One of the things GaW has its eye on is New Fire, a forthcoming rpg that promises a rich fantasy world inspired by the culture and legends of ancient Mesoamerica. Maybe you saw the Kickstarter for it?
Well curiosity be damned! Jason Caminsky, New Fire’s designer, is a good friend of mine and one of my favorite people in the world. I’ve watched and listened (though sadly, never played) as New Fire evolved over the years, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interview him about it. Over the next three days I’ll be sharing that conversation with all of you. In today’s installment we get right to the hard stuff…culture and cultural appropriation in roleplaying games, and how Jason approached that serious issue.
What were some of your inspirations for New Fire?
Finding inspiration for New Fire has not been difficult. The stuff I’ve discovered during my research has been unbelievably interesting. I have seldom read something or talked to somebody about Mesoamerica without getting at least one idea for the game!
However, I think I can safely say that my single biggest inspiration has been Aztec Flower Songs. Flower Songs are poems that are sung, often while accompanied by drums, flutes, and other instruments. There are a lot of very interesting rhythms and meters to them, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to experience these too much, since you have to hear them performed in Nahuatl to get the true effect (which isn’t something that happens every day).
Most of what I’ve been able to find has been English translations, sometimes with Nahuatl alongside. But even these mostly imperfect versions have been unbelievably amazing. I’ve never enjoyed poems like I’ve enjoyed Flower Songs.
Let me give you an example:
We have arrived on Earth in vain, we have sprung forth in vain.
Am I to go just like that, like the flowers that perish?
Nothing will remain of my name? Nothing of my fame will stay here on Earth?
At least there are flowers! At least there are songs!
What could my heart possibly do?
We have arrived on Earth, we have sprung forth in vain.
Friends, let’s enjoy ourselves, let’s embrace each other.
We all walk along the flowery Earth.
No one here can do away with the flowers and the songs,
they will endure
in the house of the Giver of Life.
Earth is the home of the fleeting moment.
Is it also like that in the place where, in some way, one survives?
Is one happy there? Is there friendship there?
Or is it that we only come to know who we truly are
here on Earth?
–Ayocuan of Tecamachalco
This Flower Song is basically what I’ve tried to make New Fire about.
One other important inspiration is an old, out-of-print comic book called Azteca: The Story of a Jaguar Warrior. It was given to me by my oldest gaming friend, who happened upon it randomly in a used bookstore. It was written by Andrea M. Gaudiano of the Denver Museum of Natural History back in 1992, someone I tried very hard to get in contact with but was unable to find. It is absolutely marvelous. It takes place just before and during the conquest, and it is told from the point of view of an indigenous Jaguar Warrior. The writing is so beautiful and passionate, and the artwork is amazing! It is simple, sketchy black and white, but the faces and the images are some of the most unique and expressive I have ever seen.
Like I said, I believe it is out of print now, but if you ever come across a copy I highly recommend it!
A hot topic in certain quarters of the game design community is the idea of cultural appropriation. We have a hobby that’s largely dominated by white men, and sometimes they don’t do such a great job of treating other cultures with respect when inserting them into their game worlds. The alternative is perhaps just as bad though…game worlds dominated by European fantasy tropes without even an attempt to create cultural diversity. New Fire very definitely breaks from that European tradition and presents a culture inspired by the myths and legends of ancient Mesoamerica. What did you do to prepare yourself for the challenge of creating this world?
I did a lot of research in preparation for New Fire, in as many areas as I could think of. I read books, attended classes and lectures, watched movies, tasted and cooked traditional food, listened to music, and generally tried to experience everything I could find about Mesoamerica in order to both educate myself and develop the proper mindset for approaching a game like this. But probably the most important and fruitful experiences came from actually speaking with people of indigenous Mesoamerican descent. I was fortunate to find many such individuals who were interested in sharing knowledge and insight about their culture.
I spoke with a couple of linguistics grad students from rural Oaxaca, whose families speak Nahuatl and practice many traditional beliefs. Their contributions have been extraordinarily helpful and illuminating. One of them is actually a gamer, and I had hoped to commission some writing from him for the game book, but unfortunately scheduling issues made it impossible. The other has expressed interest in creating a language video for distribution to my backers as sort of an introduction to Mesoamerican language and culture, which I am extremely excited about and hope will come to pass!
I attended a marvelous lecture by a Chicano Studies instructor about Mesoamerican calendars and codex reading, and later spoke at length with her about that and other things. One of her major areas of interest was Mesoamerica in fiction and art, so she was both an excellent source of information and also very helpful in raising my awareness about some of the potential pitfalls and possibilities involved with a project like New Fire. I’ve spoken with several others as well.
I also spent as much time as I could doing hands-on, participatory learning. I learned the basics of flintknapping (the purposeful breaking of stone–there’s much more to it than you might think!) and I worked in an archaeological ceramics lab (it is extremely moving to touch and work with objects that were created over 1,000 years ago). However, the skill I most enjoyed learning was how to use an Atlatl (spear-thrower)–it has become a favorite hobby of mine, actually, one I hope to continue for the rest of my life.
At the beginning of New Fire I was very focused on books and archaeological information. Like many people, I just sort of assumed that these cultures were mostly dead and gone. But I learned early on that nothing could be further from the truth! Indigenous cultures are very much alive, and actually speaking to people who are part of those cultures is absolutely essential to understanding them.
It’s seems like an enormous undertaking…were there parts of it that were daunting or intimidating?
Definitely. For one thing, it’s my first game, so everything about this process is new, and while it’s very exciting it’s also a little frightening! But more significantly, there are a lot of big issues to deal with, and a lot of strong feelings.
Perhaps the most humbling and unpleasant experience I’ve gone through has been coming to grips with my own privilege. It was absolutely essential, and I think I am a better person for it. But it is a bitter thing to look at your life and realize just how much of it resulted from privilege rather than your own personal efforts, to know that your entire worldview is deeply shaped by it and that your lack of awareness has held back the dreams of generations of talented, hard-working people. There was a great deal I was simply oblivious to, and New Fire has been a stern, unsettling wake up call.
Ultimately, I would say that the challenge of New Fire was not so much Education. It was Mindset. Education is extremely important, but all the facts in the world will not help if you are oblivious to the biases you view them with.
You’ve been around roleplaying games forever… are there games you think did this well that you tried emulate?
I have already discussed L5R, which I used as my model for how to develop an inspired setting, but otherwise I haven’t played too many games that have attempted something similar. By and large it seems like most games use a more blended setting.
There was an Aztec setting for GURPS that I spent a lot of time reading, though I never actually played it. I wouldn’t say that I ‘emulated’ it – in fact, I used it more as a cautionary example. It certainly wasn’t disrespectful. It seemed extremely well-researched, actually, and it inspired a lot of ideas. But it felt like a distant, reserved reporting of facts rather than an attempt to internalize a new mindset. It also felt like an addition to some other world, rather than a world unto itself.
I have also gotten a fair amount of inspiration from Tekumel. It is definitely a blended setting, but it does draw a great deal from Mesoamerica, and the fantasy interpretations of some of those ideas has been very inspiring. Several of my playtesters are extremely active with Tekumel, and talking to them about it has given me some wonderful ideas. However, while I have read a fair amount about the setting, I have not played it.
In tomorrow’s installment, Jason and I talk about gender in roleplaying games and what that means for New Fire. And we get bonus material from someone else who’s near and dear to me (and Jason), who also just happens to be one of New Fire’s amazing artists. In the meantime, join Jason and I in the comments section to continue the conversation.
Also, don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter… if you’d like to become a backer, there’s still a few days left!