Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Problematic Concept

In considering possibilities for an "advanced" Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I hit upon (or rather, returned to) some ideas that have been rolling around in the old noggin for years, specifically using the real world setting of South America as a place for exploration and adventure. The particular spin that came to me this time (around 2:30am, awakening me from my sleep) went something like this:

  • A campaign set at the beginning of the Spanish conquest (circa 1492).
  • Most (or perhaps all beginning) adventurers are of European descent (though later characters can be from any's negotiable). They are newly arrived in "the New World."
  • While the campaign will be based on historical precedents (and real world geography), there will still be fantastical D&D elements: Vancian magic, demihumans, dragons, etc.
  • The campaign will span about 130 hundred years in length with a continuous timeline; that is, I would keep track of the passage of time for all players up until about 1630, with the arrival of the French and the ubiquity of flintlock weapons.

It's really a pretty great idea. You have an area that has plenty of wilderness for exploration, a justification for treasure-hunting adventurers, not much in the way of "safe havens" (besides the towns being constructed), though plenty of areas for characters to carve out dominions for themselves. Plus, the technology level is about right and there's plenty of reason for a clerical class (more on this later...perhaps). Plus, the Portuguese make great villains (I tend to use Portuguese in my pulp games like other people use Nazis...the Portuguese were pretty damn awful for a couple-few centuries).

But the more I think about it in the light of day, the more problematic the concept seems. The conquest of what (is now) called Latin America was pretty f'ing terrible. Forget Mexico for a moment...for all the bloody-handedness of Hernan Cortes, Mexico got off pretty easy: they retained most of their culture, much of their language, and the population genetically is still majority, they got out from under the heel of the Aztecs who, you know, liked to execute people in pretty grisly fashion, both for religious purposes and as a terror tactic.

But South America was a different that saw many of the indigenous peoples wiped out in planned, systematic genocides. Outside of the Andean cultures (of which the Incan Empire lasted the longest and is the best known), not much is known because the people were dealt with so brutally by the Spanish. Officially, Argentina today has an indigenous population of less than 1.5%; Uruguay has NO indigenous people officially (and until recent years, celebrated that fact and the fact of the genocide committed). The fashion in which the Spanish dealt with the Incans (when they finally reached them in the early 1500s) is truly despicable. The history of the region for the first two hundred years after European discovery makes for really, really rough reading.

And I don't want to gloss over it with a bunch of fantasy wash...the indigenous Cambeba people living along the Amazon Basin in Brazil weren't a bunch of naked, blowgun-toting savages out of an Indiana Jones movie. They were a sedentary, agricultural society, wearing clothes of cotton living in wooden houses in hundreds of villages along the river tributaries (by 1630, they'd been reduced to less than 40 villages). These aren't orcs or goblins to be slain and looted, and I don't want to re-skin them as such.

But South America was a real land of riches and adventure: huge amounts of gold, silver, and treasure was pulled out of it by the Europeans, and there were plenty of ruins from fallen empires lurking in the wilderness to be discovered...multiple civilizations rose and fell centuries before the rise of the Inca or the arrival of the conquistadors. There were indeed hostile swamps and jungles mountain ranges to explore, a Chaotic wilderness home to strange, life-threatening beasts...and yes, some warlike cannibal tribes, too. Legends of giants in the Pampas of Argentina can be found, with their regions pencilled on old 16th century maps, similar to the labels one finds in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. South America was about as close to a real world "fantasy adventure setting" as you are going to find...and the Europeans explorers of the time had all the trappings of your classic D&D party: swords and crossbows and plate armor and cross-carrying priests. Even sorcery is part of the (historic) lore of the region: both indigenous magic, and spell craft practiced by the imported African slaves. And did I mention the gold and silver coin currency? The continent is positively ripe for exploitation of D&D-variety.

Exploitation. That's the word that bugs me.

Perhaps surprisingly (given my fairly left-leaning politics and socialist tendencies) I'm not a huge believer in making restitutions for centuries-past injustices. Most of us have ancestors that were trampled upon at some point in history...the people of the Iberian peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal) were, in fact, conquered themselves multiple times in the centuries prior to their own bloody conquest of the Americas. But in the main, there's plenty of human suffering going on RIGHT NOW with real, living people hurting in need of help and justice (and, no, I'm not talking about Americans) to worry too much about the suffering of people dead centuries...except insofar as the suffering of today is directly linked to issues of past exploitation that could and should be addressed, right now, in the present.

Even so, the idea of setting a "fun" D&D campaign in a region and time of human history when such terrible brutalities, oppression, and abuses occurred makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Columbus and Cortes and Pizarro and all the rest were "adventurers;" they were looking to get rich. And they were willing to make their wealth using their swords, just like any other D&D party...but they weren't taking it off the corpses of goblins and dragons.

I don't want to encourage that. I don't want to paint that in a positive light. And I don't want to simply erase the real peoples of the region out of existence and repopulate their continent with lizard men and mind flayers and whatnot. That's hardly doing their memory justice.

It's a quandary I'm wrestling with...part of looking for and finding a good setting for my "advanced" D&D campaign is being more mature and thoughtful about this type of thing.

I'd welcome any ideas folks have on the subject. Thanks!


  1. Aight, so I can't think of a way to make this concept both non-problematic and pseudo-historical.

    The only thing I can think of would be if you had a Spain-esque fantasy culture exploring the abandoned ruins of an Inca-esque civilization. Like, the civilzation is already gone for whatever reason. Hell, maybe part of the adventure is figuring out what exactly happened to the vanished civilization.

    I know that's not exactly what you're going for, and it does have some potential problems with erasure, but it does let you sidestep the iffy areas of reskinning, promoting colonialism, or othering real life cultures.

    Iunno. I see what you want out of this, but I don't see how to stay 100% on your vision without straying into some dicey stuff.

    Hope my suggestion was at least remotely helpful.

    1. @ DMW:

      It's always at LEAST "remotely" helpful.
      : )

  2. I don't know if this will be helpful, especially since you said you wanted to avoid re-skinning, but what if you made the native peoples, elves, like wood-elves or wild elves. South America is a sort of Valinor some elves went to live when humans began to spread across Europe. I know that what I am suggesting is re-skinning, but making them elves will lend a more emphatic vibe than goblins, and you might be able to make some interesting cultural mash-ups. Anyway its what came to mind.

  3. I'm from Spain and you're right, that can be a problematic setting to play in... as every historical setting is. Every historical invading army has destroyed, killed, raped and pillaged native villagers and many historical cultures were destroyed.

    Conquistadores are evil but Imperial Romans are fun? Is all right to play as vikings and go raiding medieval England? Mongols butchered entire cities.

    You can't play in a historical setting without it being problematic.

    1. @ Carlos:

      Exactly. That being said, some atrocities are a little closer to the surface than others (Do Italians still think of themselves as Romans? Do the other peoples of Europe still see them as such?).

  4. Hey! I'm offended! Portuguese were not that bad! We killed no one, we assimilated them in the great Kingdom of Brazil. You can see that in the mixed genetics of brazilian people, the many tupi-guarani words and vast native food.

    I'm joking... The colonization by portuguese was different from the spanish but not better or worse.

    Anyway, that is an idea I also had but not implemented yet. My idea is to use the area I live as background (Southern Brazil)... Plains and marshes here, ocean to the east, mountains with atlantic forest to the north and the pampas to the South.

    Regarding cultures an humanoids... I would tak an approach similar to DMWieg: put elves as natives, steal from Tolken the idea that elves are leaving and put humans as foreigners exploring abandoned elven territory. Anyway, natives were already scarse when european came here in the sourthern parts of the South America.

    Feel free to ask me anything about Brazil if you wish.

    1. @ G.B.

      The colonization wasn't any worse. The slave trade with Africa was pretty bad, though.

      RE Elves (or whatever) as natives:

      I'll probably need a whole post on the subject, but I'm very wary of re-skinning specific cultures as non-humans, much as I'm wary of giving particular human cultures specific rules that distinguish them from one another...someone's always going to get offended ("What?! Why does MY culture get a -2 penalty to this stat?!").

      What if I kept the indigenous Brazilians as humans and made the Portuguese some particularly shady-looking dwarves?

      [oh, wait...that's the Dutch]

      And then what? Replace all the mestizo castes with half-humans (half-elves, half-orcs, half-dwarves, etc.)? I mean...*sigh* It's just a really messy can of worms to open.

      I do appreciate your offer on Brazil, Portuguese is TERRIBLE. Maybe you can find me a list of 15th century prices in reales? That would be really helpful!
      ; )

    2. "Reales" betray you hard as spanish speaker. In Portuguese, plural change the -l ending to -is ending so it's "reais". Hahahah. If you want to be even more native you call it "réis".

      Well, it is not 15th century but a bit earlier. And it is not in réis but in dinheiros (aka. denarius) and Wiki says 1 real = 840 dinheiros (this change happened exactly in 15th).

      Also, is in portuguese but if you can read spanish you may read portuguese.

    3. I was not clear in one thing... I would not re-skin elves as native but the other way around. Re-skin natives as elves. Remove natives and put elves in their place but that is another topic...

      And you are right... At least in Brazil, there is too much races and mixtures that making races in the D&Dish way is look for trouble. How would you deal with the guy who is half everything that existed since the beginning (at least in Brazil)?

      Finally, did you saw that South America is large? I mean it's huge! Do you think to use large portions of it in you campaign?

    4. @ G.B.:

      I'll let you in on a little secret: my Spanish is pretty terrible, too!

      First off: thanks for the fantastic link. That is a TRUCKLOAD of information. It'll take me a while to decipher most of it, but if I go ahead with this campaign concept, this looks like a tremendous resource. Thank you!

      I realize South America is large...I wanted a nice large area to se the campaign so that I wouldn't "run out" of area for exploration. Population estimates for pre-Columbian South America is 20-30 that to Europe in 1492 (somewhere around 80 million for a continent half the size). That's a LOT of area ripe for adventure!

      Though I don't look forward to mapping the thing on hex paper...

  5. In 1263, at Santiago de Compostela, the D&D supreme being (the DM) revealed his miraculous nature to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, sending the message that should they ever encounter new foreigners in foreign lands, they should forego their greed and ambition and act decently towards these natives. And those who would not would be struck with a brutal, consuming plague, heaven-sent, that ate the hearts of evil racist christians and condemned them to a horrible death.

    And so it passed that when the new world was discovered, the peoples of Europe treated the natives with kindness and respect, and learned to work with them, and share ideas of culture, while respecting one another's origins ~ and thus was the new world of 1585 nothing like the one that came about on the supreme being's original earth.

    1. @ Alexis:

      You're such a kidder!
      ; )

    2. Hm. I was being dead serious.

      Isn't your assumption that the Spaniards have to be bastards, that there's no way to write history otherwise, part of the self-same colonialist legacy? Whose to say that the Spaniards, and other Europeans, couldn't have NOT been a bunch of selfish bastards? Or perhaps you're arguing you ought to incorporate genocide because it is "naturally human."

    3. Nothing says the new arrivals HAVE to be selfish bastards; and I'd probably expect many, if not most, players to act in a far less diabolic manner (while maybe not "compassionate" or "heroic") than historic figures like Vicente de Valverde and Francisco Pizarro. Assuming, of course, that I don't re-skin the natives as slavering humanoid monsters.

      Even so, I'm talking about low-level adventurers (new PCs)...either coming to the Americas as part of the new "colonization effort" or arriving after the colonization has already begun. Regardless, they're not the ones in charge...and the people that ARE in charge are there for some very specific and not very nice reasons.

      Listen, I *do* have some ideas for how it all might be handled in a way that's not altogether distasteful (at least not to *me*). But it's less about rewriting history (like your Revelation of 1263 suggestion) and more about allowing history to unfold going respects the impact of the player characters and their actions.

  6. A couple possibilities occur to me:

    A) Cut out the Conquistador part, replace it with Star Trek crossed with Arthurian legend crossed with Marx. Your characters are in charge of or are the muscle supporting those in charge of exploring The New World and seeing what sort of knowledge they can bring back to the Old World, or in charge of negotiating non-exploitative, mutually beneficial trade-pacts with the natives and the homeland, or something like that. A non-"Murder all the natives" goal. Collect seven power diamonds to stop the evil god from rising back home. Whatever. The adventures are all solving problems that the natives have that keep them from helping you collect knowledge / having anything to buy your stuff from you / helping you get the power diamond. Flavor as much as you want with a rival company / nation that *is* made of a bunch of murderous conquistadors who make things more complicated for the non-evil group. It's a bit of a white savior vibe, but try and cast it not as the natives are helpless fools who need outsiders to come save them, but simply that they don't have the tools they need to solve the problem, and the players are convenient, and safe, tools.

    B) An evil from the Old World, either conquistadors the player's faction hates or something more supernatural, was brought to the New World by earlier explorers and is wrecking havoc, and a Lord of the Rings like coalition, in the form of the players, is assembled to go clean up the Old World's shameful mess / stop the enemy faction from gaining too much strength by interrupting their conquistador activities and helping the natives.

    1. @ ICV:

      And then giant robots invade the Earth and the indigenous and conquistadors needs to join forces to repel the aliens and afterward they all learn to live together in harmony with mutual respect!
      ; )

    2. Oh fun, a snide response! The winky emoticon *really* takes the sting out of the "I'm a cool OSR guy and we only play gritty games about amoral mercenaries, don't know why you're bothering the cool kids' table with your dumb ideas, loser" energy which those word choices in that order brings!

      Sorry man, I'll get outta here. I promise I won't tell the teachers how you're smoking out here while you're rolling your dice. Won't bother you again.

    3. Apologies for touching a nerve with my snark. Thought the winky face would make it seem less like biting, sneering sarcasm and more like “ribbing,” but I realize we all have different levels of tolerance for that kind of thing.

      Safe travels!

  7. If the problem is one of colonialism specifically, can't you just shift the viewpoint? PCs as indigenous peoples, European invaders, conflicts and politics among the native civilizations, plagues wiping out vast numbers of people.

    The motivations of conquistadors so closely mirror traditional PCs, but in a theoretical advanced D&D there would probably be room to model the complex motivations of indigenous people in a collapsing society, perhaps fighting to preserve their cultures or to gain power for themselves. I don't think it would be easy but it seems possible.

    1. That creates some "problematic" parallels with the recent immigration crisis in Europe, and the populist reaction to it, and our own president who won an election on a "build the wall" platform.

      Which poses the question - is nativism only bad when White people do it?

  8. The early colonization period makes for an excellent RPG setting for all the reasons you described.

    I really can't imagine feeling uncomfortable about 16th century Spanish colonialism, though.

    As far as "living people hurting...directly linked to issues of past exploitation", well I mean that sounds good and all, but can you really blame 16th century Spaniards for any of the problems in Latin America today beyond the fact that Latin Americans speak Spanish?

    The only imperialism Latin America is suffering from is Neo-Liberal Capitalist Imperialism, but that is not nearly as popular of a target as the long-dead Colonial version.

    1. I'm really not blaming 16th century Spaniards for the problems in, say, Venezuela.

  9. You mentioned the Aztecs being bastards, you could always lean into that. Blood sacrifices to dark gods is an easy button to push and allows the PC's to play liberators while having rival factions push for a "cleansing".

    Alternatively you can lean into the problematic elements and let this be the "Evil Campaign".

    1. Don't really want my indigenous folks to be some kind of "evil species" a la the Drow or something.

      "Evil" in my games is pretty much limited to supernatural evil (like undead and demons); everything else is just people behaving badly.

  10. I think one of the great strengths of RPGs is their ability to run many "what if" scenarios.
    Say you choose to do this with your group I think it would be interesting to see how it all works out under a different mind-set from the explorers.
    Afterall, isn't that what a lot of wargamers did before us?

    So embrace the problematic nature and run right into it.

    1. @ Tim:

      That's more the way I was leaning.

  11. A number of years ago, I did several posts about running a campaign in Alaska, using pseudo-European colonialist powers battling over alien relics as the basis for adventuring.

    The way I handled it was to alter the Alignment system from Law-Neutral-Chaos to Colonist Power A-Natives-Colonialist Power B.

    Thus, rather than being pushovers and victims, the natives were neutral bystanders of a conflict between outsiders who could also play one side against the other to their own advantage.

    Since you already have posited two different Colonialist powers in Spain and Portugal, I don't see why this set-up couldn't work.

    The fun is that it allows Players the ability to support or actively work against any one of the three Alignments. Thus, if they wanted to, 130 years in due to PC interference, the French might not even want to bother because of all the trouble the Spanish and Portuguese have gone through in trying to keep a foothold in the area...

    1. @ FrDave:

      Yes, like Tim, you're anticipating some of my thoughts on how to make it work.

      I was also planning on changing the alignment system to match the setting (though that's going to be a separate post)...I'll be interested in your opinion on it.
      ; )

  12. The natives of South America have already been colonized/parasitized by an (unknown until discovered) alien species that infects the and turns them to their own purposes. Localized to the ruling class in certain societies, it turns them into a sort-of vampire, explaining the Flower Wars and human sacrifices. Colonization isn't really possible because they are a match for the would-be colonizers. Instead the PCs must work with the natives to overthrow their extraterrestrial colonizers.

    1. My indigenous people will have access to magic, so any would-be conquerors will find it tough sledding. I don't think I'll need to resort to aliens, though...there will be other forces (probably subterranean) that could suggest the whole "strange bedfellows" concept that you (and others) have suggested.

    2. I think the important part is that the natives aren't helpless victims that needs saving by the outsiders, and they aren't samey savages. Much like the PCs step into a destabalized dungeon environment in order to exploit it, the PCs in your scenario need to be like the characters in The Stand, pawns for the various forces, some good some bad.

  13. I like "problematic" settings like this and Carcosa because it gives the PCs an opportunity to choose to be extremely good and have that make a real difference. NPC conquistadors are genocidal monsters; What are you?

    Also, the natives aren't a unified block. They are real people with factions of their own. Making the Aztecs evil, slave-taking, devil-worshipping, human-sacrificing villains who oppress the decent native population isn't really re-skinning them.

    And you can use alignment as a tool. I interpret "Lawful" as "Civilized" and "Civilized" as "believing humans should live in law-abiding agricultural city-states". There are plenty of Lawful people on both sides of this conflict, and therefore good gameable reasons for Lawful PCs to ally with Lawful natives.

    1. @ James:

      As the Aztecs didn't make it this far south, that won't become an issue. The Incans practiced *some* blood sacrifice, but I haven't researched the extent of it yet, so it may not matter all that much.

      Alignment is going to be quite a bit different than the usual Law and Chaos axis in this game, because it's going to have to work with my "real (fantasy) world" cosmology. That post is coming!

    2. I was just using the Aztecs as an example since I'm more familiar with them. But if you put multiple "good" and "evil" factions on both the indigenous and European sides, it will be a more interesting and realistic, and potentially less problematic, setting.

    3. @ James:

      I agree. Here's the tricky part: which indigenous factions should be "evil?"

      I *think* I'm not going to make any particular culture one morality or another. There will be people who do good...and bad...on all sides. Factions will line up based on interests more than any inherent goodness or evil nature.

  14. A big question to answer in this setting is: What religion(s) is/are correct in their beliefs about the nature of the divine and the existence and nature of the afterlife? Is Chritianity the Truth in your fantasy setting? Or is it the Aztec gods (corollary: if the human sacrifices stop, will the sun stop coming up?)? Or both? Or were Zoroastrians right all along?

    1. Ah, James: you're anticipating my next post on the subject of this campaign setting.
      ; )

  15. I'd get rid of the Spanish entirely. Have the Mayans expand and conquer the lands to the south instead. Of all the cultures present in S America at that point in time, the Spanish are the least interesting and most known. Get rid of them and also avoid restaging the colonial violence of the conquistadors.

  16. Okay I am new to this in replying to blogposts and haven’t subscribed, although I read this blog with a lot of joy (being grumpy and old is just my style ;) ). And please forgive me for my english, since I am a non-native speaker. In now way I intend to offend anybody with the following in any way. Unfortunately my comment is pretty long, so I have i have to split it into two.

    The remarks about elves being re-skinned as the „natives“ is an excellent starting point in my view.

    So my take on getting this idea running is this:

    a) The world map is as the real thing. Scales can be adjusted as you see fitting, but the general layout where continents are and how they look stays the same.

    b) „Historical“ wise the drow started a war of conquering out of the Alpines (a pretty central mountain range in Europe being perfect for the center point of an invasion like that) and succeeded in subjugating and conquering Europe. How far east they went is up to you, but a kind of constant „Eastern War“ that takes resources and manpower is preferable IMHO.
    All other nations were „integrated“ into the Greater Drow Reich, keeping their „independence“ although with the supervising of the Drow.

    c) Since the war in the east is tasking, the Drow have to find enough raw materials to fuel their war efforts, need manpower to fill the ranks of their armies (and this includes all kinds of races „native“ to fantasy gaming), the discovery of a new continent, combined with their believe in supremacy over the other races and deep hatred for other elves, leads to the conquering of this new world. In the old world all „normal“ elves were either terminated or fled to the east. A driving motivation for the Drow to keep on expanding to the east, since they want to „cleanse“ the world of the „inferior“ normal elves (they blame the other elves for all miseries that happened so far, especially for their descending into the depths of the earth).

    d) The PCs are members (of all races except elves) of the arriving armies in „South America“. Okay no elves there, but if a player wishes, he can later make a new character born in „South America“ and allying with the PCs once the PCs have switched sides. The thrill of this campaign comes for the players from their characters realizing the evil of the drow and their changing of sides, resulting in a way to actively fight against the oppressors. The possibilities are endless for making adventures, even including ancient lost technology, the Drow and PCs/good side are hunting for (another good reason, why the Drow try to expand their sphere of influence, just think of Blackmoor or „The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks“ here for inventing technology).

    e) To add some spice, the Drow only succeeded, because the Mind Flayers help them to win and keep their satellite states on the leach. So who is the real evil? And is this kind of agreement stable or are the Mind Flayers plotting against the Drow? Myriads of possibilities for plotting adventures here.

  17. By now many readers will have realized, that this kind of scenario is a kind of what-if the Nazis would have won WW2 and tried to conquer the rest of the world incorporating their absolutely mad believe in racial supremacy and the Shoah.

    Now let me make this clear: I condemn any fascists, racial ideologies or other senseless killing of innocent people for the sake of stupid and totally irrational ideologies and ideas.

    The above rough mentioned outline is just meant as an idea to transform an idea of adapting historical facts (the conquistadors, the nazis and their butcheries and atrocities committed with lame excuses and irrational explanations) to a fantasy gaming environment. It’s not meant to diminish the suffering of millions to a mockery and turn it into enjoyment. Cruelty and murder is never enjoyment! Period! I believe and stand for the equality of humans no matter what or who they are.

    Although I personally am not a bog fan of the initial idea, the only „good“ points I see in such a kind of campaign:

    a) The enemy is clearly defined. No discussion about it, no shades of grey.
    b) The PCs switch from the bad to the good side, so no dilemma there on how to react as a player.
    c) Even incorporating a kind of „sacrifice“ by the „native“ elves, where they transfer their souls to another plane (a practice the Drow condemn for sure) can incorporate the sacrifices done by the native south american people (If you want to stick with the historical content). This would leave the body of the „sacrificing“ elf in a kind of undead temporal stasis, something the Drow deeply fear. If this sacrifice is to be condemned, forced or free willing is up to the GM. Just as another hook, why the Drow hate normal elves. So making those „sacrifices“ a kind of necessity for the elves to survive makes the whole scenario more „believable“.

    So in sum, the idea is playable, but anything resembling/transferring real world history into a RPg surrounding is not practicable iMHO nor is it without raising concerns to say the least.

    A re-skinning is a must IMO, since otherwise the whole affair turns too much into something, that may not be too pleasant since it resembles history to a great extend. It’s a very sensitive aspect of gaming, when transferring real history into RPGs. And no I am not a big fan of those Cthulhu games set in WW2.