The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008.
by Julia Ellingboe
[Editor] Julia Ellingboe is the author of Steal Away Jordan, an RPG about slavery in the United States.
“Steal Away Jordan is about playing heroes” has become my mantra of late. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan can be as accessible as any story game which doesn’t make race a theme. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan, despite the brutality incorporated in the mechanics, is fun and is not an exercise in futility. I declare it to illustrate that all Americans share African American history. We all own the stories of slaves who survived against all odds.
I’ve been saying this hero thing quite a bit lately and I believed that any misunderstanding of this idea was based in culture. My mother is an American History professor. I am a descendant of slaves and other African American “heroes”. This is the message my parents taught me. I come from a long line of survivors. I figured that most African Americans believed the hero myth of their ancestors. I recently had the chance to test my belief, and was pleasantly surprised that others shared part of my mantra.
The director of the Digital Moving Image Salon and the head of the computer games section of the Computer Science Department at Spelman college invited me to give a presentation on Steal Away Jordan . My audience would be one with whom I’ve never had an opportunity to play or discuss my game: mostly African American women who have never played a role playing game before. This was a whole new choir for me. I assumed they would get the desire to create a game where the characters looked like us, even if they didn’t get the whole role playing game thing. I started to squirm about the hero idea. While lurking on a forum devoted to people of color interested in comic books and comic book heroes, I discovered that quite a few black folks find the whole notion of playing a slave less than fun. I didn’t know what to expect.
I gave a short dress rehearsal presentation and demo in a Computer Science seminar class on operating systems. I opened by asking, “When you think of slave narratives, what comes to mind.” A young man, a Morehouse student, sheepishly raised his hand. “Suffering, punishment, pain.” He said. Another student offered similarly dismal words.
“No one thinks, ‘hero’?” I asked. The students replied with blank stares. I’ll show ’em! I thought. I started a quick demo. I gave the three women standard slave names from the game text: Abyssinia, Button, and Jane. I named the Morehouse student Caesar. They each created characters. When they went around the table and introduced their characters, All four players had created highly skilled, intelligent, attractive, slaves; powerful in their own right. In play, they certainly acted like them. The midwife protected a mother from an angry mistress, despite the risk to herself. Caesar, a blacksmith, waited for the right moment to exact revenge on an abusive owner even though it meant his hard work and expertise would go unrewarded and unrecognized. They all created characters who certainly rose to the occasion. I was encouraged. Maybe this slave as hero thing wasn’t just part of Bond family lore. Maybe there was something universal about it.
That evening I gave my presentation to a crowd of about twenty which included some relatives. Two were seasoned roleplaying gamers. All but two attendees were African American. I preached my hero gospel and used a short clip from a Boondocks episode (“The Story of Catcher Freeman”) to illustrate my point. And I ran a demo with three volunteers with two men and a woman. The men were the seasoned gamers. The woman was my cousin, an Atlanta native who came to see what this whole roleplaying stuff was all about. One of the players was one of the not black folks in the audience. Thankfully, Sam Chupp of the Bear’s Grove podcast, recorded the presentation
In Steal Away Jordan, the GM gives you a name and a worth, which is the number of dice you roll in a conflict. Players create tasks, motives, and goals for their character. The GM is not privy to these. After character creation, I left the room and the players, with audience assistance, created their tasks, motives, and goals. I had never heard this process until I listened to Sam’s recording. All that stuff about heroes, while I still maintain as the key to fun in Steal Away Jordan , paled in importance to another theme: community. Sure a roleplaying game of slave narratives is about heroes, but in order for any individual character to rise to heroism, she needs the support of her community. Heroes don’t act in a vacuum, and when there are no superhuman feats to achieve, pure survival against all odds requires networking, friendship, and someone with your back.
I gave the players five minutes to discuss their goals, decide if they wanted to share goals (such as rebellion or forming an underground railroad), and I asked the other audience members to help them out. It took them fifteen minutes to do this. I didn’t hear their conversation until I listened to the recording of the presentation. It was a game designer’s dream. The players started roleplaying while they discussed their goals. They, both characters and players, made friends with each other. The other people in the audience gave suggestions, and from what I heard, enjoyed the “performance”. When I came back into the room, unbeknown to me, the game had already begun. I ran through a few examples of the mechanics, and wished I’d had more time to actually play the story. Little did I know they already had.
So back to my “hero” mantra. When I want to convince potential players that Steal Away Jordan is just like any other role playing game, except, perhaps in setting I still bring up the hero thing and the survivor thing. To it I add that the game is also about building a community and surviving together. Heroism cannot happen in vacuum. The reason we play is to spend time with our friends, strengthen our own community, and in the process, have fun.