Can the Subaltern Kick Ass?


We’re two games in on ‘The Path to Power’ chronicle, and I’m thinking I should have subtitled it ‘Can the Subaltern Kick Ass?’ because the entire party is made up of characters from colonized indigenous groups and allied Others. We have Altani, an envoy from the local nomadic Shoanti tribes who were violently pushed off their land 300 years before by explorer expeditions from the Empire of Cheliax (and by violently, I mean about 75 years of ongoing armed conflict that the book materials mostly gloss over). We have Calendral and Carandolwen, two elves, both displaced in different ways (the local elven homeland forest has been occupied for a few hundred years, so there’s diaspora). We have Arenza/Lady Renata, a Varisian con artist pretending to be Chelish – the Varisians were another group indigenous to the area who are only slightly better treated than the Shoanti. And we have Gundlag Stonetower, aka Skai, a half-orc woman encountering all the ignorant racial intolerance you’d expect from a D&D setting.

Now, the Pathfinder setting-as-written is not critical of the Chelish occupation (nor of the unquestioned racism against orcs, which I’ve re-envisioned as uninformed propaganda). The original explorers who colonized Korvosa are all framed as heroes and adventurers. Large parts of the city are named after them. So yeah, I’ve done a bit of retooling and refocusing to make it clear that the heroes of Korvosa are not unproblematic. To make it clear that the land they ‘discovered’ was very much inhabited, the inhabitants are still around, and hey, they’d kinda like their shit back.

I somehow don’t think the colonizing structures of authority in Korvosa are going to survive the campaign.

What makes this doubly interesting to me is that the players are all white, middle-class (one man, some women, some genderfluid) folks who are very aware of the problems of colonization and their own privileged subject positions. I suppose what we’re doing could be read as taking on a colonized identity so that we can feel properly heroic (which is a topic my ex, David Higgins, has done some solid academic work interrogating in SF/F).

I think it’s more complicated than that. A lot of it comes down to using play as a way of testing out new approaches, models, and solutions. If we were dealing with the colonization of Korvosa, then we could play through stopping it from happening, or change how it was happening. But we’re not. We’re dealing with a thriving port city three hundred years later. The questions we’re grappling with are how to break down the current (nominally local now, but still very Chelish) power structures and make room for the indigenous groups and non-Chelish who have been shut out of power and the structures that support it.

This really wasn’t my intent when I said “I’m just going to run a Pathfinder game straight out of the adventure path. No changes! Just fun hack-and-slash, murder-hobo adventuring.” But then I read the path, and I took exception to how the villain(s) of the metaplot were written. And I pieced together the history of the region and was horrified at how one-sided the presentation of that history was. Hell, I even fixed the population of the city (20k people for a major city that supports three major universities three separate military organizations, and half a dozen temples? Come ON. Venice during the Renaissance had between 80-120k, and there were cities in China that had over a million!)

All of this probably makes the game sound like no fun. I guess I’ll let my players weigh in on that. The first game, they caused chaos at Exemplary Excrebles by releasing all the fighting pit animals (to save them, including two wild griffons). The second game included Skai serenading the griffons to get them to eat pig heads. Skai’s half-brother got an adjunct position at the University of Korvosa (just Intro to Magic Item Use for Non-majors, but he’s the first orc student ever to get a teaching gig!). Lady Renata got into some sneaky caper-shenanigans at a party at the Arkona estate. Also, Altani’s companion bulette, Olon Toms, got a snazzy vest for the party.

See, tons of fun with our postcolonial critique.


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