Celebrating Subjugation: The Maztican Tragedy
Over the years, whenever a new “ethnic” campaign setting was in the offing at TSR, it almost inevitably ended up being bolted onto the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting to give more “options” to players (read: to have their characters not come from said “ethnic” setting). Kara-Tur, the setting of 1985’s Oriental Adventures was later added to the setting as the eastern half of the Eurasian style main continent, opposite to the European themed Faerûn. Zakhara, the setting of the 1001 Arabian Nights themed setting of Al Qadim was added in 1992, as a large peninsula dangling south, midway between Faerûn and Kara-tur. But prior to that, in 1991, the Maztica boxed set was released, and gave the Forgotten Realms a pre-contact “Americas” region. Things went sideways fast.
Maztica had immense potential. It was, quite literally in the game sense, undescribed lands and peoples. It was a chance to do something cool, interesting, and groundbreaking. Unfortunately, it was 1991, research skills were poor, planning was slipshod, and apparently people working on the project really loved the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish. Why do I say that? Because this boxed set, and the trilogy of novels that accompanied it, were a beat for beat retelling of the Spanish conquest in the context of a fantasy world. For those not really tracking, this was one of the most horrifying actions of that period of history, which saw Spaniards soak the earth with the blood of pretty much everyone in their quest for gold; and was followed by the creation of brutal slave states and a social system that haunts the region to this day. Now, some might be thinking, “Well, it couldn’t have been that bad, right?” It was.
Foremost in the issues that occurred is one that happens all too often in fantasy. With the notable exceptions of some Asian and Arabic based ethnic groups (who have their own raft of problematic issues in fantasy), non-white ethnic groups generally don’t get to be “fantastic”; as in, they tend to historically based in game creations with culturally associated technology, magic, and beliefs that are almost always desperately inferior to those of peoples from the European based parts of the world because they’re based on real world mythology and history, not in the game reality. And as I’ve noted in the past when discussing Chult, are seldom accorded any agency to take action in controlling their own destinies.  They simply wait for someone from the European part of the world to show up and deal with the problem. This scenario is exactly what happened to the Mazticans.
For all intents and purposes, the pre-contact Mazticans were not the fantasy analogue of the Aztecs and Mayans they were supposed to be. They were just poorly researched Aztecs and Mayans living on a fantasy world. Sort of. Now, I say “sort of” because apparently, there were no monsters in Maztica, or anywhere around them, until part way through the conquest of the place, when a large number of Mazticans were literally turned into orcs, trolls, ogres, and what not so that the colonizing conquerors could be the heroes who “saved” the place. No joke there, it’s what happened. Anyways, so, no monsters, bit of a letdown for a fantasy setting. Next, they had no divine magic. Apparently, they were all dormant or just not listening, so their clerics had no real “magic” per se, and only dreams and prophecies to guide them. So, in effect, no gods; another fail for a fantasy setting. Topping it off, despite living in a world with abundant magic, and having had a super-magic neighbour (story for a different time), they never developed magic past weak-sauce prank level spells and a few that let a small number of knights turn into animals. So, yeah, no magic of note. Of course, they were also still firmly in the lithic age technology wise. The point being that, for all intents and purposes, the Mazticans were not a fantasy creation, and little “fantasy” as applied to them to make it seem like there were a fantasy culture.
Now, the Forgotten Realms has always been a bit sloppy around technology and magic, but what rolled into Maztica from Amn was insane. Wizards, clerics, harquebusiers, the whole works. And they steamrolled the place. Then they set up a slave state, complete with plantations, and literally nowhere in the following material for game is any resistance mentioned. Nor are any of the conquerors, who are canonically described as killing Maztican servants (read: slaves) and feeding them to their dogs for minor transgressions, of an evil alignment. In fact, many are true neutral. The whole thing was executed as a celebration of colonialism, in all of its worst parts and aspects. Adding to this mess was the absence of important groups who normally oppose slavery and general awfulness, like the Harpers, were conspicuously missing from the scene. Adding insult to injury, not only did the Maztican gods remain mostly dormant if not absent, but the Church of Helm was turned into an analogue for the Catholic Church, complete with book burning missionaries and priests who want to ban all other faiths in the area. Let that sink in for a moment.
Now, a big part of what made all of this extra horrible is that it’s played straight the whole time. It’s treated not only as normal, but as a good thing. Sure, there’s mass slavery, and a powerful foreign tyranny ruling the place; but that’s only bad for European based fantasy people I guess, because literally nowhere is it presented negatively. It’s just a natural state for the place, and apparently everyone is cool with it. Kill your slaves for whatever? Cool! Enslave a population? Also cool. Welcome to New Amn, a celebration of the worst parts of the colonization of the Americas.
In more recent times, 4e D&D to be specific, Maztica was excised from the planet entirely. Not because there was any reason to, they were just caught up in the 4e D&D “Yeah, that place looks dark skinned and unimportant, cut it!” approach to the campaign setting. So it was literally removed and sent to another world for the duration of that edition, meaning it’s ripe for some serious retcons and rewrites because it very much needs it. However, at the moment, there is no official confirmation that Maztica has been returned to the realms, as it is only inferred by the return of other areas that had been snatched away.
Maztica is a great example of how worldbuilding can go wrong, very quickly. The next few posts will be looking at how things went sideways in this process, how to avoid it, and what a good trajectory for Maztica in 5e D&D might be.