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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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(Five years on, my answer to this has changed a little; I'd avoid the word "traveler," too, since that's often been used to allude to the same peoples that are referenced by the original word.)

I think your instincts are good—the word harkens to stereotypes about real-world groups 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 "performer," which alludes to those evocative images without calling upon historical problems.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Plus, the Roma peoples themselves consider it offensive, which is a good enough reason right there to avoid promulgating it. Also, mountebank is a very close synonym for 'charlatan' and is not a particularly mild term, for all that is archaic and largely obscure these days. \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Dec 14 '18 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ The imagery is definitely fine. But the combination of the word (which is both inaccurate and offensive to Rroma people) and the imagery also perpetuates negative stereotypes; the Rroma people were not free spirits, wandering and performing for the love of art. They were forcibly evicted from their homelands and demonized at every turn. Take the stereotypical image and just use it, and leave the terminology behind. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Dec 14 '18 at 15:16
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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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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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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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  • \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – Flamma Mar 31 '13 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Flamma They did apologize for that, and WoD: Gypsies, and spent a lot of wordcount and time trying to walk that back. \$\endgroup\$ – Jadasc Mar 31 '13 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ +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. \$\endgroup\$ – Xabei Apr 4 '13 at 23:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Delinquishing? Their Ravnos had a compulsion to steal or commit other crimes ('delinquishing?' is that a coinage based on 'delinquent'? I like it, but it isn't appearing in any dictionary I've found). I've heard that the WW folks thought that the 'gypsy' people were mythological and not a real group, and had to eat a mess of crow when they started getting letters. It's an interesting companion piece to their Mafia book, where they basically insulted the Italians in a similar way. Ahh the 90s when stoner college hippies could get away with knowing just enough to get them into trouble... \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Dec 14 '18 at 15:11

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