Rivers, swamps, Bengal: Why does a new D&D adventure feel so familiar?

Fans call Dungeons & Dragons the world’s greatest table-top role playing game. The fantasy game has been published since 1974, with fans embarking on ever-more-elaborate imaginary adventures, guided by a Dungeon Master (or the referee / storyteller) and a set of many-sided dice. New adventures keep getting added, players have fleshed out their characters and rally with others on fantasy quests and campaigns.

Comedian Stephen Colbert and actor Vin Diesel are fans. And regardless of how famous you are or how many D&D campaigns you’ve been on, it’s possible to be bested by the gameplay. As fans like to put it: When the Dungeon Master smiles, it’s already too late.

The game delivered a welcome surprise this week. Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, an anthology of 13 D&D adventures (essentially, a playable book), marks the first time that all stories are written by creators who are people of colour.

The 224-page anthology features challenges for character levels 1 to 14. There’s an entry-level comedic mystery set in a night market, a slightly more advanced investigation is set on a sinister farm. There are 11 new monsters, an angel-ruled city. The Level 9 adventure will seem somewhat familiar. It’s inspired by 5th and 6th century Bengal and written by award-winning sci-fi and fantasy writer Mimi Mondal, 35, a Kolkatan who now lives in New York City.

In the Mists of Manivarsha is Mondal’s first D&D creation. Players follow the tale of a local Champion who goes missing in Shankhabhumi after a deadly flood. They traverse a landscape of sentient rivers that change course, creepy trees and a swamp forest.

Building new locations, with unique geographies, histories, inhabitants and conflicts, is key to D&D adventures, Mondal says. In this adventure, despite the rich gameplay set in cities such as Sagorpur, Ashwadhatu and Tippurika, it’s often the rivers that shape the adventure. Excerpts from an interview.

When did you discover Dungeons & Dragons? Did you ever want to be part of the story?

When I grew up in Kolkata in the 1990s and 2000s, I didn’t know the actual table-top Dungeons & Dragons game, but I did play video games such as Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft and so on, nearly always pirated copies. Most of these games were built on the original framework laid by D&D, which I also didn’t know until later, but when I played my first D&D game in 2015 in Philadelphia, I was already familiar with many of its conventions.

Tell us about Shankhabhumi. What sources did you draw on to add to your own understanding of the West Bengal / Bangladesh terrain?

Our goal was to draw inspiration but not create anything directly parallel to the real world. This is the Bengal of the later Gupta period, a much-traversed riverine borderland rich in trade and natural resources, mostly existing as small independent kingdoms, and drawing cultural influences from nearby lands as well as sending its own imprints abroad.

Sagorpur is drawn from ancient cities such as Gangaridae and Tamralipti, but could also be Kolkata or Dhaka at their peak. Ashwadhatu is inspired by cities such as Hazaribagh and Bokaro, and its river Mehul by rivers like Subarnarekha, Damodar and Rupnarayan.

Manivarsha is a descendant of magical cities from Bengali fairy tales (rupkathas), but into its river Adirohit, I wanted to carry a resonance of Brahmaputra, especially its mythic aspect. The image of the swamp forest in the book is referenced from Ratargul Swamp Forest in Bangladesh. Some of these are not the first images you think of at the mention of Bengal, but our popular stereotypes – Durga Pujo, roshogolla, Rabindrasangeet, red-bordered saris – emerged much later, and have a very upper-caste Hindu framing passed off as universal, which I didn’t want to lean into.

Rivers, you can probably tell, are the great love of my life. Much of Shankhabhumi was conceived on the benches by the East River in Manhattan, which some Americans decline to call a river because it’s a tidal estuary, but back home we call our tidal estuaries rivers anyway so I’m going to stick to our definition.

Does the focus on diversity make fantasy writing easier or more challenging?

Not only did the authors in …Radiant Citadel draw inspiration from different parts of the world, we also used different periods in time. In Shankhabhumi, there are no guns, steam power, electricity or modern technology. But some other locations contain these inventions, and it’s possible to travel between them. This would take hardcore convincing to work for the readership of a standard fantasy novel, but the audience for D&D is accustomed to travel like this, which made it easier for each of us to write exactly the location we had in mind. Possibly the trickiest part was writing the …Radiant Citadel itself, the central location that ties together all these locations, and that was done by Ajit George [the book’s creator and project lead] with inputs from the rest of us.

Fantasy and sci-fi are changing so much. There’s more representation, even fandom is inclusive. What, for you, are the new challenges as a creator?

When I started publishing in American science-fiction and fantasy magazines, and I’m talking less than a decade ago, I often got editorial feedback asking me to either flatten or painstakingly explain the contexts of my stories. The diversity wave was already rolling out, but it hadn’t yet expanded far enough to appreciate the narratives of people entirely from other countries (as opposed to people of colour in Western countries), or communities like the Dalit that very few Americans have heard of.

Nevertheless, I’ve continued to write about things that are important to me. In Shankhabhumi, not every word is translated into English, because I’m never writing primarily for the American reader. So as the field keeps expanding, I don’t think writing becomes more challenging for me but rather becomes easier, because more readers are interested and able to engage with what I write. I couldn’t have imagined doing an interview like this, or being asked these questions, when I started, but here we are.

More about Mondal

Mimi Mondal, 35, is an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy writer. In 2018, she co-edited the anthology Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler. It received the Locus Award for non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award and the British Fantasy Award.

Her fiction has appeared on, in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Nightmare Magazine and The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Vol 1.

Mondal was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2020 for her novelette His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light. This is her first Dungeons & Dragons adventure. She says she had to adapt her way of thinking to fit the format of the roleplaying game and include playable actions alongside the locations she was building from scratch.

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