Sunday, 23 March 2014

Are we sick of European fantasy yet?

Art by Daandric/DeviantArt

""African games don't sell," people say. "People can't identify with African character art." "Medieval Africa hasn't got the variety and flavor of medieval Europe." "Players aren't comfortable with an African-flavored setting."  These are the words of Kevin Crawford, designer of Spears of the Dawn, a decidedly old-school tabletop game with a medieval African feel. 

"Too often I've seen people complaining online that our hobby doesn't do enough with this kind of material, that the art and settings we build are too often rooted in faux-European settings that waste the wonders of three-quarters of the world," Crawford explains on his Kickstarter page for the game. He laments that we, as an imaginative collection of people called roleplayers, can't seem to look beyond the rolling hills and sun-dappled lanes of merry England or great gothic fortresses of Western Europe. 

Occasionally the industry will sprout something less 'white'. Legend of the Five Rings is the seminal game that covers Japanese-flavoured roleplay and Nights of the Crusades deftly emulates the tales from the 1001 Arabian Nights. But Middle-Eastern and medieval Oriental fiction is still a popular genre no matter what the platform, and it seems as designers we eschew other cultures for these 'safer' ones.

Art: Spears of the Dawn

To get to the crux of it, we need to examine why western fantasy is so popular. The Lord of the Rings was the first real piece of modern epic fantasy, complete with elves, orcs, dwarves and wizards. It became possibly the most influential work of fantasy, causing countless authors to carry the Tolkien baton after he had passed on. The Lord of the Rings, which was itself influenced heavily by Nordic folklore, became the template for all and sundry. The tropes Tolkien introduces are so firmly locked into modern epic fantasy books that as soon as someone mentions the genre dwarves, feudal Europe, and magic pops into their head. 

So naturally this mentality seeped into games, forming the backbone of Dungeons and Dragons. We're now over-exposed, reluctant to accept things that don't fit firmly into this package. That's what we think anyway.

The fact is that there is a huge well of rarely-tapped world culture that's ripe for the taking. Look at pre-Columbian cultures like the Aztec Empire, replete with strange gods, colourful warriors and an interesting caste system, which is explored in Heirs to the Lost World. Ancient Greece is one of the most popular settings in fictions when it comes to epics, and Mazes & Minotaurs is a great game involving the setting. Galileo Games created How We Came To Live Here, which looks at Native American culture in a roleplaying game.

But to my knowledge there are no games that yet explore the amazing history of the Inuit culture, or Thai history, or Mongolian fantasy, or any number of world cultures. I suppose it takes more research to write a game in something other that European fantasy, but in my mind it's worth it.

Spears of the Dawn aimed for $3,000 as its Kickstarter goal. If "African games don't sell" then how did it manage to reach over three times that amount?