[Games Anatomy] The Politically Correct RPG, Part II – Novarium

Von and Hark are spending a couple of weeks looking at politically correct RPGs. Last week’s effort, Blue Rose by Green Ronin was a bit too heavy on the wishful thinking for their liking; this week, their gaze turns onto Chubby Funster’s Novarium.

Hark: I want to do another sick.  On this cover.

Von: Okay. Novarium. Mechanically, it is not worlds away from being a stripped-down version of Ars Magica, right down to the troupe-style gameplay and the covenant structure of the group’s multiple characters. The twist is in the world-building:

Novarium is a troupe-style roleplaying game set in a unique fantasy world called Vaena. The angel Azakriel has visited the humans of this world and given the gift of magic to women, who have in turn reversed the sexism in their society and risen as powerful leaders. This was a last ditch ploy from the heavens to empower the humans to fight against evil, as the demihuman empires had been torn apart through their own greed and hubris.

Hark: i hate to say it but… don’t women already have the gift of magic? That ability to make more of themselves? Also, ‘reverse the sexism’ – does that all men are merely cock-slaves or something?

Von: First thing – wombs are chambers of sorcery, it’s true, but that particular kind of magic has yet to overthrow the patriarchy all by itself. It’s not like you can use your magic womb powers to stop some bloke battering you round the head with a golf club.

Hark: “WOMB POWERS, ACTIVATE! i cast Chunky Gobbets! It’s Super-Disgusting!”

Von: Thanks for putting me off genitals for life. Hope you didn’t want kids. Weaponised menses… deary deary me.

Hark: All right, so you can turn blokes into chickens if they piss you off. Man, that’d be so great. Then you’d enter into a Peter Molyneux universe where you get points for kicking chickens… but that might be vigilante justice and therefore not quite right.

Von: It’s no worse than what the average RPG party gets up to.

Hark: True. So… is sexism reversed, or is there just no sexism?

God [female] infused a powerful magic into Azakriel’s mortal form and when he died this power was transferred to all human women. Azakriel [angel sent to reorganise human culture] was aware of this condition and referred it the gift of the Light. It would grant all women the ability to cast magical spells and radically transform the human political system and culture.

The Gift dramatically changed the balance of power between the genders in human society. Centuries of female oppression were  reversed within a few generations as the physical power of women was dramatically augmented by the gift. Once legal and political equality was achieved, female power began to exponentially increase until their gender completely dominated the social landscape.

Hark: So yes, it was reversed, and it was reversed through hideous and bloody battle. And now men live as a slave race, afraid to put a foot wrong in fear of being turned into summat… unnatural. Glad to see that nobody at all misread feminism as ‘women must rule all, for men are only good as brood slaves, sex toys, and tools for getting the lids off jam jars’.

Von: Plus, it’s more “the only way that institutionalised gender inequality will ever go away is through magic from outside rather than honest human effort” shit.

Hark: It just sounds really horrific, and will have taken into account none of the small niggling sexisms that are at the root of supposed “female inferiority”.

Von: You mean the little stuff, the supposed signifiers, that just look like expressions of a big problem rather than the way it keeps going, yeah?

Hark: Yeah, like ‘girls are weak and so to call something ‘girlish’ is to insult it’…

Von: Although I get the impression that ‘girlish’ means ‘badass’ in Valdea.

Hark: By ‘badass’ you mean ‘eldritch, terrifying and likely to turn me into a chicken’?

Von: That’s still a definition from a masculine perspective, though, whereas I get the impression that the Valdea could be more about women defining terms from their perspectives. There’s something about phallocentrism and patriarchy in the act of giving names to things, assigning words to things… something that sort of starts with Adam naming everything in Genesis, although it gets picked up again by some psychologist or another… I think it’s Lacan. Yeah. Lacan’s whole thing about men being the people who decide what words mean – I don’t think that happens in this setting.

Hark: So ‘female’ means ‘magical and in charge’.

Von: That’s kind of the vibe I’m getting.

Hark: That seems sort of interesting as a thought experiment, but i’m not sure how i’d feel about roleplaying it… then again, i play Dark Heresy, and that’s also a horrific dystopia that i’d never want to visit. i realise i’ve Failed the Emprah there, but there it is.

Von: Well, if you want an example of the kind of world that Novarium lets you explore, shall we consider its Ten-Definitely-Not-Commandments:

1. Thou shalt treat all humans with respect and dignity.

2. Thou shalt have courage in the face of mortal danger.

3. Thou shalt care for the aged and the young with tenderness, for physical weakness is never a part of moral calculus.

4. Thou shalt conduct thyself without frivolity in all matters.

5. Thou shalt not harbor resentment towards others for past wrongs, but thou  shalt not forget them.

6. Thou shalt have loyalty to your Liege, if thou has taken one as thy protector and guarantor.

8. Thou shalt seek knowledge and experience out in the world, for revelation rarely occurs within the cloister.

9. Thou shalt resolve differences of honour through combat, in accordance with the rules and regulations of such affairs.

10. Thou shalt not delight in the suffering of others.

Von: Can I just say that this sounds worryingly like some sort of Paladin Code. The bit about ‘all humans’ especially, ’cause in old-school D&D Paladins were a human-only class and there’s still dwarves and stuff in this world, and there’s just something about a game world that suggests that sentient life is only respectable if it’s Like Us (TM) that unnerves me?

Hark: KNIGHTLY BULLSHIIIIIT! And where’s the bit about ‘Thou shalt put both toilet seats down’, eh? This isn’t written by women! And it really misses the point with number 3, you care for the aged because you can still learn something from them, or use them as cheap child support, or because you owe them for caring for you at some point. It’s not about their weakness, it’s about them having different strengths to you now, and about an exchange of services. That sort of implies “if someone is physically disabled, you have to Look After Them, because they’re Weaker Than You Are”…

Von: Rather than ‘you should Help Them Out, because they are People and Helping People Is Not A Bad Thing’.

Hark: Because they may need leading onto stage, but you can’t play the piano as well as them.

Von: It seems like there’s a lot of doing good things for really really dodgy reasons. Or because an angel told you to.

Hark: It’s very white-knighty, let-me-take-care-of-you, paternalistic, divine-mandate bullshit, as opposed to “want a hand with that? no? okay, just thought i’d ask in case you were having trouble because i wouldn’t like to see another person suffer.  also you might help me in the future”.

Von: Yeah.And what kind of crapsack commandment is ‘Thou shalt conduct thyself without frivolity in all matters’? ‘Thou shalt go about with a stick up thine ass, for aye verily, thou canst not be a Good Person without being an Uptight Douche’. more like.

Hark: Are your Discordian sensibilities upset?

Von: My social-justice-tactics-nodes are being upset. I know I come across like a humourless boor when I’m wound up about problematic stuff, and I’m not the only one, and being a humourless boor doesn’t advance the cause any, does it?

Hark: Not all the time. Not if you’re a hundred per cent humourless boor. It seems that people start off thinking “aww yeah, i’m gonna do something Politically Correct, show people how the world should be”, and then it just ends up being really obvious, boring, preachy Political Correctness on top of half an RPG, instead of treating it with the same respect that they do ideas about elves or magic, putting some actual thought and potential fun into it. It’s nice that they’re trying to put the message out there, but if i wanted to read a political tract, i’d buy a Big Bumper Book of Political Tracts. i’ve bought an RPG because I’m hoping that, at some point, a game may break out.

Von: And then what you get is an angel telling you Thou Shalt Not Commit Lulz. There’s a difference between “I can’t laugh at this because there are people who are victims of it and if anyone’s going to laugh it off it should be them, making the choice for themselves” and “NOBODY CAN LAUGH AT THIS EVER”… it’s a difference I don’t always remember to distinguish but that’s me fucking up and alienating people, and people tell me I’m being boring and I try to ease off a bit because I know I’m fucking up.

Hark: Ceiling Cat would never stand for this. Lolcat Bible. It’s all about lulz.

Von: I’d like to make a quick pass over a few more setting details, if I may:

Noble status is traced through the matrilineal line of inheritance. The matriarch of each family is responsible for their progeny and lesser nobility retain the rights of judgment and trial for law enforcement purposes. There is no formal legal code as no political entity has the power to enforce it. Instead, the Book of Azakriel is sometimes used as a substitute for a legal code.

Conventional knighthood is also now in the hands of women and men are only trained with weapons if they have proven themselves competent beyond what one would demand of a woman. After all, they must suffer the handicap of lacking the Gift of Light.

Hark: So everything goes Jewish and women can’t even be as good at sexism as men are?

Von: Pretty much.

Hark: All I can see is the words ‘no formal legal code’. Huge and terrifying.

Von: It is interesting that Valdea (the world of Novarium) is set firmly in that default, arbitrary ‘dark age’. So’s the other Chubby Funster RPG, actually, and while I do get why – it’s to do with adventuring being a lot harder to justify when the world’s more known and joined up and people have more responsibilities and there aren’t huge unknown and unexplored spaces and history doesn’t have so many embarrassing gaps in it – it’s a bit chillier here than it is in Errant, which is his love letter to AD&D.

Hark: You’d think there’d be some Victorian-esque D&D somewhere. Or Wild West frontier stuff.

Von: Well, there’s a lot of manifest-destiny kind of stuff in D&D, certainly as Gygax wrote it. Going out there and taming the land, building your domain in the endgame and all that. It’s definitely defaulting to a world with unexplored territories and moving borders. That’s kind of how Novarium does things as well – the campaign starts with your Novaria (your collection of magical powerful women and their associated companions and servants and soldiers) being granted a tract of land and having to build a settlement and extract the magic and make contact with the natives and basically push the borders on a little way.

Hark: Still, it’s always set in some medieval-Europle clone. Why not up it to the Wild West time period, so instead of Sword and Sausage it’s Guns and Gears… and oh wait, i just steampunk’d myself.

Von: And in that moment, the Iron Kingdoms were born. But even then, that’s a world with a lot of unknown spaces in it, a lot of preserved Room For Adventures – it’s a world that’s been broken and put back together fairly recently, which is kind of one step on from the not-even-put-back-together-ness of most D&D settings. I mean, people try to do things like Backsword and Buckler or Lamentations of the Flame Princess which have definitely got a more Renaissancy, urban feel to them. And there’s Tekumel, which is set somewhere kinda Indian/Meso-American/Middle Eastern/Egyptian.

Hark: Mmmm, non-European.

Von: Which is another thing, actually – how fuckin’ white all these worlds are. Both of them, really. And it’s not like Mohammed A. R. Barker (author of Tekumel) wasn’t born Phil, so you don’t even have the ‘the writers are white!’ excuse. I don’t even know if the Blue Rose folks are…

Hark: You can be green. You can be blue. You can be furry. But you can’t be a funny brown colour.

Google ‘black fantasy warrior’.
Get a lot of pale people drawn in monochrome.

Von: So. Final thoughts. Blue Rose vs. Novarium. Who’s Doing Political Correctness Right?

Hark: *long, drawn-out sputtering sigh* Farts!

Von: Who’s doing it Less Wrong, then? See, for my part, Blue Rose falls down because it’s all wave-a-magic-wand-wishful-thinking-put-the-bad-thing-somewhere-else, whereas Novarium is at least doing that hard science fiction thing of saying “so we change THIS thing about society and think about what might happen”, even if it’s doing it in a kind of stick-up-your-ass not-addressing-things-fully sort of way.

Hark: Whereas i think Blue Rose is slightly preferable, in a political correctness sense anyway, if only ’cause paladin-esque ethics are just such Aryan-Nation, edging-on-eugenics, far-right guff.  It just seems like they’ve changed one thing and the world is slightly worse now, and kinda scary. At least i could have a happy griffin boyfriend in Blue Rose.

Von: Yeah, but you could play a lesbian in Novarium and apparently they’re the best things EVER in Valdea.

Hark: Yeah, but in Blue Rose, even about the undead, they’re are all ‘well, they’ve got terrible table manners, but we’re trying to bring them round’, whereas in Novarium you’d probably be playing the Lesbian Fun Police, and i bet that’s not as sexy as it sounds. i’m just not sure where the enjoyment lives in Novarium.

Von: I suppose if you wanted to play ‘to tame a land’ you’d just, y’know, play Ars Magica with stripped-down rules, which might be what I really like about Novarium. Ars Magica doesn’t say Thou Shalt Not Have Fun, it says ‘here are six different mechanical processes to explain exactly how fun-loving your character is, and what kind of fun they love, and how good they are at having it’, which is its own and entirely different problem, really.

Hark: And if we’re playing Lesbian Fun Police, i want someone to do an RPG of Brazil.

Von: I think there’s a copy of second edition Paranoia in the cellar, actually.

Hark: Oh, God.

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