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Interview with Derik Dunning, Author of D&D and Call of Cthulhu Products

I had the opportunity to interview Derik Dunning, who discusses how his Asian Indian heritage influenced the production of British Raj: A Masque of the Red Death Guide to British India for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

raj.png

Art is public domain art from WikiCommons

CHARLIE DUNWOODY (CD): You work on RPGs as passion projects. What prompted you to write RPG supplements and how did you get started?
Derik Dunning (DD):
How it all started was when my older brother finally taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons when I was ten years old in 1990. During the 90’s I noticed that the Forgotten Realms campaign setting in AD&D 2nd Edition times was starting to expand into different non-European culturally inspired areas like Kara-Tur, Zakhara and the Hordelands; but no significant coverage in a land like India. Growing up with part Asian Indian heritage I found it strange that many cultures were represented but not my own. At first I thought it was just a D&D deal, but when I was exposed to other RPG game systems and settings, I found out to my chagrin that the lack of Indian inspired fantasy or RPG settings was a widespread problem. After coming to this realization during my late teens and early twenties I realized the only way to fill these holes in product coverage for me would be if I myself created supplements to fill these niches. During the recession of 2008 one of my buddies and I were talking about how cool Call of Cthulhu Dark Ages (Cthulhu Dark Ages 3rd Edition) supplement was for Chaosium, but we both noted how they were missing out on rules and information about the Crusades period of history. We both knew about the monography writing program over at Chaosium- that is what started me on my first passion project.

CD: Your most recent work is British Raj A Masque of the Red Death Guide to British India for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. After working on the best silver seller Dark Crusades for Chaosium and The Dragonborn of Kara-Tur what prompted you to work on this project?
DD:
A combination of conversations with my buddies over the years about the lack of Indian positive cultural representation in RPGs in general and an amazing DMs Guild project by Jeremy Forbing called Masque of the Red Death Player’s Guide which allowed you to play to in Ravenloft gothic earth setting using 5E rules. Masque of the Red Death was originally a Ravenloft campaign setting set in gothic earth during the 1890’s originally written by William W Connors and team of RPG designers for AD&D 2nd Edition. This has always been one of my most favorite D&D settings of all time, so when I read Jeremy’s guild article, I was convinced that I could write a supplement specifically to encourage people to play the cool setting Jeremy has revived as well as serve as something new by introducing players to Victorian India of the 1890’s. In some small way I hope people use this product not only for gothic India, but perhaps even its Bestiary or Magic Items sections to support their fantasy games.

CD: British Raj tackles the difficult and painful subject of colonialism. How did you approach what might be a controversial topic in a sensitive way while keeping the work an interesting RPG supplement?
DD:
Yes, colonialism is a mature subject that can be both horrific and painful to discuss. I approached this by prompting DMs to have an open discussion with their groups about the content or subjects of their games in colonial India. Some of the more traumatic or darker chapters of real-world history may not be appropriate for all game groups. I also direct both players and DMs to useful resources when dealing with potentially problematic issues. One item that bears mentioning here is that Gothic Earth resembles the real world closely but is still largely governed by a fictitious evil entity that has a distorted reality called the Red Death (meaning the DMs and the players should feel free to alter or ignore problematic parts of the realm world for the sake of group enjoyment). Lastly, I took great inspiration from the RPG book Harlem Unbound 1st Edition (Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition) written by Chris Spivey when talking about gaming with respect when it comes to race and cultural sensitivity. Like Chris I strongly believe and encourage others to play Indian characters even if that is not your genetic heritage. With my guidelines and perhaps some small discussion with your game group if necessary, I strongly believe playing characters from a different cultural perspective can be a respectful and rewarding experience.

CD: What RPGs do you play and what are some of your favorites?
DD:
I play Star Trek Adventures, Pulp Cthulhu, Dungeons and Dragons 5E, All the 40k Role-Play games and a miscellaneous collection of Savage Worlds games in Deadlands. Some my current favorites are D&D 5E, Pulp Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu and any version of 40K RPG but currently Wrath & Glory is my favorite.

CD: You include several interesting new monsters based on Indian folklore. Do you have a favorite and do you feel any of these monsters bring something new to D&D?
DD:
My favorite is the vetala. It is a compelling spirit that sucks the blood of the living like a vampire and possesses corpses and can see into the future. Additionally, many of these spirits from Indian folklore made those who they possess go mad. In addition, I have included an optional Possession Madness rule in the Bestiary section.

CD: You include an option for a historical setting with no magic or monsters. Do you prefer a more fantastic India or does the historical setting appeal to you more? Why?
DD:
Historical settings have always had a great appeal to me personally and I feel that there are a lot of untapped stories and unexplained events in history that could be great fodder for game stories. I am a big fan of the “secret history” genre, which theorizes alternate causes or motivations to historical events. For example, perhaps JFK was assassinated because of what he knew about a government conspiracy run by rakshasas disguised as humans?

CD: Do you have plans for any future RPG work?
DD:
I am hoping if British Raj is popular perhaps to either create an expansion to it or perhaps create a bestiary based on mythic India for D&D 5E. But like in the words of Jedi master Yoda, “always in motion the future is”.

CD: Any final comments you’d like to share with the readers of EN World?
DD:
This supplement was crafted out of love and appreciation for this fine hobby of ours. I am very to new writing supplements and if you happen to purchase this work of mine or any others please leave comments or reviews so that I know how I can improve on the current or future works. Thanks to the wonderful people who play RPGs and write about them at EN World!
 
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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

dave2008

Legend
Not sure if DD is reading these comments, but I would love to pick up a Bestiary of Indian Folklore. I am not personally interested in Victorian era games, but the Possession Madness rule interests me. I may pick it up for that only.

One question regarding the dragonborn product: why isn't this on DMsGuild? I feel you would get more traction there.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Not sure if DD is reading these comments, but I would love to pick up a Bestiary of Indian Folklore. I am not personally interested in Victorian era games, but the Possession Madness rule interests me. I may pick it up for that only.

One question regarding the dragonborn product: why isn't this on DMsGuild? I feel you would get more traction there.
Both are. They were linked in the article above.


 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
Thanks for this.

My D&D Culture Books page lists all the Asian Indian-inspired features and settings in D&D game worlds, that I know of. Anyone know of others off hand?
  • 1e and 2e Indian pantheons, Ascetic class in 2e Legends & Lore
  • CD&D Thug class in Champions of Mystara boxed set
  • "Rhino's Armor, Tiger's Claws" Dragon #189
  • "Caste of Characters", "Monsoons & the Power of Om", and "Bazaar of the Bizarre" in Dragon #226, 227, 229
  • monsters: bhut, juggernaut
  • Official D&D Asian Indian-inspired Campaign Models:
    • Sind and Jaibul in the Known World of Mystara; also, Glantri's principality of Krondahar, which borders Sind.
    • Shajapur in Hollow World of Mystara
    • Rajahstan on Mystara's invisible moon of Patera
    • The Utter East of Forgotten Realms
    • Zindia/Zahind of Oerth
    • Kolhapur in stand-alone 2e adventure Star of Kolhapur
    • The domain of Sri Raji in Ravenloft
    • 3e Mahasarpa campaign
Coincidentally, just last night, I read an ancient (1995) AOL post from TSR designer Bruce Heard (link to PDF archive) about the delicacy of using real world India as an inspiration for the land of Sind in the world of Mystara:

"Sind would also make a possible alternate to a gazetteer on the East Indian setting [Shajapur] described in the HW. [...] The problem with settings like Sind, however, is the tendency to stick very close to the historical model, thus pulling in material closely inspired from the Hindu religion (presently active). This is a no-no at TSR. It's as bad a using unchanged Judeo-Christian or Muslim religions as a basis to a game accessory.

"Even using extinct religions as a basis for fantasy gaming occasionally causes problems. Just a word of caution here. I remember the difficulties we had when dealing with the Azcans, whose "philosophy" was inspired from the Aztec religion. At the end, we had all references to bloodletting and sacrifices removed from the original text. Sorry, can't do that, even if it's historically correct. After all we're dealing with fantasy worlds, so there should be ways of avoiding the more unsavory ways of the real world."
 
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dave2008

Legend
Both are. They were linked in the article above.


Opps! For some reason when I clicked on them I thought I was on a different site. I don't no where my head was.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Opps! For some reason when I clicked on them I thought I was on a different site. I don't no where my head was.
Heh, happens to us all. Truly. I got a bunch of down votes recently on Reddit because I missed something and asked a really silly question. I blame it on the fact that it was late and I'd had a few glasses of port. That's my story and I'm sticking to it! ;)
 

Electryc

Explorer
Forgive me for my neanderthal thoughts if they offend you. I have no intentions to do that. Maybe this is the wrong forum to ask here? I'm a big history fan so why erase the bad part of history? By erasing it, it does not stop people from doing evil things. Aztecs religion centered around sacrifice. I just watched an interesting video of ball courts and how the losers and sometimes the winners were sacrificed after the match!? I can understand not wanting young children access to that. We are all adults here? Can't you paint this wrong in your module?
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Forgive me for my neanderthal thoughts if they offend you. I have no intentions to do that. Maybe this is the wrong forum to ask here? I'm a big history fan so why erase the bad part of history? By erasing it, it does not stop people from doing evil things. Aztecs religion centered around sacrifice. I just watched an interesting video of ball courts and how the losers and sometimes the winners were sacrificed after the match!? I can understand not wanting young children access to that. We are all adults here? Can't you paint this wrong in your module?

I don't think it's about erasing it. It's more about approaching it with sensitivity and being careful not to send the wrong message like coming off like you're glorifying it. I think currently our societal approach currently is to over correct, you can't blame everyone being a bit skittish there is a lot to critical about and everyone I think is feeling a bit awkward and not wanting to be mistaken. Patience and the willingness to continue ongoing communication on the part of everyone is key of course and needs to always be part of the process.
 

Electryc

Explorer
I don't think it's about erasing it. It's more about approaching it with sensitivity and being careful not to send the wrong message like coming off like you're glorifying it. I think currently our societal approach currently is to over correct, you can't blame everyone being a bit skittish there is a lot to critical about and everyone I think is feeling a bit awkward and not wanting to be mistaken. Patience and the willingness to continue ongoing communication on the part of everyone is key of course and needs to always be part of the process.
Thanks for that explanation without any finger wagging. Your response makes sense.
 

dave2008

Legend
Forgive me for my neanderthal thoughts if they offend you. I have no intentions to do that. Maybe this is the wrong forum to ask here? I'm a big history fan so why erase the bad part of history? By erasing it, it does not stop people from doing evil things. Aztecs religion centered around sacrifice. I just watched an interesting video of ball courts and how the losers and sometimes the winners were sacrificed after the match!? I can understand not wanting young children access to that. We are all adults here? Can't you paint this wrong in your module?
Well that was a quote from 1995 from someone who is not on these forums, so it is a bit difficult to get the author's thoughts on that question.
 

morrangor

Villager
Both are. They were linked in the article above.


I will definitely start doing some work on the a Bestiary based on Indian folklore. Thanks everybody for interest in discussing my work.
 

morrangor

Villager
Thanks for this.

My D&D Culture Books page lists all the Asian Indian-inspired features and settings in D&D game worlds, that I know of. Anyone know of others off hand?
  • 1e and 2e Indian pantheons, Ascetic class in 2e Legends & Lore
  • CD&D Thug class in Champions of Mystara boxed set
  • "Rhino's Armor, Tiger's Claws" Dragon #189
  • "Caste of Characters", "Monsoons & the Power of Om", and "Bazaar of the Bizarre" in Dragon #226, 227, 229
  • monsters: bhut, juggernaut
  • Official D&D Asian Indian-inspired Campaign Models:
    • Sind and Jaibul in the Known World of Mystara; also, Glantri's principality of Krondahar, which borders Sind.
    • Shajapur in Hollow World of Mystara
    • Rajahstan on Mystara's invisible moon of Patera
    • The Utter East of Forgotten Realms
    • Zindia/Zahind of Oerth
    • Kolhapur in stand-alone 2e adventure Star of Kolhapur
    • The domain of Sri Raji in Ravenloft
    • 3e Mahasarpa campaign
Coincidentally, just last night, I read an ancient (1995) AOL post from TSR designer Bruce Heard (link to PDF archive) about the delicacy of using real world India as an inspiration for the land of Sind in the world of Mystara:

"Sind would also make a possible alternate to a gazetteer on the East Indian setting [Shajapur] described in the HW. [...] The problem with settings like Sind, however, is the tendency to stick very close to the historical model, thus pulling in material closely inspired from the Hindu religion (presently active). This is a no-no at TSR. It's as bad a using unchanged Judeo-Christian or Muslim religions as a basis to a game accessory.

"Even using extinct religions as a basis for fantasy gaming occasionally causes problems. Just a word of caution here. I remember the difficulties we had when dealing with the Azcans, whose "philosophy" was inspired from the Aztec religion. At the end, we had all references to bloodletting and sacrifices removed from the original text. Sorry, can't do that, even if it's historically correct. After all we're dealing with fantasy worlds, so there should be ways of avoiding the more
 


dave2008

Legend
I will definitely start doing some work on the a Bestiary based on Indian folklore. Thanks everybody for interest in discussing my work.
Glad to here it. I have both of these books in my shopping cart, so I am likely to get them soon. I don't really use published adventures, but I will be happy to give feedback where I can.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
I like how the overview mentions a "Theological Society"...I wonder if it's headed by a female Russian occultist, based in Chennai. ;-)

BTW, Gary Gygax once mentioned:

"Planetar and Solar were inspired by Theosophy."

(Blavatsky's "Planetary Spirit" and "Solar Deva." I'd also add "Monadic Deva" and "Astral Deva".)
These Theosophical concepts have a semi-Vedic + semi-Western esoteric origin.
 
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morrangor

Villager
Yes, Gary was inspired by many things his interpretations were very interesting. Like his version of the Rakshasa was inspired by a tv series. Gygax inspired me as young teenager to research many things, especially monsters and folklore.
 

morrangor

Villager
Yes, Gary was inspired by many things his interpretations were very interesting. Like his version of the Rakshasa was inspired by a tv series. Gygax inspired me as young teenager to research many things, especially monsters and folklore.
Your theory of course is spot on. You are well informed about the occult.
 

morrangor

Villager
I like how the overview mentions a "Theological Society"...I wonder if it's headed by a female Russian occultist, based in Chennai. ;-)

BTW, Gary Gygax once mentioned:

"Planetar and Solar were inspired by Theosophy."

(Blavatsky's "Planetary Spirit" and "Solar Deva." I'd also add "Monadic Deva" and "Astral Deva".)
These Theosophical concepts have a semi-Hindu + semi-Western esoteric origin.
You are well informed about the occult. Yes you are correct.
 

morrangor

Villager
I don't think it's about erasing it. It's more about approaching it with sensitivity and being careful not to send the wrong message like coming off like you're glorifying it. I think currently our societal approach currently is to over correct, you can't blame everyone being a bit skittish there is a lot to critical about and everyone I think is feeling a bit awkward and not wanting to be mistaken. Patience and the willingness to continue ongoing communication on the part of everyone is key of course and needs to always be part of the process.
Agreed! I hope that by making RPGs that are about mature subjects can educate and as well as help gamers appreciate history. My goal is to hopefully inspire others make or use products that not just traditional D&D.
 

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