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Friday 15 September 2023

Friday Faction: The Sorcerer of Pyongyang

If a copy of each of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide fell from the sky how would it be received in the archetypal medieval world? Together would they have been taken up as a triptych of holy books and their words accepted not as a of means play and exercising the imagination, but as a way of speaking to god, of determining whether you have his blessing before undertaking any action, including deciding your future career, or rather rolling up your character according to scripture. This is the conceit of FRUP, an unpublished roleplaying game designed by James Wallis, and it is a conceit shared with The Sorcerer of Pyongyang. Not a new roleplaying game or supplement, but a novel by Marcel Theroux which examines the consequences of a work of the imagination and imagineering arriving unbidden in a land that is both real and unreal. For The Sorcerer of Pyongyang asks what would happen if a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide accidentally found its way into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and closed off countries? What effect would Dungeons & Dragons have in a society whose government and culture imposes its own reality upon its citizens?

In the early nineties, during the time of the famine known as the Arduous March, Cho Jun-su, an ordinary schoolboy with a love of Kim Il Sung and the socialist fantasy comics he has to hire from a vendor at the station to read, discovers by accident, a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons & Dragons. Left behind by the son of visiting a professor in North Korean socialist thought, and taken from lost property at the hotel he works at by Jun-su’s father, Cho Jun-su is fascinated by the book, but his English is not yet good enough to read it, although his later translation of the book will both improve his English and his imagination as he becomes an award-winning poet. Until then he turns to a teacher who has been helping with the illness that keeps him out of school. The teacher comes to understand the book, explaining that it is a game of the imagination and storytelling, and when the boy asks, promises to run it for him. Thus Jun-su takes his first steps into roleplaying, not via Dungeons & Dragons, but the House of Possibilities, an interpretation of the rules that is more faithful by intent than by design, but nevertheless recognisable as roleplaying.

As his illness keeps him home from school and helps isolate him from the worst effects of the Arduous March, so too the House of Possibilities isolates him from the adulation and respect that he is expected to give Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, the self-criticism exercises he is expected to participate in at school, and so on. The notion of roleplaying and of Dungeons & Dragons is doubly dangerous within North Korea. It is nerdish and likely to be socially unacceptable just as it was in the West in the nineties, but in North Korea, it could be seen as an artefact of American decadence, one that encourages individualism. Yet it is this individualism that makes Jun-su stand out, his involvement with the House of Possibilities setting him on a trajectory through layers and layers of accepted reality, as he first experiences success, then downfall, then success again, before finding hope. It pushes him to Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, where he mingles with the elite, he is denounced and imprisoned, before being released and pulled into the orbit of the ultra-elite once, and then finally finding his own release. At university Jun-su isolates himself from the reality of the dangers that House of Possibilities, but its reality is left behind and Jun-su is forced to rely upon the accepted reality in which his love for Kim Jong Il will save him, but just like Winston Smith and Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984, it is Kim Jong Il that is stamping on his face. Nevertheless, it is Jun-su’s connection to the House of Possibilities that will save him again. Which leads perhaps to the most extraordinary reality in which Jun-su finds himself in, spending time in the company of ‘Jimmi’, in fact, Kim Jong-chul, older brother of Kim Jong Un, son of the late Kim Jong Il and supreme leader of North Korea. ‘Jimmi’ is portrayed as a member of the idle rich, when not drug addled, obsessed with the guitar and great rock guitarists, whose reality isolates him from the rest of the country and its cowed masses. Weirder still is the job he is given at a state insurance company, fabricating the reality of serious accidents, so that the country can gain foreign currency from the insurers in London. Even ‘Jimmi’ in his most maudlin state is affected by Dungeons & Dragons, wondering if his influence is sufficient to render Cho Jun-su the status of an NPC, a ‘Non-Player Character’ as controlled in the game by the ‘leader’ or Dungeon Master, or if he too, is an NPC, not for Cho Jun-su, but rather for Kim Jong Un. This is not an aspect that the author really explores, merely bringing it to our attention as he hurtles to the book’s conclusion. It is the novel’s startlingly missed opportunity.

Although he does not belabour the point, it is clear that the author knows about Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in general. It is not a case of the author just having done his research to be able to use Dungeons & Dragons as a literary device. Or if it is, then that research is more than cursory. Readers in the know will recognise the copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide from the description given, a great red demon (or efrit) grasping a scantily clad women in its left hand, a sword in its right as a knight and a wizard attempt a rescue as being for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. They will realise too that Jun-su’s battered copy is later replaced by Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. This could have been the result of simple research, but there is more. British readers will recognise the name of the games shop in North Finchley from where the author in the book purchases a copy of The Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord which is an undoubtedly obscure choice. There is though, Jun-su’s initial reaction to playing the game, his fascination with its imagined world, with it feeling more real than the one around him. This is something that many a roleplayer will recognise, that heady rush of discovery of not just having an imagination, but of being able to explore it too.

It would be trite to have simply explored the imagination as a means of liberation from conformity and repression. The Sorcerer of Pyongyang does that, certainly, but it goes beyond it to examine the dangers of the imagination, not just under the ordinary Orwellian repression of North Korea, but also in the layers of reality surrounding Pyongyang’s elite under radically different circumstances and under two different Supreme Leaders. Again and again, Cho Jun-su finds his imagination pulling him onward in a great journey through a bildungsroman of realities. The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is a fascinating glimpse behind the walls of the Hermit Kingdom that is North Korea with Marcel Theroux using Dungeons & Dragons as a surprisingly sophisticated means to drive its story along in a fashion that would have been unthinkable, let alone acceptable when Cho Jun-su first entered the House of Possibilities.

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