Let’s play pirates!

July 19, 2021 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of different kinds of play wrapped up in roleplaying. Whenever I get into a discussion of the meaning of some particular rule or feature, I am reminded that I have a load of unconscious biases, based on the sorts of play I prefer to write and run, that don’t match those of other gamers. It’s hard to get to a point in discussions where I’m sure what the other discussant is talking about.

“Let’s play pirates!” can lead in a bunch of different directions, each with their own genres of action. Is this a game where you play movie pirates who go “arr” and swing on ropes? In that case, not only should you not take the action very seriously, you should also actively look for opportunities to do those things. And you should base your expectations on movie tropes. If the big gold cup is not the end-goal of the adventure, then it’s probably just a sign pointing to some other story-token – a pirate king’s daughter or corrupt/undead colonial governor ripe for a slave revolt or something of the sort. On the other hand, if it’s a strictly historical game, maybe your best bet is to keep your true identity secret and try to escape the pirate life (with some loot), to set yourselves up as merchants somewhere far from your previous crimes. Or if it’s the kind of world where 18th century Batman could work, you could try to maintain a respectable front while reaping rewards from (carefully morally calculated) maritime violence in far-off ports.

I tend to set my own games in worlds where the players can do anything they like – ignore all adventure hooks, pursue their own individual objectives etc. The worlds are self-supporting and self-running; stuff will happen whether the players engage with it or not. The players’ actions do not inherently lead to them being “good guys” or “bad guys,” they are just actors in the world. They can try to improve things or ruthlessly seize what they want for themselves or assist other ruthless accumulators. In each case, there will probably be some beneficiaries from their actions, who will be pleased, and some who lose out and who will be made angry.

This sort of game is tactical at base – if the players want to have a larger effect on the world, they should probably accumulate resources, allies, influence, and plans. They are “rewarded” for playing with common sense. Their surest path to success in any large goal generally starts with accumulating some surplus resources, so they’ll have stuff to trade with or use in schemes, so that they can acquire particular force multipliers, so that they can get the levers they need to move the bits of the world they want to move.

But I know at other tables there is (for example) explicit Good and Evil, and maybe you can tilt the Cosmic Bias by your actions. Or there are Good Guy protagonists and Bad Guy antagonists and if you behave like the latter, you will get more antagonism from the world. On the other hand, if you act Heroically (as befits your status as the Hero of this story), you will be supported in adopting that role. If you die, it will be under dramatic circumstances that complicate the story in entertaining ways.

In my experience people tend not to talk about this sort of thing explicitly in setting up a game, but as a player I find it really changes my ideas about what I might try, what I might expect to get away with, what kinds of things might be rewarded and amplified. Players’ choices only make sense within a certain field of validity – and that field is generally being contested all the time by the choices people make and the directions that drags the campaign.

I also find that different ideas about the genre of action of a game ramify through all discussions of every part of the game – what’s entirely natural to one genre of action can be offensive in another.

I think this might actually be an important factor in some discussions of, e.g., the old “orcs are racist” contention. In a game where every character class is an archetype, pretty much defined by an actor’s performance (think of e.g. Star Wars, where the Smuggler character is always some variant of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo), there might be a space for an Orc character, who can play into or against some existing fictional prototype of Orcishness (or Klingon, if you’re having a hard time imagining a prototypical Orc actor). In this case, the prototype of the Orc always shadows the player’s moves, and whatever the player does as the character will be measured against it.* But in a game where an orc character is supposed to have the same gamut of actions and moralities open to them as any other character, the way they are characterized as different from everyone else is liable to lead to (interesting, uncomfortable) comparisons with real-world racial categories. The questions of race and racism might now shadow the player’s moves. Do they suffer from prejudice – from the other non-orc PCs based on their race, and/or from other orcs, for mixing with the PCs? Are they expected to express some sort of particularly orcish behaviours? The game and its participants now have to think about what they’re choosing to include and why. Or, more often, they may be called on to ignore some obvious implications of the action, in the interest of keeping the desired kinds of action going through the game.

The fact that individual RPG campaigns seldom inhabit a really clearly defined genre-of-action position is liable to lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Even a Star Wars game has choices to make, about how much it tries to emulate movie action and how much it’s a model of a tactical wargame sort of world.

I guess I’m saying, when somebody says something that just sounds wrong, it’s most likely to be because they’re coming from some set of expectations and field of signification that is unfamiliar to you. Try to find out what the world is that they’re imagining, before judging the validity of their statements.

* note, even Star Wars is not immune from the kind of semantic drift I’m talking about here – the fight over whether Han shot first is really about changes being made to the genre of action that Star Wars inhabits. In 1977 Han wasn’t in the subset of the cast that contained the heroes, which is to say he didn’t have to comply with the weird moral universe of the US cinematic action hero, where murder is OK but only if it’s a lesser evil enacted in avoiding a greater evil, or if it’s done without cruelty. The question has practical implications for players of Star Wars smuggler characters: can they shoot first or not? Will they be betraying their prototype?

On the regular hell that is the improved Spanish Prisoner con

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

I realised I had one more thing (for now) to say about Spanish Prisoner Cons (SPCs):

the big problem with the basic form of the SPC is that it promises to deliver a good thing, one day. It’s much, much more effective to promise to stave off a bad thing. The longer you delay gratification of the good thing, the more likely it is that your marks will turn against you. But the longer you prevent the feared catastrophe, the better you look. “They’ve kept us safe for years! Who knows where we’d be without them?”

ahem. And as long as the bad thing cannot be shown to have happened yet, the con is sustainable.

Also, the bad thing gives the con-man an implicit yardstick to measure their own offerings against. “Do you want that? NO? Then accept this.” See also insurance, the war on drugs, policing, fascism etc.

The avoid worse yardstick also points out a secondary game/layer implicit in Call of Cthulhu: merely being “better than the monsters” gives the PCs a license to be as bad as humanly possible. Everything above that level is left as an exercise for the players’ own consciences. It seems to me that this is a challenge, to make CoC the most interestingly humanist, compassionate game around, but my actual play experience has worked out closer to the bottom end of that spectrum.

(see bottom of post for a confusing aside on Spain as a source of SPCs)

OK, that’s done. It seemed important to say it, but now it feels finished and I fear I’ve wasted your time with very obvious stuff. So in recompense to the Joesky we all have inside us, you need to know about this D&D campaign dreamed up by 16th century Flemish society: Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) is a “folkloric character, the leader of an all-female army on a quest to pillage hell.” Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Pretty much everyone who talks about this figure and her depictions delights in recounting the old Flemish proverb: “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market,* four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon.” I feel I can get away with repeating it because it neatly encapsulates my thinking for Counter-colonial Heistcrawl.

* I do love the equivalence drawn here between discord and commerce. I also have to quote Braudel’s quoting of an unsourced proverb: “three women and a goose make a market.”

A confusing aside on Spain and prisoners:
Spain in the 16th century (the country making Brueghel’s life miserable) seems to me enmeshed in a veritable Piranesi nightmare of prisons and prisoners:
1. the church’s SPC (avoid hell) justifies the crown’s ethnic cleansing scheme (clean Spain for Christians only!), so that genocide against Iberian Jews and Muslims is conducted in the name of Catholic dominion. That incidentally leads to the revolt of the Netherlands, long-term disorder, and some atrocities that inform the visions of hell for which we so love Northern Renaissance art.
2. Loot grabbed during that genocide drives a market for the conquest of the Americas and sparks another set of SPCs, because if the Spanish Crown has already grabbed the gold, you gotta go get more.
3. if Natalie Zemon Davis is to be believed, American treasure also causes an inflation crisis in church favours: guilt at the atrocities committed to get the gold can only be expiated by giving it to God (decorating churches), incidentally deflating gold a little as a form of money in circulation, but also leading to an ever greater demand for gold decoration: the ultimate elastic market.

On the special hell that is the Spanish Prisoner con

May 17, 2021 6 comments

Usually I take a good day to write a post. I chase down links, I look for the right illustrations, I rewrite at least twice.
This post is not like that.

There are many cons. I’m reading The Big Con right now, to try to get a feel for the form.

But it seems to me that the Spanish Prisoner con is one of the cruelest, both for the mark and for the con man, because it hinges on imagining a better world, and then short-changing that vision in order to grab some quick cash.

Here’s how it works: I have a friend, a nobleman, who has been taken prisoner in Spain (it’s the 17th or 18th century: it is credible that Spain is a world power and also that justice there is sufficiently arbitrary that my friend might be wrongly imprisoned and/or arbitrarily freed if we can get him some money). So if we can just help my friend get free, then he will reward us all. Endless summer, drinks by the pool, envy all round.

So the con is, I need some seed money to get a big payout. Oh, dammit, the Spaniards snaffled the seed money – I need more. A bit more. OK, this time for sure. Yeah, more so we can get the friend clear. And so on.

The mark has to imagine a better world. The con has to sell them a better world. And then consistently fail to deliver.

Now, if I were in the novel-writing business, I would write this as a perfect set-up for a tragedy. Because the con has to be convincing, it’s best if it’s based in something true. So then inevitably the con man falls in love with the lie – because they have to forcefully imagine the better world and then impress upon the mark how much better it is that reality. Specifically better than the tawdry reality where the mark is having pocket money siphoned off them by some low-life storyteller.

The “prisoner” can be any great thing that would measurably improve life – prison for Trump, or free energy, or faster-than- light travel, or a cure for global warming. The con man can even be well-intentioned. They actually might be unconsciously conning the mark. They just have to sell it.

And it’s a hell because we, the smart audience know that it can never be fulfilled. Dramatic irony. The sheer attractiveness of the idea slowly eats away all resistance. We can watch those fools slowly get drawn into a false belief in redemption. We can see them sacrifice their money, their opportunity costs, their lives and loves for this one big love. The prisoner that can never be released.

Thank god we’re safe and warm here in our skepticism.


March 22, 2021 10 comments

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked what I think about Harry and Meghan more times than I’d like for one lifetime. The honest answer is “as little as possible.” But then I started to be told how I felt – how all Britons feel – by commentators in the US and UK, and it set me thinking about bricolage and discourses and whether some aspects of Orientalism are always in play – not just in conditions of colonialism.

The thing that really set me off was this podcast from the NYTimes, where Sarah Lyall calls the monarchy “the glue that holds [British] society together.” According to Lyall, British people felt they had to be emotionless robots until former-princess Diana talked about pain in an interview, and that gave them permission to feel pain. With reference to Harry and Meghan: “the monarchy is sort of setting the tone here. It’s the rest of society. I mean, it’s as if they’re sort of waiting for license to discuss these things in a new way.” That struck me as strange because it didn’t reflect my own experience, growing up in Britain in the decades immediately preceding this apparently epochal interview.

Elsewhere in the interview Lyall allows that there might be two kinds of Brits – “establishment people, older people, men,” and “younger women, people who were unhappy in love, people who had struggled with mental health issues, people who maybe had eating problems or other problems,” but together they only form one kind of society, and that society needs permission from the royals to feel things, otherwise it will come unglued. And that set me thinking about some rather incautious anthropology I’ve read, like e.g. where Jim Siegel uses Freudian analysis on the population of Indonesia to claim they were collectively tramuatized by the death of Sukarno’s pet dog. Back before the rise of post-modernism it was quite common in anthropology to discuss the workings of the “savage mind,” to boil (neatly bounded) cultures down into a few phrases, to understand foreign Others as primitive emotional mechanisms, trapped in their backward mythologies. The discussion of the British and their fatally flawed relationship with their royal family looked to me a lot like bad old Orientalism.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book-length diatribe against this sort of superiority complex analysis, where the writer stands aloof from the people they’re looking at, maintaining an exterior perspective that allows for blanket judgments about whole populations. Said identifies the complex as a handy tool for colonialism but also a dangerous self-delusion, since  “cultures are always made up of mixed, heterogenous and even contradictory discourses.” But Said also claims that Orientalism is always wrapped up in colonialism – it only really functions to reproduce power distance between two populations. And I’ve often wondered, what if there are no relations of colonial domination in play? If we see the colonial-Orientalist thought pattern dominating cultural interpretations in non-colonial contexts, how would we know that it’s actually colonial and not just a basic interpretive framework linked, perhaps, to ideas of which communities we identify with or against?

So I was thinking all this when I finally got around to watching Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures and I realized that its Barbie palace setting was supposed to be 19th century Britain. Big deal, you say, it’s anime. Moreover, it’s Jojo, i.e. baroque anime (thanks Mateo). Season 1 Jojo draws on British (or American-dressed-up-as-British) gentleman adventurer genre conventions, so… sure. Japanese artists adopt another genre, fine. But when the “16th century knights” Bluford and Tarkus showed up, the misrepresentation started to be so blatant, so willful, that I began to think there was something deliberate going on.

Here’s Tarkus, sporting a horned helmet, like the Vikings didn’t wear. He’s supposed to be a knight in the service of Mary Tudor.
Here’s Ed Courtenay, an actual nobleman in the service of Mary Tudor, for comparison.
He’s not a knight but an Earl, but that really just means he can afford a more expensive portraitist.

I started wondering if these romanticized Vikings standing in for Renaissance dandies were some sort of comment on ignorant/careless depictions of Samurai and Ninja in Western media. If they were supposed to make me think more carefully about depictions of Japan, they were working. I also started thinking about Britain’s place in other countries’ mediated imagination – Japan was effectively in the US’s colonial orbit until the 1980s, the US was in Britain’s until the 1780s. Can UK/US relations be called non-colonial? Or does the colonial trace still apply two centuries later?

And that set me back to Shonda Rhimes’s recent adaptation of Bridgerton, an old-fashioned bodice-ripper erotic/romantic fantasy that has the novel element of pretending that 19th century Britain could have had race relations that 2020 Hollywood would feel good about.

Bridgerton’s romantic leads. He’s been “traveling outside Britain for business,” which is as close as Bridgerton gets to mentioning colonies. She, obviously, has waited at home like a proper English rose for the precise moment of plucking.

For a while I couldn’t articulate what it was that bothered me about Bridgerton. Other people who complained about its non-traditional racial presentation were accused of everything from boring historicism to closet racism. But the business around Harry and Meghan made me realize that what bothers me in particular is that it deploys its fantasy Britain (or “Shondaland,” as the title card suggests) to have its cake and eat it too, dodging 2020’s arguments about representation by presenting itself simultaneously as fantasy and not-fantasy in a very Orientalist way.

It’s pretty obvious to me that Bridgerton chose to be notorious for its Progressive take on race, in order to avoid being notorious for its regressive gender politics – which are those of a remarkably traditional bodice ripper (a bold move when even Adventure Time has had a go at the genre’s cliches). That is, it’s nostalgic about women being submissive as a social fact, so that it can tell a story about how the heroine manages to get comfy in her bondage. So that explains why it’s set in 1813 Britain – because that setting “explains” the gender politics… except that Bridgerton’s alt universe, with its more acceptable 21st century casting, makes it clear that it’s not an Austen or a Bronte story, and so it doesn’t have to come to Austen or Bronte type conclusions. The leading characters are notably more interesting and sophisticated – more like the audience – than their benighted Regency supporting cast. They can have frank conversations about female masturbation on the model of Dr. Ruth.

Not like this lot, who are fine actors all, but not leading lady material. Also, they’re dressed in an acid-coloured parade of the worst fashions of the first half of the 19th century, as opposed to the lead’s more 1810s-by-way-of-1910s elegant simplicity.

So the show is simultaneously in and not-in Britain and its leads are simultaneously British and other-than-British – more specifically, the show is set in a fantasy Britain that rests on a particularly American conception of what it means to be exterior to British history, to be defined as not-British and to parade that difference in certain highly-reified ways (tea, polite skepticism, some obvious markers of the class system, dentistry). It uses British actors and is filmed in British locations, to reproduce a specifically American gaze. In the end it’s no closer to British history, really, than Jojo. Negar Azimi calls the Orientalist view of the Orient “a skewed mirror upon which Europeans could project their motley desires and fantasies.” Applying that here, we see Shondaland obscuring any “real” British history, replacing Britain with stuff that might never make it onto the air in an outright US-in-the-US romance. Projecting subby desires onto a primitive, peripheral Britain allows them to be (a) depicted for the metropolitan US audience and (b) alienated from them, so they can watch it all without owning (up to having) the desires. Kinda like all those steamy French paintings about the sinful life of the harem, created to titillate/concern the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. Imagine those poor white women, enslaved by the brutally moustachoied Moor!

Ingres, of course. The Turkish Bath. This one’s actually pretty tame, although a rare excuse to get a lot of naked women on one canvas. For the full-bore experience check out nearly anything by Gerome.

Returning to Harry and Meghan, their story is one of an American, sophisticated-sympathetic heroine, wounded by mean, racist, backward old Britain in the form of a shadowy Royal Family (“not the queen, though!”), her pain acknowledged only by her loyal leading man, who is willing to be rescued from his “unconscious racism” by her teaching… and I guess I see how this story has all the right receptors, both for making a statement in the current moment of US politics and for sweeping up any bits of Orientalism swimming around in the body politic. Britain already plays an important part in the American imaginary as a sort of villainous uncle the US has outgrown – it’s kept perpetually in the imagined position of a privileged bully, belittling the US, despite the fact that the two countries’ actual, practical relations have been completely reversed for at least 70 years now.

And I guess what I think about it is that, in this story, Britain is the less attractive, less interesting supporting cast, the perpetrator of racism and the holder of revanchist bad traditionalism, contrasted against our heroic leads… and that Britain might be standing in as a skewed mirror of the US – a method by which Americans can be called to stand together against racism in the US, soothing the tensions of last summer… as long as the visible racist enemy comes in the form of some inferior foreigners. We can all agree on the failings of Others.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this image of the British royal family is false, nor am I saying that I doubt Meghan’s story, nor anything like that… but I note that the interview had no very specific moment that it had to become news (it wasn’t urgent like a plane crash or a sport result). H&M had moved out of the palace months before. They weren’t going anywhere. It was a story with a long shelf life, waiting to claim its optimal moment in the US’s attention, and it does seem pretty relevant to the current moment – with Trumpist racism fading against hopeful Bidenism. A moment for resettling, clearing out dirty laundry, declaring that “we are not those people.” Certainly not those people. Those royals that we snubbed 250 years ago.

so I wrote all this stuff about Orientalism and the interview and Bridgerton because I thought it wasn’t super obvious – because I had to work through what I thought about it, myself. But it bothered me that there might not be a clear enough link in this post between the stuff Said lambasted and the light entertainment on TV – if you weren’t familiar with the arguments, you might not see what I was seeing. But then last weekend I found Orientalism in all its vainglory, with the gloves off, in Hulu’s “anti-historical” comedy-drama The Great. If you watched Bridgerton and think I’m making the Orientalist discourse up, then this is what it looks like when fashionable opinion really doesn’t care about what its subject thinks.

here’s young Catherine, about to get beaten up by the ladies of the court under guise of rustic native dancing.
They’re wearing candy-coloured wigs to signal that they’re unseriously sophisticated, like that Marie Antoinette movie.

Ostensibly, it’s about Catherine the Great of Russia, and ostensibly, it’s a comedy. that last part is important to its selling points, so let’s start there.

What tells us it’s a comedy is really just its breakneck pacing and the fact that you can always tell what everyone’s thinking, because they say it out loud. “I am quite annoyed at you and I might have you killed, except that you’re also making me horny.” That sort of thing. If, instead of this, the characters turned half away with an unreadable expression for a few seconds and you had to infer their plots over the next few scenes, it would be straight back into premier TV territory, because under the pacing it’s an endless succession of intrigues and betrayals and imminent danger, just like Game of Thrones. And because it contrasts its antic palace parties with some gruesome death and dismemberment, it’s a black comedy. A satire. It tells us on the title card that it’s “occasionally true,” but it neglects to tell us which occasions. What tells us that it also intends to be taken somewhat seriously as a historical drama is its authentic…. Britishness. it’s shot on location in British palaces, with British accents. If you think that might prevent a certain distinctive Russianness from shining through, well, it was the enlightenment. Everyone was aping French fashion anyway. It’s up to the audience to navigate this hall of mirrors and decide which bricolage pieces are structural at any particular moment.

So it manages the sneaky internet troll trick of saying the cruelest, most brazen things, while claiming that it’s only kidding. It paints the Russian court as a wildly abandoned, wildly dangerous, non-stop orgy; Russian religion as laughable, magic mushroom fueled, cynical superstition; the Tsar’s family as a bunch of lunatics; and the nobles as terrified sycophants, getting drunk and throwing each other out of windows for the Tsar’s amusement. In other words, it repeats exactly the image of the Russian court that western Europe constructed in the 16th-19th centuries – as being an Oriental despot’s whorehouse, dressed up in European clothes. “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar,” as the French moralist Joseph de Maistre said, while Catherine was on the throne. And it gets away with repeating these old formulas with the satirist’s disclaimer that nobody escapes its sharp tongue – Catherine, the one foreign viewpoint character, is just a whisker more reasonable when she first arrives, but quickly has to adapt to barbarism in order to survive.

But what is it satirizing? What work is its Orientalism doing? Well….. if, in today’s USA, it is safe to hold prejudices about Britain, it is downright dutiful to hold prejudices about Russia. Putin plays up to the part of a Bond villain, the ever-more-intolerant laws of his regime seem designed to offend US progressives, and his meddling in US politics on Trump’s side (whatever its actual aims) serves to give him a particular kind of US political identity. “Scratch a Russian” is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. Against that, Russophiles can hold up Catherine the Great as a rare moment of progressiveness in Russian history – Helen Mirren’s recent miniseries was straight-up laudatory, maybe an appeal to Russia’s better angels, comparing Catherine with Britain’s Gloriana, hinting that Russia might find friends over here if only she could remember her more enlightened moments. The Great, in contrast, tells us that Catherine represented a momentary deviation from the normal Russian character – she was a naive foreigner who briefly thought there was a rational mind under the bear’s fur. Her illusions are brutally crushed by a flurry of huzzahs and thrown glassware. As Viktoria Riyabikova notes, underneath its costumes it’s really about Russia today – or about Russian-British-American relations. I think Riyabikova might be being too charitable, though, in thinking that it wants to talk to Russians about reform. I suspect it just wants to talk to Americans and Britains about how irrational the bear, and court systems, and power and politics really are.

Fallen London: French Vanilla chef kiss

February 22, 2021 3 comments

I promise this blog will not become a pure Fallen London fandom site, but there’s one more thing (for now) that I think is worth sharing about it – its careful relationship with cliches.

Anne has written about French Vanilla settings – worlds that are adjacent to the well-worn paths of fantasy or science fiction, just different enough that players stay alert for the differences, just familiar enough that players don’t feel lost in a sea of novelty. And Fallen London is a French Vanilla setting par excellence. As I’ve noted before, FL leans heavily on the literature of cities-as-characters in a more-or-less Gothic mode, which is to say a tradition that goes back to Casanova, takes in Dickens, Conan-Doyle, and Stoker along the way, and fetches up around David Mitchell. It’s pretty careful to stick to fictional Londons (with occasional nods to Parises) and not to stray over to America, which already sets it apart from the sparkly era of urban fantasy, but there’s still plenty to get mired in, out in the Victorian pea soup fog: demon barbers, Jack the Ripper, you know the drill. I’m going to share a few examples from the early, mid, and late game, so this is your spoiler warning: ⚠️ Don’t read any more if you’re going to get upset about knowing FL lore.

……still here? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What really impresses me about how FL uses French Vanilla is the way it deploys cliche to draw the reader into stories that never goes quite where you expect. So its betentacled Rubbery Men look Lovecraftian at first glance, but they skew tragic, rather than horrifying, as you get to know them. Perhaps they operate some sinister underground organ, but that puzzle’s a gateway to the question of who calls the tune? The rooftop urchins, who initially recall Dick Van Dyke’s support dancers, turn out to be tied to cults, the government, and possibly the intelligence operations of a long-dead god. The more you learn, the more fretted their relationship with the roofs becomes.

Regarding Saucy Jack and Sweeney Todd, FL mashes them up – there’s a Jack of Smiles, sure, but anyone could be him. It turns out he’s the knives, which possess the hands and minds of those who hold them. You can become Jack for a while… which means you wake up having let the knife go, and have to reconstruct what happened to you (and everyone you know) over the past month. Charting the history and crafting of the knives takes you to entities that have a complex relationship with London and its Fall, and so you’re off on an onion-skin mystery, of which The Ripper is only the outermost layer.

Obviously the city’s lousy with vampires…. but it’s tastefully eschews common Draculoid or Ricean bloodsuckers. The most heavily telegraphed, cliche-laden vampire fake-out turns out to be the psychic emanation of a predatory real-estate contract – which brings me to my second point: Fallen London has a very strong and consistent viewpoint (which is impressive for something that’s written by many hands). All games offer a theory about the world – their mechanics reflect a set of understandings regarding what’s understandable, acceptable, how cause and consequence works, how people will react to situations, what tactical decisions will make sense in their context. And Fallen London’s viewpoint is generally more complex than it first appears, both interesting and interested in the things it talks about. For instance, you can get involved in publishing a newspaper, which inevitably opens up the question, “what is news?” Well, in FL it comes in 3 flavours: meritorious, outlandish, and scandalous. Which sounds like a straightforward value judgment, until you realise that meritorious copy really means “that which will incite outrage,” with little regard for public education. Some of the most important stories are scandalous. Some of the most urgent – if true – are outlandish. And the business of packaging them all together into a single edition of your rag really drives home the point that it’s a composition, made to sell. It will sell better if it tickles more of its readers’ emotional receptors. The outermost reach of the game (for now) is one of its most acerbic parts – a place called Moulin, which is an extended commentary on the academic publishing mill. It consists of a large back yard, where archaeological artifacts wash up, and an institute where you write monographs to interpret them into histories. Those histories can be ironic (“what fun!” the supporting text notes), tragic (“how boring”), or cautionary, and are attractive to different publishers based on their tone. Exploring that theory of the history mill made me sit back in silence and look over my bookshelves…. and I had to concede, whoever wrote it has a point. Moulin also contains the closest thing I’ve seen to a manifesto statement for the whole enterprise:

That which is, is always constructed on the bones of that which is not. For every line of text, its negative lies just below the page. A skilled hand can trace an idea to its echo.

I read the second part of that as a concession that hermeneutics can only ever be an art, not a science. But the first part – constructed on the bones of that which is not. That chimes strongly with my own experience as a historian. I strive to ask answerable questions, but my motivation for asking them always has something unanswerable underneath it. When I look at the hierarchical arrangement of spaces, my potentially answerable question is “how does this spatial arrangement communicate power relationships?” but what I really want to ask is “how important is architectural design in maintaining power hierarchies?” or even “how do people command power? Why is it given to them? Why do even quite small groups tolerate tyrants?” I have to compare what is with other hypothetical possibilities, and the existence of tyrannies with some idea I hold within me, of non-tyrannical social structures and what those might look like.

Finally, perhaps more usefully for the DM in search of bricolage ingredients, there’s the stratigraphy of Fallen London and what it tells us about the secret history of the world. London is the 5th city to Fall, and it Fell on top of its predecessors (in some undisclosed location underground, but not necessarily under any particular ground) so there are traces and hints of what those previous cities were. To be a Fallen city is to be excised from our own world – the world of the Surface – so there’s an implicit negative geography up there. We know that London Fell with the whole extent of the Thames valley, including e.g. the canal locks of Jericho, but not necessarily the city of Oxford, to which they were formerly attached. And that, due to contractual entanglements, some direct possessions of the Crown Fell with it, so Balmoral is down in the cave. So identifying the other Fallen cities might open up interesting vistas for exploration. And here the French Vanilla approach yields dividends, because those cities seem to be almost, but not quite, the places you’d expect, and therefore they can contain… nearly anything, which can all be highly suggestive of clever connections without tying the writers down.

The 4th city is widely thought to be Karakoram – Qublai Khan’s first administrative capital – but it seems obvious to me, given the Romantic leanings elsewhere, that it’s Xanadu’s stately pleasure dome, not least because caves of ice keep cropping up. Therefore Coleridge, Calvino, Dalrymple. For the 3rd city, they mention the murderous Mayan or Zapotec Ball Game (although they don’t use the names, nor pelota, which is a generic ball game name sometimes used to distinguish it from current games). If the rule is that the city in question must have disappeared from our history then I personally don’t know enough to track it down (there are so many): its red bird cult suggests somewhere Quetzalcoatl or a close cousin holds sway. Artwork for the 2nd city implies ancient Egypt, and there are references to Sphinxstone as a material that imprisons Masters. I’m pretty sure it’s Akhenaten’s lost capital Amarna, which was destroyed on his death, along with his heretical cult of Aten. Regarding the 1st city, inevitably some people have suggested Ubar – and Irem does show up as an over-the-untersea location in the game. All I know for sure about it is it had coins. Among the first coins we know of are the electrum coins of Lydia – which are pretty damn interesting AND a trove of them was famously found under the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s also the early history of Mesopotamian coinage. And so we are free to fill in whichever version of the first city of men we prefer. Regardless, it will have only an oblique relationship with the sunken architecture of the ancient Magistracy and various mystery caves that are unknown to mere Surface-dwellers.

On tactics and surprise

January 29, 2021 Leave a comment
There have been a lot of changes to Fallen London over the past year… several new areas have been added to the map, you can build a railway going westward to Wales/Hell. I guess I’m lucky to have caught it during its renaissance, 10 years after first release.

I’ve been playing Fallen London for a year now, and I’m definitely in the “late game.” That doesn’t mean I’m exhausting the content (good god, there’s a lot of content) but I have reached one edge of it – I’m building a railway to hell and exploring new material as it’s published – and that’s a new experience, because other players have not yet compiled a wiki of the options, which means I can’t optimize my path. (Fallen London, like Pokemon, is complex enough to support a third-party market in intelligence – players helping other players to navigate the dizzying web of options.) So for almost the first time I find myself in strictly narrative, rather than tactical, space: I have to make decisions based on what seems right to me at the time, not based on what’s profitable or necessarily desirable.

And that’s a deep, fundamental shift in user experience and design incentives. Many of the choices I have to make look decidedly tactical. What style of railway stations should I build? Which is to say, what faction in London am I trying to flatter? Who should I listen to when deciding how to strike deals with a (characteristically weird) kaiju? For the first time, I have to think – and decide how to think – toward success on an interaction-by-interaction basis, rather than researching long sequences of interactions that have already been signposted to choose a strategic pathway through them.

“Big deal” say all the old School roleplayers. “Choose, die, learn. The risk is the reward.” Except that’s not necessarily the sort of game Fallen London is – or, rather, Fallen London plus Wiki is a different game from Fallen London as originally written, and both games are perfectly functional but they work on somewhat different expectations.

Right now, the biggest element of difference I’m experiencing is a shift in my literary expectations. I have to think about what sort of story Fallen London is. Is it a work of serial fiction on the classic model, pioneered by Richardson’s Pamela – a parade of surprises a.k.a. “soap opera logic?” The long-lost sister is actually an evil imposter! Just when the rich land-speculator is about to steal the family farm, he gets shot! Apparently by the dead father, who faked his own death! If so, maybe I will be rewarded for always taking the most outlandish option. Or maybe (more likely) there are no rewards for thinking, because surprise denies planning.

I’d be a little surprised if that were actually true of Fallen London, because it’s not very game like. Denying planning means denying tactical thinking. Imagine if chess pieces suddenly shuffled their abilities halfway through a game and didn’t tell you. And meaningful interaction depends heavily on meaningful planning, anticipation of outcomes. But it’s also true that Fallen London does trade in surprises, at least in the writing. Maybe it occupies a sort of middle ground, like classic murder mysteries. And maybe it’s vulnerable to the same kinds of pitfalls murder mysteries often face, when they fail to tread the line between the reader’s conflicting desires on one hand of wanting to play along with the detective, interpreting the breadcrumb trail of clues logically, and on the other hand wanting to be astonished, marveling at how they failed to see the twist coming.

So, suddenly I have to judge what kind of fiction Fallen London has always been, in order to assess how much I should try to anticipate the consequences of my choices. Is it better to try to build a solid railway institution or go outlandish, confident that I’ll be rewarded with outlandish results?

And that’s made me realise that this question is a huge part of the invisible rulebook for any roleplaying campaign. “Unfair, arbitrary” dungeon puzzles get hated on for killing characters, but grief over character loss is masking a deeper betrayal: the real problem with them is that they’re narrative surprises foisted on players who are expecting a tactical challenge. They cancel the tactical work the players were doing. Meanwhile Call of Cthulhu is always in danger of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing: while HPL’s stories were decidedly “literature of surprise,” Petersen’s game starts from a position of genre familiarity; the published adventures usually deliver a firmly tactical (even formulaic) RPG experience. CoC illustrates fairly neatly a principle I use a lot in my games, of getting the players to learn the “grammar” of the world they’ve entered through a sequence of explorations, which yield initially surprising but consistent results (it turns out the mechanical monsters are all piloted by former adventurers, the monsters will hot stray far from the lair) so they can start thinking tactically about how to use that grammar (confront the monsters with their former loved ones, stay just outside the perimeter, try to force a break in loyalty to whatever is controlling the monsters from the lair). But when CoC gets too tactical, when the grammar is too well understood, its premise suffers.

Now, all of these forms – soap, story, tactical game, even magic tricks and jokes – rely on the same basic mechanism involving anticipation and revelation (which looks rather like a variant of the old gambler’s dopamine release cycle). As the participant/reader/player is reading/playing/watching these narrative forms, they are engaged in building their own version of the narrative in their head. They are constructing expectations, anticipating outcomes. And then the story/trick/interaction closes the anticipation gap one way or another with a definite result, showing the participant that their anticipation was right or wrong, or should have been right if they had just interpreted the information differently. The basic form of the Ancient Romance (the structure behind pretty much all soaps) sets up an anticipation – star-crossed lovers are meant to be together and will be happy ever after if they can get together – and then throws a series of obstacles in their path: surprises to be overcome, sub-anticipations to resolve, which can indefinitely delay the resolution of the overarching anticipation. Pleasure – or frustration – depends on whether the consumer accepts the sub-resolutions offered along the way.

In the literature of surprise, the trick is to get the consumer to accept the thing offered as superior to the thing they were anticipating. Soaps are about pulling this off in minor ways a couple of times an episode and in a major way at least once per season.

In tactical games, the trick for the player is to observe, recognize and neutralize all the obstacles in order to force the resolution to match their anticipation. Overcoming very difficult obstacles works like being rewarded with a surprise: the tactical player surprises themself by closing off the counter-anticipation of losing.

As usual, it turns out creative works frequently mix these different modes up, shift between one kind of logic and another, take brief holidays etc. etc. BUT every time they do this with players (far more than with mere spectators), they ought to give some warning that it’s happening, so the players can adjust their style and expectations.

Interlude: on cinematography and interior design in Ratched and The New Pope

November 30, 2020 4 comments

I cannot recommend either series for its writing, coherence of plot, or entertainment as TV, but it’s good to see some classical composition in cinematography. It’s also pleasingly novel to read, in The Jesuit Review, the evasion “is it blasphemous? A TV review is not, perhaps, the forum to determine that.”

Ratched is so loosely based on an idea from a character sketch from an idea from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that mentioning the inspirational work feels like a marketing over-reach. The point is, it’s the 1940s and everyone’s mad, but because it’s the 40s, they’re mad in gorgeously overblown architectural interiors.

This shot doesn’t do justice to the main doctor’s office, which is a gigantic ballroom with blue curtains over 2 walls and a mirror-glazed ceiling, reflections from the windows on which dominate half the shots.
Glassy and impenetrable, like the psychiatrist’s cover.
And obviously the nurses’ uniforms are teal. The hospital stops short of being orange…
…but not by much.
There’s a lot more to the color stories in this show, though…
this aged rich psychopath with the blood wings
lives in this house, with mirrored doors and skylights
complete with an Orientalist folly of a Mughal mausoleum in the back yard
and a peacock-and-malachite verandah. I dunno, I think they’re going for “overheated Old Hollywood?” You think?

Articles in Architectural Fetishist magazine vaguely discuss the buildings here, here and here. But the show itself is the best showcase, natch.

The New Pope, obviously, is set in the Vatican. Which, obviously, means heavy Renaissance and Baroque inspiration, and a lot of soundstage building, because there’s no way the Vatican would let them film on site.
It’s the sequel to The Young Pope, in which Jude Law plays an American playing the Pope.

Who? What? Why? None of it matters. Just relax and enjoy the ride.
So, yeah. Interiors.
Apparently they had to build another Sistine Chapel for it, so they get the most out of it. But there are also formal corridors and salons aplenty.
Black, red, white.
And a lot of Vatican-adjacent on-site photography. Here’s James Cromwell practicing the Papal “embracing the world” gesture in front of what I think is the mural of The Country Under Good Government in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
And who’s that? Another Pope?? Where Jude Law plays Dreampope, John Malkovich plays Alternadreampope and you suddenly discover you’re….
In an Edward Gorey story.
Malkovich straight up tells us he’s channelling Gorey by appearing in a chapel/fountain decorated with shells, which perfectly matches the muted colour and high contrast of his eye liner, to produce the best Gorey scratchy line art simulacrum I’ve ever seen on film.
Where it’s important to the story that Law is American, which he shows us by wearing Ray Bans and smoking cigarettes…
Malkovich’s Englishness is expressed by… well, a big country house, divergent sexuality, and the visual style of a Chicago book illustrator, seen here reclining on a Curious Sofa.
Note wallpaper halo. In this particular production, I am quite certain that’s not accidental.

It could be said of both series that they strive to make every shot a painting (The New Pope strives a bit more strenuously). It’s therefore a bit galling that such shot-paintings are not so easy to find on the internet. I guess you’ll have to watch a couple of sample episodes after all.

Of The New Pope, I recommend episodes 2 and 3, which show Malkovich’s country house, shell-shrine, and Papal debut in Rome. Won’t you be totally lost and not understand what’s happening? Don’t worry, you would be even if you’d watched the show from the beginning.

Ratched makes more sense, until it doesn’t. Episode 3 has the best intro to the lush, Orientalist house, Episode 5 has the best shots of the extravagantly reflective doctor’s office.

As usual, the brief lists of locations are uninformative. I have a sense a lot of the interiors in both cases were scratch-built, which according to the strange logic of Hollywood Reporter style coverage, means they’re beneath notice. Sorry, stage-decorators, I guess you don’t have a product the punters can buy. Come back when you’ve got something marketable and you might be elevated to the status of costume designers.

On history

July 7, 2020 6 comments

Continuing an occasional series on the useful things grad school taught me, here is what I learned about how we construct history –

  1. when you read history books, you get it completely backwards
  2. every generation has to reconstruct their history all over again. Actually no, scratch that, every individual reconstructs it for themself.

Both of these realisations are very simple but have far-reaching implications.

  1. (assuming good will and an honest attempt to grapple with archival data rather than straight up propaganda-writing ) The act of constructing history starts out a little like the act of constructing science: you notice some phenomena and try to find a cause for them. This engages the pattern-matching part of your brain – you look for behaviours that seem reasonable to you, run through a list of explanations you’ve previously accepted for why things happen, and look for other observers who agree or disagree with your ideas.

    But after that, constructing history is nothing like constructing science. First, because you can hardly ever test your theories – in fact, the phenomena you’re trying to explain aren’t even repeatable. Second (here’s the novel part) because your search for causes runs backwards in time, and that’s the proper, honest direction in which to talk about your construction work, that makes your work evident and lays bare the present conditions you are trying to explain. Science gets to hunt for causes, then test, confirm, and predict effects from those causes, so it can run its models backwards and forwards in time. But history does not, so the habit of telling historical stories forwards inevitably buries the work and the assumptions that informed your pattern-matching. It presupposes that all your constructing is correct, so when you stand back to admire the whole cathedral you’ve built, you can point to the spire on top (the present) and assert the foundations (past causes) are strong… when in fact you’re just looking at the building upside down, balanced precariously on its tip and anchored firmly in a ground of suppositions, unsupported assumptions, and beliefs, that stretches out in every direction beyond your view.
    tl:dr: write and teach your histories backwards.

  2. (in the best possible cases) Every historian has stood in their present and constructed a past to explain it. They have mostly trained to do this by reading the backwards constructions of previous generations of historians and then agreeing or disagreeing with them. So there is a genealogy of backward constructions at work. Whatever a previous generation of historians thought of as an obvious inference gets reproduced by successive generations until a sufficient community comes along with different philosophical assumptions or categories, at which point it becomes suspect.

    One result of this is that it’s enormously difficult to uncover the history of an idea because as long as that idea or something that looks sufficiently like it to get a pass has held, one finds historians who will assert that it’s true or take it for granted. In fact, searching for the singular root/source of an idea at all is probably misguided – it’s likely to have been floating around in society for a long time before an observer decided to write it down and base decisions off it. Another result is that there’s no general consensus, as there is in the sciences, on when to discard an idea that no longer looks credible. Pieces of that idea can always be recycled back into service if they look useful for present purposes.
    tl:dr: always be suspicious of long-period phenomena. They’re probably not what they seem at any particular point in their apparent continuity.

I was recently in a conversation about colonialism and the idea of Europe. We tend, these days, to use the phrase “European Colonialism” as shorthand for a system of economic and political domination currently mostly spearheaded by the US but seemingly, superficially based on previous efforts mostly by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. There are some problems with this equation of US imperialism with prior forms of colonialism, but when it comes to the oppression of peoples in Africa or Asia the shorthand seems useful. But then comes the question: “where does this idea of Europe come from? Why did Europeans do this to other peoples and how did they draw lines between who should colonize and who should be colonized?”

And the question is only really relevant, it only really makes sense, in the backwards construction of history. Let’s say you do a linguistic analysis of your archives and you decide that “Europa” was first used to describe a distinctive social entity (rather than a geographical region) during Charlemagne’s empire, somewhere around the 9th century. Now you have some evidence of the existence of an idea of difference a thousand years ago, which you can relate to a forward series of varied phenomena:

– the governing of the Holy Roman Empire;
– The Crusades, where borders between Christendom and Islam were repeatedly defined and contested;
– The conquest of the Americas and the Renaissance, where Italians “rediscovered” that they “had been” the Roman Empire and where French and Englishmen learned that they were the intellectual descendants of Romans and Greeks (whoever they were) (and probably not the literal lineal descendants as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed).
And most importantly, the idea that Europeans formed an oecumene dedicated to oppressing Africans and Asians, which we find in a few history textbooks and a lot of tweets published today.
Now you know why there was a European club, why it didn’t include the Ottomans or Japanese, and how it was fundamentally tied to the unifying European ideas of Christianity and Latin grammar. Drawing a rough outline around Charlemagne’s empire you find a rough correlation with the list of national origins that have at some points informed the idea of “whiteness.”

Or do you? Maybe instead what you’ve done is uncover a backwards-construction by a particular previous generation, built to justify their current exigencies and political alliances and social distinctions. It might all make sense backwards as a supporting idea for power relations in, say the US in 1930, but it would probably make a lot less sense for people in Europe during, say, the 18th century. Because if there was a unified European effort to subjugate Africans (and one can find plenty of evidence to support it) it was somewhat overshadowed, for Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, by incessant wars between European nation states and Christian sects bent on destroying each other and stamping out each other’s ideas. From about 1560 to about 1620, Christian (Catholic) Spain repeatedly attempted to exterminate the Christian (Protestant/Reformed) Netherlands, while writers in the Netherlands literally labeled Spain “the Antichrist, enemy of all mankind, the Devil incarnate.” The Portuguese king Manuel I reportedly sent sailors to southern Africa looking for a mythical Catholic king with which to fight the Muslim Ottomans, while the Catholic French king Francis I allied with the Ottomans and sheltered their fleets in his harbors in order to fight against various Catholic Italian states. In this context, the enslaving of Africans looks more like an economic technology, deployed by multiple warring states in their struggles for survival against each other. We can counter-argue that there are degrees of difference – that Europeans, even if they would fight among themselves, would trade African slaves to their nominal enemies. That they would unify against Africans as they did in Haiti in the 1790s. But to do that, we have to read selectively and ignore countering voices – by which I don’t just mean the long history of abolitionists but also the enthusiastic slavers who just hated their next door neighbors more than anyone else in the world. Maybe what we’re doing, by reading these histories forwards, is smoothing over the differences between them and privileging some previous interested parties, who worked to make their own situation look natural and explicable.

(…to be clear, I am not seeking to jam an oar into histories of racism, or colonialism, or imperialism. I am absolutely not seeking to justify or support any particular political position here, nor to excuse, nor to cast doubts on the present claims of any people regarding the proper respect with which they should be treated. Racism sucks, we should try to live up to the words and not the actions or lifeways of universalist Enlightenment theorists. Let us be equal and thoughtful and respectful to one another. And right there, that’s how it’s impossible to separate the construction of history from its political uses in the present.)

And maybe the project of trying to delaminate the previous generations of history-construction is itself misguided, because those previous laminae were determinedly fused together by their creators for their own purposes: one misreads them by trying to separate them from their genealogies. And how would you know when you’d done it? When you’ve isolated the innovations of particular historians at particular times? After all, they might just be picking up ideas that had been floating around for centuries, but nobody thought it was necessary to record them.

tl:dr: when Michel Foucault writes about the “genealogy of knowledge” he really is thinking of ideas loosely arranged in family trees – that is, not the same idea with the same meaning reproduced from generation to generation, but rather separate generations of ideas that identify themselves as part of a tradition, whether we would agree with their identification or not, and that maybe emphasize some of their ancestors more than others.

tl:dr tldr: history is a slippery form of fiction writing, constructed always to support some philosophical position. Even if you try to make it something else, some reliable documentary guide to human thought, it’s actually impossible to write that because you’re predisposed to notice the patterns you know.

Some Basic Anthropology Texts For DMs

March 23, 2020 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about a shortlist of books that my kids would benefit from reading, and on reflection, I’ve decided just about everybody would benefit from reading them, if they haven’t already, since we all may have some time on our hands.

To get on the list, a book has to have significantly shaped my own world-view, sure, but it also needs to be generally applicable to a lot of different questions (so no books on, e.g. underwater archaeology), and it should also be fairly short and accessible and possible to summarize without jargon – so that excludes e.g. Marx’s Capital, even though I think that’s an indispensable read for understanding nearly anything written in the humanities during the 20th century, regardless of whether you agree with its arguments.

These qualities, of general usefulness, readability and clarity, tend to go together with strength of argument. The part about me being impressed by the books’ arguments… is obviously idiosyncratic. I’d be interested to see what lists others around here produce.

Looking it over, I see my list is a bunch of old, old works. This is not because I think they’ve stood the test of time or some similar conservative nonsense but because
(a) academic fashion over the past 40 years has been against clarity and brevity, and
(b) they’re pretty much all anthropology texts (or “political theory,” which is to say, anthropology minus field work), which deal with familiar topics and behaviors and yet somehow their ideas have not been absorbed into common parlance. Which makes me suspect that despite being broadly “political” in nature, they are somehow resistant to being used as political footballs – a quality that has also been unfashionable in anthropology for a very long time.

With all that in mind, and in no particular order:

Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger
Douglas gives some critical thought to what constitutes “clean” and “dirty” in different cultures, and it turns out that these categories are really important for understanding what’s considered to be “ordered” and “disordered” in society. Once you grok this, biases in e.g. Hobbes’s Leviathan spring into focus – Hobbes is not just scared of disorder, he’s also disgusted by it as a dirty thing (nasty, brutish and short), so he needs a “sovereign” (the people) to make living in the world imaginable. Applicability to Lovecraft, Oscar Newman’s “broken windows” theories, and anti-immigrant politics should be obvious.

If you’re writing an RPG campaign, this will help you understand what gets revolutionaries thrown to the lions and how to outrage the Winter Queen’s court in just the right way to free your party-mates.

Marcel Mauss: The Gift
Mauss talks in detail about a specific set of communities in the Pacific Northwest of the US and in Papua new Guinea, but his Those People Over There observations work perfectly for Everyone Around You. He says gifts are not, in the first place, generous acts of sharing but instead ways to generate socially-binding debts.* Right-wing charity organizations spring straight to my mind, but (here’s the clever bit) Mauss doesn’t stop there and he doesn’t actually disapprove of gift-economies – he sees the position of hanging debt as a basic building block of social cohesiveness. This is useful for understanding Charlie Stross’s sf story Neptune’s Brood, without having to read trendier lefty darling David Graeber’s 550pp Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Applicability to RPGs: every time a local chief or grand vizier or corporate rainmaker has a mission for the PCs, and every time they need a favor from such a character, and whenever PCs get into positions of power, you can use this kind of gift exchange to make sense of their social climbing and networks. Just find and replace “Trobriand Islander Chief” with “Mafioso.”

*obviously the gifts you and your family give are selfless acts of generosity and any anxiety you feel about not having given the right gift for the circumstances is just because you like the people you’re giving the gifts to and want to please them. That’s because you’re freed from the cycle of debt by the example of Jesus, who died for your uh oh no wait now.

Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities
Anderson wanted to know why people fight and die for their country. He wound up writing a theory not just of nationalism but of community self-representation in general. If, in a discussion, you refer to a community as “imagined,” you can quickly identify who in your earshot is qualified to talk usefully about what communities are made from by separating the ones who nod in recognition from the ones who look angry. Unlike most theorists of nationalism, Anderson doesn’t just conclude it’s bad. When he says community is “imagined” he does not mean it’s necessarily a sort of imaginary fantasy, but rather that it necessarily must be actively reproduced in each member’s own imagination, out of various kinds of representation, which contain various arguments about power, since it lives only in collective imagination.
He’s clearer than I am, read him.
Also, there’s a delightful short excursus on the use of monuments and why official photos of them tend not to contain sightseers.

Read this for RPGs if you want to write convincing polities, patriots or propagandists. Like dirt and gifts, people tend not to want to think hard about what communities mean or how to feel about membership in them (parroting pious phrases is not thinking hard). This is a good book for getting you to ask “but what if it were different? How could it be? Has it ever been?”

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
OK I lied. This book is decades younger than the others, and a whole lot more obvious and obviously partisan in its arguments. And to be honest, it didn’t change anything about the way I think. But it’s still very useful to have it written down, so you can see its arguments clearly – it’s the book I wish I’d had available to cite during grad school whenever I was told some very complex theory about justice and history that didn’t match the data I could see. The (fairly universal) workings of power are laid out simply, cogently, and more or less in handy bulleted lists, without any of the sentimentality or partisan apologizing that just about everyone else does. To hold onto power, you have to identify and cultivate the people around you who can get things done. That means, the ones with networks of influence and debt. Sadly its newness means I can’t give you the full text, but these “rules for rulers” videos offer a handy summary. Yes, it ties together with Mauss and Anderson. And it explains little things like why democracy is unlikely to take off in Saudi Arabia (the economy there doesn’t need a helpful, educated class to agree with its rulers, it just needs to be mined). Any time someone tries to tell you how power really works, check their explanation against this ground state, to see if it’s actually doing better than the default, or if it’s just claiming some kind of spurious virtue by associating itself with other values.

Usefulness for RPGs: right in the title it tells you this is a sourcebook for making evil empires. And in fact any empires. You can use it to check the motivations of the powerful and see if they “make sense:” if you can explain what a particular governor or admiral is doing in ways that satisfy Bueno de Mesquita, then that’s enough to satisfy any cynical party of players.

The virtue of such a list lies in its shortness. There are lots of worthy works that didn’t make it in, that have ideas I refer to all the time. But this is where I would start, personally.


Maps of some classic dungeons, 3: Ramses’s linear psychopomp

March 16, 2020 8 comments

Continuing the series on real-world dungeon types leads us, inevitably, to architectural narrative sequences, or railroad dungeons.

valley of kings tomb schematic
Tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings. What it lacks in Jacquaying it makes up for in pedagogical clarity. 

The ancient Egyptians were really hot for linear, narrative structures. Their temples and tombs have one way in, one destination, and a series of lessons to be learned along the way, so that the architecture serves as a tour guide to a state of mind, to priestly initiation, and to Egyptian cosmology.
nut goddess of night
That’s Nut, goddess of the night sky, vaulting over a sarcophagus. The walls are covered in the Pyramid Text – a Baedeker’s Guide to the Egyptian afterlife, which is itself a kind of railroady ur-campaign. More of that later.

Here’s Ramses III’s memorial temple in Luxor – not the biggest or grandest of the Ramessea (Ramses II’s the Mos’ Grandiose) but one of the best-preserved and clearest in plan:
ramesseum iii top down photoEntering from the Main Pylon at the top of the frame, note that there’s an unbroken axis through a series of lined-up doors all the way to the back room, where the portrait of the dead Pharaoh is located.
Here, another view where you can see the commanding bluff wall and majestic-but-still-exclusive doorway of the Pylon:
Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 11.24.09 AM

The purpose of this arrangement is to allow the architects to pull several tricks – first, they can tell stories on the walls, knowing that you’ll progress through the structure in the sequence they want (and that you only get to see the punchline if you’re the right level of priest). Second, they can arrange information hierarchies off the main axis – stop at particular points along the way and you can learn the stories of Ramses’ wives and forebears, all subordinate to the main axial narrative, like hyperlinks off the main article. Third, they generate a very narrow, straight beam of light from the front entry all the way back to the holy of holies, so that if the priests open all the doors on just that one special day each year that’s sacred to the Pharaoh (which wasn’t a cliche back then), then the sun can shine all the way down the axis to the portrait on the back wall. If the temple tells the story of progressing from Earth to Egyptian heaven, where Ramses resides, then on this special day, His reflection travels back down the arduous path to spy on His people. Also, stick a load of gold and glass in that portrait and you can have it light up the whole back room, so that the special secret stories carved in there are revealed in the radiance of the Pharaoh’s visage. Theatrical stuff.
(OK I cheated, that’s from Ramses II’s tomb at Abu Simbel, but the principle is the same, or would be if robbers and earthquakes hadn’t screwed up RIII’s special moment)

My point here is that the Ramesseum, typical of Egyptian temples, limits visitors’ choices in order to expand its narrative possibilities and concretize its hierarchies. The Grand Axis points to the point of the building – it tells the faithful about the Pharaoh’s divine journey, lets them relive it as they progress inward, and tells them where they should stop, appropriate to their appointed level, in order to pay their finely-calibrated respects. Side chapels and structures are side-quests – lower in status, therefore more accessible, they appease secondary gods, hold the remains of minor wives and functionaries, and fill in bits of myth from distaff sides of the royal lineage that don’t quite merit a place in the main story or the regular attentions of a priest.

The Ramesseum offers a physical map of the structure of New Kingdom Egyptian religion, which is to say, of New Kingdom Egyptian society.* It also offers a campaign frame for Pharaohs and their subjects, with character class-specific goals:
Pharaoh: command your country well enough that you can build a temple and tomb with all the systems working, plus a mortuary services caste (mummifiers, mourners etc), to give you gear on your journey through the afterworld;
Wife: get enough favour and influence that you get a story spot close to the back room, giving you gear and protection on the afterworld jaunt;
Priest: level up far enough that you get the right to go into the back room, where the deepest mana stores are held;
Tomb-robber: collect inside knowledge that you can use to Indiana Jones it into the treasure room without getting riddled with darts/ghosts.


Architecture is a communicative art.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.43.04 AMprada rotunda
It tells you what the owner of the building wants you to think about their status and your own. It tells you where to stand and what roles to assume, what you should and shouldn’t do, where you should and shouldn’t go.
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Buildings are maps of institutions.
5 military branches, 5 stabby points on the Pentagon. All equal in the eyes of God if not in funding or status. Yes I know there are serious problems with this facile example, but they’re such intriguing problems…**

Buildings are very often theme parks of their institutions’ concerns and neuroses. Where the institutions support communities, they teach their inmates how to behave, what they can and can’t do, who’s in charge.
workhouse plan

There are lots of directions I could go here. Private houses in the era of psychoanalysis becomes maps of the mind – insights into the soul of the person who shapes them. Hence the haunted house, i.e. haunted family (thanks Jack Shear!). It’s no accident the protagonist of Inception (that celebration of memory palaces) winds up in the basement.  Hence also the Romantic trope of Bluebeard’s Castle, with its doors onto a bloody treasury and a sea of tears,
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and Poe’s explanatory palace of damnation and illusions in Masque the Red Death.

But today it’s the canalisation of architecture I want to talk about, and how it pertains to (railroad) campaign design. Railroads get a bad rap, especially in the OSR, because nobody wants to be pushed to make choices that are no choice at all, and nothing makes players rebel more than having their motivations assumed for them. And yet there are whole genres of play that depend on/exult in railroading. What is a Call of Cthulhu campaign but the serial unlocking of doors, leading to ever-more-horrible doors?

All plots are railroads, inasmuch as they progress through stages and there’s already something happening when the players show up. The key to good railroading is to reconstruct your pushes as pulls – goals rather than herding – and to intersperse the choice-limiting pipework with tasks that involve free invention.

The Pyramid Texts painted all over the walls of the Ramesseum offers one method – it’s a list of directions, which you have to pass through in sequence to get to your ultimate destination. So it’s a railroad with continual teases: just follow these instructions exactly and do not deviate from the path and you’ll be OK. With, of course, obstacles designed to tempt or scare you off the path. The same basic vamp is visible in Early Christian labyrinths,
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where the walker is invited right up to the edge of the holy center for an early look at the goal, before being directed away again, to walk around and around it, sometimes toward and sometimes away from their target, knowing what it is and therefore why they have to jump through whatever hoops and tests of faith are necessary to get there. (Note how it’s not a maze – both medieval and classical labyrinths are unicursal: single involuted paths, designed not as puzzles but as meditations.)

This is the basic structure of any Rod Of 7 Parts type campaign: once you know you need to assemble n parts, it’s up to you to figure out how to fetch them and what the best sequence is to try (hint: do the lowest level one first). It’s absolutely a railroad, and often one where the players have to construct parts the track. Its saving grace is that the players have some freedom about how to do it, maybe digging new tunnels into the final room or fooling someone else into passing tests for them – it doesn’t necessarily matter what they do in an episode as long as they follow the bigger rails of the episodic structure.

If you really sell them on the goal, though, you can get them to hew ever closer to the intent of the railroad. I can hear DMs breathing through their teeth from here, but bear with me.

Torii avenue
Torii gates mark the boundary between mundane and sacred spaces. Which is why they tend to work like stationary TARDISes in anime.

The point of ritual journeys is not so much to cover distance as to change the people undertaking them – to adapt them to the system of an institution. Often they require special cleansing and passages through death and so on in order to allow access to the Sacred Space where the Final Adjustment can be made. That’s why trespassing in Pharaoh’s tomb is so dangerous – partly because you trip the security systems, sure, but mostly because you’re not the right level to be there, you didn’t bring the right passes or armour. According to this scheme, Howard Carter and his friends didn’t know what they were missing, so they punched a crude hole in the cordon sanitaire between worlds and as a result started leaking secret juice. They had to be scrubbed from the mundane for structural reasons. (The way Grim Fandango presents this is rather disappointingly Christian, but maybe it points to a deeper level of initiation: the development team are not Aztecs!) And if you don’t take the long, strait way? Then there are options for dramatic moments of sacrifice – you can’t enter the garden, but you can help someone else go in and bring the paltry gold out, while leaving the mystery inside. Someone purer, more deserving. Maybe your next character. It’s your choice.

Ars Magica has a deracinated version of this Sacred Precinct idea in its regio – a higher level/excited state of a mundane location that only opens on midsummer eve or when you’re holding the hand of a fairy or if you’ve collected the 7 seals. It’s a neat mechanism for putting the end of the campaign right on top of the wizards’ home, where they were always brushing their hats against it but couldn’t access it until they were properly initiated. It allows Ararat to exist simultaneously as a literal lump of rock you can climb to get a nice view, and as a holy mountain, gateway to heaven etc. But it fails to address the bigger point of such sacred-other-spaces: by having to go on the full ritual journey to get there, the players get to understand the significance of whatever’s sacred in the campaign – the stakes, the terms of success or failure, the structure of the game.

Most great epics save this moment of realization for the end because it was what they had to say and once they’ve said it, you should be free to read something else. But as a DM you only have to stop there if you can’t think of anything the players might want to do with their secret knowledge. Effectively, it’s leveling up. If you have another campaign set in the world as it is after The Change, then congratulations, your players will be totally excited to get on with it, having sunk all those costs into being Stage 1 shlubs.


Huis ten BoschThe late 17th century Dutch palace known self-deprecatingly as the Huis ten Bosch offers a neat little map of the political society that built it. It has the same basic structure as the palaces of Louis XIII and XIV, and contemporary English lords, and a whole load of other monarchs, but this one has a geometric purity that makes it all so clear. 

As a 1st level shlub (not a 0-level commoner), you might get invited to a big do in the Grand Ballroom:
and you’ll probably feel like that’s a great and special reward, but it’s only the first step on a long staircase of initiations.
floor plan – the ballroom’s the big cross-shaped space in the middle. Pretty awesome!

Out of the throng of courtiers in the ballroom, only a lucky few get invited up the stairs to the voorkamer – which can afford to look less impressive because the people there know how much more powerful everyone present is. From there, a precious few get to meet the monarch (well, stadhouder) himself, in his bedroom! Which is sweet indeed but nothing compared with being invited into his closet behind it, from which hardly anyone at all – just grand vizier level true intimates – get invited into the little closet behind that.

Leveling up here means smaller scale, deeper secrets, a different view of the realm. To be called for an interview in the little closet and subsequently to leave, unnoticed, via the back stairs means not only that you have the ruler’s full confidence but also that you are yourself secretly a member of the select band of cognoscenti – and anyone who knows it (ie only the useful few) will hang on your every word, attentive as a courtier, ready to fulfill your secret needs. To inhabit this level of society is to pass through a city outside that others do not see, but that they may be able to sense clinging to you.

The initiated recognize you as a regio.

tl:dr –
1. don’t neglect the communicative powers of architecture. If you set your dungeon up to speak to the players about the secrets they can uncover, you will supply them with a line of mission briefings that can support years of play, that the players actively want to unlock.
2. it’s tempting to keep your secrets secret – everyone loves uncovering them and writers (less often, players) love having their expectations overturned when the Big Cheese does a face-heel turn or it turns out it was aliens all along. But those kinds of secrets are only powerful at the moment of revelation. Letting them slip early makes them active parts of the campaign in anticipation. It lets you pile significance onto setbacks and shortcuts, it encourages the players to try to find ways to “cheat,” i.e. find creative solutions.
3. depending on the degree of buy-in your players are feeling, they might be up for a not-cheating path, in order to maximize their initiation level. If that’s the case you can get them to submit to all sorts of arbitrary limitations that will make the game harder and more interesting. What if using violence makes them unclean and locks the doors? What if they have to train a new generation to pass the final lock? What if only someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for can find the key? The hard part of all these tricks is getting the players to really understand them. The fun part is watching them figure our ways to fulfill the requirements.

* OK fine, not the whole society, just the political class.
** This obvious reason is, of course, spurious. Probably. After all, in 1943 when the Pentagon was designed, there were only 4 branches. People who are too smart for this trap often say that the Pentagon is a pentagon because it happened to be built on a 5-sided piece of land, but this was (a) a strange accident, in Pierre l’Enfant’s rigorously geometric plan, and (b) no longer true by the time of construction. It suggests to me that FDR probably knew an Air Force would be set up eventually (optimally after the war, to avoid confusion mid-conflict), but didn’t want to spill this destabilizing plan before it happened. So the building is prophetic – those that had eyes (or clearance) to see, could read the future of the military in its plan.