Friday 20 April 2018

Chariot II

So, once the book versions of We Don't Go Back, On a Thousand Walls and Cult Cinema are finished, I'm going to do a second edition of Chariot.

Funny thing about Chariot. I wrote it nearly three years ago now, I crowdfunded it, I laid it out, and I played it with my friends for a while, and then I put it away and did some other stuff. And you do, that's what you do, isn't it? You put it to one side.

And about eighteen months after I last looked at it, I looked at it again. And it's full of typos, which it would be, because no matter how good you are at proofreading, you don't proofread your own work; and some of the art I'm still happy with, in an outsider art sort of way, and some of it I'm less happy with; and some of the rules need to be explained more clearly and given better examples. I came up with a better way to do the card mechanics.

But for all that, I read this, and I thought, by God, this is good.

If you knew me, you'd know that this is not a usual reaction for me, that my default is to look back on things written five or ten or fifteen years ago and say to myself, mate, maybe you should pack this game in. But in Chariot, I can look at the writing, the deep lore and recognise it as my best work, probably the nearest I ever got to writing something beautiful. The stuff Malcolm Sheppard wrote for the game which, for various reasons, got moved to a supplement called Cosmic Memory, made a lump appear in my throat; Malcolm is one of the most compelling theorists of game design I know but he doesn't get the props he deserves as a writer of powerful, poetic prose.

I made a lot of how personal Chariot was to me at the time. And it is, but still, that was also a mistake, since nobody actually has any reason to care about my personal history.

But Chariot also approaches the real world. As a construct of Victorian myth, Atlantis was a reification of empire, of race science, of an occult realm that desperately wanted to be part of the establishment. I approached it as if the channelled histories were real histories, which could be seen through a revisionist lens. In my Atlantis, a liberal empire causes untold damage, and sure it allows equality, but only inasmuch as people of different minorities can have the permission of the structures of power to engage in the business of empire, to engage in the oppression of the poor and the dispossessed and migrant, and those racial groups who will never be permitted a say. The empire of Atlantis isn't the only nation on the continents, but it's the one with the power, and so it has the name of the continent, and inasmuch as the continent of Atlantis is thought of at all, it evokes that nation, and the others are erased, since they do not carry its name.
I remember seeing a post on a forum (a terrible forum, but that's by the by) asking what characters in Chariot do apart from fight for social justice. And that made me a bit annoyed, since I sort of think that social justice is a construct invented to obscure the truth that there's really just justice, that the inequities we see visited on the powerless people are, literally, crimes, they're thefts and rapes and murders, and that real justice demands that they be redressed, that someone take the responsibility for this, that someone face the consequences.

Chariot assumes that, as in the real world, rulers and systems won't do anything to fix the world. I don't believe in kings or queens, don't believe that anyone rules over us by right. We're told that our leaders are born to it, that they're more moral, more competent, and deserving of their wealth and power; of course, they're usually venal and stupid, and the idea they're deserving anything is irrelevant, because you don't need to be clever or good or know what you're doing when you have wealth and power, because you have wealth and power.

Monarchy is a moral issue: it is a crime, a violation of humanity. There is no such thing as a benevolent empire; there is no such thing as a just king. The very concept of royalty is evil, as is the concept of empire.

The God Emperors of Atlantis in Chariot are a wash. One is absolutely corrupt, the other absolutely complacent. I don't think it could be any other way (and by the way, there “really” was a Helio Arcanophus, inasmuch as there are books written in his name, published by psychics who claimed to have channelled him in the 1960s, and this Atlantean King is every bit as patronising and complacent as you'd expect).

Chariot is also, in a fair sense, a queer game, and isn't it funny that after so much coded queer content in my games and fiction, there's still people who don't make the obvious connection. Suffice to say, I don't think I'm capable of writing a straight game. In Chariot, we have egg-laying non-binary giants, beings of third and fourth sexes, polyamorous communists, sex-positive pirate nations, variform people. And while people in the setting exploit and abuse it, as they do in the real world, there's a beauty in this spectrum of sexualities and genders that gives us a point, and much that's good about the setting, much that's worth keeping, depends on recognising this. It depends on love.

And Chariot is hopeful. It's about altruism. The characters explicitly know they're fated to die in the Catastrophe, and not before, and yet we assume they'll fight to the last to save what they can from the waves and the fire and the rains of gravel. That they'll make one last ditch attempt to help the slaves rebel, to tear down the corridors of power, and to fill the evacuation ships and the last sky-chariots with the children of the common people.

I don't have a lot of time for nihilism. I wanted Chariot to be humane. I wanted there to be a chance. Not to save Atlantis, no, the ocean's going to drink that, but to save the people who need to be saved and perhaps also to learn that you can't save them yourself, that no one single site of resistance will fix anything, but that you can give them the space and the opportunity to save themselves, to become part of a movement, a final revolution.
I wanted to create a world worth salvaging, and the opportunity to make inspiring, heartbreaking stories about the efforts of people with nothing to lose to pull something from the wreckage and give the next generation the freedom and the chance to make their own mistakes.

And man, if that sounds pretentious – what's the accusation of pretentiousness other than a way to keep the less respectable elements down anyway – I don't care. Aim high, right?

That's why I'm going to give it a second go.