Thursday, October 13, 2016

Five or So Questions with James Mendez Hodes on Scion 2nd Edition

Today I have an interview with James Mendez Hodes on Scion 2nd Edition, which is currently on Kickstarter! I think James talks about some really cool aspects of Scion that some of you might find interesting. Check it out!

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Tell me a little about Scion 2nd Edition. What excites you about it?

Scion is a role-playing game about demigods: the children and the chosen of the gods in a modern setting, à la Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm writing dossiers on four pantheons in the core game: the Òrìṣà of Yorùbáland, the Devás of South Asia, the Loa of Dahomey by way of Haiti, and the Shén of China. I'm excited about Scion because back when I was studying religion at Swarthmore College, my first and most formative gaming group always played in exactly this genre: urban fantasy with a diverse scope, drawing from far-flung world mythologies.


What in particular did you focus on in the Scion game development?

My main role is to characterize four pantheons to which player-character Scions and their divine parents belong. First, I pare hundreds of deities down to about thirteen principals who publicly represent the pantheon in Scion. Then I profile each principal: their identity, outlook, relationships, and purviews (what they’re god of). I describe their dealings with other pantheons, the religions which venerate them, their mythological supporting cast and artifacts, and their Virtues. Scion 1e gave each pantheon four Virtues such as “honor” and “compassion” from a generic list, but for 2e I pushed instead to assign two unique values in tension or conflict with one another in the pantheon’s associated mythology. For the Òrìṣà and Loa, those values are Tradition versus Innovation: they’re part of a stressed but unbroken heritage that reaches back to ancestral West Africa, but to preserve that heritage they’ve had to confuse their own identities just as their worshippers have had to use deception and syncretism to keep them intact. For the Devás, those values are Duty versus Conscience: Indian epic heroes’ deep-seated understanding of the right thing to do frequently clashes with law’s explicit mandate, such as when Prince Arjuna hesitated to fight his family at Kurukṣētra. For the Shén, there’s Yīn and Yáng: they literally maintain the universe by guarding the balance and the cycle between positive and negative forces, but the place of an individual in that cycle is often confusing and paradoxical. I’ve also worked with Robert Vance to design “pantheon-specific purviews”: sets of superpowers peculiar to that pantheon and its Scions. This part is particularly fun because I get to comb through the pantheon’s myths to find supernatural themes which distinguish the pantheon from other theogonies.
  • The Òrìṣà and Loa have possession—“Gún” in Yorùbá, (“Cheval” in French and Kreyol Ayisyen). An òrìṣà or loa can possess a willing subject to share their body and senses, or lend their own physical form to a spirit who needs to act through them.
  • The Shén have Tiānmìng (“Mandate of Heaven”), a power derived from their pantheon’s expansive and confusing bureaucracy. Evoking the first few chapters (that is, the fun ones) of the Chinese epic Journey to the West, they can bestow supernaturally empowered titles and promotions (wanted or unwanted) on others, or curse an organization with bureaucratic inefficiencies.
  • The Devás have Yoga, a set of South Asian religious practices which bring the individual closer to the divine through selfless service, contemplation, or devotion. In Indian mythology, yoga’s most dedicated practitioners often manifest awesome supernatural powers or receive magical treasures from the gods to whom they’re devoted—but it’s not uncommon for those powers or treasures to corrupt their recipient, transforming them into supervillains like King Rāvaṇa of Lanka.


Where did you source information for the project - what efforts did you make to honor the subject matter?

This is one of the first projects I’ve ever undertaken where my entire academic background is relevant. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, I majored in religion, concentrating on West African and Afro-Atlantic traditions. I read primary and secondary sources, spoke with scholars and clergy, and attended religious services where I met several of the loa appearing in fictional form in this game. I also minored in English literature and in dance, concentrating on capoeira (relevant to the Afro-Atlantic content) and North Indian classical dance (relevant to my work on the devás). I also have a master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College in Santa Fé, New Mexico; that’s where I studied classical Chinese and the Asian epics and scriptures on which I based the shén and the devás. As I work, I’ll be updating an annotated bibliography of the most relevant sources on my website at http://lula.transneptune.net/rpg/scion2bibliography.


When playing Scion, what kind of experiences can players have in such a rich world?

Scion supports various modes of play, from street-level pop-culture myth à la Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo on up to conflict over the fate of existence à la Sandman; but one feeling I really hope we can instill in our players is the particular combination of familiarity and surprise which makes mythology both awe-inspiring and funny. Remember when Thor dressed up as Freyja and pretended to marry a jötunn so he could steal back his magic hammer? Or when Vimalakīrti faked an illness so he could lure the Buddha’s entire congregation to his house to preach to them? Those are the moments I really hope players will find in Scion: familiar myths and traditions leading them to unexpected places. 


Compared to your previous gaming experience in this genre, how do you think Scion 2nd Edition improves upon or carries on the voice of the ideas and concepts you see to be the most vital to the experience?

The most important quality Scion shares with those early games is the axiom that mythic play is about relationships. Back in college, whenever we introduced a figure of legend to the game, the best moment wasn't their first appearance—it was their second or third, when their foray into the story flooded all our characters with memories of what interactions they'd had the past few times they saw one another. For example, one historical legend I introduce to many games, Scion included, is the White Eyebrow: a Shàolín monk who studied Daoist black magic (supposedly that's a thing?) and betrayed his brethren, precipitating one of the Shàolín Monastery's many destructions. Wǔxiá canon resurrects this guy all over time and space, attaching him to the White Lotus Society, the Wǔdāng Clan, the Qíng regime—anyone even remotely villainous—such that he'd have to be a Daoist immortal to have been everywhere and everywhen they say he was. So whenever it turned out he was behind some scheme, every player and every character at our table was like, "White Eyebrow … I should have known this treachery had your stamp all over it. Don't think I've forgotten what the White Lotus did at the Battle of Demon Alley!" By emphasizing the relationships between Scions, their divine progenitors, and their pantheons, Scion sets you up to create these intermingled histories yourself. The first time you meet your father, the sun god Sūrya, maybe you're both nervous and tense because you've read the Mahābhāratam and you remember the fate that befell his most famous son, King Karṇa of Anga. But after that first adventure, you have your own legend of Sūrya that you created yourself. So when you run into him again two games afterward, or in a different RPG, or on the wall of a temple in India, you'll remember a story about Sūrya and your character—maybe even about Sūrya and you—that started two thousand years ago and ended at your Scion table.

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Thanks so much to James for the interview! What's been said here about Scion 2nd Edition makes me think some of my friends would really love it, so I hope my readers who like how it sounds take a chance to check it out on Kickstarter now!


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