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CowardlyPaladin
2015-10-22, 08:36 PM
I really don't want to make this political or get into political fights about representation or imperialism, I just want advice in designing a setting, no modern stuff please.
I like to run D&D settings that are obviously fantastical versions of real life societies, much like Legend of the Five Rings.

So one of my players is of African descent (specifically Mali) and said that she would appreciate it if we set a game that was in her own culture, and I figured that it would be nice to try that out. Problem is...I don't know anything about Western Africa that isn't broad strokes. I'm a Roman Historian and I know what folk tales, beliefs, legends and history I can draw upon to make a fictional ridiculous version of Rome. But I don't know very much about most regions of Africa medieval history and my friend is only vaguely aware of the region, and neither of us know the language, so I am having trouble getting started. However I do want to try, particularly if it will make my players happy (they are getting sick of Rome anyways)
I've decided to make this a challenge to design a very different type of fantasy game and push my and my players boundaries. And since Gianttip is multi national/multi cultural and full of really smart people, I figured I might start here (and I got a lot of nice advice when I did a similar project with Southern India). Help me design a campaign setting for a group to play in for the next six months that is based on African (specifically Songhai) folklore and traditions.

Oviously Africa is a continent, not a country, so I narrowed my focus to where my friends family came from and wanted to do a fantasy version of the Songhai Empire since I was reading about it and it seemed really cool Now I am not trying to create a super historically accurate recreation of Western Africa, instead I am want to do what was done with D&D, taking some of the social trappings, traditions, legends, and mythology of a time period/region and making a society out of it. If you have ever played the game Jade Empire or Legend of the Five Rings, that is sort of the feel I am going for, just with the common races (and maybe some new races based on local folklore) incorporated into the region.

So this is going to be a massive empire that primarily makes its money through international trade, so there will be a lot of peoples from other countries coming in to trade and hang out. There are very powerful merchant guilds called Julla who work with the monarchy to maintain the intricate and somewhat convoluted trade route. These routes go through quite dangerous regions that are full of monsters, so adventuring parties are often commissioned by the merchants as ways to protect goods from bandits and beasts. These adventuring parties are given a contract and work on commission, though they have to rally into militia units in times of war. In opposition to the Julla are labor organizations, much like Unions (I don't know the local word) that represent the workers, and relations between these two is one of the main political conflict of the game. The various clans/noble families of the empire are organized based upon one particular craft or form of trade, with the family structured around that good (this was apparently true). So one family might be "The metal workers clan" and within that clan you would have various castes based upon your role in the metal working system.

The kingdom has a very extensive prison system built up with the focus being more shaming than punishing or rehabilitation. In order to keep law, special enforcers called Assara-munidios are allowed to travel the empire to see if crimes are being committed and try to root out corruption and inefficiency. They can also be used to fight against demonic cults or sinister cabals. Jurists in this country are the academic elite, and being education almost always leads to a career as an administrator or a law keeper, with massive colleges in the capital city being a testament to that. While local kings can command each of the various regions of the Empire, the Emperor is seen as a semi divine figure and everybody has to swear obedience to him in morning prayers.

Also militarily in addition to horsemen, infantry and elephants, there is a canoe fleet for river travel. That is all I have right now but if anybody has any advice, information I might want to know, or online resources I could access (names would be fantastic) I would really appreciate it.
I'm really interested in how the traditional D&D classes would fit in, and if there are any local folklore traditions that could serve as the basis for some new classes/takes on classes. It would really help.

Gorilla2038
2015-10-22, 11:29 PM
While it focused more on a Central/Southern Africa themed game, you could look over Nyambe.

http://www.atlas-games.com/nyambe/

Otherwise, you run into much the same problem as any non high fantasy D&D game: heavy armor is useless, spellcasters are even more powerful, most other settings don't have the christmas tree effect of modern fantasty, etc. There's plenty of threads with ideas on how to deal with that though.

Setting wise, might be fun to point out that this empire is the latest in a series of similar empires with different ethnic groups in charge (which why even random villages could be very cosmopolitan in population and religion).

Personally, I think religion could be really interesting here. You can a very accepting monofaith like Islam, and a random bag mix of traders gods, whatever they worshipped before, and be great fun. Consider: Thor, Anasazi and Jesus walk into a bar...

Cool idea, hope it goes well!

Ashtagon
2015-10-23, 03:37 AM
I'd politely ask them to run that game. That way, I don't unintentionally make a "Halloween costume" version of their culture and cause offence, while they get to teach everyone in the group about their culture.

Joe the Rat
2015-10-23, 08:01 AM
If not running, then at least draft them to help build it. Broad strokes geography, culture, folklore, societal systems, architecture, etc. Appropriate semi/demi/nonhuman races, as applicable. And how to fit traditions and lore to classes. It might be a good full group project - build the world with the players, then you build the story/paths/arcs involved.

Which system are you planning on using?

GungHo
2015-10-23, 02:44 PM
I think you could easily fit Bards, Druids, Rangers, Rogues, Warriors, and Sorcerers into the setting, given some re-flavoring. Sorcerers might seem like an easier fit than Wizards, but Timbuktu was a center of scholarship until the invasion of Sonni Ali, so they'll fit right in, but they might be oppressed unless you're doing things more around the time of Askia the Great, when scholarship (particularly astronomy) reignited. Clerics might be better with Oracular trappings, acting as scholars or judges. Warlocks and Witches could work too, in less civilized bordering jungles and deserts, but step carefully around "voodoo doctor" stereotypes. That this was an advanced society at the time. It's not Joseph Conrad's Congo. The hardest fit is Paladins, as usual when stepping out of European settings, but revisiting the Cleric notes above, serving as judges might work.

CowardlyPaladin
2015-10-24, 03:04 PM
To answer the question of why my friend doesn't do this, she is a Biology major and a second generation immigrant, her parents are from the region (specifically *****) but that knowledge is mostly just the modern day *****, its several centuries removed from the region.

I should check nyambe out, it looks like a different region of Africa but reading one of the books makes it look they have one region which is the Mali empire, but still more Africa the better in my opinion .

I think making this Empire the latest in a series of Empires is a good idea, I think that the races who livedi n the regions have each had their shot at running this are and now the current group are in charge (I haven't decided which race I want to represent the Songhai leadership)>

My idea with religion is taht the upper classes and the urbane dwellers worship the Allfather, a sort of Islam inspired religion based on the reverence of a monotheistic god who is impossible to conceive, and so worship is very mystical and all about trying to find ways to understand a god who is basically made up of colors our eyes can recognize. The rest of the population either worship polytheistic D&D gods, local Spirits, or animism/tokenism , and the latter two I haven't figured out how to handle in this game yet. I know how anamism works in real life, but a fantasy version of that would be tricky as it is all about sort of energy inherent in all things, a fantasy version of that would be tricky. Spirit worship we have seen in D&D, but I have no idea how the Africans in that region see spirits or understand spirits (my friend is muslim so she has no idea), other than the fact that there are a lot of masks involved. And totetism/Fetishism (doesn't mean what it sounds like) I think I have down pat.


Ashtagon: I am very worried about that, but that is why I am trying to find resources on the Songhai in english here, or at least west African folkslore. She an tell me about Muslim folklore but I have that down very well already

Joe the Rat: I am using a modified version of Pathfinder, and I haven't decided which races I am using beyond the fact I want Halflings, Dwarves, humans, and Three-Keen, the other races I haven't decided on .

GhungHo: So here is my idea for classes so far

Wizards: The Scholar elite class of the capital city who believe taht their magic is based on the sky. The 8 schools are named after different constelations and various prestige classes are based on sky phenomenon.

Clerics: Divided into local priests of poltheistic relgions or the Clerics of the All Father, the latter of which are mostly law keepers in the capital city.

Shamans: I"m thinking the villages and rural areas would have plenty of these, but again I don't know how the Songhai sub regions imagined spirits

Paladins: Actually I wanted them to be the Assara-Mundios, wandering from town to town to ensure that the justice system is working correctly.


I think the Emperor I want currently running the place will be inspired by Askia the Great

Grinner
2015-10-24, 03:35 PM
I own a book which might be useful. It's a memoir about an anthropologist living among the Songhay of ***** and eventually apprenticing himself to a local witch-doctor. Unfortunately, it's distinctly modern, being set about 40-ish years ago, I think. I'm presently away from my books, but I can get it tomorrow if you want to ask me some questions.

If you want to look for it yourself, it's titled In Sorcery's Shadow.

You might also want to look into an RPG called Spears of the Dawn. Someone did a chapter-by-chapter write-up about it here (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?353258-Let-s-Read-Spears-of-the-Dawn).

CowardlyPaladin
2015-10-24, 03:47 PM
I own a book which might be useful. It's a memoir about an anthropologist living among the Songhay of ***** and eventually apprenticing himself to a local witch-doctor. Unfortunately, it's distinctly modern, being set about 40-ish years ago, I think. I'm presently away from my books, but I can get it tomorrow if you want to ask me some questions.

If you want to look for it yourself, it's titled In Sorcery's Shadow.

You might also want to look into an RPG called Spears of the Dawn. Someone did a chapter-by-chapter write-up about it here (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?353258-Let-s-Read-Spears-of-the-Dawn).

that still might help despite being old, but my budget is roughly 5 dollars so I am very limited. But if you can get it, what if any is the guiding philosophy in their understanding of Spirits and the Spirit world, how do spirits generally think and how can you deal with them, and what are the greatest taboos and encouraged behavior

Grinner
2015-10-25, 07:40 PM
that still might help despite being old, but my budget is roughly 5 dollars so I am very limited. But if you can get it, what if any is the guiding philosophy in their understanding of Spirits and the Spirit world, how do spirits generally think and how can you deal with them, and what are the greatest taboos and encouraged behavior

I'm reading the book now, and there's a lot of information diffused throughout. This is problematic, because I haven't actually read the whole thing. I don't want to give you incomplete or misinterpreted information. The last time I read this, I left off at the end of chapter four where the author's research picks up after him having earned the town's respect. Presently, I'm at chapter six, where he accepts an offer of apprenticeship from a local "sorko". How soon are you looking to run this game?

I can tell you that the locals use the phrase "How is your health?" and variations thereof as a greeting.

Mark Hall
2015-10-26, 12:55 PM
You might look into Spears of the Dawn (http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/110293/Spears-of-the-Dawn), an RPG based around a pseudo-Africa, as well.

Edited to include link.

sktarq
2015-10-26, 06:33 PM
One thing to remember-the part of Africa you are focused on is a hotbed of Sufi Islam. Which has some rather different takes on things like saints, what is witchcraft, and prophecy than the more classically known and D&D mined Sunni Islam. I won't go into it here but it could be a good thing to research away from these forums.

Also cavalry was a key aspect of the Sahel communities becoming the larger and powerful Mali-Songhai type. And horse took a while to arrive historically and were limited by TseTse fly lands (a major factor in limiting these nations advance.

Try figuring out who they are trading with and what they are trading for as this may offer clues to how various groups are seen within the society. In any such trade focused group who are defined by their interaction with outsiders you need to understand said outsiders.


Also the festivals of recoating major mudbrick buildings (which is a thing there even today) could well be played up.

Also with Timbuktu style learning-there were more small family libraries than a big centralized one. The teaching system was very competitive but each place of learning was rather small-major "centres" of learning were more like a mall of different small schools than anything else I could easily explain. Also these family libraries were very important to family honor and name-hell a fair number are still around-so you get a local shop owner selling prepaid cellphones who also maintains and guards a couple hundred books that are hundreds of years old and probably been hidden in secret places a few times a generation whenever there has been political upheaval. Which also means any house of significant size could have all sorts of secret vaults in your game.

Also-modern Mali is more centred around Bamako than places in the Sahel like Gao or Timbuktu. Make sure that this is what your player is aiming for. If her family is more southern then looking at the History of the Kingdoms of Ghana and Benin may well be more helpful.

Grinner
2015-10-26, 07:35 PM
Also with Timbuktu style learning-there were more small family libraries than a big centralized one. The teaching system was very competitive but each place of learning was rather small-major "centres" of learning were more like a mall of different small schools than anything else I could easily explain. Also these family libraries were very important to family honor and name-hell a fair number are still around-so you get a local shop owner selling prepaid cellphones who also maintains and guards a couple hundred books that are hundreds of years old and probably been hidden in secret places a few times a generation whenever there has been political upheaval. Which also means any house of significant size could have all sorts of secret vaults in your game.

Also-modern Mali is more centred around Bamako than places in the Sahel like Gao or Timbuktu. Make sure that this is what your player is aiming for. If her family is more southern then looking at the History of the Kingdoms of Ghana and Benin may well be more helpful.

If my book is anything to go by, their style of teaching also has more in common with the Socratic method than modern Western pedagogy. That is, his teacher does not rely much on lecture. In most cases, his teachings consist of rotely memorizing "texts" (often incantations or praise-poems) or waiting for his student to ask "good questions". I suspect this is partly because their magic relies on precise and fluid pronunciation of incantations.

Also, in regards to your question about valued behaviors, sorkos seem to value "hardness" in a man. The author also describes it as forcefulness. I get the impression they mean something along the lines of moxie.

I do have some other information, but I'm not really clear on what it means. There seem to be three varieties of magic acknowledged in the area, but they don't seem to worry overmuch about distinctions between them.

MrConsideration
2015-10-27, 02:49 PM
Legacy of the Bieth (http://lotbieth.blogspot.co.uk/) is a North African campaign setting, although its more Morocco than Mali. Still, there are probably elements you could steal.

For the Sahara, you could mine Dark Sun for ideas.

What time-period would this be? Will there be analogues to Portugese or Spanish explorers on the coast?

CowardlyPaladin
2015-10-29, 02:11 PM
One thing to remember-the part of Africa you are focused on is a hotbed of Sufi Islam. Which has some rather different takes on things like saints, what is witchcraft, and prophecy than the more classically known and D&D mined Sunni Islam. I won't go into it here but it could be a good thing to research away from these forums.

Also cavalry was a key aspect of the Sahel communities becoming the larger and powerful Mali-Songhai type. And horse took a while to arrive historically and were limited by TseTse fly lands (a major factor in limiting these nations advance.

Try figuring out who they are trading with and what they are trading for as this may offer clues to how various groups are seen within the society. In any such trade focused group who are defined by their interaction with outsiders you need to understand said outsiders.


Also the festivals of recoating major mudbrick buildings (which is a thing there even today) could well be played up.

Also with Timbuktu style learning-there were more small family libraries than a big centralized one. The teaching system was very competitive but each place of learning was rather small-major "centres" of learning were more like a mall of different small schools than anything else I could easily explain. Also these family libraries were very important to family honor and name-hell a fair number are still around-so you get a local shop owner selling prepaid cellphones who also maintains and guards a couple hundred books that are hundreds of years old and probably been hidden in secret places a few times a generation whenever there has been political upheaval. Which also means any house of significant size could have all sorts of secret vaults in your game.

Also-modern Mali is more centred around Bamako than places in the Sahel like Gao or Timbuktu. Make sure that this is what your player is aiming for. If her family is more southern then looking at the History of the Kingdoms of Ghana and Benin may well be more helpful.


I don't know very much about Sufi Islam as opposed to Sunni/Shia, isn't it a form of mysticism a bit like Kabbala with the whirling Dervishes? Obviously we can't get into a theological discussion online, because real life politics, but going to my fantasy stand in for the Islam how would a fantasy Sufi fit in. Obviously this is different from real life Islam, namely in that there isn't a Prophet.
Basically the All Father is some sort of being from beyond the multiverse itself, outside all the planes who is both Objective and Subjective at the same time. Because of this it is impossible to see or properly understand to mortals, and because mortals can alter reality itself (If they worship a god a certain way in my world, that god will change to accommodate) the All Father refuses to allow itself to be depicted in any art or glorified directly. It also apparetly cares a lot about charity requiring all pertitioners to give donations, and that they travel to a single location where they can for a fraction of a second glimpse its mind. I don't know how Sufi could fit into that

I didn't know that about Calvarly, could you tell me more about what their military doctrine was and how I could adapt it. I am imaging how that could be reflected in D&D

Could you tell me more about this mudpainting ritual I might use it

I like this secret writings style, in universe why do you think people are doing it?

I figured that we should just do the Sonhai because that is the time period I am going for and it incapsulates the region.


Grinner: Well almost all forms of education worldwide prior to the Industrial Revolution were not lectures, Socratic Dialogue is quite wide spread, I am curious what they actually were talking about/what this guy valued/how does the Spirit World work?

I do like the detail about hardness, it seems to imply you need to take a hard line with the spirits to get them to do what you want and that they try to rely on sympathy to avoid doing their job.

Could you tell me the names of the three magic, I might be able to find out more via the google

Mr.Consideration: Thanks for that link I will totally check it out. THe Sahara is a bit different than the Arthas desert, which is more of a badland. I was thinking early 14th century, so you will have some forgien travelers on the coast, but the vast majority of Europeons are traders living in Timbuktu

Grinner
2015-10-31, 04:42 PM
I am curious what they actually were talking about/what this guy valued/how does the Spirit World work?

The most basic magic technique discussed by the sorko teacher involves empowering various powders derived from local flora. These powders can be ingested to aid the person in some fashion. The first incantation the author learns is used to empower korombey powder, which is used to prevent or lessen impending injury. There's also a powder called ngimgniti which can be used to ward off spirits.

The upshot is that there doesn't appear to be much direct contact with spirits thus far, at least as far as the sorkos are concerned. However, the author is now studying under a sohanci who teaches that the spell is conveyed to a "High God" through an intermediary spirit called Ndebbi, and this High God ultimately approves or denies the spell. This sohanci also leads a "possession cult", so he may teach something a little more in line with what you're imagining.

Again, I don't quite have a solid handle on it yet, so I would advise against drawing any conclusions yet.

I'm actually putting together a diagram of the pantheon, though a lot of the relationships remain unclear. I'll probably post a preliminary version once I get a little more information. In the meantime, what I can tell you is that there are 150 spirits, though those may just be the important ones. Among these 150 spirits, there is a subset called the Tooru which are regarded as the spirit nobililty.


Could you tell me the names of the three magic, I might be able to find out more via the google

I believe the book refers to them as sorko sorcery, sohanci sorcery, and witchcraft. Sorkos and sohancis seem to share some things in common, but each claims descent from a different almost mythological figure. Witchcraft seems to be looked down upon, for the author's sorko-teacher claims they steal souls.

Ashtagon
2015-11-01, 11:38 AM
Some of the links in this thread might help. It's primarily intended to be a resource collection for the Nyambe setting, but as that is an Africa-themed setting, some of those links may be useful.

http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=10097

sktarq
2015-11-02, 09:35 PM
I don't know .... I don't know how Sufi could fit into that
Somewhat. . . the Sufi are often of the edge of being their own creed. . various traditions are often influenced more or less by their Sufi involvement so that some varieties are basically dominated by their Sufi leanings-The Malikite Sunni variety present in Mali is very heavily influenced. . . . This variant has different takes on things like magic, holy men, prophecy etc than you may find in the most prominent Twevelist/Salafi form of Islam that most are familiar with. These takes are probably easier to work with for a fantasy RPG setting than most other variants and I would suggest you look them up as direct religious discussion doesn't belong here. Overall the Sufi would fit in very well to what you are saying. . . though adapting their experiential attempts to connect with the divine may be another way to have people glimpse its mind in another way.


I didn't know that about Calvarly, could you tell me more about what their military doctrine was and how I could adapt it. I am imaging how that could be reflected in D&D
Basically there we no horses in Subsaharan Africa until well after 500 AD - Basically the Mali and Songhai Empires were the first to build up substantial units of in the DnD term light cavalry (Medium Elites max). This allowed for both communication and raiding in much greater strength which is what gave them such an advantage on the battlefield (though they were never more than a small minority of their overall force). This advantage would disappear if they expanded too far because the horses tended to die whenever there was an area with tsetse flies.


Could you tell me more about this mudpainting ritual I might use it
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Mosque_of_Djenn%C3%A9
Cultural significance section for a start
Basically a party and community get together to repair damage to the mud based building.


I figured that we should just do the Songhai because that is the time period I am going for and it incapsulates the region. Just warning you and I suggest you run it by the player who brought it up so he/she doesn't feel put out that his/her Mali has been left out.




Mr.Consideration: Thanks for that link I will totally check it out. THe Sahara is a bit different than the Arthas desert, which is more of a badland. I was thinking early 14th century, so you will have some forgien travelers on the coast, but the vast majority of Europeons are traders living in Timbuktu
Te Sahara is a BIG place with many types of desert in it. The Aghar is totally different than the erg. various types of desert are going to hold different adventure hooks so I recommend that you bone up>

TheThan
2015-11-03, 01:14 AM
The first thing I do when I design a campaign based off of something real world is take a long look at the region that setting is going to take place in. Study up on the climate of the region, the flora and fauna and adapt those things to your setting.

I just punched western Africa into Wikipedia and itís telling me its desert, sahel (desert/savanna transition) and savanna. It also tells me there are forests to the south (Iím assuming tropical as itís near the equator). It also says thereís a region that suffers from plagues of locusts.
Desert, sahel and savanna regions is a great place to start. Much of this region is arid and hot so we can look at the DnD 3.5 expansion Sand Storm for some ideas on heat and sun dangers, dehydration rules, and sand and wind rule. It also tells us what sort of animals will populate the region. Anything thatís appropriate for the savannah is good here; lions, elephants, zebras etc and their dire counter parts.

It also gives us an idea on what sort of landscape we have, I imagine a dry windswept place with few trees, tall grass and beautiful vistas painted in red orange and gold. Try to paint that picture. To the far south we have dense foreboding jungles inhabited by unknown threats and exotic flora and fauna. Thatís where the fabled black lotus grows. A powerful narcotic in small doses, or a lethal poison in larger amounts. Maybe massive ziggurats from some long dead culture protrude out of the jungle canopy, just waiting for adventurers to uncover their secrets; just watch out for their simian like defenders that capture intruders and sacrifice them to their dark gods.

The savannah is natural place to plop our first fantasy race, namely Knolls. Iím thinking knolls are a nomadic or semi-nomadic culture that travels across the region; they trade and make war as necessary. Maybe they migrate with great herds of animals; maybe they travel a circuit between watering holes and oases. we can decide if they're a villain or a friendly race (or both) later.

The Wikipedia information also gives us our first major hazard in the region; swarms of locusts that can strip the flesh from a man in seconds. Highly dangerous and a threat to everyone in the region. I donít view this as a monster to destroy (even though you could go that route) moreover as a hazard that adds flavor and can be used to pull the PCs by the nose when they get too far off track.

I hope this gives you some good ideas to really start with. I often find that by just imagining the climate that will greatly inform the feeling Iím trying to convey. remember we're trying to create a unique setting that's inspired by the real world location, not a direct copy of it.

CowardlyPaladin
2015-11-12, 05:29 AM
I'm reading the book now, and there's a lot of information diffused throughout. This is problematic, because I haven't actually read the whole thing. I don't want to give you incomplete or misinterpreted information. The last time I read this, I left off at the end of chapter four where the author's research picks up after him having earned the town's respect. Presently, I'm at chapter six, where he accepts an offer of apprenticeship from a local "sorko". How soon are you looking to run this game?

I can tell you that the locals use the phrase "How is your health?" and variations thereof as a greeting.

I'm running the game in about three months, so i want to be prepared in two ideally. SOrry for the late response, I got very sick and couldn't work.

SO what exactly is a Sorko?

Grinner
2015-11-17, 07:11 AM
I'm running the game in about three months, so i want to be prepared in two ideally. SOrry for the late response, I got very sick and couldn't work.

SO what exactly is a Sorko?

That's excellent. I've had to slack on reading lately due to life, but maybe I can set aside some time over the coming holidays.

A sorko is one of two types of sorcerer indigenous to the area in addition to witchcraft, which is considered separately. According to the glossary, they are "patrilineal descendants of Faran Make Bote who are praise-singers to the spirits and/or sorcerers.". Faran Make Bote is a fisherman of legend "who staged the first possession ceremony and who became the apical ancestor of the sorko".

There are also sohanci, who are sorcerers who trace their lineage patrilinearly to Sonni Ali Ber, "the king of the Songhay Empire from 1463 to 1491" (presumably AD).

When the author apprentices to a local sorko, he is initiated as a sorko benya, which literally translates as "the sorko's slave", because he is recognized to have the capacity for sorcery but lacks the lineage traced back to Faran Make Bote.