Friday, August 29, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime and Spotted Flower

Note:  I originally wrote this post back at the end of August, 2014.  It's now early April and I've not posted anything because I've been incredibly busy with teaching at a local community college and finishing up my M.Ed. and my coursework for teaching certification.

As issue 110 was just released of Genshiken Nidaime and Kio Shimoku's latest interview with Anime News Network, I've got to say, a lot of what I've said here may not, at all, be relevant anymore.  I still feel very similarly to how I did back in August of 2014 but a lot of reveals since them have introduced and changed many of the facts.

Therefore, much of what is written here may not really be relevant or applicable.
 End of note.

So, I reread all of Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime in July and August.  It seriously made me reconsider a number of assessments I had made in my previous series (Intro, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) on Genshiken Nidaime's gender dynamics, although, on the whole, recent developments during the summer, including Kio Shimoku's recent publications in Afternoon (especially issues 101, 102, and the as-yet untranslated 103) have seemed to validate a number of my assessments.  Coupled with the two most recent issues of Spotted Flower (issue 12 and issue 12.5), I am going to depart from my usual style of "impartial" analysis and actually do a bit of "shipping."

I've no serious investment in whether Madarame and Saki get together.  Although I like the characters, I recognize them as fictional and I won't get upset if events don't play out as I'm predicting here.  The reason I'm writing this post, however, is to demonstrate the contextual and literary rationale for my "shipping," essentially arguing that Kio Shimoku has been spending about half of Genshiken Nidaime building toward the situations found within Spotted Flower via analysis of the plot thus far as well as analysis of the characters themselves.

I'm only going to discuss my reassessments in brief, so let's get them out of the way first.

I will admit I mischaracterized Yoshitake's character as a literary Satan/Devil/Loki character.  While she is somewhat chaotic, most of this is due to her enthusiasm and happy-go-lucky personality.  She's not really experienced heartache, nor seen heartache in her friends.  She accepts that she's somewhat pathetic (re: Ogiue's question regarding everyone's romantic histories) but it doesn't seem to bother her at all.

The problem with Yoshitake is that she doesn't realize she's playing with fire by trying to set up Yajima with Hato.  Broken hearts are difficult to mend and while Yoshitake realizes that the circumstances surrounding Hato's infatuation with Madarame may lead to a breakup of the Genshiken as a whole, she doesn't seem to realize that her meddling could hurt Yajima as well.

Yoshitake's motivations are alright.  She wants Yajima to be happy and in that regard, she's a great friend.  Yajima doesn't have any confidence in herself and her feelings for Hato, albeit known to Yoshitake, are suppressed and denied by Yajima for fear of failure and rejection.  What Yoshitake doesn't seem to realize is that there's no doubt that Hato would reject any romantic advances from Yajima.  Or perhaps Yoshitake does realize this?  If Yoshitake does, is she trying to maneuver Yajima so that she, too, gets rejected like Madarame was rejected by Saki in order for Yajima to get over it?

I don't think Yajima will recover from a rejection like Madarame did.

After re-reading Genshiken, it became quite clear what sort of personality Sue has.  Sue finds Madarame attractive and is drawn to him but she constantly rejects and refuses her feelings in order to maintain a persona.  The fact is, Sue is almost always playing a character in front of everyone.  When she speaks Japanese from her heart and not by reciting quotes we get a glimpse into her personality--a caring, observant, sensitive person.  Unfortunately, she keeps this part of herself submerged unless the situation requires her to speak up and help the group to remain solid and harmonious.

Sue's defense of Ogiue at the Comiket is a fantastic example of this.  Sue's encouraging of Ogiue to not allow Hato to feel isolated after he "outed" Madarame as a fantasy uke is another example.  Sue's conscientious and despite her "funny gaijin" caricature, she's genuinely compassionate and perceptive.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Madarame, or perhaps just men in general, Sue's got some major issues and unless Kio Shimoku shifts focus in the upcoming Fall's issues, we're not likely to get a real look into her psyche to see what her deal is.  She's chosen a persona that's possessive of Ogiue and a self-proclaimed rival of Sasahara.  Granted, this rivalry isn't serious--it's all part of her act.  It's not who she really is.  Interestingly enough, everyone else seems to know this.

Like Madarame's shell of otaku-ness, Sue's persona is a big defense mechanism meant to protect her heart.  She easily bonds with the women around her and becomes protective of them.  The men, however, really don't get much interaction with her (with the exceptions of Hato and Kuchiki, who are, well, exceptional) beyond "Die, Sasahara!" and "Die, Tanaka!"  It's unclear whether she feels fearful and threatened by men or simply perceives them as rivals and antagonists.  Her feelings for Madarame are likely due to his growth toward passivity and unobtrusiveness.  He's not threatening to her because, as he expresses at the end of Issue #103, "Girls are scary!"  When it comes to Madarame, Sue can feel safe and in control.  Unfortunately, she is also scared of revealing her true feelings.  She's made her mask so important to her that she's resistant to actually expressing her actual self.

Unless something serious happens, like when the entire female contingent of the Genshiken cajoled and maneuvered Sasahara and Ogiue into coming to terms with their pasts and feelings toward one another, Sue is very much unlikely to ever confront herself enough to make any real, honest advances toward Madarame.

Hato's come to terms with himself and his hobbies.  Whereas I saw Hato as tremendously confused back in the Spring, I now recognize Hato as a character who has come to accept who he is and what he loves.  The problem with this is that he has become infatuated with Madarame.

Porn addiction is a serious problem and all of the female club members in Genshiken Nidaime struggle with it to one degree or another.  Make no mistake, porn addiction has been linked to a number of romantic and erotic psychoses developed by those experiencing it, male or female.  For most of the female members of Genshiken, their "addiction" is pretty mild-to-nonexistent.  In Hato's case, however, it has driven him to an alternate (and in Japan, deviant) lifestyle.  While the rest of the members struggle with it by characterizing it as a 2-D vs 3-D dichotomy, Hato has jumped down the rabbit hole and is deliberately trying to live out a 2-D fantasy in real life.

Keiko's blasting of Hato's character in Issue #102 has been questioned by some (such as Muda-kun at Hearts of Furious Fancies) as potentially bigoted and homophobic.  I argue that it's not.  Keiko is no saint and is a petty and narcissistic person (as evidenced by the big reveal in Issue #103, which, if people recall a few moments in the original Genshiken, isn't so surprising after all).  Keiko's criticism of Hato, however, is entirely correct.  If we are what we do, then Hato's a deceiver.

I don't dislike Hato and I don't think Hato is a Bad Person.  I do think Hato is doing something very unethical and immoral, however.  I explained it to Muda-kun thusly:

Hato deliberately put himself in situations where he would fall in love with Madarame.  His Hato x Mada fantasy is something he's desperately trying to bring into reality but the truth is, Madarame will end up in his own version of The Crying Game and everyone is going to be hurt in the end.  Indeed, Madarame could end up going full-blown hikikomori from this entire affair.  I know it's a fictional manga, but Shimoku isn't one to go after unrealistic plot resolutions and Madarame going gay for Hato is about as unrealistic as Madarame piloting a Gundam, not to mention damage if not totally destroy many of the premises from which Shimoku is working. 
If Angela [and Keiko are] bad idea[s] for Madarame, and [they're] cis-gendered heterosexual female bombsell[s], then Hato is potentially disastrous... .  Hato is quite confused but he's less confused than he was before.  What he used to be confused about was his orientation.  Now he's accepted it alongside his love of BL and his enjoyment of being a trans-gendered future-female.  These things aren't a problem--the problem is Hato can't draw the line between fantasy and reality anymore.  Although the fujoshi in the club have tried to help Hato out often it has come with side-effects that muddied the waters and made things inadvertantly worse (ex. when Ogiue, at Sue's urging, showed Hato her Sasa x Mada drawings, which simply threw gas on the fire).  What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman... . 
Everything she's said about Hato doing "shitty things" has been in regards to seducing Madarame, especially during a time when Madarame is weakened.  Since summer Comiket, he's been humiliated (in part thanks to Hato, in part, thanks to Angela), he's had his heart broken by Saki, been put in an awkward position because of it, had Angela show up again and humiliate him, broken his wrist, been told he's got the weight of a harem to navigate, and on top of all this, Hato is in full-on yamato nadeshiko mode with aims to seduce Mada.  Mada's not attracted to Hato, here, he's desperately attracted to the yamato nadeshiko Hato is dressing as and Mada's having a hard time keeping in mind Hato-chan's [not actually a girl].
Let's consider the last sentence of the second paragraph here.  "What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman."  I can't imagine any homosexual women approving or even remaining tacitly indifferent to a storyline in which a lesbian woman is "seduced" back to being heterosexual.  It's extremely offensive and the readers would be outraged not just at the writer but at the male seducing character as well.

It doesn't help that Hato is taking advantage of the fact that Madarame's years of sexual isolation and frustration have programmed a weakness to yamato nadeshiko archetypes.  Hato is deliberately accentuating and exemplifying the tropes and characteristics regarding the yamato nadeshiko just as much as he was accentuating and exemplifying BL tropes and characteristics when he was changing at Madarame's apartment.  The only difference is that Hato is no longer engaged in any internal debate.  He's completely committed to his cause.

If Spotted Flower Issues #12 and #12.5 are any indication, Hato is headed for severe disappointment.  This is a big turnaround for Kio Shimoku with regards to how things had resolved throughout Genshiken.  Nevertheless, given how badly some things turn out for the depressingly stupid and narcissistic characters in Yonensei and Gonensei I am wondering if Shimoku is going to bring forth bitter fruit for any of the Genshiken Nidaime characters' decisions.

The Case for Spotted Flower
Spotted Flower is a point of contention for many readers of Genshiken Nidaime.  Is it canon?  Are the characters actually the same as the ones in Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime?  Is it an alternate universe?  Are the similarities between all the major (and unnamed) characters in Spotted Flower only to tease the audience or is Kio Shimoku changing certain aspects of appearance and omitting names only because of copyright laws (Spotted Flower is serialized in a jousei manga anthology magazine and not Afternoon).

There is the teaser at the end of Genshiken Nidaime #80 after Saki has let Madarame down.  Are we to consider this a plug for an unrelated comic, an unofficial and non-canon glimpse at a would-be future, or a look at the actual future for the characters?  It is my contention that, given all of the facts in Spotted Flower and Genshiken/Genshiken Nidaime that Spotted Flower actually is the future of the Genshiken but Kio Shimoku filed off all the numbers in order to avoid any legal issues that may arise from serializing Spotted Flower in a different magazine.

The biggest hurdle to demonstrate that Spotted Flower is in fact the future of Saki and Madarame is Saki's assertion that, if it were a different universe and Saki wasn't dating Kousaka, that there might be something between the two of them.

This, however, is just how she feels at the time.  If it weren't for Kousaka, Saki never would have even met Madarame, never would have come to care about and respect him (or any other members of the Genshiken, for that matter), and never learned to be tolerant of and even accepting of his otaku-ness.  This is blatantly alluded to in the first few issues of Spotted Flower, where the wife reveals she had dated the husband's friend from his college circle and that the relationship taught her not to feel revulsion for otaku hobbies and interests.  Thus, in Spotted Flower, it is already established that the wife once dated the husband's friend but the relationship ended, allowing the wife and husband to get together.

The following excerpt from the comic (found here originally) after Saki turns Madarame down is extremely revealing.
Kousaka asserts that he love's Saki enough to show her 100% of who he is.  That's lovely.  The problem with Onno's rejoinder is that she doesn't point out that Kousaka doesn't love Saki enough to change in order to give her what she needs.  This is a problem.  I'd say he would be a good candidate for someone with Asperger's if it weren't for some inconsistencies in his behavior that invalidate him.  Kousaka only shows affection for Saki when it is required.  He is perfectly comfortable with or without a relationship and in the earlier issues of Genshiken the audience is privy to Saki's fears and frustrations in not getting what she needs from Kousaka.  Kousaka feels no need to put Saki first.  This is a serious problem.

Saki's been a champion.  She doesn't demand Kousaka change for her and, indeed, she's grown and changed a great deal.  She's gone from being the Genshiken's primary antagonist to a hero that's rescued the club numerous times.  Saki may dearly love Kousaka but their relationship is not healthy, no matter how many Kousaka x Saki shippers try to demonstrate otherwise.  The few moments of their relationship that are illuminated for the audience in Genshiken Nidaime don't give any evidence that Kousaka has grown or changed at all.  His order of priorities puts Saki pretty low in comparison to his hobbies.  Anyone who has ever been in a relationship or studied even rudimentary psychology knows that Saki is in an unhealthy situation.

This is why I see her relationship with Kousaka as temporary.  After Saki started to change and became a true friend to the other members of Genshiken, I went from snickering at her relationship woes because she was a terrible, shallow, self-centered person to hoping she'd break up with him because she deserves better.   A break-up with Kousaka is almost inevitable.

Genshiken was about a lot of things but one of them is Saki's personal growth.  Similarly, Genshiken Nidaime is about a lot of things but it is also about Madarame's growth and maturity as well.  I think Kio Shimoku is setting up a situation in which, when Saki and Kousaka break up, Madarame will be healthy enough and able enough to participate in a relationship with Saki.

Kio Shimoku is doing one of two things with Spotted Flower.  Either he's giving the audience a glimpse of the Genshiken characters' futures, specifically Saki and Madarame, or he is trolling his Genshiken audience.  There really isn't much of a chance for any other interpretation or possibility.  It is entirely possible that the next few months of Genshiken Nidaime will feature events that drastically redirect the course of the plot (especially since Winter Comiket is coming and that means Angela's return, as well as the new school year and possible new club members in Spring).  Kio Shimoku progressed through four years of character growth and plot events in 55 issues (Genshiken), but the past 48 issues haven't even spanned the course of a single year!  A lot of fans are hoping that Shimoku wraps up the Madarame harem storyline soon, which has been going on for about 23 issues so far (that's nearly two years' of issues).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The DM as "Sacred"

So, there are about a dozen blog posts I want to make right now and not enough time to do so.  So, I'm going to go in order and discuss today the first thing on my mind which is a response by an anonymous commentator to my last post on Religion in D&D: Sacredness.  The commentator has some interesting things to say so I encourage the reader to click the above link and scroll down to his or her comments because this entry is going to be a response.

The timing of this blog entry is fortuitous because Alexis over at The Tao of D&D just posted on the rock star position of the DM and seeing his "smug superior mug" accentuated and subordinating the players' images in online game videos on YouTube.  Yeah, read all about it here.

Anyway, my anonymous commentator (henceforth I'm going to refer to him or her as "Anon") indicates a grandiose shift in gaming away from emphasis on the DM and toward the players and the removal of the "arbitrary" and to the rigid, governable world in which the DM is marginalized.

My response is, frankly, one of mystification.  I'm not certain I see what Anon is talking about.  All over the internet, on YouTube, on blogs, on RPGnet, the DMs are Rock Stars and are all centers of juvenile controversy as well (see this post over on The Alexandrian to see just how ridiculously pedantic and politically droll some of these feuds can get--especially "enjoy" the comments section to see the flames spill forth).  Alexis' blog references I Hit it with My Axe as an example of a heavily followed and syndicated series of game sessions viewable online.  I can go on YouTube and watch a dozen-and-one DMs explain how they run, why they run, what rules or systems are best, how their house rules really improve things, etc.  There's definitely a smugness about most of these guys.

So here I am, humbled by Alexis.  Yeah, okay, people may think I'm a suck-up.  That's your prerogative.  The fact is, I'm also called an arrogant and elitist bastard quite often.  I respect experience and knowledge, especially if those two components are combined with metacognition and self-criticism/self-reflection to produce sweeping changes in one's own behaviors for the better, despite whether one likes the harsh truths of their conclusions or not.  That way lies intellectual honesty.  Even Socrates admitted he didn't know anything.  That's why I always appreciated Alexis' blog.  Here's a man who speaks with authority because he's criticized himself personally as well as his DMing quite a bit.

Now I've been reading his How to Run and it's been kicking my butt.  No, rest assured, there are things Alexis asserts with which I have disagreements but here's the kicker--I respect all of the work and research and experience that have all gone into those assertions and I'm obligated to challenge myself and figure out why I disagree with Alexis here and there and, most importantly, if those disagreements stem from my own preferences, insecurities, and personal foibles (limitations of perspective or simple, raw self-centeredness, for example).

Why do I bring up Alexis?  Because both The Tao of D&D and How to Run pound the idea that the DM's fun is secondary to the players' fun and the DM is performing a service to the players by running.  The players should be the rock stars.  There should be a bit of a trade-off, of course, because the amount of work the DM puts into constructing the world and making sure it serves the players' needs and wants, the players should have respect for that world and all the time and effort of the DM and not simply run around willy-nilly killing blacksmiths and seducing barmaids.

The number-one problem with all of these DMs I see online is that their fun takes precedence over the players' quite often (or at least is considered equal in proportion to the combined amount of fun being had by all the players').  I have to admit, I fail in this regard quite often.  I don't have fun running certain campaign settings or systems, frankly, even if my players' love them.  There are times when my players are having a great time and I'm fighting off boredom trying to project enjoyment and confidence that isn't there and I really just want to go do something else.  The problem here is that by picking up the mantle of DM, I've also shouldered a serious responsibility to those who play my game to provide fun for them, not for myself.  I should achieve satisfaction from seeing how they enjoy the game I run but that's not the same thing as having fun.  Indeed, satisfaction is something that's more important because it means I've put work into something and achieved a goal--a goal that not just anybody could.

This also means I have to do things I don't want to do in game.  This includes trying to kill the PCs if that is what the world demands.  I have a tendency to get attached to PCs and I have to remind myself to react as the world would react.  It has to be believable or I do a disservice to both my world and to the players.

So, let's take a look at some of what Anon has said about the loss of sacredness with the DM.  First, Anon indicates that in the 1980s and 1990s, before the "anti-game master movement" gained momentum, that the DM embodied the sacred, unquantifiable aspects of reality.  Anon references the Judeo-Christian God as a great example of a DM in action through a manifestation of the sacred (assuming, for argument's sake, that Moses was a PC in a role-playing game, of course), or when Krishna confronts Arjuna, etc.  These are instances when the DM (if these were events in an RPG) acts through the world to determine the sacred.

I disagree because I see this as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.  The expressions of sacredness coming through the world by arbitrary DM fiat are justified by examples in these works after the fact.  The situations in which DM values and ethics are expressed in game are explained by the DM being God.  Instead of The Tanakh, The Gospels, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, etc. being the model for the intrusion of DM values they are redacted into being the excuse here.  Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Anon's argument, however, so I could be mischaracterizing what he or she is trying to demonstrate.

Well, I'm going to let Anon speak for him/herself here:
In the gaming of the 1980s and 1990s, before the anti-game master movement came into power, that sense of the sacred was inherent in having a game master embody the campaign reality.
Just as secular science can be expressed in formulae and books of rules or "laws" that can be leashed and driven forth by anyone with enough knowledge of science and/or its practical crafts, so the campaign's physical science is expressed in game mechanics formulae and game mechanics rule books.  Want to know the composition of water?  Look in a chemistry book and realize that (barring a miracle) water is always two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Want to know how to cast magic missiles or aim a starship phaser?  Look in the rule book for the unvarying game mechanics involved. 
However, an individual game master would have his or her own aesthetics, interests, sense of humor, eccentricities, etc., many of which could be noticed and taken into account but none of which could be quantified into controllable rules because humans are not dry iterations of formulae and rules.

Interesting.  So far, so good.  I can't say I disagree.  DMs are human beings, after all and have foibles.  However, it is incumbent upon the DM, in order to be honest, fair, and provide the best possible service, to minimize these idiosyncrasies or at least make the players as aware as possible of them in order to best facilitate the players' enjoyment of the game.
So the player who was attuned to the underlying meaning provided by the game master's unconscious humanity--i.e. the sacredness of the campaign world--would notice that when this particular game master had to make a sudden judgment call about whether the horses were spooked, the PCs who had been kind to cats were more likely to be able to calm their horses.  A bad player would say, "Oh, Bill likes cat-lovers, damn his bias!" but a good player would say to himself, "Ah, I see, cats have something to do with the poetry of this universe." 
Similarly, the player would notice that moments of good luck came more often to those PCs who did not torture.  A bad player would grumble, "Ah, Mark's subconscious wussiness is giving an edge to the good PCs, and that ain't in the rule book for me to find loopholes, so damn him!" while a good player would think, "Hmmm, there seems to be a universal morality to this universe beyond what we can play 'rules lawyer' with."  Or the player would notice that this game master tended to describe safe magic fountains as silvery but cursed magic fountains as flashy, and instead of personalizing this as an eccentricity of the game master's descriptive habits, she or he would realize this is one more manifestation of the underlying patterning of the campaign universe provided by the game master who had created it for the players.
Here is where I start to take issue.  It is incumbent upon the DM to be conscious of his behavior in this regard.  If all of these situations are in-game (i.e. if the DM is not penalizing a person for out-of-game hatred of cats or vice-versa not rewarding a player for out-of-game kindness to cats) then it is fair game and the players should start putting two-and-two together and understand cats are somehow sacred in this reality.

The thing is, these ideas must be something the DM is aware of because he or she must present an understandable and believable world.  In other words, not torturing being a cause for receiving a little bit of luck, while not necessarily a quantifiable game mechanic, must be a part of the universe of which the DM is consciously aware.  This way, the players can start keying into these ideas and their characters can interact with the world more effectively.

The problem is when the DM is unconscious of these things.  Then it is arbitrary DM fiat and it is not part of maintaining a believable world that makes sense.  As Alexis says in How to Run, it doesn't have to make perfect sense objectively but just has to make sense enough to the players to facilitate suspension of disbelief (I'm paraphrasing a bit, here, I don't feel like flipping through pages and finding the exact quote--I'm lazy, whaddya want from me?).

Anyway, Anon continues:
These were not seen as acts of conscious or unconscious favoritism any more than an American would label karma as cosmic favoritism or accuse Jesus of favoritism for choosing apostles instead of letting anyone who could make a d20 saving throw become an apostle.  They were seen as an underlying pattern of meaning that any genuinely involved game master could not help but impart to a campaign by dint of his or her humanity, and they welcomed not resented. 
Of course, that all changed with the decade plus of anti-game master outcries.
Anon is right that the over-mechanization of game rules is somewhat problematic because it gives power to rules-lawyers.  However, I've played with really horrible DMs/GMs/STs who were pretty arbitrary and governed their games by fiat instead of trying to be impartial referees.  Rules lawyering became essential to survival in some of these settings but the thing is, if I have to resort to that then I'm not truly having a good time and I don't trust my GM/DM/ST/etc.  If I don't trust them and they obviously don't trust me, then what am I doing here?  I'd be better served doing something else with my time.

The problem here is the swing of the pendulum.  Sorry, Gygax and Arneson were not model DMs in my opinion.  Similarly, neither is the DM who gives players whatever they want without any challenge.  I think a lot of players convince themselves they've had a good time despite actually having had pretty terrible experiences both with tyrannical and lenient DMs.  Rules should not exist to shackle either DM or player but to provide an action resolution system, plain-and-simple and the more effective those rules are, the better they serve the needs of DM and player alike.

This means if the rules need to be changed to suit different moods, themes, and goals of both the DM and players, then by all means change them.  I love White Wolf's game system but I wouldn't want to use it too often in a combat-heavy setting with super-powerful demigods--its one of the problems I ran into with running Exalted last year.  Actually, White Wolf is well-suited to low-combat, investigation and interaction-heavy games full of intrigue, politics, mysteries, plotting, dealing, and rare, sharp, lethal combat situations.  Simultaneously, I wouldn't want to run such an intrigue-heavy low-combat game involving vampires or werewolves in D&D.  I mean, it could be done but I think White Wolf's system is much better calibrated for that sort of game.

The rules are a tool.  Nothing more.  Indeed, I certainly agree with Anon, here, that the fetishization and deification of rules have served neither player nor DM.  The search for the perfect system, though, is not a lot of fun, either.  Although I love 3rd edition/Pathfinder the rules-bloat is something I find problematic.  Granted, characters can be very easily customized and more interesting.  You can run an entire party of just fighters and have a great time because every fighter is different.

On the other hand, the DM is not God.  God has an agenda, the DM should not, unless, of course, that agenda is to provide a believable world with which the players can interact.  If anything, the DM should represent what Yehezkel Kaufmann calls "the metadivine realm" in his History of the Religion of Israel.  The metadivine realm is impersonal and can be called upon through magic and supernatural ritual to coerce, force, or bypass the gods in order to achieve an effect.  It simply exists and the gods themselves are subordinate to it (at least, in a polytheistic world).  If you're running a campaign set in a monotheistic universe where the Judeo-Christian God runs the show... well, the DM frankly should detach himself entirely from whether the Devil or God wins.  Even if the DM believes fervently in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his world is not the Real World, it is imaginary and the DM is presenting this world to his players for their entertainment not for the confirmation of his/her beliefs or to make converts.  Frankly, given an individual DMs beliefs, it may be considered a conflict of interests for a Christian DM to run a game in a setting where the Christian God is sovereign, especially if the players are not all Christian.  That's asking for trouble on all sorts of levels unless the DM can seriously reign himself in and understand that he's not running for himself or herself but to provide entertainment for his or her players.

Thus, while I agree with Anon that a lot of the anti-game master sentiment that has led to rules-bloat has been somewhat detrimental to the game, I feel much of it was a reaction to shoddy DMs when the hobby was still in its nascent stages.  I disagree, however, with Anon because I reject the notion of the DM as sacred or as some kind of representation of the sacred.  The DM is a referee period and the DM's job is to facilitate the best experience the players can possibly have.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Religion in D&D: Sacredness

How deep does the DM want the rabbit hole to go?  How well-defined should the religious practices, beliefs, and traditions be and how much should the DM demand the players conform to these?  Let's be honest, the lion's share of players won't be all that interested in a deep understanding and knowledge of complex religious practices, taboos, and rituals.  They're interested in killing monsters and getting loot, right?

Some players, however, will enjoy and appreciate the deep immersion in aspects of rite, tradition, and belief in a campaign setting.  Some settings will lend themselves very well to such detailed and complex concepts as ritual purity, for example.  Knowing the audience is important for the DM but as for myself, I prefer to run for a specific type of player and if a player in my game does not enjoy my presentation of a world then they are best suited to finding another DM.  Period.  No hard feelings.  We should all be adults about this.

So, it is with that caveat that I consider the building-blocks of belief and tradition in a campaign setting, especially one such as the Forgotten Realms.  The Realms has always been a favorite of mine, alongside Dark Sun and Ravenloft.  However, the ruminations I made for D&D in my last post on religion in the game apply equally to those settings as well.  It is not enough that gods and religions exist in a setting.  There must be some sort of expression of belief in the setting as well.

So, let's discuss the concept of sacredness in D&D worlds.  To begin this discussion let us start with a quote from Mircea Eliade's introductory chapter to The Sacred and the Profane:
The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from "natural" realities.  It is true that language naively expresses the tremendum, or the majestas, or the mysterium fascinans by terms borrowed from the world of nature or from man's secular mental life.  But we know that this analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience. 
...We propose to present the phenomenon of the sacred in all its complexity, and not only in so far as it is irrational.  What will concern us is not the relation between the rational and nonrational elements of religion but the sacred in its entirety.  The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.  --Eliade, p. 10

What this demands of the DM is to mentally divorce his running of the campaign world from the realities of Planescape and The Manual of the Planes, if the DM actually uses them.  Why do I say this?  Because these works establish a rationality for the multiverse of D&D that goes against this concept of sacredness that Eliade is identifying and describing throughout the work.  By building up a framework for the Planes and the dwellings of the gods, by giving the gods hit points and other statistics, they're able to be approached by players, interacted with, and heck, even killed and replaced.

When I hear stories of players who have achieved godhood in their games, I shudder to think of the damage being wrought to the sense of wonder and mystery endemic to the human religious experience as it is simulated in D&D.  Maybe I harp too heavily on realism, especially for a fantasy game (though that's another discussion entirely) but I want to run believable worlds in believable systems and this sort of thing just breaks it down too much for me.  Unless the game is purposely calibrated to simulate the heroic epic where the players are demigods like Hercules, the effect of the setting is diminished and the appreciation for the scale of the power these gods have and the distance they possess from mere mortals is traumatically reduced.

Does that mean the DM should entirely dispense with the Planes?  Absolutely not.  The DM can know that there's a rational system at work in the background so long as the players' characters do not know.  If a player is capable of divorcing his knowledge of the Planes on a metagame level from his character's ignorance of the outside universe, a sense of wonder at the majesty, terror, and mystery of the supernatural can be maintained.

That which is sacred is by necessity other.  It is otherworldly.  It is set apart.  In comparison to that which is sacred, that which is mundane or secular is offal.  Eliade describes how a tree struck by lightning can be seen as sacred because it was touched by something far beyond the understanding of the populace.  Stones, buildings, and objects can all be sacred and they possess a kind of uniqueness.  As a medieval studies professor of mine in graduate school once described it, sacred relics possess a sort of "holy radiation."  Nearness should generate awe.  These things should not be touched with unclean hands, these words should not be spoken with unclean lips, this sight should not be seen with unclean eyes, etc.  It's special in a way that is not rational but not random either.  There is reason for these things to be special but that reason cannot be contained in secular rationality.

This is something that has been lost in secular modernity.  Even Protestant Christianity does not have such a ritualistic and irrational reverence for the sacred because in Protestant Christianity that which is sacred is incapable of being perceived.  The Bible is just a book, the pages and ink just that--pages and ink.  The ideas within The Bible that are sacred to the Protestant Christian.  Contrast this with the Jewish approach to the paper and ink which comprise Torah scrolls, which should not be directly touched by human hands once completed and instead pointers are used or the handles are held, or the Muslim approach to the Koran, which is wholly sacred because it contains the words of Allah as transmitted by Mohammed.  The Protestant Christian is highly rational (yes, believe it or not) and highly secular, especially in comparison to adherents to other religions and belief structures both current and historical.  Indeed, I've argued elsewhere that Protestant Christianity, building upon the Renaissance, made possible the Enlightenment and the secular rationalism/humanism of Modernity.  Had Protestantism not arisen, the Renaissance would have been suppressed beneath tradition and doctrine from the Holy See.

But I digress (and that's an argument for another day).

Americans have a long, long legacy of Protestant rationalism.  Thus, we're not used to the idea of mystery like the Catholics (unless one is from a Catholic family).  Even then, American Catholicism is effected by that secular rationalism that the American Protestantism bears.  (NOTE:  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Jerry Falwell, here, who may seem irrational in comparison to humanist/atheist/secular thinkers like Dawkins, Russel, Hitchens, etc.  This comparison is to ancient, medieval, and even modern religions not to actual non-religious rationalism and humanist or atheist secularism themselves.)

Therefore, it is quite likely that non-American players or non-Protestant players may actually have an easier time of dealing with this concept of irrational sacredness.  I can't speak for how truthful that may be, though, it's just a guess.  Nevertheless, Protestant and American players have a small challenge in accepting and readjusting their mentalities during game.  We have to forget that lightning is actually an electrostatic discharge that equalizes a charge imbalance between two regions of space separated by a highly resistant medium and remember what our ancestors knew--that the world was full of spiritual and supernatural power that we didn't understand.

NOTE:  To my Canadian, UK, and Commonwealth readers, of whom there are a few, please forgive me for not setting you guys apart as an aspect in this argument.  Since I'm not a citizen of your countries and haven't been raised there I don't feel qualified on speaking about any approach to sacredness in game except for my own native one.  I'm happy to hear perspectives on the issue, though.

Hence, we have to break with rationality for the purposes of immersion within a world that should actually function rationally.  Yeah.  I know.  It sounds crazy, right?  The entire point of suspension of disbelief being difficult or easy is the accuracy with which the system a) simulates reality and b) what doesn't simulate reality should still be governed by rational systems.  So, if a rationally believable religious system in-game is to be realistic then it should be somewhat irrational?  Wow.  Welcome to Postmodern/Deconstructionist D&D!

Perception does not equal reality.  Humans often mistake perception for reality all the time.  Even scientists, secular rationalists, empiricists, etc., all mistake their perceptions for reality as well--confirmation bias is, after all, a bitch when you have to interpret data.  No human is immune.  We are all guilty.  That's why belief has power.  Belief influences perception and therefore humans will approach reality based on their assumptions about it, no matter how right or wrong.  This is why postmodernism and deconstruction arose in the first place--as a critique of the assumptions and beliefs of post-Enlightenment modernity, secular empiricism, etc.

Thus, the perception that the waters of a river, no matter how polluted, have healing and purifying properties will see people bathe within it and risk infection.  It's irrational, especially when confronted with facts.  In the absence of measurable proof that the river has "holy radiation" and it can cleanse ritual impurities, we can claim that it's detrimental to bathe in it.  Well, that's all well and good but in D&D the gods are assumed to be real (clerics do cast divine magic spells, after all).  Indeed, in The Forgotten Realms, during the Time of Troubles the gods actually did walk the surface of Toril.  So, at least in game, you can have a river that is polluted and bathers risk acquiring all manner of nasty diseases but that bath actually can have a measurable spiritual effect--in metagame terms.  This makes for interesting dilemmas, especially if some characters are reaching for rational empiricism in a world where gods can walk the earth.

So DMs should seek to delineate sacred spaces, sacred phrases and words, sacred events and time, sacred histories, sacred tunes and music, sacred objects, sacred boulders or rocks, sacred trees, sacred animals, sacred geographical phenomena, sacred symbols, sacred bricks, sacred flames, sacred anything.  These things are sacred because the gods say they are (or at least the priests and shamans do).  They don't even have to have a mechanical effect.  The players don't have to know or not.  Keep them in the dark if you want.  It's easier on your book-keeping to know that if a player bathes in the River Ashaba in Shadowdale that he gains a one-time +1 to his Will saves against mind-effects he can write it on his character sheet.  It's more interesting if he doesn't know but you (the DM) do.  Then again, your mileage on that may vary.