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!