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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conclave27

First Post
Sadly how can "a Indian Council" be representative of the 1000+ various groups of of indigenous people in North America? I was always glad to see other "Non-European" settings. Monte Cook's inclusion of the "Thunder Plains" follows in the footsteps of other such modules and campaign settings. Deadlands is one of the Prime examples of stereo typing Native Americans as well, they did their best job trying to be as respectful as possible. the D&D campaigns settings for Mystara and Forgotten realms took there own stab as well. Although not as accurate as one would hope, take into consideration that these are fantasy interpretations.
People should happy that other cultures and historical people are being included... I'd rather see them add instead of making them "invisible". I myself am Native American, my family cultures was obliterated by the U.S. government, rival tribes, the French and Mexican Armies....some of us were folded into other large tribes... and others just assimilated.
Would would be helpful, is instead of shutting Monte Cook down and trying to silence his idea.... clarify the Thunder Plains. Go into further detail and clarifies with a supplement that accurate portrays "your version" of Native America history. Heck the whole premise of the Thunder Plains is surrounding the dominant culture of the Comanches of Kansas and Norther Texas. Like I said there are over 1000+ tribes each with a unique culture.... you can't please everybody. As long as it was respectful... then hey just be happy.
 

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Wow, that is by far the most articulate, thoughtful response I have seen a company make to allegations of racial insensitivity. It is particularly surprising coming from a small company, given that so many large companies with legions of PR staff have bungled it so badly.

Unfortunately, in this day in age you are STILL going to piss off: 1) those on the extreme left who use any excuse to cry "racism"; 2) those on the extreme right who feel that if they personally are not offended, then no one else has the right to be either.
 

I'm a bit conflicted with my own opinions regarding the issue.

On one hand, I think they did a relatively good job in terms of public relationships here, managing to defuse a problem before it grew bigger. The internet and social networks these days have a unique capacity to turn otherwise corner cases into full-blown scandals, which can be extremely disruptive on creative work. I'm also a fan of Monte Cook Games work in general.

On the other, I cannot avoid but feeling rather uncomfortable with the situation. It's great that they handled the issue and avoided more problems, but at the same time it seemed like such a superficial and purposedly offended complaint that I would have liked MCG to stand their ground.

It is not that I think writers and artists shouldn't take the sensibilities of their audience into consideration; we're a much more globalized gaming community now, and there are many angles and viewpoints to consider. Rather, I think context and intention are very important in these matters, and that not all claims of offense are necessarily valid reasons to force a change. Sometimes it is the offended the one who should do some introspection and attempt to avoid being too egotistical.
 

Here's what bugs me about the fact that MCG did anything: from the response of MCG itself, they are lirerally, well, let me quote:



MCG has chosen to openly dismiss the vast majority who have contacted them to say, "It's fine. Leave it alone," and only regard the very few who demanded change. This is literally a small group deciding for everybody else what they can have. And they don't even have the dignity of pretending this is controversial.

How can ANYONE think this is OK?

Native Americans are a minority in the United States....they will never be able to express their viewpoint in greater percentages than the larger majority of non-NAs. So in that sense, it is absolutely fine; non-NAs do not have to feel put-upon because we are fine with a cultural stereotyping that is harmful to a small minority if that minority would prefer to see some meaningful representation.

I'm not Native American. I'm a white middle aged blonde male who has a position in which I "work for the man." I did however get my degree in anthropology and was heavily focused on the archaeology and culture of Southwestern and Mesoamerican cultures in my prior years. The piece in The Strange was annoying to me because it is factually wrong and poorly presented....it could be excused as a "recursion" apparently because the domains in The Strange are created from a gestalt of belief, but that means that they decided to include a Native American depiction of what amounts to a Gene Autry-era movie of "redskins." It's...well....I get that a lot of people in the US are not very familiar with NA cultures (and there are a LOT) and that the notion that less than four decades ago radical NA activist groups were still effectively waging war against the US for the crap our government did to them is probably something most younger gamers don't even realize was a Very Real Thing these days....but if even a little bit of understanding of NA culture and history prompts an otherwise majority fellow like myself to find this little bit in The Strange both inaccurate, poorly representing of what it intends and....frankly...limiting in its depiction to the point where I'd be worried about what sort of poorly conceived sourcebook on the recursion that they produce would look like....then I have to say: they ought to change it, and work hard to make it interesting and respectful.

And you know what? If they make a better Thunder Plains, one which actually takes some research and effort to look at actual NA Plains Cultures as they really are, then they will have a genuine, more meaningful product that is useful to a lot more people, and everyone wins.
 

I'm a bit conflicted with my own opinions regarding the issue.

On one hand, I think they did a relatively good job in terms of public relationships here, managing to defuse a problem before it grew bigger. The internet and social networks these days have a unique capacity to turn otherwise corner cases into full-blown scandals, which can be extremely disruptive on creative work. I'm also a fan of Monte Cook Games work in general.

On the other, I cannot avoid but feeling rather uncomfortable with the situation. It's great that they handled the issue and avoided more problems, but at the same time it seemed like such a superficial and purposedly offended complaint that I would have liked MCG to stand their ground.

It is not that I think writers and artists shouldn't take the sensibilities of their audience into consideration; we're a much more globalized gaming community now, and there are many angles and viewpoints to consider. Rather, I think context and intention are very important in these matters, and that not all claims of offense are necessarily valid reasons to force a change. Sometimes it is the offended the one who should do some introspection and attempt to avoid being too egotistical.

Since I am in the unique position of having studied Native American cultures quite a bit, and am a decidedly white majority average dude, I really do need to stress that I personally felt that MCG did a poor job on the Thunder Plains bit in the book. It was a poorly conceived stereotype of Plains Cultures that immediately stuck them in a corner on how they could do any development to that recursion going forward by virtue of its lack of research and effort. From this standpoint alone, regardless of any offense Native Americans might take, I would argue that they ought to do a revision that has...to be straight up about it...a modicum of research and effort.
 

I suppose the other issue is that in this case, the minority is not in the right. American Indian cultures are not something that should only be spoken of in reverent, hushed tones with not a word of criticism - especially in a game that is ABOUT stories and the collective imagination; I will not give any culture a pass that other cultures don't get.

But this was, literally, MTG saying, "We know that the majority of our customers want this product and support it, but we are instead going to listen to the 1% of the people we heard from who want this product to be unavailable."

(My other concern, a bigger one, is there seems to be a movement to liberalize the RPG community by driving out the non-liberals, but that is a topic for another thread.)

I really do disagree here. I won't comment on the level of vitriolic commentary expressed by those in the petition, but I really do think that in all honesty the Thunder Plains write-up in The Strange is just a poorly-conceived, poorly researched piece of junk that hurts their setting and design. With very little effort that entire four-page section could have been made much more interesting if some actual research had been put into it. From a purely anthropological view what they wrote misses huge story opportunities and dramatically closes the door an all sorts of interesting possibilities for an expanded write-up by painting themselves into the most trite corner imaginable. If the plan was not to do to do more than four pages on Thunder Plains, ever, then why even include it? They could have focused on so many other areas of history and culture that would have benefited from those four pages. Instead what we have is something that does the following:

1. If you are Native American, and especially if you have geneaology within the Plains groups, you are going to be either at least mildly offended at this broken stereotype with mischaracterization of your family history. At best you might be "okay" with it but then have to scrap the whole work to produce something that makes any sense as someone who actually has some understanding of your own history and culture.

2. If you are like me, a white guy with a background in Anthropology, you will be seriously annoyed at the lack of research effort and missed opportunities that the four-page writeup offers and end up scrapping it to do something that makes any sense at all.

3. If you are neither of the above and don't care about NA cultures enough to notice why its a problem, odds are very strong that you won't even use Thunder Plains for more than a one-off at some point. If Thunder Plains was actually properly researched and representative of its source material, than at this point you might accidentally learn some useful facts about Plains cultures from an alt-history perspective, so a revision would actually do some good; but as it stands, you have zero investment, learn nothing, and probably won't use it.

So....a revision to this material which is more culturally and historically accurate can hurt absolutely no one and benefit absolutely everyone.
 

Since I am in the unique position of having studied Native American cultures quite a bit, and am a decidedly white majority average dude, I really do need to stress that I personally felt that MCG did a poor job on the Thunder Plains bit in the book. It was a poorly conceived stereotype of Plains Cultures that immediately stuck them in a corner on how they could do any development to that recursion going forward by virtue of its lack of research and effort. From this standpoint alone, regardless of any offense Native Americans might take, I would argue that they ought to do a revision that has...to be straight up about it...a modicum of research and effort.

I can get behind that; improving a work of fiction that one feels is lacking in depth is a good thing. I have no objections.

I do, however, question the demand for change based on the idea of cultural appropriation. Insufficiently researched doesn't have to necessarily translate into insulting. Simplistic and cliche, sure, but that's why I think context matters.

For example, I'm Latin American; Chilean, to be more specific. To say that the cultural groups and subgroups I belong to are regularly misrepresented and poorly researched in gaming and media would be a severe understatement; as a pair of exchange students from the US once told me after being surprised by a snowstorm -and still beffudled that they couldn't find taco stands anywhere- "We thought everything south of Texas was like Mexico".

However, at the same time I need to take into consideration what an author is aiming at when using this or that trope, stereotype, or cliche. An offense is, after all, a slight of one's ego, so whether something is offensive or not does not fall on the creative work itself, but instead on those interpreting the work. We saw that in the responses of people both in favour and against MCG's portrayal; the Thunder Plains might be shallow (I'm not very well-versed in North American native culture, if I have to be honest), but they are not trying to be historically accurate either.

I know it's a very, very fine line, but I would rather err on the side of creative freedom. After all, it is impossible to determine when someone's going to be offended (I mean, I'm Catholic. I don't get offended with demons and devils in D&D, others do. Yet I don't think we should go back to limiting those portrayals because of that. We can choose not to get involved with the game).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
With very little effort that entire four-page section could have been made much more interesting if some actual research had been put into it. From a purely anthropological view what they wrote misses huge story opportunities and dramatically closes the door an all sorts of interesting possibilities for an expanded write-up by painting themselves into the most trite corner imaginable. If the plan was not to do to do more than four pages on Thunder Plains, ever, then why even include it? They could have focused on so many other areas of history and culture that would have benefited from those four pages.

So, you're saying that they need to do it with "four-part harmony with feeling" or not touch it at all?

Given the basic concept of The Strange, as I understand it, that means, "don't do The Strange at all". My understanding is that it calls for there to be many worlds, many of which are based on the real world. It is not possible for them to do all such in great detail, with lots of research. They could have focused on so many other areas of history and culture - and with only four pages, done just as limited and flawed job with them.

I think there's a question being left unasked: What is worse for gaming - well-meaning attempts to include more people that aren't great, or no attempts to do it at all?
 


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