Thursday, April 7, 2016

Five or So Questions with James Mendez Hodes on Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory

I got the chance to interview James Mendez Hodes about his game currently on Kickstarter, Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory. We talk research and appropriation, and learn a little about the game mechanics. Enjoy, and don't forget to check out Ironclaw's Kickstarter page!

Tell me a little about Ironclaw. What excites you about it?

Ironclaw is a tabletop role-playing game set in a fantasy world populated by anthropomorphic animals like in Disney's Robin Hood or Zootopia. It has published settings inspired by sixteenth-century Europe and sixth-century China; my project, the Book of Horn & Ivory, adds a new continent to the game world inspired by Africa and the Near East in the 1500s. While Ironclaw is a much more traditional RPG than I usually play—it has an elaborately detailed setting and a complex combat system—I find the process of creating and developing a player character really evocative and satisfying. Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved to learn about weird animals, so I relish the opportunity to play as a centipede boxer or a snake businesswoman or a bat janissary in a world where species differences matter. Ironclaw's setting also features nations and religions clearly inspired by real-world analogues, so I get to geek out about history even in a fantasy setting where the other players don't need to memorize realistic details.

What kind of research have you done to build the worlds in the game?

This book introduces four new regions, each representing a real-world country in Africa or the Near East. The Anatolian Caliphate is our Ottoman Empire, the Deltan Sulṭānate is our Egypt, the Pirate States are our Barbary Coast, and the Ọ̀yọ́ Union is our Yorùbáland. My undergraduate studies in African religion laid a lot of the groundwork for the religious traditions of these regions, especially Ọ̀yọ́'s. Before the rough draft went in last October, I read a great deal about Ottoman military history, so you can look forward to janissaries, giant cannons, galley warfare, expanded cavalry rules, and Ottoman rivals such as the Knights Hospitaller and Vlad the Impaler. I also found a fascinating book about Ottoman medicine, which you'll see reflected in Anatolia's cutting-edge hospitals. My next research subject will be jurisprudence, marriage, and inheritance law—the Game of Thrones stuff (except it will actually come out this year).

How are you approaching and represent cultural markers and inspiration without being appropriative?

Ironclaw has always upheld the principle that fantasy analogues of real-world things should be presented with the same respect and care you would afford to an academic paper or news article about that subject. For example, Horn & Ivory introduces a religion called Malachism which shares many signifiers with Islam, such as a caliph who combines spiritual and imperial authority, an emphasis on science and medicine, official tolerance of other religions within its territory, and some semi-formal prohibitions on practices the rest of the setting considers benign. The fact that we’ve made some changes, even large changes, doesn’t excuse stereotype, intentional or inadvertent; and as I’ve mentioned in the “how to play this game without being racist or Islamophobic” appendix to the book, the stakes tied to those kinds of negative stereotypes are frankly high for Muslims in the English-speaking world in general and the role-playing hobby in particular.

I’ve carried on the approach I’ve used for my other projects heavy with cultural signifiers such as AfroFuture, Thousand Arrows, and Scion. I start out by identifying the negative stereotypes that pose the most clear and present danger to the material with which I’m working and then designing “perpendicular” to those stereotypes. Because presenting the exact opposite of a given stereotype sometimes winds up reinforcing that stereotype (looking at you, Wakanda), I try to emphasize aspects of religions or cultures that haven’t appeared often in popular media. Signifiers with strong associations have to come from clearly written and sourced reading materials about the history or legendary of the culture, region, or religion I’m discussing. Finally, if I don’t come from a certain culture, I don’t get to decide whether my representation is appropriation or not; so the final product has to pass muster with a friend from that culture before it reaches the public. Ironclaw’s made mistakes in the past and I fully expect to get some of this book wrong, but I’m counting on the community to help point out my errors so I can learn from them, improve on them, and create something we can all be proud of.

What kind of mechanics do you use to model the non-human roles in Ironclaw?

Ironclaw characters have six fundamental traits, each of which gets a die size in character creation: Body, Speed, Mind, Will, Species, and Career. For some characters, Species is mostly a cosmetic or social choice, but I personally like to save a high die for Species because you get to roll it in your pool when you use your species's strongest senses, when you're in your species's natural habitat, when you attack with your natural weapons, and when you use the three skills your species is best at.

For example, Lücius the gangster centipede gets his shiny d8 when he relies on his senses of sight or smell; when he grapples enemies or jabs them with his venomous forcipules; or uses the Climbing, Craft, or Tactics skills. Each species also starts the game with three Gifts, which are little packages of abilities; so Lucius has an Extra Two Hands, Prehensile Feet, and Venom. If you want to emphasize your species's natural abilities further, you can learn atavistic Gifts as your character advances: so your otter character could hold their breath for an impossibly long time, or your mouse could burrow at incredible speeds.

Species also have distinct social positions, though: there are noble houses, dynasties, clans, and even religions associated with specific species. So if your social engineer countess plans to collect Gifts which give her bonuses with other nobles, she's probably attached to her species's Great House. Horn & Ivory also introduces a necromantic secret society whose ranks come mostly from scavenger species such as vultures and hyenas.

What experiences do you hope that players will get out of Ironclaw?

I hope this Ironclaw setting helps players who’ve been scared to engage with cultures outside their comfort zone do exactly that, the way Steal Away Jordan taught me I could have just as much fun in a game about American slavery and as I do in any other RPG. Moreover, I hope we can inspire other designers to represent cultures outside of the industry norms. This might be one of the first RPG books about these places and times, but I pray it won’t be the last.

Thanks to James for the interview! It was cool to learn about the new product James is bringing forward. Check Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory out on Kickstarter if you can!

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