Thursday, September 29, 2016

GrognardPunk (or how we need proper definitions to discuss games and all that)

Today I'll be revisiting another post of mine. But instead of talking about how I changed my opinion towards something I wrote more than 3 years ago, I'll post and expand upon a fragment I didn't use in the original post. It's been sitting in my drafts for a long time now and I think it might be of interest to some of you. As the title suggests, it relates to gaming ... a bit. 


I wrote a DungeonPunk Counter-Manifesto a while back. It was a response to another manifest that I just couldn't let stand as it is, so I presented an alternative. My initial post back then actually had a long introduction to my train of thought and reference points. But, as those things sometimes go, it started to overwhelm the original idea to formulate a counter-manifest. So I dropped it, thinking that people who know about "punk" and read my response will relate to what I made (or not).

Post modern approach about it ... [source]
It's the nature of manifests that they are individual expressions claiming their statements as general truths. In the context of the exchange of manifests above, I thought it became clear that it is simply different approaches to give a bit color to that theater of the mind we call our hobby. Because, you know, when all is said and done, we are just talking elfgames here. So there's another reason to drop the analytics in the original post: it's all fiction. Nothing more than a thought experiment about how the punk-attitude could (or should?) manifest when playing an old school game of D&D. How to play a punk to play a game.

Successful or not, that's what I did in the original post. It's not about "look how punk I am!!!" or being one of the cool kids, it's not even "this is how it's done!". It's just how I'd do it in the given context and as a response to an attempt I don't agree with (and which I basically interpreted as a hedonist attempt to assimilate punk ...).

All that aside, there are good reasons to talk about the origins of words, their changes over time or how semantics illustrate that no meaning of words is really fixed and why we need even more words to attempt something like a definition. Not to formulate a truth, but to find a common ground to communicate.

So what's this about again? Here's that (slightly altered) fragment (also check this definition of PunkPunk if you haven't in the original post):


Authenticity and the Punk

I have to admit, it all gets a bit fuzzy down the decades, but if you get to the core of it, it's quite easy to see what punk could be. Wiki quote:
"Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out." (from here)*
Right? Right. Nothing about fashion or music here. It's all about attitude. Anything else would be posing, then.

Also interesting is the history of the word. It was already around in late medieval times and meant a piece of rotten wood, at best suitable as tinder. It is documented for the first time in 1596 and Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (1603/04) to describe a prostitute. After that it was used to describe homosexuals, which changed in the 1920's to describe a rookie, especially among criminals (source is the German Wikipedia page about the punk subculture here). Words are funny that way.

But what does that mean for a genre? It needs to illustrate a world that leaves room for something like that. A dark and oppressing world, where enough young people are powerless and uncontrolled (because insignificant) enough to form an active subculture and desperately "fight" the establishment with some Nihilism in the mix. Cyberpunk got that right (as a genre and as a role playing game). Warhammer is the closest to DungeonPunk I know of.

And one of those three is a poser ... [source]
The "Posers"

I don't see that for Steampunk, to be honest. Sure, you could have a clock-driven artificial limb, but that's from the cyber part of Cyberpunk. Our perception of the Victorian Era doesn't lend itself easily to a punk attitude. Too distinguished, too sophisticated in our historical view of it, with the establishment on its rise to power. So for me, it's mostly just posing with the tropes. As do most of the others. Let's see some highlights.

Stone Punk has The Flintstones as the prime example. There is no need to comment any further...

Eberron is strongly associated with DungeonPunk. Nothing against the setting, but that label rubs me just wrong. Here is part of a short description (tv tropes being the source again):
"It's a Dungeon Punk setting influenced by pulp serials, Indiana Jones and Film Noir, as opposed to classical High Fantasy. Eberron has taken a different path compared to most D&D settings in that it averts and subverts most classical D&D tropes." (from here)
See the discrepancies? Indiana Jones is pulp and the pulp serials where inspired by noir fiction which has some roots in the modernist movement Expressionism and, arguably, Poetic Realism. Anyway, I digress. None of that is associated with punk. It's the default setting for DDO, no punk there either.

Going down the list, one might realize that most other punk punk iterations (including Steampunk) are closer to the pulp serials we know and love than to anything punk. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what the name suggests.


And here's the expansion:

Well, that's Semantics for you ...

And that's maybe the morale of the story: words and their meaning change over time and instead of arguing what punk is in the definition I quoted above, I could just as well say that all the people talking about punk really talk about a weak piece of wood, only worth to start a fire (if at all), with another guy arguing it's all about prostitutes ... All this is right, to some degree, as the word held all those meanings at some point or another. Some of those meanings went obsolete and new meanings are added on a regular basis. And occasionally a word will hold contradicting meanings until common use has sorted it out.

Steampunk is a good example for the process, actually, as it shows how common use and acceptance forces an additional semantic dimension onto a word when used in another context (steam + punk) because referencing another strong denotation (cyber + punk). In that sense steampunk is nothing more but the Victorian interpretation of the cyberpunk aesthetic and not the attitude (with the (weak?) attempt to somehow make it work by using airship pirates, because pirates are long gone at the end of the 19th century but way more punk than the Victorian Era could ever be**).
How is that "punk"? Well, it isn't. [source]
It's all good, then. Things change and punk just isn't punk anymore. Right? Well, not so much. The whole idea of language being a fluid concept that is used to communicate content includes us using it and a change in language is actually a compromise between opposing forces: those who want a change and those who want to keep it as it is. We are all more or less active parts of this and as such responsible for what happens, which leads to:

The Evil That is Google! [cue for dramatic music]

Well, I guess I screwed my ranking just now ... Anyway, the internet is our general source for information these days. You want to know something, you "google" it (another word, a completely artificial one at that, gaining additional semantic dimensions because of common use). The phenomenon I'm talking about here is that the further you get away from what is considered mainstream, the more obscure get the sources.

What I'm saying is: google "sandbox", for example, or "OSR" and it's people like me you'll stumble across. Our hobby is too young to have anything resembling a codified definition of most of the terms we use to communicate gaming thoughts. That's a problem and a process, that's what we write about and why we write about it. It's also why we have said responsibility.

And that right there is the reasoning behind my original post. Check for the word DungeonPunk (as I originally did in 2013) and it won't turn up much (still doesn't). So when I encountered something that went against every definition I could find about punk, I felt obliged to propose a public alternative***. Not that it had (or has) any kind of impact for anything but my own gaming ideas, but it is out there and people can use it to form their own opinion based on my findings.


"grognard", another word that accumulated additional meanings and strayed somewhat from its original denotation. Well, GrognardPunk doesn't exist as such, really (and obviously means "grumbling rookie", for those wondering :P ). I mean, the definition above actually describes the DIY-niche of our hobby as well as it describes punk. Grognard (as we understand it) might pair up nicely with punk, but I could also say that's a weakness of the definition itself and it definitely doesn't mean we are all punks now (a problem you'll get for finding common denominators). So that's my last thought on the whole shebang: if you do it, do it thoroughly but stay open minded ...

MonkeyPunk? [source]
I think that definitions and semantics are important when discussing, well, anything worth discussing. Because if we at least share the common understanding that it is all open for debate and if we discuss to explore what it all could mean instead of who is "right" and who is "wrong", well, then (and only then) we are able to gain some insight from it and might end up being better than we were before. But that just doesn't happen if we are rigid, uptight, political or ignorant about those things. Topics like "what punk means?" or "what is a sandbox?" matter, that's why they are discussed. That's why they deserve to be treated with sincerity (which starts, for instance, with finding out what a word actually could mean, before using it for a manifest).

I should really write something about chimpanzee ninjas next ...

* Is anyone else seeing the parallels to what we came to call the OSR? We should call it GrognardPunk...

** In the end it's all fiction, of course, and pirates are kind of like punks, so Steampunk does kind of work ... but it helps to show that you have to bend the source a bit to make it work good. ClockworkPunk might apply when using pirates for real, I think :)

*** Of course I can see now that the combination dungeon + punk is supposed to reference steam + punk and, consequentially, cyber + punk. The thing is that while "steam" resonates quite well with "cyber" (one technology substituting another, so to say), the same can't be true for "dungeon". And "dungeon" being a really weak link here puts a lot of pressure on the "punk" side of things, linguistically speaking ...


  1. I think early Steampunk fiction adheres closer to your definition of punk, as it was a more about political oppression of the working class by the Victorian state, and the social and sometimes military revolutions that technology promotes. Then - for some reason - modern Steampunk embraces the upper classes and becomes all about goggles and corsets and top hats...

    1. You are right. If, as they say, William Gibson's The Difference Engine is, in fact, the starting point of that movement, I can see how that would be true. Don't know what happened down the road, though ... Anime, maybe? Or that Steampunk is ultimately lacking the connection to the present that made punk so strong in cyberpunk (as a future that is upon us right now ...). One's escapism, the other is cultural criticism? It's really hard to tell.