Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Tales of the Arabian Nights by Eric Goldberg et al.
Z-Man Games, 2015
[Scheherazade] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by-gone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.
—Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night
The One Thousand and One Nights, sometimes known as the Arabian Nights or The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, is among the world’s most enduring and beloved compilations of fiction and folklore. No matter where or when you were born, there’s a good chance you’ve heard at least a few of the tales, whether it’s Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali Baba and his forty thieves, or Sindbad the Sailor and his seven voyages. With tales collected from India, Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt over a period of five centuries—with some of the most famous tales incorporated from other sources by French and English translators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the One Thousand and One Nights establishes a compelling mythoscape of chance encounters, elaborate reversals of fortune, and self-fulfilling prophecies, blending historical details and religious parables with magical elements such as sky-darkening rocs, puissant djinn, and dramatic metamorphoses.
Although many versions of the Nights exist, they all incorporate the frame story of Scheherazade the storyteller and her attempts to beguile the Sultan Shahryar. As the story goes, Shahryar, learning of his wife’s unfaithfulness, vowed to wed a new virgin each night and behead her in the morning.
On this wise he continued for the space of three years; marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning, till folk raised an outcry against him and cursed him, praying Allah utterly to destroy him and his rule; and women made an uproar and mothers wept and parents fled with their daughters till there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.
Not a young person, that is, except for Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazade, daughters of the vizier. When it is Scheherazade’s turn to enter Shahryar’s bedchamber, she launched into the first of a thousand stories, “delightsome and delectable, wherewith to while away the waking hours of our latter night.” Her tactic was simple: each night, she would cut off her story at a moment of tension so that the sultan would be forced to delay her execution until he had heard the completion of the tale. Then, the next night, she would complete one tale and begin another (or, often, begin a second tale within the tale she was telling, and a third tale within that, et cetera), continuing in such a way for one thousand and one nights. As the character synopsis in the Tales of the Arabian Nights rulebook puts it,
Night became day became night, passed in story after story, stories piled on stories and within stories, an ocean of words and deeds, and never did Scheherazade stumble or fail. At the end of the thousand nights and a night, Scheherazade declared that she was through—that she had been a good and faithful wife and the mother of his two sons. By this evidence of her own virtue, she brought the king out of his madness, and together they ruled in peace until, at an old age, they were claimed by the Ender of All Stories. As, eventually, are we all.
As such, the One Thousand and One Nights is not merely a collection of stories; it is also a story about storytelling, about the captivating magic of weaving a tale to delight the ear and the mind.
Tales of the Arabian Nights, originally published in 1985 by West End Games, may be the greatest storytelling board game ever created. It casts players in the role of one of the heroes made famous by the One Thousand and One Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sindbad, Zumurrud the clever slave-girl, Ma’aruf the Cobbler of Cairo, or even Scheherazade herself. Traveling across a map representing the known Muslim world during the Islamic Golden Age—encompassing Arabia, northern Africa, southwestern Asia, and parts of Europe—these heroes undergo a series of colorful encounters in search of wealth, wisdom, and destiny. The goal is to be the first to accrue at least twenty Destiny and Story Points in combination and return safely to Baghdad. Along the way, they might be ensorcelled, driven insane, or transfigured into a magical beast; they might become grief-stricken, crippled, or diseased; or they might be made a sultan, discover a wondrous treasure, or be blessed by Allah the Giver of All. It’s just another Arabian Night.
Don’t be deceived by these mentions of goals and points; the true goal of Tales of the Arabian Nights, as the rulebook is quick to point out, is “enjoying the unfolding and telling of a great story.” TotAN delivers an experience not unlike reading a book of adventure and magic, like the One Thousand and One Nights, if that book were disassembled and recreated afresh with each read. That’s because, if you strip away all the cards and dice and board, the beating heart of Tales of the Arabian Nights is a book: a 300-page, spiral-bound tome called the Book of Tales. All of the traditional board game components exist only as random portals into this wondrous artifact.
A young girl in Baghdad, living a life of poverty after her father’s death, Scheherazade dreams of wealth and adventure. Sometimes literally: One night, she has a dream of a great treasure to be found in Herat. The dream is incredibly vivid, but as she wakes to her dreary life, she banishes it from her mind. The next night, however, she is visited by the same dream, and the next night after, and so on for thirty nights, until Scheherazade makes up her mind to leave her life in Baghdad and see for herself whether the dream is a divine vision or a simple girlish fancy. She packs up her few belongings and starts on her journey east.
She makes it as far as the mountains west of Zarandj before encountering a Mad Enchantress. “Your destiny lies in Gaya!” the woman cackles. Scheherazade attempts to Trick the Enchantress into granting her a magic boon, but she senses an emptiness behind the other’s eyes and knows that nothing good can be gained from commerce with such a soul.
The Book of Tales is what’s called a paragraph book, a gaming relic also seen in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Agents of SMERSH. Basically, rather than a coherent, cover-to-cover narrative, the Book of Tales is a collection of isolated, numbered paragraphs, each of which tells its own short tale. There are about 2,500 in the most recent edition of the game—the actual entries in the book number 2,600, but the first 100 or so function more like an index or directory—amounting to over double the 1,001 tales promised by its source material.
When it’s your turn, you’ll pass the Book of Tales to your left, the accompanying Reaction Matrix to your right, and pick a spot to move to. The distance you can move by land or sea routes is indicated by your current wealth status: a beggar can’t even borrow a camel and thus moves slowly on land and even more slowly by sea, where he’ll have to earn his passage as a swab; someone of respectable wealth can get around the world more quickly; and a fabulously wealthy sultan can afford the fastest ship in the fleet but is somewhat burdened by his entourage when traveling by land. Of course, it doesn’t really matter where you go. Wherever you end up—a city, desert, mountain, forest, island, or even the open sea—hold onto your carpet, because you’re about the have an encounter.
Scheherazade finally arrives at Herat, where she encounters a man running a Con Game. She Questions the man, and although she is unable to uncover his deception, she comes away from the encounter more Determined than ever to decide her own fate. While in the city, she bumps into a long-lost relative who speaks casually to Scheherazade of her deceased father’s wealth. This perplexes Scheherazade; she always knew her father as a poor but honest man who left his family with nothing.
Despite this fateful encounter, Scheherazade finds no sign of the treasure spoken of in her nightly dreams. Frustrated, she cries out to Allah the All-Wise: “O, why have I traveled so far, encountered so much hardship, for no reward?”
“Having an encounter” means drawing the top card of the encounter deck, which always funnels you in one way or another to the Book of Tales. Character encounters represent specific people, like princes, prophets or ‘efreeteh. They’ll send you to one of three encounter tables in the Book of Tales; which one depends on how long the game has been going on. Terrain encounter cards will send you to one of six encounter tables based on the type of terrain you’re on; one of these will be simply be marked “N” and represents the special, unique encounter depicted on the card, whether it’s a dendan, a magnetic mountain, or islands rich with camphor-trees. Finally, city encounter cards send you to one particular encounter table, but what they lack in variety they make up for in value: you get to keep the card after the encounter, and if you venture to the city pictured, you can trade it in for a small reward.
As mentioned, most encounter cards send you immediately to an encounter table in the Book of Tales. Here, you’ll roll a die, adding some modifiers based on your position on the board and current Destiny Points (further from Baghdad and higher destiny leads to more dangerous, romantic encounters). This tells you exactly what type of encounter you’re facing: not just a prophet, but a Mad Prophet, or a Garrulous Prophet, or one who’s Imprisoned, Enchanted, Wise, Disguised, Friendly, or Foolish. Terrain encounters and city encounters have an even greater variety of outcomes; you might find a Jeweled Trapdoor, Beautiful Shoals, a Sad Gooleh, or a Ruined City. Each of these results will mention which Reaction Matrix to reference, and the player holding that book reads out your reaction options. The reader will cross-reference your choice with the adjective used to describe your encounter, and hey presto, the resulting entry in the table gives a paragraph number in the Book of Tales.
That night, sleeping on a bare cot in Herat, Scheherazade is visited by another dream telling her to return to Baghdad. She retraces her steps, but when she again arrives at the mountain west of Zarandj, she becomes trapped in a Rock Slide. She attempts to Hide beneath a nearby overhang from the terrible force of nature. Employing her Quick Thinking, she is able to recognize the signs of the overhang’s imminent collapse and escape just in time. This will be a story to tell! As the dust settles, she sees, scratched into the overhang, a crude map that seems to indicate an item of great value hidden in the nearby city of Daybul.
Finally, Scheherazade reaches Baghdad. Before she can return to her family home, she is forestalled by a large crowd gathered around a house on fire. As she stops to watch the blaze, a voice behind her whispers, “Beautiful, is it not?” She hurries away.
The reactions are as various as the encounters themselves. For example, when confronted with Multitudinous Brigands (Matrix I), you can Honor, Attack, Avoid, Aid, Rob, Follow, Question, or Pray. If the encounter were instead with a Black Whirlpool (Matrix F), your choices would be Pray, Avoid, Wait, Cry Out, Drink, Examine, Travel, or Hide. As a final step in your encounter, you’ll roll the Fate Die: a special six-sided die on which two faces are blank, two faces show a minus sign, and two faces show a plus sign. This final die roll modifies your paragraph number up or down, ensuring that even if you make the same choice against the same encounter, you might not experience the same result. Finally, the person to your left reads the resulting entry from the Book of the Tales, narrative flourishes and embellishment encouraged, at the end of which you received the reward (or penalty) of your encounter: typically, some small number of destiny or story points, but encounters might also reward treasures, positive or negative statuses, or new skills.
The process might seem odiously convoluted, but in practice, it takes a smattering of seconds to queue up the next paragraph.
Of course, being condensed into single paragraphs, encounters are more like allusions to stories than stories themselves, requiring a liberal injection of imagination to transform them into full, captivating tales.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
For example, if one were to choose to Travel the Black Whirlpool cited above, this might (depending on the whims of the Fate Die) be the result:
A powerful black whirlpool opens in the sea directly ahead of your ship. Having no time to waste, you choose to head forward through imminent danger.
The captain throws you in a makeshift brig for putting the ship at great peril. [D1 / S1 / Determined / Imprisoned]
Many encounters are like this: stark and mundane. This is vital to the rhythm of the game; we can’t uncover fabulous treasures with every step. But fuller, more evocative encounters do exist. Some of these are exceedingly rare—anything from the “N” encounter matrix, which requires you to be in the right place at the right time, or an opportunity to visit a Place of Power like the Cave of Wonders, the Dusky Land, or the Valley of Diamonds—and their very rarity enhances their mystique. You might play a dozen games without seeing a single encounter at the Lake of Colors, for example, reinforcing its in-universe reputation as a place where the feet of mortals rarely tread.
Even a normal encounter, however, can unexpectedly turn magical. Say, for example, when confronted with the Black Whirlpool, you chose instead to Cry Out (an understandable reaction in such dire circumstances). This might (again, dependent on the auspices of the Fate Die) be the outcome:
You and the crew rush forward to view the giant black whirlpool below your ship.
You shout at the top of your lungs, directing the crew to trim sails and shift course. Suddenly, the waters shoot up before you in a great fountain! To the surface floats a huge dendan, slain by the sound of the human voice, just as the legend says, and with its death the waters grow calm. You swim out to the dendan and cut it open with a knife to claim some of the oil-laden blubber within. Before you can claim more than a handful, the body sinks beneath the waves. [D2 / S2 / W +1 (Max: Rich) / Dendan Oil]
You might be wondering about that little cryptic code at the end of the paragraph. The cryptic code—really, that’s the exact term the rulebook uses to describe it—merely outlines the impact of the encounter in terms of game mechanics. This one indicates that the player gains two each of Destiny and Story Points—discovering a rare creature such as the dendan, and harvesting its magical oil, certainly qualifies as an above-average encounter—as well as an increase in wealth (but no higher than the Rich level) and the treasure Dendan Oil. The previously cited encounter was less generous, granting only one each of Story and Destiny as well as the Determined and Imprisoned statuses—as you might guess, the latter is only nominally a “reward.”
The decision to condense the mechanical elements of the Book of Tales into a compact code wasn’t just to cut down the character count. It’s also a deliberate decision to downplay the game mechanics by literally shrinking their presence in the Book of Tales. Tales of the Arabian Nights succeeds where many other story-driven games fail by knowing exactly what it is and what it is not. It isn’t a book, so it keeps these entries mercifully brief (but no less evocative for that). Nor is it really a game; winning and losing can happen, but the mechanical elements are so spare, and so arbitrary, that losing never feels like losing. Wandering the land, lost and sex-changed; having your wealth stolen by a swindler or enraged ‘efreet; or becoming imprisoned for offending the wrong vizier might not put you in a leading position, but they still make for an entertaining tale.
Upon returning home, Scheherazade remembers her conversation with the relative in Herat. She recalls her late father spending long hours in the library with the door locked. Searching the room, she discovers a small cache hidden beneath a rug, and immense treasure hidden within. She is now Rich beyond her wildest dreams! Beside the coins, the cache contains a ring of one hundred excellently worked keys. They are all clean and well-used except for the one hundredth. “This is truly a treasure more valuable than all of these riches combined,” Scheherazade thinks.
Many narrative board games have a problem with continuity. If there’s too much of it—if a linear, unchanging story drives the gameplay—it leads to an experience that feels “on rails,” and there’s no incentive to play again. If there’s not enough of it—if the entire experience is flipping random cards and experiencing random story-snippets with no connection to one another—the game loses any sense of agency and immersion.
TotAN dances across this tightrope beautifully. It would seem to belong to the latter school of random story-snippets—encounters are not only random, but triple-reinforced in layers of randomness, further buttressed by arbitrary factors—but several mechanical elements help tie these discrete encounters into something more coherent.
Firstly, everyone has a quest. In fact, every player has one quest going at all times; as soon as you receive the rewards for one, you draw another to replace it. The quests vary in structure, but they typically reward players for visiting certain parts of the world or seeking out specific types of encounters.
While at home, Scheherazade overhears her mother lament on behalf of Scheherazade’s cousin, who has been lost in the wilderness of Asia. To bring peace to her mother’s mind, Scheherazade undertakes a quest to travel to that part of the world and seek out her wayward cousin. First, though, she visits the city of Zarandj in India. There, she learns of an Imprisoned Prophet. She remembers the ring of one hundred keys found in her father’s library. “These keys must open any lock, if I can only find the right one,” she thinks. While the jailer is distracted, she releases the prophet, who tells her many wondrous tales in reward.
Similar to quests are the city cards mentioned above, encounter cards that can be cashed in for random rewards (and a few less desirable “rewards”) when visiting the city in question.
Following the map she uncovered in the Rock Slide, Scheherazade continues south to Daybul in search of the indicated treasure. Indeed, she soon comes upon a Glittering Artifact. Examining it closely, she is bedazzled by its brilliance. As she stands there entranced, a conniving sorcerer robs her of her gold, leaving her ensorcelled!
But the Guide Infallible did not lead her to Daybul for naught. As Scheherazade stands dumbstruck in the city square, a wealthy merchant takes pity on her and invites her to take shelter from the heat within her stately manor. The two women pass the afternoon in stimulating conversation, which enhances Scheherazade’s Scholarship, and the merchant speaks highly of the girl to her friends, leaving our heroine Respected.
By providing incentives for visiting specific locations on the map, quest and city cards prevent the game from devolving into aimless wandering—you almost always have a destination in mind. Meanwhile, everything that befalls you en route to that destination is absorbed by the larger narrative, like episodes in a picaresque. “Oh, I was hired by a wealthy merchant to find the perfect wife, but on the way, I was waylaid by bandits, I discovered a roc’s nest, and I barely escaped with my life after accidentally betraying the strange customs of a queer village. Then, when I got to Su-Chou, I fell in love with the girl myself!” While it’s not technically a frame story—a literary device that the One Thousand and One Nights used to great effect—the grand sweep of the quest’s narrative does effectively frame the episodic content of the encounters.
The city cards, meanwhile, mirror another literary device prominently featured in the Nights: foreshadowing. Whether the city card itself represents an overheard rumor, an enigmatic map, or an ambiguous prophecy—it’s really up to the player to decide—the function is the same: planting the seed that Something Important will happen in Samarkand, or Tripoli, or Leon.
In a daze, Scheherazade wanders south to the city of Tana, where she catches wind of a rumor that there are riches to be had far to the north in Kiev. She encounters a Lovesick ‘Efreet and, seeing an opportunity to enrich herself, she attempts to Aid the djinni, using her Scholarship to prescribe a rare herb to dull the djinni’s senses and soften the pain of lovesickness. She is duly rewarded in both wealth and respect.
Scheherazade continues on her way to Gaya to pursue the Mad Enchantress’s prophecy. There, she captures a beast so black it cannot be seen by looking at it directly, a cat with shimmering black fur. Selling it in the market square allows her to regain all the riches lost to the crafty sorcerer. To shield herself against further beguilements, she spends some of her wealth learning the ways of Magic from a local enchantress. Perhaps this is the destiny referenced by the madwoman’s prophecy. Or perhaps her true destiny is still occluded by the Knower of the Unseen to whom not even an atom’s weight remains hidden.
And we’ve barely touched on the other side of quests, city cards, and encounters: rewards. Apart from destiny and story points, rewards typically come in the form of statuses—though these “rewards” aren’t always pleasant, as in the case of the imprisonment mentioned above. Statuses ensure that an encounter’s impact lasts beyond its immediate aftermath, and they can change the play of the game to a significant degree. Become Ensorcelled by offending the wrong wizard or djinni, and you lose control over your movement—another player gets to pick your destination every turn. A run-in with a nasty vizier might end with you being Imprisoned, which forces you to spend each turn having special jailer encounters until you find a way to regain your freedom. If you choose to marry the slave girl in Su-Chou instead of bringing her back to Baghdad to be a merchant’s wife, you’ll gain the Pursued status, which gives future encounters the random chance of turning into conflicts with the one you’ve angered. Marriage itself is a status, and just as Ma’aruf was “accursed by marriage to a shrew of a woman,” domestic union in TotAN is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth: you’ll need to make frequent returns to city where your spouse dwells, and each visit has the chance of producing another child—usually a blessing, unless the poor whelp is born “as ugly as an elderly camel,” leaving you Grief Stricken.
There are good statuses too, of course, as well as treasure cards like the Dendan Oil or the 100 Keys; these are essentially another deck of statuses that are rarer, universally beneficial, and harder to lose. Some statuses even act as mini-quests of their own, particularly the “On Pilgrimage” status that you can voluntary gain to rid yourself of other negative statuses like Envious and Scorned. Being On Pilgrimage prevents you from winning the game until you’ve visited Mecca. Statuses like these and many others create a narrative link between encounters: while I was Ensorcelled and Insane, mischievous marids goaded me into robbing a sultan’s daughter, and as a result I was Imprisoned for my insolence!
Now accompanied by a train of servants, Scheherazade journeys north of Lhasa in search of her cousin. A Magic Rain falls, warm drops tasting like spiced wine, and a voice on the wind tells her to go to Herat. Instead, she journeys north, north of Su-Chou, to the northernmost point in known Asia. In a forest, she spies a beautiful bird holding in its beak a golden necklace. Knowing it to be a Spotted Throatwarbler, a favorite pet of demoniac marids, she hastens on her way.
Next, she travels north of Samarkand, where she encounters a splendid herd of elephants with glittering ivory tusks. With a partner, she successfully hunts a great number of these beasts, but she is betrayed, and her share of the tusks is stolen. The encounter leaves her bitter and Envious.
Nor are the encounters themselves entirely arbitrary. Every hero has a number of skills, with additional skills gained or upgraded into masteries (which let you use the skills more consistently, overriding the auspices of fate) via encounter and quest rewards.
Few encounters have only one outcome; new, generally better outcomes can become unlocked if the hero possesses the matching skill.
For example, Traveling the Black Whirlpool—the same encounter cited above that ended with the hero Imprisoned in a makeshift brig—can end much more favorably with the right mix of Seamanship and Luck—both the in-game “Luck” skill and some real-life luck of the die roll. There’s some logic behind the way these skills are dispersed—Seamanship is generally favorable on the ocean, Weapon Use in a fight, et cetera—but you can never be quite certain where a specific reaction might lead. Trying to Rob a Wicked Prince might use your Stealth & Stealing skill, but it might just as easily require Acting & Disguise, Quick Thinking, Bargaining & Evaluation, or Piety.
Skills create a stronger sense of character and narrative throughline: if I hadn’t learned Seamanship as a result of rescuing that sailor from a den of lions, I would surely have perished in this moment! They also evoke that fairy tale quality of everything falling into place just so.
Finally, Scheherazade journeys to the mountains between Samarkand and Lhasa. A Crafty Wizard attempts to trick her into giving up her riches, but she outsmarts him with a wager: if she can produce a riddle he cannot solve, he must hand over his wealth instead. Drawing upon the Scholarship she received in the home of the kind merchant in Daybul, she invents an unanswerable riddle and attains princely wealth.
The most subtle, but perhaps the most effective, element of continuity comes from player agency itself. The options on the reaction matrix are intentionally broad, and the outcomes intentionally opaque, to encourage a sense of roleplay. It’s not “pick from two or three simple, morally opposed options with obvious repercussions,” as you see in so many games.
Whether you elect to Court the Beautiful Enchantress because it’s what Ali Baba would do, because you have a mastery in Seduction and Appearance and think they will come in handy, because you think it will bring you closer to completing your current quest, or because you have the Insane status and the player controlling your actions thinks it would be funny, your encounter choices consistently, in the end, shape—and are shaped by—character you’re inhabiting. While the actual outcome of these choices is largely left to chance—as is proper in a game based on the Nights—the choices themselves accrue around a personality that forms a bridge between the tales.
In a mountain cave, Scheherazade finally tracks down her wayward cousin, to her mother’s unending joy. The quest has taught her much of Wilderness Lore and left her surely Blessed by Allah. To cleanse herself of her Envy over the stolen tusks, she decides to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca.
Passing through Herat, she comes upon an Enchanted Hunchback, whom she accidentally offends with some minor slight. Furious, the hunchback summons a djinni to transport her to the farthest reaches of Africa. Making her way back toward Arabia, she encounters two puzzling nobles: an Imprisoned Princess who refuses her offer of aid, and a Wealthy Prince who dines on empty plates! “Truly, none but Allah may know the hearts of men,” she muses.
Every edition of the Tales of the Arabian Nights rulebook, dating back to the original in 1985, concludes with “A Note to Western Readers” from designer Eric Goldberg. This is, in tone, rather similar to the foreword to Richard Burton’s “plain and literal translation” of the Nights in 1885; in fact, Goldberg explicitly calls out Burton’s translation as “the definitive English-language compilation.” Burton, the foremost British “Orientalist” of his time, who also undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise and published an English translation of the Kama Sutra, explains his edition’s “turpiloquium” by way of “the simple, naïve and child like indecency which, from Tangiers to Japan, occurs throughout general conversation of high and low in the present day.” His goal is to lay bare, not sweep under the rug, cultural difference: “Again we must remember that grossness and indecency … are matters of time and place; what is offensive in England is not so in Egypt.”
Goldberg makes a similar apology:
Westerners who have little previous contact with Arabia or Islam may be confounded by the ethos and culture they will discover in the Book of Tales. For all its fantastic trappings, the world of the Arabian Nights is that of a very real, exotic, vital, and sophisticated culture. The societal values are just different: for instance, our heroes thought nothing of casually killing someone to gain some small convenience as long as that someone was an infidel.
Which sounds an awful lot like the excised lyric from Disney’s Aladdin:
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home
The only significant revision he has made to the cultural milieu of the tales, he explains, concerns the representation of women.
It is not my place to comment on whether Tales of the Arabian Nights is Orientalist or cultural appropriation. On the one hand, painting the broad swath of cultures responsible for the creation of the Nights as “exotic,” “alien,” and savagely violent is textbook Orientalism. And the note’s assertion that “the tales are more than just pleasing fantasies: they are a faithful reflection of the time and place in which they are conceived” is a little absurd. While the Nights, like all folk tales, does offer some insight into the values and mores of the culture(s) that birthed it, it’s clearly a work of fantasy, with sensational and salacious violence and sensuality designed emphasized in order to entertain, not to educate.
On the other hand, the Nights is a global literature, and at this point in history, it’s far better known and loved in the West than in “Arabian” nations. Furthermore, as a fellow player pointed out to me, TotAN presents the entire world as an exotic wonderland, not merely the East.
To me, at least, the game resonates with a deep respect for its source material. We have to recall that both Burton (whose translation, though heavily plagiarized, was the first full, un-bowdlerized account of the Nights known to English audiences) and Goldberg are reacting against a historical tendency to whitewash, erase, and sanitize the content of the Nights.
As such, there are elements to the game that might prickle modern sensibilities. A commonly cited complaint is that possessing the “Sex-Changed” status prevents a player from winning the game, or that the rules prohibit courtship between members of the same sex. You’ll also have frequent run-ins with slaves, beggars and hunchbacks, and be given the option to beat or purchase them—although, as in the Nights, these seemingly miserable creatures aren’t always as they appear. The game’s stance on such elements is effectively amoral; it does not claim these views as right or wrong, but merely accepts them as unavoidably woven into the Nights’ cultural tapestry.
For other players, the frequent references to Islam might inspire discomfort. The game does not send players on Jihad or see them beheading infidels, but it does reward behavior in keeping with the Five Pillar of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Piety is, in fact, a skill in the game, and Pray is a reaction option to almost every encounter. As mentioned above, pilgrimage to Mecca can be undertaken voluntarily (or otherwise) in many situations to purify one’s body or mind. It would have been easy to erase these references to faith from the game to achieve a greater mass-market appeal in the current political climate, but it would have been cowardly and wrong. In my view, this version of “cultural appropriation”—which stems from and facilitates an honest desire to see things from the eyes of the “other”—can only breed compassion and understanding.
Having completed her pilgrimage to Mecca, Scheherazade encounters a Wonderful Artifact: a wise sage flying on the back of an ebony horse-statue. Conspiring with an enemy of the sage, she sneaks into the sage’s courtyard and steals the statue, but she is pushed from its back by her malicious ally and ends up Crippled. However, the sage, taking pity on her, bequeaths upon her great riches, leaving her fabulously wealthy beyond her dreams! She is now ready to give up the life of adventuring and retire in Baghdad.
She sails into the port of Muskat, making poor progress due to her crippled state. In the city, she witnesses a man striding down the street holding a glittering, enchanted sword and intervenes in what would have been a deadly duel. Finally, arriving in the city of her home, she has an amusing encounter with a Lost Dervish and hangs up her traveling coat for good, having lived a full and prosperous life by the grace of the Most Merciful.