My Games

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dharmatics: A Karmapunk "Deconstruction" of Cybernetics

In a multi-day long manic creative fugue state, I came up with this idea I'm calling Dharmatics, which is like a cyberpunk cyborg/body modification concept for Maximum Recursion Depth. Despite originally conceiving this idea >6 months ago, I have not quite completed it, but I'm still fairly hyped up on the idea so I want to share at least a prototype version of it, and explain my thoughts. I allude to it with the Deva and Buddhabrot City in an earlier blog post and in the Module of the book. I like sharing these sometimes not fully baked ideas and then comparing how they evolve over time to the original conceptions.

Also, I put "deconstruction" in the blog post title in quotes because I'm using the term very colloquially but Patrick Stuart did not seem to like it :p.

Jack Kirby's art is somewhat in the vein of what Dharmatics looks like in my head.

So first of all, why would I want a cybernetics-like system in this game? MRD is a roughly "modern" setting but has elements from Weird fiction, magical realism, superhero settings, etc., so I don't think it's totally out of place, as long as it's not too ubiquitous or too core to the setting. Cybernetics is common in Cyberpunk settings, which tend to be more so near-future, and tend to be used as a vehicle for both social commentary and epistemological commentary, both of which are relevant to MRD and the concept of "Karmapunk".

I was also thinking about how cybernetics was explored in the tabletop RPG Tenra Bansho Zero, a game that does something similar for Buddhism in Japan, Shintoism, and Japanese Mythology, as what I'm doing with MRD, and was one of my inspirations for the Karma system in MRD in the first place. In TBZ, and actually to some extent in some other Japanese cyberpunk settings like Ghost in the Shell, cybernetics tends to be a form of body horror and often is also explored as being a more existential threat to one's concept of self and soul. 

While I think that kind of exploration of cybernetics, philosophy, and psychology makes sense and is done well in those source materials and some others, I don't necessarily think at this point there's anything more I could meaningfully contribute to that commentary, and to attempt to do so without some really evocative idea in mind would be kind of trite. Instead, I wanted to think about how I could invert these ideas.

Cybernetics is etymologically based on the Greek Kubernetes, to govern, or to steer. It's an interdisciplinary field involved in the application and design of control systems, feedback loops, and interfaces. It requires the ability to model input and output signals, modulate based on those signals (feedback), and this requires encapsulation in terms of interfaces, in multiple regards, including brain-computer interfacing, program interfaces, and interfacing with the real world itself (the input signals). Specifically, it's in the application of these control systems and interfaces towards the re-implementation or enhancement of sensorimotor functions.

So within the context of Buddhism or at least the very specific and idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism I've conceived for MRD, what would it mean to invert this? To me, this means, a detachment from the Material World, divestment of the need for sensorimotor interfacing, and instead co-opting these psychophysical systems for the development of control systems, feedback mechanisms, and interfaces towards a higher metaphysical plane, towards Awakening. While I've avoided too much explicit reference to Dharma in MRD, many of the concepts in MRD that I wrap up under the umbrella of Karma are actually Dharma, Samsara, The Three Marks of Existence, etc., as I discuss in that link above. So I could just call this Karmatics <-> the Karma equivalent to Cybernetics <-> (Kubernetes <-> Control Systems), but I do think in this case Dharma is a better term. It's the phenomenology of Buddhism (the term also gets used in Hinduism and Jainism), and broadly encompasses the idea of pure reality, one beyond the subjectivity of Conditioned Things, almost like Plato's Platonic Ideal of Forms, or Greek Logos. So, Dharmatics.

From a strictly narrative/aesthetic perspective, I really want to avoid having Dharmatics just be Cybernetics by another name. I can live with the game mechanics just being cybernetics by another name, maybe, but it at least needs to be conceptually different, or else I'm just needlessly complicating things for the sake of false profundity. The most obvious thing I can think of is to give Dharmatics a unique and evocative aesthetic. Dharmatics are decidedly not metal, plastic, silicon, and electronic. They're psychedelia, pareidolia, holography, psychophysical illusion, and applied art and color theory, somewhat along the lines of things I've discussed before such as with my Concept of the Positive and Negative Planes.

We had a discussion about the possibility of integrating things like Traditional Chinese Medicine or Chakras into Dharmatics, and I may do so to some extent, but I'm reticent to go too deep into that direction. There are several reasons for this, but in part, it's because as I've said before, MRD is not about being a Buddhist and Chinese mythology setting in the strictest sense, but rather, taking those concepts in a very abstract and idiosyncratic sense, and applying them towards something more within the domain of my own direct inspirations and lived experiences. So in this case, Dharmatics is almost more like saying, what if Buddhism were invented today? What language would we use to describe it? How would we interpret it within the greater context of modern science, philosophy, and technology? How would we apply it? It's Buddhism re-engineered from the ground up (due as much to my own ignorance of the particulars as to any deeper intentions, to be sure).


  1. Just a thought but: in regular cybernetics as they are seen in those Tenra Bansho Zero and other games, a user gains a measure of external control/power by giving up a measure of internal control/clarity. From detachment point of view, as I see it, such cybernetics do the opposite of enlightenment, i.e. tie the user even more to the material world - where cybernitized character can do so much more - and sacrifice their emotional/mental detachment for this.

    The inverse of such cybernetics would be sacrificing the measure of external control to gain a measure for internal control. I don't think how to make it useful in-game, though, because it would mean that this-way cybernitised character gives up their power in real world to gain more understanding in mental/emotional world. Maybe with imbibing of more and more of "psychedelia, pareidolia, holography, psychophysical illusion, and applied art and color theory" they are expanding their mental state so much it becomes a dimension/dominion on itself (a virtual world) while their physical body loses capabilities of speech, perception, movement and so on, and this isn't most useful way for PC to be in the gameplay. Maybe such PC can temporarily impose their virtual world onto reality? Just an idea.

    On another point of interest to me is that "cybernetics" as a word sounds somewhat alike to both Kubera and Cybele, both, in a sense, gods of bounty.

    1. Your interpretation of this idea is very much in line with what I was thinking, which is actually quite reassuring so thank you! I also ran into the problem that, as you say, it's hard to think about how to apply this as a gameplay mechanic which is why it's taken so long to do anything with this and why I've tentatively resigned myself to allowing it to be, at least from a gameplay perspective, mostly the same as cybernetics. But much of what you were describing is definitely closer to what I'd like to do, if I can think of a way to do it effectively.

      I'm not familiar with Kubera but Cybele is also Greek right? I'll have to look into it but I wonder if there's an etymological relationship there as well.

      Incidentally there's also a technology used in the kind of software engineering I do called Kubernetes which is also etymologically related.