Appendix V | Ara Fell (vampires and elves don’t mix)

Vampires and elves don’t go together.

That’s been my opinion since I tried Ravenloft back in the 90s and again in the 3e conversion and finally, last year, with Curse of Strahd for 5e.

Based on these shitty games, it’s easy to say that pointy ears and bloodsuckers don’t go well together.

But a few weeks ago, while searching for a traditional turn-based combat JRPG, I discovered Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition, a game that proved me otherwise. Ara Fell proves that, indeed, vampires and elves mix well together, but also that you have to be smart to do so.

Why, then, did I always find Ravenloft to be an aberration? What does Ara Fell have that Ravenloft lacks?

Well, for starters, irony and, also, a sense of humor. Ravenloft takes itself too seriously. It wants to be dark, scary, mature, and for others to take it seriously too. Like Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlene. Ravenloft wants to be serious but it has elves, so….

Anyway, the fundamental problem with Ravenloft is that you can’t mix heroic fantasy and horror. Heroic fantasy and horror are two opposite things. One tries to empower, the other to disempower (is this a real word?).

Ravenloft tries but fails to scare players because a) D&D characters are almost impossible to kill and b) the characters are the heroes and heroes always succeed.

D&D players know they are the heroes and will triumph. They can’t fear for their characters because they know their characters won’t die.

In The Lord of the Rings, from the very first pages, we know that Frodo and Aragorn will triumph, that Sauron and Saruman will be defeated. In At the Mountains of Madness, from beginning to end we have the uncertainty of whether the “heroes” will survive and win, and we know that there is a very high probability that they will not. In a crude way, that’s the difference between horror and heroic fantasy.

Ara Fell works because it doesn’t try to scare you. It doesn’t pretend to be a horror story, it’s heroic fantasy. There’s magic, ancient prophecies, a city in the sky, elves and, yes, vampires. But it never tries to be edgy, dark, too serious. The vampires of Ara Fell are not the vampires of the gothic novel, they are just one more of the races… sorry, I meant: of the ancestries that populate Fantasyland. It’s not the horror monster, it’s the fantasy monster.

Ravenloft is based on the old Christian morality trope of good versus evil, so it’s a dark game (in more ways than one), and it’s always at night. It ends up being very edgy. And not in an ironic way, to top it off.

Ara Fell doesn’t make this mistake. It’s a lighthearted looking world, colorful, it’s almost always daytime, but its morality is not black and white, it’s the more complex, the more human of the grayscale. Elves are not the Christian good and vampires are not the evil of Satan. And in between the two factions are humans, with their flaws and virtues, desires, ambitions and fears.

So it’s not that vampires and elves can’t mix, it’s that horror and heroic fantasy don’t mix well. You can be one or the other, but not both.

Can racism be fixed?

Tristan is troubled because orcs are racist.

Disclaimer: This is not an attack on Tristan. If my tone denotes anger, it’s because I’m angry. It’s not an attack, it’s a pretext to write about this topic, he just happened to be the catalyst, although I have written about it before. So, when I say “Tristan”, sometimes I mean Tristan and sometimes I mean eveyone with a similar mindset. Read on, it explains itself. Note: Since I wrote the first draft of this article, and today that I am posting it on the blog, Tristan has sort of aknowledged that his text is problematic (to use an euphemism and avoid saying that it is bad).

Second disclaimer: This article is partially about orcs as racism, but that’s not the point. Neither this is a defense of Tolkien. Fuck Tolkien! There are far better writers.

Part One. In which the author rants on real-life racism

Tristan is troubled because orcs are racist.

In his article, he basically says: Orcs are racist and if you don’t think orcs are racist, I don’t care about your opinion.

I am Mexican. I, due to my nationality, have been the target of racism. Not many times because most online are not aware of that fact.

I am Mexican and I don’t agree with the “orcs are racist” meme*, at least not in the whole. It’s not that simple. “Are orcs racist?” “Yes, but…“, and it’s that but what matters most.

But Tristan doesn’t care what I think about racism, unless my thinking is exactly the same as his. Yet, sadly, Tristan is not the only one.

“Oh, but good old Tristan here means white people”, I hear you say.

Yeah, I know. He thinks only white people can have an opinion on racism, he doesn’t consider we, the victims of racism, or people outside his country, can have a voice of our own, can have our own opinions. That doesn’t mean my own experience with racism, as a Mexican, is the same as the experience of Asian or African people, or even other people from Center and South America. It’s clearly not the same. Also consider that some non-whites might not have an opinion concerning orcs, since struggling with real-life problems, including factual racism, consumes most of out time.

What did he do instead? He has impossed himself the duty to save us (to save those he sees like orcs, perhaps?), he wants to be our white Jesus Christ, are fair-skinned messiah. Thank you, o’, our own personal Tristan, someone to hear our prayers, someone who cares (not).

This is not to say he’s being overtly, or even consciously, racist. Racist attitudes, when they are the norm, are seldom recognized as such by the people who have them. He’s not the problem. He’s a symptom. But we are here to discuss evol orx.

Part Two. In which the author rants again

Was Tolkien racist?

Yes. Probably. There’s nothing to prove otherwise. Not that you can ascertain what doesn’t exist, just like you can’t prove god doesn’t exist (hint: god doesn’t exist; if you think god exist, you need to show evidence, and so far no one has showed none); probability is the answer: almost everyone wiz racist in England, so he must have been racist as well. And there’s enough evidence to ascertain the claim that he indeed was racist. But that’s not important; what’s important is his body of work (no, I’m not referring to the misunderstood concept of the “death of the author”; that’s an entirely different topic)**.

I mean, almost everyone in his country, and in his times, wiz a racist. Colonialism wiz in their blood, and blood wiz in their money and way of life. And he likely made orcs as a counterpart of humans he deemed inferior (or more likely, inherently evil). So let’s say that Tolkien was racist, therefore bad.

Yes, but… But his books don’t promote racism. They promote Christian values (fight the devil and his minions). In The Lord of the Rings, there are clear good and evil, a vision that doesn’t conform to reality. His description of orcs include that they look like Mongols and that they are swarthy. Pretty offensive to be sure. But that’s not the end of it. He also said orcs are sallow-skinned and had squat, broad, flat noses. He was not trying to portrait orcs as an allegory for Asians, he wanted to make sure they looked evil and exotic, that is, to embrace the features of otherness. For a colonialist, otherness and exoticism came to enbody evil, and for them and the generations before him, exoticism was linked to Orientalism.***

For Tolkien, it was clear what was black and what was white from his Christian moral point of view (evil and good), and, perhaps not by intentionality, he ended up granting whisteskins (humans, elves and dwarfs) the features of good, and swarthy orcs the features of evil. So, racial black and moral black coincide, just as racial and moral whites do.

But in Tolkien’s stories there are also evil white men and “exotic” people that are good. This means non-white, non-western/germanic peoples are not inherently evil, and white/germanics are not inherently good. This doesn’t refute Tolkien’s racism, just makes the subject more complex, not easily solved with a black = evil and white = good dichotomy from a manichean wordlview. Still, evil whiteskins were evil because they served swarthy gods; and good people of color were good because they opossed the swarthy gods (relevant bit, minute 21:20, about Hadir).

So, yeah, Tolkien was racist. That’s still not the point.

Are D&D orcs racist?

When Gary took orcs for his game, there is nothing to imply he did so as an allegory of black people. To think otherwise is simply preposterous. In Chainmail and 1974’s D&D, orcs are given tribe names, based on the two-word names Tolkien uses (Red Eye, White Hand), and in AD&D, orcs were described in a way that assumes they are no inherently evil, containing shamans and witch doctors in their ranks.

Also, they are given their first portrait as pig-men. To be clear, Gygax’s orcs are not Tolkien’s orcs, just like Gygax’s gnolls are not Dunsany’s gnoles. D&D orcs are not Asian or African people, they are monsters. Sometimes evil and sometimes not inherently evil.

Using orcs, even inherently evil orcs in your games doesn’t imply you are a racists or are promoting colonialism. If Vikernes says Tolkien inspired him to kill Øystein, well, that’s entirely another thing (hint: Vikernes didn’t say such a thing). He probably was not well in the head to the extent that he thought killing another person was the correct decision to make; pehaps he’s human all too human and capable or killing other human being for whatever reason. How many people have you killed since you read Rings? How many countries have you invaded since you first played D&D?

A small digression: Vikernes goes by the name of a Tolkien orc, Grishnackh. Why would a white-supremacist identify himself with a monsters that is a caricature of Asian and African people? Well, I don’t know. This doesn’t refute the “orcs are racist” meme, it’s just another complication.

Are, then, D&D orcs racist? There’s no reason to think so, except that Chainmail/D&D orcs were made by white men in the late 60s, early 70s, and basically all white men then were racists (“not all white men”, I hear you say). But let’s imagine for a second that, yes, orcs are racist. Although in this sense, choosing this definition of racism, meets the classical definition of trolling: a deliberately inflammatory choice that prods at the edges of definitions.

What then? I wonder if Tristan was not a racist before he read Rings (or watched the movies). Did playing D&D make him racist? I doubt it. Racism pervades North America and about the whole of (white) Europe, it’s his culture, he eats, breathes and drinks racism every day of his life, whether he likes it or not, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not. Just like Lovecraft and Tolkien and Gary, Tristan is a man of his time. He’s a symptom. An agent. He disseminates racism even when he tries to attack racism.

Racism is a very real thing. But, Tristan, all Tristans of the world, stop blaming a fantasy monster, and above all don’t speak on behalf of others. Instead, start listening what we the subjects of racism, we “the other”, have to say about the topic. Stop threating with silencing us (“if you comment disagreeing about this, I will delete your comment, because I don’t care”) (sure, you meant other white people, but by omission you also included me, by not considering a person who knows racism from the inside would have an opinion of his own: by that omission, you imply racists and victims of racism are the same, the other, the object of your hate). Because it doesn’t matter if you think the world is black and white. It’s not. And above everything else: We don’t have any obligation to adjust to your own worldview.

Evil books

Anyway, Rings is not an evil book. Wanna know which books are evil? The Bible. Mein Kampf, of course. The Quoran. American Dirt. What does the first three books have in common? They are moral treatises. They teach you how to live. And they tell you to kill people based on their beliefs, color, sex or nationality. But American Dirt also kills Mexicans, albeit in a more symbolic manner. Jeanine Cummins’s book was published to portrait “real Mexico”, it’s not about oompa-loompas or evil orcs, it’s about Mexicans, real Mexicans, and it literally states that she, the author, gives us poor voiceless Mexicans a voice, she says that we don’t have a voice, that we can’t possibly have opinions of our own, that we are unable to tell our own history, whether of racism or otherwise. And Tristan is doing the same.

What should we do with these books? Nothing. When people stop being evil, these books will stop being purchased and therefore, published. Censorship it’s their weapon, not ours.

If Tolkien orcs were really made out of racist tropes (and I believe they were), that doesn’t mean using orcs in a game derived from a number of sources, including that one written by a white man who maybe was a racist, makes you a racist or helps spread racism as though it was a virus.

If you really think a book that says “kill orcs” will cause you to kill human beings, the problem is not the book, the problem is your brain and you need help.

Why delete a book from history, or a monster race from a fiction book? I think I know why. Because it’s easier, and less commiting, than changing what fundamentally is wrong with you people: your culture, based on colonialism and murder and bigotry. There’s no evidence that playing D&D or reading Rings, contributes to racist behavior. Racism is not an illness, it’s culture. You can’t cure racism, but you can change culture. That you really don’t want to change culture, well that’s another thing.

To paraphrase Jacob Geller:

When people prescribe games to a specific set of qualities, and attack everything that lays beyond those lines, we have to understand what they’re doing. Those qualities, they just so happen to perfectly align with the dominant cultural ideology. They’re not showing respect for the craft, the’re not trying to “uphold the meaning”, they’re enforcing a hierarchy, they’re attemting to define a cultural narrative, and above all else: they are not talking about games.

Not talking about games, Jacob? What are they talking about, then?

Worldview

They are talking about their worldview, they say their worldview is right and true, and those who don’t share the same worldview, are wrong. And being wrong, as History has taught us, “means” being evil. By trying to impose their worldview on others, they assume the “i am good” position, and grant us the “you are evil and must change” position. You know? Like the christian church? Like the inquisition? Like the puritans that hung women? Like the nazis? These are the same people who, when someone talks about politics in a gaming group, say, “take your politics out of my game”.

But trying to stop racism is not a bad thing, right?

Right.

Wanna make amends? Wanna make justice? Give back the gold, all the gold! And take back your gods. Give back our lands. Go out and make protests to return Mexico and other lands their territory your countries stole and that you personally take advantage of (“But we don’t stole it, you gave it”, says the racist). Campaign for real justice, not to change a monster in an imaginary world which only exists in a bunch of games only a bunch of people knows of or cares.

What we don’t need? We don’t need you, white person, to give us a voice or speak on behalf of our peoples; we need the opportunity to publish our own words, with our own voices on them. Because, even if you don’t like to hear it, we have opinions and voices and ideas. We can think. And we can complain if/when we are offended. Don’t speak in our stead.

Both would help solve the problem that troubles Tristan.

Notes

* “An idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme”.

** When Barthes writes of “the death of the author” he uses as an example a 15th century collection of Arthurian legends written by multiple authors over several centuries and then collected and heavily edited by Thomas Malory, which means that “the author” is not a person, so a biographical analysis is irrelevant.

Barthes does not speak of a flesh and blood person sitting at a desk in front of a blank piece of paper. The concept of “death of the author” does not apply in cases where that person does exist. The biography of this flesh and blood author is relevant, even indispensable in some cases (Garro, Kafka, Rimbaud, Pound), for the analysis of the work.

Barthes’ concept is more a clever play on words than anything else: the book of Arthurian legends is called ‘Le morte d’Arthur’, and Barthes’ essay: ‘La mort de l’auteur’. As if to justify his joke, he wrote an entire work, a work that although it has its value, only has its value when you analyze a work like Malory’s, in which “the author” is not a person but a single concept. It is also valid in works such as movies or video games, where usually it is not one person, but tens or hundreds of them who participate in its creation.

*** “A general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies.”