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.