More than Vagabonds and Mystics, by Rue Dickey

The full title of this article, as it was originally published (Nerves Zine, 2021) is “More than Vagabonds and Mystics: Unlearning Roma and Sinti Stereotypes in TTRPGS.” Rue was kind enough to let me repost this for the site.

Content Warnings: Mention of kidnapping, hypersexualization/fetishization, racism, genocide, Holocaust references, generational trauma, antisemitism

A caravan of wagons stopped by the side of the road, lit by firelight and accompanied by a cacophony of drunken voices. A mysterious, beautiful woman in a hooded shawl, reading cards over a table. A band of thieves, stealing in and out of cities by night and leaving empty cabinets in their wake. The tropes are numerous and near-omnipresent in fantasy scenarios. So ubiquitous, in fact, that as GMs, players and observers we have accepted these tropes as a part of fantasy, rather than acknowledging them for what they are: tropes with foundations in racist stereotyping. 

Roma, Sinti, and Travelers have been the focus of negative portrayals and stereotyping for centuries—since their emigration to Europe from South Asia and subsequent ostracization from society. These stereotypes are deeply ingrained in Western culture, informing books, films, television and even tabletop roleplaying games. Several TTRPGs include cultural analogs based heavily on Roma, Sinti and Traveler stereotypes and these cultural analogs are often harmful. 

This piece analyzes Romani cultural analogs in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and Vampire: the Masquerade but stereotyping doesn’t end with those three games. As large, very public play systems, they influence smaller, independent games and publishers, as well as being more commonly found in homes and community gaming groups. 

It should be noted that Roma, Sinti, and Traveller groups and individuals are all different and have different perspectives. As Romani people are part of a diaspora culture—a people dispersed from their homeland and living scattered without a central location—each region, group, and family has different cultural customs and beliefs. No one person, myself included, can speak for the entire cultural diaspora. This piece is less an ‘end-all-be-all’ guide to Roma culture and representation and more a guide to unpacking and unlearning the basics of negative Roma stereotypes in media. Another disclaimer: some Roma, Sinti and Travelers have reclaimed the word “gypsy”—a racial slur—and use it as a self-identifier It should never be used by people who are not Romani as it is still a harmful slur under which Rom are persecuted and isolated.

The Romani people are originally from South Asia, in a geographical region around the India-Pakistan border. Emigrating to escape racial and cultural tensions, they traveled west across Central Asia and Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries. Once in Europe, they faced racial persecution wherever they went. Many towns, cities, and countries banned Roma people from buying property and settling in their communities. Roma caravans and encampments were routinely attacked with no response from local authorities—or, worse, supported by authorities. 

This persecution continues even today- with many Roma communities facing regular threats, arson attempts, police brutality, and isolation. Roma children are barred from public schools and this lack of education bars Roma people from many occupational fields. Roma communities face disproportionately higher poverty and hunger rates, especially Roma who follow nomadic lifestyles. Roma women are highly sexualized and stigmatized by Western culture, leading to higher-than-average incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

One of the ways antiziganism— racism against Rom— is perpetuated in modern culture is through negative stereotypes. Some common stereotypes include: portraying all Roma people as vagabonds and thieves, associating Roma people—especially women—with witchcraft and mysticism, accusing Roma families of kidnapping (often white) children and raising them for their own and generalizing all Roma people as drunks and swindlers. These stereotypes have become the media standard for Roma characters—and for their cultural analogs in fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative fiction including tabletop roleplaying games. 

Dungeons and Dragons – The Vistani

While throughout Dungeons & Dragons’ over forty year history, there have surely been many races and cultures drawing from Roma cultural stereotypes, none is quite so clear and harmful an analog as the Vistani. The Vistani are a race of humans found in Barovia, one of the Domains of Dread and home to one of D&D’s biggest and most iconic villains: Strahd von Zarovich. First introduced in Ravenloft, an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure module released in 1983, the Vistani have been a source of harmful stereotypes for almost thirty years of play.

Ravenloft, Curse of Strahd and all of the modules set within Barovia draw inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula—with some very clear referencial characters. For example, von Richten—Ravenloft’s version of van Helsing, the vampire and monster hunter from Stoker’s tale. However, his story inspiration is also the root of many of the racist tropes used to describe the Vistani. Stoker’s Dracula was rife with antiziganist stereotypes. Count Dracula’s minions and servants were all Romani people who spied for him and procured him, and other vampires living in his castle, victims. 

Borrowing wholesale from this, Ravenloft’s Vistani are Neutral Evil vagabonds dedicated to drinking, thievery, and spying for Strahd. When player characters encounter a traveling Vistani caravan, the sourcebooks describe them as drunken vagrants, lazing about and drinking while they watch the party with hooded eyes. The entire “race” are slotted in as evil NPCs, adding an element of biological essentialism—the notion that being born a certain race automatically makes a person good or evil.

Another trope the Ravenloft setting forces quite heavily on the Vistani—and one that was doubled-down on with the newest revisions and expansions of Curse of Strahd—is the concept of curses and the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye is a prevalent superstition and spiritual belief across many cultures, versions can be found in South and Central Asian, South American, Central American, North African, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Indigenous American cultures. While every culture’s myth is different, all are centered on the idea that a person can curse another being or entire place with a look.

The stereotype that all Rom are practitioners of witchcraft and capable of cursing individuals is a deep-rooted one that calls back to antiziganist and antisemitic beliefs founded in the Middle Ages. Any perceived supernatural blight—a famine, a bout of plague, a sudden drought or flood, etc—was often blamed on local Jewish or Roma communities, as they were easily scapegoated outsiders. Over time, this evolved into a belief in Western culture that Rom are all witches that use their magic and curses to further themselves and harm others. 

(An aside: there are traditional forms of magic and witchcraft in many cultures—especially those pre-Christian hegemony. Some Rom may practice a form of witchcraft, whether traditional practices brought over from Central Asia or modern practices, such as Wicca or Druidism. It is the notion that all people of a certain race practice a religion and use it specifically to harm others that is harmful and reductive.)

The evil eye and Vistani Curses were a piece of flavor text in the original release of Curse of Strahd—an option for Dungeon Masters who wanted to play Vistani enemies and give them a wider range of abilities than standard villagers. The Vistani curses and evil eye were optional racial feats to give to Vistani characters—inherently tying that magic to their race. In the recent rework, which claimed to be undoing some of Curse of Strahd’s harmful racism and ableism (which actually failed to do anything meaningful), this trope was reinforced by having the curses and evil eye ability built into new stat blocks for “Vistani bandit” enemies. The insistence on maintaining the evil eye as a racial ability, rather than making it a learnable spell or feat, only heightens the distinctly negative racial connotations.

The most glaring and by far most harmful stereotype that Ravenloft employs regarding the Vistani, however, is the “child-stealing” stereotype. This stereotype has been found in Western literature for centuries, a notable example is in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmeralda, the Roma dancer, is discovered to actually be a white woman kidnapped by Rom at birth and raised to believe she is Romani. This fear is etched into Western culture—despite the fact that it is actually much more common for Roma women and children to be kidnapped and their cases are less likely to be solved or even investigated. 

This trope rears its ugly head in von Richten’s backstory—which players can find by reading his journal or perhaps by hearing it from von Richten or Ezmerelda (a Vistani woman who is a potential ally to the party). Von Richten is a monster hunter but has specifically set himself on a path to kill Strahd because of what happened to his young son. A group of Vistani kidnapped his son in the dead of night and took him to Strahd’s castle, where the vampire made short work of him. Ezmerelda witnessed this—as her family did the kidnapping— ran away, and was subsequently taken in and raised by von Richten as his apprentice. Though, the two split because von Richten can never truly trust Esmeralda, as she is a Vistani, and therefore, as he believes, inherently evil. Von Richten is further proven to be a belligerent racist in that he is training a tiger to attack and maul Vistani on sight. His character, intended as a possible ally and sympathetic character to the players, is built on a backstory with a racist backbone that once again relies on stereotypes and the bioessentialism idea that any given race can be born ‘evil.’ 

Vampire the Masquerade – Ravnos

One of the vampire clans in Vampire: The Masquerade is less an analog and more a direct depiction of Roma people through stereotype. The Ravnos clan, one of the thirteen Kindred, is a clan made up of charlatans and hustlers—and all of their lore and traits are built on appropriation and negative portrayals.

To start, one of the alternative names for Ravnos clan members is ‘gypsies.’ As previously mentioned earlier, “gypsy” is a racial slur directed at Roma people. The slur finds its roots in Europeans misidentifying Roma migrants when they first began arriving in Europe—defining them as Egyptian, or Egyptian-adjacent. It grew to a deliberate misappropriation: a refusal to know where Rom actually came from, to hear their stories and cultures and give them a space. It is the slur under which they were—and are—banned from owning property, the slur under which Eastern European countries like Romania enslaved them, and the slur under which they were rounded up and shipped to camps during the Holocaust.

Having that slur be a casual name by which the Ravnos vampires are referred to in books, and which players and GMs are encouraged to call them, normalizes the use of slurs. It also adds to the (largely American) belief that gypsy isn’t a slur but, rather, just another word for “free spirited”, often co-opted by artists and spiritualists. 

The Ravnos vampires have their roots in India and those found in Europe and throughout Central Asia followed Roma people to reach those locations. These Ravnos vampires were either Roma people who had been turned or other racial disambiguations who insinuated themselves into Roma caravans and traveling parties. By hiding vampires amidst their traveling groups, White Wolf has further demonized Roma caravans, already seen as dangerous and violent. 

The Ravnos are generalized and depicted as all being thieves and vagabonds. In the original versions of the game, the Ravnos’s clan weakness was a compulsion to commit crime- every Ravnos was bound by their curse to be a criminal. Even with that removed in later updates, they are still viewed by the Carmilla and vampire society as low-class criminals and lumped by mortals into the same frightening stereotype of rowdy, dangerous Roma. 

The history of the Ravnos clan is inextricably tied to Roma history, because White Wolf decided to make them Roma (amid other racial disambiguations of the Indian subcontinent). One of the reasons there are very few Ravnos compared to other Kindred is that the Roma branch of the Ravnos was largely wiped out during the Holocaust. Using the Holocaust as a plot point without talking the time to understand the actual cultural losses caused by it puts salt in an old wound. Whole sub-groups of Roma were wiped out during the Holocaust- whole languages and cultures and histories. To co-opt that cultural loss and subject players to it is harmful to Roma and Jewish players, many of whom feel the burden of intergenerational trauma and the loss of so much of their history. 

Pathfinder – Varisians 

The last cultural analog covered in this essay and, of the three, by far the least egregious is the Varisians of Pathfinder. While they do not have nearly as many of the flaws and stereotypes outlined above, they do still rely on antiziganist tropes and contribute to the fantasy stereotype of Rom. 

The Varisians are a nomadic group of humans, described as olive-skinned and ‘exotic.’ This is one of the largest concerns with the portrayal of the Varisians. Many different non-white races suffer from hypersexualisation and fetishization and Rom are no exception. The belief that people of color are somehow more ‘exotic’ and that their beauty is something to be coveted because of how different they are from white standards of beauty dehumanizes people of color—especially women of color. Roma women are often vilified as seductresses using their feminine wiles and beauty to trick and ensnare men—especially white men. By describing an entire race of people as ‘exotic,’ Pathfinder adds to this myth of sexualization and dehumanizing beauty for women of color. 

The Varisians also fall victim to the stereotype of crime being rampant in Rom and Rom-analog communities. While Pathfinder doesn’t define all Varisians as criminals—making it the best of these three examples—there is still a Varisian racial group of gangs, called the Sczarni. The Sczarni are found anywhere there are large Varisian populations and fall into the typical stereotype: thieves and scoundrels. 

A large part of the problem with this portrayal is that in-universe, the Varisians face persecution specifically because of their association with the Sczarni. The other races and cultures of Pathfinder’s universe see Varisians and think only of the crimes committed by a minority of their entire culture. This is something that happens quite often with people of color and their fictional analogs. When one person, or a small number of people, in that minority group makes a mistake or commits a crime, those crimes and mistakes are projected onto the entire culture. Subjecting the Varisians to this cultural generalization mirrors the Rom’s actual persecution. 

There are other cultural analogs for Rom, and deeper analysis to be taken of the analogs and examples covered in this essay. Stereotyping and vilification of Romani peoples is a staple of Western fantasy and literature, and thus its roots run deep into any form of media that reflects that. These stereotypes and tropes, built off of centuries of racial persecution and exclusionary practices, create a rift at the table for players of Roma descent, as well as contributing to a global culture of distrust in Roma. 

By unlearning and reworking these races, and making cultural analogs that are actually representative—with input from cultural consultants and sensitivity readers—tabletop games can develop into a more welcoming and diverse atmosphere. 


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