A foot in each world

On Sundays I’ve been posting some illustrations I’ve made for use in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games, based on what folks on Twitter choose for me. This week tieflings were chosen, so here are three I’ve drawn, representing three of the factions (Dustmen, Athar and Anarchists) from the Planescape setting:

3 tieflings

Tieflings have become a staple of D&D, but when they first appeared in the Planescape Boxed Set they were a fair bit different to the current 5th edition. Some of them have goat legs or spikes or scaly skin. In The Planewalker’s Handbook there is a one-page table to generate random tiefling features. It gives more of a sense that a tiefling could have any kind of bizarre planar heritage. In contrast, 5th Edition tieflings seem to all be pretty similar. (To be fair, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide explains why they all look similar in the world of Faerun, and also allows for more diverse tieflings.)

Back to what I like about Planescape is that the diverse appearances suggest to me that although tieflings are often distrusted because of their fiendish heritage and appearances, they can’t all be put in the same box. A neat stereotype can’t be so easily applied. This line of though got me wondering about how the fiends see tieflings – do they see them as suspicious, just like humans do?

OneNote for D&D

For a while I’ve been looking for a decent digital tool to organise notes for Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I’ve tried Evernote, Obsidian Portal and Scabard, but none of them have really clicked. (Actually, they’ve all seemed pretty unwieldy.) I think I’ve now found the right tool, and it isn’t the one I was expecting.

A couple of years ago when I returned to using PCs, I found that Windows was now coming with a program called OneNote, which it desperately wanted me to adopt, but failed to explain why I would want to. A couple of months ago I stumbled on this reddit thread, which includes a number of people explaining how useful they’ve found OneNote as a tool for organising D&D notes.

So I tried it out (I now have it on my tablet, PC and phone) and started adding interesting content I found that I might use in D&D Planescape adventures. Last night I used it to run an adventure for the first time and I found it very helpful. It’s very easy to the the coloured tabs to create sections for locations, non-player characters, monsters, spells and then fill each of those sections with the items you need. (I moved some of the items I knew I would need to the top of the list in their sections, so they’d be easy to find.) I found it pretty easy to move between different items I needed in the filing system. By splitting the screen in could have the 2nd Edition module I was using alongside my own notes (including 5th Edition substitute stats).

The one thing I would say against OneNote is that in the tablet version of the app that I’m using it is hard to connect different notes with hyperlinks. I need to spend some time at my PC interlinking a whole lot of the notes, and if I do that it’ll make navigation easier again. (There may be a way to do this on my tablet, but if there is I can’t work it out.)

Gastvrijheid: freedom for the guest

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen talks about hospitality as ‘freedom for the guest’. (He says this is the literal meaning of the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid.) This means that we aren’t welcoming the guest in order to try and change them. Instead we’re welcoming them into a space of emptiness, a space where transformation might happen, but where we don’t know what the transformation might look like. It’s not a space where we’re seeking to influence them to take on our ideology, religion or way of life. It’s not a space that the host tries to fill with themself. It’s a space where the host and guest can discover each other and potentially be transformed by the encounter.


Slaadi and hybrididity

On Sundays I’ve been posting illustrations I’ve made to use in RPGs like D&D. I’ve started determining what I draw using a Twitter poll, and this week slaadi have been chosen. Here is my illustration of a red slaad, a blue slaad and a green slaad:
3 slaad

(I expect I’ll come back to these, and add the grey slaad and death slaad at some stage.)

The slaadi are beings from the plane of limbo, which is a chaotic mess of different elements. The look like bipedal, reptilian toads with sharp teeth and claws. One of the things I find most interesting about them is their origin story. They were actually created by Primus, the god of the lawful neutral modron race, in an attempt to bring order to Limbo. instead of bringing order to the chaotic plane, Primus’ intervention created rigidly hierarchical of chaotic neutral beings: the slaadi.

I think it’s often tempting to think we know what is best, and to think we can improve things by recreating others in our own image – seeing them as a blank slate for ourselves to work with. i don’t think this normally goes to plan. folks might take on some of what we direct at them, but merge it with their own identity. in postcolonial studies, Homi Bhabha talks about this as ‘hybridity’ – colonised people will take on the culture of the colonisers, but also find ways of subverting it by mixing it with their own culture. Something like this is has happened in the creation of the slaadi – Primus thought he would bring order to a foreign plane, but instead his intervention created a new chaotic neutral race, who nevertheless reflected the modrons’ rigid hierarchy.


Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.


Work before industrialisation

The last two weeks I’ve written a bit about growing a sense of community at work. On Thursday I mentioned that working locally, from home, alongside neighbours and family, is the way that people worked before industrialisation. My friend Dylan said he was interested in reflecting more on what work and family were like before industrialisation. I thought I’d write a brief summary of my limited understanding of this topic:


Before industrialisation, most work was farming for food production. In pre-industrial Britain, nobles had responsibility for areas of land. They would get local people to live on and work the land. No-one had a lot of incentive to improve the land. The nobility couldn’t sell up and workers couldn’t go looking for better places to work. Most production was for consumption within the extended household of the manor where it was made. It was often too risky to try and take goods to cities to trade, because of the cost of transportation, tolls that needed to be paid and prevalence of banditry. Local exchange was controlled by relationships of obligation.

One of the factors that began a move away from this system was a movement toward private ownership of land. In England, the nobility began to push for the ability to enclose the land they were responsible for – to claim ownership, and the right to sell it. Previously a lot of the land had been held in common, so all the local people could use it. Private ownership gave the nobility the incentive to develop the land and sell up. This meant that many tenant farmers were no longer needed and became displaced. I think this meant more than just geographical movement – it meant a severing of the relationships of obligatory exchange that bonded feudal communities together. Many displaced workers ended up in big cities, providing the labor that allowed industrial work to begin.

Hopefully think it’s obvious that I’m not arguing for a return to pre-industrial economics, but I wonder if there is anything we can learn from pre-industrial society?

A short break

Haven’t written a proper blog post for a couple of days.

I’ve been taking some time to recover from SURRENDER and prepare for some intensive study.

I plan to be back to blogging on Friday though…

Dungeons and Dragons over Twitter… with a dinosaur DM

Yesterday I read the story from Chicagoist about the dinosaur skeleton Twitter account that is running a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. I’ve been thinking as lot  about how to run D&D more collaboratively, and it struck me that what Sue theb T-rex is doing could be a good example. The administrator tweets to their followers about what is going on in the adventure, and then posts polls to ask what they party should do. (You can have a look at the whole thread here.) There’s no sense that the party members correspond to particular players. It’s more like the whole party represents all the players.  I thought I’d have a go at running an adventure this way myself. If you’d like to participate, the thread starts here and we’ve just started the party building stage.

Deeds not words?

My friend Mark posted this on Facebook a few days ago, a plaque on Chapel Street that says ‘DEEDS NOT WORDS’. I was wondering what others think of the statement? As an activist I like deeds, but I often find that when we start 

doing things we need to talk and reflect about what we’re doing, what the outcome is, if we need to revise what we’re doing… I think we end up in a dangerous situation if we get to the point of thinking we know what we’re doing and how to go about it, and that we no longer need to reflect on or discuss the work. At the same time I think that we can get bogged down in reflection. My friend Rob has said that we can end up in ‘paralysis by analysis’. We need to have a constant rhythm of action, reflection, action, reflection,

action, reflection, action, reflection,

action, reflection, action, reflection, action…