Your favorite SF RPG columnist is still plugging away, trying to jumpstart his freelance writing career. As I mentioned last time, there are plenty of opportunities coming my way, some of which you'll see in your local store in the coming months. For now, I can't reveal most of them, bound as I am by confidentiality agreements. When I am able to say anything specific, you can be sure you'll read it here. In the meantime, anyone who wants to throw work my way is quite welcome to do so. Just use the e-mail link above and send your offer to me. My thirtieth birthday is rapidly approaching and I desperately want to avoid having to continue in a real job.
Announcer: Tonight: politics and science fiction roleplaying games. Our special guests are Diego NiÔo and Jacques Petithomme. Speaking from the left is James Milquetoast and from the right Jim Malice.
Milquetoast: Is science fiction an inherently liberal genre? And do SF roleplaying games carry this same bias? Or is there, in fact, a conservative slant to these games? We'll start with our first guest, Mr. NiÔo, author of the science fiction game Star Empire.
Thank you for coming, Mr. NiÔo.
NiÔo:It's a pleasure to be here, James.
Milquetoast: You've been very vocal in your criticism of what you perceive as the liberal bias to be found in science fiction roleplaying games. Don't you think you're seriously oversimplifying the matter?
NiÔo: Not at all. If anything, I'm being generous. You need only consider the highest profile games currently on the market to see that starry-eyed liberalism is the norm. What's hot right now ? Star Trek from Last Unicorn Games . The last thing impressionable young minds need is sermonizing from a Frenchman like Captain Picard about being open to all manner of alien deviancy. That kind of stuff might sit well in Culver City – a suburb of LA no doubt – but I can assure that's not what I want my children exposed to.
Milquetoast: But, Mr. NiÔo, you have no children.
NiÔo: Of course not. You think I'd want to bring a child into a world where SF RPGs encourage air-headed utopianism in their GM's advice chapter? And don't even get me started about Blue Planet .
Milquetoast: You clearly have strong opinions about this.
NiÔo: You bet I do, James. Since the '60's, science fiction - and, by extension, SF RPGs - have been a vehicle for all sorts of liberal foolishness: sexual perversions, multiculturalism, the denigration of religion. You pick the aberrant behavior and SF has supported it.
Milquetoast: Isn't that because science fiction has always been about ideas, about looking at the world from a different perspective? A lot of people would claim that it's this kind of openness that has kept sci-fi vital after so many years.
NiÔo: James, you're a nice enough guy, but you're incredibly naïve. Over the last thirty years, science fiction has been nothing but a platform for the destruction of the values the Western World has held dear for so long. People talk about how science fiction is about hope, how it offers up a vision of a better world. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't consider a world in which the government forces me to pay taxes to assist free-loading aliens to be a better world.
Malice: Isn't he right, Mr. Petithomme:? Hasn't science fiction espoused causes that the average person finds repugnant?
Petithomme: Repugnant is a strong world, Jim.
Malice: How else would you describe things like rabid environmentalism, inter-species relationships, and state-sponsored socialism?
Petithomme: Creative, perhaps. Look, in my own game, Visions, I've tried to present a fully realized world with as much depth and diversity as our own. There are problems; there are difficulties. Yet, rather than squabbling about them - as humanity has done for centuries - I've shown a world where the members of the Coalition have decided to pool their resources and work together for a solution. What's wrong with that? Why is that repugnant?
Malice: Because that's not what people would want for themselves.
Petithomme: Of course it isn't. Neither was universal suffrage or integration or even daylight savings time. Yet few people would argue against the goodness of these things now. People always fear novelty and they hate to change unless they're forced to do so. Sometimes, it's necessary -
Malice: Aha! That's where it always ends up with your kind: forcing people to do something "for their own good." You don't want to win people over to your viewpoint. You just want to force them at the point of a gun.
Petithomme: Please! You and I both know that's not true. Besides, if you're so concerned about the will of the people, why do so many science fiction games feature benevolent monarchies and autocracies? Why isn't the baseline setting of Traveller - the oldest SF RPG in existence - a democracy? What's with this fascination with empires? Don't you trust the wisdom of the people?
Malice: Can't you do better than that, Jacques? Feudalism is necessary in Traveller because of the slowness of interstellar communications. It has nothing to do with a supposed preference of Marc Miller for autocracy. That's a straw man if there ever was one. But let's look at Star Wars for a moment. It doesn't present autocracy in a good light. It's a wonderful counter example to your previous statement.
Petithomme: Hardly. Star Wars is just a fascist allegory in which some "supermen" - in this case Jedi - have powers and abilities beyond those of mere mortals like you and me. I mean, the basis for their superiority is even transmitted in their blood, for crying out loud! If that's not a covert support for eugenics, I don’t know what is.
Malice: You and David Brin should try watching the same movies I did sometime. Star Wars is a beautiful fairy tale about personal heroism, belief in oneself, and the possibility of redemption for even the most heinous villain. Surely you can't be opposed to that.
Milquetoast: That does bring up a good point, Mr. Ni Ô o. To what extent should science fiction roleplaying games reflect the political leanings of their designers? I mean, isn't it better to produce a wide-open game that allows for multiple styles of play? Isn't that what the designers of Alternity chose to do?
NiÔo: Well, Alternity is just a set of rules, which isn't exactly the sort of thing that lends itself to a political stance.
Milquetoast : An excellent point. What we're really talking about, then, are the settings of SF RPGs, not the rules themselves. It's in the settings that one's biases and prejudices come through most obviously.
NiÔo: That's a rather disingenuous way of stating it, but, yes, I'm more concerned with the liberal slants of SF settings, not their rules.
Milquetoast: I'm glad we cleared that up. Now perhaps we can get somewhere.
Alright then, let's consider some of the more popular science fiction roleplaying games on the market now. We'll go through them and see what each of you thinks about their settings. We've already mentioned Star Trek, Traveller, Blue Planet––
Petithomme: What? Diego just dismissed Blue Planet entirely, as if its liberal bias had been established as fact.
Milquetoast: I've got to confess, Mr. Petithomme, that even I have to agree with him on this one. I'd say Blue Planet is a very clear case of the designer's political leanings showing through for all to see.
Petithomme: Then you'd be wrong. Why is projecting a future in which the environment has suffered horrible degradation a "liberal bias?" Some scientists wouldn't even consider such a projection science fiction at all. More importantly, post-disaster settings are just as likely to be conservative ones. Twilight: 2000, anyone?
Malice: Wait a minute, Jacques. This is just another attempt to evade the issue. Everyone knows that post-holocaust settings are a non-issue. They're deader than Karl Marx. Don't you read RPGnet?
Petithomme: Now look who's evading the issue. Whether or not anyone cares about post-apocalyptic settings or not isn't the issue. The fact is that, in and of itself, using an environmentally unstable Earth does not make Blue Planet some kind of propaganda piece for eco-terrorists. Agree with it or disagree with it, Blue Planet presents its players with a world in which problems – in this case, environmental ones – exist that require heroic efforts to reverse. I just don't see what's wrong with that. Why shouldn't a game encourage heroism? Isn't that why we play roleplaying games in the first place?
Malice: Perhaps so, but you can't deny that many settings force on players a certain way of looking at the world.
Petithomme: Great! Science fiction is all about getting people to look at the world in a different way than they might otherwise have done. I mean, I'm not very fond of Trinity's setting – it's a little too comic booky for my tastes – but I still enjoy reading its supplements. The best of them make me think about things a little differently than I usually do. That's what good SF has always done.
Milquetoast: That's an excellent point, Mr. Petithomme. I know exactly what you mean. I'm no fan of organized religion, as you know, but I can't help but be impressed by Fading Suns. Sure, the folks at Holistic Design have made heroes out of the Church, but I can overlook that and appreciate what the game has to offer in other areas.
Malice: Fading Suns makes the Church into heroes? There you go again, James. Only you would think that a game that has technophobic, flamegun-wielding inquisitors is actually a paean to the glories of organized religion. Sometimes you amaze even me with your ability to misinterpret what is obviously an attack on religion.
Petithomme: If I may join in here: excuse me? Didn't you listen to what I just said? Fading Suns isn't an attack on religion. By the designers' own admission, the game isn't even really about religion at all. Yes, there's a Church and, yes, some of its more zealous adherents are wackos who flame first and ask questions later – if ever. But that's not what the game is about anymore than Blue Planet is about spiking trees and wearing socks with sandals.
NiÔo: [shudder] What a horrible image, Jacques.
Petithomme: I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, Diego, but sometimes that's not a bad thing.
When I wrote Visions two years ago, my goal was simple: give people a gaming environment in which they could tell a few good stories and be heroes for a change. And if the issues the game raises – tolerance, cooperation, walking a mile in another man's moccasins – make people think as well, that's terrific. I'd be surprised if there was a game on the market today that was written solely to push some political position.
Diego, did you write Star Empire in 1980 as conservative propaganda?
NiÔo: Of course not. But I did write it as an homage to some forgotten virtues, like honor and patriotism. It's always been my hope that those virtues might come to mean something to those who played the game.
Petithomme: And they may very well have done that. The important point, though, is that games don't survive for as long as Star Empire by being one-trick ponies. If all you've got to sell is a narrow political point, no one's going to buy. Anyone remember Bagelmeister?
Malice: Ugh! How can I forget it?
Petithomme: Exactly. But does anyone play it anymore?
NiÔo: You can always find a few weirdoes at cons, but that's about all. I think its publisher went out of business not long after the game's release. Must have cost them a great deal to produce the damn thing.
Petithomme: Well, there you have it. If your game is really just a political tract with a combat system, then no one's going to go for it. Whatever you may think of Star Trek or Blue Planet, these things are successful because they offer more than a narrow-minded view of the world. Heck, I don’t agree with Diego's politics any more than James does, but I've got to admit that Star Empire is a great game. Playing it in high school is one of the reasons I became a game designer in the first place.
NiÔo: I had no idea. I'm really quite flattered.
Malice: Enough of that! This isn't supposed to be a big love-in. We're here to yell loudly at one another about important issues of the day.
NiÔo: It's hard to do that when your adversary makes such sense. Perhaps Jacques is on to something here. If a roleplaying game is going to survive, it's got to have a broad enough appeal to attract players. Now, this doesn't mean the game can't have an angle or a perspective. In fact, I think most games would be pretty boring if they didn't have one.
Petithomme: Oh yes. There's nothing duller than a person – or a game – without an opinion. At the same time, that opinion can't be the game's only shtick.
Milquetoast: Agreed. So, I think we've actually reached a conclusion – a first on this program.
Malice: And, I hope, a last as well.
Milquetoast: Now, now, Jim. We should savor this moment.
Malice: No way. I didn't get into this business to come to conclusions. I need the red meat of a pointless argument.
Milquetoast: Never fear. We haven't opened the forum to outside callers yet. I'm sure they'll have plenty of reasons to argue some more.
Malice: I can hardly wait.
What do you think?