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FAQ – Normative encoding in stats and tags


Yes, I think this is my most attractive FAQ title since “Quantification heuristics”. Hurray.

This short essay was inspired by a question about listing languages in character stats.

One classic example is a Japanese character listed as having the Language (Japanese) Advantage. Wouldn’t it be more logical to list Language (English), since Japanese is their native language ?

Let’s think about it.

Size matters

Okay, simple example. I’m playing a huge guy. Say, André the Giant’s character in The Princess Bride. His stats include APs of Growth, since he’s huge.

Or I’m playing a small character with Shrinking, like Puck (Eugene Judd) or the Power Pack children.

But if I’m playing Bruce Wayne, he doesn’t have 0 APs of Shrinking or 0 APs Growth. Bruce Wayne is the norm. He’s what superheroes are assumed to be like. So he doesn’t receive notation.

The less my character’s size is like Bruce Wayne’s, the more likely it is for their character sheet to have notation. Because they’re not the norm. Such characters are comparatively rare.

This is similar to what’s discussed in our “character creation paradigm” notes.

Normative simplification

Thus, profiles tend to note what is out-of-norm. We don’t note for every character from a humanoid and binoculate species that they have two eyes and/or two legs. We do note when it’s not the case.

The listing of languages thus follows the same logic. The historical norm in American comic books stories is that everybody speaks English. Speaking more languages, or not speaking English, is out-of-norm. And thus encoded in the stats.

Everybody from Bgztl has the Dispersal Power. But we keep listing Dispersal in our stats for Bgztlians. Even though our readers from Bgztl make fun of me about it. Because the norm is Earth Humans and not Bgztl Humans.

I’m going to note that Gravedigger (Ulysses Hazard) runs into severe issues with racism and prejudice. Especially since that forms his origin sequence. But there’s no note that Bruce Wayne doesn’t.

And so on, and so forth.

Impact on tags

In the same vein, our tags for where the story is from do not cover the US or the UK. It’s assumed that the bulk of English-language genre fiction comes from there.

(That would have been different before the British Invasion  , but it’s now been 30+ years.)

Stating that a given comic book super-hero is American would be something of a “dog bites man” story. What gets tagged is “man bites dog” situations.

Ditto for not having a “White European-ish ethnicities” tag. The tags are here to find the needle, not the haystack.

Is it epistemologically  flawless ? Ah ah ah, *no*. Rather :

  • It’s economical. What everyone would correctly assume gets elidedOmitted, not clearly mentioned.. Which avoids a mass of valueless information.
  • It reflects the material.
  • The goal is to help readers find things. Not organise knowledge Dewey-style  .


Much of those norms exist because the type of stories we focus on arose during :

  1. The nerdsplosion of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Widespread pulp fiction, birth of the super-hero comics, golden age of American sci-fi novels…
  2. The nerdsplosion aftershock of the 1960s. Silver Age of comics, Marvel Age, rediscovery of Tolkien, etc.. And, by the late 1970s, Star Wars.

Now, obvs, the genre has been evolving. But there’s a lot of inertia. Which means that the legacy from 1940-ish is still looming large.

This is especially true for writeups.org. We do not cover games, comics, etc. as they exist right now, but over several lifetimes. So a lot of it is from a time where the norm for the story’s protagonist was remarkably narrow.

Writeups.org writer avatar Sébastien Andrivet

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Helper(s): Ethan Roe.