In Praise of Role-Playing Games

Freedom to be Unacceptable

/ by Kelly Kanayama

Every three weeks or so, my friends, my husband, and I become the children of gods.


Or at least we pretend to be, thanks to a tabletop roleplaying game in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons called Scion, where you play as the child of a god of your choice. Our mission is straightforward, if not simple: prevent the apocalypse by defeating the elder gods known as the Titans, and try not to get killed along the way.


Since Scion was developed in America by a company not known for diversity in its ranks, there's a rather pungent whiff of cultural fetishization about its treatment of non-Western pantheons; European gods pass on abilities such as “expression” and vigilance to their children, while Aztec gods and Haitian voodoo loa bequeath legacies of “darkness” magic and blood sacrifice. But as a woman of color, I've learned to choose between swallowing the bitter pill of fetishization in pop culture and being left with no pop culture at all to consume. The art isn't perfect, either, tending toward the trench coat-and-katana ensembles beloved of teenagers who spent too much time on the Internet in the early 2000s (to which I may or may not be able to attest from firsthand experience).


Nevertheless, embarking on a divine adventure has brought our small group closer to a degree that I don't think would have been possible, if we'd just stuck to socializing over drinks and movies. Together we are:


Halja Howesdottir: crematorium manager and daughter of Hel, Norse god of the underworld;

Tully Byrne: superhumanly strong arts journalist and daughter of Brigid, Irish god of poetry;

Wil Easter: locksmith, hacker, banjo enthusiast, and son of Heimdall, the sentry on the bridge to Asgard; and

“Doctor” Desire Sanchez: fraudulent cult lifestyle guru and daughter of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Smoking Mirror.


We've lost fingers, grappled with revenant corpses, shot wolfmen, and knifed gods in the back. We have divine abilities that amplify our human power fantasies. But the real enduring joy of this game is that it gives us the freedom to be unacceptable.


For instance, my male friend D, who plays Tully, can inhabit the feminine and live guilelessly in the service of art without worrying about financial security or gendered harassment. My lovely friend A – proper, impeccable, generous – is Halja, whose business mostly concerns the dead, and who lives with a hideously half-burned face. Halja provides a sanctioned period of time where she can be unapologetically ugly and unsociable, two attributes women are taught to fear at all costs. We must be pretty and outgoing, in order to please others; we can only retreat when to do otherwise would destroy us, and must justify such retreats in suitable terms of self-care, mental health breaks, and the like. While these terms are by no means inaccurate, compare their deployment to the “man cave” stereotype, wherein men are not just allowed, but expected to withdraw from their social spheres without explanation. In real life, women don't have this luxury. But Halja does.


For my husband, the character of Wil is a chance to move through life without ever worrying about the norms of social interaction. He talks at tedious length regarding the dead bugs under his fridge, taps our telecommunications networks instead of just speaking with us to find out what's going on in our lives, and bypasses small-talk warm-ups to jump right into discomfiting personal topics. It's not awkwardness; awkwardness requires shame, fear of other people's perceptions, and Wil is burdened by neither.


More than once, Wil and I have been deadlocked in battles of mutual manipulation which, as marriage advice articles everywhere will tell you, is high on the list of Top Ten Things Spouses Should Never Do. Thankfully, such disputes are much easier to resolve in Scion. We roll some dice, add up the numbers, and calculate our wins or losses objectively. Who needs compromise, when you have statistics?


Then there's Desire, my narrative avatar. I named her as something of a joke, but the joke has become real, as jokes tend to do. As someone who has often found myself in situations where colleagues/peers/etc. seem eminently more qualified than I, I'm all too familiar with the pangs of impostor syndrome. Desire allows me to turn this on its head, by playing a character who positively revels in her impostorhood. She calls herself a doctor, unperturbed by her lack of medical qualifications, while her smooth voice and vague truisms mask an aggressive, vengeful, self-serving heart that shed its last traces of love a long time ago. In my daily life, I am attached and sometimes too easily hurt; it helps to have a place where I can pretend to be invulnerable.


And presiding over all this is our game master (sorry, “storyteller,” as the Scion rulebook calls it), my friend R, who gets to exert control in a world that is often unjust and frightening. Together we create full, potent existences for our hidden selves, if only for a few hours every third Sunday, and reveal more of our secrets than I would ever have thought possible. On paper, we're just trying to stay alive and restore balance to the cosmos. Amongst ourselves, that fearlessness, that truth-telling in disguise, is the object of the game.

Kelly Kanayama

originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland, where she is conducting PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, Women Write About Comics and Mindless Ones. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk.