Skip to main content

Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

I've remarked elsewhere on the sad demise of Pyramid. And I mentioned that my not writing as much for the third iteration of the magazine was a consequence of moving on to writing longer works. That's certainly a part of it, but another part was that the looser format of the second edition lent itself to a more eclectic, impulsive style of writing. Something which happened quite often is that I'd read a book, realize that there was a gaming angle on it, and write a brief article about it. "Atomic Zombies of the Pacific," for example, was the result of reading a book about recent exploration of the sunken ships of the Bikini Atoll and dashing off a lightweight piece on the topic before moving on. The tighter format of the newer Pyramid made that kind of thing more difficult (whatever I was reading at any given moment might not fit well with any theme Steven might come up with, though given his historical performance, I suppose that's deeply and unfairly underestimating his formidable skills as an editor). And, of course, now it's not an option at all.

Which is too bad, because over the recent holidays, I had a bit of time to read (of which I have vastly less than I'd like) and polished off The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Jordan Hammer. This is exactly the kind of book which, during web-Pyramid days, would have had a short article winging its way to SJ Games in a few days. So here we are.

The Story

I'd known the general outlines of the story before, but this book went into considerable depth on details. Timbuktu, for those not up to speed on their West African geography, is a city in central Mali and one of the oldest cities in West Africa. It has intermittently been an important center of scholarship over the centuries. I say "intermittently" because there's a recurring theme of scholars having to go into hiding or other interruptions to the city's intellectual life: an animist Gaoan warlord, puritanical Almoravids and Almohads, and European colonial efforts have all sent intellectuals into hiding and their books into secret places, with the hope of recovering them in future years. A surprising number of Malians had or have a few elderly manuscripts, recognizing in them the heritage of their nation. In the early 21st century, Abdel Kader Haidara, youngest son of a scholar of Timbuktu, was set on a task of tracking down as many of these manuscripts as possible and collecting them so that they might be preserved. He did an excellent job, slowly winning the trust of people in the city and around the countryside and winning international funding for libraries and scanning and preservation facilities.

And that's when the civil war started. In 2012, Mali's president was overthrown and an alliance of Taureg nationalists and al-Quaeda-affiliated Islamists swiftly occupied most of the country's northern cities, including Timbuktu. This was bad news for Haidara. The manuscripts were valuable, which means that they might be taken away and sold off to fund the insurgents, and often reflected strains of Islamic thought opposed to the narrow interpretation of the Islamists, which means that they might be taken away and burned. Haidara leaped into action. Having spent years building up collections of manuscripts, he spent weeks doing the process in reverse, dispersing the delicate texts to friends, relatives, and colleagues hidden in nondescript crates and footlockers. The team he assembled worked quickly and quietly to avoid suspicion and detection.

In 2013, France stepped into the conflict and began rolling back the insurgents. Around this time, the Islamist regime announced that the city's manuscripts would be safe. Haidara knew immediately that this meant that the regime would soon be directly targeting them. Keeping them stashed around the city was no longer an option. His team of covert librarians enlisted local fishermen, whose livelihood was being disrupted by the regime's impractical and arbitrary dictates, and constructed a veritable black market navy of smugglers, taking crates of books downstream towards Bamako, where they might be safe. As Haidara suspected, the Islamists gathered up all the manuscripts they could find and made a bonfire out of them shortly before they retreated from Timbuktu, but thanks to his efforts and that of countless concerned citizens, that only constituted a fraction of the total. Many survived in the city itself (some in the basement of a building the regime had used as a headquarters; nobody had bothered to go downstairs and look), and many more had been shipped away.

Gaming With It

The gaming application here should be fairly obvious. This is an obvious scenario for an adventure or short campaign involving sneaky characters and social characters working in a very dense social setting. What allowed Haidara to get any of this done was access to a population which pretty much universally despised their occupiers. One is tempted to regard this as the people's espionage adventure. In GURPS terms, this wants lots of Allies and Contacts, along with Streetwise, Fast-Talk, Current Affairs, and other social skills to set things up and a bit of Stealth and Scrounging to actually get things moved around. Fighting characters might be occasionally useful, but generally speaking the level of surveillance and the ability of the regime to direct force anywhere it wants, without a lot of consequences to their already deeply unpopular rule makes fighting one's way out of this prohibitively difficult.

And, of course, this doesn't have to be set in the Malian conflict of 2012. This could work anywhere one regime might be seen to threaten the intellectual legacy of another: several times in Malian history, the Reconquista, the conquest of Constantinople, any of the several times Jerusalem changed hands during the Crusades, and in fantasy and SF settings where appropriate parallels can be drawn.

So, yeah, this is the sort of thing I'd have written up for Pyramid were that still an option, probably with a bit more geographical orientation (and a map; I love maps) and details about the major players. A nice gameable idea, but not so much of it that I'd have to write a book about it. My research interests in Africa are, after all, rather earlier than this period. Instead, though, here you go. And doubtless some of the ideas here will pop up sooner or later in other things I work on.


Rory Fansler said…
Nice! Short but very inspiring.

Popular posts from this blog

Writing GURPS Adventures

Someone over on the forum asked for advice on writing adventures for GURPS. Or more specifically, in context, writing GURPS adventures with an eye towards publication by SJ Games, which is a very different animal. Whatever method and structure you have for writing up adventures for your own use is, of course, the best and you should use it for your own purposes. But we're talking about commerce here, not just art, so this should be thought of as advice on how to do business with a particular publisher, not generally useful advice on how to write adventures.

I need to start by defining a term. SJ Games means something specific by "adventure." As the wish list uses the word, an adventure has a plot, or at least something plot-like in it. It presents a specific problem to solve through a progression of encounters. They are not sandboxes. Sandbox-style adventures, with their multiplicity of possible PC objectives, are, in the terminology of the wish list, locations. There ar…

Writing Historical RPGs, Doing Diversity

For a few years now, I've been seeing things like this and reading pieces elsewhere about apparent conflicts between historical accuracy in historical or pseudo-historical fantasy games and issues of deep interest to some parts (and some potential parts) of the modern gaming audience. I tend to write things which are both connected to history and are written to enable the fantasies of modern people, some of whom have a specific interest in not reproducing problematic parts of the past and present in their recreations, so it's something which touches on stuff that I do. And I think I tend to move and write in circles where this tends not to get much thought or attention even though I write for a game which makes accuracy a priority, so while none of this is new to people who grapple with these issues regularly, I'm thinking maybe I should say something about it to get it into spaces where I work.

So, how do I approach the demands of both accuracy and diversity in the stuff …

The Last Pyramid

Today saw the publication of the final issue of Steve Jackson Games's Pyramid magazine, as was announced several months ago. Broadly speaking, it was the victim of generally rough times within the gaming industry.

I'm one of what is surely a small number of people who have been published in all three iterations of Pyramid. I'd had some previous contact with SJ Games--some stuff I helped with ended up in GURPS Cyberpunk, which in turn has doubtless gotten my name on the Federal Register of Dangerous Hoodlums--but it wasn't until the later days of the paper version of Pyramid that I finally got up the nerve to try my hand at writing an article. The result was a short piece on low-tech (mostly Medieval) economies, which became my first professionally published work.

This, apparently, was enough encouragement. Having seen how painless the process actually was, I started thinking in terms of writing for publication. It didn't hurt that around this time I went to work fo…