Home > DM Theory > Social Elements in Fantasy

Social Elements in Fantasy

“One thing that often surprises me is how much, and yet how little, we change when we create fantasy worlds. For instance, we often radically change the look and feel of the world. We add new wondrous species, awe-inspiring locales and epic legends. However, rarely do we change the fundamental underpinnings of our societal structure such as our views on gender, race, and disability. In these aspects, our worlds are more likely to mirror our reality than our desire.” SarahDarkmagic, The Promise of Fantasy

This harken’s back to my recent article on languages ( What did you say? ), a lot of the answer to this question is that we just do not think about these things in detail when we are building worlds, in fact many people don’t think about these questions in detail in looking at our real world either.

Consider for example these two videos: Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs and Aimee Mullins: The opportunity of adversity it is unlikely that many of us have considered Aimee’s perspectives on these things, and even reading the comments posted below her talks makes some stark revelations about how people react to these situations. So it isn’t really surprising that this stuff doesn’t turn up in our games.

Now of course some game systems (World of Darkness, L5R, BESM) all cater for playing characters with a physical impairment, but even then the settings are either modern, or have a very “you shall not be stigmatised” response to physical impairment. DnD in comparison stays right away from this stuff.

An important thing to remember of course when looking at DnD is that it is a high fantasy game in the mold of the space operas and swashbuckling adventures like Star Wars, the Three Musketeers. Certainly there are great lashings of the Lord of the Rings and similar, but even in the Lord of the Rings by and large the characters die, or go unharmed (Frodo is the exception). Further in all these settings, and the core genres that DnD is drawn from and inspired by there are bigger things to worry about than many of the social conflicts of our modern era, and even of the historical eras that provide fuel for the game settings.

Why are you worried about skin color – when there is another actual race of creatures in the next valley who do want to eat you? Why are you worried about gender equity – when the woman down the road really can burn you to a crisp with a flick of her wrist? Why are you worried about any of that stuff – when a truely evil alien entity wishes to consume your whole world and the souls of every living thing in it because they taste nice as hors d’œuvres?

This is really the heart of it. DnD isn’t really about social questions in its core assumptions, and the answer to many of the questions Sarah asks is “because it isn’t that important to what the game is about, and it is in no way deliberate”.  The latter being more directed at the why aren’t 50% of adventurers female – the answer is largely obvious in that 50% of the game designers are not female, and so just think up male characters more often, add the fact that “gender bending” play is frowned on (I’ve had female DMs tell me I cannot play a female character for example because “I will not do it right”…) and it is even less surprising that male players mostly conceived male characters.

So is there any value in addressing these things in developing a setting?

I think the answer to that question is more complicated, than the answer to the question of why they don’t turn up in DnD games. The first thing you have to ask is “why will this matter in the game?” if the answer to that question is “it will not” it probably isn’t worth putting any further time into considering it – build your game to your audience. For example I’m thinking of starting a Zombie Apocalypse game – social considerations are very unimportant to the game, getting solid mechanics worked out to support the idea on the other hand is very important. On the other hand if I want to run a game focussing on the political intrigues between two nations taking the time to establish the society and culture of those nations by looking at their attitudes towards women, disability, slavery, magic, religion etc is going to be important for establishing the differences. The danger with engaging with this is making value judgements and placing one position in the role of “good” and the other in the role of “evil” (oh that is another reason WotC keeps DnD away from this stuff). The main issue is you need to be sure of the values you are going to be highlighting and contrasting.

L5R stumbles into this problem from time to time, on the one hand the setting tries to reflect certain traditional Japanese (in particular) social expectations, eg a samurai’s wife stays at home and runs the estate (notice that there are 2 assumptions in that 1 expectation!). Yet at other times it flies directly in the face of this and turns that on its head to the point that “Good little Matsu Wife” is a joke among the player base for the husband of a Matsu samuraiko. The problem is the setting tries desperately to avoid making a judgement one way or the other and so skirts the issue other than some generalised statements about “normal” and the PCs being “special”.

So in setting up a campaign where social expectations and cultural values are going to matter the DM is going to have to take the time to figure out what the values are that are going to matter, where they stand on those things, and how that is going to be reflected in the setting.

There are two basic ways to handle this, the first is “egalitarian vs stereotype” the other is “shades of grey”.

In egalitarian vs stereotype, one group has the best of modern values – no discrimination, equal opportunity for everyone etc etc it might even have a democratic government system. The other group adopts what are seen as the worst negative traits from history, women as objects, slavery (with very poor treatment of slaves), killing of the disabled etc etc. This sets the tone very clearly and allows the PCs to make a clear contrast between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” (note I didn’t use evil!).

In the shades of grey setting you use more traditional values mixed with some modern values, each group has values that the players may agree or disagree with, such that it can be hard to choose which group is “best”. This one is going to be the hardest one to set up and run well, and would be something I would only attempt with players I knew well so that I wasn’t tromping all over someone’s values when I made group X the “hero” and group Y the “villain”.

Still next time you are designing a world I think it is worth considering the social elements of the game, in my own world building I draw heavily on historical societies to provide frameworks for my geo-political regions: Ancient Rome, Egyptian Empire, Medieval Europe,  Celtic, Viking etc all turn up in one way or another in my setting work, because my players are familiar with the general concepts and it is easy for them to grasp. But I still don’t get into the details of things like gender equity (it exists though), and so on – those things are not the focus of the game, my games are about “saving our land” and similar things, and “our land” is always set up to be better than the alternative (everyone is a zombie, everyone is orc slaves (which are eaten, abused, etc), everyone is sacrificed to a mad evil god or a worshiper).

Categories: DM Theory
  1. July 2, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Great post! I agree that the biggest reason is due to the lack of women in the hobby both as creators and players. The gender issue probably comes up at my table a bit more than most because I’m a female DM and half of my players were in coed fraternities in college. So when I do things like have the only female NPC in a group be a sorceror and the cook (based off of Sabrina the Teenage Witch), my players call me on it 🙂

    As for gender bending, I wish more tables had the trust to do it. We are all pretending and taking on the trappings of another gender shouldn’t be any different than becoming a swordmage for the night. But I’m heavily influenced by my own past here as well as the fact that my brother prefers to play female characters.

    I wrote my post while reading the second book of the Deed of Paksenarrion and it heavily influenced my outlook. Here is a woman writer, formerly a member of the military, writing a book about a female character who joins a mercenary force. In my mind, this is a perfect opportunity to reset the world, to create a new reality within the fantasy setting. Yet, gender equality, or the lack of it, is an issue that comes up frequently. It goes much further than most, but it brings attention to that fact in the writing.

  2. July 3, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Heh lucky for you with regards to your players calling you on the Sabrina thing. As my involvment in the early days of Astrid’s Parlor over on the WotC forums taught me most gaming groups wouldn’t even notice that (and mostly mine wouldn’t either).

    As to the Deed of Paksernarrion, I wouldn’t be surprised if the experiences of the characters are reflective of the experiences of the author. Service of the country should be equal opportunity yet there is uproar at the idea of women in combat roles.So it seems reasonable to draw a connection between the author and the characters.

    • July 3, 2010 at 2:52 am

      That encounter was meant just for fun. We also had brothers Hanz and Franz 🙂

      Yeah, I agree they are reflective of the author. I think it’s why we have a hard time radically rethinking our fantasy. These particular issues cut to the core of social interactions (for good and bad) and recreating that framework takes a lot more time and effort than things like pretending we’re soldiers, swordsmen, or wizards. 🙂

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