An excellent question came across my Twitter feed the other day. Paraphrasing, it was “What does supporting diversity look like?” And I realized I write a lot about how diversity is important, and how products and companies struggle and fail with diversity, but not what the actual effort looks like. So, what does supporting diversity look like in world building?
Before diving into the nuts and bolts of what supporting diversity in world building and adventure design looks like, though, we need to look at complacency and check in the box diversity. And before we kickoff, I want to be clear that I’m looking at this from the perspective of world building for a campaign setting.
The Trap of Complacency
An unfortunate reality is that it’s very easy to make a lot of assumptions about baselines of information, familiarity, and so on. Why? Because most of our fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and science-fantasy are strongly European coded or influenced. So, if you’re from the West, you can skimp on details and rely on cultural background radiation to do the rest. When you create outside that radiation, things can get dodgy fast. How so? There’s a lot of negative and problematic narratives, ideas, and perceptions that we’re bombarded with. They range from mild to severe in scope and can actively hinder diversity efforts if they aren’t addressed.
Challenging Check in the Box Diversity
Check in the Box diversity is the most common issue that affects everything from indie games on Itchio to traditional productions like those put out by Wizards. This is where a creator or company recognizes that they need to increase and/or improve the diversity in their products, and so they hire or contract marginalized creators for projects. They publicize this, point to it as a strength of the final product, and then call it a day. Diversity Complete! Right? Not quite. Because where a conventional (read Western/European coded) work benefits both from any previous works (if there are any), and from the cultural background radiation mentioned previously.
So yes, while this is a useful tool for uplifting marginalized voices and featuring non-European coded things, it’s also a dead end to address the larger issues around diversity and lack thereof in tabletop RPGs. Why? Because after release of the end product, in the current ecosystem, further support and expansion is seldom forthcoming, a topic I’ll cover shortly.
Supporting for Diversity
The actual work in planning to support diversity in a game in is in the planning and support.
On the planning side, there needs to be an examination of what kind of baseline your audience likely has. You need to look at your intent, then ask “What biases, stereotypes, and narratives are people likely to go to with this?” And don’t be too positive about it, especially if you’re a subject matter expert or if you’ve hired a creator from the community that’s inspiring it. Any setting that’s outside what’s popularly seen as “normal” is likely going to need more initial support in the form of increased word count and likely more art as well.
In the long term, and this is particular to campaign settings, there needs to be detailed and expanded support. An old adage in the hobby is that “people aren’t interested in [insert inspirational location here] type adventures”; this becomes self-fulfilling prophecy because of complacency and poor support. For places with unfamiliar coding, there needs to be a determined effort to develop them. Not an equal effort to areas that benefit from familiar coding, but more effort. Why? Because a new baseline needs to be set and established, problematic real world ideas that could influence things need to be addressed, and the setting or sub-setting needs to be built up not just as a place to go to, but to be from as well.
On the community content side, there also needs to be the realization that if you have a community content programme, it needs to support the entire game world. What does that mean in practical terms? It means that things like art resources and so on need to be released to support these regions as well. Because if you only support the “core” region, odds are it’s going to make it more difficult for the community to produce material that supports or expands on non-European coded spaces. Which in turn leads to that whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing I brought up earlier.
So, let’s look at two world building efforts, one that went sideways, and one that’s gone well.
Chult is a sub-setting in D&D’s Forgotten Realms campaign setting, first described in 1e AD&D in a few sentences, then seeing substantive changes in 2e with the release of the Jungles of Chult book alongside a novel, The Ring of Winter. In 5e D&D, it became host to the Tomb of Annihilation seasonal campaign. Notably, there were no Black or African voices involved in the work. It was decided that “no one would be interested in the lore of Chult”, and the only significant world building that occurred was in the Adventurer’s League adventures. And even there, it was weak and riddled with racism. In the end, the final product was a place you went to for the campaign, stuck around in for a dinosaur race, then left ASAP. As a sub-setting, it offered little to attract players’ interest, and little for a DM to build on or develop into hooks, for lack of supporting material.
The Mwangi Expanse is a sub-setting in Pathfinder’s Golarion campaign setting, first described in the first edition of the game, and extensively retconned and developed in 2e Pathfinder. While only a part of the continent of Garund, it received a near full suite of supporting material in its book, including details on trade, cultures, the ancestries local to the area, history, and interesting locations. The lore is lite, but covers enough that it establishes a firm baseline to develop from and goes a long way to combat stereotypes. Black creators were extensively engaged in its creation. An introductory adventure and a full adventure path have been released for it since. So instead of being a place to got to and leave, it provides an excellent baseline to make it the home of a game, not just the background to a campaign or adventure.
The difference between the two is that in the former, no consideration was given to developing a baseline. Chult was going to be the background to a remade classic campaign, and it was going to be a triumphant highlighting of an area not seen in significantly in the past. In the latter, they recognized the issues from the little lore released previously, and decided to fully address the situation and develop it into something significant. So you can see two areas broadly inspired by West and Central Africa, with two very different outcomes.
Supporting diversity looks like work; because it is. It’s a dynamic and active effort that never truly stops because we aren’t at a place in the hobby (or in our general culture) where we can stop. It means planning for extra word count and art. It means hiring marginalized voices and sensitivity readers. It means that one and done book releases aren’t sufficient, there needs to be an effort to keep the works in the public eye and not let them get relegated. It means that you may be publishing more material for the location than others to build it up. It means supporting community content creation with resources to develop and create in these spaces with the same ease a European coded space gets.
This is going to be a tough post for some to read, because I know there’s a lot of creators out there who might feel that this is an exhaustive list of how to do it right and that if they can’t achieve this, why bother? Here’s the thing. I know, and every reasonable person out there knows, that not everyone can achieve everything I’ve talked about here. But you should do what you can. Planning a Kickstarter? Budget in a sensitivity reader, extra word count, and some extra art as part of your base cost appreciation, not as a stretch goal. Talking about your book online? Throw some attention on the non-European coded parts of it. Writing adventures for your setting? Don’t sleep on those areas. You can still be active in supporting diversity without being a major publisher or a major player.
Therein lays the real challenge. The dynamic and active nature of fighting racism and supporting diversity. We’re conditioned in many ways to see things as “Do A and B to Solve X”, and in situations like this, these kinds of simple problem solving tools don’t work as well. It’s not a clean cut solution. It’s not check in the box. It’s not “provide equal space”. It’s more, and continuous. So do what you can. Support others who are doing the work too. Hopefully one day I’ll be able archive posts like this.