Social Stigma in Roleplaying Games

A photo from the side of seven board game pawns, six in various shades of red together on one side, and one black by itself on the other side, alone due to its social stigmaI was introduced to GURPS (the Generic Universal Role Playing System, published by Steve Jackson Games) in 1991. I admired the flexibility and adaptability of the system, as well as its realism and the fact that it encouraged rounded, dynamic characters. It didn’t limit possible character traits to attributes and skills, but had mental, emotional, and social advantages and disadvantages. This allowed players to emulate a personality more fully than in games like Dungeons and Dragons. But there was one disadvantage that I have never given a character: Social Stigma. It provides an in-game mechanic for simulating a character that belongs to a group that is deemed by his or her society to be inferior. In looking back on it, I realise that I didn’t fully grasp the possibilities of this disadvantage. Now, I have learned much, and I would love the opportunity to play a character with this disadvantage.

Of course, for many people, tabletop RPGs are about vicarious mayhem. Their particular emotional kick is a power fantasy, in some form or another, be it about slaying one’s enemies, accumulating wealth and influence, demonstrating mental superiority, or some other form of potency. But for me, as with others, it’s not about the ego trip; it’s about the stories. So adding disadvantages that would make a character less of a butt-kicking name-taker is anathema to most players. However, I find that such characters are ripe for drama and interesting story conflict.

I remember reading an article some years ago (not in enough detail to find it again, unfortunately) about how the vast majority of characters in RPGS are loners. They have no significant friends, no family, no ties to prevent them from travelling and adventuring. The article discusses the fact that not only is this situation somewhat unrealistic, but it’s robbing the story of potential plot hooks. Sure, you may wonder, ‘How can a character go off slicing his way through swarms of monsters in treasure-laden dungeons when he has to worry about the wife and kids back home?’

To which my answer is: there are other forms of adventures to be had.

I remember one particularly memorable game I played in the original World of Darkness that involved several family members. My character, who began as a mortal but was embraced into the Toreador clan, spent a sizeable portion of the game looking for his missing sister. Another character had a wife, and in the course of the game, they had a daughter who became not only an important and valued NPC, but helped to drive the plot in many ways (it was as a result of the daughter falling into a sinkhole that my character became the vessel for a demon, just as one example).

I’ve seen other games in which players eschew the traditional lone-wolf archetype, and enabled some really interesting character dynamics, and (more importantly) some fascinating storylines. But of course, this is straying a little bit from the main topic: social stigma. So let’s get back to that point.

The point is, it’s the conflict that make any story worthwhile. Stories don’t have to be epic to be enjoyable. One of the best stories I’ve encountered was The Time Traveller’s Wife. I quite liked the film; it told a very moving story about the experiences of a woman who fell in love with a man who had a tendency to jump around in time. It wasn’t about the man with an amazing super power; it was about the people in his family, the people he loved.

Or, as teachers like to say when teaching elementary school students about the basics of narrative structure, ‘What’s the problem in this story?’ Any great story can be summarized as a conflict:

  • The Lord of the Rings is the conflict between Sauron, who wants to regain the One Ring, and Frodo, who has that Ring.
  • The Star Wars saga is the conflict between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force (depending on which episode you’re watching, or if you’re looking at the saga as a whole, this can vary between Luke vs Vader, Sith vs Jedi, Rebels vs Empire, or even Anakin vs himself)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has many different conflicts: Blomkvist vs Wennerström, Blomkvist vs the Vanger family, Lisbeth vs her legal guardian, Lisbeth vs society in general.

All of these stories are driven by the conflict. Some stories involved conflict with a situation rather than between characters. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, there is no antagonist as such; instead, the crew are struggling to remedy a situation that will lead to the destruction of Earth. But if there is no conflict, there is no story.

And it is often the weaknesses of the characters that allow for such interesting conflict. Spiderman’s concern for his friends and family drives many of his best stories. Wolverine is a fascinating and dynamic character because of his inner turmoil, being predisposed to violence but finding within himself the strength to overcome that tendency when appropriate. The character of Therkla, although she was only in a short story arc of The Order of the Stick, was one of the most interesting and enjoyable characters, specifically because of her divided loyalties.

Thus, if you’re looking for a good story with interesting characters, giving them juicy plot hooks like serious potential for conflict is a great way to find it. And a social stigma is an excellent form of conflict. Although when I first got into gaming, I was still very socially näive. There was much I didn’t understand about how interpersonal relations worked in our culture. At that time, GURPS was in its Third Edition, and the description for Social Stigma listed only four vague examples: Second Class Citizen (such as women in 19th century America), Valuable Property (such as women in 16th century Japan), Minority Group (no examples listed in the core rulebook), and Outsider, Outlaw, or Barbarian (such as a Goth in Imperial Rome).

It never would have occurred to me back then to take Social Stigma as a homosexual or transgender person.

In 2004, GURPS was updated to 4th Edition. The core rules contain a greatly expanded description of the Social Stigma disadvantage, which takes up nearly a full page. It no longer lists ‘Outsider, outlaw, or barbarian’ as an example, but in addition to the other three listed above, it now adds Criminal Record, Disowned, Excommunicated, Ignorant (lacking a skill that is expected of all responsible adults in a society), Minor, Monster (such as a vampire), Subjugated (belonging to a slave nation or race), and Uneducated.

Although this expanded description still doesn’t specifically mention modern ‘untouchables’ (though, thankfully, this is changing!) like transgender individuals, such individuals can be described with this disadvantage. Or, as an alternate setting, you could play a game set in the future where intolerance is itself seen as a social stigma! GURPS does have the Intolerance disadvantage, which covers only the mental limitations set upon characters so afflicted. That disadvantage does not inherently include negative reactions from other members of society. How interesting would it be to play in a near-future setting where homophobia or transphobia involved not only the Intolerance disadvantage, but the Social Stigma disadvantage as well?

Of course, homophobia and transphobia are merely two forms of social stigma that can be involved in games. Games set in modern America can also see the Social Stigma disadvantage applied to people of Middle Eastern or Hispanic descent. Which speaks to the sad current state of affairs in that country, but that’s a rant for another time…

This ties in again with what I was saying a while ago about how games can effect social change. Maybe, by playing characters with some sort of social stigma, we can help to normalize such people in the real world. Pie in the sky idealism? Maybe. But even if we don’t help to make the world a better place, at the very least, we can have a lot of fun by adding some great conflict to our stories.

I will leave you with that for now. So go forth, make some fascinating characters, tell some great stories, and most importantly…

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.