Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 16 November 2018

Anthropological Fantasy

Folkways is a supplement for High Adventure Role Playing Fantasy or HARP Fantasy, the roleplaying game descended from 1980’s Rolemaster. Published by Iron Crown Enterprises, it does two things for the percentile-based game. One is to provide the Game Master with the means to create and build interesting and gameable races, cultures, and nations. The other is to provide both Game Master and players alike with new races, professions, and training packages to add to their campaign, be that in either of Iron Crown Enterprises’ home settings of Shadow World and Cyradon.

The supplement is divided into two parts. The first presents a discussion and examination of ‘Folkways’, in sociology and anthropology, the norms for routine or casual interaction. Essentially, why a race, culture, or society acts the way it does. There are twenty of these—Environment Ways, Urban Ways, Family Ways, Marriage Ways, Lifespan Ways, Gender and Sexuality Ways, Association Ways, Rank Ways, Order Ways, Authority Ways, Freedom ways, Wealth Ways, Work Ways, Leisure Ways, Dress Ways, Food Ways, Language Ways, Magic ways, Supernatural Ways, and Self-Reflection Ways—and the author turns them into Twenty Questions which the Game Master can ask when creating content for her game world. So the first examines how the topography of region, access to water, its ecosystem, and weather affect a culture’s outlook, habits, and customs, so a culture with limited access to water might place a strong value upon gaining access to and not wasting water, moving from water source to source in a nomadic lifestyle, whereas a culture with ready access might settle down near the water and take advantage its regular ebb and flow to grow and harvest crops. For Work Ways, it asks who does the work and why, whether that work is simply to exist or to earn to pay for goods, how much that work is valued, and lastly, if slavery exists. So a culture working to live at a subsistence level would be of a different character, whereas a feudal society imposes greater obligation upon its members.

When asking these questions, the author not only presents examples in our own world, but goes on to apply them to any number of fantasy settings—the Twenty Questions spurred by the Folkways can equally be applied to cultures of other genres, whether Science Fiction or horror, but this supplement is for a fantasy roleplaying game—drawn from fiction and gaming. These include J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, George R.R.. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and others, as well as the MMORPG, World of Warcraft and HARP itself. This altogether, is an interesting read, questions about these settings and others being raised as the reader proceeds through the book. It is very much a pity that the author does not look at roleplaying game settings which are regarded as being culturally based—Glorantha of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, Rokugan of Legend of the Five Rings, and Tékumel of Empire of the Petal Throne—as the answers which would be generated by the asking of the Twenty Questions of them would make for fascinating reading. Of course, such answers are really outside the scope of a supplement devoted to HARP.

So far so academically stolid, but then since Folkways is a supplement for HARP, it is no surprise that two races from HARP Fantasy are the subject of these Twenty Questions. These are the Gryx and the Gnomes. The answers for both are useful. For the Gryx because they are a race not only new to HARP Fantasy, but new to fantasy, so unfamiliar from the run of the mill Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and whatnot. For the Gnomes, this brings a few answers to a race that is often dismissed as being silly.

The second part of HARP Folkways is where the actual new game rules occur, which means that the first part is essentially systemless and could easily applied to the setting and races—fantasy or not—of the Game Master’s choice. The new mechanics include some eleven new races, ten new professions and associated talents, new cultural adolescence packages, and twenty-three new training packages. The new races include the minotaur-like Amarvish—which feel just a little too much like the Tauren from World of Warcraft; the Menomenee, aquatic sea-elves, and the gigantic, arctic-dwelling Navrothor with Dwarf-like attitudes. These have only the one of the Twenty Questions asked of them, but again, they provide further examples of answers to those questions. Some of the races do feel as if they are stretching the boundary between what works and what is just a bit silly, for example, the overly gregarious and weasel-like Tomalak and the pack-rat, rat-like Gordaz, universally disliked for their attitudes to property and ownership. 

The new cultures, from Aquatic and Aerial to Coastal and Deeping (below Deep Warrens),  feel more sober enough, as do the new Professions. Those like Artisan, Hunter, Labourer, Sailor, Trader, and so on, will probably find their way into most settings, but the tonal mix really continues with the Training Packages. The Fisherfolk are normal enough, but Clowns, Conquistadors, Nestorians (professional storytellers), Private Eyes, and Stylites (ascetic monks), and others are highly specific and the Game Master will want to pick and choose which of these she wants to have in her campaign. Other Training Packages are more setting-specific, but without specifying that setting. Lastly, Folkways returns to the Twenty Questions and asks about the two default settings for HARP Fantasy—Shadow World and Cyradon. In particular, it asks them of the Theocracy of Asut and the Orsai Empire for Cyradon, and of the Vasai Republic for Shadow World. These are fully worked out examples and for devotees both settings, these are useful explanations and examinations of the whys and wherefores of their respective cultures. Rounding out the supplement is an appendix of charts on which the Game Master can roll to create her own Folkways for the cultures she wants to design.

Physically, Folkways is decently written softback. Its subject matter means that it feels a little dry and academic in places, but the numerous examples and explorations of the Twenty Questions serve to offset this. It is also nicely illustrated, and whilst none of the artwork is necessarily bad, some of it is good enough to put the merely adequate to shame.

Of course Folkways is a book for HARP Fantasy, but there is a sense that you wish it were otherwise, instead being wholly systemless, a discussion and examination of other cultures, races, and nations presented in other roleplaying game settings. That though is for another supplement, its discussion of the Folkways and application of the Twenty Questions instead spurring the reader to examine and think about the cultures he has encountered in the books he has read and the games he has played. For both Game Master and player there is also an array of new character options to bring to the gaming table, though the Game Master is advised to mix and match rather than import them wholesale into her campaign as not all of them will have their place in such a world. Above all though, Folkways makes the Game Master think what makes the peoples and cultures of her campaign so in light of their influences and so helps make those people and culture richer, more believable, and more interesting when her players encounter them.

No comments:

Post a Comment