27 January 2010

January Challenge #27:

I've posted previously about mashups of game types. Another favorite topic of mine is mashups of setting genres, such as Old West Zombie Apocalypse (Deadlands) or Urban Fantasy Cyberpunk (Shadowrun).

Of lesser fame is a genre mashup called Sabrepunk, a union of Cyberpunk and High Fantasy. Where Shadwrun places traditional Tolkienesque fantastic elements into a near-future cyberpunk setting, in Sabrepunk the transfer goes the other way. Cyberpunkish elements are added to a traditional Fantasy setting. Where Cyberpunk is said to focus on high tech and low life, Sabrepunk focuses on high magic and low life.

If we're not talking about high technology, then what setting elements are we talking about? The Cyberpunk genre is deeper than just a Film Noir/Action Adventure with lots of technological toys.

Cyberpunk stories are frequently allegory for the problems faced by today's world, magnified for effect. Thus rampant ecological damage, enormous inequality between social classes, and runaway social change are often featured prominently. China MiƩville's Perdito Street Station features all of these and is an outstanding example of Sabrepunk.

We have a lot possibilities for ecological damage in a High Fantasy setting. In Perdito Street Station, it's the result of a combination of an industrial revolution in full swing and a high concentration of magical research, both unmitigated by any sort of regulation. Another favorite is fallout from magical weapons of war. Entire stretches of land can be reduced to harsh wastelands inhabited only by the undead or magical mutants.

Inequality between the social classes is frequently swept under the rug in more cheerful genres, even though it's been a grim reality for most of our history. Cyberpunk, and by extension Sabrepunk, decline to do so. The wealthy minority controls vastly more resources than the remaining, but there's more to it than that. The elite minority maintain their hegemony with the tacit cooperation of the downtrodden majority. In Cyberpunk stories that examine this, goods and services are usually the key. Pure capitalism has concentrated the means of production into the hands of monopolistic engines of industry, and marketeers wield the power of advanced memetic research to keep the masses buying.

This can be replicated in Sabrepunk to an extent by realistic depictions of feudalism, but fantastic elements can be employed to widen the divide. An oppressive fighting nobility can be elevated even further if the alternative is even worse. Imagine a world infested by demons or suffering the Zombie Apocalype, and only the nobility have the resources and fighting skill to respond with sufficient force to incursions. Between battles, they could get away with a lot.

Runaway social change is typically driven by some other form of rapid change. In Cyberpunk, technology has been harnessed to drive us closer to, or further into, the Singularity. Since conditions after the Singularity cannot be described in terms of anything before, humankind lives in a continual state or culture shock. In Sabrepunk, this is an interesting opportunity for the author to engage in sociological speculation. In Wizards of the Coast's Ghostwalk campaign setting for D&D3e, the barrier between life and death is thin to the point of being nearly meaningless. In Ghostwalk, culture has long since adapted, but if this were a new situation, where spirits walk and talk and shop and come back to life regularly... It's the Singularity from another angle.

The inspiration for this post came from a file I found on my PDA today. It's from last year, right after I finished reading Perdito Street Station, and it came out all in a rush as a wall of text. MiƩville's influence, and that of Wizards of the Coast's Eberron campaign setting should be obvious in this copy/paste directly from the text file.

A steampunk setting with Victorian overtones is emerging from a low-fantasy high-magic agrarian setting. The known world is recovering from a brutal war waged with terrible arcane weapons. Cultural backlash against all forms of magic is extreme, and no price is too great to pay to leave it behind, even the destructive repercussions of an out-of-control industrial revolution. Reminders of the magical age abound, and there is no escaping them. Many otherwise ordinary people bear the visage of humanity's past dalliances with creatures and entities of myth and legend. These souls experience every sort of treatment from blatant hatred to grudging acceptance to enthusiastic embrace in certain cases. The newest race to walk the land are the Forged, intelligent beings created from the marriage of sorcery and mechanical engineering. Created as powerful soldiers in the later years of the Mana Wars, the Forged were the instruments of tremendous violence before rebelling against their masters and working to end the war. Remembered more for their contribution to the war than for their opposition, they escape what might otherwise be hideous prejudice by enthusiastically embracing the industrial revolution. Their durable construction enables them to perform functions impossible to unenhanced men, and without them, industrialization would be much less advanced. Paradoxically, humanity's most beloved edifices were forged with arcane craft, but most of them are more evocative of a golden age then the age of tyranny and horror most people associate with the age of magic. In theory, the dominant form of government to emerge from the Mana Wars is democracy, but in practice, the fledgling democracies of the known world are dominated by the surviving remnant of the aristocracy. Nobility is legally a courtesy title only, but it is more frequently than not associated with great wealth, social prestige, political position, and privilege. The aristocracy is one of the last circles in which magic is not yet reviled, and arcane studies are encouraged along with the sciences and other intellectual pursuits considered worthwhile. Popular amongst the aristocracy and their retainers is modification of the body by the grafting of foreign body parts through a marriage of magic and medical skill. The grafts available to these Chimera range widely and include animal parts, alchemical materia, Forged prosthetics, and more exotic appendages claimed to be of celestial or infernal origin. An individual might choose to become a Chimera for functional or cosmetic reasons.

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