Saturday, February 2, 2013

Taboo Subjects Part Two: Politics

Wow, it took forever to get this article together.  I hope that at the very least it will prove to be at least informative.  Let me begin by saying there is something you must keep in mind from the start, and it might seem obvious but it is amazing how easily it is forgotten:

Your players do not always share the same opinions as you.  Crazy, I know.  But it is true.  You could know a person for years and yet you might never know they are gay, or they did time in prison or they are closet anarchists.  It all depends upon the level of intimacy the two of you have chosen to operate on.  I have a friend I dine with almost every Thursday but I know next to nothing about how he feels about a great many political subjects.  By unspoken mutual agreement we have chosen to avoid speaking about such things, or sex, or religion, except in the broadest terms.  I feel that has been the secret to our long standing friendship.  That and his infinite, Zen-like patience.

So when you are dealing with these subjects it is important to bear this simple truth in mind.  Your players might disagree with you on some or all things political; it is important to avoid the more controversial ones or to take a neutral stance.  Your players are in your game to be entertained, not to be swayed by your political rhetoric, either gross or subtle.

But what about satire?  You may ask.  A while back I wrote an article about humor and the fact is most people aren’t very good at writing funny.  I think I have gotten better at it through my Star Trek recaps at The Agony Booth* but even so I would never, ever attempt political satire.  Besides, highly political people can be notoriously thin skinned and might not get the joke.

And then let us address the subject of context.  This may blow your mind, but not everyone on the internet is from the same place as you.  Some are actually from (gasp!) other countries.  Some political figures, incidents and issues might be beyond them because they have their own political figures, incidents and issues to worry about back home.

If all of this sounds blindingly obvious I apologize, but there are some people out there who just might not get it.

So where does that leave you if you want to involve real world personages in your game?  Simple answer: play it safe.  In my Vindicators game I wrote Barak Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron and I wrote them as being competent.  They weren’t idiots, but neither were they statesmen.  There was a crisis and they handled it, end of story.  Sure, I think I jabbed a bit at Hilary Clinton but it was nothing big; she flared up at something one of my NPCs said.  It was there more to give an element of depth to the scene than me picking on the Secretary of State…and it was to make my NPC look good at Clinton's expense.

As to political issues, you need to follow the same route.  Gun control, illegal immigration, drug legalization, abortion, gay marriage?  All are political hot buttons and should be avoided because while to some, or even you, the answers are obvious, a great many issues do have shades of gray to them.  If you are going to choose a political element you had best find one that everyone can agree on, and the only one that comes to mind to me off the top of my head is the horrific plight of child soldiers world wide, kids forcibly drafted into the armies of African warlords.  And let's be honest here; any exploration of that is going to be terminally depressing.

The same goes for tragic events.  I never once mentioned 9/11 in my game, nor did I mention natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.  The reason is often these tragedies become politicized in some way, shape or form.  It is better to create your own natural disaster or inhuman tragedy and try not to copy something that happened in the real world.

So moving away from real world politics, let us discuss politics in an unrealistic setting, such as fantasy or sci-fi.  Star Trek was always doing this, using real world events as plot hooks.  In the Star Trek, The Next Generation episode The Hunted the Angosians have created super soldiers to fight their wars.  Only what do you do with these soldiers once the war is over?

This story reflects the plight of Viet Nam war veterans who, once their war was over, came home to scorn and ridicule.  Considered the veterans of a war America had pretty much lost, no one gave them the respect that was heaped upon the veterans of World War II.  Never mind that a great many Viet Nam veterans had been drafted, that they had not asked to go.  To a public at large they were an embarrassment.

The TNG writers and producers did they chose a political subject that by the time of the episodes airing was some fifteen years old, and while Viet Nam is still a debated topic people by a large realized by then the veterans had been unjustly maligned.  It was safe. So using an older political issue works.  What about dressing up a modern one, like Voyager did with their episode, Critical Care?  This episode was about The Doctor being stolen and used in a hospital where patients are treated in a caste-like system.

Patients were afforded a level of care based on their wealth/status.  The problem is this feels more like an indictment  of the American health care system than anything else and so the story feels overly preachy. The lesson learned here, to my mind, is to use historical political elements rather than modern ones.  And except for exceptions like the one I just mentioned, Star Trek usually made good use of this.  Look at The Original Series' two principle villains, the Romulans:

and the Klingons:

 Both races were meant to be fictional counterparts to the Soviets and Chinese, Communist super powers that threatened the United States during the sixties.  But instead of trying to create Space Russians or the like, Gene used historical civilizations as a basis for both races.  Look at the Klingons; there is this sort of Mongol horde air about them:

And in the first Romulan appearance Balance of Terror there are many references to their politics that hearken back to the Roman Empire. So while the Klingons are expansionist, like the Soviets were in their occupation of various European countries and their efforts world wide to spread Communism, and while the Romulans are mysterious and largely insular much like the West viewed mainland China, there is plenty of wiggle room for the writers to ascribe whatever traits they like on these species and societies.  The idea was to use a couple traits as a starting point, but not to be enslaved by the concept.

Science fiction writers often use this as well.  In his Honor Harrington series science fiction demigod David Weber created The People's Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore.  While Weber might get a bit preachy where the their crippling welfare state is concerned, it is obvious Haven represents expansionist France during the Napoleonic era and Manticore is the plucky British Empire spearheading the resistance.


Heck, later on in the series the Havenite government topples and is replaced by an authoritarian government much like you saw with the French revolution.  Political officers could now be found on ships (much like Soviet Union's naval vessels had political officers on board their ships.).  David Drake, another sci-fi deity,  uses history as a template for his novels.  Quite often the historical settings are unknown to all but those who live in the countries concerned and hardcore students of history.

Of course, you are going to get players who might read unintentional subtext in whatever you present, it is sometimes unavoidable.  Let me give you an example.  On Star Trek, DS9, the two principle aliens (at least the two before the show's rating slipped and they had to prop it up by relying on Klingons, Romulans and a host of aliens from the other side of the wormhole because DS9 was, you know, boring as all hell those first three seasons) were the Cardassians:

and Bajorans:

The Cardassians were a race that had been beaten down and decided to become more militant to resist what they perceived were numerous threats on all their borders.  Ultimately they took over the planet Bajor and subjugated it's people while stripping it's resources, treating them like second class citizens.  After years of terrorist acts the Cardassians ultimately gave the Bajorans their freedom.  You know what this sounds like on the surface?  You know what one interpretation could be?  Cardassia is Israel, Bajor is Palestine.  You see how offensive that might be to some Jews?  Personally I do not think this is the inspiration for the Cardassia/Bajor relationship, but I can see some parallels here.

So that is something you are going to have to keep in mind if you are using any political elements in your game; no matter how hard you try you might wind up offending someone.  It happens.  People, if they try hard enough, can read almost anything in what you write if they try hard enough.  It reminds me of Eddie Murphy's character in Bowfinger, who counts the number of times the letter "K" is used in a script he just read.  He is convinced there is a hidden Klu Klux Klan message there. And when his agent says "It isn't Shakespeare" Murphy takes the words "shake" and "spear" and assumes his agent is calling him a spear chucker.  Murphy is awesome in that scene as the insecure, pampered actor completely divorced from reality.

So there is nothing wrong with employing politics provided you play it safe and use history as a template more than modern day references.  Next month...some time...I will finish up the trio of articles with my discussion of religion in role playing games. 

*Yes, I know, it is a shameless plug.

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