This is another Stephen Hunt novel, set in the same world and with the same characters as the previous two I have read, The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. While the last two were definitely steampunk-fantasy, this one has crossed the line to science-fantasy, with a heavy dose of space opera and time travel to leaven the mix. I really like the world Hunt has created, and I think it provides interesting insights into the kind of post-scarcity fantasy that has been under discussion here recently. The world of these books includes clockwork-run computers and steam “transaction engines,” as well as sentient “steam men” who are basically steam-driven robots; this is a kind of steam-driven cyberpunk, with a heavy element of magic hanging it altogether. It also has a basis in real world politics, with the kingdom of Jackals clearly modeled on an atheist, post-revolutionary Victorian steampunk Britain; while Quatershift is clearly post-revolutionary France, where the revolution turned horribly communist but revolutionary Britain remained free-market capitalist. These models for a fantasy world based in an alternative-history earth with different geography and multiple races, as well as druidic magic, are really fun to wander through. The world of these tales has a high amount of magic that is put heavily to use in the service of the state: law and justice, war, public transport and scientific research are heavily driven by a combination of magic, old-fashioned science, steam technology and mysterious semi-magical materials science. The world is identifiably Victorian but also wealthy and capable of stupendous feats of technology and human achievement.

In this novel, the kingdom of Jackals is threatened by a powerful force using very high technology to an extremely destructive end. Although the technology resembles space opera-level power (space and time travel, nuclear power and weapons, and beam weapons and modern aerial machinery) much of its impetus is derived from harnessing the magic of the land. As a consequence it is understandable by and – more particularly – vulnerable to the ancient magical powers of the druids and fey creatures who live in Jackals. The heroes of previous stories have access to these powers and use them to combat the invasion, but they are clearly outclassed and need to use all their wits and power to face their foe.

Just as in previous books, the narrative is fast-paced and exciting, and some of the characters very enjoyable – I particularly became fond of Commodore Black in this story – and the plot is fairly robust, requiring leaps of faith and imagination but not particularly unbelievable or inconsistent. We learn more about the history of Jackals and Quatershift, as well as their present cultures and the magic and cosmology of the world. We also get a glimpse of what people without a proper knowledge of science can achieve if they have magic and an ingenious turn of mind.

Also like the previous stories, this one involves a certain element of deus ex machina that can be occasionally frustrating. It leads to main characters gettnig sudden mighty powers out of nowhere to rescue them from mounting adversary, and also causes the plot to hang on sudden leaps of intuition or new-found abilities that sometimes stretch credibility. But the story is pacey and you want to know both the secrets of the enemy and how they’re going to solve the problems facing them, so it’s not a deal-killer; but it is frustrating at times that the story can only proceed through main characters gaining the grace of ancient powers.

Despite these small complaints, it’s a fun book and the world it’s set in is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the fantasy genre. Also, revisiting the characters of Molly, Oliver, Coppertracks and Commodore Black is fun, as is the rumbunctious and chaotic politics of Jackals. Stephen Hunt’s writing is fast-paced and fun, and his books more than hold my interest. Read this novel if you want to see Steampunk taken in interesting and challenging new directions.

This semester I’m teaching a course on Global Crime and Public Health as a special lecture series (in fact I should be preparing material now instead of posting here). This course represents a culmination of 15 years’ research experience in the service of a general model of what constitutes a “good” response to the public health threat of movements in global crime. The key public health threat in the West is, of course, HIV spread by injecting drug use and/or sex work[1]. Both HIV and sex work have an international criminal connection, since the former is fed by international crime syndicates and international criminal connections drive the movement of women from high-HIV areas in Asia to low HIV areas in Oceania, to work in unregulated sweat shop-style brothels. The movement of these drug- and sex-work markets in Australia is also tied into its multicultural history and movement towards open markets and trade, so there’s a lot to take in, but basically it’s about HIV.

A lot of people – including quite a few in positions to know better – seem to think that HIV is no big deal, perhaps through their having looked at it through the prism of the developed world’s good luck, but in my wandering through this topic at the University I have had to review both the history, recent epidemiology and effects of HIV. It’s certainly the case that, had the developed world had the singular bad luck that Africa had, or reacted more slowly, our lives here in the pampered Western world would be very different. I wonder if our luck in dodging this bullet might be partly responsible for the growth of zombie/disease movies in the last 10 years, and while I was wondering at that it occurred to me that a slightly different set of historical circumstances could create an alternate history earth with a lot of cyberpunk elements, that could be an interesting setting for a gritty near-future cyberpunk campaign. To understand it, we should take a look at a brief potted history of HIV, and its effects.

The history of HIV

The first known death due to AIDS was a Norwegian sailor and his family, who died of AIDS in about 1972[2]. He almost certainly got his HIV while travelling through Africa, where it is believed to have appeared during the 50s at least, and from where it spread to Haiti in the 60s. It is then believed to have circulated through America, but it appears to have been confined to gay men at first in America. Unfortunately for the Africans, AIDS appeared simultaneously in 3 separate, geographically distinct locations in heterosexual populations in the early 80s, and it’s possible it was already endemic in those areas by that time.

In the USA, UK and Asia, however, it was not endemic – having come to those countries from other countries – and it did not appear first in the heterosexual community. The huge benefit of this is that it could be contained, because of the good luck of its originating in a separate community with different behaviours and a strong community identity. This combination meant that it wouldn’t spread fast outside of the group, and health behaviour messages were easily communicated within the group.

On the other hand, in Africa it appeared in the most diverse community possible – heterosexuals – and because of its incubation period (10 years) and the fact that it was native to the region, it was already endemic by the time it was identified. It’s very hard to control a disease that is already widespread in a group with a very vague shared identity, if the only form of prevention is behavioural change.

The Effects of HIV in Africa

HIV in the west is a scary disease that affects a small portion of the community. Strong public health systems can handle scary diseases in minority communities very easily. However, in Africa the disease has spread amongst heterosexual populations very quickly, and is now at epidemic level within nations. Prevalence of HIV in Swaziland is 26%, and in Lesotho 24%; even in countries with a model response, like Uganda, the prevalence is around 5-6%.

HIV exacts a cruel toll on its victims, both in terms of their horrible suffering as they die, and the effects on their family and friends. In Africa the disease’s high prevalence has also had economic effects, especially:

  • Reduced food production, as labourers either die or leave the land to care for relatives
  • Poverty, as people drop out of work to care for relatives
  • Reduced school enrolments, as children are withdrawn from school to support families whose main earners are sick or dead

In a lot of countries in Africa, HIV is expected to lead to long-term entrenched poverty, loss of food production, and loss of economic growth because businesses cannot find suitable labour. Recently Lesotho petitioned South Africa to be absorbed into the South African nation, because Lesotho itself is facing economic and social collapse specifically because of the HIV epidemic.

Alternate HIV History

Suppose, then, that the disease had developed in the USA rather than Africa, and appeared spontaneously in three areas in the heterosexual community, rather than the gay community. Suppose further that it was already endemic in these areas. Even if all three areas were rural, it’s hard to believe that the US could have done better than Uganda, and given the amount of travel in the US compared to Africa in the 70s and 80s, the sexual looseness of the time and the presence of the pill, it’s pretty easy to imagine the disease getting out of control. It would spread rapidly to the UK and Australia through travel, but not so rapidly to virgin Africa, since there wasn’t so much contact between the two at the time. By the time it was identified and isolated (and maybe first it was called “Heterosexual Related Immune Deficiency”?) the Africans would have been in a position to ban travel from the US, and gain a few years’ grace to teach Africans about safe sex. i.e. the situation that the West experienced, in reverse. It’s possible to imagine, too, that the economic costs could have been larger in the US than in Africa. Much of the economic cost of HIV in the early years in Africa was handled on the cheap, by letting people die or giving very basic palliative care, while in the US it would be all-hands-to-the-pump in what was then still a quite well-run system.

The difference, of course, is that the US and Europe were the key drivers of economic growth in the 80s and 90s, and if they suddenly collapsed in on themselves due to HIV, the world would have gone along a very different trajectory. Asia – or at least those countries untouched by HIV – would have been the key drivers of economic growth in the 90s, and those countries of course would be the nations isolated from US involvement, or relatively untouched – China, Vietnam, Korea and maybe Japan. Japan, if untouched, would have continued the development aid to the region which enabled most of Asia to grow during that time, and we would be looking at a world where the West was collapsing in on itself while Asia grew, and Africa went on its own, possibly quite isolated trajectory to growth. How would African growth be affected by a collapse in the West? Would trade with Asia be a less protected and more open affair, so Africa could grow out of its problems? Without Australian and Canadian wheat, would Africa become a major food supplier and thus grow in a way it didn’t in the real world?

The world that would come from this strikes me a lot like the world of Appleseed, where a few isolated Asian countries have achieved great wealth and security while Europe and the US struggle and collapse in on themselves. However, the cause wouldn’t be some kind of global war, but a global disease catastrophe that changed the economic development model of the last 30 years.

Some HIV-driven cyberpunk scenarios

A world where nuclear-armed, militarily sophisticated states collapse in on themselves under the burden of epidemic disease is a scary one indeed, and suggests a variety of interesting scenarios for adventuring:

  • The Isolated Survivor: Perhaps a couple of countries acted early to isolate themselves, and while the rest of the world (or the rest of the world that we’re interested in) struggles and dies, they soldier on. Such a society might be a lot like the world of Children of Men, grotty and nasty but trying to cling on to its past social structures while it slowly and inevitably decays into a post-apocalyptic mess. Adventuring in such a state would be something between cyberpunk and post-apocalypse, as the scenes in the refugee camp in Children of Men show. There would be many factional sides to take, and very little to be gained from being self-interested except power.
  • Dictatorship and War: With economies failing and populations in unrest, an obvious way for Western governments to reassert their authority, regain popularity, and regain resources, is to launch foreign wars, either for material gain or for the simple distracting power of a good, cleansing war. War overseas is a good excuse for dictatorship at home – as is a state of permanent disease – and the PCs could find themselves suddenly on the wrong (or the right) end of a fascist, communist, or even religious dictatorship. Dictatorships in a society slowly falling apart from the inside are an excellent dystopian cyberpunk setting, with the PCs able to position themselves as freedom fighters, spies, death squads, innocent victims of a plot, etc.
  • Homesteading and survivalism: With no cure in sight, and large parts of the populace infected, maybe the wealthy, the brave, or the stupid would try to set up their own kingdoms or survivalist enterprises. The best ones are always at sea, but there could be other places too – the arctic, the deep mountains, enclaves inside fast-collapsing cities. The PCs could be hired on as guards, or could be members of the original community who find themselves caught in a plot – or sent on a mission.
  • The Cure: Maybe someone finds a cure for the disease, and the PCs stumble on it or are enlisted to protect it. What do they do if they find that a local power-broker/government/corporation wants to keep it secret to use as a political tool, to assure world domination, etc? Do they go along with the plan for a slice of the goodies, steal the cure, or reveal the truth to the world? What if the cure is a bio-weapon that instantly kills the infected? Would the PCs disseminate it for the greater good, destroy the last sample, fight to prevent its use?
  • The Truth: Suppose that in fact HIV were not a natural disease at all, but one of the conspiracy theories about its origin proved to be more than true, and it was in fact a bioweapon gone wrong. A campaign leading up to this revelation could change the world – especially if a government of an uninfected country had secretly released it, and was sitting on the cure.
  • Drug dealing: In an America with a properly cyberpunk economic system, crumbling infrastructure and declining wealth, very few people would be able to afford anti-retroviral drugs, which would become a new kind of treasure. The PCs could be dealers in ART, or even Robin Hood style liberators of stashes of the drugs, constantly running from criminal rivals and the law. Or they could be dispatched by the government or a corporation to break up such a group.

My favourite is the first or second, or a combination of the two, though elements of any of the rest could be thrown in for effect. HIV-related collapse has the advantage of not being as catastrophic as modern disease/zombie movies, so it creates a crumbling cyberpunk society as opposed to a post-apocalyptic one, but it gives an opportunity to create a future with an economic order that has been changed in a semi-plausible way, and a reason for the moribund state of western nations. It also gives a plausible background against which genuinely fascist or radical, but powerful religious movements could be resurgent, and the slow development of the virus gives a  long time frame for corporations and governments to work their schemes, rather than the kind of disaster-management scenarios we often see in zombie/outbreak-type movies.

Beyond HIV

Of course, invented diseases could be more tailored to the scenario than HIV. A disease that causes madness, so that the victim never recovers and never dies, and is a constant burden on society, could create an even more disturbing future. Maybe the mad are easily contained, but in some places there are just too many… Diseases with catatonic or similar semi-stuporific states would create a challenge of an interesting sort, as do diseases that lower fertility or prematurely age the population. All that’s really needed is a disease that appears suddenly after a long latency, so it is insidious; that is highly contagious; and that creates a huge, irresolvable social burden out of its victims, sufficient to create the conditions of economic decay and apocalypse that would characterise the campaign world, because the purpose of the disease is not to create physical enemies of its victims, like zombies; but to create the context for a debilitated society, suspicious of its own members and falling from its previous greatness due to disease and rapid economic decay. Under these conditions one can create the backdrop for a game of gritty urban cyberpunk semi-apocalypse, which I think could be an interesting setting for some unpleasant and challenging adventures.

 

 

 

 

fn1: Though it’s of course not the only such problem. I’ve been thinking of setting my students an assignment based on the problems that the Italians are having with rubbish disposal and the mafia, but I suspect that there isn’t much published on this. Contraband olive oil created significant public health disasters in Spain under Franco, and there is now of course the potential health consequences of smuggling animals and plants. But I think these don’t compare to the real, identifiable effects of heroin importation to countries like Australia and Kyrgizstan.

fn2: Doesn’t even bother checking the lecture he gave last week for the exact date…

A few weeks ago I played in a Double Cross 3 session, and wrote up a few reports on it. This post constitutes the final report on that session, in which I describe my experience of the Lois and Titus rules and how they affect gameplay.

Lois and Titus

When you roll up a character in Double Cross 3, you are also required to generate a set of Lois‘s. Lois’s are people you know, connected to you through your life path, who help to keep you connected to the real world of ordinary human life. They can be colleagues, school-friends, family members, or people who helped you in your earlier life. When you develop these relationships you have to roll up a negative and positive trait for them, which will be things like “envy” and “charity” or “rivarly” and “love,” and you then choose one of these traits to define your relationship to the Lois when you start the game. Lois’s don’t have to be present in your life during play – they can be memories, distant figures, or the legacy of dead people.

Ideally, as you adventure in a rich world of secrets and superheroes, you gain more Lois’s. Your Lois’s have three direct effects on the game-play:

  • They give you allies and contacts you can call upon. These people aren’t henchmen, but people tied intimately to your lives who will aid you when you need help
  • They give the GM (and the players) adventure hooks. Just as they will come to you when you need their help, so they also will come to you when they need your help, which gives the GM a lot of opportunities to start or interfere with adventures
  • They save you from corruption. As you adventure, your use of your virus-related powers increases your level of corruption, which draws you ever closer to losing your humanity and becoming a germ. At the end of every session you get to roll 1d10 for every Lois you have, and subtract this from your corruption total. The lower your corruption the weaker your powers, but the higher your corruption the greater the risk of permanently sliding into darkness and ruin

This type of relationship could actually be introduced to Warhammer, come to think of it…

But there is another aspect to the Lois’s which makes them particularly potent. Their kindness (or their memory) can be abused, at which point they become Titus, so-named after the Shakespearean character of that name. A Titus is a lover spurned, a friend whose kindness was abused one time too many, a family member with a grudge… they pursue you to the end, wrathful as only someone once-loved can be. A Lois can become a Titus through your own stupidity, or through the game-mechanics device of sublimating a Lois.

Sublimation

When you sublimate a Lois you get rid of them from your life altogether, passing them from Titus through to gone. In the process of doing this you gain one of a series of in game benefits – adding 10 dice to a single roll, or healing a certain number of hit points, and so on. The in-game benefits that derive from this are quite significant in some cases – 10 dice is a phenomenal bonus – and well worth tossing your grandmother in front of a bus for. I think you can also do this with Lois’s who have become Tituses through the story (rather than a deliberate choice by the player). I’m not sure what the downside of burning a Titus is, besides that you have lost a story hook – this seems to be a way to get a vengeful ex-lover out of your life, which is only a good thing, right?

I haven’t read the section in the rulebook about this yet (I’ve been very busy) and we didn’t get around to seeing the benefits or disadvantages of a Titus in the game I played. So I’m not sure why one would allow the process of deLoisification to stop at merely producing a Titus, but I’m sure there’s a good reason.

The big downside of burning a Lois, of course, is that you then lose the ability to call on them for corruption amelioration, which will make your adventuring life a lot shorter than it would otherwise be (not that your Titus will care).

Game example

In my game, I sublimated my mother and the memory of an old, long-dead client of the Robot-driving business he worked for. I sublimated both of these Lois’s in order to regain 1d10 Hps each time (hey! what can I say? I sell my loyalties cheaply). My relationship with my mother was characterised by hostility, due to anger at her tolerating my Father’s secret membership of the False Hearts; my relationship with the memory of my dead ex-client was ishi, the will of the dead, some long-carried-over request or obligation to his memory.

So how did I burn these Lois’s to get a healing surge? The first was my Mother, whose memory I discarded like an oily rag after the minions of the False Hearts struck me down in an alley. I imagined this as my character realising he had been ambushed and outdone by the False Hearts, and as he struggled to retain his consciousness, recognising that all his life he had been thwarted and ruined by that hateful organisation first manipulated and preyed upon by his father in pursuit of a secret goal, then pursued through the dangerous underworld of Tokyo when he worked in the mecha business – perhaps even to the death of his client – and now to be hounded to death? All this was too much! And then I imagined that his mother called him on his cellphone, just as his last breaths were ebbing away, and that call (of course it has a special ringtone) penetrated the fog of impending unconsciousness – here was all his anger at the False Hearts crystallized in the form of the woman who he had always felt had betrayed him and who would not relent from constantly trying to get him to forgive her. Why should he forgive anyone for the harms done to him? I imagined him surging back to life, anger at his mother charging through him in the form of his viral payload, generating a healing surge at the same time as it destroyed his cellphone in a vicious series of sparks and lightning bolts. Just as every anime character has to surge to wakefulness with a scream at least once [1], so Kintaro regained consciousness surrounded by clouds of electric rage, blasting his phone and symbolically eliminating his mother from his life.

The next was his client. This time Kintaro had been knocked down by the False Hearts leader, his life’s blood ebbing away in some shitty Tokyo Snack. Again, as he felt his defeat looming, he remembered all the failures and defeats thrust upon him by this sinister organisation and raged against them. This time I imagined Kintaro had given up on his hopes of a normal life, and realised he had to fully embrace the powers he had inherited, rather than pretending he could continue to live like a normal person. He would have to cast aside his past life and devote himself to destroying the organisation that had so plagued him. So thinking, he cast aside his last contact with the ordinary world – his last Lois from outside of UGN – and all the long-overdue obligations it had shackled him with. Surging back from that fading state, again imbued with electrical power, he screamed his rage at the world that had wronged him, and reentered the fight…

Conclusion

Lois’s offer excellent game hooks, dramatic opportunities and mechanical advantages. They also offer an excellent narrative technique for justifying (and stunting) healing surges, recovery from corruption, and other phenomena that might otherwise just seem like in-game fixes. I think they could be repackaged in some way as an excellent addition to Warhammer as a mechanism for helping draw PCs back from insanity or corruption. They are another example of the differences between Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs, and an interesting example of incorporation of a dramatic element into the game through the rule system.

fn1: I’m reminded of when only one company distributed anime in Australia – was it madman entertainment? – and their adverts always involved a screaming guy, and someone else yelling “what’s going on in here?!!!”


Treachery never looked so cool...

I’m playing at my local gaming convention this Sunday, and there’s a risk that I’ll be invited into a Japanese-made role-playing game, so against this risk I thought I’d read one of the more popular (and cheaper) Japanese-made games, both to get an introduction to the feeling of Japanese games and to learn some language; and also in the hope that this actual game is being played. The game is called Double Cross, 3rd edition, and in this post I aim to give some outline information on it. So far I’ve only read up to the beginning of character creation, because I’m using my standard translation technique, which I’ve become better at in the past year but which is still slow. And I have computer games to play, so nothing is happening fast at the moment…

For more background information, the website for Double Cross 3 (entirely in Japanese) outlines the main products available, and the J-RPG webpage has an outline of some of the basic elements of the game, including background on the origins of the character class names. The “Download” section of the Double Cross 3 website contains some example character sheets, and the J-RPG group also has a link to some of the character class concept sketches, which look very cool. The English writing in the background of each picture gives a rough idea of the character concept behind the picture: the first character, for example, translates roughly as something like “Fighter to protect dreams,” (yume no mamorishu) and is written in English as “Dream Fighter.” If you download the firefox add-on called “rikaichan” you can translate individual words in some websites, but sadly not in the character pictures. Anyway, the first picture contains all the information you need to know about this game: it includes schoolgirls. Can’t go wrong there.

So here is the outline of what I’ve read so far.

Presentation

The book is a B5 hand-held book, purchased for 840 yen (5 pounds, or $AUS10, or $US8) new, and it contains everything you need to play – player guide, GM guide, world information, character sheet, sample characters, example of play, and scenarios. Eat that, WOTC! It starts with an outline of the world, and then has a short comic strip involving some demon-summoning school children (de rigeuer, I think we can all agree). Then it goes into the standard RPG stuff – what an RPG is, guidance for using the book, glossary of terms, character creation, etc. It’s all black and white, and the B5 format means some stuff (e.g. pictures of the character sheet on the page) is very small. The sample characters have pictures just like those in the link above, in black and white. I think a benefit of the Japanese language is that you can stuff an enormous amount of information into a very small physical space using the pictograms, and this shows here. The language is simple and business-like, which is a bonus for me, but it has occasional slang/crime language (in the comic, for example) and some lyrical introduction language that is completely wasted on me (see the translation on the J-RPG page above). I think Western game designers really need to consider this game book format, because it’s a really good idea to present the whole game in a $10 package. I think they have a proper A4 size colour version for ¥3000 (20 pounds, $AUS35, $US30) but the separation of the game into luxury and practical versions is I think an excellent plan.

Game idea

The game is set in a modern world, everyday Japan, which has been beset by a virus called renegade which corrupts people and gives them superpowers. The PCs are people with these superpowers who stand “in the space between human and superhero” and fight the evil forces unleashed by the virus. These powers are essentially dangerous, because the renegade virus “erodes the human sense” and every use increases the risk that a person will go mad, becoming a germ, a human overcome by some evil trait who is not considered human anymore. In the game, people with powers from the renegade virus are referred to as what has been transliterated as overed, though I wonder if it is actually meant to be transliterated as overawed (it’s hard to tell). So you start the game as an overed person, and have to manage your powers carefully lest you transform into a germ and have to be hunted down like a dog by your friends. The characters also all start with important personal connections called Lois, and if they lose these connections the connections become a Titus, which is some kind of evil bastard, at least according to Shakespeare.  The PCs also are supposed to have a cover, and may or may not work for UGN, a company or government organisation in the classic Anime style, which hunts down the bad guys (I haven’t read that far yet).

Character classes

Characters are chosen entirely on the basis of their mutation, or syndrome, of which there are 12. These give different types of powers, and the PC can be a pure breed (with powers in one syndrome only) or a cross-breed, with two syndromes.For example, our happy school-girl dream fighter is a cross-breed combining the syndromes of “Angel Halo” (controlling light) and “Salamander” (controlling fire). Mmmm, dreamy… I haven’t read the syndrome descriptions yet but judging by the TRPG translation they look very cool. Each syndrome comes with a brace of powers, maybe 15, of different levels, some combat, some investigative. This means that in total there are… 66 possible character classes (if my calculation of “12 choose 2” in my head is correct). For example, our schoolgirl (whose picture in the book, btw, has her sucking a lollipop, wearing a short skirt, and pointing a big gun) can choose the level 1 power Eyes of God, which increases perception, from her Angel Halo syndrome; or Wrath of the Fire God, which wreathes her in fire and increases her attack power, from her Salamander syndrome. That’s the kind of girl you want in your high school hostess club, or your high school basketball team. I haven’t read this far yet, but it seems like the syndromes control your starting ability scores, of which there are four: physical, sense, mind and charm. There’s also a section for choosing life path. I get the impression that character development is simple, but we’ll come back to that when I’ve read it. It seems to involve a lot of choices from tables using the mechanic they call “Roll or Choice,” wherein you roll on the table or choose, according to your preference. Some tables are choice only. So you can randomly roll your cover, or choose it.

Some similarities

I was struck by the inherent similarities of the introductory sections about what a role-playing game is. The explanation was very familiar to anyone who has read a few Western-style games. There was also a section called “Golden Rule” which is just what one expects: a brief paragraph on how the game is for fun and you only use the rules you want to use, with final judgement on anything resting on the GM, who is responsible for coming up with appropriate rulings in consultation with the players. Sound familiar? Also in common with a lot of Western games, there was a brief section on “The Third Person,” in which the authors state that they will use “he” or “several hes” as the third person singular/plural, and this is done to preserve readability[1] and not for any reasons of discrimination. The glossary also contains the usual definitions of GM, Player, etc. and the layout of the book is very similar – introduction, faffy bits, character development, player guide, world guide, GM guide, scenario section. This is yet more proof that the RPG world is actually really similar across the cultural divide.

Differences

The main differences in the game will probably lie further on, in its development of the world, but a few that were immediately evident were the heavy manga focus, with all the illustrations being done in a manga style and the inclusion of small manga strips at crucial stages in the book. Obviously, the world setting is very consistent with a lot of Anime and Manga ideas, with a secret organisation using superheroes to hunt down superheroes. Witch Hunter Robin springs to mind immediately. The book itself is set out in a more formalised style, which is very useful, with for example a page giving a flowchart to explain the character development process, an initial page with a picture of all the items you need to play, and so on. This is consistent with a Japanese style of presenting information that can be much clearer and more ordered (in print) than in the West. My local town’s onsen guide, for example, has a scatter plot of every onsen in Beppu, plotting its water mineral content against some other water property, so you can immediately find the onsen that suits you. The magazine Tokyo Graffiti[2] has some really interesting examples of graphical presentation of information for the lay reader (about hair style choices, or shoes!) that shows a much more ordered and advanced approach to information than in the West. This gamebook follows in that style.

The system seems to be heavily focussed around powers, rather than spells and class-specific abilities, but I think there is a skill system as well. More on this later, when I’ve read it. It also seems to be low complexity, aimed at starting quickly and resolving actions quickly. Also, it has the phenomenon of erosion, in which using your own powers increases the risk of losing your PC, so there’s a type of insanity-check based resource management system which is not too common in western games, I think.

A few other notes

The JRPG site translation of the powers also includes references to the original source of the power’s name, and as can be seen, there is a lot of reference to classical western and ancient literature, as well as Chinese and Japanese history. The use of the word Titus to describe vengeful ex-associates is a very cool touch, and apparently there’s a supplement set in an Eastern European country in the throes of a civil war. This kind of Western-influenced anime style reminds me of Full Metal Alchemist or any of the famous Miyazaki Hayao movies, and I think it’s a really impressive and interesting style. It’s also classically Japanese, to merge Shakespeare, ancient fallen Japanese Gods, and a reference to a Stanislaw Lem novel.

The book also includes an example of a “Play Report,” which is written like a play, with the actors being the GM and the players. Apparently there are whole novels written in this style, and play reports are very popular here. I will at some point try reading one, but I suspect there’ll be too much casual Japanese for my skills, at least for a while.

In my next update on this game, I’ll talk about character creation and the game mechanics.

Oh, and the name of the game is taken from the idea that the characters are traitors to those with superpowers caused by the virus, I think. So there’s a sense of their being in hiding, looking out for evil virus-infected superheroes to kill.

fn1: “Readability” was a classic moment of Japanese-language obstinacy. I can read all three characters in “readability”: 可(ka),読(doku) and 性(sei) which mean, in sequence, “ability,” “reading,” and “essence,” and from their combination I could guess what the word meant. But when I put these characters together and search them in my electronic dictionary, they don’t exist. I also couldn’t find them in my mobile phone dictionary, which is slightly more convenient for finding words with unusual readings. I had to email a friend and ask her! She’s Japanese, she read it instantly, but she said she’s never seen it before. This is classic – not only does the character system throw a physical barrier in front of you when you try to read, but the word for “readability” doesn’t exist in simple dictionaries.

fn2: I really really recommend this magazine, btw. My other blog has some examples of its contents.

So I’m still struggling through the introduction of the PhD thesis I promised to read: understandable since the introduction is still going at page 50. In between my last post and this one I’ve had to wade through some sleep-inducing academic wank, but now I’ve got to the outline in the introduction of the importance of race, and its fluidity in cyberpunk.

The first thing to note, mentioned quite a bit in this article, is that Gibson had never been to Japan when he wrote Neuromancer, which was written in 1982. So here we have a North American in 1982 writing a book redolent with themes from a country he has never visited, during an era when North America was afire with fear of what the Japanese were going to do in America (this was the bubble era and Japan had just, apparently, become the largest creditor nation in the world – they were supposedly buying up American businesses and land). This, I think it’s easy to see, is a situation ripe with potential for cultural stereotypes to eclipse nuanced thinking.

It’s worth noting before we go on – and for the rest of any posts I get around to writing about this – that the author of this thesis I’m studying makes it clear at this point that his goal is not  “reading cultural representation for their positive or negative (authentic or inauthentic) portrayals”, but that he is interested in examining the ways that these representations “function to reiterate, challenge, transform and/or create cultural norms”. His interest is the relationship between existing stereotypes of Japan, the way the cyberpunk texts interpret them, and how these interpretation serve to create new images (at least, that’s what I assume this means). I know a lot of (both of) my readers are eager to find examples of transparent whining leftism, so please relax – this chap is trying to do something a little more interesting than that.

So what does the introduction tell us about how race will be handled in the thesis? For a start, in the 4 pages covering “The Fluidity of Race” we don’t see the word “multiculturalism” once, even though Gibson himself states that “I’ve always lived in Vancouver … a Pacific Rim city with a lot of interaction with Japan.” Vancouver, the world’s most multicultural city, in a country with a policy of multiculturalism… it seems that this might have influenced Gibson’s views on race and his power to interpret race, or to imagine multi-racial societies. Also, isn’t Vancouver in … Canada? But the classic interpretation of cyberpunk is as an American urban myth. So for example we find this description of the relationship between America and Japan at the time:

the now obligatory Japanese reference also marks the obsession with the great Other, who is perhaps our own future rather than our past, the putative winner of the coming struggle – whom we therefore compulsively imitate, hoping that thereby the inner mind-set of the victorious other will be transformed to us along with the externals

[this is actually a quote from Jameson, a key post-modernist writer influencing our author’s text]. But is this right to apply to Gibson? If he lived in Vancouver most of his life, is this relevant? Canada is a resource exporting country, and such countries are never threatened by manufacturing countries the way that another manufacturing country (e.g., America) might be – the manufacturing countries need us so long as we have stuff in the ground. The quote as written certainly sounds like something that could be said about Phillip K Dick, or about Allied war propaganda from world war 2, but is it applicable to the mindset of a man who has “always lived” in a multicultural city as relaxed and easy to live in as Vancouver, in a resource-exporting country? I think it might be a little overwrought. And Jameson seems to be saying this about Bladerunner as much as about Gibson’s work.

This part of the introduction concludes with the statement that

in an era of globalisation, Asian Americans are becoming ubiquitous in American popular culture both as producers and consumers. Globalisation … has been accompanied by intensified transnational cultural practices and cultural hybridities in societies around the world. Thus “race and its cultural meanings remain at the core of globalizing media flows and their local receptions”

This leads to the discussion of the other big issue in cyberpunk, globalisation, but it doesn’t seem to me to put the race issue to bed. Is the representation of race in cyberpunk related to globalisation or to the triumph of multiculturalism as a cultural model, if not for everyone in the west, at least for young people from a certain cultural elite? And what does that tell us about the kinds of stereotypes that will enter the work of a man who had never visited Japan when he wrote the book? Will they be stereotypes based on outdated cultural models of Japan, or will they be a combination of the various Oriental things he saw in multicultural Vancouver (including shops, Asian cinema, visits to chinatown, art exhibitions etc.) and the hugely influential Bladerunner? If so, the stereotypes Gibson is building are being built not only from a distant, imagined Orient, but from an Orient which has plonked itself on his doorstep, modified itself to suit a relaxed, multicultural, very Western city, and presented itself to him full of late 70s and early 80s vigour.

If so, what we’re seeing here is the production of stereotypes in a very different way to that envisaged by Said in Orientalism. We’re also seeing, perhaps, the production of images of the Orient in a sub-cultural genre that may not actually be influenced very strongly by the insecurities and biasses of that great producer of modern popular culture, America. Perfect material for the development of a theory of post-modern Orientalism. But our author hasn’t mentioned multiculturalism or paid much attention to Gibson’s Canadian heritage – so is he going to miss this chance when he approaches the topic in more detail?

Only time will tell…

In my previous post I mentioned stumbling across an analysis of cyberpunk and orientalism, which interests me for a lot of reasons, and I’ve subsequently decided that since I’m living in the shadow of the zaibatsu without a job, maybe it’s time I embarked on a shady criminal information-hacking project, so I’m going to try and read through the thesis I found and draw together some kind of themes or conclusions from the tangled mess that is postmodern critique.

… So to start with I thought I’d do a survey of what is already available on the internet about cyberpunk and postmodernism. According to this (awesomely brief) description,

markers of postmodernism recurring in cyberpunk include: the commodification of culture, the invasive development of information technology, a decentering and fragmentation of the “individual”; and a blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “popular” culture.

which maybe helps to pin down why cyberpunk is considered to have such strong links to postmodernism, and also to nihilism – which, incidentally, I didn’t realise had a whole branch of academic theory devoted to it, primarily stemming from the work of Baudrillard. I don’t want to pursue the discussion of nihilism too far though because I find it seems to get incomprehensible very rapidly. Interestingly though, the intersection of cyberpunk, nihilism – which posits an absence of external morality – and postmodernism, with its reputed objection to “truth”[1], draws in a lot of young christians. For example, this blog describes some common misconceptions about postmodernism held by its christian critics, and maybe helps to show what postmodernism is not. Obviously, those whose religion is based on a single text are going to have some big issues with postmodernism, which is all about criticising the relationship between “the text”[2] and “truth”.

Modern feminism has also found an interest in cyberpunk, as a fictional representation of the liberating effect of technology for modern women. This is briefly discussed here, with again some reference to the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway.  This could be interesting if it led me back to Haraway, whose work I struggled with many years ago with the help of a friend. I hope it doesn’t, though, because I’m largely not up to dealing with her language… But I don’t think I’ll be pursuing any further feminist involvement in cyberpunk in and of itself (though I may stumble across some in time), because I only have limited time and my main concern is the Orientalist part[4].

The thesis I have started reading states its perspective on the importance of cyberpunk for postmodernism in the introduction:

Cyberpunk’s postmodern scene, the flow of people, goods, information and power across international boundaries, is theorized in Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late or third stage multinational capitalism, fully explicated in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). Importantly, Jameson finds cyberpunk to be a significant manifestation of this, the “supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). … Moreover, this postmodern scene, a global array of disjunctive flows, specifically encompasses Japan: the multinationals, for example, are depicted as Japanese zaibatsu.

I’m inclined to agree with most of this position, though I’m going to skip over the supreme importance bit to see what our resident theorist has to say about Gibson’s view of Japan from the perspective of Orientalism, which he goes on to say will try to

“get beyond the reified polarities of East versus West” and in a “concrete way attempt to understand the heterogeneous and often odd developments” (Culture and Imperialism 41). By exploring a number of particular theoretical positions and terminologies, my intention is to work toward highlighting the dynamic of reflexivity inherent in postmodern orientalism.

(The quotes here are quotes of Said). This paragraph is easier understood in the context of the abstract, in which our resident theorist explains that his view of “postmodern orientalism” describes

uneven, paradoxical, interconnected and mutually implicated cultural transactions at the threshold of East-West relations. The thesis explores this by first examining cyberpunk’s unremarked relationship with countercultural formations (rock music), practices (drugs) and manifestations of Oriental otherness in popular culture.

This distinguishes the modern cyberpunk narrative of the orient from that of previous centuries, described by Said, in which the imaginative process is entirely one way – western writers and academics taking parts of the orient that appealed to them to form their own pastiche of cultural and aesthetic ideals of the orient which suit their own stereotypes; and then using these to bolster a definition of the West in opposition to an imagined Orient. In the cyberpunk world, characterised by postmodern orientalism, the Orient is actively engaging with, challenging or subverting the images which western writers and academics form of the East, and importing its own distorted images of the West, in a form of postmodern cultural exchange.

This cultural exchange is very interesting to me, and has been a topic of rumination for me on my other blog ever since I came to Japan. It’s clear that the West “dreams” the orient[5], not seeing much of what is really happening here; but at the same time the Orient has its own fantasies of the west, which have become increasingly influential in the west as the power of Japanese and Chinese media enables them to project their own images of the West back to it[6]. Both parts of the world also have their dreams of their own identity, and often these definitions are constructed at least partially in contrast to their dual opposite; but recently, with increased cultural exchange, it’s possible to see these identities becoming more diverse (at least in the Orient) as the “Other” hemisphere becomes less alien and the distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” blurs. I am interested to see if this phenomenon is sufficiently identifiable as to be described by a theory of postmodern orientalism, and that’s why I’m reading this thesis…

So, that’s the outline of what we’re aiming for. Strap yourselves in kids. We’ve taken the Blue pill…

[1] I think this is a misreading of postmodernist theory, which mainly seems to argue that the way we interpret truth is coloured by our cultural and linguistic assumptions. There’s an excellent example of this in the paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on sterotypical male-female roles”, Emily Martin, Signs(1991): 16(3), 485-501.

[2] “the text” is like a classic postmodern bullshit bingo cliche, but I actually think it’s a really useful word for catching the broad sense of what post-modernists[3] talk about when they do their critical analyses

[3] I’m really quite certain that I routinely confuse post-modernists and deconstructuralists, (deconstructionists?), but I don’t care because it’s their fault not mine. Nobody confuses a statistician and a mathematician, do they?

[4] Though actually I doubt one would have to google very far to find that Orientalism as a concept would have been significantly boosted by better consideration of gender relations…

[5] mostly, in the case of Japan, through a series of wet dreams or nightmares, but still…

[6] Consider, for example, the West as presented to the West by Miyazaki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or in Full Metal Alchemist[7]

[7] I just want to point out here that if I was going to be a proper academic wanker like Said I would present these names in untranslated Japanese, on the assumption that you, dear reader, can just read everything, or that if you can’t you’re a worthless loser who doesn’t deserve to know what I’m talking about. Aren’t I nice?

After the dispute over my opinions about the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk role-playing, I did a little more digging and found that this element of cyberpunk is not exactly considered unique. I also discovered that, rather unsurprisingly, cyberpunk is a rich field of theoretical endeavour. I discovered a cyberpunk course at the peer to peer university (!?) which includes explicit analysis of the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk, along with some interesting discussion of the narrative components of the style. The conclusion of this post is that nihilism is a fundamental component of the genre (and some nice hat tips to the theoretical concept of nihilism are identified in The Matrix).

The P2PU course on cyberpunk also includes links to a lot of open access journal articles about cyberpunk, some of which could be worth reading.

Finally, I found an interesting-looking article on Cyberpunk and Orientalism, which might give an interesting insight into some of the things I’ve noticed before in Cyberpunk – particularly the 90s wave of Gibson et al – which seems to have a heavy degree of romanticisation of the far East. I have my suspicions about Said’s critique of Orientalism, but it does provide an interesting platform from which to analyse Western opinions of Asia, so I’m going to give this essay a go – even though it’s a PhD thesis so probably therefore hideously difficult to read – and I may provide a few interpretations of it on a future post. How’s that for taking one for the team?