Games Design - Race and Gaming, Part 2 - Rise of the Zulu

Posted by: Neil Gow On: Aug 25th 2010

Some of you may remember on the old CE site, in the early days of D&H, I struggled in public with the issue of race within the game. The discussions there really helped me get my head straight and so I come to you again with another quandry. In fact its such a gordian knot I am reminded of a certain American president:

"I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don't always agree with them."

The writing for the Duty & Honour 1810 Miscellany is nearly done, barring a few external submissions, and I am beginning to turn my thoughts and reading seriously towards D&H: Rise of the Zulu. This book aims to skip the system forward to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, allowing people to play in and around the famous events of 'Zulu' and provide a basis for more turn-of-the-century play in maybe Afganistan, Egypt and India. Its a wealth of Boys Own adventure stuff and offers some nuances on the D&H system, such as civilian characters.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you view it) the history behind the game is a lot less ... black and white is absolutely the wrong term, but you know what I mean. In D&H, the French and Napoleon occupy a space alongside Nazis, Zombies, Sharks, Orcs and Ninjas. They are the 'baddies' and they can be shot at with impunity. The historical distance, the cultural resonance, the media presence - everything about the era plays into this.

The Anglo-Zulu War is a different kettle of fish. Behind the heroism seen on the silver screen at Rourke's Drift there was a very difficult and unjust conflict based, from the books I have read, on political and imperial advantage and personal advancement wrapped up in some very unsteady justifications and objections. The more I read about it the more questioning I find the background of the book troublesome.

I know Malcolm has mentioned this to me before - that there is a danger that the game will be about 'going out and massacring black people.' This is something I definitely want to avoid as much as possible but it is part of the setting. And herein lies the 'opinion I disagree with'...

- I want to do the book. I think, if I can hit the right spot, it will be a great alternative setting and it is pregnant with loads of potential.
- I cannot, however, condone a game where the entertainment comes from massacring a real world indigenous people for having a different culture.
- I do think that it could be done in a way that avoids this, presenting a conflict with multiple protagonists and antagonists, rather than 'Brits vs Zulus'
- However I am aware that regardless of my careful considerations, the content could still be misread and mistreated and thus gain much negative press.
- However I see no reason to (a) flinch from my commitment to promote historical gaming and (b) resort to historical revisionism, which I see as almost as bad.

So an internal struggle going on here and I would really appreciate your thoughts on this. The notes are done, the art is ready - I just need to get my head around the thrust of the book.


ps. I will add that of the fiction I have read around the period, there is very little downgrading of the threat of the Zulu to 'orc status'. They are presented as a clear and equal threat to an individual British soldier and the Brits are shown as inept and cowardly as they are brave and deadly. Its a start.

Posted by: Newt Newport On: Aug 25th 2010

Obviously the film Zulu is my first entry point into this milieu. However like any good gamer-geek I've done a bit of reading around it, watched a few Timewatch/T.V. history programmes which go into the deeper issues of the conflict.

I know Zulu is historically inaccurate (after a quick scan of the wikipedia article), but its going to be most gamers entry point to your game. In fact I think Zulu isn't a bad starting point. It shows the Brits as a deeply divided lot, on both class lines and as personality, while the Zulus are a coherent and brave fighting force; not a bunch of orks!

"I do think that it could be done in a way that avoids this, presenting a conflict with multiple protagonists and antagonists, rather than 'Brits vs Zulus'"

I think this is your main thrust of the game, with the player's exploring each of the different 'sides' where they get their enjoyment.

Also please don't underestimate your audience's intelligence and stint on the less glamorous aspects of the milieu.

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Aug 26th 2010

We've just started a Beat to Quarters game (I'll try to post about it later) set in Port Royal and environs, and whilst there are certainly French about (our first mission is to capture a French privateer), they're not the only enemy. There are plenty of different foes (our nemesis is an American Captain, for example), some of whom may wind up being allies and vice versa. It's ended up with a more multicultural feel, rather than a black and white war goodies vs baddies feel.

I wonder if by doing something similar, by presenting an array of foes and allies, by creating a complex political and military situation, it'll muddy the waters suitably so it's not a simple case of "shoot the zulu."

Posted by: Neil Gow On: Aug 26th 2010

I think BtQ, by its nature, is a far more cosmopolitan game - you can sail anywhere, fight anybody and frankly the navy would take anyone who could pull a rope, so nationality becomes a null issue. (Sounds like a good game btw - hope it went well...)

I think thats definitely one possibility for Zulu. Between the Zulus, the other tribes, the Boers and issues with Mozambique (the Portugueese, iirc) there are a fair number of 'tribal' bad guys and then you can add rogue miners, militant farmers and sleezy British politicians and have a right array of bad guys. Actually, another thing which the literature introduces - something which is virtually foreign to the other genres - is animals. A lion can be a terrifying foe. Interesting stuff.

There may even be a case for having the game set after Ulundi, dealing with the aftermath of the war rather than within the war... although having the main battles as a mini-campaign within the book. Best of both worlds maybe. Pondering Head On.

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Aug 26th 2010

Was the British involvement purely military in nature? Or is there other stuff going on too, such as diplomatic missions and the like? Could presenting some of that, alongside rules for civilians, help change the tone too.

Posted by: Neil Gow On: Aug 26th 2010

Yes - there was the entire machinery of the Empire at work there. So diplomats, ladies, garden parties, discussions with dignitaries from other cultures. That sort of stuff was going on alongside the stabbing and shooting.


Posted by: Joe Prince On: Aug 26th 2010

This is boring, couldn't you have chosen something controversial Neil. ;)

Since the intent is to use the Empire! system then keep a focus on the heart of that system - soldiers on a mission.

I think you could make the game very sympathetic, without soft-pedalling the historical reality. Following on from Newt's comments, an idea is to have players create two PCs, one British, one Zulu. Alternate between the two groups (good time to use GM rotation).

Perhaps some fate elements that each player has common to both his PCs, to create a link (something like Mountain Witch's dark fates here). The game could build to some sort of confrontation between the two groups of PCs.

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