Why demons?

I’ve just published a new set of printable paper miniatures depicting demons, which folks can use in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. (There’s also a set of tokens here, using the same images.)

Some people might wonder why I would want to use demons in my games or why I would want to include them in a product, especially since I’m a Christian from an evangelical background. Some folks have had concerned that the inclusion of imaginary demons in games like D&D opened players up to influence from real life evil spirits. For a while, D&D‘s publishers started calling them Tanar’ri, in order to avoid this stigma.

One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with demons (and other evil creatures) being included in these games is because I think they can be a useful way of depicting human evil. Even in real world scripture, I think that evil spirits are often being used symbolically to talk about social evils.

In the regular game I’ve been running on Thursday nights (we’ve been using the D&D book Out of the Abyss) the party has gradually become aware that the subterranean world of the Underdark is being influenced by Demogorgon, the two-headed prince of demons. In the lore of D&D, the two heads of Demogorgon are divided, constantly scheming against each other, and this is also the nature of the madness he spreads. In two settlements the adventurers have visited, this madness has taken the form of greed, division and paranoia.

The town of Sloobludopp had been divided between two religious sects, led by warring relatives, as though the community had two heads attacking the one body. In this situation, the party ended up siding with one of the ‘heads’ and when the two factions came to blows, their violence summoned the Demogorgon to the town to destroy it.

More recently, the part has been exploring the dwarven city of Gracklestugh, which appears to be afflicted by a similar madness. However, this time they’ve noticed how the madness of Demogorgon is pulling the city apart, and they’ve been looking for a way to unify the city and bring festering, hidden conflicts into the open.

This is all very simple to talk about in a game, but it’s not hard to see that these are dynamics that impact on our real world. It seems like our societies are becoming increasingly selfish, fractured and paranoid. I think these stories can call us to live generously and to find ways to reach out to ideological enemies in the midst of real and serious conflict.

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.

Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.

* * *

On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.

Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.

Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.

I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.

When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.

If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.

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.

Here’s the Chant: Sheep Lord, fungal fey and Amonkhet

On Wednesdays I normally post a roundup of content related to Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in general. Here’s this week’s roundup:

For players or DMs:

For DMs:

For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on gaming:

Content I’ve recently published:

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.

Wealth and divison

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis, and on Thursdays I’ve been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

Today I’ve been reading about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving Egypt and heading back to thew location between Beth El (a city named after a Canaanite god) and Ai, where Abram had build an altar to his god, YHWH. Abram and Lot come into conflict because they both own so much livestock that their herders are fighting over pasture. In order to resolve the conflict, Abram suggests that they separate. Lot chooses to reside among the cities on the well-irrigated plain of Jordan and Abram chooses to live in the land of the Canaanites. It seems sad to me that the family group has been divided by a sense that there aren’t enough resources to share.


YHWH promises Abram that he will give the land of the Canaanites to him and that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth. He ends up settling at the oaks of Mamre – a place that I think could also be associated with a Canaanite god. Again, Abram builds an altar to YHWH in a location that may be sacred to a Canaanite god.

A dishonest patriarch

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.

Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.

After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.


It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.

Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.

I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.

Sarai, Abram and Asherah

I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve generally been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

What stood out to me today was a small detail which I probably wouldn’t have noticed at one time. Abram and Sarai and Abram’s nephew Lot have uprooted themselves for a second time at YHWH’s instruction. They head to Canaan and they stop at the terebinth (‘great tree’ or ‘large tree’) of Moreh at Shechem. What’s significant about the tree that the people telling and recording this story mention it?

My suspicion is that the tree is a sacred site to the Canaanite god Asherah, the kind of place that some people in Israel later believed needed to be destroyed. Abram’s attitude isn’t to desecrate the site. The text says that YHWH appeared to Abram here, so he built an altar there, next to what may have been a sacred oak.

altar at asherah

What does it mean for Abram to build an altar to YHWH? Does it mean that YHWH and Asherah are familiar? Does it mean that YHWH is encroaching?

 

Exile ⇄ Exodus


Each week I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. I’m now posting some of my reflections on Thursdays.

What I’ve been reading this week marks a shift in the story. At this point, I think Genesis becomes a family drama, following the story of Abram and Sarai’s mob. We’re introduced to them living in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, which appears to have been located somewhere in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is the region that later became Babylon. The text describes Abram’s father, Terah, leading the family out of Mesopotamia and settling in Haran, which might be in the area we now call Turkey. After Terah dies in Haran, YHWH speaks to Abram, instructing him to relocate again, to a land where he will become a great nation.

I was talking with Beth about this part of the story yesterday, and we were reflecting on the fact that Genesis appears to have been developed (from earlier sources) when many of Abram and Sarai’s descendants were living back in Mesopotamia, after having been defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians and removed from the land. I wonder what it would have been like for them living in exile to read that their family started out here? I wonder what Abram and Sarai’s departure would have meant for them? Would it have given them hope that they could also leave Mesopotamia and repeat Abram and Sarai’s journey?

I think we can look at the whole of the Hebrew scripture follows a pattern of repeated exile and exodus, because it’s been shaped so much by the experience of exile in Babylon.