A while ago on Facebook I was part of a group called Tabletop RPG One Shot Group. It's one of several like-minded gaming spaces on the social networking group, although a rather popular hub with 5.5K members.
I used it for quite some time, even when not participating browsing people's adventure plots and using those as potential inspiration. However, there was a particularly troublesome event and whose moderator actions soured me on the community. I'll disclose that I was a participant, albeit brief, in the exchange. Profile names and pics portraying real people have been blurred, save for my own.
The long story short of the matter is that a prospective gamer (RH) pitched his idea of a Wild West D&D fantasy game, where the Humans, elves, and major races are European settlers, with orcs and goblinoids are indigenous Americans.
Several people, including a Native American gamer (ES), explained why this was an offensive choice.
Original poster got snippy at people, and other posters reacted by saying that the offended parties where making a big deal over nothing. The community admin stepped in to keep the discussion off of real-world politics and to get back to a 'friendly chat.'
I'd also like to mention that the original poster RH was using specific Dungeons & Dragons terminology; full-round action is one of the action types in 3rd Edition, Pathfinder, and many D20 System games.
Here is a link to the full conversation at the time I took the screenshots.
At first I just weighed in, then went on my way, although still checking back out of morbid curiosity. But later on I noticed a post by the same Admin (Ian C in the Imgur album) with an updated post explaining how that from now on discussions about real-world political issues are no longer allowed, and that he had to ban one poster he designated as a "troublemaker."
Checking back I noticed that the Native poster ES was no longer a designated member (a notice near his replies in said thread indicated so due to being a closed group). Meanwhile the other participants in the thread who were rude and dismissive, including the original poster who called another poster a "sphincter," were not affected.
Checking with ES I found out that the moderators indeed banned him. He said that it was probably due to a PM which amount to asking if they were "just going to let people shit on my ethnicity and not be criticized or reprimanded."
I will admit that this negatively deposed me to the group; should he have left of his own accord I might still be a member. Even if was not the mods' intent, the message was "uncomfortably racist tropes are non-political, but people who complain about them are." And the cries for civility can only go so far when they're unevenly enforced. It's an ideal that problematic subject matter and political issues can be debated objectively with both parties respecting the other, but the problem is that certain positions which innately demonize and dehumanize a member of a group whose membership is through no fault of their own (race, gender, etc) cannot inherently be civil, polite, or respectful.
And the sad thing is, this is not the only time indigenous Americans get negative representations in tabletop media. Sadly in fact, it's quite common in some games to refer to them or their fantasy counterpart culture as "barbarians" or "savages" in an objective narrator voice,
In fact, this latest Facebook post was to me yet another incident of a troubling pattern. Taken in isolated circumstances, such things can be chalked up to odd blips in the tabletop hobby. But there is a pattern of authorial negligence and ignorance on portrayal and sensitivity towards indigenous subjects in multiple ways.
Let's cover a few. I understand that this is just a sampling of things, in that some more prominent RPGs may not be covered (like Werewolf the Apocalypse), but for now I'm sticking to subject matter in which I have experience with and read about.
Deadlands is a Western horror game by Pinnacle Entertainment where a group of eldritch entities known as the Reckoners broke out from spiritual imprisonment to wreak havoc on Earth. As a result of monsters entering the world once again, history has changed a bit. For one, their interference at the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in the Confederacy holding on to independence up to and through 1881 (the current year for the metaplot). In an attempt to address historical prejudices and bigotry, the game designers erred on the side of downplaying historical prejudices in a sidebar, that the result of the long war employed more women in the workforce and having the Confederacy freeing all its slaves. There was no Chinese Exclusion Act since California became a nation unto its own. The Player's Guide sidebar said that sexism and racial bigotry are the provinces of villains and the hopelessly ignorant, and that people in the Old West place a low priority on race and ethnicity.
Except, this is subverted when it comes to Native Americans.
In the setting, the violence and bloodshed wrought from colonization and displacement of tribes by settlers and the US military is still a thing which happens. The Last Sons adventure path even plays upon racial fears between whites and natives, where the newly-formed territory of the Sioux Nations has a rogue Union officer General Custer planning a second attack right outside their borders (he survived in this timeline). A non-aggression pact worked out kept the mining town of Deadwood as sole settler town in the Nations, albeit with heavy restrictions. Both whites and Natives in the area are deathly afraid of violence breaking out given the past years of revenge and grudges. Neither side is portrayed as being wholly in the wrong, but rather otherwise normal folk caught up in a post-war state yet where the memories of violence and death of friends and family are still fresh in people's minds.
As for the image above, it's from an in-game newspaper known as the Tombstone Epitaph's help section, which is meant in part as a link in to side-quests. Although the Last Sons assumes that the PCs are going to be sympathetic to Native American autonomy, the phrase "Indian trouble" does not lend itself to a setting which managed to shake itself fully of systemic racism.
As for other aspects of the setting, Native American NPCs tend to fall into a range of archetypes: in some adventures they’re allies of the PCs, such as the mystical wise man or woman who reveals an important plot point to the PCs (Laughs-at-Darkness in the Coffin Rock adventure), allies for the PCs (several points in The Last Sons), and in some they’re antagonists such as raiding parties attacking trains (first encounter in The Flood, and another encounter in Murder on the Hellstromme Express).
A few historical figures appear, notably Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. In real-world history, Sitting Bull was a Lakota holy man notable for leading years of resistance against US encroachment and is remembered positively by many for advocating indigenous autonomy. In Deadlands, Sitting Bull has a more antagonistic role as a secret member of the Ravenites, followers of a Susquehannock shaman named Raven who made a pact with the Reckoners in hopes of driving white settlers off the continent for good. The Ravenites are more than willing to use forbidden magic and sacrifice tribes from renewed warfare for their goals, which puts Sitting Bull’s secret motives at odds with the other Sioux Leaders (who wish to use cessation of hostilities as a time to rebuild and fear they may not win a second war with the United States).
*There's also problems in redeeming the Confederacy, as there are many real-world groups trying to erase its slave-holding past, but that's another subject for another blog post.
Pathfinder, D&D, and the Barbarian class
Dragonlance is a major setting which drew many fans of its work to D&D in the 80s, and still has an active following. The classic Chronicles are set in an era where the gods left the world of Krynn, save for the Queen of Darkness who plans on bringing it into an age of tyranny under the Dragon Empire. One of the protagonists is a woman named Goldmoon, who grew up among the Abanasinian tribes who are a fantasy counterpart to Great Plains Natives. Unlike the rest of her people she was born with blonde hair and light skin, and recently received visions from one of the true Gods. These visions led her to find the Discs of Mishakal and the Blue Crystal Staff, the first of many steps to bring divine splendor to Krynn once again.
Tracy Hickman, one of Dragonlance's authors, is Mormon, and some aspects of said religion comes through. The Discs of Mishakal are an allegory for the golden plates their prophet Joseph Smith claimed to have found buried in the ground. As for Goldmoon's light skin, this bears similarity to the Lamanite/Nephites, a group of people Mormon theology taught were descendants of ancient Israelites. The Lamanites were dark-skinned and wicked, the Nephites light-skinned and saintly. Joseph Smith and other Mormons identified Native Americans as Lamanites, and the bearing of skin color with morality caused a troublesome strain of racism to occur through Mormon culture until recent changes in 2006. It was believed that Lamanite-descendend people would gain lighter skin tones via the repenting of sins.
As for Dragonlance overall, humans are generally divided into two major cultural groups: civilized and nomadic. Both groups comprise fantasy counterpart cultures: civilized humanity counts Solamnics (Germans), Ergothians (sub-Saharan African appearance with Roman culture) and Nerakans among others. Prominent nomadic humans in the setting include the aforementioned Abanasinian tribes, Khurish people (Arab-Mongols), and Ice Folk (Nordic), although some Nerakans and Ergothians live in tribes and are counted as ‘nomadic’ in spite of being the same people as their ‘civilized’ peers. Unlike the civilized human groups who generally have only stationary settlements in common, the nomadic humans are linked as having a reverence for nature and ancestor worship as common cultural traits, as well as distrusting all others who do not belong to their respective tribes.
The sourcebooks assert that the two distinctive terms are the result of in-game prejudice, of the former groups looking down upon nomadic and hunter-gatherer cultures. But many times said Abanasinians and other nomadic groups are referred to as barbarians in a narrative oversight voice. Examples include War of the Lance sourcebook, page 77: “The Que-Shu tribe was destroyed when they traced the mysterious blue crystal staff [see Chapter Two] to the barbarian village” and page 6 of the same book: “to the barbaric peoples of Ansalon, who live daily by following the changes of season and the migration of beasts, the physical changes in the world provded devastating [referring to the Cataclysm].”
Although in its early years it bore its share of criticism in regards to racial portrayals, the ideological leanings of Pathfinder's authors, Paizo Publishing, hewed closer to the social justice side of liberalism in recent years. They hired feminists such as Jessica Price onto their team and made effort to include artwork and characters of non-European (or fantasy counterpart non-European) appearances into Golarion.
Set in the Inner Sea region of the twin continents Avistan (Europe) and Garundi (Africa), the core setting of Pathfinder's official world has 50 plus countries which emulate a variety of genres and cultures both vaguely real-world and entirely fantastical. The far-off land of Arcadia is hinted at being a North America analogue, discovered by Ulfen (Nordic) colonists recently, only to be repelled by tomahawk-bearing indigenous humans. Although not referred to as savages, "savaging" is used as a verb to describe their assault on Ulfen outposts.
The term 'savage' is a loaded term in the real world, and not just towards Native Americans. It's been a popular historical descriptor by European colonists in regards to foreign societies, especially ones whose technological prowess was not as advanced as their industrialized countries at the time.
The Barbarian Class
There's a tendency in Dungeons & Dragons, both official and third party, to grant Barbarian levels to members of technologically primitive cultures. In game mechanics, Barbarians are melee-focused fighters who summon bouts of rage in short bursts to enhance their martial prowess. Lighter weapons and ranged archery are possible, but in most Editions and retroclones these are mechanically inferior choices, and when "raging" the class is incapable of stealth, higher thought, and other "patient" activity.
The Barbarian was first inspired by Conan the Barbarian, a highly skilled warrior who learned a bunch of trades during his travels. Over time the Barbarian class came to represent Nordic berserkers and Celtic skyclad warriors as well, who were believed to be part of religious warrior societies where their "rages" were a sort of battle-trance. And while said groups were pre-industrialized, the D&D Barbarian has been more or less extended to cover hunter-gatherer and "primitive" warriors in general, be they neanderthals, orcs, or even counterpart cultures of real groups.
A good example is the Savage Alternate Class, a third-party sourcebook (unaffiliated with either Wizards of the Coast or Paizo) which is meant as a Barbarian archetype, and in spite of its claims of not adhering to real-world cultures, one of its sub-classes the Noble Savage has a lizardman bedecked in apparel which is none other than an iconic war bonnet worn by Great Plains tribes. The Noble Savage trope in popular culture and media was very often used in regards to Native Americans in the USA, a sort of "positive stereotyping" meant to be progressive. They said that in spite of their primitive state, the indigenous tribes of Africa and the Americas possessed a strong moral center long lost in the more industrialized nations. In spite of taking an opposite hue from earlier demonizations, the Noble Save also has its fair share of baggage by distorting actual culture in favor of an ideal placed upon them by outsiders.
Another example is the Razor Coast setting by Frog God Games. It takes place in the aforementioned region inspired by Caribbean and Hawaiian influences. Many pirates and colonists settled on its shores to plunder its riches, at great expense to the native Tulita tribes who have a blend of indigenous Caribbean and Polynesian peoples. Although the setting takes great care to avoid portraying said Tulita as “lacking civilization,” the Pathfinder stat blocks for recurring NPCs in Appendix 2 grant the average Tulita warrior 2 levels in Fighter and 4 in Barbarian. The Dragoon NPCs (Europeanesque colonial soldiers with tri-corner hats and firearms), be they rank-and-file troops or sergeants, have only levels in Fighter.
Going back to Dragonlance, Legends of the Twins has a statblock for Darknight, a Plainsman Chief, as having only levels in barbarian.
About 3 years ago, gaming icon Monte Cook went independent and formed his own publishing company with business and writing partner Shanna Germain. Their first game was Numenera, a science-fiction setting in far-off Earth, and after that the Strange. The Strange's main concept is a multi-dimensional one, where phenomena known as "recursions" occur to create new alternate worlds often based upon literary and cultural tropes.
One of the sample recursion worlds was known as the Thunder Plains, and early last year it attracted a lot of criticism from gamers, both Native American and ones belonging to other races and ethnic groups. This Twitter series consolidates a lot of the material here, but one of the major points of contention was turning the Thunderbird into a malevolent god of wrath and destruction. In the traditional religion of several tribes such as the Ojibwe, the Thunderbird is not an evil engine of destruction akin to the Greek Titans or Abrahamic Devil, but had more benevolent role. According to what I could find on Wikipedia, the Thunderbirds served as guardians of humankind, arbiters of weather and morality, and representatives of the Sun.
However, in an unexpected change the staff of Monte Cook Games considered the criticism leveled and sought to make a replacement recursion setting by hiring Anthony Pastores and Alina Pete, two Native writers, to pen Ohunkakan: the Living Myths.
Such things are an important matter, for it is good to pay attention to and direct said attention of minority voices who are most impacted by such things. Whether they be consulted or directly hired, said people are not only likely to have direct experience but can also spot and show off inaccurate tropes and stereotypes which often get missed and ignored by writers less experienced in said cultures.
Although things worked out for the better, this still gave rise to pushback from more right-wing gamers who saw it an "SJW attack on Monte Cook." Many believed that the sole complaints were from white guys claiming to be Natives even though the first person to bring it to the gaming world's attention was a Native woman.
Concluding Thoughts & Potential Solutions
Dungeons & Dragons and table-top gaming as a whole is home to its fair share of traditionalists and older works which don't age well, and my article touches but on the surface of things, there is a pattern of ill-handled works which range from pseudo-liberal positive stereotyping to one step removed from old-timey white supremacist racism. And attempts at calling out such tropes end up meeting resistance from certain gamers in various venues, which does nothing to progress things.
Systemic discrimination, violence, and mockery of indigenous Americans and their cultures is not a long ago thing, but is still very, very recent. Native American boarding schools run by Christians forbade the children to practice their language, traditional religions, and cultural holidays, and the last ones were closed in the 1970s. This was the same decade in which medical reports discovered widespread forced sterilization of Native women by doctors in the United States as recently as 1976. The same decade which saw the rise of New Age philosophy, part of an influx of non-Natives writing books on Native American religion and making things up about them, even going so far as to commercialize sacred rituals for profit and offering people shamanic training in exchange for money.
The "it's just a game" excuse doesn't hold much water when said tropes are a mirror image to real-world rhetoric used as justification for racial prejudice.
So what can be done? What should be done? Here are some thoughts of mine below.
1.) Do not base orcs and goblins off of real-world races and ethnicities. Even if you're trying a subversion with orcs and goblins goodly, misunderstood folk and humans and elves the evil ones, you're still going to run into trouble. Are you basing the humans off of a Western culture, one you personally belong to, or maybe one you regard as "advanced?" Are your orcs still given to stereotypical names and behavior such as "Ursh Bonesmasher" and frequent warfare? Are your fantasy counterpart orcs based off of a real-world race or ethnic group your dominant culture regards as uneducated, malevolent, and/or antithetical to your society's values?
Dungeons & Dragons. Warhammer. Lord of the Rings. Dragon Quest. Magic: the Gathering. These are all very popular bits of fantasy media, and while they differ in some cases orcs serve similar roles as foreign, monstrous invaders antithetical to the human nations. When geeks hear the words "dwarf," "halfling," and other "good" fantasy races, many positive connotations spring to mind. When geeks hear the words "orc" and "goblin," the first things which come to mind for many are violence, wickedness, stupidity, and a lack of values and culture aside from violence and war.
And on the opposite side of things, making fantasy counterpart Westerners and white people goblins and orcs is not a good solution, either, because it merely shifts the demonization to another group.
2.) Rework the term "Barbarian." In Dungeons & Dragons and many fantasy games, the Barbarian is generally a specific kind of fighting style focusing on brute strength. In the real world, among both Westerners and other civilizations, it generally was a negative term for foreigner. The Byzantine Empire was just as willing to sling the barbarian label at technologically primitive tribes as they were at Western monarchies and the Islamic Caliphates (which at various points in time were on par with or exceeded the Byzantines technology-wise). To them, not sharing the same cultural values made you less civilized regardless of how many mighty palaces and expansive public works projects you built. For that end, relegating the term to in-game text of NPCs making value judgments instead of a neutral narrator places it in the realm of subjective cultural perceptions than an objective statement of a world-view.
"Barbarians" might instead be known as berserkers, practitioners of fighting styles which may or may not belong to certain warrior societies and religious orders. Depending on the tradition, they may visualize their rages as battle-trances, spiritual possession, or even drawing up a wall of negative emotions to block out mental domination and doubt in battle. At the same level, technologically primitive tribes can be versatile in fighting styles and classes, sporting archery-focused Rangers, agility-based Fighters with light weapons, and the like.
3.) Just because a religious tradition is few in number doesn't mean you should be any less careful. There's a tendency towards an Abrahamic bias among tabletop writers. And by that I mean that there's a willingness to stat out and incorporate deities of other religions into their fictional worlds, yet leave God and Jesus untouched. This goes as far back as the original Deities & Demigods, which removed the stat blocks of Hindu deities after objections on their portrayal by said Hindus.
There are too many religions out there to say whether or not each one is a good idea to incorporate them into a fictional RPG, but generally speaking you should handle the subject carefully. Sure there might be fewer practitioners of Native American religions, Vodoun (voodoo), and Zoroastrians in the table-top fandom than Christians and Muslims, but that doesn't mean you should view that as carte blanche in inserting their deities without forethought.
Keep in mind that even if a real-world religion is small in number, that doesn't make the faith of its members "dead" like traditional worship of the Greek pantheon, nor does it make it any less real or fervent to them. You may endure less complaints than from members of big established religions, but you're still making a judgment value. Many Native Americans still revere their respective belief systems to this day, and Vodoun and its subgroups such as Santeria are still practiced in Caribbean island nations.
If you plan on incorporating real-world deities still in practice, consider reaching out to a member of said religion as a cultural consultant. Do some research as well. And be very, very careful in assigning certain deities the "evil" descriptor in your game's morality system unless they clearly have such a role as an antagonist to humanity.
I know that this can be a difficult subject for many to navigate, but I hope that my article illuminated why seemingly innocuous trends of "barbarizing" indigenous people in RPGs is something we're better off discarding.