Friday, July 30, 2021

(AD&D 2e) Legends & Lore

 The first part of this post is going to be all about me trying to work out why I ever thought it was a good idea to buy this book. I guess it goes back to my youth. I've started taking for granted how easy it is to find used books nowadays, but when I started roleplaying, back in roughly 1996, it was a different story.  There were three stores in my town that sold rpg books - Hastings, Borders, and that one place in the mall that I'm going to try and fruitlessly google because it went out of business 20 years ago . . . um, it was either B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, but I can't remember which. Our mall had both, but only one sold rpgs and I forget which it was. 

Of course, in those days, I didn't have a lot of money, so a lot of what I did in those days amounted to little more than longingly browsing the shelves, but between the occasional windfall and some very . . . precise Christmas lists, I was able to assemble a pretty respectable collection. However, Legends & Lore was always something of a white whale. I'd never actually seen a copy in person, but I'd seen references to it in other books, and I don't know how the idea got in my head, but I guess I kind of assumed it was rare because it was controversial. This was the book that was about real pagans and was therefor banned because it validated concerns that the game would turn players into heathens. Needless to say, as a semi-acknowledged teenage atheist (my family knew I was an atheist, and they were tolerant so long as it didn't interfere with any of our mandatory religious activities), this held a terrible mystique for me.

That's why I snatched up 3rd edition's Deities and Demigods. I had more money by then, and I was convinced I'd never see it again. It's also why I bought the 1st edition Legends & Lore, a couple of years before I began the blog. I was like, "whoa, this is a rare book that I'm improbably seeing in real life, better get it while I can." So it was kind of a thing.

However, in recent years, I've been using the internet more and more for my book shopping, and this feeling of scarcity has gradually subsided. The 2e Legends & Lore has been on my Amazon wishlist for a couple of years now, and it's always been oddly stable in price. It never got to a point where I felt the need to pounce on a sudden price drop, and after reading so many other 2e books, I didn't really feel a hunger for more.

And yet, a few weeks ago, I bought it. I think it's because I finished reading all my other core AD&D books and was looking forward to a future where I never had to read any of them ever again. There was a nagging sense that I was leaving something unfinished. My white whale was reasonably priced and easily available, and it would be a real shame if I left AD&D behind without ever experiencing it . . .

And the reason I went through the trouble of telling all that to you (aside from padding out the post length - 2 million words, here I come!) is so you'll have the proper context to appreciate how completely hilarious it was that I only got to the second page before realizing I'd made a huge mistake:

In at least one case, that of the American Indian, many of the deities are complete fabrications of the author, designed to capture the spirit of the culture, not to present accurate descriptions of gods once worshiped by true Native Americans.
I mean, that's my job done, right? I just have to gesture wildly at the excerpt and point out that they're admitting to doing the cultural appropriation thing in just the baldest and most direct terms possible and somehow this is meant as a disclaimer. What intelligent commentary is there left for me to add?

Looking back at my notes, I put stars around one entry, to indicate that it was my direct, personal reaction to something I was reading. The note? *How bad could it really be?*

On the next page of my notes, I ask the rhetorical question, "Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds."

Now I'm going to have to do a long quote from the relevant section, because my words could not possibly do it justice.

The mythologies of North America are as varied and numerous as the different Indian nations that inhabited [sic] the land. . . Any attempt to incorporate all of the deities worshiped by these various tribes as part of a single pantheon is destined to be full of unexplained gaps and conflicting detail.

Fortunately, there are many analogies between tribes, even those located on opposite ends of the continent. For the purposes of a campaign setting, we can use these analogies to draw some rather broad and coarse generalizations that will allow us to create a unified and consistent pantheon where, in historical reality, one did not exist.

 Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds?

I'm kind of at a loss as a critic. You know all those things you said were reasons it was difficult for you to do what you wanted to do? Those are also the reasons you shouldn't be doing what you say you want to do. It makes me feel like maybe you know that you're out on a limb, but you're doing it anyway. 

Which is actually a pretty apt description of this book's whole vibe. Later on, in the section on the gods of India, it takes pains to make the hair-splitting distinction between ancient Vedic beliefs and modern Hinduism:

Legends & Lore makes no attempt to translate modern Hinduism into AD&D game terms, but the transition between the beliefs of the late Vedic age and those of early Hinduism is so smooth and gradual that it is impossible to describe one without touching on the other. Many of the concepts discussed below will unavoidably have an Hinduistic echo to them.
Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds?

Incidentally, that quote is a bit of a lie. The entry on Kali mentions that some of her followers pose as travelers and strangle people with knotted cords, and even aside from how problematic it is to reduce such a complex and important goddess to the worst thing ever done in her name, it also places the source material no earlier than the 14th century CE, about 2000 years after the end of the Vedic age.

I think it would be easier if this were a hateful book. It's not, though. It's actually pretty consistent about cheerleading whatever culture is the subject of the current chapter. And it's clear that they did a lot of what passed for research in 1990 (i.e. go to the library and read books in English, written by white scholars - though it's hard to say because there's no bibliography).

However, just because it's not hateful, that doesn't mean that it is respectful. It's not. It's tough to put into words, but the feeling I get is that the text buys heavily into the idea that it's "just a game." So you'll get chapter introductions that talk about real history and real people, and they all attempt to say "look at how cool these people are" (enough so that the Greek chapter made me a bit uncomfortable with its "foundational values of western civilization" talk), but then, after getting the acknowledgements out of the way, it immediately proceeds to jam these round pegs into the square holes of AD&D's cleric class and overall gamishness. Make a percentage roll to see if you've attained enlightenment, and if the party is attempting to overthrow an unrighteous ruler, there's a 10% chance that the Norse god, Forsetti, will send an avatar to help out. The diversity, nuance, and theological sophistication of the various cultures never even enters as a factor.

Also, Loki never fucks a horse. How, exactly, did he "help" to build the walls of Asgard, Legends & Lore? It was important enough to include in his entry, but you never say how.

Anyway, my take on Legends & Lore is that it's not the sort of book that could be written today, and for very good reason, but it could have been so much worse. You want to make a D&D campaign inspired by the nations of pre-columbian America? This book is not much of a resource. You want to set a game in medieval China? This book is not much of a resource. But it is almost certainly less racist than its intended audience (and once again, I am including young me in this assessment), and compares favorably to, say, Dead Magic II, which was written more than a decade later.

Let's just chalk this one up to an unwise purchase, but it's not something I'm going to actively rue.

Ukss Contribution: Ooh, now this is a tough one. This book is jam-packed with egregious cultural appropriation, and even though I'm convinced its heart is in the right place, I don't necessarily want to pick some cool thing and then find out later that its a half-assed misrepresentation of something important and sacred.

So let's just go with the Wild Hunt. It probably would have been a contender even if I weren't being timid, although I'm not sure I entirely buy this book's contention that it exists to "[fight] evil with evil's weapons, namely fear and ferocity."

I actually did a double-take on that bit. Went to the internet to see if maybe I wasn't thinking of a different Wild Hunt, and . . . it's complicated. This thing is scary and sinister and an omen of ill-fortune, but sometimes it's led by a heroic figure of legend. But modern pagans incorporate it into their religious practice as a symbol of the dark side of nature. Not entirely sure I understand it, but it has a broad enough footprint in European folklore that it doesn't feel wrong to try and do a unique take on it.

I'll probably do some version of the evil-fighting Hunt, in deference to the donor book, but I like the frightening spirits, so it will definitely be the sort of evil-fighting that you wish were happening somewhere else.

2 comments:

  1. If Loki doesn't fuck a horse, it's not the real Loki.

    -PAS

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    Replies
    1. It makes me curious about Marvel Loki's past.

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