Monday, May 10, 2021

Bius Station: a note on violence

 It is seven billion years in the future. The sun weighs heavy in the sky, numbed by all the deeds perpetrated in its sight. It looks over Bius Station, the last of two hundred breeding pits for the biomantic creations of the Circle of Life, a cabal of power-mad alchemists.

It is the last because all others overflowed with rage and war, and its gibbering monsters assaulted the remaining cities of the world. Each was defeated in turn, by the Sons of Chromas and the Daughters of E, by the grit of the Bound Companies and the personal horrors of a trillion desperate conscripts.

One hundred and ninety-nine times out of two hundred, the biomancer in question chose to wreak the work of war. In the last case, in Bius Station, he chose otherwise.

The biomancer here gave up his previous name. He is called only the scientist, the alchemist, or father. For when he looked over the myriad lives his profane science produced, he saw not weapons nor sons but people, living beings upon whom he had already inflicted cruelty after cruelty. He has spent a hundred years making up for those cruelties by caring for his creations, for their lives are not easy.

I will not tell you he is good or bad. I cannot say that the service he has rendered makes up for his sins, though I can't imagine that treating a wound is as good as inflicting that wound was bad. Crucially, the weight of his heart does not matter to me.

Bius Station is an adventuring location, a "dungeon space" as I have called them in the past. The scientist's creations that are still fairly mobile fill out a random encounter table, and the facility's slow decay offers many challenges of traversal. An adventuring party can be brought by rumors of strange beasts sighted, or by news that scavengers and raiders often visit the location to trade with its biomancer, for his charges require a multitude of things he can no longer synthesize, if they are to live lives as fully as they might.

I can well imagine player characters or their players feeling guilty, betrayed, wroth, if they spend the first half of their visit to Bius Station "slaying monsters," in a place where the moral dignity of the things they encounter are not telegraphed, not signposted by eloquence or grace. What were they meant to do?

There is no moral supplied in Bius Station. I hope it feels authentic to the inadequacies of the real world, as you have seen it. Some are born to endless night, and all that.


How are we to depict violence, the catalyst of so many wrongs in the living world?

  • An escapist might say we should construct our fictional worlds to excuse violence, to offer heroic outlets in which we slay shibbolethic hordes of demons.
  • An Aesthete of Desperation might say we should depict a world which is fully cruel, but make violence feel scary and desperate, to offer vicarious thrills from escape and cunning play.
  • A different escapist might say we should construct our fictional worlds without violence, to offer a kinder example or provoke more creative problem-solving.
  • A third escapist might say the first escapist is hopelessly misguided, and has simply constructed an excuse to channel a love of violence against iffy justifiable targets. They might say we should instead construct our fictional worlds as moral examples, to offer heroic demonstrations in which we slay analogues of specific real-world oppressors.
I will not tell you what is right. You and I certainly have many thoughts on each approach and when, if ever, one is appropriate. What I will tell you is what I have tried to do.

I feel many games collapse towards escapism #1. Their rulesets lavish loving attention on combat rules, and their scenarios imagine engaging ways to overcome through physical contest. I think it is unfair to make a game about violence, then shame the players for playing it. I am also not dedicated towards escapism or uncomplicated fun. I want to be moved, to feel sorrow for Gorgons and misery for nameless Grimm princesses and respect for terrible Liu Beis or Achilloi.

In my work, I will not deny that a warrior can be gallant or a sword can be aimed towards the right. I want player characters to struggle, to contend with arms in many cases, and to win victories thereby. Sometimes they will commit grave errors, and we will see them play out. Sometimes they will succeed totally, but the violence of their success will bring more discord. As Blake said "Vain the sword and vain the bow/ they never can work war's overthrow."

I run roleplaying games, and players absolutely surprise me. The vanity of violence is a tendency, not a foregone conclusion. Sometimes, immediate violence really will be a panacea, either because the ills that result are acceptable to the PCs or because I'm running a game lighter and more adventurous in tone. But when I design a scenario with full and serious intent, believe that the default, violent solution will not work war's overthrow. That's just not authentic to what in the world I have seen, or to the tales and sagas which work through and unwork themselves through violence.

A warrior who swings a sword aiming at right is an acceptable, sometimes beautiful, player character. The Fall of Camelot is tragic because so many men and women tried so hard to do right, to turn the violence of the age to worthwhile problems, and because they could have succeeded, but vain the sword. Josiah discovering the book of laws or Jehu's anointment to end the house of Ahab is tragic because everyone in the tale is trying to find out how they can live in an imperfect world and make it right, but unfortunately they live partway through an age of madness, and it doesn't matter how many heads of princelings you pile; vain the sword. The biomancer of Bius Station and the creatures he cares for are easy to solve but impossible to solve in a satisfying way; vain the sword.

1 comment:

  1. This isn't spam but I can't remember if I posted on the discord that I like this and generally agree with your philosophy.