“Of many births
the Norms must be,
Nor only in race they are;
Some to gender, others
to nationality are imposed,
and Marx’s daughters some.”
The Poetic Eddy, the culturally insensitive skald
Norms are seemingly innocuous things. Aarts and Dijksterhuis (whose name may only exist in written form) call them “mental representations of appropriate behavior,” which sounds lovely, to say nothing of necessary. Imagine having no sense of what an acceptable interaction was in every encounter you have in a day. We’d all eventually devolve into two classes of people: shut-ins and Ricky Gervais.
But, as human beings, we really love our “too much of a good thing.” Norms become a problem when they move from unspoken or implied to presumed and socially enforced. Stereotypes and preconceptions create misunderstandings as our brains fill in things we don’t know with things we think we know. It’s a natural mental process, and the person who exists without the influence of societal norms is exceedingly rare (as in, I’ve never met one rare). The best most of us can do is to remain cognizant of the norms we’re applying and evaluate how much our prejudging might be creating a misunderstanding.
Norms exist in RPGs from multiple sources and at multiple levels. I’ll dive into the norms that surround players on another day (a day I feel like setting fires). Today, I want to talk about the norms that our games create, both via the mechanics of the game and via the narrative material we create for the world. Lots of folks use the terms “crunch” and “fluff” for these two components of a game, but I object slightly – “fluff” carries with it a connotation that it’s incidental to the game, which would only be true if it were a board game, or perhaps a miniatures wargame. For a roleplaying game, the narrative about the world is just as important as the rules for how one guy hits another.
The mechanical norms of a game can most clearly be spotted in the rules applied to races and genders during character creation. We have, to the delight of most people not living in the Neolithic era, gotten past the point where D&D and her clones imposed a strength penalty on females (though check out Pathfinder’s height and weight tables some time), but the concept of implicit physical differences still exists in that particular subset of games. One race saw its norms drastically changed between D&D 3.5 and the conversion to Pathfinder (4th edition went in a relatively new direction).
In D&D 3.5, the Half-Orc got a bonus to strength and a penalty to intelligence and charisma. Big, dumb, and coarse – this is how 3.5 wants you to build your half-orc. Is anyone else bothered by this? Orc culture is portrayed in most fantasy settings as a brutal place, but these numbers are for a creature who may not have been raised in that culture. Indeed, half-orcs are big, dumb, and coarse, regardless of their upbringing. There’s a decidedly eugenic bent to the way stats are applied and modified in D&D, with this being one of the most pointed examples.
With Pathfinder, half-orcs underwent a sea change, with their stat modifier becoming +2 to any stat, which is the same thing given to humans and half-elves. Suddenly, half-orcs are as versatile, if not as enthusiastic about learning and progressing, as any other race with some human blood (the precept of humans as the most “versatile” race is the bastard child of fantasy literature and game designers uninterested in making the non-human races as diverse as humans). At the same time, however, the change in half-orcs represented a change in some of the norms of the game, producing a backlash among a segment of the player population. How off-kilter do we have to be to complain that a made-up race that does not exist is somehow being untrue to its nature?
The norms visible in the half-orc are on display across the races. Dwarves are tougher and wiser than the average being, Elves more graceful and smarter, Halflings are as graceful as elves, not as smart, but more charming. Like I said before, these sorts of norms are only problematic when they become presumptions we impose. As a tool for informing what sort of characters they might be, the mechanical norms of the game can be quite helpful. A wise adviser might be a dwarf, while a charming villain might be a halfling (Not that Paizo ever uses the small races for anything after the party crosses 4th level, but that’s another rant and shall be spewed another time).
Narrative norms are another matter, as they are usually a fusion of fantasy tropes and decisions about the geography of the places where the races live. Elves live in forests and are, as a result, in touch with nature – like really uppity hippies. Dwarves live underground and are miners, beer drinkers, and grouchy, a.k.a. the Labour Party in the 70’s. Many of these elements come out of fantasy’s crotchety linguist godfather, J.R.R. Tolkien. One of the most interesting things the dystopian science fantasy game Shadowrun ever did was to remove, then reintroduce the fantasy races, as humans gave birth to them and some humans simply became them. The identity crisis and presumptions about their personalities became part of the story (The mechanics still created some norms, but some things are inescapable).
Like any piece of conventional wisdom, there are benefits to going along with norms and there are benefits to pushing against them. Norms can act as shorthand for filling out a character’s personality. As is helpfully pointed out by people who protest that they’re not racists everywhere, most norms don’t originate solely in the imagination (this gets stretched a little bit in RPGs, but come with me now). Also, playing to norms gives you an opportunity to explore those behaviors and customs, seeking to understand what leads to those behaviors. Why are elves such aloof prats? Well, possibly in part because everyone they’re hanging out with is going to be dead in less than 25% of their lifetime, and developing strong emotional ties is a bit like falling in love with a fruit fly.
Defining a character against the norm can also create a strong sense of character, but there’s a catch – your personality is negatively defined. Identifying with what you aren’t sets some boundaries, but is usually a stage of personal development (usually adolescence), not the end state (one hopes). Defining a character against mechanical norms is a bit trickier, as emphasizing stats that your character is penalized in, and deemphasizing stats with bonuses can create a character that doesn’t necessarily do all the in-game tasks you want it to with any sort of proficiency. That being said, it’s not impossible, and making the sickly dwarf gives you some immediate notions of what his or her life may have been like growing up.
Norms, like biases, are part of our psychological makeup. Pretending they don’t exist is unhelpful on a delusional level, sort of like anarcho-capitalism. Even as acknowledging our preconceptions in real life can help us navigate social interaction with a bit more panache, understanding and consciously using the norms in our RPGs will make for a richer roleplaying experience.