Monthly Archives: February 2013

Black History Month: The End?

Black History Month: The End?

So Black History Month is over.  Time to forget about everything until next year, right?

Nope.  I think that enough people were interested into the folklore/culture pieces that we will try to make that a regular once a month (at least) item.

I still have a lot of things to say about hip hop and RPGs that will be coming soon.

I should add that I hate having to talk about inclusiveness and what it takes to expand the demographics and read of RPGs.  Hate it.  But I hate more that the appeal of RPGs is still so limited.  I love RPGs a lot, I’ve loved them for the last nearly three decades of my life.  I want my son to feel comfortable playing them, and all of his friends and their friends.  I want roleplaying to be something that fits in with whatever else they are doing. I want them not to feel isolated or alone inside gamer culture. So I have to do this.  I’ve been intimidated in the past by the resistance of the culture to change, but I’ve decided to use my fear as fuel.

I’d rather just be working on my own individual bliss.  I don’t really want to be known as the ‘diversity guy’ or the ‘black game designer’. I think I’m a decent game designer in my own right, and I hate having this asterisk applied to something I spend so much time on. But you know what? I’m proud to be a black game designer, and I’m happy to do the industry the favor of trying to expand its reach.

I am driving towards making more inclusive products, helping people make more inclusive products, and supporting products that broaden what fantasy is. I’m sure there are many people who don’t think I can do this, or that it doesn’t need doing.  That’s your right to believe what you will.

I really hope you enjoyed the content we provided this February.  If there was something you wished we drilled into more, let us know!

I want to thank everyone who supports Thoughtcrime’s mission of making good games for everyone.  We are taking time in the blog to analyze what we like about this hobby and learning how to spread it.  The goal is to make games that are accessible in time spent and in demographic reach.  I personally believe that the future of our hobby lies here if it has a future (I am pretty sure it does).

I want to thank in particular this month, in no particular order: Chris Chinn, Ryven Cedrylle, Tracy Hurley, Milton Davis, Jeremy Morgan, David Hill, Filamena Young, Judd Karlman, Raymond Terry, Richard Rogers, Meguey Baker, Emily Care Boss, Mark Diaz Truman, Kip Hampton, Eric Duncan, Ryan Macklin, John & Brianna Sheldon…I’m sure there is someone I forgot here, but hopefully not! There have been a lot of awesome people actively supporting and boosting our mission this month.  Thank you all.

Last, to my incredible wife and my amazing son: The future is ours.

The only thing ending in February is complacency.

Congolese History and Culture

Congolese History and Culture

I’ve been promising a Congolese history post for a while now. I must to some extent claim both success and defeat. As I brought up in the previous Congolese folklore post, African history doesn’t look like European history. In fact looking at it from the ‘great dates, great deeds’ persepctive, there’s practically no “history” prior to about the 15th century. On the other hand, the Congolese cultures remain largely unchanged from their beginnings tens of thousands of years ago. People can be found who live generally the way their ancestors did since time immemorial. The lifestyle is the history. For my final contribution to Black History Month (though I hope only a beginning towards promoting Afrocentric game material), I’d like to cover two of the cultural groups found in the Congo and in the surrounding areas and how some very surprising game material might come out of it.


The San are a hunter-gatherer group of the Bantu family who span over a majority of southern Africa. They are sometimes called Bushmen, but that is not their word for themselves. They in fact have many words for themselves depending on sub-tribe and location but San is the one designated for foreigners to use in describing the large collective.  Now if I told you I was thinking about a ‘primitive’ people in a region of Africa specifically known for not being good agricultural ground and asked you to guess what RPG I thought might best fit the setting, I’m willing to bet FreeMarket would not be anywhere near the top of your list. Truth is, I happen to think it’s a pretty good fit.

One of the dirty little secrets of history is that agricultural development may have been humanity’s biggest mistake ever. Sure, the life of a hunter-gatherer isn’t idyllic and there’s something to be said for being able to store up food and water during the times Mother Nature isn’t so nice. We started farming for a reason. Yet what we find is that wars, disease, and the need for codified law and power structures don’t exist in any substantial form in early hunter-gatherer groups. It’s not until we decide that I own this land here and you own that land there and we have a bunch of kids to work said land and all get crammed together into towns and cities that violence and pestilence arise in force.  In contrast, the San people, using Quinn’s ‘gameable culture’ notation….

* We require no more of our children than to play and socialize.
* When not foraging, we spend our time in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances.
* We have an economy of gifts.
* We utilize our whole environment for food and tools leaving nothing to waste.
* We make decisions by concensus, men and women of all ages alike.

Archer-Spearman, Cosmic Child-Creator, Mother-Shaman. (Find a bunch of San folklore by clicking here.)

Eating bugs and hunting large game with poison-tipped weaponry may not be a lot of fun and there are no permanent homes to speak of, but really you could do a lot worse than live this sort of lifestyle in moderate to good conditions. It’s practically a low-tech post-scarcity (pre-scarcity?) culture. Certainly some amount game hacking would be required to make FreeMarket fit in here, but if you’re not a fan of the high-tech outer space science scene, consider being a hunter-gatherer in the south African desert.

Bushongo (Bakuba)

Lest we slip into the trap that “all of unknown Africa was forever pastoral primitives”, right in the heart of the Congo as the Portuguese were making their first arrival was the Bushongo or Bakuba kingdom. “Kingdom” is one of these words that we today tend to think means one very particular thing where, in actuality, it isn’t at all a single concept.  I’m going to paraphrase here since it does a good job of explaining how the Bakuba kingdom was arranged:

In the Bakuba system of government the king was above all a symbol. His ministers, the Kolomos, paid him great respect in public, even if they were his known enemies. In private they made no pretense of subservience. If the king wanted to see his ministers he had to go to their houses or meet them on neutral ground. The ordinary members of the tribe had representatives at the court on a political and professional basis. Some of these officials represented geographical areas, trades and professions. The weavers, the blacksmiths, the boat-builders, the net-makers, the musicians and the dancers all had their representatives at court. There was even a special representative of the fathers of twins.

In addition, artistic expression was perhaps the most valued skill in the kingdom. It was said by some visitors that the Bushongo ‘left not one surface unornamented.’ Masks, cups, storage books and sculptures were all highly prized exports from the Bakuba homeland. (“The representative of the sculptors was held in highest esteem [at court]. The Bakuba sculptors are considered to be the finest in Africa.”)

Semi-feudal government? Check. Aristocrats with a lot of time on their hands? Check. Heavy cultural emphasis on decor and presentation? Double check! Bakuba is immediately recognizable as an excellent setting for a Houses of the Blooded game for those who want to get away from the Ven culture.  You may have to go through European sources to get the most accessible descriptions of trade goods, but the dedicated researcher should be able to find some reference to the actual Bushongo royal documentation  – one of the few cultures to rely on both written and oral traditions about equally. On the Trail of the Bushongo is a strong start.

Hiphop and RPGs.

Hiphop and RPGs.

I’m a big hiphop fan.  I’m surprised and not surprised that hiphop hasn’t been merged into an active product yet (someone might tell me about Wyrd is Bond but that’s more about gangs and tribes than hiphop).  I’m not surprised because I think a game that really loves hiphop is something that overall gamer culture is probably not ready for. I know a lot of gamers who are at least into hiphop as I am, but I don’t know that RPGs publishers know that these people are there and potentially looking for something that embraces the music and culture in an interesting way. There are cool things about gaming culture, but it’s not a sterling example of a subculture ready to truly adopt the other (working on changing that!).

I am surprised though, because the fundamentals of making hiphop music and RPGs are , to me, pretty damn similar. A  tabletop group when it meets is a lot like a freestyle cypher. Both are groups who meet to create a story and expression through speech.  Both follow informal and formal rules to produce that speech (creativity needs constraints), and both are rooted heavily in a sense of improvisation and experimentation. We push each other and play quite literally with our words, forming sacred spaces where imagination is the prime value.

That’s when it all works, anyway.  Half of the fun of playing at freestyling and RPGs is learning the skills to get you to that space consistently. Time is a factor, but more important to developing that skill is your commitment to experimentation and improvisation. Building your “vocabulary” gets you consistently to that space and lets you bring others with you.

In my head, that’s how hip hop and RPGs are very similar.  Having done of both (I’m a much better roleplayer than rapper, sorry!), these are the commonalities I see.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about ways we can use hip hop as a creative launching point for RPG play.

Gameable Culture: What I am.

Gameable Culture: What I am.

Last post we discussed getting culture up front in a game.  We started building a cultural framework.  Before I go further, I want to address some great points that came up from that article.

Aren’t these vague/non-nuanced statements going to lead to the type of stereotyping/noble savage stuff that people don’t seem to want?

It can.  There’s always a danger that someone can get it wrong, but why I don’t worry so much about that is I’m using those statements to create white space   I explicitly don’t want explanations of why the culture does the things we stated that they did because that’s what I hope the players/GM at the table will answer.  Why do the Kitan go through obstacles and never around? That’s a good question, and I would want people at my table to work that out. Leaving space to fill works on two levels. On the first we create player/GM investment in the setting.  On the next level we are pushing people to flesh out towards their own sensibilities.  This means the death of canon, but I kinda feel like cannon should be dead in an RPG context, so I can live with that.

Ultimately I think the best RPG source material has ample white space and gets to the provocative bits to inspire players.

Is it really culture that you want to address?  Do you mean history?

I don’t mean history because history is what happened in the past.  Culture embeds history, custom, and belief in the now. History is great and important, but history tends to be about stringing together events.  Culture is about people, and I think people are at the hearts of stories. If we can make our stories more people-centric, wew can make stories that vary wildly from the norm but that still find congruence in the commonality of human experience.


So, having addressed that, I want to look at the next step.  Let’s look at the traits and characteristics our fictional cultures value. For this step we are coming up with ten adjectives that someone from that culture would expect and would like attached to themselves.  It’s key to think of it as members of the culture describing one another positively, and not someone from outside  slapping these labels on the culture.

I’ll start:

A Kitani is….

  • Brave
  • Defiant
  • Brash
  • Forthright
  • Quiet
  • Charismatic
  • Clean
  • Honorable
  • Tough
  • Relentless

If you participated last time, feel free to follow up (maybe copy/paste your entry from the first step).  If you’re interested in hopping in, go back to the previous post and include those steps first, then take these steps.

Gameable Culture: Where I’m From

Gameable Culture: Where I’m From

We’ve done a lot of talking about different cultures and diversity this month.  One thing we haven’t discussed though is what does culture mean in a game?  Culture is a context that defines the socieities that characters come from,  exist in, and deal with.  Going a little deeper, culture is a context from wherein decisions are made.  The culture we’ve grown up in informs the decisions we make (even if we disagree with our culture of origin, that disagreement still defines us), as does the cultures we encounter or deal with.  Customs, beliefs and behavior all come into play.

I’ve often heard that D&D and general fantasy has “no” culture, but that’s not true.  There is a default European -influenced culture that we’ve accepted as the default. One way we can fail to make games set in other cultures uninteresting is to not realize that “standard” fantasy comes from an actual viewpoint. When we fail to realize this, we can build settings with many different trappings that still remain culturally different.  If I am raiding dungeons and taking loot, does it matter if I am going this in Greyhawk or Nubia?

Once we’ve marked the boundaries of mainstream fantasy, we then are confronted with what I think is the most difficult part in relaying culture in an immediate but still real sense to players.  I think the proliferation of status quo settings (derivations on Tolkien-based work) in part is because delivering a variation on the default culture is easier than delivering a culture “from scratch”.  There is so much explaining that you don’t have to do because the status quo culture is so well supported and defined.  You can describe things with only a few words and audiences can reasonably be expected to fill those gaps in their imagination.

We don’t have that with cultures that stray from the norm. To build new worlds for players, we have to not only present the cultures, we have to educate the players on the significance of cultural elements and the cultural context in which they exist.  Gameable culture is the term that I use to discuss the act of delivering culture through the playing of the game.  It’s just not reasonable to expect people to read 50 pages of background just to play a game, so our mechanics need to bring culture to them.

I’ve been building tools and experiments to find useful patterns for creating such cultures.  I shared the following on G+ a while ago, and am sharing it here as well. I have a followup to this, but try out what I’ve got for now.  I’m curious to see what you come up with!

Where I’m From

I want you to make up a fictional culture, and say five things in about five sentences that people from that place do. The important thing is not to tell us what they value or believe.  The actions you use should show us what that culture believes and values by inference (hello there fruitful void!). Speak as that group: “We do X”, “We never do Y”, etc.

After your five things, then give us three archetypes that might emerge from that place.  Keep it succinct – the typical adjective noun works (Vengeful Wanderer) here, as do bold honorifics (Keeper of the Flames). These archetypes can affirm or reject the norms you just established. If it helps, you can make a “personality” that might come out of there, and describe what sort of person he is (succintly).

For Bonus points, make one of your five things about a culture already referenced (“Culture Y worships the same gods as Culture X”) is good mojo.

I will start:

* We never use any tool more complicated than abacus.
* We always take the simplest method of achieving our short term goals if given an option.
* We solve our problems through physical might.
* We go through obstacles, never around.
* We observe the natural order closely and live in tune with it.

Scholar of the Wild, Berserker King, Gruff Woodsman.

Remember: one entry per post, and try to space out multiple posts!


Three Dog Night: Congolese Folklore

Three Dog Night: Congolese Folklore

As I endeavor to get my feet wet in African culture and history, one recurring theme keeps (metaphorically) stepping forward and glaring at me – understanding African history from an African perspective. Put in other words and quoting from my third Ethiopia history post, “tell the stories the people you’re talking about want told.”  This is of course easier said than done and I don’t mean to claim any sort of mastery over the concept but few things worth doing are easy.

As a Euro-originated culture, we like to focus on the grand movements of history. We pay homage to the leaders of nations and their wars. We think of “important” history as a linear string of causal events. We teach our children first and foremost the dates when things happened and who the major players were. Interpreting history – learning wisdom from it – is secondary to the facts and perhaps considered a more advanced skill. One reason (among several) that African history can be so hard to get a hold of is that we in the West (North?) are looking for information the native peoples weren’t as excited about and completely ignoring the history they tell each other all the time – folktales. From the African perspective, we have it all backward. The stories themselves as cultural touchstones and the lessons they teach are what is important; the facts and people less so.  Imagine our confusion if modern African scholars showed up here in the U.S. looking to study us but rather than opening textbooks the way we would prepare for, they hit up TVTropes!

Thus while I do still plan on doing some little report post on the history of the Congo, I feel like it’s maybe more appropriate to show some Congolese folktales instead and how they can be bits of gameable culture for us to draw on. Since these folktales are so often oral traditions and not always easy to track down in English, we need to feel comfortable relying on our own “unofficial sources” for information. (Remember what I said about Africa and decentralization?) Today’s story is from Melvin Burgess – someone who went to the Congo a couple years back and put up a blog recounting stories he heard. I will abridge the story below and encourage you to read the long account here.

A man and his wife own three dogs – two large strong dogs and one small weak one. The man went to pick some special fruit for his pregnant wife and ended up accidentally harvesting from a village of witches. The witches capture the couple and are going to eat them. In his desperation, the man calls out for their dogs to come save them.  The dogs hear from their home village, break out of their chains and come running to help. The two big strong dogs are obviously a threat and are held up by the witches while the little weak one sneaks through and bites the witch chef’s toe, allowing the couple to run away in the ensuing fight. The big dogs kill most of the witches, but it’s again the little dog who saves the day by finding the last hiding witch. From that day on, everyone in the couple’s village could get all the fruit they needed.

Let’s find some games in here. First, there’s the perspective of the dogs. I could have sworn there was a “Dog: the RPG” game somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find was It’s a Dog’s Life and John Wick’s Cat RPG (the latter courtesy of Filamena Young).  Brave animals on a mission to save their people? Done! Second, the perspective of the hidden witch. Witches in Congolese folklore are rather tragic figures and not entirely voluntary. (The same website has several posts about witch folklore that, fair warning, are heartbreaking) How about My Life With Master as young witches trying to break free and return to normal life? It’s not a game for everyone necessarily but it will get you out of the  implied eastern European setting. In splitting up the various characters of the story among a group and expanding the setting a little, you could get a good In A Wicked Age game going as well. It has a lot of the mythic feel that makes for good folktale roleplaying.

How to Be Inclusive When You’re Afraid of Getting it Wrong.

How to Be Inclusive When You’re Afraid of Getting it Wrong.

On thing I often hear from people when I discuss the diversity and expanding the range of our hobby is :

“Well I’m afraid that I’ll get it wrong, or that I’ll be accused of appropriation.  I’ll get it wrong and then people will call me a racist/sexist/etc.”

I get that fear, but it’s pretty irrational for two reasons:

1) Gaming is just not that diverse.  There aren’t a ton of people from these groups that you’d be hearing from in the first place!  Most PoC I know see media that we think is offensive and we roll our eyes, complain about it to each other, and go about our business.  Who has time to educate and argue with people who are clearly uninterested in learning?  How do I know they are uninterested in learning? Because….

2) Too frequently, criticisms based on culture are treated as invalid.  Less valid than a complaint about mechanics, or a complaint about typos or any number of things. I see publishers savaged for things I consider far less important, but I see publishers bend over backwards to appease these.  It is interesting when you posit that something could be culturally insensitive that the first thing that happens is now someone’s explaining to me how I don’t understand, and they don’t see, and now I’m the asshole trying to explain color to someone who doesn’t see color.  Any complaints go immediately to how the person claiming the offense is actually the one inflicting harm, or is silly or stupid or politically correct ,etc. When this happen I know that it wasn’t a good-faith effort because the person in question is not actually taking in new information.

To be fair, I do see these feared blow-outs on occasion, but almost always these are proxy complaints. By proxy, I mean it’s often people not in the “aggrieved” group making a fuss. I get why that happens but that’s not a reason I’m going to accept for why people otherwise motivated to venture forth and make gaming material with a different perspective and possibly accessible to a new audience. If you can’t hear me explain to you why this thing you did misses the mark without instantly making it about your hurt feelings, I can’t accept that you were ever truly moving beyond your boundaries.

And hey! That’s fine.  Build what you want, but don’t make excuses. Just say you are interested in making other things.  There is a whole list of stuff I’m not interested in making, and I’m not going to apologize for it.  But I’m not going to blame phantom causes for it either.

Still with me?  Are you really interested in expanding your boundaries and making games about other cultures that aren’t just reskins of D&D? Cool.

The first thing we need is humility. You need to accept that you could get it wrong without breaking into cold sweats.  You’d think that as a PoC I would feel more comfortable with the material that I’m working on, but I’ll share a secret with you: I’ve spent most of my life terrified of getting it wrong too!  It’s not been until fairly recently that I have embraced the basic humility that allows me to risk being wrong without taking it personally.  You try to get things right to the best of your ability. Do you flip out at an editor when they correct your grammar, talking about how they can’t call you stupid, some of your best friends are punctuation  etc? Or do you accept that your work needed to be fixed, honestly try to understand, and move on?

Similarly here.  Have humility.  Be an arrogant jerk everywhere else but be humble when your work is assessed culturally.

Next: research!  I think the links I’ve shown and the work we’ve done this month show plenty of ways you can convert a few hours into a productive bit of research for use in your games.  The internet + your public library make this endeavor almost laughably easy, so do that.  Get enough information to learn what actually is there.  Don’t just fit another culture to your own preconceptions.

Last: read Writing the Other.  It’s a great and short read that provides great guidance for when you want to stretch outside of yourself.  This is meant for fiction writing, but it’s a very easy port to game design and GMing.

I know I make it sound easier than it is, but getting to it is not complex.  It’s hard, but not complicated.  Find all the information you can, but accept that you won’t know everything, or that your viewpoint could be obscured by your cultural perceptions.  Expand your boundaries. Have fun!

Black History Month Links Roundup #2

Black History Month Links Roundup #2

Hey, feeling a bit under the weather which has kept me away from finishing more historical posts.  There have been many cool links to share with you, however, so we’ll get to it.


I was on the panel “Escaping the Legacy” with Richard Rogers (moderator) , Emily Care Boss, and Meguey Baker.  It was a lot of fun and I think it is a pretty neat listen.

Sarah Darkmagic continues to make some awesome posts as she covers the Mino, warrior women of Dahomey.

Chris Chinn covers a great Zulu-inspired coming of age story that I’m actually playing in, “The Path of the Nokwazi”. He also has since written some smart stuff about what inclusion in the RPG space should entail.

365 Days of Black Heroes is an amazing project that ended in December.


Sorry for the short post today.  Will lengthen things when I feel better.




Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part III

Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part III

So far we’ve seen ancient Ethiopia (Part I) and the Aksumite Kingdom (Part II). In this final part, we will look at Ethiopia in the Middle Ages up to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1500s.

A Strange Story Ark!

Writing about Middle Ages Ethiopia is a little awkward as many of the perceived ‘important events’ aren’t  contained within the borders of continental Africa. It seems to be very important to the Ethiopians, however, and at the end of the day that’s the key to these sorts of endeavors – telling the story the people you are talking about would want known.

Aksum’s decline came while it was largely a Muslim nation despite having a nominally Christian ruling class. In 980, Queen Yodit, a woman of some undiscerned ethnicity, led an army that laid waste to what remained of Aksum. She claimed to be descended from the Hebrew warlord Gideon. She ruled the area for 40 years and handed the crown down to her descendants. At some point, one of Yodit’s descendants marries into the old Axumite ruling family, restoring what was traditionally seen to be a Solomonic lineage for the Axumite rulers.

The Ethiopians feel a particularly strong kinship with the Jews. The Kebra Nagast is an Ethiopian holy text explaining the full story of the meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopians claim the Queen to be one of theirs and that the start of their royal dynasty, Menelik I, was Solomon’s son by the Queen. (This was in fact written into the official Ethiopian Constitution, up to the time of the end of the reign of emperor Haile Selassie) Other parallels exist as well. The language of the Ethiopian regions are mostly Semitic like Hebrew, Arabic, etc. There is a community of Jews in Ethiopia sometimes referred to as Beta Israel who claim to have come back to Ethiopia with Menelik I and practice a pre-Talmudic variant of Judaism. (Queen Yodit may have been one of these Beta Israelites or possibly part of the indigenous people known as the Sidamo.) The historian Josephus records tales of Moses fighting against the Ethiopians and marrying an Ethiopian princess. Even the very Ark of the Covenant may have made its way down to Ethiopia, brought by Jews fleeing the Babylonians; it is said to rest in the cathedral of Maryam Tseyon (Mary of Zion) to this day. I’ve even heard arguments that Judaism’s seemingly aberrant monotheism amongst a sea of polytheism in the Sinai peninsula indicates that it is truly an African tradition that wound up far, far from home!

What arises then in the post-Aksum Ethiopian empire is a form of Christianity (via the Aksumite lineage) that remains largely a branch of Judaism and doesn’t inherit the hierarchy or theological culture of the Roman or Orthodox traditions. It is surrounded on all sides by Islamic nations but doesn’t seek to convert them. Additionally, because it is mostly cut off from the rest of the Christian world except for a small persecuted group of Coptic Christians, it adds different books to its canon. The Orthodox Tehwado tradition (Ethiopian Christianity) recognizes almost every Old Testament book used by every other major Christian tradition and then adds on the Paralipomena of Jeremiah (4 Baruch), Jubilees, Enoch, and the three books of Meqabyan. Its New Testament canon adds another 8 books, one of which is purely Ethiopian in origin.  In short, Ethiopian Christianity at the time looked almost nothing like the Christianity of the Western world, yet had grown  from the same roots.

Middle Ages Ethiopia can be seen for our gaming purposes as an excellent model destination for standard faux-medieval adventuring games. (Can’t do a gaming series without a nod to D&D, right?) On one level, it’s not too far from what we’re used to. There’s a king and a feudal system. Standardized coinage is being minted. The gods worshipped in your home are the gods worshipped here. They’re people just like you, really. Then again, they’re using texts and tomes you’ve never heard of.  Their images of the gods don’t look like yours (or you!), but  you can see the important similarities if you look closely.  Questing knights might end up here looking for assistance against a terrible foe from a dynasty of wise regents who aren’t already caught up in the petty wars and politicking of home. Sure, they have their own petty wars and politicking, but there’s a fresh perspective . Clerics can look for lost artifacts or texts that have been kept safe by an isolated group of faithful. In a modern setting, your Farewell to Fear characters (Archaeologist, I’m looking at you) might consider proving or disproving the royal lineage as one of their cultural revolutions.

Ethiopia serves for us as an image of a far-off exotic land that, upon arrival, turns out not to be so exotic or different after all. That’s how these things tend to turn out, isn’t it? The bigger the world is, the smaller we find out it is as well.

Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part II

Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part II

In Part I, we talked a little about the far-ancient  times of Ethiopia – Kush, Kerma and D’mt. Let’s jump forward now to the beginning of the Common Era.

I Don’t Wanna Aksum! You Go Aksum!

Around 100 C.E., a kingdom arose out of the city of Aksum (or Axum) which is fairly close to the ancient D’mt. The relationship between Aksum and D’mt is unknown. Aksum may also have subsumed or brought down the similarly formidable Meroë (Kush) state in what is currently Sudan. Whatever its origins, Aksum grew to be a nation that played in the same league as Rome, Persia, India and China.

Aksum gained power not by having a large spread of land like its peers, but by controlling the all-important waterways at the south end of the Red Sea. It engaged in some military land conquest to the west, but focused more of those efforts into the southern part of Arabia (Yemen). It usually left local leaders in power and simply demanded tribute instead. Aksum sold exotic goods such as ivory, spices, and gems as well as utility materials like salt and animals hide which, combined with the tributes, made it a commercial empire first and foremost.

Aksum’s urban structure and cosmopolitan ambiance would be at least somewhat familiar to us now were we to go back in time and visit. In the center of the city was a collection of elite housing constructed according to a standard plan; staircases from smaller wings of each large abode led up to a central elevated pavilion. Immediately surrounding the elite housing were common houses of mud and stone. In each direction there was a graveyard, with the southern location being the resting place of royalty. The nothern location also contained the various temples and churches. The elite houses surrounded a central plaza which could have served as a marketplace. No civil administration buildings have been discovered yet or are mentioned by ancient writers whose texts we have, but a number of thrones and intricately carved pillars dot the city. The streets in the center are laid out in a grid and are decorated with small statues. The further you stray from the center, the more haphazard the layout becomes.

During its 600 years of power Aksum would adopt some Greek gods, convert to Christianity and offer shelter to Mohammed. It welcomed Roman, Indian and Arab traders. The Chinese might have known it as Huang-Chi; again, insufficient evidence is available to say with certainty. In the 700s, Persia forcibly took over its holdings in southern Arabia and thus devoid of its major commercial advantage, Aksum simply shrunk back into obscurity. An electronic copy of a book specifically about the history and culture of Aksum can be found by clicking here.

A city this big and wealthy is just begging for some heist action. A ship loaded for India with salt and spices has its cargo seized. The thieves are suspected to come from one of the smaller states chafing under Aksum’s rule, maybe Qataban or Meroë. The king offers freedom to a group of imprisoned political rebels if they can locate the whereabouts of the goods and all of a sudden you’re playing Leverage. From the merchant’s perspective, GUMSHOE might work as well. For a different feel completely, the first Christian king Ezana is about to be coronated in about 320 C.E. when a wild party lets loose led by some local version of the Egyptian Hathor or the Yoruba Shango. Get out your copy of the old Bacchanal (not the one with the cards – it’s a bit too art Greco), reskin a few things and shake what your Maker gave you!