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Making Roleplaying Games in Troubling Times

alice in wonderland

In a political climate that involves neo-nazis, the rise of fascism, ICE, loss of healthcare, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, global warming… are roleplaying games important?

Like shouldn’t every waking moment be about fixing what’s wrong in America right now?

 Like shouldn’t every waking moment be about fixing what’s wrong in America right now? 
It’s easy for me to feel like designing roleplaying games is not the most important thing to be doing right now. Shouldn’t I be working to lobby for environmental protections and be volunteering my spare time to go door to door for my local candidates?

Here’s the thing. When you’re making and playing roleplaying games, you are performing activism.

Stories change and affect culture

At the heart of roleplaying games is collaborative storytelling. Stories are important. When a new story becomes dominant, cultural norms shift and that’s how social progress works. Nanette, a Netflix one hour special, focuses on the power of stories that come from minorities, and how speaking your truth can be healing both to you and to culture. When we tell stories, even in roleplaying games, we have the ability to shift culture.

This is why it’s so important to examine the stories we’re telling!

Games have messages

Many roleplaying games are actively telling stories that are about overcoming and creating change. Dog Eat Dog, Kagematsu, War Birds, Night Witches, Harlem Unbound, Monsterhearts, Steal Away Jordan, A Cozy Den… these center on the stories of minorities and outsiders with the intent of educating and changing people’s perception of them through play.

When you’re playing a fae in Monsterhearts, you might not learn exactly what it’s like to be a “fairy”, but you will gain empathy for people who feel like monsters and outsiders because they’re queer teens. 

 When you’re playing a fae in Monsterhearts, you might not learn exactly what it’s like to be a “fairy”, but you will gain empathy for people who feel like monsters and outsiders because they’re queer teens. 
In Dog Eat Dog you’ll learn the specific systems of oppression that colonizers have implemented since forever. These games can teach alternate perspectives you might not have been aware of and are shifting the culture around these issues and identities.

There are all different kinds of activism

I can no longer march or hold signs because with fibromyalgia my body can’t maintain that kind of activity anymore. BUT I can call reps, vote, sign petitions, send money, raise awareness on social media and in person, and always speak my truth – especially to relatives and people I know who are ignorantly working against me.

Sharing games that are created by people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, people of gender minorities… supporting them, buying them – that’s activism in gaming. Especially games that spread a message of inclusion or showcase a minority experience!

You still need to have fun even when politics are hard

Playing games is FUN. People need to recharge, we can’t be activists all the time 24/7 without getting exhausted and wearing ourselves out. Spending time gaming with friends can be healing and recharging, so that you can keep fighting oppression the other six days of the week.

Roleplaying games can bring people together

Roleplaying games are a unique form of art that involves communicating with multiple humans in an interactive setting. The ability to communicate and share stories with friends is powerful. We are a community, and we grow stronger the more diverse people we have sharing their stories. Make friends, build community, change the community. 

 The ability to communicate and share stories with friends is powerful. We are a community, and we grow stronger the more diverse people we have sharing their stories. Make friends, build community, change the community. 

Share your truth, and some young roleplayer out there will see themselves in your work, and we’ll make the community better for it. Run games that support inclusion, and tell stories that prop up diverse voices. In roleplaying games we share the common language of storytelling, and the more we can give people tools to tell more diverse stories, the better!


What do you think about making games in today’s political climate? Are there any games you’ve played recently that have shifted your perspective on a minority group? Let me know in the comments.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Making Roleplaying Games in Troubling Times"

#1 Comment By Katrina Ostrander On July 11, 2018 @ 7:55 am

I both play and write roleplaying games, as well as volunteer in my local political party unit. RPGs are my escape and a way I try to reach out to others to change hearts and minds. I am also involved in my local get out the vote (GOTV) efforts because once hearts and minds are changed and people’s emotional batteries are replenished, I feel they still need to vote to effect certain types of change.

#2 Comment By roxysteve On July 11, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

And you are a model for your peers to emulate Katrina. Well done that young woman.

#3 Comment By Marcelo On July 11, 2018 @ 9:24 am

Interesting article, but since when Capitalism is a problem equivalent to homophobia or racism, among other?

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On July 11, 2018 @ 10:44 am

I think the problem is unfettered capitalism. It’s a tool and in the wrong hands, it can be detrimental to the people living in that society. Historically, controls had to be put on business to protect workers, either with child labor laws or other labor laws that had to be enforced. What we’re seeing today is a growing gulf of disparity between workers in business and the executives running those businesses. The percentage in income between those two is at astronomical levels of difference now, compared to where it was.

It may not be a problem of the same type as homophobia, racism or misogyny, but it is an insidious one that is difficult to discuss in our politically divided society.

#5 Comment By Mark Caliber On July 17, 2018 @ 10:35 am

Angela, I think you and the author might misunderstand what Capitalism is.

Capitalism is the Philosophy and Ideology of letting individuals have access to private property, money, and the freedom to advance their personal gain.

The opposite of Capitalism was/is Tyranny and Despotism. Is that rally a cause you want to advocate and champion for?

To be frank, if Gary Gygax hadn’t been living in a Capitalist society, where he could develop his unique ideas and sell them and acquire monetary reward for his efforts, this hobby would not exist.

And if things are so awful in a Capitalist America where unemployment is now at record lows, wages are increasing, innovation (including in RPG’s) are at an all time high, and we have the cleanest air and water in the WORLD, with access to reliable electrical power, reliable access to the internet; why not pack your bags and head over to one of the anti-American anti-Capitalist countries like Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran where the pressing issue in those countries are starvation. (I know, its a rhetorical question).

It may seem “popular” to castigate Capitalism, but the real problem that you’re misidentifying is actually Cronyism, Government Corruption, Government Graft, & Greed, and all of these principles are anathema to classical liberal Capitalism.

So to the original post. If you want to inject these non-issues in your RPG products, I’ll take my money elsewhere and purchase RPG products that aren’t tainted by this nonsense.

A friend of mine and I (both GM’s) were evaluating a Pathfinder product which was littered with SJW nonsense and we both rejected the whole product as garbage and completely unworkable because it destroyed our suspension of disbelief. The premise was so bad, that any decent Lawful Good character would be tempted to take up arms with the “antagonists!”

However, this IS a free Capitalist America so you are (still) free to write any products that you want and to try to sell them to a client base. Please keep in mind that taking up an anti-Capitalist anti-American position is about as useful as a marathon runner shooting themselves in the foot in preparation for their run.

#6 Comment By Bardagh On July 25, 2018 @ 8:59 pm

You really don’t understand capitalism. The opposite of capitalism is socialism. The US is a hybrid capitalist-socialist system.

#7 Comment By roxysteve On July 11, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

I’ll summarize for you:

No, RPGs are not all that important, and people at all levels need to engage with their civics to enact the changes they whine about needing.

BUT: it isn’t an either/or zero-sum game. You can do both.

CAVEAT: Like I tell every younger player (and that is all the players) who is looking at a move out of state, a school workload or a job commitment, (and this is important so I’m going to use caps in a non-shouty milieu), REAL LIFE TRUMPS GAMING EVERY TIME.

If it is a choice between becoming involved in local politics for the betterment of your town (and your own personal advancement in life) and The Tomb of Horrors, you shouldn’t need a sixty-mumble year old RPGer from the time when India smashed into Asia to tell you the one with poly dice loses. Going the other way, as so many of my young friends have, is a path to misery in later life. It’s fun to pretend real life isn’t for a while, but eventually it hits you on he head and says “Oi!”

#8 Comment By Bardagh On July 25, 2018 @ 9:02 pm

Wonderful article. I’m a trans crip GM, and I try very hard to incorporate intersectional philosophy and social justice themes into my worlds through immersive stories and lore. Here’s one example if you’re curious: [5]

#9 Comment By ONEOFUS On August 14, 2018 @ 9:06 pm

Where to start? I’ve read this site since it started. I find that there has been a dramatic shift in the site itself with articles like these over the last year.

These are click bait article that intend to draw commentary away from the discussion of RPGs (that’s what the site is or at least was for) by throwing ideology at the reader rather than content.

To say that buying or playing an rpg is activism is aggrandizing. To say that people are forced into the role of an oppressed individual and can now empathize with them is a stretch, especially given the Monsterhearts analogy. At the end of the day, RPG still has the word game at the end. You say its supposed to be fun but then you slap a layer of pretentiousness over it that creates the very barrier to entry that you want to take down. How can you be inclusive while creating exclusionary ideals?

#10 Comment By John Arcadian On August 15, 2018 @ 7:04 am

If you look at the front page of the site right now, you’ll notice it contains:

  • An article about actual play podcasts
  • An article about how to use google slides in your game
  • An article about RPG merchandise aimed at women gamers
  • An article about Esoteric Gaming Jargon
  • A podcast of interviews with industry creators and gamers at Gencon
  • An article about how to pick apart and use Genre more effectively
  • An article on world building
  • A review of the Dusk City outlaws RPG
  • A spotlight interview on a creator who made a game about necromancy
  • An article about changing your campaign without pulling the rug from under your players

Gnome Stew is dedicated to providing great articles on gaming, and our scope has changed as the industry (and ownership changed). Our narrow focus on just GMing advice opened up to include gaming, and talking about the social realities around gaming are a part of making gaming better. Not every article is going to fit a narrow scope of talking about just the game, but the hobby isn’t narrow — it’s a patchwork of many tables, playing many different types of games, with many different types of people. We want to reach out to all of them, because, like you say, the game is the unifying factor. We’re all playing games, we’re just using them differently, and to leave aside broad swaths of what that gaming means and how it affects people would be a disservice to everyone playing a game.

Gaming is powerful. I did a Tedx Talk about how gaming helped me become a more social person and provided practice space to play out roles. There are going to be more articles talking about the social aspects and affects of gaming. There are going to be more articles talking about dumb mapping hacks. There are going to be more articles reaching out and trying to make the hobby a more inviting place for people who might not be able to see themselves here yet. The articles aren’t going to fit a narrow scope. The way we take down barriers isn’t by narrowing what we focus on, it’s by broadening it and having a multitude of types of articles, written by a multitude of types of people.