Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Steal Away Gaming

February is Black History Month and so, having a lot of friends of African American descent (as well as other nationalities that would fall under the category of being considered 'Black'), I thought I would take this opportunity to honor all of the Black game designers who contributed to the hobby of RPGs since it's earliest days.

There' Mike Pondsmith. And...huh.

Much like comic books but even more so, our hobby seems to be one where the number of minority members who are fans is largely disproportionate to the number of people of that minority in creative positions in the industry.

Now first I must apologize to the many Black creators, writers and artists in gaming. Yes, I know there are more then one of you. I singled out Mike Pondsmith because his is a well known name and because he is a personal favorite of mine. The nature of this post is to start off the month with a bit of controversy and an attempt to shock but please bare with me.

Breaking down the demographics of my last few gaming groups, the vast majority of players I've had have been Black. Now this doesn't 'matter' in any particular sense. It doesn't change what I do or how I game. It does make me wonder why we don't see more key creative people among the powers that be in the hobby.

My best friend Dave (who I've mentioned many, many times), has some interesting observations about this and specifically about which games he and his friends gravitated towards. I'm going to try and get him to do a guest post on the subject.

One creative person whose work should not go unnoticed is
Julia B. Ellingboe, the deep and talented mind behind the indie RPG, Steal Away Jordan.

Steal Away Jordan is not an easy game. Not in the context of the rules mind you but in the nature of its content.

Steal Away Jordan is a story game that enables players to look into the lives of people who live in a time and place where slavery exists. This isn't 'Goblin Slavers of the Dragonfaced Island' slavery. This is slavery as it happened. This is slavery as a terrible, sad reality.

The emphasis here is on the people, the characters, the culture and their lives. The settings time and place can be changed. It creates a story of the situation and the institution of organized slavery and its effect on those who live with it from the smallest, poorest child to the oldest, wealthy slave owner. Steal Away Jordan is written and depicted in the spirit of such great authors as Margaret Walker, Alex Haley, and a personal favorite of mine, Octavia Butler.

Using this premise of historical fiction, players explore the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be bought and sold as property.

The subject matter is, as I noted, difficult. It can make you uncomfortable. A certain fantastic element can be added as per the rules resulting in a story that does indeed remind me of Octavia Butler's book Kindred. At the same time, if handled well, it only enhances the feeling and atmosphere of the material.

Food for thought on this first day of February.

Later days,

Barking Alien


  1. Now there's a game with substance to it. An underground railroad campaign would be awesome.

  2. Agreed wholeheartedly.

    I could run this game as a campaign utilizing historical references and African American folklore.

    When I was in Junior High School or High School (I forget which), I had a book on American folklore and ghost stories that included several from the civil war era, as well as just before and just after. A number of those tales were from Black slaves and soldiers of the time.

    Running this game would be amazing but having players that could handle it would be no small task. I am not saying I don't know people that could but rather I am acknowledging the weight of the subject and how it can really mess with your emotions.

  3. As a student of history, I'm happy to see that something like this exists. I think you could run it in a high school to college classroom and gain some understanding.

    As a DM I can't get people to play a World War 2 Supers game which is an order of magnitude more light hearted and "fun", so I can't see this ever getting played as a recreational game. It's serious, presumably realistic/historical (I haven't read it) and deals with a serious subject, which automatically puts it into the category of "homework" meaning that most groups aren't going to spend their Friday night after work or a Saturday afternoon with friends playing it.

    Like I said though, I am glad it exists, even if I do think it's better in an educational setting.

  4. I don't know that I would say 'better' in an educational setting but I totally agree it should be part of every high school's social studies program. I mean, wouldn't it be cool if in addition to history lessons the American educational system actually studied social events and their effects in social studies? Crazy I know.

    While Steal Away Jordan is certainly not the kind of fun that bashing orcs over the head and taking their money is, I think some gaming groups that are looking for a deep, more serious story game experience could get quite a bit out of this game.

    I too am glad it exists. Partly because of it's subject and partly because it shows one more thing RPGs can do and be.