Planarch Codex Setting Guide, Part 1: Species & Race
I’ve been thinking about writing a series of posts on how I think about setting when writing materials for the Planarch Codex. This is my attempt to start! I welcome conversation with other folks who are also thinking about these issues.
SPECIES seems like an interesting theme to start with. First of all, modern humans really have no idea what it’s like to share a society (or even multiple linked societies) with other species with which they can communicate in mutual and highly sophisticated ways. For all our knowledge and science, our ability to share ideas with highly intelligent animals like dolphins and gorillas is pretty rudimentary. Our relationships with domesticated animals can be strong and meaningful, but are inherently unequal and limited. I personally hold little hope, therefore, that we would be any better at communicating with intelligent extraterrestrial life, if we ever discover it. Such communication would require a pretty radical transformation on both sides that humans would find difficult.
Note, however, that species (similar to race and culture) is not a clearly defined thing. Species diverge from common ancestors over long periods of time due to social/physical isolation or other things that prevent interbreeding. However, significantly diverged groups can often intermix or reunite. Fairly distinct species of ancient hominids did coexist and interbreed with one another, according to most recent understandings. Modern humans are, in fact, the result of such interbreeding. Likewise, other cross-species breeding, from very subtle crossbreeding in plants to more dramatic things like ligers and zebroids, also exists. Indeed, it seems possible (however horrific we find the idea) that modern humans could still successfully crossbreed with other closely related species, perhaps even producing fertile offspring and blurring what we consider to be the clear line between humans and other animals.
All of which is to set up a larger point about different species in fantastical settings. It’s noteworthy actually that RPGs have traditionally chosen to refer to playable species as “races,” since RACE is a phenomenon that modern humans do have more direct experience with. And it seems clear that different fantastical species are often stand-ins for non-White peoples (also one of the reasons humans are often overwhelmingly depicted as White in RPG settings). However, interracial relationships and multiracial children are not very common in RPGs, but instead portrayed as exotic and unusual (half-elves) or monstrous (half-orks). Most likely this comes from common social resistance to racial diversity and interaction, not just in the West but elsewhere (how many parents in China are okay with their kid dating someone who is African or even Tibetan?), but such resistance has never been successful at fully preventing such interactions.
Consequently, when I write for the Planarch Codex, I assume that:
1. I don’t know how to portray equal and mutual relationships between humans and non-humans, even if they happened in the ancient past and are theoretically possible. Consequently, all relations have to be modeled on modern human-human or human-animal relations. This led me to the principle that “Everyone is people; all people are monsters,” blurring traditional divisions in fantastical settings.
2. All intelligent beings should be modeled primarily on real humans and their societies, because there’s no other viable model. Hence, they should all be able to intermix, communicate, love, war, have children together, etc. and their boundaries are complex, socially enforced things similar to race in modern/ancient human societies.
3. These choices are especially critical in an urban game, since the interaction of diverse peoples in dense cities is crucial, I think, to creating that feel.
Anyway, those are my thoughts this morning.
FAIR WARNING: I will shut down any racist bullshit in the comments without mercy. There’s way too much of that in roleplaying already. Criticizing my own limited understanding of racial dynamics (or species stuff) is fine, though. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, though let’s try to avoid having a conversation where a bunch of White folks assert their deep understandings of race. Be cognizant of your own limitations and I’ll try to be cognizant of mine!