New on Desk #9 — Politics of Cyberpunk

It’s been a cold chilly winter week, not very eventful. I’ve gotten some writing done as I’ll detail at the tail-end of the newsletter, but otherwise it’s mostly been about warming the stove and dreaming of the revolution for me.

The crumbling conservative facade

The cyberpunk genre of literature has some basic political precepts that all but define the genre. It’s just like western in that regard, there are simply some things that if you change them make the whole setting not make much sense. Let’s see:

Corporate feudalism: Class mobility is dead in the cyberpunk world, and what middle-class exists maintain their function in society through corporate structures owned by the elites. The world politics have regressed into a fundamentally conservative mode where the holy writs of ownership and class privilege face no serious challenge in the political arena. Elite power is maintained by technology that has changed society, enabling the new aristocracy to overcome popular resistance in a way that hasnt’ been possible since the 19th century.

Post-ideological working class: The subtle class warfare of the corporate elites has over time succeeded in breaking class consciousness at such a fundamental level that the common man’s street culture does not make any sense anymore; the fractured culture expresses itself in primitive tribal rules and petty traditions, all the better to turn citizens against each other and draw attention away from the elites that stole the world.

Anarchic flash point: We don’t know if the society depicted by cyberpunk is inherently stable or unstable, but it is clear that it is constantly on the brink of convulsive violence. The violence is, however, politically impotent and changes nothing because while the urban society of cyberpunk is hyper-aware of the human factor, it very rarely pays any attention at all to the physical infrastructure that maintains the power relationships. You can shoot as many poor people as you want, or as many rich people, but that does nothing to change the fact that the power company holds life and death power over you. The technological society is generally presented as unreachable and abstract in cyberpunk; when did you last see a cyberpunk story visit a hydroponic farm? Even the middle-class people who keep the machinery going are usually sort of abstractly present, with the story focusing on the interactions of the poor and the rich.

Aesthetization of suffering: All of the above precepts of cyberpunk are always presented as extremely cool. It’s romantic to be homeless. It’s sweet to have a cybernetic prosthesis built in a junkyard. Who wouldn’t want to participate in street violence with junkies and corporate mercenaries. The whole arrangement makes sense when you remember that this is all an entertainment spectacle targeted at you, the privileged member of the middle-class. Entertainment with a moral, admittedly.

Political Overview

Let’s speak real politics for a moment. This isn’t an act or a literary affectation, just what I imagine myself to have learned about the nature of social reality over my years on this Earth. A drop of wisdom from the philosopher’s armchair, if you will:

When humans live in stable cross-generational society, a fundamental implication is that we as new-borns enter a societal system already in action. Fairness is fundamentally not an option because the single greatest political force of every society ever has been Conservatism: every person for whom the current society fundamentally works is united in preserving the system as it stands. There is moral posturing, but the standard Conservative political alliance consists of the people for whom the system works and who do not wish to endanger what they already have. There is the wealthy elite, obviously, but also the middle-class, which might as well be defined as the people well-to-do enough to buy into the system and support the status quo of society.

Premodern politics of Europe had been primarily personal clique politics specifically because true distinction between conservative political actors did not exist: everybody is ideologically ultimately the same, desiring to perpetuate their own rule and privilege, so the only source of disagreement revolves around personal greed and ambition. Not that a great ruckus can’t be organized on that basis, but the political differences were not ultimately ideological; not unless you can convince yourself that this king being better than that king is an ideology. This corporation better than that corporation.

European political order was taken on an irreversible new course by emerging modernity during the 18th century. The Conservative monoculture of the ruling class was challenged by Liberalism, a new political ideology fueled by the notion of benefiting from and riding the advance of the developing society. Just like Conservatism, Liberalism has historically been a fundamentally selfish ideology: Liberal politics and liberal governments have existed at all due to the interests of industrialists being in incontrovertible economic conflict with those of traditional land-owners. The moral posturing is again secondary to the covert struggle for financial interests: on one side those who wish for the world to remain as it always was, with themselves on top, and on the other side those who wish to become the new masters, leveraging inevitable change driven by higher laws of progress. Were history not fundamentally on the side of progress (as we can say by now), it wouldn’t even have been a struggle, but as it happened, Liberalism proved politically feasible for many generations as Europe continued to reinvent its economy one industrial revolution at a time and thrust up new bourgeoisie elites that would ultimately all but bury the old.

If you’re following what I’m saying, it should be pretty obvious that the last generation’s Liberal is today’s Conservative, ideologically speaking. The fundamental distinction is whether you’ve already got your own, so once you’ve managed something that works out for you, it’s time to make a transition from the Liberal to the Conservative. These processes of ideological allegiance are at work in the middle-class just as much as in the elite of society, I should emphasize: life is not a race towards the very peak of society, it is very possible for a middle-class person to commit to a Conservative world-view just as long as they are fundamentally satisfied with their lot.

The stable push and pull between Conservative and Liberal interests in European politics was interrupted by the arrival of revolutionary populism — Socialism — in the 19th century. What defined this new political movement was attempting a transfer of political power away from the society’s elites and into the hands of the people. Again setting moral posturing aside, what drives Socialism as a political force is the economic reality of exclusion: insofar as the existing elite fails to create and continuously renew a deep political compromise, they empower a political movement of the oppressed.

Socialism is obviously entirely opposed to the ideals of Conservatism because what the former desires — a new deal — is specifically, and has always been, the very thing that Conservatism opposes. When you already have a society that works for you, you do not desire change; when you have a society that oppresses you, you desire change. Simple stuff ultimately, for all that humans prefer to have philosophical justifications more convoluted than “my benefit” for their political outlook.

Traditional liberalism has been weakening as a political force over the last century while Conservative and Socialist political movements have grown stronger. Keeping the above definition in mind, the issue is ultimately that a mature economy cannot sustain economic liberalism because there is no on-going industrial revolution empowering the rise of new elites that would benefit from adopting a liberalist political platform.

The name of Liberalism, incidentally, has been captured and repurposed by both Conservative and Socialist political movements, which is why we generally want to talk about “classical liberalism” in distinction to what the term means today. (I think that Liberalism as a living political tradition has mostly died out by now.) Most liberals I see nowadays are basically Conservative in the sense of supporting the pre-existing social contract, except with a cherry on top. (The “cherry” is fine-tuning social justice values in society, to be clear; wealth inequality and the plutocracy in general is fine, we just need to make sure it’s not gendered or racial in nature.) Some are Socialist in that they view the social liberalism as a precondition of progress. I guess it would be useful to call a Conservative “liberal” a liberal and a Socialist liberal a “Progressive”, eh?

The fundamental question of politics as it relates to human condition in general, it seems to me, concerns Conservatism: are you satisfied with the state of society? What makes this a personal existential question is the fact that your satisfaction is a thing inside your head, not some sort of observable external fact. Being Conservative is being happy, being satisfied, perhaps being afraid of monsters threatening your happiness. The world is full of happy, satisfied people who form the backbone of the Conservative political status quo.

Now, in the Year of Cyberpunk, we live in a society that reflects the traditional cyberpunk visions in a way that I think is pretty interesting. The middle-class is still an on-going concern (in comparison to the cyberpunk dystopia’s feudalization), but the weakening of class mobility and political trivialization of the middle-class (as consequence of the death of Liberalism) hint at the possibility of the cyberpunk future where the middle-class consists of suits living as corporate employees to elite interests. Maybe cyberpunk is one of those things that needs to happen “30 years in the future” consistently to remain credible.

A deep topic, obviously, but let’s not go any further into that in this platform. Rather, consider how political insight may make us better cyberpunk authors.

Desk archeology: versus literature

Completely switching tracks, one idea I had earlier this week was that it could be useful and amusing if I took my old notes on the “Magical Swordsmen Versus League” and wrote up a sample article about it for the blog. Because what I just wrote doesn’t make any sense, let me start from the beginning:

One of the new postmodern literary genres that the Internet has graced us with is something I like to call “versus literature”. It’s basically an institutionalized form of age-old “which would win in a fight, a bear or a lion?”, or rather its comics geek form, “who would win, Thor or the Hulk?” The genre is written and published nowadays primarily in largish forum communities such as Spacebattles and ComicsVine, which tend to be debate-based, with intricate debate rules used to resolve various important conundrums such as “how far would Doomguy get in Diablo?” or whatever.

(Diving on those forums I just linked makes for a bit of a dense introduction to the genre, so you might wish to look for something less raw to sate your need for idle entertainment — people make Youtube videos about this stuff, for example.)

For clarity’s sake, this is a really stupid genre of literature (prepare to shift through tons of bullshit for that nugget of gold), but I also find it interesting for the sheer postmodernism. The rigorous debate rules and the literary theory they draw on are intricate, and when the writer succeeds, they can be genuinely compelling in a way somewhat similar to a good art critique: the author can help you appreciate the original work more. And of course there’s a fan fiction aspect here, inherently, as people speculate about stories never told before.

So anyway, now we know what versus literature is. My “Magical Swordsmen Versus League” is a casual versus project that I put together earlier this decade but never got around to actually writing out in detail. The concept involves gathering a number of “magical swordsmen” (a pretty arbitrary category, but think Elric of Melnibone; he’s magical and he’s a swordsman) and having them duel as per my own take on proper versus analysis rules. The result would be a series of action scenes combined with literary analysis, basically. If you told me that this is a solo roleplaying game I wouldn’t really disagree, particularly as long as I haven’t productized the league into something you can read and enjoy yourself.

We’ll see if I get around to it, but I could imagine myself writing up one of the many battles considered in my league. I’ve been speculating about doing “Witcher vs Jedi” on account of those being reasonably well-known figures of fiction (and it’s a pretty good fight, too). Could be fun.

Gentlemen on the Agora

My cultural saloon of choice had such things to say this week:

  • Superhero hobbyists in the old-fashioned sense of the word are pretty rare nowadays. A Xennial (see, call-back to a newsletter from a few weeks ago — I learn things) contributor speculated about not necessarily grokking the genre in an authentic way despite having read superhero comics on and off through their life. They’re probably correct, too: the sense I get about the matter is that the real superhero geeks of generation X were brewed in a 1970s youth culture where things like VHS or video games or other entertainment options were much more sparse, making for a more mono-focused superhero comics hobby. More like my big brother’s generation than mine, which I think shows in our respective attitudes to superheroes.
  • The observation about superheroes lent itself to an interesting discussion about the way authentic commitment to the material acts as a a practical barrier to entry in certain types of roleplaying. Aside from superheroes, Star Trek gaming was discussed as something that all but requires a group that shares a commitment to the material in advance of play. This is a clear distinction from games that support learning by doing.
  • A contributor was dreaming of playing Ars Magica (the gentlemen read this newsletter, so you sometimes see topics echoed like this) with the interesting twist that they’ve found the game’s troupe style gestulation to fail at the gaming table: in practice most players don’t want to be co-GMs, which means that the head GM doesn’t really get to play a character even occasionally. Not a problem if you don’t want that in the first place, but it is certainly true that taking turns in the GMing is merely a fond wish in AM, not backed by anything in the game itself. An amusing mechanical conceit was discussed to encourage revolving GMing: players whose wizards go into Twilight would have to run a session to get the wizard out of it. This combined with some mechanical nuances might work for a group willing to play by the rules but with nobody being very interested in gamemastering.
  • One of the contributors had gotten around to playing Shovel Knight, a considerately crafted Mega Man retroclone — an action platformer video game — of some success. An amusing exchange ensued about the role and nature of bottomless pits in action platformers: why does the Shovel Knight have such a wide panoply of arms and armor, and a long hit point gauge, if they’re taken out by one tumble into a pit? Being whittled to death by enemies and falling into a pit are asymmetric ways of death in this genre of game, with equipment affecting one doing nothing to the other. Players of D&D might recognize the same phenomenon of dual-tracked death in the hit point whittling and save-or-die magic of the game. Obviously the ever-so-helpful answer to the pains of a middle-aged man trying to play an arcade-style dexterity game is “git gud”: it’s a casual difficulty game, you’re doing something wrong if you fall into those pits.
  • Is Runequest a spicy dice game despite having fixed player-facing target numbers? The gentlemen generally agreed this to be the case, as the GM still controls the roll stakes; the target number and the nominal success/fail doesn’t mean much if you wish to use illusionist techniques to massage the results. Just have them roll as many times as it takes to get the result you want, which is actually made easier by Runequest compared to a standard model trad game (ability + skill + die vs target number) due to its preference of using multiple rolls in lieu of circumstance modifiers. (Like, in RQ if you’re climbing a particularly high wall you’re supposed to roll the Climb skill several times instead of modifying the target number on the single skill check.)
  • A contributor had been reading the Finnish edition of The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe’s fantasy classic. The book was considered a dense slog which accords with the experiences of most of the gentlemen. (I’m a noisy minority myself, considering the book a delight, a rare example of legit literature in a genre soaked in schlock.) An interesting comparison was made to Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, another genre novel from the early ’80s with some literary pretension. However, where one is baroque in language and rich in the weird fantasy, the other is straight prose and possessing of a single emblematic phantasmagoric element around which the plot entirely revolves. Which do you like?
  • And, of course, D&D 5th edition was considered, as a contributor fielded their notion of maybe trying it out as their first encounter with D&D. The advantages would include an easier time finding players, at least. The gentlemen aren’t generally big fans, being unique snowflakes with obscure rules sets or intricate homebrews; almost all historical editions of the game were recommended by someone as the better choice. Theory-wise the contributor was adviced to go into the game with clear middle school D&D principles (AD&D 2nd edition style of play) unless endless skirmish combats with the players mainly interacting with the campaign on charop precepts was their thing.

Club Hannilus, that other cola

I had some interesting discussions with our Discord/Hangouts gaming group this week, too. To be specific, I was schooled about Dino Riders, an ’80s toy/cartoon property that I hadn’t looked into before. Check this out, there’s some merit to these themes:

  • The Dino-Riders are a remnant of a sophisticated ’50s scifi civilization of humans-in-jumpsuits escaping the destruction of their home world of Valoria and ending up on dinosaur Earth (think dinosaurs, cavemen, etc.) to rebuild their lives. Using their animal empathy and other psionic powers they befriend the local dinosaurs (animal in intelligence, to be clear).
  • Meanwhile, the bad guys are Rulons, lizard people with a hard-on for conquest and slavery. After destroying the home world of the Valorians the Rulon flagship is forced to follow the Valorian remnants to dinosaur Earth where they waste no time enslaving the dinosaur population with “brain-boxes”, electronic bolt-on controls that force the dinosaurs to do what they want.

I’m particularly fond of how the core theme of the toy line is the treatment of animals: the good guys may be patriarchal in the way an American toy line’s gotta be, but their commitment to symbiotic ecological relationship with the world around them stands in stark contrast to the fascism of their enemies. It’s an amusingly naive, hippy arrangement all told.

I’m also interested because Dino-Riders work well in my “Ecological Superheroes of the ’80s” fan fiction (maybe GURPS campaign?) universe. The basic premise is to figure out how Captain Planet and Toxic Avenger shake out as a Superman/Batman analogue in a weird ’80s superhero setting where everything just happens to be ecologically themed. I’m thinking that the Dino-Riders would make for a good time-distanced dimension to the setting, similar to how the Legion of Superheroes works in DC comics, popping up now and then from their distant future world to interact with Superman. Maybe one of them — the youthful hero Yungstar perhaps — could get time-lost in the present-day setting and become an animal-themed superhero with the Valorian animal empathy technology, fighting a guerrilla war against the furrier industry; stranger things have happened in superhero comics.

Aside from the ecological business we’ve been chatting about ever-green Agora topics; the club host is a regular contributor at the Agora as well, so there’s a certain dynamical tendency for us to go over popular Agora topics for the benefit of a new audience. The cultural industry of combat choreography has been topical, for example, causing me to watch some important combat scenes from the Game of Thrones tv series, which I haven’t otherwise followed. Surprisingly good stuff, the series has clearly benefited from having some less Hollywood-indoctrinated fight choreography thinking than usual. Unsurprisingly the Hannila test of combat rules has gotten a work-out, this being Club Hannilus talking about proper action choreographies.

(The Hannila test is a piece of I guess acerbic rpg theory native to the Agora. I’ll define it here because there’s otherwise no earthly way for outsiders to know what I’m talking about:)

Hannila test: the test is performed on a rpg combat rules system to find out whether it is unrealistic in the traditionally characteristic way of tabletop rpg combat rules. No matter how heavy and detailed the rules chassis, there are certain things that are quantified with utmost care while certain other things reside in a blind spot that might as well not exist in the nature of violence as far as traditional rpg culture is concerned.

To perform the test, process a combat encounter in the game’s setting between two combatants of whom one is young while the other is old; one is male and the other female; one is angry while the other is afraid; one is protecting their dearest while the other is not; one is exhausted while the other is not; one has a glaive while the other has a dagger; one is prepared for violence while the other is not; the encounter happens in a marshy woods. One of the combatants is a skilled veteran soldier, the other an eager amateur.

The system fails the Hannila test if that last factor (level, skill rating, to-hit bonus) completely overshadows the other details of the scenario when it comes to resolving the fight. This might be what you want, of course; the test is an interesting observation about the nature of realism in traditional tabletop rpgs, not a design recommendation per se.

State of the Prose Production Facilities

As you might have noticed, I published the second article inspired by the January polls, the theory bit on Storyboarding, this week. So that wraps up February commitments, and just in time, too: the month just turned to March, which means that another poll came to an end. The results indicate another article on C2020 Redux, and a theory summary of my pointbuy game design thoughts — worthy topics both. We had 29 votes in total; if I assume that it’s an average of 4 votes per reader over the month, that amounts to seven voters or so. (I’m thinking that the real number is probably a little bit higher than that, but I who knows.) Here’s the final tally:

[February 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • C2020 Redux: Character Creation Rules (18%, 16 Votes)
  • Pointbuy game design (17%, 15 Votes)
  • Subsection M3 (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Using Mentzer Immortals for Xianxia D&D (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Neoplatonic Hellraiser stuff (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Star Control RPG Notes (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Magic: the Gathering RPG Notes (9%, 8 Votes)
  • Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (8%, 7 Votes)
  • Blood Bowl RPG campaign and rules (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Critical review of Batman comics (1%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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Based on the first two months it seems to me that the readers are somewhat equally interested in theory and game design, and generally less interested in topics outside the immediate realm of gaming. Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how I write these, perhaps we’ll see changes in the voting strategies. (Hopefully not changes in voting motivation; I find your feedback useful in deciding what to write about, so please don’t stop voting altogether.) I’ll continue adding black horse options into the poll as they occur to me, but please let me know if you think up of anything you’d like to see me write about.

I’ll also note that writing these articles “on order” felt pretty good; I’ve had trouble motivating myself to write over the last decade, so I’m happy to publish even something simple and minor such as this, directed to do so by the merciless data bars of an anonymous poll. The experience inspires me to consider a weekly article schedule on top of the newsletter on the weekends; this would imply writing on a couple of topics determined by poll, as we’ve seen, plus a couple of pieces on topics of my own choosing.

We’ll see if I’ll really make a habit of extra articles, but it seems I’ll be doing at least one of those this month: I wrote a piece on the core task resolution mechanics of C2020 last week that should either make or break the C2020 Redux project, so that needs to come out before I tackle the character creation article indicated by the polls. We’ll have two C2020 articles this month, in other words.

[March 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Observations on GNS Simulationism (20%, 28 Votes)
  • [design]More C2020 Redux (17%, 25 Votes)
  • [design] Many Faces of Ars Magica (16%, 23 Votes)
  • [design] Subsection M3 rules drafts (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [theory] Musings on Game State in RPGs (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Xianxia with Mentzer Immortals (8%, 11 Votes)
  • [theory] Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (7%, 10 Votes)
  • [design] My Blood Bowl RPG notes (6%, 8 Votes)
  • [writing] Magical Swordsmen Versus Fight Club (3%, 5 Votes)
  • [design] 007 by the way of CRedux (3%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Ecological '80s Superheroes, the setting (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Something else (specify in comments) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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In case you’re wondering about my reasoning in removing or retaining last month’s topics on the poll, it’s a combination of popularity and how timely the topic is from my perspective. That’s why the Bloodbowl stuff gets a new try despite a poor showing last month, as I’m actively gearing up to play it later in the spring, while the middle of the pack bunch of topics got cruelly shoved aside to make space for new ideas.

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