Cultural Appropriation in the Mechanics of Magic
May 27, 2016 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I am a white cis-het male working on a writing project that includes both a fantasy novel and a tabletop RPG system and setting, based in an alternate history Earth where magic is a part of normal life. I believe in the importance of diversity in representation, so I would like to depict an America in which European/American culture is less hegemonic than in reality. One of the ways in which I want to do that is having non-European systems of magic be influential on the art and science of magic in this world. In particular, I am considering whether there is a way to incorporate chakras into both the fiction and the game's system without it being cultural appropriation. More details after the break.

The main focus of both the novel and the game is on how people who hunt monsters go about their lives. Ancient alien gods are trapped beneath the Earth's crust, and for most of human history they have been attempting to gather the power necessary to escape by growing "dungeons" up through the Earth to the surface, and then sending monsters up through the dungeons to prey upon both mankind and the beings of the spirit world to capture their essences, which feed the power of the trapped gods. There are also gods more friendly to mankind, which empower select people to combat these monsters.

The game system is based on the Open Gaming License for Dungeons and Dragons. As such, it uses the traditional six ability scores of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma to measure a character's innate capabilities. I've additionally taken a page from another OGL game, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and added my own spin on a Luck ability score. This makes seven ability scores, and at this point you may be able to see where I'm going with this.

Rather than more traditional D&D gear and magic items, those who fight monsters use a variety of charms and wards, which are created by enchanters in an artisan manner, similarly to the way a blacksmith in regular D&D would craft weapons and armor. Industrial forms of manufacturing don't really work for creating magical items of any sort. One class of charms I intend to include would be charms that enhance each of the seven ability scores. While it is possible I could make it work to use game terminology in the fiction, resulting in such things as Strength charms and Charisma charms, I have for a while been considering the idea of tying each ability score to one of the seven chakras and having the charms in turn be associated with those chakras in fiction.

However, recent discussions on Metafilter, as well as the internet at large (particularly discussions regarding J.K. Rowling's "History of Magic in North America") made me realize that I might be on shaky ground with the concept, and that I really needed to do a lot more research than looking at the Wikipedia page for chakra if I was going to make this work in a culturally sensitive manner. However, I do not have much background in Indian culture or spirituality, and most of what Google is turning up looks like it's already been through the process of cultural appropriation into New Age traditions, and searching for books on Amazon doesn't look much better. I'm not sure how to evaluate whether something is a good resource or not.

I'd appreciate any help I could get in finding good resources. Alternatively, I'd also take opinions by people more familiar with Indian spirituality on whether it is even possible to make this concept work without it falling into the realm of appropriation. On the flip side, I am half wondering whether the concept of chakras hasn't been so thoroughly appropriated by the New Age movement that this isn't even worth worrying about.
posted by Caduceus to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You should take artistic license on this one. Midichlorians!
posted by parmanparman at 11:47 AM on May 27, 2016

[One comment deleted. This is not the place for a debate about whether cultural appropriation exists etc. OP wants resources specific to Indian metaphysics or comments from people familiar with those traditions.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:00 PM on May 27, 2016

I think you should look for a university library, I'm so far from any authority but the term and concept of "chakra" has no occurrence in indigenous north american folklore. Eagles, bears, totems maybe. Perhaps look to find a PowWow and see if there are folks that feel like chatting?

Stith Thompson's index is online, heck of a resource.
posted by sammyo at 12:13 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not a good source on the specifics of what you're after, but I want to encourage you by saying that it can definitely be done respectfully. Lois McMaster Bujold's Cetagandan civilization is CLEARLY her riff on Heian-era Japan, and it's just amazing. I'm sure there are other examples. So I applaud your effort.
posted by aperturescientist at 12:18 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Being aware of appropriation issues is good, but please also watch out for exoticizing other cultures. Special access to spirituality/mysticism is something you see in a lot of basically caricatures of Indian and East Asian cultures. Of course it'd also be troubling to say magic only works like in European folklore. But having every culture's magic work differently has a risk of trivializing or essentializing the cultures that aren't central to the setting. There's certainly no ideal answer, and really, thinking about same questions for non-fictional stuff like trade, technology, or medicine reveals a mess of colonialism and injustice.
posted by aubilenon at 1:05 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

One thing I learned from playing a lot of Champions (Hero System) was to separate* the mechanical effect (+1 Cha, Advantage on rolls to Persuade) from the special effect (heart chakra charm). So you would say that in your game, there exist small worn items that can improve people's base qualities and then include a few examples taken from across cultural lines - Anahata Charm, Third Pentacle of Venus Talisman, Ansuz Rune, etc. You can then leave it up to the players to decide what sort of item they want and what culture it is from. Though I know this is anathema to a gamebook, sometimes less is more. Think about how much worldbuilding people did for Harry Potter in their own head cannons before Rowling came along and tried to make things "official" - let the players do what works for them.

* - There are of course many games that tie mechanics and effects very closely together, but since you're using D&D as a base, I figure that's not totally the case here. There is no bad way to game!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:17 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Indian culture or spirituality

You sound very thoughtful and it's cool to think about non-Eurocentric fantasy worlds. I want to ask, what makes it possible for us to think about chakras as "culture" (something distinct from "nature")? Thanks to the historical process of secularism, I think it's basically impossible for the dominant way of thinking in the world to consider chakras as having any reality (outside of their ability to compel people who believe in them to behave a certain way.) They are just culture, just belief, so "rational" Indians can not believe in them the same way rational Western people can not believe in ideas about witchcraft. It also, I think, makes them game for fictionalization the same way witches are for J.K. Rowling.

Yes, you could definitely say "but this historical process of secularizing non-Western cosmologies is already complete." I see the strength of that argument. But then again, maybe it would do some good to get away from thinking about people's relations to sacred cosmologies as "culture" at all.
posted by a sourceless light at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The question I'd be asking myself, before weighing the whole appropriative aspect, is, does the concept of chakras add something to the overall world I'm building here? Does it belong, in an organic sense? What you've described sounds like a Lovecraftian slumbering-gods mythos with a Gygaxian dungeon crawling ethos (which is rad) and, I dunno, maybe the backstory of the gods is inspired by Vedic texts or w/e but bringing chakras into that mix does seem like it could come across as including an unrelated element for the sake of borrowed-coolness or exoticism.

I believe in the importance of diversity in representation, so I would like to depict an America in which European/American culture is less hegemonic than in reality.

I mean, like, if part of your alternate history for this world is that it was colonized by India or something like that, then I think there's a basis for weaving in stuff from Hindu traditions; where I think you run into trouble is where you just sort of plug in some diversity for its own sake without being mindful of its context and what it means to people who have a real connection to it.

And there's always a risk, certainly people write about cultures and histories that aren't theirs and pull it off, but there's never a way to 100% guarantee you won't come across as disrespectful in some way.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

As an actualfax Indian, my first response is...

There is no such thing as 'Indian culture.'

Why? Well, for one thing, India is about a billion people, who speak hundreds of different languages, are from a bunch of different communities and religions. As an upperclass Tamil Brahmin, my culture is as distinct from a Rajasthani Rajput as it is from a WASP. The actual motto of the Indian Republic (although god knows with the assholes currently in charge) is 'Unity in Diversity.'

My point being, if you want to be respectful about this, your first step is not treating India like a monolithic entity, because it's not. Before you go any further, I have some reading for you: Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, and Wendy Doniger's The Hindus. Once you're done with those books, then maybe revisit whether you want to distill a five-thousand-year-old civilisation down to the one aspect Westerners think they know shit about.

Also, for your reading pleasure: What Happens When Writers Tell Stories That Aren't Their Own. I don't doubt your good intentions. Points to you for asking MeFi, even. But when you spend a lifetime having your culture reduced to erased and exoticised... well.
posted by Tamanna at 5:39 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Thank you for your responses. I clearly need to read more about this, and think about what my motivations are here, and what I can successfully accomplish in the meantime. Tamanna, thank you for the reading recommendations.
posted by Caduceus at 12:40 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since you're already deep into tabletop games, if you have the opportunity to check out some World of Darkness (especially Mage: The Ascension) support/extra info books about the magic traditions (Verbena, Akashic Brotherhood, Euthanatos, etc) and how magic is used in that game setting and by those mages, that might help you bring a more holistic look at magic in your setting and from a tabletop perspective. Those support books do a pretty good job of pulling together magic lore and approaches from different sources, cultures, and geographic settings. Good luck! This sounds like a fun game!
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:53 AM on May 31, 2016

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