Tuesday, June 2, 2020

“XP for GP” versus Greed

If you play old versions of D&D or so-called old-school D&D clones, your character needs gold because the rules say that gold confers power. If you are a fighter, you get physically tougher and more dangerous if you carry gold out of caves. If you are a wizard, you learn more spells by doing the same. If you are a cleric, your deity loves you more for the gold you haul to the surface.

The game stalls if you don’t get gold. And that doesn’t make sense.

This complaint is as old as the game itself. 

Note that the reason for getting gold is not greed. It is part of game mechanics. You need it to advance (become more powerful). Your Lawful Good paladin and your pious cleric and your ascetic monk all need to get loot to become more advanced in prayer and kung fu.

Gary Gygax knew the objections. In the Players Handbook (1978, p. 106), he provided this defense of XP for GP:

Gaining experience points through the acquisition of gold pieces and by slaying monsters might be questioned by some individuals as non-representative of how an actual character would become more able in his or her class. Admittedly, this is so, if the existence of spell casting clerics, druids, magic-users, and illusionists is (unrealistically) granted; likewise, dwarven superheroes, paladins, elven thieves, half-orc assassins, and the like might gain real experience from altogether different sorts of activities. This is a game, however, a fantasy game, and suspension of disbelief is required. If one can accept the existence of 12’ tall giants, why not the rewarding of experience points for treasure gained?

He goes on to say that real training takes place during a character’s “off hours.”

This passage shows that already by 1978, within four years of the birth of D&D, the rationale for experience points had come under pressure by the oldest "old-school" players. Gygax admits right here that it doesn’t actually make sense.

Unfortunately, Gygax’s defense of XP for GP itself makes no sense, either. Giving XP for GP is not unrealistic in the same way that 12'-tall giants and magic spells are unrealistic. XP for GP is a feature of game mechanics used to give structure to the progress of the character, whereas the presence of giants and magic spells in the fiction of the game is a genre feature that has nothing to do with mechanics per se. The mechanics exist to support the fantasy, not the other way around. They are not unrealistic in the same way.

The presence of half-orc assassins and magic swords make perfect sense in the fiction of the game, whereas gaining power through pure loot does not. Any stupid mechanics could be justified by Gygax’s argument. “Hey, it’s all imaginary, so anything goes!” People make the same argument about hit points: “Just a fiction, after all. Once you have wizards and ogres, reason no longer applies.” But these are not comparable examples of non-realism.

Gold for training? 

Some D&D players who follow this rule insist that the treasure itself doesn’t confer power-ups. The treasure is used to pay for training! It is training that raises your level. Some early games required gold to be spent for level-ups.

I have always wondered about this. Who are these trainers? Who are the lucky individuals who get paid thousands of gold pieces for teaching fighters how to fight just slightly better while jacking up their ability to take a beating (hit points)? Who are the people training the wizards in exchange for thousands of gold pieces? 

Are they former adventurers? Then being an adventurer becomes a pyramid scheme. Just sign up for a dungeon expedition, bring back the gold, and pay another former adventurer, so he’ll teach you how to get more gold, and eventually, maybe, you can be like him one day, charging novice adventurers gold to train them to go into the dungeon!

Did you really enter the dungeon and risk your life with terrifying monsters and lethal traps so you could pay for fighter, cleric, or thief school? You need tuition for Hogwarts and you couldn’t get a scholarship? 

Two articles appeared already in the October 1977 issue of Dragon addressing the problem and confusion about level-ups.

According to one of them, you get XP for GP spent. As this article advocates, fighters literally can get experience and level-up by spending their treasure on sex with prostitutes and drunken revelry. Needless to say, this is another kind of experience than what is normally required for gaining powers, but I suppose it is an attempt to recreate Hyborian or Nehwonian fiction. 

The same issue of Dragon had another article suggesting special rituals to rise in level. This shows that even the meaning of character levels was unclear to many early gamers. In those days, level-class combinations came with mysterious titles like Superhero, Waghalter, Courser, and Keeper. Players wanted to know what that meant.

Well, we could give Gygax’s best answer: it’s all imaginary, so shut up and play!

Or we could use our imaginations to come up with something that makes sense. Practically every other adventure game, besides D&D, has done this. They already did so in the actual old-time period that players falsely imagine as an orthodox old-school of true and pure and correct D&D.

The early rejection of XP for GP

Plenty of gamers in the 1970s had rejected the XP for GP rule. This includes players of D&D before Gygax tried to create an “international standard” of rules that would stand the test of time like chess. (This was one of the two main reasons for AD&D’s existence.) Dave Hargrave, an influential West-Coast gamer, published his Arduin D&D rules (1977), rejecting the XP for GP convention. Tunnels & Trolls included XP for GP in its original 1975 release, but within four years that was gone. Here’s what Tunnels & Trolls said by 1979: 

Once upon a time experience points were given for treasure and magical items found and carried off, but no longer! Properly speaking, cash is its own reward, and there is no reason why a character who stumbles across a diamond worth 10,000 GP, picks it up and walks off, should get 10,000 experience points. He has not especially earned the points, nor learned very much from it, and shouldn’t get the level bonuses … that usually go along with them.

This reflects the consensus of the actual “old school” of gamers and game designers, if we leave aside TSR, not the self-appointed “old-school” pundits of today who scold young gamers for not imagining their games right.

Other early games like The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth (1980) and DragonQuest (SPI 1982) do not even mention experience points for gold. They give experience for success. Treasure was spent on training, but XP was given for success in the “mission.

A better defense of XP for GP

DM David provides a rationale for the XP for GP rule far better than that of Gygax. He says it’s fun and realistic.

You can’t argue with fun. There is no better reason to play anything. Fun is the goal. If XP for GP is what you like and it gives you fund and the rationale is not an issue for you, then there’s no argument. Go forth and delve for gold, and may your character get more hit dice!

As for realistic, however, the idea is that gold is the most realistic motivator. Who doesn’t want to get rich? But the realism of human greed does not address the problem that so many gamers have with XP for GP. What’s unrealistic about it is not that people want gold, but that they become more powerful by getting gold. Gold is a realistic character motive, not a realistic rules rationale for character advancement in lethal power.

In this way, the GP = XP rule does not support the fantasy of fiction that D&D’s designers were emulating. It undermines the fantasy of fiction to such an extent that it has created a new style or genre of fantasy. It is now a feature of generic fantasy captured by games like Munchkin and in video games. If you play Sonic the Hedgehog, you roll through monsters and dodge obstacles to get gold rings. The more you get, the more powers you get. Sonic gets XP for GP.

Why are your characters greedy?

Sometimes imagination gets stuck in game rules. You need adventurers to be motivated to go into your dungeon. You put treasure in the dungeon, perhaps following arbitrarily designed treasure types accompanying monsters, and you need those player characters to risk their hit points to come and get it. So... I know! All the characters are greedy! That explains it.

Why do they need to be greedy? Because of XP for GP. Why do you give XP for GP? Because they're greedy.

Fantasy got stuck on rules.

DM David already pointed the way. Greed is a realistic answer. What he doesn’t point out is that the greed of player characters need not be tied to the rule XP for GP. They’re two different things. 

If you want greedy player characters, it is very easy to come up with reasons. Off the top of my head, here is a list of reasons your character may want quick gold pieces besides level-ups or tuition at training camps and Adventurers’ Guilds.

  • To pay a huge debt.
  • To pay for a wedding.
  • To impress somebody.
  • To pay for an army.
  • To pay off attackers.
  • To pay for parties and debauchery.
  • To buy more land.
  • To buy back ancestral land.
  • To ransom someone important to you.
  • To pay for transit to a distant place or another world.
  • To buy magical equipment, alchemical equipment, or the like.
  • To pay for a magical medical treatment.
  • To retire in comfort eventually.
  • To buy a rare magical item.
  • To buy a seafaring vessel.
  • To invest in trade.
  • To buy a rank or office.
  • To cover a gambling habit.
  • To pay taxes.
  • To buy that castle in the hills.
  • To satisfy a pathological avarice.

The so-called “Old-School” gamers today go crazy for random tables. If it’s really too hard for your players to imagine what makes their characters so greedy that they would risk their lives, without a rule that says XP = GP, then make a table of results like the one I just listed and require them to roll for their descriptive Greed attribute.

Readers, please chime in and add your own ideas to the “Reasons to Be Greedy” list. Then you too can drop the XP for GP rule and focus on fun instead. 

Other reasons to go into dungeons

I’m looking forward to using a modified version of Gillespie’s Barrowmaze with my home system, which has super-fast, and random, character creation. As part of my preparation for a multi-session megadungeon, I drew up a list of possible motives for characters. Only one of them (number 3) is pure greed, although all may be connected with greed one way or another.

  1. Searching for somebody. Somebody important to you (or to somebody who recruited you) has disappeared in the vicinity of the Barrowmaze. Your goal is to find that person.
  2. Hired adventurer. Somebody (perhaps another player character) has offered you pay to accompany an investigation of the Barrowmaze. Will you get a cut of the loot, too?
  3. Treasure. They say the Barrowmaze contains hidden treasures, money and magic. You want some of that!
  4. Research. You study magic, ancient lore, or both. Ancient tombs offer you enough for your research that you are willing to risk your life to discover their contents.
  5. Mission. You have heard of the evil of the Barrowmaze and you hope to drive it back or destroy it, in the name of a lord or a deity or all that is good.
  6. Something to prove. A peculiar personal motive drives you to enter the Barrowmaze. Perhaps you enjoy deadly risks, or you want to demonstrate your prowess or bravery, or you are seeking fame.
  7. Hiding. You are afraid and you need to get away. You are going somewhere that the law, or some other inimical force, will not find you or pursue you.

As for experience points, I have dispensed with them entirely. You really do not need XP at all.

Epilogue: Gygax drops XP for GP

By 1992, Gygax had left D&D behind and created a game called Dangerous Journeys, which, as far as I can tell, was a flop. It is a game replete with obscure abbreviations and shows few, if any, novelties besides its peculiar terminology that so obviously tries to escape the lingo of his earlier game. Thus you have HP, Heroic Persona, for PC, Player Character.

When it comes to character advancement, Gygax was giving Accomplishment Points to players just for showing up and playing their characters’ personalities. He gives this example (p. 303) of distribution of rewards for play:

Here's An Example: Alyssa's player has been sure to attend every session of the game that she could and has projected her lively personality at every opportunity. The GM decides that she deserves to be classified as an "active" player for that adventure. The actual mission  itself, however, didn't go quite so well, as two of the other HPs were killed by foes, and the remainder of the party had  to be rescued by Other Personas, having nothing left of their expedition gear save the clothes and equipment  on their persons. They did, however, succeed in destroying the altar of the EPs' deity (albeit by the skin of their teeth), and their adventure is thus classified as a "marginal victory" by the GM. Furthermore, the GM decided that this particular scenario counted as "long." As the base for "active" is 5, the bonus for "marginal victory" is 2, and the modifier  for "long" adventures is 2, Alyssa would, at most, receive an additional  14 AP/Qs ((5 + 21 x 2 = 14) for that adventure. Note that had her player missed a session or two, her rating for participation might only have been "moderate." For information on spending AP/Gs, see page 134 of Chapter 1 1

In summary, Gygax was now rewarding players of his game, the product of his mature years of game design, for showing up, playing a role, success in the mission, and length of scenario. He does have a rule about spending money to raise your character’s SEC (Socio-Economic Status), but that’s not a level-up.

So much for XP for GP. Even Gygax knew that it made no sense.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Circumnavigating the Eurofantasy in Role-Playing Games

As all gamers know, D&D and most other fantasy role-playing games default to a eurofantasy. Imaginary "Medieval" means imaginary "Medieval Europe." If you want more than that, or something other than that, is there any way out of an imaginary pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe in your fantasy worlds? If it's all fantasy, shouldn't you be able just to imagine something else? There are plenty of alternatives, but plenty can go wrong. This musing is about these questions.

Maybe the issues I discuss below have not touched you. Maybe your play group is mostly homogeneous socially and with respect to family origins; its members have little contact with other kinds of people; you don't feel the need for other kinds of imaginary settings besides the ones you have. Or maybe you are all enlightened beings. If that's you and your group, well... have fun! You certainly don't need to read this. Click elsewhere!

Your fantasy version of other cultures (about which you know very little)

So, you have wanted something besides generic medieval eurofantasy. You have mined the limited information to which you have access about some other part of the world and built a fantasy setting based on that. You have read some books about it and you like the food. You feel like an expert and you are ready to give it a go.

This is pretty normal in role-playing games. Take two popular Asian examples from early in the hobby.

Kung-fu monks, samurai, and Islamofantasy

Japan and China are preeminent among European and American gamers as countries providing safe fantasy material with a non-European historical cultural flavor. “Monks,” modeled on martial artists popular from ’70s action movies like those of Bruce Lee, first appeared in the Blackmoor supplement to D&D (1975), a year after the hit disco single “Kung-fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. I do not know what kind of Asian infusion Arneson had in his Blackmoor campaign. In those days, D&D was a wild menagerie of pop-culture oddities. Today, it still is, but decades of repetition have made the mash-up normal.

Already the third issue of Dragon magazine, October 1976 (p. 25), included rules for the Samurai sub-class of fighter. Players craved this fantasy from the start of the hobby. They'd seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and the like. Many early gamers had served in the US military in Asia and the Pacific, experiencing life in American bases in Japan or combat tours in Korea or Vietnam.

Japanese-inspired fantasy role-playing games were popular with the game Bushido (1979) and Oriental Adventures for AD&D (1985), and they still are popular today. The world of samurai and geisha has an obvious romantic allure. Anime and manga fandom has only deepened the relationship. For the most part, it's a relationship of respect and admiration.

Fantasies based on the Middle East, by contrast, invariably tap 1001 Arabian Nights and similar low-brow fiction (I'd guess more often from orientalist cinema than from books), with deceitful Arabs, evil religious fanatics, and harem girls, essentially stereotypes about Arabs, Iranians, and Islam. These stereotypes are not aspirational or respectful, but are instead often unkind, mirroring the repeated tensions and wars of the US and European allies with Middle Eastern countries. For example, the B/X D&D line of modules included adventures in which the eurofantasy heroes set off from a Republic to assassinate the Master of fanatical desert nomads, a cipher at the time for Ayatollah Khomeini and Muhammad. Later, there would be the more sympathetic, but no less exoticizing, supplement for AD&D called Al-Qadim (1992).

It isn't very satisfying to be informed that your niche hobby past-time would be, potentially, offensive to, say, two hundred million people, if not a billion (depending on the group you have in mind: Arabs or Muslims), is it? But shouldn’t it be possible to have a harmless Arabian fantasy, just as you can get good Middle Eastern food and enjoy it? How can you play an Arabian-flavored fantasy, or any other kind, and just have fun with it without unwittingly being an ass?

Role-playing racist stereotypes

If you think I'm exaggerating the potential for the offensive, think again. I remember a player who joined one of my swords & sorcery games for a while in the mid-’90s, near the end of my old gaming days. This was a non-eurofantasy game. Think Hyborian age but far away from Aquilonia. Everybody came up with basically creative fantasy characters who fit the non-eurofantasy regions. The new player, who was white, made a character of an African type. This was not remarkable. But then he drew an embarrassing picture of his character with a big afro and he started to play him as a weed-smoking, Jamaican-accented, goofy stereotype (this in a swords-and-sorcery setting). I was ashamed for him. I tried to explain what was wrong with it, but I was so taken aback I hardly knew what to say. He fell back on the "it's imaginary" defense and quickly toned it down. I found it to be an upsetting distraction. He didn't show up again, perhaps because his friend who had brought him to the game had a word with him.

This guy, not an experienced gamer, thought he was being funny. I would like to think most gamers, by contrast, know that racism is harmful, in theory and in fact. If they can't identify racism to begin with, though, then there is a bigger problem.

This points to one of the comforts in the eurofantasy. Besides its accessible generic character, gamers today would probably rather recapitulate the eurofantasy than risk donning "foreign" game settings in unwittingly offensive ways about cultures unfamiliar to them. It's a bind. Gamers want to play a fantasy game, not take history classes or cultural sensitivity seminars. The eurofantasy is a space in which blank whiteness is available to all without risking upset to those who may witness the game--and bringing shame on oneself. White people can play eurofantasies without upsetting anybody. If gamers can't expect a dose of forgiveness for ignorant mistakes exploring fantasy versions of cultures unfamiliar to them except through the stereotypes that are the sum of their knowledge about them, they will simply keep reimagining the eurofantasy.

We live in a messed up reality.

Can you unlearn misinformation laced with racism?

The question in bold above is the answer to the problem just described: can you play "foreigners" or people who are considered different from you in the real world without being an ass? The answer should be an unqualified yes. We're talking about imagination. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for American and European gamers who have no direct familiarity with the cultures on which "exotic" settings are based to reproduce ethnic and racial stereotypes that are misleading or even offensive to the groups whose histories provide material for fantasy adventures. I have seen some awful portrayals of "foreigners" in actual role-playing games, based on real-world racist stereotypes, like the one I just described, while the players themselves seem sometimes to have had no clear idea that they were making a mockery of those different from them. The players' entire concepts of these fantasy foreigners was restricted only to stereotypes. Malicious? I would like to say no. Offensively stereotyping: yes.

A part of me would like to defend ignorant teenaged gamers, if they produce that kind of idiocy while gaming in the privacy of their basements. It's not their fault they have never visited the foreign countries (or neighborhoods!) that they want to use in their imaginations, or if they know nobody outside of their little neighborhoods. Even if they did visit, how could they really "know" the places and their histories? Their idea of foreign countries is a blend of historical information and racist stereotypes imbibed from various media, and it's equally not their fault for the necessarily limited education that they received.

This was especially so before the internet and the age of instant access to information. Now, there are fewer excuses. The way to unlearn misinformation is to care enough to learn new information. That is work. How much work are you willing to do to have private fun? And when have you learned enough? When do you reach the level of inoffensive? Better yet: when do you get to make it... "authentic"?

Simulationists step in

You never can know enough. But we try.

That's where the so-called simulationist gamers shine. ("Simulationist" is jargon emerging, as far as I know, from the game theorists of the long-defunct Forge group. I bear no affiliation to them.) The idea is that simulationists have the primary goal of creating a believable world, fictional or not, and that their main goal is therefore not chiefly to play a winnable game or to tell a story.

We all want our fantasies to be believable to a degree. And there’s nothing so believable like truth ascertained. Once you taste the sweet flavor of truth, it’s hard to go back. So now you feel compelled to try “realistic” medieval or ancient games, not the hodge-podge of D&D fantasy, where an Efreeti may rub shoulders with an Oni and Medusa is not a cursed ancient Greek woman but an entire species of females. Even for a fantasy version of an “authentic” medieval world, you want to “get it right.”

Along these lines, one reaction to the shortcomings of the eurofantasy is to say it’s not euro- enough. What if we took the medieval European underpinnings seriously? Then history itself should become an inexhaustible sourcebook.

There have been many takes on this, from Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), to Runequest 3e’s Fantasy Europe setting (1984) to the Pendragon role-playing game (1985), to the transplanted Medieval earth people of the world of Yrth in GURPS Fantasy (1st ed., 1986), to Ars Magica (1987), and many others. Anglophone Gamers still keep rewriting “realistic” alterna-England game worlds, pitching it as Authentic.

"Authentic" has close limits, though. For Americans, at least, eurofantasy means western Europe.

And if you want to simulate really real-realistic "Medieval" life, you have to get rid of monsters and magic. Now your D&D has lost its fangs. Its dungeons are mere keeps or oubliettes. Some people like that and make it work. Look at Chronica Feudalis (though not its title). So, you say, this is Fantasy Europe, with monsters and magic. But why go for "authentic" then? I suppose it's for the familiar source material.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of excellent games and game world supplements, labors of love with small audiences, detailing historical settings more realistically for gamers than the generic. An "authentic" Medieval England—minus the localism and class oppression of "authentic" medieval English life—is a mere hop away from D&D fantasy, and so Medieval England predominates among English-speaking gamers. (I wonder if it holds the same fascination for the British today as it does for Americans. Games Workshop has its pseudo-late-medieval Germany.) Although not really scholarly, because they are primarily for fantasizing and only secondarily for understanding history, these works are indeed based on lots of research. I think of the fairly high bar set by Lionheart, by Columbia Games, which I bought as soon as I saw it about 1987. This book has made at least one comeback. I also recommend Lisa J. Steele’s booklets Fief and Town.

At a certain point, though, you hit the limits of simulation. You sail beyond gaming and you are now just doing historical research. You realize that you are a historian first, gamer second. That is basically what happened to me. History became a lot more interesting than anything I could imagine. It still is.

But what if you can learn enough to do justice to the foreign setting?

Let's say you master a culture foreign to you, in as far as that can occur. You spend years on it until it’s no longer foreign. You brilliantly design a setting that is evocative, fun, and fundamentally respectful, based on that non-European country and its people. The names are right. You know the social structures. The time has come. You're ready to play in your fantasy version of that place.

You still have a big problem. You can't replicate that understanding in your players--not without turning your game into a classroom presentation. Your players have to be willing to learn what you learned from sources you indicate. How many players are willing to go along with this?

What about cultures that nobody owns anymore (much)?

One way is to tap into a non-eurofantasy based on a foreign culture that is long gone. Nobody will get offended. I think of the truly splendid-looking version of D&D called Babylon on Which Fame and Jubilation Are Bestowed, just now in its second edition. The person behind this has really worked on Akkadian to an impressive degree, and the cuneiform dressing is decorative and evocative and "authentic." Hammurabi's Babylonia is so ancient and different from medieval settings as to be nearly alien. It's less potentially offensive if an ignorant player "gets it wrong," because nobody today speaks Akkadian or can personally identify deeply with civilization nearly four thousand years ago. (Iraqis today have other things to worry about, sad to say.) Yet it is historical to the point that the simulationists can feel the enjoyment of "getting it right," as this game seems to do.

I wonder, though, whether players of this game find it to be a classroom setting. Is it a game that only its designer or another trained Assyriologist can run well? There have been games peculiar to their creators from the beginning of the hobby that try to avoid the eurofantasy.

Completely alien fantasy worlds

You could just make a world that is so far-out that nobody will get upset on a personal level over cultural ownership.

It is astonishing to me that the first published game setting was an explicitly-stated effort to dodge the eurofantasy as well as the problem inherent in representing foreign peoples in stereotyped fantasies.

That is the world of Tékumel, by the learned Prof. M.A.R. Barker. He acknowledged the problem directly in his game book, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975):

At first glance it may appear very difficult to master all of the background material relating to Tékumel. The people, the flora, the fauna, the societies—all are new, and all are complex. Many have muttered about the relative unpronounceability of Tékumel’s many languages too, and not without reason. In defense, the author can only say that he ENJOYS societies which hare not simply reruns of the usual Graeco-Roman or Mediaeval fantasy mythos, but which present something really different: something akin to stepping off an airplane in Bhutan or Medina, rather than in familiar old London and Paris.

He points out that the sounds of his world’s languages are moderately simple on the scale of complexity of human language phonology (though he included many sounds that are not found in English, the medium of his audience). He elaborates further:

This is consistent with the author’s contention that fantasy should sometimes go beyond our familiar Graeco-Roman-Mediaeval worlds and explore other quite different kinds of lands as well. After all, if there is any universally applicable conclusion to be drawn from a study of history it is this: the future is going to be quite different from the present. Man will organise himself into different types of societies, hold different values, worship different gods, utilise different technologies, and speak different tongues than he does today. (1987 edition, p. 98)

Barker's defense of his setting in 1975 indicates that the eurofantasy is a problem inherited from fantasy fiction established long before role-playing games existed. He was reacting to a problem in American curricula and Americans' collective imagination. After 45 years, the problem is still with us.

There is no refuting his statement that his world is a matter of preference. It’s what he enjoys, all caps. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it, but don’t tell him not to enjoy it for himself. The result was a setting much admired but that ultimately appealed to a tiny number of fan players.

Earlier in the book (p. 8), Barker invokes a “sense of wonder” that he has felt since the age of ten as inspiring him to develop this fantasy world. That is, no doubt, what drove Barker to be a scholar, to record the speech of First Nations peoples, to live among Baloch in Asia, to convert to Islam in India after a visit to the Taj Mahal, to design his own fantastic human languages for an exotic, extradimensional future, and to create a world for these languages. When D&D came along, he found means to include others in this imaginary world of foreign wonder based on his real experiences in places most people can never go.

Note that Barker doesn’t say you shouldn’t play eurofantasy. He wrote that there should be room for other kinds of fantasy because fantasy can investigate possibilities of the human species, with an effect like that experienced when traveling to very unfamiliar countries.

I can’t help but admire the man’s intentions and ingenuity back at the dawn of the hobby. But Barker overestimated the fantasy gaming community of the United States, then or now, if he thinks that Paris or London are familiar. Most Americans have not traveled to these places.

Another feature of Barker’s setting is that he is not interested in developing an alternate past but a strange, distant future. Unlike Tolkien’s or Howard’s lost ages of antiquity, Barker’s game world is science fiction first. Our real world is the distantly prehistoric past of the humans of Tékumel. His fantasy is intended as realistic and shockingly bizarre rather than mythic. This allows him to dodge the eurofantasy, or any earth-based fantasy.

One could argue that Tékumel is really just a fantasy of South Asia and Mesoamerica thrown together. I think that would be unfair. Yes, the script for the main language of his world is based, typologically, on the Arabic script used in modified varieties in the languages Barker studied and taught in a university. (All his scripts are calligraphic challenges, but certainly not more than, say, that of Thai or Chinese or Telugu.) But if we bear in mind that Barker was interested to explore possibilities of human culture and society through his games, we have to accept that he would blend bits that his broad familiarity with varieties of human culture made accessible to him. It would be unfair to expect that he should devise an entirely novel form of written communication unlike anything in our world just to cut his setting's last ties with Earth.

Eurofantasy player characters visit a foreign setting

Barker provided one answer to the problem of alien settings. He proposed that new player characters arrive in the main setting of Tékumel as foreigners in the game. Players learn about the country along with their characters. Foreign customs can remain truly foreign, until the players gradually learn, through play, what it's like to live in a truly different society. That was Barker's ideal.

I've seen other non-eurofantasy settings following in this path. It probably works to avoid turning the game session into a classroom, but play must acquire a slightly didactic approach. Also, I suppose that the fantasy of being a foreigner somewhere, surrounded by alien customs, is not appealing to many.

Is there a solution for those who want something different?

Some of you run into these issues. So what are the options? Each approach has pros and cons.

1. You can ignore your own ignorance and risk perpetrating offensive stereotypes, but ignorance is bliss--until someone is upset. And do you want to be ignorant, anyway?

2. You can invest deeply in the euro-quality of eurofantasy, to make it "authentic." Now you're playing in a more historically supported eurofantasy, or so you hope.

3. You can spend years studying a foreign culture, and hope to bring your players along with you, relying on their patience to learn what you have learned, either through the medium of the game or through actual study outside of the game.

4. You can just make your own unique world, hoping to cut the tethers to this boring reality, and, again, hope to bring your players along with you.

The ultimate problem, the one common to all these attempts to circumnavigate the eurofantasy, is the limits imposed by our social reality on our socially-shared imagination games. Our imaginations are closely constrained by who we are and our finite experiences. We can hardly imagine beyond our ignorance, but if we do, we need to teach others how to come along with us.

The cultural politics of our age of melting pots and internet make these issues more acute than they were in the hobby’s infancy forty-five years ago. Today, a flippant, callous statement in an uploaded video can trigger a riot halfway around the world. Everybody can hear everybody else.

How do you break out of the eurofantasy in these conditions? You may not want to break out. The eurofantasy is a cozy place with thousands of published game supplements. It's gamer koine, a generic setting with one face and a thousand names, and it needs no more explicating than our real world.

If you do want to move out, I think I have shown that there are no easy solutions. All the same, this question will come up only more as the demography of gamers changes, along with the general demographies of the countries in which gamers predominate. D&D 5e and other games are notably changing their look. Elves that look Asian, halflings that look African, and other variations from the white characters of the hobby's beginning are starting to appear. That’s fine with me. My kids are "mixed," by the dreadful racial categories of our age, and my son’s gamer friends are mostly not white. What would it mean for them if they never saw anybody who looked like them in their RPG books, except as exotic foreigners and "monsters"? The games have to change how they are presented. But change into what? There is no historical setting quite like the melting pots of today. Complicating it further, it is not as if the kids playing with my son know foreign cultures more than their own. Anybody of any background can be an ignorant unwitting racist.

I think some of the solution rests on the shoulders of our role-playing game artists and the authors and companies who recruit them.

I suppose we will see more pseudo-medieval fantasy versions of our melting-pot present. When it comes to fantasy worlds, it is possible to make an imaginary melting pot. As it is merely a fantasy, I can make it whatever I want. That is, in effect, what my own fantasy game setting explicitly is. The indie game Ironsworn produces a Nordic eurofantasy with a melting-pot population; this is both explicitly stated about the setting and illustrated with photographs of diverse (real) models in Viking gear in the game rules. There is no reason for our fantasies not to sidestep the eurofantasy and to be more inclusive without producing obnoxious or even offensive stereotypes and without sanctimonious preaching about diversity.

Is fun enough?

We play to have fun. We will instinctively avoid social discomfort in our social games because that's not fun. Unless we are idiots, we will learn to be appropriately respectful of those different from us. Maybe we can pursue Barker's aspiration, to use fantasy games to understand what is possible for human cultures and societies.

I would like it to be just a matter of time, change, and good will, but it seems that effort is required. Gamers are averse to this kind of effort.

There is still another problem entangled with this. Let's say the hobby succeeds in producing fantasy worlds that mirror the demography of post-millennials in the USA. The settings are unmoored from eurotypes and avoid awkward stereotypes of non-eurotypes. That will not change the tedious generic character of most fantasy role-playing worlds. It's another version of the same problem. As JC said when I wrote about that, "Non-generic settings are superior, but they’re a lot more work!" Most gamers don't want to work to have fun. Why should they? But it is a connected underlying problem: generic and eurofantasy are equivalent.

Can't we just escape into fantasy and forget about this? No. Not while players show up at tables perpetrating obnoxious and upsetting stereotypes, and, on the positive side, not while players want alternatives to generic eurofantasy.