Sunday, 18 June 2017

Faith RPG: let's talk about caste, baby

Yesterday was free RPG day across the length and breadth of our fair planet. Gamers congregated to play RPGs and hopefully pick up some free swag. Sadly, I didn't get into my local game store, The Dice Saloon, until after 2.30, by which time almost all of the free swag was gone. The leftovers are probably a good indicator of what is going to sell well, and sell badly in the coming year. The new Starfinder RPG from Paizo, I can safely predict, is not going to sell as well as they probably think it will.

Meantime, I booked myself into a session of Faith, an RPG I first took a look at closely at Dragonmeet in December, when I had a chance to talk to some of the designers. Faith is interesting because not only does it use cards as its core mechanic - it can be played using standard playing card decks if you so wish - but at first glance it looks like a board game.

Take a step back, however, and although Faith is presented as a board game, and packaged as such, it is really an RPG. You can play it with normal cards and some character sheets, and forego all the little counters, equipment cards, NPC cards and suchlike if you so wish. These latter enhance the feel and playability of the game, but are by no means necessary.

I may have been tired after an evening playing Cypher the day before, it was hot too, but I felt that the game was a little bit difficult to get to grips with. I think the core mechanic is relatively sound, and a novel change from just rolling dice. You won't be faced with the problems my Cypher party had, rolling very badly on Friday night (of which more in a future post).

My prime interest in playing Faith was because I sense there is an overlap somewhere between RPGs and board games. This has been partly prompted by playing games like Once Upon At Time. Faith promises some of this, but does not deliver entirely. It is really more of an RPG that is dressing itself up as a boardgame, quite cleverly it must be said, but as such, it should therefore be measured against other RPGs. There are some intriguing mechanics here, some of which I will use to experiment with in my Viscounts & Vagabonds project, but there is not enough in Faith that is new and exciting to warrant actually buying it and playing it, IMHO.

On with the caste bit

So what's all this about caste? The Faith universe has five major races, which conveniently is the default number of players in the Faith game plus one. These are the Corvo, the Iz'kal, the Raag, the Ravagers and the Humans. At Free RPG Day I was playing a Corvo called Ying, who are described as hyper-expansionist, technologically advanced and individualistic. I quite like the sound of them. I was the group's hacker. Hacking is always something of a difficult area for RPGs - it is hard to do well. We have come to accept the role of some kind of information net, be it local or universal, in advanced futuristic societies. Having someone who specialises in using this seems to have become a pressing need for multi-player RPGs since the launch of Shadowrun. Faith uses a similar information framework as Shadowrun's Matrix, but here there is a Bluetooth aspect to it all - you can hack someone else's weapon, particularly the more advanced ones with integrated targeting - actually during a firefight to reduce its effectiveness. No more plugging yourself into a data port.

All aliens must have two legs!

Ying was equipped with some form of helmet to facilitate his hacking activities and protect him from the attention of other hackers. He was not, however, given a weapon, leading him to have to make some evasive maneuvers in the course of each hostile encounter. However, he was aided by his natural affinity for zero-G (almost the entire adventure took place in a zero-G environment, which was novel) and his ability to blend his heat signature into that of the surrounding background. I think this was intended to make it difficult for him to be detected by infra-red scopes, but I pushed it a bit harder, making it an almost chameleon-like ability to go unnoticed during a firefight - useful if you don't have a weapon.

Humans in Faith are a fallen civilization that have been raised again by the Corvo, who use them as mercenaries and, dare I say it, cannon fodder. Humans leaving Earth are routinely sterilised. They are valued for their aggressive nature by the other alien races. We had a pet human as part of our team, who was equipped with a primitive firearm that actually fired metal projectiles, but at a crucial moment in the plot, this same weapon proved immune to ranged hacking from a boss encounter, so it had its uses.

The Corvo see humans as slightly better than slaves or livestock. During the adventure, while exploring a derelict Corvo freighter, we made contact with a human security guard called Ivan in the crew quarters via the ship's internal communications net. The Corvo crew had already abandoned ship when it became infested by hostile life forms. Ying was trying to interrogate Ivan about how many hostile intruders he had seen as he was our only eye-witness as to what befell the ship. The GM, being a GM, decided to be evasive about this, at which point Ying, being a Corvo, started talking to Ivan like he was six years old, and asked him whether he had seen more or less enemies than he had fingers. My fellow players were a bit taken aback by Corvo's attitude.

Later on, as we were thinking it was time to escape from the ship, we realised there were perhaps up to six additional human guards in hibernation in the ship's cryo-sleep facility. We had not investigated it yet. Our token leader, a female Ravager (?), felt we should go and retrieve them, at possible risk to our lives. Ying, on the other hand, felt differently, measuring the loss of three high caste aliens, and their ship, versus six humans, as an easy choice. Again, the other players were slightly shocked by Ying's behaviour. Needless to say, we proceeded to put our lives on the line to try to rescue the humans, encountered a very nasty life form that almost killed two of our team, and found it had already eaten/absorbed the frozen human stock anyway.

I'm only human after all...
Here we hit upon an interesting conundrum in RPGs. How do you play species that are not only physically very different from humans, but potentially should have radically different value systems that are an intrinsic part of their culture? I once played a Dragonborn/Dragonkin in 13th Age, who hailed from a primitive, swamp dwelling culture, that in the spirit of that game, I defined as routinely consuming the bodies of dead enemies and friends as a sign of respect. Not only was he forever lopping off parts from fallen enemies to eat later, but when the party's cleric was killed, he cut off and ate her hand. This was viewed with controversy.

Yet Ying and Sartheen the Dragonborn are part of the same issue - they are not evil beings, they are simply quite different from humans. As a society, we love to harp on about the importance of preserving indigenous cultures and praise the way of life of pre-cursors to our own civilization, while trying hard to ignore the less savoury elements. The North American Indians, or First Nations as we have to call them these days, are placed on a pedestal when we want to focus on the way they viewed the environment, because that is a convenient way for us to extol them, the noble savage who respected and worshipped the natural world around him. Less palatable aspects of that same culture - the routine approach to kidnapping and slavery, the internecine warfare, the infanticide - are usually swept under the carpet, creating a somewhat less objective picture.

Too often aliens in science fiction and RPGs are presented as humans in a different skin. Human values are considered superior to alien values by human writers/directors. Of course human values seem superior to a human audience, because we are humans ourselves, and our current 21st century value set is regarded as the highest level our ethics have achieved to date. Aliens, and especially the Corvo, would disagree I suspect.

Hence, when playing aliens and radically different non-humans in RPGs - and I'm not talking about dwarves, elves or hobbits here, as they are still very close to humans in many elements of their ethical and physiological make up - we should take the opportunity to take a step back and ask ourselves how to portray the truly non-human. A cold-blooded creature like the Dragonkin Sartheen, raised in a swamp-dwelling, tribal society which lays eggs and eats meat. Or Ying, who sees humans as little more than pet dogs, a utility to be called upon when violence is needed, but not worth much else?

Faith's setting includes this interesting aspect of different races interacting, but I suspect many players will let this pass them by, in the interests of playing the roles of creatures that, while they look different from humans on the surface, they would prefer look comfortably human on the inside.

1 comment:

  1. Sartheen is one of my favourite characters. I loved the eating of the dead bit; one simple behaviour that spoke volumes about how different the character and his culture was.

    It's a shame that game ended; I would have liked to have found out why Sartheen was the only red dragonkin.

    I believe Glorantha/RuneQuest makes some effort to show how alien the dragonewts and trolls are -- maybe that's where you get it from! -- and it's odd that such an approach hasn't been more prevalent in rpgs since then.