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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4283 Members Latest Member: - otto Most online today: 61 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: Of Utopias and Dystopias  (Read 16069 times)
DrVital
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Posts: 7


« Reply #15 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.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #16 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.

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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.
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Roger
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« Reply #17 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
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DrVital
Member

Posts: 7


« Reply #18 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...
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #19 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.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #20 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
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Roger
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« Reply #21 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
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JDMcDonnell
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« Reply #22 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.
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JDMcDonnell
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« Reply #23 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
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Roger
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« Reply #24 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.  Am I on the right track with that?


Cheers,
Roger
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #25 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
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DrVital
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Posts: 7


« Reply #26 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...
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Arpie
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Posts: 83


« Reply #27 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!
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Neal
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Posts: 143


« Reply #28 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.
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Roger
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« Reply #29 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
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