Representation, RPGs, and DitV’s Mountain People

Dogs_in_the_Vineyard_cover_small

Dogs in the Vineyard is a role-playing game set in a fantasy version of the Old West, among adherents of a religious community, the Faith. You play God’s Watchdogs, faith-fueled young troubleshooters empowered to fix communities where the rigid hierarchy has failed to prevent injustice, sin, and demon attacks. It’s an amazing game; insofar as there is such a thing, I’d call it required reading for anyone interested in games as explorations of culture or moral conflict.

I was acting as GM. Our group had played a successful first town, and I decided that I wanted the next one to bring forward a theme that’s raised in the book, but isn’t presented as central: this world’s version of Native Americans, the Mountain People.

The Mountain People in Dogs in the Vineyard are intentionally not strongly-defined. Because the PCs are always deeply committed to the Faith (based to a large extent on Mormonism) the world of Dogs is always shown through the lens of a white Christian(ish) settler culture.

Avery Mcdaldno’s guide Safe Hearts defines three circles of responsibility in role-playing games: the innermost is responsibility to yourself, then to the other players, and finally to the characters in the game and the people you’re representing within it*. You look after yourself first – because if you don’t, it’s extremely hard for anyone else to do it for you, or for you to help anyone else. (Secure your own mask first.) You attend to the other people at the table next: they’re the ones you’re most likely to hurt, and the ones for whose safety you can do the most. Finally, there are issues of representation:

It’s important to remember that all people have agency, strength, and complexity, even if we can’t see it clearly from wherever we’re standing. It’s our responsibility to find the agency, strength, and complexity that exist within our characters, and to demonstrate it to everyone else at the table.

If I was going to bring the Mountain People more into the foreground, I’d need to know more about them.

Mostly I’m writing about this because, in the course of prep, I went looking for anybody writing about this specific issue in this specific game, and I didn’t really find anything. (Maybe I didn’t look in the right places. Links welcomed.) I don’t pretend that this is an ideal example that everyone should follow; I’m presenting it as an instance of process, and because I think through things better when I write. There are undoubtedly some things I’ve overlooked, and other things I haven’t mentioned because they seem too obvious. But I think it’s worth talking about certain things even when you can’t be authoritative.

The difficulty of the extemporaneous. Here’s the standard advice for writing minority characters: avoid dehumanising them, do your research, seek input from members of the group you’re portraying, and be ready to redraft. But in role-playing games – particularly if they’re run along No Myth lines, with nothing being true unless it happens on-stage – you’re usually making stuff up as you go along.

There’s no time to fact-check; indeed, you’re actively discouraged from being That Guy who holds up the play session to check Wikipedia on his phone, because it slows things down and because it usually involves ‘blocking‘ – throwing up pedantic obstacles to creative improvisation. Blocking shuts people down when you’re trying to get them to open up. It’s worth it if you need to cut off something that’s causing serious problems at the table – but if you have to do it constantly, you may as well just quit playing. (And sometimes that’s the correct choice.

Dogs is not a game for everybody. Some people, for instance, have enough personal history with authoritarian religion that they have zero desire to inhabit a fictional version thereof. And it’s definitely not a game that you can or should use to explore any and every story – or even every story about the nineteenth-century western US.

But – look, Dogs is a story about the Old West. And I think that if you’re telling a story about the Old West, at some point you really ought to acknowledge the people whose genocidal removal made the Old West possible, as more than a footnote.

Theory about best practice in the representation of minorities has mostly been based on the assumptions of popular forms of media. Film has been the dominant medium throughout the period in which questions about representing minority characters have been an active topic, and much of the theory about representation in games relies on assumptions drawn from film. If a white film actor plays a black character, for instance, they’re probably going to be wearing ridiculous-looking blackface, and taking away a job – together with pay, recognition and career prospects – that would more naturally be filled by a black actor. In tabletop RPG, there’s very little expectation of verisimilitude – players probably look nothing like the characters they’re depicting – and typically none of them are getting paid. It’s worth considering best-practice from other media, but you can’t necessarily import the same guidelines.

A more important example: Is it worth seeking input from members of the group depicted? The usual advice is: yes, absolutely. But the usual advice all assumes that you’re making something that has, at least potentially, a wide reach: a movie, a novel, a videogame, a piece of fanfic, cosplay likely to be photographed and show up on the Internet. Art that scales. Art that sticks around. Art created within a structure of strong asymmetry between creators and audience.

A role-playing session doesn’t work like that at all! The audience for my game was four, plus myself, and an RPG session is ephemeral. That doesn’t absolve me of responsibilities, but it does mean that the potential impact, good or bad, is very limited. I had no plans to polish up my work into a published scenario, which might be consumed by many different readers and RPG groups.

So: is it really worth my time to seek out a Native person to consult about my depiction of Native characters and culture? That would take some effort – I’m sure that there are Native people familiar with narrative-heavy RPGs, but I don’t personally know any. Apart from specialist knowledge, it would represent a non-trivial amount of work on their part – the feedback I’d need would almost certainly be more complicated than ‘yo, is this racist’ – for not a lot of payback, either personal (they wouldn’t be getting paid, or personally consuming the finished product) or political (regardless of what happens, my RPG scenario is not going to be influencing the visibility and perceptions of Native people among a large audience).

A few years ago I was asked to adapt a small piece of Native Alaskan art – the committee wanted it in a digital format, and they wanted the animal it depicted to be more easily recognised by a non-Native audience. I assured Native stakeholders that I would carefully respect the vision of, and seek feedback from, the Native artist. But as it turned out, the artist herself wasn’t all that bothered – she wasn’t hugely invested in the original piece, which represented an evening’s work, and she had plenty of other things going on in her life. She looked at my proposed revisions, said ‘fine’ to all of them, and that was it. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly – it made life easier for me – but given the amount of stress that everyone else involved had put on it, it wasn’t what I had expected.

I’ve heard a bunch of people talk about the burden, as a minority group, of constantly having to be in educational mode: of having to explain to oblivious privileged folk about the particular situation of your group, over and over again; of being expected to always act as an ambassador. So my conclusion was: if you’re making something with an open audience, seek input from the members of relevant groups (and if you have any expectation of making money from the work, pay them for their time). If not, do the best job you can, but don’t pester.

Don’t make them, or their culture, exist only for the sake of white people’s stories. This can be tricky in RPGs (and single-player videogames, for that matter), because RPGs are fundamentally stories about the player characters. But you don’t want to say ‘OK, none of the PCs are Native, therefore no Native people are allowed to exist in this game.’ The group I was playing with was not all-white, but none of us were Native.

Mcdaldno also recommends, in Monsterhearts, that GMs treat NPCs as fundamentally disposable:

Think of the [non-player] characters you play as stolen cars. You’re in control of them for a time, but you don’t own them and you can’t really keep them. You hold onto them for as long as they’re fun and useful, and abandon them when they become dead weight.

On the face of it, that sounds potentially exploitative! But note the distinction – you’re treating them as stolen, where the more usual metaphor is created.

The usual line in storygames is that respect for NPCs involves giving them their own lives – motives, histories, needs and desires, individuality – so that if and when they get thrown into the fire, it matters. One formulation – there are many – is Jason Morningstar’s in Night Witches:

Give each NPC a name, a past – and no mercy.

Johnny Depp as William Blake and Gary Farmer as Nobody, from Dead Man (1995)

Stupid fucking white man.

A pretty good example of this kind of approach is Dead Man’s Nobody, played by Gary Farmer. In narrative terms, Nobody is there to advance William Blake’s story. But Jarmusch never confuses his narrative role – the function he serves in the story – for his interpersonal role, the way he relates to Blake. Nobody has his own history: you might not quite understand all his motives, but you can be sure they’re not ‘loyally help out the white hero.’ It’s not clear how much he understands what’s going on, but he understands a lot better than Blake. The name implicitly links him to Odysseus – and, indeed, he has crossed a great sea and returned. He dies – almost everyone dies – taking out the scariest motherfucker in the West, in a showdown which narrative logic would more normally have given to Blake. Agency, strength and complexity.

Dogs is well-suited to this sort of thing, because the job of the Dogs is to dig into the troubled stories of NPCs. The NPCs, their agency, strength and complexity – and weakness, sin and foolishness – are the landscape that the players explore. You might shoot someone dead in the street, but you’ll very likely feel gut-punched over it.

In this case I wanted to focus on the Mountain People largely as a way of getting one of the PCs to address her own mixed parentage (not a Cherokee princess great-grandmother: her father was a convert to the Faith), so the PCs were going to be somewhat invested. But she was still going to basically be an outsider.

Generic or Specific? Should I base my Mountain People on a specific Native culture? This seemed as though it could have problems either way.

Since time immemorial, people have used tales of faraway lands as ways of talking about their own shit. A specific form of this – let’s take Robinson Crusoe as the landmark work – is the Composite Savage Nation. You create a generic tribe, Deep in the African Jungle or On Some Distant Pacific Island or whatever. You use this group as a receptacle for all your various ill-formed ideas about black Africans, Polynesians, Native Americans, or just Tribal People in general, presenting them as an epitome while brushing aside any concerns about accurate representation. Cannibals! Body-paint! Nose-bones! Harems! Human sacrifice! Goddess matriarchies! No research required. I see a lot of these in gaming, and they’re almost always cringe-inducingly terrible.

On the other hand, if you pick a specific culture to represent, you have a lot more specific issues with accuracy and appropriation. This is a particular problem if you’re working with a fantastic setting, and extra-specially so in the malleable, extemporaneous, anti-blocking worlds of narrative RPGs. If you’re freestyling within a culture you understand only partially, you’re likely to get some major things wrong.

Dogs is set in a fantasy version of mid-C19th Utah, which in real life was inhabited by Shoshone, Navajo, Ute and Paiute people; the name Mountain People probably comes from a popular misreading of the ‘ute’ part of Ute and Paiute. The Mountain People had an ancient civilisation that roughly corresponds to the Fremont culture, a northern contemporary of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi); as far as we know, the Fremont culture probably dispersed into just about every group in the region.

So I did some research into those cultures, but not with the specific intent of grabbing anything in particular for my story. I couldn’t accurately portray an entire culture, and I didn’t want to cherry-pick specific Cool Things and use them out of context. My plan was that my Mountain People would have similar material culture and lifeways to the native peoples of the Great Basin, but would be a different thing otherwise.

Don’t present them as homogenous. As far as the Faithful understand it, the Mountain People are pretty much undifferentiated: they don’t have any units of social organisation bigger than the family, and while some of them are better-behaved than others, they’re all basically the same thing. This is an example of the out-group homogeneity effect: we’re diverse, you’re all alike.

To get rid of homogenous presentation, you need to get rid of tokenism: there have to be enough people of that group, given enough time, to be shown as different.

I wanted there to be Mountain People who were from different tribes, who had different cultural frameworks and attitudes. I didn’t necessarily expect this to be a huge element of the story, but I wanted to make sure that characters existed.

Do a head-count. Study after study shows that people are really bad at estimating diversity. People aren’t great at estimates in general, but human-diversity estimates have a pronounced skew: white people routinely overestimate the presence of people of colour, men routinely overestimate the representation and participation levels of women. If the ratios feel balanced to you, that may not mean anything. Take the time to count. If the numbers at the end don’t match up with what you thought you had, or what you wanted, some adjustment may be in order.

My count of major named characters (i.e. discounting small children, and characters whose main role was to back up more important characters as a group) came out to seven whites, six Mountain People, and one mixed-race. For a town divided, that seemed about right. But four of those six felt insufficiently differentiated. I was OK with the possibility that the players would see them that way at first – but I wanted them to have conflicting interests and personalities, so I dedicated a chunk more time to developing them.

Don’t make them exist only as instruments of your own hobby-horses. As a dedicated agnostic, I am pretty enthusiastic about things which chip away at Christian cultural hegemony. My inclination is to see Christian conversion as primarily a tool of colonialism, another method and justification for the systematic destruction of Native lives and Native culture. When I see Native people who abandon Christianity in favour of their traditional faiths, or who combine the two into something that Real True Christians would regard with pearl-clutching horror, I am filled with secret glee.

But there are a lot of Native people who see regular-flavour Christianity as a positive force in their lives and communities, and I don’t want to erase them either. And in this specific game, there’s a big extra element: the mechanics of the world of Dogs are built around the very strong assumption that the religious worldview of the Faithful is literally correct, and that everyone else in the world is dead, dead wrong. The Faithful are a chosen few, held to a higher standard and given greater tribulations. The point of the game is for the players to inhabit that worldview – in fact, as God’s Watchdogs they are among the very strongest adherents of that worldview. They might argue about what exactly Purity In The Faith consists of, but they’re all going to vehemently agree that there’s no room for idolatry and spiritualism in a Faithful community.

Mountain People outside the community of the Faith aren’t the concern of the Dogs. So this was going to have to be a story about converts – Mountain People trying to adapt to the Faithful’s way of life. Worship is central to that way of life, and false worship is one of the progressive stages by which sin turns into sorcery. But while this sounds strict (and it is), the Faith is kind of flexible and reliant on delegated interpretation, and the Dogs have fairly broad leeway to interpret the rules.

I wanted to make the tensions within this town be about assimilation – about the complicated reasons people had to accept it, about how the acceptance it offered was flawed and conditional, about how even ‘good’ white assimilationists did harm. I wanted a town split down the middle, with white settlers happy to accept kudos for converting the heathen, but not comfortable with accepting them as full members of the community. (Disunity is a sin for the Faithful.) I wanted Mountain characters who were sincerely trying to make a go of it in the Faith, but who wanted to preserve some customs that might look bad to outsiders, or who were hanging on to the option of backing out if things didn’t go well, or waging their own wars against second-class treatment.

Second, I wanted to throw some sex in there – white Faithful men who were happy to marry Native women, but not so happy with young Native men courting their daughters. (When people are prevented from fulfilling their role – which, for young unmarried men, means lots of courting – that’s injustice by Faithful standards.) I decided that this would amplify a couple of existing tensions in the Faith – there’s polygyny, and young men aren’t treated as full adults until they’re married. Make things worse: the local Mountain People culture is matrilineal, meaning that many women would rather stay up in the hills than convert. Now we’ve got a town full of young men pissed off that they can’t find brides and are still being treated as teenagers into their 20s and 30s, and the demons just have to add a little extra heat.

Longfellow's Hiawatha.

After his Cross Fit session, Hiawatha liked to use the time before his waxing appointment to get in a little al-fresco pilates.

Don’t pull the Noble Savage. Historically, the Noble Savage was an idea used to serve colonialism. It’s a standard colonial practice to offer privileges to colonised people from one favoured group, then use them as instruments in the subjugation of others. Part of this project usually involved highlighting racial differences between the groups, justifying why one deserved better treatment. Sometimes this was because they had cultural values that matched up better with Western ones, or that made governance more convenient; just as often it was a matter of expedient alliance. When the Noble Savage is invoked, it’s a decent bet that their role is to ally with white people against the wicked, depraved kind of savage.

For Native Americans in particular, the Noble Savage is often used to paint Native culture as belonging to an inevitably-receding mythic, heroic age – a culture that must diminish, go into the West, and make way for the age of Modern People. Around the end of the C19th and beginning of the C20th, this became a really popular narrative among Westerners who couldn’t stomach blunter versions of Manifest Destiny; the Indians were fading away in spite of all that had been done for them, because they knew at heart that their time was past. (Another principle: don’t treat Native Americans as elves, or vice versa. Even though Tolkien did.)

On a more individual level, the idealisation of Noble Savage is often used to hold actual people to impossible standards. (The Dogs in the Vineyard book brings this specific point up.) Most NPCs in a given Dogs scenario are going to be pretty flawed, and their flaws are what drive the story and make it interesting. Native characters are going to be flawed – some of them really flawed. (I did take it for granted, from the outset, that all my white characters would be some degree of racist, ranging from unrepentantly genocidal to mild paternalist noble-savaging.)

Oppression doesn’t always turn people into saints: it can, and often does, turn them into monsters. And in game terms, I didn’t want a situation that my group – progressive young Seattleites, all – would immediately recognise as The Problem Is Racism. Dogs is an investigative game, and if your mystery is constructed along obvious lines, it’s boring. Dogs is an ethical-conundrum game, and if it’s too obvious who’s the bad guy, there’s no room for debate or mistake. The players should have plenty of room to interpret things badly, to argue amongst themselves, and to fuck up. And Dogs is a game about characters who are absolutely not modern progressives, and I wanted a scenario that would help lead the players into that mindset.

My first draft, once I looked at it, was too easy. Of the two most sympathetic characters, one was the most prominent Mountain guy in town. There were a bunch of angry young men, but they were angry at some pretty clear-cut injustice, and the angry young white men were clearly worse. There were some women who were secretly maintaining some of their folk-traditions, which the Dogs might have interpreted as blasphemy – but I didn’t want that to rise to the level of actual witchcraft, and it’s the kind of thing that might easily have been overlooked. One of the young Native men was courting a white girl, against her father’s wishes – but even in Faithful terms that situation was only kind of borderline. In fact, none of the Mountain People characters would seem morally compromised by modern liberal standards. Too easy.

One answer would be to make a new character to fit that role. The Dogs-y solution, though, is usually to push harder. Move the action forward: what happens when the pressure builds on this situation? If your characters are too good, don’t add a Bad Guy: add more desperation to the same characters. Some of them will hold firm; some of them will crack. Some of them will make ugly sacrifices, or take horrible risks, to keep it together. (If the moral of a story is that Racism is Bad, but every non-white person somehow remains morally spotless, you’re setting up bad expectations for the real world.)

As it turned out in the actual game, I’m not sure that I pushed hard enough on this. I had a lot of Mountain characters who were really toeing the line, but none who had gone toppling over it. There was plenty of stuff which the PCs could have interpreted really badly – but they had made some impetuous errors in the previous town and felt really awful about it, were generally really careful. The hot-headed Dog who wasn’t sympathetic to Mountain customs got consistently shut down by the Mountain-descended Dog. The one Mountain character who had done something that the Dogs couldn’t have forgiven rolled some great dice in an early social conflict, and got to keep some of her secrets.

Go to primary sources, particularly the accounts of the people themselves. Not that this should be the only way to learn about a culture! Any culture’s idea of itself will contain distortions. But every lens will create some distortions, and this particular lens gets neglected way too often.

The trick is that finding primary sources in the voices of Native people can be difficult: oral histories, for instance, often end up in inaccessible places, and many of the ones I found online were untranscribed recordings, which take forever to sort through.

I focused on accounts from the Utah-area cultures, not because I planned to specifically replicate any of them but because I wanted some range. Most of the Native culture I’ve consumed in the past decade has been Tlingit, which is very much unlike any of the Great Basin cultures in terms of material culture, language and social organisation. I didn’t aim at anything like a comprehensive understanding of Ute or Paiute or Shoshone – or even an understanding as good as my knowledge of Tlingit. Ultimately, I decided that my goal wasn’t to adopt material – as I’d have been doing if I were making a more historically-rooted game like Night Witches – but to pay attention, to remind myself that I was dealing with real people and not story tropes.

Myth. One of the things most commonly ganked from indigenous cultures is myth – unsurprisingly, since myths and legends are just great story material. But one of the things that strikes me most about myths is that a great deal of damage has to be done to them to make them suitable for another culture’s narrative style. In some contexts that’s an acceptable cost. In others it’s awfully close to plunder.

So I explicitly avoided adapting the myths of specific Native cultures. I made up my own, drawing from patterns that recur in lots of cultures worldwide, but adapted to the local environment. And I made it a fairly low-grade flavour of myth – a sort of urban legend that a lot of Mountain People wouldn’t have put much stock in, even before conversion. (I made references to more serious myths but mostly kept them under wraps. Not all culture is made for open sharing.)

Naming. This was a sticking point. I wanted to avoid the habit of making all Native Americans half-assed rip-offs of Plains cultures; that happens a lot in fictional naming – and has been the source of some really shitty jokes. Under other circumstances, I might have considered knocking up a conlang phonology – but delivering conlangs is tough enough in text, and would have totally bombed in a RPG session largely conducted through speech. The Mountain characters would be using English names anyway; they would be seen only within an English-speaking context that frowned on Mountain traditions. So that left the names of the tribes – I needed to distinguish between groups.

Doing research, I was particularly struck by the Paiute practice of naming groups after features of their regional diets – but that didn’t seem quite right, because that’s so consistent that it makes more sense as a way of distinguishing groups within a culture, rather than between cultures. And was very clearly cherry-picking a Cool Thing. Again, I elected to go with a couple of English-translated terms.

Don’t do accents. This goes for both writers and RPG acting. Or, specifically, don’t affect the mannerisms of historically oppressed groups unless you can nail them, which (trust me on this) you can’t unless you’re from there, or you’re an extraordinary voice actor.

This is mostly because any accent not nailed tends to turn into Comedy Accent, which is a sign that you’re not taking your subjects seriously. Comedy Accent has its place: yee-hawing cowboys are fair game, and a fine way to get players to stop taking themselves so seriously and loosen up creatively. But unless you can transcend Comedy Accent (and you almost certainly can’t), don’t do falsetto women, don’t do jive-talking gangstas, don’t do lisping gay men.

This seems obvious, and my instinct is to eyeroll severely at the worst offenders. But it can be genuinely tricky, because accents are a thing that humans intuitively pick up: mimickry is a big part of how we adapt socially, and our brains really want us to start doing it long before we have a chance of being any good. Again, I lived in a Tlingit town for a while, and there’s – not just an accent, but a certain diction and pacing of speech. An old person’s pattern of speech, but – because elders, as the guardians of culture, carry a lot of status – one that inflects much younger speakers when they’re speaking in tribe contexts or invoking their authority as members of the tribe. It was tough not to adopt some elements of it, especially when playing older male NPCs. (It’s worse when I run into someone with Bantu-accented English; I grew up with a great deal of Setswana pidgin, a lot of which persists in the private language of my family.)

Accept that you’ll get some things wrong. This comes up all the time in the Standard Advice. More importantly: don’t assume that because you put a bunch of thought into it, you are now above criticism. That is not, in itself, a reason to not do it.

Sometimes, absolutely, it’s worth acknowledging that you’re probably going to fuck up badly, and so it’s probably better to avoid the subject until you understand more. But nervousness is as likely to be your enemy as your ally, here. 

In some respects, tabletop is a pretty good place to screw up. Your mistakes aren’t going on the record, won’t get broadcasted to a million people who have no particular motive for sympathy. Your audience are on relatively equal terms with you, and have the option to interrupt and help you out if things look as if they’re going badly. And hopefully you’re playing with people who you like and trust.

On the other hand, you’ve got a lot less room to edit. And the immediacy of the experience can mean that any damage you do has the potential to be really bad. Stories circulate in the community about people who had one awful experience and were put off role-playing forever, despite all the warnings and safeguards that could be devised.

Oh, yeah, and as part of figuring out if you got anything wrong: debrief. Dogs can get pretty intense. Talk about what went well and what could have been improved. Often the immediacy of gaming means that there are things that you can only spot in retrospect.


* I’m a bit iffy about that last category! Fictional characters in the game and real groups of people represented by the game are totally different things; when we’re talking about ethics and art, I think it’s really important to insist on that distinction, and to call people out when they muddy the distinction to make a point. Treating characters respectfully, in terms of the fiction, is absolutely not the same kind of activity as treating real people and groups well. True, you generally respect one by respecting the other – but ‘respecting an NPC’ can sometimes mean making their life hell.

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One Response to Representation, RPGs, and DitV’s Mountain People

  1. Awesome post as usual. A lot of it should probably be required reading for fiction writers as well as GMs, mutatis mutandis. “Push harder”, for example, seems like a good advice outside of DitV as well.

    “On a more individual level, the idealisation of Noble Savage is often used to hold actual people to impossible standards. […] Oppression doesn’t always turn people into saints” Now that’s something that has turned ludicrously relevant in the real world, where, apparently, any bad action committed by, say, a Muslim or an immigrant can be used to immediately negate any claim the person’s group may have had to fair treatment, as if a minority group is the Borg. Or where “but he was a shoplifter!” is seen as a valid defence of an authority figure’s killing of an African-American, by people who would never normally argue that shoplifting is a crime deserving summary execution.

    Also, very good explanation of why a shallow fake accent is so offensive.

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