Roleplayer
Roleplayer #30, January 1993

The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light . . .

Writing GURPS Arabian Nights

by Phil Masters

It was an accident, really. A couple of years ago a friend of mine commented, in passing, that the one great fantasy setting that role-playing games had never covered properly was the world of the Arabian Nights. I agreed; I'd read a bit on the subject over the years, and I didn't think that any of the game treatments of djinn or desert nomads or whatever did the topic justice. Still, I wasn't in a hurry to take such a large job on. I happily threw the idea out the idea to friends and fellow-writers in person and in fanzines. However, no-one seemed ready to take up the challenge.

So in the end, I succumbed, and pitched the idea to SJ Games, who took me up on it. That was when I realized exactly what I'd let myself in for.

After all, what was I going to cover? The original Thousand and One Nights? But that's tricky to game, with its grossly powerful magic and its chance-heavy plots. These spin wildly from the lives of poor folk on the streets of Baghdad to scenes of incredible wealth and world-shaking magic; luck, and garish spectacle, are far more important than the skills of adventurers.

What about later stories derived from the Nights? Those are very diverse, and often have very little connection to the original tales, to the medieval Middle East, or to much else that I was interested in. Medieval Islam? Ah, now there's a big topic . . .

So I researched and thought and wrote, with many a happy hour in Cambridge University Library, and then I wrote some more – and in the end, with great regret, I trimmed and cut, too, because it is a big topic.

(And just as I was getting everything together, a certain other large games company put out its own "Arabian-style adventures" stuff. Well, I was working on mine long before they went public, and I can prove it. For the record, I haven't bought their publications, or even looked at them for more than five minutes. I'd either get jealous if they did it right, or angry if they did it wrong. Of course, I had a better rules system to build on, didn't I?)

At some risk of sounding too serious, one thing that struck me as I researched the history of the Islamic world was the way so much of it tied up with things I read in modern newspapers, as Islamic and Western societies come into often-painful contact. For example, the fight against Israel has been seen by Palestinians and their allies as the Crusades repeated.

Such problems may even go back to the Crusades. Muslim lands of the time felt themselves invaded and assaulted; their reaction was to create a tradition of suspicion of "Christendom." At that time, they were just as cultured and sophisticated as Europe, if not more so; it was very hard for them, in later centuries, to admit that the "barbarians" might be pulling ahead, or to borrow anything from the West. Islam is a religion built on victories; unlike Christianity, it does not have legends of how it was persecuted in its early days. When the age of European colonialism began, and Islam was pushed onto the defensive, it found it hard to decide how to react.

Both sides came to think in clichés; westerners (partly encouraged by the Nights) believed that the east was full of devious fanatics and decadent sultans with vast harems, while Muslims came to see the West as arrogant and hostile, full of shameless, unveiled women and predatory men. (In short, each side thought that the other was scheming and sex-mad, because each totally failed to understand the other's idea of dignity.)

I'm not so arrogant or naive as to believe that a games supplement can do anything at all about such an ancient, complicated problem, but I want to think that I at least avoided the worst of the pitfalls. The book that I wrote isn't GURPS Islam, or GURPS Middle East, or even GURPS Crusades, but it may just do until any of those come along. I hope. It is GURPS Arabian Nights.

And as I said, I had to cut some things. As it stands, the book will send you straight into this complex culture, so you'll know how I felt; I didn't have room for an "overview" section, which one of my friends suggested. Still, there's more room here. Let me introduce:

The World of the Arabian Nights

Islam is the name of a religion, but the word also refers to a culture, geographical area, and society dominated by that religion – much as people talk about "Christendom." Of course, the culture has older roots; the religion emerged from a particular place, time, and group of tribes, then mingled with the old cultures which it conquered.

The ancient societies of the Middle East were monarchies, dominated by centralized empires such as Assyria, Persia and Byzantium. Islam, by contrast, was an egalitarian religion. In the ensuing clash of ideas, monarchy came to dominate, but independence of mind was not entirely destroyed. Islam's empire – supposedly run from Baghdad, but in practice fragmented – wasn't "feudal" (like Medieval Europe); rather, it was a collection of kingdoms, ruled from great trading cities. Merchants led great caravans across vast wildernesses and were respected for it. Sea-travel also proved profitable, and merchant-captains are an important part of this genre. Fertile lands – mostly the great river-valleys – were the most populous parts of the empire.

Islam was always willing to deal with foreigners; trade and missionary work aside, it often had to. The Turks and Mongols of the Asian steppes stormed into its lands, and the Crusaders came from the west. These invaders made their own contributions to the culture, but the stress and violence of the wars were a shock for the Muslims. They lost their position as the most progressive, sophisticated culture in the world, and their civilization became static – albeit at a fairly high level.

"Mythic Islamic" culture is urbanized, elegant and hierarchical. Not only merchants, but shop-keepers, are common figures in the stories. Food production is in the hands of a settled peasantry and nomadic herders; in the towns, less-attractive jobs are done by slaves. Islam permits slavery, while (theoretically) ensuring that slaves are not treated too badly. Although volunteer warriors are common (and admired), even the armies of Islam are often slaves. Women are often oppressed and kept in harems, but they can also wield political and social power, and even become merchants or scholars.

Art, music and architecture are refined and skillful, if stylized. Islam does not approve of representational art – or of alcohol, or usury – but rules are sometimes broken. Muslim science and philosophy also achieve much, but they eventually become frozen. There is a widespread belief in magic; this mostly involves the djinn – powerful, intelligent beings, who may be good but who are more often tricky to deal with. Most powerful of all is fate; good or bad luck shows no respect for persons. All is in the hands of Allah.

The world of the Arabian Nights is the world of Islam; they cannot be separated. Merging the fantastic with the fanatic, the mythic with the mystical, the Arabian Nights weave stories of a complex culture within a rigid society, and create tales of heroism, pathos and tragedy.

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