Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Religious Taboos in Your Game

I wrote previously about religious institutions and how they can feature in your game. This post on religion in gaming is all about taboos. Many religions impose prohibitions on people, from the seemingly-trivial to the serious matters of life and death. To the eyes of a typical Western observer some taboos seems strange and petty, perhaps archaic colour of no practical use. As long as we remember that those same Western eyes are observing across the gulfs of time, space, culture and language, we can start to explore the role of the taboo and find ways to apply it to games.

Taboos are sometimes symbolic code for something quite practical. Looking at Dreamtime stories as an example, some prohibitions relate to poisonous plants or animals that the hearer will remember and use to survive. Disguised survival lessons also work in the positive, weaving the location of a billabong into the events, using geographical markers found in the local area. In your game, you could use this to show plants or locations that the locals avoid, and then open an adventure to discover why they avoid it, and perhaps have the players face that danger. They could unwittingly consume a poisonous substance, or bravely face the demon. Be sure to have the locals show fear, perhaps superstition, about the taboo. Mothers will snap at their children for mentioning it.

Sometimes taboos exist to manage procreation. Aborigines in central Australia have a complex system of totems showing which people can have children together without the risk of birth defects. Use this in your game to start a story of forbidden love, or a story of devotion to a child born from forbidden love and now living with some kind of genetic defect. It could be as fantastical as a quest to find a magic cure, or as dark as a secret that should not be exposed (Perhaps the prince has a forbidden lover, and the child is proof of breaking the taboo, costing him the throne...)

Dietary taboos are prevalent in some religions. Don't eat pork of shellfish. Don't drink alcohol. These dietary restrictions can be signs of devotion or cultural markers. As devotion, they are personally important to characters, but can cause problems. Supposing a non-drinker wants to do business in a culture that prizes bargains over drinks. Devotion and cultural markers can turn bad and become a source of condescension or disgust. After all, if that food isn't sanctioned by the gods for human consumption, then we can question the humanity of anyone who does eat it.

The last one for today is misogyny or misandry. In our own history, taboos about women have been used to enforce patriarchal structures of power in society. Are men and women treated differently by the religion? Use this to establish etiquette in the game, and then conflict by breaking those traditions.

In general, religious taboos can be a source of story in your game in a number of ways. Think about what the taboo is and how it marks out the people who hold it to be forbidden. Consider what happens when they are in contact with the "unclean" neighbouring peoples. Consider what happens when people break taboos. Taboos might be arbitrary, or practical, or just something that a petty deity despises. The addition of a taboo to your game setting immediately acts as a creative constraint that can generate plenty of story for your characters.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Religious Institutions in Your Game

I'm a student of religion and I'm a gamer. I've seen religion used as a plot device in a few different ways in games, but I can't help feel that it's always a tired cliche rather than a vibrant element to the story. Religion is still an important feature in the lives of most people on the planet, and for the sake of fiction it adds flavour and depth to a character and a story.

Perhaps the most obvious use of religion is the religion as institution. When you're thinking about how to establish a religious institution in your game, you need to acknowledge that it is an institution in society, for better or worse, like all other institutions. It's a socially-acknowledged organisation with legal status, authority, responsibility, symbols, finances, people, buildings, rituals and goals. The religious institution almost certainly has political aspirations, preferring one kind of government or ruler over another, whether overtly or covertly expressed. Think about who the secular powers are in your game and decide whether the established religion supports them or not. Are they working to undermine the ruler or to strengthen the dominion? Perhaps they are trying to subvert an unjust king without being discovered.

As an institution, the inner workings are hidden from the view of outsiders. Consider the tax department as a secular parallel to get my point. And where things can be hidden, someone will find a way to hide their evils in amongst it all. *cough* *Enron* *cough* Contemporary examples of this in Christian institutions include pedophilia, embezzlement, adultery, and so on. In short, everything that the religion opposes has probably been hidden in the institution. Which evils are hiding in the institution in your game? Who is hiding them? Who is committing them? In this way, the religious institution is no different to a corporation or government department, and it makes for lots of plot opportunities.

Also, an institution is something that people can't disbelieve in. It's there, and is an agent in the society. Regular people will interact with it somehow, perhaps through temple attendances or street parades. They almost certainly will touch on certain festivals or holy days, either as historical remnants or as a living and vibrant day. Holy days can be solemn, reflective, relaxing, celebratory, ecstatic or even orgiastic. Which kinds of holy days are included on the sacred calendar of the religions institution in your game? What do they celebrate?

The last thing I'll say about religious institutions in your game is the role of religion as ideological enforcers for the established order. Historically, we've seen this in Europe as the Inquisition. Today, this is the actually existing condition in Iran, as applied by the Guardian Council. In fiction, I especially like the Jedi Council as an example. The religious institution interprets the ideology and has authority to interpret and enforce it. In your game, you would need to think about the tenets of the religion, the interpretive structures of scholars and clerics, the powers (legal or supernatural) of the enforcers. Remember that they all believe they are safeguarding the One True Way. You might also need to think about what could happen if they don't safeguard the community or nation. Will the deity bring calamity because of unfaithfulness? Or is the deity a little patient?

These are just four ways - an organised entity in society, a haven for corruption, an agent in society, enforcers of ideology - for you to bring a religion as an institution into your game.

After writing this post, I find myself brimming with ideas about how other aspects of religion can contribute to your game. And that means more posts on the subject. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Go Play Brisbane

I'm starting to think about when to run Go Play Brisbane in 2011. Twice in 2011 is good, roughly equidistant from Gen Con Oz. The last I heard, Gen Con Oz is likely to be in July, so that places Go Play nicely in March or April, and October or November.

Watch this space for more.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Siege Blind Playtesting Has (Re)started

I'm always impressed by the willingness of people to lend a hand. It happened again. In my last post I mentioned that I hadn't had any volunteers for blind playtesting, and that I was close to stopping the project.

And then three people volunteered to run blind playtests for me.

Thank you, three people.