Thursday, October 30, 2014

Considering Witches

Didn't have much time yesterday (don't have much time today, either). I'm still considering what would be the "set spell lists" or even the choice of "schools" should I go that route (as discussed a couple days ago). In other words, haven't made any progress on dismantling the magic system already written for the new fantasy heartbreaker.

Maybe it's because (subconsciously?) I think it's a bad idea? Maybe.

But flavor...I like flavor. Flavor is important. It makes a game tasty. Without flavor, you might have a robust game system, chock-full of nutritious, caloric-value (just to carry an analogy too far), but I want more than that. I'm not trying to create Hero System: Fantasy or GURPS: Wizards or something. Too bland for my taste. The idea of different schools of magic is flavorful.

Anyhoo...part of the reason I didn't do any work/writing yesterday is that I was again perusing old Dragon magazines. In this case, I was reading every article I could find on witches and witchcraft (for those who're curious that includes issues #5, #20, #43, and #114). I didn't have access to these issues back when I wrote up a "B/X Witch" for The Complete B/X Adventurer...but even if I had, I'm not sure I would've used much of the stuff here.  Certainly not the gemstone level titles (a little too Amway-esque)...not sure where that idea came from. Maybe some of the more interesting NPC spells from issue #5; some of those are pretty cool.

[strange there's no author attached to that article. Wonder if anyone ever figured out the writer]

The point is, maybe because it's so close to Halloween, I've got witches on the mind. I dig the concept of witch mythology (the fantasy witch if you will) - both good and bad - and wouldn't mind seeing something witch-like in the new heartbreaker. The problem is, how to do it without being offensive to folks. 

I remember Long's book with much fondness.
Modern witches, for those who don't know, are very different from the critters you find in classic fantasy literature... whether you're talking The Wizard of Oz or Narnia or those old school Halloween masterpieces. They're very different from the witches portrayed on television and 21st century film, too...but that's not the kind of witch I'm interested in (the witches of Charmed or whatnot are meant for a  different RPG than D&D and its ilk). Nor am I talking about the Satanic, Black Mass coven-types of B-horror films, either.

For me, "old school" witches are more fun than frightening...even if the bad ones do (on occasion) eat children. From Baba Yaga and The Old Sea Hag to the beautiful Circe or Morgan Le Fey...the solitary witch is what I'm talking about. That chick in the first Conan movie or Glenda of Oz. In many ways, they are the female equivalent of the solitary sorcerer: someone who has removed herself from society (generally, by her own choosing) in order to practice her craft. Perhaps out of the (real medieval) fear of being burned at the stake by one's neighbors.

When these Halloween-y witches get together at all, it's only once a year or every seven years or every century (depending on the story) to celebrate in a big brouhaha (bruja-ha?), otherwise staying out of each other's way unless engaged in some petty rivalry or magical dispute. Apart from these occasional gatherings of celebrated solidarity, these "fantasy witches" are private individuals, opting out of any sort of politics, mundane or magical. Any "Queen of Witches" title is more honorary (or a straight recognition of power) than an actual office to which other witches owe "fealty." I daresay the term might be one designed to poke fun at Earthly feudal titles...the witches are, after all, opting out of standard patriarchal society.

Ah, vinyl. In rotation every Halloween.
Does that all make sense? I'm not trying to be offensive here, I'm talking about a tradition of folklore and fiction. I'm not trying to "perpetuate stereotypes" of witches, I'm talking about enjoying some of those stereotypes in a fun fashion...and a little Grimm-dark fantasy to a fantasy adventure game.

Still, maybe that doesn't fly with some folks. Certainly, I've put my "pulp B/X adventure" game on-hold indefinitely because, no matter how one slices it, any game that includes "savages" (or even "natives") is going to tick someone off. It's borrowing from fiction that was created at a time when Colonialism and white privilege was "okay" (and being packaged and sold to folks of a white privilege persuasion). The pagan persecutions and witch-burnings of earlier centuries was also deemed "okay" at the time, and that is where the majority of our folklore on the subject (with its "wicked witches") comes from. If I do a "for fun" version of witches that buys into that folklore, I may be perpetuating harmful perspectives that some people will apply to real world witches and pagans (both present day and historical).

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

I don't want to offend folks. I don't want to contribute to ignorance. And I don't want to include "disclaimers" in my wouldn't be a big enough section of the game to warrant such singular treatment (in my opinion), anyway.

Am I making too much out of this? People don't worry how elves or wizards are portrayed in RPGs because we consider these to be fictional creations...magic is considered fictional in general and real life hermetic magicians are considered delusional by most of the population (similarly, no one worries about offending people of the "Jedi Religion"). I don't think dwarves are offensive to little people, as they are based on a fairy race of Norse mythology. But witches...well, a lot of people really  did get tortured and murdered back in the day for their non-Christian beliefs. Real people. And there are plenty of real people today that consider themselves witches, though they don't sport pointy hats and green skin. Making light of the history is a bit like making a game where your intrepid explorers (*ahem*) shoot "savages" (pick a continent). And running with folklore that demonized a particular group of individuals is kind of "making light," no?

Maybe I'M just overly sensitive. But, well, that's what I'm thinking about today. More later, I'm sure.

It's not easy being green.


  1. I think you're a little too worried here. Your witches don't sound like the kind of thing you'd find in Christian propaganda or anything. You could throw in some stuff that could easily be misunderstood by NPCs. I wouldn't go the opposite route and make them out to be the greatest people ever, either

    I've got a couple Wiccan friends (give them plenty of shit for it). If you'd like, I can ask them to weigh in on the subject

  2. Eh, I'm guessing from your comment on it that you haven't looked at GURPS in around twenty years. It has changed a bit, though there is a contingent of balance-obsessed twats who keep trying to push it toward blandness.

    I don't know if you need to worry so much over things. Take a look at what Joseph Bloch (Greyhawk Grognard) did with his witch class.

  3. Don't worry about offense, just concentrate on making great game material. The rest will follow.

    Joe Bloch does have a good Witch class, I like what he did.

    I have a couple of my own laying around here somewhere too. ;)

    1. @ Timothy:

      Oh, I of these days I'll get around to reviewing your book, man. Really!

    2. I actually need to review your Complete B/X Adventurer. I tried out your witch too and wanted to post about that.

  4. Don't make too much of it. ;-)

    It's the internet, you'll only hear from people who love it or hate it and nothing from the zillion or so inbetween. When I wrote up my witch class for BLUEHOLME™ Compleat I went back to the contemporaneous material (early Dragon Magazine) and tweaked the Holmes magic-user scroll rules so they worked for witches with potions, and that was that. Yours will be much better.

    1. @ Michael:

      RE: "Yours will be much better."

      I wouldn't be so sure of that...BlueHolme Prentice rules is probably my favorite retroclone. And I say this as a person who didn't grow up playing Holmes Basic.
      : )

      When is Compleat going to be available, by the way? I'm very interested in seeing how you worked the witch.

    2. Yeah same here! I can't wait to see your witch Michael.

  5. Just stopping in to point out that witch panic and witch burnings were not a medieval phenomenon, but rather a renaissance/early modern thing.

    Charlemagne forbade investigating "witchcraft", and the Church's position for much of the middle ages was that witchcraft was not real.

    1. And, for the sake of it, more than a few people who were accused, put on trial, tortured, and convicted were not the poor, neither the "closer-to-nature" wisewoman type, but merchants, landowner or even priests.

  6. A comparison of your witch class to my witch class. I can go into more detail in future posts.

  7. I don't think any piece of gaming material would offend anyone who has a modicum way to discern fantasy and reality. As a roleplayer (and Wiccan), I do not take offense in many of the bad ways witches are depicted in fiction--in fact, I do like them. :-)
    Don't restrain yourself when creating art. If you are not making fun of someone else's beliefs, I see no problem... In fact, there's only one thing you should consider: "Do no harm." It works for art, medicine and witchcraft. ;-)