Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Design Talk: Disguise Blessings and Conceptual Issues

Normally, I use Wednesday's blogging time to talk about some badass mythological ladies (and believe me, I will keep doing that!), but today, we wrapped up a lot of discussion we've been having lately about the Disguise Talent and its Blessings, so I figured I'd take a minute for a process update.

While we had previously been considering Disguise pretty much completed, we realized that it was having some conceptual problems that needed attention, so we took a break to return to it and address some concerns. These were the kinds of issues that you don't really think about when you're doing the big picture stuff, because you're mired in the swamp of a thousand mechanics and thinking about how you want the powers to be used, but then you get to playtesting, and oh boy.

There are several kinds of Blessings that Heroes can get through the Disguise Talent - among them, Heroes can get Blessings to help them perform spur-of-the-moment emergency disguise procedures, to impersonate other people, to hide their appearance and the appearance of others, and to shapeshift into different forms in an attempt to hide their own identity. Some of these are pretty straightforward; it's pretty easy to figure out how to help Heroes convincingly turn a trashbag into a cloak for a few seconds or convince people that this is really an FBI badge, no, honest. But others were a little complicated - specifically, the shapeshifting powers.

Originally, there were three types of shapeshifting Blessings: ones that caused you to transform into a random person, ones that allowed you to transform into a specific person you were impersonating, and ones that allowed you to transform into an invented person whose details you could specify. I won't go into all the details of their mechanics right now, but the random Blessings were intended to help Heroes who needed to quickly look different from themselves to avoid notice or escape trouble (for example, if being chased by law enforcement, they could quickly transform into someone who did not fit the suspect's description), the impersonation Blessings were meant to allow Heroes to perform shenanigans by posing as others (for example, they could pretend to be the boss of a company in order to sneak in and get access to classified materials), and the design Blessings were intended to give Heroes room to turn into people with specific characteristics as needed (for example, they could fit the general description of a member of an international entourage without being a specific person whose background could be investigated).

The problem with some of these Blessings was not that they didn't work to do what we wanted them to, but rather that they were creating some problematic concerns for players at the table and the game as a whole. Describing how a character changes is all well and good, but some of the Blessings, the random ones in particular, were lending themselves toward encouraging harmful racial stereotypes, and that was something we were definitely not okay with having in the game.

For example, we found that people often might end up using these Blessings to say things like, "Okay, I turn into a Chinese guy." This had a number of problems attached to it:

  • Describing a transformation as "I turn into a Chinese guy" is actually completely meaningless. There's a vast spectrum of different appearances among Chinese people, not to mention a very large number of ethnicities that are all Chinese and are not identical to one another. What this player is actually telling us is, "I turn into what I think a stereotypical Chinese guy looks like," which both doesn't actually tell the other players what they look like, and encourages everyone at the table to come up with their own racial stereotype. Not a good thing.
  • Any player (especially white players, which we are not kidding ourselves are not the majority of our potential audience) saying, "I turn into a Chinese guy" ends up in a weird area where they are in danger of performing harmful stereotypes of Chinese people in an attempt to appear "authentic", or roleplay the transformation effectively and convince those who are looking at them. There are definitely players who can pull off roleplaying a person of an ethnicity other than their own without being offensive or possibly alienating other players, but there are also players who can't, even with the best of intentions, and we don't want to put them in that position. (More importantly, we also don't want players to whom those stereotypes would be hurtful to be in the position of having to endure them.)
  • Having powers that allow players to say "I turn into a Chinese guy" in effect cause the idea of being Chinese - a real and complicated ethnicity with a long history and a complex relationship with the world - to be turned into a costume, which skirts uncomfortably into the territory of yellowface and other behavior that people use to perform stereotypes or present races other than their own as "other" or different from "normal" people. While none of the test players went down this road, there was still a real danger of players trying to "claim" identity with peoples whose experiences they did not share, and in the process browbeat characters (and potentially players!) who were actually of those ethnicities.
  • Players were experiencing some confusion, because these powers allowed them to physically shapeshift into other people, over being disguised as a person who might have different visual traits versus becoming a person who actually was of a different race. Obviously, using a magical power to suddenly look like the Chinese-American guy who lives down the hall from them did not make them also Chinese-American in any way, and we did not want a lot of confusing and uncomfortable conversation between players about their genetic structure or racial identity based on temporarily pretending to be someone they weren't.

Obviously, some of these are issues that have to be at least partially handled by players themselves being aware and not creating a hostile environment in their games. There comes a point where, as game designers, we have to accept that we can't actually stop people from being jerks, nor can we ensure that players don't make accidental missteps; players have to accept responsibility for their own actions, too. But, as responsible game designers, we can do our best to make sure that the Blessings we write don't actively lend themselves to being used poorly, and that we don't create a game that makes it likely for players to be disenfranchised.

Of course, Heroes still need powers that let them shapeshift into a myriad of different forms, which might include anywhere in the spectrum of human appearance and beyond, so we didn't make that impossible or anything. But we did decide, after discussion and attempts to finagle mechanics around to work properly, that the random transformation Blessings just weren't going to cut it, so we had to remove them and move toward working to create other Disguise Blessings that provide the kinds of mythic transformations Heroes of both ancient and modern stories often undergo, but with hopefully less room for misuse. Heroes can disguise themselves as whatever they want, but it was important to us to write powers that make it clear that they are donning a disguise, not becoming someone else, and that those disguises were used in appropriate ways to tell stories and encourage enjoyment, not cause distress or harm to players, even unintentionally.

So, yeah, that's what we've been doing all week: cleaning up our own mess. We apologize for the slight delay, but we hope it'll help the end product be a better and more fun game for everyone!

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