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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Twelve)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 1, 2024

Steve Jackson Games has brought out In Nomine, portraying the struggle between angels and demons in the current-day world, but in a manner very far from (and highly offensive to) Christian beliefs. (This was based on a French RPG authored by an iconoclastic figure identified only as "Croc.") Steve Jackson Games has also pioneered, in a tongue-in-cheek but somewhat disturbing fashion, the whole "surreal conspiracy" concept, typified by their Illuminati games and settings. There have also been some other disturbing modules in Steve Jackson Games' Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS), notably Black Ops, a concept based on the premise of a "secret super-agency" fighting against hidden aliens and supermonsters in the current-day world. The very popular CthulhuPunk combines the dark near-future cyberpunk genre, with the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. Steve Jackson Games announced releases of products in 2001 around the theme of "Summer of Horror."

It should be noted further that the whole science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk (pioneered by, among others, William Gibson in Neuromancer, 1984), is often characterized by highly transgressive bio-tech (genetic manipulations of the sort which, e.g., give a human being one lizard-like arm), and nano-tech (the notion of micromachines altering human mind, body, and perception). It may be pointed out that today, NASA is said to be developing a nanotech-based deep space exploration tool called ANTS (Autonomous Nano Technology Swarm). There is often in cyberpunk the notion of human beings shoving various things into their brains and bodies (from mind-altering drugs, to electromechanical implants of various kinds). Some of the GURPS modules contain the ideas of sometimes gruesome genetic engineering – or "gengineering" (Bio-Tech), and of technological and magical manipulation, i.e., so-called "techno-magic" (Technomancer). All this points to the malleability of human beings/human nature, as one of the main themes of both cyberpunk, and of current-day society's "future shock."

Steve Jackson Games is also re-issuing the old science fiction RPG, Traveller, under the GURPS umbrella. Interestingly enough, the earlier posited darkening of the Traveller setting, engendered by a nanotechnology virus or plague that destroyed most of the galactic civilizations, has been cancelled in favor of the continuing evolution of the (rather benign) Third Imperium. This dark turn seems to have proven unpopular among the more serious science fiction-oriented Traveller players.

A new GURPS background that has been developed in recent years is Transhuman Space. It was originally announced on the Steve Jackson Games website like this: "This will be a fully supported, completely original hard science-fiction setting which features transhuman themes such as advanced biotechnology, sapient computers, self-replicating machines, aggressive space exploration, and scientific social engineering." Some of the books in the series are: Transhuman Space (core book); In the Well (inner solar system); The Fifth Wave (major power blocs on Earth); The High Frontier (off-world colonies in the Earth-Luna system); The Deep Beyond (outer solar system); Broken Dreams (the darker side of life on Earth); and Blue Shadow (undersea settlements on Earth). The Line Editor for the series was David Pulver, who at that time was living in Canada (according to the Steve Jackson Games website).

Another dark-future background being explored by Steve Jackson Games is OGRE. This is a dystopic future of constant war between continental power-blocs (such as the North American Combine and the Paneuropean Alliance), where the most powerful weapons are the huge, cybernetic supertanks, called "Ogres" because of the awesome fear they inspire. The core product of the background is a wargame which pits one OGRE against a large variety of armor, armored hovercraft, infantry, and artillery units, who are defending a command post. A GURPS worldbook for OGRE has been released, and another one is expected, to be called The Factory States. Also, Steve Jackson Games is promising new horrors, with the linking of OGRE and the Cthulhu mythos.

Dream Pod 9 (known for its war-robots or "mecha" game, Heavy Gear, as well as its Solar System conflict game, The Jovian Chronicles) has also brought out an occult-horror RPG, Tribe 8, with highly questionable references to Christian and Catholic beliefs. Heavy Gear, with its political conflict of a northern vs. southern power on Terra Nova, smacks of sociological ridiculousness. The social and cultural characteristics of the powers on Terra Nova are difficult to place into a coherent sociological framework. It may be noted that there is the very popular Heavy Gear computer game from Activision.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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