Sharang was the first pitch I received for the Nerves Zine (2021). It’s an honor to have this up on the site now.
When I was in middle school, my friend Luc and I dreamed—in an idle sort of way—of taking over the world. He would give me Ireland, he said, to turn into a gay haven. (I don’t know why Ireland in particular—I think I’d once said something complimentary about Cilian Murphy)
Perhaps it’s the lot of marginalized folks to dream of power. The difference between escapism—getting away from the world’s ills—and power fantasies—imagining, creating, entering a world where you have control—is especially stark for those for those historically denied power. If we can’t live it, at least we can imagine it. “Telling tales of adventure in which we are the heroes with extraordinary power, where we can take control—what kinds of stories could be better?” S.L Huang writes in his essay In Defense of Power Fantasies. 
Games advancing such fantasies have justifiably seen much criticism, especially of late. Simplistic, combat-oriented roleplaying games, played uncritically, potentially glorify violence, advance colonialist and imperialist mindsets, and erase the defining subtleties of real human conflict. After all, if you’re only given a very large sword, everything begins looking like a target.
Yet, outright dismissal of games like Dungeons & Dragons as mere conduits of a toxic, violent mindset discount the very real value such power fantasies can provide. For historically oppressed folks, imagining worlds in which we are not just “tolerated” or “accepted” but powerful and celebrated, is potent. The simple fantasy of defeating monstrous foes is powerful in of itself. For marginalized folks exerting little power or influence on the world, such games offer an outlet, offer the idea that all struggles are surmountable. Our characters, as Tasha Robinson explains for Polygon, are “fighting simple, black-and-white battles, full of moral clarity and self-righteousness that’s much rarer in real life.” Furthermore, Robinson continues, “It’s gratifying to watch people face their worst fears and triumph, letting us face ours vicariously through them” .
And perhaps it’s not even the ability to exert violent influence that entrances so many players. Perhaps it’s the fact that the fantasy that world can be ordered—that the underlying logics are simple, comprehensible, and manipulable—that give people hope. “It isn’t the leap into unbounded fantasy that appeals,” suggests Will Peischel in Mother Jones, “it’s the lines, the structure, the finitude (with a sort of community working within them).” 
Delving more thoughtfully into RPGs, we can uncover subtle discussions about power and its use, even in “OSR” or “traditional” roleplaying games, long thought of simply as “combat simulators.” While Kevin Crawford’s Godbound thrusts players into the a medieval fantasy world’s familiar trappings, it casts the players, right from the start, as some of the world’s most powerful beings. Players take on the role of demigods and, from the very beginning, might possess such abilities as plunging an entire village into an Arctic winter that kills all wildlife and renders travel impossible, or preventing anyone from ever dying unless the player’s whim dictates it. With such talents at their disposal, simple combat encounters quickly lose their lustre. Godbound, instead, becomes a game not of merely amassing power but allocating it: what you do with vast power once you have it? The game offers you an intoxicating fantasy, and then challenges you by asking, “well, what now?”
Even ignoring such nuance, one might argue that stories where we’re allowed to feel strong are not just important but essential in and of themselves—for how can a people create justice and power for themselves without first dreaming of it? Or, as Ursula Le Guin put it, “Resistance and change often begin in art.” 
As a participatory artistic form, roleplaying games provide not just the fodder of imagination, but the thrill of experience. Jonaya Kemper coined the term “emancipatory bleed” in roleplaying games, what she defines as “the feeling of liberation that comes from being able to fight back against or succeed against a systematic oppression” . Roleplaying resistance, Kemper argues, engenders positive feelings of resistance, sows the seeds of resistance itself. Fighting against the chains holding you back feels good, be it real or fictional.
Game designers and writers are increasingly writing games explicitly exploring such themes, about the triumph over oppression, about fighting against the forces that seek to make us weak. John Harper’s TTRPG Blades in the Dark is a popular example. You play as downtrodden, traumatized junkies in Duskwall, a haunted and deeply socially-stratified city, desperately surviving through the only means available: crime. You’re a gang of criminals, struggling to pull off heists against the uncaring elite and corrupt law enforcement to eke out a meagre living. And yet, the game’s mechanics lend themselves to power fantasies. Your characters always have exactly the right equipment on hand; when faced with an unexpected situation, you can trigger a flashback to show just how well you planned for this precise eventuality. In between scenes of flashy competence, the game forces you to depict how addicted, obsessive and broken your characters are, how dependent they are on more powerful factions’ patronage and protection. Even the most desperate can wield power, Harper seems to say through the game. Even the most damaged can shine.
Thorny Games’ larp Sign achieves a similar effect: empowering those who have lost their voice but through a very different means. Sign is based on the real history Nicaraguan Sign Language’s development. Players take on the roles of deaf Nicaraguan children learning to communicate together in a classroom. Each child has a secret, some inner truth about themselves. Communicating this truth to their classmates—to be truly understood by their friends—is their ultimate aim. Sign plays out in a repetitive rhythm of classroom scenes followed by playground scenes. Classroom scenes are for developing language: each student creates a gestural word for everyone to learn. Playground scenes are for practicing this fledgling vocabulary through signed conversations with friends. The early parts of the game are a series of pantomime struggles, as your fellow players misunderstand again and again the higher concepts you’re attempting to communicate. Partway through, however, something magical germinates. What starts as a mere set of simple signs begins to change. Subtle variations begin cropping up in individual signs. New combinations begin to elucidate new meanings.
If three outstretched fingers were deemed to mean “family” during a classroom scene, a sweeping, encompassing gesture made with such fingers is understood by all to mean “our class, we the deaf students.” Neologisms, nuance and fledgling poetry—the players begin to transfigure their initial crude pantomimes into a language, one which even the game’s facilitator fails to keep up with. Near the end, each player is encouraged to attempt to share their truth; for those who manage to be understood, the wonder and delight is unparalleled. I have never witnessed the power of games illuminated as clearly to someone as after a game of Sign. Though it may not fit the traditional mould of “power fantasy”, the larp absolutely creates one: players start disempowered, with few tools for engaging with the world, and end up masters of a power they could previously barely attempt—the power to be understood.
Power fantasies come in all forms. In Ryo Kamiya and Ewen Cluney’s Golden Sky Stories, you get to play out the lives of happy-go-lucky animal spirits with no care in the world except helping with the local townspeople’s various troubles. In the various games in Honey & Hot Wax: An Anthology of Erotic Art Games (which I had the pleasure of co-editing along with Lucian Kahn), you can experience various fantasies of eroticism, and imagine desiring and being desired in new, powerful ways. Monte Cook Games’ Invisible Sun, lets you experience many paths to various definitions of power: raising a child, kindling a romance, learning a secret about your past, or crafting a wondrous artifact.
And, if you want to, you can slay evil dragons and rescue virtuous, virile princes to your heart’s content in Dungeons & Dragons. A power fantasy is about creating your own vision of beauty.
“This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.”
-Maggie Smith, Good Bones
|||S. Huang, “In Defense of Power Fantasies,” Tor.com, 19 October 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.tor.com/2018/10/09/in-defense-of-power-fantasies/.|
|||T. Robinson, “Can science fiction map a positive future?,” Polygon, 15 October 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.polygon.com/2020/10/15/21515901/science-fiction-dystopia-utopia-stories.|
|||W. Peischel, “Plague Comforts: Dungeons & Dragons Is the Real World Now,” Mother Jones, 28 August 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.motherjones.com/coronavirus-updates/2020/08/plague-comforts-dungeons-and-dragons-is-the-real-world-now/.|
|||The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, “Ursula’s acceptance speech: Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters,” 19 November 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.ursulakleguin.com/nbf-medal.|
|||J. Kemper, “Wyrding the Self,” Nordiclarp.org, 18 May 2020. [Online]. Available: https://nordiclarp.org/2020/05/18/wyrding-the-self/.|
One response to “Power Fantasies in RPGs, by Sharang Biswas”
[…] Power Fantasies in RPGs, by Sharang Biswas – project NERVES Sharang Biswas expands the conversation on imperialist power fantasies in RPGs to explore different meanings of power and ask what power fantasies can mean for historically marginalized groups of players. […]