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The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game

Who Is This Mendes Pinto, Anyway?

Sergio Mascarenhas
June 28, 2001  

I just  can't stop thinking about that wonderful Chandler's principle: Rules Follow Setting. So let's talk about setting.


"When I recall the travails and misfortunes I endured, beginning in my childhood and all through the best days of my life, I'm lead to think that in good reason I may complain about fortune, a fortune that seems to have taken into itself to persecute me and to broken me, as if that could bring her the highest renown and the highest glory. Because it is plain that fortune - not happy enough with putting me in my home country in my days of youth in such a state that I only endured miseries, poverty, and mischievous accidents that even endangered my life - decided to take me to India where, instead of finding the remedy that I was searching for, I only found more and more travails and dangers.

But, on the other hand, when I notice that in all those dangers and travails God always found a way to place me in safety, I'm lead to conclude that there is less reason to complain about the past wrongs, than there is reason to thank the Lord for His gift of allowing me to live long enough to lay down these plain and crude writings that I leave in inheritance to my children. For them only am I writing it so that they may know about the travails and dangerous moments that spent twenty-one years of my life, in which I was held captive for 13th times, and for 17 sold as a slave, in India, Aethiopia, Arabia Felix, China, Tartary, Macassar, Samatra, and countless other parts of that eastern archipelago in the outskirts of Asia that is known in the geographies of the Chinese, Siamese, Gueus, or Lequios as the eyelash of the world."


These are the first lines of a book called Peregrinao (1), written by a certain Ferno Mendes Pinto. Mendes Pinto was born in Portugal in the beginning of the 16th century, and lived in Asia more or less from 1538 to 1559. In his book Mendes Pinto narrates his adventures in Africa, Asia and Oceania as soldier, merchant, sailor, slave, diplomat, and even in a failed attempt as a friar. Mendes Pinto was only one of countless Portuguese and European adventurers that attempted their fortunes in the lands of the spices and mythical riches. The Travels of Mendes Pinto (TToMP from now on) will allow you to follow in the footsteps of Mendes Pinto: to become an adventurer looking for fortune in faraway lands among alien people. So, summing up the setting of the game:

  • Location: The East, from Cape of Good Hope in Africa to Japan.

  • Time frame: Middle to late 16th century.

  • Type of characters: European - mostly Portuguese - adventurers and fortune seekers.

  • Type of events: adventures intermingling trade, combat, diplomacy, fate.





In order to develop the setting I'll rely first and foremost in Mendes Pinto's book, Peregrinao. Yet, this is only one of the many first-hand accounts of that period (even if it is the best from a story telling point of view). That's why I'll have recourse to other sources whenever they may complement Mendes Pinto's book. These will include by order of decreasing importance:

  • First hand travel accounts, like Castonhoso's account of an expedition to Aethiopia, Duarte Barbosa's description of South West Asia, and so on.

  • Chronicles like Dcadas da sia (Decades of Asia) by Joo de Barros, Histria da Conquista da ndia pelos Portugueses (History of the Conquest of India by the Portuguese) by Castanheda, Lendas da ndia (Legends of India) by Gaspar Correia.

  • Other sources from the 15th to the 17th centuries, including official and religious records, art, maps, etc.

  • Scientific (and less scientific) books on the history of the period.

Yet, there is something I must make very clear on the outset: The game is about Mendes Pinto's East. It is not about the historical East. The reason why I'm saying this is because Mendes Pinto account is riddled with inaccuracies, distortions, mistakes, inventions, and other digressions of his own making. All of this cleverly mixed with undisputed facts (2). So, it's important to make it clear that the game is not about 16th East, but about the vision of that East painted by Mendes Pinto. I'll use the other sources to complement Mendes Pinto, not to correct him. I don't want to turn the gamebook into a treatise on history, nor into a re-framing of what Mendes Pinto wrote. The intention is to write a game so the historical material will be used inasmuch as it is needed to support the game. You can always refer to the sources yourself if you wish.



The passage above, the first paragraph of Peregrinao, sums up very well the mood of the game. Characters in TToMP are members of a very particular strata of 16th century Portugal and Europe: the lowest echelons of the nobility, and the highest levels of the popular classes. These two strata often crossed, the pity noblemen trying to make their fortunes by marring into well being commoners, and the richest commoners trying to get a footstep in the nobility vie marring their sons and daughters with some destitute nobleman's offspring.

For this people India came as a mirage of riches and social advancement. Second and third sons facing a life of destitution since the inheritance of their parents would go to their elder brothers; merchants in distress; servants of the upper nobility; adventure seekers; convicted; men on a run for countless reasons; all types of characters attempted to get a foothold in the naos and charavels (3) setting sail to India.

Employed most of the time as soldiers, servants, or sailors, they would go with the bare minimum and expect to return rich, famous, and entitled. Usually they would get a life of miseries and daily fight for survival. If they were fortunate they would be employed by a a well being nobleman, and share some leftovers of their employer's fortunes. Or they could go somewhere outside of the Vice-Roy's reach, anywhere where the disposable hands of an adventurer could be of use. Eventually, if fortune was kind, they would settle as merchants, captains, or landowners, now turned into casados (literally "married men", those that were able to settle and have a family). Eventually, they could sail from Goa to Portugal, with a chest of riches or the expectation of the King's recognition of their services.

The character in TToMP is not an hero. Halfway between Sancho Pana and Don Quixote, he excels in cunning, expedition, and bravado. His values, passions, impulses are as constant as the winds of the monsoon. Furthermore, he is subject - and acutely aware of - to the changing moods of Fortune, or the inscrutable will of God. It is clear that a game set in Ferno Mendes Pinto's Asia cannot be based in the same principles that we find in so many games, starting with D&D. Here there is no place for a clear path of incremental advancement, of ever growing power - no matter the way used to measure it. In TToMP what you get today can be lost tomorrow; what you do now can be completely different from what you were doing yesterday; where you are - both geographically and socially -, your plans, friends, everything that relates to your character is in a permanent state of flux. Yours is the destiny of Sysifus, not the travails of Hercules. A destiny where tragedy is woven with comedy, where hero and buffoon are not two faces, but the one single face of a character.



There are some basic guidelines that will drive the development of the rules. These are the Chandler Principle, the Bachelard Concept, and the Design Cycle Approach:

The Chandler Principle

I mentioned this in column 0: "Rules follow setting", it says. To be more specific, the game must contain all the rules that are required by the setting, and only these. Each rule must be designed by referral to the setting, or - to be more precise - Mendes Pinto's book.

The Bachelard Concept

Here I'm quoting for memory. I remind reading many years ago a book by Gaston Bachelard, a French epistemologist. The book was called - in the Portuguese translation - "A filosofia do no" ("La philosophie du non" in French, I suppose). In this book Bachelard presented the idea (if I recall correctly) that any given object can be known at different levels of deepness of understanding. All of the levels are correct, from the more coarse to the more fine. In other words, knowledge is scalable.

The same can be said about rules. They are (or can be) scalable. We can have very simple and basic rules, and next go to higher and higher levels of finess in rules representation.

I tend to divide levels of rule development into three tyers: basic, standard, and advanced. My game will do this. Yet, a player should be able play at any of these levels, and different players should be able to play at different levels without disrupting the game flow and cohesiveness as perceived  by each of them.

The Design Cycle Approach

I can't even remember where I got this idea, but here it goes: Design is something that follows a cycle pattern going from simple to complex and back to simple. First (stage 1) we start simple with an idea. Next (stage 2) we start to introduce more and more features and specifications into that idea. Somewhere along the line we realize things are getting out of hand, becoming too complex, so we rework it all and turn it simple again (stage 3). Of course, at this point we start all over again.

The difference between the first stage and the last stage is that in stage 1 the thing is simple by accident and superficiality. In stage 3 the thing is simple on purpose and by design.

How do we see the difference? Suppose someone gets a burst of creativity and designs a rule system in a couple of hours (something we often see in the design forum at RPGnet). It will be a simple collection of loose ideas, more or less organized. A second person comes and asks: "Well, its nice, but how to you handle situation X?" The author will say, "I didn't thought about it, that's new. The current system misses that", and he will design some rules to cover situation X, and so on.

Things are different in stage 3. If someone comes and asks "how do you handle situation X" the game designer can say: "it's not missing, you know. It simply is not explicit. When I was in stage 2 I had a rule for X, but I realized I didn't need it. For instance, I can subsume situation X under a more general principle, or handle it by equivalence to situation Z."

I think you get the difference: Stage 1 simplicity means that the game has a lot of holes, things that were not figured out, and for which there is no defined way to handle. Stage 3 simplicity means that all aspects of the game have been studied and experimented, and that the game designer was able to get simple answers to complex questions.

What does that mean for TToMP? That I will always try to move the design along the next lines:

  • Identify the issue requiring rules;

  • Experiment several alternatives (maybe based on the analysis of other games), and looking for all the implications of the given issue;

  • Attempt to find a simple way to handle the issue, a way that copes with all the implications and complexities discussed in the previous stage, while doing it in an elegant and simple way.

Is this possible? Time will tell.

Positioning TToMP in terms of rule design

Based on the previous concepts, we can thing of different design efforts in terms of the next matrix:


What does that mean? That we may classify games according to whether there is a deep design effort behind it, and in terms of rules complexity. I will not explain what rules complexity is, this is one of those topics about RPGs that are restarted once or twice weekly in the RPGnet forums. Let me explain what I understand by design effort instead: Design is superficial if it boils down to simply having a some ideas about a system (cool ideas, granted), putting it on paper (or in the computer) and that's all. It is deep if the designer attempts to test the ideas, confront it with other design approaches and alternatives, and has a justification to why he retained the final version of the rule or setting.

By combining the two evaluation criteria we get a matrix with four different approaches to game design:

  • Inexistent - The game designer just picks whatever idea comes to his mind and... nothing more. To round it out he just mentions "use this as you please, and use your imagination to fill the gaps".

  • Chaotic - Here the designer went on a analytical spiral, adding more and more details to the setting, or more and more rules to the "system", each addressing some aspect he felt had not been covered before. All of this was done by accumulation, without any effort to synthesize, or to streamline the game.

  • Overdone - In this case the game designer attempted to make a system that's internally consistent and thought out. Yet, he still wants to ensure that he game covers all possibilities and minute details. 

  • Fit - In this case the game designer wanted to have a system that is well thought out and consistent, but not at the cost of playability. To ensure this he resorts to concepts and principles that cover a broad set of situations instead of trying to figure out a solution for each occasion.

As you can see, you can use the matrix to classify game systems (no, I'll not do it; it's up to you to classify the systems you know). Furthermore, we can combine it with the three guidelines presented before to view how systems develop:


The Design Cycle Approach gives us the dynamics of game design that takes the game from inexistence to fitness (represented by the arrow). According to it:

  • One starts with an idea (that's both superficial and simple), and moves by adding complexity as new aspects of the game unfold;

  • Next one attempts to put order into chaos by streamlining and providing consistence and deepness to the wealth of designer's notes accumulated in the chaotic phase;

  • Finally, one may reduce complexity by unifying discrete rules or concepts under general principles and guidelines.

The may to go through the first two moments in the design cycle only require imagination and analytical abilities. Where things need a finer tuning is in the third moment: moving from overdone to fit. This is where the Chandler principle and the Bachelard Concept come handy. Based on the Chandler Principle the game designer should discard all things that are not required by the setting. There's a catch, though: different people have different interpretations of a setting (specially when it is not of the creation of the game designer), and look differently at where should be the thin line between overdoing design or getting it to fit. Luckily the Bachelard Concept provides a way to accommodate everybody: by providing different levels of complexity in the game rules, one can accommodate people with different requirements in terms of rules complexity. 


What about TToMP? Simply put, my objective is to achieve a perfect Fit in the system I'm going to design.

Will I be able to do it? It's up to you to judge.




Yes, I know, I'm no writer. That's why I'll need someone to edit what I write, especially when it is supposed to have narrative content. For instance, consider the quotation from Mendes Pinto's Peregrinao in the beginning of the present column. How does it read? You see, that's my translation. I didn't pick up an English version of the book. So, if you think it should be... reworked it means I definitely need someone to edit my writings. Of course, since I'll use a lot of translations from Peregrinao and other works in Portuguese, the ideal editor should have an understanding of Portuguese.  

The response to my previous column allowed me to set the team. Here it is: 

  • Author: myself.

  • Devils advocate: Steve Darlington.

  • Rewriter: Stephen Barrin.

  • Editor: Karl Paananen.

  • Graphic Designer: Matt Snyder. Wait! No, not Matt, he had to drop out of the project (4).

  • Artwork: MetalMan.

  • Team management: RPGnet infrastructure.

  • Watching eye: you all, of course!

I still lack someone to do the desktop publishing, though. And yes, to do graphic design too.




(1) Peregrinao, which is the Portuguese for peregrination was used by Mendes Pinto to refer to his whereabouts around the Indian Ocean, South East Asia, China and Japan.  The name of the book has been translated into English in University of Chicago Press as The Travels of Mendes Pinto. This is the source for the title of my game.

(2) In fact this originated a little game with words based on our hero's name that goes like this: "Ferno mentes? Minto", where "Ferno mentes?" means "Ferno, do you lie?" (the Portuguese 'mentes' means 'you lie'), and "minto" means "I do lie". In English it gives something like

(3) The two main type of vessels used for trans-oceanic voyages in those times. The Characvel was a small but extremely seaworthy sailing boat, while the nao was an huge (by 16th century standards) vessel designed purposefully to carry man and freight across the oceans.

(4) This is a difficult project, and it's already being put to test. Matt wanted to participate, and offered to do so. But on second thoughts he realized he couldn't. I'm sure this will happen again in the future. Anyway, thanks for the support Matt.

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What do you think?

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All The Travels of Mendes Pinto columns by Sergio Mascarenhas

  • Not Dead Yet by Sergio Mascarenhas, 18jul03
  • Still Struggling With Section 4 by Sergio Mascarenhas, 07mar03
  • It's Time For Combat by Sergio Mascarenhas, 31jan03
  • The Criminal Always Comes Back to the Scene of the Crim by Sergio Mascarenhas, 31dec02
  • Tahahahahime Is On My Sahide! Yes It Isn't! by Sergio Mascarenhas, 07nov02
  • Character Creation for Dummies by Sergio Mascarenhas, 08aug02
  • Thus Do We Start by Sergio Mascarenhas, 01jul02
  • Can You Give Us a Descriptor of the Subject? (Part II) February 21, 2002
  • Can You Give Us a Descriptor of the Subject? (Part I) December 6, 2001
  • Time for a Hiatus October 23, 2001
  • System as Language September 27, 2001
  • Don't Forget the Damn Index! August 30, 2001
  • R-O-L-E-P-L-A-Y-I-N-G  G-A-M-E  C-O-R-E  R-U-L-E-B-O-O-K.&nb\ sp; UFF! July 26, 2001
  • Who is this Mendes Pinto, Anyway? June 28, 2001
  • Once Upon A Time ... (How It All Started) April 25, 2001

    All Ruleslawyer For Free columns by Sergio Mascarenhas

  • Experience: From Fiction to Roleplaying Games September 11, 2000
  • The Applied Experience Curve Concept June 26, 2000
  • Experience Curves May 30, 2000
  • Trait Curves March 28, 2000
  • A Change of Course November 28, 1999
  • Spotlight on Alternacy, A Roleplaying System October 26, 1999
  • Introduction September 21, 1999

    Other columns at RPGnet

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