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One of tabletop gaming’s biggest awards celebrates Black creators

Diana Jones Award honors over two dozen people of color

A Perspex pyramid holding the remains of the “last” copy of TSR’s Indiana Jones RPG. Photo: Eric Lang/Twitter
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Gen Con, the nation’s largest tabletop gaming convention, has moved online this year because of the global pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped the industry’s annual awards, like the Ennie awards, from being handed out. On Wednesday, the hobby games industry announced the winners of one of its most coveted prizes, the Diana Jones Award. This year, it’s being bestowed on more than two dozen Black professionals for their contributions to the industry.

The Diana Jones Award is one of the strangest prizes you may have never heard of. It’s awarded by a secret group of game industry professionals. The only widely known members of the anonymous group are Wizards of the Coast founder and Gen Con owner Peter Adkison, as well as authors and designers Matt Forbeck, John Kovalic, and James Wallis. It’s awarded each year during Gen Con to “any combination of achievement, innovation, and anything that has benefited or advanced the hobby and industry as a whole.”

That means it can go to a single person, like Jordan Weisman, founder of FASA Corporation and co-creator of the BattleTech universe; or to Eric Lang, a prolific board game designer and an executive at CMON. The award can go to a thing, too: Many games, including Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and Fiasco have won it over the years. But the award can also be given to a concept. In 2018, the “actual play” movement — the idea that people can put their actual role-playing game sessions online for other people to follow along with in real time — won the Diana Jones Award.

This year, the committee decided to make a statement.

“For our community to continue to grow and improve, we must do better to mend the rifts that pull us apart in our industry and the world at large,” the committee wrote on the official website. “Thus, rather than announce a shortlist and a winner, we choose to award the concept of Black Excellence in Gaming. We want to recognize the often-overlooked Black professionals throughout tabletop gaming’s history, up to and including the present day. This is overdue, deserving of the spotlight, and is but one small step.”

Awardees include the aforementioned Eric Lang, making him a two-time winner. They also include R. Talsorian Games’ Cody Pondsmith and Mike Pondsmith, creators of The Witcher Role-Playing Game and the Cyberpunk universe, respectively; Tanya DePass and Shareef Jackson who, among other things, are both founding members of the popular Rivals of Waterdeep actual-play series; Jabari Weathers, whose illustrations have appeared in 7th Sea and the award-winning Bluebeard’s Bride; and Chris Spivey, creator of Harlem Unbound and a co-author of the upcoming Dune: Adventures in the Imperium. You can see the full list of honorees on the official website.

The award is being handed out during a tumultuous time in American history, which has bled over into the game and comics industries as well. Numerous voices have called out for racial justice and an end to police brutality. Numerous other voices have pushed back, doubling down on racist and bigoted worldviews. The situation has led to chaos on social media, but also to personal attacks and threats of violence. That’s likely why, in part, honorees are being offered the opportunity to not have their names or likenesses shared on the official website.

By shining a light on Black creators, the Diana Jones Award committee is simply doing what it can to highlight those who are — and those who have been — doing the hard work of expanding the audience for tabletop gaming.

“Black lives have always mattered,” the committee writes, “and we pledge to be a better ally going forward.”