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Steal Away Jordan

January 19, 2008

So I finally picked up a copy of Steal Away Jordan.

Wow. This game elegantly and perfectly breaks down the whole system of slavery, in such an elegant and honest manner.

Most games I could imagine, would spend about 200 pages trying to convey the issues and the history, and probably doing it from a white point of view. SAJ instead starts by talking about the slave experiences from kidnapping to arrival, to those born into slavery, and puts most of the focus into the system to deliver the issues of play.

The rules set up a simple and abstract way of talking about power: Worth. Each character is rated by their Worth, which is their social power, with white folks getting more, men getting more, and skilled, healthy, obedient folks getting more. Worth fluctuates during play, and obviously, it’s a loaded game in that regard.

Two things add a pretty big twist to play. First, the game makes a point of calling in alliances and other characters as help- they can loan half their Worth to any conflict you’re in. This sets up all kinds of room for seeking white allies, gatekeepers, allying with the oppressor and all kinds of various politics that have, and do play out. The second thing, is that you can choose to press your luck using the “Skull die”, which risks your character’s life for a second chance to win a conflict.

In itself, the Skull die really highlights a point of power inequality alone. Though slaves and slaveowners could both use the Skull die, the first issue is that slaveowners having way more worth are less likely to lose conflicts to begin with, and second, that if a slaver owner were to die in a conflict with a slave… what do you think the consequences would be?

The game is just loaded with really subtle mechanics that highlight the whole power imbalance without robbing play of value.

So what makes this not completely horribly depressing? The game focuses on your character’s personal Goals, which can include things as simple as seeing your wife on a distant plantation to full blown rebellion or escape. An interesting twist to this, is that the players decide and talk about these Goals, but the GM is kept in the dark about them, allowing for room for deception and trickery on the part of the players as well. SAJ is a deeply layered and well designed game.

From a political standpoint, this game is amazing. From a game design standpoint, it kicks the ass of every other role-playing game that has ever tried to do social politicking and alliances as the core of play.

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