How it all goes together

One of the things I said I wanted to do this year was to write regularly – and that has taken different forms throughout the year, but I’ve found it has been really worthwhile. Being a personal blog, the content here has changed over the course of the year. (I’ve also done some private writing for my study, as part of a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church in Australia, and as part of a pilgrimage to Lake Mungo.) On this blog recently I’ve almost only been talking about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, but earlier in the year I was also posting a lot more religious-mythological Bible content, stuff I’d been observing in my neighbourhood, opinion pieces about the proposed homeless ban in Melbourne, stuff about migrant-settler-colonial identity in Australia…

Sometimes people tell me I’m doing an awful lot of different things, but in my mind all of those stuff comes back to one thing, and that’s critical engagement with stories. As my collaborator Matt Valler has been saying,

‘Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.’

We need to be able to engage with stories in a critical way because they can shape our society for better or for worse. (And it’s often a lot more complex than just good stories and bad stories!)

Anyway, that has been my focus, and I hope that gives an idea about what holds my year together!

Religious-mythological story
This year it’s been really helpful having regular contracts with the Victorian Council of Christian Education, illustrating resources written by my friend Beth Barnett. (I also did a little bit or writing for the season of Lent early in the year.) What I like is that VCCE are really in favour of critical reflection on the Bible, not just in academic institutions and not just for adults but for the whole church. Personally it’s also been helpful just having regular stuff to work on so that I can improve my skills and reinforce a regular practise of drawing – which makes it easier to pick up other religious-mythological work with groups like Scripture Union Victoria, Gembrook Retreat, Baptist Union of Victoria, Surrender and Melbourne Welsh Church.

Story through gaming
The discipline has also meant I’ve been able to start expanding into doing tabletop roleplaying illustration through Owlman Press (I’ll be playtesting our new game Phantasmagoria next week) and Encounter Roleplay (my new Dungeons & Dragons adventure King Dawutti’s Legacy is now available to our Patreon supporters). I find there’s often also cross-pollination between the two, because a story from the Abrahamic mythologies might provide a structure or a setting for an adventure, or the elements of a parable might provide an idea for a monster. In the new year I’m excited about some new gaming projects that I’m currently working on thanks to connections with the #DnD community on Twitter.

What interests me most is how our games often draw on stories that are already part of our society, but invite us to engage with the creatively. I think there are also opportunities to experiment in how we cooperate with others or engage in conflict at the table. It’s been great getting back into a regular rhythm of hosting games (and getting to occassionally play!) with a fairly diverse group of players.

While I’m talking about gaming, I also need to mention that I’ve appreciated being able to continue working with Evan at Rival Sky. I don’t play most of the games we sell (I do play Star Wars: Imperial Assault a little bit) but it’s really helpful having something to do that’s regular, dependable and practical. (You might be surprised how therapeutic the physicality of packing parcels can be!)

Story in the real, physical world
I think physicality is really important. I don’t think our engagement with story can stay in the realm of reflecting on Biblical mythology or participating in narrative through games. I think it has to have an impact on our actual world. With Labyrinth we’ve been inviting people to do this kind of critical reflection on stories in the city streets, as we have done in Melbourne for a long time. It’s been great being able to see this practise continuing in Melbourne as Urban Seed (where I learned this practise) has been gradually winding up, and seeing experiments happening in London, Dallas and Washington DC. Reflection on the stories needs to lead to response, and for some of us that has meant engaging with the government and wider community about the homelessness ban that was proposed by the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

What we do in our home is also being informed by reflecting on our story. Our household, the Indigenous Hospitality House (named in honor of the hospitality we’ve so often received from Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples) is a response to the story of our colonial history and the to the question ‘What does it mean to live on stolen land?’ In recent years we’ve been trying different ways of inviting other people to reflect on and respond to that story and question, because we think it’s something our whole society needs to grapple with. Early in the year we released a book as a way of sharing some of our learnings and inviting others into reflection. Mehrin and I got to take some time out to participate in the Yingadi pilgirmage to Lake Mungo with Vicki Clark, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who helped set up IHH at the beginning. As we finished up this year we have a few people leaving our household, but the three of us who’ve been living there for a while feel encouraged to have others joining us – especially since a few years ago we weren’t sure where we’d find enough people to keep operating!

In 2018
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this year I participated in a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church. My sense throughout this period has been that what I need to be doing is spending time near the boundaries of the church and out in the wider world, where people are engaging with and responding to the stories of our world. (I think that fits within the scope of the Uniting Church’s understanding of what a deacon does.) I expect I’ll be continuing these practises and seeing where they lead.

Zygmunt Bauman, social division and flesh golems

A couple of weeks ago I was reading Zygmunt Bauman’s book Community – Seeking Safety in an Insecure World in preparation for a book review. It was the same week that I first tried streaming my illustration process on Twitch. In a conversation with my friend Nicholas Moll (from Owlman Press) I mentioned that once I’d finished reading Bauman for the night I’d probably jump on Twitch and start drawing requests. Nick suggested I draw a flesh golem, and somehow we ended up with the idea of a Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem. (A flesh golem is basically Frankenstein’s monster – a person made from the parts of deceased people and animated through the power of ‘science’.)


I decided to draw the Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem with a third eye surgically added in the middle of his head, suggesting that his mind has been awakened. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ‘monster’ is more enlightened than the scientist who created him by the end of the novel. From reading Bauman’s book, I think he is also pretty awake to our current global situation. Bauman talks about how global elites have refashioned our society to suit their own ends. The problem is that because society has become very fragmented it is now very difficult to organise effectively. I think what my own country’s government is doing at the moment is exploiting some of these divisions through the public debate about marriage, in order to distract from the growing economic inequality, which I think is the real threat.

Construction accidents and sexual ethics

I just want to warn that this post talks (briefly) about clergy sexual abuse.

* * *

Maybe one way you can tell Jesus was really a construction worker is that he apparently made a joke about an industrial accident: You’re worried because you think your neighbour has a splinter in their eye, but you’ve got a construction beam coming out of your head! Who’s got the real problem?


We were talking about this confronting parable on Saturday at a meeting about how people of faith can promote the ‘yes’ vote in Australia’s upcoming survey on marriage equality. The parable is a darkly humorous way of talking about the hypocrisy of deeply immoral people attempting to ‘correct’ others.

I think what is really tragic is that many Christians don’t realise that in our wider society we have lost all credibility on morality – particularly with regards to sexual ethics. Christian clergy in Australia have sexually abused children and the church institution has tried to cover up the abuse. This leaves us with no credibility in the wider community if we try to say that two adults in an equal and loving relationship shouldn’t be able to get married.

On the possibility of being racist


I’ve only really watched one of Chris Lilley’s shows, and it happened to be 2011’s Angry Boys. When I watched it, I felt a bit awkward about European-Australian comic Lilley portraying Japanese and African-American characters. I wondered how much Aboriginal people may have had a say in how their characters were portrayed. (During the show one of the Aboriginal actors ended up visiting our house because he had a cousin staying with us.) At the time I don’t remember hearing anyone asking these questions, and I appreciated that through the show Lilley seemed to be getting people to consider what might be going on behind what seemed to be a crisis of masculinity in our global society.

More recently, however, Lilley’s 2014 show Jonah from Tonga received a clear critique from Australia’s Tongan community. The problem was that ‘Jonah’ – a European man impersonating a stereotype of Tongan youth – had become the most recognisable public face of the Tongan community in Australia. It seems quite unfair for a member of the European majority to have power over how a relatively small cultural group is portrayed in the media. More recently the same show was axed by Māori Television in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by request from the Tongan community. It would be hard to imagine that Chris Lilley is still unaware that people feel he’s being racist by pretending to be a person of colour.

Last weekend Lilley was back in the public arena for the wrong reason. Just after a major protest related to the death of Elijah Doughty, Lilley tweeted a video clip from Angry Boys which seemed to be referring to Doughty’s death. Elijah Doughty was an Aboriginal boy who was run over by a European man in Kalgoorlie. It appears that the driver intended to run Doughty over, but he has been cleared of murder and manslaughter. In this context Lilley’s song ‘Squashed N***a’, about a black kid being run over, seemed like a pretty clear and dispicable reference to Doughty’s death. In response to the outcry about the video, Lilley deleted the tweet, then deleted his account. Later on he restored his account and posted an apology saying that he hadn’t meant to be racist.

I’ve dsaid this before, but we need to remember that we can’t be the only judges of whether we’ve been racist. If someone from another racial or cultural group suggests that we’ve been racist, we need to listen whether or not we’ve intended to be racist. If our words or behaviour are having a harmful impact on other cultural or racial groups we need to listen to that and change our behaviour. If Chris Lilley returns to television, I’ll be interested to see what he does. But Lilley’s disaster doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We need to be ready to listen when someone suggests that we’ve been racist.

Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.


@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Tales from the Table

tales from the table

Our household, Indigenous Hospitality House, has just published a book. Tales from the Table gathers together a range of things that our household have been learning as Settler (non-Indigenous) people sharing our home with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, on stolen land.

While the practical part of our mission is providing hospital accommodation, we also recognise that we have a role to play in helping Settler people rethink Australian and Christian identity in light of our colonial history. We hope that this book can help extend those conversations into the wider community.

You can buy a copy at our web store here. If you want to drop in and pick up your copy you can save on postage. And you can stick around for a cup of tea and a chat.

Should Christians be afraid of ‘no religion’?

This week census data was released. In the lead up to the census there was a big campaign encouraging folks to tick ‘no religion’. There was also a counter-campaign from some Christian groups desperately encouraging folks who were undecided to tick ‘Christian’, so that Australia wouldn’t become a Muslim country.

The data’s come back, and it looks like about half of Australians still identitfy as Christian. However, those who ticked ‘no religion’ were larger than any of the Christian denominations.

I don’t think it should be any surprise that all the churches are in decline. I also don’t think this is something Christians should be afraid of. Out of all the religions, we should be least afraid of death. Death and resurrection is what Christianity is all about. If the church dies, who knows what will come next?

Creating an ‘Australian’ D&D setting is problematic


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.

Australian megafauna for D&D

On Sundays I normally post illustrations I’ve made to use in Dungeons & Dragons games. The last two weeks I’ve tried out asking folks on Twitter to vote on what I should draw.


This week I’ve drawn some extinct Australian megafauna, and I’ll include some suggestions about stats.

Diprotodon This was a giant relative of wombats and koalas. I’d use the stats for a brown bear.


Palorchestes This was a marsupial tapir. I’d use the stats for a giant badger.


Thylaceo carnifex This was a marsupial lion. I’d use the stats for a panther.


Quinkana This was a giant, terrestrial crocodile. I’d use the stats for a giant crocodile, with some simple modifications. I’d remove the 50 foot swim speed, but I’d make it’s land speed 50 feet. I’d also remove it’s ‘Hold Breath’ ability.


Quinkana is named after quinkin –  spirits from Aboriginal stories. I think there’s a lot of Aboriginal stories that would be interesting to use in D&D. I know there are discussions of this online, but I think there are problems with people who aren’t Aboriginal doing this. (I’ll see if I can post a bit about that later.)

Fey possum for Dungeons & Dragons

Yesterday when I was asking what kind of monsters I should draw this weekend, the two more popular options were fey and forest beasts. @MichaelCayne suggested that I should do a forest beast with fey origins. (Basically, forest creature that originates in the Feywild.) I said I would, but when I was thinking about what to do I was aware that I’d like to do some kind of Australian animal, since there aren’t any uniquely Australian creatures in 5th Edition. When I thought of options, the I thought the most obvious option was to do a fey possum, based on the possum from Mem Fox’s picture book, Possum Magic.
How do I imagine this monster working? You’ll be able to see that the possum has the ability to turn invisible, but only turns visible again if it eats a vegemite sandwich, pavlova and a lamington – like Hush the possum in the book. It might be that an invisible fey possum asks some adventurers for help finding these items to that it can become visible again.

Fey Possum

Small fey, neutral good

STR 7 (-2)    DEX 15 (+2)    CON 11 (+0)    INT 10 (+0)     WIS 13 (+1)    CHA 11 (+0)

Challenge Rating: 1/4 (50 XP)

Armor Class: 12

Hit Points: 7 (2d6)

Speed: 30 ft. (climb 30 ft.)

Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 10.

Languages: Common, Sylvan, Elvish


Fey Ancestry. The possum has advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put the drow to sleep.

Innate Spellcasting. The possum’s spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 11). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:

At will: druidcraft

1/day each: charm person, goodberry

Keen Senses. The possum has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell or hearing.


Actions

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 1 piercing damage.

Invisibility. The possum magically turns invisible. Any equipment the sprite wears or carries is invisible with it. The possum only becomes visible again if it eats a vegemite sandwich, pavlova and a lamington.