The Superversive in Games: Final Fantasy XV and the Power of Brotherhood

Final Fantasy XV took a decade to get to market. Its time in Development Hell is legendary, even for a business notorious for long delays and other production problems. When it arrived this year, the hype train had built up quite a bit of steam and its demo had shown some serious promise of both fun gameplay and a story that you will invest in. I won’t be talking gameplay here; that’s for another venue. Here, I’m talking story.

Is the story in this game good, as it “well-done”? Yes, to the point where some players who really ought to know better actually miss its key points due to their subtlety. I won’t name the guilty here, but one woman who finished the game had a ranting melt-down during her livestream while the credits rolled because she couldn’t get why the hero and his companions were so choked up at the end.

It’s Superversive because of two elements: the story, brick-to-face in its obviousness, is about sustaining and rebuilding the fundamental cultural institutions against a wicked enemy bent on their destruction. Your character is the crown prince, and his story involves undergoing the changes necessary to attain the maturity that a true and faithful king must possess to successfully fulfill his duty to his people and country. His companions are life-long friends, with him through thick and thin, even unto the end of all things.

The game’s theme features the power, strength, and necessity of brotherhood in the development of boys into men- such that the cultivation of virtue (without which overcoming the villain is impossible, thematically) is difficult, if not impossible, without it. If I recommend anything, it’s for fathers to play this game with their sons, because there’s something so strongly inclined to the male experience that it would be a waste to not take the opportunity to use this story to show what being a man is about- and that you should not do it alone.

Superversive? ABSOLUTELY! (The gameplay is solid for the franchise, so don’t worry there.) And once you hear Florence Welch sing “Stand By Me” at the end, you will never forget it. Best use of licensed music in a videogame this year, by far, and once you get to the end you will understand why. Recommended. Totally.

The Superversive is Everywhere. Join the Chorus!

Since I began writing here at SuperversiveSF, I’ve emphasized already-existing examples of the Superversive. The reason is simple: so that, when you’re talking to others, you have ready examples to point to of existing works that are popular, influential, or both. This matters when persuading others, because if they can associate the Superversive concept with things they already know (and, hopefully, like) then getting them to look into what the Superversive Movement has to offer becomes easier.

By the same token, we should seek out others working in those other media and encourage them in creating their own Superversive works. Comics, films, poems, statuary, paintings- whatever. As the word grows (and it will), so will more flock to the banners, and with that change comes the opportunity to make visible the invisible damage done to our cultures worldwide- and then to present the replacements that repair and rejuvenate it.

Which is why I’m making a shift in my posting topic. Rather than show you more of what is already there, I want to show you how to add your voice to that mighty chorus and sing forth again the Song of Creation that made this beautiful world possible.

You’ve seen where the Superversive exists, and have taken from there into yourself. Now? Now we make our own, here, and bring it forth unto there and harmonize with that infinite chorus to carry the music forward yet another generation and drown out the discord of the subversive that seeks to reduce one and all to nameless goo under some disposable psuedo-culture. Write, draw, sculpt, play- however you do, do here and do now. Come join the chorus.

Superversion on the Game Board: Firefly the Game

Superversive stories deal with moral choices and taking the higher road. Tabletop board games usually don’t offer that option. In a zero sum game any action you take to benefit yourself hurts another player. Chess players don’t consider the morality of taking a pawn. Firefly the Game is one that does present moral choices to the players, and subtly encourages them to take the high road.

Firefly the Game in action.

For those readers not familiar with it, the short-lived Firefly TV series followed a band of underdogs evading an oppressive government as they smuggled cargos and stole from the rich. The conflict between law and justice drove many episodes, such as when Captain Mal Reynolds stole a government shipment but returned it to the townsfolk when he found it contained badly-needed medicine.

In the game players start with a ship and captain. They can hire crew and buy gear at specific planets. Other planets have contacts who will hand out jobs. Easy jobs just require picking up some legal cargo and transporting it to its destination. Smuggling contraband or fugitives is harder. The toughest jobs, such as robbing banks, require passing tests assigned by “Misbehave” cards. The goal depends on which “story card” the players are using, which range from a simple race to earn a specific amount of money to elaborate quests.

When hiring crew players look at their skills and special abilities. Some crew and captains are marked as “MORAL.” They’ll object if asked to do nasty jobs, such as robbing innocent townsfolk or smuggling slaves. The job cards they have a problem with are marked “IMMORAL” in red. Make a moral crewman work an immoral job and they’ll be Disgruntled (signified with a sad face counter). If you can’t cheer them up they’ll quit. Other challenges such as Misbehaving during a job or random encounters while traveling can become tests of morality.

The game doesn’t urge moral behavior on players. Forming a crew of conscienceless hirelings and focusing on the worst jobs available is a viable strategy for the game, depending on the goal. The “First Time In the Captain’s Chair” story card doesn’t give much scope for crime to pay. The “Wanted Men” card almost requires it.

What Firefly the Game does do is show how choosing one path makes it harder to switch to the other. Hire one moral crew and you have an incentive to do only moral jobs–which makes it easier to decide to hire more moral crew and do more moral jobs. Conversely, the more you stick to unprincipled crew doing nasty work, the harder it is to justify hiring a moral mechanic or taking on a lower-paying moral job.

The old sermons about virtue and sin becoming easier with practice are demonstrated in this game. You soon reach the point where Macbeth said, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” And it’s easier to get my kids to play the game than pay attention to the sermons.

How is it as a game, aside from demonstrating moral lessons? I love it, and so do enough other people to support eight expansions.

  • PROS:
    – Does a splendid job of capturing the feel of the Firefly TV series.
    – Provides range of actions from simple cargo delivery to committing complex capers.
    – Different story cards let every game have a different objective.
    – Expansions add variety.
    – Supports solo play.
    – Family friendly, I’ve had pre-teen kids playing.
  • CONS:
    – There is a learning curve for new players. Seeing a dozen separate decks of cards surrounding the board is intimidating until you learn you only need to pay attention to one or two at a time.
    – Lots of fiddly bits.
    – Not much direct player interaction unless you get the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion for PvP action.

If your group enjoys racing each other to collect enough money or firepower to meet a goal, or has serious Browncoats, I strongly recommend this game. The moral lessons will teach themselves.

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.