Role-playing games are commonly thought of—and disparaged as—forms of “escape,” ways of separating the self from reality. Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is an RPG that challenges stereotypes of the genre while explicitly making escape a game-world objective: The player characters are slaves in the antebellum United States, and their goal is to be free. As in other RPGs, the characters are defined by a collection of traits coded in numerical values; the primary statistic in Steal Away Jordan is the character’s value on the slave market, measured in number of dice. “A young, attractive female in a Southern city or town, add two dice,” the rulebook says. “If you were from the Rice Coast in West Africa and were purchased by a rice planter in the Carolinas, your knowledge of rice cultivation would be particularly valuable.” Players are discouraged, however, from inventing highly valuable super-slaves, and the rulebook suggests a lengthy list of handicaps and demerits. “If you have a history of escape, you have been branded or whipped at some point,” it says. “These wounds carry the risk of infection, and mark you as a problem slave.” With its excerpts from slave narratives and reproductions of archival photographs and etchings, the rulebook reinforces the game’s historical origins. But Steal Away Jordan is not about reenactment, a feature underscored by the character of the Conjurer, an oracular figure who can be paid to cast voodoo spells (the strength and effectiveness of her magic can be adjusted to suit the players’ tastes for realism). Steal Away Jordan draws inspiration from works of fiction, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and transforms the spirit of those classics in the genre of rule-guided collective storytelling. It makes fantasy and play into means for remembering and reflecting on real desires of escape.
Text by Brian Droitcour
Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is on display at 319 Scholes as part of Big Reality curated by Brian Droitcour until March 29th.