Ged the White

When people talk about people of color in fantasy, we often bring up Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series as an important example of the type. Earthsea is wonderful and I love it, but I disagree with this characterization of it, and I’ll tell you why.

Earthsea, as a collection of tropes, is of-color only in the loosest, most cosmetic way: the literal skin color of the characters is described in varying shades of dark. There aren’t many pale-skinned people in Earthsea. That’s not nothing—it’s great that not just any author, but a voice as far-reaching as Le Guin, is creating dark-skinned characters for readers to imagine—but it’s not the whole of the matter, either.

To me, Earthsea comes off as exactly what it is: a white person’s well-intentioned but blinkered idea of what a world of people of color might be like.

You see, if you look at the cultural references in Earthsea—the myths that connect to other myths, the parts of Earthsea that evoke things inside of us—they are firmly and unrelentingly European. I’d go so far as to say they are decidedly British and Norse. All these elements speak to me of this very particular, Northern European world:

  • Gont, an island of cold, misty mountains and sheep herders
  • wildlife: sparrowhawks! fir-trees, alders
  • forbidding wizards wielding staff and wearing robe
  • Ged as the wizard-warrior carrying both staff and sword
  • a sacred place that is nothing but a stand of old trees
  • books of sacred knowledge
  • a conception of magic as an all-powerful Word
  • the Word embodied in the rune
  • the creator quite literally speaking the world into being
  • wizards as itinerant sages, aloof and separate from society
  • a rune-bearing ring as a symbol of kingship
  • the conception of death as a one-way passage into a (semi-)conscious afterlife where we remain individuals but the functions and meanings of life cease to obtain

These references point to a pretty small set of sources: Ged is something of a cross between Merlin, Odin, and Gandalf, and you can trace most of Earthsea’s big ideas to a process of making those myths consistent with a world. For Ged to be like a Druid, there must be a grove of magic trees. For Ged to be like Odin, he must learn a magic that lives in the runes. For Ged to be like Gandalf, he must have a sword and rescue a ring and wander around, aloof from the world. There is a fairly explicit reference to Merlin in Ged’s other name, Sparrowhawk—another bird of falconry. If you weren’t explicitly told about the skin color of Earthsea’s people, based on the origins of these tropes I would not be surprised if many readers imagined them as uniformly white.

There’s not really any elements in the core of Earthsea that read as having POC referents, and for me, it’s important for those referents to be there for it to feel like the characters really are people of color. There are such elements in what I kind of think of as the periphery of Earthsea, and I want to acknowledge that they exist, but they are sharply earmarked as foreign and not of the Hardic-speaking people (the predominant population of the Archipelago): there is the reincarnating tomb-priestess Arha of the Kargad people, whose manner of selection is reminiscent of the reincarnating Tibetan Buddhist lamas, and the Long Dance of the raft people, which puts me in mind of the Hindu festival dances of my childhood. In both cases these are associated with outsider cultures and not with the core culture of Earthsea, and in the case of Arha, she is not only a being of an outsider culture, but also a relic of traditions that are no longer practiced by the population at large; she is the custodian of something old and mostly abandoned. These details add greatly to the depth of Earthsea, but they do nothing to relieve the whiteness of its dominant culture.

Interestingly, Le Guin is herself a professed Taoist and she has stated that the concept of balance that is core to the wizards’ philosophy and the nature of their magic, and likewise their policy of acting only when it is necessary and unavoidable, are elements that come from her Taoism, and I think these ideas are very distinctive in that you see them in Earthsea but not in so many other places that reference the same constellation of cultural touchstones. Again I want to acknowledge that these ideas are present in her work, but again they are not of the people of Earthsea; in this case they are ideas specific to the wizards, and they are not so much cultural elements as consequences of the “natural” laws of their magical working.

So in the end, what we have in Earthsea is an answer to the question, “What if there were a world where people of color lived in the same environment I, a white author, do, and what if those people had the same myths and worldviews I do, and what if in their world those myths were true or being enacted in the stories I tell?” It is something, but it’s a far cry from a world where our experiences and our stories provide the reference point for creation.

Mojo de Ajo is Delicious

I got this concept—a velvety smooth sauce flavored with roasted garlic—from colonist cooking luminary Rick Bayless, but all the versions of this recipe on the Web are for enormous amounts of servings and it’s so unnecessary. Here’s a version that serves one or two.

Take like half a head of garlic and separate the cloves. Don’t peel them, but take off any loose papery skin.

Slowly fry the garlic in a small pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil. You want the temperature kind of low so you don’t burn anything; just let them sit there for a good long time, stirring now and then, until the garlic becomes soft and mushy in its skin.

When they’re soft, pour the oil into a blender jar and peel the garlic, then put that in the jar too. Salt generously. Blend it for a while, and when it stops getting any smoother add maybe half a cup of liquid. I use chicken stock, usually, but use whatever’s handy and it’ll be fine, even water works.

Blend it some more, heat it up in your pan a little, and pour it on everything or cook everything in it.

The First Thing you Notice is the Sand

The first thing you notice is the sand.

So, I played this game the other day. I’ve been digesting. You’ve all heard by now that it is a work of art, and for me to echo that sentiment would just be another drop in a very full bucket, but echo it I will. One of the most affecting games I’ve ever played is Journey.

It’s also a spectacular study in the application of restraint. Every element of the game is ruthlessly edited, down to the sparest, most necessary core. There is one character, whose appearance doesn’t change. There is one ornament — the square. There is one musical theme. There are two things that move — the sand and the cloth. There are two controls — leap and sing. There is one word in the entire game. Journey.

And each of these elements is elaborated upon in amazing depth. The sand is a constant companion, one with many faces and moods. At the opening of the game, it’s your whole world — a glittering, reticulated expanse of heavy gold. When you climb it, you sink in. When you go downhill, you slide and skate and tumble. It shifts in the wind, your movements leave ephemeral trails in it, and it engulfs and surrounds the tumbledown buildings and stately temples you discover on your journey.

The cloth is the same. Your robe swirls in the everpresent wind. Your scarf, when you earn it, is a restless banner, never still. The streamers of cloth and the scarf creatures of the desert all move in the same hypnotic way, reminiscent of jellyfish and seaweed. When you’re near them, they imbue you with the power to leap and fly. It makes the world three-dimensional — you’re not just a wanderer moving about on the sands; you have a whole world of air to explore. At first it seems like the upper airs are inaccessible, but they become increasingly reachable as the game goes on. It’s a very satisfying feeling of progress to me; while your movement through the sand has a definite feeling of weight and effort, the traveler’s flight is a thrilling, effortless ballet, and in the parts of the game where there are a lot of cloth creatures to support you, the sense of freedom is exhilarating.

All this restraint leads to a very rich, deeply immersive experience. Every moment in the game’s emotional arc is carefully planned and meticulously paced. Somehow it hits an incredibly wide range of notes; by turns you are curious, puzzled, slinking about in fear, trudging hopelessly through a world determined to kill you, surfing on the sand-tides at heart-pounding speed, or exulting in a precious moment of flight. You aren’t distracted by complicated controls or puzzles that rely on external knowledge; the world works by its own rules that you learn as you play. Every element feels fully developed; there isn’t a single moment where you ask, “Why can’t I…?” because the reason is always evident. There are no inconsistent, mood-breaking moments, and of all the triumphs of the game I think this is perhaps the greatest. Even venerated classics like the Zelda series occasionally have moments that feel tacked-on or extraneous to the game’s experience, but in Journey there are no jarring moments.

It’s an exquisite game and you should play it if you can.

Shreyas Reads the Mahabharata Part 1

I’m reading the Mahabharata while working on Gandiva. As it happens, the Mahabharata is not really intended as a dramatic piece of fiction; it’s a parable that exists to chronicle national mytho-history and communicate religious and cultural values, like the Bible or whatever.

I am reading a translation by one Kisari Mohan Ganguli (it is available for free on iBooks, likely through the auspices of Project Gutenberg, although I didn’t look to check), who proposes to translate very closely to the original version of the text. It is dense with lists and intertextual references, tangled of honorifics and characters with many alternate names. Its sentences are florid and long.

As a result, it is very tedious reading, and it effectually bars the reader from absorbing the gist of the text.

So, I am trying to make it more comprehensible to me by retelling it as I read it, stripped of (much of) its floridity.

Ugrasrava Sauti, a man important enough to have two names, came to some sages in an ashrama called Naimisha, and they said, “Hey buddy, what brings you to our neck of the woods?”

“I just went on vacation to Kurukshetra and then I decided to come here, do you want to have story time?”

“Sure, tell us the Mahabharata please.”

“Okay sounds rad.”

At the beginning the universe was born from an egg, and after the creation of things, 333,333 generations of the gods passed and then someone was born who is a distant ancestor of the Kuru and Pandu, the parents of the characters in the story that I am about to recount a recounting of.

At some point after the events of this story, the sage Vyasa memorized every book ever and summoned Brahma, the creator of all things, to brag about how learned and accomplished he was and tell him that he had composed a poem that contained the entirety of human knowledge, plus Vyasa’s commentary on that and his advice for everyone. But he didn’t have anyone to write it down!

Brahma said, “It’s cool bro, Ganesha will do it. He has lots of time on his hands,” which advice proved to be true, as Ganesha appeared the moment that Vyasa joined his hands in prayer.

Ganesha said, “Okay dude, I’ll write your thing but I’m stopping as soon as you stop for any reason.”

Vyasa said, “Bet you stop first, dork.”

“Game on, pointy-haired nerd.”

Vyasa opens with, “I really like tables of contents. Here are the contents of this poem. Isn’t it neat how I invented textual organization before we even became a widely literate culture? By the way there are several appendices as well.” Sauti comments, “I happen to have memorized those too so get ready.”

Our story begins with Pandu and his brother Kuru.

Pandu was out hunting at one time when he shot two deer amidfuck with a single arrow, which was a terrible omen and a great embarrassment to him. Some time later he died, childless.

Left without heirs, his wives summoned the gods Dharma, Vayu, Sakra, and the Ashwini twins to impregnate them. This operation was successful, but there was some doubt in various quarters as to whether this clutch of god-children should be considered legitimate heirs of the late Pandu. Most of all, their cousins, the hundred sons of Kuru, saw an opportunity to capture Pandu’s territory, so they opposed the Pandavas with determination.

Then follows a summary of the events of the Mahabharata, in the form of Dhritirashtra lamenting that, at every turn, he foresaw the destruction of his line at the hands of the mighty Pandavas. It is a litany of wife-takings and strange miracles and terrifying killings that gives us a vague idea of what will follow.

Media, Appropriation, and Respect

So, just now* Matthew Sullivan-Barrett asked me,

Hey, Shreyas, I was just thinking it might present a fruitful perspective if you could talk some about designing MRG.

What do you think?

I am working from an understanding here that it is a respectful game about a culture other than your own, through the filter of fantastic fiction(movies and books), which could be vulnerable to exotification.

So, if you had comments on how you identified and resolved pitfalls, or even failed to do so, it might add a lot to the conversation?

First of all, thanks! I really hope to make all my games respectful of the people that they talk about, and it’s really pleasing to hear that it seems to have succeeded. You pose a pretty tough question, with a multifaceted answer, and I didn’t feel like it would fit in the forum thread it came from, so here we go…

I am a big fan of Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema, but I’m definitely not a part of the culture that exports it, and that knowledge was a major influence in how I developed my game. I started with this inspiration: “I want to create a game where you can play out the tense, elliptical interactions in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and from there, my first step was to acquire knowledge about the genre, to avoid the pitfall of talking about something I don’t know anything about.

I watched a lot of movies. (There was a Gong Li marathon involved, and I highly recommend doing that if you enjoy films about inner conflict and emotional instability.) I consulted with (at least) two people working on doctorates in Chinese culture and language, as well as one person working on a doctorate in cinema, and we talked about the source material at length. Eventually I arrived at a sort of dramatic argument that encapsulates the spirit of MRG: “Communication is inherently violent and dangerous.” This isn’t a total analysis of the source material, obviously; it’s a way to induce the kind of fiction that I wanted to see.

Ultimately, this thematic statement is the underpinning that the game is built on; there is also a mechanical assumption about the inherently staged unreality of the fiction we’re making, because on the surface the game is about cinema. The interaction systems of the game are built to express these two things, with the first taking priority. Notice that neither of these is unique and inherent to the HK martial-arts film genre. At this point, I was using the genre material as color; the game took on a subtly broader scope.

I also wanted to avoid racializing the game. That’s a part of the reason that there are no depictions of people in the book: the fact is, in the source material, most of the characters are certainly East Asian, but there’s a substantial amount of diversity in there as well, particularly in pieces set in the modern era. I didn’t have a large art budget at the time, and so I chose to illustrate the book with an assortment of decorative fabric patterns and drawings in a pastiche of their style, deliberately depicting no humans while doing so. That gives you the space to imagine the cast of the game in any way you’d like.

A lot of my effort was also put into making it clear: This is the way I see it. In no way is this fact—it is opinion. In the long run, no one cares when you say this, but it’s very important to me. When I say, “Eat something before you play the game,” and when I ramble on about the importance of beverages, it’s not because of some made-up exotifying custom; it’s because I think people enjoy games more if they’re well-fed and have drinks at their elbow.

In the future I’d like to include a few sample scenarios in the text, which would show you different ways to skin the interactions as they’ve been framed. Elizabeth and I have talked about using MRG for Supernatural (A TV drama series about two white boys who fight monsters) for instance, and we have often used it for racially diverse colonial settings.

Ultimately, I think that the most important thing I did, with a mind to respecting other peoples’ cultures, is to carefully balance between the two dangers of talking about others: exotification and erasure. It was important that I acknowledged the source of my inspiration, but I also wanted to make it clear that my work was not a statement about the people that created that inspiration.

*: Actually, more like, “some weeks ago”

Hinduism on Television, being different, and being expected to be the same

There are not many kinds of Indians on television. There are, now, maybe four: the Assimilated Guy (see: Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, played by the inimitable Aziz Ansari, the delightful Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, and Sendhil Ramamurthy as Jai Wilcox in Covert Affairs), the Harmless Muslim (see Aasif Mandvi as Samir and others as family in Today’s Special), and the two Hindus, Tortured and Hidebound (see, respectively, the lovely Reshma Shetty and the unremarkable Rupak Ginn as Divya Katdare and Rajan Bandhyopadhyay in Royal Pains, and for more Hidebound characters, any Hindu parent). The Harmless Muslim is a relatively recent add-on in the wake of our slow recovery from anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years, and I applaud it, but it doesn’t change the central issue of our stereotyping by the media.

This arises from a thing in American culture, which I can best describe as a failure to holistically understand a person or imagine how their background might differ from yours. Every way that I am different from you is viewed as an individual deviation from the default—if I’m assimilated enough—or as a part of a system of deviations that makes a stereotype. Either I’m just a dude who is just like you, except I can cook Indian food, or I’m a taxi-driving doctor who yells at his parents in rapid Hindi while cringing from an arranged marriage. Neither of these things is the case! The facts are more complex.

The majority is a lot more fortunate. There are lots of white people on TV, of many creeds and kinds and professions. If you look at religion alone, you see so many kinds of Christians on television: faithful but not particularly devout, nuns, priests, the lapsed, the doubting, the ones that believe in their hearts but reject the community of church, and others; it’s a great and laudable diversity. You see atheists and Jews and the occasional outlier with a less well-known creed.

But we are not so fortunate. Hinduism is a joke.

I think it’s pretty scary that you Christians pray to a statue of a bleeding corpse. That’s pretty much what people say to me about Hinduism, more often than not. “It’s pretty crazy that you pray to a statue of a guy with six arms. You have so many gods! How do you keep them straight! Who’s that guy with an elephant’s head?”

These are the kinds of questions you get when your religion is Other. I could say the same thing about Christianity, but I don’t; you’d look at me as if I suddenly grew an extra pair of arms. “You have so many saints! How do you keep them straight? Who’s that dude with wings and his head is on fire?” Those questions seem crazy because, here, it’s expected that you have a grounding in Judeo-Christian lore as part of your basic cultural education. You wouldn’t believe how often people act surprised that I don’t know Bible stories—because for some reason it’s sensible to expect me to read the holy books of the invaders that killed and conquered my people, replaced their governments, infrastructures, and cultural values with their own?

It doesn’t have to be like this. Why doesn’t Tom Haverford have a stylish, post-modern Ganesh statue in his house? My parents do, and they’re pushing 60. Why is his religion, his very Indianness, completely erased? Why is Divya’s faith and her cultural practice the central conflict of her character? We can do better.

Mist-Robed Gate: PDF

Hi friends,

As I stated in my last post, we are making MRG available on Creative Commons. We’ve been awfully busy dealing with Fighting For Gwen stuff (thank you!) and the issues that made FFG necessary, so I have not yet been able to strip the text out into a linearized text document. However, you can now download the PDF right here, at no cost.

It is necessary for me clarify, however, that only the text is released under CC. Some of the images are licensed by Two Scooters Press, and we do not have re-licensing privileges. So, if you want to remix MRG, that’s great, but don’t use any of the images.

Download the game here.

Creative Commons License
Mist-Robed Gate by Shreyas Sampat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Mist-Robed Gate On Creative Commons!

As some of you know, my wife Elizabeth Sampat and I have been struggling with our daughter Gwen’s schooling. Gwen is witty, clever, observant, and kind. She’s a wonderful daughter and a great big sister. Gwen is autistic.

Her school district has been unwilling and unable to afford her the special education services that she needs to be successful in school and later in life. The costs that we would need to front for this effort—legal fees, third-party services, tuition for private school placement, and so on—could bankrupt us.

Yesterday, the Fighting For Gwen fundraiser opened. Every Monday (or every other Monday, depending on the amount of authors we have), you’ll get a story in your inbox from a hand-picked, and in many cases award-winning author. We’ve got the support of some of our favorite authors in the RPG world— Cam Banks, Kenneth Hite and Matt Forbeck just to name a few— as well as some more mainstream novelists and unknown authors you’ll love. Within 24 hours, we have already been overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, peers, and strangers, who offered their support to help us ensure that our daughter can get the education she needs and live up to her potential.

As an added token of our gratitude, I will be releasing Mist-Robed Gate, my wuxia drama roleplaying game, under Creative Commons (attribution). You will be free to download it, alter it, and share it at will. I’ll post the plain-text version of the game on Monday.

Agile Cooking

One of the most important skills for a home cook is the art of transformation – what do you do when you have leftovers and you’re bored of them, or when something doesn’t turn out the way you expected? You transform it. I think of this as agile cooking—welcoming changes in your project requirements while you’re literally at the stove.

Today I was planning to make a potato and green bean quiche, because we had an extra pie crust, lots of potatoes left over from holiday latkes, and some blanched haricots verts from a recent dinner party.

So I par-baked the pie crust, like you do, and it shrunk to the point that it had no chance of holding a pile of potatoes and an egg batter. Time to change tacks! The mandoline has been on my mind, since we make a lot of gratin-style dishes in the winter, and it occurred to me that I could make something of a terrine with a potato crust. I sliced a potato paper-thin and microwaved it with a little milk and salt, which softened the potato slices and released some of the starch into the milk, creating a kind of glue that helped me arrange the potatoes into a shell inside of a loaf pan. Into the pan went some haricots verts, more potato, cheese, and some other leftover vegetables I had around. I made a little béchamel sauce and caramelized some onions. These were split between the loaf and the tart shell. Then more cheese went on the tart. I covered up the loaf with more potato slices, and everything went into the oven.

I am pretty sure that the results will be much more delicious than a quiche.

Motivating Your NPCs

So okay guys, here is a crazy thing that I’m just doing a thought-experiment with. Now, I have a background as a linguist, and I spent some time studying a theoretical approach we call Optimality Theory, which I will attempt to use to create a way for you to easily decide what your NPCs do, with a naturalistic texture.

Step One: Scope

For any given NPC brain, you need to set a scope. Let’s say I want to make a brain for a villain in my ongoing D&D campaign, Journeys to Tanelorn. He’s a campaign-level plot, so let’s set the scope of this brain to ‘medium term tasks.’ These are approximately things you can set out to do and accomplish in a week without monomaniacal focus, like “get a new pair of eyeglasses” or “buy a cow.” Maybe we’ll use slightly longer-term tasks now and then. The scope will inform our choices for constraints later on.

If you want to handle an NPC at multiple scopes, use your largest scope brain to choose your main tasks, and break that down into sub-tasks and evaluate those, and so on. I am not sure to what extent you might benefit from this.

Step Two: Constraints

Now we are going to set up a number of constraints that color your NPC’s thinking. I don’t think we’ll benefit from using more than three to five per scope. Here’s where you start creating your NPC’s personality. In OT, we define constraints as “things that we try to avoid. That try to is important! You may arrive at a situation where you need to violate one or more of your constraints. That’s okay, even desirable. (In OT linguistics, the prototypical constraints, from which all the others are derived, are in direct conflict: “Say as little as possible,” and “Say what you mean.” The specific way that different languages resolve this conflict is what makes them unique.) It creates that naturalistic texture we’re looking for.

For our villain, let’s imagine that he is a merchant baron living in Tanelorn. We will call him Leoric. Maybe what we know about him is, he’s petty, lazy, and greedy. Now let’s translate those into constraints. For petty, we can say, Don’t let an offense go unpunished. In the table below, we’ll call it PUNISH and it’s violated when Leoric is annoyed and does not punish anyone. Let’s elaborate this a bit and add another constraint, *DICK (that’s pronounced star dick,) the “don’t be a dick” constraint. *DICK says, Punish the person who offended you. We only care about it when PUNISH is also relevant. What’s interesting about *DICK is that, because it’s a constraint, we can violate it sometimes, which means that sometimes Leoric will be a dick to someone to blow off steam from some third party pissing him off.

For lazy, let’s use MINION: Don’t do things yourself. For greedy, we’ll use *50gp: Don’t spend 50gp. Leoric’s greed doesn’t affect his decisions unless expenses hit a certain price threshold; then he gets sticker shock. *50GP can be violated more than once—if a task costs 100gp, that’s violating twice. Again, we can violate these things if necessary.

Lastly, we have to figure out how much these things influence Leoric’s behavior. Maybe we’ve already established that he rides around in an expensive carriage; he blows a lot of money to look cool and avoid walking on his own two feet. That tells us that MINION » *50GP ( » is pronounced “dominates”), which is to say that if Leoric is forced to choose between doing a thing himself and spending 50gp to get it done, he’ll spend 50gp. We could devise test cases for the other stuff, but instead, let’s just define them in a way that seems fun. We’ll rank PUNISH below MINION (Leoric will avoid personally punishing folks even if it results in them going unpunished) and *DICK below *50GP (Leoric will avoid being a dick if it doesn’t cost him anything.)

Step Three: Evaluate A Task

So now that we have Leoric’s thought processes in hand, we are able to evaluate his actions. We do this by naming a desired end goal, like for instance “That potato farmer pissed me off; acquire his farm.” Next, we think of some strategies that he could use to make this happen. (In by-the-book OT, we would assume that all possible courses of action are being evaluated, but that is bound to make your decision-making less enjoyable, so let’s not.)

  1. Go to the farm and buy it.
  2. Send a dude to go to the farm and buy it.
  3. Drive the farmer off his farm and take it.
  4. Send dudes to kill the farmer and take his stuff.
  5. Abuse the dudes you are sending to kill him and take his stuff.

Okay that’s enough. Let’s say, btw, that this farm costs 100GP. Now we can evaluate these courses of action against the constraints. We use an OT tool called a tableau to illustrate this.

1. *! * **
2. *! **
3. *!
5. *!

How to read this: If there’s a star in a cell, it’s a constraint violation. If a candidate has a violation and any other surviving candidate doesn’t have one for the same constraint, its a fatal violation—the candidate is strictly worse than some other. Fatal violations are marked with an exclamation point. (Due to the limitations of my WordPress style I can’t use the helpful shading that OT tableaux usually use to mark cells that we can ignore.) In this case, the winner has no constraint violations at all! This isn’t always the case. If it hadn’t occurred to Leoric to drive the farmer off his farm, he might have tried to send a dude to buy it for a reduced price, which would end up violating *50GP once rather than twice.

Obviously this is a laborious method and I’m not sure that you should actually use it in tabletop gaming! But I assure you that, with repeated use, it becomes a much faster technique. You can often do it in your head.