Alright, so last month, we brought James Mendez Hodes onto the Frosthaven team to do cultural consultant work , which I could not be more pleased about. If you have the time, I’d highly recommend watching this Shelf Stories video or listening to this episode of Ludology he was in, where he explains the importance of cultural consultants.
In a nutshell , he is looking through all the narrative of Frosthaven and at all of the different cultures depicted within, and he is making sure everything is internally consistent and that it isn’t co-opting any real-world terms or ideas that may be harmful to players or any real-world cultures. It’s not just about pointing out problems, but also collaboratively coming up with solutions that expand and strengthen the narrative . It has been an enjoyable process that not only makes the game more ethical and welcoming to a wider audience, but also simply just makes it better .
But I may be getting ahead of myself. First of all, you may be thinking, “What does real-world cultural sensitivity have to do with a made-up fantasy world?” Well, back when I first sat down to create the world of Gloomhaven , my naïve self was right there with you . My general thought process was, “I am creating my own fantasy world completely divorced from reality, and so I can do whatever I want with the peoples in this world. There’s no risk of harming anyone, because it’s not real.”
This is a big problem , however, because nothing is created in a vacuum. Everything we do is stamped with our own biases and influences. And while the intent may be to not harm, our biases have a tendency to cause harm anyway .
If this is all sounding a little abstract, let’s talk about some specific ways in which I fell down on Gloomhaven . I think one of the most obvious ones is my use of the word “race”. “Race” has, of course, been used extensively throughout the fantasy genre as a way to group different peoples, to the point where it is just second nature. But when you stop and think about it, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense .
“Race” is generally not even a useful delineation of peoples in our reality. It is much more precise to classify someone’s culture or ethnicity. And even if we wanted to use the term in a fantasy reality in the same context that people in our reality mistakenly do, that doesn’t work either . The Savvas are sentient rocks given life by some mysterious divine force. They aren’t a different race from humans. I’m not even sure the words species or genus would do the trick.
And, yeah, sure, you can just go back to the mentality that it’s your fantasy world and you can do whatever you want. Maybe the word “race” has a different meaning in my fantasy reality, but the catch is that people in our reality are the ones playing and experiencing the game, and by using the term “race”, I am not only reinforcing this outdated way of delineating people, but I’m also reinforcing the idea that these delineations are so extreme – that the difference between a black person and a white person is as great as the difference between a squishy human and a pile of rocks.
And so, once I set up this idea of “races” in Gloomhaven , I took it one step further into a bad place by assigning personality and mental traits to these “races” in a blanket way, reinforcing the concept of broad racial stereotypes : “All Inox are proud and stubborn.” “All Quatryls are hard-working and helpful.” Yes, certain cultures or societies may see varying traits as virtues and foster them in their populations, but no culture is monolithic, and not all Valraths come from the same culture anyway. Not only does implying that reinforce harmful stereotypes in the real world, it’s also just bad world-building .
And I think this gets at the larger point. I could go on and on about all the things I did wrong. We didn’t even touch upon how the descriptions of some peoples in Gloomhaven , like the Inox and Quatryls, hew dangerously close to very harmful stereotypes of real-world cultures, because of, again, my own unconscious biases. But the point is that I need to fix them . Not only to stop real-world harm for players who may react negatively to such depictions, but also to just make the world-building stronger and more carefully thought-out for all players to enjoy .
Back when I was creating Gloomhaven , I was just blundering along, doing all the narrative myself. With Frosthaven , I have so many more resources and people willing to collaborate with me to improve the game in every conceivable way, so it was an obvious step to improve in this way as well. And like many other aspects of board game development, the process has turned out to be so much easier once I brought in a professional , I realized I really should have been doing this from the beginning.
And it’s important to note that this isn’t a compromise of anything . We don’t have to trade the quality of the story to make it less harmful. We can improve all things at the same time, so that this whole experience is just a win-win. There’s nothing to even change mechanically – it’s all narrative . And we can do it in parallel to all the other efforts we are also working on to finish up the game, so that improving the narrative won’t even delay production. All upside, no downside.
One other thing you may be asking is whether these changes to the story are going to cause Frosthaven to lose its edge. Whether it is going to soften the story in an attempt to please everyone, and that is not the case. You are still a group of hardened mercenaries trying to survive in a hostile environment. Hard choices will still have to be made , but I think “choice” is a key word here.
I’ve received plenty of negative feedback over the years about the ending of scenario 3 in Gloomhaven (rightfully so), and the problem there wasn’t necessarily that players were inflicting trauma on children (though that too wasn’t great either), but the main issue was that there wasn’t a real choice. The setup for the scenario did not do a good enough job of telegraphing what was to come so that players could opt out and go down the other path if they wanted.
If you look at the history of Frosthaven I wrote during the Kickstarter, you may notice the religiously fueled colonialism vibes running rampant through it. This itself isn’t an issue. This is how the main human nation behaves in this fantasy reality. But I’ve since become uncomfortable with how the story written in that update forces the player to opt in and become complicit in this behavior without choice . Some people may not be comfortable with that.
So we’ve shifted the story around so that Frosthaven is a separate entity that doesn’t want to, by default, take over by force a territory inhabited by other peoples. The story is still just as rich or richer than before, and certain individuals will still come in, recruiting you to advance the colonialist agendas of the capital, but now the player has agency in how the story plays out , which is always a good thing.
And since I’m kind of laying it all out on the table here, publicly recognizing that Gloomhaven did a lot of things wrong, I would also just like to take a moment to apologize to anyone who was harmed by my ignorance in crafting that story, and I want to thank all the people who have helped me realize my mistakes in the intervening years. We all make mistakes , and the important thing is to learn from them and do our best to reverse any harm that those mistakes cause . There’s more work to do in that regard, but I think making sure Frosthaven doesn’t repeat those mistakes, and talking about the process openly are good first steps.
And finally , I recognize there may be some small percentage of you that will be upset by these developments. You are more than welcome to your own opinions, but voicing those opinions in the comments in a combative, disruptive, or derogatory way is not okay. I would encourage you to simply reach out to [email protected] and request a full refund if you feel strongly enough about it. We’ve already done that for a couple people who didn’t think black lives matter, and we’d be happy to do it again for people who don’t think board games should be a safe space for everyone…