Role playing games make heavy use of the word “punk” in talking about settings and styles. I feel like there should be a checklist. What part of “punk” are we really talking about here? Or, the checklist should be provided to players and GMs to get a sense of what to pull to the front. (I pulled this stuff off a wikipedia article, so I’m sort of pool skimming here. No in-depth research or anything, but I feel like I’m still putting in more effort than a labeling system that puts “punk” after any era identification to indicate genre.)

  • Focus on personal freedom.
  • Anti-establishment.
  • Non-conformity.
  • Direct action, do it yourself.
  • Explicitly outward sexual identity.
  • Reject secrecy for the sake of politeness, be forthright and obvious.
  • Gender equalist ideology.

My favorite example of “punk” in an RPG would have to be White Wolf’s Sabbat vampires. That felt pretty pure. You have total freedom to do whatever you want–and so do the people around you. So if you feel like punching the boss, do it if you want. You are free to take that action. And if the boss feels like punching you back, he can do that too. So maybe think a little bit before exercising the freedom that is certainly yours.

The ancient vampires found human blood too thin, and so fed on vampires. But as they got older and stronger, they needed stronger food. So these byzantine games grew up around the most ancient to manage their offspring as a food source, until they’d eventually emerge and the world would go down in flames. To rebel, the Sabbat did their best to dig their way through the layers of intrigue and establishment control to devour their progenitors before being food themselves.

To me, THAT is punk in an RPG.

Even then, even with being as individual as you want, you still need allies and peers or you just evaporate in the face of the opposition. The ambition is intense enough to reject an individual approach to surmount it.

I would want to keep that in any other “punk” game setting too. The establishment has to be destructive and powerful, culture has to have a heavy focus on silence on taboo subjects, and peer pressure has to be intense before punk becomes a coherent and inspired response.

Punk is not just a suffix to a technology level. It’s about the culture. There is certainly room to have adventures in a setting or technology that are NOT punk. Those are good too.

For example, you could have a game of Into the Odd that had some punk characters in it, working down the checklist, and also some conservatives in it. And the GM could run the game as a surreal eldritch kind of game, or double down on the Establishment confines and make every PC a punk because if they conformed they would have a place “at home” and not have to go out adventuring.

So to call a setting or a genre punk, I think the classification benefits from enough thoughtfulness to explicitly outline how even making characters, and looking at the sort of thing those characters will do, underscores a punk aesthetic. If the GM and players are on board with that up front then that can be a foundation for a richer game than if those underpinnings go unexamined.

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2 Responses to Punk

  1. Nice. Punk has become overused as a modifer (most so-called ‘steampunk’ has no punk at all, for example) so it is good to see a clarification of what it represents.

    My initial exposure to punk was through the cyberpunk genre though I have gone back and studied the music scene to some extent as well.

  2. hierstaanek says:

    When William Gibson coined the word “cyberpunk” the “punk” part of it meant mostly what you described, especially the counter culture thing. The counter culture was specifically that which grew out of the classes disenfranchised by the system, in Neuromancer the oppression by zaibatsus and big corporations. It meant people took by force or subterfuge what was denied them by the ruling class.

    The “cyber” meant that the borders between huminity and technology blurred. “Humanity” took on a new meaning as it integrated with technology, the human mind became indistinguishable from computer programs. In the first steampunk book (that I know of anyway), The Difference Engine, also by Gibson, the theme is the same: the blurring of borders between the human and artificial mind.

    So for me “punk” is just punk. In DnD terms it simply means “chaotic neutral” from a disenfranchised background sticking it to the man. It is when you hyphenate it with another concept that it gets really interesting: Combining the subversiveness of punk with a radical redifinition of humanity – in a specific technological setting. This is true for cyberpunk, dieselpunk, steampunk and clockpunk. In the case of necropunk (Malifaux is a prime example) humanity is redefined in terms of death, decay and nihilism instead of technology, but the principles are the same.

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