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.

About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on December 13, 2021, in Business of Games and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Owen,

    Thank you for posting this letter on behalf of the freelancer who sent it to you. I appreciate the message contained within it, and I am sorry in this instance to have fallen so short of this author’s expectations of me and of Paizo.

    Having a continuity that spans two decades means that our understanding of the community’s wants and needs can sometimes accelerate faster than our ability to reflect that in our work, and in this case, with this issue, it’s clear we need to move further.

    Fights against slavers had been a staple of the fantasy genre for decades when we originally conceived the Pathfinder setting, so those elements were added to the setting to allow for that type of adventuring. In retrospect, that was a bad idea—a sort of “original sin” that continues to taint the setting for a lot of people.

    A few years ago, our Pathfinder Society Organized Play campaign, fueled by similar concerns, launched a big interactive event to free all of the slaves in Absalom and initiate a new era for the city. A great deal of the references in the Absalom book are to this manumission, and the resulting positive changes to the city. Some of them refer to a handful of villains still trying to engage in the practice illegally, which in retrospect was not a good idea.

    We will be adding a content warning to Absalom: City of Lost Omens, so that people have a chance to anticipate this content.

    Going forward, we plan to remove slavery from our game and setting completely. We will not be writing adventures to tell the story of how this happened. We will not be introducing an in-world event to facilitate this change.

    We’re just going to move on from it, period.

    Given some items currently in the pipeline, it will take several months and a few more releases in each line before we can fully implement this new policy. But it’s clear that it’s a step that we need to take, and I personally should have realized that sooner.

    Again, I apologize to this freelancer and to anyone else disappointed by this issue. We hear you, and we resolve to do better.

    Sincerely,

    Erik Mona
    Publisher
    Paizo Inc.

  2. The freelancer who wrote the original open letter has asked I also post a response to Erik, which I am including here, as well as in its own post.
    “I appreciate the swift response in addressing the raised concerns. I believe that removal of slavery from Golarion is an excellent step towards creating a welcoming and inclusive game. I hope that Paizo will work closely with African American writers and sensitivity consultants as they move forward with this change and beyond. I look forward to seeing what we can create.”

  1. Pingback: An Open Reply to Erik Mona | Owen K.C. Stephens

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