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Thursday 13 August 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: Ideological Themes in RPGs

I could write about a lot of stuff today; I could, for example, dedicate an entire entry to how beautiful it is here today (a lovely 28º Celsius).

Or I could write about the fact that around here, mother's day is in October. And more bizarrely, about the fact that I've seen a disturbing number of TV and print ads where mothers and their young sons are portrayed in a boyfriend/girlfriend type context (one where a kid takes his mom out on a "date" and the ad describes mothers as "your first girlfriend"; and a number of others that generally seem to portray a kind of romantic connotation to mother/son love). It's a freaked out cultural phenomenon here that I just don't see in north america. You know, Argentina (where most of these ads originate) is said to have the largest ratio of psychologists per capita in the world; this explains a lot. It's an entire fucking country suffering from Oedipal complex.

But in fact, this is first and foremost a gaming blog, so I'm going to talk about a gaming subject. Namely, something that has been on my mind as a consequence of a thread that was on theRPGsite, talking about political agendas in RPGs.

My feeling is summed up like this: there's three different kinds of games that can be run. The first is essentially modern mythology. This is where you present an absolute good and absolute evil, in the Tolkienesque sense, where what you're doing isn't really politics, it's religion. Or more correctly, it's legend. You are talking about the classic and epic construction of humanity's struggle against the dark side, civilization versus barbarie, and (usually metaphorically) man versus his own dark side.
In these kinds of games, it's a very bad idea to mix in any kind of more relativistic political message; or to try to turn the "evil" into a metaphor for a modern ideological issue. "Bad" in the sense that more often than not, this will be heavy-handed and add little or nothing to the enjoyment of the experience.

The second kind of game is a game that is your standard emulation of a historical or pseudo-historical setting meant to convey the depth of "authenticity". Like I said in the RPGsite thread, to impose modern issues on those kinds of games is usually going to be jarring and generate a situation of disbelief. Sometimes you can pull it of in a comparative sense (i.e. comparing the Tulipmania of early modern Holland to the tech stock bubble of the 1990s, or something like that). Unless, of course, you're playing a modern game, in which case you do want to use modern ideological issues.

Now, all of you who've read this blog regularly know that I'm a fairly political beast, though it's hard to pin me down as partisan to one end of the spectrum or another. Some have described me as a Classic Liberal, which is as good a term as any. But I will note this: generally speaking, I think it's a bad idea to present the issues in these games in a way that's black/white. Because now, we're not talking mythology, we're talking emulation or if you like, "realism". And reality can be messy. I may want to make a game that presents modern day right-wing politics as dirty, but what I do NOT want to do is create a modern day game where right-wingers are uncomplicatedly mustache-twirlingly evil, or where a player could not play a right-winger in such a way that he could be a relatively complex character.

Why? It's not out of some kind of sense of fairness, it's just because it makes for a better game. Just like it makes for a better game if your pseudo-tolkienesque campaign doesn't have likable villains, it makes for a better game if your non-tolkienesque non-mythological game has profound and complex characters on both sides. It doesn't mean that your every villain has to have likable qualities or be an excusable victim of society ("I'm not really evil!! Its just that I'm an Argentinian with confused feelings about my mom!"). It DOES mean that your villains in this kind of campaign should be doing things for more reasons than just because they're irredeemably eeeeeevil (an excuse that, on the other hand, is perfectly valid in a mythological game), and that in many if not most cases they should be doing the things they do because in some way or another they either believe that they're the good guys or that what they're doing is justifiably right.

In a lot of cases, when you feel strongly about an issue, it's very difficult to understand what motivates the other side, and the temptation is to present them as knowingly and willingly wicked with no good excuse besides being psychopaths. While there's no problem with the occasional psychopath in this kind of game, if ALL of the "other side" are just malevolent bastards, then the game you run is likely to be pretty shallow and ultimately unappealing.

Fundamentally, both the Forgotten Realms and Blue Rose tend to champion certain left-wing social causes and present a certain kind of left-wing ideology. But Blue Rose is far less playable, and far easier to condemn. Its authors mistakenly took that to mean that gamers are all right-wing bastards who disagree with the politics of the game and hate it for that reason. This isn't true, not even of me. There's a ton of nanny-statism in FR too, as well as other ideological themes like gender and sexual identity themes that also appeared in BR and caused controversy; but the difference is that in FR these issues tend to be presented in the context of a larger and more complex game world and without the absolutist proselytizing that you see in BR, where EVERYONE who disagrees with the fundamental ideology of the designers is either evil or stupid. The issues wasn't with the positions that the designers took, it was with the way that they framed those positions in the game and the setting, in such a way that it made the game more unidimensional and unplayable.

There is a third type of game, and this is one where you can get away with having a political issue and painting it in more hyperbolic/absolute terms; and that's the comedic game. Paranoia was originally a biting satire of Reagan-era cold war politics and right-wing propaganda-mongering; in the modern day it can easily be presented as a scathing satire of the Bush administration. With a comedic game you can be far more free to paint things in this kind of absolute tone, as long as you keep the primary emphasis on the funny. Like all political humour, the key to the difference between whether a comedic RPG campaign will be good or will suck ass is whether the comedy is key above and beyond the message or whether the comedy is just a thin veil for pounding the message like a sledgehammer over your player's heads.

Comment away.


Currently Smoking:  Lorenzetti Solitario Horn + Gawith's Navy Flake

(Originally posted October 9th, 2006)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. ^wow, I would have loved to have read that comment!^

  3. An even better satire than Paranoia was The Price of Freedom. Unfortunately it went over the heads of liberals and conservatives alike. Maybe too subtle.

  4. I would have loved for you to read my comment too, Andy. Our host's commitment to free expression has some sharp limits, it seems.

  5. Seriously doubt ol' Pundit deleted your comment due to disagreement given all the rants and vitriolic personal attacks and angry dissents he doesn't bother to delete and often responds to in kind.

  6. Hey there! Could you please give some examples of that left-wing ideology, nanny-statism and gender and sexual identity issues you see in the Forgotten Realms?

    I have not analyzed the setting through that lenses, so I think I completely passed over them without noticing, but being FR the setting I use the most for my D&D/PF campaigns I'm truly interested in that readings and how these issues may be affecting the overall mood of the setting, and my FR games with it.

    1. The FR is a progressive kind of setting on the whole, whch is not to say it is a propagandistic promoter of leftist ideology in the same sense that Blue Rose is. Just that there are many parts of the FR (the Shires and Waterdeep in particular) that presents a medieval setting with a very 20th century (and specifically 20th century Canadian) veneer of communitarianism, vaguely liberal ideas being presented as the qualities of the "good guy" places, and often the bad guy places being ones with ruthless capitalism or more 20th century conservative type values. Also, though it is somewhat whitewashed in the published version of the setting, the FR is extremely sexually and socially liberal (particularly in Greenwood's statements and notes about the setting).

      But note that I'm holding it up here as an example where this sort of stuff is a feature of the setting itself without just making the setting into a facade to bash people over the head with ideological propaganda. I'm saying this is a good way of handling it.

    2. Now that you mentioned it I share your appreciations on the political issues, and I also remember reading some of Ed Greenwood's notes at Candlekeep forums about sexuality in the FR, so I agree on that level too.

      Thanks for clarifying that!