The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Why Is It So Rare?

There aren’t many tabletop RPGs, or supplements thereof, that are clearly or explicitly Superversive. However, many such games (and the official settings sold so eagerly for them) contain that potential. The publishers explicitly sell their games, and those settings, with a slant of “Be the good guys against the bad guys!” Yet it is increasingly rare for actual Superversive play to occur, something that’s been a known issue in gaming forums and sites for over 20 years.

Well, there IS an explanation. Dragon Award winner Brian Niemeier made a post his blog today regarding this sort of discussion as it applies to the Big Two of the American comics world, D.C. and Marvel. As those two big giants routinely miss the point, so do their fellow travelers in the tabletop gaming world. As I know first-hand that SJWs in comics, gaming, film, television, and SF/F publishing all network via the convention scene it’s not hard at all to see how this moral malaise spread to all of these cultural subsectors.

(Brian’s post contains the over-arching conversational thread, and I encourage you to read it before you come back here, because I’m explicitly building upon that thread as it relates to Superversive RPGs.)

There are two key observations to be had here. The first is by Jeffro Johnson (said here):

If you want people to employ traditional virtues in service of civilization, they first have to be able to imagine them. Heroism and romance were suppressed specifically to make it easier to destroy a people. The poindexters hold loyalty in contempt and sneer at sacrifice. They think goodness is for chumps. And they have held the reigns of culture for decades.

By the time that Dungeons & Dragons exploded into the mainstream around 1980 (there’s that timestamp again), this degree of cultural subversion had already occurred. If not for the brief turnaround in the zeitgeist by films like the original Star Wars through to the mid-’80s (e.g. Flash Gordon, Krull, Raiders of the Lost Ark) the degeneracy would have concluded well before the turn of the century. Instead, one last generation had the opportunity to have the Superversive shown to them in their early years.

In short, without examples of the Superversive to fire our imaginations, many of us will never even think to play that out in our fantasy adventures when we play tabletop RPGs no matter how well either the rules or the settling allow for it– and that, right there, is a major factor for why explicitly Superversive tabletop RPGs such as Pendragon remain niche games in a niche hobby.

Following that aforementioned thread, this observer nailed why the very publishers that comprise the thought-leaders in tabletop RPGs constantly undermine the Superversive potential of their own creations:

But they can’t imagine that. Reason number two is because of their self-imposed lifting of hypocrisy as the “ultimate” sin. It is better to not have a code at all than to have one and fail to live up to it. This is reflected in the method by which they try and tear down icons – hell, they even said it in Spider-Man 1 (Toby MacGuire), “the thing people like best is to see a hero fall.” (Paraphrased). They cannot fathom that the (a) the purpose of a code, even an unreachable one, is to set a goal for all people to strive to achieve, and (b) that you can’t live up to it all the time is because we are flawed, fallen, and human. However, (c) that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

I’ve seen this first-hand. They can’t conceive of it at all. The non-stop mockery of virtue, of the pursuit of a moral or ethical standard, and the misunderstanding (often willfully so) of what “hypocrisy” means all contribute to this subversion of the ostensible claim to “heroic adventure” (which they also misunderstand).

You see this in the long-form when the rules for games in strongly moral settings, such as Star Wars, keep getting watered down to allow for that demoralization to feed upon itself at the table. You see this in the creep of their Pink Slime amorality into their rules and settings, and the pushing of clearly subversive messages (i.e. yet more virtue-signalling) into every part of their business output- product and service alike.

While there are some people left in tabletop gaming who haven’t been fully converged, most long ago bent the knee and drank the demon’s blood- they are part of the cult, and they hate you. This is why the Superversive is rare in tabletop RPGs: they hate it. Don’t give them your money, or your children.

Just as readers closed their wallets and walked away from The Big Two in comics, and do so to the Big 5 in SF/F, this is necessary in tabletop gaming. Close the wallets, and walk away from Omelas- it’s YOUR child they forsake.

(And yes, this is much the case for videogames as well.)

  • Lorenzo Fossi

    “I’ve seen this first-hand. They can’t conceive of it at all. The non-stop mockery of virtue, of the pursuit of a moral or ethical standard, and the misunderstanding (often willfully so) of what “hypocrisy” means all contribute to this subversion of the ostensible claim to “heroic adventure” (which they also misunderstand).”
    And they’re so smug while doing it too! Like a man cutting his fingers and smiling all the while Because he doesn’t believe in them and he surelly doesn’t need such “crutches” to use his hands.

  • Stephen J.

    I would argue, though, that one reason why the Superversive sees less active use in RPG play than one might think goes all the way back to gaming’s original manifestation in D&D. Put simply, there’s a reason Gygax (himself a devout Christian, in fact) tended to lean more on the tropes of Vance, Lieber, Dunsany, Eddison and Howard than on the themes of Tolkien or Lewis for his fantasy adventures, and it’s this: the former are not only often more fun, but easier to sustain indefinitely.

    The problem with Superversive play can be seen in the difference between a novel and a series of short stories, or in a feature film vs. an episodic TV series. Novels and films, at least when non-serialized or limited to a short series with a definite arc, are by definition about the most important thing that ever happens to your protagonist or in your world, with all the appropriate dramatic and thematic intensity. Episodic series of TV shows or short stories can’t do that. Episodic stories have to be about things of less importance, issues that matter but which still allow our heroes to be back next week or next month mostly as we already know and love them; change and growth are slow in a well-paced episodic series — you can certainly have big epiphanies of power or perspective, but not every episode, or they start feeling dull or ludicrous. One of the biggest weaknesses of Martin’s “Ice and Fire” series is that he has been trying to hit readers with emotional whammy after emotional whammy book after book without actually taking the story any closer to resolution.

    RPG play, I contend, tends in practice to work much more like episodic TV shows, comics or short stories than coherent novels and films. Not every opponent you fight can embody great moral issues, or the fights get dull or silly; not every conflict between characters can be about the moral solution vs. the practical one, or the drama gets repetitive and uninteresting. Put simply, when the goal is to have fun, both a subversive and a Superversive message have a terrible tendency to overwhelm the fun if overemphasized.

    • Terry Sanders

      I think you’ve just hit on the big problem with the new emphasis on book and movie series, and the Great Overarching Theme TV shows.

      “No, THAT wasn’t the most improtant thing that happened in your life–THIS was!”
      “No, THIS!”
      “You’re both wrong, it was THIS!!!”
      Ad infinitum.

      Time was when Archie Goodwin was perfectly happy telling about SOME of Nero Wolfe’s MORE INTERESTING cases. No overwhelming angst. No UTTER and ABSOLUTE CLIMACTIC MOMENT of their ENTIRE LIVES. He just thought you’d be interested.

      No longer. Now our hero has to SAVE THE WORLD! Next book, he’ll have to SAVE THE REPUBLIC! After that, he’ll SAVE THE GALAXY! Eventually, he’ll have to SAVE ALL SPACE AND TIME! And there’ll be some people still buying tickets, so the writers will have to come up with something EVEN BIGGER!

      My favorite STAR WARS

    • Geoarrge

      Martin’s antics are similar to what I call ‘drama fodder’ in D&D. That is, where you decide to write an interesting backstory for your character, and the DM’s only takeaway seems to be a list of family members to threaten when the adventure seems to be going too slow.
      In principle, of course, I agree that sometimes you have to kill or maim a beloved character to advance a particular storyline. But it strikes me as a failure of imagination if the problem is that something interesting needs to happen right about now and the first solution to come to mind is Better kill someone off. That is using the character as drama fodder.
      The response players tend to have to that type of DM is to start writing all their characters as orphans.

      • Stephen J.

        “Drama fodder”. That’s a very good way to put it, I agree. The interesting thing is that, like so many tropes, it can even work as long as your audience doesn’t spot the pattern. (I recently read a post, and I wish I could remember where, from a writer who had come to *loathe* the TVTropes school of fandom because of how mechanistic and component driven it had made both fandom and story production.)

  • Mrs. Wright

    Your question should be: Why is it so rare in RPG modules.

    It’s perfectly common in RPGs, in my humble experience…when they don’t rely on a pre-packaged story, because the individual running the game often is moved by some act of nobility to allow it to flower.

    The modules, on the other hand, are a bit by rout, and by rout and Superversive don’t fit together that well.