Power Fantasies (Part 2)
Drawing aggro for power and profit
Power fantasies abound in media, specially in an artform such as ours, where it is so easy to make our own — so we get the indulgencies we need and deserve. But power, well, power is a well, begotten by violence, information control and personal charisma — but in our current world is built on the first one1 . Because our games are material, our imagination is a material product and we are prisoners of its forces, the power we can fantasize about is shaped by the exercise of power around us. We look at three classical acceptable targets of power fantasies in roleplaying games and try to see how they reflect the ways power is applied upon us to manage bodies, lives and minds.
The usual caveats apply 2, and I further clarify what the is implicit in the previous paragraph: this is not some kind of value measurement/judgement of power fantasies, but reflecting on what the imaginary of power is allowed to be, the technologies it uses to perpetuate itself and how it has its reflections in the games and art we practice. Examples were almost random, picked from what was closest at hand when I was writing this because of how ubiquitous those ideas are — they are not a commentary on those individual games.
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The Necropolitical Enemy: The Orc
A recurring anguish in certain circles of fantasy roleplaying involves the never-ending search for ethical, commendable, heroic murder. This often externalized as an issue of the murdered party, the one fantasized murderer ever the silent passive subject; a quest for an intrinsic quality of the murder victim that makes it A Good.
This is phrased and re-phrased in variants of the same question.
What would be an acceptable target for my character to kill in a dungeon?
Anyone asking the obvious follow-up (“Why murder is such an important requirement, and why it is so important to be seen as A Good when commiting it?”) is met with utter bafflement. What are you talking about? How can they have a good time in a low-cognitive load, just for funsies roleplaying game without an enemy to kill and look cool while doing it? That’s the way through which me and my character make ourselves Be. That is the whole point of playing.
That is the fantasy.
Indeed, it is. That is the necropolitical power-fantasy. There is no better example of necropower in roleplaying games than that question and its many echoes.
So, what is necropower?
No! Stop right there! Arrest that synapse! You are already internalizing the wrong idea. Management of life and death, to the Western liberal consensus, is just the management of bodies. As such, you are probably thinking “this is just plain old biopolitics”. No, it takes some pretty poisonous relationships to make necropolitics work.
Necropower is related to death, but not in the most obvious way; the term, in the way it is translated from the original French is deceiving. This model of post-colonial power arrangements is more accurately described as the politics of enmity and the power of enemies.1A complete inversion of hospitality to hostility and the death-world creating power of that transformation. Even these statements struggle to convey the relationships we are talking about into English2.
Funny enough, gamers have provided an useful shortcut to describing the scope of the necropolitical. It is aggro.
When you see the red circles underneath people, when you confidently enter an instance knowing you can kill everything that moves, when even existing is a taunt: that is what it looks like when you look at the world through the necropower UI.
To center back to this comparison and dispel any assumptions that may distract, I will use aggro in this series of articles as interchangeable with necropolitics and necropower.
TTRPGs are cursed3 to exist in their contemporary form only within the imaginary set by the neoliberal consensus and a well-entrenched post-modernity. There are just too many assumptions about this cultural hegemony baked in, not only unquestioned but taken as a baffling requirement for collaborative storytelling and associated games and arts.
And so, we end here, with the assumption that there need be heroic adventurers that save the world by commiting murder against acceptable targets — even if they have to first reduce the world to their village. We must understand how death becomes not only desirable, but an act of dark messianism, as the threat of those that draw aggro becomes apocalyptic.
But this is all fantasy non-sense, murder in hyperreal fantasy times; Westworld by way of pen and paper! It is a fantasy, by definition, the lives of adventurers are completely divorced from reality4.
Yeah, about that. These power fantasies are unchallenging to the dominant ideology, presenting an oily mirror to it; reflected on it you see the anxieties of liberal democracies: decolonization demanded a new arrangement of power, as pretenses of democracy at the core always been connected with colonial violence in the periphery. To maintain this duality, the Imperial subject has been made into the belief that means of their Being, the way their identity is formed and not just crude survival, are somehow under constant threat, endangered by the mere existence of the Other. And it is always the Other; necropolitics needs everyone outside of the system of the Imperial subject to be the Enemy. This aggro soon becomes as natural as breathing: I don’t even think, I just accept that for me5 to exist the rest of you must die, for you are not people but bad objects that I have dreamed and must be violently expunged 6.
The post-colonial liberal democracy is mirrored in the Kingdom of Light, recurring over and over in this power fantasy. One may call them Keeps in the Borderlands and Radiant Citadels; whatever their face, these beacons of A Good warrant the destruction of all else7.
While the Keep in the Borderlands and the Radiant Citadel are painted by different ideologies, they are both empowered by aggro, they are defined by violence against Others, and their identities requires a constant source of false threats to be expunged through violence 8. Enter our heroes, our adventurers, our fantasy. Murder is made part of life.
Enter the Enemy of this fantasy about Enemies, the Enemy of Enemies: The Orc.
The Orc has always been no-people, bodies of potential energies, batteries that could, through murder, be converted into wealth9.
Biopower and necropower work together to facilitate this process10. The world is divided into spaces where people belong and do not belong1112, so that the orc body inevitably ends up where it does not belong. This presence of non-people in the world of people is seen as validating the delusions of aggro; see, the threat that compromises the identity of the Keep/Citadel is very real and must be exterminated through violence13. You indulge in said fantasy. Everyone rejoices.
Necropower goes the extra mile; aggro needs a bit else besides biopolitical pens. It needs to make the Orc an un-person14. This corruption of relationships between peoples and with the world requires the conjugations of various factors. Finding these in an arrangement is a great indicator that you may be observing necropower in action.
Community of Fellows/Category of Non-Fellows
Law and institutions of the power must formalize the ways one belongs and does not belong in the category of people and then work to make that your intrinsic faults: they did not decide this, you are just… Other. Games that seek a necropolitical power fantasy do this through many elements of their systems: wealth mechanics, alignments, attribute and skill essentialism, plain racist lore, reaction rolls, etc. A conjunction of many of these and more are used to land the Orc as a clear non-fellow.
This is all, of course, utter necropowered manipulation and in no way representative of the lived and performed truth: the Orc and the Adventurers are part of the same community, albeit a community of separation.
Dark Messiah of The Apocalypse15
Maybe it is the threat of poverty imposed the Law of the Keep, maybe it is the identity of the accepted peoples of the Citadel, maybe there is a Dark Lord out there to Conquer The World (TM), whatever the circumstances, necropower needs things to go one way: the Kingdom of light must be seized by a religious-like fervor against an imagined bad object, pitting it to the gorge of apocalypse: the world — the world you care about — is always five minutes from destruction. And it is the Orc that keeps this happening by just existing.
In fact, this absurdity is only used to further escalate aggro. Fort too long have the Keep preferred the non-fellows overs its fellows! Allowing them to do as they please! As darkness encroaches, as the apocalypse once again draws closes, one cannot be blamed for choosing their fellows over non-people16. Even letting the Orc be becomes a luxury that cannot be afforded at the end of the world.
The Camp-Form and the Regime of Exclusion
The Orc is not allowed a home; it exists only in camps. The camp-form is any way through which regimes of exclusion can be created17, where a permanent state of war can be exist and those trapped within be treated as synonymous with the war, their sources and not their victims. Camp-forms come from the regimes of reserves, lease-back colonies, concentration camps, military camps, refugee camps, segregation, impoverished neighborhoods, intentional medical neglect of queerness, homeless encampments, amazon supply centers, the growing millions of superfluous humanity enslaved to microwork18 and invisible to any discussion about the latest toy techbros are pushing, etc19.
Aggro in the camp-form makes it a place where relations between life and death are inverted. By placing the Orc in the camp-form and making the Orc belong to the camp-form, it establishes that the Orc’s life is not priceless but has instead such a pathetic price that it is worthless: any value that comes from is from its deaths, and only in the dying there is meaning.
Those in the camp are not given a second thought; the camp-form has no people in it, so if you are in the camp, you belong there as no-people. It is accepted that whatever happens to you there is necessary; at best, tragic, but always necessary for the formation of the identity of the real people. The camp-form may be the most important feature of necropower: the individual may be marked by death by being a deviant biopolitical body, but only through the camp-form can entire populations to be marked as superfluous humanity marked only to dying20.
The camp is the place of the Enemy; who you meet in the camp-form is the Enemy; your Enemy deserves whatever happens to them in the camp-form. In fact, it is a necessary thing. This type of fantasy roleplaying is full of these camp-forms; you may know them as dungeons.
That’s where the fantasy happens. That’s where the Orc dying creates meaning: to serve your fantasy.
Of course, the Orc exists in other forms21. Hordes of Others for diversity in Enmity. But while the Keep may be happy tormenting the same nameless four goblins until the heat death of the universe, the Citadel realizes their apocalyptic fervor needs to expand the fellowship22. Not by finding meaning in living, no, but by finding a different Other to be an acceptable target for indiscriminate violence.
Hench the question at the opening.
Sometimes it is the Beast, their lives sold even easier as without value to those that already are willing to do so to intelligences closer to their own. Omnicide, nature itself made a stranger and Monstrous. Sometimes it is the puppeted dead, somehow so removed from community and life, without any meaning to the continued life in the world, that they are seen as just objects to be bashed against; a pity affair for any society that so disregards their connections with the personhood of the dead2324. Sometimes it is the bandit and the slaver, mythic creatures that sprout mushroom-like from the woods, those designations following them as camp-forms of their own. They spawn, alongside their victims, and both disappear after performing their role in the necropolitical fantasy; after all, the fantasy rarely desires an exploration of the precarity and enclosure that leads to what is called “banditry”, nor to explore the complexities of the tragedy of social death and the anti-social institutions that allow the creation and exploitation of such happening to a person. No matter how ingenious the Citadel thinks they are in their catalogue of targets for omnicide, or callous in their disregard for other forms of intelligence, or making entire fabricated populations wholesale for the slaughter, they cannot escape necropower because the fantasy they desire is necropolitics:
Becoming through murder of the Outside world.
So, this is late and long, but streamlining this for ease of comprehension required cutting some important sections. I will be releasing soon an addendum about queer necropolitics and this power fantasy, as well as warmachines and how they relate with the state of permanent warfare against the people depersonalized through the camp form. See you then!
Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics, Public Culture 15, no. 1, 11–40.
Almost like the language became the tongue of Empire because it makes so difficult to discuss the nature of said Empire and its technologies of power; must be a coincidence, will not inquire any further.
And dubiously blessed.
Despite the hard efforts of truck-kun.
Where “me” becomes “who I see as people” and then everything else is assorted meats
Lordon, F. (2015 ) Imperium: Structures et affects des corps politiques
Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy
Brown, W. (2014) Walled States, Waning Sovereignty
It is obvious to anyone with the bare minimum awareness of the mechanics and systems of the world around to see the racism inherent to this Orc: it is a simulacrum of all that has and is being done to targets of Imperial violence. Look elsewhere for discussion of those basic concepts if somehow this still eludes you; such preliminary education is, as they say, beyond the scope of this paper.
Foucault, M. (1981)Confronting Governments: Human Rights
Parizot, C. (2009) Après le mur: Les représentations israéliennes de la séparation avec les Palestiniens, Cultures et Conflits 73: 53–72.
Goldberg, DT and Giroux, S. (2014) Sites of Race
Perugini, N. and Gordon, N. (2015) The Human Right to Dominate
“But what when the orc is the British? It is still necropolitics then?” My friend, it is the most necropolitical: the Amboyna massacre IS the original aggro event of the creation of English Empire and English Necropolitics! Down to the distinction of people and non-people of the English that died and made into objects for identarian fears AND the Japanese and Portuguese victims just becoming erased from the narrative. The British always been the original orcs; Warhammer did not lie to you.
Havrilesky, H (2015) Apocalypse Soon, The Baffler , no. 28
Osnos, E. Survival of the Richest: Why Some of America’s Wealthiest People Are Preparing for Disaster New Yorker, January 22, 2017, 36.
Arendt, H. (1966) The Origins of Totalitarianism
Microwork is the complete alienation of even simple tasks into bite-sized circa 30 seconds mind-numbing pointless-seeming millions of processes that require a human brain. It is the main pillar of much of infrastructure, delegated management and “artificial” “intelligence”.
Agier, M. (2014) Un monde de camps
Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics
And if you think the fantasy is about orcs, you have not been paying attention.
Elias, N. (1978) The History of Manners, vol. 1, The Civilizing Process
Gregory, T. (2016). Dismembering the dead: Violence, vulnerability and the body in war. European Journal of International Relations, 22(4), 944–965.
Macedo, MM. (2015). Ahayu-watan: an Andean category to explain our culture.