Hinduism on Television, being different, and being expected to be the same

There are not many kinds of Indians on television. There are, now, maybe four: the Assimilated Guy (see: Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, played by the inimitable Aziz Ansari, the delightful Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, and Sendhil Ramamurthy as Jai Wilcox in Covert Affairs), the Harmless Muslim (see Aasif Mandvi as Samir and others as family in Today’s Special), and the two Hindus, Tortured and Hidebound (see, respectively, the lovely Reshma Shetty and the unremarkable Rupak Ginn as Divya Katdare and Rajan Bandhyopadhyay in Royal Pains, and for more Hidebound characters, any Hindu parent). The Harmless Muslim is a relatively recent add-on in the wake of our slow recovery from anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years, and I applaud it, but it doesn’t change the central issue of our stereotyping by the media.

This arises from a thing in American culture, which I can best describe as a failure to holistically understand a person or imagine how their background might differ from yours. Every way that I am different from you is viewed as an individual deviation from the default—if I’m assimilated enough—or as a part of a system of deviations that makes a stereotype. Either I’m just a dude who is just like you, except I can cook Indian food, or I’m a taxi-driving doctor who yells at his parents in rapid Hindi while cringing from an arranged marriage. Neither of these things is the case! The facts are more complex.

The majority is a lot more fortunate. There are lots of white people on TV, of many creeds and kinds and professions. If you look at religion alone, you see so many kinds of Christians on television: faithful but not particularly devout, nuns, priests, the lapsed, the doubting, the ones that believe in their hearts but reject the community of church, and others; it’s a great and laudable diversity. You see atheists and Jews and the occasional outlier with a less well-known creed.

But we are not so fortunate. Hinduism is a joke.

I think it’s pretty scary that you Christians pray to a statue of a bleeding corpse. That’s pretty much what people say to me about Hinduism, more often than not. “It’s pretty crazy that you pray to a statue of a guy with six arms. You have so many gods! How do you keep them straight! Who’s that guy with an elephant’s head?”

These are the kinds of questions you get when your religion is Other. I could say the same thing about Christianity, but I don’t; you’d look at me as if I suddenly grew an extra pair of arms. “You have so many saints! How do you keep them straight? Who’s that dude with wings and his head is on fire?” Those questions seem crazy because, here, it’s expected that you have a grounding in Judeo-Christian lore as part of your basic cultural education. You wouldn’t believe how often people act surprised that I don’t know Bible stories—because for some reason it’s sensible to expect me to read the holy books of the invaders that killed and conquered my people, replaced their governments, infrastructures, and cultural values with their own?

It doesn’t have to be like this. Why doesn’t Tom Haverford have a stylish, post-modern Ganesh statue in his house? My parents do, and they’re pushing 60. Why is his religion, his very Indianness, completely erased? Why is Divya’s faith and her cultural practice the central conflict of her character? We can do better.

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Mist-Robed Gate: PDF

Hi friends,

As I stated in my last post, we are making MRG available on Creative Commons. We’ve been awfully busy dealing with Fighting For Gwen stuff (thank you!) and the issues that made FFG necessary, so I have not yet been able to strip the text out into a linearized text document. However, you can now download the PDF right here, at no cost.

It is necessary for me clarify, however, that only the text is released under CC. Some of the images are licensed by Two Scooters Press, and we do not have re-licensing privileges. So, if you want to remix MRG, that’s great, but don’t use any of the images.

Download the game here.

Creative Commons License
Mist-Robed Gate by Shreyas Sampat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Mist-Robed Gate On Creative Commons!

As some of you know, my wife Elizabeth Sampat and I have been struggling with our daughter Gwen’s schooling. Gwen is witty, clever, observant, and kind. She’s a wonderful daughter and a great big sister. Gwen is autistic.

Her school district has been unwilling and unable to afford her the special education services that she needs to be successful in school and later in life. The costs that we would need to front for this effort—legal fees, third-party services, tuition for private school placement, and so on—could bankrupt us.

Yesterday, the Fighting For Gwen fundraiser opened. Every Monday (or every other Monday, depending on the amount of authors we have), you’ll get a story in your inbox from a hand-picked, and in many cases award-winning author. We’ve got the support of some of our favorite authors in the RPG world— Cam Banks, Kenneth Hite and Matt Forbeck just to name a few— as well as some more mainstream novelists and unknown authors you’ll love. Within 24 hours, we have already been overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, peers, and strangers, who offered their support to help us ensure that our daughter can get the education she needs and live up to her potential.

As an added token of our gratitude, I will be releasing Mist-Robed Gate, my wuxia drama roleplaying game, under Creative Commons (attribution). You will be free to download it, alter it, and share it at will. I’ll post the plain-text version of the game on Monday.

Agile Cooking

One of the most important skills for a home cook is the art of transformation – what do you do when you have leftovers and you’re bored of them, or when something doesn’t turn out the way you expected? You transform it. I think of this as agile cooking—welcoming changes in your project requirements while you’re literally at the stove.

Today I was planning to make a potato and green bean quiche, because we had an extra pie crust, lots of potatoes left over from holiday latkes, and some blanched haricots verts from a recent dinner party.

So I par-baked the pie crust, like you do, and it shrunk to the point that it had no chance of holding a pile of potatoes and an egg batter. Time to change tacks! The mandoline has been on my mind, since we make a lot of gratin-style dishes in the winter, and it occurred to me that I could make something of a terrine with a potato crust. I sliced a potato paper-thin and microwaved it with a little milk and salt, which softened the potato slices and released some of the starch into the milk, creating a kind of glue that helped me arrange the potatoes into a shell inside of a loaf pan. Into the pan went some haricots verts, more potato, cheese, and some other leftover vegetables I had around. I made a little béchamel sauce and caramelized some onions. These were split between the loaf and the tart shell. Then more cheese went on the tart. I covered up the loaf with more potato slices, and everything went into the oven.

I am pretty sure that the results will be much more delicious than a quiche.

Motivating Your NPCs

So okay guys, here is a crazy thing that I’m just doing a thought-experiment with. Now, I have a background as a linguist, and I spent some time studying a theoretical approach we call Optimality Theory, which I will attempt to use to create a way for you to easily decide what your NPCs do, with a naturalistic texture.

Step One: Scope

For any given NPC brain, you need to set a scope. Let’s say I want to make a brain for a villain in my ongoing D&D campaign, Journeys to Tanelorn. He’s a campaign-level plot, so let’s set the scope of this brain to ‘medium term tasks.’ These are approximately things you can set out to do and accomplish in a week without monomaniacal focus, like “get a new pair of eyeglasses” or “buy a cow.” Maybe we’ll use slightly longer-term tasks now and then. The scope will inform our choices for constraints later on.

If you want to handle an NPC at multiple scopes, use your largest scope brain to choose your main tasks, and break that down into sub-tasks and evaluate those, and so on. I am not sure to what extent you might benefit from this.

Step Two: Constraints

Now we are going to set up a number of constraints that color your NPC’s thinking. I don’t think we’ll benefit from using more than three to five per scope. Here’s where you start creating your NPC’s personality. In OT, we define constraints as “things that we try to avoid. That try to is important! You may arrive at a situation where you need to violate one or more of your constraints. That’s okay, even desirable. (In OT linguistics, the prototypical constraints, from which all the others are derived, are in direct conflict: “Say as little as possible,” and “Say what you mean.” The specific way that different languages resolve this conflict is what makes them unique.) It creates that naturalistic texture we’re looking for.

For our villain, let’s imagine that he is a merchant baron living in Tanelorn. We will call him Leoric. Maybe what we know about him is, he’s petty, lazy, and greedy. Now let’s translate those into constraints. For petty, we can say, Don’t let an offense go unpunished. In the table below, we’ll call it PUNISH and it’s violated when Leoric is annoyed and does not punish anyone. Let’s elaborate this a bit and add another constraint, *DICK (that’s pronounced star dick,) the “don’t be a dick” constraint. *DICK says, Punish the person who offended you. We only care about it when PUNISH is also relevant. What’s interesting about *DICK is that, because it’s a constraint, we can violate it sometimes, which means that sometimes Leoric will be a dick to someone to blow off steam from some third party pissing him off.

For lazy, let’s use MINION: Don’t do things yourself. For greedy, we’ll use *50gp: Don’t spend 50gp. Leoric’s greed doesn’t affect his decisions unless expenses hit a certain price threshold; then he gets sticker shock. *50GP can be violated more than once—if a task costs 100gp, that’s violating twice. Again, we can violate these things if necessary.

Lastly, we have to figure out how much these things influence Leoric’s behavior. Maybe we’ve already established that he rides around in an expensive carriage; he blows a lot of money to look cool and avoid walking on his own two feet. That tells us that MINION » *50GP ( » is pronounced “dominates”), which is to say that if Leoric is forced to choose between doing a thing himself and spending 50gp to get it done, he’ll spend 50gp. We could devise test cases for the other stuff, but instead, let’s just define them in a way that seems fun. We’ll rank PUNISH below MINION (Leoric will avoid personally punishing folks even if it results in them going unpunished) and *DICK below *50GP (Leoric will avoid being a dick if it doesn’t cost him anything.)

Step Three: Evaluate A Task

So now that we have Leoric’s thought processes in hand, we are able to evaluate his actions. We do this by naming a desired end goal, like for instance “That potato farmer pissed me off; acquire his farm.” Next, we think of some strategies that he could use to make this happen. (In by-the-book OT, we would assume that all possible courses of action are being evaluated, but that is bound to make your decision-making less enjoyable, so let’s not.)

  1. Go to the farm and buy it.
  2. Send a dude to go to the farm and buy it.
  3. Drive the farmer off his farm and take it.
  4. Send dudes to kill the farmer and take his stuff.
  5. Abuse the dudes you are sending to kill him and take his stuff.

Okay that’s enough. Let’s say, btw, that this farm costs 100GP. Now we can evaluate these courses of action against the constraints. We use an OT tool called a tableau to illustrate this.

MINION PUNISH *50GP *DICK
1. *! * **
2. *! **
3. *!
4. WINNER
5. *!

How to read this: If there’s a star in a cell, it’s a constraint violation. If a candidate has a violation and any other surviving candidate doesn’t have one for the same constraint, its a fatal violation—the candidate is strictly worse than some other. Fatal violations are marked with an exclamation point. (Due to the limitations of my WordPress style I can’t use the helpful shading that OT tableaux usually use to mark cells that we can ignore.) In this case, the winner has no constraint violations at all! This isn’t always the case. If it hadn’t occurred to Leoric to drive the farmer off his farm, he might have tried to send a dude to buy it for a reduced price, which would end up violating *50GP once rather than twice.

Obviously this is a laborious method and I’m not sure that you should actually use it in tabletop gaming! But I assure you that, with repeated use, it becomes a much faster technique. You can often do it in your head.

Cheapass DM Tools: Art Card Tokens

If you go to gaming conventions even occasionally, you’ll probably find yourself loaded down with a certain amount of CCG swag, or sometimes even pretty art cards that aren’t linked to a game at all.

These are often for games that you don’t play. Here’s a way to make some use of them for your D&D games.

You need:

  • Art cards
  • A one-inch circle punch (get it at a store that sells scrapbooking stuff)
  • Glue
  • Stiff card

In my case, I used a bunch of Magic: the Gathering cards; I used to play MtG but I don’t any longer, and this lets me make some use of my collection*. All you need to do is punch out circles and glue them to a stiff backing to give them a bit of substance. As you can see, some of mine aren’t perfectly aligned; that’s fine. I use reclaimed cardboard from food packaging for backs: cake mix and pasta boxes are just about right.

I assign a unique token to each recurring NPC, and use duplicate tokens marked up with little numbers for generic monsters that appear in groups. I keep sets like “Thugs,” “Vampires,” “Wild Animals,” etc., in labeled baggies inside the index card case you see in the picture. Most of the sets have a couple of repeated ‘grunts’ and one or more unique ‘leaders’ so I have material for mixed but thematic groups.

There’s probably about fifty finished tokens and a baggie of unused backs in there right now, and plenty of room for more. It’s really easy for me to just grab the baggie I need for any given encounter, and it takes up less space than a novel.

Cheapass Evaluation: I had all the supplies lying around in my house, so it didn’t cost me a penny. If you’re building something like this from scratch, expect to spend five to fifteen bucks for the circle punch, a couple of dollars for a big pack of mixed common CCG cards from the gaming store, and a couple for glue. I’m sure that you have already budgeted for food that comes in a box.

*: As it happened, the last con I went to, Wizards were handing out free preconstructed decks in all five colors, so I got a large number of beautiful, mostly-current commons that aren’t worth really anything. They made for great token fodder.