/ Daniel Starkey / 4 am Mon, Jun 15 2015
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  • This American Indian Dungeons and Dragons lets you weave powerful stories

    This American Indian Dungeons and Dragons lets you weave powerful stories

    Ehdrigor, a game created by a black, American Indian game designer, gently reflects the Native experience, and how that approach to storytelling differs from Western narratives.

    I grew up in an American Indian household. Almost every weekend, my mom would take me out to see an elder. A fidgety, impatient child, I would ask when we were leaving. "Mom, I want to play Smash Bros. with my friends," I'd say, but the response was always the same.

    "We're on Indian time out here. Everything happens when it needs to. We'll leave when it's time."

    As an adult, I've had a lot of trouble explaining the concept of Indian time to others. It's not hard to understand why. Modern society would crumble if it treated airline schedules or surgeries with the same nonchalant attitude as a traditional Native ceremony. But those values are also an important part of the Native perspective. They're also why I've seen so many attempts to incorporate Native influences into games fail.

    Ehdrigohr is nothing like those haphazard fumblings. Designed over the course of several years by black, American Indian game designer Allen Turner, Ehdrigohr filters Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplaying experiences through a distinctly Native cultural lens rather than a European one.

    "Ultimately it came down to wanting [a game] that spoke to me, where I could see myself and my friends as characters or heroes, and feel like they belong," says Turner. Although he's a big fan of table-top roleplaying games, he made Ehdrigohr precisely because he couldn’t find anything that integrated Native culture into its play and treated Natives as equals.Dungeons and Dragons may have some Indian-inspired tribes in its expansions, but they are always treated as different or inferior. Indigenous weapons do less inherently damage than an equivalent weapon wielded by a dwarf or elf, not to mention the gross depiction of Natives using primitive clubs. In all cases, we're treated as intrinsically lesser.

    If a game made by non-Natives—however well-meaning—attempted to broach the topic of Indian time, it’s very likely that they’d end up with something that leaned on demeaning or offensive stereotypes. There’s a deftness and depth of context needed to discuss the idea without also inadvertently suggesting that Natives are lazy or irresponsible.

    To an outsider, Indian time might sound like an excuse for laziness, but it's the furthest thing from it. A more accurate description would be that it represents a different set of priorities. When you're preparing for a ceremony, for example, you'll often need to gather certain herbs or cut down a specific tree. If you can't find them, you can't find them. Try again tomorrow. Clearly the creator and the spirits weren't with you. It's not a bad thing, it's just a collective understanding that things happen when they need to. People still work just as hard, just on unusual and unpredictable schedules.

    Ehdrigohr is the first game I’ve ever played that felt like it understood that, just like it understands so many things about Native culture.

    Ehdrigohr starts from the base assumption that there are no colonizers. There are also no dwarves, orcs, elves, or gnomes. It's a world populated by nine nations of humans, inspired primarily by Native cultures and mythologies. They've learned to coexist with spirits and natural forces around them, but must also contend with monstrous creatures called "Shivers" that emerge at night from dark places inside the Earth. It's a black-and-white mythos that reflects many of the values inherent in Native culture—at least as I’ve experienced it.

    It’s an incredibly broad and flexible game, one where you can create almost any character imaginable, or even choose to play without any combat at all. You won't need a vast array of multifaceted dice in order to play, and where Dungeons and Dragons has very exact and specific rules about how far you can move each turn or how many items your character can carry, Ehdrigohr lets you do whatever seems reasonable. Like Indian time, it sounds like a shortcut or a recipe for disaster, but in practice it allows people get deeper into playing their roles—to focus on the experiences in front of them, rather than externally imposed systems.

    A few nights ago, I played Ehdrigohr with some non-Native friends. I created a simple challenge, where their characters needed to leave the safety of their village and gather materials to perform a ritual that herald the birth of a special child, one with a strong connection to the creator. The village had been struggling to survive for some time, and it was believed that this child could help ward off bad fortune for years to come. The story I gave them was partly inspired by real events; the herbs I told them to gather were the same plants that my elders gave me as medicine when I was a child.

    My friends created their own characters, and infused them with rich, interesting back stories. They included a cook whose stories entertained the tribe during long, cold winter nights, a two-spirit sex worker, and a bird-keeper who tended to the massive crows that carried messages and supplies to neighboring villages. They used no weapons—no bows or swords, no axes or staves. Instead, they were valued for their ability to connect with others and build emotional and spiritual bridges. They could use empathy and prayer to connect to ease the suffering of others, spreading peace and serenity. These weren't heroes, they were just ordinary people who played important roles in their community.

    Rather than defining power exclusively in physical terms, Ehdrigohr treats emotional and spiritual strength as an equally important skillset. On top of the standard measurements of physical health, players have mental and social "health bars." So if you’re trying to help someone through their emotional pain and you’re not in a good place yourself, you risk taking on too much and sending your own character spiraling into depression. Community bonds are important as well; if you alienated part of the tribe during the previous session, you'll take social damage—which hinders your ability to maintain relationships—and you'll probably have to sacrifice any traits that relied on those connections.

    Robert Altbauer

    Robert Altbauer

    Where Dungeons and Dragons lends itself to big, bombastic moments of intense combat, Ehdrigohr is far more subtle. At one point in the game, my players encountered a river they wanted to cross, which was chest-deep with a rapid current. Instead of looking for a bridge—the kneejerk but frankly boring solution in a typical roleplaying campaign—one of the players sat down to pray. He learned that the land had been cursed by a man that died at the hand of his friend. The player was able to reach out to the spirit, connect with it, and ease its suffering, all without ever rolling a die.

    There is violence and conflict in Ehdrigohr, but only in the sense that human beings are victims of a violent world. The game as a whole is far more focused on finding exciting challenges and hashing out interesting solutions, and there’s an inherent beauty in how people persevere peacefully in spite of the struggles they face.

    Later, the players in faced off against a "Shiver," a shadowy monster that can't be killed by a sword. Instead of attacking their bodies, it attacked their minds, trying to capitalize on their insecurities and manipulate them into giving up. The mental strain took its toll, but they were able to repel and destroy it through sheer strength of will. In over a decade of playing roleplaying games, I've never had an experience quite like that.

    Most fantasy worlds like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings have obvious villains, but the tension and conflict in Ehdrigohr stems from interactions with the natural world, and why it’s important to be mindful of its many dangers. The gods are benevolent but their power is limited, and monsters and evil spirits abound. It’s rare to see the world itself as the sole threat, and it’s one of many features that gives Ehdrigohr its unique feel.

    The game uses a roleplaying system—known as "Fate Core"—that inextricably links roleplaying and combat; you're awarded "fate points" based on how you interact with your character's personality and backstory, and solve problems in ways that make sense for them individually. For example, I awarded one point to the bird keeper in my campaign when she let the other characters ride the giant crows that were already trained, while risked her life to tame a wild one.

    You can spend those points to change small things about your environment, like lighting a desperately needed fire if you don't have a match. It's not all-powerful or a panacea to every problem, but it's enough to give you a nudge right when you need it. Like Indian time, it allows players succeed when they need to, and not a moment before. floatingheadsaaaaa_zps92eb7f72

    One of the more disconcerting and pernicious aspects of being Native in the 21st century is the tacit understanding that your culture is dying, and dying quickly. It's no secret that Native culture has been fading, or that Indigenous people throughout the world have had their culture beaten out of them and endured centuries of genocide.

    Because of that history, the parallels between the latter day Native experience and the refreshing brand of personal storytelling in Ehdrigohr feels particularly vital and valuable. Ehdrigohr empowers Natives, or at least it empowered me. I can’t help but see Indigenous influences seeping out of every page of the game’s rule book, from the way you interact with the world to the values and experiences it reflects.

    Unlike most Dungeons and Dragons games, your experience isn't controlled as tightly or exclusively by the dungeon master who crafts the world around you. Instead, players and the dungeon master work cooperatively, all of them taking turns as storyteller and audience. Playing it with friends reminded me of the many nights I spent as a child listening to my elders tell stories by firelight. Often they'd ask for my input about what would happen next in the story. If they liked my suggestion, they'd even include it in to future retellings.

    Western storytelling is dominated by the tyranny of the narrator, but the oral traditions of Native culture work very differently. They're designed to tell you something about the world that you may need to survive, and so the central message is the most important piece of the tale. Ancillary details can be added or dropped based on how entertaining and memorable it makes the tale as a whole. Ehdrigohr poignantly facilitates that by blending gaming and Native storytelling traditions in powerful ways.

    As an adult, I’ve come to understand the importance of sharing those traditions and values, not only with other Natives but with my non-Native friends. Ehdrigohr gave me a way to teach those friends more about my culture in a way that mirrored its traditions, and allowed us to engage with a story that we'd all woven together.

    Ehdrigohr is already more to me than just a fun game; it's a chance to use a game in the same way that storytellers used the fables that inspired it—to teach, to connect, and to love.

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