RPGing via Billy Bragg?


This thread has two inspirations:

@chaochou's "cultural influences" thread: Cultural influences in roleplaying

A stanza in the Billy Bragg song "Island of Long Return" that I was listening to as I started this thread:

I never thought that I would be
Fighting fascists in the Southern Sea
Saw one today and in his hand
Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham​

The problem of how to make RPGing thematically weighty in moral, or personal, terms has largely been solved: DitV, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World are just some of many examples.

But what about social weight? Over the Edge is one I can think of, but its social is surreal or kind-of magically realist; what about social realism? What would the right system be? I don't know BitD/FitD well enough - could it do it?

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Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
XP given for the song reference (the title of which is "Island of No Return") and because my friend in jr. high and high school who introduced me to Billy Bragg's music was also someone with whom I did some non-D&D RPGing, ETA: including a Western genre RPG I can't remember the name of but which might have been "Wild West" by FGU.

As for social realism, I don't think my RPGing has ever really touched upon this as my characters have never been consciously working class. In a recent game of D&D I was running, for example, there was a PC with the Urchin background, so of the lowest social order, and although the player had chosen personal characteristics that expressed solidarity with the other "street kids" and hatred and contempt for the wealthy, and although I was presenting some conflict in the form of a rakshasa lord posing as a philanthropist whose plans included luring street kids into fake shelters, I didn't anticipate this conflict developing as any kind of critique of the power structures present in the setting. It might have, depending on the interests of the players, but the game ended before this particular thread could be explored very much.
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Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I swear I'm not trying to turn this into an argument about whether system matters--and I see what you're saying about a game having mechanics that lend themselves to the kind of social weight and social realism you're talking about--but it seems to me, based on some experience, that this is likely to be as much about the people at the table and the situations that arise in play as it is about the mechanics of the game itself. I had a D&D party get involved in a labor dispute, for instance.

Haiku Elvis

I backed the Kickstarter for Misspent youth (tag line - fall in love, not in line.) Which is all about fighting the power and making social change. I won't get my grubby hands on it for a few months so I can't tell you more at this time.

Revolution comes to the Kingdom is a game about fighting a cold war era revolution in an isolated kingdom with a side order of curing it of mystical sins by having a mini dungeon crawl at the end of each stage. You can be the government or the rebels and can choose what the two sides represent so you can make it more social/political or more abstract.
It's creator is Tom from the Fear of a Black Dragon podcast. The player's guide is pwyw on Drive thru.


XP given for the song reference (the title of which is "Island of No Return")
I don't know what was going through my fingers with that typo!

I swear I'm not trying to turn this into an argument about whether system matters--and I see what you're saying about a game having mechanics that lend themselves to the kind of social weight and social realism you're talking about--but it seems to me, based on some experience, that this is likely to be as much about the people at the table and the situations that arise in play as it is about the mechanics of the game itself. I had a D&D party get involved in a labor dispute, for instance.
The first system I actually thought of when writing the OP was Cthulhu Dark, but the problem with that system is that the source of social ills will, at least to some extent, end up being supernatural/extra-human. I would have a similar worry about D&D; another worry about D&D is that resolution of social ills might tend to be supernatural (miracles performed by clerics, etc).

The technical problems I'm thinking of are how to express the weight of social structures in framing and resolution and perhaps how to perform actions which take as their objects social relations.

I'll give (what I hope is) an illustration of my thinking here:

A few years ago I found Battleship Potemkin on sale at a local DVD shop and picked it up, I'd never watched it before. SPOILERS FOLLOW: At the climax of the film, the mutineers/revolutionaries sail their vessel straight towards a line of Russian warships. Watching this, I was anxious as to how they would survive this and/or defeat their opponents - but my anxiety revealed the weight of ideology on me! - as I hadn't anticipated the actual resolution, which is that, by power of their example and the flying of the red flag, the sailors on the Potemkin lead the sailors on the other vessels to join them in solidarity, cheering as the Potemkin sails between their lines.

Many RPGs have mechanics for oratory, convincing a crowd, etc. But I'm not sure how one would give these the particular teeth or edge that would toggle them from either cynical or romantic, to social realism of some or other form.


My recently ended Spire campaign had some social weight to it. The setting and the premise of the game certainly put it on the menu, so to speak… you play drow living as second class citizens beneath the rule of high elves… but you can kind of lean into or away from it as desired. My players leaned into it.
So would this be social realism by way of fantasy metaphor?

Animal Farm the RPG?


Relaxed Intensity
Blades in the Dark has some sneaky social realism built in. When you start out you have nothing except obligations to the factions who back you and threats from other factions seeking to step on your necks. Entanglements almost always feels the world put you under it's bootheel. You get rewarded for punching up. Your crew is pretty much just you. Anything that threatens you like threatens the player characters directly.

Then something kind of weird happens as you reach the middle game (Tier 2-3). You have some money and probably some trauma. You're not doing this crime thing to survive anymore. You have taken things from other factions. Made enemies, but those enemies might weaker now and you are stronger. You either let conflicts linger, let your enemies nip at your heels or you step on their necks. Now that your crew is larger often times entanglements don't hit you directly, but someone who works for you. You might have to discipline people who work for you, maybe even let them go to jail for the Crew.

It also becomes harder to punch up. Now you have to give out after the really big players. Take them down. Deal with smaller Crews trying to take a piece of what you own. Maybe deal with some of their powerful friends. The game really builds in the cycle of how in fighting your way to the top you end up in a position where you might be the ones holding down smaller gangs just trying to make it.

In our current game the Wraiths, a gang of thieves who had it out for us at the start of play for taking our secret lair location away from them, threatened the financial interests of my character's noble friend. So we set to start threatening their financial interests. We took over their cover business by organizing a strike against one of their allies to show the Wraiths couldn't protect them. This has led them losing Tier while ours has grown. Now where once we were punching up now we are punching down on them, still caught up in gang warfare which is hurting our business interests (revenue generating claims only produce half of what they normally do when you are at war). Now to extricate ourselves from this situation we have to either punch them all the way down or do something for them that raises our rep.


@Campbell That sounds like it might be a different sort of social realism from Billy Bragg's or Battleship Potemkin's!

(I don't want this thread to veer to the wrong side of the board rules line. Hence I leave it at that.)

EDIT: Or not quite.

I guess there are some RPGers who see Conan, or Lotr, as social realism, or at least wish that it were so. Whereas I see them as fantasy stories expressing certain political/social ideas/convictions.

As you describe BitD, to me maybe it seems like it's in that category too? Though the social elements of its imagined world are less obviously fantastic.

A further thought: Classic Traveller could do a different sort of social realism: less Marx, more Weber!

I'd say the themes of HeroWars can be social realism, since one of the core conflicts is the struggle of an indiginous people against an oppressive, culturally overbearing, outsider.

Strangely, I think Paranoia draws a lot of its potency by beaing a recognisable parody on the absurdity and powerlessness of citizens in the modern world. It's playable because it's recognisable - even if the play itself often descends into slapstick rather than deliberate social commentary.

It probably says something not-good about me that when reading about Glorantha (the setting of Hero Wars), I only wanted to play a Lunar. (City boy. Really.)

There were real lower-class uprisings in history, even in medieval times--peasant revolts were pretty common, even though they always got put down. But...maybe not with your party in the way. What if the Diggers had had fireballs? (What if the king had?)

Overthrowing an oppressive regime is a pretty good arc for a campaign. You've even got mooks (the soldiers of the regime) and a climactic boss fight with either the monarch or the monster they summoned (or that's manipulating them) built in. Of course, for real socialist cred, you should have a chance to sway the mooks to your side rather than killing them, and maybe get double XP since it's more appropriate. (Advance further if you are using milestones.) If your players are into that, you can even roleplay trying to manage the revolution after they've won. (Lots of French revolutionaries wound up getting guillotined by their former comrades.)

You want mechanical consequences, though--the success of your rabble-rousing (from the 5e point of view, lots of Persuasion rolls and Charisma saves) could affect the number of allies you have in key set-piece battles, or the strength of your enemies. (There's going to be a lot of fighting going on, sooner or later.) You could easily expand the Inspiration mechanic to be given more frequently for inspiring speeches delivered in character, with plenty of opportunity for the frustrated actors in your group to ham it up. ("Comrades! Your enemy is not us, but the baron who pays you a few measly silvers out of his treasury!" [roll Persuasion with advantage]) I'm just thinking D&D here because that's what most people here play, of course...

Older game--Ray Winninger's Underground had you spending points to improve education levels and health, decrease crime rates, and other social determinants. If you tried to improve one thing, something else got worse unless you spent more XP (or whatever the equivalent was, it's been a while and I can't find the book now). First RPG I ever saw with rules for social change.

(Themes for conservative games could include suppressing dangerous radicals or any police procedural-themed game, really.)
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Interesting to read about some systems that have some mechanisms for social realism built in. Before reading the thread I would have said "it's all campaign dependent."

I mean, it's still possible to inject socially weighty themes into any campaign. But it's cool that there's games with mechanics that encourage it.

In a western game I play using Hero System our group of drifters have wandered into a mining town that's got the full panoply of "tyrannical boss runs the company town like his personal fief." Everyone is (poorly) paid in company scrip to buy goods form the company store, a nascent union movement, threats and violence were used to buy out all the other local miners, etc. Even the ladies of negotiable affection have to accept company scrip. Our bunch are working on ways to screw with the boss; like stealing all the silver dollars we know he has squirreled away and giving them to the folks so they a way of getting out.

In a Star Wars game I'm playing with the same group we're "mercs and bounty hunters" yet somehow we always wind up helping the downtrodden.

The games I run usually have a certain amount of social weight going on, maybe just in the background. My current urban fantasy is centred on some very working class heroes in 1986 London. They're about to come against the (fictional) Bermondsey Embankment Renewal Authority who are attempting to do some hard core urban renewal on our heroes' neighbourhood. BERA is run by a pack of sloane rangers who are also vampires in the most unsubtle metaphor I could think of. Coincidentally, in the opening session of the game, set on NYE 1985, I actually named checked Billy Bragg.


I remember the "Underground RPG" which was about playing unwanted super-soldiers trying to reintegrate into a collapsed society that didn't want them had a great supplement called "The Streets Tell Stories" had a system for tracking the influence the characters actions had on the neighbourhood. Often if they improved one aspect of the community it would leads to problems in other areas. Go hard on crime could lead to authoritarian policing, etc.

It's worth looking at for inspiration if you can find a copy (and no you can't have the one off my shelf).

Red Markets doesn't have mechanics for societal change, but it's the most directly anti-capitalist game I've read. Zombies are a threat, but it's the human system that incentivizes (forces?) you to leave protective enclaves and scavenge for goods, getting paid paltry amounts by the powers-that-be, that's the real horror. That horror is reflected in game mechanics that, imo, reflect or enforce social realism—you often have to decide whether it's worth taking an action, given that it will burn rations (calories, essentially). In that sense it's game-ifying some of the worst elements of poverty and being exploited by captains of industry, who'll survive and monetize anything, including the apocalypse. Needless to say it's a dark, dark game.

A|state might also be pretty relevant, particularly its newest, FitD-based edition. It's a surrealist SF dystopia where corps dominate and life is hard, and instead of a Blades in the Dark-style criminal enterprise, you have a Corner of the city your PCs have decided to protect. That doesn't mean you're superheroes, but rather something like community activists and advocates, doing dirty deeds to keep gangs, corps, and worse from making the neighborhood even more unlivable. There are mechanics for improving conditions and "Hope" on the Corner, and for generating attacks on it. The designers are open about wanting to make a game that's about social and economic oppression, but rather than playing characters who are just more tools or victims of that, you're working to improve things. Related to that, one of the actions (skills in FitD) is Care, which is meant to be much broader than just medical assistance. I'm still not sure if A|state is all that playable, but it has a lot of great ideas, and its approach to FitD is really thoughtful.

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