Though there have been people of color involved in tabletop roleplaying for a long time, they have not always been visible, rarely celebrated, and almost never catered to in any notable way. So, I’m very, very happy to see a much more actively inclusive gaming community in today’s new boom times for the hobby. It’s not enough. We’re not ‘there’ yet. But the changes are happening. With social media and platforms like Kickstarter, voices that might not have had much reach 20 or 40 years ago are getting a chance to be heard, and the hobby is the better for it.
I’m not much of a Fantasy fan. I don’t tend to read it. I don’t tend to play Fantasy themed RPGs. I’m much more a horror/sci-fi fan. But I make exceptions, to be sure. And Sword & Sorcery, particularly Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve been aware of, but have not delved deeply into Sword & Soul, an African inspired take on the genre, ostensibly created by Charles R. Saunders. So when it was announced that Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade would be creating a Sword & Soul tabletop RPG, I knew it was something I was going to need, and something that the gaming community needs. Wallet out; Kickstarter backed.
After a successful Kickstarter and the usual hiccups that are faced by small press publishers, my hard copy of the book arrived, and I read through it pretty quick. I found myself somewhat disappointed, overall. But I do not regret my support for the project.
First, when I opened my envelope to find the book, it was, I’ll admit, a bit smaller than I’d have liked. With less than 170 pages of content, it’s a slim volume. And while there is some nice art, there isn’t much of it. I guess that’s good, considering the relative shortness of the book, but I think more art could have helped. I’ve always found that artwork in RPGs can do a great deal to help set the mood, spark ideas, and generally add to the flavor of the text. Less artwork…much less flavor. And this brings me to my second disappointment. While there are descriptions of the many lands, their customs and industries, etc., there was little sense of what the world is like, why one might adventure in it, or what makes it interesting. In fact, I didn’t even get a sense of what sort of Fantasy this was supposed to be. Sometimes, it felt like Sword & Sorcery, sometimes like the Tolkien style Epic Quest, and others like Steampunk. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but if they’re going to be blended, I need more of a sense of world to anchor my thoughts. When I finished reading the book, I had no idea how I would use it. I had no character ideas, no story ideas, no campaigns imagined. Usually when I read a new RPG, my mind is bursting with things I want to do, but this time, I had nothing.
So, here’s the thing. I think that if you’ve read Saunders and other Sword & Soul authors, and you’re already familiar with the genre, I think this is a good tool kit for running games along those lines. But picking it up without already being a genre fan, it feels like something major is missing. The rules seem fine. They use playing cards instead of dice. Not the first game I’ve seen do that, so I know it can work. Skimming through the rules a couple times didn’t produce any red flags. I’d have to sit down with a couple people and really play to make sure I like the mechanics. However, while this gives you game rules, it doesn’t give much context to use them.
As I’ve been creating my own roleplaying game for some time, I often wrestle with the question of how to make my world interesting to a potential player or game master. I worry about how I can make my setting seem unique enough to warrant someone bothering to use it, instead of any number of other games out there. And I struggle with the ideas of balance, between too much background info, too little, too much jargon, too many creatures, too few bits of local color, etc. I think Ki Khanga misses the mark on this balance, leaning too far into the rules (there are pages and pages of detailed explanations of weapons, herbs, armor, etc.), and not enough on the story (I was halfway through the book before I figured out that the game wasn’t going to be set inside “The Cleave,” and that said region was supposed to feature as a big mystery in the game…except that I got no real sense of how to use it as such).
I think the book could have benefited greatly from a ‘history of the world’ section. Some kind of basic narrative to give you a sense of what it’s all about. It took reading the whole book to start to piece together some general thoughts on the setting, and even then, I never got a real handle on what it was all about, or why I’d want to tell stories with it. Africa offers so much history and mythology, there’s definitely great potential for Fantasy roleplaying and storytelling. I am planning to read some Saunders, and more Milton Davis in the future. So, perhaps when I’ve done that, I’ll have more of an idea of what to do with this book. Until then, it’s going onto the shelf.