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Ecopunk: Dungeons And Dragons Versus The Environment

November 3, 2021

When Liam Hevey started to experience climate anxiety he wanted a way to make other people care for the environment as much as he did. So the autistic designer created a role-play game to save the planet in the hope players might continue the battle in the real world.

With players gathered round the table, a session of Ecopunk is under way, a role-playing game set in 2044. It’s like Dungeons and Dragons but with more politics and environmental collapse.

To play, all you need is the game book and some character sheets to keep track of your energy, skills and inventory. You also need a lot of dice.

Its designer is Liam Hevey from Nunhead in south-east London. He is autistic and grew up to think with a large degree of what he calls “political dissidence”. He didn’t like or understand the way the world runs, with its “irrational” norms and ideas that everyone else seems to accept.

This is a familiar feeling to many autistic people – if something in the world doesn’t make sense then it needs to be corrected and smoothed out.

It has led Liam to have a passion for environmentalism, and frustration at the lack of coordinated action to save the planet.

He refers to the present climate emergency as “the defining moment” of his life and in a dark mood he adds it could well be the thing that will “end it”.

Your imagination, and the rules, are the only limits in Ecopunk but the story is dark, dystopian and perhaps a little too familiar.

After failing to act in the early 21st century, the climate is in fast decline, and the human race is in a death spiral. You could find yourself playing the part of a disillusioned hacker with a love for tofu, a bitter soldier with a cybernetic arm, or a botanist with a knack for brewing. They are Punks, they’re out-of-step with society and they are fighting to keep humanity alive.

Liam explains that the story starts with the crisis going into full swing.

“Politics has broken down and reformed and restructured around a new reality. We no longer live in this period of capitalism … and America has kind of fallen apart.”

Liam has imagined three new superpowers have risen to the top: The Central African Socialist Union, the Chinese Empire and the European Commune.

Each offers their own ideological response to the world’s problems: imperialism, neo-Marxist collectivism, or eco-fascism respectively.

You want complex world building? You’ve got complex world building.

The players, or Punks, exist at the edges of these nations, and, as their name suggests, they do not participate in the politics but still have to engage with them to survive.

Like fellow autistic campaigner Greta Thunberg, Liam has suffered from climate anxiety which is now being talked about more, especially amongst younger people. And, like Greta, he too experienced panic attacks when he was younger.

Creating the game has helped give him some control back over the situation.

Months of writing and play-testing have culminated in hundreds of pages of rules, missions, mechanics and lore.

Liam realises that a numbers-obsessed man who enjoys socialising with people over dice and scoresheets is a bit of an autistic stereotype. It’s this aspect of role-play games which he thinks gives it that nerdy image.

But Liam says much of his interest is in the role-playing part of the game where you don another personality. It’s not mathematical, it’s more about slipping into the shoes of a character, to think how they think and interact in this fantasy world.

He found that role-playing as characters who were, for example, charismatic or confident, helped him apply this to himself.

I put it to him that this sounds like masking, where autistic people adopt neurotypical behaviours to fit in, which can be very tiring and often means suppressing your natural autistic traits.

Liam says it’s not the same for him, but recognises the similarities and says role-playing provides a “safe space” for other people to practice masking

During October, Liam ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fundraise just under £15,000 for Ecopunk. Kickstarter is a website which, as the name suggests, helps people gather funding to start projects the community believes in. He was helped by Arts Council England, Shape Arts and a team of artists.

A basic version of the game is already available for free as a PDF download – the fundraising will go towards a “professionally produced” release with extensive artwork, and a physical version which he is keen to say will be carbon neutral.

Liam wants the game to make people think more about environmental issues and hopes players will leave the game and “fight for the future” like they did when they played.

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