From a Freelancer: An Open Letter to Erik Mona
Editorial Note from Owen: As someone established in the industry, one of the things I have done before and expect I will do again is to post messages written by other people who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to make such posts themselves. This is one of those times. This letter was sent to me by a freelancer I know, and I am posting it for them, at their request.
A Letter to Erik Mona and Paizo
Pathfinder has a slavery problem. That is not something that I thought I would be writing at the close of 2021, but here we are. The fixation on slavery as an institution, as a “plot hook,” as a fixture in the world of Pathfinder is at times baffling and at times infuriating. Even as Black fans, players and writers express our outrage and discomfort over and over again, certain writers at Paizo continue to ignore us and use an awful source of pain as fodder for their entertainment. And while I would typically choose to call out the company as a whole rather than any particular individual, in this case I feel I have no choice.
In recent Pathfinder release, Lost Omens: Absalom, Erik Mona as credited as both the Development Lead and Editing Lead. It is a matter of public record that the long delay in the release Absalom was due to Mona’s extended time making changes that would take the book from its initial estimated 240 pages to a final page count of 402. In nearly every way that mattered, Erik Mona had creative control over what the final product would look like, and so he is the person I have to hold responsible.
Before I get into the specifics of the book, I do feel the need to provide some additional information so that everyone can understand why it feels like such a betrayal. And to do that I have to talk about the Pathfinder Society Organized Play program that allows players to jump into public, pre-organized games, often with people they may not know very well. Not to bury the lede, until recently, players in these publicly organized games were allowed to buy slaves.
If you’re wondering how that happened, it’s pretty straightforward. Somewhere, in some Pathfinder book, there were rules options that detailed the cost to purchase a slave – a perfectly legal practice in the fictional city of Absalom. Certain Paizo employees decide which books are allowed for Society, and the book with this option was one of the ones allowed. So, any player with access to that rule could then have their character buy another human being, and because there was no rule to disallow it, the gamemaster and other players at the table had no way to stop them.
You see, participating in Society play means that you agree to play by their rules. If you don’t like it, your only recourse by and large is to get up and leave the table. The only alternative is to get everyone to agree that the rule is wrong, and either collectively ignore it, or force Paizo’s hand to get them to change it. A group of players, mostly led by black voices, chose the latter. The official response? If players wanted slavery banned in Organized Play, then there had to be an in-game event that justified the abolition of slavery.
What a fucking hoop to jump through, right?
But it happened. Pathfinder Society Scenario #9-00: Assault on Absalom. An in-game event, requested by players, that led to the abolition of slavery. In one city. By conscripting the enslaved people to fight in a war and then giving freedom to the survivors. Way to trip forward over a very low bar.
And since then, other content has been published with a clear anti-colonialist, abolitionist agenda. Former colonies went through revolutions to free the colonized people and grant them independence. Other influential figures in the world are working to purge slavery from their own regions. Most freelancers and developers so desperately want to move forward and leave this awful shit behind. We want this to be a game that everyone can enjoy, that doesn’t trivialize Black pain or rely on shock value.
Then there’s Erik Mona and Absalom. There are 126 references to slaves and slavery in the 402 pages of Absalom. Some of them are just recounting history. Some of them are references to abolition and aiding free people. Several of them are graphic descriptions of “illegal” slavery, human trafficking, prison abuse, organized crime and all the various ways that Absalom tries to have it both ways. What a fucking slap in the face.
Things like this have happened too many times. At this point, I don’t think an apology is enough. I don’t think editing the book to remove the offending content is enough. My relationship with Paizo was already on shaky ground, and it continues to get shakier by the week. I don’t know what that will mean for my career, but it certainly means that my trust in the company, and any faith I might have had in Erik Mona are gone.