By Oren Ashkenazi
Western culture has a bit of a fetish for explorers. We idolize them, from Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our roleplaying games focus on exploring new lands. PCs are always forging new paths through primal forest or being the first to set foot on an alien world. The problem is that, all too often, we have a completely incorrect idea of what exploration was like.
The vast majority of people we think of today as explorers were traveling through places where people already lived. They weren’t conquering untamed wilderness; they were asking for directions and buying supplies from the locals. The successful ones relied as much on diplomacy as navigation or survival.
Why does this matter? First of all, it’s pretty self-centered to say a place was discovered only when someone from our own culture got there. Far more importantly, the explorer myth pushes an idea of these new lands being effectively uninhabited. When natives are mentioned at all, they are documented more as part of the terrain than as actual residents. This is dehumanizing, and it justifies claiming a land’s resources for ourselves. After all, no one was really living there.
In roleplaying games, we’ve established an elaborate framework to justify the explorer myth. It’s amazing how the ‘evil’ races are used as obstacles to be overcome rather than neighbors that deserve respect. Orcs have a culture and society, yet no one bats an eye at intruding into their lands in search of treasure. We have the luxury of knowing that orcs can’t be reasoned with. They are inherently bad, so we don’t have to feel guilty about whatever we do to them. They are often referred to as a ‘savage’ race, inferior to civilization.
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