The Pros and Cons of 'Excuse Settings'


#1

An upcoming game got me thinking about the merits of RPG settings that are just “an excuse to do [blank].”

The game (Storm Riders) has the premise that aliens are invading in 1940’s, but also countries stopped doing awful stuff after WWI. So, all the imperialist powers peacefully released their colonies. Germany retains the non-fascist Weimar Republic. The USSR is a happy little anarcho-communist state. The USA is actively dismantling institutional racism. Also, everyone is a lot less queer-phobic

The designer (Erika Chappell) freely admits that the entire setting is an excuse to let you fly cool WWII-era planes without supporting an awful country. Personally, I’m not enough of a plane-nerd to truly appreciate the aircraft, but I do like being able to fight for a US that has no Jim Crow, Japanese Interment, or colonies.

However, I’ve heard some criticism about excuse settings. Some say that, by sanitizing history, the settings support the awful stuff that was removed. (Erika Chappell has herself struggled with that question.)

Most of the criticism that I’ve heard has been directed at books. I’d like to know what this forum thinks about RPGs with excuse settings. Are they ever acceptable and, if so, what is the right way to handle them?

What excuse settings have people liked or disliked and why?


#2

You have played a very different version of Storm Riders than the one I’ve played.


#3

I’m sorry. Is it possible that there are two RPGs with the same name?

Also, I have trouble reading tone in text. Have I offended you?


#4

Nope, not offended at all.

We published a game called Storm Riders last year, but it’s about 1980s action figure cartoons. That’s all I was referring to.


#5

I agree with the thought that in general, sanitizing history supports the evil that caused those events but I don’t believe that should be a sweeping rule for all fiction. Creating an alternate history, removing things, adding things and exploring the consequences from a conscious and responsible perspective is incredibly important in learning how things might be different and how we can be better in the future. I think intention is very important when approaching something like this and definitely disagree that all media that does this is harmful and shouldn’t be created.


#6

you may be thinking of the rpg Flying Circus?


#7

The designer (Erika Chappell) freely admits that the entire setting is an excuse to let you fly cool WWII-era planes without supporting an awful country.

I can’t quite see how playing a German WWII pilot in a make-believe game would equate to supporting German policies during that time period, so I find this move quite unnecessary, even silly. I think separating fact from fiction and having robust enough mentalization skills are some of the fundamental qualities that are required for successful, enjoyable play.

That’s not to say I can’t appreciate a good alternative history, and if the fiction is engrossing and fun, or the alternate take interesting and thought-provoking, I suppose the motivation doesn’t really matter. But I can also see that explaining away bits of history you don’t like can be quite distracting for someone who is looking for WWII immersion to support the experience of flying cool planes.


#8

On the contrary, I think there’s quite a bit of good reason to not want to play as literal nazis, no matter the game.

On the opposite end, Consider Night Witches, which has you playing a Soviet Airwomen flying biwings in WW2 fighting against the Nazis. This game is intentionally setup such that your countrymen and the Germans are both dangerous.

But, playing as German pilots during the Blitz? No, thank you. No matter how cool the planes are.


#9

Oh, for sure. Not finding a particular type of character fun or interesting to play is all the reason anyone needs. If playing a Luftwaffe pilot would detract from someone’s enjoyment of a game, then they probably shouldn’t play one regardless of any other factors.

I am merely pointing out that being open to playing, reading about or watching a fictitious character who belongs to a particular political group does not imply any kind of sympathy or support for the real-life goals or policies of the real-life version of that group. It’s possible to enjoy both The Iron Lady and The Motorcycle Diaries without approving of the policies of either Margaret Thatcher or Che Guevara.

I’m happy to play a character from any political system, party or group if I find them interesting, human and relevant to the fiction at hand, and I don’t take prescriptive moral stances towards the subject matter of the games I play. For these reasons, excuse settings as a concept offer me very little.

But to be clear, I’m glad that there is a game for the audience of players who are really into WWII air combat but find the political aspects of the setting off-putting. I don’t think it’s in any way harmful that such a game exists.


#10

It seems to me that there’s got to be a difference between so-called “excuse settings” and alternate histories that engage with history in an interesting manner. Now, I haven’t played or even read this game, but it seems to me that the question of “what would happen if WWI messed everyone up so bad that they started actively working toward a better world?” is a heck of interesting question. Does the game engage with that question, or does it purely use that premise so that you can, say, fly German aircraft without having to engage with the real-world history of the Luftwaffe and genocide and fascism? Is it possible that there’s some nuance and gray area between those two positions, and that it’s not useful to look at these as binaries?

I don’t know; I’m not sure I find the concept of an “excuse setting” in and of itself meaningful. I’d rather look at the work itself–whether an RPG or a book or film or whatever–to determine whether it’s engaging with real history in an interesting manner or if it’s purposely avoiding doing so in a way that could be harmful.


#11

Obviously there is a real spectrum here. That said I think it will always be the case that members or decendants of groups that have been oppressed will have a harder time “setting aside” the history. That means both the game and players have to work hard at handling it as a question, rather than just getting the problematic content under a rug somewhere. And even then, people might just not want to play it due to associations it stirs up.


#12

This sounds amazing! If the Treaty of Versailles, instead of forcing Germany to pay for the war did nation building. If the US realized our evils and ended apartheid. If Britain and other colonial powers shifted to nation building as well, creating a powerful India by the mid 1940s. If Chairman Mao, Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot, and others never rose to power, instead seeing anarcho-communism in those countries.

If we’d stopped burning oil. If instead of the Trinity test, we developed clean nuclear fission. If instead of the Moon Race as part of the cold war, we’d built a sustainable means to leave the Earth’s gravity.

But, I’m dreaming now.

If the USSR instead of devolving into


#13

I think 5 or 6 years ago I would have shrugged with a “whatever” over playing in an alternate history setting as an excuse to use cool Nazi war machines to fight aliens. Heck in 2013 I included time-lost “wolfen-soldat” (campy Nazi werewolves with submachine guns) as random encounter enemies on some of my ASE random encounters. Yet today even that - painting cartoon fascists as villains - feels a bit too flip. What with the global rise of neo-fascism and the political realities of the returning horrors of exterminationist nationalism, I don’t really think I can have Nazi stuff - even at a remove and with a historical fig leaf etc in my games.

This isn’t a “keep politics out of gaming stance” - it’s a sort of personal nausea at the present that I don’t want to feed. A diesel-punk post apocalypse/mega dungeon using the bombastic architectural bleakness of Speer’s never built monumental folly “Germania” as a setting might be a pretty cool (assuming one can find the maps and diagrams) - but I think my present is just too earnest for that kind of ironic detachment.


#14

Hi, Blake. That’s right. Flying Circus has an expansion/Kickstarter goal called ‘Storm Riders’. I wanted to keep the original post brief, so I left out some of the context. Sorry.

That’s a good point. I think Night Witches works because it’s a dark game that forces you to acknowledge the awfulness of the player’s own country.

But I think there’s also a place for lighter games. Like, in Storm Riders, you could play as an openly queer woman pilot fighting for an independent India in the 1940’s*. I think that’s cool. That’s not historically plausible, but it’s fun.

*Or you could play as someone fighting for a non-crappy 1940’s America. I know I mentioned that before, but that’s the biggest appeal for me personally. I can deal with playing bad people, but sometimes I just want to play as unambiguous good guys who aren’t doing a lot of awful stuff off-camera.

People have made good points about how ‘excuse setting’ isn’t a super useful term. Sorry about starting the thread with that.

Maybe it would be better to ask:
When should a game setting be a happier alternate timeline?
When should you use fantasy counterpart cultures (that have surface similarities to real world countries but have less baggage)?
When should you just not touch the idea (or at least think very hard and very carefully about how you handle things)?


#15

In my own experience I either completely abstract a setting (Terps, Durance) if the original historicity is going to be hard for people to engage with, or I leave it alone (Night Witches, Grey Ranks). Abstraction carries with it the responsibility of pointing people back to the source. And abstraction is fraught with dangers that an “excuse setting” just splashes around in, like erasure.

When I’ve tried to thread the needle and be very explicit about what the game was about and what it explicitly was not about, it hasn’t worked well.


#16

May favorite Excuse Settings are the Assassins Creed games.


#17

I’m really quite tired of people getting offended by something small so much that the whole world has to move, be sorry and delete something from existence because of it. I mean, there are lots of really important problems that deserve that effort from the world so much but just get ignored so hard that it hurts. But then again these things hurt so many people in their comfort that whole communities have to make them their focus.

Not to say that it isn’t a problem, but as it is, the best way to avoid it is never use real world names nor history unless you can responsibly deal with it by informing the readers/players about the subject. You want to play with cool planes? You need no excuse, just never say “these are piloted by german nazi”. Not to mean that this is the right way of doing things, just one that will save you the trouble of dealing with offended people.

Because really, if you want to be happy and play in an idealistic utopia, what makes you different and gives you less rights to do it than the people who want to live without ever seeing anything that offends them?


#18

This seems like a non sequitur. Like it is unrelated to the topic and discussion at hand. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t follow your reasoning.

Can you expand, maybe let us know what you’re thinking? How is your response related to the conversation at hand?

I’m a bit lost in your response!


#19

Just saying that excuse settings shouldn’t really be a problem. Since some offended people (whose by your comments doesn’t seem to specifically come from either jew, india or any other cultural/religious group who could express actual rightful offense at the material mentioned) insist excuse settings are a problem, not doing them seems to be the best solution.

You can ignore the rest, it comes from my personal perspective of being a 40yo peruvian with mixed quechua-spanish heritage.

If this still looks way to far from the op, perhaps I’m reading criticism as offense and delving too deep into it. It was the first thing that came into my mind. But then why make a thread about criticism? People being offended is a PR huge problem. People criticizing the material is good publicity.