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Author Topic: fantasy settings and cultural pluralism  (Read 6032 times)
Green
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Posts: 247


« on: January 22, 2005, 03:33:24 PM »

This is not going to be a thread that talks about how Eurocentric a lot of fantasy settings are.  I think it's fairly obvious.  With the exception of games based on feudal Japan or wuxia films, there are few settings that do not use medieval Europe as the default.  The fantasy literature tradition, which forms the basis for many fantasy settings, is dominated by writers who are influenced by (for lack of better terms) dead white guys.  These things are well beyond an individual game designer's efforts to control, so I will not focus on them either.

The issue I want to address here is what specific things game designers can do to diversify the mythic and aesthetic elements of the game world.  Time and time again I have come across "worlds" which present only a single part of it (usually the most European-looking one) as being anything of interest or importance.  In the rare games that use a different culture as the dominant one, it is quite obvious that there is more to the world than is shown.  However, the tendency is to make the game about the setting, and I'm not always interested in that.

These things by themselves don't bother me.  Middle-earth is a prime example of the type of thing I'm talking about, and I love it to death, but I want to see something different.  (Note: I know that way too many game designers try to be Tolkien in the ways they create their worlds, and this is probably a big part of the problem.)

An example of a game that does something of what I'm looking for is Fading Suns.  An example of a setting that does this is Star Wars.  I'm not exactly sure what they do that makes it work for me.  What is it that the creators of fantasy settings can learn from science fiction and space opera with regards to cultural diversity?
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Jasper
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« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2005, 05:05:17 PM »

One thing to consider is in discussing games based primarily on a European Medieval world, we're (probably) only discussing material released in English.  So a bias in that direction would be pretty natural.  If there are people on the Forge from a non-western society, which has its own RPing publishers, we should be very interested to hear from them.  Are things similarly biased towards their own country's cultural heritage?

Of course, you're talking not about changing bias (or explaining it) but in broadening our horizons.  But if some non-western fantasy exists out there, say written in Hindi, that would give us an obviously viable alternative.
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Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press
Ben Lehman
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« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2005, 05:28:52 PM »

It's strange, 'cause it seems to me that your two positive examples (Star Wars and Fading Suns) are both terribly eurocentric.  Look at the names in the original Star Wars: Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader.  All European.  Look at the faces.  Fading Suns may not be "fantasy europe" but it is a setting dominated by a Catholic Church, with an edge of Victorian sentiment.  All heavily european.

This is not to say they are bad settings.  Frankly, I think that most of the "European" settings that exist do Europe pretty darn poorly.  But that might be another issue.

As game designers and as GMs, I think we need to understand why such settings are so widespread.  I think a big issue may be player indoctrination.  I have a world which extends from fairy-tale castles to Incan-inspired mountain valleys to a really cool alternate China.  But, mostly, I run games in the "Euopeanish" section (really perhaps more North African, but that's neither here nor there), because I can say to my players "You live in a mountain shepherding village" or "you live in a large, old port city" and they know what I'm talking about.  If that village was Peruvian styled, or that city was Chinese, there would need to be a lot more explaining.  An alternate setting requires a strong commitment to an existing setting bible and a really cool hook to draw people in.

As far as non-european settings, I'd take a close look at Al-Quadim and Dark Sun for 2nd ed D&D.  One is a fantasy based on the tales of a not-European culture (medevial Arabia) and one is a fantasy that, while not explicitly from anywhere, contains a lot of elements from very old Fertile Crescent cultures like Babylonia and Sumer.  Dark Sun, particularly, covers its setting elements extremely well, and has a great hook (scantily clad desert babes riding insects!)

yrs--
--Ben
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Bankuei
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« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2005, 07:07:45 PM »

Hi guys,

I think a few things can help folks convey cultural ideas easier without necessarily having to resort to 300 pages of detailed setting information.

•Ideals

Focus on a few key values and ideals held by the culture.  Show some examples of them in tradtions or customs, and also be sure to show where they fail or are selectively applied.

•Social Power Structure

Who's on top?  All the various issues such as caste, race, gender, age, etc. can be explained.  Be sure to include if the power structure is rigid, or if there are exceptions to the rule.

•Imagery and Flavor text

Never underestimate the power of artwork and colorful text.  You can look at Trollbabe's artwork for images of empowered women and the Shadow of Yesterday for a setting that isn't primarily european.  First edition Legend of the 5 Rings had really good flavor text, particularly in any history bit or character description.

•Reference to other sources

Movies, music, books, real world cultures to look at as models, etc.  As the culture becomes more fantastic this becomes less and less applicable.

All of these methods are effective and efficient for conveying culture and setting.  Picking up almost any core White Wolf book and you can see how they build alternate "world-views" with something like 200 pages, although the basics of it are usually transmitted in 5-10 pages at most.  

Chris
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ffilz
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« Reply #4 on: January 23, 2005, 01:37:26 AM »

Hmm, this is an interesting topic (especially since I'm running a campaign in a npn-european setting that has been with gaming since basically the start - Tekumel). A serious problem with a non-european setting is that more verbiage is necessary to convey information than a european setting. Of course as Ben mentions, our european gaming settings don't tend to be all that true to europe either. We rely so heavily on cultural shortcuts (and D&D has a huge influence here).

I'm getting an interesting perspective because my new player is Russian. From what he talked about today, it sounds like much of the Russian gaming is LARP. Talking with him has really got me thinking that I need to do some more reading to expand my own horizons to understand Tekumel better.

Chris raises some good points. Tekumel is presented in some of those ways, but mostly not. Reading the novels helped me a lot though. The game text (especially the original EPT text) really distorts the change vs stability conflict of the Tekumel religion (from the novels, we find a priest of stability marrying a priestess of change - not what you would expect from EPT's characterization of the two sides as good and evil).

Prof. MAR Barker has also pointed out on several occaisions that the game (even the game he runs) is not real Tekumel. I suspect even his game is more european than he envisions Tekumel as being, though he is mostly referring to things like the frequency of magic items and spell casters and such in his comment.

Quote

Time and time again I have come across "worlds" which present only a single part of it (usually the most European-looking one) as being anything of interest or importance. In the rare games that use a different culture as the dominant one, it is quite obvious that there is more to the world than is shown.

Intersting observation. Tekumel, for all it's wonder and very non-europeanness really doesn't have much development outside the primary Tsolyani culture. There is recognition that there are other cultures, and there is some development of them (and I think MAR Barker knows far more about them than is published), but the amount published pales in comparison to what is published about Tsolyani culture.

So if one of the most developed settings doesn't do it, what can be done to improve the situation?

For Tekumel we could hope that when the new rules (D20 and BESM) get published that interest increases enough that MAR Barker puts out a lot of new information, on the other hand, the professor is getting on in years (I think he's in his 70s) and a LOT of information is in his head.

Frank
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Frank Filz
Mark D. Eddy
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Posts: 157


« Reply #5 on: January 23, 2005, 06:15:47 AM »

There are a few other places to go:

Glorantha (HeroQuest being the current system) has a significant number of non-European style cultures, some better fleshed out than others. Some are vaguely Native American, some are vaguely Chinese, and some are -- well, unique (the Lunar "We are all Us" culture and the Uz "Uz is Uz and Dem is food" culture spring rapidly to mind).

Iron Crown Enterprises did some interesting things to Middle-Earth, including significant supplements on the Haradrim (North African-equivalent people), the Easterlings (very Slavic in nature), and some far-eastern cultures (the Wood Elves of the East are particularly strange, IIRC).

SkyRealms of Jorune is just wierd, if you can find a copy. the PCs are pre-citizens (Tauther) in an alien world (Jorune), trying to build up enough brownie points (challisks) to become citizens (citizens) of the main culture, which is basically post-apocalyptic. It's sort of a fantasy/science fiction mix.

Of some note, I think, is JadeClaw from Sanguine Press. It's the only (or, at the least, the first) English-lanuage RPG written by an Asian -- Chuan Lin is culturally Cantonese, and the book does an amazing job of reflecting the Wu Xia culture in an anthropomorphic setting. Actually, the anthropomorphic part helps sell the Asian worldview to some extent, the same way the IronClaw furries sell European classism.

I'm also with Ben in thinking that most RPGs actually do a lousy job of reflecting Medeval Europe, just so you know.
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Mark Eddy
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clehrich
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« Reply #6 on: January 23, 2005, 08:27:37 AM »

In his original post,
Quote from: Green
The issue I want to address here is what specific things game designers can do to diversify the mythic and aesthetic elements of the game world.  Time and time again I have come across "worlds" which present only a single part of it (usually the most European-looking one) as being anything of interest or importance.  In the rare games that use a different culture as the dominant one, it is quite obvious that there is more to the world than is shown.  However, the tendency is to make the game about the setting, and I'm not always interested in that.
I'm a little confused about what you're asking.  At the start, it sounds like you are looking for specific steps that can be taken by game designers to make cultures, settings, etc. less Eurocentric.  At the end, you say that you're not always interested in setting.  I think I'm misreading the end part, not the start, but can you clarify?

I do have quite a lot of suggestions for how to break Eurocentric paradigms in culture/setting design, actually, but if you want specifics I need to know before I go on a tear that that's what you're looking for!  Can you help me get clear on what you want to discuss, precisely, in terms of "specific things game designers can do to diversify the mythic and aesthetic elements of the game world"?
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Chris Lehrich
NN
Member

Posts: 93


« Reply #7 on: January 23, 2005, 08:42:05 AM »

Im probably rambling, but..

Are fantasy rpgs really mostly set in medieval europe? Id say they are set in fantasy settings based on European fantasy literature, which only contain elements of medieval Europe. If you take out The Church, stick in polytheism, decrease mortality, improve literacy and prosperity, and then parachute in elves, dwarves, and orcs, how much medieval europe is left? Castle aesthetics?

I suspect that fantasy per se is a European idea - I would love to broaden my frpg horizons, by reading the Hindi Fritz Leiber, the Russian Clark Ashton Smith, or the Chinese Tolkein - but I dont think they exist.


On the practical level, game designers should probably:

stick some big physical barriers between cultures, so they can plausibly diverge extensively

and definitely:

when introducing spiffy new exotic elements, please 'ground' them in scenario and encounter ideas. Got some fantastic idea about guilds and technology? Show me the adventure.
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NN
Member

Posts: 93


« Reply #8 on: January 23, 2005, 09:50:40 AM »

Apologies if this is off-topic, but this thread has brought to mind a long standing problem ive had about creating believable fantasy cultures (and their attendant social, political, and economic structures)

How do you reconcile these stuctures with the fantastic power of individuals in a rule set like D&D? Or any system with a significant power curve?

ie: Why does Gonzo The Magnificient (20th level D&D magic user, Rune level RQ characters, etc) obey the King?  Ok, maybe this King is an Aragornesque superhero too, but what about his heir? Or his heir's heirs?

This issue might well be even greater in an unfamiliar setting, as theres no comforting warm bath of cliche to dip into.

Was Genghis Khan the mightiest warrior? And how would a pseudo-Mongol culture actually ruled by the ancient shaman look?
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Green
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Posts: 247


« Reply #9 on: January 23, 2005, 09:53:19 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
At the end, you say that you're not always interested in setting.  I think I'm misreading the end part, not the start, but can you clarify?


Certainly.  I didn't mean I wasn't always interested in setting.  What I meant is that I'm not always interested in a setting that simply swaps the medieval Europe default for another one.  In other words, I don't want the game to be about the setting.  For instance, L5R or Ars Magica.

Quote
I do have quite a lot of suggestions for how to break Eurocentric paradigms in culture/setting design, actually, but if you want specifics I need to know before I go on a tear that that's what you're looking for!  Can you help me get clear on what you want to discuss, precisely, in terms of "specific things game designers can do to diversify the mythic and aesthetic elements of the game world"?


Suggestions are fine, although I am unclear on what you mean by specifics.  I don't need specific examples of games that do the things you suggest, but I hope your suggestions aren't something vague like, "Don't forget about the brown people."
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #10 on: January 23, 2005, 10:02:00 AM »

Quote from: Green
Quote from: clehrich
At the end, you say that you're not always interested in setting.  I think I'm misreading the end part, not the start, but can you clarify?


Certainly.  I didn't mean I wasn't always interested in setting.  What I meant is that I'm not always interested in a setting that simply swaps the medieval Europe default for another one.  In other words, I don't want the game to be about the setting.  For instance, L5R or Ars Magica.


BL>  So what you want, in my reading, is to not have to work for something that requires work?  I'm missing something here, I think.

Settings that we aren't familiar with are alien, by definition.  So, if we're going to play a game in an alien setting, can't you understand that figuring out that alien setting is at least going to be one major focus of the game, if not the major focus of the game?  There is no real way around this, unless you can find another setting that the players are instinctively familiar with.  Given that your goal seems to be to stretch us into unfamiliar settings, this is really really unlikely.

Some of this is about time.  I played a lot of Dark Sun in high school.  The first 2-3 years were all about exploring the setting.  Once we had done that, we could do other sorts of things with the setting, because we had it pretty well down.  But it took time, and it was time that we had to spend as a group, ourselves.  I suspect that the other settings being held up as examples here likewise are things that people's groups played for a long, long time.

Some of this is simply that alien settings are cool!  People who are going to want to play in them are going to want to explore them.  Why else would they want to play in them, if they didn't matter?

Quote

Suggestions are fine, although I am unclear on what you mean by specifics.  I don't need specific examples of games that do the things you suggest, but I hope your suggestions aren't something vague like, "Don't forget about the brown people."


BL>  Chris is offering a really great thing here, Green.  He is very well trained in a lot of cultural studies issues, to a level so far beyond "don't forget about the brown people" that I could not tell you.  Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
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Green
Member

Posts: 247


« Reply #11 on: January 23, 2005, 10:04:03 AM »

Quote from: NN
I suspect that fantasy per se is a European idea - I would love to broaden my frpg horizons, by reading the Hindi Fritz Leiber, the Russian Clark Ashton Smith, or the Chinese Tolkein - but I dont think they exist.


There is no Hindi Fritz Leiber as far as I know, but I think the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahayana have some wonderfully fantastic and exotic elements.  One of the Chinese Tolkiens is Wu Cheng-en, who wrote a fantasy epic called Journey to the West.  I don't know much about Russian mythology and literature, but they certainly have a rich fairy tale tradition.  I can even give you the West African Aragorn: Sundiata.  The 1001 Arabian Nights, while not an epic fantasy in the Tolkien sense, is filled with magic, mystery, and wonder.
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Green
Member

Posts: 247


« Reply #12 on: January 23, 2005, 10:28:26 AM »

Quote from: Ben Lehman
BL>  So what you want, in my reading, is to not have to work for something that requires work?  I'm missing something here, I think.


Yes.  You keep bringing up an "alien setting" at least, purely for the sake of playing in something unfamiliar.  That's not precisely what I want.  It is not preciely unfamiliarity that I seek, but a departure from having a culture whose aesthetic, political, and social aspects are dominated by a single perspective, be they pseudo-European, pseudo-Japanese, or pseudo-Chinese.  What I want is a variety of cultural viewpoints within a single settings.  In Fading Suns, for instance, we know that the Church and the Empire (in the for of the clergy and nobility) are the dominant cultural, political, and economic force, but that doesn't mean that theirs is the only perspective included.  There are guilds which differ as much from each other as the noble houses do, and aliens who are the most different of all.  Another game that does a bit of what I'm saying is the Wheel of Time RPG.  I'm not a fan of the novels, so I can't comment that much on it, but I do remember the variety of cultural viewpoints available.


Quote
I suspect that the other settings being held up as examples here likewise are things that people's groups played for a long, long time.


Not in the least.  I haven't played Wheel of Time or Fading Suns for very long.

Quote
Some of this is simply that alien settings are cool!  People who are going to want to play in them are going to want to explore them.  Why else would they want to play in them, if they didn't matter?


I didn't say they didn't matter.  I said that I'm not interested in the game being about the culture.  L5R, for instance, is about feudal Japan.  Every character in that game is defined by how they adhere or diverge from specifically feudal Japanese norms.

Quote
Chris is offering a really great thing here, Green.  He is very well trained in a lot of cultural studies issues, to a level so far beyond "don't forget about the brown people" that I could not tell you.  Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.


Don't look a gift horse in the mouth?  Maybe I'm taking this the wrong way, but that doesn't seem to me like something one would say to a person whose intelligence and point of view you respect.
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Green
Member

Posts: 247


« Reply #13 on: January 23, 2005, 10:48:03 AM »

Bankuei>  Thank you for understanding.  What you have written is the sort of response I'm looking for.  Thanks.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #14 on: January 23, 2005, 12:19:51 PM »

Hi Green,

I would highly recommend looking at both HeroQuest and The Shadow of Yesterday.  

HeroQuest's setting, Glorantha is highly detailed, complex and intimidating, but if you'll notice that not only do several different cultures get their own outlook, you also get some neat interactions between the cultures and mixing.  Like in real life, cultural transmission occurs on several levels,  from domination/occupation of one group over another, cultural exchange through trade, marriage and close habitation, as well as some bits of reverse culture adoption(the dominant culture taking up some of the oppressed culture's habits).  

The Shadow of Yesterday presents several cultures, already deeply enmeshed with each other, so it is also an excellent resource to look at for groups that have been co-located for some time.  It is also a clear and easy read in regards to what each culture is about.

As far as demonstrating the multiculturalism, it is key to use the example ideas I gave before with the focus of making sure that each culture to be featured is clear, along with examples of common interactions between them.

Chris
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