Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tlaloc

This post was inspired by the recent ruckus over Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, though I don't really directly address that situation.

Back in the eighties my game group had three DMs. There was yours truly who ended up as DM by default because on the first day of school one fall I showed up to Flanagan grade school with this weird new game called Dungeons & Dragons. No one else knew what the hell it was, so of course I had to be the DM. Later my good buddy Dave did a lot of the DMing and in many ways he was better at it. Later Dave's brother-in-law Jim, who had a separate introduction to the game, ran us kids through many merciless adventures in Greyhawk.

Having Dave as DM was always a little risky. His mom Betty was a 700 Club watcher and she got on board with the satanic panic. Between Betty and one of the teachers at school (the vicious visage pictured to the right) we were always under some level of pressure to give up the game. I think I've mentioned here once before that Betty once threatened to burn all the D&D books in Dave's room. When Dave told me about the incident I kinda freaked out because almost all the books he was using for his campaign were borrowed from me!

My game group, circa 1983.We were protected from the worst excesses of those years by the simple fact that the game group consisted of the most academically successful and least troublesome students at Flanagan Junior High. Had we been less nerdy we might have been shut down outright. Instead, from time to time we were subjected to an ongoing campaign to talk us out of D&D.

One parent in the anti-D&D clique bought her son a copy of Dragonraid as a Christian alternative to D&D. I read the rules, listened to the creepy-weird cassette tape that came with the game, and made a couple PCs. We tried the game once, but the fact that you had to memorize and recite Bible verses to cast spells put most of the group off the game. I didn't mind that so much, as ol' St. Petri Lutheran church spent a fair amount of time on getting its Sunday school students to memorize stuff. I was more frustrated that I couldn't combine the abilities of the ranger-like class with the animal companion abilities of another class to replicate my new Snake Eyes action Designers: if I can't play this guy in your game please go back to the drawing board.figure. Talk about a shoddy and short-sighted design.

Another tactic the Moral Minority tried on us was passing around a tape of the 700 Club hatchet job on D&D. The youtube links have made the rounds of the gaming blogsters and I'm feeling lazy so I won't repost them. When my folks were given the tape they handed it to me and told me to check it out. Either they didn't get that it was meant to be a dire warning to parents or else they trusted me to make my own decision.

It was from either the 700 Club tape or some associated literature that I first became conscious of the existence of Tlaloc the rain god. Oh, sure. I owned the Deities & Demigods, but back then I only really read it for the few new monsters (the two cyclops races and the Egyptian flame snakes being my favorite), the uberpowerful weapons (Thor's hammer and Ma Yuan's triangular stone, for instance), and the naked goddesses. So while Beware the Third Eye of Tlaloc!Tlaloc had a cool illo, his existence largely went unnoticed by this young DM, at least until D&D's detractors called attention to him. Apart from the general beef with a book full of pagan gods, here's the part of the Tlaloc entry they objected to:
At each full moon, a priest of Tlaloc sacrifices a child or baby to Tlaloc. Once a year, there is a great festival held in his honor. Numerous babies are bought or taken from the populace. These babies are sacrificed to Tlaloc, after which the priests cook and eat them. If the babies cry during the sacrifice, this is taken as a good sign that rain will be abundant during the coming year.
I remember getting out my copy of the DDG just to confirm that this passage was really in the book. No big surprise that I had missed it before, considering that Tlazolteotl, the goddess of vice, is illustrated on that same page. So after carefully reading this passage young Jeffy sat down and tried to figure what the inclusion of this baby sacrifice stuff meant in the larger scope of things. I came to the conclusion that the author of the above quoted paragraph (James Ward and/or Rob Kuntz) was in no way encouraging or condoning the sacrifice and/or consumption of infants. To this day that doesn't seem like too far a leap in logic to me.

In the occasional confrontation with the teacher I mentioned above she tried to argue that the mere presence of gods like Tlaloc and the various demons and devils indicated a tacit endorsement of evil. I countered that the game needed the presence of evil for the players to be able to do good deeds. Or as I put it once, "Demons and devils? You're supposed to fight those guys." I've never used Tlaloc in a D&D game, but if I ever did it would be in the form of something along the lines of Dungeon Module Z23: Kick The Crap Out of Some Tlaloc Clerics Before Their Next Festival, an adventure for 4-8 characters level 3-6. Just so all the grubbier PCs were on the same page the Temple of Tlaloc would coincidentally be full of crazy amounts of treasure.

When the team of Ward and Kuntz presented the practices of the Tlaloc cult they offered neither an endorsement of those practices nor a rebuke of such abominations. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that they took for granted that the reader showed up with his or her own moral compass and didn't really need to be told that killing and eating babies is bad. Am I talking crazy talk here? It's not like the DDG spent copious amounts of ink on graphic descriptions of human sacrifice or cannibalism. It's one wince-inducing, stomach-turning paragraph in a larger, weirder work.

22 comments:

  1. Jeff, keep it up! Reading this brought back a lot of memories of being an underground D&D player in a christian school down under doing the wave of anti satanic panic. We kept our rights through that period to play during 'sport' and still managed to sneak the odd adventure in on the back row in chemistry. I think we had one 'heart to heart' with a concerned fundamentalist teacher about the threat to our souls also. Like you, it was our good grades and nerdy appearances that kept us immune from the exorcists. Weird when one looks back on it. Thanks for the blog.

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  2. A well worded and thought provoking post, Jeff. I particularly appreciate the way you place the entire discussion in the context of the history of D&D. Of course, this controversy is larger than the hobby, but I do think it's vital that we not forget our shared history as gamers. We often view the past with rose colored glasses, as the example of the Deities & Demigods makes clear.

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  3. Biff the Younger7:02 PM

    Eating babies is bad? If only TSR had told me. Guess tomorrow's BBQ is off.

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  4. Dammit, Biff, what'm I supposed to do with all these kittens?

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  5. Korgoth7:44 PM

    Since you've even mentioned "sacrifice" and "baby" on the same internet, and since I have ever visited Dragonsfoot in my life, I am robotically compelled to brand you a cannibal monster and promoter of wickedness. Also, I have submitted your name to the NSA, NRO, CIA, FDA and FDIC as a Mesoamerican Fundamentalist Baby-Eating Terrorist.

    If you bemoan that I have now ruined your life, you have only yourself to blame for not keeping your discourses firmly rooted in the banal.

    Actually, I guess I also need to hunt down and persecute my undergraduate archaeology prof. Thanks for reminding me.

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  6. Jeff,

    I hate to be a bother, but would you or someone mind linking to the 700 Club D&D clip, if you have the link? I've seen the 60 Minutes one, but have been telling my wife about the 700 Club D&D warning they made us watch when I was in elementary school. My thanks!

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  7. Was it the 60 Minutes stuff that went around recently? I wasn't really paying that much attention because with a dial-up at home I'm not about to watch any videos that are the opposite of awesome.

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  8. Anonymous8:26 PM

    "No big surprise that I had missed it before, considering that Tlazolteotl, the goddess of vice, is illustrated on that same page."

    I'm in the exact same boat. I don't remember ever reading it before because of that distracting goddess.

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  9. Yeah, I've seen the 60 Minutes one. Can't find the 700 video, which even then was pretty hilarious.

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  10. Anonymous5:00 AM

    Thank you so much for this blog post Jeff. I only wish someone had remembered the Tlaloc description before the DF thread had been locked. I would've loved to have seen the pitchforks and torches crowd squirm, realising some of their old school heroes were guilty of the same crime for which they were lynching Geoffrey McKinney. Nothing like a bit of perspective to balance raw, unreasoning emotion.

    I must've read this when I was young, but not having ever been interested in the Central American Mythos as a campaign option, it probably never rated a second reading.

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  11. STEP 1: Copy-and-paste "Dungeon Module Z23: Kick The Crap Out of Some Tlaloc Clerics Before Their Next Festival, an adventure for 4-8 characters level 3-6" into a Word-To-Go doc on my handheld

    STEP 2: Whip that mofo out and work on the adventure every damn chance I get

    STEP 3: Find time to play it. :(

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  12. *applause*

    I must have been lucky. No one ever thought I was getting in to satanism, in fact I had teachers encourage me. Heck, my grandparents bought me the old Monster Manual II.

    Ha! I started wearing the ubiquitous sword pendant and the grand parents were more concerned that I had become a Catholic.

    LOL! Good times for me, I'm sorry so many people seemed to have had such a rough go of it.

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  13. Jeff, your teacher's hair looks like a battle helmet that hides her obviously alien head underneath.

    I grew up in Utah. That entailed many oddities but the whole satanic D&D wave was not one of them. Most of the kids I played with were Mormon.

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  14. Anonymous8:09 AM

    Luckily, I never encountered the religious anti-D&D crusade. The people who tried to get me to stop playing did so strictly with the worry that it was distracting me from my schoolwork. They were probably right, but my grades were at least good enough that they didn't try all that hard.

    My high school librarian was a D&D player and she started up a gaming club for activity days. That was pretty cool, especially since I knew of no other female gamers at the time (early 1980's).

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  15. Korgoth1:07 PM

    So... are Tlaloc and Margaret Sanger the same person?

    And yes, that's not a PC joke.

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  16. Flambeaux2:50 PM

    Margaret Sanger is the 20th century avatar of Tlaloc.

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  17. I think the argument is that there is a moral dimension to simply depicting and participating in fictions. Those that depict goodies triumphing are doing something good, as compared to folks who depict Child Sacrifice Thanksgiving, who are doing something bad. (Let me acknowledge, at the possible cost of my apparent neutrality, that this argument coming from avowed Christians, especially on the subject of child sacrifice, is the height of irony. I'll have to assume they've never read Kierkegaard. Now there's Satanism for you!)

    Of course, with D&D, everyone was playing it differently. I am convinced that there there were people who wanted to be priests of Tlaoc because it was "metal," and GMs who wrote villages centered around civic Tlaoc worship because it was "realistic." I don't know for certain, but I find it hard to believe that those sorts of people suddenly started appearing once I got into gaming.

    I want to say that there's a neutral ground that this entry occupies, but in the end, what's the difference in my responsibility between saying "My character has a beer" and "The Evil Priest laughs maniacally as his ecstatic worshippers throw still more infants on the fire"? I'm equally the source of the imagined events, and I think the argument that "it's all a game" or "it's just imaginary" falls flat, especially when some of the same people who say that at other times argue that these games are capable of just as much meaning and importance as any other art, in which case depiction is statement, in which case the form should be judged, in some way, by what it depicts and how.

    I guess the saving grace has to be in some elusive quality of "taste," "maturity," etc.

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  18. Great post, JRients. My town went through a similar persecution. For one of my later birthdays, my mom presented me with a scrapbook of all the articles and letters in the local paper. I'll scan it and put it online one of these days because it's quite entertaining to read.

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  19. biff the younger4:33 PM

    Oh kittens are out, Just not enough meat to bone ratio. Puppys, now them are good eating.

    Is it wrong that I find that teacher kind of hot?

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  20. @ Biff: I like the way you discuss the issues, man.

    And yeah, that teacher has kind of a Jami Gertz thing going on, I can see it.

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  21. I'll preface this by saying that I am what is popularly considered a fundamentalist, conservative, Bible-thumping Christian (and, yes, I did laugh at the Margaret Sanger joke).

    I started gaming in the mid-eighties, and so I experienced the whole 'Satanic panic' thing, as well. In brief, there was concern by all (except me), but in our family it didn't last long. My parents, too, are fundamentalist, conservative, Bible-thumping Christians. Our faith wasn't the problem - communication was. Fortunately, we communicated.

    Coming from a Christian perspective, I think there's definitely an argument to be made against "bad thoughts" (which is one topic in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount) and being concerned about what you take in to your imagination (Jesus's words in Matthew 6:21-23 and Luke 11:33-35 about the eyes being 'the lamp of your body' have been interpreted this way in my experience). And many people have personal experience with child abuse or rape that would understandably make them very uncomfortable with such subjects arising in-game. Even if one prefers such topics not to come up at all in their games because it's too dark, I understand and sympathize.

    But personally, I find the unflinching definition of what is required in order to utilize sorcery in Carcosa (along with its inspiration, Book of Ebon Bindings) to be, for lack of a better word, refreshing. I find myself in agreement with McKinney's arguments. Sorcerors are unpleasant people, performing horrific acts in exchange for supernatural power (doesn't Unknown Armies have this kind of stuff, too?). Heroes should be outraged and disgusted by such acts, motivated to action to thwart them. Knowledge of how they gain their powers simultaneously makes the heroism more noble and the villainy more visceral (and sympathetic, in the sense of 'you understand why they commit these evil acts'). Perhaps it's my Christian outlook, or perhaps it's a personal taste, but I'm a bit bored with fictional cosmologies which posit that magic is a "neutral" force in the Universe, like gravity or electricity, and can be used like a tool for good or ill. Maybe not in every game world, but in general, worlds where magic use has a price resonate with me.

    The practices of Tlaloc worshipers as described may or may not be fictional (I'm too lazy to look it up online or in my copy of GURPS Aztecs right now), but the practices of the historical Aztecs were horrific. It's a matter of historical fact, and I don't think that stating what was done is the same as endorsing it. Is it different when describing it in a game? If it's a game for mature participants, then I don't think so. As mentioned, the DM has to present everything that's going on in the game world, and that includes mention of villainy that the protagonists must deal with. In a gaming context, explicit definition (if not graphic description, which can be matter-of-fact or lascivious and morbid, dependent upon the presentation) of these acts forces the player to grapple with an actual moral issue.

    Likewise, I've never understood the complaint about including demons and devils in D&D. As Jeff pointed out, "These are the guys we fight against."

    ...Sorry for the novella-length post.

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  22. My stock response was always "the Bible has demons in it, too."

    And Tlaloc is explicitly labeled as evil, which in D&D context counts as condemning him, IMO, not even a neutral stance.

    I think Tlaloc's a cool and very gameable deity. It's fine and dandy to have evil gods worshipped by evil culty followers, but it's downright juicy and packed with campaign potential to have evil gods in control of something as necessary to everyone as the rain.

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