Tanya DePass, founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, a not-for-profit advocacy organization, has brought together a talented group of creatives to launch a new tabletop role-playing game. Mother Lands posits a world far from our Earth that has never known slavery or colonialism. What began as an actual play series on Twitch and YouTube has spawned a new crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The ultimate goal is to produce Into The Mother Lands, a sourcebook that will explain the setting and define the game’s rules.
Polygon sat down with DePass, the creator of the new setting, and lead designer B. Dave Walters to learn more. They explained that the germ of the idea originated in the historical record.
“We went back to the African Emperor Mansa Musa,” Walters said, referring to the leader of the Mali Empire, an Islamic West African state which Musa I ruled during the 14th century. “He was arguably the wealthiest man in history, who really existed and who sent a fleet to the New World. [...] For our story, this fleet departed and, through a mechanism that is yet to be revealed within the narrative, were transported to another planet.”
Over the next 2,000 years, that small exploratory fleet became the Musalians, a human civilization sharing an exoplanet called Vutoa with multiple other humanoid alien species — Hyena-like humanoids, transhuman cyborgs, human-plant hybrids, and powerful mind-reading symbiotes. DePass said that the setting draws its inspiration from both the Star Trek franchise and Marvel’s Black Panther.
“It’s an original Afrofuturist TTRPG,” Walters said. “It is a science fiction universe where there is no colonialism. There is no expansionist rhetoric. That is not the root cause of the action.”
Instead, the Musalians and Vutoa’s existing populations coexist all around the planet, in high-tech urban centers as well as strange alien landscapes. When conflict does arise, it’s often about two or more groups competing for scarce resources.
“We wanted to do something different, where diversity was a foundational idea,” Walters said. “Black excellence was a foundational idea, so we came up with a premise that would allow lots of different kinds of people of color to have a place where they flourish and are at the center stage rather than being in addition to, or as a ‘noble savage’ or something that was bolted on to the side [of a Euro-centric universe]. It is an expansive sci-fi epic.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the Mother Lands universe is that it is a living, narrative space that is actively being explored on a weekly basis through an ongoing actual play campaign. The cast includes DePass as well as Eugenio Vargas, Krystina Arielle, Deejay Knight, Michael Sinclair II, and Aabria Iyengar — who was recently revealed as the new Dungeon Master for Critical Role.
“With an actual play, we can bring our characters that people have gotten to know now over a season and a half, into the book, into the game world as [non-player characters],” DePass said. “You can have him in your game [...] and then, once the book is out, we can go, ‘Okay, well, maybe we wrap this storyline that we’re telling, do a new season, then we do all new characters. There will be a lot more to choose from, there will be a lot more that we can show people.”
This isn’t DePass’ first actual play series. She is a founding member of Rivals of Waterdeep, set in the Forgotten Realms and sponsored by Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons TTRPG. She and Walters are also members of Black Dice Society, another Wizards-sponsored actual play series that explores the horrific world of Ravenloft. Walters, in addition to being the writer of Dungeons & Dragons: A Darkened Wish comic series, is an experienced game master in his own right.
One quirk of the current crowdfunding campaign is that DePass and her team have not settled on a game system for Mother Lands. D&D, for instance, uses the d20 system, which utilizes 20-sided dice to determine success or failure in-game. The reason for not yet choosing a system, Walters said, is fairly pragmatic.
“On the [Mother Lands] show the game is powered by Cortex,” Walters said, referring to the gameplay system designed and built by Cam Banks and published by Fandom Tabletop — the same company that now owns D&D Beyond. “For the system that ends up in the book, honestly, it’s TBD.”
The lack of a set system of mechanics has put off some potential backers, DePass and Walters said. But the decision to launch the campaign without mechanics in place was a strategic one.
“It was a business decision,” Walters said. “The logic of it was actually quite simple. In these negotiations, if we sat down at the table just with an idea and the strength of the Twitch stream, that would get us so far. But also, if we sat down at the table with the success of the Twitch stream and the idea, and also the proof of concept that 1000s of people have already bought it, and also we don’t need your money, then that’s a very different conversation.”
For DePass, however, what kind of dice players ultimately get to roll at the table is largely inconsequential.
“That is a small part of it as far as I’m concerned,” DePass said. “You get the overarching story, you get the setting book, and then when you sit down to play, the mechanics literally tell you you succeed or fail on a thing. And it’s the degree of success or failure. The mechanics drive how you play the game, but to me — at least as a player and a [game master] of other systems — that’s a small component.”
Coming from a background performing RPGs online, DePass is most excited about what will happen once her project makes it out into the world — and, maybe, even into someone else’s actual play series.
“It would make me so happy,” DePass said. “I’d probably burst into tears to turn on Twitch and see someone streaming our game.”
The Kickstarter campaign for Into The Mother Lands is already successful, having earned more than $250,000 on a $50,000 ask. Delivery of the finished book is expected by September 2022. The campaign runs through June 20.