Steal Away Jordan

Steal Away Jordan, as far as I know, first debuted at GenCon 2007 this summer. The impression I’ve gotten is that if you talked to anyone who is at all interested in Indie games who attended GenCon, they’ll have said something about Steal Away Jordan, which is currently available from Indie Press Revolution.

It is a game by Julia Ellingboe. The tagline is “Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution” – yes, the game is about American slavery. In the game, you play the part of a slave in the American South. Your main attribute is your worth – your die-pool for use in conflicts in the game is based on your economic worth to your owners. Things like your name and what you do for a living seem to be determined by the GM – which seems like the right mechanic for a game about what happens when you have no freedom.

Right now I’m listening to an actual play presentation being done by The Game Master Show podcast from GenCon, with the writer/creator of the game running a demo of the system for one of the Show’s members. The dice-mechanic involves rolling d6’s equal to your worth in a conflict, where 1’s count as a -1 and where any two dice that total 7 (without 1’s that is – 4 and 3 or 5 and 2) count as +1. Whoever has the highest total wins the conflict and gets to describe what happens.

As you can imagine, things just get worse and worse. And worse. Julia is actually pretty gentle about the way the game functions, which is probably important, given how horrible the situations it describes are. The game ends with the only PC jumping off of a wagon on the way to her new home (where she was sold to) and trying to run and being shot in the back. The player got to narrate how she died when the die dictated that it would happen.

Then something really interesting happens. The player’s husband comes over to the table and talks about how uncomfortable this makes him, the idea of playing a slave in a game. The game has led to this interesting and candid conversation about racial issues in our country. Julia handles it really well, and has a great chance to talk about overcoming stereotypes. In fact, the discussion of the game and the issues it brings up takes longer than playing the actual game. Fascinating.

Come to think of it, I think this is what the game is really about. Julia says “this is our history”. And that’s the truth.

Clearly, this is a game that deals directly with very uncomfortable topics. According to the creator, one of the things she intended with the game was for Americans to be able to deal with each other and with the history of slavery. She sees slavery as something that has hurt everyone in this country, that has caused nothing but pain, and one way to deal with this pain is to do so through a game.

I think this is an interesting idea, one I’ve encountered before and one I’ve given some thought to myself. It is possible to deal with things in a game that we don’t feel able to deal with otherwise. I’ve even tried this in games – its just the sort of person I am. I think important stories talk about things that we deal with in life in some way. The game has to have teeth now and then. The story has to strike home. Not all the time – this is an Escape after all! – but sometimes you have to dig because it makes the experience better overall, and sometimes you get the chance to deal with things in a new way.

On the other hand, you can design a game like Steal Away Jordan, where the point of the game is this kind of process. It is a teaching game, in a sense. Another example that comes to mind is The Prince’s Kingdom. Sale of the game goes to support the American Friends Service Committee and the game is a way to deal with issues of violence and nonviolence and justice with children – while also having fun of course. I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of.

I doubt games like this will take off and replace Dungeons and Dragons as the gaming lingua franca, but I found Steal Away Jordan really fascinating to think about.

9 thoughts on “Steal Away Jordan

  1. That's not entirely true. Losing isn't the issue. I can deal with losing just fine. I do it all the time when I play tabletop strategy games. What makes a game satisfying for me is not my own victory: Provided both people involved play well, I am just as satisfied if I lose as if I win. It's almost as annoying to play a game where my opponent never had a chance as it is to play a game where I never had a chance.

    What I don't like is a situation in which there was never a chance of anything but failure. I don't believe in a no-win situation. If the rules of the game say it's not just difficult but downright impossible to win, and that failure and suffering and grief are the point of the game, then it's time to change the rules.


  2. Which for me just leaves out the entire genre of tragedy, which I do think has a place in games, just as it has a place in other kinds of story-making. I know you don't like playing out a tragedy, I'm just saying I definitely think it has value. Especially in the case of Steal Away Jordan, which is a game that is about an actual no-win situation which existed in our history – that being slavery.


  3. I don't think it leaves out tragedy at all.

    Central to the whole concept of the tragedy is that things might have been different. Tragedy is about people who might have held greatness in the palm of their hands brought low by their own mistakes. Hamlet might have chosen a different path. Macbeth chose to put ambition above loyalty, and brought about his own destruction: he might have chosen otherwise. Lear might have remembered that to crooked eyes, the truth wears a wry face.

    A situation in which a person has no hope to begin with, continues with no hope, and then dies miserably is not tragedy. That is a misadventure. Tragedy requires that the character's downfall be brought on by the character's own choices. The character's 'tragic flaw' might just as well be translated as 'sin.'


  4. Paul,

    Stop it. Your personal crusade against games or stories which depress you or don't meet your criteria for a romantic worldview is pretty annoying. No one is trying to force you to like this game or any other game. If they don't appeal to you – don't play them. But don't keep on beating this dead horse. Doug and I don't agree with you about what constitutes tragedy, or horror, or various other genres that we think good games can sometimes trade in. Give it up. It's not an interesting conversation anymore.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s