Seven Ways to Make Your Campaign More Progressive

A few months ago, I wrote an article about some of the more problematic elements inherent to roleplaying games.* There was a lot of philosophy in that post, which is all well and good, but what about practical solutions? Most of us would like our games to be more inclusive and forward thinking, but how do we accomplish that?

1. Create a Diverse List of NPC Names

Show of hands, who’s ever been put on the spot to think of a name for Random-Farmer-A that the PCs are really interested in talking to for some reason? If that’s happened to you, then you already know the value of having a premade list of names ready. All you need to do now is add more variety.

You see, there’s a problem in genre fiction – roleplaying games included – where it’s just full of white people. Like, white people as far as the eye can see.* It goes way beyond author/GM intention because we often assume that any character is white until proven otherwise. Fantasy settings are the worst offenders because they’re so heavily based off medieval Europe, but it happens in just about every genre. So, what are we to do?

Since you probably don’t have time to describe the visual details of every NPC your players come across, giving some of them non-European names will go a long way. When you’re constructing your list of names, just add in some from other cultures. Random Farmer A could be Farida or Ping instead of Alice. The Captain of the Queen’s Guard could be Sushma or Kibwe instead of Frederick. Just pick names you can actually pronounce.

Naturally, there will be some concern about historical accuracy, even if the setting is full of magic and dragons. Fear not, for historical societies were often far more diverse than we’ve been led to believe. The Roman Empire, for example, was extremely cosmopolitan, with many subjects from Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe. When designing a fantasy world, there’s no reason not to make it a diverse one. It’ll be more interesting if nothing else. If you’re playing in a science fiction game, then even easier!

Mixing up your name list will make your setting more engaging. When different cultures mix, you get some spectacular results. At the very least it’ll be a change of pace for players who are used to an endless parade of vaguely English sounding monikers. Even better, there are a host of online lists to draw on!

2. Use a 50% Gender Ratio for Your NPCs

Just like the unspoken assumption of a character’s whiteness, our fiction all too often sets the gender default to male. Unless you specifically set out to make a woman character, they’ll end up a man. This isn’t because we’re all terrible misogynists; it’s just how we’ve been trained. Both prominent and background characters are often assumed male unless proven otherwise. How many teams of characters have we seen that pat themselves on the back for including one girl in their ranks?*

Fortunately, as a GM, you have the ability to fix this! Fight The Man and all that. Just remember that women are half of the population, and go from there. If your last NPC was male, make the next one female. It really is that simple. The old man in the bar handing out quests could just as easily be an old woman in the bar handing out quests. Maybe that feels like you’re including women “just to include them,” but that’s the entire point. The world shouldn’t default to masculine, and we have to be active in order to fix it.

Of course, this should be applied within reason. If a society in your setting doesn’t allow women to serve in the military, you don’t have to make every other soldier a girl in disguise.* At the same time, restrictive social rules don’t mean females will just go away. Even in the most repressive societies, women can be found doing all kinds of jobs. Saudi Arabia has an all-female game designer’s convention, just to throw out one example. Also, remember that work traditionally coded as feminine is just as important, if not more so. The PCs will need to be on the good side of whoever cooks their meals the same way they would for their armorer.

Most roleplaying settings tend to shy away from those kinds of social restrictions. They don’t want to tell half their potential player base that no, they can’t be a female dragon slaying knight because it would be unrealistic.

3. Encourage Three-Dimensional Player Characters

We’re all familiar with the trope of PCs as murder hobos: well armed vagabonds who travel outside of society looking for something to stab. Many of roleplaying’s most problematic elements come from this character paradigm. When a player sees their character as nothing but a sword skill, they’ll always find an excuse to use it. If you’ve ever had players who are too eager to engage in unsavory behavior, it’s likely they didn’t identify with their characters.

There are countless ways to encourage PCs with some depth. You could run a system like Fate or Mouse Guard that includes backstory and relationships as part of character generation. You could have your players fill out questionnaires about their characters. Even a few minutes of discussion about what they’d like to play will go a long way. Just remember that as the GM you have to do your part. Characters with depth must be nurtured. The diplomatic, poetry loving space captain won’t last long if all you do is give them hordes of little green men to fight. If your players present something interesting, seize on it to fuel your story.

If your players have characters they care about, then you won’t have to constantly remind them not to engage in antisocial behavior for no reason.* They’ll govern themselves because there’s no way Sir Miko Ayaka, Princess Regent, would sink so low. The campaign will also be far more fulfilling this way; your players will remember their PCs will for years afterward.

On the other hand, you might find that some of your players really want to play darker characters. That’s fine, so long as it’s a deliberate choice. Some of the best characters in genre fiction are firmly on the side of anti-hero or even flat out villains. Great stories can come out of exploring the less savory elements of human nature.

4. Provide Context for Conflicts

If your PCs are fighting an evil empire, what’s up with that empire? Why is it so evil? Stories thrive on conflict, but it’s all too easy to simplify things down until they lose all relevance. The solution is not less conflict, but better conflict.

Your story will be enhanced if the PCs understand why they are fighting. Take that evil empire, for example. Did it rise up at the behest of a charismatic dictator who blamed all of society’s problems on a disenfranchised minority? Maybe it started out as an egalitarian revolution of the people and slowly descended into the very oppression it sought to overthrow. Why do people still serve in its armies? Is it the only way to get food, or have they been indoctrinated through propaganda?

If two nations are at war, it’s rarely because one of them woke up one day and decided war would be fun. What resources are at stake? What wrongs – real and imagined – have been committed by both sides?

This doesn’t mean every conflict has to be morally gray. Sometimes there really is a clear aggressor and a clear victim, but it’s still important to understand the whys and hows. What looks to the dwarves like an unprovoked invasion could be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy on the elven side. If your players truly understand their enemy, they will derive far greater satisfaction in victory.

5. Don’t Present Monolithic Groups

At no point in history have all members of a large group thought and acted exactly the same. This is always true, no matter how unified a people might look from the outside. There will always be dissenters who resist. For a famous example, one need look no further than the number of Germans who tried to assassinate Hitler.

If the PCs find themselves in conflict with a band of dwarves, resist the temptation to make them all greedy and aggressive. That’s only the archetypal image of a dwarf, and how many United States citizens do you know that fit the archetypal image of an American? Some of the dwarves might only go along with their warmongering leader because it’s politically expedient. Others might actively meet in dark rooms to foment rebellion.

This doesn’t just combat broad generalizations, it provides new story potential as well. What would have been a straightforward (and somewhat dull) slugfest can now expand into some political maneuvering or cloak and dagger intrigue.

One really potent way to show the complex nature of an enemy is to have a PC be one of them. There are so many opportunities for drama here it’s hard to know where to start. Does your dwarven character feel guilt fighting against their kin? Play that up! If your PCs need a way into the dwarven capital, then it’s sure lucky that one among them has a sympathetic aunt in the Royal Guard. In short, you get to make your story more progressive and give a player more to do at the same time. Win-win!

On the flip side, this applies to benevolent groups as well. No matter how nice the trolls are, there will always be some who want to devour dwarf flesh because it tastes good.

6. Show Consequences

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s true in storytelling as well as physics. When the characters do something, it’s important to show the results. Too often in roleplaying games we get the idea that breaking into someone’s home, beating them up, and taking their stuff will have no repercussions. Not only is this unrealistic, but it makes for an unfulfilling story. If the universe is going to continue business as usual no matter what the PCs do, then why did they bother getting up in the morning?

Show the PCs that what they do matters. If they have to kill some Imperial guards in order to free an important political prisoner, you can be sure the Empire will plaster the faces of those dead soldiers across every screen in the galaxy. There will be sad speeches given by Imperial officials about how the guards had families waiting for them at home. It will all be very dramatic. This not only gives the PCs a chance to reflect on their actions but also provides more development for the villains.

This must be applied for the PC’s positive actions as well. If they help local farmers save the harvest, show the town prospering because they have enough food to eat. Without the PCs, those people would have gone hungry, or even died. The goal is not to paralyze the players with fear of what might happen next but to show them that they are part of a living world.

If your players understand that the setting reacts and changes just like the real world, they will act appropriately. They’ll stop seeing NPCs as just potential sources of loot and stop seeing themselves as merely a collection of stats. They’ll also be less likely to set something on fire just to watch it burn.

7. Find Progressive Inspiration

One reason roleplaying games can sometimes feel a bit behind the times is that so much of the inspiration for them comes from older works. Stories like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, while excellent, embrace a somewhat simplistic worldview. Then they are used as a template for much of modern genre storytelling, including roleplaying games.

Instead, think outside the box when looking for campaign inspiration. There’s so much out there that you will be spoiled for choice. If you’re looking to run a more optimistic game, then something like Star Trek will serve you well. For poking fun at established tropes, Discworld is what you want.

Don’t worry, there’s progressive media for darker stories as well. Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies* is a hyper realistic, incredibly violent fantasy story that has all the blood, guts, and fire you could ask for. It also explores the consequences of that violence and will help you do the same.

Battlestar Galactica* is well known for its political drama, but the Cylon Occupation arc at the end of season two goes even further. It shows what a violent insurgency looks like from the insurgents’ point of view, up to and including suicide bombers.

Countless more options are available, but the key is to branch out. Find something that inspires you to run a more inclusive and forward-looking campaign. The benefit to your game aside, it’s an excuse to read or watch some cool stories.

The savvy among you may have noticed a pattern to this advice; it’s all in the service of making a better game. That’s the secret: making your campaign more progressive isn’t a trade-off with quality; they are one and the same. By making our games more inclusive and leaving the more problematic tropes behind, we create an environment that’s much more fun to roleplay in. Us vs. Them stories don’t cut it anymore. Players want something more complex, and it’s our job as GMs to give it to them.

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  1. Johnny

    Great post!

    My main advice pertains to #1 – I’d be careful of three things in this regard.

    First, it’s a thin, thin line between The Adventures of White People in The Kingdom of Whitelandia, and cardboard cutout, paper-thin appropriated foreign cultures. Obviously, we want neither – so one should make a strong effort to do the research on any real-life cultures which they hope to base a fictional culture off of. I would even make the case that a poorly done non-white culture is worse than an all-white setting.

    Second, with multicultural environments, I think it’s important to provide some sort of reason for the multiculturalness. This can be a colonial context (quite doable with any “Empire” setting), or perhaps a history of refugee movements creating a heavily multi-ethnic society. Another option would be a mercantile society, such as many of the coastal kingdoms of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia from the 7th-19th centuries or so.

    Finally, be sure not to use too modern an idea of “ethnicity.” The reason that we tend to forget that many pre-modern societies (such as Rome) were “multi-ethnic” was largely because they had almost no sense of politically ethnic or racial identity that we would recognize today.

    I guess as a sort of post-script, I should say that nobody should let any of this deter them from trying. Building non-cookie-cutter settings is a deeply satisfying intellectual exercise. It cannot and should not be done easily.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Good thoughts, Johnny. I guess I’ve never been too worried about the cardboard cuttout problem because it always seemed unlikely to me that anyone who was interested enough in being progressive would make that mistake, but it’s certainly something we want to avoid.

      I just don’t want to discourage people from trying because they might get it wrong.

      • Krssven

        While prepping for my campaigns, I read a lot within the genre (and in general). For my Buffy campaign, I read horror. For my Fading Suns-inspired SF universe, I read new SF from the last few years. What I realised is that you can cheat with NPC names – while reading books, get a notebook and note down every name you come across. Within any given anthology you will get literally dozens and dozens of random names, all able to be used as NPC names. All you do, while prepping the game, is pick names from the list to be your major NPCs (or use names you may already have in mine). The rest of the list is for in-session; you will be asked time after time what the random person in the bar/at the stall/flying the ship is called. Flip your NPC list open, pick a male or female name, and write down what it is they do and where they are.

        What this also does is ensure the list is truly random – there will be a mix of male, female, Western, Eastern, African, Middle Eastern, Russian etc etc. It will also give you names that imply mixed ancestry.

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