Monday, November 12, 2012

Spears of the Dawn Review, Part 1 - Pre-Reading

So I backed Kevin Crawford's upcoming African-themed RPG, Spears of the Dawn.  The second Beta was just released, and I wanted to take the time to review it.  But first, I wanted to address something I've been wrestling with since I heard about it.

A while back, Ark posted regarding some preliminary conversations the group had about the game.  In it, he mentioned my fear that it could result in some faux-pas, and while that can definitely be a concern, I hadn't really articulated my concerns very well, so I'm going to attempt to do so here.

First, an apology in advance - my knee-jerk aversion to these sorts of things comes from experiences in other media.  For instance, movies set in New York have hot dogs, the Empire State Building and taxi cabs, movies in San Francisco have steep hills, movies in Russia have the onion domes and fur hats.  DC Comics recently launched a comic called Batwing. Batwing was billed as being, and I quote, "The Batman of Africa".  The actual execution of the comic was a parade of famine, warlords and corruption.

This encapsulates my issue with this sort of thing.  There's a fine line between tropes and stereotypes, and unfortunately, while it's a trope when you have the Eiffel Tower in the background every time something is set in France, it veers uncomfortably close to stereotype when your African stories (like Batwing) are about how horrible things are there.  Are there horrible things going on in Africa?  Certainly.  But do those experiences encapsulate existence in Africa?  Probably not.  It would be like if every comic or movie or whatever set in America featured people praying while they ran around shooting guns and eating fatty foods.

My point is that there's a fine line that needs to be walked in order to make something like this work right.

Let me take it a step further.  I believe the reason that Dungeons and Dragons and it's iterations (I include Pathfinder here, for simplicity's sake) have been so successful is that you say, "Fantasy" to 9 out of 10 people, and they're going to reply, "Medieval Europe with Dragons", or something along those lines.  For a game set in the imagination, there needs to be that shared space that exists that bridges the gap between the GM's description and the players' imaginations.  In short, we rely on those tropes to get us over that chasm that is endemic of the design of roleplaying games.  As we veer into ethnically specific settings, the line between a trope and a stereotype gets smaller and smaller, and the potential for problems gets larger.

The issue goes beyond that, though.

Let's say you're able to navigate the issue, and successfully avoid the tropes/stereotypes associated with the culture you're working on.  What are you left with?  How do you communicate to an audience that something is taking place in France without the Eiffel Tower?  And even if you are able to do so, doesn't that beg the question, was it really that important that the story take place in France in the first place?  What is the difference between the Batman of Africa and Batman Classic if they're both fighting the Joker on the rooftops of a nameless city?

So you're caught between a rock and a hard place - how do you give a setting a flavor unique enough to justify its existence as a viable product and recognizable enough to capture the feeling of the culture you're basing it on, without giving the appearance of pandering to the lowest common denominator (and honestly, the mid-range denominators as well) that doesn't have the intimate knowledge of the society in question that is necessary to sustain a rich and meaningful shared experience?

So that's my worry.

Now, having gotten that off my chest, let me reiterate that I haven't yet read Spears of the Dawn, and so I have no idea whether or not these fears will be justified upon actually looking at the product.  I have high hopes - I'm a big fan of Stars Without Number, and given the choice I'll always prefer to see a small press RPG succeed rather than fail.  I backed it, I'll be getting the hardcover, and I really want to like it, but let's be realistic here.  I was also a big fan TSR's habit of setting up new, non-Medieval Europe-ish settings, and they tried to slip some more familiar, ethnically flavored settings in there.  Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur and Maztica all were given the box set treatment, but none were able to generate any breakout momentum as compared to the more outlandish settings like Dark Sun, Spelljammer and Planescape.  I think it's reasonable to say that they fell into that gap between too foreign and too bland.

I'm going to start going through the .pdf tonight, and I'll post again soon with my thoughts on the final result, especially as it relates to my initial concerns.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the PDF in great detail, but the art screams out "Sword & Sorcery" loud and clear, in a way only that lost kingdoms, decadent city states, and ancient crypts can communicate - I really started to see the possibilities. Looking forward to hearing what you find when you pour over the textual details.


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