But it isn’t. Instead it’s a little more pernicious. Goblinization Day’s when, after a few years of folks turning into graceful Elves and stout Dwarves, another plague began to turn babies into Orks and Trolls. And in the setting, that’s what made everyone flip the eff out. Here’s a thread about that and why it’s a problem: https://twitter.com/LuchaLibris/status/1388188587196362753?s=20 (ht to @PoCGamer).
Older games have lots of baggage. The last few years have seen people begin to listen to folks who have talked about race, colonialism, and other issues in rpgs for a long time. Any meaningful change in my perspective comes from that and from reading Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. That book started to wake me up to how dangerous the concept of race & birth as destiny could be. That it concept isn’t a single thing but a host off destructive theories which the power structure has changed and modified to fit the times.
It’s made me more aware in reading modern rpgs. Anything published in the last five years needs to take account of this conversation about race, culture, and representation. With that in mind I’m looking at how large-tome recent fantasy RPG releases consider race. I’m not going cover the arguments and importance of these issues. I take that as a given. If you want that part of the conversation check out PoC Gamer, James Mendez Hodes, and Asians Represent among others.
Against the Darkmaster is a retroclone of Iron Crown Enterprises’ Middle Earth Roleplaying. I asked for and received a review copy. It’s a gigantic book. Before I get into how it treats race and culture, I want to talk about my experience with the system and some of the book’s positives.
I played a lot of Rolemaster. Like a ton. From the mid 1980s to the early 2000s it was my FRPG of choice (in parallel with GURPS if I wanted something low fantasy). I played RM when it was a piecemeal add-on to other games, when it became its own complete system, and when it overhauled itself into Rolemaster Standard System. I also played Middle Earth Roleplaying, the streamlined little sibling to RM.
I got good at it. I had system mastery and I cut away the parts of the game which didn’t fit the way I played. I could run a combat quickly—meaning as fast as something D&D or Champions, not actually quickly. A couple of years ago I ran two parallel series on the Gauntlet using a tightened version of Rolemaster (particularly the magic system). RM had a reputation of being heavy, but I knew it could work so I wanted to give folks-- more accustomed to Indie & Story Games-- a look at how it could work. It was eye-opening for me. I don’t think I’d realized exactly how far away RM would be from their experience.
All that being said, Against the Darkmaster does the job it sets out to do. It’s a Retroclone which means it wants to clean up the original game, integrate some later ideas, strip out any IP, and provide the best possible experience with these core rules. I spent years reading through Ice Crown Enterprise’s dense, wall of text, tiny font layout design. AtD is a breath of fresh air. It’s actually readable and has generous whitespace on the page. The cost of that is that the book’s frikkin’ huge, clocking in at 563 pages.
For those not familiar with MERP or Rolemaster, it’s a percentile based skill and stat system. You roll and add your value, trying to get a high number rather than trying to roll under. Characters have access to nearly all the skills and abilities, but costs gatekeep those choices. So for example, it’s cheaper for a Rogue to buy Roguery skills than an Animist, but a Warrior has cheaper access to Combat skills. There are only 22 skills by default in four categories and two special sets.
The bigger selling point of the game lies in the magic and combat system. The magic system allows for all kinds of spell purchases, again managed by differing costs. Spells can the changed and manipulated by a skilled character. The base game has 36 spell lists of 10 spells each and four spell-casting professions. On the other hand, the combat system bells and whistles with players able to shift focus on the fly between attacks and defenses. An attack roll (less the target’s defense) is checked against the target’s armor type on a table specific to that type of weapon (Blade, Blunt, etc). This results in a # of hits done and more often than not a roll on a separate critical table (Beast, Impact) which generates the really cool effects.
The book presents this cleanly and clearly. If you’re looking for a MERP retroclone, this is it. If you’re a Rolemaster old hand looking for an easier version you might get your D&D group to try, Against the Darkmaster has you covered. It has solid and consistent art as well as its own unique setting which doesn’t get in the way if you want to adapt it elsewhere.
Being a MERP retroclone Against the Darkmaster carries with it Tolkienesque baggage about race and culture. I want to walk through how the game treats those issues.
AtD offers 13 “Kins”: Dwarf, Halfling, Man, Wildfolk, High Man (think Aragorn), Half-Elf, Dusk Elf, Silver Elf, Half-Orc, Orc, Stone Troll, and Firbolg. These are meant to be a biological distinctions I think, rather than cultural ones since each Kin description also offers suggested Cultures to shape your Kin pick. These Cultures are generally regional (Arctic, City, Fey, Woad, etc). Players can choose a culture outside the suggested ones but only with approval of the table. So if you want a City Silver Elf or a Fey Halfling you need permission.
Your choice of Kin affects your stat bonuses, hit points, bonus magic points, toughness and willpower saves, background points for cool extras, and wealth level. Three of the Stats are physical: Brawn, Swiftness, and Fortitude. Three are non-physical: Wits (cleverness, reasoning, mental agility), Wisdom (empathy, intuition, willpower, awareness), and Bearing (presence, charisma, and social influence).
Several of the Kins have penalties for these non-physical stats. Stone Trolls have a heavy penalty to Wits (and only Elves have any bonus to this). Orcs, Stone Trolls, and Firbolg’s all have a penalty to Wisdom. Dwarves, Half-Orcs, Orcs, and Stone Trolls all have penalties to Bearing. That’s a common trope among fantasy games with “Dark Folk” races often having penalties to mental and charisma-type stats. This means that certain races are inherently weaker in those areas based on their biology. There’s a baseline that these exist in relation to. That biological essentialism is problematic.
There’s other odd choices in the presentation of the Kins themselves. We have the Wildfolk, a humanoid race with a strong nature magic. They’re illustrated in primitive-coded dress. It’s notable that this is the only humanoid race presented with darker skin. All the rest of the ‘close to human’ folk (elves, hobbits, dwarves, high men, etc.) are fair skinned. The female Wildfolk has dreadlocks/cornrows hair. It’s another issue, but it’s worth noting the presentation difference here between the male and female. The male is covered in hairy fur while the woman is depicted as conventionally hot—with the fur there being a just pelt draped over the shoulders.
Moving on the male Half Orc is depicted with full body tribal tattoos and again dreadlock/cornrow hair. There’s another weird sexualization split with the Stone Troll female as conventionally hot with a bare midriff and the male being much more inhuman appearing. Some of the character image depictions for the Cultures also raise some questions. For the Desert culture, we have stereotypical Arabian Nights garb and an extended nose. The image for the “primitive or barbaric” Woad folk has an aboriginal look with bone weapons and what’s either tattoos or paint. It’s worth noting that with the exception of the Woad, all the Culture images have lighter skin.
Lastly Orcs are presented as an intelligent, but enemy race in the bestiary section alongside a couple of others (Dwergar, Trolls).
If you want the mechanics for a retroclone of Middle Earth Roleplaying, this is it. It does that super well. But it also falls into some of the traps of racial essentialism and cultural coding that many other frpgs do.
This is the new game from Kevin Crawford, creator of Other Dust, Scarlet Heroes, Silent Legions, and Wolves of God. I’ve reviewed several of his games before and talked about Godbound in particular. Crawford’s Spears of the Dawn is one of the few frpgs to build on classical African myths and fantasy. Worlds Without Number takes Crawford massive OSR toolkit sci-fi game Stars Without Number and brings it over to fantasy. To call it a reskin would be a disservice. Instead he’s crafted a parallel but compatible fantasy system.
Note: I backed this game and my comments are based on the final pdf delivered to KS backers. I also backed Wolves of God and have bought most of Crawford’s other games.
Worlds Without Number’s an Old School Renaissance rpg. It uses the stat six stats—rolled or chosen from an array. Players make skill rolls using 2d6 plus skill level (0 to 4) plus relevant stat modifier. If they roll equal or higher than the check’s difficulty, then they succeed. Worlds without Number has 21 skills. Players use a d20 for the other two major types of resolution, Saving Throws and Combat. The combat’s simple but offers some detail. These are mostly player options rather than consistent complexity.
Worlds Without Number has a built in setting: Latter Earth. That’s written lightly enough to be adaptable to other settings. Most of the built-in assumptions come from the bestiary, the magic system, and the background choices. The game offers a massive toolbox for fantasy gaming, with lots of discussion of options and tweaks.
So where does race come in? Characters begin by choosing or rolling a background. Some of these backgrounds are more about profession (Artisan, Criminal, Soldier). A couple reflect the character’s culture (Barbarian, Nomad, Peasant). Each background gives a free skill. Players can then choose to take the two skills listed with the background; pick two skills from an associated list of 7-8, or roll three times with that background’s Growth and Learning tables.
Players choose a Class from the four offered and then select Foci. These are “side talents or particular specializations of your hero.” This is where nonhuman PCs come in. Players can spend a Focus pick to be from a nonhuman race which gives them an Origin Focus. These aren’t presented in the base rules but instead have to be looked up in the Bestiary section.
In the bestiary section there’s Origin Foci for a variety of Demihumans. The setting offers logic for the differences in folks, all of whom come from a baseline of humanity, but who have changed over “(c)ountless eons of sorcerous and genetic manipulation.” These Demihumans are seen as radically distinct though those differences may be more social and psychological and physical. Overall there’s more discussion about the logic and place of these different lineages.
However Crawford makes a split here in the rules. He provides deeper guides to playing only two Demihuman peoples in the game’s Latter Earth setting: Dwarves and Elves. These echo traditional demihumans but with a distinct backstory. The Origin foci add bonuses and new abilities. Each get a couple of pages of rules.
On the other hand Worlds Without Number provides only modest guidelines for “traditional” fantasy raves. Dwarves, Elves (Civilized), Elves (Half-Elves), Elves (Forest), Halflings, Gnomes, Goblins (Tinker), Goblins (Savage), Lizardmen, and Orcs are provided. Each gets a short descriptor text (brutish and stupid for Orcs, bucolic and diminutive for Halflings). For the most part they get bonus skills based on the origin and a stat modifier. Most of these are a positive combined with a negative. What’s usually considered the “Dark Folk” usually end up with a choice of penalty to Wisdom or Intelligence.
World’s Without Number doesn’t have individual illustrations for the cultures or peoples, so there’s no issue of visual representation.
Theirs is a really interesting choice the game makes to handle the concept of “Evil Races.” As you know, most traditional fantasy rpgs have a pool of races who intelligent but inherently evil and therefore legitimate to slaughter. Worlds Without Number has The Blighted. They’re “…Those wretched descendants of men and women horribly warped by wielders of ancient sorcery and genetic science, people forged into tools for purposes that had no place for mercy.”
These folk have been deeply changed by The Blight which “corrupts and limits the normal human range of emotion and cognition.” Basically they suffer under a curse which pushes them in certain ways, but which the book notes some can overcome. They have a difficult time in human society and the book takes the tension and hatred between the Blighted and other people not as an excuse but as a problem of clashing cultures and the desire to wipe each other out.
Players can play Blighted and the rules offer Origin foci for several different kinds-- from those created to be servants, to the Anakim driven by rage, to Houri driven to satisfying emotional and physical needs at the cost of others. All of the Origin Foci are about overcoming the impulses of the curse of the Blight.
Crawford spends a good deal of time going over the implications of these people. They’re people driven by a curse who may be genuinely unable to co-exist with humanity. I need to quote at length from the "Blighted in Your Campaign" section.
Aggressive Blighted tend to be unambiguous villains and enemies in most campaigns, sentients that are genuinely incapable of living peacefully with humanity. They have been cursed from their creation with a need to kill and ruin, and while they may be blameless of the ancient sorcery that twisted them, humanity simply cannot live with them under the same sky.
Penal Blighted and servitor-species often appear as victims of cruelty and oppression, suffering due to the weaknesses and flaws impressed on them by their creators. Heroic PCs might find significant adventure grist in protecting or helping communities of these people.
Some players may find the existence of Blighted species to be a kind of teleological horror, and feel obligated to find some cure for their curse or method by which peace can be made with them. A GM who knows their players are likely to feel this way might choose to soften the mental effects of the Blight or make room for a cure.
It’s a really interesting approach and one that aims to add dimension and depth to some of the classic fantasy tropes.
I really dig Worlds Without Number. It’s a solid game that follows the template of Crawford’s earlier work. He provides a solid but simple core system, offers a ton of support material and tools, and gives you a cleverer setting than you might expect. Some people will go into WWN expecting a simple, generic fantasy sandbox and discover a much richer play experience. That might make it a challenge to adapt to more fringe fantasy settings (like Glorantha for example) but I think it works.
And Crawford engages with some of the questions about racial essentialism in gaming, which is more than many other games do.
Why talk about this? Because we have to be better about spotting and discussing these issues in new games. Ideas about biology and "essential" natures are hugely dangerous-- they're a tool for exclusion, justification, and abuse. My read's a light one, done from the perspective of an older white male. I'm sure there's a variety of other codings happening that I'm unaware of. It's a starting point, a small analysis built on the deeper work being done by PoC and LGTBQ gamers. We have to make this kind of necessary talk commonplace.