Sci fi and fantasy have a long history of trying to nudge humanity toward a better version of itself. Whether by cautioning us about possible futures or putting current issues on display through direct allegory, such media helps us explore our problems and our potential. In particular, tabletop role-playing games offer a chance to engage these narratives in a uniquely direct way, which can be a fantastic opportunity for players to expand their horizons and experience new ideas in a safe environment.
Even so, these genres are not without problems of their own. For example, a game based on Japanese mythology and folklore will often be labeled as exactly that, while a game based on European mythology and folklore will simply be called “fantasy,” betraying an assumption that the white experience is the default and requires less description than nonwhite experiences. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with white fantasy (I’m a big fan myself), its overinflated centrality can crowd out other stories, other experiences, other voices.
Yet despite this imbalance in representation, the demand for nonwhite stories in tabletop RPGs is making itself heard. For proof, look no further than Swordsfall, an Africa-centric tabletop game whose setting book alone is shattering expectations for its near-finished crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
Swordsfall, which brands itself as an “Afropunk sci-fantasy” game, is set in a world derived from precolonial Africa. Whereas so-called “mainstream” fantasy centers white people and has only recently been stepping away from its cringeworthy history of using blackness as a way to flag a person or community as “exotic,” Swordsfall presents a setting where dark skin is the norm and the futuristic culture is based on the history of Africa rather than Europe. The best part? People are hungry for it.
Because the game rules are still in early development, the current Kickstarter campaign is not for funding the whole game, but rather a setting book full of art, geography, and descriptive fiction. One might think a book that could be considered “peripheral” to a yet-unfinished game would be a tough sell, even considering the campaign’s modest goal of only $2,000. Well, one would be wrong. At the time of this writing, the campaign has raised over 40 times its funding goal, with pledges totaling nearly $90,000. A massive string of stretch goals has been unlocked, with only the loftiest tiers remaining unreached.
For comparison, the now-famous Kickstarter for Critical Role—which had the advantages of a massive preexisting audience and multiple platforms’ worth of reach, effectively being “the establishment” among RPG content creators—has raised a little more than 12 times its funding goal. Yes, Critical Role still has the higher dollar amount by a huge margin, but it also had a lot of things stacked in its favor. For Swordsfall to shatter its goals so decisively without all those assets proves that the demand for nonwhite sci fi and fantasy is very real and should not be underestimated.
Sci fi and fantasy are two of the best-known pillars of geekdom, creating stories that capture our imaginations and challenge us to grow. A more complete set of voices telling those stories will only enrich the experience, and I can’t wait to see how Swordsfall will strengthen that chorus.