thoughts toward a flat earth campaign

July 22, 2022 3 comments

Flat Earth theories are inherently conspiratorial: at root they’re not about geography but epistemology. The question on the flatearther’s mind is not so much “why would people believe the obvious lie that the Earth is a spheroid suspended in space?” as “what else could I get people to believe, and what else are They making me believe?” So I propose a new tack on the tired old Flat Earth setting:

1. since nothing can really be known, nothing is really unknown – simple ignorance does not exist. Anything that seems unknown is actually being hidden by a conspiracy. Estimating the size and power of conspiracies is the new scientific method. This ties flat earths to the other major strand in conspiracy theories, aside from the existence of a Big Secret: the reclamation of a Lost Glory. In this case, what’s being reclaimed is the excluded middle, which explains why this stuff is so popular away from the coasts.

2. All countries are rated on a Reality Scale. Australia scores 80% reality, America only 10%‡, due to its greater wealth and consequent conspiratorial clout. There is a schism over whether this means Americans only use 10% of their America. A low reality rating might seem like a problem, but it’s actually a disruptive opportunity – any unreality you have is up for exploitation, because if nobody’s sure if it exists, then anything could be there! Which attracts Venture Capitalists, the unreality miners par excellence. Celebrities declaring you a hoax or appearing on the Discovery Channel can drastically lower your reality rating, which is the secret reason why both things exist. Also, your reality rating is the same as your % in lair stat, ie how much of a shut-in you are.

3. the following Earths exist simultaneously, in mutual contra(mis)di(re)ction:

a. Flat America and its rivals, among which John George Abizaid’s version makes it clear why America and Europe, being in the Goldilocks zone for solar visitation, are naturally the most industrious of nations;

b. Flat China,± extending out to the ends of the universe in space and time:

c. Hollow Earth, which is all wuxia inside;

d. Diatomaceous Earth, which is full of glass;

e. Mathematically perfect(ly flat) Earth, which it turns out might’ve been a Hollow Earth in the past?!? According to the last link:

1) Atlantis is really a history of the pre-diluvian HOLE world.
2) In the beggining, all was made geometricaly perfect.
3) The world we have today is just a “reck” of that ancient world, after big cataclisms.”

…see? Flat Earth = lost continents = Lost Glorious Past. It’s mathematical.

f. Realpodean Earth, in which New Zealand occupies the map space that’s usually labeled North America. On this Earth, Guadalcanal has a mysterious gate complex that allows you to “tunnel through” to Europe or America, whichever is more politically influential at the time. Nobody has any idea what that means.

4. since map projections are no longer a problem, each projection is also a competing Earth. The big ones are:

f. Mercator Earth, with a gigantic Greenland, which is why we should stop worrying about global planar warming;

g. Polar Earth, mounted on a pole (see c);

h. Dymaxion Earth, which is constantly reworking its map projection and therefore has very unpredictable sea cargo delivery times.

All the map Earths have a big white border around the outside to hold the oceans in (maybe, say the philosophers, the same white border). The Illuminating Sages have sent expeditions to the corners, hoping to find the Page Number, which will give us some lower limit on how many other universes there are.

Chris Koeberle offers:

I imagine there must also be a panoply of Atlas Earths, with pageomancers who can instantly transport themselves to the facing page, or after much study to a page of the same number in a different volume. And sometimes you have to pay a license fee to visit a copyright trap.
Traveling to the equator or Equal Area (minimum) to transit to Mercator, then making the nigh-infinite trek almost to the poles, where you can make the dizzying leap to Equal Area (maximum)

So you see, the conspiracy really consists of refusing to turn the page. Although doing so would also test whether gravity is local to the page or fixed on some external coordinates.

Trying to cross the middle of any Atlasworld always involves traversing the Gutter, where things frequently get lost.

The wildest academic speculations involve the fabled Registration Marks, which appear off the edge of every page. In theory you could use them to travel to any other page in any other atlas, but only off the edge of that other page, as well. This is either wonderfully powerful or completely useless, depending on who you’re talking to/how much they’ve had to drink.

‡ there are no percentages below 10% and no numbers below 1: zero and negative numbers are a banking conspiracy.
± yeah I know the link says SEAsia, but the old Middle Kingdom idea of China is absolutely a Solar polity, which is to say, exactly like a Galactic polity except it’s unwilling to acknowledge other power centers.

Made it this far? Have some flatearther maps:

The new classic, populated with lost continents galore, a readymade kitchen sink setting – kitchen sink because those tend to have flat bottoms. Note the multiple suns and moons (doubled, so that the black moon can sometimes sneak in front of the white one, creating the monthly phases we see). Consider how gravity works, and what keeps the suns and moons up in the sky. Wonder about what happens really when they set and rise, and how long the nights must be in Gonoria. And wonder who would admit to coming from Gonoria.
Does this version seem less ambitious to you, tailing off into unknowns? But look at the obvious projection distortion of Odin! That takes some special kind of boldness, to just throw that in there.
A rather pedestrian Lost Continent of Mu, nonetheless handy for linking together all those intolerably isolated bits of Oceania. And in case you thought this Pacific Sunken Continent thing was just a Euro-American fetish, here – have an Indonesian Lost Glorious Past conspiracy.

The PCs are a faction

July 8, 2022 Leave a comment

How do you get the players to pay attention to the world? Learn its history, take an interest in its lore, care what happens to it?

This perennial question prompted some useful philosophy from Jacinto. It also made me realize that I have a basic assumption behind the games I run, which is apparently not common and which changes everything:

All my games are domain games from day one. The PCs are a faction in the world: if they have treasures, someone will come for them. If they build something, it will be used. They need to defend their stuff, they would do well to get a home base, and they are never invulnerable between adventures.

And that made me realize that the basic assumptions of a lot of campaigns are the opposite: you are drifters, crossing a world without friends. Of course you are not farmers or other regular workers! You have no families or dependents – you are free agents. You enter situations where the locals have a problem, and now it’s your adventure – but not exactly your problem, in that you can walk away both from the situation AND from the aftermath of your actions.

Adventure texts sometimes say these things explicitly. More frequently they just assume them. And as Jacinto points out, those assumptions frame the action of the game in a way that fundamentally affects its problem space. Without any practical, mechanical, formal constraint on the players’ tactical infinity, it nonetheless structures the constraints on what the players will think of doing.

Why do adventurers tend to be disconnected drifters? I don’t know. Maybe so they don’t need complicated back-stories, maybe so they can enact eucatastrophes without demanding a new social contract from the beneficiaries. Patrick Stuart recently pointed out that this “heroic” social disconnection goes all the way back to the mists of proto-Indo-European myth:

A key point for us is that killing the son, in Indo-European terms, is like ‘killing the parents’ in children’s fiction; it enables the adventure.

Sane parents stop their children going on adventures so for the story, or game, to happen, and for the Hero to happen, they need to be missing, powerless, incompetent or dead. (Like most Disney parents).

Likewise the D&D adventurer will ultimately ‘age out’, (though in practice they remain near-psychotic self-driven loners in otherwise communal societies), but if they were real they would probably gain families and embed themselves in a socio-political milieux, as people tend to do as they age.
How then may they adventure? You can do socio-political court dramas, but how can they meat-and-potatoes, risk-and-exploration adventure?

…by accidently killing their son and/or heir in tragic and fated circumstances, this then ending their ‘family line’ (assuming a patriarchal society) this disconnects them from the world of line-building, politics and embedded power structures

Mechanically, early/BX D&D both leans very heavily on these assumptions and reinforces them – the rules work hard to avoid characters having any necessary social position.
To review:
– a D&D PC has a solitary mechanical reward structure built in: success yields xps (exact mechanism debated), xps yield levels, levels yield bigger encounters (whether those are selected by the DM or players). Nothing in this loop depends on a wider world or society – it’s treated as a sort of natural growth;
– a dungeon is a placeless place: a sealed environment that usefully does not leak into the wider world, where normal society is suppressed in favour of the critical moving parts of protagonist, monster, treasure;
– dungeons often contain their own powerups and debuffs – magic items, potions, time-based healing, daily spell recharges, sometimes even shops and wandering henchmen, allowing players to remain at the coalface of risks and rewards. It is true that many published adventures work to tie the dungeon to a wider world – or at least a village/resupply depot – but the mechanical language supporting indefinite dungeon-clearing has been present in the D&D rulebooks at least since b/x. (Video games have leaned into these mechanisms, often jettisoning any world-building outside their core violence/acquisition loops. It is remarkable that they did not have to invent anything other than the pieces in the D&D books in order to do so.)

And there are genre justifications: D&D is often described as a Western exactly because it’s full of High Plains Drifters…. while at the same time facing perennial complaints about how Drifter PCs tend to believe like Clint-Eastwoodish murderhobos (instead of, presumably, John Waynish lawmen?). If you attack this as a moral problem rather than a structural one, by tying the lifeways of The Drifter to a separate value system of helpful heroism, you get the “A-Team” – outsider PCs who repeatedly meet the locals, catalyze change, and move on. Which raises the question: “if you’ve made this place a little better than the rest of the dirty world, why do you leave?” Murderhobos have their answer built in – their actions make them fugitives. To achieve the same result, the 80s A-Team had to import an unjust, implacable enemy in the form of the US government. Back in the 50s the White Hat Drifter just gazed off across the desert and declaimed that he had to keep moving, but that kind of genre emulation is a heavy lift when the players have already invested lots of play time in learning about the corrupt lord in the castle and the villainous duke across the valley and the finishing school for Distressing Damsels that was always being raided by goblins until the PCs neutralized them.

Oh, right. The point at the top of this post: why should the PCs care about the world’s lore? Well, if it’s implicit that the lore will only be relevant to the current fight, that next month the PCs will be off to some new troll-pit… yeah, that disincentivizes taking too much interest in local affairs. The problem is not just that the lore has to justify its importance to the selfish PCs’ deeper mechanical/structural quest for levels, it’s that the players’ idea of their characters is of people who are fundamentally disconnected, whose interests do not naturally engage the world, but instead have to be excited by some novel and limited opportunity (something that can be mapped).

So……… OK, but what if the PCs weren’t drifters? Are you not then locked into “socio-political court dramas” (like Vampire)?


First, let’s take Vikings. None more adventurey, right?
Vikings are farmers.
They vote in local councils over, like, building and fishing rights. And they also go viking – they choose to leave their farms behind and go cattle-raiding across the sea, probably a few times each year. Certainly often enough that some of them can do it full time. The treasure they bring back translates straight into political power, bargaining advantage and marriage prospects. And then they need more of it.

The Timawa of the southern Philippines are a lot like Vikings, but with more of a formal social role as the warrior/raiding arm of an otherwise more settled society. Treasure can get them promotions to noble rank, which would otherwise be cut off to them, since they’re (mostly) second sons who won’t inherit the family farm. They’re explicitly not farmers themselves but still, they adventure from a stable home (farm) base, with a respectable social position.

“But these are mere pirates! We want heroes!”
Well, they’re heroes to their own people. If you’re playing a fantasy game, one of the great affordances of fantasy (maybe its defining characteristic) is its ability to paint your rivals as universal threats and the protagonists as noble defenders.

If the people the PCs raid are actually strong enough to be an existential threat to the PCs’ way of life, how is that different from points of light D&D? For an example, check out the Mappillas of the Malabar Coast of India – denounced as pirates by the Portuguese in the 16th century (while the Portuguese were stealing the Mappillas’ established trade routes), celebrated as anti-colonial freedom fighters by post-independence Indian historians. (Sadly, for a gameable hoard of info on these guys you’d need to search academic references, because wikipedia doesn’t really cover the discourse that calls them “pirates” or talk about their military operations. Instead it just talks about how the Portuguese sailed up and started attacking them – perhaps a useful redress of colonial attitudes, but not so handy for writing RPGs.)

More familiar maybe to D&D heads, yer ancient Greek heroes – Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts – was often heads of households who dropped their ploughs to pick up spears, going adventuring for years at a time. They’re classic Drifters (on the wine-dark sea), sure, but their call to adventure does not cancel their social integration: they’re still playing the domain game, expecting to return home and reap the benefits of their victories, their favours, divine and profane. While out adventuring, they represent their home peoples among the foreigners. They are engaged in socio-political courting right as they’re heisting Golden Fleeces. And they’re making a web of social contracts with the people they meet, help and frustrate, keeping maps and records of the challenges they face and of those they postpone until such time as they can get a good crew together, one that could e.g. steal a queen or end a long-running war.

Having a domain – resources, commitments, reputation – they have something to lose, which makes their defeats as interesting as their victories. If they hear there’s a magic sword in the area, they want it, not just to use it themselves, but also to stop the villainous neighbouring lord from getting it. They have an active self-interest in understanding the world around them and ferreting out its secrets, because those secrets may actively interfere with their plans. Oh yeah, and they have plans, maybe even long-term ones, which need to be informed by intel – “lore,” if you want to distinguish it from the more immediately instrumental knowledge of maps or weapon stores. How trustworthy is the nomad chief? Should they ally with the religious zealots or the greedy traders? What will happen if they break the dam and reveal the old, flooded temple? Are there factions they don’t know about, interested in the fortunes of the goblins? The costs of ignorance could be devastating.

If the GM is keeping a lively world going, then just securing and maintaining the domain (from outsiders, mutineers, or ancient land curses) is a challenge that requires planning. Expanding it, or moving to the greener grass across the valley, or making it an important hub among the kingdoms – those are challenges fit for a campaign – ones that require knowledge as well as muscle power.

Have you tried ANT? A response to Marcia’s “OSR is Dead” post

June 3, 2022 12 comments

I don’t usually indulge in talking about “the scene” or categories like OSR or Storygamers, but this article was so nicely and lucidly written that I couldn’t help worrying about its theoretical underpinnings.

I should explain my own stake: even though I don’t consider myself part of the OSR, I find it a useful category more than a constricting one: if a game or group describes itself as OSR then it gives me some loose ideas about what it’s interested in – what Tom McGrenery calls “fantasy non-fiction,” where you’re not here for “writer’s room” play or some pre-written fiction so much as the range of possibilities for how a situation could evolve exclusively through having PCs interact with it. Where problems will kill you unless you try to anticipate their particular challenges. Where things are probably more or less compatible with B/X DnD. As a writer, I think my constellation of interests is more likely to find an audience among OSR players than other well-known categories.

So reading that the OSR is “dead” (again) or should be dead is not really welcome news for me. Happily, I think reports of its death are again greatly exaggerated, partly for reasons of humanities theories, partly because of simple social mechanisms.

  1. Harman’s “object oriented epistemology” might not be the best fit for describing something as loose and debatable as “the OSR.” Marcia concludes that Harman is naive for putting faith in some discursive constructs that aren’t really real – but if those discursive constructs include identity formation – the identity of “being in the OSR,” for instance – then she’s implicitly using a false consciousness argument against anyone who identifies themselves with the OSR. If the OSR doesn’t really exist, then neither do is adherents – or at least they’re mistaken in thinking there’s a movement there.
    But there are other theories for describing loosely-knit communities of thought, which do not get so hung up on whether the group agrees within itself on its own definition. The OSR might be better described by one of these. EG:
    (a) Ben Anderson’s idea of the “imagined community” describes a social category (eg a nation or ethnic group or community of interest) that people identify with, that is understood to be separate from other categories (ie nation/ethnicity/sect/identity A is separate from nation/ethnicity/sect/identity B), but that does not have to be more coherent than that, in order to have self-identifying members. Anderson’s main focus is on how the idea of a nation or ethnicity gets propagated and used by political actors: individuals appoint themselves as spokespeople for the group in order to imagine it in detail for the rest, generally excluding some of the people who were previously imagining themselves as part of it. That seems relevant to the OSR.
    (b) Actor-Network Theory deals with how connected bit and pieces of technology and ideas and people can organize themselves into working groups, in order to achieve certain effects. In this theory, people and abstract ideas are on the same level in deciding who/what is part of the network, which is collectively imagined. Big networks must be simpler than small ones/individuals, because they rely on being imagined by their constituent members in mutually-compatible ways). Individuals who appoint themselves as representatives/leaders of the network must put forward simple ideas that the whole actor-network can follow.
    Neither of these ideas requires a common understanding of the community so imagined, both of them allow for something more like first language acquisition from community adherents, who are individuals who find a thing called OSR and decide whether it’s for them, without needing to be paid up members of a sort of club of agreements.
  2. The OSR can be understood as a resistance movement. Resistance is defined primarily by what it resists or, groups that define themselves in resistance/opposition to some existing entity don’t need/don’t tend to produce strong self-definitions – their bonds of cohesion depend first on their opposition. This is a classic issue for all resistance movements: “what is the Left?” or “who is a true revolutionary?” are the standard questions that bedevil movements the minute they’re not being shot at by the Right/reactionaries. The OSR started as a break-away from the direction of published DnD: “let’s do our own thing instead!” Constant arguing over what that other thing might be is, I would argue, a sign of a healthy resistance. And unlike, say, Maoism, the OSR can have a successful life as something other than a unified movement: so long as an individual table of players can form a temporary community of thought around an idea, they can generate a play culture.
    This last point goes in direct opposition to what Marcia says about “those first grognards.”
    “At first glance” she says “there is not much going on with these folks on a productive level; any materials being made were mostly adventure modules and maybe house rules, rather than any introspective work on what exactly they liked about these games or what they wanted to see more of.” – she regards the latter self-reflective work as “a proper play culture,” more than than “just playing the game” – but, notably, one of the big tenets I’ve seen in OSR discussions is that you should in the first place “just play the game.” Dissing that seems like dissing the OSR without addressing it.
  3. once you make a category like OSR, people will use it, outside your control. Marcia notes this, but doesn’t follow through with the corollary, that they’ll apply it to you whether you agree or not. Exactly this happened, btw, with postmodernism and a set of authors with which Marcia seems to be only partly familiar (Deleuze, for starters, and his fellow admirers of Lacan, but also Foucault and Derrida and so on – many of the people who have since been ascriptively labeled “Cultural Marxists” by various right-wing hacks).
    So, in spite of Marcia’s plea to stop using the term, it will continue to be used (for at least another 20 years, if it follows postmodernism’s trajectory). And if you feel like resisting the magnetic pull of D&D’s published output, then you might want to have some sort of term to identify other people who also feel like resisting. And if you don’t try to own the term, then it will only be owned by people unfriendly to it – like “Cultural Marxism,” which was invented by right-wingers, has no defenders, and is therefore an ideal whipping boy for right-wing writers – the fact that there’s no there there does not matter, a fact that should be familiar to anyone who trawled through Imagined Communities or ANT, above. Or anyone who lived through the past 10 years of US politics.

So overall, I think I’d prefer not to kill the OSR just yet.

The Ritual

February 5, 2022 1 comment

Talking about Victor Turner yesterday gave me an idea.

Once a year, at the summer solstice, those mages sufficiently trained in the Hidden and True Arts may ascend the Holy Mountain and conduct a ritual, which has the power to change the fundamental workings of the world. For each sufficiently trained mage that takes part, one word may be uttered in the Original Language. The sentence that these words make up becomes true at the end of the shortest night, so that the people of the world may marvel at its working through the longest day. Only one mage utters the sentence, and then that mage’s voice is lost, forever.

There are few sufficiently trained mages and they are all highly suspicious of one another, so it has been many years since a ritual took place that was both substantive and widely approved. Two mages were able to augur “Caesar drowns,” but they could not recruit a third who would trust them enough to add “today.” The three mages who decreed “monkeys can fly” were regarded as both imprudent and carelessly incomplete: they neglected to impart to monkeys the will or urge to fly, so they remain (mostly) bound to their trees.

Still, the ritual stirs powerful hopes and fears. The sufficiently trained mages of some lands are feted and treated with lavish courtesy. In other lands they are killed on sight. They are almost always held prisoner in one way or another. Except, it is said, for a secret order of mages who live somewhere on or in the mountain, who have sworn to counter any sufficiently dangerous sentence.

Melasti/Temple Procession. Ketut Parwita Bali, 52-72 cm. Paper, 2000. From

An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

February 5, 2022 1 comment

In discussions following the previous post, I realized that I never really explained why I wasn’t happy with writing magic into my games. (this is pretty self-indulgent and all about me, me, me. Fair warning.)

Magic can absolutely offer a coherent system, separate from the regular systems of the game, just like another branch of technology. Why not? Paolo offers: “I’m not sure if wonder is required. Wise folk do not wonder at magic as much as mundanes, maybe at some point of experience and learning you become wise to all the ways of the world and stop wonder altogether.”

I’m happy to play games on that basis, but I’m not happy to design that way. If the magic in my games feels like that, I will wonder why I am not just using an easier-to-understand technological explanation. More, I will feel like I’m cheating the magical of its full potential. Adding magic tends to break the tension of simple tactical situations, which I love as a (sometimes) historical gamer. As Chris K put it, “If what you really want is a deep investigation of tactics, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t want something to disrupt the intuition of those tactics unless it gave you something more worthwhile than that intuition.”

So then Paolo got me to read a bit about Daniel Dennett and taking an intentional stance on the world, which is essentially what we do when we think we’re dealing with another thinking agent. And that held a side-note that encapsulates what I think the cost of including magic is…

“Eleanor Rosch [argued for] the “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”. Rosch argues that, implicit within any system of categorization, are the assumptions that: (a) the major purpose of any system of categorization is to reduce the randomness of the universe by providing “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, and (b) the real world is structured and systematic, rather than being arbitrary or unpredictable. Thus, if a particular way of categorizing information does, indeed, “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, it can only do so because the structure of that particular system of categories corresponds with the perceived structure of the real world”.

Up to now, I have considered magic and technology to be functionally identical in fiction – they have inputs and outputs. They may operate on separate systems inside the fiction, they may have different organizing principles, but from a stance outside the fiction, that’s just window dressing: you can reskin one as the other and proceed.*
1. “it’s magic” generally ends arguments, while “it’s science” starts them. “Magic” is a sufficient explanation or rather a signal that no further explanation will be given.
2. it is therefore generally impossible to see all the way around a magical explanation: the magicness leads out of view, which means there is some part of the situation which cannot be fully grasped/operationalized/made predictable. It is always narratively acceptable, because it is already anticipated, that magic may be turned against the user, because the user (and audience) never fully understands what they are doing.

So magical explanations never “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.” Instead they add a cost of difficulty involved in imagining them and communicating them, with their full implications and use cases. This is essential to those “devil’s bargain” or “three wishes” stories: the bargainer never really understands what they’re agreeing to.

Rosch’s “maximum information with the least cognitive effort” strikes me as especially important in RPGs, where everyone is being asked to imagine hard and operationally all the time, and even more important in online games, with their limited duration, thin channels for communication, and uncertain levels of attention. A grenade has a great information/effort ratio: the player knows what it does and has a strong sense of the limits of their knowledge (“just how far do I have to throw this thing to be safe from it? I dunno. So it’s a risk”). A vaguely-worded spell at least costs more effort to parse out and probably also has unknown unknowns, even after the player thinks they understand it.

And that’s why I am so happy to find a payoff to declaring a game token to be magical, rather than technological.

* My son objects that I have now twisted the words magic and tech so far that nobody else uses them the way I do, but I think the way I used to use them was flabby and uninformative. In the Dennett link, above, the word “aboutness” is used. And I can see that it’s an annoying word – I had to look it up to understand it – but I can also see how a polyvalent and vague word like “meaning” would just cause confusion in the discussion they’re having.


Here: Alex offered a really neat method:

“So my version of surprising magic, which I used in a campaign a few years ago, was that mages could develop new spells out of words of the names of spells they already knew. When they created the spell, they would write down what they wanted it to do. I would not read their version, but would develop my own (usually slightly ironic) interpretation of the name, which I would write on an index card and put aside. There were a few basic guidelines about, eg., how damage or bonuses could scale, but beyond that they had carte blanche and spells were level-less. (There was an understanding that if anything seemed truly busted we would talk through it.) When the player first cast the spell, and not before, they would test their magic lore skill to see if they had designed it properly. If they succeeded, they would use their version; if they failed, they would use mine.”
…and that could be refined by having the loser of the dice contest add a twist/modification, so it’s always a hybrid.

An example from play:
Player: my spell is called “summon places”.
Me: ok, write down what it does.
We each spend about a minute jotting down our idea.
Some time later, she says: I cast summon places.
Me: Roll arcana.
She rolls arcana and fails.
We flip my card: Chunks of architecture fall from the sky.
In real life we stopped here, but for the sake of thinking it through let’s add a step where she’s able to work in an idea from her card.
Player: my card says it allows me to travel to a given place, it’s a teleport spell.
Me: ok, chunks of that place are falling from the sky. Which place did you target for this casting?
Player: oh. The vampire’s castle…
Me: welp

…this whole discussion would’ve been better handled as a comic in the series “philosophers play D&D.” Since it wasn’t, I can only offer by way of apology a scene where Basil Fawlty misuses the intentional stance:

On the difference between magic and technology

February 4, 2022 2 comments

I’ve wrestled for decades with Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It seems true. It definitely contains a nugget of wisdom. It’s a license to Space Opera to your heart’s content. But for writers of fantasy games it leaves a giant, nightmarish question:
“so what’s magic for, then? What’s special about it?”

I maybe take Clarke’s quote to heart more than most. I have a hard time drawing hard lines between magic and tech – to me, netrunning in Cyberpunk looks like a magical activity: nobody around the table really knows how the engineering works (especially in the game world, which is always slightly ahead of our own). You can effectively run it just like a divinatory trip to fairyland or a religious ritual, which has concrete effects in the mundane world. And it shares the basic structure of rituals – while you are in cyberspace, the normal rules are suspended and a new (maybe inverted, maybe logically consistent but alien) world holds sway.* You return with privileged knowledge from your encounter with the Deep and Secret – either revelations about how the world has always worked or a change you’ve made in the programming layer, which is now manifested down here in Everyday Praxis.

But if that’s a reliable technology, a skill the players can deploy at will, then how is it different from Library Use?
Shouldn’t there be something extra about magic? Some wonder? Isn’t it cooler to be a wizard (or hacker) than a middle manager?**
DCC’s answer to this is magic is dangerous and unpredictable, which is great as far as it goes (in particular it makes players grateful for what they get out of magic, rather than dissatisfied and ambitious regarding ways they might exploit it) – but then it’s really just a risky technology, like early explosives. “The wizard’s going to do their thing? OK everyone, retire to a safe distance. Wait and see if it works” (and that’s one of the great vices of netrunning, as done back in the 80s: it’s an interlude in the game where all the non-hackers are not needed around the table).
Mage’s answer (and Ars Magica’s, to a lesser extent) is magic is a special skill system, where you get to invent new skills/effects on the fly. Which is super cool, and sits right on the bridge between Old School concrete reality and Storygame negotiated worlds – here is a particular moment where you get to author part of the rules. ApocWorld players are probably yawning right now, but it gets at the realization I’ve just had this week. Finally.

Magic is the capacity to add surprise.

Like the deus ex machina of Greek theater is a surprise (and hated by Aristotle for it), it suddenly provides an alternative path to the one everyone’s expecting. It turns away from the predictable course.
Magicians in fiction are generally exceptional and unexpected in their fictional worlds. They herald a power outside the control of other people. Even D&D’s rather staid one-spell-a-day MUs are a novel threat because you don’t know what spell they have until it’s happened. And (early) D&D explicitly doesn’t let them keep doing it. You get one shot of lightning, not a handgun. The spirit of surprise is in there, even if it’s not always actually surprising in play.

Surprise. The ability to surprise the enemy, the other players, the DM.
I reckon if your magic isn’t surprising, it’s just technology (and would be better represented as such, so it can be fully understood by player tacticians).

Now that we know this, what can we do with it?

1. Learn from theater. If a deus ex machina just manufactures a happy ending and cancels the drama that comes before it, that’s a horrible audience experience. But a deus ex machina that heightens the drama or opens up implications for where things could go next? That’s like an achievement unlocked.

2. Maybe build surprise into the systems, so that the magic always catches the players and DM a bit off guard. Draw a tarot card (or an oblique strategy) and apply its implications on top of your intended effect. Allow a bit of player narration, if that’s not part of your usual toolchest, or ask someone uninvolved for something extra that happens, incidental to the intended payload. Magic systems that come down to bargaining with NPCs are always good, because the NPC can demand something in return – maybe something deferred. And you could roll on reaction tables, to see where this relationship will go next. Whole adventures can come out of these debts – or massive complications to the current adventure (“I see you’re rescuing a princess. Get me her brother.” Or “I’ve always hated their vizier – he’s a wizard, you know. Kill him for me, but you can’t involve me.” Or “all that treasure you’re collecting needs to be poured into the hole in the sea, or the world will drown.”).

3. Don’t be afraid of being excessive in adding surprises. They’re supposed to be uncontainable in the common order of things. When Tolkien wrote Bilbo’s ring into The Hobbit, it was just supposed to be a ring of invisibility – an extra secret, that Gandalf foreshadowed (“He’s an excellent burglar, even if he doesn’t know it himself”). Maybe Gandalf selected Bilbo through divination, but the birds didn’t tell him why Bilbo was the right choice. That’s magic for you. It’s a license to go further than anyone expects.

ETA: I added a post that explains why I think magic needs this extraness. If you don’t need it, don’t read it.

* I could go on about liminality and the enhanced status of the nerd, but that’s more about the ’80s origins of Cyberpunk than anything relevant here today.
** This essay brought to you by my reading China Mieville’s The Scar, which taught me that what I really despise is magic that is just another technology. When the metallurgists in The Scar want super strong chains they call in thaumaturges to add an extra layer of magitech and I just don’t care in fact I am physically repulsed. It feels like such a waste of imaginative potential. The wonder that Mieville’s missing is right there in that word: “thaumat-urge” – “wonder-worker.” And thauma literally comes down to “a thing to look at,” from the same root as “theater” – the place where you go to be enchanted. Where you’re willing to accept a deus ex machina. Also, thanks to Adam Thornton, this no longer says “cooler than a plumber,” because as he pointed out, plumbing is deep wizardry.
*** I can’t leave without posting Inosuke pulling a perfect deus ex machina. Magic.

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.