Revisiting Wesnoth unit descriptions

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Revisiting Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by UnwiseOwl » May 6th, 2018, 11:29 pm

Noticed a review on the Wesnoth Steam page that I thought had come good points with respect to the way that some of the text in Wesnoth can come off as being 'pro' certain races and 'anti' others. The review is below, and I hope that we can ignore the tone and see if there's some good points here that we want to tackle by re-writing some of the in-game description text to be more balanced.

Original review can be found here: https://steamcommunity.com/id/trar/recommended/599390/
No, the worst part of Wesnoth is the writing. It's largely a ripoff of Tolkien, and while it means the majority of the campaigns are derivative pap, it's not a grave sin by itself. The blatant elf fetishism - even elf supremacy - and utter disdain for orcs in the flavor text for the human, elf, and orc factions is another story.

To see what I mean, here's the description for the human Lieutenant, a versatile level 2 unit that boosts lower-level units around them:
Lieutenants are some of the more respected commanding officers among humans and are often seen leading smaller-scale incursions and managing the battlefield. Trained both with sword and crossbow, they excel at neither, and are somewhat less resilient than the warlords of other races — this is more than made up for by their superior knowledge and training in military strategy.
And here's the description for the Elvish Captain, a level 2 unit that is almost the exact same as the human Lieutenant:
Elves, unlike many other races, will quickly acknowledge and follow any of their peers who have experience in combat. In this they differ greatly from humanity, for whom leadership is often a matter of coercion and intimidation. The combination of their willingness to accept the wisdom of their leaders, and the tendency to choose leaders of merit is one of the quiet strengths of the elves.
The only appreciable difference between these two is that the elf Captain has slightly more melee attacks that each do less damage. With that in mind, the description's a bit much, no? The human Master Bowman, a level 3 unit that represents the peak of their faction's ranged capability, is more or less summed up[units.wesnoth.org] as "Yeah they're not total noobs with their sword. And they're almost as pro as an elf. Almost. Totes jelly."

And to compare, here's the level 1 Elvish Archer, their version of the bog standard ranged unit. Emphasis mine:
Elves have always had a reputation for archery, a skill that, for many reasons, comes naturally to them. Even the frail of body can be deadly with a bow in hand, and in times of war, many will take up this weapon. Though their relative inexperience with combat leaves them somewhat vulnerable, their natural grace ensures that they can best any of humanity’s fresh recruits.
But what about the orcs? The description for the level 3 Orcish Slurbow is more about the unit's weapon than the unit itself[units.wesnoth.org]. You know, a level 3 unit who is doubtlessly a skilled veteran of many battles. Also, no description in the Orcish Archer line at all mentions their incendiary arrows. No other faction makes use of them, and they are very handy if you happen to be playing as the orcs.

The description for the Orcish Sovereign, a level 3 unit and one of the few orc units that has the Leadership skill, advocates killing them off[units.wesnoth.org], lest they become equal to the humans, let alone the elves! Wolf Riders on the other hand are a goblin cavalry unit, goblins being a subset of orc in Wesnoth lore. These are some of the most vicious cavalry in the game, and if you happen to promote any, they're downright scary no matter what upgrade you choose. How does the game describe them[units.wesnoth.org]? "Hahaha LOL, look at the stupid goblin riding that wolf like an idiot, how funny!"

Here's the worst one, though. The Goblin Spearman is a level 0 unit, and level 0 units are meant to represent untrained militia and rabble like that. Every faction has a few of them, but how do the goblin spearmen fare? Again, emphasis mine:
In any litter of orcs, several are born much smaller and weaker than the rest. These runts are called ‘Goblins’ and are looked down on by the rest of their kin. In battle, these are given the most meager of equipment, and are used as a soak-off force to give the Warlords time to prepare the real assault.
Some speculate that the existence of these creatures is the beginning of a failure of the orcish bloodline, though no one knows enough of their history to state anything conclusive.

Eugenics. Nice.
I think there's some good points here. Unit descriptions probably shouldn't give comparisons to other races, except possibly to talk about things that are reflected in gameplay, and the descriptions of the elves often read like the elves are indeed the best and most wonderful creatures in the whole world, which isn't the vibe that we're going for in this universe, where the elves are just as flawed as the rest of the races. It would be good to try and avoid this without having to change too many strings too badly, but when I'm re-writing I can't help myself, so I'll try to include more complete revisions while I'm at it.

Feedback, comments and contributions very welcome.

Lieutenant:

Mini proposal:
Lieutenants are some of the more respected commanding officers among humans and are often seen leading smaller-scale incursions and managing the battlefield. Trained both with sword and crossbow, they excel at neither, and are somewhat less resilient than the warlords of other races — but this is more than made up for by their superior knowledge and training in military strategy.
Revision:
Lieutenants are respected commanding officers, often seen leading smaller-scale incursions and overseeing sectors of larger battlefields. Though they are armed both with sword and crossbow, their real strength is their superior knowledge and training in military strategy, the tide of many a battle has been turned by the competent leadership of an alert Lieutenant in the right place at the right time.
Elvish Captain

Mini proposal:
Elves, unlike many other races, will quickly acknowledge and follow any of their peers who have experience in combat. In this they differ greatly from humanity, for whom leadership is often a matter of coercion and intimidation. The combination of their willingness to accept the wisdom of their leaders, and the tendency to choose leaders of merit is one of the quiet strengths of the elves.
Revision:
Elves are quick to acknowledge the abilities of those who have experience in combat, and often rally around those individuals who have shown an aptitude for command. The quiet strength of the Elvish Captains lies not in their own considerable skills in battle, but in effectively utilising and augmenting the skills of their compatriots.
Master Bowman

Mini proposal:
Master bowmen have reached the zenith of their art, inasmuch as any human is capable. Armed with both a sword, and a great yew bow, these warriors crown battalions of archers with their presence, bringing down many a foe with their well-aimed shots. Their skill with the sword is also not to be discounted; they are easily as good with it as any novice swordsman. Of the many races in the world, only If the elves surpass humanity in archery, and their human counterparts have speculated, perhaps in envy, that this is only by dint of age.
Revision:
Master bowmen have reached the zenith of their art. Their proficiency with the sword is not to be discounted; but it is their ability to swiftly bring down many a fierce foe with their great yew bows that crowns these warriors as the very elite amongst battalions of archers. If the sharpshooters of the elves can be said to surpass these master bowmen in archery, this is only by dint of the experience of age.
Elvish archer.

Mini proposal:
Elves have always had a reputation for archery, a skill that, for many reasons, comes naturally to them. Even the frail of body can be deadly with a bow in hand, and in times of war, many will take up this weapon. Though their relative inexperience with combat leaves them somewhat vulnerable, their natural grace ensures that they can best any of humanity’s fresh recruits dexterity ensures their enemies will be sent ducking for cover.
Revision:
Elves have always had a reputation for archery, a skill that comes naturally to them due to their keenness of eye and graceful dexterity, and since even the frail of body can be deadly with a bow in hand, many elves find this weapon a natural fit in times of war. Though the lack of armour and inexperience of the largely untrained archer leaves them somewhat vulnerable, their swift movement and dexterity with a bow ensures that their enemies will be sent ducking for cover from their arrows.
Last edited by UnwiseOwl on May 9th, 2018, 1:32 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by doofus-01 » May 7th, 2018, 12:26 am

For what it's worth, I always thought those descriptions came from the HttT campaign, clearly from the "rebels" point of view. I never liked the orc/goblin description, but it made sense if you imagined an elf or a toady of Delfador as having written it.

Maybe the different campaigns can have different unit descriptions? That's extra work, but in this case at least, the biased descriptions are already written.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Edwylm » May 7th, 2018, 12:31 am

Well from what I understand the unit descriptions are more in depth information/lore. You could possibly edit them out and such.
No, the worst part of Wesnoth is the writing. It's largely a ripoff of Tolkien, and while it means the majority of the campaigns are derivative pap, it's not a grave sin by itself. The blatant elf fetishism - even elf supremacy - and utter disdain for orcs in the flavor text for the human, elf, and orc factions is another story.
First off many High Fantasy stories/realms are based off of Tolkien's writings, examples Dwarves, elves, and orcs from D&D are based off of Tolkien's. Also there is even racism in Middle Earth.

As with comparing unit's descriptions with my regards it isn't something bad as to me it just gives more background on the entire race. But comparing units attack with each other... well it comes down to balance so its hard to work around that.

As with Goblins getting the short straw. Well it happens in real life with sending your weakest/average units taking the brunt of a enemy force so it tires your enemy so your elite units can deal more damage on your opponent.
Though this is just my opinion and my insight into High fantasy genre and historical context.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Pentarctagon » May 7th, 2018, 12:45 am

doofus-01 wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 12:26 am
Maybe the different campaigns can have different unit descriptions? That's extra work, but in this case at least, the biased descriptions are already written.
Would that include renaming the Rebels to just Elves or Sylvans or something like that, and leaving them as Rebels it HttT?
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by UnwiseOwl » May 7th, 2018, 12:55 am

For what it's worth, I always thought those descriptions came from the HttT campaign, clearly from the "rebels" point of view. I never liked the orc/goblin description, but it made sense if you imagined an elf or a toady of Delfador as having written it.
Although you're right that could work as justification, I don't think that was the intention when written, I think it's more likely that some of these descriptions are just leftovers from the Wesnoth's generic high-fantasy past, and that in a world where we have SoTBE and LoW we could do with generic descriptions with more nuance. The trick is doing this without messing with some of the rich lore of the game, which is a bit tricky when it comes to the orcs in particular.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by doofus-01 » May 7th, 2018, 1:39 am

Pentarctagon wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 12:45 am
doofus-01 wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 12:26 am
Maybe the different campaigns can have different unit descriptions? That's extra work, but in this case at least, the biased descriptions are already written.
Would that include renaming the Rebels to just Elves or Sylvans or something like that, and leaving them as Rebels it HttT?
Renaming a faction might cause all sorts of headaches in MP, I'm not sure it's worth whatever depth we'd be giving to it. Or maybe it is, I have no idea. I only had in mind the fluff you could see in the help menu, like unit and race descriptions.
UnwiseOwl wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 12:55 am
The trick is doing this without messing with some of the rich lore of the game, which is a bit tricky when it comes to the orcs in particular.
But isn't part of the criticism here that the lore isn't all that rich? There's rich lore if you are deeply familiar with all the campaigns (and UMC that try to be in the same universe), but just based on what a casual player can find by clicking around, it's not that great. Isn't that what you're trying to change? In some ways, the gaps in lore are what make story-driven UMC possible. Biased, alternative descriptions could allow for conflicting information, nothing would be shut off for future authors, and you don't have to worry about tricky revisions.

I'm not saying you shouldn't try to clean up the current descriptions, but maybe keeping the base descriptions minimal, to what some Isars Cross player might appreciate, would be good enough. More in-depth stuff can be added where appropriate.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Pentarctagon » May 7th, 2018, 2:22 am

doofus-01 wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 1:39 am
Renaming a faction might cause all sorts of headaches in MP, I'm not sure it's worth whatever depth we'd be giving to it. Or maybe it is, I have no idea. I only had in mind the fluff you could see in the help menu, like unit and race descriptions.
I don't think it would, actually, at least if they were just changed to "Elves". Their race is already "elves" in the unit type, the unit names are already "Elvish <name>", their unit type definitions and portraits and sprites are already in "elves"/"elves-wood" folders. The MP faction name seems like one of the only places where they're called the Rebels, actually.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by zookeeper » May 7th, 2018, 7:44 am

Toning down for example the praise for elves as a race in their unit descriptions seems like a good idea, but I don't see why comparisons to other races should be avoided as such. If a race/unit is particularly good at something, then you can more efficiently communicate that by including a clear point of reference, and something like "Unlike most other races, [...]" works pretty well for that.

When writing racially-neutral descriptions treating all races equally nicely, there is always the real risk of the descriptions ending up more bland and less engaging due to them including less comparisons and points of reference. That doesn't necessarily have to be the case, of course; while I think UnwiseOwl's mini proposals don't improve things as they basically only remove comparisons, the revisions look at least as good as the originals, even though I wouldn't mind still seeing some comparisons whenever they're particularly justified.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by UnwiseOwl » May 7th, 2018, 8:28 am

Pentarctagon wrote:
May 7th, 2018, 2:22 am
I don't think it would, actually, at least if they were just changed to "Elves". Their race is already "elves" in the unit type, the unit names are already "Elvish <name>", their unit type definitions and portraits and sprites are already in "elves"/"elves-wood" folders. The MP faction name seems like one of the only places where they're called the Rebels, actually.
The argument I normally see trotted out for this is that there's merfolk and mages in the faction as well, so it's not just elves in the same way that the Knalgans aren't just dwarves and the Northerners aren't just Orcs.

Zookeeper: Very good points that I generally agree with, but I'm pretty sure that there should be ways to draw comparisons without pooping all over other races. Do let me know the points in my revisions where I've lost some of that punch.
Last edited by UnwiseOwl on May 7th, 2018, 9:53 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Bitron » May 7th, 2018, 9:42 am

Personally, I think flaws are what makes things seem lifelike and plausible.
Assumed that elves feel like they are the best and they think of themselves better as of orcs, then elves are conceited and, yeah, maybe even racists.
But this is not bad writing. It is what our elves makes flawed.

Writing just that, I got an idea.
What if we add authors to the unit descriptions in the help menu?

Elves, unlike many other races, will quickly acknowledge and follow any of their peers who have experience in combat. In this they differ greatly from humanity, for whom leadership is often a matter of coercion and intimidation. The combination of their willingness to accept the wisdom of their leaders, and the tendency to choose leaders of merit is one of the quiet strengths of the elves.

- Prince Konrad, 515 YW


He was living with the elves. They protected him in his childhood, raised him. I would not wonder if he somewhat adores them.
This way we can add more depth to some characters by letting them have opinions to some units/races/what ever and there is an explanation for some worshipping or disapproval in the unit descriptions. Not because that's a fact, but because that very person thinks that way.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by skeptical_troll » May 7th, 2018, 11:38 am

I think that comparisons and cross-references to other races in descriptions must remain. They are great for putting the different pieces of Wesnoth's world together and to make it feel consistent. The fact that elves are unmatched in archery is true in the game, so why remove it? And the crucial difference between lieutenant and Elvish Marshal (which that guy probably didn't realize) is that the latter is an advancement of common elvish fighters, which has no parallel in other races, so that sentence makes sense. However, it's true that the way elves and orcs are represented is kind of flat (as is in Tolkien), even more so in campaigns. Enriching the orcs' characterization in their descriptions would certainly be a good starts, beside toning down elves glorification.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Celtic_Minstrel » May 8th, 2018, 4:09 am

I read that review, and I do think it has a point, especially with regards to the orc descriptions that it brought up. I'm not against unit descriptions referencing other units or races, though I think the specific references the review called out aren't worth keeping.

Reading the proposed revisions, they all seem fine to me. (At least one of them still has a comparison to other races, too.) I do think the orc descriptions are more in need of revisions than the elf ones, but I'm fine with putting these proposed revisions in the game.

And speaking of the faction name, I think "Sylvans" is a pretty good name, so I'd be okay with renaming it to that (only in 1.15 though). This is a bit of a tangent, but... I think most of the faction names are fine, only Rebels and Loyalist could really use a new name (for Loyalists, probably a title-drop with "Wesnoth" in it somehow).
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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by BTIsaac » May 8th, 2018, 5:31 am

While i personally don't see the issue here, i do agree that any line starting with "it is said" or "some speculate" need to be axed - just plain bad writing. That line in the goblin's description is pretty much pointless.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Bitron » May 8th, 2018, 9:09 am

Celtic_Minstrel wrote:
May 8th, 2018, 4:09 am
And speaking of the faction name, I think "Sylvans" is a pretty good name, so I'd be okay with renaming it to that (only in 1.15 though).
I'm not exactly with the idea to rename the Rebels to Sylvans. IMO, Sylvans are creatures of the woods. Elves however do live in the woods, but they are not creatures of the woods. The only units in the Rebels faction that would deserve this title are the Wose and maybe the the Shaman line as they are half faeries, but that's it.

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Re: Removing racism from Wesnoth unit descriptions

Post by Sapient » May 8th, 2018, 9:24 am

Racism in a fantasy setting is just the tip of the iceberg! There is also killing, death, and murder in a fantasy setting. The campaigns should be revised to have the units sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya. Now let us have a moment of silence for all the innocent units who lost their lives.
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