The history and culture of Historica Arcanum, the D&D 5E book reclaiming the Near East in roleplaying
“We took the mystery of Istanbul and dialled that up to 1000%.”
The Islamic world has long been a setting for fantasy, but its portrayal within books such as Game of Thrones or RPG settings like Dungeons & Dragons’ Al-Qadim is often riddled with cliches and Orientalism.
Historica Arcanum: The City of Crescent is going to do something new as an alternate-history expansion for D&D set in Istanbul. The young team of indie studio Metis Media is staffed by artists, musicians and writers from Turkey who are trying to bring cultural nuance and authority to the game without falling into the pitfalls of other fantasies. They are headed up by Sarp Duyar who - when not writing policy papers and setting up academic projects - runs games of D&D, and for whom this is a first dive into writing and Kickstarting full RPG sourcebooks.
Duyar is keen to point out that the East tends to get homogenised, with Arab, Turkish and Persian cultures getting shoved together in fantasy and RPGs. Historica Arcanum promises to be specifically focused on Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire, providing a campaign set in an alternate history. Duyar was partly inspired by the historian Peter Frankopan, whose book The Silk Roads puts the East at the heart of world history rather than Europe. That influence has motivated Duyar to provide an opportunity for people around the world to engage with Ottoman culture and history.
One of the RPG’s interesting nuances is that it is not set in a medieval world. A Western instinct when writing Ottoman fantasy is to focus on the golden age of Ottoman power during the time of sultans, such as the 16th-century Suleiman. However, the setting for the sourcebook will be the 19th century, a time in Ottoman history when the elites lived lives of luxury, while the edges of the empire frayed and the European powers expanded their influence. It is a period of political intrigue and revolution with some of the most interesting characters of the Ottoman world.
The setting for the sourcebook will be the 19th century, a time in Ottoman history when the elites lived lives of luxury, while the edges of the empire frayed and the European powers expanded their influence.
It also makes for a good setting for players because Istanbul at that time was a cosmopolitan city, so a player’s character can be from any background; “a dignitary from Britain, an archaeologist from the United States or a rabbi from Germany” wouldn’t have been out of place in the city, Duyar points out.
The project takes direct inspiration from the history of Istanbul. Duyar says that when building a fantasy version of the city, the team “took the mystery of Istanbul and dialled that up to 1000%”. Some of the elements included in the book have been trialled in the Kickstarter and the quickstart material - for instance, in real Istanbul’s magnificent Roman Basilica Cistern, there are disembodied statues of Medusa’s head holding up the columns. Suffice to say that in the Historica Arcanum version of Istanbul those Gorgons will not be quite so stationary. Other fantastical elements that have been revealed include an appearance from Vlad the Impaler, who had a long and complex relationship with the Ottoman Empire.
Magic is not as overt as it is in other D&D settings, being more the province of occult societies.
Duyar says that the world of Historica Arcanum is not one in which monsters are around every corner. Magic is also not as overt as it is in other D&D settings, being more the province of occult societies. When used, magic exerts a cost on the practitioner - both in terms of mutation from its use and the drawing of attention from malicious forces. In addition, players’ levels will be capped at around ten, cutting out some of the more powerful spells of D&D.
In addition to the myths and monsters of Istanbul, there will be historical characters included in the campaign. Duyar keeps his cards close to his chest, wanting to avoid spoilers, though can’t help dropping some cheeky hints. The book will not use real sultans and will instead portray an amalgam-sultan based on Abdülmecid II, chosen because of his reformist and cosmopolitan rule. He is seen by Duyar as a good way of introducing people who may only be familiar with the late medieval Ottomans to a totally different side of the Empire.
The use of a fictional sultan is probably a good idea because, if you stick with real history, you run into a big problem named Sultan Abdülhamid II whose legacy is still extremely contested. For some, he is the last strong sultan who stood up to the West and Russia; to others, he is a tyrant who mass-murdered Armenian civilians. Not that roleplaying can’t touch difficult topics if it chooses to, but bypassing a still-controversial figure may be wise.
Historica Arcanum will include various subclasses to expand the world in addition to D&D’s standard subclasses. They are drawn from two different themes: Istanbul-specific subclasses, such as djinn masters or shadow-actors, and Historica Arcanum subclasses that are part of the world’s magical lore. This will affect spell-casting classes such as clerics, paladins and sorcerers. In addition, the game will include a profession system to further customise characters so that players are not able to juggle identities - for instance, a paladin bounty hunter or cleric spy - and gain progression in both.
I want no scene to be left without very specific music.
Historica Arcanum raised over $86,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year, with the team estimating a delivery date in April 2022. (Disclaimer: The author is a backer of the Kickstarter campaign.) Duyar tells me that a large amount of work has already been done, with the main campaign mostly finished. Now the focus is on expanding side quests and finishing the profession system and the alternative history toolbox.
The scope of the project goes beyond just the sourcebook, with plans to include a Turkish recipe list, images and music. Music is an important part of Istanbul's culture and has always been an integral element in Duyar’s DMing style. “I want no scene to be left without very specific music,” he says.
If this project goes well, Duyar has big plans for further expansions of the Historica Arcanum world. The setting of alternate 19th-century Ottoman Empire, history and mythology of Turkey brought to life and an enthusiastic team from the region promise to make a unique roleplaying experience that respects the real history and culture of Istanbul.