Monday, October 19, 2020

A Mantra: Cavefolk and Caravels

 This is a mantra in the sense of being something to meditate on.

In this modern and enlightened age, many of us in roleplaying games attempt to be deliberate to do right, or at least do less harm, in how we play. To many of us, that means doing things like changing what we call races, not giving certain races species less intelligence, and being sort of cagey about the idea of expanding into unclaimed wilderness as though no one had been there before you. This is not necessarily because to do otherwise is necessarily monstrous, but because anyone who plays a roleplaying game will be doing so in a certain cultural context that might bring up unfortunate or uncomfortable associations.

All of this makes sense. As a rule, people want to avoid topics in games that make them uncomfortable in real life, even if they don't preclude other topics that might be worse in-universe. All of that (and all of the other background I won't get into here) makes sense to me.

What I would like to do is briefly outline a setting that goes against the letter of what is starting to become a standard for games that are kind and comfortable for the players, but that might not provoke discomfort in and of itself. My intent is not to run a game in this setting or to secure permission from my peers to do so, but to meditate on how to run kind games, and to understand how other people think about it.

Gilles Tosello

It is a place like Earth, 50,000 years ago. Humans are slowly applying their creativity and society to mastering their lives. People called neanderthal have had contact with the people we know as normal humans, sometimes friendly and sometimes otherwise. Advanced technology, salvaged and replicated from a crashed spaceship/spelljammer/whatever, has allowed the world to become more connected, with trade caravans and sea routes. The players take on the role of standard humans and/or neanderthals travelling to a new and uninhabited continent, seeking to make a new life in a place no person has gone before.

Points of potential discomfort:
- Neanderthals would have some kind of penalty to intelligence (not confusing this with making them less person-like)
- literally, separate races species of humans
- settling an (actually, for real) uninhabited continent

My guess is that these might not provoke discomfort in as many people, simply because it exists in a natural premise tweaked towards fantasy. There really was a time when multiple intelligent kinds of people roamed the Earth, and it's pretty possible that one was "smarter" (in whatever way we mean that) than the other. Of course, there was a time when much of the Earth was untouched by human hands. To those who proscribe (or are at least skeptical of) these often-awkward points in games, do you think that this hypothetical setting sets off warning bells? What goes into such considerations for you?


  1. I think given popular stereotypes about people in the past, I would want to emphasize that stone age people in general were plenty smart, and are simply working with a much more dangerous and uncertain world using fewer resources (including inherited knowledge). Something a little like Simon Roy's "Tiger Lung" comics.

    From what I've read (in a very casual way) I don't think I would give Neanderthals a penalty to their intelligence stat. There's enough doubt on the subject that it wouldn't feel slam-dunk accurate, and I find the "intelligence" theory of Neanderthal extinction less interesting than some of the others, like the idea that homo sapiens assimilated Neanderthals through interbreeding. They did after all produce tools, performed funeral rites, probably could make fire, probably had reasonably sophisticated ways of communicating, and made at least some art.

    Instead, I think I would give Neanderthal characters language penalties (the ability to learn languages seems like it should be emphasized as a powerful skill in a stone age game. Languages would probably be intensely local, with no "common tongue"), and give groups of Neanderthal NPCs some organizational disadvantages - smaller group sizes and/or no social network outside of the immediate extended family group. So for example if you attack a group of homo sapiens and retreat, on the following season they'll be a lot more of them around looking to get you. If you attack a group of Neanderthals and retreat, next season that specific group will be warier, or maybe they've moved, but they won't have been able to draw on additional allies.

    If symbolic art were a mechanic in some way (which it probably should be) then I think I would apply a penalty there, and you might cut neanderthals out of some useful technologies, like the ability to use dogs or certain magical/religious practices. Essentially Neanderthals as smart, capable people with less institutional organization.

    Children of mixed Neanderthal-homo sapien couplings would probably be infertile, which isn't really a gameable penalty unless you're playing Neolithic Pendragon (which... maybe there's something there?).

  2. I've got no real issues with the idea of intelligence penalties in a game with separate species. If I wanted to create a PC species of, say, childish cherub-esque fairies, ageless and mirthful and silly, then an intelligence penalty is absolutely appropriate imo. The issue is with the presentation of the Orc specifically, the racist history of "the brutish savage" that placing an intelligence penalty on the species evokes. In fact, the whole concept of the Orc itself may be totally unsalvageable-- I'm fairly inclined to think so, honestly. I'd certainly never put them in any game or setting I designed, but the shit I make leans too gonzo anyway lol.

    as for the unexplored setting thing, again, the uncomfortable associations (for me at least) are mostly intertwined with the horrors of capitalism. cavepeople in scavenged mechsuits aren't gonna ravage the new environment on an industrial scale, turning forest into farmland and et cetera et cetera. Fantasy-setting people very well might-- sure it really depends on the setting, of course, but most fantasy settings aren't nearly alien enough to be alien to the exploitative nature of capitalism. i.e. Tekumel is probably good and alien enough but the Forgotten Realms often seems to outright assume capitalist structures.

    So long story short, no, I wouldn't really be bothered by it. Neanderthals don't have the racist baggage that D&D's monstrous "races" do, and are thus fair enough game imo for intelligence penalties. and preagricultural cavepeople fucking around with rayguns are probably safe from us imposing TOO MUCH of our capitalist value system on them.

  3. *very* interesting premise

    I'm also not sure about the Neanderthals having less intelligence. Unlike more primitive hominids, their brain size was the same as ours, although with less developed cerebral cortex. So they were "differently intelligent". Perhaps the dwarven traditional stat mods (bonus to con, penalty to cha) would work?

    Anyway, if you want to keep the int penalty you can, but you could also get rid o it.