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.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Etymology of Cthulhu

The name Cthulhu has an ancient Semitic origin. I know it's fictional, but hear me out. Most fictions play on realities. 

qul-hu : kill-him

In ancient Aramaic and Hebrew (Canaanite), qul-hu plainly means "kill him!" (imperative, addressing one male). The first two consonants represent phonetics that you can pursue here. 

Suffice it to say that the Roman alphabet has no exact equivalents, but the use of c for Semitic q and th for Semitic were not rare in the nineteenth century, especially before the development of standards in Semitic comparative philology.

Lovecraft said that "the first syllable [is] pronounced gutturally and very thickly." The rest of his remarks about the pronunciation make little sense. Lovecraft's nonspecialist description of the sounds in the name he chose for the Great Old One is typical of the ways in which Europeans and Americans try to convey their impression of the phonetics of Semitic languages. "Guttural" is the go-to adjective. Cthulhu is a evocative name used for a fictional monstrosity. "Guttural" worked adequately for Lovecraft.

Back to the word itself. In a slightly different form, (u)qtul-hu, it means the same thing in Arabic. In Classical Ethiopic, it's almost the same: qtəl-u, where the first vowel represents the merger of ancient *u and *i (here *u).

On this basis, particularly with the benefit of the Ethiopic, one can confidently reconstruct and actual word (with object suffix) *qtul-hu for the prehistoric ancestor of all the these related languages, which is called Proto-Semitic, or perhaps just the branch of Proto-Semitic after the split with East Semitic. The equivalent form does not occur in the East Semitic branch, Akkadian (ancient Babylonian and Assyrian), but Akkadian diverged at an early (also prehistoric) date and exhibits interference from other, very different, languages, so this is no surprise.

All this means that the name could be quite ancient, that is, within the fiction. If it was my fiction alone, though, I'd say it came to us from Aramaic.

How would Lovecraft or a source of his have encountered this word? The answer is easy. The word-root *qtl, from which the imperative form is built, is the paradigmatic one in most European treatments of Semitic languages. *Qtl is used to exemplify what word roots can do. For example, William Wright's Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1890) cites the verb qtul (which he presents in now-outmoded transcription as ’tul) form when he addresses the imperative. Or see the table of contents of this old standard work here, where many word patterns are exemplified with the same qtl root.

In other words, Cthulhu's name was likely snatched from an elementary treatment of the Semitic languages, or of one particular Semitic language such as Biblical Hebrew, by an author searching for exotic and evocative words to use as fictional, alien names. It must have jumped off the page for somebody seeking a name with resonances that educated readers, many of whom read Biblical Hebrew, might hear. "Kill him!" It did not really even matter what it meant. The sound of it was enough. Unless...

... for those who prefer to believe in Cthulhu...

There is another, far more sinister circumstantial explanation for the Great Old One's name. We should not, in our hubris, suppose that the dread lord's true name could actually be pronounced by mere mortal vocal apparatus, should we?

No. The name was, in effect, a human mistake. It derives from the scene of a regularly conducted ritual sacrifice of a male human to the Great Old One somewhere in the ancient Middle East. The cultists, who stood before a graven image of the cephalopod monster, shouted to the chief sacrificer words of encouragement and zeal: "Kill him! Kill him!" i.e. "Cthulhu! Cthulhu!"

Some horrified observers escaped and survived. Unfamiliar with Aramaic (or Canaanite or Arabic, as the case may be), or having no other name for the monster, they reported to others that the name of this unholy creature was the one word they heard shouted over and over before that ghastly stone image. The name spread through whispers and rumors full of terror.

I'd place the scene in the first millennium BCE or possibly the early Roman Empire. Why not the ruins of Nineveh or Hama or the hills near ancient Damascus?

As for the other words, reported by Lovecraft--"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"--these are clearly attempts to render foreign words that sounded like gibberish to the hearer. Perhaps they are even alien sounds that humans attempted to put into voice. It may be that "Cthulhu," "kill him!" was an interjection amidst such words.

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