Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ethnic Neighborhoods

A street in Chinatown, NYC
A street in Chinatown, NYC

Loisaida. The Lower East Side. Chinatown. Little Italy. K-town. New York City is full of what are referred to as ‘ethnic enclaves,’ areas where a significant portion of the population shares the same ethnicity. I grew up in on the Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s which had a large Puerto Rican/Nuyorican population. Many people were bilingual and the comforts and foods of home were accessible. There’s something about eating a hot alcapurria when it’s snowing that is a bit comforting. A bit farther south of the bodegas, joyerias, cuchifritos and churches of the largely Latino population were the delis, garment stores and synogogues of the Jewish population. Fixing grocery on Saturdays meant seeing people coming back from synongogue; sometimes I’d run into my friend from school. Farther south on East Broadway the open air fish and produce grocers, storefronts and restaurants of Chinatown surrounded me. In HS my best friend took me to a Indian neighborhood in Queens where we stared at the gorgeous jewelry in the jewelry store windows, drank lassi and looked at movie theater posters for films with amazing dance numbers.

When people immigrate to a new land, they tend to find people they can relate to to help them settle in. Different reasons might drive populations from their country or land of origin in large numbers but once they arrive at their destination, a bit of familiarity makes the move a bit easier. When the location won’t fill in the hole, someone who speaks the language, has the same traditions or is even a distant relative or friend of a friend will make the move less scary. Sometimes people arriving might find while technically they are allowed to be in certain locations, they are not always welcome. In addition, well established and nicer areas might not be financially feasible. Unsettled or undesirable land might be what is available and through hard work and working together, a community can be built.

Once these communities are established, many newcomers gravitate towards these neighborhoods, hoping to gain from the experience of those already settled. The already established want to help their friends and fellow countrymen succeed, offering tips, housing or even employment if they’ve set up their own businesses. People settle down, start families, put their children through school, send home money to loved ones. They build grocery stores, religious communities and recreational centers where they can teach tradition and language. They bring their food, their martial arts, their style of dress, their music, their ceremonies. Sometimes they start organizations, both legitimate or illegal. Sometimes they dream of ‘going back’ but sometimes the conditions in their homeland make it undesirable or even impossible. Some do go back. And others stay, becoming citizens, contributing to the society and culture they have decided to stick with through thick and thin.

Most major cities will have ethnic diversity; in the same vein, if there is diversity, it will probably be concentrated in cities. Despite how New York City is depicted on television, it’s rare to go a few blocks without seeing someone whose family came from a different part of the world than your family. Cities being centers of commerce, business and major ports, they tend to have the most varied populations, the streets rippling with the sounds of different languages, the scent of different foods, the color of different kinds of clothing. Sometimes ethnic differences can stir up trouble but at the end of the day a vast majority of people want to be happy, safe and with their loved ones.

Ethnic neighborhoods in your campaign can expose your PCs to various issues, both political and social and is a good way to prime them for a trip to another country or region where the culture is different. Depending on your character’s background, a trip a few blocks down can be an eye opening experience or a respite from spending most of your time in a culture that doesn’t understand you. What comforts and adventures can ethnic neighborhoods offer in your setting?

For GMs

  • What ethnicities lie within your setting? Where did they relocate from? How long ago? Did they come all in one huge wave? What facilitated or necessitated their move?
  • What kinds of communities have they set up within the larger region? What part of the city do they live in? What are the boundaries of their neighborhood and how were the boundaries set? How have they grown over the years?
  • Why have they settled in the locations they have? Was the land similar to home? What was made available? The first safe place they could find? Empty?
  • What kinds of businesses have they set up? Do they import foods and goods from home or have they adapted to local fare and offerings?
  • How many generations are currently living residing in the country?
  • What issues did the population face in their homeland? What issues do they face in the new country? Security? Lack of food? Illness? Prejudice? Lack of resources?
  • Are there any locations where they make up a majority of the population, despite not being the indigenous one?
  • Does their country of origin have any issues with/affiliations with other countries? When their descendents meet in the cities of the land they’ve immigrated to, what happens?
  • How are they similar to the indigenous culture? How are they different?
  • How easy is it to move out of the neighborhood? What are reasons for wanting to leave? Reasons for staying?
  • When are people with different backgrounds considered citizens? What can they do to gain citizenship? Are their children born here considered citizens?

Plot Hooks

  • All the PCs grew up in the same neighborhood and have the same cultural background but have since moved away. When someone they have in common invites them back for an important function/ceremony, they run into old acquaintances and customs and must maneuver through the ‘old ways.’ What things are asked of them? Who do they meet? Who did they have connections to? How long are they ‘in town’ for?
  • When an ethnic neighborhood starts creeping into another neighborhood, setting up businesses and moving into domiciles, the PCs are hired to sabotage the storefronts and make the place unappealing to the newcomers. What reasons are given as to why these newcomers aren’t welcome? How do the PCs go about keeping them away?
  • While traveling through the countryside, the PCs come across a town populated by people from a different culture altogether. Far removed from the country they originated from, they have set up a small community that appears to be thriving. How did they all arrive there? Do the surrounding towns and villages know they’re there? How have they acclimated to the dominant culture? How do they receive the PCs? Do the local authorities know they’re there?
  • When the country goes to war with another country, the neighborhood that corresponds to the enemy country comes under scrutiny. The PCs are sent to see who goes in and out, monitoring the populace and watching for spies. When people start disappearing, their neighbors and friends are too afraid to give any information. Why are the people disappearing? Has the mood changed in the neighborhood? How are the people treated by others? Do the PC suspect anyone in the neighborhood and how are they regarded by the would-be traitors?
  • The PCs are all parents/guardians of children who attend the local language and tradition school, where the next generation is taught the ceremonies and ways of their people. When the government decides to cut funding which would shut the school down, the PCs are sent to convince the government otherwise. Why is the government pulling its funding? Where does the funding from the school come from? Why do they as parents care and why are they the ones sent? Can they obtain the money for the school elsewhere? What would it mean if the school were to close down? How many schools would be affected?
  • When crime becomes a problem in the neighborhood, the local police force blames it on the tempers and attitudes of the citizens, blaming their background for their violent behaviour. The PCs investigate the reasons for the sudden uptick in crimes. What kinds of crimes are on the rise? Who is committing them? Who is helping to commit these crimes? What are the police threatening to do to curtail the lawlessness?
  • After a few years of trying to establish itself in a new land, the elders of the community decide to try and hold one of the larger festivals publically and invite citizens to join in the revelry. The PCs are selected to help organize the event and spread the word. What is the large festival about and when is it to take place? What must be prepared? Why is this the first year it is being held on this scale? Which elders proposed the event? How does the local government respond?

For PCs

  • Did you grow up in an ethnic neighborhood? Are you part of an immigrant group that came here from another region/country? Born to one of these groups?
  • What have you heard about the different neighborhoods? Are their neighborhoods you go into for certain reasons/items? Ones you avoid? Ones you avoid at certain times?
  • How have you seen the neighborhoods change over your lifetime? Do you think they’ve changed for the better or worse?
  • Do you like places with more diversity or less?
  • What do you do in neighborhoods where the cultural background is different from your own? Do you just eat food? Buy goods? Talk to people? Receive services (clothes washed, armor repaired)?
  • If someone invited you to their home in a neighborhood you heard questionable things about, would you go?

What say you? Where we come from can be a big deal, both geographically and culturally. One doesn’t have to leave the country to necessarily encounter someone very different from us. The differences and similarities can make for a wild ride indeed. Do you have ethnic neighborhoods in your town or city? How can you translate that to your campaign?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Gifts

A special envelope for presenting a monetary gift or a tip, used in Japan.

To the clothes and toys given to children to the flowers and food left for the deceased, life is peppered with events where the giving or exchanging of gifts is customary. Every culture has a tradition of giving, ranging from the customary extra donut from the baker to the ultimate sacrifices of martyrs for others’ benefit.

Gift giving is complicated. Depending on who is giving, who is receiving and the occasion, a myriad of rules and customs apply. Bequeathing an inappropriate gift could be more disastrous than not giving any gift at all, and a gift given in the wrong manner can cause the giver to lose face and insult whoever is receiving. Because of the encroaching holidays, many of us have gifts for loved ones, liked ones, acquaintances, and perhaps co-workers in mind, trying to find a good deal on the perfect gift, finding the right box, wrapping it, and taking it to the post office. If you’re like me, you order as many gifts as you can online to avoid having to be around people, I mean, wait in line around the holidays. A gift for the jerk in the cubicle across from you will probably look vastly different from what you get for your boss. And you wouldn’t dream of giving that same present to your grandma, I wouldn’t think.

There are many kinds of giving to be done. There is the giving of gifts at a time of joyous celebration, to help individuals on their next stage of life. There are gifts given to help those in need, such as those who have just suffered a great tragedy or loss. Tributes are a kind of gift, given to honor leaders, to show allegiance, and to provide goods and wealth to fund endeavors to (hopefully) benefit both the giver and receiver. Potlatches and other customs dictated that the wealthy show off their wealth by giving gifts to their guests, often at large parties with spiritual and social ceremonies.

A gift freely given and graciously accepted is a common theme in many stories, the mark of the hero or the sign of a good ruler. Greed, ungratefulness, and stinginess are often signs of a villain, someone to be avoided. Personal slights can follow people across the land and sea and not paying your tribute can mean trouble for your tribe and loved ones.

It’s more than just something acquired and handed over. What is given and how it is given says a lot about the person doing the given. And what the receiver expects and how they react reflects on them as well. What are your PCs giving and taking in your games?

For GMs

  • What occasions dictate the giving or exchanging of gifts? What are the typical types of gifts given on these occasions and who is exchanging?
  • What customs surround the giving the gifts? Are there elaborate rituals regarding the gifts? Do they have to be wrapped a certain way? Given on certain days? Certain gifts not given for certain occasions (such as not giving a potted plant to an ill person, lest the illness become ‘rooted’)? Things that are never given as gifts?
  • What are gifts wrapped in? How are they presented? Are they handed over from person to person or left in a specified location with some kind of indicator as to the giver?
  • Is there a system of ‘tribute’? How is this structured and what projects are the goods and money put towards? What is considered worthy to offer as tribute? Who may present the tribute?
  • How are anonymous gifts viewed? With suspicion? With curiosity? With admiration?
  • Who makes the finest gifts in the land? Offers the best goods? Grows the best specimens?
  • What is the proper attitude one should have when giving or receiving gifts? Humility? Pride?
  • What stories and myths are centered around giving?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are part of a retinue escorting tribute to an important individual, and the gift must be presented in a certain manner. When the person who is supposed to carry out the elaborate ceremony is hurt so that they cannot perform the ritual, the PCs all must train in the rite; the best of them will be allowed to carry out the presentation, knowing the fate of their company and their people rest on them pulling it off. What is the ceremony? To whom are they giving the tribute? What are the risks of not showing up? Of giving the tribute late? Of messing up the ceremony?
  • After accompanying an important official on a mission to a foreign city, the official gives the PCs a bonus for a job well done to buy something for their loved ones back home. The PCs are allowed to roam the city in plain clothes and look around, trying to find the perfect gift for those who are waiting for them to return. How much money have they been given? What kinds of items do they have here that the PCs don’t have at home? What do they purchase?
  • The PCs help a group of people with a local problem. In thanks, the locals give the PCs goods that are special to that region. Later, when the PCs return, the locals snub the PCs, treating them coldly despite their earlier help. Upon investigation, the PCs find it is local custom that when one receives a gift, the receiver gives something small in return. How do the PCs correct the slight?
  • When an important individual receives a lavish but anonymous gift, they ask the PCs to investigate so the receiver might reciprocate and not lose face among their fellow elite citizens. What is the gift? How was it given? Who is the receiver and what is their relationship to the PCs? Who is the giver of the gift and why did they give the gift anonymously?
  • A local church practices ‘sowing’ back into the community, taking surplus money left at the end of the year and distributing it within the community. When the money box containing this money goes missing, the PCs must find it before the ceremony is scheduled to take place. Who has taken the money? Why? What would it mean if the money isn’t distributed back into the community?

For PCs

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever given? Ever received? What was so great about it?
  • Are there people you always bring presents for?
  • What is your most treasured possession and what would it take for you to give it to someone else?
  • How do you feel about personal sacrifice?
  • If someone gives you a gift, do you feel you need to reciprocate or do you simply graciously accept it? Do you think expecting something in return is in good taste or tacky?
  • Do you prefer to give presents or receive them?
  • How do you show your appreciation for gifts?

What say you? Are your PCs ready to give and take?


Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: 24/7

Die Hangematte by Gustave Courbet. Okay. She’s totally going to fall out of that thing.

What business is open the latest where you live? When I used to live in New York City, this would be a tough question to answer. In my neighborhood it was probably one of the bodegas or corner stores but plenty of restaurants stay open around the clock. The existence of street lights and around the clock public transportation means sidewalks and streets always have someone on them and factories, schools and markets keep late hours. Something is always happening in NYC.

Where I currently live in Central California, I would venture a guess that the Wal-Mart is probably one of the very few things open all the time. Many businesses are open later on the weekends but close in the later afternoon during the week. Bars are generally open late with each state and country usually having laws dictating hours for selling alcohol with drinking establishments closing accordingly (apparently a lot of states have laws restricting the sale of alcohol on Election Day, which…HAHAHAHAHAHA).

Business, entertainment and other things center around the work week, with shows and specials starting when people are most likely to be available to partake and take advantage of them. The amount of light available affects the amount of time people have to get their work and their errands done, the advent of artificial light meaning people can stay awake indoors and out till later hours. Parties could go on all through the night as long as the fire is kept burning and the bodies are willing. And of course, staying up all night means you’ll be paying for it the next day.

In some cases, the middle of the day is a time to close down shops and rest for a short period of time. The siesta is well known but many other countries and cultures have their own version, taking this generally hottest part of the day as a chance to relax and connect with their family members and friends after a few hours of hard work. Ranging from 15-30 minutes of laying down or resting to a few hours, many people acknowledge that while life goes on, taking a small break in the middle of the day helps the body deal with it better. These kinds of breaks are easier to take when people work close to home, work from home or have jobs that provide spaces for workers to rest. With a rest in the middle of the day, citizens are able to stay awake a little later, visiting with family and friends and building community after a day of labour.

While gates and ports might be open to some degree around the clock (or…I guess, around the sundial), it doesn’t mean accommodations are waiting on the other side. Arriving after a certain hour or watch might mean all travelling in and out must be done through a certain gate, except in the case of emergencies (or perhaps a bribe?). Inns and bars might be closed or might charge for the inconvenience of having to be up in the middle of the night, getting beds for everyone and vehicles or animals parked. What might be open and willing to receive late night travellers might be less than desirable. And in times of war, illness or stress, curfews might be put into place.

Cultures and technology will make the day last as long as it can. The drive to get more done can be very alluring for people in all areas of their lives. Some want to work more to make more money, some want the fun times with their friends to never end. But days end and people have their limits
Conventions surrounding times of day and rest are integral to any culture and can offer obstacles and opportunities for PCs. Synchronize watches!

For GMs

  • What does a typical day look like for the average citizen of the region?
  • What kinds of hours do business usually keep? What hours find farmers in the fields?
  • What kind of businesses open the earliest? Close the latest? What neighborhoods and districts have the longest hours? Close as soon as it gets dark?
  • What time do things start winding down? When do people generally start heading home?
  • Do people take a break during the middle of the day? How long of a break do they get? Do they go home or stay close to work? Is it because of the heat? The size of the meal people eat midday?
  • Are all in-roads/gates open all the time? Who is watching the gates and what dictates their opening and closing?
  • What kind of technology/lighting is used to extend the day? Is the tech available everywhere?

Plot Hooks

  • When the PCs are on a mission in another region they must deal with a culture that stays up WAY past their normal bedtime. Social expectations trump their desire to finally just SLEEP as their newest acquaintances run them ragged through the streets. How long does it take the PCs to adjust? What kind of things happen late at night in this region? What will they be missing out on if they do sleep? What are the consequences of waking up very tired the next day?
  • A business has just installed special lights that don’t burn hot or make smoke so they can stay open around the clock producing goods. The PCs are workers from a competing business, sent to spy on the rival outfit. How do the lights operate? What kind of workers are willing to work late at night? What are they producing? What is the reason for expanding the operation? How do the PCs get their new ‘employer’ to trust them?
  • When a hitch in their plans has the PCs arriving at the gate way later than they thought, they miss their appointment and their chance at staying at a decent inn. The exhausted and hungry PCs must maneuver the shadier part of town with their belongings. What kinds of establishments are open late at night? How are they received at the gate? Are all the PCs tired or are some wound up from the journey and need to blow off some steam?
  • With the knowledge the security is light when people go home for their afternoon meals and rests the PCs plan a heist to best take advantage of the lack of eyes and abundance of light so they can make good on their escape. If they plan it right they can get it to their employer right before the city gates close. How carefully do the PCs plan? What are they stealing? Is anyone on ‘the inside’ helping them steal the goods?
  • When invaded by an outside force, the city is placed under a strict curfew, resulting in the end to a once bustling nightlife. However, tunnels underground mean the nights don’t have to be slow. The PCs coordinate and guide eager partiers to cultural events and underground bars and if a few dissidents happen to pass their way…how did the PCs get involved in this? How do they feel about the occupiers? How did the tunnels come to be and how do the occupiers not know about them? How do they let people know what is happening and how to arrive at safepoints? What kind of events are happening underground?

For PCs

  • Are you a morning person or an night owl?
  • Do you like to take a rest after any meals?
  • What time of day do you think is best for visiting with friends and family?
  • After work do you like to go straight home or go out?
  • What time do you go to bed? What is the perfect amount of sleep for you?

What say you? We can game till the wee hours of the night; can the PCs throw down till the sun comes up? Check out this list of Top 10 Cities that Never Sleep for a little city building and a previous RMtBF about Light Sources.

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Coffee

Coffee beans! From the top left going clockwise, Arabic coffee, Medium Roast from Columbia and a 5 Country Espresso Blend.

I’m sitting in a cafe, having a latte. I had a pint of coffee this morning. I ground the beans myself and brewed it in my french press. I imbibed my coffee at my computer. I added a little half and half to it. It was really good. This latte I’m having is really good as well.

When I was growing up my grandma made ‘Spanish coffee’ with Cafe Bustelo, brewed with a small cotton sack, coffee grounds, hot water and two pots. When I worked at a church with mostly Latin@ congregants, Cafe Bustelo was what was generally made and yes, I had to heat up the whole milk for it. Milk and sugar. Generally two sugars (coffee with milk and two sugars is a ‘regular coffee’ in most bodegas). My grandma used to let me drink tiny sips of her coffee, even though some relative of mine in a moment of idiocy told her not to, claiming it would ‘make me dark.’ My grandma laughed and let me have sips of it anyway. When she was a baby growing up in Puerto Rico, I’m told the mothers put milk and coffee in the babies’ bottles. People grew coffee; you had to buy formula at the store.

When my spouse came back from the Middle East, he brought with him a bag of ‘Arabic Coffee.’ This is barely roasted coffee beans mixed with green cardamom pods. The beans and pods are ground up and steeped in hot water for a long time and resulting liquid is served with lumps of sugar. A woman from Egypt was visiting us and she brought out her totally stunning tea service to serve it. The coffee and cardamom together are totally amazing and…it will make you shake. Wow. Lots of caffeine in that.

The history of coffee starts in Africa and is tied in with the Islamic and Arabic history. Many people are familiar with the story of the dancing goats but there is also a story of a Sufi mystic who may have learned about the coffee beans qualities from birds. Another story tells of an exiled disciple named Omar who through trial and error comes upon the method of picking, roasting and boiling the beans. Already known for his ability to heal through prayer, the news of his newest finding and it’s curative properties spread. He was eventually made a saint. In the ‘dancing goats’ story, the shepherd brings the beans to a holy man who throws the beans into the fire in an attempt to destroy them but their enticing aroma drew the holy men in, who removed the beans from the fire, ground them up and boiled them in water.

Coffee was a popular drink in the Muslim world of the 16th century, imbibed by religious individuals who used it to help them stay away during their evening prayers. Coffee was banned and then again allowed in Middle Eastern culture, travelling from Yemen to the urban centers of Istanbul, Cairo, Damasus and Baghdad. The first coffee houses opened not in Europe but in Istanbul in 1554 and for a long time, coffee was considered a drink of the Middle East.

Trade brought it to India and Asia and eventually to Europe, specifically Italy where it was a concoction mostly for the wealthy. The Catholic Church tried to ban coffee but when it was brought before Pope Clement VIII, he chose not to, enjoying the drink himself. Coffee was expensive and those who grew the bushes in Africa carefully guarded them so as to control the export of the precious and delicious commodity. But eventually a Dutch merchant managed to get a few bushes out and was able to grow coffee in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony.
Eventually coffee became a less expensive beverage and coffee shops opened in Europe. The Battle of Vienna resulted in Austria receiving spoils of war from the Turks which included more than a fair amount of coffee beans which were used to supply coffee shops. The addition of milk to coffee was made popular by a Ukrainian soldier who opened the first coffee shop in Vienna. Coffee made its way into the rest of Europe, coffee shops becoming popular in most countries with profit to be made by many trading companies and colonies in the Americas were soon planted with coffee plantations alongside sugarcane and other crops tended to by slaves from Africa. At some points certain countries didn’t allow women into coffee shops while in some cases, groups of women protested the drinking of coffee, claiming it had negative effects on their spouses. Some religions to this day forbid or strongly discourage the partaking of coffee. But for many people in the past and even today, coffee shops are a place to sit and talk about the latest trends in philosophy, politics and art and congregate around their cups of caffeinated brew.

Some say coffee helped fuel the Industrial Revolution in Europe as coffee replaced beer as the beverage of choice, energizing a population forced to work long hours in unpleasant conditions. Coffee replaced yerba mate in Brazil, and became more popular in America as it severed its ties with Britain, favouring it over tea. Franchises like Starbucks has brought coffee to cultures that traditionally favor other caffeinated beverages and the world is full of traditions regarding the proper way to brew a perfect cup.

Every culture has its stimulants and coffee’s history can invigorate any campaign. Or make it shake till it has a headache and then feels like crap? Hmm.

For GMs

  • What is the stimulant of choice for the region? Is it from a plant or animal? What part is used?
  • Does the substance need to be prepared in a certain way in order to maximize its flavour?
  • How is the substance prepared? How does this differ from region to region? Do people feel strongly about a ‘correct’ way to prepare it or are people open to different permutations?
  • Where does it originate from? What kinds of events and organizations helped and hindered its spread to its present day influence?
  • Is the substance associated with any one group, movement, culture or religious organization? How does this affect its influence geographically and culturally?
  • How do other groups of people regard the partaking of this substance?
  • Is it said to have any medicinal properties? Negative properties? How contested are either of these?
  • How is it moved from region to region? Who trades it? Who controls it?
  • Who cultivates it? Are the workers treated fairly?
  • If the substance is cultivated in different regions, how does the land and climate affect the substance? Is the flavour different if it is grown in one region versus another?
  • Does it have addictive qualities? What does withdrawal look like?
  • Can it be adulterated? Has it replaced any other substances?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are charged with the task of opening a coffee shop in a foreign region close to the border of their homeland. The foreign region historically does not drink coffee and some members of the society feel negatively about this ‘strange drink.’ The PCs must maneuver the culture, run the shop and deal with negative propaganda and even sabotage surrounding the dark brew. What do the PCs, their employer and their country have to gain if the shop becomes popular? Which groups are the most vocal against their being there? Who supports them? Do they hire people to work the shop? How do they try to deal with the cultural differences?
  • The PCs are part of a group that believes the drinking of coffee to be evil and they are sent to destroy a coffee plantation. The drinking of coffee is on the rise and they’re hoping to destroy the supply and the influence of the bean. However, there may be more than just religious fervor brewing. Who sends the PCs? How do they plan on destroying the farm? How would the destruction of one plantation affect the supply and prices of coffee? Who would be affected the most by the destruction of the plantation, both negatively and positively? What other stances does their group have?
  • The political or financial leader of their country desires a coffee plant and sends the PCs to acquire either a plant, seeds or both as well as information as to the best way to cultivate the plants. On what premise are they sent into the country of origin? How do they plan to transport the contraband back? How highly guarded are the plants and seeds? What are the consequences if they are caught? Who do they work with within the country to acquire the plant? What would the cultivation of coffee in their homeland affect the economic relationship of the two countries?
  • The PCs are all given coffee and then sent on various tasks to see how the inclusion of this beverage in their diet affects their performance. How does it affect them?
  • Coffee shops are said to be the new hot spots of education, culture and political dissent in the population. The PCs are sent to investigate the coffee shops and gauge the cultural climates there, in the hopes of finding truly troublesome individuals before things get too serious. Who runs the coffee shops? What kind of political views are being thrown around? What kind of events are happening at coffee shops?
  • The PCs hear coffee in a certain region is cared for and picked by a marginalized group of people, taken advantage of by another group of people. The PCs go to free them. Who makes up this marginalized group of people? Are they the traditional growers and pickers of coffee? How did they come to be the go-to growers? Who is oppressing them? Why do the PCs feel it is their job to free these people? What would it mean if they are successful? What would it mean if they were to fail?

For PCs

  • Do you drink coffee or its equivalent?
  • How long have you been drinking it? Do you feel like you can start your day without it?
  • How much of it do you drink?
  • What is the ‘proper’ way to prepare it? What are other acceptable methods/permutation?
  • When is the right time of day to drink coffee?
  • What is the wrong way to drink coffee? Is there such a thing as too much or too little?
  • Would you rather drink terrible coffee or no coffee?

Coffee culture is really very interesting, for just some roasted beans steeped in water; I didn’t even get into espresso. People go nuts over it and its even included in soldier’s rations in some countries. What say you? Do we want to see your barbarian if they haven’t had their morning cup of coffee?

Also, check this out!
Six Ways To Brew Coffee Around the World
Five More Traditional Ways to Brew Coffee

Also, don’t forget we had an earlier RMtBF about smuggling, in case you needed a bit more…

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Art!

Merlin: They totally got my beard ALL wrong. 😡

Sister Karia pulled back the riffler from the stone, standing back. She was almost done. Sweat dripped down her neck and back in what felt like streams but her hands were dry, the tools sure in her hands. The statue stood before the priestess, chunks and shards of white marble littering the floor around the goddess.

It wasn’t the Goddess of course. Just a representation of her, carved into white marble. Sister Karia had travelled to the Ayilkin Barony to pick out the piece of marble to be used, touched the great white slabs excavated from the earth. When she laid her hand upon the piece of marble just brought up the day before, she knew it was the one. Carefully they had loaded the block onto a cart and she and the other priestesses had brought it back to the Temple of Holy Mystery and set it up in her workshop.

For the better part of the season Karia had worked on the sculpture, alternating between her duties to the younger students, teaching them the history of the representation of the Goddess in the Valley. A few icons and sculptures had been brought from Haran when the church had split all those generations ago but most of the representations of the Goddess in the Valley were made here, with the Valley’s fiber, wood, stone and metal. Karia had studied and researched the evolution of the Sacred Daughter in the art of the Holy Family and how it it had changed during the War of the Four Sects, the changes in the instruments used at the altar, the differences in how the Goddess was represented. No longer was a small, jeweled cup used to represent her at the table, but a large chalice or bowl, carved in alabaster, silver or marble, all by itself.

Sister Karia had made chalices as a younger priestess but now she felt called to make the statues that graced the temples. This was her third, and easily her best. The folds in her garments looked like they would sway in the breeze if someone opened the door and the veil the Blessed Mother wore over her wavy hair looked sheer, though it was made of the same material as the rest of the statue. The Goddess’ serene face gazed down at an angle Karia knew would have her looking over the congregation once it was set up in the temple. The hands seemed warm and inviting. Sister Pia of Tyeskin was sending the cloth that would be draped over the carefully crafted hands, dark fabric embroidered with sacred symbols, lines of holy text. And then the stone goddess would be set up in the temple.

But for now she was here and she seemed so…alive. Karia stepped back and stared up at what her hands had just made, her heart swelling with emotion. For a breath, Kiala felt as if the Goddess herself was standing in her workshop with her, smiling mysteriously at her. Karia placed both her hands over her heart and thanked the Goddess for the opportunity to bring Her beauty into the world and to her people.



It’s such a short word in many languages. Yet it’s such a big idea.

Continue reading “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Art!”

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Country vs. City

Kord’s Balls, your boots are so last season. And your public transportation? Terrible.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. It’s an Aesop Tale that has been told and retold throughout the years, with the moral being the city is a terrible place and that people should be grateful for what they have. That’s not what this is about.

Rural areas and cities always have their pros and cons, and depending on the personality of the individuals, they might be better suited for one or the other. Rural areas can offer pristine beauty, peace, quiet, good neighbors and simple living in a tightly knit community. Urban areas are generally situated in regions that are easily accessible, with waves of information, goods and people passing through.

Different volumes of people mean things like sanitation, crime, education, agriculture, transportation and other things must be dealt with differently. Committing a crime in a city could mean dealing with months of bureaucracy or just being killed by the city guards. Misdoings in the country could mean house arrest, being thrown in a cellar or being chased by an angry mob. Differences in architecture mean hiding in the city means sneaking between buildings. A rural getaway might mean running into the forest or through barns. It’s not as easy to slip away in a crowd if there are no crowds.

Continue reading “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Country vs. City”

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Body Modifications

A Maori Chief

When I was a baby, probably about 8 weeks old, my mom and one of my aunts took me down to one of the joyerias in our neighborhood and got my ears pierced. Supposedly I cried as the first one was done but a bottle of milk was quickly produced and, as I guzzled away, the second piercing was completed. Tiny gold studs now graced my small, brown ears. As I got older I was allowed to wear different earrings, and since my ears were pierced at such a young age, I can go for a long time without wearing them and not worry about the holes closing.

When I graduated from high school (as in, hours after I graduated) I took some of my graduation money and got my lip pierced. A few of my friends watched as the piercer produced a rather large metal needle from sterile packaging and worked it through my skin and muscle to the other side. He let the needle hang out in the newest hole in my body before he removed it and put a round lip in. Later, I replaced it with a barbell. It took a long time to heal and later when I removed it, the hole healed up rather quickly. I still have the scar (no, water does not drip out of it).

In the grand scheme of body modifications, these are both small potatoes.

Body modifications surround us. Piercings, tattoos. Earlobe stretching. Circumcision. Scarification. Breast Implants. Teeth filing. Eyelid augmentation. Footbinding. Botox. A whole bunch more I’m not going to list because it would take up a lot of space but humans have found a lot of ways to change their bodies. Some of the reasons for changing the body are medical, such as a breast reduction to ease back pain or trepanning to relieve pressure on the skull. Some are spiritual, to show belonging to a religious group or the process meant to put one in a certain frame of mind. There are the cosmetic, helping the bearer fit personal or cultural standards of beauty. Certain types of modifications can show that one is part of a people group, cultural, subcultural or even criminal culture. And sometimes body modifications are forced upon people, such as the practice of tattooing or branding of criminals.

In some parts of America, it’s really hard to find someone who doesn’t have a tattoo or piercing. Throughout history, some types of tattoos and modifications were seen as acceptable while others were seen as barbaric, depending on the culture engaging in the modifications and their significance. A coat of arms might have been fine on the chest or arm of an aristocrat but tribal tattoos were seen as primitive, pagan, a source of curiosity and not treated with the respect they deserved. One person’s oddity is another person’s link to their homeland, their role in society, their people, or their deities. Different things are important to different people and they shape our bodies as well as our consciousnesses.

Not all marks are chosen. Branding is a form of punishment carried out by the law and terrible people. Mutilations of various kinds can be inflicted by others to humiliate, torture, and alienate other people, while others are imposed to enforce roles in society. And sometimes cultural pressure can be less than kind to those who consider not participating in certain acceptable types of modifications. Having or not having a certain modification can prevent you from being a good standing member of society, make you unable to secure work, unable to marry, or shunned by anyone you come across in life.

Body modification is common and has been practiced as long as people have been around. Adventurers are born looking one way but through needles, ink, rings, and other materials they can take part in the cultural traditions they are born into.

For GMs

  • What kind of body modifications are common to the various cultural groups of your world?
  • What is the significance of the modifications? Are they ornamental? Religious? Cultural? Is the significance known to people outside the culture? To everyone in the culture? Or only those who have been initiated?
  • When are the modifications done and to whom? Are they done to children? Teenagers/adolescents? Married people? Warriors?
  • Is there a celebration associated with the modification or is it done in private? Is it performed on single individuals or on groups of people at the same time?
  • Who performs the modification? What role do these people have in the culture?
  • What are the consequences of sporting a modification not fitting one’s place in society?
  • How permanent are the modifications? Can they be reversed easily?
  • How are the modifications viewed by other cultures/religions?
  • Are there any consequences for not participating in the traditional modifications? Exclusion from certain ceremonies or activities? Ineligibility for marriage?
  • Are there any special tools or training involved with the modifications for the people taking them on or the people doling them out?
  • Are criminals forced to undergo certain modifications?
  • Are there any groups/religions that forbid marking the body?

Plot Hooks

  • Before they can be initiated into their group, the PCs must obtain a certain object/substance/animal needed to perform their ritual body modification. What is the object in question? What exactly are they being initiated into? How long do they have to obtain it? How do they feel about the rite of passage?
  • While travelling through the land, the PCs come across an individual who has serious abrasions on their face and body. When questioned, the individual says they were stripped of their rank and title which merited the forcible removal of their tattoos. Fearing for their own safety they ask to travel with the PCs. Do the PCs decide to take on the stranger? Is the stranger forthcoming with the details of their banishment? What will happen if members of their culture come across them? Is the stranger telling the truth?
  • Unrest within the government has a new faction that is gaining support claim traditional body modifications are barbaric and should be outlawed. Influence from outside cultures supports the idea while the older generation balks. The PCs must work in an environment where having or not having the traditional modifications can help or hinder their progress. Who do the PCs side with? What arguments do both sides make?
  • An individual able to reverse body modifications sets up shop in town, claiming they will make everyone equals when everyone has the same skin. The PCs are sent to investigate. Who are the clients at this shop? How are the modifications reversed? Are they actually permanent? What are the shop owner’s motivations behind the erasures? Who has sent the PCs to investigate and what is their stake in the matter?
  • The PCs are sent to investigate a sect of their religion that performs ritual body modification. The sect lives in a remote location and the body modifications have not been practiced by the main body of the church for many years. What are the reasons the church no longer practices them? Why does the sect continue with them? How does the sect receive the PCs? How are the PCs to record their findings? How do other religions view the process?Body modifications can be as heated or simple as you, the PC or the GM wish to make them.

For PCs

  • Do you have any body modifications? What are they?
  • When did you receive your modifications? Do you still have to care for them or are they healed?
  • Does your modification identify you as belonging to a certain group?
  • Do you like talking about them or are they mundane to you?
  • What would you consider a respectful question about your body modification? What would be a disrespectful question?
  • How would you feel if someone randomly approached you and touched your modification? Unsolicited? If they asked first?
  • How do you feel about your modifications? Proud? Humbled? Do they make you self conscious when you with people not from your culture? Or do you gladly represent your people around others?
  • How do you view the modifications of other cultures? Do the practices of others amaze or disgust you?

Body modifications can be a complicated and intricate procedure taking many days or as simple as getting a baby’s ears pierced. The issues surrounding the changes people make to their bodies can be simple or complicated as well. What say you?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Heroes

Heracles as a baby. Killing a snake. Easily makes him one of the Top 5 Most Useful Babies.

A little fiction with your article today! Scroll down past the asterisks if you just want to get to the article.

Kelvin couldn’t believe his good fortune. As a child he had grown up hearing the stories of Hewin Bowsnapper and how he had blazed a trail for his people all those years ago into the Southernlands, protecting them once the land was settled. As a boy, Kelvin stayed up late on the nights his father went to the bar, hoping he would return with some news of the ranger’s exploits. His mother had sewn him the green and brown tunic Hewin wore, striped to help him blend in with the forest. As a boy, Kelvin had lacked the two large hound dogs Hewin had, but pretending was just as fun. With a wooden club and a wooden sword he would explore the copses and glades outside the village, giving commands to imaginary dogs and taking on imaginary foes. It was why he ranged now, leading caravans, investigating sightings of beasts, exploring ruins with Ram and Dera. Real life was less glamorous than the stories his pa brought home all those year ago, but at times, it was just as exciting; more so.

And here in a bar on the road to the boat races of Gethe, here Hewin was. Older, for sure. Grey streaked the man’s mouse-brown hair and his beard was peppered. Semi-retirement had padded his belly and under his chin. But when the barkeep had pointed him out Kelvin had locked eyes with him, the steel grey eyes of legend that saw the slightest movement in the bushes, the ripple in the pond, and he knew the barkeep was telling the truth. Kelvin had dropped his glass. And after Dera made fun of him for a good while, he had taken a deep breath and approached him. When Hewin invited them to sit at his table, Kelvin couldn’t believe it. His childhood hero, sitting beside him.

Continue reading “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Heroes”

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death by Census

Taino Village in Cuba

I grew up in New York City and was a student of the public education system for seven years. Therefore, every year we spent the obligatory 30 minutes on the indigenous people of New York, the Iroquois and the Algonquian. As much as half a page of the outdated history book mentioned the Five Nations, the existence of longhouses, the “Three Sisters,” and how they were susceptible to dying from European-borne diseases. Scalping of course was mentioned. The history of native New Yorkers starts with them.

When I got older, I learned about the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, where my maternal family is from (as I mentioned in this earlier article). These people were the Tainos. They called Puerto Rico Boriken which means “Land of the Valiant Lord.” The Taino people lived in villages ruled by caciques, grew cassava, beans, peppers, cotton and more. They worshipped the cemis, made weapons, held festivals, and built boats. The history of these people, as well as that of the Caribs and the Arawaks that also populated the Antilles, is very interesting, a wealth of information that would work in many campaigns. I  encourage you to read up on their customs, their deities, their matrilineal inheritances, their clothing, and all that on the internet, in books, or by visiting events if you’re lucky enough to live near one.

The Taino population, like most of the indigenous populations of wherever Europeans trod, were basically forced to deal with the invaders’ germs, greed, and really terrible idea to not bring women along with them. Smallpox and other diseases destroyed the population, ill-treatment drove many to suicide, and scores died at the hands of the Spaniards. Groups of Tainos all over the Caribbean rose up and fought the Spanish, while other groups of Tainos fled, hiding in the hills and jungles they knew so well. Catholic priests spoke out against the ill-treatment of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, but still the indigenous people were enslaved, maimed, killed, and beaten. The Spanish took indigenous women as wives to gain land or just used them to sate their lust. The Taino population dwindled. The mestizo population grew. Slaves were brought in from Africa to make up the work force.

And then the Spanish census just…stopped counting the Tainos. Official inquiries were made into the number of Tainos left and many Spaniards answered there were none. In the Census of 1790, 3,000 “indios” were counted in one area of Puerto Rico. Later censuses, in an effort to streamline the process, just failed to have Taino as an option. Again and again, records claimed the Tainos were all gone, though other records named people who were clearly of indigenous descent. Intermarriage changed the face of the population, but the traditions, the language, and the knowledge were all still there. Physically, culturally, the Taino were alive. On paper? They were gone. It was easier.

Continue reading “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death by Census”

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