Decolonizing Magic

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. 

2 comments

  • Sean Whittaker

    Wow, this post really has me thinking.

    First point, when I think of “barbarian” and suspicion of all thing magical (and in games this goes back as far as the barbarian character in Unearthed Arcana (or older if you count the original Dragon article) for 1st edition AD&D), I nearly always think of barbarians that are white northern European tropes, specifically the Aesir, Vanir, and Cimmerians from Howard’s Hyboria setting (or Leiber’s Fafhrd). This might be because I was raised on the Conan stories (the first books my father bought for me, after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were those old paperbacks with the Frazetta covers). However, I’m concerned that it might also just be me seeing the subject through my own filters as a person from a white European background. I think of the word “barbarian” and I think of the tribes that sacked Rome (see, and even by saying that, I’m thinking of the northern Germanic tribes, and not the Carthaginians or the eastern European peoples displaced by tribes from further east, so yeah, this is a problem that’s deeply rooted in my psyche and is filtering my perspective). I don’t associate barbarian with native American or African cultures. I associate words like exotic, or lost, or mysterious to those cultures. And again, that’s a problem. Because that is ENTIRELY a colonial perception.

    Your point about the colonialization of magic is right on the spot. I think that’s because magic is equated to technological advancement in the majority of these settings, and a lot of the writers of these settings have the mistaken belief that Europe colonized all these lands because of a supposed technological advancement. If the Maztica setting were to be anything close to a historical analog, it would start with 90% of the native population dying of a horrible plague, then having to face ruthless amoral invaders who either saw them as less than human, or a people who were there to be forcibly converted from their beliefs, then put to work in the lands of their new owners. I mean, real history is ugly enough. Do we have to fall back on our horrific mistakes in a fantasy setting, and at the same time let our own prejudices shape those settings?

    So yeah, decolonize that entirely. If you have a culture that for whatever reason can’t have a spell book (a limitation that stems directly from the Vancian system of magic ((and I think Vance would be horrified to see this being applied as a cultural or even ethnic limit in fantasy)) and analog to the Hermetic system of magic that came from a culture that glorified and misunderstood its past, had a caste who’s role was to suppress the masses by using a mystical language and symbolism unavailable to all but a chosen minority, but was that cultures direct link to their afterlife, and was meant to instill a fear of the other) then they can cast the same spells with another system. Run wild with the imagination. Vancian is just about having a limited amount of energy to cast a spell, and once cast, you can’t cast it again until you rest. So, plant based system, and you cast a fireball using pepper seeds and bat guano. Or maybe just pepper seeds because, you know, bat guano. Or the spells you cast depend upon a casting of runes. Or maybe, just maybe, you forget all about that crap and everybody has access to the printed page because MAGIC. Mending is a level 1 spell, or maybe a cantrip. Live in a place with high humidity and lots of rain (I’m looking at you, Wales)? Well, a 1st level nobody can protect their spell book with one spell cast maybe once a week. It’d be like dusting your book shelf.

    So thanks. This post really had me question a lot about what I take for granted.

    I’m also curious on your thoughts about the Pathfinder setting, and if you feel they have made any steps to improve upon this problem?

    Also, what kind of extra credit for a parenthetical statement inside a parenthetical statement?

  • Pingback: Decolonization and Integration in D&D | POCGamer

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