Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Some RPG Conversations That Will Never Happen, Courtesy of Vice

So Vice (or, more properly, one of Vice's hydra-head of affiliate sites) put up a thing a woman wrote about an RPG.

tl;dr on the article:  This mesoamerican game is not as woke as it wants to be and the art is bad, but the author gives it free advertising on Vice anyway.

Let me stress up front a couple things:

I personally think the game is racist and stupid, for some but not all of the same reasons the author does.

I don't think my opinion matters much--I think the opinion on wannabe woke games that matters most is the opinion of people who are in the group affected, and people who make these kinds of games.

I think the article is interesting because it points up some conversations these people will probably never have because in each case, at least one of the two sides does not believe in having conversations, in some cases both.

Here's a summary of the article and the points it brings up but doesn't resolve (and can't resolve because it's an article by one person, not a dialogue).

1. As a child the author used games as escapism, playing out fantasies of revolt they didn't do in real life.

2. Author asserts the purpose of RPGs is to aid in thinking about difficult things.

Conversation That Will Never Happen A:

These things are very often not compatible goals.

Conversation That Will Never Happen B:

Is it even good--at least for adult activists--to crave entertainment give them 1 above? Isn't it kind of sad and defeatist?

Conversation That Will Never Happen C:

Are people going around casually assuming all games are escapist fantasies and not realizing all the other things games are for?

3. The author was skeptical of an invitation to participate in an RPG.

4. The author feels the depiction of westerners landing in the new world overtly tries to depict them as bad in some ways, but not in enough ways for the author.

Conversation That Will Never Happen D:

Is it ever possible to say a person we all agree is bad experienced and overcame hardship? At what point does it become unnecessary or too much?

5. The author feels the depiction of the mesoAmericans sexes up the women too much and (I think?) de-emphazies their mesoamerican features.

Conversation That Will Never Happen F:

Yes. Can we also talk about the effect of just bad art in general? Like how much just unbelievably bad generic art makes games about historically overlooked indigenous people look like boring jerks with boring lives baking maizecakes out of straw all day?

6. The author objects to the presence of blood rituals and human sacrifice. Also it appears slavery is not deal with in depth and the author wants it to be.

Conversation That Will Never Happen G:

Can we please either decide which of "X is traumatizing let's not include it for the sake of the traumatized/"X is traumatizing we must go into it in massive detail for the sake of the traumatized" is the Official Woke Stance?

7. “European women characters can choose the unique class Dragon Rider (which is exactly what it sounds like), whereas indigenous women characters can choose Courtesan (which is exactly what it sounds like).”

8. The RPG writer was inspired by a novel, the author asserts its a problematic novel.

9. The RPG writer is apparently Mexican but not indigenous.

Conversation That Will Never Happen H:

Literally who gets to write what in games? Is it like "This is overlooked therefore everyone needs to write about it" or "You're not in the group stay away"? Give rules.

10. The game has a “Tolerance Skill”. 

Conversation That Will Never Happen I:

Isn't this hilariously twee? Is it more or less twee than Burning Wheel’s “Elf Sadness” mechanic? Is there a level of twee that Indie RPGs shouldn't be?

11. The author is scared that the fact the game is, well, an RPG, means that the players could decide to do colonialist things. Why this would be bad in a game isn’t delved into much, but presumably it is because the author assumes 1 above is the universal reason for playing games despite 2 above.

Conversation That Will Never Happen J:

Isn't that entirely the adult players fault? Are we literally trying to tell shit people to hide their shittiness?

Conversation That Will Never Happen K:

Let's say that happens. Then what? Did everyone at the table literally either feel oppressed or get more racist? What's the consequentialist argument here? 

12. The author then says Shadowrun’s politics are “a mess”. But somehow in this mess the author feels it encouraged stories the author thought were more good than bad.

Conversation That Will Never Happen L:

Your argument here is extremely subtle. Is it fair to hit authors over the head with a claim of moral wrongdoing when even the woke position is unclear and requires subtle arguments that even affected people have no consensus on?

13. The nut of the the thing:

Perhaps a way of understanding this is that Dragons Conquer America wants players to indulge in power fantasies of being both Cowboy and Indian. That doesn’t sit well with me. As an indigenous woman, I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to cut out Cortes’ still-beating heart and eat it as his soldiers quake in fear. But the options to enact violence against indigenous populations are many. A tabletop game that encourages me to play “both sides,” and create a party of indigenous characters working together with European invaders (no matter how historically accurate) feels bad in 2017. Especially when I can’t be assured that, in the end, we won’t still lose. Living as an indigenous person already means constantly being told that you lost.

Conversation That Will Never Happen M:

Are any approached besides "Hey but in the game you can win?" acceptable in 2017? Is there some precondition for them becoming acceptable?


josh said...

Courtesan and dragon rider do not equal out on the character options scales. A dragon rider is cool. courtesan can be interesting but is considerably less cool.

1 why the female only prestige class? Gross/lame.
2 racial prestige options are usially of the orc rage or elven grace variety. No harm no foul. They are essentially klingons and vulcans and need definition. This could work in this colonial setting but you would have to give cool stuff for everyone to work towards. I mean, make it fun, right?
3 tolerence mechanic. Is my character racist? *roll roll

Sounds like they are guilty of some meh design choices. If the only problem was character option disparity it would be problem enough without making it racist and sexist.

Pretty sure they just stepped in it trying to be two things at once. I would probably try to take a look at the rest of it to make a full appraisal but the concept of a tolerance mechanic burns me. Sounds anti fun..

Zak Sabbath said...

all that is fairly obvious though, the game is obviously stupid

the more interesting questions are...well the ones I wrote the post about

Kyle Traylor said...

Regarding Conversation I: More twee because of the added didacticism. Elf sadness and whatnot did not pretend that a mechanic describing elf sadness would be part of making you a better person by using it.

Zak Sabbath said...


Like nearly every mechanic in Burning Wheel was designed to head off mythic GM Abuse and Screaming MAtches With Players that only seem to happen at Luke's table

josh said...

Since im in the territory G, i thought the official woke stance was infinite interpretation, which would mean changing the rules whenever its conveniant.

The ultimate vehicle for victimhood. if you give me my revenge fantasy youre wrong because that isn't how it happened historically or, this is to realistic, why would you remind the ancestors of these indigenous peoples that they were subjugated.

Wanting two opposed things so that author could then have two things to blacklist. Power games.

Ross said...

"Can we please either decide which of "X is traumatizing let's not include it for the sake of the traumatized/"X is traumatizing we must go into it in massive detail for the sake of the traumatized" is the Official Woke Stance?"

I may just be insufficiently woke but... No? I mean, part of the problem is that it's a complex issue and not only are different individuals going to react to it differently, but, much like cancer, it's not just one thing, it's usually drastically different experiences with things. Whether individual trauma in the case of, for instance domestic abuse (which is obviously a larger issue but the experience of which tends to be very personal), or systemic oppression, as in the case of say, hiring biases against people of color. and that's not even to say those examples cannot be experienced as the opposite of the mechanism I point out. and of course this is to say nothing of intersectionality and the complications that arise when falling into multiple categories being multiplicative instead of additive.

Yeah, it would be nice if there could be an Official "woke" stance, but even if we could get people to agree on which of those approaches was statistically better, there'd still be people who, due to their specific set of circumstances would be being further hurt and maligned for the choice.

I certainly feel there are aspects of ... contradiction and even hypocrisy that can arise from trying to take both stances at once, and that definitely seems the least helpful approach, but at least in my current understanding of the arena, both approaches are valid and necessary, and dismissing one or the other is still a dismissal of that approach.

Man, it's early and I'm groggy, I hope the substance carried through my rambling.

Anyway, always love your entries Zak, Thanks!

Zak Sabbath said...

There's an important corollary of what you're saying:

If sOME traumatized people need A

and SOME OTHER traumatized people need B

then it is NEVER ever ever ok for people who want A to morally attack a creator for providing B or vice versa.

Yet they do it all the time.

S. P. said...

Question J also leads into another question, since players and GMs can be shitty in any game system: why do we need a new rule system for this? I'm pretty sure anybody could fold this Old World vs. New World hexcrawl — rules, themes, and all — into D&D with no problem.

Zak Sabbath said...

that isn't, to my mind, a question people would be afraid to debate

i see similar questions pop up online all the time and both sides have fairly well-defined arguments

S. P. said...

Fair. I just couldn't help but notice that the only game mechanic actually mentioned, "the Tolerance skill," sounds suspiciously like Morale.

InI said...

7 billion plus cultures on this planet
With more and more becoming available to view courtesy of the internet
How many different conversations will that produce? What delightful cacophany where neo-Marxists can commune with proto Animists and cavort with [insert new culture here]?

(Also reminded of this delightful post: http://molleindustria.org/indiepocalypse/index.html )

As always Zak, love reading your emanations

Keep on keepin on,

Zak Sabbath said...

"How many different conversations will that produce? "

Obviously not enough, for the reasons I stated above.

InI said...

I'm sure someone, somewhere has and is and will be talking aboot the conversations that you are looking for?

Out of the total possible conversations you or I only have access to a tiny few...and there are those who we can't experiences the conversations of (for various reasons)

Thus my agnostic optimism :)

We are in an era where more and more of us can have our conversations heard/experienced. More and more can have an audience.

Ideas are no longer limited by geography or religions or various gatekeepers.

May your own unique culture continue to thrive.


Zak Sabbath said...

I'll believe it when I see it.

And, even if it is happening, it won't help unless it gets out to the rest of us

Emmy Allen said...

It seems to me, though, that if a game like this doesn't include the nasty stuff that happened when america got colonized, there's really not much of a game left, 'cos that whole period of history had a whole bunch of nasty stuff. At which point... what's the point of the game?

Zak Sabbath said...

Again: that's not a question for us--it's a question for the people who are offended by one or the other position.

Samuli Suominen said...

"Are people going around casually assuming all games are escapist fantasies and not realizing all the other things games are for?"

This is a conversation I've actually had, or at least tried to have, multiple times.

The answer is YES.

Worse, even. I've noticed a vocal minority WITHIN the hobby who are actively against roleplaying games, especially fantasy games, being anything beyond escapist power fantasy. Any suggestion that RPGs could be used as vehicle of teaching (in the sense of communicating any constructive message or consciously training any real skill) is taken as a slight against the players and brings forth an... interesting... assortment of accusations ranging from lying to the players, robbing them of their fun, pushing an agenda, brainwashing etc.

Personally, I can deal with people from outside the hobby who assume the only utility of RPGs is escape from one's boring life, even if I'm tired of them. But the people within the hobby who actively resist any attempt to go beyond that are just infuriating. I grew up in an environment where the idea of using games as a tool of learning was accepted, mainstream, even. Completely literally and honestly, I only write English this well because of games, RPGs especially. So the sort of people I'm talking of sound only mildly less stupid than... I dunno, Young Earth Creationists? It's like they didn't just leave the memo unread, they decided to burn it and stomp on the ashes.

Oh well. Apologies for rambling.

Helio de Grado said...

Hi Zak!
I'm a long time casual lurker of your blog, and coincidentally, one of the creators of this game. I am a little sad you find it stupid and racist, because that is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

We are looking for any and all feedback, and I would greatly appreciate your thoughts about the game and especially what strikes you as stupid and/or racist.

If you are open to conversation, I will gladly try to follow up via your preferred contact form :)

Zak Sabbath said...

email me

zakzsmith AT hawtmayle

Helio de Grado said...

I can't seem to be able to get an e-mail through, it always bounces back. Can you email me at info (at) burning-games (dot) com please?


Black Vulmea said...

So Burning Wheel is Luke Crane's admission he (a) sucks as a referee and (b) lacks fairly ordinary people skills?

Yeah, that fits.

anonimous said...

Now I like him.

CJ said...

Rough Draft of the Official Woke Stance:

If Party of the First Part finds themselves demanding contradictory forms of historical editing and fidelity based on their ideological comfort level, they will want to revisit, refine and recalibrate their approach in order to make their critiques more credible.

Party of the Second Part agrees to stipulate that people of all political stripes are sometimes contradictory in their desires, and that desire itself is often contradictory, ergo that pointing this out that you've Caught Someone Woke in a Contradiction is not a particularly sick dunk, especially if the conversation is about dragons and fantasy and wish-fulfilment.

I think it's got legs. ;) Love the blog.

CJ said...

Also, I like that the "Prejudiced / Tolerance" mechanic exists. Given that the premise of the game is characters existing in the boundary zone between cultures, there's a solid survival-related reason for it to be there and a game that tried to use this setting while pretending prejudice wasn't a factor would be much dumber and more cowardly. I give props to Burning Games for that, "twee" or not.

Don't think I'll be buying the game, though. It has some interesting ideas but "Cortez plus dragons" just doesn't float my boat.

Zak Sabbath said...

@CJ I definitely don't think that everyone's express beliefs contain contradictions and I definitely think that having contradictions invalidates any critique they make

CJ said...

In that case I guess one would want to see to one's own contradictions first. So, for instance, if your hobby is a tabletop roleplaying game whose source code is colonial plunder fantasy in Tolkien/sword & sorcery-clothing whose Ur-Mooks are a distillation of every racis trope ever to exist, you would need to reconcile whether that hobby is sad and wrong before asking someone else to have a conversation about whether the same thing is true about their having fantasies of revolt.

I find most people aren't really ready to do that, though? So, meh.

Zak Sabbath said...


Not at all--because it's a false (and lazy, received) assumption that the hobby's "source code is colonial plunder fantasy in Tolkien/sword & sorcery-clothing whose Ur-Mooks are a distillation of every racis [sic] trope ever to exist,".

So none of that is necessary--any more than someone would need to reconcile satellites existing with the idea the world is flat.

CJ said...

(At any rate I did say that desires can be contradictory, which is a different thing about contradictions in express belief. Like, we often desire to fantasize about, say, plunging a sword through someone's guys while not wanting to do that in real life, and maybe that's okay whether or not the sword is being plunged into an orc or a pirate or a ninja or a rampaging Conquistador.)

CJ said...

Sorry, cross-posted there. So, one of the things that makes conversations like this not happen is people start front-loading words like "lazy, received" into them. That "assumption" doesn't come out of thin air, which is probably something worth thinking about whether or not you agree.

Damn, now I wish I had time to really get into this. Might have to come back another day. Have a nice one.

CJ said...

(Apologies for the typos. Agghh.)

Zak Sabbath said...


Those aren't contradictory desires, those are desires for 2 different things.

Which might seem like a mere semantic distinction except for the fact that when you've " Caught Someone Woke in a Contradiction , " it means a ethical/ logical contradiction not one about whether you want something so it is still quite relevant.

If these contradictions weren't meaningful there literally would be no place to making an ethical critique in the first place.


If pointing out the fact your lazy and received inaccurate idea is lazy and received makes you not have a conversation, then you wouldn't be able to effectively argue your side anyway.

You have to be able to be contradicted and then either clearly capitulate or clearly argue back--not go "SORRY GOTTA GO..."

You have, however, perfectly demonstrated the problem: the reason people think lazy things is the same reason they are too lazy to go through the process that would prove the laziness of those things.

CJ said...

"If pointing out the fact your lazy and received inaccurate idea is lazy and received makes you not have a conversation, then you wouldn't be able to effectively argue your side anyway."

Actually the problem is that people who default to that strategy are often not worth the time. I mean, sometimes they are? Probably you are? But we have to be careful who invest energy with in explaining that yes, post-colonialism is an actual historical, economic and literary field of academic study that does treat of genre literature and tabletop games and doesn't pull its conclusions out of its ass, and very often people will just walk away from you if it seems like they'll need to explain that to you.

That's not a "victory" when that happens. You're not proving that somebody just couldn't handle your intellectual chops. It's just you isolating yourself, which if you want conversations to happen is something I'm assuming you'd want to avoid.

Anyway. If you really want to argue the point in detail we can do that, I think some of these conversations really should happen rather than us resigning ourselves to their not happening. I'd have to come back for that later.

Zak Sabbath said...

1. When you say a lazy received thing, literally the _only_ people worth talking to about it are the people who would point it out.

2. Obvious proof without even getting into your larger point: There is a stereotype asians can't drive. This doesn't appear in D&D. Therefore your statement is objectively lazy and (overwhelmingly likely) received (as it is a common internet cliche).

3. Backing away from your wildly extreme statement to the incredibly mild version "post-colonialism is a thing" is intellectually dishonest.

4 I a not here to "prove" anything in this tiny little comment hardly anyone but you or I will ever read. I simply need to point out facts to ascertain whether you are rational (or within a stone's throw of it) or not. If you're not, then I have to ban you, because you're wasting everyone's time who reads your comments.

5. Once you address 2 and 3 above then it's possible to delve into anything else you might have to say in detail but until then I'm stuck on "Is this commenter a rational actor or not"? Which is a vital question to answer before spending time with you.

Zak Sabbath said...


Comment deleted: You didn't address the points about your false statement, then made personal attacks and more false assertions.

You're banned until you address what was said and apologize for your bad behavior.