rpg


Comics I Love: Rat Queens

Recently Rat Queens #1 came out. I had seen a lot of ads for this one, especially in the back of Saga. It's what happens when you create a comic around four tabletop RPG characters, all of whom happen to be women. Our cast of characters are Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Hobbit Thief. The quartet are known for causing trouble around town and find themselves thrown in the dungeon yet again. They might be able to secure their release...if they complete a quest. Fail, and they are banned from Palisade forever.

The bargain - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchThe bargain - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch
Of course, they aren't the only group. In addition to the Rat Queens, we have Peaches, Four Daves, Brother Ponies, and Obsidian Darkness. Of course, we soon find out that there's more going on here but I don't want to spoil that for you. Besides, if you don't mind spoilers, Weird Girls did a great review of the issue in this video.

There's also a free preview issue that introduces the characters and gives a sneak peak into their world. There are two pages from that preview that I particularly love.

Betty
Betty - Rat Queens © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchBetty - Rat Queens © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

Violet
Violet - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchViolet - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

As some of the sample images show, this is not a prim and proper comic. The world is dark as is the comedy. There will be swearing, drinking, drugs, and sex. They are adventurers after all! Oh and lots of bad ass women. I also love that the characters, in my opinion, aren't drawn for our viewing pleasure and yet still obviously have sexual desires and sexy fun times. The comic is often self-aware about this at times.

© Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch© Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

So, if any of this sounds appealing to you, I urge you to check it out. You can find the free preview on the Image Comics website or through Comixology. Kurt Wiebe has previews and other information on his site. Issue #2 comes out on October 23rd.

Conquering Corsairs: Celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with Art

In the most recent Prismatic Art update, we mentioned that Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games and Kaitlynn Peavler donated the art created for Conquering Corsairs to the Prismatic Art Collection. Today I've uploaded the last batch of the 48 images. Here's a gallery with them all.

The original images can all be found on the Prismatic Art Collection website, many with the original PSD files. In addition, they can be found on G+, Flickr, and Pinterest.

More information about the game can be found on the Conquering Corsairs website. Additional art by the talented Kaitlynn Peavler can be found on her deviantArt page.

"Master Gunner" © 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Time for Action, Not Words

Talking about PAX and Penny Arcade is never easy for me. The D&D podcasts with the Penny Arcade/PvP crew are what convinced me to finally play D&D after watching it be played and supporting others playing it for nearly 2 decades. While I'm not ok with every joke they make, I'm actually a big fan of irreverent humor amongst friends, as long as that humor isn't used to punch down. As someone who wasn't always great with understanding how to deal with racism, transphobia, homophobia, and the like, I have some amount of sympathy for those struggling through it and not being sure what to do. I was going to sit this out in part because everyone else is doing such a great job covering it.

However, after Mike's clarification, I've noticed a few things that I'd like to address and, yeah, I'm going to take advantage of my platform to say them. First, for those of you who don't know about the Dickwolves situation, here's a very short explanation. Penny Arcade released a comic that intended to demonstrate how messed up MMO morality is if you really think it through. Most quests rely on you doing something x number of times and forget about anyone hurt by the x+1 thing you didn't have to do. They decided to make this point by using rape through a made-up monster called the dickwolf.

This upset and hurt some people. I get that not everyone understands how this can happen. To some, in a perfect world, people would read a comic like this and not do the internet equivalent of scream obscenities at the creator. I'd argue that in a perfect world we wouldn't live in a world that constantly trivialized rape and creators wouldn't use it as a punchline in a joke that doesn't address the very real issues surrounding rape that many people face, especially without warning them first, but the main thing to remember is, we don't live in a perfect world and when people are hurt, they are allowed to express that anger, at least to a point. I'm not trying to defend all expressions of anger here; I know that some people said some rather nasty things about Mike, Jerry, and their families.

So, we had this wide range of response to the comic. Some brought up points in a calm manner, some brought up the same points in a more impassioned tone, others threw feces. In response, Mike and Jerry went after those they felt were throwing feces but in a way that included everyone speaking up. They went pretty nuclear. They weaponized the dickwolves concept. It now became not a symbol of how utterly fucked up MMO morality is and became a battle standard in...something. I still haven't quite figured out what. To add to this, t-shirts were created and there was a movement in the message boards for the Penny Arcade supporters to wear those shirts to PAX East to show those...those...PEOPLE that they weren't welcome. Because, in the end, that's what it was about. It was a statement to even people like me, who merely wrote about why the topic of rape is such a sensitive matter, that we weren't really welcome there.

When people pointed this out to Penny Arcade, it appeared that they decided to pull the merchandise. I thought that it was because they could see that it would mean that PAX would no longer be the inclusive space they claimed they wanted (and the apology supports this). I felt comfortable attending because even though I knew that there was this group who would hate me on sight if they knew who I was, I wouldn't be surrounded with messages. I wouldn't be forced to run games for people wearing the shirts. I wouldn't see them in my panels as I was trying to speak. It was a big deal.

Fast forward to just a couple of days ago. There have been other issues with Mike, but people have always been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt by and large. And now he says on stage that pulling those shirts was a mistake. And the crowd cheers. Not only does the crowd cheer, but someone feels confident enough to then ask for the shirts to be brought back. (Yes, both Mike and Khoo said no to that on stage). I get that Mike wishes he had said more. I even believe that he didn't mean to make it sound like that was the only thing he regretted. These things happen although I'd like to think that he has grown enough as a professional to have a full response to the dickwolves thing rehearsed. But it is what it is.

But I'm also tired of apologies and token efforts to make amends without real change and what our community needs is change. So Mike, I'm asking you as a person, as a fellow gamer, as someone who loved your work enough to name her first character after one of yours, please, please learn to be a better person. Not because people expect you to be a role model and not because you were thrust into a leadership role that you don't necessarily want. Change because right now, you are attracting to you the exact people you claim to dislike, the type of people who cheer like that over your misspoken comment because they assumed you meant that the only mistake was in removing the merchandise. You are attracting to you the types of people you lampooned in your League of Legends comic. You didn't ask to be their mascot but your actions have made you it nonetheless.

For everyone else, if you want to support Mike's clarification and apology and spread its good will, I might suggest this. Those people who heard Mike's initial comment, felt hurt by it, and spoke up are being hounded by some of the worst elements of the internet. They are getting all sorts of threats. Instead of defending Mike to everyone and anyone who might say even the slightest negative thing, how about standing up for those members of our family and giving them support? How about allowing them their pain and not trying to police them for once? If Mike actually made a mistake and he claims he did, we need people to be able to express their pain at it. But right now, Penny Arcade surrounds itself with a community that makes that impossible.

D&D Idea: Reclaim Riverbend

Over the past year, I've spent a lot of time consuming books, movies, comics, and games, trying to figure out what it is that I would love to create next. My most recent idea can be summed up by the title of the games I plan to run at Carnage Con in November, Reclaim Riverbend. The fantasy game is set post-war. The dark forces have been pushed back and towns that had been under their control for the past 25 years are open for resettlement. Your leader, Commander Blackwell, is happy to learn that her ancestral home has been awarded to her. She last saw it when she was five. She's putting together an exploratory and settlement force to rebuild the town.

City Streets by Kaitlynn PeavlerCity Streets by Kaitlynn Peavler

I've settled on this particular scenario for a few reasons:

  • The characters should have some familiarity with the land but twenty-five years under not only foreign but potentially alien rule can really change a place. Similar to the Lord of the Rings when they decide to go into the mines.
  • The enemies could have left behind valuable journals with information about long lost artifacts or temples that they had been hoping to get their hands on for centuries but couldn't because they didn't have access to the area. They still might have been lacking crucial information when they got here, information that the PCs' side has.
  • The characters all have a purpose but that purpose can co-exist with the normal sort of D&D game where you go out and kill monsters and steal their loot. More on that later.
  • The party will be larger than the player characters but still limited without resorting to game master fiat. Only so many people can go in the initial group. Also, the players and game master can build that group together, along with all of the connections between members and stuff. If the group wants it, there can be children and spouses as well.
  • When they get there, some resources will be limited, again without game master fiat. However, many of them can be unlocked through player choices. More on that later as well.
  • Specific to Commander Blackwell, I can add a mystery to the town or her family without making her good or bad since she left when she was too young to really understand things. This can give a more typical story arc to the setting while retaining much of the sandbox feel.

There are other reasons I'm sure I'm forgetting but these are a good start. Now let's look at the bigger picture. I know this sort of build the town subsystem/mini game has been done before. Pathfinder has something in Ultimate Campaign for instance, although I feel that system is meant to be more of a simulation and, while it fits into Pathfinder quite well, I'm hoping for something that's lighter and is meant more to drive story and be a way to simplify and connect the typical parts of a D&D-style game. It's probably easier to explain that by giving some examples of what I'm exploring.

Dungeon Treasure Adds Influence

So, I remember seeing a bunch of D&D loot charts that would include things like gems, object d'art, etc instead of just coins. This was meant to break up the monotony a bit and maybe make the world seem a bit richer. Sometimes they would serve as convenient hooks for getting players to role play or interact with things, but often they just got recorded on the group's balance sheet and by-and-large forgotten.

What if, instead, the group got the gold (or equivalent barter) for them, and the town created a museum to hold them? People might come to the town to see the artifacts as tourists, research them as sages, or seek healing from holy relics. Industries could develop around them if they are special enough and schools could even be built.

I haven't decided yet, but one idea would be to add to certain types of loot the idea of influence points, similar to experience points for players. I could build out a whole leveling system for the town, pegging population growth to it, giving advancement trees and feats. Influence points could also be given for things that are not tied to murdering monsters and stealing their loot, such as discovering natural wonders like the Great Falls or the Singing Rocks. I'm not 100% sold on a leveling system yet, but I do love the idea being able to layer on existing elements of the typical D&D game.

NPCs as Important Resources and Influencers

Likewise, many games have you save kidnapped people. Those people easily could become important NPCs in the town. They along with the NPCs attracted due to the town's influence, could be resources the PCs turn to when they need something or when they need to hire a role not filled by the party. Part of me is attracted to them being a once-per-session resource the party can use, something I've seen in a lot of non-D&D games, but I realize that clashes a bit with D&D. Session lengths can vary widely in D&D and I think that's one of the main reasons many of the refreshes are tied to in game time (along with the expectations some have of verisimilitude). Alternatively, asking an NPC to do a task could cost in-game time units but that would require a bit of bookkeeping. Offering both might help but would be more work for me.

Luxury Items as Currency

However, this leads me to another point I'm really excited about, making all sorts of non-combat, mundane items potentially important. Want to recruit higher-level hirelings and henchmen? Get the things they want in town. Want to increase their morale when they are out with you? Buy some of the luxury goods crafted by those NPCs who fell in love with Riverbend. I personally find this much more satisfying than the reliance on charisma (although I realize that part of the history of that was to make that ability score meaningful) and your mileage may vary. But I find this a decent way to make building the town important and giving PCs access to important resources without limiting their access to essential items like weapons.

I still have a ton more to write about this, but I think it's a good stopping point for today. I admit, I've always loved those challenges in school where you had to take random stuff and create something cool and useful out of them, similar to the Apollo 13 air filter challenge, so that's driving my desire for more NPC interaction and crafting. I also love building things and playing Don't Starve and Terraria has rekindled that a bit.

Image: City Streets by Kaitlynn Peavler. It's from her Deck of Legends Kickstarter project that has about 50 hours left. Due to the generosity of the backers, all of the art will be released to the Creative Commons. Check it out: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thedandmom/deck-of-legends

Discussion: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa

I recently finished A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper. The book tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who joined a British expedition tasked with exploring Islamic North and Central Africa. Over time, his two other companions on this trip died and he went on alone, eventually reaching the famed city of Timbuktu. Starting in 1849, the expedition took five and a half years and covered 10,000 miles.

What is amazing to me is how this expedition appears to be forgotten by history. As Kemper argues, part of this may be due to timing. The expedition happened at the tail end of the error of discovering the unknown and at the dawning of imperialism and some of Barth's research and findings undercut the beliefs required for imperialism. These include that at least the parts of Africa he visited had governance systems and histories, including some written. These were not exactly lawless lands full of people with no sense of history. Part of it is also Barth himself. He is a character and was not always as adept at navigating European politics as he was dealing with those he met on the trail.

While some might not appreciate the level of detail in the book, I enjoyed it, especially since one of the great values in Barth's work is that he took a snapshot of Africa before colonialism came through and made that impossible. I also found the details important in dispelling many myths about Africa and in presenting many of the historical figures as complex individuals making rational decisions given the reality of their world. Along with other works, I wonder if the details of the Barth's original books could be used to create an interesting historical setting that explains the world outlook in a way that makes sense to outsiders.

For instance, I loved the description of harems in some of the cultures. Concubines were part of a consumption culture. The women were an outward sign of wealth because 1) it took money to feed and house the women and 2) any children that resulted were entitled to full rights, the same as any of the other children. The women were concubines instead of wives because Islam limited men to a much smaller number of wives. Barth describes one man who collected women from each of the tribes and was interested when he heard about a new group because it meant he could add a new woman to his collection. Another man discusses with Barth how strange it is the European men drink alcohol so much to which Barth replies that since Europeans are limited to one woman, they must get their pleasures somewhere.

The book also touches on slavery, something that was important at the time. Abolitionists feature at times, although Barth often points out the issues with their schemes. He describes the devastation wrought by the razzia or raids, sometimes for livestock or other plunder but often for slaves. The whole system often relied on a neverending loop, plunder to get money for guns to protect yourselves from other groups doing the same things, all the while feeding the gun manufacturers. He also describes the differences between slavery as practiced in Africa and the chattel slavery practiced mainly in the Americas.

I also find the work important because it's an example not only of the fact that there were people arguing against the racism of the time, the same sort of racism we find in the foundational works of fantasy, but also what happened to those who stood up against that train of thought. Often when I try to discuss how our history is political, people try to argue that there wasn't a group trying to keep these sorts of arguments out. This book points out that the truth is probably at least a little more complex than that. Additionally, it means that for those who lived at the time and afterwards can't claim complete ignorance. These books and ideas existed. Barth did have some degree of popularity.

There are lots of interesting insights and contradictions with frequently repeated "facts" about Africa. Between the adventuring, politics, and descriptions of the land and peoples, there's bound to be a bunch of inspiration for games.

New Pathfinder book: Mythic Adventures

Last fall I had the great fortune of writing for new Mythic Adventures book from Paizo. The companion book provides ways to give a more mythic feel to your game, allowing for heroes and villains that break the mould. The system is meant to lay on top of the current structures of the game, allowing access at any level, even 1st, and tying it in with the deeds and actions of the characters. While I haven't had a chance to read the final book yet, this concept is one I was excited about from the first email I received and that interest hasn't waned.

In addition to the public playtest, Paizo recently released two previews of the Mythic Adventures content. The first has some of the path abilities. Mythic paths, to me, are meant to tie in to the notion of the hero's journey. During their ascension phases, the heroes discover something that sets them on a separate and distinct path from those around them. The way I see it, unlike a character class, a character can have just one path to walk, one archetype to fill in our common stories. The path abilities help to set them apart from all others and make them truly legendary.

Here's an example:

Guardian, 6th Tier:
Invincible Stand (Su): You can expend one use of mythic power as a swift action to make yourself nearly invincible for a short period of time. You gain DR 20/— for a number of rounds equal to your tier. If you choose to move or are moved by another creature during this time, this protection immediately ends.

More can be found Mythic Preview—Path Abilities Mythic heroes need proper enemies. The book has a few monsters and there's a preview of the Mythic Lich.

As for me, I contributed a couple monsters along with some of the mythic adventure themes and adventure ideas. I had a lot of fun trying to come up with different levels of using mythic levels in a game. In my experience, it's not meant to be an on-off switch, but as a way of adding flavor and some additional mechanics in ways that suit the type of experience you want to build. Setting regular characters against mythic monsters will give a different feel from a game where mythic characters constantly fight other mythic beings. I also loved coming up with adventure ideas that played with some traditional tropes.

If you're at GenCon, the books are there! Jason Bulmahn posted this on his Facebook fan page. I couldn't make it this year, but be sure to say hi to the lovely folks in the Paizo booth.

Mythic Adventures at GenConMythic Adventures at GenCon

And here are the full credits:

Lead Designer • Jason Bulmahn
Design Team • Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Sean K Reynolds
Authors • Dennis Baker, Jesse Benner, Ben Bruck, Jim Groves, Tim Hitchcock, Tracy Hurley, Jonathan Keith, Jason Nelson, Tom Phillips, Ryan Macklin, F. Wesley Schneider, Amber Scott, Tork Shaw, Russ Taylor, and Ray Vallese
Cover Artist • Wayne Reynolds
Interior Artists • Rayph Beisner, Eric Belisle, Eric Braddock, Dmitry Burmak, Anna Christenson, Jorge Fares, Taylor Fischer, Grafit Studios, Tim Kings-Lynne, Diana Martinez, Brynn Metheney, Roberto Pitturru, Klaus Scherwinski and Luisa Preissler, Jason Rainville, Denman Rooke, Chris Seaman, Bryan Sola, Matteo Spirito, Sandara Tang, Tyler Walpole, and Ben Wootten Cartographer • Robert Lazzaretti
Creative Director • James Jacobs Editor-in-Chief • F. Wesley Schneider Senior Editor • James L. Sutter
Development Team • Logan Bonner, John Compton, Adam Daigle, Rob McCreary, Mark Moreland, and Patrick Renie
Editorial Team • Judy Bauer, Christopher Carey, and Ryan Macklin
Editorial Interns • Jay Loomis and Cassidy Werner
Senior Art Director • Sarah E. Robinson Art Director • Andrew Vallas Graphic Designer • Sonja Morris
Production Specialist • Crystal Frasier
Publisher • Erik Mona
Paizo CEO • Lisa Stevens
Chief Operations Officer • Jeffrey Alvarez
Director of Sales • Pierce Watters
Sales Associate • Cosmo Eisele
Marketing Director • Jenny Bendel
Finance Manager • Christopher Self
Staff Accountant • Kunji Sedo
Chief Technical Officer • Vic Wertz
Senior Software Developer • Gary Teter
Campaign Coordinator • Mike Brock
Project Manager • Jessica Price
Licensing Coordinator • Michael Kenway
Customer Service Team • Erik Keith, Justin Riddler, and Sara Marie Teter
Warehouse Team • Will Chase, Heather Payne, Jeff Strand, and Kevin Underwood
Website Team • Ross Byers, Liz Courts, Lissa Guillet, and Chris Lambertz
Special Thanks • Ryan Dancey, Clark Peterson, and the proud participants of the Open Gaming Movement.

Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle)

The Getty Museum recently made about 4600 items available as Open Content, meaning they are freely available for any use. While looking through the collection, I found a series of images that appear to be training information on different forms of combat. Through further research, I found out that they were actually part of the Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle), by Italian master Fiore dei Liberi.

Fiore dei Liberi was a late 14th Century knight, diplomat and master-at-arms. This work is the third oldest European fencing manual to be discovered.

Here are some example images.

Equestrian Combat with Sword
Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, author (Italian, about 1340/1350 - before 1450)
Equestrian Combat with Sword, about 1410, Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 27.9 x 20.6 cm (11 x 8 1/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 13, fol. 44

Combat with Lance
Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, author (Italian, about 1340/1350 - before 1450)
Combat with Lance, about 1410, Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 27.9 x 20.6 cm (11 x 8 1/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 13, fol. 40

The full manuscript covers topics such as unarmed combat, sword fighting, daggers, pollaxes, lances, mounted combat, and more. Since I found the Getty website a bit cumbersome to use, I created a Pinterest board with the images, all of which link back to the original.

Il Fior di Battaglia from Getty Museum

Uses

Beyond just being cool to look at or inserted into publications, here are a few ways to use this in games:

  • For martial characters, what about having a life goal of becoming one of these masters. With the Game Master, you could work on developing and mastering your own sets of techniques. As you did so, you could create your own treatise of techniques that your character would be known for.
  • Background artwork in NPC's houses or shops to give clues about previous experiences.
  • In some types of games, where you might have expertise in a particular weapon instead of class of weapon, you could give expertise as a boon or reward for certain types of quests. Giving the player an "illuminated" sheet might be a nice way to record this.
  • Assistance in visualizing and describing training scenes in towns and elsewhere, a staple of fantasy fiction.

Survey on Anti-Harassment Policies at Conventions

There's been a lot of talk about anti-harassment policies at conventions lately. This isn't a scientific survey by any means but I'd love to gather your thoughts through it as well. All answers are anonymous and in about a week, I'll publish the responses thus far.

Exploration Through Games: Steal Away Jordan

Steal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeSteal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeIndie+ recently ran a day of events that focused on taboos in gaming. One of the events was a live play of Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution by Julia B. Ellingboe. In this game, players play the roles of slaves in the US during the 1800s. Since I haven't read the actual game yet, this will be about my reactions to watching the game play. Hopefully the game itself will be available soon so I can read the text.

Humanizing the Dehumanized

I don't know how the evils of slavery was presented to any of you growing up, but I remember that my school textbooks treated enslaved human beings as property or things even as we were taught how evil this was. They were full of pictures of white humans looking into the mouths of black humans to see how healthy they were with this act compared to the inspection one would give a horse. We saw pictures of them bound and chained standing on the auction block, sold off as individuals. Stories and images of whippings, beatings, and the scars of the same showed up over and over again. Then came the pictures of those who fought slavery, generally the white and upper class people of America who righted this wrong.

While I think those are all important things to learn, notice we haven't learned much, if anything, about how the enslaved people lived. We rarely heard their voices. I couldn't tell you what games they played as children. How did their parents comfort them during a thunderstorm? After a hurricane?

Douglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob LawrenceDouglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob Lawrence
In this game, we started with people. Each player described their character. How old he/she was. Whether or not they had attempted to run away before and, if so, what scars they had on their body that told that story. Were they literate? Did they have skills? Why were they there? Where were they born? What was their name? In the process, they created people and the possibilities of rich, detailed stories should not be glossed over.

After the creation of the people comes the assignment of worth and the slave name from the game master. If you watch, there's a interesting bit where one of the players gives a current name to his character. Julia steps in and says he doesn't get to choose that. It's the first time, in my opinion, that we start to see how these characters have two selves, their human side and then the part where they are another person's property. Whereas the earlier section reinforced the former, this drives home the latter. The game master decides what the details about your character are worth and assigns the players their dice based on it. Young adult typically is worth more than older adults, although being skilled mitigates that. Previous escape attempts as well as disobeying result in dice being taken away.

Community as a Resource

After the worth of each player character is assigned, Julia gives the worth of the NPCs, including the slave owner, Robert Ford. Robert has a lot of dice and Julia even suggests that the characters might want to combine forces if they want to have a conflict with him.

Understanding Motivations

I discuss issues of social justice a lot. One of the concepts I find hardest to talk about is why 1) people don't just rebel and 2) why some of the people in the oppressed group do things that reinforce the oppressive system. Between Julia's descriptions and the play in the game, I hope people get a better idea.

Because slavery is often taught as a means to an end, in this case understanding why relations in the US broke down to the point where we fought a destructive and costly Civil War, we often don't think of slaves as three-dimensional human beings. We don't think of them having a culture. We emphasize the property element to the point we don't understand that they might often travel within a limited sphere and have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people. We also might not consider that, like all human beings, they have basic needs and wants and that one of the big differences between free and slave comes down to how you get those things. I'm going to simplify things for a moment. For me, as a free person in the US, my ability to meet my needs is largely self-driven. If I want more, I should either work more or find a job that pays me more money. I have the freedom of choice to attempt to do that (whether or not I'm successful is another matter).

If you are owned by another person, by and large your ability to meet those needs and desires is tied to the person who owns you. If he or she does well, there's a good chance you will benefit from that. If you sabotage that person, you may be harming yourself as well. The way I tend to view it is their status sets your base. Since material goods may be harder to come by and keep, as an enslaved person, your relationships with others are important whether they be the comfort of friends and family or the access to information and resources that others might provide. So, if you were to get caught attempting to escape or planning a slave revolt, you could easily lose most if not all of your resources through the punishment and the possible sale to someone else.

Re-examining the Hero Story

Emancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas NastEmancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas Nast

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the slave narrative is often not a tale of the slaves at all but of this epic battle between whites over the topic of the slaves. We champion Abraham Lincoln, knowing all sorts of details about his life, but rarely do people like Frederick Douglass get the same treatment. We have lists of those who died in the Civil War, but I have yet to see a book that lists the name of those who died attempting to escape slavery.

Detail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black CultureDetail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Instead of playing a white abolitionist or a slave owner who sees the light and frees his or her slaves, the players played slaves. They were attempting to free themselves, using their own wits. When we compare this to other games that attempt to explore these issues, such as say, Bioshock Infinite, this change of perspective is huge.

Summary

There's a bunch more that I could go into here, but I'd prefer to wait until I can read the game itself. While my knowledge of the specific subject matter the game covers may be limited, I saw a lot come out during the game play that made me excited, especially as someone who grew up in a lower class household and had to later deal with how people from the upper classes viewed people like me and our lives and choices. While the game is not currently available, I asked Julia about it and she hopes to have a PDF version available again soon. Also, I asked Indie+ if they would consider releasing it in audio only form for those who dig podcasts. It sounds like there's a possibility of that happening next week.

If you are interested in learning more, the Library of Congress has a collection of narratives from former slaves on their website.

(Also, notice how much of the art presented focuses on white people and their roles in the anti-slavery movement, often presenting them as the heroes. Understanding how common that presentation is is important to understanding some of the race issues that continue in the US.)

Desertification: The Dust Bowl

In school, most discussions of the Great Depression talked about the Dust Bowl. I knew things were bad during that time period, but I didn't quite understand how bad it was until I watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl. The way it was always described to me focused on the drought and the lack of food, both horrible on their own for sure, but not necessarily awe-inspiring.

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Dust BowlDust BowlThe Dust Bowl was the result of a decade-long drought combined with farming practices not only ill-suited to the area but destructive. The two amplified each other until we had an ecological disaster that is almost unfathomable. Here are some of the things that happened:

  • Gathered by the winds, dust storms covered hundreds of miles and would sweep through much of the US in a single day. In some areas, they would cause dust drifts that reached the rooftops and deposit inches if not feet of dirt in a new location.
  • These storms could destroy most if not all of a crop across several states during one storm.
  • The dust clouds could black out the sun. The static electricity they caused would make it impossible to use the phone.
  • The clouds would drift into cities like Chicago and New York, thousands of miles away from where the dust originated, causing damage and blocking out the sun.
  • The dust was small enough to get into the lungs. Man and beast alike could suffocate if caught out in the storm without protection. For some it lead to dust pneumonia.
  • The drought caused plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits. The rabbits in particular would get so bad at times that towns would hold special events to kill them, asking townspeople to bring the whole family for the chore.

If you are looking for a cataclysmic event for your game, this should qualify. Depending on what type of story you are going for, it could be based on the same reasons as the real world dust bowl, human ingenuity gone awry in the struggle between man and nature. However, I could see other things working as well. Nature spirits upset at the defilement of a sacred location create massive winds. Fire elementals summoned by a an evil wizard (or a spell gone awry) parch the land and burn away the top layer of soil and sod.

For me, I see ecological disasters as a good way to provide tensions in a game without relying on stereotypes or things like racism, sexism, etc. I feel story-wise it also provides both an impetus for groups to have tensions against each other as they compete for limited resources as well as providing a way for players to solve those tensions without genocide if they choose to do so. Does it work for everyone? No, but it's what I happen to like.

Anyway, I definitely suggest checking out the documentary and learning more about this chapter of US history. If you have US Netflix, it's available for instant play.

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