Ropecon Reviews: Red Sands – Somalia in Roleplaying Games

…or Punaiset hiekatSomalia roolipeleissä, as the book is actually called. It’s a 54-page stapled booklet written, illustrated and self-published by Wille Ruotsalainen, previously known for his Kalevala sourcebook Roudan maa (“The Land of Frost”). Colour cover, black and white inside. Apparently, the book began life as an article for the Roolipelaaja magazine, but the rag folded before it could see print – so it was expanded into a sourcebook.

Of the eight or so Finnish games and game products released at Ropecon, this was the one I was most interested in (excluding, perhaps, Dream of the King in Yellow, but I’m biased there). Like Wille points out in the preface, we’ve got 10,000 people speaking Somali as their first language in this country, and about half of them are Finnish citizens. Despite this, nobody seems to know much about their culture, history, or traditions. It is an interesting topic.

The book also hastens to note that it is not an anthropological survey or a serious cultural study. It’s a resource for roleplaying games, and to be used as such. I am aware of one another RPG book about the country, Holistic Designs’ Somalia D20 from 2003. I am not personally familiar with it, but their earlier work Afghanistan D20 did not particularly impress me, though there was one sidebar about The Man Who Would Be King that I remember with warmth. But I digress.

Punaiset hiekat is just a sourcebook. It ties itself to no specific game or even genre. It gives an overview of the local culture and history in a rather general fashion, without dwelling on the details overmuch, and then tells how all this might be used in RPGs set in different settings or eras – the medieval era with the Adal Sultanate, the colonial age and its associated rebellions, the modern era or the near future (like cyberpunk, except everyone is too poor to buy cybernetics), or even a fantasy setting. For the latter, there’s a chapter on mythological beasties.

The book also includes a pair of adventures, “But Where Is the Warlord?” and “Mamnuuc Maktabad”. The first one is a modern or near-future scenario about a black ops hit on a local warlord, where the weight of the story is in the morality of imperialism. The second one is a more traditional adventure, where a British-Italian expedition, including the PCs, heads off to find a lost library in the Somali desert, sometime in the 1920s or 30s, the era of Indiana Jones. Hijinks ensue.

I could actually see myself running that one. Savage Worlds, perhaps.

So, is the book any good?

Yeah, I’d say so. Though I haven’t the expertise to evaluate whether Wille has actually done his research or just pulled stuff out of his hat, it has this sort of truthful ring to it. It feels a bit like it is mythologizing the people with its characterizations of the Somalis as passionate and warlike and warrior poets and so forth, but hey, like the book itself says, its a game aid, not serious scientific research. Also, it sounds suspiciously like how a people mythologizes themselves (cf. the Finnish national self-image of stubborn, unyielding endurance before adversity and all that crap). So, never mind the rumbling, that’s just Eddie Saïd rolling in his grave, nothing out of the ordinary. (For what it’s worth, I think someone quipped during Ropecon that the book is better-researched than its writer’s pro gradu thesis.)

The book reads well. Wille Ruotsalainen is a capable writer, and though I spotted a few typos, clumsy sentences and one minor layout gaffe, there’s nothing unforgivable on that front.

I’m not gonna comment on the art. If I were, it’d be a glib remark about burkhas, cheesecake and female oppression and so culturally insensitive it’s not even funny. So I’m just not gonna go there.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It inspires me. Especially the bits about 1920s and 30s. Ever since I saw the play Corto Maltese a few months back, I’ve had this idea for a game set in the interbellum period, somewhere in Turkey, the Middle East, or thereabouts. It’s a fascinating period, and the non-European milieus make it easy to play up the mysticism.

Only available in Finnish. For information on how to get your own (an advisable course of action indeed), check out this forum thread.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know both the author and the graphic designer, and they’re both swell people, but I paid full price for the book.

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One thought on “Ropecon Reviews: Red Sands – Somalia in Roleplaying Games

  1. “So, never mind the rumbling, that’s just Eddie Saïd rolling in his grave, nothing out of the ordinary. ” Funny you mentioned that; ol’ Eddie baby’s (can I call him Eddie baby?) influence is one of the reasons I’m a bit suspicious towards this product. But the comparison to the Finns made me change my mind. Will buy.

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