On Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Fictioning 

By Simon O’Sullivan 

Seven purple polyhedral dice

What is at stake with tabletop roleplaying games? That is, besides the entertainment they offer (or besides their status as games)? Although I no longer play them as immersively as I once did (the phase of truly being in those worlds was relatively short, perhaps four years from age twelve or so to sixteen), they have had a determining effect on my imaginary and, I think, on the various life choices I have made (in many ways the art and ‘theory’ worlds I have lived in and moved through seem—in retrospect—a logical progression from those other worlds, albeit these latter worlds are more ‘worldly’ if sometimes less vivid). That said, I have recently taken on the role of a Games Master for my own two sons and have now watched them enter into what always seemed to me another space-time. Put simply they too have become caught up in exploring these other parallel worlds. Indeed, I remember clearly when, as it were, the penny dropped. When the two of them suddenly realised that this was not simply a game, but something else altogether.[1] Something much stranger, but also more magical. It was as if they had gone through a gate and, with that, had entered more fully into the characters (and the landscapes) they were playing. Since then, the eldest of them has been hooked and the refrain that I once spoke is now on their lips: Dungeons and Dragons (which is what we were playing) is not simply a game. It’s a way of life. Quite an over-the-top statement, but for a time it really was as if this were the case for me (as it is for them now). There is much more I could say here about their adventures. About how easy it is for them and their friends to enter these worlds, switch perspectives and so forth (and then also deeply experience various emotions within the game). About the importance of preparation, of setting a context, in order to allow this other kind of inhabitation to effectively take place (although I am also often surprised at how few ‘props’ are needed for the shift in perspective to be made).[2] And then also about how these games relate to other games—that are also more than games—that they play ‘outside’[3] (what is now called LARPing, although, for them, there are not necessarily any costumes or other props, besides that which is found lying around).[4] Some of those observations and reflections might appear in some other writing—some fiction perhaps?—that is, in a more appropriate form to what is happening in those worlds and with those children (and in my own late childhood) especially when on the cusp of adolescence (which, it seems to me, is when our imaginaries are predominantly formed).

In fact, my own experiences with roleplaying games was also split between live play—out on the moors in the North of England in my case—and then playing various tabletop roleplaying games themselves which, in many ways—when I first encountered them—somehow extended that live play and, again, made it more vivid (despite it coming after and being one step removed from the live play). I remember like it was yesterday the first actual tabletop roleplaying experience, which was Dungeons and Dragons. This was the most important game, though others followed.[5] The slight puzzlement about what we were doing (the game was initiated by an older boy) and then the moment it all fell into place—again, the penny dropped. I was hooked. Or we were. For this history I am briefly laying out is not just about me but about my twin brother too. We both entered that world—as we did many others—together.[6] There is also much more to say about this, but it is not just my own story and so I leave it to one side—except to draw something important from this determining factor: there were always two of us (at least) and so there was always already a community and a discourse happening around these experiences and this world creation.[7] The experience of roleplaying was precisely shared (I will, in fact, return to this).

Enough biography. I want, if I can, to move a little deeper in, to shift, perhaps, from the realm of memories and images into something more theoretical. Or, as I said at the beginning of this essay, to think about the importance of these games beyond the games themselves. So, first of all, I mentioned ‘world creation’ above and, clearly, with tabletop roleplaying games there is a kind of world making that goes on beyond fiction per se. In these games one is actually living ‘in’ the fiction to some extent (or, at least, shuttling between the fiction and the reality outside of this). Certainly, as a character in the game one is making decisions that determine outcomes. In fact, even here things are a little more complex as there are two positions to occupy. One is the Games Master who has initially built or, really, written the world—even if they are using a pre-prepared scenario, they need to add detail, narrate the encounters, bring the world to life (I should also say here that my experience was that these worlds were always more successful when written by the Games Master). And then there are the players who then enter into that world and, with that, continue the world building or give it another dimension.

In passing it is interesting—for me at least—that universally it was my twin brother who would function as Game Master whereas I would be the player (or one of them). I think this determines a certain take on the imagination. A focus on construction and a generosity in building a world for another (and then, presumably, the satisfaction of seeing that world being interacted with). And then the other position, more oblivious to the scaffolding and the ‘behind the scenes’ work and so forth. More a sense—and perspective—of just being thrown in. In fact, both are—of course—needed, and, in fact, the two make the game, which is to say without the Game Master there is no world, or if there is, it is one that is chaotic, too spontaneous; and without the players the Game Master has simply penned a fiction.[8] These worlds need building and animating. They need to be invented and then believed in—interacted with ‘as if’ real—in order that everything can take off and, with that, become something that is greater than its parts.

Continue reading “On Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Fictioning “

Two Ideas of Justice

By Gautam Bhatia

As a genre committed to exploring “alternatives to how we live”, questions of justice have always been at the forefront of contemporary SF writing. One of the most frequently recurring themes has been that of crime and punishment: indeed, SF’s focus on technology has allowed writers to explore a range of questions related to criminal justice, from policing (Philip K. Dick’s “precogs” come to mind) to prisons. Some of the most interesting thinking has considered entirely alternative forms of criminal justice altogether: for example, Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect gives us a brief glimpse of a future society where policing takes place through randomly selected civic volunteer militia, which are disbanded as soon as the immediate task is done.

Issues around criminal justice fall within the broad category called “corrective justice”: i.e., at their root, they deal with how to rectify a wrongful harm or injury inflicted by one person (or set of persons) upon another. Corrective justice assumes a prior normative consensus about what constitutes wrongful injury, and then asks: how is this injury best rectified? Variants of this question are at the heart of the many volumes of science fiction that deals with policing, crime, and punishment. They are also present in some of the most famous “courtroom” scenes in SF: for example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s The Measure of a Man, Commander Data must establish that he is entitled to a right to self-determination, in order to avoid being dismantled by Starfleet. The establishment of his rights takes place through structured courtroom argument, and it turns upon the interpretation of existing Starfleet law.

There is, however, another set of anterior questions that corrective justice and courtroom set-pieces do not adequately address. These are questions of “distributive justice”: that is, the allocation of resources across society [1]. Questions of distributive justice are embedded within the political economy and the constitutional arrangements that structure a society. It is here that I think that we have not yet seen the variety and diversity of treatment in SF that we have seen when it comes to questions of corrective justice.

Consider, for example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. The two series are separated by seven decades, and—as Martine has noted in interviews—A Memory Called Empire, in many ways, is in conversation with, and responds to, Foundation. However, while very different in their sensibilities, the two series are united in their starting point: i.e., the choice of Empire as the overarching governing and administrative framework of the galaxy. With this initial choice, a set of other choices inevitably follow: a certain structure of the political economy, centralised administration, the distinction between a core and a periphery, and the flow of resources from the latter to the former. While both series explore a range of questions with great subtlety and thoughtfulness within this context, their basic assumptions—that go to questions of distributive justice—are unshakeable [2].

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Noon Universe are two SF series where the starting point—in terms of governance and political economy—is very different, and therefore presents us with different questions of justice. Both the Culture and the Noon Universe and imagine a post-scarcity, anti-capitalist society, where there is no more private ownership over the means of production (the root of a lot of distributive injustice). However, both the Culture and the Noon Universe come to us as fully-formed, mature societies, with the writers focusing almost exclusively on external conflict with other societies (and thus dropping us back into the well-traversed terrain of corrective justice: think of Banks’ Look to Windward or the Strugatskies’ Hard To Be A God).

One striking exception is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The Dispossessed is an SF meditation on distributive justice par excellence. Le Guin takes us into the nuts and bolts of how Annares—an anarchist, non-capitalist, post-carceral society—would function in practice. The questions she considers range from social production (indeed, running through The Dispossessed there is an open question of whether it is just that the weight of moral consensus effectively compels everyone to spend a certain amount of time engaging in physical labour, regardless of what their other talents might be) to social reproduction (i.e., the range of activities that ensure the continuation of social life, including child-rearing). Indeed, in The Dispossessed, questions of distributive justice are presented particularly starkly, as Annares is a counterpoint to the planet Urras, where a recognisably capitalist and a recognisably state-socialist nation-state are locked in a conflict with each other.

The Dispossessed is not entirely alone in this. There is a tradition of writing—such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars [3]—that has built upon it. It is my impression, however, that as a genre, SF still remains overwhelmingly focused on issues around corrective justice. That is not to suggest that these issues are unimportant or uninteresting; however, as we enter a time in which the climate crisis reveals to a greater and greater degree the unsustainable bases of our current society and political economy, it will therefore be interesting to see if science fiction will respond with a greater, sharper focus on questions of distributive justice.


[1] The terms “corrective justice” and “distributive justice” are, of course, reductive; I use them here as placeholders for a set of family resemblance concepts. Here I focus on these two concepts of justice, although other important distinctions include those between “retributive justice,” “restorative justice,” and “transformative justice.” Broadly speaking, retributive justice focuses on punishment and compensation, restorative justice focuses on repairing relationships between offenders and victims, and transformative justice focuses on changing both these interpersonal relationships and the wider social and economic structures within which harm occurs.

[2] Although, arguably, they are challenged to an extent at the end of Foundation and Earth, and with First Contact in A Desolation Called Peace.

[3] See e.g. Will There Be Justice? Science Fiction and The Law (2019), Tor.com. www.tor.com/2019/08/07/will-there-be-justice-science-fiction-and-the-law/

Gautam Bhatia is the author of the SF duology, The Wall and The Horizon. He is the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. In his spare time, he is a constitutional lawyer.

Torque Control: Writing Futures

By Jo Lindsay Walton

NightCafe AI’s response to “Sunflowers, Van Gogh”

Klara and The Sunflowers

This issue’s cover was created by an AI. Or … was it?[1]

Machines have made art for a long time. In the mid 19th century, John Clark’s Eureka machine was dropping perfectly okay Latin hexameter bars on the daily. Harold Cohen’s AARON began scribbling in the 1970s and sketching plants and people in the 1980s.

But with the likes of MidJourney, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, Disco Diffusion, Imagen, and Dream by Wombo, 2022 marks the start of a new era. These AIs accept natural language prompts and produce often startling images. Suddenly the conversation has shifted from what little the AIs can do to what little they can’t do.

The AIs can’t paint complex scenes with many parts, for instance. You’re better off generating the pieces separately and then jiggling them together in Photoshop or GIMP. They can’t paint eyes terribly well, unless your subject happens to be a stoner ghoul. If the moon shines behind your subject’s head, it often bulges strangely, bearing ominous tidings for tonight’s high tide.

Still, the AIs are getting better all the time. Some online art forums are already inundated with spam. There have been instances of AI users setting themselves up as freelance artists, claiming to create the images themselves using traditional methods (Photoshop is now ‘traditional methods’! We are definitely in the future).

Worse still, the rise of AI art has led to the rise of the AI Art Bro. These combat philosophers, who perhaps recently cut their teeth extolling NFTs, love nothing more than to troll freelance artists nervous about next month’s rent.[2] Yet it would be unfair to write off AI art just because it has some disagreeable advocates. Luckily, as science fiction writers and fans, we’re well-equipped to make more nuanced assessments.

Or … are we?

The uncomfortable fact is that science fiction hasn’t been amazingly good at illuminating the ongoing AI revolution. With notable exceptions, we focus on questions like, ‘Can an AI think? Feel? Love? Dream? What does the way we treat machines tell us about how we treat one another?’ These are enchanting and perhaps important questions. But they tend to overshadow AI as it exists within data science and critical data studies, and the huge role it is already playing in everyday life. So maybe science fiction writers could do more to infuse our work with an appreciation of AI as it actually exists?[3]

Continue reading “Torque Control: Writing Futures”