Role-Playing Games and Religious Appropriation

After many, many months of contemplation from afar, I have decided to jump into the world of tabletop role-playing games.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend, a long-time player, offered me a spot in his new group. Now, I’ve been watching said boyfriend run off weekly to play these games for about a year. He’s quite loyal to them, and I think it’d be safe to consider him to be a walking Dungeons & Dragons encyclopedia. I keep telling him that was he to apply such skills as locating obscure rules and exceptions to academic pursuits, he could make a damned good lawyer. My previous partner also played such games, so I’m no stranger to them. Every now and then, I’m asked if I’m sure I don’t want to try it. And while I’m not shy, I am what you might call introverted, and I really consider myself to be almost embarrassingly non-creative. I’m also terrified someone is going to make fun of my role-playing abilities, or that I’ll make a major blunder, or that I’ll be ridiculed for my ignorance. Basically, I was too self-conscious to try it until a player in this new campaign dropped out, and there was a dire need for another person. I couldn’t suppress my curiosity any longer, so I decided to make a character and give it a go. The character making is where the problem came in.

I knew I wanted to be an elf (obviously) and I knew I wanted to be a caster of some variety.  In Pathfinder, the game I’m playing, I had the option of being a witch, so I went with that. I love the idea of playing a fictionalized, wondrous witch who can do tons of crafty things, some of which are so splendidly fantastical that I can’t help but be drawn to them and some that are so evil and disastrous that I can’t look away.  For a girl who has forever been obsessed with the occult, horror movies, Halloween, and all things spooky, there was no other option. It should also be mentioned that I personally identify as agnostic, though I have very strong pagan leanings when it comes to my spiritual life. I am well-learned on the subject and I know quite a bit about various pagan beliefs, and I identified as pagan for some time when I was younger. I clearly understand the difference between fiction and reality, and the idea of the witch as we know her in pop culture and those who identify as witches in reality. They’re not even apples and oranges; they’re apples and potatoes.  Because of my own beliefs, I hit a bit of a bump when deciding to play a witch, wondering if I’d be reinforcing stereotypes. Eventually I decided that no, this was a highly fictionalized fantasy game, complete with goblins and dire weasels (really, that’s a thing, and I’m excited about it). But then, when asking for tips on how to role-play, the question came back. I was advised to “take inspiration” from real religions and rituals. Um, what?

So what does one do with that advice? I was conflicted and concerned and totally unsure of what to make of that, in all honesty. Wasn’t that religious and cultural appropriation? Like hell was I going to open up one of my books on paganism, find a cool-sounding ritual, and use it to cast my fantasy spells in my fantasy game. I wasn’t about to go find some nifty Latin words to mutter while I daze goblins or draw out runes in dry-erase marker to heal one of my party members. Those things mean something to actual, real people, and they are significant.

But, I was told, don’t authors take inspiration from religions and cultures to tell their stories? Is that always appropriation? If an author creates a fantasy world with a fantasy religion that draws heavily from Hinduism, yet is separate and completely fictional, is that still appropriation? I lean toward yes. But to create something completely new, free of inspiration, is impossible, from what I’ve heard. There’s too much history, too many influences that sit, even subconsciously, within our minds. Those subconscious ideas are one thing, I might say, but Googling Sufism and going, “Oh, that sounds cool! I’m gonna use that!” is different. To consciously appropriate another’s religion, something which is extremely important to a good many people, is not acceptable to me. I’d rather go warty, green-skinned cauldron-stirrer than incorporate Obeah into my character. The former may not be original, but it also isn’t stomping on somebody’s beliefs. I’m well aware of the problems of our conceptions of witchcraft (trust me, I learned all about it first-hand in middle school) and the problems that the pop-culture witch stereotype has, so I’d really rather not do either. I guess it comes down to how creative I really am and how I can stay true to my social justice mindset and still play a heavily stereotyped character.

From what I’ve heard, this sort of appropriation seems to be fairly common in the land of role-playing. I know that the gaming community, overall, isn’t exactly the most progressive group of individuals, so I’m really not surprised. I imagine that the whole “It’s just a game!” thing tends to save a lot of people the trouble of bothering to mind their actions and consider that they might be doing something really, really offensive. From “exotic” religions being used in fantasy settings to the classic dark-skinned bad guys, the hobby is ripe for change.

So what do y’all think? Is this appropriation? What do you do with it? How can you create a character that doesn’t appropriate? Got some advice for the Elfity One? I’m still working on the character. I’ve only played one game so far (and I love it!), so I haven’t really built her magical framework yet. Suggestions are welcome!

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Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

16 thoughts on “Role-Playing Games and Religious Appropriation”

  1. I have a few thoughts on this, and hopefully they are coherent!

    I think part of the issue when it comes to religious appropriation and games is the differences we see depending on the religion appropriated. For example, in lots of different forms of media, Christianity is appropriated in certain ways, such as in Constantine or some shit like that. The mythos of the religion is taken and made fact – or at least, certain pieces of the mythos. But in these situations, usually a couple things happen. 1) The pieces of mythos taken are made into the reality of the world itself. 2) The people who write the appropriation accept Christianity as a legitimate religion.

    Number 2 does NOT mean that the person writing the appropriation believes in Christianity. Rather, they recognize that people across the world practice it, and they call it “religion.” Opposed to this is, say, referring to Nordic religion as “Norse myths.” Using the language of “myth” as opposed to “religion” creates a very different expectation, because we see “myth” as fantastical non-veridical stories. In addition, this sort of language makes invisible the real people who believe in Norse religion.

    Even if the appropriation of Christianity in some way satirizes the religion, I tend to see a very real difference between appropriations of belief systems that are taken seriously as actual religion, and then the ones that people view as at most “fringe” beliefs.

    1. You make a great point about treating religions with respect, but I worry a little about the comparison with Christianity, simply because Christianity is such a privileged religion (in western culture anyway). Christianity is so pervasive in our culture that I feel that most people have some direct relationship with it even if they don’t practice it themselves. It gives a certain perspective on how to go forward that they may not have about a religion they have less direct contact with. And it prevents any fictionalized account of religious stories from seeming like it has any real spiritual authority because the reader has the same level of familiarity. No one is going to read comics like Hellblazer or Lucifer and come away with, “Wow, I didn’t know that about Christianity.” No one will think that Christians believe that Yuppies are actually demons from hell or that Lucifer has a mistress named Mazikeen. We all have enough cultural contact to pull the fact from the fiction. The same might not hold true with a less dominant religion. If you don’t know the ins and outs it will be less apparent where the fictionalization occurs. It seems a dangerous road to tread.

  2. My first foray into tabletop RPGs was D&D 3.5, but the gaming community I was with gradually transitioned to Pathfinder instead, and there have been all kinds of ups and downs along the way. Overall, I still enjoy playing–although I’m not a part of any campaigns right now–but there are still some problems with the texts.

    I think that the advice to look at real religions and rituals may not have been so much advice to cut and paste what you like but more to look at how people have perceived religious experiences and how those experiences have manifested into organized religions and to gather inspiration target than to outright copy. I could be wrong, but that is how it strikes me

    When D&D first came out, people freaked out about the game, thinking it was satanic and a while bunch of other things, claiming that the Dungeon Master was like Hitler and that everyone playing was completely under the DM’s control, even saying that the text put it that way. What the text really said was that charisma (in character building) was not necessarily a positive trait but that it simply meant that someone with high charisma would have more influence over other characters (like Hitler did).

    I don’t mention that to say that is what you are doing but more to point out that these gaming texts aren’t always written with the idea that they will be analyzed for flaws and flawed ideologies. I don’t think that excuses the authors for not putting more thought into it, but I do hope this doesn’t detract from your gaming experience. RPGs can be a lot of fun!

          1. It was pretty good! Exhausting, mostly because one of the players had a bad day at work and was being a little obtuse (why are you bullrushing the current big bad evil person even though you are obviously all captured and out of your league since you’re all level 1??). Overall, though, it was a good time, and I got to subvert things by making an even number of male and female NPCs.

  3. My first reaction was exactly “It’s just a game.” And although I only roleplay text-based, I know a couple of roleplayers that use different religious rituals with the thick rule of ‘This Is Not Amusement’.

    Um ..I really don’t know how to help a completely self-said not-creative person with creating. Because I just do. But to come back on appropriation …would you still feel that way if it was a very thoroughly mixed mis-mash of  different religions/ideas so it’s hard to recognize any separate idea? I’m always afraid that I’m completely blind for someone else’s toes, so I find it hard to reply to this.

  4. Been gaming for years now, and I think “look to reality for inspiration” is shitty shitty advice (and in a recent polling my gamer boyfriend said the same). It is one thing to have a religion with several gods and some reincarnation themes that vaguely resembles Hinduism, and another to strait up copy with slight modifications. The goal is to have fun in make-believe land and create new things, not stomp all over other cultures with a pith helmet and a handle-bar mustache, and treat their sacred rituals as toys for your amusement.

    A better bit of advice would be to take a look at what the character values and why, and figure out how she would express that. Religion is the social manifestation of a spiritual experience. What did she experience? How would she react? How would she explain it to others? Go from there. I know crap all about Pathfinder, but does the book include any descriptions of standardized rituals to use as a jumping off point?

    From my own experience playing a 4th ed. Warlock, I decided that because her power came from a clandestine contract her casting was all muttered under her breath with a few dramatic hand gestures. A little bland? Yes. But it made sense for the character and was inoffensive.

    But D&D would not be my pick for a progressive tabletop. It’s full of “strong female character” pictures, for one. Of the ones I’ve played Mouseguard pretty safely navigates the cultural and gender issues by making everyone a mouse without much in the way of secondary sex characteristics, but the mechanics are a little hinky.

    There is a project called Farewell to Fear from Machine Age Productions that looks pretty promising. They describe it as a “progresive post-fantasy RPG,” and it looks like the goal is to create a system that deals with all the crap baggage that fantasy settings often bring to the table. Might be worth keeping on the gaming radar.

    Edit: And have fun. Gaming should be fun.

    1. Thanks, that’s all great advice! I’m glad I’m not alone in my thinking on this. I don’t suppose DnD is very progressive, but it’s what I’m familiar with. The thing about it is that you can essentially make it what you want it to be, though it could get difficult when half of your group seems fairly apathetic towards social justice.

      Actually, my bf left his old group because they weren’t feminist/progressive and he didn’t want to put up with it. From what I understand, they were totally resistant to change, and he wanted a group that wouldn’t use misogynist slurs, etc.

      I’m certainly going to check out that Farewell to Fear thing. It sounds awesome!

      1. Who you play with is huge. My gaming circle is fairly evenly divided down the gender line, and has at times included non-straight, non-cis, and non-white people (not all in the same person mind you), and that has helped with keeping everything from getting too privilege laden. And you can definitely take the mechanics of any system and chuck everything else, or just the parts you don’t like. With any luck it was just a case of temporary unacknowledged privilege/momentary lapse in thinking things through. Because in other situations, looking to reality isn’t such a bad thing. Want to design some armor that works? Look at real armor. Want to create a realistic feudal hierarchy? Look at historical feudal systems and how they functioned.

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