Retroactive Continuity: Base Raiders

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If you want to get me to throw your book across the room in disgust, quoting Nietzsche on the first page is a great start. His On the Genealogy of Morality remains the only book to which I have actually done this, though I have threatened it to other books. Unless you’re going to pull a Xenosaga and spend the next 100+ hours of gameplay across three games taking the piss out of him, referencing the Ayn Rand of humanities majors is just going to get my guard up from the start.

Base Raiders: Superpowered Dungeon Crawling, a FATE RPG by Ross Payton, starts with just such a quote, and it’s one of the worst ones–the Will to Power. Admittedly, this is in the forward, which is by one Caleb Stokes–but Stokes is also named in the book’s acknowledgments of family, friends, and playtesters, implying he bears least one of those relationships to the author. His description of the philosophy behind Base Raiders can be taken as, if not a direct description of its authors’ views, at least not antithetical to them.

Stokes lays it on thick; the quote is immediately followed by a lament that superheroes–referring to the characters, but implying the genre as well–reject the idea of seeking power over others, and label those who do seek power as villains. He actually notes that superheroes almost never want their power–though he doesn’t go quite as far as to label it as trauma–but then describes this as being “ungrateful.” The point of Base Raiders, he writes, is to present a vision of superheroes for “the generation that stopped being purely ‘human’ twenty years ago and couldn’t be happier about it.* It’s for the people that never met something they didn’t want to hack, customize, remix, or make better, including their own bodies. It’s a vision of superpowers tailor-made for a people that… won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something as pure straight white male Silicon Valley technocrat incel nerdbro as self-describing as “a people that won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'” It’s almost beautiful in its pure, disgusting selfishness, the utter lack of self-awareness with which it explains why power fantasies work better as villains, because the fantasy of power is precisely that, fantasizing about no one being able to tell you “no.” The fantasy is to override the consent and wishes of everyone you meet, to act devoid of anything other than compassionless self-interest.

And that fantasy is repeated everywhere in this book. I mentioned above that it’s based on the FATE system, which caught my attention immediately, because FATE is my favorite tabletop RPG. Yes, I’ve played D&D more than it, and BESM more than anything, but FATE is the one which I appreciate aesthetically, the one whose design philosophy seems to align best with how I like to play. I won’t go in-depth into game mechanics here, but the short version is, FATE emphasizes tabletop roleplaying as a form of collaborative storytelling. The rules are relatively simple and highly flexible, and character abilities are deliberately rendered somewhat vaguely, because the assumption is that players will work with the GM and each other to tell an unfolding story about their characters, and thus cooperate on interpreting their characters rather than needing detailed adjudication up front.

So, for example, there is a mechanism by which the GM can tell players to act according to particular aspects of their character previously defined by the player, but must offer the player Fate Points for doing so–points which the player can later spend to reject such an instruction from the GM or make story declarations of their own. FATE quite deliberately has no character flaws or merits; players are encouraged to define aspects in such a way that they can serve both roles, allowing the player to spend FP on an aspect to receive a bonus, or receive FP when the GM uses an aspect against them. The game, in other words, can make aspects flexible, multi-faceted, and highly subject to interpretation because it is assumed that the GM and players are going to work together to make the game enjoyable for all.

Base Raiders retains these aspects–but it adds various forms of merits and flaws. It complicates the skill system enormously to far more carefully define what characters can do, and how hard it is for others to stop them from doing it, and in the process discards that assumption of cooperation. Of course it does! Power inherently cannot cooperate; it is, as Stokes so accidentally eloquently put it, unable to tolerate hearing “no,” unable to negotiate or take turns. It must subjugate or be subjugated, and so to build a game with power as its core value, it is necessary to carefully delineate how to determine who dominates whom and when. The game outright admits this is what it’s doing in the discussion of one of the new mechanics, skill tiers, when it notes that, in a struggle between characters in very different skill tiers, it is impossible for the lower-tier character to succeed, “As it should be.”

The addition of merits and flaws, the increased crunchiness, and even the emphasis on numerical dominance over cooperative roleplay, however, are not where I finally broke down and exasperatedly asked the air, “So why are you even using FATE then?” No, that cry came when I noticed a subtle change in character creation. You see, the Fate Point system is not particularly unusual for more narratively focused RPGs; the flexibility of aspects is slightly more so, but still not by that much. One of the truly unusual features of FATE, however, is the incorporation of character creation into play, and specifically the way in which it’s rendered as collaborative as the rest of the game.

You see, character creation in FATE is done in the group. Players take turns defining aspects, and in the process each tells the story of their character’s origin and first adventure, prior to the game’s start. Then, each player picks another character’s first adventure, and works with that character’s player to describe what role the first player’s character played in their adventure, this role serving to set up their final aspect. Base Raiders, however, changes this subtly: to define their character’s final aspect, the player is instructed to “pick another player character as your associate and incorporate them into the adventure.” This eliminates the collaborative element entirely! Players must no longer work with each other to figure out how to fit their character into someone else’s adventure idea; each acts unilaterally, declaring someone else’s character to have had a role in their own development. The FATE Core rulebook emphasizes that, in this final phase of character creation, the character receiving the aspect is a minor figure in the other character’s prior adventures; Base Raiders instead describes the player taking another’s character for their own “greatest adventure.”

This is where superheroes-as-power-fantasy leads: the fantasy of being so much more powerful than anyone else that you can impose your will on them. The fantasy of ignoring consent, compassion, and community to be a lone figure, “free” at the expense of the freedom of everyone else around them. It is the fantasy of people who want nothing more than to violate the boundaries of every person they meet; which is to say, the fantasy of people who can’t tolerate being told “no.”

What other word can there be for people like that, besides “villain”?

*No, I have no clue what technofetishist nonsense this is referring to, either.

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