Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Religion in D&D

So I'm taking a break from working on lecture notes and my syllabus for HIST316 to talk about a feature of role-playing that I feel is woefully misunderstood by gamers, specifically D&D gamers--the role of religion in an RP setting.

These days, skepticism and postmodern deconstruction have played a powerful role in misinforming people about religion in society.  For example, read any book on Augustus' political maneuverings that involved religion and you'll run across a deeply postmodern viewpoint that the first emperor purposely manipulated religion to bolster his reign.  This gives the reader the sense that Augustus didn't really believe in the religion, but saw it as a method to dupe people into surrendering political authority to him.  Granted, there is no doubt that Augustus was cynical and well-versed in realpolitik.  However, to suggest that he simply saw Roman religion as a means to power-acquisition imposes a skepticism onto his character that is thoroughly modern and somewhat anachronistic.  It is possible he was agnostic enough to see religion as something that could be manipulated, but to think that he actively disbelieved in the gods, did not fear their power over reality, or seek to gain their support is absolutely erroneous and unhistorical.

After reading Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, as well as numerous works on ancient religion by Walter Burkert, I can't help but shake my head at the woeful understanding of religion's role in pre-Enlightenment societies that gamers have.  Gods exist as plot coupons, granting spells and standing for good or evil but not really playing a viable role in the societies of their settings.  The traditions, the demarcation of the sacred, the rituals and rites, the concept of purity and hallowedness, don't exist.  Holiness or unholiness are simply the side-effects of alignment or alignment-based spells (such as hallow).  There is no real understanding of the relationship between magic and the divine (or metadivine).  Clerics' roles in the gaming world are limited to being healers or buffing stats for player characters.  They don't play a real meaningful role in determining what a society values, how it organizes itself, or how it determines what is virtuous, moral, bad, or evil.

I'm reminded again of the role of Ronald Lacey's character in Flesh + Blood.  There's a phenomenal scene where he sanctifies Martin (Rutger Hauer) as leader through interpreting an omen.  He is instrumental in determining what is good for the group and what must be opposed, all filtered through a powerful religious lens.  In this pre-modern, medieval world that the characters inhabit, heaven and hell are very, very real places, God is omnipresent and always judging, and the priest is His mouthpiece.  Nevermind our modern notions of power and politics; these people really believed because belief was all that they had with which to determine the nature of reality, good and evil, and meaning itself.

Ronald Lacey's militant priest should be one of the models for a D&D cleric.  He commands respect and perhaps even fear.  He has the ear of God and the power to interpret signs and wonders, omens and visions.  He is a link between the invisible realm of Good and Evil and the mundane, drab world of physical reality.  He has power.  Not just spellcasting power.  Power and understanding.  He knows.  And he has the power to purify and sanctify, the power to declare who is good or evil and whom shall be damned.  In effect, he has a finger on the pulse of the afterlife and that scares the shit out of people and demands their respect.  Only another priest can really counter him.

These powers are largely ignored in the D&D worlds.  Clerics form largely a support role.  They are evidence that the gods are real because they cast spells.  Hell, half the time in D&D, the gods manifest themselves in visible and undeniable ways.  Yet D&D religion is largely myth-as-fact and little else.  For example, the D&D 2nd edition The Complete Priest's Handbook advises a DM create a mythic history for the setting.

One of the first things the DM can do to add color and detail to his campaign world is to work up that world's mythic history. Such a history will help establish, in his mind and those of his players, the relationships between the gods, and between gods and men. It will help set the tone of the campaign and the attitude of the player-characters' culture. It will give the players some idea of what their characters expect from their gods and their future. And once it's done, the DM can then elaborate on it and decide how each individual god relates to other gods and to the sentient races of the world.

After that, it gives instructions on how to create gods, their ethical dimensions, alliances and oppositions... and that's it.  It doesn't discuss rites or rituals, traditions, holidays, or deeper philosophical and ethical ideas beyond a cursory sentence or two.  This is profoundly manifest in the Dragonlance setting, in which the gods exist, are divided by alignment, but don't really have any set of traditions.  Their priests don't exist to demarcate the sacred in opposition to the profane or mundane in any sense that Eliade or Burkert describe.  There is no sense that ritual and ceremony re-enact mythical events or bring the celebrants into a sort of communion with their gods.  In a sense, each god's dogma is that of henotheism or monolatry.  There's not a lot of depth there.  There are next-to-no sacred texts (the Disks of Mishakal being the only text mentioned in the Dragonlance Chronicles), no factional splits based on dogma or interpretation, no local rituals or traditions.  The gods are simply there to fight out the whole Good vs. Evil battle.

This deficit makes gaming in the setting easier, but not necessarily more rewarding.  The setting suffers from lack of depth.  Similarly, role-playing also suffers.  A good DM should at least give Eliade's Sacred and Profane a cursory reading, and perhaps to some research into real-world religions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Shinto if their religions are polytheistic, henotheistic, or monolatric.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Twin Post: D-Day and Ray Bradbury

Two things have really converged today that make being a blogger a bit interesting.  The first is that on June 5, Ray Bradbury passed away.  The other thing is that today, June 6, is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during the Second World War.  Both topics are likely being blogged about all over the internet, but I thought it would be remiss of me to not say at least something.  I've avoided doing this before because everybody is doing it, but this time I figured I'd hop on the bandwagon.

Ray Bradbury
The passing of this giant of science-fiction is honestly quite sad, especially since he was prescient enough to foresee the cultural decline of American society into kitsch and the waning of literary awareness.  I read Fahrenheit 451 back in high school and it struck me how much Bradbury predicted how cultural and moral relativism would generate a malaise of meaninglessness and censorship of literary works (much of which comes out in the "Coda" of the book).  I was reminded of this when I discovered that new editions of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn were being published with heavy editing in order to make the work less "offensive."

I've read only a few of his short stories, but I especially remember "All Summer in a Day," dealing with school bullying on a colonized Venus (before we knew about the pressure-cooker atmosphere) because she's the only student to have ever seen the sunlight (since Venus is shrouded in clouds and constant rain).  This makes her "different" and the other children reveal the base, cruel, evil selfishness of human nature--only to discover deep shame and guilt for their actions at the end.  Sadly, what's done is done and they can never undo their behavior.  It's a great story about human nature and was quite moving for me to read as a child who suffered from bullying and ostracism.  Although I was far more angry and missed the real point of the story--that you cannot undo evil--and focused more on the poor girl who ends up being tortured by her peers.

Bradbury is one of those writers who has proven that science-fiction can, indeed, be literature.  He was most prolific during the height of science-fiction writing, during the middle of the 20th century.  That was when the likes of Bradbury, Clarke, and Asimov rubbed shoulders with Heinlein, Sturgeon, Hubbard, and Ellison and others.  They wrote in a world before Star Wars radically altered our perceptions of science-fiction (for good or for ill).

On June 5, 1944, as we all should know from school, the Allied invasion of Europe began with paratroop drops and an amphibious landing in Normandy, France.  This was the turning-point in the war against Nazi Germany.  Although Hitler had been steadily losing ground in North Africa and Italy, it wasn't until the French front was opened that the Nazi war machine really began to fall apart.

We've all seen the opening shots of Saving Private Ryan.  Hopefully, we also watched the chronicle of Easy Company in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.  Some of us fancy ourselves to have survived the horrors of the war through playing Call of Duty 2 or Medal of Honor: Frontline.  The experience of war can be horrific and harrowing.  Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents (has it been so long?) are still haunted by the memories of those days, when they stormed the beaches, killed and died.

The Normandy landings would see at least 12,000 Allied soldiers dead.  By the conclusion of Operation Overlord, the Allies would have suffered over 225,000 dead and wounded, while the German casualties approach 450,000 by some estimates.  The immense human suffering and destruction of lives brought about by World War II should not be easily forgotten--nor should the lives and deaths of the men who fought against Nazi Germany.

Since I had the pleasure of reading Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad, I have wanted to read some of his other books.  Considering how excellent Stalingrad was, I figured I'd plug his D-Day book, especially since I intend to get around to it within the next year or so.

Interesting note:  I find it interesting that nearly 160,000 men stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, while (considering my last post) almost the same number of men marched ashore at Busan in May of 1592 to begin the samurai invasion of Korea.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

History Book: THE IMJIN WAR by Samuel Hawley

In 1592, the Year of the Water Dragon (임진), a force of nearly 160,000 men landed in Busan harbor, swiftly overran the citadel, and proceeded to march north through the Korean peninsula intending to carve a bloody path of carnage to Beijing.  They had been dispatched by the 太閤 (Taiko), 豊臣 秀吉 (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), who had united Japan under his personal charisma and generalship, to conquer 明朝 (Ming China) and if 조선 (Choson Korea) stood in their way, then they would be destroyed.  The next seven years would see Ming China nearly bankrupted, Choson Korea ravaged with war and its attendant plagues and droughts, and Japan bleeding manpower and capital into the Taiko's impossible vanity project.  The result would be a legacy of ruined relations between China and Korea on the one hand and Japan on the other.  Japan would benefit from importing advanced pottery and other industrial techniques from Korea, but the human cost was incredibly high.  Choson Korea would come to understand the incredible power of firearms in warfare, but the cost for them was even higher--for decades their economy, which was mostly based on agriculture, would be a shambles and the Choson dynasty would never again reach the cultural heights that their ancestors had enjoyed.

The Koreans had no idea what they were in for.  The Japanese had just ended a century-and-a-half of internal struggle between rival 大名 (daimyo) as the 足利幕府 (Ashikaga Shogunate) proved to be impotent after the 応仁の乱 (Onin War, 1467-77).  When firearms were introduced halfway through this Period of Warring States, 戦国時代 (Sengoku Jidai), they revolutionized how the Japanese fought wars.  Massed units of peasant-conscripts armed with muskets could devastate a samurai cavalry charge.  The Japanese became very experienced in military affairs, logistics, siege engineering, and the use of hand-held firearms.  When they landed in Korea, the disorganized, poorly-trained (and often poorly led) Korean forces were completely massacred.

The Japanese, however, proved to have over-extended themselves.  When military mastermind--and possibly the greatest admiral in human history, greater even than Britain's famed Nelson--이순신 (Yi Sun-shin) led a series of campaigns against the Japanese navy, he successfully cut the supply-lines from Japan.  Food became scarce in a war-torn Korea, and starvation became a real problem.  When the Ming forces intervened against the Japanese, it became apparent that conquest of Korea, let alone Ming China, was well beyond Toyotomi Hideyoshi's reach.  In retaliation, the aging tyrant ordered his forces in Japan conduct a devastating sequence of punitive expeditions throughout southern Korea before retreating home.

Samuel Hawley's narrative of the conflict, entitled The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China, is a tale of tragedy and human suffering brought about by one aloof and tyrannical man of great hubris.  He endeavors to examine the seven years of warfare in Korea between the Choson dynasty, Ming Chinese, and Japanese samurai from a variety of standpoints.  In doing so, he delves into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean accounts of the war, as well as personal correspondence and political documents in an attempt to engage the events on the personal level.  What unravels is a multifaceted chronicle of human experience.  The conduct of the war and the accounts of battles are coupled with excerpts from edicts, letters, and descriptions of the backroom politics, intrigue, and byzantine treachery that plagued both international negotiations and the bureaucratic maze of the Choson royal administration.

It's important to compare Hawley's work with Stephen Turnbull's publications on the war, the 2002 Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598, by Cassell Military histories and 2008's The Samurai Invasions of Korea, 1592-1598, by Osprey.  Turnbull is far more focused on the military maneuvers and less with the politics or the human dimensions of the conflict.  These elements are not given the same attention to detail as Hawley's massive narrative.  Turnbull's research is mostly drawn from Japanese sources, occasionally from Korean sources, and rarely (if ever) from Chinese.  In comparison, Hawley's work is far more scholarly, with extensive endnotes and a large bibliography.  Where Turnbull shines is in the detailed maps and illustrations throughout his books.  Hawley's work sports a number of black-and-white plates that are extremely well-chosen, but lack the luster of the full-color illustrations in Turnbull's publications.  I found myself constantly thumbing through Turnbull's many Osprey publications to help visualize the Choson, Ming, and Japanese forces.  Imagining the Korean landscape was easy--I spent three years teaching English in Korea--however, since many of the fortifications have been destroyed by time, war, and urban development Turnbull's maps of sieges and his Japanese Castles in Korea: 1592-1598 for Osprey Publishing were invaluable companions to Hawley's scholarship.

Hawley supplies his own interpretation of the various political and military developments that emerge through the course of the Imjin War.  He discusses the importance of Yi Sun-Shin's excellent admiralship against the Japanese navy, it's impact on the war and how it strained the Japanese supply-lines through into and throughout the peninsula.  He also notes the influence of guerrilla and warrior-monk units against the Japanese and the complex politics and personal agendas of Chinese generals and bureaucrats.  Surveys of Japan, China, and Korea before and after the war are provided to give context and background to the events.  Most impressively, Hawley frankly discusses the difficulties involved in discussing East Asian history, where historical fact can (and often is) manipulated and subverted by politics and yellow journalism.

Unfortunately, his book is very light on deep historical analysis and insight and is, according to Kenneth Swope, riddled with errors both major and minor.  I don't know enough about these events in detail to be able to judge the depth and breadth of the errors in his narrative.  Hawley's bibliography, while more comprehensive than Turnbull's, relies a bit too much on translations and doesn't delve deeply enough into original and untranslated sources.  Translations are often problematic and Hawley's book is susceptible to error creep from over-reliance on these.  Hawley appears to have a thorough grasp of Korean language sources and research, but lacks in the Japanese and Chinese languages.  He doesn't approach the immense depth of, say, Anthony Beevor's explorations of major Second World War battles.  However, Hawley's book is much more approachable for the lay-person and a very thorough introduction to this fascinating conflict than some of the more scholarly and obscure analyses that might surface in an academic library.

Overall, Samuel Hawley's account of the Imjin War will probably remain the definitive volume for a long time.  It's a deep shame that more Western historians do not research and publish more narratives and examinations of East Asian history with such attention to detail and thoroughness of scholarship.  It is also a deep shame that Hawley's Imjin War received such a limited publication run.  I was fortunate enough to purchase it for ₩45,000 (approximately $38) at Youngkwang Books in Busan.  Amazon has it used for around $150 in the States.  My copy, a second edition, was printed and bound by Samwha Publishing in South Korea.  It's not readily available overseas, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, it is absolutely indispensable for the student of Korean history, feudal Japanese studies, or those researching the decline of the Ming Dynasty.

NOTE:  I'm very keenly interested in reading a copy of Kenneth Swope's A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598, just to be able to compare it's scholarship with Hawley and Turnbull.  Swope reviewed Hawley's book a bit unfavorably on Amazon's website.  I don't know if his review is justified, seeing as there is precious little in the way of actual scholarship in the West regarding the Imjin War.  Since Swope's book could be considered competition, his review must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.