The Intwischa wives, much like most of our culture, have lately been enthralled by the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games trilogy. While I was initially disturbed by the dismal, violent nature of these novels (or movie, in my case), they share a dystopian tradition that is reflected in a litany of pop culture staples: Logan’s Run, the Matrix trilogy, Ender’s Game, the Mad Max movies, A Wrinkle in Time, and my personal favorite Lord of the Flies.
This theme of a tragically flawed, often oppressive society that places the relative good of itself over that of its citizens has an odd attraction for many people, despite its dischordant message that ‘people’ don’t necessarily matter (at best), or are disposable cogs in a cultural machine (at worst). Perhaps it’s because we feel a deeper appreciation for our own society after seeing how messed up a dystopian setting can be, almost a reverse catharsis of sorts. It may be because the dangers that threaten these fictional flawed cultures can provide a cautionary tale for those concerned with bettering their own community.
In addition to these grand, sweeping, political statements that could certainly enrich an RPG experience, this post will explore three more focused motifs common in a dystopian setting that might make a game in such a setting even more enjoyable and fulfilling.
One of the major advantages to role-playing in a dystopian setting is that heroes are easily made, relatively speaking. In a world where the preservation and propagation of society trumps every other impulse, the simple act of claiming one’s individuality can be an heroic act. By stepping out from the huddled masses and claiming a unique identity, a character literally sets themselves apart as ’special’ or ‘exceptional.’ One’s claiming of their uniqueness is the first step on their path to further heroic acts.
Players who create characters in a dystopian setting are taking that first step literally, by creating, building, and naming an individual in an endless sea of faces. They are raising up a hero from anonymity to notoriety through the fairly common act of character creation. This strong starting point makes it easier for players to take strong, decisive, heroic actions throughout the rest of the campaign. Essentially, their heroics hit the ground running once character creation starts.
Likewise, a party of these rare individuals should be easily bonded by the knowledge that in stepping out from their consuming culture of oneness, they will be denied the protection of society’s norms, and instead must rely on each other to survive. Their actions will forge a path that has never been seen before, and these heroes will need one another to stay on it. Otherwise, they’re likely to fall off the path and be swallowed whole by their society once more; worse yet, they may stand alone on that path, an easy target for those they’ve chosen to defy.
By breaking away from the commonplace right out of the gate, the urgency of the story is also established at the onset of the first session. As the party makes the conscious choice to leave the mob behind, they will propel themselves into conflict. This conflict is what makes an adventure exciting as soon as the players sit down.
The overwhelming status quo for everything in such a society will also mean that those who choose to be heroes must seek out or create access to the resources they’ll need to act. A common element of dystopian society is the supression of innovation, imagination, and technology, except for the chosen few. It’s much easier, after all, to maintain a status quo when there is no incentive for progress or advancement. As such, the skills, weapons, or knowledge necessary for the party to combat the opression or tyranny they face will be highly restricted in the setting and therefore even more mysterious and powerful.
The quest for these potent resources may be a game in and of itself, as the party hunts down what they need to mount their heroic campaign. More often, however, it would make more sense to equip the characters with these wondrous items right from the start. Allowing players to begin with at least a smattering of powerful resources establishes them as a force to be reckoned with, and further boosts their ’hero cred’ because they have access to things that the general public may only whisper about. These may be magical abilities, superior technology, or ancient artifacts that are typically en exclusive privilege of the “ruling class.” By possessing that which is usually denied them, the intensity of the characters’ mission or purpose takes on an otherwordly tone when viewed by both the average citizen and the privileged elite.
Likewise, once the heroes possess, or even create, these powerful resources, an almost literal arms race is set off between their party and those who want to control them. In order to combat these ‘rebels’ who have risen above their peers and wield powerful resources similar to their own, the powers-that-be are forced to create new , more powerful weapons or abilities to once again put them in their place. This race for bigger and better technology is often blamed for initially creating these dystopian states, so frequently these skills are discouraged, outlawed, or controlled only by the ruling class. Stealing them back for the good of the people adds another level of heroism and intensity to the story the group is telling. It may even create opportunities for the heroes top recruit more operatives to their cause.
Hope & Change
To steal from two presidents in this post, “hope… is the only thing stronger than fear.”
This is perhaps the most compelling theme that recurs throughout any tale told in a dystopian setting. In a society that is broken, ruined, or completely absent, the hope that things will someday improve is hiding under every pile of rubble. The chance for individuals- for heroes- to change the world, and perhaps even remake it for the better can fuel acts which would never find life in a comfortable, complacent culture. The conflict and ruin of a dystopia is, ironically enough, fertile ground for those who want to make it better.
These opportunities to rebuild and reclaim their society can serve as vacuums that draw in those who would be heroes. How the heroes use these opportunities will unfold throughout the campaign. Will they try to covertly dismantle the ‘establishment’ on their own? Or will they try to inspire hope in others throughout society, and recruit a force to rise up and demand change? Will they try to splinter off into a new society that gathers resources until they can provide a more equitable society for those left behind? The paths that lead to change are going to be as varied as the heroes that tread them.
This potential to reshape society can lead to vast temptation for heroes as well. The pages of history are bursting with examples of regimes being ousted by well-meaning usurpers, only for the new regime to become even more despotic and despised as they are corrupted by the power they hold to remake the world in their image. This is admittedly an extreme example of a tragedy that might befall the party’s best-laid plans, especially since the heroes are a relatively small candle burning in a vast darkness. Any setback, however, can open future doors for more adventure hooks, because so long as society remains broken the hope that it can be improved will always simmer below the surface of the heroes’ hearts.
When their world lays in ruin all around them, the faith that it can rebuild it into a better world can make heroes out of almost anyone.