I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.
I’ve recently become involved with a live-action roleplay group called Darkon, reportedly the largest LARP group on the east coast. Darkon is meant to be a more “real” physical version of high fantasy tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. Elements of in-game mythos are taken from D&D worldbuilding materials as well as classic high fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings. The idea is that during Darkon events and camp outs, you can become a fantasy character, escape your daily life, and—within the parameters of the rules—act out any scenario you like. This was what I had in mind when I began attending events earlier this year, but the reality of Darkon culture has proven rather disappointing, in that it relies less on actual roleplay and more on your ability to hit other people really really hard.
With my intense love of video game RPGs, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I, too, also have an interest in tabletop RPGs. Unfortunately, the one time I actually found a game, the group fell apart one session in and no one had taken the time to explain anything about the Dungeons and Dragons system to me. It was… certainly an experience. However, taking all the chutzpah I could possibly have for the remainder of 2016, I decided that I would run my own session of tabletop fantasy role playing funtimes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m driven by the thoughts of my players forging relationships, traversing perilous obstacles, and just feeling really cool in the settings I’ve thought up. But really, what I’m most looking forward to is seeing the ridiculous shit they come up with in the process of all of that, which is what today’s web crushes are about.
I believe wholeheartedly in the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction”, and I have no doubt that my players will be able to come up with really… really strange things that I wouldn’t have even thought to think of. That’s part of the fun of tabletop RPGs. This truth is only proven by Tumblrs like Your D&D Stories and Your Player Said What.
One of the most important functions of fiction is that it can be used to provide greater insight on reality. By reframing a real social problem in an entirely new and unfamiliar context, that problem can be portrayed more objectively, divorced from the society that may normalize or excuse prejudices or social division. As writers have addressed before, allegory is a very common and a very positive element of fantasy, but even the noblest and most direct of allegories are not the same as visible and relatable minority representation in fantasy. Social research indicates that for minority groups, visibility in media is critical in creating a sense of importance and self-worth, something that metaphorical representation, however well-constructed, does not provide. Fortunately, there is no reason that a story cannot contain both an extended social metaphor and some trans wizards or dark-skinned fauns. Continue reading
I do not play Dungeons & Dragons nearly as much as I would like to. Despite this, I often like to go through various game manuals as fodder for the imagination. Once I was skimming through an expansion manual and discovered an interesting character class: the wu jen. This name is a Wade-Giles rendering of 巫人, which translates most literally to “shaman person”, although other interpretations are certainly possible. Unfortunately I never got a chance to play this character, and even more unfortunately, the manual in question is entitled Oriental Adventures.
The wu jen is one of the magic-user type classes available in this setting, but what makes her unique? Her power is tied to taboos. The specific taboos the wu jen must follow are chosen by the player, starting with one at 1st level and then adding additional ones at various levels as the character advances. If a wu jen breaks any of these taboos, she forfeits her ability to cast spells for the rest of the day. I had never come across anything like this in gameplay before, and was extremely intrigued. Although this was years ago, I still think about it from time to time, and I have recently starting contemplating this more deeply. How do our backgrounds and worldviews influence whether we perceive taboos as restrictive or as empowering, and what does the use of taboo in speculative fiction mean for people who follow religious taboos in real life?
I love books. I love everything about them. I like the way they look, the way they feel, the way they smell, but most of all, I love that they contain a story. All these together sum up why I was excited to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It is a book about old books, secret societies, ancient puzzles, the ever-expanding limits of modern technology, and the sad and rapid decline of used bookstores. I couldn’t wait to download it onto my Kindle. How ironic. Continue reading