The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Space Opera Edition

It’s Space Opera Week. While a lot of people who love this style of story are content to read or watch them, a significant number of us want to make our own. There’s plenty of writing-specific advice around, so I’ll focus on those of us who want to game them instead.

So, you want a Superversive Space Opera? Where do you start? Well, if you’re not doing GURPS Lensman, you still want to have that book (or the novels it’s about) handy. That example will be the model you’ll find easiest to adapt for gaming purposes.

Your players play characters who champion their cultural traditions and institutions. This means you’re some sort of Galactic Patrol, formally or otherwise, because the standard gameplay scenario involves dealing with predatory actors seeking to undermine your people. As active agents, you have reason to seek out such trouble and put a stop to it.

Your players play pro-active characters. Be it by acting on orders from another, or one of the players coming to the table with a plan, a Superversive Space Opera relies on the characters being the ones driving the game and that means acting according during play. This is not a place for passive or reactive people; that’s for other media.

Your game has a solid moral core to it. Just like playing Pendragon Superversive Space Opera requires that the players engage with a solid moral foundation. This is best made explicit to the players at the beginning (again, like Pendragon) so you can have everyone on the same page and not waste time doing that after you’re underway.

Do that, and you’re golden. Now you see why I recommended having those Lensman books handy. These elements are not only present, but front-and-center where they can’t be ignored, which is what you want when you’re looking for a model to adapt to your game at your table. There’s plenty of others out there, so pick what you want to use and commit to it. The fun you have will depend on the work you put in, so have at it.

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.)

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: GURPS Lensman

There was a time when Steve Jackson Games made a lot of supplements for the GURPS line that served to adapt influential or popular SF/F books into something viable for use as a tabletop RPG setting. While the choices were necessarily constrained by both internal budgets and licensor friendliness, we got a few gems here and there- and none coruscate more brilliantly than Gurps Lensman.

For people who were not around when the Lensman series was in its heyday, or missed the reprints, you would not believe how far into the Memory Hole this series went until recently. When this book got published in 1994, there was at least one whole generation (if not two) that never heard of these books or knew of what great influence they had on SF in books, comics, film, and television world-wide. I was one of that many, and I could not find a copy of any of them in any local store for love or money. This was a close as I got.

And with this supplement, I had everything I need to fully engage with a Lensman’s perspective- to see it all the way someone granted the power of the Lens (and the duties that come with it) does, to do all that they do, and to risk all that they risk in defense of something figurative and literally bigger than themselves. This isn’t just partaking in the things that build, sustain, and invigorate a culture into a civilization; this is being one of the very pillars of Civilization, a load-bearing pillar upon which the fates of billions–even trillions–rests. Far beyond being a Knight in King Arthur’s court, this is what being a Jedi should be (but isn’t).

Despite the issues that every GURPS edition has with high-powered milieu, this supplement does do the setting justice. Sure, you can play something other than a Lensman, but that’s not why you have this supplement: you’re there for being Civilization’s greatest agent, advocate, and champion. It’s no different than not playing a Knight in Pendragon. Even if you don’t care for GURPS, what’s here will be transferable to the ruleset of your choice; the technology notes are often in real-world (Imperial) units or otherwise giving real-world referents so you can easily make this work for you at your table.

If the Amazon link above doesn’t have what you’re willing to pay, go try directly from Steve Jackson Games; they may have it in PDF at a price you’re willing to accept. Either way, if you’re into tabletop RPGs and seek out ways to play Superversive games, you’re a zwilnik to not have GURPS Lensman in your library.

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: King Arthur’s Pendragon

While we talk often of finding the Superversive in books, comics, film, and television it’s no less important to find it in gaming. One of the first tabletop RPGs that explicitly explored the Superversive perspective is Pendragon, where the point of the game is to play out King Arthur’s England from the beginning of the myth to its tragic end.

The reason I mark this out as Superversive is that everything about the game emphasizes the fundamental elements upon which Western Civilization rest, especially if you choose to do the default and play a Christian Knight. The game, as a primary mark of distinction, has mechanics by which your character (assumed to be a Knight, and few other options are ever offered, depending upon edition) will act upon the personality traits that mark him as a faithful Christian, a heroic Knight, and so on (or not). Adherence to the norms of the era are rewarded, and the modernist approach will just end badly.

This is why I’m bringing the game to your attention: tabletop RPGs are very good at getting players to see things from a perspective other than one’s own, provided that the Game Master (if not the game) requires them to do so- and this game does. You have to live with the consequences There is no easy healing here, and injuries matter accordingly, so courage has real weight when pressed by the villain of an adventure. How your Knight lives carries forth even after his death, as you then move to play his Squire or his son, with inheritances adjusted accordingly; the sins of the father do weigh upon the son. This reliably affects a player’s attitude towards the game.

As this game builds upon the great mound of myth and literature regarding the Matter of Britain, it is not wise to mistake this as just a Dungeons & Dragons derivative. Its design explicitly encourages players to engage with the Superversive position, either in support or not, and therefore makes it easier to comprehend the idea thereafter if you make use of that opportunity (and there are plenty of them to be had).

While never as popular as the aforementioned king of tabletop RPGs, it’s enjoyed a loyal following all this time much like another literature-derived game: Call of Cthulhu, and if you are all interested in satisfying the demand for the Superversive in gaming then studying this classic will serve you well. (It’s also a fun time in its own right, because who doesn’t want to be a literal Knight in Shining Armor?)