A credit that I’ve started to see in new RPGs is “sensitivity reader”. I think it’s fair enough to wonder two things; what do sensitivity readers do? If we’re paying for them through the cost of the book, do they make RPGs better?
Of course, I think I know what sensitivity readers do, and perhaps you do too. After all, the clue is in the name. In this article, I speak to game designer Tom Hart and Nathan Adler, author of Wrist and Ghost Lake as sensitivity reader. We can find out from them precisely, and without assumptions, what and how a sensitivity reader operates.
I’ll reveal my assumptions. Two things that come to mind are Vampire v5 with the rocky return of the World of Darkness and Oriental Adventures for D&D.
Vampire is about the horrible things people do. In the game, an element of this darkness is the fault of vampires lurking in the shadows, but when Paradox’s in-house team linked that to real-life, ongoing and present-day human right suffering in Chechnya, it was a step too far for many. You’re making money off suffering, it was claimed.
Oriental Adventures is a D&D product from yesteryear. It’s inspired by Asian culture. While it certainly does not set out to cause upset or be edgy, plenty of people argue it messes references and cultures up in a way that is inexcusable by today’s standards.
I get it, I think. I’m Scottish. I’d be infuriated by a book that keeps on referring to parts of Scotland as England or the people who live there as being English. I imagine too that it would be weird to find an RPG supplement that addresses the whole of North America and simply calls everyone who lives there Canadian.
The mention of Canada, a country where many Scots moved to (or were forced to move to), and pushed aside the first people to live there, brings us back to Tom and Nathan. Paranormal Affairs Canada was published this month. It’s an RPG intended for three to six players, and in it, PCs are agents working to protect Canada from supernatural and extraterrestrial threats.
Could you please describe the Paranormal Affairs Canada RPG for readers?
As an elevator pitch, it’s a Canadian game of paranormal investigation and monster hunting — think the X-Files, Dark Skies, Torchwood, or Men in Black. Where it distinguishes itself from other games in this genre is its Canadian focus, its commitment to diversity in the NPCs, and on accurate representations of creatures from myth and legend, with a special focus on those from the Indigenous cultures of what is now Canada.
It’s a game set in an Urban Fantasy world built on the premise that creatures from myths, folktales, and legends are real, and the plot and storylines that emerge result from the struggles between the various competing factions, it really presents an interesting space for real-world allegories and metaphors (and really cool monsters).
Who’s the intended audience for the RPG? Will indigenous and non-indigenous folks both equally enjoy the game?
I hope so! First and foremost, Paranormal Affairs Canada is a game made by Canadians for Canadians, where we have a space to tell our own stories at the table. That doesn’t mean it’s an exclusionary space: anyone who thinks this setting sounds like fun is welcome. One of the things that makes Toronto, in particular, a good location for urban fantasy is that half the city is foreign-born. This means it’s possible to tie folklore from almost anywhere in the world to the city, which makes it a really exciting and uncertain space to play.
My core gaming group, which has included white, Black, Asian, and Indian players, really enjoyed the Indigenous material I used in our campaigns, and felt that they learned a lot, and came away from the experience with a better appreciation of the local First Nations cultures. What I really hope is that Indigenous folks see that this game was crafted with respect for them and their folklore, and feel like this is an RPG that they can see some of their culture reflected in. It’s an invitation into our hobby.
Anyone who likes RPG type games, and urban fantasy worlds that are built on creatures from folklore. It really has a North American specific focus that takes into account the long history of Indigenous presence, and the cultures that have been on Turtle Island since time immemorial. A lot of Urban Fantasy narratives simply forget that Indigenous folks exist, and it takes a pretty huge blind-spot to simply not see any part of that history, so I think Paranormal Affairs really tries to address that.
What’s your reason for wanting to include Indigenous content in an RPG? What are you trying to accomplish here?
There are a few reasons. First, the premise of the game, that most creatures from myth and legend are real, means that the creatures from First Nations folklore are Canada’s indigenous supernatural population. It really wouldn’t make sense if these creatures weren’t present.
Second, these stories are awesome, some of them are directly connected to this land, and I want Canadians to know and appreciate them. For example, there’s a Seneca legend of Gaasyendietha, a dragon that lives under Lake Ontario. I learned about that and my jaw dropped. We’ve got our own Loch Ness monster and I never knew about it! I think Canadians are often envious of Europeans for all the history there, the old ruins and artifacts, but this land has history too — we’re just woefully ignorant of it.
Third, there are the dual issues of representation and appreciation. Non-Indigenous Canadians, especially people living somewhere where there are few First Nations people, often don’t know much about their Indigenous neighbours, and the Indigenous content in this game helps foster awareness. On the Indigenous side, I think about how much the most popular RPG settings are based on medieval European culture, and how I wouldn’t necessarily feel welcome if that wasn’t my background. So while making a Canadian RPG, designed to appeal to Canadians by virtue of the setting, it was also important to me to make a setting where Indigenous folks see something in the game that says, “This is for you.”
I think a lot of times the first gut-reaction for Indigenous folks when they hear someone Non-Indigenous is working with Indigenous characters, themes or content–it’s generally adverse. Mainstream representations of who Indigenous folks are have historically been dominated by Non-Indigenous creators, and it’s only relatively more recently that more of our stories have started to be heard from our perspectives on a bigger stage. And I think a big part of the reason for this gut-reaction is the fact that so many of those depictions have got things wrong, people haven’t done their homework or consulted anyone to make sure they’ve gotten things right or haven’t made any huge blunders. Tom has attempted to have a more balanced approach with his RPG, by involving Indigenous folks in his process, and I think it means a lot when people go that extra distance to at least try to make sure they haven’t fucked up too badly.
How does a sensitivity reader fit into that?
You don’t know what another culture’s taboos are unless you ask people from that culture. JK Rowling misstepped by using Navajo skin-walkers in her work, which is something the Navajo nation is emphatically not OK with.
In my first draft of the game, I definitely got some stuff wrong. I assumed I shouldn’t include thunderbirds in the game — they’re holy, right? But when Nathan did the sensitivity read, he told me thunderbirds are cool, and wanted to see them in the game. He pointed me at a video game by Elizabeth Lapensee that used thunderbirds as an example of how to use them in fiction respectfully. (See http://www.elizabethlapensee.com.)
Another mistake I made was that in the original draft, smoke from sacred tobacco burned vampires the same way holy water does. I thought I was being respectful, by treating all religions the same, but the idea of weaponizing tobacco was probably the most offensive thing in my entire draft! So in the revised version, vampires can’t cross a line of sacred tobacco, and putting some in their mouths dampens their powers.
In general, one of the worst things you can do is come in with the best intentions, and have everything you’re doing be seen as cultural appropriation. One of the most valuable things Nathan told me was to explain why, as a white guy, I’m using Indigenous content. As soon as I released the game, people asked me questions about this, and Nathan had given me the tools I needed to answer them.
I like that Tom imagined Indigenous folks being part of his audience, enjoying his RPG, so often people don’t take into account that we exist, and that we also want to enjoy fantasy/horror/sci-fi/and urban fantasy. Oftentimes you just have to scrunch up your face or hold your nose and ignore some elements of a story that are pulling you out of the suspension-of-disbelief because something’s not sitting right, and its a shame.
Other RPGs use Western creatures which are real to many people, like angels and demons. How do you compare using angels and demons in an RPG to using thunderbirds and wendigos?
The goal is never “offend no one” — that just isn’t realistic. You do your due diligence and do your best. There are definitely Western folks who are not OK with angels and demons appearing in RPGs, and there was an outcry about it in the 80s. But most people understand that playing RPGs doesn’t make someone start worshipping evil demons, and that these adventures are solidly in the realm of fiction.
By the same token, I suspect there are folks who won’t be OK with thunderbirds and wendigoes appearing in an RPG. But part of the reason for hiring an Indigenous person to do a sensitivity read, and for contacting Indigenous artists to commission or license art, is to be confident you’re not offending the mainstream.
Those two things are similar, when comes to deep-seated spiritual beliefs, I guess the main difference is the cultural background, which stories you grew up hearing, which monster’s or spirits that are part of your culture. Because for many folks stories about Thunderbirds and Windigo aren’t just stories, they are also real spirits, and you don’t want to piss them off. I think anytime you take a creature out of it’s cultural context, it’s likely going to lose its original meaning, and how those stories operate in their cultures. So the question is about whether you’re working within the culture, or outside of it, and if your outside of it, how do you tell a story using those elements and do it respectfully?
Was there anything you wanted to use but couldn’t find a way to work into the game?
Definitely. There was a Tahltan story about a man who had a toothed penis, and he was almost like a vampire, where he could extend it and use it to feed on women while they slept. My first reaction was, “Damn, I need to use the Tahltan penis vampire!” But the story I read about him was very short, and there wasn’t enough for me to build on beyond the shocking premise.
More seriously, I’d love to see a ghost story set in a residential school. This is something I thought about after reading about the Long Plain First Nation reclaiming the building of a former residential school. The residential school system is one of the worst things Canada ever did, but those of us who aren’t Indigenous never experienced it viscerally. One of the things that RPGs have over other storytelling mediums is that you participate in the story, so you experience it in a more visceral way than a third-person account. So you could, for example, have ghosts force the player characters to relive what happened to the First Nations children there.
That isn’t my story to tell, and I’d never feel right making money off it. But if any Indigenous person wanted to use my game to tell a story like that, they’d definitely have my support!
Is there anything you had to add to the game to discourage players from using the game in a way that wouldn’t be respectful to the Indigenous content?
Yeah, the fact is that once you release the game, it’s out of your hands. And one thing I really don’t want players to do is treat thunderbirds as monsters to kill, like wendigos or vampires. I tried to discourage that by making thunderbirds extremely powerful, and establishing in the fiction that killing one would damage relations between Paranormal Affairs Canada and the First Nations warrior societies they work with.
If you want a tough fight, throw a giant wendigo at your players instead.
Do you think sensitivity reading makes RPGs better? Safer? More acceptable?
Definitely. Think about how the misuse of Chechnya overshadowed everything else about the Vampire v5 launch. And that’s particularly unfortunate because they had a great mechanic with the hunger dice, where you’re motivated to keep your vampire fed so that you maintain narrative control over your player character. They made you think like a vampire! That’s brilliant, but that good work was overshadowed by their mistakes.
In my case, there were cool things, like thunderbirds and horned serpents, that I originally didn’t include in the game because I was being too cautious. Having Nathan do a sensitivity read definitely enriched Paranormal Affairs Canada.
I think Fate of Cthulhu benefitted from having a sensitivity read too. They’ve been praised for replacing “insanity” with “corruption”, which was really innovative and fun.
I think it makes it at least more accurate, and hopefully more accessible. Tom mentioned the point about the tobacco, and how it didn’t sit right with me, and that’s the sort of thing that can really alienate your audience and push them out of a world that you’ve gone to great lengths to create; you want your audience to engage with the world you’ve built, without something un-intendedly cringe-worthy breaking them out of enjoying it.
Is there such a thing as sensitivity playing? Do players need to be Indigenous folk of Canada to play a character who is?
That’s a great question, and I think the answer is “it depends.” Do you have the role-playing skill to portray an Indigenous character, or would you end up playing a stereotype? Why do you want to play an Indigenous character? There’s value, when role-playing, in trying to experience life from someone else’s point of view, but you need to be respectful of the shoes you’re walking in.
For me this would also depend on who’s at my table and what they’re comfortable with, especially if you’re playing a character who shares a background with one of the other players, whether that’s Indigenous or anything else.
For GMs, how does the RPG navigate concepts of “good guys” and “bad guys” when it comes to Indigenous concepts of tricksters who are generally seen as neither entirely good nor bad?
That’s a great question. I used Tawiskaron, a deity in several Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe nations, in this game. Nathan cautioned me about describing him as “evil” in the Western sense, and depending on the culture, he’s been portrayed either as malevolent, or as more of a trickster or tester. I ended up on focusing on his rivalry with his brother Ioskeha, and portraying him as wanting to create monsters who destroy his brother’s creation, the humans.
One thing that I’ve got rattling around in the back of my mind is that in some First Nations’ stories, the trickster Coyote created death because there weren’t enough resources for everyone to live forever. If that’s true, I can’t imagine he likes the vampires who are all over North America now. I haven’t fleshed that premise out yet, though.
But of course — I’d need to talk to people to figure out if using Coyote is OK first!
That sort off binary between good/evil, god/devil, is really central to Western (Christian/European) traditions and narratives, but I think Trickster figures are given a much more central role in many Indigenous stories, usually this imperfect demi-god making mistakes, screwing things up, getting things right, getting things wrong, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but more often somewhere in between. So I think here it was more about trying not too impose too strong of a European binary on the narrative which includes slippery figures that embrace shades of grey.
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