Archive for the ‘Forsaken Conversations’ Category


Stop genocidal white supremacy

August 12, 2017
If you are a person who is not targeted by white supremacists, I’d like you to consider what you will do to stop them in your country.

Will you organize a voting block, starting with your most local politicians and then go larger? Will you demand police target these murderous gangs of terrrorists and not innocent people?

Can you send material support, in the form of money to an organization? Will you donate to someone’s legal or medical fund?

Can you change any policy where you work to make sure hatemongers cannot thrive? Will you see that the people who are already harming others are stopped and addressed by HR or management? Will you follow it through when those groups probably choose to ignore the problem?

Will you stop and watch police interactions with people of color and step in, to make sure they’re not being harmed? Will you do a counterprotest against racists?

There’s a lot of ways to help.

But if you will do nothing, please unfollow my blog and any other place you might know me.  It’ll be easier for you to not have me around now, rather than feel sad after they get to me and the people around me.

If you cannot be a decent human, you can, at least, be honest with yourself.


Exploiting NDNs, RPG version, part 2082

March 14, 2015

Danielle Miller at writes about Monte Cook’s The Strange:

Most recent offense by Monte Cook most notable for Dungeons and Dragons released a RPG called “The Strange” (way to dehumanize and otherize Indigenous Peoples with the title in itself). The game also included many culture inaccuracies that mold plains Natives with Pacific Northwest Tribes into one false culture. The game plays into various stereotypes, Natives dancing around a fire, medicine men and every other stereotype of noble savage projections one can think of.
When Natives reached out to Monte Cook for dialogue on the issue, they have responded by blocking anyone who questions their RPG.

I remember years ago. an indie rpg designer asked me “How to do a game on NDN culture that was respectful?” and I was like, “Why don’t you GO ASK THEM?”.  There was a whole lot of resistance to that idea.  It’s very telling when non-native folks want to make games (at a profit) where they get to “pretend to be NDN” but don’t actually want to interact with real living people.

In so many ways, I’m coming to the conclusion that “What if I get it wrong?” is really “How can I do this and never hear from POC about what I had to say about them?”

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


Cultural Appropriation: RPG Version

January 2, 2015

I’m watching a horrific thread over on on Cultural Appropriation, which is… basically 90% people arguing about strawman ideas back and forth.   The usual two arguments dominate the conversation: “Well you can only write about your own culture, that’s racist!” and “Well, no one can define a line therefore it’s a completely bunk idea” etc.

A Useful Question

Let’s start with this first question: does your media perpetuate stereotypes of a group?

That’s really the first, and biggest hurdle most games fail.  Those stereotypes might be obvious racist caricatures from 1800s racist propaganda, stereotypes which were used to justify genocide, current racist ideas still carried forth, exoticized projections based on stereotypes, or oversimplifications which effectively fall back into stereotypes. grossly misrepresenting cultures and beliefs in ways simple google searches could resolve,  or just a plain a mix of several of those problems.

When we talk about this first question, the issue isn’t even ownership, or who has the right to write/create about any given culture.

The issue is whether your game or media sits in a larger scale of racist media which exists over generations?   There’s a far, far difference between writing games or creating media that deals WITH racism, vs. media that promotes it, and that difference is primarily whether it critically addresses it, or gives tacit or outright approval about it.

Racist propaganda comes from people who absorbed racist propaganda

Now, it’s not like anyone sat down and said, “Man, I’m going to write a racist game! This will be great!” (well, there is the RAHOWA RPG, literally the white supremacist term for “Racial Holy War”… ).  People make racist shit because they don’t realize it’s racist much of the time. They actually think these stereotypes are “real enough” or “Cool” or good.  Sometimes they imagine this stuff is actually COMPLIMENTING the people it’s insulting – much like how football teams with racist slur names claim they’re “honoring” indigenous people

While in most situations one doesn’t ascribe malicious intent to ignorance, but the problem in this case is that when someone does something out of ignorance, and is told what they did was harmful, they stop.  When someone does something malicious, they go out of their way to defend it, excuse it, but most importantly, to KEEP DOING IT.

This issue of intent and action becomes more clear when you consider how much work goes into making any form of media, or a game.  It requires a lot of work to say, “I am going to make a product about X topic” and somehow never come across known issues which are well documented with writing going back at least to the 1960s if not further in many cases – in other words, at least 50 years of people pointing out the use of media in racist ways.

You don’t even have to take college classes for this information – google will take you far.  Basic research into this would even cover the issues of power differences and what historical factors are loaded into the imagery and depictions you’re using.

Another Useful Question

Given that in many of these cases, there’s either direct sources someone can talk to, or descendents of a given culture, a really interesting question comes up, “What is interesting about this culture or group of people that you want to make a game about, BUT you absolutely do not want to interact with the actual people in any way?”

See.  This is where we talk about this as appropriation.  It’s about having the power to define others because your own attachment to your projections and delusions takes precedent over actual harm (centuries of media warfare…) to actual people.

To be sure, most rpgs reach a few hundred people at most – a tiny drop in the bucket of media.  And most people playing?  Play with 3-8 people in their circles – again, tiny numbers.  It’s like if someone draws a nazi swastika in their notebook – ultimately it’s not affecting a lot of people, individually.

BUT, when you consider that whatever media you create is part of a larger whole, larger movement and message, the question of “Why would you even want to do this anyway?” and “Wow, even these small arenas of escapism can’t escape this shittiness” both come up.

The Root of It All

You’re not responsible for the fact a few centuries of racist stuff came out before, but you are responsible for joining into it.   The fact that you can put in hundreds of hours of labor into creating something towards harm and never bothered to do the minimal amount of research or consider it, reveals the priorities at hand.  And that’s why when people end up critiquing games for mirroring longstanding hate media, the creators usually go straight to talking about how hurt their feelings were or how much effort they put into the product.

These things do not actually constitute real defenses, but rather further self-incriminations: “It’s really more important you don’t say anything bad about what I did, even if it’s part of a massive action over generations with actual, documented harm to millions of people.”  Really you’re being too sensitive!  Racism is often a society-wide groomed form of narcissistic personality disorder.

Can’t Win for Trying!

The other channel to which people fall into is “I guess I can’t make ANYTHING then!!!” (pouting).   This is rather like saying “It’s not fair I can’t go into public because I am unable to restrain myself from hitting people!”.   Well, if you can’t make media that’s NOT horrific stereotypes, maybe you should consider what you need to do to fix that.  Again, it’s not really a defense as much as an admission of how deeply one has accepted racist thinking.

A subset of this is simply erasing the core group, under the rubric of “no THOSE people, no racism” which, again, becomes akin to an admission of “I really want to use (the culture/setting/ideas) but I can’t actually see those people as human enough to NOT make horrific stereotypes about them so let’s just not have them at all.”

Can’t See the Forest

Inevitably these conversations spin out into details about exactly WHO has the right to say what, “well no game is historically accurate”, or whether culture can be owned, or historical cultural drift – but all of that happens to be dodges for the core questions at hand.  The forest is around you, no matter how much you want to argue the definition of a “tree”.

Does your media fall into a larger historical context of racist media?

Are you deliberately avoiding research or feedback from the actual folks you’re busy making games about?

Do you need to participate in a legacy of hate for your fun?


If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


Flags: A critical misunderstanding

July 31, 2014

What Flags are

Many years ago, I coined a term on The Forge to talk about a type of RPG mechanics that were coming out – Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys… all these mechanics have a simple thing in common – they’re a way for the players to explicitly tell the GM what they want the story to focus on.

I coined the term “Flag”, because it’s like waving a flag or marking a spot.

What Flags are not

When I first mentioned this (2005? 2006? geez, I can’t remember), I remember immediately the first thing that people did, was start suggesting the idea that any old stat or skill or power on the sheet could be a “Flag”.  I see this misunderstanding keeps popping up… (ETA: looks like 2005 – here we can see the problem showing up way early…)

Problem is, that these aren’t explicit, and there’s a lot of room for misreading those scores/choices.

Does the player have a high combat skill because they want to fight a lot?

Or is it because they’re used to having their character die so much that they decided they needed a high skill just to keep the character around?

Or did the player have a character who once was a great fighter, but now is trying to find a peaceful life, and only took a high skill to reflect that past?

If you need the player to tell you why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen, you don’t have a Flag.  

You have… exactly the same problem you had before Flag mechanics were created.  It’s not Flagging anything -it’s guess work.   Flags are one of the most powerful and useful types of mechanics produced in the last decade, and seeing the word get twisted around to mean the exact opposite of what it’s intended is deeply frustrating.

Not just design, useful for picking a game to play

Part of the reason I’ve pointed them out is not just from a design standpoint (“Here’s a better way to coordinate players and GMs in Narrative story goals”) but also from  a play standpoint – if you want to know how to engage your players, if you want a fairly reliable system for narrativist play, for player input, take a look at games with Flag mechanics.

You structure your scenes, your campaign and the events around the Flags, which means you don’t have to pre-plan your scenes or events.   You improvise by following the conflicts and issues the players are interested in – which they give you through Flag Mechanics.  When you reward players for pursuing or addressing their Flags, you get a powerful reward cycle – suddenly everyone at the table knows what the cool thing is to focus on.  These can transform relatively traditional game systems into very player driven and story focused ones, even while keeping everything else intact.

I’m sure I’ll just have to post something like this once a year, as a reminder, since it seems to keep recurring.


Maybe not the right question, definitely the wrong answers

February 17, 2013 : “What is the most inclusive RPG setting on the market?”

As some folks point out, “inclusive” by itself is a little broad. To really talk about this, we have to understand there are basically three levels we can set the bar at, especially since, if you read a lot of the replies you can see these are very different things:

1. Acknowledgement of existence (AKA – The Chinese people in Firefly)

Games that point out you “could play” any gender, or that you “could play” any race, or some kind of setting that says racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. is gone. The reason that this is such a low bar is that saying this without any further details basically puts all the onus on the group to try to figure out what that looks like. It also means no real thought was put into the setting itself if this is the only real place where it shows up.

If you SAY all sexual preferences are accepted, but your setting only SHOWS heterosexual relationships, you’ve now put all the work of actually making that true onto the people playing your game while not accepting the same responsibility yourself- a disingenuous ass-covering move if anything.

I’ve seen a few RPGs do this really interesting thing where they say the characters in question are supposed to be brown people, and then proceed to have no art depicting them, or, art that would suggest otherwise. In this sense, this is the same thing where it’s an invisible acknowledgement without actually having to have them there…

2. Portrayal

Ok, so you include the actual folks – artwork, characters, setting bits, etc. Good for you! Now come the harder questions – are the portrayals negative? Are they based on stereotypes? Are they only there to serve the privileged audience rather than the people who they’re supposed to represent? (The difference between lesbians as hot media icons for straight men vs. lesbians as characters for lesbians…) Are they only secondary or minor characters?

3. Good portrayal

If you get through the questions in the previous bar, you should reach good portrayal. What defensive privileged folks often confuses is the idea that “good portrayal” should mean some kind of spotless 2D idealized figure, when in fact, all folks are asking for is real humans who are not based on the caricatured stereotypes are NOT real.

Anyway, when we look at these 3 potential levels of inclusiveness, you can see that stuff like, “Play a transhuman game, you can play ANYTHING” is a shitty response that doesn’t really do much of anything.

Ben Lehman once asked why I enjoyed playing the highly problematic Legend of the Five Rings and I pointed out it’s one of the few games where I could play an asian character and no one would look at me and think, “You’re just doing that because you’re asian!” (Of course, the horrible white folks’ Japan fetish in that game scene is a whole other issue…) – but the point is that there’s plenty of games where problematic representation can be had, and it’s really kind of the roleplaying equivalent of “You can have space in our imaginary world as long as your heroes conform to our racist stereotypes.”

Escapism and fun for all, indeed.

Personally, I’d rather look at the 3rd tier as the one to aim for. Inclusive means it’s actually got people in mind, not appropriating things through a stereotype lens for the entertainment of the privileged nor simply hitting a checklist of inclusiveness for show.

In that space, I think of these games as inclusive – Dirty Secrets, Steal Away Jordan, Dog Eat Dog. There’s maybe 1 or 2 borderline games I’m waiting to see which way they fall. Maybe there’s some I’m forgetting, and if so, I’ll add them later, but, yeah, it’s a small small number.