Race in Westeros, Part II

As so often happens when I write something longer, it changes shape along the way. Given some of the feedback (thoughtful feedback too, much appreciated), I have split off my comments on the casting and focused this piece on the MUSH. That said, the casting piece does depend a bit on the book facts presented in this piece.

Not surprisingly, the first post on this subject led to accusations of racism (and misogyny). The really fun ones even decided to go “OMG, she said purity. That’s what Hitler said too.” Never mind that I was talking about setting purity, not racial purity… However, given that the same group of people have also said that they thought Xaro Xhoan Daxos was supposed to be black in the books and didn’t realize that the Lyseni were uniformly described as blonde and blue-eyed, I don’t give a lot for their reading comprehension.

The main objection raised towards our policy regarding black characters in Westeros, basically boiled down to people not believeing that Westeros really is all that white. Surely there could be black nobles because people aren’t that concerned about race and would probably intermarry a fair bit with people from Essos and elsewhere. Right?

Well, lets see what Kevan has to say about Jeyne Westerling:

“A maid of sixteen years, named Jeyne,” said Ser Kevan. “Lord Gawen once suggested her to me for Willem or Martyn, but I had to refuse him. Gawen is a good man, but his wife is Sybell Spicer. He should never have wed her. The Westerlings always did have more honor than sense. Lady Sybell’s grandfather was a trader in saffron and pepper, almost as lowborn as that smuggler Stannis keeps. And the grandmother was some woman he’d brought back from the east. A frightening old crone, supposed to be a priestess. Maegi, they called her. No one could pronounce her real name. Half of Lannisport used to go to her for cures and love potions and the like.” He shrugged. “She’s long dead, to be sure. And Jeyne seemed a sweet child, I’ll grant you, though I only saw her once. But with such doubtful blood . . . “

Now, “doubtful blood” could mean the trader grand-father and the likely low-born grand-mother. It could also mean that any foreign blood is doubtful blood. Nobles concerned with long lineages and relative prestige between houses tend to be a pretty conservative bunch that view outsiders as rather suspect. Just as they clearly are very, very class-conscious. Blood matters. Blood will tell.

Also, look at the opinions of the Dornish and Joffrey’s Dornish jokes:

“Joffrey should have met the Dornishmen himself, he reflected as he sat waiting, but he would have mucked it up, no doubt. Of late the king had been repeating little jests about the Dornish that he’d picked up from Mace Tyrell’s men-at-arms. How many Dornishmen does it take to shoe a horse? Nine. One to do the shoeing, and eight to lift the horse up. Somehow Tyrion did not think Doran Martell would find that amusing.”

There are numerous stereotypical prejudices voiced against Dornish men and women by those north of the Red Mountains. The lying Dornishmen? The hot-tempered men and the wanton women? Those are racial/cultural stereotypes.

We know of two instances of Westerosi noblemen fathering children on women who are Summer Islanders or part Summer Islanders (and where the women aren’t whores): Sarella’s mother is one and then we know that the mixed-race courtesan Bellegre in Braavos claims descent from a Targaryen prince. Of course, we also have Chataya and Alayaya in King’s Landing, so a few mixed-race bastards in Westeros are entirely possible.

But legitimate, noble offspring between Westerosi nobles and Summer Islanders? Or people from Sothorys? Well, lets talk distance first. We don’t know exactly where the Summer Isles are, but there’s no note that I recall about them being raided by the Ironborn, so it suggests they are a fair distance out into open sea. Not a short hop away from Dorne. People in Westeros largely sail along the coasts, so frequent trips between Dorne and the Summer Isles…no, that’d be Summer Isle traders only. And most nobles don’t marry traders, especially foreign traders, because it gets your offspring looked down upon (see note about Jeyne Westerling). Yes, Jalabhar Xho is a prince and he is in King’s Landing, but he is an exile. He doesn’t want to be there.

The Basilisk Isles lie about 3000 miles away, roughly the same distance as between Dorne and the Wall. Not exactly likely to make for a lot of contact either. Not to mention its all ruins, tribes and not exactly any evidence for either merchants or any form of nobility.

One final point needs to be made. While I don’t believe I have ever said so myself, some claim that one argument being made against black people in Westeros is that the Seven Kingdoms are a realistic, medieval-inspired society and so black people don’t fit in. Such an argument would, of course, be based on an incorrect assumption about medieval Europe, namely that there were no (or very few) black people in Europe at the time. This is far from the truth. But even if the Seven Kingdoms are a lot like medieval Europe in some ways, their history is rather different. There have been major migrations into Westeros, but the only one known to have featured people with a darker skin tone is the Rhoynish migration. There was also no Roman empire in Westeros, which had colonies in Africa and brought in people from Africa as slaves, soldiers, etc. Furthermore, there’s definitely nothing that corresponds to early medieval slavery in Westeros, since as we all know slavery is illegal in the Seven Kingdoms.

Now, to bring it back specifically to the topic of why there are no black characters on Blood of Dragons and why it would be very hard to get one approved. Because this has a lot to do with other aspects of our game, such as the fact that we only allow nobles and that we expect a certain about of demonstrated experience to play certain types of roles.

1) We allow only nobles since nobles and merchants or nobles and smallfolk have very little reason to interact and with the limited playerbases that MUSHes have these days it would mean less roleplay for everyone. This excludes the possibility of playing a character such as Chataya or a Summer Isles trader stranded in King’s Landing. However, the “only nobles” rule was not made to specifically exclude that, it just excludes non-nobles in general.

2) While it is theoretically possible for a mixed-race bastard to end up acknowledged and part of a noble family tree, it would be highly unusual. Sarella is the only example of this we have and Oberyn is a very unusual individual. Highly unusual backgrounds are not approved for new players. They are a perk that is earned on the game by showing that you are able to handle that sort of role. For example, a player would have to understand that there’d likely be racism directed towards the character by other characters (please note, other characters, not other players). To give an example, we have had a few problems with players taking bastard characters and then getting upset when other characters treat them as bastards are often treated in the novels. Furthermore, in the specific instance of the player who brought this question up, they clearly wanted to play a black character, not a mixed-race character.

3) As with highly unusual backgrounds, foreign characters are not approved for new players. In fact, most foreign characters are not approved for anyone because we do not want to introduce characters from cultures that we have very little information about. We don’t want players to either have to play with minimal knowledge of their own character’s culture or to start making it up. This excludes the possibility of playing a Summer Isles noble such as Jalabar Xho until such a time that we learn enough about the Summer Isles.

We specifically created a game designed to be as faithful to the setting of the books as possible. This includes portraying a medieval-inspired society where characters are likely to be class conscious, misogynistic, religiously intolerant, homophobic and even racist because that is within the norm for their culture. Many games take the easy way out, letting smallfolk and nobles mingle as they wish, allow more or less equality between genders and actively disallow In Character racism. But if we did that, we wouldn’t really playing in Westeros any longer. We’d be playing the sanitized version of Westeros and we’d not be dealing with the challenges that the characters face in such a society. Westeros is not a nice place. I thought that was part of the appeal of the books, the fact that it doesn’t pull any punches or presents the Disney Middle Ages.

Yes, the books have Brienne and Arya. But there’s a huge difference between a book and a MUSH. Books have “hero” characters and lots and lots of minor characters. On a MUSH, everyone essentially plays a “hero” character, but that means they cannot be as “special” as the “hero” characters in a book. You’d have a MUSH full of Aryas, Briennes, Jaimes, Dany’s, etc. And then “special” wouldn’t be “special” any longer.

We do make provisions for experienced players to potentially play a Brienne or a Sarella or a Syrio. But we want to keep those concepts unique. No one plays a minor character, we consider all player characters to be above average, but we have quotas and strict requirements for concepts that are truly unusual.

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