A comment on G+ reminded me of a little bugbear I have with almost all RPG settings:
they tend to have in-built resistance to change. Whether it’s “points of light” or Battletech’s unending, entropic war or even Traveller’s Star Trek – like trawl through multiple tech levels, actual innovation that changes the world is avoided. In fact I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of more-or-less medieval settings is that the “medieval” state is (popularly) perceived to be one of stability and stagnation.
Why do we love that so much?
Maybe there’s an elective affinity here with adventure yarns – a static background helps the hero’s dynamism really stand out. The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or square-jawed Earthling sportsman on Mongo gets to inject his specialness into the passive fantasy world and get validation from it in playtime. The active protagonist’s works can then be isolated and recognized. Or maybe it’s the value that a dynamic community of players gets out of reliably being in sync – we can play DnD or Firefly without much preparation because we’re all on the same page on all important issues right from the start. It’s pretty clear how that’s an advantage for commercial considerations – splatbooks and the like.
Maybe it’s that a static world requires the least metagame knowledge, of the course on which things might change if they were going to change. Lots of video games use some variant on the invention tree to model technological change through the course of play time (an idea which probably traces its origins back equally to Trav’s tech levels (with their logical progression of this before that) and some kind of evolutionary schema), but these things are lame in a tabletop RPG because they short-circuit tactical infinity. And maybe it’s part of the social contract of participating in a world that doesn’t have cellphones – that the players agree not to use their own knowledge to invent them because they accept that the world won’t accommodate them (but if the world might change, then…).
But. If we take history as our guide, then the eras that offer the greatest opportunities to Conan it up from zero to hero are the ones where old systems are being disrupted, where instead of just bobbing along in the tide of human events you can steer a little. Aren’t those potentially the most rewarding campaigns? Ones where you don’t have to stop at becoming king of a province, but might actually change the whole political process and be responsible for saving the serfs from serfdom (or for plunging them into damnation)? Hollywood superheroes tend to be devoted to rescuing the status quo from change but a game doesn’t have to follow suit, right?
So here’s a little metagame knowledge about Tartary (a dangerous thing, for sure), in response to +Stephan Hillenbrand’s critique of primitive post-apocalism in general, to act perhaps as a spur to players’ ambitions. First the critique:
“LosTech” is something I tend to find a rather boring excuse for a stagnating setting. I don’t think people would be in the dark about how a diesel engine works for more than a few months when they have a running example of one lying in front of them, waiting to be dissected.
Also, at least some of the people who understand how trains work should survive any apocalypse. It’s not rocket science, really.
In Tartary there are several obstacles to reforming the world, none of them insurmountable but all of them significant.
First, people are constantly at war. They don’t share information. The size/population of individual cities is limited, so there are limits to the technological work any one of them can do. So a unifier could abruptly change the situation, and something like early 20th century technology could be widely available in short order.
But there are a few other wrinkles to deal with, which actively mess with the effort to settle on a stable scientific paradigm on which disruptive technologies could be based:
1 the physical rules of the universe seem to be a moving target – sometimes visibly as the Weird blows through. Basic devices work reliably, but the more a technology becomes a “black box” the less reliable it becomes. The corollary to this is,
2 “magic” (that is, ways of manipulating the world that are not susceptible to ready explanation) offers a shortcut but one that’s unpredictable, dangerous and encourages secrecy. In practice nobody can resist it because the potential payoff in the short term is wonderful, but it always screws everything up long term, to the extent that
3 it sometimes seems like there’s somebody “up there” keeping things from developing too far, messing with experimental results, putting their thumb on the scale, adding gremlins to devices that get too successful. The really reliable magitech tends to be found rather than made or adapted. Periodically somebody will observe that technologies that render people passive (eg television receivers) tend to be more reliable than those that allow you to actively shape the world (eg recording cameras), but this contention has been made by so many paranoid, power-grubbing mountebanks (with or without funny accents) that nobody serious pays it any mind.
4 there are powerful vested interests who are known to be actively working against large infrastructure projects. There’s no visible Emperor Ming keeping all the princes at each other’s throats but there are nomad hordes and sorcerers and trade networks who profit from the status quo – essentially the buggy whip manufacturers guild has a very good school of assassins in the back.
Which is all to say that the right enterprising gang of revolutionaries could turn this setting on its head. If they could successfully identify and neutralize the players who are working to keep it… the way up it is now.
I don’t like Westerns.*
OK, that’s not quite true (put down those carbines, Cole Long and Ken Hite) – it’s really just the cliches of Westerns I don’t like.
Oh, really? You don’t like cliches? Well, actually it’s the cliche ecology of Westerns I don’t like. I love me some steely-eyed preachers if they show up in the ghost-haunted Philippines or Interzone; I’m OK with vodou-loa-busting gunslingers. I can even bear a posse if it consists of Makassarese pirates and spirit mediums. Shift the basically-Western narrative to Barsoom and I’m delighted. But the Western has worn such a deep groove through its own ingredients that my eyes just glaze over if a new sheriff rides into town and a posse rides out and a steely-eyed preacher spits baccy juice before delivering some tough-guy homily.
But there is a thing the Western brings that I do like. That I would like to see in some games out here in the DnD-circling multiverse. For me, the take-home message of the Western** is:
it’s up to you to make the world better.
And the Western is peculiarly well-pointed to deliver this message: everyone (that matters) in the Western has the same upbringing, which features a hefty dose of scriptural Right and Wrong – so everyone knows what they should be doing, but the defining feature of the Wild West is that the Law is weak so, shorn of the steel embrace of society’s strictures, we get to see whether people will deal with each other in a way that makes everyone’s life better or worse (and it’s usually worse).
The default case with DnD is essentially the same minus the assumed moral background, which is replaced with a hard-wired, zero-sum acquisition = destiny leveling up mechanic, which promises More and Bigger game and in-game status only and always at the expense of other characters in the world.*** So it becomes mighty surprising if anybody ever decides to do anything to improve anyone else’s lot.
This morning Jason Kielbasa said he’s concluded that his new game, Dust (mythical 1930s American great depression game) should be a game about carving out areas of optimism in a world of depression.
I would play that game. It’s the good part of the Western, just slightly divorced from the Western! Even better, if the Depression is a brief hiatus in the building of the great Foucauldian socio-legal machine, it represents a narrow window where you could try to carve out your safe haven in the wilderness, against the BBEGs of hunger and banditry and gubmint and the nascent interfering Feds and the bootleggers and the preventive-men and the cops and the robbers and the cowboys and the indians – you could try to build a better way – and then try to defend it in all the conceivable ways such different utopias would be attacked, by the resettling of the Leviathan on the land through the second half of the 30s.****
I’d even play a paladin in that setting, because as a paladin you’d actually have something to do beside enact violence on competing philosophies. You could do some good.
* obviously this doesn’t apply to High Plains Drifter.
** Messrs Hite and Tynes will tell you that one of the dominant themes of the Western is the Way of the Gun: one does not wish to pick up the tool of death because in doing so one relinquishes one’s civilisation, but somebody has to do it, and forever after they are tainted by it – civilisation must be defended but it cannot encompass those who must be so uncivilised as to do what is needed to defend it. That’s cool too, but it doesn’t help to shift a game that’s already about murderhobos away from the murderhoboing into any other activity.
*** hence the term “monster,” which means “unperson from which you may take without tarnishing your Lawful Good crown,” and hence also the boundary-probing orc babies encounter in Keep on the Borderlands, which seems designed to test how far you’re willing to buy into the implicit moral framework of the game. Carcosa of course makes hay with – and derives much of its power from – this categorizing game, by allowing PCs to be explicitly as monstrous as anything else while, with its 13 colours of men, making the lines between “human” and “humanoid” less certain.
**** look I’m just going to assume you know what I mean by all this Foucauldian/Leviathan stuff, OK? Otherwise I’ll have to post a syllabus on the end of this, and that will spoil the whole joke. The kreplach thing is a Pynchon reference, which I’m not going to explain further here.
Bonus reward for reading this far: this is what Carcosa Wacky Races looks like 200 years after the original race, after a massive influx of funding and materiel from all over the flailsnails multiverse has turned Carcosa into a Las Vegas tourist trap/paradise version of its former self, and its electroradiant hellscape has been declared a UNESCO multiversal treasure. The pilots of these sleek, polished rocketshells like to wax nostalgic about the old Burning Man spirit of the early races. Somehow, they say, the old adventure has gone out of the event.
Toynbee convector offers an extract on the extraordinary bravery of some exterminated Inca.*
If I were running a smart-ass Vancian or Lieberian 4-colour fantasy I would certainly include Goblin and Kobold bards who sang the bitter defeats and astonishing sacrifices of their brethren into immortality. I would have the self-righteous humans pick these songs up on broadsheets and propagate them, sometimes changing the names or fitting them to their own tragedies of war, sometimes rendering them as romances or fantasies, sometimes simply repeating them verbatim and adopting their heroes as universal icons. They’d be chanted on playgrounds and chain gangs. Maybe these laments would not be accepted in the salons of power until they’d been gussied up, arranged for string band and majestic horns, their themes all but submerged in a layered, repetitive formalism. Maybe nobody would know that the Marcus Garvey or Che Guevara or Olaudah Equiano of my world was a Kobold, maybe they’d know but it wouldn’t matter. Maybe none of that would change the humans’ genocidal urges.
Alas, I missed scurvy awareness day.
While I’m tilting at sacred cows, here‘s a nice analysis of the British royal family as a brand. I actually think none of the four worlds the author describes is quite the one we live in, each of them could be a nice graft onto your own snoozing former empire.
* I’m not going to make any friends around here posting about my discomfort with the implicit politics of a relentless stronghold-raiding game – its colonialism, its orientalism, its racism, its historical echoes or its home ethnicity, its reliance on unexplained categories like “good” and “evil.” For me, these days, part of the attractive puzzle of the game is that I nonetheless find it puzzlingly attractive, despite its many unattractive qualities. I hope you can enjoy this post without being derailed by this note.
So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?
The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.
I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place
and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep? …Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?
That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).
And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.
I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.
Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.
Just imagine that.
I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.
Trollsmyth responds to Hill Cantons’ question: “what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?” with the answer Hill Cantons anticipated: there isn’t one, it’s fantasy.
But his response doesn’t grapple with the important/interesting bits of that question: (1) waddayamean, there isn’t a world? Every rule contains a theory about how the world works and (2) why does 0/1e D&D borrow so heavily from European history (ca. -1000 to +1600) when it really wants to be Conan/Lankhmar/Dreamlands/Vance? Sure, those sources borrow from European history too, but D&D’s rulebooks go off on disquisitions about polearms and the qualities of riding horses, while players get into
“debates about medieval demographics: what the exact number of bushels of grains in a harvest were, what the percentage of clergy and townsmen was compared to land-bound serfs, what population density was like in say England in 1253, what the weights and denominations were for the Angevin-era penny, etc.”
I could easily spend the rest of the month working through implications of the question – how closely does D&D map onto any familiar world? But I have limited time and maybe you would have limited patience for such a thing. So I’ll quickly list a set of issues that I think that deceptively simple question raises, and maybe revisit them in time. These are questions any DM should think about for their game world. The trouble with the fudge of “pseudo medieval” is that it covers them up or, worse, renders the answers ambiguous for DMs and players, because every player or DM ever has some model of what’s properly “medieval” kicking around in their subconscious, and the chances of them agreeing are not good.
How common are parties of adventurers? How common are dungeons/monster nests? (From Beowulf to Sindbad to Tolkien the answer is very uncommon or unique. In Mad Max and MMORPGS there are only adventurers and monsters)
What does everyone else do? Is there an implicit economy the players could engage in? (not in the rules, that’s for damn sure. And there are those who know they don’t want it. But their worlds usually do feature some peasants and tradesmen and armourers, for all that they keep them deliberately off-stage)
Where does technology/equipment come from? Can the players make it themselves/have it made, or must they work with what they find? (There’s a power gaming side to this, involving half-informed players who’d like to invent gunpowder, please, but I mean something more fundamental: how much command do PCs have over their own resources? Is all the really good cheese is to be found down the catacombs, or can you dramatically increase your effectiveness by hiring a dozen farmers and using basic tactics?)
What is the power differential between PCs and other people in the setting? What is the power relationship? (Can they bully people like warlords or are they sworn soldiers of the king? Are they 6th level in a world of 0 level farmers’ boys? Does the vizier have to be 12th level? What does any of that mean, practically?)
What world does the shopping list simulate? How does that simulation work against the balancing of game tokens? (I’m thinking in the first place about plate mail, which if it were a magic item would be like a +8 iron statue of defense. What if you replicate the effects of all mundane items with magic ones – what would their relative value be to an adventurer? Oil flasks, I’m looking at you: are you safflower, spermaceti or kerosene?)
What is special about the PCs’ contribution to the world? Are they mythical golden-fleece-retrievers or pest control agents? Is dungeon-swag suitable for decorating palaces or for cleaning toilets? Do they need to undertake special quests to be considered special/heroic, or does mere adventuring count? (goes to the common/unique question above, but also, what does it take to be celebrated? or consulted by the town council? Or feared by the thieves’ guild?)
What are the PCs’ social ties and responsibilities? How often will they come back to this town? (the sandbox default is zero here. Zak made a point that PCs having relationships of any kind is sorta New School storygaming. But the only non-D&D-influenced fantasy world I can think of where this is true is Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns)
What’s considered appropriate behaviour for wandering warriors? What is their social status, and will adventuring improve it? Will the PCs’ reputation spread? What will that mean? What will people expect from them? (The A Team turns out to be more nuanced than most games on this one. There’s soul-searching to be done for most parties – especially Cthulhu investigators – around the question are we heroes or villains? But more generally, how will strangers be likely to consider the PCs? Malory’s knights errant, or Ip Man’s itinerant thugs? AND WHY?)
How much interaction is there in the world in general? Is every valley its own Balkanized, introspective fiefdom, or are there great capitals and pilgrimage routes? (9and30kingdoms actually addresses this, most “pseudo-medieval” gamers think nobody ever went anywhere. I’d rather inhabit a world with a Hajj so that every village would have at least one person who’s seen beyond the horizon. It seems like fluff, but it’s replete with implications: can the world be revolutionized by a commodity? How long will that take?)
And only after all this, then what is the flavour of this game? What does its setting look like? And maybe, just maybe, a long way down the line, how many jewelry appraisers can I expect to find in this town?
For my JOESKY tax I’ll propose another month-long project: the Lady Gaga Bestiary. Entry 1: the Red Devil
Encountered alone, or more frequently in groups of 6-8, this creature will most frequently be found writhing in otherworldly agony. Its apparent helplessness is an act, however: it can jump cut (as a blink dog) up to 50 feet, in order to close to attack. It is activated by the rhythmic drumming of a cadre of priestesses: disrupting the drumming will confuse or immobilize it. Its main attack is a slow finger drag over the victim: this slices points of attributes off them randomly (d6), which can only be restored by a remove curse or wish. The Red Devil can choose instead to slice armour off the victim: a successful attack worsens AC by 1d6, to max AC10.
Hit Dice: 5
Armor Class: 7
Move: 5′ per round, or jump cut up to 50′
Damage: special: 1d4 to an attribute
Special: Requires ritual drumming in order to act.
WIIIAI has a fascinating piece on the news 100 years ago: Pres. Taft talking about the prospects for women’s suffrage. I say it’s fascinating because it seems to point up a whole bunch of ideas that only seem to occur to people when they consider themselves to be outside the group they are discussing. This, I think, is the urge to nationalism and tribalism that comes from without – a topic that I haven’t seen discussed in nationalism scholarship, which seems mostly to be about the feelings of gemeinschaft or gesellschaft experienced by those within a group. Here:
every set of individuals who are similarly situated in the community, who are intelligent enough to know what their own interests are, are better qualified to determine how those interests shall be cared for and preserved than any other class, however altruistic that class may be.
Fine: if you have rational subjects, let them look after their own affairs. Very non-paternalistic, except for the rational bit, which excludes Hottentots or any other uneducated, altogether unintelligent class. But let’s leave him to his racism and see what he has to say about women.
…the class should as a whole care enough to look after its interests, to take part as a whole in the exercise of political power if it is conferred. Now if it does not care enough for this, then it seems to me that the danger is, if the power is conferred, that it may be exercised by that part of the class least desirable as political constituents and be neglected by many of those who are intelligent and patriotic and would be most desirable as members of the electorate.
See, I wasn’t so worried about this dividing people into classes stuff before, but he we have the very basis of us and them. And they, as a whole, should behave uniformly in a way pleasing to us (or me). Hm. Tell me, do we do that? As a whole? Or do we tolerate dissent?
If I could be sure that women as a class in the community, including all the intelligent women most desirable as political constituents, would exercise the franchise, I should be in favor of it
So much here. That intelligent… desirable thing is an essay on its own. But let’s stick to the first classification: He says, so if gave you people the vote, all y’all better use it, see? Like if we gave you hospitals you’d better make sure everyone uses them, too.
And then it just gets bizarre; he says it’s successful when it doesn’t make a difference, that it might work OK in the country, but cities are different (!!?!??). And he concludes, as if it had anything to do with these other bits of moonshine; So you just tell the knitting circle: everyone gotta show up and let us know they insist on the vote.
My first thought is how this would sound if you applied it to other classes – say, all men, or Jews, or Arabs, or supporters of an Irish republic. And my second thought is that that’s exactly how we still treat every group we can identify as being different from ourselves. That one of the really pernicious things about nationalism, or rather this larger classificatory impulse that defines us and them, is that having allocated an imaginary unity to them, it then treats that imaginary unity as an actor, a disciplinary institution, a whip. And it is the outsider’s gaze that invents this whip, that gives it a niche, and power and a voice. That demands head-men and spokesmen. That will construct for itself, without any help but much more often with the merest skeletal and wilfully misunderstood bit of local assistance, a whole imaginary edifice of control, and then imagine that that imaginary edifice is being responsible, is accurately representing its constituents.
And then I think about Iraq (where, it seems, none of the lessons of Afghanistan were imagined to be relevant). And I think about what we call representative politics in general. And it occurs to me that I’ve been making a basic mistake, all these years, in who I thought the ideology of democracy was supposed to be for. I always thought it was aimed principally at “the people,” but now I’m suspecting it’s actually aimed at the politicians.