By Em Rathwaedht of UNIMPORTANTHERO
If ever there were evidence that fantasy worlds are often a refuge for unexamined prejudices, it is not found in the goblins and the orcs as easily as it is found in the contemporary stereotypes which are placed in these fantasy worlds without alteration. I am referring in this entry to the Vistani – the obvious and cartoonish Dungeons & Dragons insertion of Romani peoples into the Ravenloft campaign world. These gothic-genre Gypsies were first introduced in 1983 with the original Ravenloft module and embodied the most banal qualities of the stereotyped Romani person. They were written as mysterious and exotic permanent outsiders whose ability to foretell the future was dependent on remaining forever mobile, on never settling in one location for more than a week lest they suffer grave sickness and be labelled outcasts by their own people. Vistani society was matriarchal in intent if not in practice and men who possessed the the mystic abilities which defined the Vistani were treated with distrust and often outcast in order to prevent some cataclysm.
Here we see a very real world stereotype which defines Romani peoples as a people who are possessed by a terrible wanderlust and who are more magical creature than real human. We also see (once again) the familiar Dungeons & Dragons conceit of using matriarchal societies to render a culture alien and strange and the equally familiar conceit of positioning exceptional men as dangerous to these matriarchal societies. It is an all too familiar approach that has been embedded in Dungeons & Dragons since its inception forty years ago – the difference with the Vistani is that these are not a fantasy people serving as a vehicle for antiquated but still-unexamined ideas. They are an inauthentic duplication of a real people whose entire in-game lore relies upon real language taken (poorly) from these real people and whose entire in-game identity is simply a regurgitation of stereotypes used to oppress these real people in Europe and elsewhere for centuries. They were also – for quite some time – nothing more than a footnote.