IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Adrian HermannIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Adrian Hermann
Since 2017, Adrian Hermann has been the Professor of Religion and Society for the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, at the University of Bonn (Germany). He specializes in the global history of religion in the 19th and 20th centuries and has recently begun to engage in the field of role-playing game studies.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
When I first heard about CAPAS, I primarily saw it as a chance for some of the younger members of my research group and network. I forwarded the call and the other positions on offer to them. But I soon realized that I had actually been working on a topic that would fit perfectly with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic studies and would allow me to continue my foray into a (for me) new research field: analog game studies and particularly the study of (tabletop) role-playing games. So, I put together a proposal and I think came up with a good argument of why studying both the history and here and now of these games is important for CAPAS: they can be understood as versatile ‘constructions kits’ for (post-)apocalyptic stories. I also assumed that while computer games (which are included in my project, but are not central) would probably already be on the radar of the Centre, tabletop-roleplaying games might not be. (I am referring to the tradition of “sitting around a table, each person creating an individual character, rolling some dice and coming up with fantastical stories on the basis of little more than the players’ imagination” games that began with Dungeons & Dragons in 1974.)
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
As a religion scholar the apocalypse is of course central to my discipline as an important element of religious history, both as an aspect of Christian history and theology, and, in a broader sense, as a potential comparative analytical category – “apocalyptic thinking” – across religious traditions. In my own research, however, the only context that I had really come across this topic until my CAPAS project was the popular apocalypses of US-American evangelicalism, as represented by the Left Behind book series and movies. To engage with the (post-)apocalypse from a scholarly perspective is therefore new for me. What I have learned so far at CAPAS is that especially post-apocalyptic fiction (in which I would include tabletop role-playing games) is interesting not only in how it represents societal imaginaries, but is helpful to think about current theoretical questions in cultural studies; more so than I would have anticipated. This includes question like “what is reality?” or “where does ‘the new’ come from?”, both of which are often implicitly or explicitly addressed by such stories.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve? Which questions is it addressing? With which methods?
Visions of the apocalypse and the building and exploration of (post-)apocalyptic worlds have been a central aspect of the history of tabletop and computer role-playing games (TRPGs and CRPGs). I want to argue that these games can be understood as attempts to model, simulate, and make playable (post-)apocalyptic worlds through creating a setting, providing a system of rules, and facilitating the creation of characters to play in these emergent narratives. The main point in my treatment of the material that I am working on, which are apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic (tabletop) role-playing games from the last 50 years, is to treat them as an archive that represents popular ways of thinking about the end of the world and what comes afterwards. And these games do so not in the linear ways of most novels, TV series, or films, but rather – with tabletop roleplaying-games being improvisational media (Aaron Trammell) – by providing a construction kit and building blocks; a ‘story engine’ with which a group of players can tell a potentially unlimited number of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
I can build on my general background in the study of religion, but especially on my work in game studies, which I developed since 2020. I have since taught two courses in the Bonn media studies department which dealt with tabletop role-playing games among other things. I have also published on said games and on analog game studies more generally in 2021. As I want to further establish myself in the field of analog game studies, the CAPAS fellowship came at exactly the right time.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
I hope that I will be able to show how the medium of tabletop role-playing games is not only an interesting form of popular expression, but rather should also be considered an artistic medium in its own right. When we talk about imaginations of the (post-)apocalypse, these games and their history are an important vehicle of popular imaginations which we should consider next to novels, films, comics, and TV.
What are the aspects you are most looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
I have been especially excited to find and engage with two things at CAPAS so far: Firstly, an interest among many of the fellows in the so-called “ontological turn”, a theoretical movement in anthropology, philosophy, and cultural theory (especially influenced by South American perspectives). Its goal is to question current forms of representing human difference and provide innovative descriptions of the multiplicity of worlds without relapsing into relativism. Secondly, the chance to discuss and collaborate with other scholars (like Stephen Shapiro) who are interested in popular artistic forms and in engaging with the (post-)apocalyptic as a way of thinking about the predicaments of our present moment.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
What one learns from post-apocalyptic role-playing games (and role-playing games in general) is that a well-structured travel party is the most important prerequisite for success. Therefore, the first thing would be: the right travel companions. Secondly, most of the games I work on include fantastic elements. In the language of the game Apocalpyse World, one should be prepared to “open your brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom”. Or whatever other powerful supernatural force might be out there after the catastrophe. And lastly, in light of our discussions of (post-)apocalyptic fiction at CAPAS and also in regard to the way in which most (post-)apocalyptic tabletop role-playing games involve dealing with the – technological, social, or architectural – remnants of the past, a “sense of history” is always helpful.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
In the context of my research project, a couple of things come to mind. The (post-)apocalypse has always been an important topic for tabletop roleplaying games. In fact, Metamorphosis Alpha, published in 1976, and Gamma World from 1978 were among the first games building on what the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons had helped to create in 1974. As a more recent recommendation, I would love you to check out Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker (originally published in 2010 and revised in a second edition in 2016). An independently published game, it spawned a whole revolution in (independent) tabletop role-playing game design – “Powered by the Apocalypse”– and might in a few years be regarded as the most important such game released in the 2010s. I would add the very short game Ten Candles, another indie game by Stephen Dewey, which I actually have not played yet, as it is best experienced sitting around a table. I am looking forward to getting CAPAS scholars excited to explore its post-apocalyptic tragic horror in the coming months after the pandemic has died down, at least for the summer.