Monday, August 20, 2012

Leveling up with Kundalini

You can't go far on the internet without seeing ads for geeky T-shirts.  This one caught my eye the other day -- a super silly mash-up of the Hindu chakras with D&D polyhedral dice.  People familiar with the seven chakras will immediately realize that one's missing here (if you ignore the D&D logo at the bottom).  Old-school role-players will recognize that they should have included the momentous 30-sided die to complete the set.

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I was first exposed to chakras via the 1988 PBS TV series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.  Although that show was slammed, fairly I think, for reasons of superficiality, new-agey-ness, and George Lucas worship, it was still the thing that broke me out of my ultra-materialist and atheist shell as a college student. Just being able to see that there were other spiritual traditions that didn't have the flaws that I perceived with the faith of my upbringing was liberating.  (I didn't end up converting to Hinduism or anything, but the chakras have stayed with me because they're a very useful "filing system" for our inner worlds.)

Nowadays, many people may have been introduced to the chakras via Avatar: The Last Airbender.  (Not just a show for kids!)  Aang was mentored through a process of chakra awakening in the episode "The Guru," and someone collected the relevant clips into a tidy 11:28 here.  I'm nearly certain that the writers used a popular book that attempted to reframe the concept for a Western audience -- to great effect, in my opinion.

But does this have anything to do with D&D?  I originally thought to correspond the chakras to the primary attributes (strength, intelligence, and so on) that one determines when first creating a character.  I don't think that works too well, and it also has the problem that one doesn't necessarily want "excesses" (high values) for the attributes of their chakras.  In D&D language, having all bog-standard 10's would be a much more balanced and beneficial state than having one glaring score of 18/00 calling attention to itself so loudly!  :-)

The chakras are things people think about when they ponder their lives and their goals. So what better to correspond them with than the different ways that RPG characters gain experience in the lives we imagine for them?
  1. The first chakra, at the base of the spine, governs the basic survival instinct:  eating, shelter, and other absolute necessities.  It's no coincidence, then, that the original version of the game awarded most of its experience points (XP) for the TREASURE gained by the players.  In a game where the actual eating, sleeping, and other biological realities were often hand-waved as uninteresting to role-play, those coveted gold pieces became the most basic way of keeping track of one's needs and wants.
  2. The second chakra corresponds to the genitals and that other most basic need that calls out to be met after one has eaten and found shelter.  More generally, it deals with pleasure and its flip side, guilt.  So what better form of XP award to discuss than Jeff Rients' infamous rules for CAROUSING once the adventure is done?  This is one of the most fun things the old-school renaissance has given the world, I think, as well as being a natural extension to the idea of "gaining experience."
  3. The third chakra sits near the solar plexus and deals with the need to have power over one's environment -- to project one's will in the world.  This, of course, is where XP awards for DEFEATING FOES comes into play.  Traditionally, one calls it XP for "killing monsters," but most GMs take a broader approach.  Winning the day by subterfuge against purely human foes often counts just as much as hewing away at goblins...
  4. Next, at the level of the heart, is the fourth chakra, which deals with love and relationships.  (The needs are ascending in a similar way as Maslow's hierarchy.)  We've now run out of the oldest of the old-school ways to award XP, but one that's been often added is the idea of gaining experience for FULFILLING QUESTS, which usually involves deciding to help others and become useful members of a community.  Other games, like Pendragon, have explicit rules and goals for the courtly wooing of fair maidens, as well.  :-)
  5. Movin' on up, there's the fifth chakra at the level of the throat.  Here's the site of intellect and communication.  The guru on Avatar said it's purpose is truth, and it is blocked by lies.  In role-playing games, the goal of many adventurers is to spread the word of one's exploits far and wide.  I'm not sure if many GMs award XP for gaining FAME (or its flip side, INFAMY), but it's certainly a milestone when peasants from leagues away can recite the bardic songs about you that have spread through the countryside.
  6. Next comes the sixth chakra at the "third eye" position on the forehead.  This is the domain of finding one's unique place in the world.  It governs the use of insight and wisdom to combat illusions and grow as a person.  I wonder if here, the goals of the character start to give way to the goals of the player.  Usually RPG characters don't have such a rich inner life, but I wonder if it would be rewarding to play that out "at the table," too.  Of course, another way to go here is to talk about what happens when powerful characters can "find their place in the world" by establishing their own kingdoms!  This type of DOMAIN-LEVEL play has its own challenges that make it essentially a different game than grubbing around dungeons for loot.  Some new iterations of the game are known for focusing on it.
  7. Can we go even further?  The seventh chakra is the "thousand-petaled lotus" at the crown of the head, and it deals with ultimate spiritual transcendence.  Believe it or not, but at least one version of D&D went there -- by codifying APOTHEOSIS in the Immortals boxed set, and prodding on new godlings to wider vistas of adventure in the outer planes of existence.
Now that I'm at the end of my list, I'm doubtful that there's much practical, "game-able" content in here.  I'd love to hear if anyone finds ways to apply these ideas to their games, though!

FYI:  Blogging may be light for the next month or three.  I'm starting to teach a university course after Labor Day.  Very time-intensive, but hopefully very rewarding... on many chakra levels!?  :-)


  1. Great post! I like how the t-shirt designer paralleled the petal amounts with dice sides. I may not play D&D but I dig chakra theory.'

    good luck with yr classes!

    1. You know, I didn't even notice that. I saw that the number of petals got bigger as one went higher, but that's what one often sees (forgetting Ajna) in chakra diagrams anyway. :-)


  2. Cyg, I'm with Violet -- this was a super post. Still confused about the seven chakra system, though. Not confused, just not totally clear, I guess.

    All the best to you with every effort after Labor Day, Prof. I know it will prove every bit as rewarding as you hope it will.

    1. Yeah... in my attempt to shoe-horn in the RPG XP types, I know I didn't give each chakra its real due. If you ever happen upon that Joseph Campbell thing on PBS -- it's a pledge-drive favorite -- I recommend hanging around until he gets to the chakras. (Though his "follow your bliss" stuff is sometimes too treacly for some people... Again, it was just what I needed at the time, but I roll my eyes when I hear some of it now...)

      People have often tried mapping the 7 chakras onto the 10 sephiroth of Kabbalah, with varying success rates. Despite looking kind of similar, I don't know if that really works.

      Thanks, also, about the teaching. I'm getting there...

    2. I'm not unclear because of a lack of clarity on your post. I do have one yoga instructor who is quite holistic with the way she conducts her classes and she mentioned the seventh chakra as containing all of the colors of the other chakras. It's just very vague in my mind, I guess. Whereas, say, yellow is very obvious to me -- the source of strength and will -- or blue -- speaking your truth without impediment -- that seventh one is, for the moment, less accessible for me.

      Speaking of the Care Bears, check this out.

    3. Colin Low's thoughts about Kether were very vague, too, but I think that's just the nature of the beast.

      I won't be able to listen to youtube till tonight, but I'll give it a shot. (It's probably a good thing that I haven't figured out how to turn on sound on my workplace desktop computer!) :-)

    4. Golden Age... trippy and synchromystic... I'll raise you a Bob Ross paint palette.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Trey! After hearing from you, specifically, I'm thinking of all kinds of "Weird Adventures" style ways that chakras may be used. I'm thinking of Ditko's Dr. Strange and the way it drew on the pulps' tradition of having its heroes go off into the Himalayas to be trained by gurus...