Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Power of Taboo

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.

Yeah... I wish I was making this up, but I'm not.

Yeah… I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

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?

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