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.