Magic. It’s a core component of fantasy, but is often unevenly distributed and developed. On the outset, this seems sensical, until you dig into it a bit. At that point, other disparities and issues come into sharp relief. So this is a short post on decolonizing magic.
“Decolonizing? How can magic be colonial? I thought every culture has mystic traditions?” is the series of questions that some are no doubt asking immediately. And with good cause. After all, the bulk of cultures and civilizations I’m aware of have had some form of mystical or magical belief system at one point or another. However, that’s not the type of colonialism I’m talking about today. In this case, it’s the colonialism that acts to oppress through access to resources. And this will become clear as this post develops.
Magic in many RPG’s is inherently colonial, unevenly distributed, and more often than not advantages white or European coded groups in game over POC groups. How? Fantasy magic, such as fireballs, prismatic spheres, fly spells and so on are coded as culturally “white” forms of magic; and said coded groups often have the widest selection of magic arts and styles to draw on. Meanwhile, POC coded groups often have magic that is intensely limited through thematic means (only elemental magics for example), and/or have magic abilities and capabilities loosely based on those ascribed to their real world analogues (rainmakers, witch doctors etc…) that are typically desperately inferior or useless in the larger world setting.
How is this colonial? Well, when POC analogues often have their magic thematically or historically/culturally limited, and white’s coded groups don’t nearly as often; that’s colonialism in action. It’s denying equal access to a resource, and applying different criteria to groups based on their cultural coding for how they can use it. Europe’s historical/cultural magic mythology was not filled with fireball blasting; it was a lot of potions, singing, smithing, symbol carving, and mystic bureaucracy. However, through the medium of popular media, we now associate D&D style fantasy magic with white coded groups.
In game, this has massive effects. Not the least of which is a virtual guarantee that no matter what, the white coded populations in the game world will always be on top. Why? Magical superiority. Mix in that POC groups are more likely to be described as being suspicious of magic, and suddenly things like the Maztica and Horde campaigns’ endings make sense. Those peoples could never overcome the European coded forces they faced, because they never had, and never could have, magical parity. Likewise, POC are more likely to be described as having a fear of, or cultural practice of avoidance of, places of great magic.
So how does one decolonize magic? Foremost, let every group be “fantastic”; in that they aren’t tied to a form of magic based on what their real world analogue is reported to have practiced. If you’re imposing thematic limitations, do it to everyone, and recognize that even with said limits, the people still need to be able to survive in a world where magic exists. This doesn’t mean that every group has to have 100% parity; but it does mean that they have to have developed ways to overcome their magical limitations in meaningful ways. And don’t just slap POC with bizarre taboos around magic and have them be the only ones who take them seriously, while the white/European coded groups get to handwave their taboos away because they’re “enlightened” and can “see the ridiculousness of them”.
Decolonization in gaming is difficult, because so much of gaming is tied up in serious biases and assumptions based on 30+ years of its largest players being able to completely ignore commentary or issue from POC. But simple steps like this, just letting POC have access to magic and the same agency to develop it, is a shift in the right direction.