Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. The saying is often contributed to various indian tribes, but it comes from a poem written by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895.
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
One of the things roleplaying games can do is let you do just that.
Like movies and novels based on a true story, roleplaying games that take outset in a historical event resonate deeper with me than other games.
They are still stories, not history books. They don’t present a factual, objective truth. Instead, they invite you to understand and discover a time and place in a first person view. They resonate with you when you can identify with their dreams and fears. When you can project something of yourself into their story. You create an emotional bridge between time and space between you and a fictional character inspired by historical facts.
In Montsegur 1244 you are one of the Cathars that walk down the mountain to be judged by the inquisitors. The story you and your co-players create leading up to this point makes this a poignant and meaningful moment. The choices you all make resonates deeply and grow your understanding of people’s motivations.
The switch from reading about another time and place to actually acting out or recreating experiences of another person in a conversation with other people is part of what makes roleplaying such a rewarding experience for me.
Let me present four other games that take you on a similar journey. These are all available for free in English (download links provided).
Dulce et Decorum
By Troels Ken Pedersen, 2013.
Troels Ken Pedersen’s take on the Great War is a master piece. The title Dulce et Decorum is a reference to a poem by Wilfred Owen about soldiers’ horrific experiences in World War I. Owen’s poem questions the old truth that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.
Troels not only evokes the trenches through fact based texts on machine guns, gas, and barbed wire. The reciting of trench poetry take us on an emotional journey as the game progresses. From patriotic lads going on a fun adventure expecting to be home for Christmas (“God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,…” Rupert Brooke) to broken fragments of letters home to the family (My sweet old etcetera, E. E. Cummings).
The game instructs to use an authoritarian style of game mastering. Together with the randomness of who dies and who lives a little longer, this creates a sense of disempowerment that sets up the core mechanic: At the beginning of the game, the characters are driven by strong beliefs, in God, Country, Friendship. As the story progress and the horrors of war tear away at their identity, it asks the players: What coping mechanism will you grasp on to stay alive, if any? Racism, drugs, or worse to stay alive? If you survive the war, what person will you be when you return home?
Sadly this game has only become more relevant in the years since Troels created it.
By Mo Holkar, 2016
‘Heroes’ by Mo Holkar is a freeform game set in East Berlin in the mid-1970s.
The players play two sets of characters: A group of young disaffected East Germans who meet and talk about crossing into the Wall into West Berlin. A squad of border guards whose duty it is to prevent such escapes, using deadly force. The border guards are alternative versions of the escaper characters — what each of them might have been had their lives taken the path of service to the state. At the end of the game, players decide for their escaper character whether to make the bid for freedom. And each guard character may decide whether to shoot.
In essence, you as a player decide which version is the ‘Heroes’.
The game uses the physical space and full character immersion, broken by flashback scenes and internal monologues called by the game master. The game opens with David Bowie’s song ‘Heroes’. This sets the mood and gets the players thinking about heroism, where it can be found.
By Signe Løndahl Hertel, 2018
I only recently discovered Signe’s game and have not yet played it. Hence I base my recommendation on reading the text. The text is clear and explicit on what the game is about and how to run the game, making it very accessible.
Kobanî is a drama about people in war. It focuses on the sacrifices one makes in fighting to survive and on the humanity, which is lost on the battlefield.
The town of Kobanî in northern Syria is attacked and besieged by the militant group Daesh (ISIS). The Kurdish population in the town is under pressure and many have fled across the border to Turkey. The freedom fighters of the Kurdish militia YPG are fighting to keep the enemy at bay but the frontlines and the battles are reaching further into the heart of Kobanî.
The players play four Kurdish women who join the Kurdish militia to defend their hometown Kobanî against the enemy Daesh. They grew up in Kobanî, but now their home has been transformed into a battlefield. While they fight to liberate the town, glimpses of the past emerge. Every building, street and square holds memories of their lives before the war. As the town is demolished and transformed by the fight so is the self-images of the characters.
The game uses flashbacks are used to show and develop the inner life of their character. Players flip a token that shows Kobanî as it was before the war and how it is now devasted by war on the other side when they are setting a flashback. The conflicting views on the role of women in society of Daesh and YPG resonance with the personal circumstances of each of the four characters.
By Frederik Jensen, 2023.
My Fastaval 2023 game Clemency is about commuted felons in Obama’s USA. Inspired by interviews with people commuted by Obama in 2016, Clemency is a short story game that is played straight from the text. A lot of the punch comes from listening to the other players creating and retelling stories of their character based on true stories from the interviews.
It leaves a lot unsaid and leaves it for the players to draw their own conclusions. You can play the interviews straight and take the stories at face value. You can interpret them as stories people created to cope with extreme circumstances. Are they lying to the interviewer? To themselves? You can think about social justice in a system that disproportionately punishes people of colour.
Biden recently commuted the sentences of 31 people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, following in the footsteps of President Obama if not exactly walking in his moccasins.
4 thoughts on “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”
Thank you! Also, I can attest that Kobanî is an excellent game. Sadly, it too remains extremely relevant today. Islamic State may be broken, but the lives of the people and would-be defenders of Kobanî remain fraught.
Ah, thank you for mentioning “Heroes”, in such tremendous company!
When I wrote it, not long after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I felt that in many ways the Cold War way of thinking was still with us. Since then, of course, it’s become much more so again.
Hi Mo, thanks for creating ‘Heroes’. I played it at Fastaval that year and enjoyed how it steers the player to that final choice of whether to pull the trigger or not. I had my guard accidentally pull the trigger early in the game while on duty, foreshadowing the finale. Who is really in charge? The young men who pull the trigger or the old men who project ideas of ‘heroism’ into other people’s head? Unfortunately a question that never grows old.
Oh I’m glad that you enjoyed it!
Mm, if that finger on the trigger is the only piece of real power that the guards have in their lives — how would they feel about using it? Or about refraining from using it? Having an accidental shot earlier is a great way of getting people to think about what it means.
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