It Takes More Than a 'Tolerance' Mechanic to Make an Anti-Colonial RPG
'Dragons Conquer America' wants to tell a magical story of resistance to the Spanish Conquest, but its perspective is merely a more enlightened colonial one.
Artwork and promo images courtesy of Burning Games
High school was Shadowrun. There weren’t a lot of games in the 90s that openly encouraged you to be brown, queer, and angry as hell. Our group was Somali, Mexican, Thai, Black, and Native. We were mixed and mestiza. The descendants of refugees, slaves, the subaltern. We were pissed-off teenage queers of color in an upper middle-class and exceptionally white suburb. In the “Capital of the Confederacy,” we were outsiders who had to keep our mouths shut all week long.
Shadowrun let us be loud.
We gathered in smoky bedrooms and trash basements as GZA’s Liquid Swords pumped from a boombox, and indulged in our fantasies of revolution. We bombed a “Human” (read: white) supremacist rally in the California Free State. Stole top-secret R&D data from Aztechnology and gave it away to indigenous revolutionaries. We fried the brains of government officials as razorgirls eviscerated their bodyguards. Beneath the polished chrome and neon towers of the elite, we set the fire of our rebellions.
Poor, dirty, and snarling—it felt good.
Then, one night, it was over. A contact betrayed us. We couldn’t roll for shit. And the armed forces of the Confederation of American States finally caught up with what was left of us. Firing blindly, I straddled my troll girlfriend’s large brown body, trying desperately to keep some blood inside her. I didn’t notice the two snipers.
Pop. Pop. The campaign was over.
We’d finally been silenced. Our GM took his glasses off, rubbed his eyes and said “I’m sorry, y’all.” Over three years, we had embodied these characters, waged guerrilla campaigns against brakes-off global capitalism, helped bankroll anti-colonial militias, and now we were just dead. It was a lot to take in.
We shared a joint between the five of us and played Smash Brothers.
Tabletop roleplaying games are vehicles for navigating the tumultuous intersection of identities and beliefs. In sharing these collaborative storytelling sessions, players can interrogate ourselves, and our world. We can explore possibilities and support each other through our darkest fears and failures.
But RPGs are still just a framework. A series of systems and settings designed to adjudicate action and simulate facets of reality. Like all systems, they are unquestionably political—even if those politics are murky and contradictory.
It’s easy to dismiss Spanish developer Burning Games’ latest Kickstarter initiative as regressive colonial garbage. In fact, when I initially accepted the invitation to write this piece, part of me felt I was being contracted to do what some would argue I do best—rip into games that play dress-up with indigeneity. After a cursory glance at Burning Games’ Twitter and the Kickstarter page, I accepted it. I put on my best Magua and made ready to eat the heart of Pale Face once again.
Described as a “living fantasy role playing setting,” Dragons Conquer America invites players to travel back to the “16th Century, when European invaders reached American soil and unleashed a genocidal conquest”—albeit with dragons. Even this description is complicated. Europeans are correctly identified as invaders, their conquest is correctly called genocidal—but it still describes these inhabited pre-Columbian lands as “American soil.”
Throughout their promos. Europeans are described as genocidal, greedy, violent, conquerors, but still as intrepid explorers. For every artwork depicting the vibrant grandeur of pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan, there’s a sexed-up Mexica priestess with a ski-slope nose and enviable Restylane pout. Mesoamerican religious traditions are acknowledged as distinct and with the same gravity as Judeo-Christian beliefs.
However, they’re still fraught with offensive tropes like blood rituals and human sacrifice. While slavery does make an appearance in both factions, it’s not treated with distinctiveness or depth. European women characters can choose the unique class Dragon Rider (which is exactly what it sounds like), whereas indigenous women characters can choose Courtesan (which is exactly what it sounds like). The game doesn’t diminish “the great domain we know today as the Aztec Empire,” but in the same breath as it describes the “daring campaigns of Captain Hernán Cortés.” There’s nothing daring about a desperate white man willing to slaughter an entire nation to satisfy his need for gold and fame.
This game is engaged in a colonial tug of war with itself.
Lead designer and co-founder Carlos Gómez Quintana has said his interest in the Mexica derives from an early encounter with Gary Jennings’ Aztec, a flawed text rife with noble savagery. This is really what binds everything in Dragons Conquer America together.
Like Jennings’ novel, the creators of Dragons Conquer America place a high regard on maintaining historical accuracy. They use Nahuatl and other indigenous languages, identify multiple Mesoamerican civilizations by name, and include minutiae on the physical trappings of those cultures. They sympathize with indigenous populations and rebuke Spain’s incursion—up to a point.
Unfortunately, like Aztec, the game ultimately doesn’t convert this historical understanding into a sense of real cultural understanding, it undercuts its own political stance.
Some might argue that this is because, as Gómez Quintana tells me, Álvarez is not indigenous.
"I wouldn't have dared getting into this game, these subjects, without a Mexican writer. He is not a history specialist nor indigenous, but a game writer; however, his sources include the most respected historians in Mexico, such as Alfredo López and Miguel León Portilla. And he, like us, has a strong anti-colonial bias.” Honestly this game owes a huge debt to León Portilla’s The Broken Spears (a popular and well-regarded monograph about Spanish conquest from an Nahuatl-language point of view) . Still, is it enough to have a well-read Mexican writer handling this material?
Indigenous Latinidad is complicated. Not all Mexicans are indigenous, but many are, and many more aren’t fully aware of their indigeneity. The Mexican “national identity” itself is a fusion of pre-Columbian indigeneity with the complex history of colonization and the cultures of its colonizers. An argument can be made for Álvarez’s capabilities here. However, it’s still not appropriate for Álvarez to speak for the one Yaqui character or other indigenous North American peoples the game plans to include.
Like Mexico, nothing about this game is simple or easy, something Burning Games is acutely aware of. There is even a sidebar in Episode Zero: The Coatli Stone that states, “We are aware of the delicate nature of portraying other cultures in media. That’s why we are telling a story we feel confident telling, a clash between the Mexica, the Maya, and the Spaniards (the writer of DCA is Mexican and we are Spanish ourselves).”
Gómez Quintana expressed the intention that players would examine “both sides” of the conflict (the first two adventures are split between a Mexica party and a Spanish one). From a design perspective the most successful groups would include a mixture of European and indigenous player characters. It’s part of the way Burning Games is trying to temper players from simply indulging in genocidal rampages in a fantasy of Europe’s conquest of South America.
Another way is the system for a Tolerance Skill, which Gómez Quintana says is, “a tool the GM has to get intolerant characters into trouble: You shouldn’t have insulted your native guide if you wanted him to take you somewhere, or you shouldn’t have spoken down on a spanish lady if you needed her help. The more tolerant your character is, the more control you have over him and the less likely you are to get into trouble just because you are not reasonable.”
As a “living” game, players’ outcomes in their campaigns will be collected, and that data used to propel the metanarrative of Dragons Conquer America. Gómez Quintana tells me “This might develop in a story in which the Spanish are driven back to Europe or, at least, cannot conquer into the mainland.”
He added, “I want to think that people in our hobby are educated beyond that. In general, most gaming groups have strict codes of conduct on their gaming tables. People tend to make clear from the beginning what is acceptable in that group and what isn’t.” And while I want to share his optimism, this could just as easily mean the Spanish decimate the indigenous population, all over again.
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With the systems that currently exist, there’s just no way to account for how players will act. Its politics are just too contradictory, and its encouragement of indigenous characters fighting monsters hand in hand with the architects of their genocide is a disaster.
Gómez Quintana tells me, “Does this mean I can literally stop people who buy this game from playing as horrible people and behaving like monsters? Although the game is not about that, no, I cannot.” And while it is literally impossible to stop players from playing at colonial violence, I think even messy games can guide players more successfully than Dragons Conquer America does.
Shadowrun is a mess.
It tries to explore capitalism, globalization, oppression of marginalized identities through its use of metahumanity—it’s also astoundingly racist, filled with stereotypes, and it considers indigenous religion the same as white people magic just with more feathers and different words.
It does all the things Dragons Conquer America does, and then some. It’s the midpoint between early cyberpunk fiction that actively engages politically, and the aesthetic veneer of 2016’s Ghost in the Shell.
But despite trying to critique capitalism while selling dozens of books filled with nothing but fluff descriptions of guns, the game actively encourages players to be dirty, violent, and rebellious. I’m sure it’s possible to play Shadowrun as a corporate stooge for Renraku. My group could have just as easily massacred that indigenous militia and gotten a hefty bounty from Aztechnology. But the game isn’t going to help you do it. Its design and tone don’t want that. From the cover alone, it establishes the idea that you are the opposition to the elite and powerful—and you will absolutely need to meet their violence with your own.
Shadowrun is not a postcolonial game, but its framework allows us to tell postcolonial stories. And despite Burning Game’s best intentions, that’s not a trick I’m confident Dragons Conquer America can pull off.
Perhaps a way of understanding this is that Dragons Conquer America wants players to indulge in power fantasies of being both Cowboy and Indian. That doesn’t sit well with me. As an indigenous woman, I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to cut out Cortes’ still-beating heart and eat it as his soldiers quake in fear. But the options to enact violence against indigenous populations are many. A tabletop game that encourages me to play “both sides,” and create a party of indigenous characters working together with European invaders (no matter how historically accurate) feels bad in 2017. Especially when I can’t be assured that, in the end, we won’t still lose. Living as an indigenous person already means constantly being told that you lost.
Not all readers will see a problem with this, and that speaks to the perniciousness of colonial thought. I believe that in creating this game, Burning Games had the best of intentions. As their Kickstarter states:
Without getting into the whole argument about political correctness, I think it's important to make a game about the Conquest of America. The native cultures of America deserve their own game.
These cultures are so profoundly interesting, so magnificently different, that the World needs to know more about them, see more about them.
But even this statement looks at indigeneity through tired, colonial eyes. It’s outsiders doing something for Natives. We’re all taught the lies of colonial powers from day one. “The Indians lost because whites are superior.” Indigenous people at best are seen as wards (in many cases, we legally are). We’re to be protected, but corralled. Only given what little our invaders deem okay, we’re expected to smile when our stories are told for us by outsiders.
While Burning Games can call conquistadors genocidal, they still want to speak for us. And in the end, no matter how anti-colonial its creators want to be, the game they're crafting isn't.