Totally apolitical fantasy

I took the most recent iteration of the People and Play course, and as that came to an end, my partner and I decided that we’d about reached a natural endpoint for our game and for the characters’ stories. So this is a retrospective, especially in terms of- political content and where it comes from.

So in the comments on the last post on this game, <Unsuccessful Runequesting Leads To Successful Play>, Noah commented that this game was “trippy awesome cosmic fantasy”, and this gave me some pause, because I hadn’t thought about it in that light. And then I remembered the hallucinatory visit to the Red Moon, where the landscape is perpetually unstable, (and then things got a bit… well “delirious as adjectival form of what deliriants do to you” once Topi got under the surface), and my partner pointed out that we had run a session where the protagonist had an extended conversation with the genius loci of an abandoned city and ended up giving her a name, and yeah, I had to concede that it is trippy cosmic fantasy.

I hadn’t started out with any intent of that, nor did my partner, but it emerged straightforwardly and without too much fuss in play (and my partner started encouraging it, it turned out), and while I sat down and dissected my own history with fantasy and my partner did with their own history, in the end the mixture of influences is always a little alchemical. Right alongside that, though, is the political content of play, in terms of being emergent and unintended.

I do think that there’s a certain minimum level of politics to trippy cosmic fantasy that’s well above the everything-is-political bar- for one thing, it’s an idiom that starts from the assumption that mystical-adjacent, personal or small-group experiences outside of any mediating authority are important or even necessary for understanding the truth of your existence or situation. Or to put it another way, trippy cosmic fantasy is built on some degree of subversiveness, whatever political valence it ends up subverting.

Setting that aside for a moment, my partner is also a practicing Quaker and she wanted the cosmology or metaphysics of the game to incorporate the idea that violence would never be the only option or a necessary thing. And I readily agreed to that.

I think this could be taken as a “safety tool”, but in practice, I think it actually ended up being a “danger tool”, if I understand that term correctly. Putting physical force as nonessential then meant going into highly emotional and politically charged territory as events escalated and conflict and tension came to the forefront. The kind of place where you need to develop a good sense of people’s boundaries. (Which was hardly a smooth process.)

And in turn, this seems to have politicized the game in a particular direction as we played, as Topi ended up struggling with the legacy of Belintar, the Pharaoh or God-King or Pharoah depending on your entry point into Glorantha, and trying to contend with the ways that having a divine reincarnating monarch who gobbles people up as part of his reincarnation fucked up her context. And then this big question, this emergent Premise perhaps, of “Can something founded on injustice break away from that foundation without destroying itself?” kept popping up at macro levels (of course we would end up going to the Lunar Empire) and micro levels.

Another decision, which was that broos didn’t exist in this Glorantha, ended up also being a kind of “danger tool”, I think, in that we ended up with an ongoing subplot about the board game chit Gunda the Guilty. The provided backdrop material for her invokes sexual violence in one obvious way- her mother was a rape survivor and Gunda was born as part of that situation- and one non-obvious way: Gunda becomes “the Guilty” because, having become caught up in the realm of the Queen of the Kiss, “whose buss enslaved man, woman, and monster”, she broke said Queen’s back and was “cursed to never know love again”.

How we incorporated and interpreted that material was- well, my partner wrote fetish erotica as part of a community dedicated to fetishistic mind control, and I’m not unfamiliar with that myself, so we started out by taking it as given that Gunda had undergone a MCI, as Ron put it on Comics Madness, and in a truly heroic fashion, had broken through the mind-control and broken the villain’s back. And that this MCI was, both metaphorically and literally, a sexually abusive relationship that involved some degree of sex where free and meaningful consent wasn’t possible. I’m being a bit overprecise- the first point we decided is that Gunda’s a rape survivor from a queer relationship.

We then took the “curse” as a combination of complicated feelings towards the Queen of the Kiss and complicated feelings around sex and untangling traumatic repulsion towards sexual contact and an unknown degree of asexuality. Or the second point we decided is that Gunda did the heroic thing, what Jean Grey or Storm or Magik or Kitty Pryde might do after spending a few issues in tight black leather, and it didn’t bring catharsis.

Finally, and without directly connecting this to the previous two points, we gave Gunda an absurd physicality. Eight feet/2.5 meters tall, superhumanly strong, appearing onstage after leaping a few hundred meters between two boats, we agreed that this was primarily for puckish horny reasons- and then we ended up realizing her as the biggest velvet-glove-inside-mailed-fist butch in play, via some freewheeling mythological improvisation. So then after Gunda became part of the Topi sphere, she not infrequently popped up just to see how Chalana Arroy psychotherapy was going for her. A very micro case of this, one where even asking the question directly was sublimated, but where the same tensions were at play. (You might think that this premise has some immediate relevance for trans people, especially transfeminine people, without even getting into class background and class position and nationality and settler status and all those things. Just maybe.)

I could insert a rant here about broos, but I’ll condense it down- broos are, among other things, a direct representation of rapists in the Gloranthan source texts, and thus they’re contemptible, animalistic, and have a big hole in their soul. Indeed, rapists turn into broos, according to later Greg Stafford autofanfic. And that’s not in any way a bad statement in itself, but it’s also a limited one, because it’s fairly beholden to the rapist-as-monstrous-stranger or as-brute. And there’s another component of sexual violence which involves emotional abuse and ongoing abusive relationships and, in my personal experience of knowing and talking with people who have survived relationships like these, a very strong degree of mixed emotions towards the abusive partner. And because this isn’t necessarily physically abusive, there’s also an additional suspicion that falls on the survivors- why didn’t she leave, why did he let his boyfriend do that to him- and this weight is real and heavy.

So by clearing the broo component away, we ended up putting Gunda in the foreground and talking about sexual violence anyways, but about areas of it that monsterizing make more difficult to examine. We amped up Gunda’s body, and this made the situation one where she could feel guilty about not breaking free sooner, while at the same time feeling guilty about the use of disabling if not lethal violence to break free. And we didn’t bother nailing down too much about Zoria, the backdrop location where this took place- it was a foil to our base of operations and its operating ideology- because Gunda had already spit on your grave. She just needed to do more.

I want to emphasize that all of this was minor in relative terms. There was about half of one session focused on Gunda and a lot of brief check-ins with her, or bits of banter as we played different members of the social circle, going forward, and that was it. But that still produced quite a bit to analyze in how we explored a very serious, heavy, and grim topic. And then on the macro level, we had- well, this could very quickly go even further into Glorantha lorehead horseshit (I say that affectionately), so instead I’ll focus on the basic political context we developed: the initial scope of play was a region that had, from a few hundred years ago up until eight years ago, been ruled by an immortal god-king who regularly took new bodies, and who had ordained its definition as six equally-balanced parts, each with borders set by him, with his own magical capital city in the middle of them all, all of which was textual content.

We then took a look at the presented textual demographics and some of the outlined textual history, went, “Bullshit,” and as we played to figure out “what was actually going on”, a few things kept popping up. First of all, the arbitrariness of borders- not just political/geographical ones but religious/mythical ones (although the distinction between those became yet another arbitrary and melty border very quickly). Secondly, the emergence, in the moment after the collapse of the old order and the death of the unassailable dictator, of nationalism conditioned on those arbitrary borders. Both of these came together very strongly very early on when Topi headed south to Caladraland, which as you might imagine has some fairly active volcanoes.

Firstly, we ended up developing that there had been a syncretic merging of the two cults which exist side-by-side as incompatible examples of the social organizing force of the region in the texts, such that the cult of the volcano twins had absorbed the cult of the volcano father, and then the feminine twin had become dominant over the masculine, absorbing the phallic imagery of the volcano father cult. (Much of this was driven in the moment by the urge to stuff more erotic transfeminine imagery into “Our Glorantha”, of course.) Secondly, we concluded that this merging was correlated with a coup d’etat where a priestess of the volcano goddess had murdered the remnant of the old authority, the god-king’s governor, and consolidated power around herself as the chief priestess of Caladraland.

And what she wanted was to (yanking some backdrop right into play) absorb the communities of volcano-god cultists that extended out to the west of the defined boundaries of Caladraland, as well as maximize Caladrian control of the borderland with Esrolia, the polity Topi was a resident and citizen of. At the same time, there was an ongoing cosmological disaster (the weather god was dead locally, and the agricultural goddess was comatose), which Topi had, just as it was emerging, accidentally developed a counter to- substitution of another weather goddess for the weather god, reviving the agricultural goddess. This woman, Navarre, wanted the benefits of that development and needed, so we determined, Esrolian support to actually extend her control out to these more distant communities.

Meanwhile, Topi arrives with some firm ethical commitments and with the understanding that her patron/lover is interested in undermining the hierarchical order of the god-king’s Esrolia, where one city had been ascendant over the rest. A lengthy session of diplomatic negotiations, flirtations, careful and delicate feeling-out of each other’s mythopolitical worldview, and modestly raw play ensued. At the end of it, the nationalistic military expeditions were deferred, but an agreement to reshape the borderland into a condominium of Caladrian and Esrolian political authority as an alliance of formal equals was worked out, and the necessary mythological transformations spread into Caladraland, etc.

Or to put it another way, what happened was that the borders were dissolved and multiplicity of identity was adopted, contra to continuing down the pathway of an eventual Greater Caladraland nation-state bordering an Esrolian nation-state, and, presumably, some degree of mass violence, perhaps even genocide (or ethnic cleansing, if we want to use that term as a specific classification of genocidal violence to dispossess more than to exterminate), to produce even a ragged line between the two.

Which makes it a problematic, ambiguous outcome in and of itself, and play hasn’t focused on the specificity of cultural changes and whether this arrangement will become stable or destabilize, how it might destabilize- which leaves it entirely up in the air. I like that- it’s not an eschatological outcome, with premonitions of doom or guarantees of bliss, but it’s meaningful. (All of this is retroactively narrativizing the process- we invented Navarre, played out the first session with her as a character, and then my partner discovered there was a textual authority figure already in place, and thus invented Navarre killing this man with her thighs, in terms of order of play and of procedures.)

This continued yet further, as Topi eventually turned her attentions towards Esrolia’s internal political context, which we developed, in fits and starts (more smoothly once we ditched the idea of “factions” and focused on characters). Esrolia is textually described as matriarchal, and though the fire axe came down hard on the idea that it’s actually run by little old mafiosi grandmothers who use their younger female relatives as breeding stock and puppets, we ran with the idea that Esrolian politics were beholden to a hierarchy of age, gender, ethnicity, and religion, and developed three active/vital positions, along with traditional conservative supremacism, which we treated as functionally spent.

The Queen of Nochet sought to compromise on ethnicity to preserve the other hierarchies, her younger cousin had undergone some shocking religious experiences which left her both in internal exile and convinced religious openness was needed, and Topi’s patron had become somewhat radical on questions of gender and religion. The solution to this conundrum involved role-reversal mommykink sex with divinely blessed prosthetic aids between the first two women. At no point did we articulate, “this disrupts the hierarchy of age”, but in retrospect, it certainly was there.

I won’t even go into the polyamorous hierogamy or the inversion of “as above, so below” to perform a cosmological restructuring, at least not in detail, but of course there’s political content there, and it was similarly emergent through play in its specifics and only fully comprehensible in retrospect. In the near future, another iteration of the fractal will be reaching its conclusion, and with it, this game, and I’ll probably have some more thoughts once I’ve processed those events.

So- what are some other experiences people have had with emergent political content in play, especially in fantasy or science fiction contexts?

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8 responses to “Totally apolitical fantasy”

  1. Your comment about the removal of violence being a ‘danger tool’ resonates with me (though I’ve never encountered that term before).

    When my regular group tried The Quiet Year, we pretty quickly settled on some pragmatic solutions to the immediate problems of survival, partly because our community was armed to the teeth and nothing came along that seemed a credible threat.

    In the absence of the usual post-apocalyptic narrative of murderous struggle for survival, the driving conflicts of the game became social, political, and even spiritual, driven by the growth of a bizarre religion with its would-be theocracy and attendant violent backlash. Much Contempt was spilled over questions like ‘how do we deal with bad actors?’, ‘when is violence acceptable?’, ‘why are we even trying to survive?’, and ‘is this psychic mutant coyote-antelope actually a God?’.

    Someone eventually murdered the Coyantelope, and then its mate was destined to return (due to a project) just as the Frost Shepherds arrived. Our community was clearly about to face collective punishment.

    I haven’t played the game enough to know whether this is a common occurrence, but social drama it felt like a very natural, mutually-agreed-upon axis of crises in play. We were certainly bringing a lot of it to the table ourselves (aggressive reincorporation of minor statements led a snowballing heap of trouble by the end); I can’t speak for the content of the text, but the rule that discussions are never binding clearly opens the door for dysfunction.

    • I don’t think I get that final sentence. I think the rest makes sense to me but I’m not seeing what you mean. Help me with that if you’d like, because it seems worth discussing.

      Also, and possibly related, I started using the term “danger tool” as opposed to “safety tool,” meaning, techniques like Lines and Veils permit opening up more intimate and uninhibited content – I didn’t propose them to shut such things down. (Useful link if you’re interested: Safe spaces [Games and Education]).

    • Oops! I didn’t see your reply before, Ron.

      Thanks for the explanation of ‘danger tools’. I’m familiar with lines & veils, but I’ve never heard it called that before.

      Regarding my final sentence (which is a bit of a mess), let me split it into two parts. Firstly, our particular session had what seemed like a higher than normal amount of throwaway lines that were later reincorporated into play as bigger issues. IIRC, the game forces you to choose between building on established fiction, or creating something new, each turn, and we often chose the former (especially as the map became cluttered with scribbles).

      Once this got rolling, it meant that old conflicts tended to get rehashed in new forms. So, the would-be messiah was assassinated; then his self-declared prophet tried to set up a theocracy; then it got firebombed, and split into factions which were incorporated into the broader society; which then fed into the next generation of conflict, over what to do when the apparent deity took a sinister turn.

      For the second part: IIRC, discussions in The Quiet Year are not binding resolutions. So, views were aired, and then people went off to act on things however they liked. Which meant that players could make moves they knew full well would draw someone’s ire. The rule seems like an invitation to create drama, for some players.

    • If it’s OK with you, I think that topic could be a post of its own about playing The Quiet Year.

  2. This post is stuffed with content, to the point that I’m walking in a circle deciding what to focus on.

    At the moment, perhaps it’s minor, with injustice to the important topics. At Gothcon last week, several conversations arose from my Fantasy in Role-playing workshop (which draws from the more-extensive Three Fantasies course) concerning the loss of counter-culture. I argue that this loss, which is easily traced to a specific policy event in the early-mid 70s, left role-playing stranded, and at a much wider scope, opened the door for fantasy to become a genre rather than a quality.

    One person I talked with saw evidence for my claim in a more recent, specific restoration of these features she’d observed, in her words, as “queering up Glorantha” in play. For the counter-cultural point, not in a mainstream pro-military lipstick rather sanitized fashion, but a zesty, sex-positive, trouble-making fashion, often by people who themselves don’t fit neatly into Hollywood notions. For the quality/genre point, similarly, not in a “must … know … canon” fandom meaning of fantasy, but in a “look at this pretty instrument, what shall I play upon it” meaning.

    So that’s what the post prompted for me, perhaps too much about what’s on my mind than on the specific content, but with luck I can process more of the content later and say something sensible.

    • It’s very interesting to me that it was “queering up Glorantha” specifically that came up! I wonder how many groups around the world are doing this kind of thing to make it casually observable like that. (I’m not as surprised that it’s Glorantha, but that gets into territory which Three Fantasies probably covers in more detail about how people’s interactions with fantasy roleplay tend to circumscribe the ability to engage in queering up in this countercultural way…)

      As far as fitting neatly into Hollywood notions, my partner and I frequently joked about the various all-women societies like the Yelorna cult or the Amazons off near Teshnos and how they have percentages of men in their fanmade demographic statistics- “They’re men but only for a few hours at a time and only when they’re being stepped on.” You can’t get that in Hollywood movies, or frankly in most independent film. But at the same time it’s instantly recognizable to us, to a substantial number of queer people of our generation and younger, probably to older queers as well, and I suspect might well be recognizable to you. And just as the joke is built on gender as both deeply serious and deeply playful, this kind of play also is built on fantasy being something to take seriously and at the same time lightheartedly.

      (This comment got me to go back and reread Zelazny’s *Creatures of Light and Darkness*, which was mind-expanding in my middle teenage years and still holds up strongly today. And it of course is an example of this kind of playfulness and a free disregard of “canon” in favor of playing the instrument, mixing and matching eternal revolutionaries with Egyptian gods, Hellenistic cosmic monsters, and contemporary slangy English in a futuristic setting.)

  3. I may have been dizzied by the weird and glorious details at first reading, so that I didn’t follow up enough on the genuine point of your post.

    You’ve probably noticed that I’m definitely an “everything is political” person, even rather unreconstructed about it. I don’t even know what it means to say “no politics, it’s just for fun,” when I see power, wealth, ecology, sex/gender, [fill in the blank], and historical structure in every detail of any media. The closest I can come to starting without it is to keep my mouth shut.

    Might I have imposed such content unnecessarily, especially as play develops? Yes, I’m certain of it, whether in Villains & Vigilantes (“hey, this is getting political,” said one of the young players in the second session) or Khaotic (focusing on inter-agency dysfunction rather than straightforward SF-ops). I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “there he goes again” at any given table some day soon.

    In this, maybe Circle of Hands is interesting to talk about. I’m open about it being irresponsible and even immature in its origins: full of appropriation both culturally and regarding other games, deliberately dismissive of being “serious” or scholarly regarding fantasy. I may have made it smarter and meaner following the twenty-year gap in development from Gray Magick, but I retained much of its goofiness or fandom/gaming-fantasy on purpose.

    What really happened, though, was that in 2012 I was working on my hard-core political games, having published Spione and then Shahida, and scribbling notes for Amerika. I can see the latter as the unspoken core of Circle of Hands: we have militants, already bonded by horror and blood, aware that they have fought genuine evil widely perceived as normal, already with some sense of purpose in their violent action together, but not knowing exactly what they have helped to bring about, nor what direction this purpose may have, or lead to.

    That’s why the Circle, in the game, has no “code,” no mission statement. That’s why they don’t go on assigned “missions.” That’s why Rolke is not a nation, nor is there a king “of” Rolke, merely one “in” it. I don’t know whether the knights in a particular game will arrive at a direction for their sense of purpose, whether even that sense will hold, or whether their efforts are good or not. Specifically regarding that last point, whether they do good things regardless of their intentions, or have good intentions but do some bad things.

    It’s right out of my own effort of understanding my upbringing in the radical California 1960s and 1970s + my activism as faculty during at the time of writing. But there’s no need to explain or contextualize any of that in terms of play. If the game has a virtue, it’s that I kept my mouth shut about it (as with Trollbabe) and leave it entirely to whatever anyone wants to do with it.

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