Greetings, everyone! You may know Em Matson as the editor for the incredible sci-fi fantasy Coyote & Crow Role Playing Game — which is now available for preorder here. Oh, and be sure to find more of their work on their website! They’ve worked with us for Native American Heritage Month to talk about the importance of collaborative storytelling for their culture and how necessary it is to make TTRPGs thrive. Please give them a warm welcome!
Boozhoo! My name is Em Matson, my family is of Sault Ste Marie Chippewa and settler descent, and I’m a writer and editor in the TTRPG space. I’m grateful to have been given this opportunity to speak about collaborative storytelling for Native American Heritage Month. I share my perspective as someone who has received stories from my community in Minneapolis and in Michigan.
As we move further into the year, those in the north of Turtle Island are experiencing colder weather and the first snow falls. For those of us who are Indigenous, that means something we look forward to all year — storytelling.
Storytelling is an intrinsic part of most Indigenous cultures. It is how we hold onto our histories, pass down our culture, and share important values and lessons. For nations like the Anishinaabe, in the wintertime we bundle up and listen to our storykeepers share the same narratives that our ancestors heard, or ones our ancestors experienced themselves.
While these stories are told and kept by elders and storytellers who hold the responsibility of caring for them, it doesn’t mean that this storysharing is a hierarchical or one-way process. Many times when a story is finished, or even as it is being told, listeners (especially children) are asked to interact with the story. The storyteller may ask what messages the listeners received, or how they interpreted some parts. In this way, the story becomes alive and changing in that moment. Each storytelling experience is different, as listeners may pull out different lessons and important features of the story. It breathes, grows, and affects us differently.
Collaborative storytelling is intrinsic to community-building, as it allows for shared emotional connection to stories. Even in less protocol-driven situations, stories are shared amongst people in order to bond them and can have more than one storyteller. I spent much of my life around campfires, listening to my family tell stories of their childhood, their families. Often, it would bounce around the circle as relatives would pop in with a fact or clarification. These moments unite us in a way that is healing, restorative, and often, hilarious.
I see a great potential in the tabletop roleplaying space right now for the expansion of important collaborative storytelling. Even Western science agrees, as some therapists are beginning to use Dungeons and Dragons and other TTRPGs as a way to have mental health sessions, especially for children as an alternative to play therapy. TTRPGs put us in expansive situations where trial and error are encouraged, and understanding of your fellow players is required. It is hard to succeed without the collaboration of everyone at the table, and the surprises your fellow players bring tend to be some of the most satisfying moments.
It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to see an effort to create diverse spaces for TTRPGs. Too long have players been limited to worlds created by their oppressors, by people whose narratives they don’t see themselves in. I remember an early experience where a DM made sure to mention that they didn’t ascribe to good and evil alignments in races, and that we wouldn’t experience fantasy racism if we chose one of them. This rule was a homebrew rule, one made up by the main story teller to avoid a system that is inherently built around racist values. That wasn’t lost on me, and alienated me from certain systems for a while.
But now, I see tremendous strides being taken in both the TTRPG space and the board game space. New voices are being heard, and new stories are being shared. People who have previously been made unwelcome in these spaces are venturing into them, and leading them. They’re reshaping narratives together. Even some of the most popular actual play tabletop shows and podcasts are beginning to understand the importance of diverse voices (although some still notoriously lag behind).
Now is truly a great time for tabletop roleplaying as well, as the isolation and community disconnection that we feel during the pandemic affects us greatly. Having a game built around spending time with one another, crafting stories with one another, and seeing one another succeed can be innumerably healing.
Isolation and hyper individualism is often seen as a bane or an issue to be solved in many Indigenous cultures. We are our strongest when we are together, sharing in moments, in resources, and in our stories. I think the tabletop roleplaying space can really help bridge that cultural gap that many experience, having lived in cultures that only ever encourage individuality and that disparage needing help.
But as any seasoned roleplayer knows, you can’t defeat a dragon by yourself. It requires the consideration, planning, wit, and strength of an entire party to slay the dragon — or to convince it to kindly move its location, as it is causing the villagers stress. The collaboration of diverse voices also means that the previous solutions heralded as the only ones aren’t the best choices anymore. With new, creative voices adding to the chorus of stories, we can look forward to fresh stories with unexpected twists that surprise and inspire us.
It’s time to take the canon back from those who haven’t looked outside themselves when creating fantasy, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and adventure. Building new spaces together is rewarding, fulfilling, and creates new histories for us to build from. We can tell these stories again and again, meeting together to share our interpretations and the lessons we glean from them.
As any good game master will tell you, there’s always a seat at the table.
Thank you so much to Em for an insightful and warming piece! You can find out more about Coyote and Crow through here and more about Em on their website. Be sure to also check out Jason Perez’s articles for Hispanic Heritage Month here and here. Oh, and Chris Burton’s Who’s Who post! So much great stuff to read!
We’ll be seeing you all soon!