Monday, March 25, 2024

(Shadowrun) Super Tuesday

Guys, I need to be real for a moment. It is sooo haard for me to read old bits of politically-themed genre fiction and not immediately try to put it into the context of the 2016 US Presidential election. It's one of those things where, on an intellectual level, I realize that the world was probably always like this, but I still have a vivid memory of my illusions crashing down around me. The only comparable experience I've ever had was back in 2010, when George W Bush published his memoirs and openly admitted to authorizing the US torture program and it became clear that he would face absolutely no consequences from doing so.

Oh, man, just thinking about it is stirring some shit up inside me. I think it might have been genuinely traumatic. I was, what, 28 at the time. I wasn't a rube. I knew the elite had a separate system of justice. But there was a part of me that still, somehow, believed in America. That thought that equality before the law was more than just a pretty slogan. I knew the government did illegal things, but I suppose I took comfort in knowing that those crimes were at least nominally furtive. I figured that if a man would openly confess to committing crimes against humanity, that would be enough to provoke a response, even if he was a President. We have a law. He broke the law. And we don't need hearsay or witnesses or search warrants because he fucking published a book bragging about it! If that wasn't enough to merit an indictment, then the USA's much vaunted rule of law would be an absolute fucking joke.

Spoiler alert: there was no indictment.

But the shocking thing to me is that, despite all that. Despite my absolute disgust at the self-serving cravenness of the Democratic party leadership in failing to hold Bush accountable, there was still a small scrap of faith left to extinguish, because the election of Donald Trump shocked the hell out of me. I'd come to terms with the notion that all my elected officials, as contentious as their public disagreements could be, were essentially part of the same social circle and had a broad consensus on issues like like elite legal impunity. But I also, apparently, assumed that they were smart, self-aware people who at least valued the appearance of competence, respectability, and just a general connection to our basic physical reality. 

And, yeah . . .

Which is maybe too heavy a thought to bring into a silly 1996 book about a hypothetical 2057 election where one of the candidates is a literal dragon, but my reactions are my reactions and when I read Super Tuesday (Stephen Kenson with background material by Tom Dowd) and it says "Brackhaven is a racist with secret ties to the Humanis Policlub. He knows that he cannot express many of his more radical racial opinions if he wants to succeed in his quest for public office, so he has become very skilled in hiding the depths of his bigotry while subtly promoting racism and discrimination in his sphere of influence." Well, I just want to scream:


But that's not really fair. I'm not really mad at FASA. I'm mad at my younger self.  I should probably be more forgiving, though. I can't imagine that I would ever have a political conviction strong enough to line up and execute 100,000 of the opposition's grandmas, so how could I (or anyone, really) have predicted that the 2020 Republicans would regard it as disqualifying for a candidate to not do it to their own grandmas?

It does, however, make reading a book like this into a surreal experience. It's obvious that Dunkelzahn, with his breathlessly pious yet technocratic 90s liberalism, was being set up as the "good ending" candidate. And why not? This is a fantasy game after all. It's fun to imagine a dragon president. And back in the Before Times, I loved this plot point (even if I was only familiar with it from the 3e setting recap). But now, in the year 2024?

I read his announcement speech, and when it came to the stirring message of hope and unity, "over the past three hundred-odd years, you have managed to create and sustain a civilization based not on shared blood or cultural conformity, but on shared ideals" my thought was not "wow, what a wise and perceptive dragon" or even "wow, what a cunningly manipulative dragon." It was, "wow, this clown would have absolutely adored Hamilton."

And look, I loved Hamilton too. I still think LMM is a national treasure. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we should have all read the fucking room. 

It's embarrassing to admit, but I spent a significant portion of my time here scrutinizing the text for parallels between Brackhaven and Trump. There were some, even aside from both being racists. They were both the scions of privilege who grew up as borderline-failing students only to graduate into a career of lucratively unethical business dealings and both had fraught relationships with their more traditionally successful (and super racist) fathers. But it's likely that those were not consciously established parallels. My memory of this time was dim, but I'm pretty sure Trump was still in his "tabloid fixture national punchline" phase and Brackhaven is meant to be a more serious, credible villain than that. The similarities likely come down to the fact that this particular kind of character has been a persistent blight on the body politic since the founding of the country. Super Tuesday might, therefor, have some insight into a dangerous tendency in American politics, were it not for the fact that it wholesale replaces the country's racial baggage with metahuman nonsense.

It's something I've come to recognize as a FASA trademark. Someone down at HQ must have been fairly well-educated about these matters, relative to the standards of the time, because they keep using progressive ideas to interrogate fantasy tropes, but because they focus on making such nuanced fantasy, they keep giving us these ice-cold takes on real world political issues. One of the commentors actually points out that America is built on stolen land and this provokes an unhinged rebuttal from the white guy - but Captain Chaos, moderator of the Shadowland BBS, brutally shuts that down, deleting 1mp worth of racist ranting . . . leaving only the racial slur the guy used to open the post.

They're sort of the anti-White Wolf in this regard. White Wolf wore its real-world politics on its sleeve, and in my opinion was sincerely and enthusuastically opposed to the various -isms, but would just consistently whiff on being good representation, thanks in large part to its unreflective use of problematic genre tropes. 

Or, to put it another way, compare the fates of the early-appearing queer characters in each franchise. The bisexual heir to a corporate fortune, first introduced in Bug City, meets his canonical end in one of Super Tuesday's adventures - he is quite predictably eaten by one of the giant mantises that was keeping him captive. Whereas the modern-day bard from Tradition Book: Verbena underoges a veritable checklist of gay trauma, to an absolutely upsetting degree, but does at least manage to survive until Revised edition. Those were our options, apparently.  A guy whose sexuality is treated with same sort of casual matter-of-factness as any straight persons, but who is unceremoniously killed off between adventures or a guy who sticks around and is a major part of the story, but the story is an anvilicious tale of highly stereotypical suffering.

I don't know how much organizational continuity exists between old FASA and new FASA, but if anyone wants to make it up to me, I am willing to accept repayment in the form of more Rozko the Unruly content.

But I'm rambling now. I'm more than a thousand words into a post about a silly, 30-year-old rpg supplement and I've made it weird and political and alienating and I've only covered, like a fifth of the actual book. And maybe, if I were a more sensible person, I'd allow this moment of self-reflection to inspire me to go back and start over from scratch. 

I'm not going to do that, however, because Super Tuesday is, in fact, weird and political and alienating. Those are its best features. I mean, it's a book that features a dragon running for president and the dragon is the least interesting thing about it. I haven't even told you Kenneth Brackhaven's big secret yet.

I should. Because it's fucked up. But I'm afraid, because it's the kind of fucked up where I'm not sure I could untangle it even as a pure fantasy conceit and if, during the course of explaining it, I allow myself for even a moment to remember that Shadowrun uses bigotry against metahumans as a stand-in for real-world racism, I will literally fucking implode from pure critical inadequacy.

But because I love what I do, here it goes - the Kenneth Brackhaven who is running for president as a crypto-fascist is not the real Kenneth Brakhaven. Charles Brakhaven's original sun transformed into an ork in the 2021 goblination event. Papa Brakhaven murdered his new ork son in his hospital bed and then some how . . . procured a new child of approximately the same age, who he brainwashed into believing he was the real Kenneth. And then that child grew up to be a huge, fucking racist.

What do I even say to something like that? There's an intuition I've developed as an amatuer critic that tells me there's a lot to say here. Someone who was good at unpacking bullshit would have plenty of material to work with. Words dance in my head. Words like "white rage" and "the intersection between the objectification of children and the objectification of subaltern classes." Maybe even, eventually, "generational trauma" and "is deploying ableist tropes in service to a story about racism more abelist or more racist."

Mostly, though, it's a ringing klaxon: "Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES de-metaphorize this!!!"

There were times when my mind drifted in that direction. Where I remembered the strange quirk of genetics that could cause white parents with African ancestry to have a dark-skinned child. And what might happen if such an event occurred to a prominent member of the KKK. But then, blessedly, my brain shut down in self defense. If you find yourself drawn to continue the thought, I understand, but please do me a favor - after you win history's most inevitable Oscar, kindly leave me out of your acceptance speech.

The adventure itself was pretty good. It was a truncated noir thriller where you discover a dangerous secret about a powerful man and there are meetings and hit-men and payoffs and dead man's drops and ultimately you have to make a choice - do youreveal the truth, knowing that you'll make terrible enemies and ultimately very little will change or do you bury this secret and pretend you never heard it, knowing that once more wicked men will prosper due to your inaction? The only real flaw with the adventure is the ghost of the real Kenneth Brackhaven, who pesters the characters for justice whenever it looks like they'll be too pragmatic. Having him kick things off with a chance haunting that inspires the characters to dig deeper is a nice nod to Shadowrun's fantasy elements. But if you need him to stick around to keep the adventure on track, you shouldn't be running the adventure.

Finally, we come to the real, burning question: which of the six candidates (it's unclear how much of Canada is in the United Canadian and American States, but apparently the US's current incentives towards a two party system are not relevant) I would vote for?

The official endorsement of the editorial board of this blog for the 2057 UCAS presidential election must go to the Democratic party candidate, Arthur Vogel. An unusually effective and committed environmental lawyer, who has secured big settlements for many high profile cases, he has that rare combination of personal principles and ruthless pragmatism that makes for a truly great political reformer. He may lack Dunkelzahn's superhuman intellect, but he also lacks the dragon's aristocratic paternalism.  No candidate is more qualified to go toe-to-toe with the megacorporations on behalf of the UCAS public. 

Of course, I have the advantage of knowing Vogel's dirty little secret,  and while I'm not entirely sure how it played in 1996 (the words "protection racket" may have been used), in 2024, in the context of a crime caper rpg, it makes him look cool as shit.

Like, in the real world, I would not approve of a high powered lawyer who sued corporate polluters and then, when it looked like negotiations would stall, he'd tap his contacts in the radical environmentalist movement to engage in targeted ecoterrorism designed to bring the corporation back to the table.  However, the name of the game is "Shadowrun" and all the megacorporations he's squeezing also use deniable black ops to get their way. If people are already out there hiring criminals for the sake of shareholder profits, then it's nice to know that someone is out there doing it for the good guys too.

The way the book framed the adventure was a little weird, though. It's treated like a revenge thriller, but it's never quite clear what this guy wants revenge for. Sure, he is the sole survivor of an op that went sideways, horribly maiming him in the process, but the overall mission was a success. Vogel won the case, the chemical in question was banned, and the corporation never recovered financially from the hit.

I could see someone resenting the fact that being a deniable asset means poor post-op support or that while everyone has their part to play in the revolution, some people's part is to nearly get killed in terrorist attacks and other people's part is three martini lunches and six figure salaries. But honestly, if I'm an ecoterrorist, willing to lay down my life for Mother Gaia, then I really want someone like Vogel on my side - an educated professional with the knowledge, resources, and connections to turn my radical direct action into lasting legal victories.

So I  kind of have to assume that the antagonist is so overwhelmed by grief and pain that he's no longer thinking clearly. Otherwise, the adventure would be very weird with its "how fitting, the environmental activist, killed by the very chemical he fought to have banned, on account of its unnecessary deadliness. Ironic."

Overall, I'd say that Super Tuesday would be a very effective adventure series.  . . were it not a relic of our lost national innocence. I can only hope that coming years will leave us with a democracy for it to fail to represent. Nothing would depress me more than looking at old cyberpunk and wistfully mourning it's unrealistic optimism.

Ukss Contribution: The second adventure has the PCs dosed with a substance that erases their recent memories. Later when the people that dosed them are trying to recover a stolen item the PCs were trying to traffic, the investigation is stymied by their total and sincere lack of memory about the time period when the crime took place. Bit of an own goal by Tir Tangir. But the potential for such hilarity makes Laes, the memory erasing drug, a nice inclusion for the world of Ukss. There will probably also be a polity that uses it for routine border enforcement, just like the Tir, because I like to see the abuse of power backfire.

No comments:

Post a Comment