Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Mediterranean and Cultural Coolness

Back in the mists of time, I wondered aloud on the blog why it is that you get lots of Japan-inspired RPG settings but not many Polish, Tongan, Turkish or Malagasy-inspired ones. (I was living in Japan at the time and observed that this was surprising because Japan "is on its knees in almost every sense, utterly lacking in self-confidence, and faced with a hopeless and near-apocalyptic future of population crash and economic catastrophe". Things have changed a bit now, and Japan is growing increasingly self-secure in cultural terms, I think, although you still do have to wonder who is going to be putting rice on the table in 50 years' time.)

The real oddity is the lack of Mediterranean-inspired settings. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt loom relatively large in the minds of nerds. But when you think about how culturally important, historically significant, geographically varied, and magnificently interesting the countries of Southern Europe are, it's unusual that you don't find many RPG settings (or, for that matter, fantasy series) which are set in worlds inspired by the histories of Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Turkey, or for that matter Italy and Greece if you take them out of the ancient world.

Put it another way: I think I'm hardly going out on a limb if I suggest that RPG settings (at least in the English-speaking world) are preponderantly simulacra of either Northern Europe or Japan. After that you get Ancient Greece and Rome, and then I think pseudo-Middle Eastern settings a distant third. After that comes everybody else.

What are the reasons for this? I expect that it is partly because, although the Med is just round the corner from us Brits and we're hopping on planes to Rome, Corfu, the Costa del Sol, the Algarve and whatever at the drop of a hat, for Americans and Australians those places probably feel distant and exotic and not nearly as well known. (I was trying to count earlier on how many times I've traveled to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, or France. It's more than a dozen, definitely.)

I expect also it is because the Mediterranean cultures feel (rightly or wrongly) 'civilized' in the popular imagination - places which respect learning, the arts, and cloak-and-dagger politicking. This is in contrast to Northern Europe, which feel like they are wild and lawless. You'd find dungeons full of dragons all over Scandinavia, Germany and the British Isles. You wouldn't find them in Sorrento - at least, not in a way that appeals to your average gamer.

I suppose, finally, you can also blame Tolkien and his imitators. Tolkien was all about "the North". That permeates his work. The fantasy genre in general, following in his footsteps, hasn't strayed convincingly or in great numbers from that path. Japan is an exception, because nerds love samurai and ninjas, and also anime and tentacle porn. And Westerners have been obsessed with Japanese culture since the impressionists at least, for complex reasons that I'm sure could fill 1000 blog posts. But not many countries can say that.

58 comments:

  1. The reasons for Japan being overrepresented are:

    1. Anglo-American fascination with Japanese culture going back to Victorian England, Art Nouveau in the 20s etc.

    2. Japanese action-adventure cinema being probably either #1 or #2 in the world for most of the 20th century. Samurai and cowboys spent the 1940s through the 1970s with a virtual duopoly on cool action-adventure archetypes.

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    1. I would add that cinema is super important here, in part, because it provides lots of background tropes for fleshing out the world inhabited by the heroes. So if I'm a 15-year-old nerd who wants to play a "swords and wizards" RPG, I can feel reasonably confident in plopping my players down in a Tolkien-pastiche world (with villages and farms and cows and fields of barley and castles and princesses and shit) or in a Kurosawa-pastiche world (with, uh, villages and rice paddies and shoguns and shit) but not so much in, say, an ancient Hellenic countryside because I haven't seen enough movies or read enough books that flesh out the setting for me. Books of mythology focus on character and story, not world-building. Kids who played D&D were mostly too young to have seen a bunch of Hercules movies in the 1960s that might have filled in these details.

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    2. You are probably right about cinema.

      But also I think travel is relevant. I know what the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese countryside looks like (at least in parts) because I've been there frequently. That's much harder for Americans!

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    3. It's interesting to note that quite a bit of (often older) Japanese fantasy often resorted to the same basic faux-medieval, faux-Tolkien style we associate with D&D. That should tell us how simple but efficient this backdrop for fantasy is because the mark it left on older JRPG videogames and the mark these in turn have left on fantasy in anime and light novel is nowhere as negligible as we may initially think.

      This completely inaccurate, historically and culturally implausible jumble of ideas and mythological inspiration is SOMEHOW an easy shorthand for fantasy which everyone can understand, possibly transcending cultural barriers.

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    4. Yeah, the Japanese fall for "occidentalism" just like we enjoy a bit of orientalism. The early Final Fantasy games were very much in that vein.

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  2. An interesting question. I personally think it is a combination of the second reason you mentioned- that they Mediterranean is generally believed to be civilized, and a the secondary factor of Greek, and to a lesser extent Roman, mythology.

    Namely, if your players are in a Greek themed setting, they are going to wonder when the Minotaur, Chimera, and Zeus show up. It colors everything, and comes with far too much baggage.

    As for Roman, I think it's mostly just the former. D&D is about pushing back the frontier, encountering the unknown and returning to civilization, that's why most D&D games take place on the frontier or in border country.

    And that is a shame, because Greece and Rome are quite interesting. But I think a game set in a fantasy version of Rome, the biggest city in the world, with ludicrous corruption, rival religions competing for believers, government oppression and the like could be quite interesting, now that I think about it.

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    1. Yeah, I do think that would be cool, although there's also the problem that it's hard to know what Rome was actually like to live in back then.

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  3. You don't have to look further than Wilderlands of High Fantasy for those Mediterranean influences - a well-known text in old-school circles. What's more, even the tolkienesque elements are put into this weird context which is more Ancient Mediterranean than Tolkien's Northern Europe.

    Some of it crops up in Runequest, and a handful of less-known games like Mazes & Minotaurs and Paul Elliott's great Zenobia, both of which are old-school in many of their ideas while predating or being produced independently of the old-school movement as we know it.

    There are, apparently, Polish-flavoured RPGs in Poland, although they haven't spread beyond Poland's borders. The Poles seem to be mostly into historically influenced gaming. Poland's big cultural export here is The Witcher, which is a big AAA-level CRPG which has sold zillions of copies - and it is Polish in the same way AD&D is Anglo-American.

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    1. However, there is one big reason you don't see much RPG material (or whatever) from Poland & Co. In the 1990s and 2000s (but particularly the 1990s), the general opinion was that our own culture is embarrassing and/or uninteresting, while cultural imports were celebrated as the epitome of cool. This low self-confidence is part of the broader post-socialist malaise hanging over us like an ugly cloud of low cultural and political self-confidence.

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    2. Do Hungarians see themselves as being outsiders in Eastern Europe?

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    3. Mostly as inconvenienced Central Europeans. There is also the matter of linguistic isolation "in the Slavic and Germanic sea".

      However, the issue I have mentioned is also found in Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland: none of these countries have been strong cultural exporters since 1990, and this has especially been true for pop culture. Again, The Witcher is a major outlier, the exception that proves the point.

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  4. I was just asking myself yesterday, why don't we see more goths in RPGs? Not the black clad V:tM playing once.
    I mean the once that attacked Rome during the Crisis of the Third Century.

    Do you want to have plundering babarians in your setting? Should they be the steppe riding kind, or the vikingy kind? Why not take Goths and have the best of both worlds?

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    1. The Rohirrim are, culturally, pretty much Goths (linguistically, they're Anglo-Saxons). Even their client relationship with Gondor is a bit like that of Gothic foederati settled on the edge of the Roman Empire. So you do get Goths of a sort in Merp and other Middle Earth-set RPGS - but they perhaps don't register as such because they're the good guys!

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  5. Uncommon cultures are of interest to GMs like me that need a break from the Tolkein stew. You have to look at a lot of art & architecture instead of game books though. Just one cool thing, like a Cantabrian ruin or the sword of Goujian, has been enough to inspire my OSR contributions.

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  6. It's weird to me as well. Southern Europe, Byzantium, the ancient empires of the Fertile Crescent and the pirate nations of northern Africa are utterly fascinating to me. I'd love to see more done in that vein.

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    1. Feeling the same need as you, I wrote this game: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/17/17313.phtml

      Of course, it's in Spanish, but we're aiming to translate it to English one day...

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    2. Rodrigo: I've seen some of the art for that game. Amazing stuff! I look forward to getting an English translation since my mastery of TexMex extends mostly towards words you can't say in polite company and "Dos cervezas, muy frio, por favor." >.<

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  7. As alluded to by Melan above, Glorantha's got plenty of the Mediterranean in it - it even has a 'mediterranean' sea.

    But don't most generic D&D worlds tend to have cities that are a bit Renaissance Italy in them? The extensive list of weaponry in AD&D always struck me as more Swiss Guard than Varangian Guard ...

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    1. Isn't that just a weaponry thing, though? Gygax loved his polearms.

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    1. Oh no, Kent called me a nerd.

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    3. Kent, you always come in here with a bad tone, yet you you seem to be completely oblivious to obvious things. I mean, nobody cares about Japan in games, except... Legend of the Five Rings is a thing, and Anima Beyond Fantasy, and MAID RPG, and Tenra Bansho Zero, and Exalted... that those are just a few of the more prominent examples.

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    4. Jack, don't bite. Kent just comes here to try to get a rise out of people, and makes deliberately stupid and false statements in order to do so. He seems to think this is a valuable use of his time, for reasons I can't fathom.

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  9. Since your posts have been hinting at these issues lately I have begun to think about it, even if everyone above is, in my opinion, also correct, I think that there is a deeper problem with alternative inspirations for settings in role-playing games. (also, first comment, but I love your blog and work)

    I think that rpg settings assume a lot of things about how the world works and, more importantly, about how one's world view works. The fact that most settings drift towards a Renaissance mindset and worldview isn't, in my opinion, simple coincidence. It's in the Renaissance that we find a change of philosophy, religion, ethics that translates into a particular way of living that would, in a fantasy rpg, allow for adventurers who are free to do what they want, to both explore and come back to sell their loot. Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, for example, basically allows for adventurers as we know it to exist. But that's not the case with some problematic settings.

    Take Greece, for instance. I think most Greek-inspired settings fail to satisfy our desire to play in the world of Ulysses because they fail to see what are the underlying assumptions about the cosmos that permeate, in this case, homeric epics. Because of that most of them are nothing more that a change in appearance that end up feeling, even if we don't understand why exactly, unsatisfactory if our original goal was to mimic the feel of the myths and stories we read and were fascinated by. Here's a specific example: there's no character agency in the classical greek world. Aquiles is destined to die and that is his essential, defining trait as a hero. Take that away and there's no conflict, none of the honor, excess and ethical conflict that, to me, make The Iliad so fascinating.

    I think the Medieval Ages (real ones and not the Renaissance/Baroque inspirations of D&D) have the same problem: christian and medieval philosophy are antithetical to the mental foundations of D&D as an activity, to the idea of player characters. The Green Knight can't be a D&D adventure. But Don Quixote can, Manuscript Found in Saragosa can, quite easily in fact.

    There are probably solutions to this problem, although I can't think of any that truly solve it. One would be to create frontier characters: renaissance characters in a medieval world in transition. Another one would be to change the game system. This second option seems, to me, the only way to truly satisfy some of the most strange and distant realities that we might wish to play in.

    Dunno. Sorry for the bad english btw, hope everything was readable.

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    1. Just to add, as a portuguese reader, why I don't think our Iberian reality is particularly well represented: I don't think even portuguese people know exactly what was going on in Portugal before we became what we believe to be a regular European country after the Reconquista. Since the late middle-ages we've been, as seafarers and explorers, engulfed by the spirit of the European Renaissance, and it's hard to separate our own particular experience from the continental one after that. That might be an issue shared by other countries and identities. There is much gaming left to do in the land of tenth century romance guitar players, proud knights and enchanted moorish princesses but, again, between the gap in mindset and our own ignorance of our past (something that Tolkien took care of in his own case) it seems like there is much, much work to do. Before D&D there has to be a firm mythology that it can draw from (whether it's real of the mythology of sci-fi movies). The fragmented European experience can, perhaps, be an obstacle to that.

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    2. Thanks for the good comments!

      I think you're right about changing the game system. Pendragon is much better for a lot of what you discuss than D&D.

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  10. I'm a little surprised nobody seems to have mentioned (pseudo-)China yet. Wuxia tales and kung fu films have left their mark on tabletop RPGs as well. Now that I think about it, in terms of setting-creation we seem to most often get East Asian pastiches that blend China, Japan, and a dash of Korea (and maybe Mongolia and/or southeast Asia), but I wouldn't say Japan is a sole or overwhelming source of influence.

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  11. I think this is expected. Northern european cultures produce games based on northern european myths and history. In Spain we have plenty of games based on our own history and mythology, set in the Spanish Empire, the Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula, the Roman Empire, the French occupation, based on Spanish traditional legends, and so on.

    The thing is, English as a language is so pervasive, that games in English are translated to many languages, but the opposite is not true. Spanish games don't tend to be translated into English, and I assume the same happens with, I don't know Polish, Finnish or Italian games.

    The one exception is Japan, for the reasons some other commenters have stated before. Japan is so popular that, at least in Spain, we have many influences from the anglosphere, but also from Japanese culture.

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    1. What are some examples of Spanish RPGs?

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    2. There are many RPGs published in Spain that follow more traditional topics. But I'll single out the more relevant to your post.

      Disclaimer: I'm the author of the first RPG of the list and the publisher of the second, third and four:

      - La Puerta de Ishtar: Sword & Sandal in a fantasy mesopotamia. Talked about this one in a previous comment.
      - Ablaneda: A county in the medieval north of Spain gets separated from the rest of the world. PCs are a ragtag group of watchers that must face creatures from the Spanish mythology. Very dark humour.
      - Máscaras del Imperio: Baroque-pulp. PCs are masked heroes that serve the Spanish Empire during 17th century. Alchemy, clockwork, american native magic, East India Company as the equivalent of Nazis in pulp, and so on.
      - The Phlogiston Books Vol I - Rural Fantasy: DCC material in a rural setting inspired by our own experiences. I single this out because it's available in English.
      - Dragons Conquer America: I think you've probably heard about this one already.
      - Capitán Alatriste: RPG of the saga of novels (and movie) of the same name.
      - Aquelarre: The first Spanish RPG. Medieval realistic Spain. Taught history to a whole generation of Spanish gamers. Has modules for many other eras.
      - Mediterráneo Mítico: A setting for RQ6 that covers the whole are surrounding the Mediterranean Sea at 350 BC.
      - ¡Gañanes!: PCs are "rednecks" from rural Spain. Enlugh said.
      - Roma: Microgame of backstabbing politics in Rome.
      - 1808: Fight the French invaders or help the French saviours. What you call the Peninsular War.
      - Blacksad: Set in the comics of the same name. Although published in France, the comics are by Spanish authors.
      - Hispania: Set during the conquest of the Iberian peninsula by the Romans.
      - Apéndice Ñ: A pun on "Appendix N". D&D modules with a strong picaresque flavor (think Lazarillo de Tormes).
      - La Piel de Toro: CoC in the Spain just before the Civil War.
      - Oráculo: Greek mythology. A very bad game.

      Those that I remember. I sure left some without mentioning.

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    3. Cool. The Phlogiston ones sound interesting.

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    4. Write to contacto_AT_other-selves.com and, if you want, I'll send you a free PDF of The Phlogiston Books Vol. I.

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    5. Aquelarre is being translated to english IIRC...
      I have read the spanish version: The system is a too crunchy for my tastes but the setting is like lotfp which is really nice to me.

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    6. "The thing is, English as a language is so pervasive, that games in English are translated to many languages, but the opposite is not true."

      Depending on where you are in western Europe, the opposite might very well be true. Because of the pervasiveness of English and the assumption that people speak English as a second language, here is mostly no reason to translate English games into Swedish. On the other hand, several Swedish games have been translated into English (Mutant : Year Zero, Symbaroum, Tales from the Loop, etc), since they would otherwise be unintelligible to the average English speaker.

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  12. I blame it on the declining popularity of classical culture & history in general. It's just not true that ancient Greece, Rome (and their exotic border regions of Egypt, North-Africa & the Middle East) loom large in the minds of nerds. They don't. The default has for quite some time either been "the north", or the anglo-saxon later medieval world. This makes the classical/mediteranean world an exotic setting. Few people will have an exotic culture as core for their campaign.

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  13. I'm not sure Renaissance Italy is all *that* under-represented. It feels like every other fantasy setting is basically 'medieval England/France in the middle, Renaissance Italy to the south, Viking Scandinavia to the north, endless wilderness to the east, and the sea the west'. Admittedly, it's usually a pretty thin pastiche of Renaissance Italy - all master poisoners and scheming merchant princes and mercenary warbands and whatnot - but at least it's *there*.

    The absence of Iberia stand-ins is what really baffles me. Not only was Spain one of the great powers of Europe for much of the continent's history, it's also one that I'd expect a lot of American gamers to feel some kind of indirect connection with, due to the scale of Spanish and Portugese impact upon the Americas. (And, honestly, most D&D parties act a lot more like Conquistadors than Arthurian knights!) But fantasy-Iberia analogues seem to be oddly few and far between...

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    1. Yeah, I've often thought of D&D parties as basically Conquistadors of the fantastical. See e.g. here: http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/great-blog-posts-and-lessons-of-history.html

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    2. In my totally anecdotal and unscientific experience, in the realm of Pop-Renaissance History, Italy is usually seen as A Land of Adventure with its feuding statelets, genius inventors and roving mercenaries while Spain is The Evil Empire du jour--if they intrude on the story at all it's as rival Foreign Power, with steel-clad legions of merciless soldiers and hypocritical or fanatical Cardinals or Jesuitical types working behind the scenes. I blame the movie Elizabeth (1999) for keeping it alive into the 21st century but it's an old old idea.

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    3. Hell, in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting (which I finally sat down and read recently) the giant monolithic slavetrading evil empire that worships the Lawful Evil Ubergod served by legions of Black Knights and Inquisitors is basically Imperial Spain and Renaissance Italy mushed into one. For a setting that is so obviously straining to be multicultural and inclusive it's kind of funny to see echoes of The Black Legend presented uncritically.

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  14. Although I agree with Manola about the presence of renaissance Italy in RPG I find the late-ancient, high middle ages Italy period very good for a classical "frontier" and really under-represented.
    Like the Longobards: you basically have your cities build upon the colossal ruins of an highly advanced civilization, those trappings are the dominion of an old caste of people who don't speak your language.
    Or you could do the other way around: your empire is crumbling, your land invaded by pagans whom now rule over you. You cling desperately to your faith and your old rules, trying to hold back the "chaos".
    In Italy every city has a megadungeon below it. Overlapping layers of different ages. In Naples you can walk among the old roman cisterns and sewers (used during the WW2 as shelters) and find yourself in some guy's house, only to open a secret door under a bed and walk down the stair to a buried roman theater (and during the tour I was like "oh my god so much D&D material!").
    The aesthetic of ruin is omnipresent here in Italy, but were more like the cobolds of it, we lived among the ruins, rearranging them to our - during the depopulation of the middle ages - less grand concerns. Like using the toppled statue of an emperor to hold shut a door.

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    1. Good point. I like what you have to say about every Italian city having a megadungeon below it. Yes! That is a campaign I would like to play in.

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    2. A thought from the master: R. E. Howard did write a story with a Spanish hero, ‘Hawks over Egypt’ set in Cairo in AD 1021. The importance of those specifics was demonstrated when de Camp retconned it into an ersatz Conan story, ‘Hawks over Shem’. Yet Howard had already noted that historically-based stories were too much work; generic cultural fusion fantasy was more efficient.

      SJB

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  15. It just doesn't have the pop culture exposure and 'mystique', whereas pre-industrial Japan has been romanticized by both westerners and it's own native population. Everyone knows what a samurai is, what he looks like and what his cool weapon is. Everyone knows what a ninja is too.

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    1. I don't think Japanese people romanticise their pre-industrial past much more than anybody else does, though. In England we're perfectly happy to romanticise the English countryside, knights and fairy tales and all that stuff. Americans are perfectly happy to romanticise the revolutionary war, cowboys and indians, etc. I think that is common to all industrialised societies.

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    2. Oh that's not what I was implying: more that it's one we see more in popular culture, especially through anime, manga and videogames. However only those you mentioned (knights, fairy tales, cowboys and samurai/ninja) really have any pull on the collective imagination.

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  16. One book and a set of books that influenced me as a teenager to create a Mediterranean fantasy world for D&D were The First Eden by David Attenborough (which was also a 4 part TV series), and the Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; the Garden of the Gods). I grew up in South Australia, which certainly seemed Mediterranean in the summer, so perhaps that was the link. The Durrell books are interesting as they contain arch-Vancian style dialogue, combined with detailed notes on almost anthropomorphized animals, so with little effort you could have a series of cave-riddled limestone islands home to superstitious peasants, corrupt Venetian aristocracy, gecko-men, toad-men, scorpion-men etc. For more mythic elements throw in Durrell's The Talking Parcel (for humanoid races of Cockatrices, Gryphons, and others), and for more seriousness, his big brother Larry's book Prospero's Cell. It's obviously a ridiculously Anglo-centric take on a small corner of the Mediterranean but it was fun to DM and adventure in as a kid. :-)

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    1. Interesting - I'll have to check those out. I've heard of "My Family and Other Animals" but never really known much about it.

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  17. An important influence on my gaming - specifically campaign setting creation - was Guy Gavriel Kay, who blends history and fantasy. Based on that, I created a campaign setting in Anatolia, based around the city of Zeugma - but moved forward in the future in 1150 CE. (I used the warhammer frpg system, 2nd ed). In the second half the the campaign, the party traveled east, following the silk road, circling the Tarim basin and eventually going deep into Siberia.

    I found the experience both freeing and constraining. Freed of the convention of the pseudo-european setting, but constrained by the need to do so much more research to be vaguely accurate.

    I've thought about publishing this, but it would be a lot of work, there are possible licencing issues (warhammer system), and it might be offensive... for examples the Turks are hob-goblins. Is that offensive to the Turks? (Turks are playable characters bsw).

    I had a plan to then have another campaign centered around Dubrovnik, but then Gavriel Kay publish a novel almost exactly set where I was thinking of doing it, so I abandoned that since it now felt quite derivative...

    Ancalagon

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    1. Yes, Guy Gavriel Kay has made a career out of doing that kind of thing. I've thought about buying his Dubrovnik one but never quite got round to it.

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  18. I think one part of it is the fact that RPGs can be a bit of a low-bandwidth medium, and many players chafe at having to learn or move around a lot of baggage that comes with more unfamiliar territory.

    They think they like the idea of playing some kind of Byzantium Fantastica game where Constanstinople is honeycombed with increasingly weird and ancient dungeons all lying atop the real-life city with its incredibly intracate political stations, courtly intrigue, and pseudo-political-party factionalism of the Blues and Greens. That all sounds awesome but then both the GM and the players have to learn how the hell to move around that city without causing offence and they find themselves either constrained by the reality or bored by the prospect of reading about it before the game even starts.

    I'm reminded of that brilliant series of posts from Coins and SCrolls about injecting real honest-to-god feudalism into his game, and how the players robbing a single dungeon and flashing the tiniest amount of wealth could lead to having to donate the majority to the church or the local lord. In their game it led to a lot of exciting politics, but the prospect of making the simple idea of "explore cool ruin, kill scary monster, recover neat treasure" a complex exercise in historicity is exhausting.

    In actual fact when we talk about cultures we DO use for settings - a sort of generic northern European medieval, a Samurai Japan, a swords-and-sandals Mediterranean - in actuality these settings usually lack all of the truly weird and corkscrewy things about those cultures that a 21st-century western Anglophile player wouldn't just be able to outright assume before sitting down to play. If we *really* wanted to play in actual 1600s Japan, we gotta sit down and learn a whole lot about Shinto and clans and the Shogunate and cultural taboos.

    I suppose my rambling collection of half-thoughts has a rough TL;DR - we don't really truly depict *any* culture in most RPGs, it's just that we've got a selection of desktop themes for some of the more pop-culture-friendly ones from LOTR, anime, and old movies.

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    1. Indeed - the accuracy is challenging. From cultural taboos and ways of thinking to sometimes really basic stuff, like the weather. And there is the specter of "cultural appropriation", or alternatively mucking it up so bad it's offensive. I think it was very wise to have Yoon-Suin only vaguely inspired by India/nepal as opposed to try to be accurate...

      Ancalagon

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