Monday, July 29, 2013

Of Elves and Iron

I'm working on a new adventure, and it concerns the early history of the world of Ore, where the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign takes place. In it, I explore the early attempts by elves to colonize Ore, their struggles against the Old Ones and their reptiloid kindred, and (most importantly for this post), their ongoing battle against the effects of iron on the elvish metabolism.

The Effects of Iron on Elven Characters

The Dungeon Crawl Classics take on this issue goes like this:
Elves are extremely sensitive to the touch of iron. Direct contact over prolonged periods causes a burning sensation, and exposure at close distances makes them uncomfortable. An elf may not wear iron armor or bear the touch of iron weapons for extended periods. Prolonged contact with iron causes 1 hp of damage per day of direct contact. (DCC Core Rules, p. 57)
At first glance this seems like something that could be annoying to the elven character, but not actively dangerous. Iron is a bit like poison ivy. It's nasty stuff, and it can cause a person some pain, but it's really not that bad. Mechanically, the in-game effects are about nil, unless you do to equivalent of stuffing your pants with iron nails (or poison ivy for that matter). It's not likely that an elven character is going to put him or herself into a position where iron contact is constant, so my guess is that the intention is to make it more likely that elven characters have to quest for non-ferrous armor and weapons, don't just get to pick up the armor they find, and more or less find self-protection via increase to armor class a bit harder than, say, a wizard. That's all well and good, but it lacks a certain something. I'd like to address that lack in this post.

Heavy Metal Poisoning in Real Life

No, for your information, I'm not talking about that terrible song by Styx. Seriously, that song sucked and was weird and preachy and totally sucked. I'm not gonna link it. Did I mention how much it sucked? Because it did. Anyway...

Medscape Reference suggests that, "The toxicity of heavy metals depends on a number of factors. Specific symptomatology varies according to the metal in question, the total dose absorbed, and whether the exposure was acute or chronic" (Adal, A., et al., 2013).

A quick read-through of a FAQs document on heavy metal poisoning written by the Oregon Public Health Division Office of Environmental Public Health lists symptoms. They include some of the following:

Muscle and Joint Pain

However, more specific information about the various metals suggests we could add these effects to the list:

Diseases of the organs, brittle bones, permanent nervous system damage, manifesting as, "mental retardation, brain damage, cerebral palsy, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak," or other acute and chronic effects like, "abdominal pain, convulsions, hypertension, kidney dysfunction, loss of appetite, fatigue, and sleeplessness... hallucinations, headache, numbness, arthritis, and vertigo" (

Clearly, if elves have to deal with this kind of shit, iron exposure is an ongoing nightmare for the lot of them, and would force them to avoid or to find adaptations for situations that would result in iron exposure. With that context, let's consider what the elves of Ore would have to deal with and how they might adapt.

Iron Exposure: Acute and Chronic

In most cases, since we're talking about a fantasy RPG, "acute iron exposure" would result from getting various pieces of cutlery shoved into one's body, or being cleaved with an axe or polearm, or being shot with a bow/crossbow arrow/bolt with an iron or steel head. The vector for infection is a sudden, massive increase in the level of exposure. 

While some of the fantasy literature about elves and the fae in general suggests that iron weapons are deadly to them, DCCRPG doesn't model that mechanically. Getting your Elf taken out with a one-hit from a glancing dagger strike probably would result in a pretty shitty game for the elven character. So, they don't model that. If I were to do something to account for what acute exposure might do, I think perhaps a damage bonus is warranted. Elves hit with weapons of iron or steel take 1 HP more damage than non-elves. Alternately, they might have to pass a Fort save versus poison to avoid damage (make it DC 5, maybe). So, acute iron exposure is dealt with pretty easily. However, my real concern is chronic exposure and its effects. 

As some of the symptoms above suggest, chronic exposure affects the mind and body in some painful, dangerous, and frightening ways. Add to this the fact that elves use magic, and you have an interesting recipe for delusional, psychotic magic users. So, yeah, fun stuff. I imagine that chronic effects of iron on elves would include everything from lost Stamina, to additional corruption tables for elven characters, to magical casting penalties for iron-infected characters, among other things. I'm not exactly sure how this would play out in mechanical terms, but I'd tend toward a table of results that would crop up when the Elf in question has been too long among Men, too long on Ore. How would we model this?

Modeling the Effects of Iron Infection

The easiest way to model progressive iron infection would be to link it to experience. Just as characters often get perquisites for going up in level (e.g., increased hit dice, high deed die, etc.), the elven character might also have an "iron effects" chart, by level. So, as the Elf gets more powerful in game terms, he or she would also be dealing with the slow degradation of body and mind, and the corruption of his or her magic. This is a simple and elegant answer, and it could actually make playing an elven character more interesting. As it stands, the Elf in DCC is not that much different than any other race. Yes, they have the racial abilities, certainly, but actually playing an Elf doesn't require much difference in how the character approaches the game. If it were inevitable that an Elf would be affected by iron over time, and that those effects would be consequential, it opens up a whole different way of running that character. It also would result in research, quests, equipment, an so forth designed specifically to deal with those effects. 

Simply, if iron exposure could totally fuck you up, then you'd be pretty concerned with how to avoid it in the first place, or to ameliorate the effects once it happens.

It's Tough Out Here for an Elf

So, what do elves have to do to adjust to life on Ore? A few things spring to mind, but I'm sure there are plenty of others.

  • Elves tend to congregate together in enclaves where iron exposure can be limited. This results in neighborhoods built from particular materials, development of a variety of rituals and procedures for cleansing, dressing, eating, and other everyday activities that will seem weird to non-elves.
  • Elves tend to be quite vigilant towards potential vectors of infection. They find ways to seal themselves and their homes off from those vectors.
  • Elves also tend to be quite vigilant toward other elves, and alert for their manifestation of the symptoms of iron poisoning. An infected Elf is dangerous in a purely practical sense, but he or she is also part of what makes the other people of Ore afraid of the elven race. They have a reputation for madness and for sudden, catastrophic violence.
  • There is a whole area of arcane study concerned with iron exposure and its effects on spell casting. Iron makes magic work differently. The elves of Ore have had to make changes to their approaches. This also serves to make the elves of Elfland treat them differently, further alienating them. They aren't natural to the world of Ore, but they also are different from "real" elves. They exist somewhere in between the two worlds, lending to their sense of outsider status, to their feelings of alienation. It also makes them appreciate their expatriate brethren even more, and to be incredibly protective of each other.
  • There is a whole area of healing/medicine concerned with iron exposure and its effects on elven biology. This area of study is guarded from outsiders, and elves have been known to assassinate any non-Elf who tries to pry into these mysteries.
  • There is a thriving industry in quackery, holistic approaches to healing from iron exposure, and other quasi-medical scams. Because iron is so dangerous, and infection so inevitable, some elves will believe nearly anything in order to cope with their fears, even if the cures offered are ineffective or even worse than iron infection itself.
  • Elven artisans are becoming more and more concerned with, and adept at, crafting devices to limit their exposure to iron (e.g., filter masks, special garments, etc.). This tends to make them look even more otherworldly, and sets them apart from the other races even further. Given the history of the elves as I've written it before, this means that they are even further excluded, and that others' views of them as dangerous outsiders is exacerbated.
  • Non-elves know that infected elves are potentially dangerous. The more powerful the Elf, the more likely he or she is to be a problem. As a result, there is strong anti-Elf sentiment in some quarters, and even some political impetus to exclude elves from Ur-Hadad entirely.
  • Elves often return to Elfland in order to seek respite from the effects of iron infection, and to attempt healing of some sort. Some never return. They elves don't talk about this to outsiders. Elves who talk about it to outsiders usually disappear without trace.

In any case, when iron infection becomes a constant fear, the elven culture is forced to make a variety of adaptations to account for it. This constant concern manifests itself in weird ways, resulting in an elven culture that is very different from the cultures of the other fantasy races. To extend a point I made in my prior post about the elves of Ore, we also have groups of elves who become corrupted by iron, by acute exposure or by birth defect. These mutants are additional complications for elven culture. I suggested that orcs, for one example, actually are elves who have been mutated by iron, driven mad, and made dangerous. I can see how that constant threat would affect elves' approaches to reproduction, create a constant concern about "purity," would increase elven secrecy about the nature of these problems, and so forth. Again, this would tend to make elves even more insular and suspicious of outsiders. It would also, of course, result in making them seem weirder and less trustworthy to the outsiders they spurn. This cycle would certainly result in strong intercultural tensions between elves and the other races. This fact, on top of the prior Imperial history of the elves of Ore, would create a lot of potential problems, conflicts, and so forth with men, dwarves, halflings, etc., and the potential for prejudice, violence, and even civil/race wars based on these differences. 

I'm a little scared about where all of this thinking might lead, but am nonetheless fascinated by how much richer would be the world in which such complications occur. I these elves a lot more than vanilla elves, but I worry about what it means for the world of Ore. If, for example, the Grand Vizier were to foment anti-elven hatred, to require that elves be registered with the state, to liven only in designated elven compounds, etc., all of a sudden we're in the kind of dangerous territory that humans have been in before. It never ends well, but it does make for an incredibly interesting story. 

Still, when the fantasy races are conceived through lens of prior human thinking about Race as a concept, then you find yourself confronting all sorts of real life horror, up to and including genocide. Thinking about racial issues as they apply to Appendix N fiction (and the RPGs that follow from it) really concerns me, as I've said before, but I worry more about NOT thinking enough about it. It's become a bit of a focus lately, simply because I'm working on an adventure that forces me to confront what might happen if the elves really were different, and what might result because of that difference.


Adal, A., et al. (2013). Heavy metal toxicity. Medscape Reference

Oregon Public Health Division Office of Environmental Public Health. (2011). Heavy metals and your health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention. Oregon Health Authority

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Elves of Ur-Hadad

I just noticed how long it's been since I posted something. I'm technically on vacation right now, but have had to go into work a couple times already this week. I'm chairing a search committee for two positions in our department. Deadlines don't care about no stupid vacation. I've also been working on a couple of adventures, on short one (zero-level funnel) and one longer one, both for Dungeon Crawl Classics. It's been distracting. I don't like to go more than a week without a new post, usually, but here I've gone and done it. Well, it's time to fix that.

+Adam Muszkiewicz and I have been batting around ideas for a long time about the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad setting. We agree on most everything. Even when we disagree, it's more like he has a story about something and I have a story that's different or even contradictory. Our solution is to say, "Well, probably there's truth in both of these, or maybe they're both bullshit" and we just roll with both versions. It works pretty well, because it grants us a lot of freedom in how we approach our individual installments to the Metal Gods campaign. Even more fun, each of us tends to use what we write to introduce new... complications, shall we say... to the setting. Even the bullshit can have permanent effects, in-world. It's pretty neat. It also give me more impetus to write more stuff, as it can become a real part of the story that our group is busy telling through the adventures we have together.

The longer adventure I've been working on deals with reprecussions of the history of elves on Planet Ore (where Ur-Hadad is found). In this history, the elves had enslaved the humanoid races for their own purposes. They were cruel masters, but they reaped a bitter harvest in the end. Here's a bit of that history. It mixes the elves, their political battles, Lovecraftian Old Ones, the reptiloid races, and the peculiar iron allergy affecting the elves metabolism.

I've been meaning to post it for a while, but have delayed doing so for a variety of reasons, some to do with the subject matter, discussed in this post. At this point, I'm not sure how much I want to play elven characters when I'm not GM. I'm weirdly affected by my ideas about them, to the extent that I asked last night if I could play a different character in one of Adam's other campaigns, instead of "a stupid elf." Very strange.

Anyway, here it is:

The Elves of Planet Ore

What we now refer to as "Elfland" isn't just on another plane. It's on another planet, orbiting a binary star, and is impossible to reach from Ore without arcane means. However, the elves of the Old Kingdom were masters of arcane magics and amazing technologies capable of bridging the distance between the realities.

The race known as Elvenkind first came from out of space and time, bent on the conquest of Ore. Man only recently threw off their Dominion, ironically with the help of other elves, sent by the King of Elfland. The conquering elves of Ore were the Dominionists. They were part of a faction of elves within the Old Kingdom who were in favor of expanding the dominion of the elves into a universe-spanning empire.

This Dominionist contingent was also pushing back against the elven caste system. They came from all walks of Elven life, and believed that Elven culture had stagnated to nothing but tradition and formality, and that even those things were hollow and symptoms of a culture in decline. They saw the ruling caste as infected with malaise and ennui, and unable to see beyond the narrow confines of their particular obsession with cataloging and reproducing, with narcissitic abandon, the relics and practices of the past. The Dominionists wanted remake the world in a new image, in which a new way will emerge, and one's position in life will be according to merit and not birth. They believed that their Elven Dominion would be the greatest empire in the history of everything, everywhere.

The elves of the Old Kingdom, and especially the Dominionists, were students of other, less savory technomancies, and these allowed them to dabble in manipulating the very stuff of life itself, breeding sentient starships and a variety of servitors and subject-races. The mainstream elven civilization now regards these as abominations, as they are machineries animated by magic and by the souls of the dead, who are thereby enslaved.

The elves arrived on Ore in two waves. The first consisted of Dominionists who did so in an ark ship (others of which went to other, unknown locations). They arrived hundreds of millennia before their planet-bound brethren of the Old Kingdom would.

Upon their arrival, the Dominionist elves found themselves locked in a savage war with the Old Ones of Ore, a race of god-like creatures and their various minions and subject races (including the serpentkin and lizardfolk, and various other reptiloids). The Dominionists also had a hand in creating humans and other humanoid races to be their slaves, and to build their armies. After many milennia of war, pretty much their Vietnam, the Dominionists sent the Old Ones packing, and the Old Ones fled Ore to find refuge among the stars or into the depths of its hollow core. The Dominionists, now trapped on Ore, set about securing the Dominion, and their bloody rule would last for many more milennia, up until the rebellion of Mankind.

While the first-wave Dominionists battled with the Old Ones, civil war broke out in the Old Kingdom of the elves, between the Perfectionist and the Dominionist factions. The war went on for milennia, resulting in the fall of the ancient elven empire, and effectively leaving the Dominionist Elves of Ore to their own devices. Eventually, the Perfectionists won the war, but it would be many thousands of years before they recovered from the conflict. By this time, they had developed new means of transport by way of arcane gateways, but had made it the highest of treasons to dabble in the technomagical manipulation of life essences, punishable by death of the body and soul.

The Perfectionist doctrine was another casualty of the elven civil war. The Elves of the New Kingdom, as they were now called, for the most part did away with the traditional caste system, but another hierarchy quickly replaced it, one based on power. Those who were the greatest warriors and the most powerful mages now ruled as a confederation of warlords and their retainers, all vying for position. Secret societies also emerged in the New Kingdom, some of which were offshoots of the Dominionists. Most of those secret societies had little real power. However, an extremely powerful group emerged very early in the history of the New Kingdom, a secret society of the most powerful magic users. This group had membership in other secret societies and in mainstream society, using their involvement in civic affairs to mask their actual activities. In truth, this group, the Coulara Mak'Shi (Winds of Eternal Change) controls the direction of the New Kingdom's activities and politics. However, they seem (so far) to have little interest in the poisonous planet of Ore.

The elves of the New Kingdom arrived on Ore to find that several of the Dominionists' servitor races (Dwarves, Men, and Halflings) had banded together to fight both their Dominionist masters and the remnants of the Old Ones' most loyal minions, the lizardfolk and serpentkin. The newly arrived elves of the Old Kingdom joined the fight, but not as part of any stated alliance with the humanoid races. They had a grudge to settle, but were not particularly pleased at the rise of these primitive races, which they considered abominations of the highest order. Subsequent generations of Ore-born elves have become more tolerant as they've been assimilated into the dominant human culture. Still, there's a healthy streak of elven supremacism among even the "nice" elves.

The presence of iron, unknown on the elven homeworld, was the downfall of the Dominionist elves of Ore. Iron changed and corrupted elven magic, driving elves with particularly weak constitutions mad from exposure, causing low birth rates and terminal birth defects, and occasionally producing outright mutations among the children born to elves. These iron-mutated children and their descendents are a long-held secret of the elves, and their ancient shame. Some of these creatures escaped into the wilds of Ore, and are hunted relentlessly by elvenkind, but they are a more prolific race, and not as prone to iron infection. They have thrived in their new environment. Some call them Orcs.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Nova Praxis Enhanced PDF

I don't do a lot of reviews, but I feel compelled to do so in this case. The game I'm reviewing, Nova Praxis, a FATE-based ruleset, is just that good. And the delivery system, an enhanced PDF, is really amazing in terms of its clean aesthetic and overall usability. Color me very, very impressed.

What is Nova Praxis, anyway?

Nova Praxis is dystopic human future-based world produced by +Mike McConnell for Void Star Games (listed as such on RPG Now, though Void Star Studios is the company).

All of the major sci-fi themes seem to be allowed for, from Cyberpunk netrunning to safari-style dinosaur hunting on distant colony worlds. From transhumanists yearning for post-human perfection to body-Puritans who bomb the labs where that post-human potential is realized. The information about the setting is based on a "default setting." You are members of a group of operatives working for one the major corporate "houses" of the Coalition, engaging in a Shadow War against other Houses and their operatives. You do the dirty work that makes things work for the Houses, that keeps people in their places, that preserves the Powers That Be from shame or blame, while further helping them to cement their influence.

The default setting is interesting in and of itself. It reminds me quite a bit of elements of Cyberpunk mixed with with the various versions of the space opera genre embodied in our favorite TV shows, comics, films, RPGs, and other sources. The author is very clear about this in his response to critics claiming he ripped off other systems/settings:
Eclipse Phase didn't invent the concept of the Technological Singularity (ask John von Neumann who first talked about it in the 50's), nor the idea of transhumanity. In fact, Eclipse Phase very clearly "rips off" aspects of Altered Carbon, Revelation Space, and many others. And so did Nova Praxis. And Nova Praxis also goes on to "rip off" Mass Effect, Deus Ex, and other inspirational sources. That's how fiction works.
Yep. Couldn't agree more. Ain't nothing new in the world that ain't been said already, and I think that's absolutely awesome. That's why we can have things that we share. That's why we can make cool things together. That's why subcultures like the OSR exist. That's why everyone can take something old and make it new again in very personal and interesting ways (or, alternately, in stereotypical and boring ways. YMMV.).

Also, props to Mike for doing a great job editing his text. It's easy to read, well-organized, and almost completely free of spelling and grammatical errors. This warms the cockles of my little, black heart.

How useful would this setting be to me?

The setting is detailed and well-realized, and the elements of the setting are diverse. There's a lot to see here, and a lot of possibilities for tweaking the setting to one's own personal tastes. You get bits like this, about the colony world of Proch:
Large reptiles and ferocious mammals still roam the forests of Proch. These large, at times massive, creatures have become a source of much interest for many of the Coalition’s people. The creatures have provided scientists with many hours of amusement, and a gruesome end to more than a few would-be adventurers.
Land of the Lost/King Kong in motherfucking space, people! That's what I'm talking about.

And this about Earth:
Today, it is believed that no human remains alive on Earth. Mankind’s cities are dens of technological terror, shattered wastelands haunted by murderous machines. Even rural areas are patrolled by aerial recon drones that are programmed to kill anything larger than a house cat.
Hello, Terminator! And the possibilities go on and on.

The description of the rest of the setting provides all sorts of possibilities for just about anything from sci-fi and beyond. You could run a fantasy game, for example, or space pirates, or palace intrigue, or bodice-ripper romances, fergawdsake. Now, mind you, you'd have to come up with ideas for your own, but I think most of my readers are already able to do that, and used to doing so.

Given that it's a FATE-based system, you literally can play just about any character imaginable and any setting imaginable. You could be a giant, monster-fighting robot, a hard-bitten investigator, an technomancer, whatever. If you can imagine it, and you can tie it to the sprawling sci-fi setting embodied in Nova Praxis, you can play it. So, bottom line, this is a very dynamic setting. There are a lot of fiddly bits that you could develop to make it into your Perfect Game. You could do that a whole bunch of times. The number of plot hooks available in the setting descriptions just about guarantees that.

What about this FATE thing? Why would I play it?

I'm fairly new to FATE system-based games. I was somewhat put off by it, initially, as it's a bit complex, and the terminology and assumptions so different from what I'm used to. I had to tweak my brain to deal with the idea that The Story is what's important, that having fun means everybody being able to tell that story (not just or mainly the GM). Mind you, I'm making sweeping declarations with that sentence. I know that. I know that all rulesets allow for that, provided that the GM/players roll it that way. However, just like some other games I've been intrigued by in the last year or so, like +Joshua Macy's SFX! system and its various permutations (e.g., Zap! or Zounds!) or +Rafael Chandler's Disciple 12 system for Spite, this is a ruleset that aims at a cinematic/narrative aesthetic for the gaming experience.

What that means for the GM and players is a bit more flexibility in applying the ruleset. The rules are more procedural than canon, if you see what I mean. They don't define what you can do, but how you accomplish doing what you want to do. I like that. I like it a lot. But it took me a few read-throughs of these kinds of games to really grok the point of it all. At first, it seemed to nerf the deadlier aspects of other RPGs, making the games more about cool shit than about consequences of doing that cool shit. Like there's nothing in there specifically about wounds and death and hit points and specific rules for magic and that kind of thing. The flexibility of the ruleset in application actually put me off! Where the hell was the crunch?

However, I've come to realize that was a bit more about the failure my imagination to capture what I could do with the system. It was about me and my players figuring out what's cool for us, not about having to adhere to what I've come to associate with story-gamey sorts of things I don't much care for. I think I had it wrong. I could use the FATE system to play any fucking game I wanted to. That's what it's designed for. If you can't have fun with it, then you probably need to figure out why you are no fun to be around.

Oddly enough, I think I arrived at this insight by playing DCC, which is almost the opposite in terms of how it accomplishes the very same thing: Make the characters awesome and make the setting random and gonzo. Oddly enough, they are very similar in the way they "feel" to me. There's a real sense of wide-open space here, a feeling that I could explore a lot of different territory in gaming. Maybe it's that the main influences seem to be about the stories (e.g., Appendix N fiction in DCC and the codification of narrative/cinematic structure in the FATE system), rather than the rules.

As a side note, I'm intrigued that FATE creates a linguistic/cinematic language to describe gaming behaviors. It uses generic game actions and character and setting building options to allow the players and GM to build and do just about anything, as I've said already. It also codifies that stuff into terms that are of professional interest to me, personally. I deal with rhetoric and persuasion, the relations between symbol-systems and power. This system seems to codify, in many ways, how we use archetypes and memes and various aspects of game theory to build conceptual worlds, objects, aspects, and so forth for real people. These people are given a way to think about and embody things found in our Internet-based versions of community and collective identities and so forth. I'm not certain where I want to take it, but I'll be damned if that's not fascinating.

What's this enhanced PDF thing?

You can get Nova Praxis "pay what you want" on RPG Now. However, the enhanced PDF is only $14.99, and it's pretty amazing. This sort of thing may be old news to some of you tablet-slinging veterans of the Nook/iPad wars, but I'm a humble lover of gigantic desktop towers. I've only recently gotten a laptop, even, and that's for work.

Anyway, the enhanced PDF consists of about 270 pages of material, and embedded system of menus and links that's intuitive an easy to use, standard PDF book marks, standard, linked table to contents, a fillable, savable character sheet, among other features. It took me a little bit of time to get used to (I'm only a simple cave man and your advanced technology is puzzling to me.), but now I don't know why everyone's PDFs aren't like this one. It's groovy!

Why should I go out and get this thing?

I don't know. Maybe you shouldn't.

If the idea of playing in the FATE system makes you queasy for whatever reason, then probably you are ill-disposed to begin with. However, the setting itself is a very interesting one for any kind of sci-fi based game. You could use it with rules from other systems pretty easily,  I think. For fifteen bucks, that might be worth it to you.

If you like well-written and elegantly produced games at low, low prices, you should get this.

If you like sci-fi gaming in general, get it.

Fuck it. I'm not going down the entire list for you. Just go check it out. The regular PDF is pay what you want. Pay or don't. If you like it, and if you're intrigued, buy the enhanced PDF. It's very nice.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pulp Fiction Conceptions of Race and Fantasy RPGs

I am in the midst of reading the complete collection of R. E. Howard Conan stories, and something that keeps popping up in the story, in the sense that it's a constant element, is the eugenic conception of Race.

[Note: the Capitalized Word is used to denote that we're talking about ideology, not biology, and signifies that the word functions as an ideograph, in the rhetorical sense. My old teacher, Michael Calvin McGee coined that phrase, and defined as a "building block of ideology." Essentially, you take a term like <Race> or <Justice> and you have a term the definition of which is not only ambiguous, but which also tends to lead to competing (ideological) definitions.]

Race as a concept in R. E. Howard should be understood as emerging from the broader philosophical background of late 19th and early-20th century conceptions of biology. Race, back then, was thought about, particularly in popular culture but also in the emerging eugenic "sciences," as a concrete thing. A person belonged to a particular Race. Races have particular traits. Races are hierarchical in terms of their relative worth or usefulness. Races can be "diluted" or "corrupted" or otherwise fucked up through admixtures of blood (in the sense of breeding). For most folks in that time, and even up to the very present day, this notion of Race was consequential and durable. It colored the way they viewed themselves as human beings, and served as the basis for white supremacism. Even more importantly, it tended to locate Nation and Race very close to one another conceptually, or even not to distinguish between Nation and Race at all, conflating them into one overarching gestalt concept.

I find it particularly interesting in Howard (and Lovecraft, and C. A. Smith, and others from that era) how frequently that variations on this eugenic conception of Race keep popping up. The damsel in distress is never just a damsel in distress, she's racialized, contrasted with those unlike her (particularly when, inevitably, she's captured by those of darker skinned races). In Conan, however admirable they might otherwise be, supporting characters of another Race are used as foils, to contrast what is clean and pure (in Conan) with what is primitive or mongrelized or tainted or otherwise impure (in those who are from other Races). One very interesting exception is Howard's creation of a special category to encompass what would be his Persian and/or Arab analogue races. These, he treats as White, though of somewhat lower stature than the mighty barbarian, what with his blue eyes, steel-belted thews, and whatnot.

It's also jarring to read this stuff when you know exactly where all of this Race talk led. For all of the faux-science trappings of the eugenic terminologies encountered in these works, the focus on Nation and Race are very much supremacist; they would find their ultimate expression in Hitler's genocidal program, but also were found in various other expressions of nationalism based on a Nation-as-Race understanding of where genetic heritage comes from (e.g., Mussolini's interest in reviving what was, for all intents and purpose, the New Roman Empire and Hitler's use of political names, boundaries, and symbols of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Japanese conception of themselves as unique, racially and nationally). It's not innocent stuff. It was the basis for a lot of incredibly Bad Things that happened because people took Race too much as true and given facets of human heritage, rather than simply outward aspects of particular genetic expressions of skin, eyes, hair, and other heritable (but not particularly significant or functional) traits. Hell, look at how the Irish and the Italians (let along Eastern European immigrants) were treated during that time period in the United States. Nation-as-Race was made to be consequential in a lot of ways, to a lot of people, and usually in ways that tended to preserve "Whiteness" as a unalloyed and supreme category.

Anyway, all of this reading I've been doing has triggered a renewed attentiveness, a sensitivity, to instances of Race popping up in other places, whether it be news and politics (which I'm done talking about here), or in talking about character races in gaming. That's where I'm finding this to be the most interesting, right now.

The last couple of days have seen several posts on G+ about dwarves, their essential nature, what sets them apart from the other fantasy races. My own recent thoughts about my part of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign has me considering elves in ways that are somewhat different than usually is the case. Particularly, in my consideration of elves, I've been imagining them as at best uncaring toward humans and at worst actively genocidal against them. As a fantasy concept for a game, this makes sense. It creates an interesting tension in the game world, making the PCs' racial belonging consequential, not simply decorative or mechanically advantageous in game terms. Being an Elf (as a Race) in Ur-Hadad is, in my mind, problematic. Elves are symbolic of the ancient, oppressive Empire that kept Men in bondage for untold millenia. Dwarves are symbolic of those who aided Men in casting off their chains through metalcraft. The Lizardmen and Serpent People are otherworldly, alien Races, servants and soldiers of the Old Ones.

In any case, the character races used in fantasy RPGs are usually treated as if they simply are window dressing with mechanical advantages of some kind, in game terms. However, if we think about how human beings have lived over the last 200 or so years, and how important Race has been as a concept in driving how we have treated each other (usually barbarically, of course), then it may be that our game worlds could be a lot more politically incendiary than they usually are. When Elves, and Dwarves, and Men, and Orcs, and... whatever, are in contact with each other, the non-human races are not simply reskinned Men with a few new traits. They are, in fact, The Other. They are mysterious, threatening Others bent on who knows what, with potentially real ill-will toward Men.

This distinction is rife with possibilities, some of them incredibly dark. If we take Race seriously in RPGs, we get a lot of marvelous texture to our game worlds: Old alliances and enmities, shared histories of conflict and cooperation, literal Blood-feuds among the game's Races, and (of course) Race-as-Class. Just kidding about that last one, if only just barely. However, I worry about taking such things too far in a game. I trust myself, and I trust my current crop of players, not to turn my game into an exploration of the worst excesses of what happens when Race and Nation serve as the basis on which we are found worthy (or not). I don't want genocides in my game; at the same time, I find myself saying, "But that's what happens. You can't simply ignore it because it's repellent. You MUST SHOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE THINK THIS WAY!"

I also worry that I (the bald-headed white guy) will be misunderstood in my intentions. I'm not a skinhead, people, I'm just a bald guy. I'm not White. I'm a European mutt of incredible admixture. I have no illusions about how stupid it is to take Race seriously as a scientific/biological fact. More than that, I know that Race is a cultural construct more than anything else, one with a history, with a bloody history, to be certain. As such, Race is a dangerous concept, because people can make (and certainly have made) it a powerful cultural signifier. Hell, just look at the commentary on coverage of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident that has recently gone to trial. Look at how African American culture and Race get conflated. Even worse, look at how my fellow citizens talk about Those People in that particular case. It's foul, and I'm disgusted by it. I find it difficult that such attitudes can persist, even now.

Anyway... It's going to be a whole lot harder, now, to think about Race in gameplay as just another entry on the character sheet. It's going to be a lot harder to simply think about non-human races as just like Men, but with different skin. It's going to be a lot harder to be comfortable with that, frankly. It makes me uneasy, because I know how bad it can get. That said, I also can't pretend that ignoring Race in my games, and concentrating on making it happy and inconsequential, are anything more than willful ignorance on my part, a dodge at best and an elision of politically potent and dangerous thinking at worst.

In the end, I have to do it as honestly, as truthfully, as I can. I have to approach this with open eyes and with a willingness to take it very, very seriously. I must speak about things instead of assuming that others will simply "get" my gist. But I can't ignore it. When you ignore it, Bad Things continue to happen.

Wow, this really got very serious. That wasn't intentional, but it was, perhaps, more productive than I'd anticipated.