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Archive => RPG Theory => Topic started by: Roger on November 10, 2005, 10:28:27 AM



Title: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 10, 2005, 10:28:27 AM
Of Utopias and Dystopias


Settings, in role-playing games as well as in fiction, can be very broadly described as resting somewhere on a spectrum which has utopias on one end and dystopias on the other.

By utopia, I mean an ideal and perfect world.  If you'd do anything to live there, it's probably a utopia.

By dystopia, I mean a terrible, awful world.  If you'd do anything to avoid living there, it's probably a dystopia.

Somewhere between the two is a neutral ground which is neither strongly utopic nor strongly dystopic.


Similarly, characters, in a very broad sense, are somewhere between heroic and pathetic.  If you want to be like the character, he is probably heroic; if you wouldn't want to be anything like the character, he is probably pathetic.


Some examples:

Dungeons and Dragons gives us strongly heroic characters in a  mildly utopic setting.  Various other settings such as Dark Sun and Ravenloft have been less utopic, but the characters largely remain heroic.

Call of Cthulhu gives us generally heroic characters in a dystopic setting.  There are terrible things out there, but the characters are usually fighting the good fight.

Vampire: The Masquerade is a bit tricky.  The setting is a dystopia.  Nominally, the characters are pathetic creatures, driven by inhuman desires.  In play, however, the characters are usually strongly heroic.  They have superhuman powers, with limits that are often only cosmetic at best.

Subtly, there can be differences between what the players think of the setting, and what the characters think of the setting.  The characters in V:tM may well see the setting as utopic, and may consider themselves to be more pathetic than the players might.

Paranoia is a dystopia, although it's played for laughs.  The characters are fairly neutral.  They have some special powers, but also some severe limitations.

Superhero games, in general, give us utopian settings and heroic characters.

Kill Puppies for Satan give us deeply pathetic characters.  The setting is largely neutral, however.  Sure, there are agents of Satan at work, but all they're liable to do is send Spot to the great dog pound in the sky.

My Life With Master is classically dystopic.  The characters have both pathetic and heroic elements -- indeed, much of the game is about how these elements interact and change.

Gamma World may be dystopic to the players, but it is neutral, or even slightly utopic, to the characters.  The characters are generally heroic to the players, though they may see themselves in a more neutral light.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a bit tricky.  I'm inclined to say the setting is dystopic, at least to the players.  It's probably significantly more utopic to the characters.  The characters are generally neutral with heroic leanings.

Zombie games, as a very broad category, are generally dystopic.  The characters span a wide range between heroic and pathetic, depending on the specific game.  Moreso than in many other games, the characters may be neutral.

Warhammer Fantasy is dystopic, particularly in comparison to D&D.  The characters are generally heroic, though that can vary between characters and over time.


Trends and Observations


In fiction, at least, utopias have been out of fashion for quite some time, losing significant ground to dystopias, which are as popular as ever.

With RPGs, the trend is not quite as clear.  Among the indie scene, dystopias are dominant.  The settings are almost universally horrible places that no one in their right mind would ever want to visit, let alone inhabit.

Among mainstream games, however, I'm of the impression that utopian settings are still going strong.  The generic medieval fantasy is free of peasant abuses, bad sanitation, and religious intolerance.

Heroic characters, at least in fiction, are still widely enjoyed.  The occasional pathetic anti-hero comes along, but only as an exception.

The pathetic character is better represented in indie rpgs.  Indeed, a game could likely claim a place among the indie ranks only by virtue of pathetic characters.  Among the mainstream games and many indie games, however, heroic characters are still the mainstay.


Exercises for the Reader


I would suggest the following questions are worthwhile to consider:

- Why are there so many fictional dystopias as compared to fictional utopias?

- Why do so many of the mainstream RPGs have utopian settings?

- Why do so many of the indie RPGs have dystopian settings?

- Why are heroic characters more popular than pathetic characters?


To the game designers out there, I would suggest that the following questions are important with respect to your own games:

Setting:

- Is my setting utopian, dystopian, or neutral?  What value does that add to the game?  Would the game be substantially changed if the setting moved elsewhere on the spectrum?

- Do the characters think of the setting in the same way the players do?

- If my setting is dystopian, what could make it even worse?  If it is utopian, what could make it even better?

Characters:

- Are the characters heroic, pathetic, or neutral?  How does the System make that happen?

- What would happen if a player tries to make a character of the opposite type?

- Do the characters typically become more heroic through play, more pathetic through play, or do they generally stay the same?

- What about NPCs?  Are they more heroic or more pathetic than the player characters?

- Do the characters look at themselves in the same way as the players do?


I don't necessarily expect or want specific answers to these questions myself.  I merely offer them as another way to think about games and game design.



Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: MatrixGamer on November 10, 2005, 10:37:11 AM
Let me see...a game about pathetic whimps on the planet Crypton.

Not much drama in that unless you want to wallow in self hatred.

"My guy tries to get up in the moring but just can't manage it..."

No, no drama at all. That's the problem with Utopias - no problems.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Josh Roby on November 10, 2005, 11:27:55 AM
Roger, your terms are... really imprecise and some of them are used in subtly but importantly different ways than their common definitions.

Utopias are ideal societies, they are not settings.  Strictly speaking, a setting cannot be utopian or dystopian; the societies depicted in the setting will be.  Dystopias are nightmare societies, the opposite of utopias, and the same applies there on the setting/society distinction.

Heroes are characters who affect change in their world that accords with cultural norms; "pathetic" characters are characters who a reader can sympathize with.  Neither distinction has anything to do with power level.  The addition of super powers does not create heroes; the lack of extraordinary abilities does not prevent characters from being heroes.  Heroes, villains, and any other character can be pathetic or not.  There is no spectrum between heroic and pathetic behavior, and indeed in the best of circumstances, a story has behavior which is both heroic and pathetic at the same time.

If you want to talk about power level of characters or the general shittiness of the setting, I think there is some useful discussion to be found there (starting with finding a better term than "general shittiness"), but these are not the terms to do it in.  I'd suggest that the focus be on the setting's potential for conflict, and the characters' comparative ability to resolve those conflicts in their favor.

Chris, that's a commonly-held but very erroneous tack to take.  Utopias are not settings without conflicts; they are ideal societies.  There is nothing to say that utopias cannot have conflicts, and in fact utopian societies can actually foster more focused and specific thematic content because characters drawn from these societies defending them against conflicts have a strongly defined set of ideals that they strive for.  The Federation in Star Trek (especially in TNG) is a utopia; they didn't run out of things to do for years upon years.  As an RPG example, Blue Rose is an excellent setting with a utopian kingdom that the characters defend from threats within and without.  For that matter, the Faithful in Dogs in the Vineyard are a utopian society (whether or not you agree with their ideals) and characters get a lot of oomph out of defending its ideals from conflicts that threaten them.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Joel on November 10, 2005, 01:54:20 PM
I agree with Joshua. You're using very specific terms to describe general ideas. To that end, I would argue that "pathetic" characters are not characters you sympathize with, but characters that do not take action in defense of themselves. That doesn't necessarily make them uninteresting, or even not fun to play. Take Hamlet for example.

I do, however, agree with the "meat and potatoes" of what you're saying. Many of the "Mainstream" games give you an Ideal World, and the Indies (Which I am just now becoming acquainted with) do go into darker realms.

Why? Well as far as the mainstream goes, it's marketability. No one wants to try and sell a book that's going to appeal to niche group. There's no way to recoup costs, and that's what the majority of the "Mainstreams" are trying to accomplish. As for the Indies, I would suggest that the reason behind an Independent movement in ANYTHING is that the status quo simply isn't good enough anymore.

So do something about it! And that, I believe, is what the people here at the Forge are doing. At least I hope it is, because that's why I've started coming here. :-)


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: M. J. Young on November 10, 2005, 07:38:25 PM
Setting aside the question of whether the proposed terminology is good, let me attempt to address the questions.
- Why are there so many fictional dystopias as compared to fictional utopias?

- Why do so many of the mainstream RPGs have utopian settings?

- Why do so many of the indie RPGs have dystopian settings?

- Why are heroic characters more popular than pathetic characters?
I've created a few utopias both as game worlds and as settings for fiction. Although Chris' notion that such settings are completely boring is overstated, the fact is that if you have a utopia you pretty much have to make something go wrong to get a story out of it. The utopia has a hidden dark underbelly, or the utopia is abruptly threatened from the outside, or someone rebels against the structure for reasons that are solely personal. With a dystopia, you automatically have problems.

I am not certain whether it can be said that mainstream RPGs tend toward utopian settings. They do tend to be skewed to favor the side on which the player characters are expected to be aligned. For example, Gary Gygax designed many elements of Dungeons & Dragons to favor the good guys, because he wanted the players to play the good guys and he wanted them to win. It's fun to be on the winning side, and if doing the right thing will put you on the winning side, that's a reinforcing aspect. For what it's worth, of the early games I played the one we dreaded was Gamma World. Whether it was the referee's style or the game's design (I'm inclined to think the latter, as I've heard similar reports from others), we always felt as if at any moment we might die for having done something for which there was not so much as a hint to warn us. Even when there were hints, we often missed them. Other games--D&D, Star Frontiers, even Metamorphosis Alpha for the brief time we were playing it--gave us to feel like we had a good chance to win and the chance was getting better. Gamma World made us feel like we had a good chance of dying, and the odds of dying were constantly increasing. To some degree we played it so as not to offend the guy who put the time into preparing it; to some degree we played for the same reason that proverbial guy banged his head against the wall: it felt good when we stopped. The dystopian world made it very difficult to build any hope in that game, and so it did not give us the same kind of reward we got from playing heroic characters in worlds in which we were generally successful in our endeavors.

As to Indie games tackling dystopian worlds, it may in large part be an effort to explore what has been left unexplored, supplemented by the desire to do something distinctive so as to stand out from the crowd. It may also be that because these games are distinguished thus they are the ones noticed. There have probably been far more fantasy heartbreakers written by independent game designers than there have been dystopian settings, but the former all blur together as "D&D clones" and the latter make their marks in the game world.

Finally, we like to play heroic characters because in identifying with them we feel good about ourselves. Most of us can remember reading superhero comics, and identifying with Batman or Spiderman or whoever, in the sense that we wanted to be that character. If we're old enough, we wanted to be the heroic cowboys. We wanted to be the detective that solves the crime, the police officer who saves the day, the knight in shining armor that slays the dragon. In short, we wanted to be the admirable person to whom the world looks with respect. As you observe, the characters in World of Darkness games are generally drawn to be pathetic, but played as heroic. Games in which you play pathetic characters tend to encourage dissociation from them, so that you can manipulate the characters in creating the story without the feeling that you're the creep or the loser.

Those are my first impressions on this.

--M. J. Young


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 14, 2005, 10:00:15 AM
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

In looking over the comments and giving the topic further thought, I think I've figured out what it is I'm trying to talk about.

It's an issue of wish-fulfillment, and its complement, which I'm going to call fear-fulfillment.

Utopias and dystopias (which I think are serviceable enough terms for now, but I'm open to suggestions) are those we wish we could live in, or fear we could live in, respectively.

Admirable and despicable characters (an improvement over heroic and pathetic, I hope) are those we wish we could be, or fear we might become.

Is there something more inherently marketable about wish-fulfillment?  Is there something more inherently artistic about fear-fulfillment?  I'm not entirely sure.  It's certainly a safe bet in any industry to just follow the money around.  On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if, like many other facets of RPGs, it arises out of unquestioned tradition.  That's the way it was in "The Lord of the Rings", so that's the way it was in "Dungeons and Dragons", and so on.

In terms of RPG design, I think it's worthwhile to consider the concepts of wish-fulfillment and fear-fulfillment for the players.



Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Neal on November 14, 2005, 11:01:33 AM
I've got little to add here beyond what Joshua has already said, but I would like to trouble the definitions a bit.

Technically, "utopia" means "no place."  It's "eutopia" that means "good place."  If you read More, you'll probably detect at least a faint trace of irony running through Utopia.  It's almost certainly there on purpose, and it fits with his choice of title.  The perfect place, I think he's saying, is an unattainable dream, a no-place.  Make of that what you will.

As for "dystopias," some folks working in scholarly studies of science-fiction have broken them down into the more standard nightmare societies of which you speak and something else, sometimes refered to as "anti-utopias."  A dystopia, properly considered, is a place where things have followed a trend downward that's lead to abominable conditions.  An anti-utopia, on the other hand, is a nightmare place precisely because someone tried to build a perfect place; it's a eutopia gone horribly wrong, or one which is eutopic only for folks other than the protagonists.  Think of just about any latter-day SF dystopia that isn't cyberpunk, and you're probably thinking of an anti-utopia: Gattica springs to mind, or the less serious Stepford Wives.  Of course, you could say Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels plays with this idea in the society of the Huynmnms (sp?), so it's been around for quite a while.

All this is really to say that good gaming can be found just about anywhere except in a true eutopia.  But since we don't really have examples of true eutopias, that's kind of a moot point.  Someone's eutopia is someone else's anti-utopia.  The point is to ask, first, "What makes this society a perfect place," and then to ask, "Who would disagree with that assessment?"  The answer to the second question, whatever form it takes, will show you who the player characters should be.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Ben Lehman on November 14, 2005, 06:38:32 PM
I flatly disagree with the contention that you can't game in a Utopian setting (Polaris is Utopian.  So is, I think, Dogs, though Vincent might disagree with that assessment.)  I do think it is interesting to study the existence of Utopias and anti-Utopias in RPG design, especially given all the different sorts of anti-Utopias possible (to draw from RPGs -- compare Paranoia to Mage.)

yrs--
--Ben


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: DrVital on November 14, 2005, 07:15:54 PM
I think you're confusing Distopia and Anti-Utopia's.
You could game in a Utopia I suppose, but why would you want to? 

Remember what Agent Smith said?
Quote
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?  Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the program.  Entire crops were lost.

At some point something will go wrong.  Whether it's invading hordes or the breakdown of the system, your perfect world is going to fall apart.  It would be nice to stand around and chat, but the fact is that Utopia's are almost devoid of conflict.
But once the conflict happens, it's become a Dystopia because the flaw in this perfect world has been revealed.

And I posit that's the ponit where the game is going to begin...

I'm very interested in the discussion about why people enjoy playing desire driven characters over fear driven ones.  One thing that's important to remember here is that heroism is a matter of perspective.  One man's hero is another man's terroirst.   In fact in conetemporary stories the terrorist is often the villain (fighting to protect the system), in sci-fi stories they're often the heroes (fighting to destroy the system).


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Josh Roby on November 14, 2005, 07:23:08 PM
A utopia having flaws does not make it a dystopia.  It makes it a utopia with flaws.

Has no one ever seen Star Trek?  Come on, people!


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Ben Lehman on November 14, 2005, 08:04:10 PM
I think you're confusing Distopia and Anti-Utopia's.
You could game in a Utopia I suppose, but why would you want to?

Hi, Dr!  Welcome to the Forge!  Do you have a real name I can use?

I don't think that I'm confusing the terms, but I don't have a really sophisticated literary training, so I could just be getting it wrong.  I call Polaris a utopian society because, absent environmental conditions apparently outside of their control, the people live a perfect life of absolute bliss and harmony.  In the course of the game, you are people caught between this life and the life of a soldier, which makes everything more complicated, of course, but I would still classify the society as strictly utopian -- just a utopian society at war.

yrs--
--Ben


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: DrVital on November 14, 2005, 09:46:17 PM
Hey!  My name is Andrew.  If you want to use that name you're welcome too.  Perhaps I should of opened the account with my real name, but I figured this was RPG board, so I chose a fictional name...

Ben, you have an interesting point.  I haven't read Polaris, but what you describe is oddly similar to the Federation.  What we get to see is the life of the soldiers who defend the Utopia of the Federation. There's no drama in that perfect society though.  Instead we get a story about the oddballs who aren't able to fit in with the perfection of their society, and must go outside to seek out new frontiers.
When we see mistakes made in the ST universe, it's not by the society internally, but instead failures of the troops to protect the Utopia from outside influences or interact with those outside influences.

Joshua, a utopia with flaws is a dystopia as far as I understand it.   "Brave New World" is a great example of an "almost perfect society".  But it's also the classic dystopian novel because those flaws make everything else that happens within that world a lie.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Josh Roby on November 15, 2005, 09:50:37 AM
What we get to see is the life of the soldiers who defend the Utopia of the Federation. There's no drama in that perfect society though.  Instead we get a story about the oddballs who aren't able to fit in with the perfection of their society, and must go outside to seek out new frontiers.
When we see mistakes made in the ST universe, it's not by the society internally, but instead failures of the troops to protect the Utopia from outside influences or interact with those outside influences.

Joshua, a utopia with flaws is a dystopia as far as I understand it.   "Brave New World" is a great example of an "almost perfect society".  But it's also the classic dystopian novel because those flaws make everything else that happens within that world a lie.

Andrew, what about all the episodes where there was conflict between the captains of different ships?  Or the episodes where the captain defied orders from Starfleet Command?  Or the specific episode where Wesley gets in trouble at the Academy because his flight buddies decide to show off and accidentally get somebody killed?  What about the Maquis?  What about Sisko's continual arguments with his superiors?  To say that all the conflict in ST comes from the outside is a tremendous oversimplification, and to describe the characters as the misfit oddballs is... kind of glossing over half the cast (want to explain how Beverly Crusher is an oddball?).

And secondly, I hate to flash credentials, but I completed a semester of studying utopian and dystopian literature, and very nearly wrote my thesis on the subject, so please believe me when I say that a utopia is not invalidated when it isn't perfect, and it certainly doesn't make it a dystopia.  There's a difference between ideal and perfect.  I refer you to Walden Two, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three Californias", and Woman on the Edge of Time.  Each utopia presented is laid out according to ideal principles, but each also recognizes flaws and difficulties, which create narrative conflict.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Neal on November 15, 2005, 10:46:38 AM
I agree with Joshua.  A utopian society which has to deal with internal problems is still utopian because it is working constructively toward broader and/or more stable perfection.  With an anti-utopia, the struggle toward an ideal (usually something like "social stability") introduces injustice, usually (though certainly not always) toward a minority.  A dystopia is a frickin' trainwreck of a world where any pretense toward perfection has been abandoned.  We could cite examples of each all day, but the point here (in fiction as in gaming) is how the society involves the protagonists in conflict.  So here are three examples, none of which is perfect:

In Star Trek, an advanced and enlightened society must contend with outsiders (and occasional dissidents), recruiting into its fold those who are willing to live by its social contract, and repelling those who are not.  The protagonists experience conflict because they are the ones doing the recruiting and repelling.  This is about as close to a utopia as fiction can offer while still maintaining the interest of the reader, given that a pure eutopia/utopia would rule out conflict.

In Neuromancer, a society has ceased to work toward its own perfection.  A deepening badness has carried the day because that badness benefits some members of the society, who care not a whit about social justice.  It's dog-eat-dog, and the protagonists (while their motives may be good, bad, or indifferent) experience conflict because the world is actively trying to grind them down, use them up, and spit them out.  Their struggle is for survival, not perfection.  This is a dystopia.

In Brave New World, a society has succeeded in regulating human life to the exclusion of the kind of randomness and chance that produces struggle; people are engineered to be content with their lives.  The protagonists experience conflict because this utopia is not a utopia for them.  It is anti-utopian.

Viewing utopias, dystopias, and the like in an abstract way is of limited use.  It's rather like arguing whether a 15% flat tax rate is good or bad.  What matters is who benefits and who suffers.  The definitions resolve themselves based on how the society interacts with the protagonists.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Neal on November 15, 2005, 01:58:58 PM
I flatly disagree with the contention that you can't game in a Utopian setting (Polaris is Utopian.  So is, I think, Dogs, though Vincent might disagree with that assessment.)  I do think it is interesting to study the existence of Utopias and anti-Utopias in RPG design, especially given all the different sorts of anti-Utopias possible (to draw from RPGs -- compare Paranoia to Mage.)

I must have missed this post entirely.

Ben, I think the thing that's fascinating about DitV (since you mentioned it) is that you have one group of people trying desperately to build a eutopia, and they are forced to send out enforcers/judges to keep that eutopia from slipping away.  Okay, there you have an example of gameplay in a utopia.  That's fine as far as it goes.  But now take a look at some Actual Play examples from DitV: you have players saying things like "Man, I hate my character for having to do what he does."  That's the very point where the "pure utopia" idea breaks down.  Dogs routinely force their will on people whose choices do not coincide with theirs; that's part of the interest this game generates.  So is it a utopia just because the Prophets and Ancients consider it to be one?  Hm.  One wonders why there are so few Dogs still riding the circuit past the age of thirty.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: DrVital on November 15, 2005, 05:19:12 PM
Andrew, what about all the episodes where there was conflict between the captains of different ships?  Or the episodes where the captain defied orders from Starfleet Command?  Or the specific episode where Wesley gets in trouble at the Academy because his flight buddies decide to show off and accidentally get somebody killed?  What about the Maquis?  What about Sisko's continual arguments with his superiors?  To say that all the conflict in ST comes from the outside is a tremendous oversimplification, and to describe the characters as the misfit oddballs is... kind of glossing over half the cast (want to explain how Beverly Crusher is an oddball?).

What you're describing are all intra-military squabbles.  We never see the kind of Military vs. Civic squabbles that are the heart of B5 or Battlestar Galactica.  No one complains about building these expensive Star Ships, and no one is worried about putting all this firepower and control into the hands of the military.

The fact of the matter is that there's a wonderful, fulfilling, society available in the Federation, yet these people who have chosen to join the military, and leave that behind.  They're not comfortable in that world.  I think we see that in the episode "Family" where Picard's brother is trying to get him out of the military.

As for Bev, well, she does have troubles marinating a relationship, even with a parasite alien...

Quote
And secondly, I hate to flash credentials, but I completed a semester of studying utopian and dystopian literature, and very nearly wrote my thesis on the subject, so please believe me when I say that a utopia is not invalidated when it isn't perfect, and it certainly doesn't make it a dystopia.  There's a difference between ideal and perfect.  I refer you to Walden Two, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three Californias", and Woman on the Edge of Time.  Each utopia presented is laid out according to ideal principles, but each also recognizes flaws and difficulties, which create narrative conflict.

Okay, you get a "English Major" sub-skill bonus for Utopian studies as I focused on creative writing.  I did do my junior thesis on "A Clockwork Orange" though...

But your point is valid, fighting to create and maintain a Utopia is interesting and has conflict.  I guess the question is, in my mind anyway, is a stable Utopia possible, or is it in decline the moment it comes to fruition?  I may be splitting hairs, but I thank that's the difference between a Utopia and a Utopian society.

Robinson is a great call as well.  I think that "Pacific Edge" is a good example of a well-functioning Utopian society.  Although the main character is an outsider in total conflict with it.

BTW, I just want to say that so far the tone, intellect, and decorum in this forum is fantastic.  It's a pleasure to be here talking with you all.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Josh Roby on November 15, 2005, 09:59:18 PM
What you're describing are all intra-military squabbles.  We never see the kind of Military vs. Civic squabbles that are the heart of B5 or Battlestar Galactica.  No one complains about building these expensive Star Ships, and no one is worried about putting all this firepower and control into the hands of the military.

Quark.  The Maquis.  The Venus Drug.  I don't want to turn this into a Trek thread, but really, the Federation has flaws, and those flaws created narrative conflict.  I swear to you.

Quote
I guess the question is, in my mind anyway, is a stable Utopia possible, or is it in decline the moment it comes to fruition?  I may be splitting hairs, but I thank that's the difference between a Utopia and a Utopian society.

I think you're assuming that a Utopia is some sort of static state that does not require maintenance or defense.  The price of liberty is eternal vigilance -- or alternately, the natural state of man is not utopian, and you have to expend effort to avoid savagery.  Either of those are thematic statements ripe for roleplaying about.  But some Utopian society that doesn't have to do anything in order to maintain its prosperity?  Well, yes, that's boring as hell and not at all interesting to play in.  It has no conflict.  But the lack of conflict does not define the utopia.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 16, 2005, 07:44:38 AM
Gentle Forgies,

I'd like to ask everyone in this thread to please limit their examples to RPG settings and characters.


Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: DrVital on November 16, 2005, 10:35:50 AM
Gentle Forgies,

I'd like to ask everyone in this thread to please limit their examples to RPG settings and characters.


Cheers,
Roger


Can I humbly ask why that's a helpful limitation in light of the fact that we're talking about a literary tradition? 
Genre fiction is a constant inspiration and major setting for RPGs. In the case of Trek it's particularly relevant, I think, serving both as a point of commonality for our discussion, and it's also world that has had a number of unique RPG systems built around it.

I'm not trying to be difficult, but I'm new and curious so... I would argue the cannon of RPG settings and characters isn't rich enough for the scope of the discussion.  But I do see the value of avoiding ST arguments...

Joshua:
I guess we do have different definitions of Utopia.  I'm being to much of a literalist in my definition of a "perfect" world, and your definition is the more useful for generating interesting RPG experiences, so it makes more sense in terms of this discussion.

From what I'm seeing here we've defined the opportunities for Roleplaying as playing the "protector" role for a Utopia.  That works when you're playing as a protector from corrupting influences from within or without.  I do think that inevitably will bring your characters into the conflict with the Utopia itself.   I'd say that the conflict is almost inevitable, and if you don't give the players enough to fight they'll start to tear down the perfect world from the inside.  I've seen it happen in worlds that are far from perfect...


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: contracycle on November 17, 2005, 03:30:07 AM
Quark.  The Maquis.  The Venus Drug.  I don't want to turn this into a Trek thread, but really, the Federation has flaws, and those flaws created narrative conflict.  I swear to you.

Hmm, I disagree.  Have to say I always hated Quark, he is a plot device interjected without rhyme or reason purely to create conflict, because they have trouble finding any.

Anyway, I agree generally with the view that in Utopias such conflict as is interesting is necessarily external, and hence it is no accident that the Federation - like the Culture in Ian M. Banks novels, almost never appears "on screen".  I also agree that most RPG settingsa are Utopian, as has been mentioned, because the default presumption is that everything would be OK, the peasants happy and the king merciful, if only the invading orcs could be dealt with - although more to the point, the very label "king" and "peasant" are barely meaningful in most FRPG, because any and all forms of social conflict are ommitted.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: M. J. Young on November 17, 2005, 09:51:23 AM
I'd like to ask everyone in this thread to please limit their examples to RPG settings and characters.
Hey Roger--my problem with that limitation is that it is not a limitation. Since Multiverser defines its canon as all reality and fiction published or unpublished in any form there isn't anything you can mention that is not "RPG settings and characters".

Is there a limitation you intended by this statement that would be clearer if you expressed it some other way?

--M. J. Young


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 17, 2005, 12:35:18 PM
my problem with that limitation is that it is not a limitation

Fair enough.

I'll defer to the policy for this forum:

Or whatever, as long as it relates to aspects and contents of role-playing in any form.

So, please, no posts void of any role-playing content.



Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: JDMcDonnell on November 19, 2005, 01:41:29 PM
My theory is that the imagination is a negative entity. It instinctively looks to the dark side of a situation in order to keep us away from it. The original stories were horror stories, probably told around a fire by cavemen about what happens when you rush a woolly mammoth with the pointy end of ones spear facing the wrong way. Ask any writer, happiness is incredibly hard to do. And this is why dystopias outnumber utopias. It's easy. To be cliched its like shooting fish in a barrel.

Why do the mainstream games go with more utopic settings? Or at least clean, brightly lit settings (ala the pristine dystopias of  Gamma World and Paranoia)? It's because of marketting. They're not content with a shelf in the back of the local comics cave. They want a table in Barnes & Noble, a page in the Toys R' Us sunday flyer. They want to sell their game in mass-market venues which are still a bit scaird of RPG's and don't want to be caught selling something which might evoke the wrath of Cthuluhu - sorry I mean the Christian Coalition - when the kids open the box.

It's also marketing on the part of the Indies. They service an older crowd and ride on their edginess as a show of just how boldly out of the mainstream they are. Plus. Well.... It's easy. 

-JDM

In both industries there are trends and status quos to be met. The independents largely sell through comic book stores, so they are just as pressured to fit in with the grim grittiness of the angst havens as the big leaguers are to match the clean spiffiness of retail stores.

On the whole though, I don't think Dungeons & Dragons is all that Utopic. It may have been, back in the early 80's, but now it seems considerably darker, grimmer, muddier, etc.... Maybe they're upset about having to follow the stylings of the computer gaming industry rather than set its pace.

Oh yeah, and about heroic and pathetic characters? Bad choice of words. Who wants to be pathetic? Now invoking Pathos? That's not much better, but it's probably closer to the mark. Pathos works on stage, but then so do plays with props, costumes,  and lines of dialog which were thought out in advance. Around a kitchen table with people in "I'm with Stupid" T-shirts where the arrow points to their crotch, drama just doesn't really fly. The disbelief in that direction is not adequately suspended.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: JDMcDonnell on November 19, 2005, 02:27:30 PM
Sorry about my last post. I'm new to the Forge and wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Least of all my signature accidentally popping into the middle of the message - and there is no way to edit posts?

About Utopias and Dystopias and Eutopias - I'm not sure much more can be said except that no one has seemed to make much of the reason why they cannot exist. For me it is the overly simplified problem of differences between personalities. The only way to achieve a true Utopia is to construct a world where in everyone is exactly the same and the world itself has no other variables aside from what comes from blank open space. While the bloodiest conflicts may arise from differences in wealth, most conflicts arise from simple differences of opinion. This is why I think religion is so important to society, it anchors civilization around a dependable construct of easily stated beliefs (okay, scratch what I wrote about the bloodiest conflicts arising from wealth, religion has had more of its share). So it is almost futile to converse about techincal Utopias and Dystopias and such. Even Plato was bright enough to see they could not exist :-).

Instead, we're really talking about bright worlds verses dark worlds. And on that matter, I still stand with my previous post - that it's all a matter of marketting, culture, and the natural negativity of the human imagination.

Now let's see if I can get this right
-JDM


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 21, 2005, 09:42:36 AM
Instead, we're really talking about bright worlds verses dark worlds. And on that matter, I still stand with my previous post - that it's all a matter of marketting, culture, and the natural negativity of the human imagination.

Fair comment.  If I'm reading you correctly, it is your belief that RPGs set in "dark worlds" are essentially cautionary tales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cautionary_tale).  Am I on the right track with that?


Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Mike Holmes on November 22, 2005, 02:03:56 PM
Hell yeah, the more dystopian, the more the precautionary. Cyberpunk play and such is about showing you how bad life will be if we let the corporations run the show (like it's Gibsonian sources). Gamma World is about how life will suck if we let loose the Nukes! Well, actually that's when it's doing theme at all, and not just a strange gamism arena.

I'd challenge the idea that Indie-RPGs are a majority dystopian. Many have no setting at all. Perhaps a plurality are dystopian. If there is any correlation here, I'd say that the cause is probably that "indie" sorts of people also tend to be into social commentary, etc, which tends to be better suited to dystopias. But, generally, I'd agree with Neal that it's just easier to find the conflicts in a dystopian society.

Mike


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: DrVital on November 24, 2005, 03:22:18 PM
I've been mulling this over the last few days, and I believe there's some ripe territory to be explored here...

Looking at RPGs in general I think that the archetype of the awakened innocent is surprisingly under-represented considering that the player is actually living that path as they learn the mechanics of the game.

From what I've seen RPGs often either
a) have the player create a detailed past for you character before play begins
b) "reveal " the character's past to the player as they play the game, filling in the details of the history as they go along
c) ignore the past entirely turning the character into nothing more than the sum of his skills.

Distopian stories often focus on character awakenings, where an individual becomes aware of their choices beyond the societal messages that have been stuffed into their heads due to a desire or goal that is in conflict with that system.  They are forced to make moral choices about their own lives.

Boring or too internalized perhaps...?
I think "Logan's Run", for example, would be a great story for RPG gaming. Not only is Logan becoming more of an individual as he runs, but he's an innocent armed with a kick ass gun and well-honed combat skills that were given to him in his former role as guardian of the system.  You also have the conflict between the dream of a "better world" (Sanctuary) and the need of the old world to destroy that dream in order to save the utopia.

You could actually set up a system where the character could attempt to increase an "individuality" stat, allowing them an opportunity to fight their conditioning, but at the same time making them more obviously separated from their society.  With that dynamic you could still improve your character, but end up in a scenario straight out of "Brazil": strapped into the chair, but free in your mind...


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Arpie on November 27, 2005, 11:13:59 AM
Hello, Roger.

I wonder, if what you are asking, is why don't games provide more positive role models and examples of happier, more prosperous social settings?

In other words, why not dream of a wonderful land where people are righteous and good and, except for a few bad apples which need tending to, the best and brightest win in the end?

Well, for me, that's because I feel it's a form of propaganda. In my own life, I've never been one of the best and brightest.

I'd rather see a world where the plucky underdogs make a change for the better.

And if everything's wonderful, what would the plucky underdogs have to change?
(I realize this is a re-iteration of what Chris from Hamster Press had to say, but I wanted to put my own personal appeal in here.)

And I don't MIND seeing the grim anti-heroes take the tough bullies apart every now and then. I have my own visceral side that likes a good airing on dark nights. (But I prefer to root for the "losers" and "little guys" - even if they sometimes have accidentally aquired nifty powers or just get lucky.)

Also, I find, as has already been mentioned by the above posts (but again, I want to express my deep personal feelings on this matter) that Utopias are not clean nor universal. I despise royalty, for example, but many people love seeing a benevolent king on the throne. To me, there could never and will never be a benevolent king (I even distrust God Almighty and I'm very much a Christian. See, I capitalized all the important stuff!)

I suspect, like me, many Indie publishers also do not count themselves among the "heroic" (as you seem to be describing the strong and powerful - which I certainly do not consider heroic.)

Like me, perhaps, they consider stories of pristine worlds beset by ugliness (a weak ugliness that falls before mighty champions of the status quo) as a form of heartfelt propaganda (I say again, waving my little rebel flag) at best.

In terms of fantasies (not high fantasy, but products of that old chestnut, the land of imagination, in general) I fear and distrust any fantastic realm where the Good and Noble People of the Benevolent Tyrant Princess go about their days praising their stalwart defenders and living in harmony with everyone except, you know... THEM.

Er.... except when I feel like a little random bloodshed. (Which I sometimes do.)
Kill the outsiders and steal their stuff!
Oh YEAH!


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Neal on November 28, 2005, 07:15:45 AM
I suspect, like me, many Indie publishers also do not count themselves among the "heroic" (as you seem to be describing the strong and powerful - which I certainly do not consider heroic.)

Like me, perhaps, they consider stories of pristine worlds beset by ugliness (a weak ugliness that falls before mighty champions of the status quo) as a form of heartfelt propaganda (I say again, waving my little rebel flag) at best.

In terms of fantasies (not high fantasy, but products of that old chestnut, the land of imagination, in general) I fear and distrust any fantastic realm where the Good and Noble People of the Benevolent Tyrant Princess go about their days praising their stalwart defenders and living in harmony with everyone except, you know... THEM.

This is more of a problem, the closer the players cleave to the abstractions of Good and Evil.  Move away from those abstractions, make some effort to factionalize the power structure, do some work to sophisticate the moral problems, draw on human experience to motivate the characters, and even a setting as starkly vanilla as Forgotten Realms can provide satisfying play for thinking players. 

During one recent FR campaign, I let myself follow through on the idea "What if the tradesmen and laborers of Waterdeep tired of supporting their merchant princes and 'secret lords' and rose up to establish a yeomanry?"  The result was one of the more satisfying games I've run, and certainly one of my better attempts at D&D.  Players found themselves choosing sides independent of the fact that a "paladin" sat the throne and a "thief" incited the insurrection, and that in turn gave me more latitude to sophisticate some of the cartoonish stock NPCs of the city.  We enjoyed a non-manichaean game in one of gaming's more manichaean settings.

So I'm saying: we may be confusing ourselves by thinking of entire settings in terms of Utopian and Dystopian, when such disctinctions are always a matter of perception to some degree or another.  Except in cases where (e.g.) a meteor wipes out all services and half the life on the planet, a dystopia benefits someone.  Likewise with a utopia: someone is at a disadvantage, or there would be no conflict.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 28, 2005, 08:58:22 AM
Arpie, thanks for your comments.  There's a lot to them, some of which I can address, some of which I can't, or shouldn't, or at least not in this thread.

I wonder, if what you are asking, is why don't games provide more positive role models and examples of happier, more prosperous social settings?  In other words, why not dream of a wonderful land where people are righteous and good and, except for a few bad apples which need tending to, the best and brightest win in the end?

That's a reasonable way to restate the issue.  A slightly-more accurate version would be "Why do some games do this, and some games don't?  How inherently important is that decision?"

I think this thread is generally revealing that it is something important.  I personally find this kind of surprising -- I started off viewing it as a relatively insignificant dial of Colour.  But that would seem not to be the case.


Quote
Well, for me, that's because I feel it's a form of propaganda.

This leads down a whole different path, dark and winding, which is, I would suggest, beyond the scope of this thread.  It's that fundamental question: what are games for?  What do they do?  Certainly, there is a well-represented school of thought that holds they are essentially tools for teaching.  Such tools might be called propaganda in some situations.

It's a topic that I've no doubt has been hashed over in the Forge numerous, numerous times.  If you wish to revisit it, I personally have no objection, but I'd ask that it be done in a new thread.


Quote
I'd rather see a world where the plucky underdogs make a change for the better.

This is, for me, another rant for another time.  Or, at least, another thread.  I'll launch one, called something like 'Plucky Underdogs.'  I've a lot to say on the subject, but it's not (in my opinion) closely related to the subject of this thread.



Cheers,
Roger


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Arpie on November 28, 2005, 11:03:08 PM
Yeah, I'm sorry about that.

It kind of touched off a sensitive issue as to the common thematic underpinning of rules systems which always bugged me (I sent you a personal note about it, but I forgot to check out this thread, first.

Anyway, I apologize.

But I would like to address the issue or restate my original point which is that, in a way, most games DO reflect that wonderful world both in their rules and their setting element - at least in the mainstream. For example, D&D implicitly states that the monsters are mostly baddies (evil alignments all the way) and that the PCs heroically defend the good people of the world with their various expeditions. Indie games tend to have more anti-heroic and grim touches because they come to the table with a different background. They often do not accept the same values as mainstream games and therefore create environments where their point of view can flourish.

I hope that's a more constructive argument.
(I let my sympathies get away with me again.)

Oh, and, uh, yeah. As far as for plucky underdogs, I rather meant characters who had a chance to win because of their unusual and oft-overlooked or maligned traits. Misfits, perhaps, would have been a better word. You still need special rules to support that kind of thing - rules which do not prevail in most of the more popular game systems (D&D and even WoD give play to strengths and powers, not seeming limitations which turn out to be advantages.)

Again, I'm sorry about the outburst and I hope this works better for everyone.
Yours

Arpie.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Neal on November 29, 2005, 10:19:33 AM
But I would like to address the issue or restate my original point which is that, in a way, most games DO reflect that wonderful world both in their rules and their setting element - at least in the mainstream. For example, D&D implicitly states that the monsters are mostly baddies (evil alignments all the way) and that the PCs heroically defend the good people of the world with their various expeditions. Indie games tend to have more anti-heroic and grim touches because they come to the table with a different background. They often do not accept the same values as mainstream games and therefore create environments where their point of view can flourish.

Again, Arpie, I think it's all in the way you play it.  The most simplistic vanilla D&D games will avoid troubling the Good-versus-Evil thematic, and all the characters will be heroes on the proper side of authority.  Sure.  I've even seen posters on other discussion boards foam at the mouth that this is the way the games must be played, as though coloring outside the lines would somehow bring the entire hobby crashing to the ground.  But that nonsense aside, even high fantasy games -- and the most vanilla of those -- can be played differently without violating any rules.

I also question your distinction between mainstream and indie games, at least since the advent of the cyberpunk subgenre of SF.  Recall that Shadowrun is a mainstream game, and quite popular still.  That game, while it can be played as vanilla as the group desires, does admit of your "misfit" protagonists; in fact, it rather thrives on them.  Conversely, Dogs in the Vineyard is an indie game in which the player characters are completely aligned with authority -- in fact, they are authority.  So I think perhaps you're letting D&D and its various clones limit your sample size too much.  There are misfits in quite a few mainstream games.

Come to that, I'm wondering what a true misfit character would look like.  Can you give an example from real play?  I ask because I keep trying to imagine a protagonist who wins while remaining somehow disenfranchised and/or unfit, and I keep coming back to characters already available in mainstream games.  I keep defaulting to characters who are actually "right," though their society sees them as "wrong."  Surely, these are not out-of-the-ordinary in gaming, even in vanilla gaming.  The misunderstood D&D thief comes to mind -- you know, the one who is the only guy aware of the clergy's corrupt collusion with the merchant lords of the village, and who is persecuted and blackbrushed precisely because he continues to poke his nose where it doesn't belong; in short, he's a hero who is seen as an anti-hero (at best).  Is this the kind of character you have in mind?

On the other hand, if you mean you're looking for a game which turns real "limitations" into strengths, as you said, that's another thing I'm having trouble seeing.  To take an example you might not have had in mind, when does cowardice become an advantage to a protagonist?  Or fecklessness?  Or the inability to drive a car, for instance?

I'm just trying to understand your complaint.  If it's a dearth of anti-hero characters in mainstream play, then I disagree with your assessment and would place the blame not on the games, but on their players for refusing to make the most of available materials.  If, on the other hand, it's the absence of games in which someone might say "Fortunately, your character has an incurable stutter and poor bowel control..." (real limitations for a hero, I think we would agree), then I just don't see the viability of such a game.  Give us some examples of the kinds of characters you mean, please.


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Arpie on November 29, 2005, 09:10:34 PM
I think I might be a little too close to this issue emotionally. I was about to write a rather long dissertation on this problem, but I realized it had nothing what so ever to do with rules (except in rather small ways -speicifcally trying to reflect a mood or motiff in rules that encourages players to present their characters as if the characters theselves were unaware of their stronger qualities. That would appear to be a problem of presentation.)

Anyway, it seems to be taking this thread off subject and I'm afraid I'm not really contributing.
I will duck out and perhaps start a new thread in the appropriate area when I've collected my thoughts.

(I'm really quite embarrassed.)


Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Roger on November 30, 2005, 10:01:19 AM
Arpie, there is no need for any apologies.

First, let me assure you that when I (or anyone on The Forge, I believe) write something like "That is a topic for another thread", I'm not saying that as a passive-aggressive code for "Shut up and get the hell out of my thread."  It's exactly the opposite -- I'm trying to encourage you that it's a worthwhile topic of discussion, one that deserves its own thread and its own attention.

Secondly, the last thing I want is for you, or anyone, to shy away from those topics which elicit the most passion and zeal.  Those are exactly the things we need to talk about and which are the most rewarding to explore.  To explore, mind you, which is in decided contrast to defend, or argue, or attack.  I've seen no signs of the latter attitudes in your posts here.

You've said a number of genuinely useful things here, not the least of which relates to:

the common thematic underpinning of rules systems

To what degree do rules systems have thematic underpinnings?  Can one just slap whatever theme one wants onto whatever rules system one wants?  I think those are useful questions to consider, and a natural extension of this line of thought that starts with the nature of the settings and the characters.

My first inclination is to say that mechanical systems float free of their themes, but I'm not so entirely sure now.  The way that, for example, character sanity is handled in a game like Call of Cthulhu is both heavily informed by its thematic underpinnings, and casts a large shadow over the themes of any resultant play.


Cheers,
Roger




Title: Re: Of Utopias and Dystopias
Post by: Josh Roby on November 30, 2005, 11:04:45 AM
To what degree do rules systems have thematic underpinnings?

Roger, have you read any of the articles behind the link at the top of the page?  The thematic underpinnings of rule systems is kind of foundational to most discussion here.