Utopian roleplaying

Over on one of the Flat Black threads, Roger wrote that

I have in fact played with the idea of a gaming supplement for the literary genre of utopias, which after all is one of the ancestors of science fiction (by way of the uchronia or portrayal of a better society of the future, in part). And I’ve puzzled over just this sort of question.

What makes gaming exciting is conflict. And utopia seems to assume prophylactic measures against most sorts of conflict. Man versus society? No one in a typical utopia is unhappy with their society. Man versus man? Utopia at least offers more effective ways of resolving interpersonal clashes, and tries to inspire people to care about other things than besting their fellow humans. Man versus self? At least in a lot of utopias, people have enhanced insight that avoids this sort of thing; in others, they are so inspired by a moral vision that they are able to set aside their inner conflicts. Man versus God or fate is possible, but I don’t know how much gaming explores this theme. I suppose an ideal scientific society might undergo a Lovecraftian crisis of realizes that its scientific knowledge was portraying an inhuman and malevolent cosmos; or a Promethean heroic society might enter into a revolt against the gods—but those are perhaps more grandiose themes than most RPGs attempt. And otherwise, “man versus God/fate” seems to be in a different, mythic key, one that makes the ethical concerns of utopian fiction irrelevant; why bother postulating an ideal society if you are only going to show its perfection as trivial?

So I ended up with man versus nature: stories of venturing into the ocean depths, or space, or the like, and struggling with physical danger. And that’s a possible theme, but a narrow one.

I suppose a relatively utopian society could have man versus man, or versus society, as people in a greatly improved world try to improve the world still more, or differ in how to attain goals that they all have.

Or, finally, there’s the common fallback of a small utopia being threatened by invasion from a neighboring, nonutopian society: society versus society. In which case we come down to war and things analogous to war.

Is there anything in this that could make an interesting campaign?

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I think one can have near-utopias that still have conflict. I’m thinking for example of the novelette Originals, in which thanks to magical fusion tech everyone can have as much stuff as they like – but competition and prestige rest on having an original thing (e.g. recipes) that nobody has ever had before.

In this kind of conflict nobody’s going to get injured or killed, but it still matters to the people involved in it. Is that usefully gameable? The relative lack of soap-opera games suggests perhaps not.

The ideal society realising it’s built on tentacles is surely a dystopia, or something close to it?

I think that the utopia invaded is really a narrative about coming from the utopia and having to do non-utopian things: we had a perfect society before, we hope to have it again, but right now in the bit we’re looking at we don’t. And if you allow that, you also allow narratives about utopian missionaries, do-gooders, and other people who have chosen to leave paradise for reasons which seem to them good, but it’s still utopia as background element rather than setting.

One trouble I’ve encountered when playing games set in other people’s utopias is that I disagree profoundly with their political argument. Either I find their ideal repugnant or their scheme seems utterly unworkable.

Another is that in one case all the adventures took place out in the Beyond, where there was still injustice and want, so that all the pages about the judicial system, correctional system, monetary system, fiscal system, welfare system, terraforming and migration programs, and legal status of pets were useful only for provoking arguments among the players.