UPDATE: See the end of the post for a response to this article by F. Wesley Schneider himself!
I recently had the opportunity to speak with creators of the Pathfinder RPG at Paizo Publishing, James Jacobs (Creative Director) and F. Wesley Schneider (Editor-in-Chief). The subjects at hand were: the inclusion of the forced-sex origins of Half-Orcs in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and some of the art in the Pathfinder Advanced Races book. In a series of posts, I am splitting out the discussion from my e-mails with Jacobs and Schneider about the Half-Orcs, and then will share our discussion of the art. Some of the e-mails will be trimmed down for length.
In the e-mails, Jacobs and Schneider also discuss a lot of other things about the Pathfinder setting – feel free to comment on these, because picking apart the good and bad of the game is important. I’m hoping that these posts will open up even more discussion of what we expect from Paizo, what they are doing right, and what they need to do better – not just with these things, but with everything.
As a small disclaimer, I am a Pathfinder system fan and play regularly. Due to my objections to the Half-Orc background and some of the other material, I have rarely played in the standard Pathfinder setting. I have a positive leaning towards the Pathfinder creators because of their efforts to improve the content from what Dungeons & Dragons had, but in spite of this, I still don’t think they are perfect, so I hope that’s clear.
I’m also planning to interview Jacobs and Schneider at a later point, after feedback from our readers! They have offered to give us some of their time to address comments and concerns from the players.
Check out the conversation below the cut!
All emphasis is mine.
Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Schneider,
I am a big fan of the Pathfinder RPG. I have been playing roleplaying games since I was 15, and I have always been very interested in the races and rich history built into the races. However, of late, I’ve noticed some things that bother me. The first is in the Half-Orc racial description – there is (to me) a troubling part of this description that the majority of the Half-Orcs are the result of forced sex – or, to use the proper language, rape. I realize the Orcs are supposed to be monsters, and I get that people like to have a good way to show just how evil monsters are. However, I have a hard time understanding why a PC race would be given a background that basically says “you are the product of rape”, which, in real life, is a very painful and difficult emotional situation. Is this content necessary? Does it need to be included, as simply a base fact of the system and setting? I don’t know if anyone has addressed this in the past, but it is something that recently came to light for me, and I would like to know your thoughts on the issue.
I still really love the game and play it on a regular basis, but I like to make sure that creators know how the players feel about the content of their games. It would be really cool to see some changes in future books.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
Hi there, Brie!
Thanks for the feedback!
First, regarding half-orcs… the direction we took with them in their racial description is one we went back and forth over, and in the end we decided to go with the darker, grittier version. Golarion (and Pathfinder) often skews toward mature topics, and while we did tone down the language a bit for half-orcs, retaining their brutal and depressing origins was important to us. Certainly not ALL half-orcs are the product of orcs raping humans, but orcs ARE intended to be evil creatures in Pathfinder, and that’s one way to ensure that point comes across. Especially when there are other very popular game worlds where orcs are presented almost as the good guys. In the end, each and every player gets to choose how his player came to be, and in this case, having a half-orc PC whose parents were loving is a great way to set that character apart from the histories of most half-orcs.
Paizo Publishing, LLC
First off, thanks for the e-mail! It’s always great to get feedback and we try as best we can to remain transparent about our decisions with our readers. If you haven’t already, I’d totally suggest checking out the message boards a paizo.com where you can often find many of our thoughts and philosophies.
On to the topics you mentioned. The half-orc is an interesting race in that its appearance dates back to a player option in the 1978 Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. In the second edition of that game, the half-orc was removed, along with the names demons and devils in a push to omit controversial topics from the game. In third edition, the game on which the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is based, half-orcs returned, in my opinion to the strength of the game. Half-orcs, and to a lesser extent all half-breed races, have roots in taboo topics, and what might be cast in a romantic light with a human-elven dalliance takes on pointedly more grim prospects when it comes to a fundamentally evil and savage race like orcs.
So here’s our challenge. We could change the culture of orcs from their Tolkienian roots to a race capable of having healthy relationships with other races. We could add a loophole, by which a percentage of orcs are less savage and embrace healthy relationships with other races. We could omit the race, as they did in second edition. Or we could acknowledge that this race, that’s been part of the game for 35 years, most likely has its origins in violence and worse.
I think you can see that it’s a tricky decision.
Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to be able to tell stories about horrible, frightening, and controversial things. We wanted to have demons that drag innocents to dark places and flense their skin from their bones. We wanted to have unsettling folkloric creatures like halfbreed dhampires and popobawa. We wanted to have goblins under the bed kill a little kid’s puppy. We wanted all of these things, in part not to limit our storytelling, but most importantly so the evils we’d be challenging our heroes with could stretch to be as real as the evils we face in the everyday world. We wanted to acknowledge that our fantasy setting is not a whitewashed version of an ideal, it faces the same challenges, dangers, controversies, and evils that we can everyday. In some ways it’s better, in some ways it’s worse, but in Pathfinder, if a hero wants to fight for her cause with a +5 bastard sword, she can do that in a way that’s probably not acceptable in the real world.
Please don’t get the impression that we only wanted evil things in our game. We employ a diverse group of creatives of a range of genders, sexual preferences, ethnicities, ages, and interests – Paizo is not three white dudes in some dingy basement. So we also wanted to have a goddess about sexual freedom, a goddess about kicking evil’s ass, and a hermaphroditic nature deity. We wanted several of our iconics to be LGBT and a paladin in our world’s first town to be in a healthy gay relationship. We wanted our first NPC in a printed Pathfinder product to be a tough black woman. We wanted to see characters of African, Indian, Asian, and Caucasian ethnicities being heroic together. So in such ways, Pathfinder does stretch toward certain ideals.
So was it a decision to make half-orcs be the rape race? Yes and no. We’ve spend considerable space in the course of our works explaining how orcs often go out of their way to find breeding stock with the potential to yield more intelligent offspring, of which half-orcs are often the result and rise to places of power and influence in orc culture. Is this a terrible thing? Yes. But you’re right, orcs are monsters and as unrepentantly evil as the hordes you see in Return of the King. But the Pathfinder game is also about fantastic exceptions. Half-orcs who rise to be heroes despite their monstrous backgrounds are already exceptions. They’re already remarkable just for being half-orcs. With that in mind, there’s no reason a half-orc’s parentage couldn’t also be an exception, and if a player wants to have his parents be a redeemed orc paladin and her handsome husband, then by all means–sounds like an awesome backstory. But part of what makes such exceptions so special is that they do buck the norm–that they are exceptions.
Ultimately, despite many of us having strong personal reactions toward and opinions about elements of our campaign setting, we felt that it was important to include them, taking our setting from the PG status of many games to something closer to PG-13 or even a hard R. It’s our philosophy that facing such elements, including them in our game, and treating them with the gravitas such serious and often personal topics deserve is far preferable to pretending they don’t exist. This is a position that will lose us book sales and will turn off some customers. We know that, and ultimately that is each consumer’s decision. I certainly would not let my 10 year old nephew loose in a library of our works without context and guidance. But Pathfinder is also a game about choices. The game works just as well without halflings, rangers, and lizardfolk as it does with them. So if there’s any element a GM doesn’t want at her game table, the game is entirely hers to customize, and I believe the stronger for it.
Were we not drawing off a tradition of gaming going back three decades, were we creating Pathfinder as a fresh new game, we’d have to have a long discussion about including a race with origins like half-orcs. But, as an element intrinsic to modern fantasy and the system we adopted, we decided to include them along with their unsettling baggage and make them a vital part of our world rather than sidelining them. I totally understand that many will consider that an objectionable opinion, but I hope that there’s enough else of value in the Pathfinder RPG to keep such readers interested and engaged in playing and telling the stories they want to tell.
I know that all got REAL long winded, but since you took the time to ask I wanted to take the time to answer on both of these often touchy topics. Thanks a ton for all your interest Brie and again, if you’re not already posting on the paizo.com message boards, please do! Hope to see more from you on there!
F. Wesley Schneider
Mr. Schneider and Mr. Jacobs,
I really was glad to see your clear and detailed responses on these questions. I will say that I did not realize that Pathfinder was intended to be targeted towards such a mature audience. With that in mind, it does make a lot more sense and your reasoning for including it in the setting is sound. In the games I have played, we have always kind of house-ruled it out since it is a more delicate topic than some of our GMs and players are prepared to address, plus we often played outside of the setting with custom worlds, so it’s useful to see the origins of the choice to include it. It’s unlikely I’d feature it in one of my games, but knowing that it comes from a rich background and that you all have really thought through it’s involvement, instead of just carrying it over because that’s the way it was or without real consideration, makes me feel more comfortable seeing it in the text.
I do love that Pathfinder has included elements that in other systems are often ignored or purposefully left out (LGBT, female warriors, multiracial and ethnic variety even within humans) and that the art portrays that as well, so I really hope I didn’t come across as unappreciative. That is actually why my game group switched to Pathfinder from D&D originally.
We live to serve, and thanks for the opportunity to get some of our thoughts out there. Getting reads like this from player is ALWAYS a huge help to us and typically we go to the message boards for it, so we look forward to seeing you on there. I would totally suggest throwing some of your ideas on the general forums on there too to see ether what others think and how people who share your concerns have dealt with it (you don’t need to read everything, jut stuff you post in). We’ve got an AWESOME community with tons of great ideas, so you might find some genius ideas that are perfect for your game. Good talking to you Brie and thanks for playing!
F. Wesley Schneider
All in all, a good discussion, albeit a long one. The specific things I wanted to address here include the bolded items above.
First, the negatives:
…but orcs ARE intended to be evil creatures in Pathfinder, and that’s one way to ensure that point comes across.
Rape is a horrible thing. I get that. Things are evil, and demonstrating that evil nature is important. However, why is it that people leap to rape? Why is this the thing that we feel we need to include to demonstrate the evilness of something? I am personally tired of the “well we needed to show how evil something was, so it’s a raper!” It’s everywhere in fiction and in most media. It bothers me most because it is particularly in conflict with the way the modern world treats rape victims. Rape victims are often dismissed, shamed, blamed for what happened to them, and yet we see people who rape in fiction as this height of evil. It is a strange dissonance between the real world and the fictional worlds.
We could change the culture of orcs from their Tolkienian roots to a race capable of having healthy relationships with other races.
This part particularly bugs me. I realize that orcs in Tolkien’s writing are super evil, and intended to be seen as the worst of the evils, but I have yet to find any evidence that they, as a habit, raped people just for joshies. While there are notes in information about the orcs and Uruk-hai in Tolkien indicating that they did reproduce with humans at some point, and that there were orc women, I can find no indication that it was a standard habit for them to rape enough to create a race of half-orcs large enough to be a core race, as in Pathfinder. Where did the raping orcs idea come from? Did it originate at the same time as the Drow matriarchy slave-raping?
It’s our philosophy that facing such elements, including them in our game, and treating them with the gravitas such serious and often personal topics deserve is far preferable to pretending they don’t exist.
A common mistake for people arguing to include rape or sexual assault (or other traumatizing topics) in fiction is that not specifically noting it is pretending it doesn’t exist. In the real world, plenty of people don’t talk about rape, but it still exists, and some people do talk about it! This brings up another issue of assuming lack of initiative on the part of the gamers. It also implies some sort of cultural/social ignorance on the part of players, but yet also expects them to have the maturity and sense to handle sensitive topics like these in game successfully. Writing it into the text isn’t needed for these elements to exist, and including them, in my opinion, just encourages people to include them in game – and doesn’t give a lot of guidance on how to do it right.
So if there’s any element a GM doesn’t want at her game table, the game is entirely hers to customize, and I believe the stronger for it.
I get the point here. It’s great to be able to allow for creativity and people making games “their own”. But, I think game creators should strive to create games that people wouldn’t want to change. No game is perfect, but there are steps that creators can take that make games more accessible, like removing common, traditional elements that are overdone. I think players should be able to choose to add, not have to worry about what they have to take out.
I personally don’t like game settings that include these elements as canon in a fantasy atmosphere, and it’s not just because I get triggered by sexual assault and rape. It’s not just because I’d like to see a world where we aren’t making rape an essential story element. It’s because I am so bored with rape. It’s everywhere, pervasive, and I lose my escapism. Now, there are definitely games where I could understand addressing these topics, but I think that it requires a safe space, a specific atmosphere, and a lot of maturity to do so.
Now, the positives:
We employ a diverse group of creatives of a range of genders, sexual preferences, ethnicities, ages, and interests – Paizo is not three white dudes in some dingy basement. So we also wanted to have a goddess about sexual freedom, a goddess about kicking evil’s ass, and a hermaphroditic nature deity. We wanted several of our iconics to be LGBT and a paladin in our world’s first town to be in a healthy gay relationship. We wanted our first NPC in a printed Pathfinder product to be a tough black woman. We wanted to see characters of African, Indian, Asian, and Caucasian ethnicities being heroic together. So in such ways, Pathfinder does stretch toward certain ideals.
I have to say this: I give Paizo a lot of credit for not only taking a lot of time to e-mail me, discuss these topics with me, and be honest about the topic, but also because I do think they’re making some positive steps. I encourage people to offer their comments about the Golarion setting, including the references Schneider made regarding racial and gender diversity, and LGBT inclusion. I think they’ve made some major strides from D&D’s background, and with what I’ve seen of D&D 4th edition and D&D Next, they still are a doing a lot of good for a “big company”, for the fantasy tabletop genre.
Schneider and Jacobs also talked a bit about the time they spent considering the inclusion of the traditional orc and half-orc background, and I like to hear that they thought about this stuff – that they didn’t blindly include it. I would never accept a company claiming to try to be better and improve things if they didn’t take the time to evaluate the questionable content.
Please comment with your thoughts, and feel free to give your feedback on the Paizo creator’s comments.
F. Wesley Schneider e-mailed me this afternoon when I linked him to the article:
Nicely done! I just read through your article and I think it’s harsh where it deserves to be harsh and quite fair overall.
This is actually quite good timing as well, as this Thursday we’re posting a piece of fiction I wrote revealing the background on our iconic half-orc, the inquisitor Imrijka, a story that our discussion decidedly factored into. Her backstory is not one that includes the generally leapt to assumption for half-orc origins, it’s something more… mysterious. That’s not to be read as “hand waved” or “ignored,” as I have plans for this beyond even what’s made apparent in the story. It’s my hope that the origins of our iconic half-orc–the half-orc that we’ll be holding up as the exemplar of the entire race–helps color our readership’s perception of this race beyond the grimmer classic assumptions, but rather as something with far broader potential.
Check back at paizo.com on Thursday as I’m keenly interested in your opinion.
Thanks again for your time, consideration, and fairness on this topic. We really appreciate it.