The Arabian Nights Mythos stands as an example of early literary genius. Compiled some two thousand years before the Brothers Grimm thought to collect local tales, it reminds us that civilisation started in the Arabic world and stands as an influential text with its tales of Ali Baba, Aladdin and Sinbad.
Except, well, its none of those things. Regarded in the Arabic world as little more than badly written children stories, it was probably originally based on Indian myth showing an earlier civilisation being more important in the literary chain. Also those characters I mentioned? None of them were part of the original tales. Aladdin & Ali were added by a French scholar while Sinbad’s pre-existing stories were fused in by a Brit. They existed but they weren’t original parts of the Mythos.
Ready to rethink 1,001 nights?
The First Campaign Setting?
The original One Thousand And One Nights shows a great number of literary tropes that we use and understand as part of today’s literary structures and you can see at least parallels in some pillars of western literature, like The Canterbury Tales. It represents early foreshadowing ideas and often sophisticated, nested storytelling techniques, with story-within-story often descending several layers deep.
But as previously stated, the ancient Arabic world never valued the tales. Seen as too badly written to be appreciated by grown-ups but too full of sex and violence to be children’s stories, the Tales were not exactly given a ‘rave review’ when they were first penned. Often the tales were confusing and unfinished as they arrived via a form of dictated oral storytelling and were left with the legacy of that form. Despite these issues one thing maybe gave the tales a continuing life and it’s that the original tales only numbered around 300.
Like Lovecraft’s half-finished Mythos years later, this gave storytellers and talespinners a space with which to play themselves. In essence anyone telling the tales of the nights had room to add in 700 extra stories that they could improvise themselves. And improvise they did. Each edition of the nights for years added local tales to the story and at one point two versions of the manuscript existed with differing versions of the tales in. In RPG terms, the 1,001 nights was the setting book, the extra tales were individual campaigns.
But it doesn’t end there because western scholars eventually catch up with the Tales and really embraced the text in a different way. Their desire to codify and create meant that they fused other tales they’ve heard into the narrative. It allowed them to continue to view Arabian culture as mysterious and exotic, reinforcing the myth of ‘other’ in a way that writers of the 1700/1800’s have no trouble with. That, combined with its themes of ‘Adventure’ and ‘Fantastique’ mean that when it was championed by Yeats and rewritten by Francis Burton, the west ate it up. That’s really where something odd happens. The Tales become a framing of Arabian culture through a western lens. We take a cultural source and use it to define a culture that regarded that source as valueless. We no longer choose to view that culture on it’s own value, instead regarding Arabia as ‘land of Djinn, sex and danger’. Not for the first time since writing this column am I aghast at the power of narrative to influence cultural viewpoints. That’s how many westerners, including myself originally interacted with Middle Eastern culture.
But maybe there’s some good to be salvaged from all of this. This framing often still painted people of middle eastern heritage as heroes and protagonists. It still cast them as understandable and often humble people. So when you next play your Aladdin ripoff thief character, be aware that they are not only a homage to a source but that the source itself is viewed through certain eyes – be aware that you are playing a stereotype and allow it to grow beyond the original intent. And let yourself be a hero. Conversely, as a DM understand that in running a Tales style game, you aren’t investigating a culture, you are investigating a portrayal of a culture by an outside force. I know it sounds like a small distinction but you should allow it to inform your design decisions when you challenge the narrative expectations.
Examples in RPG
Again, I feel like it got very heavy in the above section, I guess when we talk abut folklore we really should be thinking deeply about the culture it talks about. But let’s bring it back to games now. Here are some games that really reflect the style – Also a shout out to the board game Tales Of The Arabian Nights which is secretly just an RPG in disguise.
Al’Qadim: Maybe still the best fantastical Arabian setting in RPG History, Al’Qadim not only changed what it meant to game in Faerun but it changed how we saw gaming. Suddenly adventures could involve bathhouse social manoeuvrers, love triangles and swashbuckling flair. It’s worth hunting down this supplement to see Arabian fantasy done in a way that is respectful and full of innovation.
Coriolis: Arabian Nights… IN SPACE!!!!! Based on the Tales by way of Firefly, Coriolis has forged it’s own identity and allows you to choose the amount you lean into the original inspiring material but still retaining that feeling of open romantic adventure.
7th Sea – Crescent Empire: John Wick’s new edition of Seventh sea may have begun life as a swashbuckling pirate game but it’s supplements expand the game into whole new territories about daring heroes. Never is this more apparent than in the Crescent Empire supplement which classifies the great desert as an ‘8th sea’ and imagines the people of the continent as a vast array of different cultures full of adventure and heroic intent. You can ignore most of the rest of Seventh Sea and have a series of desert born adventures. It’s also worth mentioning the culture research and sensitivity with which this book is written. It understands the heritage of Tales and expands in positive ways.
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More Than Just The Wish Spell
So what elements actually make up the ‘Genre’ that you might not be aware of? Here’s some techniques Scheherazade would be proud of.
The Most Iconic of Tales techniques is story-within-story. Most tales already started with an unknown narrator telling us about Scheherazade telling a story to the Sultan and in THAT story often someone else would tell a story. You can frame your entire campaign as a series of stories told at a campfire or storytelling contest. Or you can occasionally have an NPC tell a story and have the players take on the role of the characters in the story. These all add to the feeling. Try to forget that you are all also meta-aware that you are telling a story to each other while playing or things can get really messy.
Status & Money
A lot of tale have people gain status and wealth as stories progress, in the process, dragging the story to new heights. Allow those ‘level ups’ to happen socially as well as everything else. If the heroes are still nobodies in a two year long campaign, you simply aren’t playing a Tales based game.
Fortune & Luck
Consider adding a ‘Luck’ stat or mechanic to the game, as often luck played a part in the Tales and have a few ‘coincidences’ ready for when you players roll/spend the stat/resource. Using this as an actual mechanic to generate coincidence means that players don’t just feel like you are being a lazy GM relying on unlikely synchronicity to save them. Instead they choose to bring luck in.
Greed As Motivator
It’s very easy to have grand plans of world conquest or big bads that want own destroy the world or expand empire. Instead consider having greed as a motivator for some villains. In Tales this trope was common but it can also create a fresh type of villain that is often overlooked.
Community and Hospitality
Most NPCs in the setting should value Hospitality, often even those who want the PCs dead. Just have this as the cultural norm. Having an enemy of the PC’s invite them into his home and offer them spiced tea before a fight can create a great space for social scenes and make players remember the encounter for some time.
Competition is viewed as healthy in the Tales and player should be given a chance to enter competitions often as a way of define themselves and their traits. Occasionally throw a tournament or competition during downtime to give the players a safe environment to test new abilities and powers. It means later when it counts, you can challenge the effectiveness of these things without the player feeling like they ‘never get to use powers effectively’.
Stories themselves have power in Tales. You should allow a well-told story to change an NPC’s mind or unlock a secret. Maybe even give some stories power if told out loud. If this is a Ars Magica game for example, maybe have a new branch of mages who tell stories in order to shape the world and channel their magic.
That’s it, I hope we’ve told more than enough tales to stay execution! At some point we might return to Folktale sub-genres but Next time, we’re going to go to an different type of Mythology, entirely more modern. It involves use of the word ‘kayfabe’, if that helps…