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I've been working on a set of house rules for a "retroclone" game called OSRIC. This game plays similar to the original 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I was planning to tweak a few of the classes for the setting; one of my intended classes is an improvement of the illusionist. I'd wanted to give the class the added ability to fight decently, but with finesse, as opposed to only using "support" magic.

Hence, I was pondering new names for the modified class. One that came to mind is "gypsy". However, I'm unsure if basing the class off of the romanticized equivalents of the Romani peoples would be offensive. I'm worried that the class name would be going off of a stereotype, even though it's based more on the romanticized idea and not the real-life people. I am aware that, with light research, that "practical" magic is associated with some gypsy peoples (but not all), and that Spanish and Turkish gypsy cultures have a form of dance associated with them (Flamenco and Karsilama, respectively).

So... I had made the mistake of going to Yahoo Answers for this question originally. Caused me to have an episode of self-guilt, actually. =\ So, I wish to ask this here, at the suggestion of an online friend. I in no means think that all of the Romani people are "magical", all dancers, et cetera. I also mean no offense to anyone by posting this. But apparently, some folks think that's not the case. Feel free to refer to my original YA post here.

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Why would gypsy be a class? It should be either a "race" (if human/mythical being hybrids) or a social class within humans. – Sardathrion Mar 30 '13 at 16:36
@Sardathrion I think that the OP is imagining something that someone could conceivably join, like a travelling band, rather than something necessarily born into. – Jadasc Mar 30 '13 at 16:40
Some social and historical context for the word might be useful. – BESW Mar 31 '13 at 1:29
Please do not use comments for discussion, this is not a discussion site. Use comments to clarify/improve the question; otherwise contribute an answer. Thanks. – mxyzplk Mar 31 '13 at 12:52
up vote 21 down vote accepted

I think your instincts are good on this one -- using the name "gypsy," while evocative, harkens to stereotypes about real-world groups that it's not helpful to promote. If you want to promote the idea of wandering performers with magical skill and some combat ability, you could go with "vagabond" or "mountebank" or something even more sinister like "charlatan." My recommended choice, though, would be the euphemistic "traveller" or "performer," which alludes to those evocative images without calling upon historical problems.

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Ultimately, the word gypsy has a pretty cloudy history. For a long time, it was very much meant to be derogatory and pejorative, and used primarily by people who were racist. More than a few groups have embraced it, but plenty have not and still take offense to it.

It seems to me that most fantasy settings that want to evoke the traits associated with the term, without that baggage, use different terms:

  • Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has their Tuatha’an (edit: but also known as Tinkers, a real-world pejorative term for the same group)
  • Wizard of the Coast’s take on Dungeons & Dragons often has Halflings in this role (not sure about older editions). And in Ravenloft there are the Vistani.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic has Traders
  • Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials went with “Gyptian” rather than “Gypsy” though that may have been more for the “slight otherworldliness” vibe he was going for than out of desire not to offend
  • And that’s just off the top of my head

But most of all, I feel like the biggest problem here is that in all of these cases, the term, even when meant positively, has referred to a culture or ethnicity, not really to an occupation, title, or skillset, the way classes typically do. There are usually numerous classes that are appropriate to the literary themes associated with the term, rather than just one. Bards and merchants, explorers and wanderers, all seem like appropriate things to use, rather than have all of them in one class.

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A D&D related one: Ravenloft has the Vistani. – starwed Mar 30 '13 at 17:34
@starwed Thanks, didn't know that one! Added. – KRyan Mar 30 '13 at 17:45
FWIW, "gyptian" in HDM was derived from "Egyptian," which is historically the same root word as "gypsy." (He did the same thing with anbaric current and electrum; in the real world it's electric current and amber, both once interchangable IRL.) "Tinker" is still borderline offensive though, as it's also an actual term used for gypsies and others with a lifestyle similar to that stereotype. – BESW Mar 30 '13 at 22:10
@BESW In the Wheel of Time that's an intentional reference, since it has a setting conceit that history repeats itself infinitely. That's about the only time a pejorative or near-pejorative is appropriate—when the allusion includes the fact that it's bad stereotyping. – SevenSidedDie Mar 30 '13 at 22:27
@SevenSidedDie As he'd presented "Tinker" in a list of non-pejoratives, I thought it was an important distinction to make. – BESW Mar 30 '13 at 23:24

My answer would be to not use "Gypsy" for your game. Roma are fighting for basic human rights all over the world. Why do anything to negate our struggles to rise above stereotypes? If someone says that the use of that word is offensive, I think we should listen. It hurts me as a politically active Romani.

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Welcome to the site! – LitheOhm Mar 31 '13 at 0:09
Is gypsy an offensive word? Although in my country the roma people use to suffer strong racism, the "gypsy" word equivalent (gitano) is not considered offensive. I didn't know that "gypsy" could be offensive, but I still think that calling a class "gypsy" can be a little racist, as it would imply a generalization of that people. – Flamma Mar 31 '13 at 4:36
@Flamma Some use it as their own term for themselves; others see it as a pejorative. Opinion seems to vary by region and ethnic group (since people who aren't Romani are also labeled "gypsies"). Even if it's not offensive to your local Romani/Traveller/&c. communities, the safest and most respectful course of action is to avoid the term, because published work on the Internet will reach others as well. – Alex P Mar 31 '13 at 14:30
My answer would be to not only not use the word "gypsy", but to also not even use the stereotype at all under a made-up name. A class or race of illusionists with finesse in a fight and practical magic doesn't have to include dark skin, social and economic ostracism, association with thievery and dishonesty, plaintive music, itinerant nomadism, living out of wagons, garish jewelry and shawls, or crystal balls. They can just be illusionists with finesse in fighting and practical magic, with additional completely-made-up social or cultural traits. – Beanluc Jun 30 at 1:52

If the stereotype fits your intended class, and the portrayal isn't inherently negative, then it should be fine.

Whether or not you use the term Gypsy, a portrayal grounded in the stereotypes will be seen as using it anyway.

Note that there are a number of portrayals of Gypsies in gaming already - Ravenloft, Rolemaster, and World of Darkness all have done so. And Gypsies in World of Darkness have an entire book on them - and it's FAR from a whitewash, including lots of negative elements of the stereotypes.

Rolemaster's portrayal is non-ethnic - It's a class - and fairly neutral, showing a propensity to travel and theft, but not exclusively so.

Ravenloft doesn't use the term, and as I recall, uses a different name (Vistani?), but there is no question from the art and description it's the classic fairy-tale version of the Gypsies. Most people I gamed with simply called them Gypsies.

Palladium's Mechanoids RPG also uses the stereotypes without the name... The Rovers are very clearly grounded in the same stereotypes, and have similar looks (except for the lack of hair).

Don't be afraid of stereotypes - used properly, they are powerful tools for evoking a lot of information without a lot of words. This also can be helped by including sources for your interpretation of Gypsies... In my case, that would include Grimm's Fairy Tales, and way too much TV.

Now, certain related terms, like Romani, have much stronger associations with the ethnic group from Europe, and if used, must be much more carefully handled.

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White Wolf had a gypsy vampire clan which weakness was not to be able to stop delinquishing. I don't think they were the most sensitive. – Flamma Mar 31 '13 at 12:53
@Flamma They did apologize for that, and WoD: Gypsies, and spent a lot of wordcount and time trying to walk that back. – Jadasc Mar 31 '13 at 13:25
+1 for free and proper use of stereotypes. Adding to the Palladium reference, RIFTS uses the stereotypes with the name, in Worldbooks NGR and Russia. – Xabei Apr 4 '13 at 23:55

protected by mxyzplk Mar 31 '13 at 12:51

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