Guidance – Storytelling 101: The World Revolves Around Us

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about humanocentrism as it relates to fantasy worlds.

I haven’t quite figured out if today’s article is a hot topic or not. Its certainly something that I’m interested in, and I’ve seen the topic flare up quite a bit on Paizo’s product page for Inner Sea Races so I’m going to assume that it’s a topic that people are at least a little bit interested.

So, which topic am I referring to?

Why, the concept of humanocentrism, of course!

What is Humanocentrism?

As far as I can tell, the term “humanocentrism” and its general meaning were first used by post-Episode VI Star Wars. All of my Google-Fu seems to point to that, anyway, so if anyone knows something I don’t please be sure to leave a comment enlightening me of the truth. In Star Wars, “humanocentrism” refers to the franchise’s tendency to refer to characters and events from the human perspective. This idea applies both to the governmental bodies operating within the Star Wars universe (particularly the Empire), but also to the creative teams responsible for creating Star Wars. Rather then just define the concept and be done, however, I think the best thing that I can do is take a moment to try and show everyone what humanocentrism looks like in Star Wars.

Aliens are pretty well integrated into the Star Wars universe, right? I mean, we open in Episode IV with Luke Skywalker meeting a whole bunch of aliens right off the bat! Sand people, the aliens playing music in the saloon, Chewbacca, there are aliens everywhere! But think back to the story of Star Wars; how many of those aliens actually contribute to the storyline? Admiral Ackbar shouts, “It’s a trap!” once. Chewbacca does some cool stuff as Han Solo’s side kick. The ewoks exist to sell toys to children. All of this is true. But which alien actually contributes to Star War’s storyline in a meaningful way? Jaba the Hutt? Not likely; he’s really only there to explain what Bobba Fett did with Han Solo after the end of Episode V; he’s basically a “lite villain” that’s only in the story to be beaten up to make the heroes look cool before the real story resumes. While we’re at it, how many aliens are even IN the Empire, anyway? We see lots of aliens with weird, unusual body shapes, but all of the empire’s soldiers are human-shaped. All of the ones without masks are humans. Darth Vadar is mostly human. (Cyborgs count, right?) Senator Palpatine is human. So Star Wars takes place in this big, epic galaxy filled with crazy-cool aliens … but none of them are important not only to the story, but also within the context of the world itself. This is what humanocentrism looks like.

With my last example, its easy to say, “Well, Alex, you just called out one of the successful movie trilogies in the past century as being humanocentric. Doesn’t that mean humanocentrism is a good thing?” Well, its complicated. From a storytelling perspective, yes. Humanocentrism can be a good thing because its familiar. Unless the planet is secretly covered in alien life forms that I am thus far unaware of, everyone experiencing your story is human. This means that by emphasizing humanity’s role in your story, you make it easier for your audience to sympathize and connect to the characters in your story.

This can also be a double-sided blade, however, as one expects a non-human perspective in a world that has non-human creatures. As an example, I’m going to turn to Paizo, Inc’s Inner Sea World Guide. The Inner Sea World Guide includes a rough timeline of events that is divided into eras. Those eras are almost completely humanocentric. The first era is the Age of Creation, which is briefly listed as a tope of myths, legends, and deific wonder. It talks about the imprisonment of Rovagug in the center of Golarion and that’s about it. The second era is the Age of Serpents, which is briefly described as the time when the serpentfolk empires reigned. This two-sentence section is immediately ended with, “They became one of humanity’s greatest enemies.”

The end. Nothing else to say about an age that lasts untold millennia.

The third era is the Age of Legend, which is basically the rise of the Azlanti Empire. For those who aren’t aware, the Azlanti Empire was the first major human empire. Then the four era is the Age of Darkness, where said era collapses. Finally, after four sections of setting history, we get our first mention of a core race that isn’t human: “The elves depart Golarion via the Sovyrian Stone or retreat into the far north, the southern jungles, or the Darklands.” And that’s it. That’s all we hear. The timeline doesn’t mention when the elves first came to Golarion, it doesn’t mention how and where they founded Kyonin. Later, in Elves of Golarion, it is mentioned that the elves didn’t measure time in any significant, easy-to-track way, and that’s fine. As a matter of fact, that’s an awesome way of showing how elven psychology is different from human psychology. But the note that they arrived and set up shop could have been slipped into the Age of Creation or Age of Serpent’s description, rather than the only significant thing in the timeline being their departure.

Now again, is this a problem? On a case by case basis, yes. You see, we might not expect many orcs to know of their origins; after all, they crawled out from the Darklands while locked in an endless war with the dwarves during the Age of Darkness. That sort of ceaseless fighting is a pretty good reason for key bits of history to be lost; you can draw that same parallel to the real-world Dark Ages and the information that was lost when the Roman Empire collapsed. But taking in not just the real-world historical context, but also the in-world lore context, is important. Elves return to Golarion in 2632, meaning that they had “left” Golarion for roughly 8,000 years (7,925 to be precise). Now, according to the Advanced Race Guide, an elf can live to be a maximum of 750 years. Now, human generations are roughly 25 years long nowadays; they span from the birth of a parent to the birth of that parent’s child. So if we’re conservative and say that an elf has a baby as soon as it reaches the age of adulthood (which would be about 110 years), then we’re looking at roughly 70 generations here (as compared to 1,585 generations that would have passed for humanity, given that their minimum age of adulthood is 15 years). Again, rough estimates, but it overall decent. To better put it in perspective, 70 human generations (using the minimum age as an indicator) would be about 1,050 years. So are we super familiar with the stuff that happened 1,050 years ago? Not really, but we know what happened. Moreover, we know that our ancestors had some racial knowledge of what happened that long ago, too; Latin survived thousands of years beyond the fall of the Roman Empire.

Basically, what I’m getting at is that most of the knowledge that modern humans have of the Azlanti in Golarion should likely come from the elves; this could (and probably should) put elvenkin in a very important role in relation to humanity as a race of people who “Were there,” so to speak. They have a lot of the answers that humanity seeks, and the idea that humans have access to such long-lived accounts on many matters is a fascinating idea.

So why hasn’t anything been done with it yet?

Humanocentrism and Stereotypes

A common side effect of humanocentrism is stereotyping of non-human races. Sometimes, this is done intentionally, such as with Jabba the Hutt or Chewbacca. Both of these aliens have very humanocentric designs that are aimed at the viewer rather than the world. Howso? Well, Jabba the Hutt’s visual design was specifically chosen to elicit feelings of revulsion in the audience. He’s a one-off villain; the directors wanted a small-time bad guy for Luke and friends to beat-up to get the audience hooked and excited before Star Wars: Return of the Jedi started, and that meant very little time for character development. (Especially for a new character who was never mentioned in any of the previous films and whose ultimate fate was to die quickly.) So, how to you make people dislike a creature? Make it look like an obese slug, of course! And when future Star Wars products came to expand upon the hutt lore, they ultimately stuck with that initial response; they made the Hutts slimy crime lords because it was easier then trying to take Jabba’s design and try to twist it into a culture that was even remotely likeable. Similarly, Chewbacca’s design is befit for his role in the movie; he is Han Solo’s loyal companion, so he was clearly designed with canine facial qualities in mind to evoke the sort of, “man’s best friend,” vibe that we get from dogs. Although Wookie Culture became much more colorful than Hutt Culture in the Star Wars expanded universe, the basic concept of, “gentle until provoked,” very much harkens back to their intended design.

In both cases, huts and wookies were designed to invite a humanocentric stereotype. “But Alex! I know what a stereotype is, and stereotypes are bad, m’kay!” Well, they are and they aren’t. At its core, a stereotype is just a highly simplified presentation of something that is (or should be) far more complex. So the disgusting Hutt or friendly wookie is a stereotype that is based upon our human preconceptions. We see cute little dog-like noses and hairy, Yorkshire Terrier-like coats of fur and we think to ourselves, “Oh, I’ve seen those before and thought they were cute. This must be a guy that I’m supposed to feel affectionate towards.” And I’ll iterate again, if you’re trying to set up a world and don’t have the time (or inclination) to provide context to your readers, there’s nothing wrong with using nonverbal cues to convey emotions to your audience. But you risk falling into a dangerous type or leading other authors into that trap themselves: creating a stereotype.

This is where you get the Tolkien Dwarf or the Tolkien Elf from; although both of these races have interesting cultures that Tolkien poured his heart and soul into, he didn’t take the time to actually differentiate individuals of either race from one another. Basically, you have one member of race who is portrayed as the norm rather than an individual. In The Hobbit, all of the dwarves like to drink, sing, and have an intense love of gold and treasure, so obviously that is something that all dwarves are and do. And frankly, the dwarves as characters suffer for this. I honestly could not tell you what the differences are between any of the 12 dwarves in The Hobbit personality-wise. (This is something that the movies do a LOT better, for what its worth.) When humanocentrism allows non-humans to become stereotypes, you’re losing out heavily on the characters being stereotyped.

Improving Humanocentrism

So after saying all this, I’m sure most of you think that I hate Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or anything else that is humanocentric. Well, that’s not true. I don’t mind humanocentrism in stories because the human point of view is often the most relatable. We need that common ground in our stories, even if that common ground exists within the realm of reader expectation, or else the fantastic isn’t fantastic. What I don’t like is when humanocentrism is a design goal, rather than a story goal. When you get down to it, the two are very different.

Take, for example, the Pathfinder Tales novel, Crusader Road, by Michael Stackpole. Crusader Road is humanocentric; all of the Point of View characters are Ustalvian nobles who very clearly view half-elves as being aloof and somewhat forlorn, fey as being dangerous, and goblins and ogres as monsters. And that’s 100% fine for a story, because we’re seeing the world through the eyes of those characters, and those eyes include their biases. As we read about the characters of Crusader Road and come to understand their personal backgrounds and preferences, we can see those biases for what they are and either dismiss them or relate to them based upon our own backgrounds and preferences.

But the opposite happens when you embrace humanocentric design. Humanocentric design is where the entire world only exists from the human perspective. Humans do everything. Humans run everything. Humans ARE everything. This is the problem that Golarion currently has. Stories haven’t been written about what the other races have been doing while humanity has been growing empires and expanding; they don’t exist. This creates the pretense that non-humans don’t do anything meaningful in your setting, because frankly, unless you write it, they haven’t. Running away and coming back isn’t meaningful. In fighting and bickering isn’t meaningful either. In the real world, wars happen. Conflict occurs. Events so mind-blowingly bizarre and coincidental happen that they puzzle historians to date. In short, life happens, and in a world with humanocentric design life DOESN’T happen for non-human races, because the number one thing that you can do as a designer to fundamentally shatter a reader’s sense of disbelief is to claim that an entire civilization of people sat unchanged for almost 10,000 years. Regardless of culture, regardless of outlook, and regardless of biology, that’s absolutely impossible. No matter how slowly it happens, change visits everyone.

Before I end, I’d like to post a counter opinion to a post made by a Paizo designer on their forums. This post (and similar ones from the same thread) are what originally got me thinking more on the topic of humanicentrism  I’d like to address this one specifically; not because I’m  out to debate with the person who wrote it, but because I feel that these thoughts are likely indicative of many humanocentric designers in the Tabletop RPG sector. Here’s the post:

<Saying humans aren’t that interesting is sort of like saying our world and its history, its cultures, and the many ways humans have dealt with different environments, events, and other challenges isn’t interesting–and it kind of ignores what I think is one of the primary attractions of speculative fiction: to take the familiar and change a few factors and ask ourselves how things we take for granted might only look like inevitabilities because of one or two factors.

 For me, at least, the questions of what people who are basically like us would do in a world with magic, how a culture that openly has ties to Hell maintains itself and relates to the rest of the world, what a quasi-matriarchal desert empire would look like, what it would be like to live in a city that was filled with free universities (in which pretty much everyone continues to attend classes on and off for their entire lives), and so on are more interesting than another page on tengu.

 You can disagree, of course, but for better or for worse, Golarion is humanocentric because most of the creative staff finds those types of questions interesting (which is what happens when you hire a bunch of history buffs), and a lot of those sort of details never get thought through in a fantasy world if your focus is on what isn’t human, rather than on how humans react to what isn’t human.>

These are all excellent points, but humanocentric design (as opposed to humanocentric storytelling) misses out on one of the most crucial and meaty questions that could ever possibly be tackled by speculative fiction: how would humanity and human society interact with societies that are distinctly not human? This a question that, to date, real humans have NEVER had to answer, because as far as we know, there are no other intelligent societies out there that are at or above our level.

And the question of how humanity would react to societies with vastly different moralities then its own are absolutely fascinating. Take, for example, the elves that I mentioned earlier. Humans are typically Neutral in alignment, and their civilizations often follow suit. They live, they thrive, they grow, and ultimately they consume. This is the same series of absolutes that we see in real-word society and we see it in the societies of Golarion to boot. But ponder this: according to both the Inner Sea World Guide and Elves of Golarion, elves were around and had a real, functioning kingdom long before Earthfall happened. This means that for until centuries, elves likely existed alongside humans and watched them grow and develop into their own society. This idea that of a society that would allow a primitive people could be allowed to grow and prosper into something more is absolutely fascinating, because in the real, would, that has NEVER happened. In the real world, when humans encounter a more primitive society, they either enslave or destroy it. This is the basic story hook behind movies like Independence Day and The Day the Earth Stood Still, after all. But here, we have evidence of an advanced, alien species that encountered a more primitive species and rather than conquering or destroying it, simply let it be and let it develop into a more advanced society on its own, a society that ultimately came to become the most powerful society ever to exist (the Azlanti Empire).

These types of questions about how humanity would react to the distinctly inhumane are just as important, if not more important, than any story about humanity’s interactions with new tools or technology, because just as the inhuman needs the human in order to define it, the human needs the inhumane to make it truly fantastic. Because otherwise, your non-human races are just humans wearing pointy ears, beards, or fox make-up.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Alex.
    Another thing that seems to get lost in the design are the effects on the races growing up in the midst of humans. A dwarf that grows up in Absalom still has all the race-specific hatreds and anti-race specific fighting skills of a mountain/mine raised dwarf, and that is just forcing the characters into being stereotypes.

  2. Excellent post, and very interesting observations on the background of writers in how they tackle design issues.

    I find the point fascinating in part because the homebrew I’m most familiar with, and contribute toward, take an entirely opposite tact because of the original party make-up. Elves get more history, more exposure, and more detail. Human kingdoms fall into broad, historically analogous roles and positions, and then the questions become–as you pointed out–how does alien people really differ from humans, and why (historically speaking) are things the way they are?

    It’s more interesting to me, as a student of systems and anthropology as well as history, to backtrack into areas of physiology and politics from the starting point of the generic RAW. Why are elves frivolous and free (from a humanocentric view)? Why do orcs rage and are hard to kill? What are the cultural effects that follow from these points and how would other elements of their societies be structured if those are true?

    These lines of inquiry are as or more interesting (to me) than plopping down some humans and stirring the pot vigorously, which is how I perceive Golarion.

  3. David Slade Reply to David

    Great article. I know this is only tangentially related at best, but the EU of Star Wars actually does explain the lack of aliens within the empire, at least; the emporer was racist. He did not trust aliens, and as such, none were given positions of power where he could help it.

  4. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    Minor annoyances and nit picks: The Roman Empire didn’t technically fall until 1453, but if you’re talking about the last time a single emperor ruled from Rome, that would be Constantine in the early 3rd century (but he later moved the capital) and the last single rule of the Empire at all, was Constantine’s successor, Theodosius I.

    Jabba was mentioned in A New Hope in the talk between Han and Greedo, I believe. I know that Han, specifically, says, “Tell Jabba I’ve got the money.” While Jabba wasn’t established as a real character, merely in passing, he was, technically, mentioned.

    Otherwise, I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Humanocentrism can be a very interesting thing to explore in a campaign setting, but too much focus on it detracts from the setting. This is probably one of the few things I liked about the Forgotten Realms, major races and very distinct cultures, histories and personalities. Whenever humanity is off doing their own thing, you know that the elves, orcs, dwarves, gnomes, etc, are all off doing their own thing as well. Be it retreating (or returning) from Faerun, discovering/founding new (or old) dwarven cities, founding kingdoms or inventing gunpowder, they are all doing something else instead of waiting on humanity to do something instead.

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