Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Balkanise North America Now!






If there's one aspect of the Shadowrun setting that provokes endless debate, it's the Native American Nations that inherited the American west after the return of magic. Shadowrun draws much of its setting texture from the patchwork of independent, distinctive nations it superimposes over the familiar American continent.

This post isn't going to be a defence of the Native American Nations specifically (believe me, I could write that post, at length, to the benefit of nobody...). Rather, it's going to be a rallying cry for the balkanised Cyberpunk setting. It's going to say "if the NAN did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it." 

What do I mean by a balkanised setting? I mean chaos. I mean a setting where established modern nations have collapsed into successor states, micro-states or failed states, or even a mess of autonomous communities, burbclaves and survivalist isolates.

Cyberpunk settings - especially cyberpunk gaming settings - tend to go in one of two directions when inventing their North American setting. Either, they embrace balkanization (Shadowrun, Interface Zero, the ruined Earth of Jovian Chronicles, Cyberpunk 2020 ...sorta...) or they expand the United States into a gigantic superstate, through international treaties or conquest (GURPS Cyberworld, Underground, Psipunk, Trinity). ICE Cyberspace presents governments as obsolete and emphasises this by devoting little more than a paragraph to the subject in an otherwise extensive world guide. The various innovative settings in Ex Machina explores both ideas taken to their extremes. Kromosome, as ever, has a unique take: a setting completely atomised at a national, economic, even street level, where a few giant regional economic organisations serve mainly as cultural signifiers. 

Because novels aren't required to (and frankly shouldn't!) provide RPG style world guides, it isn't quite so easy to split the literary genre up into such easy categories. This is particularly true of cyberpunk, a genre noted for "show the minimum you need to, tell nothing" storytelling. It's unclear whether the United States still exists in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy; we know the Pentagon and the CIA have been "Balkanized" and little else. The Bridge Trilogy explicitly describes a world of splintering nation states. According to the Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebook, When Gravity Fails describes a world of dizzying complexity and fractal borders. Islands in the Net is about a world where nation states have been superseded by NGOs and supra-state global institutions. Snow Crash atomises the world on a neighbourhood level. And so on.

If this post is arguing for the "balkanisation" setting style, it is also arguing against the fascistic mega-state model. I'm not saying it's always a bad idea; Ex Machina's "Daedalus" setting provides a wonderful counter-example. It is, however, one with a very specific and very limiting story model. I'm more interested in more generic settings, settings designed to host a variety of different characters and campaigns.

If this post focuses mostly on North America, that's because most cyberpunk game settings do. I suspect many of these Balkanised Americas are inspired by the novel Hardwired. This seems especially true of Shadowrun, given how much earlier editions of the game emphasised "T-bird" GEV smuggling. 

So that's reason number one: every setting should have borders and tariff barriers, so that cyber-linked smugglers in hover-tanks can smash through them at enormous speed. If that somehow isn't reason enough...

Space for Adventure and Conspiracy
Jovian Chronicles
It isn't easy to be a D&D style murderhobo in the same nation as the FBI. It's easier to have an "adventure" in Somalia than Illinois (which is probably why so many Western idiot teenagers have gone off to fight in Syria). 

A Balkanized landscape produces two things: borders to flee across and failed states. It reduces the amount of handwaving necessary to legitimise a class of corporate saboteurs and criminal covert operatives (maybe you just have to balkanise the cities, or let the countryside bleed - places like Mexico already seem to produce "shadowrunners" by the kilo). 

Snow Crash presented a world of shifting factions, shifting traffic, where hundreds of different ideas and cultures could co-exist in coterminous enclaves within the same city. Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction is like a dark twin of the same novel, presenting a world of similar politics as intensely violent and intensely mercenary, governed by medieval rules of conduct and competing fundamentalisms. Personally, I think that version is more likely...

Both novels present a world that is the anti-thesis of the cloying mono-cultural world of strip-malls and franchises that many people are trying to escape when they read a novel or set out to play a roleplaying game.

A balkanised world creates also creates gaps in which conspiracy can flourish. In Shadowrun, it allows extraterritorial corporations and draconic conspiracies to flourish failed states. Indeed, Shadowrun made the connection between dragon conspiracy and balkanisation explicit: the break up of large bureaucratic empowered individuals of great ability (dragons...) to step into the vacuum. Technological super-empowerment of the individual is a major theme in Cyberpunk, not just for magic dragons, and the disintegration of giant police states provides more space for the individual to exercise that power. 

Enabling genre tropes and giving more agency to the protagonists, hurrah!

The Great  Genre Trope Enabler


Ghost in the Shell

Here are a few things that monolithic, fascistic super-states are unlikely to tolerate:

  • "corporate extraterritoriality"
  • massive private armies
  • warfare between armed corporations
  • civilian cyber-soldiers
  • "free cities"
  • techno-barbarians
  • Mad Max style road banditry
  • paramilitary warlords
  • a class of disposable, deniable corporate soldiers
  • the aforementioned hover-tank smugglers
  • unregulated corporate research labs
  • large numbers of unquantified "SINless" non-citizens
90% of the tropes that enable the average cyberpunk campaign, then. Society needs to be splintered or at least in retreat to provide space for these things.

Balkanising the setting gives game designers the opportunity to play with different, mutually exclusive genre tropes or stereotypes. Shadowrun does this with China; Pathfinder does the same thing with its fantasy version of the same culture. Each Balkanised nation takes on a different group of tropes: the communist China, the Imperial China, the spiritual China, the mercantile China. Rather than simply turning the clock back to an earlier (and different) historical era for each different neo-nation, game designers might think in genre terms - the region where you could run a Wuxia story, the region where you could explore totalitarianism, the region based on Hong Kong Triad movies...

Unfamiliar Enemies in Familiar Territory

Breaking up an existing nation into smaller territories creates dozens of new factions. Each new community and nation will have its ruling class, loyal opposition, rebels, conspiracies and agencies. Each of these groups will have its own unique character, creating a multitude of new and interesting entries in the rogue's gallery.

...so you might say: "the world has all these things, in the nations that already exist. Why create new nations just to create new factions?"

One of the (debatable, I know) advantages of a cyberpunk game set in the real world (of the future) is that the setting is already familiar. People know what New York and Los Angeles and even Indianapolis look like, or they can look it up. 

This way, you get to have your cake and eat it. You have the familiarity of an area you know well, with the diversity of an entire world. Your new factions and conspiracies are instantly situated in a familiar context, doing much of the GMs work for free.

(...also, your characters don't have to worry about learning a new language every time you want to introduce some new enemies...)


Everywhere is Important

Colin Woodward: The Eleven Nations of North America
Three sessions of my Decades in Shadow campaign took place in Cheyenne. Cheyenne! Cheyenne, a place I've only heard of because my brain retains geographical facts in lieu of things like appointment times (Year 8 Hertfordshire County Schools Geography Quiz 2000 winner, with the winner's Ordnance Survey T-Shirt and Compass to prove it!). For those who don't know, Shadowrun's Cheyenne went from a forgotten city out west to the capital of a powerful nation state. It isn't the only town to receive this sort of treatment - even I had never heard of Bellingham, WA before encountering it in Shadowrun (Wikipedia claims its nickname is "the city of subdued excitement..."). Over the decades, Shadowrun sourcebooks have given long write-ups to places like Fort Worth and Big Sur that might ordinarily have been ignored in favour of yet another Chicago book. 

Shadowrun's network of borders provides interesting and immediate context to dozens of forgotten locations across North America. This is no-where more clear than in Target: Smuggler Havens, which establishes a dozen small towns as centres in cross-border smuggling routes. Something similar happens in Northern California, where Tir expansionism suddenly gives characters a reason to go to places like Redding and Mount Shasta. Almost every community in the Sixth World's North America gains some significance to the setting this way. 

It's far more satisfying than the clumsy attempts certain other games (*cough* Cyberpunk 2020...) made to ensure that every part of the (effectively intact) United States received something unique and interesting for players to explore. Home of the Brave seems to have been written by picking ideas out of a hat. Communist Wyoming, indeed... (we can but dream...).

Without the borders, half the world becomes boring again. Because frankly, the world is becoming more boring in real life. It's a constant complaint among travellers and touring performers that the United States is becoming increasingly homogeneous; that Indianapolis is the Oklahoma City of the Rust Belt is the Cheyenne of the South West is the... (I was once dragged to a TGI Fridays in Cairo, Egypt...)

Actual borders enhance the differences between regions. In the absence of the Southern aristocracy, the US government passed more progressive legislation during the Civil War period than at almost any other time in its history; meanwhile the Confederate government began to take on its own unique character defined by "anti-party" politics that left the authoritarian Davis Administration without effective opposition. With their different political cultures, recently formed nation states would begin to diversify into new (GM definable!) cultures very quickly. Small but important aspects of daily life, like town planning, would start to morph in unpredictable ways. Cyberpunk has always been about the way comparatively small and realistic changes in technology utterly overthrow existing social norms and conventions, making the familiar unfamiliar; this is just another way to take a mundane landscape - a city you know well, perhaps - and make it strange again. It's like a faery glamour.

New borders and neo-nations return some diversity to the map. New cultural and economic power centres would emerge. Real life secessionist movements tend to emphasise the idea that regions ignored by centralised governments would return to political prominence.

Talk of real separatist movements brings us neatly to...

...It's More "Realistic"

There's a reason I put this at the bottom of the post: I firmly believe that game setting design, even in cyberpunk, should be about enabling fun before realism. The goal of a game setting is to be just plausible enough for players to suspend their disbelief while facilitating the plot hooks and play elements you want to run. Besides, unless your name is "Bruce Sterling" or possibly "God" your predictions of the future will be about as realistic as Star Wars. I know mine are.

That said, we are living in a time of atomisation and state collapse, across the world (and in your social circles, and your job, and your family, and your consumption habits). Just take a look at this absurdly simplified map of Syria, until three years ago a classic Cold War era autocracy. We live in an age where RPG-29 Merkava killers are infinitely cheaper than the armour necessary to stop them, when well motivated ethnic and ideological militias are once again capable of stopping craven mercenaries and state armies in open battle. With fronts stabilising along ethnic lines, Syria looks like it will remain a patchwork worthy of Snow Crash for years to come.

Less ominously, European states created by ancient dynastic marriages pre-dating the national idea are starting to disintegrate. The UK very nearly came apart at the seams a few months ago; according to the opinion polls Scotland is already beginning to regret the choice it made. Spain and Belgium both look they could be considerably smaller by the end of the decade, while northern Italian separatists have their own plans. Plenty of political theorists envisage of world of smaller states under the protective (or coercive) umbrella of gigantic economic blocs like the EU or NAFTA (or TAFTA). 

For nation states like Shadowrun's UCAS or Psipunk's NAU to come about, power brokers in the involved countries would have to be convinced to set aside enormous vested interests. What legislator in the smaller nation would want to become personally less influential? I've been trying to think of precedents for that kind of voluntary state merger and it's very difficult. 

Spain united as a result of a feudal dynastic marriage before the Treaty of Westphalia established the idea of a nation state divisible from the ruling family. The story of the United Kingdom is more complicated than that, but essentially comes down to the same thing. Germany and Italy were regions dominated by foreign powers, and then united by force. The Anschluss between Austria and Nazi Germany might count, although it resulted from a coup d'etat; we will never know what the results of a free referendum would have been. After WW2, the United States backed a proposed merger of France and West Germany; it failed after the second German vote.

In fact, the only real example of a modern voluntary state merger I can think of is the United Arab Republic, the political union of Egypt and Syria that lasted three whole years before the Syrians got sick of being governed from Cairo and walked away. The 20th century was a century defined by secession and collapse: the Russian Empire, the Soviet Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the French Departments in North Africa, Ireland and more. Compared to the atomisation and fractalisation of existing states down every conceivable political, economic and ethnic line, the merger of existing states looks very unlikely indeed.

The near future and the cyberpunk future resemble each other in this particular: they are both Balkanised all to hell.