Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Alternate Histories and Sensitivity

I was reminded recently of the controversy with Vampire: The Masquerade's fifth edition released last year, between the early drafts referencing Neo-Nazis when discussing Clan Brujah, or even bigger, the use of the Gay Purges in Chechnya as a plot point for Camarilla activity in the country.

This reminder was in the form of the recent reading I've been doing of Over The Edge, a role-playing game set in an alternate history where magic, psychic powers, and other weird phenomena exist, but aren't widely known. Like Vampire, the history of this world is long and that requires the reframing of certain events in ways that are likely to offend some. For Over The Edge, this passage stood out to me immediately:

In the meantime, the Pharaohs had arranged the discovery and colonization of the New World, seeing to it that religious misfits, debtors, and desperate adventurers came to populate the northern continent. The Pharaohs arranged the slaughter of the natives so as to have a land without history where they would have maximum power to experiment. (The scheme to mix New and Old World cultures in South America failed miserably.) &mdash Over The Edge (2nd Edition), Johnathan Tweet, 1997

I haven't fully read the 2019 Third Edition of Over the Edge, but a quick skim does suggest that the above hasn't really been retconned, but definitely doesn't get the attention it got in the Second Edition.

Now, OTE Second Edition was released in 1997, and the atrocities that it reframes were mostly centuries old (though obviously there are far more recent issues with the treatment on indigenous peoples in the Americas deep into the 20th Century with lesser evils continuing to this day), so perhaps this never generated so much attention because of where we were culturally, or due to the distance from the events being portrayed.

However, there are other historical events from Vampire that are widely reframed. The Spanish Inquisition is framed as a mass revolt of Humanity, using the power of the Church, against Vampires. All the various parts of the World of Darkness were part of World War II, though the text is quick to point out that those events were initiated from purely human causes, thus demonstrating some degree of sensitivity to too aggressively re-purposing historical atrocities within the context of the story.

Finally, I am reminded of the NBC TV Show Grimm, which revealed in the very first Season that Hitler himself was Wesen (a type of human with a animalistic nature that most humans are unable to perceive).

Screengrabs from NBC's Grimm of Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler in Human and
               monstrous Wesen forms.

By Season 5, Grimm goes so far as to literally describe Hitler as trying to create a world ruled by Wesen, something which paints a weird view of the world, particularly given it's also dabbling in a shadow government of "Royal Families" which regularly works in both the Human and Wesen world.

Grimm's decision here is particularly interesting, because the writers, both by not having a lot of time (due to TV narrative constraints), but also potentially due to not really wanting to, end up leaving large enough questions about the implications of some of these decisions. Why did Wesen Hitler target Jews? Who knows, it's never discussed. Trying to justify it would absolutely be risky. Not mentioning it at all, doesn't feel like a better answer.

These issues aren't unique to the stories set in our own world with a few things changed. All fiction, in order to be accessible to the reader and to have a sense of familiarity, needs to borrow from our shared culture, causing all fiction to be viewable through a historic lens.

Which is important. Fiction allows us to investigate the past, to develop empathy by examining other people's experiences and emotions through their stories. Role-playing takes that a step further by encouraging us to embody these characters, and games like Vampire or Monsterhearts, which force us as players to deal with the tension between monstrosity and humanity...can lead for some deeply compelling stories.

I suspect the fallout that the Vampire developers received came from a few sources. First, the atrocities published in the book were (and I think still are) ongoing. Second, Vampire has long drawn a larger proportion of Queer players than much of the hobby (particularly when considering how the hobby was when Vampire first published in 1991). These two factors likely simply led this to feel like a more direct attack on that community from a product well loved by much of the community. The fact that the story element seemed to suggest that Humans weren't behind this very real atrocity, particularly when the authors have emphatically insisted certain other atrocities weren't perpetrated primarily by the monstrous forces of the World of Darkness.

I understand White Wolf's decision to remove the references in the Camarilla book to the Chechen Anti-Gay Purges. It was the correct decision. Certainly in light of the backlash, but also because the inclusion of the detail was a mistake. Not only because it is so fresh, but because it did push an evil humanity was committing against itself onto the monsters of that world. Vampire may be a game about Monsters, but it's mostly a game about Humans struggling with the monster inside them. While for the Vampires that monster may be very real, some people's monsters are more figurative, and games like Vampire need to be careful to not imply that all human evil is derived from a supernatural source.

And I think, when it comes to alternate histories, that's the key thing. To never forget the awful things people do to each other, or excuse them away by implying that the people who do these things are something other than human.

They may be flawed. They may lack empathy. They may do monstrous things, but they are, at the end of the day, still Human.