Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Cult of the Mystic Tyrant: an Intro

Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me. -The Sith Code, Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars follows a very simple sort of morality. On the one side, you have the good guys, the Jedi, who are good, and on the other, you have the Sith, who are bad. The films rarely stop to discuss the inherent morality of one side or the other. Even when the Jedi are at their most decadent and corrupt, all that really means is that they lose their ability to oppose the true source of evil, and at their best, the Sith can only offer lies. The latest films seem to suggest an effort at “balance,” which we’ll have to wait to see, but only in video games, where players may want real choice, do we get a glimmer of value or worth from the Sith philosophy, and even there, I often find how it’s treated to be incoherent (and I’m not the only one). I find little true balance in how Star Wars treats its philosophies.

That said, Psi-Wars needs their Sith. We need a dark, conspiratorial force that seeks to undermine the moral systems of the Galaxy and throw everyone in chains. We need a reason for our not-Jedi to keep their tradition alive and a force for them to defend against. We need the sort of villain who draws upon Dark Communion and TK-Squeezes the throats of his enemy while wielding a terrifying, red force sword.

But I personally find the black/white morality of Star Wars limiting when it comes to setting design. I do not object to GMs wishing to make True Communion the good guys with the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant as the bad guys. After all, that’s my default stance! And it’s likely the stance of anyone hewing close to Star Wars as inspiration. But I find that mustache-twirling villainy to strain plausibility for most mature audiences and, on the flip side, I see many players who chafe at the false choice presented by the Jedi/Sith split. Why would you, as a player, ever choose the dark side if it isn’t better, demands you kill a loved one, and leaves you irredeemably corrupted? For cool powers? Speaking of which, why precisely must one kill loved ones and become irredeemably corrupt to gain access to force choke? And if the GM is going to include dark villains who choose this dark path, he may want better motivation for that choice than “Mwahaha, I’m so evil!”

At the same time, a GM who doesn’t want the black and white morality of Star Wars may well want to make the “Sith” the legitimate good-guys without turning them into Jedi who just wear black. What does that look like? What options does he have? I’ve not spoke of him much, partly because I liked him so much, but a character like Vesper Tane, who embraces Dark Communion in his effort to end the Empire should be a feasible choice. What sort of philosophy might he follow?

To me, choice is the heart of an RPG, not just the choice of a player, but the choice of a GM in how he wishes to depict his setting. I know players will want to choose the dark side, and I know GMs will want a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of its villains. As such, I feel that the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, while dark, should be potentially seen as not villainous. One should be able to see their perspective and, with a few tweaks, make them into the good guys, if one wishes.

So, here begins the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, a cynical path that denies morality, that denies truth, that seeks to enslave others, and to become master over everything in the Galaxy. It hides in the shadows and builds its power while whispering honeyed words into those who will listen and then, like a parasite, co-opts the philosophical system of others. This, then, is your villain’s philosophy. But it’s a philosophy that strips away the comforting lies we tell ourselves and forces its practitioners to either admit their cowardice or face the full, terrifying truths of reality head on. It demands individual responsibility from those who would be king, and demands that those who seek answers forge them for themselves. It embraces the here and now, rather than promising a fairy-tale where everything’s gonna be okay. This, then, is a philosophy of misunderstood heroes, men who lead when the rest of the world cowers at their feet.

The Philosophical Inspiration: Hobbes and Legalism

For the Lawes of Nature (as Justice, Equity, Modesty, Mercy, and (in summe)doing to others, as wee would be done to,) of themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our naturall Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

I have not read nearly as much of Hobbes as I would like, but he serves as the foundation for a great deal of modern statecraft and international politics. He has cousins in the East in the form of State Mohism, which I first encountered as the very Sithian “Legalism” of Legends of the Wulin.

The core premise of all of these is that morality is not inherent to the human condition, but rather an artificial construct we impose upon ourselves. The natural state of man is wild and bestial, or “nasty, brutish and short.” Nothing at all prevents one man from killing another, and indeed the state of affairs, in their natural state, is that it is often better to do so than to risk being killed in turn. But such a state of endless “war of all against all” wearies men and destroys any possibility of cooperation. And so, all civilization and all morality is built upon a social contract, wherein men give up some measure of their power and freedom in exchange for security and order. In this context, theft and murder aren’t evil because “God says so” or because of some inherent moral calculus, but because allowing it will break down social order and foment the anarchy of all against all, and we agree that it’s bad, and we agree to give up our right to take stuff from others for the chance to ensure that we get to keep what we have. Thus, law and morality can be seen as a peace pact made by all men who join into a civilization for their mutual prosperity.

But men cannot be trusted to enforce their own accords. They must have a third party, a king who stands above them in judgment. He wields the power necessary to maintain and enforce the social contract. Whatever is done to maintain this social order is justified: the genocides committed by men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Qin Shi Huangdi (or the Imperium of Man in 40k) are righteous, in this estimation, because they helped forge empires, and bring everyone together, ending dark ages and bringing about new eras of prosperity and order. In principle, it doesn’t matter who holds this position so long as someone does, and everyone respects that man’s word, but in practice, he must be disciplined enough not to use his power to commit acts that break the very social contract that gave him power, strong enough to enforce that social contract, and savvy enough to walk the line between the two.

Nietzsche and the Death of God

While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is "outside," what is "different," what is "not itself"; and this No is its creative deed. - Nietzsche, the Genealogy of Morality

Nietzsche is a hard man to pin down. Much of his philosophy, to my ear, reminds me of the philosophies of Buddhism, in that it seems to seek mainly to reject common thinking, to shake people out of their ruts, and to remind us that so much that we assume to be real and obvious are just illusions we created for our own comfort and convenience. When you try to pin him down on what he actually stands for, though, he’s mercurial, and thus it’s easy to read whatever you want into his philosophies. It doesn’t help that his sister, after his death, repurposed much of his works to support the anti-semitism that was sweeping Germany at the time, and much of this was later embraced by the Nazi party, making Nietzsche, unfairly, the “evil” philosopher. As such, some Nietzschean ideas do make it into the Sith Code, and it’s worth exploring them further, but on the other hand, much of Nietzscheanism is fundamentally life-affirming. He has an inordinate disdain for ideas about “other worlds,” exhorting us to embrace the here and now, to live life, to not fear pain or misery, but to crave experience. This might be useful to us, especially if we want to push the Cult of the Divine Monarch in a less villainous direction. But, more importantly, you must understand that what I present as Nietzschean philosophy is really inspiration I draw for the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, rather than an explicit discussion of Nietzsche’s ideas.

Nietsche talks a great deal about morality and truth. The latter, he argues, is really a short hand for useful bits of information, like “Those berries are poisonous” or “Power corrupts,” rather than mystic, fundamental truths. Likewise, he dismisses most morality as a crutch, things we simply repeat to ourselves, or lies we tell ourselves to justify our own misery. Perhaps you are not rich, but you tell yourself that it would be wicked for you to be rich anyway, so it’s not that you’re poor, but rather, that you are humble and frugal. He describes a “master” morality that takes what it wants and sees that which makes one strong and powerful as “good” and what makes one weak and miserable as “bad.” Those who embrace this morality tend to run roughshod over the weak, who invert this morality. The strength of the masters is “evil” and the humility of weakness is “good.” Nietzsche’s actual opinion on which morality is “better” seems complicated, but for the purposes of the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, we’re going to embrace this idea of “master morality” as superior to “slave morality.”

Nietzsche also argues that ultimately, we have will to power, that we wish to become strong enough to get that which we want. Pain and jealousy and greed are motivators that point us away from things we don’t really want and towards things we do. That flash of pain and anger you feel when your mate gets the girl you’ve set your eyes on? That’s a goad to push you to get off your ass and get a girlfriend of your own!

The greatest of men are those who recognize this, who see conventional morality as the crutch that it is. This does not mean that Nietzsche believes in no morality, nor does the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant. Rather, once one accepts that morality is an artificial code, and that we must seek self-empowerment, we can begin to forge our own codes. This requires profound self-mastery, so that our conflicting passions and desires do not drag us down in internal squabbling. Once that mastery has been gained, once your passions have lined up with laser like precision on what you want, you can exercise that power to seize the day. You transcend morality and forge your own morality. You are moral not because people tell you that you should be, how you should be; you become moral out of personal desire to fulfill your own personal form of morality. You forge your own truth.

Rex Nemorensis: the Sacred King

The Mystic Tyrant is, himself, a magical king, and the concept of a magical king has resonance throughout all of history. Sir James George Frazer discussed his theory of the sacred king in the Golden Bough, and you can find imperial cults all throughout history. Most of these focus on cementing the power of the king by suggesting an infallibility to his wisdom and power; they become cults of personality. But just as often, kingship becomes deeply ritual and ceremonial. The king becomes a religious figure as more than just a convenience measure. Consider, for example, the British Monarchy, which wields little real power, but considerable symbolic power. The assassination of the Queen of England would likely do little to stop her government from functioning, but would be a devastating blow to the morale of her people. And if you study the rules she and her family must follow, everything is carefully orchestrated to put on a show.

Kingship almost always involves this sort of ritual ceremony, placating the egos of the many people ruled by integrating their symbolism together into the majesty of the king. They claim the power to bring prosperity to the people and should they lose the favor of the Gods, then their people will suffer, as seen in the idea of China’s “Mandate of Heaven,” or the European ideal of the “True King” whose rule literally brings prosperity to the land.

The Cult of the Mystic Tyrant is ultimately an extension of the Divine Masks philosophy, where one embodies the will of the divine. The divine will embodied here is that of the Mystic Tyrant, that of the all-powerful king. Such a king would fuse religion and rulership directly. While I doubt modern Cultists of the Mystic Tyrant follow such an ideology, this is where their origin lies, and it doubtlessly shapes their mythology.

A Sinister Conspiracy: GURPS Cabal

Secret societies maintain their secrecy because they have
access to knowledge and power that would be misunderstood
or misused if known to everyone.--Kenneth Hite, GURPS Cabal
Finally, for our Sith to be truly sinister, they must conspire to rule the world, and influence the world from the shadows. They represent the Templars of Assassin’s Creed, or the Illuminati or, most especially, Kenneth Hite’s Cabal.

I favor the Cabal not just because I’m an enormous fan of Kenneth Hite, but because of their unapologetic mysticism. They seek power for the sake of power, and they seek knowledge for the sake of power. They immerse themselves in dreamquests and cloak themselves in mysterious, sacred imagery, all for power. This absolutely fits with the image of Palpatine as Evil Space Wizard, but I think it fits the concept of what we build here nicely. As a secret organization, they should share the Cabal’s secrecy and ability to infiltrate other institutions until one slowly realizes that one’s company or criminal organization is secretly being controlled by a sinister cabal of pyshics with powers you can barely fathom. As a mystical organization, they accept no boundaries on their pursuit of knowledge, no matter how profane or dangerous that knowledge. Finally, they believe themselves uniquely equipped to defend the world from a terrible menace that nobody but them really understands. In their eyes, their pursuit of power is always justified.

So, if I need anything to pillage for imagery, GURPS Cabal is a wonderful place to start. And to be clear, I did more than pillage. The structure of the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, as an organization, is drawn almost word-for-word from GURPS Cabal.

What is the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant

The Cult of the Mystic Tyrant is a secretive conspiracy that claims special and unique understanding of Communion and the working of the Universe. They use their power and insight to spread their influence, quietly, so that they may rule the universe, which they feel is vitally necessary: an unruled universe descends into chaos and an eternal state of war. They also have insight into the threats posed by unknown forces to the Galaxy and its inhabitants and know that everyone continues to follow the same path, only doom can result. They offer a new path, a way to transcend the common understanding of psionics, communion and even the universe, and to forge one’s own power and miracles: rather than serve gods, the cultists of the Mystic Tyrant become gods. And they will offer you some of their protection, but in return, you must bend knee, and if you bend knee, they lose respect. The lot of the slave is to serve the master and suffer and in suffering, learn what it is they want. The weak will lose themselves in that suffering, trying to repress it, or falling into self-conflict, while the mighty will begin to focus on their ambition with laser-like focus and transcend the limitations placed upon them, becoming divine tyrants in their own right.

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