Thanks for making time for this Q&A Sarah. Capharnaum is a huge RPG, pushing close to 400 pages, I image it already has hundreds of hours of your life invested in it. Right from the outset, Capharnaum takes steps to deal with potential problems around sexism, racism and cultural appropriation. That’s what we’re going to try and explore in this interview today; the adult bits of an adult RPG. Geek Native’s review of the game can be found in a separate but accompanying post.
Do you have a sense of the roleplaying hobby community as a whole? Are we too prone to grognard gatekeeping unwilling to deviate from past patterns, preferring to stick to adventures where maidens are rescued from the culturally evil orc tribe by the heroic white knights? Have we become super sensitive and unwilling to run a campaign based on Robin Hood and his Merry Men without first adapting it to Robin Hood and their Merry Associates for gender equality reasons? Or are we, somehow, managing to do both at once?
My gut feeling is that our society in general and our hobby in particular is in danger of chasing its own tail on this one. Our sensitivities can become too “meta”, in the sense that we can end up censoring ourselves from discussing historical and cultural phenomena and closing down debate in the interests of not challenging anyone’s preconceptions or comfort zones, and I think when that happens we’re actually falling prey to tactics of factions who are against precisely that diversity, liberty, and cultural sensitivity we’d like to champion. Robin Hood is a good example. Yes, men were overwhelmingly the majority in trained fighting bands in the Middle Ages, and those men were majoritarily (for want of a better word) “white”. But “most” is not “all”, and I think it’s equally important to challenge 19th century scholarship norms that wanted to paint our history as the story of the deeds of white men, when the reality has always been much more complex, more diverse. The phrase “Robin Hood and his Merry Men” is a 19th century and early 20th century construct, and we shouldn’t be afraid to pull apart and expose the prejudices contained in that trope when we want to deal with a fictional portrayal of the Middle Ages. There were many strong and active women in the period, and a far greater racial diversity than many people realise. Let’s acknowledge that in our games.
That said, I think it’s equally important to recognise that the past was a “different country”, with different values and ideologies, many of which we’d consider unfathomable or abhorrent today. When you create a fantasy world from scratch, you can (and indeed should) ignore many of these ideologies, and come up with entirely new ones. For example, as I’m fond of saying, the oppression of women historically is related to their inability to control their own fertility; but in a fantasy world where magic is real, then pretty much the first spell any woman is going to invent is going to be a Contraception spell! And, in that case, the whole justification of a society where women are oppressed, are second-class citizens, goes out the window, in one fell swoop! Women in games like D&D, Pathfinder, and RuneQuest are no longer condemned to serial pregnancy, which liberates them immensely.
But, when you want to engage in historical roleplaying, even in a “fantasy historical” setting, I think it’s important not to shy away from these themes which have been important to our own histories, as they’re both dramatic and immensely instructive. It’s an entirely modern viewpoint to think that individual freedom should trump social demands, that romantic love is more important than family or clan ties when deciding marriages, that the age of consent and adulthood should be 16, or 18, or 21, instead of 12, or 14, or even not existing at all during the mediaeval era, that family heads and clan patriarchs shouldn’t have the power of life or death over their children, that ownership of other people is wrong rather than normal, that money should have universal value or be acceptable in trade across all communities. None of those modern ideas held true at all in ancient or mediaeval societies, and I think it’s important to recognise that. That doesn’t mean you have to emphasise the less acceptable (to our eyes) aspects of historical periods in historical (or pseudo-historical, like Capharnaum) RPGs, but that equally you shouldn’t feel to have to twist or present an inaccurate or dishonest portrayal of ancient or mediaeval life just because those values may be obnoxious to us.
For the Pathfinder second edition playtest Paizo have changed the fantasy RPG stalwart ‘races’ to ‘ancestry’. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s an excellent decision. First, the notion of “race” is a relatively recent one, similar to the notion of “nation”- these are “modern” concepts pretty much dating from the Enlightenment or even later. Second, the notion of “race” is biologically untenable: there’s basically no such thing in biology, “race” is a social concept, a loose association of physical characteristics which we’ve chosen to view as a group. The groupings some people call “race” today will not exist in 1000 or 5000 years, and we may indeed have entirely new “races” as new physical characteristics become grouped together. In many respects I think the determination of race in RPGs is a feature of the American social landscape of the 1960s and 1970s when RPGs were created, a lexical term plucked out of popular discourse to refer to Tolkien’s elves, dwarves, hobbits, what-have-you – and of course Tolkien was just as prone to use the term himself. Personally these days I prefer the term “species” in more science-fictiony games, and “kindred” in more fantasy ones.
Capharnaum goes with ‘Blood’ to describe a character’s family and geographic origin. Is that not a reasonably provocative term to pick?
Yes, I think it is. Although I’d say it’s a less loaded term than “race”, as “Blood” implies heredity, a bloodline, a grouping of related individuals, which more reflects the reality that Capharnaum is presenting. Capharnaum is a setting which deliberately includes historical tropes, presenting them in a way in which you can deal with them overtly in play if you want to, but in ways more germane to the historical eras than to the 19th century views of “race”. Peoples and cultures in the Middle Ages were conscious of ethnic difference, but not necessarily with the Imperialist connotations of racial superiority which applied during the 18th and 19th centuries in the West.
In the introduction to the Capharnaum RPG you tackle the inequalities of the world head-on, urging players to be the heroes and to leave the negative emotions to the bad guys. How important was it for you to balance a fantasy world with no shortage of religious and tribal tension against adventures where the heroes, the Dragon-Marked, rise above these less appealing aspects of human nature for the common good?
It’s extremely important. Capharnaum is originally a French roleplaying game, written by French authors living in the south of France, around the city of Montpellier, which is an ethnically diverse and extremely multicultural community, vibrant and creative, truly part of the “Mediterranean basin culture” which we find coalescing again these days. It was an explicit ideological intention of the authors to present a refraction of the cultural tensions which have wracked the Mediterranean throughout its history, but to provide a strong motivation for player-characters to rise above those tensions and overcome them. In a sense, high fantasy RPGs tend to avoid these real-world issues; Capharnaum instead defuses them by translating them to a pseudo-historical fantasy world, but still presents them as the very real frictions and motivations they were. This means players can play PCs who have worldviews which are more “modern”, more in keeping with out own ethics, while adventuring in a pseudo-historical setting which doesn’t have to ignore the less-appealing aspects of its cultures. It’s a balancing act, and each GM and player table has a responsibility to dial this aspect to their own preferences, but I think Capharnaum does a great job of making these themes available as sources of drama and conflict in play. Don’t forget – we don’t want to game in social utopias, even though we want to live in them. Society and social structures as sources of motivation and conflict are narrative gold.
This feels like an excellent spot to learn a little more about the world of Capharnaum. The front cover says “Fantasy Roleplaying in a World of Arabian Nights, Argonauts, and Adventure!” The very first book referenced as a source of inspiration is “The Tales of the One Thousand and One Nights”. Is this Sinbad the RPG? Could you elaborate further on the setting please and help bring it to life for readers?
Absolutely! The elevator pitch I’ve been using to describe Capharnaum quickly is “Ray Harryhausen the roleplaying game”. Now, I should state here there’s absolutely no legal or licensing link between the game and Harryhausen’s films at all – but I think it’s a good short-hand for evoking the vibe of the game. We’ve all seen the films of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Aladdin, and so on; we know the tropes, the creatures, the personalities that appear, the sort of stories that get told. Capharnaum’s like that; you play adventurers, sailors, explorers, travellers in the desert, sorcerers, priests, scholars and princesses, all involved in treks across trackless deserts to gargoyle-haunted ruins, battling harpies in distant mountains, riddling with sphinxes, defying djinn and afreets, and much more.
But that’s just scratching the surface. Capharnaum provides a wonderfully evocative yet also profoundly detailed version of a “fantasy Mediterranean” world. It’s not the Mediterranean, but a great sea very much like it, surrounded by countries and kingdoms very similar to late mediaeval Spain, pre-Islamic Arabia, ancient Greece during its post-Imperial, Hellenic phase, Viking Europe, the Papal States, the Africa of Great Zimbabwe, and more. It’s gorgeously anachronistic; all these cultural equivalents have been selected at precisely the historical eras in which they were most fun from the point of view of RPG adventuring, then thrown together without regard for chronology or historical accuracy. It’s immensely liberating: you can play fast-and-loose with your descriptions, you don’t have to worry about factual correctness, and you can feel free to improvise and create your own descriptions and areas without fear of contradiction.
Is it possible to map the cultures, religions and nations in Capharnaum to real-life equivalents? Jason, the quartered-god, with his crusading knights from the West, feels like a solid match to Jesus, the crucified-god, who also had his name invoked by crusading knights waging war in a holy land.
I wouldn’t say it’s possible to “map” the cultures one-to-one with real-world analogues, no. Obviously, they’re refractions of real-world cultures, but the goal is not to explore real-world historical events, but rather to exploit cultural tropes in a larger-than-life, cinematic, epic sandbox which has been freed from real-world sensitivities. Jason Quartered is definitely not Jesus – if anything, he has something of Mithras and Sol Invictus about him – but the cultures of the West which worship him are rough analogues of European cultures throughout history, and the Quarterian religion shamelessly pillages mediaeval Christian symbolism, while mashing it up with lots of other symbolisms too! Dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that the religious doctrines are very different – and, if you’re interested in alt-history gaming, you can really go to town exploring “what ifs” deriving from those differences. The Rokari and Malkioni religions in Glorantha spring to mind as similar instances in roleplaying worlds.
Capharnaum is a sex-positive RPG. The core rules take the time to highlight that no character, of any gender, will harm their reputation if they seduce their way through life. In fact, they’ll be considered successful. Is that at odds with some parts of the game world where women do not have equal rights with men?
Well, first, in Capharnaum it’s important to say that in some parts of the game world, men don’t even have equal rights with other men! This isn’t a simple black-and-white men vs women thing at all. Sexism, racism, religionism, culturalism, prejudices of all kinds have marred societies throughout our own history, and those phenomena are very present in Capharnaum’s cultures; as I mentioned above, you want sources of conflict and motivation in RPG societies. But I think the key thing here is that, in Capharnaum, the “home base” of the prevailing cultural mindset is a pseudo-Middle Eastern land, not the fantasy Europe which is the norm in most fantasy RPGs. This means that the underlying ethical and moral base is not Judeao-Christian, but rather pre-Islamic Arabian, a more pantheistic, often animistic worldview which doesn’t have the sexual hang-ups which tend to dog pseudo-Christian ideologies in RPGs. In the fantasy word of Glorantha, Greg Stafford and other writers have always made the wonderful declaration that, when a culture says “all people think this way”, that actually means about 80% of people, with a good 20% of people having a different outlook, and I think that’s a great way to view cultures and cultural values in general. In the Jazirat peninsula, for example, people might say “men use their brute strength as weapons, women use cunning and seduction” – but this applies to maybe 80% of the population at most. The goal is to describe to the GM and players the mores of a society which isn’t Western European, but equally to make it absolutely clear that these mores aren’t absolute – there’s a lot of diversity in Capharnaum’s societies, while retaining specific flavour. Player characters should never feel personally oppressed by the prejudices of their home cultures – they can and should rise above them, rebel against them, change them.
I think, also, the fact that Capharnaum draws heavily from the One Thousand and One Nights for inspiration is a really important point. Despite what Disney would have us believe, that’s not a children’s book: it’s filled with intrigue, cunning, violence, love, passion, sex, danger, obscenity. That sensuality and transgressiveness is an integral part of the cultures of Capharnaum, and makes for a very different set of “cultural virtues” for player characters, and of course for players who may be more used to their virtues being more rooted in Judaeo-Christian tropes.
The GM section in The Witcher RPG urges groups to fade to black on any sex scene and that rolling dice to see ‘how well you do’ is unwise and will make people feel awkward. You’ve taken the opposite approach with Capharnaum and created a skill for it and even character options that rely on orgies and debauchery. Do you envision Capharanaum as a mainly adult RPG played by especially close friends?
Not at all, no. For me, RPGs are always toolkits, and it’s up to each game table to decide how they want to play the game. Capharnaum had a long history as an RPG in France before I ever came across it and translated it into English, and even there there are many different ways to play it. Personally, I play it as cinematic Harryhausen fantasy; I’m a fan of bright, epic play, with lots of swashbuckling and heroics. But you can play Capharnaum dark and gritty too, if you want; some parts of the Capharnaum world are harsh and unpleasant, and you can explore those if you want to. But that’s true of any RPG world: none of the worlds we game in are utopias, and even if we do choose to ignore or gloss over their less pleasant aspects, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I think it’s also important to offer arenas for RPG conflicts which don’t always revolve around killing people. It’s often strange to me that people might balk at seeing sex as playing a role in interpersonal relationships and intrigue, as though that’s something distasteful or unseemly, but at the same time those same people will be completely fine with murder, bloodletting, and extreme violence taking centre stage! Of course these preconceptions lie in the fact that RPGs developed out of miniatures wargaming, where interpersonal relationships were hardly a factor, but that’s almost half a century ago, and I think we’re free now to admit that sex, romance, political intrigue, charm, persuasion, social climbing, and so on, are just as important motivations and arenas for drama as swordplay.
There are multiple examples and suggestions in the game of how magic can be used to mentally manipulate people, making them attracted to someone they didn’t previously feel an attraction for, making them feel horny, excited and more than willing to sleep with the magic user. ‘Rohypnol magic’, if you will. Why is that there and so prominent?
That’s a good question, and one I discussed at length with Raphaël and François, the two authors of Capharnaum, when I was translating the game. Capharnaum isn’t an “Anglo-Saxon” game, by which I mean it wasn’t written by people hailing from the British or American cultures. It’s profoundly French and Mediterranean at the same time, and steeped in the legendry of the One Thousand and One Nights, the Argonauts, Don Quixote, and all the hot-blooded pell-mell we know and love from Mediterranean culture. If you read those texts, then seduction, coercion, persuasion, and temptation are integral parts of the conflicts which trouble the heroes. The nearest Anglo-Saxon gaming gets to this is maybe in Pendragon, when Passions are used to affect PC actions. But in Capharnaum it’s more explicit; these tropes are part of the literary tradition which inspires the game.
Roleplaying seems to be booming right now with lots of new players, Kickstarters earning hundreds of thousands and actual play videos on Youtube or Twitch turning a select few gamers into minor celebrities. Do you suppose lion share of these new players are young, finding the hobby for the first time, unencumbered by the past and willing to try something new?
I’d love to know! Here in France, people are saying it’s a golden age for roleplaying games: RPGs have become mainstream, they’re no longer afflicted by the French equivalent of the “Satanic Panic”, which hit here in the 1990s. Also, across the Western world we’re deep in an economic recession of truly historic proportions, and at such times people tend to turn to games for relaxation: they’re relatively inexpensive and very social, and at the same time allow us to escape into heroic worlds where good prevails over evil and adversity. As far as the demographic is concerned, I think that varies between countries; however, if the conventions I attend are anything to go by, then we’re seeing a major change: a huge influx of both young people and women, and also, perhaps, an increase in ethnic diversity. Capharnaum is one of those games which rejoices in the depth and breadth of Middle Eastern cultures, presenting them as the norm instead of as the “other”, and as such it’s attracting gamers who are making it their own. It’s challenging stereotypes, redefining traditional roles, and empowering characters who might otherwise be minorities or simply background decoration in other games, and I think that can only be a good thing!