I’ve heard people bemoaning the lack of a comprehensive science fiction roleplaying game and I see what they’re getting at – the epistemologies of roleplaying tend to underestimate the relationship between the capacity of the SF Megatext and the specificity of particular subgenres of science fiction.
Games that try to take on the whole shebang – old stalwart Traveller, say, or Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press – benefit from a certain fixity of theme and narrative shape (Technologynoir in the case of Traveller, the Television mystery procedural for Ashen Stars); games that, conversely, concentrate on particular modes or motifs of Genre SF, such as Psi*Run (strong on the emergent properties of a shared story arc) or Starfall (strong on the scientific and historical accuracy that underpins its 1950s alien-invasion theme) rely on “zoning in” on what they’re trying to do, very often over a single session or mini-season of play.
A great many science fiction games, however, fall somewhere in-between these two approaches, usually by (a) offering those playing the chance to “hang out” among familiar science fiction Clichés, or (b) adapting particular “sci-fi” properties, or (c) combining both; games like this find it all too easy to confuse their thematic delivery mechanism (Space Opera, Planetary Romance and so forth) with its emotional payload (a Sense of Wonder or Transcendence or some other group affect).
Even popular and deeply-examined themes such as Cyberpunk suffer from this misalignment of tone and ingredients, in part because (a) science fiction tends to inherit its narrative shapes from other genres and (b) cyberpunk takes a Postmodern approach to genre, mixing and matching the ways in which its tropes – Cybernetics, AI, and so on – interact with its story arcs, primarily as a means of interrogating the process by which our world is sold back to us in a diminished form by the corporations that define the terms of everyday lives. Here are two of the narrative modes most associated with cyberpunk:
Noir: nothing is clear and everyone’s motives are murky.
Hard-Boiled: the plot is constantly interrogated out loud by the characters.
These flavours are often combined to memorable effect – The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Rashomon (1950) are just two outstanding examples from the world of Cinema – but it’s all too easy to go wrong by trying to answer the questions posed by one approach with the narrative responses of the other. A Roleplaying Game with Gamemaster and players might waste a good deal of its time by allowing its player-characters to pontificate about “what is really going on” (a hard-boiled question) when what they really need to do is engage with the Psychology of the story’s characters (a noir response), whereas a story game might deliver a precisely-engineered structure whose mechanics elicit little or no emotional response from those playing due to its focus on delivery mechanisms over emotional payload. Narrative is transmuted into story when feelings are involved and feelings are better suggested or improvised than dictated or quantified.
By adding a hard-boiled voice-over to an essentially noir narrative, the first theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982) obscured the much more interesting question of whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant – and, therefore, of whether or not any perceived difference between replicant and human is simply a matter of who is interrogating whom. The who am I? character arc of Deckard is a vital dramatic corollary of the what is real?what is human? theme that underpins so much of the work of Philip K Dick.
Dick understood that any shift in Identity for his protagonists needed to apply at the societal level in order to function fully as science fiction: a character’s domestic dilemma was usually the solution for a world-sized threat in his stories and this – be it alien invasion, an all-powerful demiurge or an uprising of enslaved replicants – usually became the key to the personal dilemma of his main protagonist. One of the major disappointments of Blade Runner 2049 (a film I otherwise liked a lot) was its failure to (a) bring this implication of social change to the foreground and (b) examine the role of gender in the Slavery of the replicants. Deckard “retires” sex-slaves… until he learns to sleep with one. Blade Runner 2049’s focus on the subjugation of people due to their body-type implies that gender might easily be an important signifier of social change but the film’s screenplay allows none of the correspondents of Dick’s “dark-haired girl” archetype – K’s hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), corporate enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and virgin Messiah Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) – to change themselves, their material circumstances, or indeed one another; the society-sized insurgency of replicants-in-the-bodies-of-commodified-women is almost entirely consigned to the background as a consequence.
New-Wave science fiction roleplaying game Dream Askew (a game in which plurality of gender and representation + white space = a brighter future with better Sex lives for all) is the outstanding exemplar of an approach that posits the free expression of gender identity as a possible solution for the false consciousness of a patriarchal society. There is every reason to apply the same principle to other subgenres of science fiction.
“Many cyberpunks defy binaries too,” says the introduction to volume one of the cyberpunk zine Resistor by Leslie Anderson, Banana Chan, Elissa Leach and Kira Magrann, “taking on complex identities that aren’t easily checked off in those info forms like M/F or Black/White or Straight/Gay or American/Other. Cyberpunks are also liminal, existing partially out of body somewhere in digital spaces, expressing those parts of their identities through words, sounds and images only interacted with on a screen.” Our everyday world is rendered as an incessant scenario owned by multinational corporations: games, flash-fiction and live action roleplay provide the means by which we might re-represent ourselves in order to be ourselves.
Kira Magrann’s solo-game Emoji Sigil Rose offers a player the chance a create a sigil for sympathetic magic by drawing a single, uninterrupted line between five-to-nine relevant symbols from the emoji on her phone; Leslie Anderson’s story Student – “Hey girly, need a job! Soft beds! Less hours than your factory gig!” – communicates the supply-driven onslaught of a dominant ideology that wants to reduce everyone to a product; Banana Chan’s live-action conspiracy roleplay Zero is played in an internet chatroom and is about an untellable text with a terrible secret: “It’s actually code for what is happening in the world now.” Diagrams by Elissa Leach of ID badges and other corporate paraphernalia connote the imposition of privately-owned space over public life: there are photographs of photographic equipment, games laid out as business presentations, drawings of outmoded pieces of technology ready to be re-appropriated from the overwhelming control and falsity of corporate life.
In Resistor (as in the best cyberpunk) the question of what is real? is everywhere enclosed by the simulated version of the world sold to us by corporations; what is human? are those acts of reterritorialization that allow a protagonist to represent herself, however briefly, as an avatar of self not yet owned by a corporation. “Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulation,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981; trans Sheila Faria Glaser 1994). Baudrillard goes on to outline a three-stage historical process by which any idea of distinguishing between reality and representation has become impossible:
The image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real (e.g. painting).
It is possible to distinguish image and representation despite the mass production of imagery (e.g. photography).
There is no difference between the reality of something and the representation of it (e.g. social media).
This third stage of the precession of simulacra – what Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists term “hyperreality” – was allegorised in The Matrix (1999), and forms much of the dramatic action in many forms of cyberpunk, which is to say one in which real human experience is intermittent, transformative and meaningful. Liquidity of representation and identity is used to counter-balance an all-encompassing corporate simulation of human experience; it’s this metier that makes Resistor (in my opinion) thematically superior to many of the cyberpunk RPGs out there, the greater part of which tend toward a resolutely hard-boiled, masculine aesthetic in which players end up as unthinking reflections of the dominant ideology, festooned in guns, kit and cyberware. I’ve played these sorts of games quite a bit over the years – and hey, I like them a lot – but they form a fairly small part of the overall attitude and sensibility of cyberpunk.
The McGuffin in a fully science-fictional form of cyberpunk is very often a matter of unravelling the representation of something in order to comprehend its transformation into something unexpected; in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 this is a Memory appropriated from a real person in order to be simulated which then again becomes real (and therefore meaningful); in Akira (1988), the transformation is between human and artificial life; Resistor’s untellable texts, cyberwitches and online avatars describe similar processes of self-alteration, mediated not only by cyberpunk’s dominant mode of action (transgressive violence = revolutionary transformation) but also by its creative agenda (revolutionary transformation = personal freedom).
Feminism functions so well as an operating system for cyberpunk because it is (a) an idea designed to produce a Conceptual Breakthrough throughout society, and (b) was there at the inception of science fiction, when Mary Shelley first dramatized the idea of a human constructed by human agency in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). By refusing to separate issues of gender and class, by setting its games amid the hyperreality of image-centric networks and by using feminism to inform the identity of its protagonists, Resistor succeeds in addressing both the specificity of cyberpunk and the capacity of science fiction to describe societal change, and in doing so describes a widespread impulse to resist being owned by people who have no interest in any living thing but themselves.
The Pergamino Barocco of Roger S G Sorolla (a hastily-stapled edizione economiche of the grimoire’s ornate text was distributed by Lost Pages at Dragonmeet) communicates the defining motif of the Baroque: the Fold, on and on, unfolding & refolding, each Orientalist swirl or explosion of meteorological Physick a selection and accretion, an Old-school preference for the eddy of potential over the possibility of white space; open-ended, Generick, inexhaustive, a Fold repeating by meaning and design, a bird into whose plumage is tucked the Grimorio Minuscolo of Paolo Greco:-
#Feminism, an anthology of 34 nano-games first published by Fea Livia last year, is available in a second edition from Pelgrane Press. I recommend that you buy it. The graphic design (by Shuo Meng) is the best of any RPG book I know.
Editors Misha Bushyager, Lizzie Stark and Anna Westerling have organised the games into nine sections – Romance, Women and the Media, Body, The Digital Age, On the Move, Playing Well With Others, At Work, Difficult Decisions and Violent Encounters – and refined the description of each game into its own marginalia, thereby communicating at a glance how many players each game requires, how long it takes to play, its emotional intensity on a scale of one to five, what, if any, supplies are needed to play the game, and a number of keywords that indicate the game’s theme. There is no way to open the book without immediately apprehending what it is for or which game might suit your particular purpose. It’s form factor – analogous to a glossy consumer magazine – is inviting, suits being laid flat on a table and subtly indicates its target market and creative agenda.
I tend to prefer those games that either, (a) overcome or undermine misconceptions about feminism by including some of the opinions of those that oppose it (a classical argument), or (b) include a range of inter-subjective opinions about feminism (a postmodern argument), over those that (c) communicate a single point of view with a single idea – but those are my own political sensibilities and I do understand that violence of expression creates its own affect. When I first started reading the work of Angela Carter and Suzy McKee Charnas back in the 90s, it was the violence that drew me in: I needed the dramaturgy of the forced sex change of The Passion of New Eve (1977) and the hybridogenesis of Motherlines (1978) to help me understand the nature and extent of my own false consciousness about patriarchy.
I’ve seen guys of my own age and ethnicity (I’m white and in my mid-40s) say that nano-games, or game-poems, or short games, or whatever you want to call them, aren’t really games in and of themselves, but just an adjunct or a bit of showing off on the part of people who may or may not be able to design a “proper” roleplaying game with mechanics and dice and a fully-realised imagined space. I do not agree with this assessment. Being involved in the 200 Word RPG Challenge taught me that small games reveal a lot about the connections between people and their craving for emotional intimacy. Their brevity is part of their agency, like poems or laughter or farting. I might easily sneak these games into the conversation on a long train journey or into the gaps between longer games at a roleplaying convention: as design strategy, #Feminism is pretty much perfect.
Vagrant Workshop has released Itras By: The Menagerie, a compendium of supplementary materials for the Itras By roleplaying game organised like Dadaesque pamphlets or avant-garde magazines of the 1920s. I’m very happy.
“Between 1900 and 1937 Europe experienced an extraordinary cultural rebirth and interchange of ideas, comparable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment,” says Stephen Bury in his introduction to Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (2007). The term avant-garde (“vanguard”) had become associated with utopian politics over the course of the nineteenth century.
“We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious,” said Henri de Saint-Simon in Literary, Philosophical and Industrial Opinions (1825), a treatise on how artists, scientists and manufacturers might combine to lead humankind out of the alienation caused by industrial society. “When we wish to spread new ideas among people, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel… we aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.”
I’d long-hoped for a roleplaying game to address this shared imaginative space: my own efforts to introduce surrealist ideas into games of Vampire: The Masquerade – I was always enamoured of Clan Toreador – or Mage: The Ascension were for the most part paltry and ill-conceived; I wanted the thing without knowing how it should be done. The decision of editor Ole Peder Giæver and publisher Carsten Damm to open the Menagerie up to all-comers was inspired. The book (at almost three hundred pages) was made by Aleksandra Sontowska, Anders Nygaard, Banana Chan, Becky Annison, Caitlynn Belle, Carsten Damm, Cecilie Bannow, Clarissa Baut Stetson, David Cochard, David M Wright, Edward “Sabe” Jones, Emily Care Boss, Evan Torner, February Keeney, Gino Moretto, Henrik Maegaard, Jackson Tegu, Jason Morningstar, Jeremy Duncan, Joshua Fox, Josh Jordan, Judith Clute, Kamil Wegrzynowicz, Karina Graj, Kat Jones, Kathy Schad, Keith Stetson, Li Xin, Lizzie Stark, Magnus Jakobsson, Martin Bull Gudmundsen, Mathew Downward, Matthijs Holter, Mo Holkar, Niels Ladefoged, Ole Peder Giæver, Olivier Vuillamy, Philipp Neitzel, Sanne Stijve, Steve Hickey, Terje Nordin, Thomas Novosel, Tobie Abad, Tor Gustad, Trond Ivar Hansen and Willow Palecek.
There are lots of wonderful things about the Menagerie but it’s the insanity and the sex I like most – that and the way they’re combined with a creative generosity about every conceivable view of the world. Thought and expression are a deadly-serious game that should be treated with the utmost frivolity, and conducted in an atmosphere of outright honesty. People who tell you that life is work want you to work for them: they might ask you to die for them too. This is instead an invitation to express yourself.
This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)
Little has changed since Apollinaire died; the world’s war machine rumbles on and public discourse seems to ebb further away from scientific data. The surrealists understood that it is by playfulness that we can achieve the arraignment of violent human impulse to spontaneous truth.
“The Moon grew bigger and bigger until it was the only thing in the sky (and presumably, growing ever still, until it is the only thing in the universe) and with each passing night drilled holes of light into the eyes of the people of city until all they knew was the Moon, all they thought of was the Moon, and all they wanted to do was make the Moon happy,” says Caitlynn Belle in Lunacy (pp69-74, with jagged, evocative illustrations by Thomas Novosel: “And the Moon wanted flesh. And the Moon wanted blood.” My kind of game. In The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy (pp25- 44) by Jackson Tegu, Matthijs Holter and Jeremy Duncan, everybody and everything is having sex: it’s great. (Jone Aareskjold has written a critique of The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy’s treatment of the sex trade here.) “No such thing as love, only passion!” cries Evan Torner in The Shadow Carnival (pp216-238), a freeform scenario in which the principles of German Expressionism guide the action: “No luck, only the will to gain power! Don’t be afraid of me!” I am afraid. I like that. Henrik Maegaard’s illustrations for Evan’s scenario are luminous. Becky Annison and Josh Fox have (correctly in my view) discerned the suitability of Itras By for GMful play in Sharing Room and Giving Space (pp145-154), an approach which calls upon every player to frame scenes, play supporting characters and drive external events.
These are just a few excerpts from the five parts of the Menagerie – Diorama, Laboratory, Dream Resume, Hall of Mirrors and Post Scriptum. Martin Bull Gudmundsen’s essay When Life Does Not Make Sense (pp256-263) was, for me, a masterclass in making sense. It may be that you prefer to purchase games or books in digital format to lessen your impact on the environment or save shelf-space but I must say I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder of Kathy Schad’s visual design until I held the physical artefact in my hands. You can buy it here.
The second issue of RPG fanzine Machineries of Joy is dedicated to games from the Nørwegian Surreal.
Where did they start and where do they end? I always had opinions, of course, and anyone who uses the internet knows about the impossibility of debating perspectives over platforms designed to sell commodities, but I mean when did they cohere, take shape, begin to mean something persistent in a variety of contexts?
I think it was the first time I read Mille plateaux by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980; trans 1986 by Brian Massumi as A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia); this turned out to be a sequel to Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’anti-Œdipe (1972; trans 1977 by Robert Hurley, Helen R Lane and Mark Seem as Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). I often read things back-to-front or in the wrong order or in a half-arsed and incomplete manner, a product, I think, not only of the internet but of having learnt to read fairly late in childhood.
I barely understood what I was reading – it kept mentioning Hegel, and boy oh boy oh boy did Hegel defeat me – but I had an intensely novelistic reaction (I was a little hypomanic at the time) to its intertextual games and plurality of register and felt very strongly that this was a book that was describing me and the world I experienced much more accurately than the ponderous one-thing-after-another histories of western civilization I’d read before then. I went back and read it more carefully when I had calmed down and found that my thoughts accorded with my feelings.
I picked up Anti-Oedipus yesterday and found that Michel Foucault had summarised the contents of the book very clearly in its preface: I’ve had trouble comprehending Foucault’s writings on sexuality and madness but I love the clarity and intimacy of how he writes about Deleuze. Here is a transliteration of what Foucault calls the “essential principles” of the book:
Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchical individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.
We’d laugh at him when we were growing up: ape his funny yokel accents, shake our heads at his racism, sneer at his propensity to stack adjectives; it was a way of excusing ourselves our own racism and snobbery, I guess.
That’s the thing: we who are closeted behind the barricades of the western world are not as distant from the attitudes expressed in the stories of H P Lovecraft as we might like. You can say, “I didn’t choose this,” or, “I won’t do this,” but some of those ideas are embedded into the structure of our language, disguised as ‘common sense’ or patriotism. H P Lovecraft reveals what lies beneath the deep-seated and intractable issue of racism: revulsion and a refusal to face the truth.
He’s also one of very few writers to find an original approach to describing the Real; what’s written isn’t always willed by its writer in the absolute sense, and connotation can be as important as denotation to artistic longevity.
Michel Houellebecq – writing before his own talent and notoriety made him famous – makes a good case for H P Lovecraft’s creative importance in H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (translated into English by Dorna Khazeni in 2005 and republished by Gollancz in 2008): it is fundamentally an existentialist argument – one about how Lovecraft combined lyricism and delirium to reveal a deeper truth about human estrangement:-
“I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was 17. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”
Colonial powers refuse to face the truth about their impact on the world not because they are old but because they are infantile: that’s my position, at least. Umberto Eco does a great job of summarising the issue in his article on Ur-Fascism: what is presented as rational is in fact deeply irrational. Here’s a quotation from one of Lovecraft’s letters I found in Howard Ingham’s review of the film Jug Face (2013):-
“As for the Nazis – of their crudeness there be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for some phases of their position. They are fighting, in their naive & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world – & one can’t help respecting that however ugly & even dangerous some of them may appear to be. Hitler is no Mussolini – but I’m damned if the poor chap isn’t profoundly sincere & patriotic, it is to his credit rather than otherwise that he doesn’t subscribe to the windy flatulence of the idealistic ‘liberals’ whose policies lead only to chaos & collapse.”
The basis of racism is fear; I think we need to get deeper into this fundamental truth rather than turn away from it. Unconscious impulses require creative understanding.