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.
I’d given Maztica a pass, largely because it looked (covers and backcovers) too much like a generic South America history setting with the numbers filed off. Same thing for the Mystara norse settings, and the like.
But this is terrifying; tempted to pick up PDF copies to take a look at this.
I agree with you in basically all areas except that the Forgotten Realms and Dungeons and Dragons is a Medieval Europe fantasy setting, so of course Asian-themed and other culture-themed settings are going to get the sideline. Other than that, not saying that what the attackers of Maztica is wrong is pretty bad. But, heroes in fantasy settings don’t always have to be good in our modern sense, just because the heroes in a fantasy world believe in evil principles, doesn’t mean the creator believes in those principles. For example, my world is a little sexist, and human sacrifice is considered good in my world. Do I believe that being sexist and doing human sacrifice is good? No. But the people in my world do. Also, Aztecs weren’t actually very nice with their human sacrifice and all, not that I don’t think the spanish conquest was good, just that it wasn’t all black and white. So, as I have said before though, other than what I just said, I agree with you totally and wholly.
I disagree that the Forgotten Realms is fundamentally a “medieval European” setting for two reasons. First and foremost, as seen in the development notes by Ed Greenwood, explicitly non-European cultures were included from the very beginning; however they would not see the significant investment of effort that the European derived areas would. The other reason can be read over at Public Medievalist’s site, in their long, well researched series on race, racism, and the middle ages; where they explode the myths about medieval Europe. If the setting something like Birthright, I’d concede you had a solid point, but not in this case.
As to hero’s… Well, that really opens up can of worms as to what can be considered heroic. Again, I disagree; because fantasy gaming like D&D is not relative to IRL history morality wise; it is very much locked into our modern senses of right and wrong/good and evil. This was particularly true of 2e AD&D, where making the game “Mom Friendly” and heroic in the wake of the Satanic Panic and anti-D&D movements of the 80’s was a key point in the edition’s development. Which makes the “heroes” who feed slaves to dogs acceptable only in the light that the writers felt the enslaved Mazticans weren’t human enough to warrant their colonial masters having evil alignments.
Maztica was short-shifted on every front, and is a great example of how trying to get something “right” (by referencing real world history) can go horribly wrong in a fantasy setting. There’s nothing heroic about the Maztican conquest. It’s literally an enslaved region where the writers decided, against the then growing heroic mode of the game, that it was fine. There’s no resistance, no nothing. It’s actually such a bland setting that there’s not even a significant monster update or theme; even the fact that it has an actual monster nation (populated by Mazticans who were transformed into orcs, trolls, ogres and so on) was downplayed to a great extent. All that said, it in no way makes up for a repainted conquest as a good thing, or the boring historical, non-fantastical re-creations of Aztecs and Mayans that were plunked down into it.
In the novels, the native Maztican characters had pretty much no agency of their own. The native female protagonist gets manipulated/blatantly pushed by a couatl to follow the destiny it intends for her (which admittedly lines up perfectly with the portrayal of “couatls are bastards” from the 4E supplement “The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea”, which is awesome), the leader of the native empire is haunted by prophecy into inertia, and even the human sacrifice cult was secretly the invention of refugee drow all along.
Yeah, it was pretty bad.
You make very good points! You’ve convinced me with your first point… and your second point… and your third paragraph. Though it is true, that even if the Forgotten Realms is just European, most of people who were playing the game were, and so therefore they connected to the European places more, and since there was interest there, those places grew. Also, though the Forgotten Realms might not be just a Medieval setting, Dungeons and Dragons is fundamentally a Medieval roleplaying game, so in settings that aren’t just European-inspired, the European element of the world will be developed more. Fantasy in general is fundamentally European, which of course, one could say that that in itself is a little bit racist, but really most fantasy grew out of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, etc. and those authors’ fantasy worlds are Medieval. For your two second points, it is also true that a lot of people find low fantasy gaming fun, especially with historical elements (I like low fantasy a lot!), if the Maztica world didn’t have a lot of magic, they could’ve just been trying to appeal to the low fantasy gamers. Really, I don’t know much about Maztica itself, and I haven’t read much about it, so I can’t really say anything. I also don’t know much about the Spanish conquest, but weren’t the Aztecs themselves not very nice either? Conquering different places and then using the people from those places to sacrifice to their gods with tearing out their hearts and such… that’s pretty evil! I’m not trying to justify the Spanish conquest at all (which I know little about, as I have said before), but I just think that the Aztecs did some evil things as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I love non-European settings very much – I’m trying to learn Arabic, I want to learn Farsi from my friend’s mother, and I want to learn some Indian languages as well – Hindi, Sanskrit, and Urdu. I also very much want to read Al Quran, and read the Bahai religion book (I forgot what it was called! I just remember that the first word was “kitab” which is book in Arabic) since one of my friends is Bahai. My world is very much based on Islam, Arabian history, Mesopotamia, The Thousand and One Nights, and it’s also influenced a lot by the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Toltec. And there’s some North American influences in my world. Though my world is influenced by all those cultures though, I’m also putting in some European influences (one of the main gods is named Nwadach, which comes from Nuada in Celtic mythology, also, they use European castles with kabala of the Round Table!) But it’s essentially, at its core, an Middle Eastern setting.
Anyway, you’ve basically convinced me with your last post.
(“I am great” in Arabic, I could write the first word: أنا with ease, but the second word there I couldn’t really write by myself; I used Google Translate for that so I hope it’s right!). I wish I could write my script for my conlang on the computer, because then it’d be cool to type the script into the computer. But, alas, I don’t know enough about a computer to do that sort of stuff, especially since I made it harder since I made my script a cursive script with several forms for each letter like the Arabic script!
Also, if you yourself like non-European settings, if you don’t already know the setting, you should try the world called Tékumel, it might have confusing words, but there was so much effort behind the setting that it’s a shame that so many people dislike it or avoid it just because it’s different and strange and has confusing words and has so much detail it’s hard to GM. All those points just make it more interesting to play, not less interesting! I mean, confusing words wouldn’t make it less interesting to play in the world, but rather more interesting, right?
Anyway, keep on going with your blog when you can – I like it (I found it through the Dragon Talk podcast).
Just as a small point: The whole sacrifice deal concerning the Aztecs (to be more correct, the Mexica) is way more of a nuanced situation than people are typically taught. To call it “evil” is to reduce it…
What you have to understand is that “sacrifice” as a concept was considered wholly sacred, and that people “sacrificed” all manner of things to the deities and spirits. Food, property, precious items, animals, plants, nonfatal self-bloodletting, vices, you name it.
And it was seen as virtuous and necessary. The Aztecs had a particularly bloody reputation, but every society in the region had spiritual beliefs that demanded some amount of human lives to be sacrificed at least occasionally.
Hell—many aristocratic people openly volunteered to be killed in the name of a given god. To be sacrificed to an important god on an auspicious day was a sign of high class. Famous top athletes of the day actively competed for the right and honor to be sacrificed.
What the Aztecs did differently from their neighbors was use sacred sacrifice as a brutal tool of control. They had a god unique to them (Huitzilopochtli) who their most high-ranking priests communicated was literally fueled by blood, and that if he was not offered copious sacrifice…
(far, FAR less than the egregiously overexaggerated European accounts, but still more than considered reasonable by other societies of the region)
…then the world would literally end. Lacking blood, or rather the sacred essence found in blood, Huitzilopochtli and his legions would not have enough strength to fend off the monsters beyond the world, of the heavens, who would consume everything and plunge the world into its 5th apocalypse or so.
…Paraphrased, but this is a story that people were sold. The lower class Aztec people were only really able to go along with what information people in power fed to them. Other prehispanic societies hated the Aztecs’ guts because they took human sacrifice, a solemn and sacred act, to an extreme for the sake of controlling their neighbors.
For instance: they would stage “flower wars” where the goal was not to kill, but maim enemy soldiers, to be captured and sacrificed on the altar later. (That the Aztec idea of war was at least in part based around wounding and capture rather than efficient killing was one reason their weapons were not as deadly as those of European make, despite their keen knowledge of metalworking.)
But the act of sacrifice itself was simply considered a fact of life, not any sort of “bad” thing in and of itself. “Sacrifice in moderation”, so to speak, was generally considered necessary for the good and health of society and the world if you asked any society in the area. Whether that be human lives or otherwise. Mexican attitudes toward death and loss still have shades of this worldview even today.
A few points:
– While the “fantasy genre” might have started in Europe and North America, “tales of the fantastic” are a universal human experience.
– Dungeons & Dragons was never only “medieval” – it was a genre mashup from the start and included elements of both Swords and Sorcery as well as science fiction.
– Maztica is part of the same world as the Forgotten Realms, a decidedly “high fantasy” setting – yet the authors went out of their way to make the native cultures weak before the pseudo-European onslaught. Despite the fact that flight, teleportation, planar travel and even space travel all exist in this setting. (Needless to say, this was one of the first things I threw out in my revised version…)
– You can do settings not based on European cultures and still make them fantastic. An excellent example is Morrowind from the Elder Scrolls games – the Dunmer are an advanced civilization very different from the usual European tropes (although they still have a few fantastic elements, such as the whole “skin darkened due to an ancestral sin” thing).
I wish I had seen your post earlier. For the past few years I have been on a project to make use of the 4E/5E timeskip and turn Maztica into a more interesting and plausible setting. The main discussion thread is here:
This also combines elements of a “Where I read” discussion, where I made many of the same observations you do.
As for the revised setting, instead of a “pre-colonial”/”colonial” atmosphere, I’ve gone for a “post-colonial” vibe, except that the vast majority of natives _weren’t_ wiped out by foreign diseases (which was the main reason for the relative ease of the European conquest in our world, and which not-Cortez and his horde somehow manage to do without).
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