Oh My Modifiers!

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

Which is faster, a cheetah or a jaguar?
Which is stronger?

The answers to these questions generally seem obvious, as they note basic biological differences across (even related) species. However, there has been an argument that race-based attribute modifiers in RPGs should be removed for a variety of reasons: they are “unrealistic”, they are “conceptually limiting”, or even that they perpetuate racism. I find none of these positions particularly convincing enough to remove modifiers, but if you do, there may be different ways to approach the issue while hopefully avoiding the perceived pitfalls of the above.

  • The arguments against racial modifiers can be divided broadly into two positions: one opposes them from a standpoint of social awareness (and problematic mirroring of real-world stereotyping), the other opposes them from a position of game design (and attendant mechanical and narrative constraints).

    The first objection is founded on the idea that since it is humans playing the game, and there are fundamental underlying social issues in the real world that arise from concretizing the differences between people mechanically and as the various “races” can often appear to be stand-ins for human racial or social groups, one should simply treat all humanoid species as fundamentally the same in aptitude and physical and mental structure to avoid these perceived subtextual issues.

    The second objection is based on the idea that race-oriented attribute modifiers create preferred or exceptional character builds, ie: half-orcs are going to lean towards fighters because they have a Strength bonus; elves will lean towards wizards because they have an Intelligence bonus; etc. and that making humanoid races mechanically different constrains characters of that race into specific game-world or adventuring party roles based on the type of humanoid they are, limiting and constraining player choice as a side-effect.

  • The most common solution to either issue is the simple removal of the mechanic from play.

    For those attached to the first objection, conceptualizing, or allegorizing, the different humanoid races as stand-ins for human peoples, raises troubling subtext in the personal and internal experience of the game for some people; ie: since in the real world no appreciable differences in ability can be tracked to in-born outward physical characteristics, then modifying abilities based on in-born outward physical characteristics (green skin, pointy ears, dwarfism, etc) should be avoided as it infers otherwise about real people. The perceived subtext, for that player or group, is simply uncomfortable, if not personally upsetting.

    For those attached to the second objection, since role-playing games are games, and like any table-top game their rules rely heavily on abstraction for play rather than upon simulation, generally avoiding fine-grained replication of physical laws, economics, socio-cultural forces and so forth, removing racial ability score modifiers altogether can be seen as simply one more rules abstraction. A group more accepting of abstraction may be fine without the inclusion of these modifiers.

    After all, people (arguably) happily play Monopoly without rejecting its premise just because the game’s rules fail to adequately represent real-world banking, economic markets, real estate purchasing, and rental contracts. Clearly, people are fully capable of accepting and rolling with non-representative abstractions in service to elements within other games, and thus are also capable of doing so within role-playing games (and they do: Armor Class, Hit Points, Initiative, etc).

  • It is also understandable this reconceptualization may simply not work for every group, depending on their preferred method of engagement with the game and with personal suspension boundaries. A group may find itself unable to ignore the exclusion of obvious biological differences in service to abstraction, as it breaks their particular veil of comfort in the required suspension-of-reality in mirroring the “humans-in-funny-hats” problem of much the science-fiction genre. They may thus prefer their various humanoids to have some mechanical reflection of foundational biological differences in physical and mental structures; ie: since dragons are big and can fly, they should be very strong and be able to fly.

    One common judgement of these feelings is the well-known “If you can accept a story with dragons in it, why can’t you accept a story with..?” argument. After all, we accept fantastical ideas like dragons and magic and theatrical swordfights that are nothing like real combat, so why not a lack of mechanical differences between fantasy races? So this is certainly a very valid argument.

    Within limits.

    Consider that if people can’t enjoy a horror movie due to the character backgrounds or the setting failing to mesh or maintain consistent believability, even though they can accept the story is about a devil-ghost summoned by teenagers with an Ouija board, then we as outsiders to their experience are also capable of understanding that suspension of belief can fail due to even one narrative element, independently from the ability to accept other unrealistic or unbelievable elements.

    Whether or not something meets the “…dragons, but not this?” test can involve some pretty broad, personal gray areas, and whether or not any particular suspension failure on any given person’s part may be reasonable is more complex than anyone’s individual experience or thresholds of comfort.

    I make no claims whether any particular personal instance of failed suspension is a good or bad thing, or whether it makes sense or not, whether it is simply an excuse to be difficult (“…but in the medieval ages..!”), or is the result of unexamined perceptions or trained expectations, as the validity of the answer to “…but not this?” varies by individual and circumstance. Deconstructing such reactions requires much more personal reflection than someone else’s blog post could ever provide an individual.

    I can only say a person’s experienced points of failure are not an excuse for judgemental douchebaggery, and are not by themselves an excuse for dismissing the range of someone else’s personal limits or comfort zones in a fictional experience whether they do so for either reasons of social conscience or abstraction boundaries.

  • A group may have no problem with abstraction, but still desire the additional layer of tactical choice provided by an attribute modifier based on humanoid type, finding the entire exercise of picking a non-human species to play pointless and conceptually invalid without some kind of mechanical reason to make such a choice. This is again an understandable position: for various reasons, players may want differentiated characters within known boundaries.

    As such, some designers have handled the issue of race-based modifiers by replacing them with different, player-chosen modifiers; or have even outright removed the idea of non-human/humanoid races and replaced them instead with human cultures.

    This solution allows players to choose their character’s ‘cultural background’ which is then what grants the attribute modifiers and is not tied to the character’s racial background. Therefore an Eastlander who grew up in the Southland is a Southlander, not an Eastlander, no matter what they look like, etc, and receives whatever attribute modifiers a Southlander would have.

    This is a tidy and interesting take on the problem, and when expanded to encompass humanoid races simply means an orc who grew up with elves gets elven bonuses, not orc bonuses.

  • Even in games that do not include humanoid races, merely human cultures, the solution of cultural background modifiers ends up repeating all the same problems as the idea of racial modifiers.

    Regardless of how they work, cultural modifiers are going to lean characters of a particular culture towards certain classes based on their culture’s modifiers, thus slotting certain cultural types into particular roles — just as races are normally slotted into particular roles — and also merely continues to mirror real-world stereotyping about various cultures (similarly to the concerns about racial stereotyping), thus presenting the same subtextual problems. Cultural modifiers merely shift the issue from race to culture.

  • Another solution to this has been to instead combine the ideas of biological and cultural modifiers. A designer might decide character creation applies half a character’s attribute modifiers from the character’s culture and the other half from their race, allowing for more significant variation in individuals, reducing optimization and pigeon-holing or stereotyping, while still granting the mechanical benefits of different choices.

    An orc raised in a quiet, secluded monastery is going to be fundamentally different than one raised in a nomadic, mercenary horde, even if they have the exact same temperament and base ability scores. This doesn’t necessarily solve the fundamental issues of either objection, however: there will still be optimized culture-and-race combinations for a given character class or skill-set, and one can still argue that even a small modifier is still creating a stereotype.

    An effort to avoid this can be made by presenting a variety of possible cultural bonuses per culture, and the player picks a couple. One expression of this is represented in many fantasy games by the idea of sub-races a player can pick from for each race (hill dwarves and mountain dwarves, wood elves and dark elves, etc), which each provide different bonuses based on the behaviors and culture of that sub-race, though this presents the same problems as any other culture-based modifiers, to a level depending on the method used.

    Another solution — though one I personally find particularly unsatisfying both conceptually and fictionally — similar to providing differing bonuses per culture but more expansive, which may suffice for players whom desire mechanical differentiation of their characters and also wish to avoid both or either troubling subtext and mechanical constraints, is to provide a pool of player-distributable points of equal amount regardless of race and/or culture, and then each player narratively explains why their particular character has those attribute modifiers.

  • I realize I have provided zero solutions here that are capable of satisfying everyone and solve all objections. I suspect there is no one-size-fits-all solution, for all the reasons noted above: the differences in preferred gaming styles, personal perceptions, and comfort levels. Notably, this is the same reason multiple tabletop gaming systems exist in the first place: no one size fits all.

    (I also realize that is an unacceptable answer to some people, who believe there is or must be one obvious and correct choice that aligns with their own reasons, to which I can only shrug and note that the world we have to deal with is what it is, and suggest that it is best to do you and let others be themselves as well, and simply engage in regular self-reflection on and criticism of your own positions.)

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