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No Good

No Democracy

by Juhana Pettersson
Jun 05,2003


No Democracy

- Juhana Pettersson

This column is a follow-up to last month's Middle-Class Fantasies. Now that the basics are out of the way, I'll continue to talk more about democracy and do a little fine-tuning about orcs and zombies.

First I'll have to clarify the term political roleplaying. I use this expression to mean games which are political in nature, not games in which politics are the primary content. Thus, I would consider a game about heroic American soldiers fighting to save the Iraqi people from themselves a political game, while a game about vampire politics would not be a political game. It might be a game about politics.

Democratic Kangaroos

Democracy is not an ideal commonly found in art or entertainment. The American soldier in a cheesy Hollywood propaganda movie may shout that he's fighting for freedom and democracy, but those are just words. They're easy to find, but if you want to find a positive example of democratic decision-making or democratic institutions in a movie or a novel, you'll find them much more scarce. Indeed, it often seems that monarchy gets more positive write-ups than democracy, which is supposed to be our ideal.

Rachel Talalay's movie Tank Girl is one of the few films I've ever seen that presents democratic decision-making as useful. The kangaroo people have captured our heroines, and vote on what should be done with them. One of them aggressively puts forth the idea that they should be killed. The matter is put to vote and they decide not to. Doesn't seem very special, but think about it.

There was another example recently on Buffy, where the gang voted Buffy out of her leadership position. Although she later returned, the warlord attitude had left her.

It's generally harder to prove that something is there than that something isn't there. Still, basically all fantasy ever written seems to yearn for fatherly patriarchs to look over the little people, from Eddings to Lord of the Rings. In the new Star Wars movies, a democratic union of planets proves to be a breeding ground for fascism. Later, the Emperor is beaten by knights and a princess, which generally doesn't bode well for the people's right to rule.

In the Phantom Menace, Amidala is a Queen, but apparently she's also an elected official. One gets the impression that at the last minute, they remembered that they were not supposed to glorify monarchies and did some cosmetic retouching, even though in the film, Amidala's environment is decidedly autocratic. The film begs you to ask, what kind of a society would elect aristocratic teenaged beauty queens to positions of power.

Curiously, anarchistic genre literature doesn't tend to be any more democratic. It just replaces monarchies with apathy and individualism, possibly even a might-makes-right mentality. Cyberpunk is definitely anti-establishment, but it also promotes the idea that everybody's got to fight for herself. The novels of China Mieville often tell tales of individual triumphs against conceptual evil.

RPG Democracy

There's a curious fluke in the field of roleplaying games, a game that features a system of representative democracy. That game is Vampire: the Masquerade. This phenomenon is almost universal in Vampire larps, but the basics are in the game itself. The system is simple. The Clans have an internal hierarchy usually based on seniority and/or merit. The Clan heads form the Primogen, who in turn choose the Prince. If an individual vampire has something on his heart, he contacts the Primogen of his Clan, who takes up the cause.

Although the vampires don't vote, popular support is generally the key to remaining in power. Personal power helps, of course, but in Vampire there's always somebody stronger. There are even officials who's primary purpose is to deal in popularity, the Harpies. One could argue that they're the voting officials of vampiredom.

In many Vampire larps I've been in, the essence of the game has been playing this democratic process. Indeed, often the real problem has been that once the establishment is stable, they have no real issues to argue about. Vampire doesn't represent a good ideal democracy, but instead a surprisingly good laboratory of realistic representative democracy in action.

Democracy is a feature unique to larps. In tabletop fantasy games, the players rarely start setting up village councils and systems of representatives, but in fantasy larps, this kind of behavior crops up all the time. I think it's a question of equality. In larps, when everybody is a player, the democratic urge manifests in a very natural way since everybody wants some say in the way things are run. For many, it might even seem like the logical way for the character to act on his own self-interest, despite the medieval fantasy milieu.

I've seen a lot more political live-action games than political traditional games. These examples will probably be familiar to you from my earlier columns.

Ground Zero, a Finnish bomb shelter game. We sat in a shelter for 26 hours straight, in mortal fear of a nuclear war. The Bomb fell eight hours into the game, at which point the radio went dead and all communications with the outside world was lost. War is bad. The point of the game might not have been very original, but it was political.

Europa, a refugee camp game that lasted for a week. Life in the crisis zone. This is another war is bad -game, although it also dealt with ethnic animosities. Both of these games are about the life of civilians in times of crisis. Larp is the ideal medium for this.


One example of the absence of the democratic ideal that has always annoyed me to an excess is the Shi'ar of the X-Men. I'm assuming that among other things, the X-Men stand for democracy, although they never make that the focus of a story. They are heroes, and in our culture, heroes are supposed to be pro-democracy. Still, they don't protest at the patently fascist regime that's running the Shi'ar empire, even though they do have ample opportunity to make a difference. Instead they concentrate their energies into bedding the Empress, as was the case with Xavier.

One of my favorite superheroes is Captain America. This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. Although he may often be a cheap propaganda vehicle, there are some stories which pit him against the corrupt establishment, because that establishment doesn't support the American ideals anymore, as in Frank Miller's Daredevil. In Jim Krueger and Alex Ross's Earth X, he no longer has anything to do with the government, because the government is not worth fighting for. The Captain continues to fight the good fight on his own.

There are all sorts of ideals in Earth X. Freedom and the need to oppose fascism whenever it arises, the evils of non-interference, the power of the individual to change the world. Democracy, however, is absent. Indeed, at the conclusion Reed Richards and the other world leaders, Colossus, Sunfire and King Britain who all seem very undemocratic collectively decide the future of humanity. The idea that the people might have an opinion is not a factor.

Heroes are inherently anti-democratic. The hero generally knows better, is more able and is morally superior than the faceless masses. The hero is a larger than life character the average Joe can look up to and trust to act in his interest, so that he himself doesn't have to. I think a pinnacle of sorts on the heroing business is the idea that the "People can't know the awful truth." This kind of attitude is common in horror, military and spy stuff, and is very, very anti-democratic.

I think this is a central reason why democracy is generally not an ideal in our media. Equality is a great ideal, as is tolerance. Protagonists can fight for these goals. But democracy? You can be equal and tolerant by including a token black homosexual who's okay by our hero, but being democratic is a lot harder.

Orc Nation

In many fantasy games, the evil races have their nations in roughly the same space as the good people. In Forgotten Realms, there are immense forest areas which house elves and orcs in equal measure. Both are organized, and probably war with each other, but don't have real borders. In my previous column I compared the Orcish Kingdoms to Third World countries, but I don't think that's very true.

A better comparison would be the Black Nation. They're among us, but different. They're organized, and possibly hostile. They live next door. The Western World relies on the exploitation of Third World countries, but Cormyr doesn't exploit any orcs. Instead, it looks like both sides are doing their best to provoke things into a war for a common space.

The undead have many possible readings and meanings. The undead may be mindless consumers in the style of Dawn of the Dead. They may be commies. They might be the poor. The mindless consumer undead are rarely found in rpgs, but the communist model seems very valid. It covers the whole hierarchy.

The Undead Communist Utopia is built on the backs of the little people, as all utopias are. The skeletons and zombies have no minds of their own, they are completely subordinated to the will of the totality. Above them, in D&D, are the shadows and ghouls, the middle-men, who have some small autonomy, but in reality the whole thing is led by a single necromancer. The leader is not one of them, as I don't think anti-communists thought that Stalin believed his own propaganda.

The undead are the poor seems like a better modern reading, since the commies are not the enemy anymore. They are stinking, ragged creatures that look like heavily decayed real people. Just like the homeless guy you're trying to avoid on the sidewalk.

But a bigger question remains: Who are the Arabs? Sadly, it seems that all these symbols were invented decades ago, and are a bit slow in adapting to modern propaganda prejudices. Our heroic knights are still out there killing the zombie communists while the real threat is elsewhere.

When I was a kid playing and GMing AD&D, I had a tendency to gravitate towards terrorist and guerilla tactics. I was often admonished for not having the fantasy rpg "vibe". Yet your average band of fantasy heroes makes a very effective terrorist cell, and the tactics are so popular because they work.

But you're still not supposed to make your mage invisible and plant delayed blast fireballs all over the enemy army's camp. Perhaps I'm just complaining because I never got to fulfill my munchkin fantasies as I was almost always the GM.

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What do you think?

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