Wednesday, June 5, 2024

(d20) Mindshadows

First things first, I gotta roast the title. Mindshadows? That's nothing. It references literally none of the book's (written by: Kevin Brennan and James Maliszewski) lore or mechanics. I guess, if I'm being generous, there is a religion based on the study of psionics. That could be the "mind" part of Mindshadows, but that would leave the "shadows" part unaccounted for. Also, the religion doesn't really frame psionics as "the power of the mind." It's more about "strengthening the will and purifying the soul through the study of psionics." The mind is involved, obviously, but the founder of the religion actually thought her followers focused too much on the mind, at the expense of the body.

Oh, wow, I just caught myself spiraling. I was thinking, "maybe it's that improper emphasis on the mind that casts a shadow on the religion's spiritual teachings . . . how deep does this rabbit hole go?" But that's ridiculous. The rabbit hole goes nowhere. It's not that deep. Green Ronin put out a lot of d20 books, enough that they were probably just pulling titles out of a hat. "Mind" = psionics. "Shadows" = "We already used Mindscapes for a different book."

I swear, though, that this digression (yes, I am preemptively digressing from things even before I begin them - deal with it) has a point - Mindshadows deserves a better title, because it is a full, original campaign setting and not, as the title might imply, a quick and dirty 3rd party psionics supplement. The trick is coming up with a good one.

I think the most direct title would be "Naranjan." That's what the book is about. The only problem with that is that the bulk of the early 2000s d20 fandom don't know what a "Naranjan" is. Even with the internet, I'm not entirely sure. It looks like an alternate spelling of the Sanskrit name "Niranjan," (meaning, roughly, "pure" or "spotless") which actually makes a certain degree of sense, considering that in this context it's the name for a fantasy setting inspired (mostly) by India.

But would that have been enough to draw the interest of its target audience? You'd probably need a subtitle. My gut instinct would be to pitch something pulp-inspired like "The Spice Coast and Beyond" or "In the Jungles of the Serpent God," but those might have some unfortunate Orientalist subtext. . .

Which brings us to the elephant in the room (strangely, despite being inspired by India, elephants are nowhere to be seen ::sadface::) - this book might actually be Not Okay. Personally, I liked it (and if I'd been exposed to it closer to its original publication date, I'd have probably loved it), but that means precisely fuck all. It really just goes to show my own ignorance of Indian culture and history. What I do have is the author's account of how the setting was put together:

While the Mindshadows setting is inspired by the history and legends of southeast Asia (primarily those of the Indian subcontinent), it is nonetheless a work of fiction. The authors also drew inspiration from the wuxia films of Hong Kong cinema, from anime, and from a variety of standard fantasy venues. In other words, Mindshadows bears about as much a resemblance to actual Indian history, society, and religion as most fantasy settings bear to medieval Europe - which is to say, not much. If you're familiar with India's history and language, you may recognize that various words and concepts are not used in an entirely accurate fashion here. The alterations are intentional and made in the interests of a good story. No disrespect is intended.

And my initial thought is, "yep, that's what passed for covering your ass back in 2003." But then, I think, mainline D&D, just a little earlier, released a book whose name I don't even want to say, and their ass-covering was much worse. And who am I to talk really? I love that polyglot, anachronistic style of fantasy worldbuilding that just tosses stuff in because it's cool and I've never really been able to reconcile the tension between avoiding egregious cultural appropriation and being such an over-cautious fuddy-duddy that I inadvertently say, "non-Europeans aren't allowed to play in this sandbox."

The position I have settled on is basically, "execution counts for a lot." That you can't actually trust to a particular process or set of principles - you have to just make the actual thing and course correct as necessary when you inevitably get some things wrong. This is probably a good thing for Mindshadows, because its process, as described, is pretty much a guide of what not to do, but I don't know enough about the subject matter to say what it might have gotten wrong.

I can say that parts of it are pretty cool, though. There are competing martial arts schools where you can learn psychic techniques that blur the line between physical discipline and spiritually enlightened magic. The tottering empire at the heart of the setting establishes its dominance by deploying Juggernauts - magical mechs that can be up to colossal size. The theology of the local religions (fantasy Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, basically) is better thought out than the nonsense we see in "standard" D&D. The history is dynamic, with plenty of potential for adventurer-driven changes in the immediate future.

But if I'm looking for things to be offended by, well . . . There are cannibalistic jungle-dwelling elves. The Yuan-ti (snake people) reproduce by magically impregnating their humanoid slaves. And, of course, there's the oppressive caste system that various factions will either protect or rebel against.

The last one is especially hard for me, because I don't want to come down automatically on the side of "depicting a regressive custom is intrinsically problematic," but on the other hand this is a sensitive issue and European cultures have a history of using this exact thing to other the people of Southeast Asia. From my perspective, Mindshadows seems pretty evenhanded - it's portrayed as a bad thing, generally, but the people of Naranjan are no better or worse than anyone else. The movement to oppose the system is autochthonic, driven entirely by the people most affected by it. If anything, it's too neutral and fact-focused. It's not particularly classist, and there's no indication that the lower castes live down to the stereotypes about them, but it's also lacking in class consciousness. The rebels against the system are not especially coded as protagonists. The system simply is what it is.

I think it's one of those things where I, as a white person, would be extremely reluctant to tell this particular story. To do it correctly, you have to thread the needle between honest depiction of the practice, the colonialist hypocrisy that attaches to many English-language accounts, and the ongoing political challenges of real-world India. I think it would require a level of nuanced cultural understanding that I could not realistically attain. 

But then again, Messrs. Brennan and Maliszewski already did it 20 years ago, so I'm being a bit of a Monday-morning quarterback here.

Overall, I'd say Mindshadows is exactly the sort of thing that I'm always eager to read and this specific book is an efficient and well-executed compact campaign setting that could easily have been a well-received AD&D 2nd edition boxed set. Which makes it kind of miraculous that I just randomly snagged it for five bucks at one of my irregular visits to the local gaming store c. 2023. I think I'd feel a lot better about it if I'd read an updated version that had been reviewed by a compensated sensitivity reader. As it is, I've got the surreal sensation of having read something that would have been grandfathered in as "a problematic favorite of my youth" only after the grandfathering period has long passed.

Ukss Contribution: The Juggernauts in general are pretty great, but looking at the Juggernaut creation tables, the combination of material and size that most intrigues me is Colossal and Stone. The idea of using a 75-foot animated statue as an engine of war is exactly my aesthetic. 

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