So as we start down this road of building awareness for the use of black characters I thought it would be good to start with what it means to be a black character. Now in my opinion what it means to build a black character is going to be somewhat different based upon whether or not the game takes place in a fantasy setting, a modern setting or a sci fi setting. Each of these different genres of role play is going to have different needs and in many cases a different basis for the integration of black characters into the game.
I've thought about how best to approach this and I figure breaking it down by genre’s will give me the chance to explore the topic in greater detail, starting with games set in the modern era. For the purpose of this article I’m going to be drawing from the World of Darkness. I know there are other modern games, such as Spycraft (and the Spycraft supplement Shadowforce Archer: African Alliance) but overall I think World of Darkness is going to be one of the more common experiences people have with a modern setting.
Now White Wolf does feature a fair number of minorities, so this isn't a statement to say that the game doesn't do its part for diversity in the industry. However at times the black characters don’t so much feel like black characters so much as a skin tone was added more as an afterthought.
What I feel is missing from the way black characters are created and used in games such as the World of Darkness is how the structure and the institutions of the mortal world impact them as a supernatural character. In sociology we have a concept called structural racism, in which the nature of the rules that create a bias against minorities. It’s not an active form of discrimination so much as a passive remnant from a time when minorities weren't extended the same rights.
When you’re looking at a character like Dante and Theo Bell you have to wonder (at least from where I sit) how does this affect them? Does being more than mortal automatically make them above the inherent limitations placed upon them by the system? Sure it’s a mundane detail, but it’s a detail that makes the character more than just a set of stats that happen to be colored black.
|Theo Bell - Brujah - Vampire the Masquerade|
And it isn't anything that needs to be outwardly stated. Theo Bell doesn't need a line or two about how he handles the mortal world charging him extra because of the color of his skin. But the fact that those kind of things happen is something influences how a character like Theo Bell looks and approaches the world.
I’m not looking for overt racism here. Or even covert racism. What I’m suggesting though is a deeper understanding for the characters of color in regards to how the mortal world (at least in the United States) is set up to disadvantage minorities. You may be wondering why this outlook would be important in an rpg. It’s a valid question.
Such a perspective turns black characters into something more than just a different skin tone for an NPC. It provides people (let’s be honest the hobby is still overwhelmingly white) who don’t face those challenges a means to see them. Most importantly it gives black players something deeper to identify with. And when we have something deeper to identify with we are more inclined to pick up some dice and join you at the table.