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Fightin' Fairies Battle Banality

Are role-playing games a font of queer subversion?

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

Everyone needs a secret vice. Something that you do for no reason other than pure enjoyment, with no redeeming social or political value, like really bad death metal, shoot-em-up video games, or Dream Puffs -- those weird, squishy, chocolate-styrofoam cookies that contain absolutely no actual food and could survive a nuclear holocaust.

Recently, I rediscovered an old vice of mine: fantasy role-playing games. You know, the things that, according to the fundies, will turn your children into suicidal, drug-addled devil-worshippers? We probably all remember playing Dungeons & Dragons as teenagers. But I was surprised to find out just how much role-playing had changed since I retired my last half-elven druid 15 years ago.

The single biggest change has been the meteoric rise of a company called White Wolf Games, who appeared on the scene about five years ago with a game called Vampire: the Masquerade. It was an instant hit with the Goth crowd, for obvious reasons. Today, it seems like every black-clad trendoid on Queen Street is wearing a pendant with the Vampire logo, and there's even a TV show based on the game.

This was followed by rather more butch Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Here, rather than playing a elegantly jaded bloodsucker, you could be an eight-foot-tall eco-warrior with fangs and claws, defending Gaia from the ravages of multinational corporations. Needless to say, I was hooked. Nothing like a good rousing Werewolf game to stir the blood before heading off to an Earth First! action...

Next came Mage: the Ascension, in which assorted sorcerers, witches and shamans try to lead humanity to a spiritual awakening. This is actually more fun than it sounds; among your options are the very witchy Verbena, who worship trees, stir up nasty potions in cauldrons, and do weird scary things involving lots of blood; and the deliciously decadent Cult of Ecstasy, who base their magic on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

The ghost-based Wraith: the Oblivion quickly stiffed (so to speak), although a promised second edition may revive it. But it was the fifth in the series, Changeling: the Dreaming, that really topped them all, particularly from a queer perspective. For starters, you get to play a fairy. Aside from the inherent name appeal, this one seems almost custom-made for a gay audience.

Changelings -- fairies born into mortal bodies -- are the forces of creativity, spontaneity and beauty, breathing life into a stale, gray world. The enemy they fight is not evil corporations or mad scientists, but banality, described by one reviewer as "the force that makes you want to buy a Volvo." Banality is the antithesis of the playfulness, individuality and creative chaos embodied by the changelings -- it's the embodiment of dullness and conformity, the denial of dreams, the suppression of adventure. As a fairy, your job is to battle banality, wherever it is found. Hmmm... sound familiar, anyone?

In fact, there are themes relevant to queer experience in almost all the games. The one common thread they all contain is the experience of being an outsider, a social outcast, a creature that by your very existence is perceived as threatening the stability of cultural norms. The lesson they contain is the value of accepting and celebrating the things that make you different, revelling in your freakishness, and realizing that it's society, not you, that's fucked up.

This alone makes them subversive, but there's more. Changeling's not-so-subtle digs at the mind-numbing boredom of mainstream society are delightful; one of its books contains a truly hysterical field guide to the "Autumn People" -- emissaries of dullness -- as well as a sobering soliloquy on the subtle dangers of banality that should make anyone consider quitting their day job and trashing their television.

Werewolf's message is about as subtle as a brick through your front window; the company even donates a percentage of the profits from all Werewolf products to environmental organizations. And even Mage has its radical undercurrents; the enemy is an organization called the Technocracy, which uses science and technology to control the populace, attacking "reality deviants" and suppressing individuality in the interests of creating a perfect, orderly, 1984-like society.

All of the games skillfully interweave mythology and folklore with innovation and social criticism to form a rich setting in which some truly inspired and creative game play can take place. In many ways, White Wolf's game system is more like improv theatre than the role-playing games of times past; players progress by playing their character convincingly, not by bashing monsters and collecting treasure. It's exhilarating, cathartic, and thoroughly addictive.

The one down side to the whole thing is that it can become a big money sink. With each game consisting of an ever-expanding series of books, it's easy to overstrain your budget, especially if you get into combining changelings, werewolves, and mages in one game. But considering that one usually plays with a number of friends, the expense can at least be shared.

So, if real life is getting you down, head out to your local game shop (my personal favourite is The Jester's Den, located at 424 Bloor W in Toronto, phone 416-923-1551) and get ready to monkeywrench Pentex, overthrow the Technocracy, or do battle with Banality. Only problem is, this is all starting to sound suspiciously like it does have redeeming social value -- which means I'll have to find a new secret vice.

Dream Puffs, anyone?

Postscript: The Jester's Den is, alas, no longer in business. But there are lots of other gaming stores around...


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