The future of tabletop role-play is hope

Key art from Return to the Stars, a hopepunk TTRPG, from Festive Ninja.
Image: Festive Ninja
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Just as grim, dystopian post-apocalyptic visions of the world have held a lasting place in popular culture, tabletop role-players have woven stories of barren wastelands, burnt-out urban hellscapes and eerie cyberpunk capers. But with living in difficult, turbulent times comes a desire to see more visions of a future where we decide to make things better. That need is at the core of hopepunk, a term coined by author Alexandra Rowland as the opposite of “grimdark.” As hopepunk and its sibling genre solarpunk become more popular in the cultural imagination, more and more TTRPG designers are bucking the grim apocalypse trends and playing with visions of the future that prioritize care, community, optimism, and joy.

Hopeful spins on the post-cataclysm genre run the gamut in tone and setting, from Machine Age Productions’ futuristic, solutions-oriented Flatpack to the community-focused, Powered by the Apocalypse-influenced solarpunk of Dyer Rose’s Arcology World; from Norton Glover’s high-flying prairie-rewilding adventure Buffalo Commons to the shitpost-y, “be gay do crime” glory of Riverhouse Games’ This is a Game About Fishing.

Image: Festive Ninja

“People have an intuitive sense that there is darkness in the world and want to process and confront that with a grimdark game or a horror game,” Mark Salabauskas, publisher and lead designer on the Fate Core-powered space opera RPG Return to the Stars, told Polygon in an interview. “I think, in a similar way, a lot of games [...] strive for those more optimistic notes. We’re realizing that we want to be better than we are and define ourselves, and we need to have spaces to do that.”

The space opera element of the game emerged during the start of the Trump administration, as Sabalauskas was attending conventions and thinking about media that gave him hope in dark times, namely Star Trek, which was initially created at a time of violent change and upheaval. The game is, in part, a love letter to geek culture (the analogue to the Galactic Federation is called “The Convention Authority”) and the ways sharing stories helps us make meaning of the world, and while Sabalauskas acknowledges the problematic elements of that culture, he finds something hopeful in the shared, communal enthusiasm of it. “There’s so much energy from that, and that energy is usually coming from a very pro-social place,” he said.

The world of Return to the Stars is one of post-scarcity — 120 years ago, a great disaster made galactic travel impossible. Now, the Convention Authority sends adventurers on missions to travel to the stars not to conquer, but to reconnect. Coming up with the mission is an important cornerstone of character creation, and Sabalauskas said in a geek-culture-oriented, abundant society where people spend their time “wondering if the third reboot of Yuri on Ice in the 24th century was the best” or sitting by the pool while robots bring you margaritas, finding reasons for your character to choose to put themself at risk and help others prompts compelling storytelling and reflection in a space of safety and abundance. Mechanically, Return to the Stars creates space to do so with in-game space for downtime and reflection, and in-between session options for creative tinkering to enhance future sessions.

In 2021, creators Jo Walton and Eric Stein held the Applied Hope jam, a game jam focused on RPGs, zines and more focused on solarpunk and utopias. Two of those games came from creator and game master Gabriel Caetano. One, Maker, is a solo journaling game about imagining impossible futures. “Every day as I imagine myself embarrassing my now 2-year-old kid to their peers in teenagehood […] I realize I feel hope,” Caetano writes in the notes for Maker. “And I hope that by imagining this not at all impossible future, I am a Maker, and that by imagining any futures at all, it is Made.”

Image: Gabriel Caetano
Image: Gabriel Caetano
Image: Gabriel Caetano

The other, Roots and Flowers, is a solarpunk hack of John Harper’s Lasers and Feelings, which will soon be available on Role. For Caetano, solarpunk encourages people not to imagine a completely different world, but what happens with our own when from this turning point, we go in a different direction. “It doesn’t erase what has happened and what is happening, but it tells us we can still make a turn or a few turns,” they told Polygon.

In Roots and Flowers, the table develops a community together and plays as its troubleshooters, working together to support and improve the community. Two adventure tentpoles of the game are the Legacy, the repurposing of technologies, buildings and other relics of the World Before, and Ancestry, the stories and customs of family, community elders and the land itself, where players may explore how these traditions survive. “We are part of the biosphere here. We are not above it or different from it, and [...] ancestral teachings can show us how to work with the world around us in a more balanced and healthy way — and also learn from the mistakes that we make. [...] That’s what Ancestry and Legacy reflect in this game,” Caetano said.

Roots and Flowers and Maker came at a time when Caetano was growing weary of the typical grim, cynical take on post-apocalyptic views. For them, the typical Mad Max-style view that everyone becomes their worst selves in the face of apocalypse is a very white, male, Eurocentric view of the world, even as it’s ending. They cite Avery Alder’s Dream Askew, a diceless, GM-less game where an apocalypse occurs in waves and a tight-knit queer community that has always existed on the margins is already working to rebuild, as an example of a game that emphasizes these ideas.

“If you are indigenous anywhere in the world, if you are queer or trans, if you are from the global south, we exist in a post-apocalyptic stage already,” Caetano told Polygon. “Imagining what could be is a beacon of hope. We are interacting with other people who can help. As much as there are corporations and capitalism and billionaires who just want to see most of us dead or in a survival state, we also have tight-knit communities that come together and solve their problems locally.”

Image: Wendy Yu

Wendi Yu, creator of Marvelous Mutations & Merry Musicians!, a collaborative post-apocalyptic RPG also featured in the Applied Hope jam, quotes the literary critic Fredric Jameson in explaining why the bleak apocalyptic view is so prevalent: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

“Post-apocalyptic media keeps the premises of our own world even if the world is gone, and that’s something that matters to me a lot,” Yu told Polygon. “There are systems that oppress us, and the way we deal with nature and the climate crisis and capitalism and a whole host of oppressions that come with those systems, but they can go away after the end of the world — it’s not necessary to treat them as something that would keep going on. If you keep a Mad Max vision of the post-apocalypse, you say that’s human nature, that’s who we are. Even without society, that’s who we are.”

The idea for Marvelous Mutations emerged from a number of ideas at once, including discussions with Yu’s friends about wanting to explore conflict resolution in TTRPGs beyond violence and other possibilities for post-apocalyptic fiction. Yu’s in-game world is one where the apocalypse is nearly out of living memory, where former wastelands are now teeming with life and solar energy powers the landscape, and while firearms and war are relics of a distant past, live entertainment is highly valued. Players assume the role of itinerant mutant musicians, traveling the world and performing, and doing whatever else they please, be it helping people or trashing their rooms at the inn. To build out the adventure, players take turns building a music setlist to steer the mood at the table, or naming any gameplay or narrative element they would like to include and coming to a consensus in whatever manner works for them.

Image: Wendy Yu
Image: Wendy Yu
Image: Wendy Yu
Image: Wendy Yu

“Someone said they wanted the game to feature a battle of the bands, so that guided the adventure that we were having, and someone else said they wanted something about a haunted hospital and so we had to build upon that,” she said. “I think that’s very cool to have those different things people think are cool and try to mix them together and try to tell the story together rather than have it all come from the mind of the person who’s running the adventure.”

One of Yu’s other games, Here, There, Be Monsters!, is a rules-lite, queer, anti-fascist response to monster-hunting media from the monster’s perspective, and in combination with Marvelous Mutations, a through line emerges of empowering what is seen as anomalous or monstrous in mainstream society. Yu says those themes are crucial to the way she interacts with the world. “No matter what they tell you, there’s still weirdness and wonder everywhere,” she writes in the introduction to the game. “At the edges and cracks of ‘normal’ life we exist, we persist, and we resist: the monsters, the magicians, the anomalies, the freaks, and the outcasts. We gather in the shadows, trying our best to live our lives in a world that, when it doesn’t exactly fear or hate us, doesn’t even believe in our existence.”

Both Marvelous Mutations and Here, There, Be Monsters! include D100 rolling tables for character building, with the former offering suggestions for mutations characters may have and the latter including a table of possible backgrounds. “In Marvelous Mutations, I tried to make it very focused on how if the world ended, we can build something anew, but even if the mutations were still there, the focus was more on the world, a world inhabited by all kinds of weirdos and freaks — and they are all mutated because it’s a weird fantasy world, and it’s an extreme example of how diverse and colorful humankind actually is,” she said. “For Here, There, Be Monsters!, I wanted something more aggressive to try and express my frustration with the status of things, but I wanted people to play it and have the possibility of having some kind of cathartic experience playing through your own monstrosity as empowering.”

Image: Wendy Yu

As optimistic or solarpunk future-oriented games differ in structure and setting, the creators say the collaborative nature of tabletop lends itself to that kind of hopeful community building. “I think what is great about tabletop uniquely is that there is that ensemble nature,” Sabalauskas says. “You’re being a fan of other players around the table, you are wishing for them to have their spotlight moments and their contributions, that it’s not some done-to-death ‘chosen one’ narrative.”

Yu says one of the pinnacles of building a local group or community where people care about one another is creating spaces for play and fun. “Having fun together and playing together can strengthen [our ability to] resolve conflicts and learn how to act in collaboration, and that’s something I try to simulate in my games with the collaborative mechanics and the tone of the writing,” she says.

Caetano agrees that role-playing games are “a form of social experimentation” that reflects the function of a community — a handful of people sit down, agree on rules and norms out of their own will and volition, work together toward a goal, and resolve disagreements together. But even if you create that mini-community at the table, its collaborative goals may still be in-game violence and destruction. “You can do all of that and still write a game that gets people to be colonizers, like Dungeons & Dragons,” they say. “You go in there, you kill things, take their shit, sell it to someone else, become more powerful, repeat. You can still break and invert those principles but thoughtful game design can take you to places where you can rethink, reconsider and rearrange social arrangements, and if you look at those processes, you can learn how they also happen on a large scale.”

The developers that Polygon spoke with fervently believe that this kind of play can also encourage learning and growth that can be applied to our everyday lives. As discussing safety tools in tabletop has become much more commonplace, Caetano says they’ve internalized certain practices relating to safety tools in their personal life, such as when parenting. For example, they will play a game of pretending they’re going to eat their child’s food, but take breaks in the interaction to check in and remind each other it’s all in good fun. “This interaction, no matter how serious or intense it may seem, is just a game, and we both know this and it’s clear and it doesn’t take away from the fun,” they say. “We can learn lessons from the games that we play and we can grow with them, and let them shape us too.”

“I think tabletop is in a place [for] people who care about [the] meaning of the challenges [their] characters face,” Sabalauskas says. “Whether they’re coming at it from a place of grimdark or horror or cynical cyberpunk or from a very utopian place like my game, or a very pastoral place like Wanderhome, they’re thinking about what is the meaning of what players are doing and how do we let people do things that are fun, but sort of line up more closely with what it means to be a human being and to navigate the world we’re in.”

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