Representing diversity at the table

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to include people who are not ‘like me’ in a tabletop roleplaying game I’m running. It’s a game set in the nearish future in Southern California, during Gundam’s One Year War (just before the events of the Mobile Suit Gundam anime). And in setting something in California, one of the first commitments I made to myself was that it would not efface the presence of Latinx, Native, Black, or Asian people who live there today and make the place their home, and better.

This of course presents me with an issue: how do I do this respectfully and without denigrating anyone, coopting people’s experiences, or making them into tokens? (Unintentionally, but that doesn’t matter.) It is not acceptable for me to speak for or use anyone else, but I also will not contribute to the ongoing casual erasure of these people’s presence in the place I grew up.

I am a white person, I can pass for cis/het male any time I want, and have done for all of my life (I’ve only recently really begun to understand or express my genderqueerness)… I carry a lot of privilege. But this post isn’t an “oh woe is me and my privilege”, or a “hey look I’m doing good give me a cookie” thing. The game is hitting really charged material and I owe it to myself, the other players, the audience, and most of all the people I’m representing to be clear about where I’m coming from, why I’m doing this, and what work I’m doing to do it right.

I want to summarize the answers to these questions before I go further:

  • I am doing this so that I am not contributing to the ongoing erasure of people of color in the place I grew up
  • I am not doing this because I need victims in a story–we have them already (everyone). The PoC characters are here, again, because I don’t want to erase them
  • do research and homework to understand the histories of these peoples with the colonizing white culture in Souther California and the US
  • give characters from these groups real agency and motivation, and don’t let them be completely subservient to the player characters, or tokens of their culture/ethnicity

The deeper dive

This post is going to focus on representing people from the Native California Cahuilla bands.

There are people who have come before me who have written about representing cultures other than your own at the table. James Mendez Hodes, a writer and game designer, who is also an Eastern Classics scholar and who is also Filipino, has written some very good pieces about this. One generally addressing the topic, and others as reflections on this work and process in a game he’s worked on called Thousand Arrows

To address some of his biggest questions: why? and how?…

Why? Because, as I’ve said just a few paras up, these are people who live in California now and contribute to its character as a place, whom I will not erase. He cautions against using people because you need a plight–there is definitely a differential relationship in the real world that’s reflected in the game between Native peoples and our current dominant culture, but that’s not why they’re there. It will come up, but isn’t our driver.

As for how… this takes a little more explanation I think, because it’s always what you do, not why you did it, that matters in the end. First, you should read those articles because he is smarter than me. But for my purposes, the most important thing he has to say is “don’t buy in to the stereotypes, but find the shared spaces”.

For example, as someone for someone for whom the knight trope is emic rather than etic, calling a samurai a knight refocuses my attention as a non-Japanese person on the characteristics of the trope that are shared. I’m less likely to get obsessed with orientalist ideas like samurai are strong and never falter and do the disciplined but magical kiai when they attack. I’m instead more likely to consider how I would react in a given situation, and act from a place of empathy1, and not reduce a person to bad stereotypes.

At this point in the game I’m running, I have introduced on screen (so to speak) characters from the some of the Cahuilla bands of Native Americans, who are native to what is now Palm Springs, Temecula, Morongo, and the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Specifically, these are characters from the Morongo band of Cahuilla. You might know the name from Casino Morongo, which they own, out near Palm Springs2.

In presenting these characters, I’ve kept a few things in mind:

  • no stereotypes. There’s not a feather in sight, and no elder talking slowly, in slightly archaic and yet eloquent English, about future or destiny or some shit
  • do my research. This is ongoing, but you betcha I’m digging into the history of the Cahuilla, and am doing the same for Vietnamese and Korean American populations in LA
  • don’t erase social, cultural or ethnic difference in trying to be ‘race-blind’ (ugh). Rather than attach visual/clothing signifiers, I am working with the landscape. Introducing the characters at Hadley’s Fruit Stand, which is owned by the Morongo, instead of some random place, grounds them (I hope) in their their culture (also, not going for the obvious choice of the casino owned by and named for the band)3
  • not all Cahuilla bands are the same. 20 minutes from the casino, there is the Agua Caliente Cahuilla reservation, home to the Agua Caliente Cahuilla. These are a different band, and though they’re not on screen yet, they will be. And they have their own heckin’ goals
  • speaking of goals, these people have concrete agency. Player dice rolls may indicate within the fiction that these NPCs respond positively to the player characters, but it doesn’t mean that they just become mouthpieces on a fetchquest or something. They’re not bending over backwards. Alarn, Tamith, and Horst all have their own agendas, and are actively pursuing them, even (already, possibly depending on player interpretation) to the PCs’ detriment, despite the PCs rolling a 6 when meeting them
  • this agenda is what I think is a real (read: righteously angry) response to centuries of oppression and degradation at the hands of colonizers. It’s not about the history of white oppression, but it’s informed by it. For someone who has a history of constantly being robbed by governments, anger at anyone new coming in and demanding use of native-owned land seems pretty hecking reasonable and real to me. Things in Gundam have gotten worse in terms of economic and opportunity disparity, not better. I see no indication in the anime that the people losing that bargain have changed from today4. They’ve been largely left out to dry by everyone ‘in charge’, so fuck yes they’re doing things for themselves
  • I’m also not relegating the Cahuilla bands and characters to being reactionary to white action. There will be focus on oppression in general in this game because that’s what the Zeon occupation does, but it’s not the only thing. It was a small scene, but I made sure that when we introduced Tamith and Alarn, it was in an unrelated place and action–tailgating at a milkshake stand in the desert, not dedicating all their energy to resisting. Because life is life, and people are people

Basically, make them people first and foremost, and let them act on their own terms, not as my plot needs them.

DC has written a (little) on a similar theme, specifically in relation to representing blackness or “tribal Africa” (sic) in a DnD-esque setting. Their advice falls somewhere between “don’t”, and “put it in the future” where you’re not subject to the heavy, heavy weight of real histories of oppression. To paraphrase them, “just don’t choose something that has (or displays, but that’s a whole other bag) too much cultural/historical similarity to real-world people” unless you’re really doing the research to understand these people you are taking on the work of representing, and also including them in a meaningful way. Dropping them in for a hot second and then forgetting them is tokenism bullshit that lets you feel good for being woke while actually having just instrumentalized someone’s lived experience for your own gain. Guess what, that’s more exploitation.

This is where I’m living. I am doing research on the Cahuilla. And I’m not letting these Cahuilla characters be a drop in the bucket. Blades games have many factions, so they’re not the only players, but they’re not small players. Having introduced them, they are here for the long haul. And they are doing what (I can best imagine) they would do in the situation that Gundam’s Universal Century puts them in.

In the end, it’s not for me to judge how effective we are at our table. We might end up being horrible. I sincerely hope we do not, and I am putting in work to make sure of that. But it is a possibility I need to keep in mind. So I also would like to get someone to sensitivity audit the show when I can afford it. And, if you see something I or we fuck up, and you feel comfortable, please tell me (get at me on Twitter, email me, whatever if anything you are comfortable with). I’m doing this because the kind of story we’re telling, in the place we’re telling it, would be dishonest if we didn’t include people who are oppressed today. I don’t want to erase that.

  1. I always confuse sympathy and empathy. What I mean to say is “a thing that I would do in this situation” 

  2. I don’t want to get into the issue of Native casinos, but I do err on the side of “it’s their land, they get to do what they want, back off and let them succeed in the rigged game we’ve backed everyone into”. Pretty often people who have bad things to say about casinos have very little to offer as an alternative. 

  3. Because this is a non-visual medium, and we have to rely on listener memories anyways, I’m preferring to work with this kind of association over visual because the Cahuilla’s traditional dress falls right into what is now the visual stereotype of Native Americans–feathers, beads, headdresses (which are all gorgeous by the way–I encourage you to look up images from the Morongo band’s annual Pow Wow), and more casual visual indicators are less reliable online, or just fall into what is basically good sensible modern desert-wear and not specific to the Cahuilla. Making one of the first associations the audience and players have with these characters a really cool place in the California desert that the band owns I think is a stronger move than others I could make. 

  4. In fact, there is strong indication that the power structures in place when the anime was made are still dominant, and exacerbated. In the Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ episodes “Blue Team” parts 1 and 2, we see how things have just gotten worse in a what is implied to be a former French colony in Northern Africa or the Arabian peninsula. And yes, Northern Africa and Southern California are different places, but also Western consumption of others is pretty similar and constant. Those episodes guide me when I think about what life must be like for people in Gundam’s Universal Century.