Regular readers will know that my favorite role-playing setting is Professor M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel. Yet in spite of a lavish release by TSR in the mid-1970s, Empire of the Petal Throne never achieved a hundredth of the success of Dungeons and Dragons.
That used to baffle me. But when I raised my head out of the fantasy gamebook market and started working in other media, I began to see the view from outside the geek box I'd been living in all my life.
It's a simple enough proposition: most people want to connect to characters that are like them. I guess that's why 75 million Americans queued up for Avatar and only a few hundred thousand went to see Atanarjuat the Fast Runner. Soulful blue fellas with the regulation fantasy apostrophe in their name seem less alien to multiplex audiences than Inuit hunters of their own species.
I shudder at that, yet I know I'd never get my group to show up for an Atanarjuat RPG campaign. Even introducing new players to the wonders of Tekumel calls for careful coaxing, like getting a wild mustang to take the bit. The Game Whisperer, that's me.
Typically, fantasy role-playing games use the same technique to create relatability as you see in Hollywood movies. Most Arabian Nights movies, for example, have obviously Westernized and very modern main characters. The world of D&D is successful (ish) because it's a theme park version of the Middle Ages. Miss Marple becomes a sexy thirtysomething because audiences can't connect to a seventy-five-year-old. No use fighting it, that's the way the world is.
When you're designing a role-playing campaign, do you ask your players to make an imaginative leap and enter a different culture? Or do you let them play themselves in funny clothes? More thoughts on the vexed question of relatability here.