Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Easing into Africa (and Elsewhere)

To be accurate, the title should be "Easing Out of Africa and Back In Again" to reflect my particular game experience.

I bet most of you reading this already know that Scott Malthouse, Werdna of Trollhalla, author of the Unbelievable Simple Role-Playing Game (the USR), is one of my favorite fantasist. In his article over at his The Trollish Delver, he once again piqued my interest with essentially a rant entitled "Are We Sick Of European Fantasy Yet?" It's not really a rant, he goes on to highlight the works of authors that are not sticking with the well developed medieval European fantasy settings.

My first reaction was 'That's been going on forever already.' Well that was my second because the first really was 'Wow. What a good article with a provocative title. ' Since the mid 80s, folks have been playing around with what I'd call "non-Tolkien based settings." Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne and Skyrealms of Jorune. Heck one could say Glorantha with its decidedly bronze and iron-age atmosphere, and ducks, was not "European fantasy." Gary Gygax, himself, loved to get away from Europe. He did so with Aesheeba, a Hellenic colony on an island not far from Africa. Anybody who has followed Forgotten Realms has been exotic settings that reminds one of far-off locales and historical periods on our world. And anybody who's seen a Star Wars prequel is familiar with non-Tolkien based fantasy.

Moreover, the GM should really take his, or her time, when jumping into the unfamiliar. Whether it be Africa or say Mars, I say this for gaming group, not the game designer/setting author. It'd be rich if I took up the defense of "traditional" tabletop role-playing settings, like when did I ever start writing them? But I offer this bit of caution for the group that has been together for a long time. It can lead to roleplaying tourism or an overwhelming, as in unpleasant, experience for everyone.

With already established player-characters it turns into a gimmick. It's rather like "Oh look, this month we're exploring Mesoamerica " and everyone looks for snapshot moments. It's probably a good way to handle convention games, even a series of games, but it can turn a campaign into kitsch. Starting out with all new characters for all the players, the GM had better hope that everyone is as into the milieu as much as he is. Most roleplayers don't know what say a Priest of Nayenezgani is and nor is character creation the time to get into detail about it, the over-wrought explanation will ensure that the next gaming session the player will be busy. So somewhere between being a tourist and going too in-depth has to be found.

I find borders and lethality work well. No really they do. Everyone would start out as newcomers to the region and the players would start to learn about the folks that are from there. One or two of the Characters would get killed, or called back to the homestead if your players are that tempermental, and other characters from around the area would have to replace them. These new characters would build upon the players' growing familiarity with the setting.

After traveling through a couple different kingdoms, usually a few hundred miles, I estimate this is how far people would travel in oar-driven galleys and by horse over glorified goat-trails called trade routes over the period of a season, before the advent of sail-driven nation-state, the players that are still with you are ready for anything.

Since 2005, I, myself, have had campaigns going from exotic to familiar. Going from my version of Kenya and ending up in a direct metaphor for Medieval Jerusalem. I've threwn in some Larry Niven Pak protectors to keep things from getting boring. I hope to get the players, two of the characters are very European these days, from my Antioch to Lahore and back to Kenya over the next five years.


  1. Great post Tom, and thanks for the kind words :) Some great points.

  2. "Priest of Nayenezgani" is likely my next career move, that guy is awesome.