The last two weekends I’ve posted some illustrations of some Australian creatures which could be used in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons: a fey possum and some extinct megafauna.
However, I think it’s problematic to think of creating an ‘Australian’ setting for D&D. I think any setting that seeks to portray Australia in any honest way needs to be shaped by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories. While D&D is a fantasy game, it is clearly set during a medieval period, and I think it’s dishonest to protray an ‘Australian’ setting inhabited by the European characters that often have dominated high fantasy.
There are some discussions online where folks have shared ideas for an ‘Australian’ or ‘Aboriginal’ setting, but they come across to me as ignorant and cringeworthy. When I was reflecting on this, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was and I wasn’t sure if it was just me.
I decided to reach out to Timothy Wood, author of Australi, on Twitter. I asked about how they’ve gone about portraying Aboriginal societies in their comic. Tim said he’s not Indigenous, but that they’ve been working with folks who are. He was saying that he thinks stuff often comes across as ignorant and embarassing is because folks who are taking ideas from Indigenous cultures don’t actually care for the subject matter. I think he’s right. It often seems like people are just raiding someone’s culture for ideas that seem cool or interesting.
Ryan Griffen, creator of Cleverman, said that he went through the process of being initiated so that he could learn stories that inspired the show. But even then he didn’t retell the stories he learned, because that would be disrespectful and would destroy the trust that elders had placed in him:
Aboriginal protocols are complex to navigate, and informed much of our process. We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking. These are protocols put in place by Aboriginal elders who passed the stories over to me for the show. They put their trust in me and the team, and that was one of the biggest breakthroughs that enabled us to go ahead with the series. The elders were trying to achieve something very special that would help to keep our culture growing.
– Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27 May 2016
So I would remain hesitant about the idea of trying to create an Australian setting. But if there are any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander folks around who are into roleplyaing games, I’d be interested in getting in touch.
There’s a discussion of this post on reddit here.