Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Witch As Superhero

The Witch As Superhero

One thing I picked up, as a result of ’s ‘Teach Your Kids to Game’ week, and the associated discounts is the Witch Girls Adventures roleplaying game (Channel M Games, 2009). I’d been curious about the book for a long time, and now that I own it, I figured I’d talk about it a bit here.

First off, I am in total love with this game. Character generation is my favorite part of gaming, possibly because these days, cut off from a regular game group, I can still bust out a rulebook and experiment with different builds for various systems. Witch Girls has amazingly quick and fun char-gen, which is a huge plus.

Let’s run through char-gen.

Chargen is freeform, but guided a little bit by a simple template. Basically you pick a Clique (your social group, which determines your outlook towards magic and the size of your Magic Die, and decides what spread of dice you get for your attributes), you then assign dice to your other attributes as desired.

Then, pick 2 talents (equivalent to D20 feats in utility and power), 1 heritage (like a mini-template, in D20 terms, that offers a powerful advantage and corresponding disadvantage). Finally, you pick choose your skills (which really help define your character’s personality and interests), your known types of magic, a few specific spells and some very fun magical equipment. I made my first Witch Girls character in about 15 minutes; in my experience only Big Eyes, Small Mouth (2nd edition) has faster or easier char-gen.

Oh, since most gamers want to know the basic resolution method used in a system, Witch Girls Adventures uses attribute plus skill versus either a target number or an opponent’s roll. Say you’re trying to hack a computer, and you assigned a D8 to Mind, and have 3 ranks in Computers. You’d roll D8 + 3 and hope you beat the difficulty. Quick, workable and easily understood. I also like the fact that combat (both magical and mundane) slightly favors the defenders, which should keep character death to a minimum. A character’s basic, passive defenses are equal to a defensive attribute +3, which makes it a bit harder, statistically speaking, for an attacker to kill a heroine.

As Witch Girls is targeted at young gamers, keeping the PCs alive for a few sessions is a plus in my book; leave cheap deaths and highly lethal settings for older and more experienced gamers. Of course, as characters (and their opponents) get more powerful, and gain more ranks in Fight and Casting (the basic offensive skills), these training wheels come off a bit. It becomes more common to find more and more stuff with significantly more than just 3 ranks in Fight or Casting.

Enough about system.

Why do I love this game so much? First off, I like elegant rules, and these are. The traits and heritages, which are the real meat of char-gen cover most of the possibilities commonly found in the genre (magical/ modern fantasy tween literature) and leave lots of room for future supplements without excessive power-creep, making them well designed from both a gaming and a commercial standpoint. I also am digging the artwork: adorable describes the gamebook nicely.

Anyway, as I’m reading the rulebook, I start seeing thematic commonalties between Witch Girls and other tween/teen-focused magical fiction, and even mass media stuff aimed at a slightly older audience like Charmed. Call it the concept of “witch as superhero”…. to me, as a pagan and an author, it’s a fascinating concept.

What is the Witch as Superhero anyway? What kind of character fits that mold?

  1. Female, of course.
  2. Magical, intelligent, wise, attractive.
  3. Able to cast spells, and usually only supposed to cast beneficial or pleasant spells- healing magic, love spells, ect. Witch Girl adventures breaks this aspect of the trope- its characters can throw full on D&D combat magic. In other media, some Witch Girls might be pure ‘white mage’ types, completely unable to cast any kind of harmful (read: tactically useful) magic. This part of the trope varies a bit by writer.

So far, I’m describing Clea, right? Zatana, maybe? Nothing specifically pagan, right. Here’s where it gets a bit different.

  1. Witch superheroes are hereditary. Most of them are fundamentally different from ordinary people- the descendents of Lilith in WGA, homo magi in the case of Zatanah, the descendants of ancestral asskickers in the case of Charmed, ect. There’s an almost classist theme here, one which is explored explicitly in WGA. The trope says “WE are not YOU. We’re BETTER.”

  1. Correspondingly, these characters seem to be outside of the law, outside the social structure, above it or around it. These witches follow their own rules, screw mundane social mores. WGA is HEAVY into this.

  1. Fast. Witches are fucking FAST, both physically and emotionally. Decisive, quick, able to rapidly come to a conclusion, to act as they see fit. WGA has witches on broomsticks- that folkloric assumption carries over in comic books and TV as superspeed, and with superspeed comes DECISIVENESS. The sense of speed in Rob Zombie’s ‘American Witch’ is palpable- the speed of her passage sets the ground on fire beneath her. Though The American Witch is by no means a superhero, meets this criteria, as well as criteria 5 above and 7 below. Part of the Witchy decisiveness might be a result of freedom from outside moral constraints: these Witch Heroes do what they need to, with only their own conscience as guide.

  1. Vengeful. Witch Heroes are occasionally angry, and most times rightfully so. Lots of fictional witches have some unfinished scores to settle from the Burning Times. Usually in fiction, this a specific grudge against some semi-immortal witchhunter or a demon that manipulated medieval Christians to hunt innocent witches, not the Christian power structure as a whole, but the righteous anger is there. Zombie’s American Witch is a great example of this somewhat optional requirement for the trope, as is the film version of Silent Hill.

  1. The vengeful and ‘outside the law’ traits go hand in hand if you think about it for a minute. A few years back, I saw some crappy Hallmark Channel made for TV movie about a magical, “Bewitched” style Witch Hero who moves into a small town and gets screwed with by the bigoted local rednecks. Over time, and with good deeds and love, she won everybody over and improved everbody’s life. That’s sorta a fucked up morality tale if you stop to think about it. This fictional witch has to be the good one, has to prove her worth time and again, just to eventually enjoy the acceptance her Christian neighbors take for granted?

She has to kiss ass for 90 minutes just to be treated like a decent human being? Fuck that. My thought, if society’s majority-written laws do not respect the rights of the minority, they become morally worthless. Obeying these laws becomes not a moral duty- you don’t refrain from killing or stealing from your oppressors because it’s the right things to do in such a situation, you do it merely because you fear the reprisal of the powerful. Anyway, Witch Heroes are often powerful enough to be outside the law (#5), decisive enough to break any law they feel is unjust (#6), and have a legitimate root for their anger (#7). These traits are optional, but when they’re placed together, there’s something really powerful there, story-wise.

  1. Finally, Witch Heroes rarely follow any recognizable magical tradition. Sometimes their powers are a jumble of different styles- a little Goetic summoning, some half-assed kitchen witchery, a little Voodun, a whole lot of Dr. Strange. Other times, the author just makes something up: Charmed makes up its cosmology as it goes, taking the majority of its inspiration from lame-ass angel calendars as far as I can tell. Even if the character calls herself a Wiccan, like Willow, the fictional definition of Wiccan is closer to the definition of Jedi than what I believe. Belief tends to be blandly, inoffensively spiritual- faith devoid of context, but in a way even that’s daring, because it shows a world without Jesus, even if that world is created by omission more than intent.

Back to Witch Girl Adventures.

Here we’ve got ‘witches’ as heroines, as the reason the game-world exists, but they are divorced (mostly) from real world concepts of ‘witch’. These girls aren’t Wiccans or Pagans, not really, even though they are nothing recognizable as Christian, either; they aren’t ‘witches’ the way I am a Witch. They also are not baby sacrificing black magicians either, which negates the other definition of witch, one I struggle against often. They’re inoffensive witches, PG-rated witches. These girls didn’t hang at Salem, but they’re not reading Gardner or Crowley (or even, Goddess help us, Silver Ravenwolf ™ ) either.

More Effective Than a Gun

So what are the Witch Girls, then?

They’re witch archetypes, in the same way Superman is a messianic archetype.

Inoffensive, cute, loveable, the Witch Girls are weapons. So are the sisters on Charmed, so is Willow on Buffy, so are a dozen different pop culture heroines I could name. These Witch Girls, in all their many forms mutate real world Wicca and Paganism into something unrecognizable- a slightly feminist action movie world with no bearing on real practices or beliefs. In most cases, realism isn’t desired, nor is it necessary. In fact, realistic portrayals of my faith would turn off Christian publishers, advertisers, ect… who are anxious to avoid controversy and boycotts. So we get in under the radar, but more on that later…..

Problems (?) With the Portrayal of Witch Heroes

There’s problems with the Hollywood Wiccan Superhero stereotype, of course. First off, in fiction, you will NEVER find a male Wiccan, and other forms of Pagan are rare. (The most visible male neo-pagans, unfortunately, are Neo-Nazi Ásatrú- which is unfortunate. The Norse myths are pretty bad-ass and inspiring, and its tragic, unforgivable, that a bunch of bigoted, tattooed skinhead fucks have stolen that from all of us.) Anyway, back on topic- female Wiccans. The mass media making Wiccans exclusively female is annoying to me, as a male Wiccan, but not unforgivably so. It provides a nice feminist slant on faith, and justice, which I can’t argue with, and provides a nice contrast between feminist Wicca and patriarchal monotheism. I actually don’t mind defining my faith by that contrast, because it’s a struggle that needs to be undertaken.

This emphasis on feminist paganism also shortchanges gay pagans a bit, but that particular can o’ worms goes back to Gerald Gardner himself, so I can’t blame Hollywood for it too much. Most Witch Hero/Witch Girl media is pretty heteronormative, but I expect that the whole concept of hetro-noramlity will start fading a bit as the culture changes, the old bigots die off, and a new, freer, less reflexively homophobic generation comes of age.

The other problem with Witch Hero media is that as mentioned above, it tends to be classist- there’s usually some kind of race of hereditary witches, usually passing the power down the matriarchal line. In most fiction, Witch Girls are portrayed as inherently superior due to their powers, which makes story sense: if these girls can cast spells, and nobody else can, they ARE superior. End of story. Of course, teaching prejudice of any kind, even in the harmless context of an empowerment fantasy is a bit of a bad idea. It’s my understanding that WGA has taken some flak for making this classist power fantasy such a big part of the setting fiction. Of course, most of those doing the criticism are RPG nerds on message boards, 90% of whom are some form of Christian themselves, and don’t have anything similar to say about far more obvious and far more pervasive Christian-based power fantasies, ranging from Narnia to Left Behind. So take the criticism with a family-sized grain of salt.

I also wonder if spreading the meme that witches are special, superior, is necessarily a bad thing. The hereditary lineage of witch powers in fiction is actually pretty close to the historical concept of ‘hereditary witchcraft’ that’s been a working, if oft criticized theory of Wicca heritage since the beginning. But more to the point, I’ve noticed that every oppressed group in history needs some arrogance, some elitism, some swagger, even if its only false bravado in the face the bad guys. Sooner or later, that swagger settles down into true and quiet factional pride, and the oppressed get to work on true equality, now with the unity and sense of pride that swagger gives them. Before you had real gay rights, you had camp. Before Barack Obama got elected, before black pride, you had black power- raised fists and afros. Superficial, angry, maybe a little shrill, but both camp and black power were full of the bravado that told a people that had been stepped that they were worth fighting for. My opinion, modern pagans could use a little bit more of that swagger, and if elitist fiction gives it to ‘em, great.

Why do I like the ‘Witch as Superhero’ concept so much?

Witch Girl media are building the modern stereotype of what a Pagan is; these Witch Heroes reappropirate the noun ‘witch’, branding the term, the concept of a witch not as a demon-worshipper or mewling, ineffectual victim of Dark Ages Christian persecution but as a spell-casting superhero. Not too shabby. Of course, nobody really expects Witches like me to cast spells like witches like them, but look at what else comes with the sterotype. Witch Girls are smart, noble, able to see and do things mundane humans (read: Christians) can’t even imagine.

You get a kid at 12-13 reading Twitches, playing Witch Girls, watching Charmed re-runs, even if he abandons them when the kid puts away the things of childhood, he has been shown something. The lesson might go unremembered, consciously, but the lesson has still been taught. The lesson is this: witches are the good guys.

Even if that kid later goes to the most fundamentalist Evangelical church on the planet and gets the line from Leviticus “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” tattooed on his ass, the counter-thought is rattling around in his brain. The meme ‘witches are the good guys’ is a part of that kid’s soul now, and maybe, just maybe, that meme will break through the relentless Christian conditioning the kid is exposed to every other minute of his life.

Maybe this theoretical kid someday meets a real Wiccan or Pagan, and when he picks his jaw up off the floor that there are real ‘witches’ out there, starts asking questions. Now, the first question this Witch meme-infected soul is going to ask is going to be dumb as fuck, probably even unwittingly offensive. So, Pagan readers, if you get asked a question born of genuine, if ignorant curiosity, answer it honestly. It’ll be the second lesson about witches this theoretical pre-teen Charmed watcher has learned: witches teach.

We enlighten. Our simple existence, outside of Christianity, uncaring about the Christian themes of salvation and judgment, not having Jesus, and not wanting him either, offers a different way to live.

WGA plays with this trope explicitly. At one point in the setting fiction, WGA states the great moral purpose of Witches, the reason they exist is to bring Wonder (they even capitalized it) into the world. There’s a similar motif in Changeling: The Dreaming (White Wolf), in that fey characters are simply more FUN then mundanes, and it’s the duty of every fey to bring joy and enlightening, childlike wonder to mundanes. WGA has some obvious White Wolf influence, especially in the contrast between the drab mundane world and the colorful, joyous world of witches and magic. In both these campaign settings, remember that the mundane world IS the Christian world, our Christian world- the world built by 2,000+ years of monotheistic domination.

I’ve spoken before about the difference in attitudes towards art and craftsmanship as perceived by Christian and pagan artists. I feel it is our duty as pagans, and I certainly consider it my duty as a pagan artist to create simply BETTER art than my Christian competitors. It proves my superiority as a person, a creator, and my faith’s superiority. Let Christians build a Starbucks on every corner, write one repetitive ass sitcom after another, I’ll do something a bit more kick-ass, thanks. So I can definitely get behind the concept of ‘Witch Hero as bringer of wonder and enlightenment.’

So maybe a kid’s adventure game, one that has characters called Witches who worship no god nor goddess, carry no atheme and have no politics beyond the politics of the cute, can show the next generation of real world Pagans something transdescent. I’m a big believer that secular entertainment can inspire, as much if not more than traditional religious works. So if a secular work like Witch Girls can inspire a few kids in the direction of my faith (or even better, in the direction of my politics), awesome. This game, possibly by accident, is showing ostensibly ‘Witch’ heroes in the same light I want to show modern neo-pagans. WGA is like the Disney Channel version of Otherverse America.

Somewhere along the way I read something about how media depiction of black people progressed. You started off with them exclusively as villains, subhuman- the blackface, spear-throwing tribals in King Kong. Then, black people in media became comic relief in minstrel shows and blackface comedy. Then they become the sidekicks, loyal and stupid but dependable- heroic, but in an extremely limited way, and existing only to make their white superior look good. Then, and only then do you get to complex, well rounded portrayals, and in a bit of irony, you got extraordinary black heroes (Black Panther, for example, the king of his own Utopian African nation) before you got realistic, interesting black villains.

So I’ve always kinda wondered where the media depiction of Wiccans and Pagans falls along that same continuum? Right now, we’re in the goofy sidekick phase, with a few genuine heroes here and there. Of course, you could also argue that since very few media portrays our culture than any more depth then the minstrel shows portrayed black folks of the 1920s maybe we’re still in the ‘comic relief’ phase. Who knows. Do you consider the Witch Heroes of Witch Girls Adventures to be close enough to pagan to count as genuine pagan characters, or to paraphrase Dr. Evil are they ‘the Diet Coke of paganism’? Again, who knows. It’s a good question though, and gives me a few ideas to write about myself.

Anyway, hope you were able to slog through my rather convoluted thoughts here.
Blessed Be,

Post Script

As a Wiccan author, a military vet, and a longtime GI Joe fan, I wonder one thing: have there been any Wiccan or Pagan members of the Joe team? I only ask because the Joes are the most crazy-diverse team in comics, which is appropriate considering they are a reflection of the real US military.

I sorta remember a jungle warfare expert joe- Recondo, maybe- leaving a ‘sacrifice’ of some captured Cobra weapons at a jungle totem pole. I can’t quite remember if it was a joke on his part, him just being quirky in that Larry Hama-written way, or just trying to fit in with the locals, or a genuine expression of belief. And there is the IDW version of Breaker, who is a member of Serpentor’s cult, though that seems to be more “Scientology + Snake Motifs” rather than anything neo-pagan. I’m willing to count those two if you are, but I’d love to know if there’s anything closer to my definition of Pagan on the team.

No comments: