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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Arrows of Indra: Castes

You can’t really write an even vaguely authentic Epic Indian Myth RPG based on ancient India in the age of the Mahabharata without addressing the question of Caste.  However, this is naturally a very contentious issue.  Some people have gone as far as to express a certain amount of outrage that the Caste system is considered in the game; to be fair many of these are people who have not and would never actually buy Arrows of Indra and were just looking for something to be outraged about.  But still, I think its worthwhile to talk about caste in the context of the AoI game.

First, as it explicitly states in the book, neither the author, nor the publisher nor (to my knowledge) anyone involved in Arrows of Indra actually approves of the Indian caste system (or any other kind of caste system) in real life.  In fact, I’m not afraid to say that I think the Indian caste system sucks, I’m glad that modern Indian law doesn’t recognize it but hope that Indian society evolves to the point where that becomes a true reality.  That clear? Good. Let’s move on.

Second, the caste system was (and still is!) a reality of Indian culture. It had to be addressed (of course, no doubt some of the very same people outraged that I included it would have been outraged at my ‘cultural ignorance’ or ‘historical whitewashing’ if I had not included it).  The interesting question, then, is how an AoI GM should handle it.  The mechanics for how to handle caste (which castes can play which classes, etc.) are pretty straightforward and explicit.  The setting material is pretty clear about what castes are, what they mean, and what they do.  But let’s go a bit further and clear a few points up:

a)  If you’re an AoI GM, you could just NOT USE castes if you don’t want them.  As the author of AoI, I felt it important they be included for accuracy, but there’s nothing that should stop you as a GM from getting rid of them if you don’t like the idea.  YOUR version of the Bharata Kingdoms could be casteless.

b) If you don’t like the attribute modifiers or the class limits based on caste, you could just get rid of those instead, and keep caste as a more vague general concept (though you’d have to seriously rework some elements of the setting to explain how a Sudra could be a Priest, etc).  Its your world, do with it what you will!

c)  I already explicitly stated this in the book, but it bears repeating: if you are already familiar with the modern Indian caste system, do keep in mind that the caste system in the Bharata kingdoms (and indeed in historical India in this early period) was a bit difference in terms of stratification.  That is to say, “caste” was a much more malleable concept than it is even to this day in India, where you are born and die in a single caste.  In the Bharata kingdoms (and in many periods of real Indian history) caste was seen as something that usually stayed fixed throughout most people’s lifetimes but that was to a certain extent changeable: you could get a demotion in caste for certain acts, and (albeit harder) you could also theoretically get “promoted” to a higher caste.
As a GM, there’s nothing to say you couldn’t extend this a further step, making caste something even more malleable than the setting default, allowing for example that the priesthood or virakshatriyas “promote” spiritually worthy candidates by virtue of augury or signs of divine favor.

d) Finally, you’ll note how Arrows of Indra is chock-full of random tables for absolutely EVERYTHING.  As I already said above, if you’re an AoI GM and at any time don’t actually want to use the random table, you have the full authority not to use it!  This includes the random table for caste in character generation.  If you want to, you could just have all the PCs play the same caste, or you could pick the caste for PCs based on the classes they wanted to play, or you could let them pick their own castes. As ought to be the Sacred Rule of OSR games, “the Rules are there to serve the GM, not the GM to serve the rules”.  If you don’t have a lot of experience with OSR games or that style of play, try to keep this in mind! Don’t get stuck thinking that because I, a guy who doesn’t actually know you or your group, wrote something down in the book that it somehow means that I know better than you about what’s best for your group to have fun.

I hope these clarifications provide some help for anyone who was seriously wondering about caste in Arrows of Indra.


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(originally posted June 14th, 2013, on the old blog)


  1. i thought it one of best two rpg books i read this year

  2. I haven't been able to play it yet but really want to. Bought a real copy after the nice folks at Bedrock sent me a FREE PDF of the game to peruse when I couldn't find one to look over anywhere. Really nicely done game. Can't imagine leaving out castes, though, as it feels like a part of the setting that would be glaring if omitted.

  3. Thanks; and that's good customer service on Bedrock's part!

    1. It's amazing customer service considering I had only asked if there were any shops in my area that stock the game so I could check it out.