Wish lists for non-European cultural defaults for fantasy settings

edited February 2006 in Story Games
A while ago on the now-defunct RPG Theory forum on The Forge, I started a thread about things that game designers and worldbuilders can do to get away from the Eurocentric default that is the basis of so many fantasy settings. I want to do something similar here but this time I don't want to focus on techniques designers and setting creators use. This time, I want to see some of the things we come up with and are interested in when we deliberately move away from the default. Or better yet, replace it with a new one.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I'm interested in finding out.

1. What non-European culture(s) would you like to see used to create a fantasy setting? Why?

2. How do you see this affecting the fantastic aspects of the setting? How would magic, monsters, the supernatural, and non-human races be different? What would they be?

3. What are some assumptions this different default does away with? What are some different elements that it adds?

4. How do you see this new default affecting the experience of playing in this setting? For instance, in a game that is rooted in the culture of the Bush people (can't think of proper name right now) of the Kalahari, dealing with the supernatural emphasizes coexistence over conquering. Therefore, "kill 'em and take their stuff" might not be a valid option.
«1

Comments

  • I love the idea of a game based on the lifeway and seasonal round of some interesting group, like the Haida/Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest, but I'm not sure that just picking a different culture has anything to do with the experience of play. What's stopping you from using European medieval fantasy tropes to emphasize coexistence over conquering? What's to stop me from playing a Tlingit warrior killing culturally-specific monsters to get copper for my clan potlatch?

    Is culture just color? Is it situation? I can see doing some cool things with moeity, for example, that could add a "non-European" vibe, but I'm not sure that's what you are after.
  • Heya,

    1) Egyptian

    -Why) There is SO much intrigue and color already there, it's a shame it hasn't been more thuroughly mined (like Samurai fantasy has). The gods, the architecture, the rituals are all just begging for a kickarse RPG.

    2) The effect of using Egyptian mythos would be quite interesting.

    -Magic) Magic would be ritualistic or Tome based. If I were to do it, I'd require a Ritual to generate an initial effect and then a Tome to further control, modify, and unleash the effect. Power from the Divine would also play a roll, I believe. See the book of Genesis for ideas.

    -Monsters) Dragons, giant birds, serpents, mumies, zombies, etc. would all make excellent creatures for the PCs to fight.

    -Supernatural) Almost everyone would be in touch with a diety of some kind. In fact, it would be a required character attribute if I were to do it. That means, everyone would have some degree of "priestly" power.

    -Non-human races) Would all be half-man/half-beast combos. They'd also all be semi-devine. I would think something that's come back from the dead would also be a playable "race"

    3) The game would do away with the "only priests can call on the power of a god" assumption and the "you can't start a character as a demi-god" idea. Also, I think rules for adventuring in the Afterlife would be in order. Sounds really complext the more I think about it.

    4) The classic line from the Mummy movies, "Death is only the begining" would be a major affect on the Setting.

    Peace,

    -Troy

    PS: Anyone and everyone is free to steal any idea I put up there. I doubt I'll be using them any time soon :)
  • "OK, so my dude was totally killed, but he's coming back next week - with a jackal's head!!!"
  • My next project is going to be based on Southwest Native American mythology, but fantasized like most European-based settings. For this game (The Fifth World), here's my reasoning:

    1. I grew up in Arizona, so I had a lot of youthful exposure to these cultures. This mythology is really cool and interesting, and I want to bring that out in a game, both as color and as theme. Plus, I'm sick to death of European fantasy.

    2. The setting is going to be based on the mythology of the culture as much as possible, with some extra elements thrown in that I think are cool. Fantasy elements are going to be based on folkloric magic and monsters from the area. There aren't going to be any playable non-human races, and this is heavily tied into the game's theme, which is about human community.

    3. The Tolkien elf/dwarf/hobbit thing is gone, as are 90+% of the monsters from regular fantasy. It adds a completely different feel in the monsters and magic. The technology is stone-age/very early copper age, so that changes a lot of things as well. No coinage!

    4. It's going to be a very different experience, but some of the basic adventurous themes will be there (monster-slaying, for one). The emphasis is very much on community, change, and conformity vs. individualism, which will give the game a new feel, IMO.
  • This post is merely to demonstrate enthusiasm for The Fifth World from another southwestern (New Mexico-raised) boy.
  • Hey,

    Just want to point out that it is Western Eurocentrism. Eastern Europe gets ignored or glommed together into one pan-pseudoslavic culture. Sorry. Had to get that off my chest...

    1) Byzantium (6th - 10th century) because there is so much there that is soooo much more interesting than the typical nonsense out there in fantasy games.

    2) You get the groovy mix of mid-eastern mystisism in everything there. Orthodox rituals and islamic mythology layered on top of the oldest cultures in existence. Magic would be all sorts of crazy rituals and there is a ridiculous mountian of mythology to draw from.

    3) The mythology of the region makes everything different. God is seen in everything. Sacred places and sancitfied people have the power to move empires and drive people to war. Politics and religion are discussed by the common people on the street, not just assholes in ivory towers.

    4) The emphasis would be about the power of religion/politics.
  • I agree that I'd love to see some other non-occidental fantasy done right; unfortunately, to do it right (ie more than just "laundry list of classes; powers; locations", but actual solid "sink your teeth into" background flavor to get everyone into the zone) takes a LOT of time.

    I'd love to see ancient fertile crescent, and that's basically a carryover from one of the most profoundly moving "immersive" ancient cultural PC RPG experiences I had, Adventure Construction Set's "Rivers of Light" for the PC. Anyone ever play that one? Red clay clods... bronze daggers... wool armour...

    Now, to actually focus on Green's question, above:

    1. What non-European culture(s) would you like to see used to create a fantasy setting? Why?

    Motherfucking ANCIENT INDIA

    And yeah, having said that, there's so many time periods, areas, cultures, yadda yadda. I'm not too-too familiar with ancient Indian history, but I'm solid with the Mahabharata, and that would make a cool framework for a mythical India-facing Exalted-style game, I think.

    2. How do you see this affecting the fantastic aspects of the setting? How would magic, monsters, the supernatural, and non-human races be different? What would they be?

    Mahabharata = High myth, blue skinned god-men and devas, mostly human races, but with playable devas and gods and the like (perhaps like an "Enemy Gods" style thing, or at least using rules and conflicts that scale from God to Man). Magic would be relatively non-flashy, but involve incredible miraculous feats (Never gets hit in battle, never loses at gambling, never misses with a bow, never dies of old age, etc).

    3. What are some assumptions this different default does away with? What are some different elements that it adds?

    More India Awesomeness. Dance routines strictly optional.

    4. How do you see this new default affecting the experience of playing in this setting? For instance, in a game that is rooted in the culture of the Bush people (can't think of proper name right now) of the Kalahari, dealing with the supernatural emphasizes coexistence over conquering. Therefore, "kill 'em and take their stuff" might not be a valid option.

    All stories are essentially inward-facing issues. There will be epic battles, journeys, etc, but every step of the way the stories will be intensely personal, about love, loss, family, dealth, personal fortune/misfortune, etc. So there would be rules and stats to reflect these more than the "regular sim claptrap" of Dexterity and Strength. Characters will only die or kill as a by-product of fallout from their personal struggles.

    -Andy
  • If you take out the Euro stuff, is it really still Fantasy? I've never really "got" the stuff like Oriental Adventures or Al-Qadim that try and shoehorn another culture into the standard fantasy mold. Cause if you're ditching western european memes, you're ditching the quest, which is the foundation of 90% of the Fantasy RPGs out there. And making your ninjas or persian immortals or sioux medicine men go on quests rather dilutes the point of not playing knights and rogues.

    What is this 'fantasy' thing that can be applied to multiple cultures across the world? Does it just mean "pseudo-historical setting with magic"? Or am I missing something?
  • Actually, the amusing thing about it is that there are many "non Western" mythic structures that aren't so far out that you have to abandon a lot of mythic tropes.

    Now whether or not you have to abandon a lot of gaming trope to play ANY mythic setting, or real world cultural setting, is a different issue.

    P.S. Andy, I did a semi-historical India game (not mythic period, though its heavily influenced by the epics, of course) that should be out later this year from 3 AM games.
  • Heya Josh,

    Isn't the Seven Samurai like a quest? Or the variouis things in the Gilgamesh epic, aren't they like quests?

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • I don't really have a wish list here, but I'm curious and would like to add another question to the list:

    Why fantasy? Why not play in the real culture instead of a fantasy world based on that culture? (i.e. Why Legend of Five Rings rather than Bushido or Sengoku; why 7th Sea rather than Swashbuckler.)

    I think there can be good reasons for fantasizing a setting, but I think it's a good question to ask. I was reasonably impressed with Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series recently, which took a similar approach as 7th Sea which seemed pointless to me at the time.

    Personally, my wish list for fantasy is for fantasy which is more fantastical. i.e. Settings like Oz, Wonderland, Barsoom, etc.
  • Like quests, yes. Not equated with quests, though. Gilgamesh goes out into the world to do stuff, sure, but he does these things because he wants to do them, not because somebody who has martial/moral authority told him to do it and he displays his own martial/moral authority in doing it.

    And yeah, John, good point. If you're going fantasy, there needs to be a reason why you're going fantasy. Otherwise, history works just fine.
  • John,

    For my own part, I don't play in cultures because it gives me more room to move. I'm a bit of a history nut, but unless I am playing a computer game that allows me to create an alternate history at a macro-level (current favorites being Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis II) I tend to freak out when shit goes off the track of history. Another issue I have is that real cultures and social trends do not translate well to RPGs as RPGs rather often need to generalize and codify this shit. This is why I hold all sorts of dislike for Ars Magica...
  • Josh,

    The irony being that most RPGs will thus support Gilgamesh better than Owain and the Lion. Hell, there are ways in which it would be easier to do most of the middle section of the Mahabharata with D&D than it would to do the Illiad.

    Moral Authority? What is this of which you speak?
  • To answer the "why fantasy" questions, I, like Keith, feel constrained by history rather than liberated by it.

    And, more importantly, fantasy often carries a mythic resonance that moves me on an emotional level that most real-world history does not. In truth, I think I should have asked which culture's mythologies it would be cool to design an RPG around. Troy, Brennan, Andy, and Keith took the question in the direction I had hoped it would go.

    As for the definition of fantasy I'm working with, this is one I've come across that hits it on the head for me: "world in which the exotic, the ancient, the far-away and legendary are . . . a fact of life." This element of the unreal, the hyperreal, and the surreal are the things that define fantasy for me moreso than the narrative structure of the stories. In my experience, that can be quite fluid.
  • "As for the definition of fantasy I'm working with, this is one I've come across that hits it on the head for me: "world in which the exotic, the ancient, the far-away and legendary are . . . a fact of life." This element of the unreal, the hyperreal, and the surreal are the things that define fantasy for me moreso than the narrative structure of the stories. In my experience, that can be quite fluid."

    Precisely why I am interested in doing a non-Western European setting. Western European fantasy is no longer exotic or legendary to me.
  • edited February 2006
    This is one of the reasons I went looking into India back in the day. Exotic all the time, yea.

    Of course, then we run headlong into the problems of Orientalism and cultural appropriation....

    So far I'm having good luck with Suryamaya (my psuedo-Indian setting) in Burning Wheel rules -- by getting people to focus on beliefes and instincts as human elements that are the core of their drive, it helps ground the game in humanity rather than turning it into a prurient dreamscape for the colonializing western imagination. It isn't perfect, I suppose, but it works well to start with.

    So I guess I'm hitting another question of my own: When you start using other people's cultures because your own doesn't excite you anymore, how do you make sure you treat the culture with respect rather than appropriation?

    Or: How do you avoid World of Darkness: Gypsies?
  • Brand -- moral authority in the sense of working for the Good King, or rescuing the Captured Princess, or defending the Poor Villagers. The whole right-and-might hand-in-hand thing.

    Green -- so I take it you lump large portions of traditional science fiction into that definition of fantasy? The crazy shit need not be relegated to a medieval level of technology?

    Is Indianna Jones fantasy? Are nazis and ancient ruins 'mythic' enough to get a reaction out of you?
  • edited February 2006
    Josh,

    I know what moral authority is, dude. The question was the question of the average RPG session. In what ways do most RPG characters display moral authority? Other than having Lawful Good written on their character sheet.

    Most RPG characters that don't quest for the king (which actually is rare in my play experience) are doing things because they want to, on a search for transformation or knowledge or something -- more like Gilgamesh than like Gawain.

    The quest structure we use already in RPGs doesn't match up well with any mythic structure -- it's a mishmash amalgam ganked painfully from Campbell's hollow man theory. So I find the claim that much of RPG structure is biased towards western structure to be slightly dubious because it isn't so much focused on "western" so much as "modern American gamer" -- which is a genre all its own.

    For example: Both Gawain and Giglamesh were already lords and kings. Ditto Arjuna and Karna and Achilles and Hector. Ditto Roland and Rama. On rolls Lancelot and lordly sits Niall Nine Hostages. But in most modern RPG story structures we get a variation of the farm boy called to greatness, the bastard who overcomes his roots and shows the uppity nobles that true nobility is of the spirit and not the blood. We've gone post-Bourgeoisie revolution, and post-pulp, and post-Campbell, and we're no longer dealing with the structure of myth in our games. We're dealing with the structure of the modern comic book coming of age story.

    The gulf between Arjuna and Hector eems less to me than the gulf between Achilles and Spider Man.

    Which brings me back to the "games are currently made more to tell game stories than the stories of any real world mythology or culture." The problem isn't playing Gilgamesh rather than Beowulf, so much as it is being able to play either Gilgamesh or Beowulf instead of Luke Skywalker.
  • Outside of World of Darkness drek and my most recent gaming, nearly all the gaming I've ever done has been 'doing stuff at the bidding of somebody with moral authority.' But maybe I'm just weird.
  • Josh,

    Who was the moral authority for the Tribe 8 characters? I mean Tribe 8 is manifestly a 20-something coming of responsibility story, a post-punk rebellion into adulthood metaphor -- but the moral authority of the setting is a bit open to interpretation.
  • Brand, the cultural appropriation thing is a tough one. I have my own ideas on how to treat the culture with respect, rather than exploiting it, and one of the main ways I intend to do it is to avoid the romanticizing of the culture and people. I think you should treat the characters and inhabitants of your imaginary worlds like people, and try to identify with them, rather than setting them up as alien.

    On the other hand, I'm a white, middle-class American. Some appropriation is going to occur whether I like it or not.
  • edited February 2006
    The moral authority issue intrigued me, but seemed off-topic here, so I've started a separate thread: "Moral (and Social) Authority?".
  • edited February 2006
    Quoted from Josh
    (S)o I take it you lump large portions of traditional science fiction into that definition of fantasy? The crazy shit need not be relegated to a medieval level of technology?

    Absolutely. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a lot of what is pegged as science fiction is only described as such because of the technological level of the settings. Ironically enough, the technologies of those settings are as arcane and inexplicable as magic often is NOT in fantasy settings. But I digress.

    As far as avoiding orientalism, I think Brand and Brennan has the right of it: emphasize what is universal and human but don't ignore the influence of culture. People are people, but they express their humanity differently.
  • edited February 2006
    The moral authority in Tribe 8 is Joshua. Joshua being dead and his legacy requiring interpretation is what drives a lot of the game. There is something fundamentally and metaphysically wrong with the Fatimas, their tribes, and the way that they live; it's up the the PCs to live up to Joshua's legacy, become the eighth tribe, and fix what needs fixin.
  • edited February 2006
    Josh,

    Yea, that's part of the point I'm getting at I think. In Tribe 8 there is negative moral authority -- the world is wrong and bad and fubared. This leaves the Fallen as the default to fix it. Despite the fact many of them are murderers, rapists, and thieves. Their moral authority is sort of an assumed default rather than an established force. Especially as Joshua himself is a rather dubious figure.

    Though, on that note and with the definition of moral authority we're working out in the moral authority thread, lots of non-western mythic structures have moral authority as being absolutly essential. Gilgmaesh certainly had moral authority, though it was his mortality that made him adventure, and Rama and Arjuna are the very fonts of moral authority of their caste.
  • edited February 2006
    Enh. Tribe 8 had ambiguous moral authority, not negative moral authority. Vampire: the Masquerade had negative moral authority. That's why I found Tribe 8 entertaining and V:tM little more than silly.

    To bring this back to topic, I'd say that any mythic framework requires moral authority, because myths were often the baseline of a culture's morals. The strong or at least frequent connection between myths and fantasy means that a lot of fantasy ended up using that moral authority, whether it's prominent or embedded. Two problems arise: (a) if your fantasy is mythic, and the foundational myths are not of your background, you will then be playing on a sometimes radically different moral ground than you're used to, and the memes that you are used to in other fantasy (questing, divine monarchy, princesses to save) no longer work in your new setting; what memes are embedded in the system that worked for one setting will be at odds with the memes of the new setting. The (b) problem is when we talk about fantasy that isn't mythic, which seems to be the working definition for this thread. Star Trek and Babylon 5 are mythic, and have that moral foundation, but what do you do with, say, Shadowrun? I expect it falls flat.
  • edited February 2006
    Ah, good point. I give.

    Moral Authority is everywhere, but what the moral is and where the authority comes from are vastly different.
  • But you DO get to keep your highest die for the follow-up conflict.
  • Keith, out of curiosity: is CoS influenced by trying to move away from Western European traditions?

  • I haven't seen it mentioned yet, so...

    1. Africa, and
    1A. Plains Indians.
  • edited February 2006
    Dev,

    Yeah. CoS is a reaction to a bunch of things, and western eurocentrism in games is at the top of the list. If ya look at the list of projects on my plate too, you see the same thing (arabian nights game, byzantine game, etc.)
  • Brennan, we need to bust heads about Lions on the Precipice, which I'm concocting from a bizarre mix of Hopi/their Ancestors and Cherokee cultural practices. With mountain lions. In Utah. With some crazy Ghost Dance-like currents floating around.

    In the more general sense, one of the great things about real-world cultures is REAL CULTURES ARE INHERANTLY MORE COMPLEX AND INTERESTING THAN FAKE CULTURES. Read some good cultural history or cultural anthro. Everything interacts and makes sense in its own ideosyncratic (my new favorite word) way, which rarely happens in imaginary cultures, unless they're borrowing from the real world.

    Currently, I'm all over The Book of the Hopi, My Life Among the Zuni, A Spirited Resistance, and After the Ice: A Global Human History - 20,000 to 5,000 BCE, trying to get a handle on cultures that straddled the border between city-dwelling and wandering hunter-gathering close to the period of European and Euro-American contact. Vincent's Mountain People left their plains cities for the hills and it's important that I get a handle on why, because the answer is undoubtably more interesting than anything I could make up.
  • Jonathan Walton wrote: "one of the great things about real-world cultures is REAL CULTURES ARE INHERANTLY MORE COMPLEX AND INTERESTING THAN FAKE CULTURES."

    Totally, totally, totally true. For what it's worth, this applies to European cultures too. A ton of games go for a fake medieval vibe. But the fact that those games stink out loud doesn't change the fact that Medieval Europe (the real thing, not the mainstream gaming ass-water version) is a fascinating place.

    Incidentally, if anyone's listening from the Iron Game Chef contest: can we get "Non-European Culture" as a required ingredient?
  • I want to see

    1) A game about an American culture which isn't about the genocide and isn't a "cultural mix." I think that Fifth World is going to scratch this one for me.
    2) A game about an American culture which is about the genocide and can let me, as a Californian, get some catharsis.
    3) A game about Vietnam which isn't about the Vietnam war or, if it is, is about the Chinese invasions of Vietnam and resistance to those.
    4) A game about China that isn't about Kung Fu.
    5) A game about Africa which isn't D&D. (Not that I mind Nyambe. I love it. It's just that: okay, we've done the D&D game about Africa. Let's do a non-D&D game about Africa.)
    6) A game about Europe is about peasant life and folk stories. (I'm working on this.)
    7) A game about the Incans.

    yrs--
    --Ben
  • Yeh. Anything about Incans, Aztecs, Mayans, and other Central American/South American cultures in those general veins would get a definite look from me. I remember that someone was considering an Iron Game Chef entry about the Incans, based on their thanatology, but it didn't end up happening. And I shed a tear.
  • edited February 2006
    I'd like to see a game about Te Maori. So far the idea hasn't got past colour, but what cool colour! Here they are, these people on the last land in the world to be inhabited, surrounded by birds and reptiles, tending their tropical crops in a temperate climate, warring on each other at the end of the world.
  • edited February 2006

    I disagree, Jon.

    Real-life cultures are necessarily more complex, but imaginary cultures are easily more interesting; in terms of signal/noise ratio, I can design an imaginary culture with nearly zero noise for me. It just completely lacks boring spots, as long as the areas that engender boring spots are not addressed in play. I do not think this true of real cultures; it can't possibly be.

    I mean, it's true that a lot of fictional cultures are super-boring, especially those seen in gaming, but I think this falls to a failure of craft more than anything else.

    All stories are essentially inward-facing issues. There will be epic battles, journeys, etc, but every step of the way the stories will be intensely personal, about love, loss, family, dealth, personal fortune/misfortune, etc. So there would be rules and stats to reflect these more than the "regular sim claptrap" of Dexterity and Strength. Characters will only die or kill as a by-product of fallout from their personal struggles.

    Andy, have I shown you Mere Sapnon ki Rani?

  • Shreyas, you need to continue on MSKR. Pretty please!
  • Ben, where've you been? I've written THREE China games with no kung fu.

    Shreyas, real world cultures can have that kind of pure, no-noise feel too. You just don't write about, say, what time of day the Hopi generally breast-feed their babies, unless that's somehow critical to the game. I think you're confusing culture itself with the way people write about culture, which is definitely an issue of craft.
  • Hey Nathan, GURPS Aztecs does a creditable job of giving you the cultural low-down in a sensitive and informative way, while also providing the stupid bits gamers are interested in, like stats for macautl damage and rules for shape-changing. GURPS Low Tech is also pretty good (I contributed to that one).
  • edited February 2006
    This may be heresy, but I once worked on a Lego: Bionicles computer game, which is obviously influenced by Maori and Polynesian mythology, and I thought that was a nice change from your standard Western European fantasy tropes.
  • I'm with Troy -- Egypt all the way. I ran a freeform Alternate Ancient Egypt game a while back, and the mood and feel totally kicked ass. Of course, that game made me realize how severely limiting GM-ed freeform play actually is.

    I've actually long wanted to have a game that provides a nexus for ancient "fantastic" cultures; egypt, mayas/aztecs, atlantis, ancient india. I just have to find a premise for bringing them all together...
  • edited February 2006

    My friend Marie has been compiling a list of fantasy novels that are not "quasi-Celtic-Norse-medieval settings", so consider this a list of stuff to mine for ideas.

  • Yeah, Atlantis. Why hasn't that been done in a big way yet? Oh the issues surrounding hubris in that would rawk!

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • edited February 2006
    Atlantis is a real big element in Rifts, isn't it?
  • Yeah, but it sucks.
  • If you're going to do the Atlantis thing properly, you should play Alexandrian or Homeric Greece. Plenty of aegean islands to use as isolated worlds that need exploration, and if you're in the Alexandrian mode you can branch out all over Asia Minor and down into Egypt. The island of Alexandria itself is a fantastic focal point for Mediterranean history, from the Egyptian kingdoms through the Berber migration.

  • Atlantis is also a big element in the NWoD Mage -- though of course its all in the background. Playing there, rather than the modern world, would rock.

    There's also some Atlantis stuff in Fireborn... but its rather dull.

    Thing about Atlantis is that while I'd love a historical ancient Mediteranian/Cretian game if I were going Atlantis that's not where I'd go. I would go full bore transhumanist fantasy, and get into the weird, the symbolic, and the surreal with both bores. Screw Atlantis as a place, I want it as a symbol.
Sign In or Register to comment.