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A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Eighteen)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 9, 2014

In earlier installments of this series, the author had focused mostly on fantasy role-playing games. Here, he turns his attention to so-called “dark future” settings in both RPGs and boardgames.

What are some of the leading "dark futures" featured in gaming? It may be noted that, with their typical emphasis on planet-wide disintegration and/or corporate control, as well as individual interactions, boardgames on anything above a tactical level are a rarity. The "dark future" also lends itself to miniatures gaming.

"Dark futures" may be seen as divided into two broad categories: near-future (often coterminous with cyberpunk); or far-future. Probably the best known example of this kind of far-future is WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) which is a self-standing system, focused on separate boardgames as well as miniatures, although it also has a roleplaying system based on that "world." WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. had been discussed in earlier installments of this series.

Roleplaying Systems:

SHADOWRUN (Chicago, Illinois: FASA Corporation):

Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine (FASA) (original edition, 1989) which is one of the more successful cyberpunk (or, actually, cyberpunk-fantasy) RPGs, was discussed in earlier installments of the series. It has been described as a combination of the ideas of William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

CYBERSPACE (Charlottesville, Virginia: ICE - Iron Crown Enterprises):

CyberEurope: A Campaign Sourcebook for Cyberspace (1991) Principal Author: Anders Blixt, Editor: Kevin Barrett (112 b & w pages, color front/backcover, 17" x 22" full-color map)

This product, put together by a group of Swedish role players, is (with some exceptions) probably the least gruesome of the cyberpunk futures. It is set in the Europe of the 2090s. Some might feel that the European national governments (with their powerful military forces) and the Roman Catholic Church hold greater power in that projected future than they do today.

The authors write: "the military's strict code of honor is based on 19th century equivalents from France and Prussia; codes that strongly stress duty, discipline, obedience and self-sacrifice. An officer must always be a gentleman...The officers see themselves as the defenders of Europe's culture and greatness against what they perceive as threats from Europe's corrupt and dishonorable politicians, greedy, unpatriotic and scheming Megacorps and fanatical, incomprehensible Arabs" (p. 74).

The Catholic Church is also engaged in active struggle against the Megacorps. The designers, however, could be seen to have misunderstood the internal politics of the Church. The conservative tradition as it exists in the Catholic Church (as represented, for example, by Opus Dei) is, generally-speaking, as fundamentally anti-capitalist as that of the Catholic Left. In a situation of Megacorps world hegemony, insofar as the Church had some freedom of maneuver, conservative Catholics would be just as "radically" in opposition to the prevalent system as the Catholic Left.

The emergence of a Russian neotraditionalist, nationalist regime in "The Third Commonwealth of Independent States" is a fair prediction, though it might not necessarily be any larger than current-day Russia (i.e., it would not include Belarus and Ukraine). The notion of Poles in Byelorussia fighting for reunification with Poland is an interesting, if far-fetched, concept. Poland, if it ever departed from its very pacific current-day policies, would be more likely to first claim the area identified in this sourcebook as "Baltia" (i.e., the area around the town currently known as Kaliningrad – called Królewiec in Polish, and Konigsberg in German).

The most gruesome aspects of the future world appear in Great Britain, where the projections are clearly meant as parodic and satirical. The aim of the exercise was presumably a bitter spoof (and a rather poorly executed one at that) on Thatcherite policies. Could anyone believe that the Republic of Ireland will in any possible future be in danger from British imperialism? Indeed, in this sourcebook, Great Britain, which has initiated a brutal occupation of all Ireland, is also the most violent, decadent, and polluted of the countries described. A substantial portion of it (the Manchester-Leeds Deletion) is irradiated owing to some grotesquely tragicomic circumstances.  

Some might suggest that a far different view of the future of the British Isles would be better in keeping with the less obviously dystopic nature of this future.

CYPERPUNK 2020 (Berkeley, California: R. Talsorian Games):

EuroSource: The EuroTheatre Sourcebook for Cyberpunk (1991) Written By: Mark Galeotti (80 b & w pages, color front/backcover)

This sourcebook has some rather interesting touches. Germany is very powerful and looks more traditional than today. France is also a major power. The sociological trend known as "dreampainting" can, of course, be seen as a trend somewhat connected to today's Generation X. (A similar, current-day phenomenon is discussed in Adrienne Miller and Andrew Goldblatt, The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers Who Underachieve (New York: William Morrow, 1989), and in Doug Coupland's Microserfs.) The "hellholes" in this region are the largely irradiated Turkey, North Africa, and Middle East (apart from Israel); the New Central Europe (a place for cheap-labor, heavily-polluting industries and dumping waste); and (as in many cyberpunk scenarios) Great Britain. (One supposes that this is again an ironic commentary on the Thatcher years.) Great Britain is under a military government that uses Orwellian-sounding abbreviations (e.g., LONDURMARLAUTH -- for London Urban Martial Law Authority.) In a rather curious twist, the military has removed both the monarchy and much of the traditional aristocracy, indeed, they have apparently murdered the royal family, and Royalists are among the numerous rebel groups fighting the military. Northern Ireland is in a full-blown civil war, but the Republic of Ireland is largely unaffected. The British situation appears especially parodic and overdone, as is the one in NCE. The resistance movement in NCE, consisting of an alliance of the various nationalists, goes by the rather bland name of `3000'. (One could call it "Wola" -- which means "will" or "freedom" in most Slavic languages.)

In any event, that kind of situation is now very unlikely. Near the end of the Communist regimes, there was indeed an instance, where a Polish Communist minister had been bribed into allowing the dumping of several tonnes of radioactive waste into the Polish countryside by a German company. And there was the rather horrendous environmental record of all the East-Central European Communist regimes. However, as the East-Central European economies take off, that will become increasingly unlikely. Some economists have estimated that by the year 2025, the GDP of Poland alone might be approaching that of Russia, if current trends continue. Presumably ever-lighter industries will replace the grimy industrial factories.

During an interview with American television in the 1990s, Zhirinovsky had justified his comment of "fanning nuclear waste onto Lithuania" by claiming that the West was dumping nuclear and toxic chemical waste throughout Russia. In fact, the Soviet Union had, throughout its history, an absolutely horrific environmental record, which became widely known only after its fall. 

Eurosource Plus: The New Eurotheater Sourcebook for Cyberpunk (1995) Writers: José Ramos, Florian Merx, Steve Gill (144 b & w pages, color front/backcover)

The ink was barely dry on the previous sourcebook, and it was already in many ways out of date. In a somewhat questionable move, the "future past" timeline from 1990 was continued, thereby already making the "near-future", an "alternative-history." The "hellholes" of this region are as in the previous sourcebook, though perhaps slightly less grim. Poland is characterized as a personal dictatorship, with a crime-fighting secret police, called "the Harbingers" (incidentally, the likely Polish term for these would be "Wici"). In a rather ironic commentary on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, a major, breakaway "Church of Poland" is posited, in protest against the further liberalization of the Roman Catholic Church (after the death of John Paul II). Such a breakaway movement is clearly unlikely.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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