and derived from humanity) – and while it might be a good consideration, that doesn’t mean anybody is obliged to try and reflect real-world ethnic balance in a fucking fantasy game.”

“I’ve been forced to make changes I don’t like to satisfy the fuckups and personal quirks of other people, so I don’t care for that type of argument. From a business or social standpoint, I can totally understand it – but from a creator’s standpoint, I will write what I fucking well please. Sometimes a setting has a predominance of one race/ethnicity/gender/etc. – that is not a bad thing, or something that needs to be guarded or campaigned against. ”

These are quotes from “King”, on the The Gaming Den forums in a section called “D&D Racial Diversity Bullshit”. [2] A conversation he(?) started in response to a blog post on Tor, asking for increased diversity in the art in books. [3] The key things I took away were that human ethnic minorities take a distant third to Whites and playable non-human races (and White therefore becomes the default of humanity), and that as a writer, the inclusion of POC or other ethnicities is not only a burden, but also an attack on his creativity. To summarize, POC aren’t welcome because they cause unnecessary work and including them because they may be part of the market your employer is aiming to enter is more effort than it may be worth. This thread goes on into the frequently presented (here and across the internet) and fallacious defences of racism in SF&F, such as:

“It’s mostly whites playing and buying the books, why include anything that might damage sales?” Adding more details on non-White human ethnic groups and showing them more frequently in the art certainly won’t hurt sales. Pathfinder proved that (although it has its own issues with racism and so on).

“I’ve never seen minorities playing, so why change anything?” Just because you’ve never seen something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or that it means nothing has to change.

“I’m part minority/know minorities, and there aren’t a lot of us/them where I live, therefore they must not play so why change anything?” So no minorities anywhere might play? Or have their own gaming community, or be part of yours, or be getting tired of the relentless tide of stalwart White characters depicted in art beside weird, fetishized or stereotyped minorities?

“It’s a fantasy world, it doesn’t have to include minorities.” No, it doesn’t. It’s absolutely true. But if you have included them, why are they underrepresented art wise, have less detail, and have less support than the White human nations and peoples?

“If they (minorities) really cared, they would have complained long ago!” We have been complaining. For years. Decades even. No one listened.

“There are lots of non-human races to play, just play one of them!” Wow. Aside from the implication that non-Whites aren’t human; the vast majority of non-human player races are White (or near White, or have White influenced/predicated culture). This is literally other-ing the Other.

Fortunately, someone pointed this out: “Honestly, the fact that the statement “more minorities would be more comfortable playing D&D if you included more POC in the art” gets people so riled up says more about white privilege than just about anything else I could say.” The rest of the thread falling into recriminations, accusations of racism and “reverse” racism, comments about how hard it is to the White in America. Privilege comes up to. A lot. And it’s really misunderstood by the majority of posters. Thanks to the rightwing side of the media, and it’s many repeaters on the internet; the idea of sociological privilege has been badly warped and bent into the idea that as a “privileged” person, you’ve had everything handed to you and/or your struggles in life are invalidated because of the colour of your skin. This is NOT what it means. In short, sociological privilege is when, because of your membership in a group (whether it be an ethnic group or social group) your chances of succeeding (getting slightly higher pay, being more likely to get a job, getting better bank rates and so on), avoiding sanctions for your actions (lower arrest/imprisonment rates, public is more forgiving, preferential treatment etc…), and being recognized as the “default” (media and narratives are dominated by your group, ideas, and your interests, giving you an inclusive feeling) are statistically higher than people not in your group. It doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle to make car payments, or that life doesn’t suck. It just means you have a slightly higher chance of doing better than people not in your group, and never really have to worry about not being adequately represented or defended in the grand scheme of things. POC are not adequately represented in SF&F where they exist. It’s important to note here that POC are not demanding to be shoehorned into every campaign setting or story, just that they be represented in non-stereotyped and non-racist ways when they do appear. More frequent representation wouldn’t hurt either.

Racism by omission is a serious issue in SF&F gaming, even in books about POC or in books that should logically have some POC in the illustrations. “In 4 editions, published over 30 years with 325 illustrations and 1,691 pages, I found exactly 1 non-white male and 1 none-white female. Note that this includes humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, Halflings, gnomes, and other core non-human races – all white.”[4] The three core rule books for Dungeons and Dragons (PHB, DMG, MM) were used to get these numbers. The three core books any POC planning to play is most likely to buy, and will interact with the most. The three core books are the ones explicitly required to play the game. And only two non-white characters were found in them. What is the message here to POC who are looking to try tabletop gaming? Nothing good.

So what makes a good campaign setting in the eyes of a POC? A big thing for me is immediate interest that leads to investment. The first thing I do when I crack a new game book open is flick through and look at the art. Why? Because art creates an immediate imaginary burst in people. Are there any non-White humans? Are there any cultural cues that point to non-European backgrounds? Are there non-human monsters that have been inserted as analogues for human ethnic groups? Are they fetishized? These are the immediate things I’m looking for, because they’ll inform my immediate opinions of the setting. All are reasonable questions that the answers for are usually, and sadly, “A few to none.”, “Everything non-European is either Near/Middle Eastern themed or illogically primitive.”, “Yes.”, and “Yes.” What I’m looking for immediate investment in the setting; either through things I want my character to be or do, such as in the case of settings that are themed to a particular culture/ethnic group, such as Legend of the Five Rings (which has a lot of whitewashed art for a setting based on feudal Japan); or by seeing POC in the art, letting me know that I have options that won’t require either reduced immersion and investment or convoluted backgrounds.

Next I’m looking at the classes or rule expansions briefly, then I examine the background of the campaign setting. Is it well written? Are the different ethnic groups and non-human player races given equal space? If not, who got shorted, and is it logical within the context of the setting? Are the non-White nations and ethnicities well fleshed out and creative, or are they crudely stapled together collections of stereotypes, assumptions, and tropes? Does the world “make sense”, as in, does it make logical sense within a reasonable realm of suspended disbelief? All to often, non-White parts of the world are poorly represented and badly written, drawing more from the racism laden genre of mid 20th century pulp fiction than from any real world sources. At times, the intellectual laziness is stunning. It’s gotten to the point where I can say with confidence that there is a hierarchy of humanity in generic fantasy gaming, POC and Blacks are on the bottom of it. If your “default” is White humans, with Eurocentric origins, culture, and customs; they are supported by a large number of assumptions based on the general knowledge of the players about medieval Europe. Non-White ethnicities in the setting will need more thought and more detail, to make up for the lack of knowledge in the player base.

So, what makes a good campaign setting from a POC perspective?

  • the world is geographically and politically sensical
  • if the campaign setting includes minorities, they’re given adequate and regular representation through the art (both cover and interior)
  • stereotypes, tropes, and assumptions are avoided
  • monsters aren’t used to fill in for identifiable human ethnic groups
  • the writing shows that the author(s) researched the subject and were able to synthesize a coherent, playable result from the information gleaned
  • non-White/Eurocentric areas (if they exist), are given adequate, longterm and regular support by the company, as opposed to being supported briefly then abandoned in favour of the next cultural/ethnic flavour of the month
  • non-human or half-human races aren’t thinly veiled racist caricatures (half Orcs), or written with racist assumptions about mixed race people (Half Elves)
  • game mechanics don’t reinforce real-world stereotypes

I’ll end with this, because it’s important to repeat. POC ARE NOT TRYING TO RUIN “YOUR” FANTASY. It’s our fantasy too; that’s one of the side effects of centuries of enculturation in western European culture. POC aren’t trying to force companies to represent them where they don’t exist. What I’m asking for, and what a lot of other POC are asking for, is adequate, non-racist representation in game settings where we “exist”. It’s not much to ask, but apparently it is.

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