A Culture of Options

By | February 23, 2013

As we prepare the next chapters of Infinite Earths, we have another column from Ray Watters.  This column focuses on the beta-test chapter released last week, Chapter 2: Race and Culture.  Next week we’ll be releasing Chapter 3: Attributes and Levels.  And now, without further ado:

Our first discussions about how to represent Races in Infinite Earths focused on options.  We didn’t want to limit Players to one narrow view of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes and other fantasy races that curtailed their own stories and imaginations.

For each person inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, there is another who comes to roleplaying from Marion Bradley, Raymond Feist, Mercedes Lackey, Dave Duncan, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George R.R. Martin.  Not to mention the many thousands of other creators who inspire our imaginations through books, movies, television, comics and other mediums.

So, as you might imagine, those initial lists of options were pretty extensive.  But after a number of discussions and early playtesting, we decided the range of options was too broad and confusing.  So the question became how to offer options in a more manageable manner.

The eventual result was Chapter 2: Race and Culture.  Each Race has a unique inborn ability gained at character creation.  For example, all Dwarves have Darkvision (allowing them to see without penalty in the dark).  There are seven Racial Abilities–one for each of the seven races that can mate and produce a child of the same species as its parents.

But what about those Players who want to play a child of mixed birth?  That’s simple enough: the Player of such a character can choose one of the two Racial Abilities of its parents as her Racial Ability.  If she wants both, the Player can elect to use one of her 1st level Talents to gain the other Racial Ability.

There are thirteen half-blood races, including some races that have been long-desired but rarely seen such as Hadwaive (half-human, half-dwarf), and some new ones such as the Orglin (half-gnome, half-orc).  Some of the names are new, but should be familiar to those steeped in fantasy lore.  Bugbears (half-dwarf, half-orc), Halflings (half-gnome, half-human) and Kobbolds (yes, two b’s) have been fantasy Races for decades now.  What’s more, bugbears and kobbolds have been much more likely to be adversaries rather than allies in most games.  The same can be said for orcs and goblins, as well.

The decision to allow such Races as choices for player characters was easy for one simple reason: Infinite Earths does not include any sort of alignment system, so the idea of one particular moral or ethical viewpoint defining an entire species is not present in the core rules.

Decisions like that tread into the realm of setting, which we try to keep to the minimum. We have to define the biology of the races or else every race would be the exact same in play. But that Racial Ability is all that differentiates the races in a mechanical sense. The lore and backgrounds and habits are different, of course. One setting might declare that orcs and humans don’t get along. But the impact of race on dice rolls and what options are available for players is negligible.

This means there is much less pressure to play a particular Race if you want to be, say, a good archer or a great sneak-thief. There might be some Racial Abilities that players like better, but not one that is obviously best.

The result is 20 core options for races – seven Full-Blood Races and 13 Half-Bloods. There are some species that cannot produce offspring together – the biology of the reptilian Goblins and Draconid is too different to produce a child with the mammalian races. The Elves, thanks to their innate magical nature, are the only race that can have offspring with any other race. But Guides and Players who want to change that already have a framework for the abilities of the new progeny.

The next question for Room 209 Gaming was how to show the difference between the elves of the woods and the elves of the magical places of the earth. What is the difference between the gnomes who live in the hills and those who command massive ships that chew the air itself high above the land below? The answer is Culture.

Rather come up with different races for underground dwarves and mountain dwarves and dwarves who like the cold and dwarves who like the desert, Infinite Earths offers different cultures that all are appended to any and all of the races.

Culture is a broad term that covers three basic factors that make up a society: the terrain shared by those in the society, the influence that society has with outsiders and the community that society forms with its own members.

All players come from a society that includes one option from each of these categories. Each option allows the player to choose a related talent. For example, someone who grew up in and around rivers and the water could choose Natural Swimmer, which allows a player to swim at her full Speed when unencumbered and at half Speed when encumbered.

The advantage of this system is that combining different Cultures with different Races makes very different societies without having to come up with new racial statistics for each one. We also believe it makes the Races feel more alive and less like a monoculture who all live in the same places and look the same way.

A Subterranean Isolationist Industrial Culture would describe the traditional depiction of dwarven society. A Wasteland Warlike Corrupt Culture would describe a people who live in a land with few natural resources that values military strength and has allowed criminal elements to take over its own government and communities. Appending these descriptions to two separate dwarven clans gives you two very different societies.

And while Culture might define how the entire group is perceived as a whole, none of these cultural aspects forces the players to adopt certain behaviors during play. The players receive on Cultural talent from these three options. Those from a Warlike culture can choose a talent to broaden the Combat Techniques available to them. But they could have learned by that fighting with their society, fighting against that society or just growing up in the gladiatorial ring.

The Races and Cultures are there to help flesh that story out and inspire the imagination. Those who don’t know what sort of Culture or Race they want to try can randomly roll to see if the results spark a new idea. That’s totally voluntary: a Player’s backstory and ideas for his character are his own. Which options will you choose to start your story?