Shifty Sorcerers and Playing with Empathy: a response from the creator of Tibet: The Role Playing Game


Recently, Brian St. Claire-King, the Creative Director of Vajra Enterprises and creator of Tibet: The Role Playing Game sent me a response to my essay on this blog about his game, and he was kind enough to let me share it with readers. Brian has honoured me with some very thorough and thoughtful comments on my post. I’m glad he responded – I made it very clear to him that what moved me to write the piece in the first place was the extent to which he achieved what struck me as a remarkable level of feasibility in his representations of Tibetan life. I was amazed to discover his work, and at least a few Tibetans who read my article have let me know that they were fascinated to see it too.

In his letter below, Brian answers some of the questions I pose in the article, and points out some areas worth elaborating on or exploring further. He expands persuasively on gaming’s power to engender empathy, and echoes eloquently some of my own thinking on the parallels between anthropological and gaming ‘pedagogies’ (I especially love the idea he mentions of gamers using RPG resources to get into the headspace of the very same Christian moral crusader ‘enemies’ who sought to oppose their activities). At one point, he asks how exactly I thought that he had got the category of Tibetan sorcerers ‘wrong’ – I explained to him that my point was not so much that his depiction was inaccurate, but rather that a highly revered ‘sorcerer’ such as Dudjom Rinpoche is very far from being thought of as a mercenary black magician by his devotees. That said, as I discuss briefly in my earlier essay on ngakpa, the kind of sorcerer St. Claire-King describes in his manual (what I’ve sometimes heard called ngak chung – ‘lesser or inferior tantric sorcerers’) totally has currency in Tibetan contexte. Again and again, I have heard Tibetans express concerns that individuals may pursue tantric practices with faulty understanding and suspect intentions. These people are often stereotyped as undertaking (or pretending to undertake) the work of ngakpa solely to develop ‘magic powers’, and for entirely selfish, monetary, or nefarious reasons. Accordingly, depending on the circumstances, these individuals can be either laughable or dangerous. As I pointed out to Brian, his own initial confusion about how exactly to categorize ngakpas points to their very real taxonomical slipperiness, complex subjectivities, and sometimes ambiguous status, which is precisely why I chose the great Ngakpa Dudjom Rinpoche as a case in point in the original piece.

Brian’s categorizations of Tibetan Buddhist lineages below and in the gaming materials, his talk of ‘red hats’ and ‘yellow hats’, betrays his indebtedness to now quite dated outsider characterizations of the Tibetan religious-political – or, to use a common if somewhat misleading and ethnocentric term – ‘sectarian’ – landscape. The legacy of these earlier formulations and its continued influence on popular representations of Tibetan Buddhism and culture, not to mention the second life or ‘home’ it has found in some Western esoteric contexts deserves further study. (This is especially clear when one considers how much such earlier outsider ideas about ‘reformed’ and ‘unreformed’ Tibetan sects, and foreigners’ interpretations of non-celibate Tibetan tantric orientations have come to inform Western esoteric ideas about the so-called Left and Right Hand Paths.)

Brian also reminded me how I had forgot to make it clear that despite the impression I may have conveyed, practicing occultists and dedicated RPG-ers frequently ARE the same people. I realized even as I was writing the piece that I probably hadn’t made a clear enough distinction between actual RPGers I have known – many of whom as Brian says, engage in more ‘serious’ play with various religious/esoteric traditions – and the RPGer stereotypes of my teenage memory. I had made a note to include a line in my essay about this, but it got left out in the end, in an already overly long piece.

Anyway, here’s the response. It’s well written and supplements the article very nicely. Perhaps in future anthropologists, indigenous historians and ritual specialists and game-designers will work together more directly on collaborative projects (see here and here for examples of what this sort of work might look like). I think it would be pretty excellent if Tibetans re-worked St. Claire King’s game and translated it into Tibetan. While I don’t know any Tibetan RPG-ers, re-purposing Tibet: The Role Playing Game for a primary Tibetan audience would no doubt be an interesting experiment.


“Dear Mr. Joffe

Thanks for sending me a link to your article. It was a very interesting read. One thing I knew nothing about was the “satanic-panic” in South Africa. The similar satanic-panic here in the US is something I’ve been interested in for a while (in fact I’ve even toyed with publishing a role playing game where one plays “good” 1980s Christians trying to protect their communities from brainwashed Satanic role players).

You write that, in your youth, you had made a distinction between role players and real seekers of and practitioners of esoteric knowledge. I can’t speak to the role players you might have encountered then, but many of the adult role players I know today are sincere adherents to various non-standard religions and spiritualities. They seem quite capable of “playing” in worlds based on various belief systems (some fairly accurate, some ridiculously inaccurate) while simultaneously being serious and knowledgeable about their chosen spiritual paths.

This is a fairly minor thing but: you mentioned that the class system in Tibet the RPG precludes characters from being several things at once. This is true for beginning (“first level”) characters, but advanced characters can multi-class, becoming several character classes simultaneously.

>It seems that much of St. Claire-King’s sources are secondary – Tibetan terms are mispronounced often enough in his videos to suggest that his material was not designed in conversation with native Tibetans, or with anyone more accustomed with Tibetan language.

Sadly, that is correct. Almost all of the research I did on Tibet was from books and journals, and an unfortunate majority were by Western writers rather than Tibetans themselves. Tibet might have been a better book (or at least a more accurate one) if I had talked to Tibetans.

> It’s unclear whether St. Claire-King ever imagined that actual Tibetans might play his game.

I didn’t think it was likely. I was contacted by one person who claimed to be an American roleplayer of Tibetan descent. (I never met him in person, nor asked for character references, so I can’t be sure that he really was). He was generally appreciative of the game. He said he didn’t know much about Tibetan religion or folk beliefs and so wasn’t in any position to judge whether those parts of the game were accurate, but he seemed to like the fact that I had made a game where one plays from a Tibetan point of view.

I have also been surprised at the number of role players I’ve meet who have known quite a lot about Tibet. My research focused mainly on folk beliefs, and I have meet role players whose knowledge of the finer points of Tibetan philosophy are completely over my head.

>There is something uncomfortable about the idea of a room of predominantly non-Tibetans imagining themselves as Tibetans for entertainment.

When you put it like that, it sounds pretty bad.

When I first wrote Tibet, I wasn’t as aware of the issue of cultural appropriation as I am now. It’s something I’ve worried about, off and on, since then. On the one hand, I am a non-Tibetan making a game of Tibetan culture and history, using their most deeply held religious beliefs and one of the worst moments in their history for entertainment. On the other hand, I like to think I’m portraying Tibetans as they would like to be portrayed, doing my own tiny part to fight back against the skewed view of Tibetan history in Chinese propaganda and the ridiculous level of exoticization found in the rest of popular culture. I tried to be as respectful as I could to the Tibetan people in my writing, but whether any amount of respectfulness can make cultural appropriation okay is not a question I have the answer to. And it’s a question I struggle with and worry about, because I would love to write more books like Tibet about other cultures and other belief systems.

I have always been fascinated with other people’s beliefs and the worlds those beliefs create. There’s the world I imagine we live in, based on the things I believe. There is also the world that people who believe in Tibetan folk-beliefs believe they live in, and the world that people who believe in Southern Hoodoo believe they live in, and even the world that Satanism-paranoid Christians believe they live in, and I find myself fascinated by these worlds. For me, role playing is a means of exploring worlds I could never explore in real life, and one of the stated goals of Vajra Enterprises is to give people interesting settings and means of exploring those settings.

As for your damning sounding vision of “a room of predominantly non-Tibetans imagining themselves as Tibetans for entertainment”, I would ask what are the motivation for the players to play a game about Tibet (rather than a game of a generic eurocentric fantasy world, or a scifi game about giant robots fighting each other)? I would like to think that their motivations would be a sincere desire to learn about other peoples through the medium of play. That’s definitely not the most accurate or sophisticated means for them to learn about Tibetan culture, but it may be the most accessible for them. Their motivation is entertainment, but I believe it’s also curiosity and perhaps a bit of the desire to see the world through other people’s eyes. Based on the role players I have known, I would imagine at least one of those men and women is a practicing Buddhist, at least one has done significant coursework in anthropology and at most of the others have a sincere and respectful interest in what other people believe that goes beyond just the game table. Yet these are also people who like to engage in the things that interest them through play and storytelling.

I’m a big believer in the power of speculative fiction (scifi, fantasy, alternate history, horror) to improve its readers/viewers/players. One way I believe it can improve us is to make us more empathetic for people whose experience of life is very different from our own. One study I like to reference is this one. Of course, not all fiction has this pro-social benefit: much of it just reinforces shallow and xenophobic worldviews among its audience.

Putting aside questions of cultural appropriation for the moment, insomuch as I can give players a more-or-less accurate view of what it was like to look at the world through the eyes of a 1950s Tibetan, I think I’ve done a good thing (for the players themselves, if not for Tibetans). Whether my game achieves that goal (especially the “accurate” part) is an open question, but at least I can say that I tried.

I hope this satisfies some of your curiosity about what I was going for when I wrote Tibet the RPG. Feel free to ask me any other questions you might have.

One thing I’m curious about: you mentioned that my write-up of “Sorcerers” was especially problematic. That’s one section that, as I was writing it, I worried that the euro-centrism of my sources might be hurting me. How does your understanding of what we translate as “sorcerers” differ from what I have written?

-When I was researching Tibet, a lot of the older (Western-written) material referenced “sorcerers” and then at one point I realized they were actually talking about ngakpas (what I call “White Robes” in the game) and I had to greatly adjust my understanding, and I had to re-examine my notes without being sure what category of people they were actually talking about. In the end, it seemed that there are lots of people who get accused of knowing and using Tibetan folk magic that can harm others. It’s kind of a spectrum: Yellow Hats are almost never accused of this, Sakyapa monks more, Nyingmapa more, then Bon priests and ngakpas the most. My best guess was that there were also believed to be people who were not religious practitioners of any kind who also did harmful folk magic for fun and profit. Some of what I wrote about these non-religious sorcerers was “extrapolation” based on the archetype of harmful-magic-dealer that seems to exist in pretty much every culture that believes in magic.

Thanks for the nice things you say about Tibet the RPG. That’s great to hear.

I’ll definitely read your Tantra and Transparency article. I wish your site had been around when I was writing Tibet!”

Brian St.Claire-King, Creative Director, Vajra Enterprises