Thursday, March 21, 2019

Scion: Hero - Chapters 1-3

I'm going to have to talk about cultural appropriation again. Is that just going to be my thing from now on? Am I going to be the guy who's always going on about cultural appropriation in rpgs? It's not as if I have any special knowledge on the subject. Hell, I barely understand it. It would be grossly inappropriate for me to position myself as an authority here. But I can't exactly ignore it when it stares me so blatantly in the face.

Now, to be clear, I don't think Scion: Hero crosses the line, but you have to take my opinion with a grain of salt. I'm an atheist, so I think that taking these figures of religious mythology and using them as the foundation for a high-action modern fantasy setting is kind of cool. I mean, the closest I'm going to get to being a religious minority is my status as an ex-Mormon. If I'm imagining the LDS mythos (and to be clear, I'm kind of a black sheep here, the rest of my family takes this very seriously) used in the most ham-fisted way possible, with the angle Moroni going around impregnating people and the prophet Lehi appearing in people's dreams to give them superpowers, then my main thought would be, "Joseph Smith was a conman, not a writer, none of his characters are cool enough to justify their inclusion here."

So, you know, my opinion on the proper use of the sacred as raw material for popular culture is not exactly one that you want to lean on. That being said, I think Scion is caught between the hammer and the anvil here.

If your pitch is "the old gods of classical mythology are running around in the modern days and the children they have with mortals are basically superheroes," then you've got a couple of "safe" pantheons. The Norse pantheon is more or less the communal property of Anglo-Germanic culture. Most of the English days of the week are named for the Norse gods. They've been used in fiction, both low and high, for centuries. If the Saxons didn't want us to make comic books and rpgs about their sacred figures, they'd have stayed in Denmark where they belonged.

And, of course, the Greco-Roman gods are part and parcel with Rome's imperial domination of Europe. It is impossible to overstate their influence on secular art from the Renaissance forward.

A version of Scion that was just Norse and Greek gods would be a pretty fun and goofy thing. You wouldn't have to worry about trampling over the theology of those belief systems, or oppressing their followers (modern revivals of these religions post-date the bulk of the pop-culturization of their traditions, so I have to assume their followers have made their peace with it). But a game like that would also be awfully white. That's the hammer.

If the only active gods are Norse and Greek, that raises questions that aren't really easy to answer. "Are Greek and Norse the only real gods?" "If the other pantheons are real, why don't you run into them when you travel the world?" "But [sacred figure x] would never act like a superhero, and even if they did, they'd never have an illegitimate child with a human" And so on.

Treating the non-European cultures with respect and dignity, while also fitting them into your casual-Saturday-entertainment, high-fantasy paradigm, especially when many of those cultures were destroyed (the meso-American pantheon) or dramatically transformed by (the Loa) the worst excesses of European colonialism - that's the anvil.

Does Scion: Hero manage to get out from between them? I can't say. I don't know enough about the individual cultures represented by the pantheons, and besides that, I'm inclined to think that inspiring an awesome superhero is a higher use for a mythological figure than as an object of worship.

However, if I were to venture a guess, I'd say they didn't quite nail the execution. And to my mind, the strongest evidence for this is the game's coyness about Abrahamic monotheism. To me, its lack of inclusion signals that the authors were aware of the boundaries of the sacred, and thus made a deliberate choice as to which traditions they didn't have to worry about transgressing.

You could make the argument that the game's premise doesn't work unless you've got polytheism (or at least henotheism), but that seems to imply that theological correctness is only really important when it comes to the dominant western religion.

You could also make the argument that you didn't want to court controversy by taking lightly the majority religion of your primary customers, but that, in a way, is even worse, because it's almost like you're saying that it's okay to offend people who are too weak to deliver serious retribution.

Of course, the counterargument to this is that the Hindu gods were also left out. So maybe the distinction is between living traditions and dead ones, but if that's the case, then White Wolf just plain got it wrong. (Also, the Hindu gods show up in both the Companion and in 2nd Edition, so that's probably not the explanation).

I don't know what to tell you, here. I like Scion. I think it's pretty neat. And there's nothing here that strikes me as offensive, per se. I do think the authors took care to be as sensitive as possible, while still making a game about demigods fighting monsters for the fate of the world. But then, the list of authors doesn't strike me as especially diverse. I could be wrong, of course. You can't tell just by a name whether someone is an adherent to Shinto or Voodoo. Maybe they did their due diligence and consulted with the represented peoples to come up with a fair and respectful depiction.

Like I said at the beginning. I am not expert on cultural appropriation. It's not bad enough for me, a white ex-Mormon atheist, to feel offended by proxy. But it is here enough for me, a white ex-Mormon atheist, to notice. So, there it is, whatever that's worth to you. And hell, maybe my intuition is wrong, and it is a common fantasy of marginalized minority religions everywhere to have their sacred figures get the super-hero treatment. Maybe there's a huge contingent of native-descended Latin Americans who are just dying for one of the Aztec gods to get a Marvel comic, just like Thor.

If so, well then . . . Scion: Hero is actually not a good fit for that, for reasons I'll get into next post, when I read the bulk of the game's mechanics and weep.

4 comments:

  1. Your credentials for discussing cultural appropriation (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, I think you're doing a sharp and clear job of discussing the perspective you *do* have on the matter. Good on you. And good reading for me.

    -PAS

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  2. Although this next post is no doubt going to be a bit bitter for me.

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  3. The exclusion of Abrahamic religion my have been for a broader audience than you at first pointed out. While the predominant religion in the west is Abrahamic, I think once you tally Judaism and Islam, Abrahamic faith is most of the world. That may have been why they opted not to include God with a capital G.

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    1. That's undoubtedly part of it. After reading the companion, though, I think the real answer was more likely that they didn't want to have to deal with monotheism.

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