Monte Cook Games, Thunder Plains, & A Petition

Settings based on particular people, times, cultures, or places are commonplace in RPGs, although they tend to be historical (feudal Japan, Vikings, Wild West, Victorian England) or mythological (Aurthurian legends, Greek mythology, Robin Hood). The other day I stumbled across something I'd managed to completely miss - Monte Cook Games was the subject of a petition from somebody who felt that a particular Native American themed recursion (world) in MCG's game The Strange had some issues. The petition has 250 signatures, and MCG adopted a policy of listening to what folks had to say - both in public, and by contacting various bodies - before responding. I've posted both the petition and the response below.

So, first, the petition.

We, the undersigned, DEMAND immediate removal of "Thunder Plains" and all related content from all Monte Cook Games publications current and future, and request an immediate public apology for harm done, regardless of supposed intent from the creators and companies responsible for publishing of this content.

The Strange RPG is a game about world-hopping into alternate realities called "recursions" that are based on amassed collective imagination. For example, there may be a "recursion" all about children's games, or one that specifically features a "cops & robbers" theme since it is a game played around the world by children of all ages.

There may be another "recursion" about Wonderland, since it is a well-known book/story throughout the world.

There may be some not based in any realities of our own world, but from collective imaginations based in other alien worlds.

However, Bruce R. Cordell and Monte J. Cook thought it appropriate to appropriate Native culture and create this mass amalgamation pan-Indian world as one of their main 5 listed in their core guide named "Thunder Plains". In it, they have turned "Thunderbird" into an antagonistic god-like creature, and have littered the 'recursion' with 'medicine men' wearing leather chaps and overly large headdresses with antlers, stating that Indians 'revere' the buffalo.

On and on with such blatantly racist stereotypical trope after trope, belittling real living human being, demeaning our existence, dehumanizing us, and forcibly placing us in the category of make-believe past and purposefully reinforcing the very same imagery that contributes to the continued genocide and colonization that plagues us today.

They have been made very clearly aware of how harmful this is, with numerous links to articles written by Dr. Adrienne Keene, and multiple studies proving, with numbers, how harmful this is.

Their initial response was simple and completely missed the point.

They stated, from their official accounts at @MonteCookGames and @TheStrangeRPG (quickly followed by mouthpiece @ShannaGermain) that their "intent" was to show that this is from collective imagination and that collective imagination and stereotypes are wrong. This is never stated in their book (that this is stereotypically racist and incorrect) and presented solely by itself.

Even if their intent is as claimed, they are profiting off of continued genocide of our peoples via appropriation and racism.

This is unacceptable. #RacismInGaming is rampant and nearly ubiquitous with nerd culture and gaming culture. While developers like Chris Sims are working to be more inclusive (to LGBTQIA spectrum folks and women especially), it seems Monte J. Cook and Bruce R. Cordell are reveling in purposeful racism.

When confronted with these issues, there have been offers for inclusion on review boards, but no acknowledgement of mistakes or harm, no apologies, and plenty of jibes and rude comments (especially from Shanna Germain). The official twitter of the individuals, game company, and game itself have repeatedly blocked anyone speaking against it, and thereafter began mocking the real harm done and real discussion being had as "outragism" and a non-issue (see attached image from Bruce Cordell twitter).

We cannot let this stand. There is overwhelming and ever-mounting evidence of the real actual harm done to Native peoples by imagery like what is seen in The Strange. There are over 560 federally recognized, hundreds of state recognized, and hundreds that aren't recognized (fighting for recognition, whom imagery like this directly harms) SOVEREIGN Native Nations in the US ALONE.

Step up, and help us deliver a message to the creators (Monte J Cook and Bruce R Cordell) that they CANNOT ignore.


And Monte Cook Games' response.

Last year, Monte Cook Games published an RPG called The Strange that involved otherworldly “recursions” based on the fiction of our own Earth. In August of last year, we heard from someone who had concerns about a small section of the game, a recursion called the Thunder Plains. We attempted to engage with that person to understand the concerns, but by January, the person ultimately became abusive, and communications broke down.

Recently, this same individual created a petition on change.org.

(Link: https://www.change.org/p/monte-cool-games-we-the-undersigne…)

The petition did not get much support. We felt personally blindsided and hurt by the libelous portrayal of our company and our employees within the text, but we knew the impact of the petition on our business would be negligible.

Still, we were worried that there was an issue here we just weren’t seeing. We recognized that as non-Native people and as the creators whose intent might not have been well communicated, we might be blind to a valid concern.

This wasn’t a money or even a PR issue. There wasn’t enough support for the petition to put “pressure” on us, and in fact the majority of people that we heard from, privately and publicly, Native and non-Native, said that we really didn’t need to do anything.

So this was not a business question, but an ethical one.

Some called for an immediate response from us, but at that point, our voices were the least important. We needed to listen, not talk. Change.org does not allow for discussion of any kind, so we made as transparent a post as we could on our Facebook page. Because many people have a problem with Facebook (and in particular its backward policies on Native names) we made a post on our Google+ page at the same time. We included a link to the petition. These posts got a lot of comments.

We appreciated the initial, reasonable conversation and exchange of views, but eventually things got vitriolic, both in the comments of our posts and in particular elsewhere on the Internet. There were lies, name-calling, and harassment, and ultimately people got involved whose only apparent agenda was to rile up anger. But despite all that noise, we heard some well-reasoned and clearly sincere voices too.

And these were voices, we knew, that didn’t often get listened to.

We spoke privately and in person with a variety of Native people about cultural appropriation in gaming and other media, about their hopes for the future of gaming, and in particular about our game. We asked them, “Is Thunder Plains problematic?”

The answer was complicated.

Our major concerns were these:

1. The Thunder Plains material could be easily misunderstood and misconstrued. The people we spoke to made it clear that while charges of racism were overblown, and the respectful intent was clear, Thunder Plains got some facts wrong—alterations that could be seen as slights, not creative license. It fell into the traps of stereotypes and generalities, grouping together peoples, customs, and myths that were not and are not uniform. RPG writers do that all the time, because we have only a few paragraphs to describe what is sometimes an entirely new fictional world. But in this case, that sort of brevity and generalization is the sort of treatment Native people and myth always get in fiction, so to many it just seemed like more of that same problematic treatment.

2. But simply removing Thunder Plains created other problems. When Bruce, the Thunder Plains designer, wrote the material he did so intentionally because Native people were under-represented and as someone who grew up among the Sioux and Lakota, and has Native family members, he wanted to include them and do so with sensitivity and respect. Our intention was one of inclusion. Simply cutting Thunder Plains would mean less of a Native presence in RPGs, and many people we talked to—particularly Native people—did not want to see that happen.

3. We strongly, STRONGLY believe in freedom of expression and abhor censorship of any kind. But if you write something and it turns out it doesn’t convey what you wanted to say, questioning that isn’t censorship. It’s clarity.

Still, we were worried about suggesting that angry harassment is a valid way to enact change. It is not. We strongly reject harassment of any kind and apologize to any of those who have been harassed for speaking up for us. We also apologize to any of our detractors who may have been harassed by those seeking to support us.

We considered taking no action, in no small part because it would present a strong message that harassment campaigns don’t work. But we knew that wouldn't be the right choice. We needed to honor those quiet, respectful voices more than we needed to quell the loud ones.

We have decided to replace the current Thunder Plains material in The Strange with a different Native American themed recursion. We will create this recursion alongside the Native writers with whom we’re already talking. Future printings will contain the new material, and the PDF versions will be altered with a free electronic update. The recursion will also be available to everyone as a free ebook.

There’s a risk here that some people will see this as capitulation—that we’re “giving in” to harassment. Or that the harassers will see ANY Native recursion as offensive, and continue their campaign. But so many Native American gamers asked us to keep a presence on our pages. So rather than delete and back away, we're going to move forward. We're going to learn, and create. We hope our response will encourage more Native designers, writers, and artists—as well as those of other minority groups and cultures—to play RPGs and work on games.

We cannot stress enough that we are doing this because we were moved by the thoughtful voices we heard, willing to engage with us in conversation. Could we have ignored this issue? Yes. Could we have written a lengthy defense of our creation and our intentions that would have satisfied 99% of the people out there? Yes. Could we have spent our time fighting the petition’s libelous language? Yes.

But instead, we thought, why not just listen to that unheard 1% instead? Not the vitriolic nothing-is-ever-good-enough 1%, but the ones who just quietly wish someone would look at things from their point of view once in a while?

This is a small gesture, but at this time, it’s what we can do to say to those people that someone’s listening.

Is this the right answer? We don’t know. But we believe in positive change. Change doesn’t always just mean “change the world.” Sometimes it means “change yourself.” And sometimes it just means “change who gets listened to.”

This doesn’t mean that every time someone has a gripe with our books we’ll make a change. Quite the opposite: We’re taking this action because sincere people connected with us and maintained a civil discussion with reasonable points of view.

Isn’t that, in the end, the way we all wished things worked every time?



I personally don't know enough about Native American culture to comment on the accuracy of the recursion, nor am I ever likely to know what it feels like to have one's culture appropriated. I have met most of the staff of MCG, though, and they're all genuinely nice people; I can't imagine them feeling anything other than distressed at just the thought that they might have hurt somebody, whatever the case may be.
 

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redrick

First Post
I wish that was truly the case.

However, the fact is that in the United States to be labeled a "racist" is akin to being labeled a witch in Salem circa 1692. Hence their strong language in the response ("libelous portrayal", etc.) I don't see that they really have any choice than to defend themselves.

Being labeled a witch in Salem in 1692 meant being burned at the stake. Not metaphorically. It meant being murdered. As a white person, being called a racist makes you feel really bad. It might get you ostracized in some circles. If you have KKK hoods in your closet and the pictures get posted on gawker, you might lose your job.

These things are not analogous. Being called racist sucks. But being the victim of racism is worse.

Edited to add:

While I wasn't familiar with the setting in place, it seems like MCG took this as an opportunity to do a good thing for games. Not by avoiding controversy and axing a setting that drew criticism, but by listening (even when some of the voices sounded pretty aggressive and uncompromising) and to look for a way to make a setting that did real justice to people who have faced a lot of oppression for a long time.

Cultural appropriation is a tricky business, and the easy way out is to just steer away from non-european inspiration. This would be a loss! We need more settings and stories grounded in non-european fantasy. But we need those stories to be nuanced and informative, not recycling of of old stereotypes. So I'm excited by MCG's move, and I hope we'll see more exciting work with diverse and exciting sources.
 
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Eirikrautha

First Post
Amusingly enough, as someone who is part Cherokee, I hardly ever see any cultural "appropriation" of Native American culture. By far, others appropriate my Western culture, it's history, and it's values (as any non-Westerner playing D&D is doing... Playing a parody of medieval Europe). Heck, if my Native American ancestors had just "appropriated" a little more Western culture (specifically the little tubes that bullets came out of in high volume... And maybe some of the big tubes, too!), this would be non-issue (at least in North America)... :lol:
 


Like the long discussion about sexism in gaming we had on here a few years ago, this is the sort of debate that is bound to be held between the overzealous and the less politically concerned. That waters down the discussion of the issue in general, and turns the issue at hand even more towards absurdity.

My personal opinion on the general issue is, in a very simplified fashion, white Western men from a 100 years ago invented modern fantasy literature. To complain, as long as they are still referred to as the main literary influences on the genre, that the one prevalent perspective within the genre is still theirs, is kind of absurd, by itself. - Not saying that the genre hasn't evolved considerably, but fantasy literature was born out of the concept of idealized white people dealing with the grotesque and the alien. Something of that is always going to stick, whether it's Daeny the dragon queen getting violated by a proto-mongol until she starts to find pleasure in the process, or whether its the sounds of Tekeli-li by some cannibalistic penguin. It's a relic of a bygone era, and it will fade. So, get over it.

My personal opinion on the issue at hand is, it's a waste of time. I am not making a political statement when I say, anybody who has watched the news last year knows that there are way more important race-related issues that need to be dealt with. Obvious baloney like this is just distracting from the much more urgent issues.
 
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vongarr

First Post
I have no doubt that Germain was snippy and rude with the original vitriol. I can't blame her, and that's her style.

I also have no doubt that the petition and the other messages were over the top. I also wonder how much this has to do with the game, and how much it has to do with naming controversies of sporting teams.

If The Strange had a Jim Crow, or reconstruction era incursion, with "massas" and share croppers, would that be OK simply because it is part of a cultural memory? What about a prohibition era incursion, where the women were prostitutes and the distillers toothless hillbillies? Some might say these are not the same, but that is because our cultural connections are much closer than they are to the thunder plains imagery.

I found MCG to be overwhelmingly self congratulatory in their tone. It's a bit much, considering they were the instigators. But that's their style.
 

FWIW, I share vongarr's sentiment: I think the real issue - and I deeply applaud that - is here, in the 201Xs, you can't sell 70s and 80s fantasy tropes any more, at least not this bluntly. That's a long way from the chainmal bikini, and that's a good thing. Now, one can surely debate whether the attacks on Monte, for this one, and for that pregnancy demon last year are justified, pretentious, or if Monte and his team are just misunderstood by their audience.

Or, one can judge the actual respective products, and conclude that perhaps lazy writing is to blame - because that's my personal impression:
Not intentional racism or sexism, but simple, insufficient proofreading is to blame. - But for a company like Monte's, that deals so much in crowdfunding an pre-release sales, how important is the finished product, really?
 


Uller

Adventurer
I find the whole thing to be ridiculous. It reminds me of the brit sitcom "The Young Ones" when the "anarchist" character, Rick, laid into the pacifist character, Neal, over his use of South African lentils. Poor Neal was just trying to make a meal for his room mates and next thing he knows he's being accused of being a supporter of apartheid. Throughout the series, Rick constantly went after Neal in this fashion because Neal was an easy target that wouldn't fight back in any meaningful way. No one with any sense can believe that Bruce Cordell is sitting there trying to keep indigenous peoples or Egyptians or anyone else down.

Back in the 80s, those that saw Satanism under every rock didn't just go after TSR. They made their greatest headway against the people who were least interested in fighting back. My Jr High D&D club got shut down the first time a "concerned parent" called to complain. Not because the teacher that ran the club or even the principal believed there was a problem...but because they just didn't want to deal with the nonesense. I think that's pretty much what's happening here.
 


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