Friday, June 15, 2018

The Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 1 - After the Raid

The village of Vladykino is no more. Built three generations ago by the Archbishop of Ladeisk, it has been looted and burnt to the ground by a force of Kochmak raiders. Its men have been butchered, while many of the women and children have been driven off, likely to be sold at one of the slave markets of the godless ones. The smoke still rises from the ruins, desolate and depopulated.

Vladykino - a prosperous village until two days ago

But not all of Vladykino's people are dead or enslaved. One of its sons - Yuri Barolov - the youngest scion of a family of horse breeders - returns to his home village at the head of a dozen horsemen. He was sent by his elder brothers to seek aid from the Archbishop, but was able to convince the overlord's people to only send a skeleton crew - and now they have returned too late to save the village. Yuri is devastated - his family compound is destroyed, and there is no trace of his paramour Svetlana. He suspects that his brothers sent him away on purpose - to prevent the hot-headed youth from laying down his life for a lost cause. He presses the leader of the horsemen - Sen'ka Radomirovich - to follow the raiders to free the prisoners, but Sen'ka says that his people are there for only two reasons - to try to secure records of ownership of the land and slaves, and to see if the windmill has survived the raid. The archbishop, he says, has no intention of challenging the Kochmaki with an inferior force. He has no idea why the Kochmaki sacked Vladykino - they are usually careful about how they treat Church property, and the archbishop was scrupulous about paying his tribute.

While looking for survivors, Sen'ka's men discover a cellar over by the tannery at the edge of a village. A beam fell onto the cellar doors during the fire, apparently trapping someone underneath. Yuri helps the men move the beam, and opens the doors. Inside is a man named Innokentii Fedorovich, or Kesha, as he calls himself. A small, silver-haired, apparently blind man with a bandage over his eyes, Kesha says he was in the tannery cellar making leather covers for grimoires for the Archbishop. He came to Vladykino less than a decade ago from parts unknown. Yuri knows has heard that Kesha is property of the Church, but he has never actually met him - the curious man spent most of his time toiling away in the cellar.

Released from his prison, Kesha helps the men search the village, but finds nothing. The church has been completely burned, and no trace of the village records survives anywhere. Yuri makes another impassioned speech about doing something to save people from the evildoers, but it falls on deaf ears. Kesha takes off his bandage and looks askance at the young man, who suddenly falls silent. Sen'ka says his people, along with Kesha, will return to the archbishop's summer estate as soon as they have searched the mill south of the village. The mill, along with the leather works, has been Vladykino's big moneymaker. Built about 10 years back by a foreigner named Zbigniev Dragutinovich, it is rumored to be a marvel that not only mills flour, but coins out of thin air. Whatever the case, it has been the main source of Vladykino's prosperity. Sen'ka sends half of his men to scout ahead, to see if the Kochmaki are still nearby, and leads the rest to the mill.

A windmill - still a marvelous marvel, and a wondrous wonder

After arriving, the men are surprised to find the mill standing, and the miller's compound apparently unharmed. The Kochmaki passed it on route to the village, and might have been expected to loot and burn it as well. No one is home at the compound, however. Zbigniev had no family, and was known as an oddball who hardly ever attended church services, and he himself does not seem to be present. The mill door is locked with a chain, and the miller's house is latched from the inside. There are animals in the barn, apparently, and Yuri, along with Fedor, one of Sen'ka's people, and Kesha, go in to investigate. There are the usual chickens, goats, and cow, but one pen toward the back is larger than the others. A dark shape of some sort moves about inside. The three want to search it - perhaps the miller is hiding out there? - but instead, they discover a huge black rooster with a snake's tail, and glowing red eyes - a vasilisk. Fedor grabs it and tries to break its neck, but the creature is preternaturally strong, and proceeds to peck Fedor on his temple. Yuri rushes over to stab it with his spear, while Kesha touches it, and releases a jolt of mystical energy into its writhing body. The creature nearly does Fedor in - he goes stiff for a few tense moments after being pecked, but the other two manage to overpower the unholy best. Kesha takes his bandage off his eyes, which glow white, and a wholesome warmth permeates Fedor, who now feels better.

The three of them go over to the mill. Yuri climbs the beams and enters the structure through the second story window. After discovering the curious mechanism and the grindstones, he makes a disturbing discovery on the ground floor - sacks with body parts - apparently belonging to villagers who were still alive just before the raid.. Fedor smashes the chain from the outside, and releases Yuri. The two go over to investigate the house after forcing the latch. It is also abandoned, but there is a slaughtered chicken hanging above the doorframe, and drained of blood into a bowl below - some sort of offering to unclean spirits. In the cellar below are some victuals, which Kesha greedily consumes - he was starving for two days in his cellar. There is also a sack filled with coins.

A vasilisk - born of a rooster's egg

While Fedor and Yuri thoroughly search the house, Kesha goes back over to the mill to fix the chain, so no signs of forced entry remain. Suddenly, Sen'ka shouts out that he has sighted a shape moving across the field outside the compound. Fedor and Yuri mount up, with Kesha holding on to Yuri, and rush out to search. Kesha senses the use of magic, and directs Yuri toward the spot, but as they approach, they suddenly fall into a slumber. A dark shape briefly appears as they slide off their mounts, and then, their vision fades to black. When they awaken, no one is around, though they find two more sacks of body parts near them. A search reveals nothing, and they return to the mill, to spend the night. The men that were sent to track the Kochmaki found nothing - the raiders have gone far ahead, but having learned about the sacks and the offering, as well as the mysterious shape in the field, the archbishop's people have no wish to stay at the compound, and set up camp just outside.       

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Historical Realism in Worldbuilding: Some Lessons from George R. R. Martin

I've been pretty straight here about being a Thrones fan, and I don't really see the point of turning up one's nose at the HBO series. Both the show and the books are epochal - to me, as a partisan of epic fantasy, and I have no problem with regarding Martin as the Tolkien of our time.

Epochal does not, however, mean he is without sin - which is exactly the attitude Martin adopts toward Tolkien himself. In a famous Rolling Stone interview where Martin lays out his vision of epic fantasy (which is close to what I have been referring to here as historical fantasy), he specifically faults the genre's founder for his lack of political, economic, and ethical realism:

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles? 
In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.
Few fantasy worldbuilders today would reject the gist of Martin's critique. The style of fantasy centered on a struggle between the forces of Good against the forces of an aesthetically evident Evil, an in the absence of a context formed by political, economic, psychological and sexual factors does has become cliché, and does not answer the demands of a mentality that struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world - always the touchstone for our fantastic extrapolations.

However, just because Martin does wonder about the Lannisters' tax rate, the terms on which they borrow from the Iron Bank of Braavos, and strategies that lead less-than perfect geopolitical contestants to success against their enemies does not mean his own construction is devoid of outlandish elements that don't resonate with historical experience. It would be easy to categorize Middle Earth as a fundamentally Romantic, philological construction with Martin's world as an essentially social-scientific one, but this is not the case, strictly speaking. Martin has been clear that unlike Tolkien (and like many GMs), he is a situational world-builder. While Tolkien started with languages, cultures, and mythology, only a small part of which become manifest in the novels (the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings) as a tip of a largely submerged iceberg, Martin's own world is the iceberg tip that floats on a raft. In other words, Martin starts with characters and a story, and only fills in blank geographic or structural blanks spots as it becomes necessary to do so. This situational approach might make narrative sense, but such a haphazard method can also lead to a simplistic and nonviable constructions. In certain respects, Tolkien's Middle Earth is actually more realistic than Westeros.

Three key issues in Martin's worldbuilding stand out for me as failures of historical imagination.

La Très Longue Durée

Historical structures can be quite long-lived, and dwarf individual or even familial memories. Imperial dynasties and regional divisions of labor may persist for roughly half a millennium. Beyond that scope, structures rarely survive intact, and if they do endure, they often have little impact on most people, and are beyond their ken. If a more long-term temporality does exist, it is, in the words of Fernand Braudel, a time of the sages.

I actually think that Braudel was a bit blinkered in his estimation of social structures. Surely, despite mutations and reconfigurations, Imperial China has survived, both structurally and in memory, for over 2000 years, while Pharaonic Egypt lasted for 3000. Commercial entities, such as the Silk Road, lasted for 1500 years, or perhaps 2000. Religious or cultural systems such as Buddhism have persisted for 2500 years.

But beyond that, social structures wear out - migrations, tectonic environmental and geopolitical shifts, and the full working out of systemic possibilities - the growth of social systems to such an extent that they become unbalanced and decentered - eventually take their toll. Beyond the examples cited above - which are all exceptionally durable - few if any continuities persisting for over three millennia can be found.

Yet, in Martin's world, the Wall separating the Seven Kingdoms from the wild lands beyond has stood for 8000 years. For the purposes of comparison, imagine a fortification built between the Neolithic settlements of Jericho and Çatalhöyük, still standing, and in continual use until our own day. To be sure, the Wall was built with magic, and in response to the existential threat represented to all living beings by the Others/White Walkers. The maintenance of such a structure would have been a priority, given its purpose, but how long could it have lasted as the danger receded?

More incredible than the maintenance of the physical/magical structure is the the persistence of the social institution of the Night's Watch, The order is also 8000 years old, and Lord Commander Jon Snow is the 998th since its inception. This mind-bogglingly long institutional durability has no precedent in our own world. As there have been no issues with the White Walkers during that span of time, it's reasonable to assume that the order would have long passed out of existence due to irrelevance. And indeed, the neglect of the Wall by established authorities during the period in which Martin's epic is set suggests that it would likely have perished long ago (if it were unneeded for narrative purposes). If we assume that a symbolic system durable enough to preserve knowledge with some degree of accuracy over that enormous length of time existed, and that a dedicated group of people were capable of devoting significant resources to keeping the Watch alive also survived, the Watch would have turned into the governing institution of Westeros (likely with strong religious overtones), rather than a peripheral grouping made up of society's rejects. But we see that the pharaonic monarchy, created, according to Egyptian religious conceptions, for a roughly analogous reason - to maintain order on earth after the gods withdrew to heaven - lasted less than half that time. The purpose of its most impressive monuments - the pyramids - was forgotten soon thereafter. And the Pharaonic monarchy was exceptional in every way in the context of the world that surrounded it.

Bran's big, beautiful 8000-year old Wall. Paid for by the Wildlings.

Worse still, the person credited with constructing the Wall - Bran the Builder, was also the founder of House Stark, that has similarly survived for 8000 years. Several other ruling houses, including the Arryns of the Vale, and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock trace their origin to the Age of Heroes, which concluded a respectable 6000 years before the present time. Of course, these fabulous lifespans can be explained away by saying that the founders, along with the Age of Heroes itself, is the stuff of legend, but that doesn't really clinch the case. The period known as the Age of Heroes in Greece, which at least partly informs Martin's notion, lasted six generations. In more recent times, dynasties in Georgia and Ethiopia have claimed descent from the Biblical House of David, which (assuming it existed) dates back around 3000 years. Having a 6000- 8000 year old dynasty would be the rough equivalent of an actual ruling house in 1800 CE claiming descent from Ut-Napishtim (though perhaps even this would be a stretch - it's not clear how old the legend actually is). A cultural region like India is dealing with much larger time-scales than Europe or Western Asia, but even here, there, there is no House of Pandava ruling during historical times. Appropriately, the protagonists of the Indian heroic age are of divine origin, which would make sense when dealing with memories of such great antiquity. In Martin's world, the human and divine spheres are much more strictly delineated, and foundational heroes are clearly human, whereas the gods (on which more below) are fairly abstract entities.

Why this matters. Martin's main conceit - that people in fantasy worlds that are suffused with wondrous elements like dragons and functional magic should still be motivated by factors that readers can understand - the need for survival, greed, power, lust - ultimately derives from a pragmatic anthropology that understands humans as imperfect beings driven by the reality of being mortal. We compete for scarce resources, try to pass them down to our descendants, wish to connect with (or possess) other people while we still draw breath, and so on. These motivations are a singularly bad fit for a culture with an astoundingly long historical memory, and incredibly long-lived institutions, which, if they existed, can be reasonably expected to impress a much different sort of mentality - one much more oriented toward eternity. Most probably, this would be a society not governed by a warrior aristocracy (as Westeros is) or an oligarchy (as are most of the cities of Essos), but by some sort of priestly or administrative elite, which would socialize people into paying much more deference to ancestors or the hereafter (even if selfish motivations still make their demands felt).

Conversely, societies much closer to the ones Martin describes would have far less memory of their own historicity, and would merge any remembered and not clearly recorded past with myth in a few generations. If any undistorted memory of heroic ages is retained, it would probably be in possession of a long-lived people with an entirely different set of motivations than normal humans. The retention of very long-term historical memory by an immortal race like the elves of Middle Earth is actually a much more realistic construction than what we see in Martin's world (where, significantly, the elves' analog - the Children of the Forest - are virtually extinct). Leaving room for such a race - perhaps more noble if more inscrutable - makes more sense and creates more dramatic tension (if GMs and players are able to sustain it) in a fantastic environment.

As Many As The Grains Of Sand On The Seashore

If the temporal canvas of Martin's world is too uniform to be useful for realistic worldbuilding, the same evaluation also applies to Westerosi demography. It is too undifferentiated, with too few distinct ethnicities (it's likely no accident that the main political units are associated with ruling dynasties and not with distinct identity groups), no clear conception of the relationship between urban and rural populations, and impossibly large armies given the continent's social structure and level of development. It is the latter I want to focus on here, as military matters occupy a significant amount of Martin's attention, and army sizes are discussed in much greater detail than other Westerosi structures (some fans in fact use these as the baseline for calculating Westeros' overall population).

The War of the Five Kings involves far larger armies than are probably warranted by Westeros' demography and political order. The North - the least populous of its major realms, is able to field an army of 20,000 people - and this for a kingdom roughly analogous to Scotland, whose ruling family has just lost its dynast, and is in open rebellion against the central authority. The Lannisters muster an army of over 60,000, which they can split into two, while Renly Baratheon's army includes an astounding 100,000 men - and that figure does not include those (admittedly few) bannermen who stayed loyal to his brother Stannis. These armies, significantly, are raised by calling upon personal relations with one's vassals, and are not mercenary groups or standing armies maintained by the state (which also makes it a mystery why the state is so deeply in debt to the Iron Bank: war-making is the main cause of state indebtedness, but the phenomenon only dates back to early modern times in our own world, because that is when large states began to depart from the practices of feudal warfare).

For the purposes of comparison, in major European conflicts prior to the 16th century, the warring sides were only able to field a fraction of such forces. The Battle of Agincourt - a decisive engagement of the Hundred Years War between two powerful Western European kingdoms - featured 6000 - 9000 soldiers on the side of the English against a French force that is estimated to have numbered anywhere between 12000 and 36000 (along with the Holy Roman Empire, France was the most populous realm in Europe, numbering around 15 million people). Nearly simultaneously, at the other end of Europe, the Battle of Grunwald pitted between 16000 and 39000 soldiers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commowealth against 11000 to 27000-strong army of the Teutonic Knights (whose defeat ended their career as a power in Eastern Europe). If we go by average sizes, the larger sides in each of these conflicts would be significantly smaller than than either the Lannister or the Baratheon army. For purposes of comparison, the Battle of Bosworth Field - the decisive contest of the Wars of the Roses - the conflict often cited as a major inspiration for Game of Thrones - had no more than 12000 combatants on either side. And several centuries earlier, the enormous and potentially civilization-altering Mongol invasion force that subjugated the Russian principalities, and decisively defeated Polish, Hungarian, and German armies likely consisted of roughly 40,000 Mongol mounted archers (not counting allied auxiliaries, which probably doubled the size of Batu's force).

Clearly, the Iron Bank needs to impose austerity policies on Casterly Rock

One notable effort to evaluate Martin's army sizes by a professional demographer unequivocally concludes that they were overinflated:
Westeros is allegedly based on Medieval Europe. You wouldn’t know it from the army sizes. We’ve seen or heard about dozens of battles with 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, or more combatants, sometimes that many on each side. For comparison, the historically decisive Battle of Agincourt probably had under 30,000 soldiers. The Battle of Hastings had 25,000 at most. The incredibly vast Battle of Tours, where Charles Martel turned back the Arab advance, may have had 60,000 combatants. But crucially: these battles were decades or hundreds of years apart, rarely involving the same armies. The Battle of Yarmouk, after which the Caliphate siezed the entire Byzantine East, had just 50,000 fighters or so, with the result that the Caliphate conquered the entire region. Crucially, it should be noted that contemporaries gave much higher numbers: the Byzantines were routinely asserted to be fielding 100,000 men, while Muslims were depicted as leading hundreds of thousands. Conveniently, the sum total of GRRM’s descriptions of armies would suggest that Westeros can field between 200,000 and 650,000 soldiers, depending on conditions. Those numbers are almost certainly too large, with too robust an ability to recover losses. Medieval armies were small, except in cases where they were extremely professionalized, like the Byzantine armies, or Charles Martel’s Frankish army. Holding a Medieval army together was very hard, as was supplying it. The frequency with which there are large armies in Westeros is just ridiculous. The most reasonable explanation is that GRRM is an unreliable narrator, as he is for land area: these armies probably are not as big as he claims in many cases, and losses probably are not as steep.
Why this matters. People's worlds can contain armies of any size without necessarily detracting from anyone's enjoyment of playing in it. But if a fantasy world is recommended precisely on the basis of its realism, armies larger than the economy or political system can sustain stand out as incongruous elements. To quote again from Lyman Stone's blog:

what bothers me, as a really picky nerd, is when people think that it’s a particularly well-crafted setting. It is not. Westeros is shoddily assembled as far as political, cultural, or demographic realism goes. There is too much dynastic stability, too little cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, the basic size of the world seems to change to fit the immediate exigencies of the plot, the cities and armies are implausibly large in many cases, and even careful analysis makes it hard to determine even a wide ballpark for population. None of these criticisms matter in a setting not trading on its claims to a kind of “realism.” But for a setting whose market value in some sense depends on its “realism,” yeah, it’s an issue.
Aside from expecting verisimilitude, there is another reason why overmilitarized Westeros is problematic worldbuilding. A region capable of fielding such large armies is a region in social flux, where change is relatively fast-paced. Westeros, as we have just seen, is socially static, with few significant demographic shifts, a very uniform ethnic structure, and the predominance of very durable temporal mentalities. A heavily militarized world would feature frequent and profound social shifts, the sudden disappearance of durable groups, and the appearance of new worldviews. Such a world would look a lot less like medieval England, where vassal "bannermen" are subinfeudated to big lords, and a lot more like the 1st millennium BCE Near East, where strong states were able to field large standing armies, wars were highly destructive, and sent long-established peoples like the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Medes into historical oblivion. Armies during this period attained sizes, as well as destructive and transformative power that would not be seen again until the Napoleonic Age.  Such a fast-changing world would not be one where even dragons are discounted as a decisive military factor within a mere century of their (rather inexplicable) disappearance. And such a world would be one where strange new religions sprang up nearly overnight to help people adjust to a transformed reality.

Which brings me to the last point I want to discuss here - Martin's religions.

Bad Religion

Despite claiming to agree that 'religion is an important element in fantasy-type societies', Martin does display a certain amount of discomfort (1:03:38) in discussing it. He prefers to steer clear of questions about religion in general (e.g. how religion is interrelated with ethnicity), and approaches his religions, like other key aspects of his world, situationally. It is therefore not surprising that a one-time interviewer clearly implies that in comparison with medieval Europe, Westerosi religion is much more in the background, much less determinative of what motivates people to act.

The established religions in Westeros do seem rather pale in comparison with medieval Christianity, and with other historical religions. The Faith of the Seven, though it does have a hierarchy (and, as Martin legitimately points out, a 'pope') is about as generic a religion as one can conceive. A godhead in the form of a Septad - Father, Warrior, Smith, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Stranger - is so boring that even its officiants can't bear to recite each divine person's attributes at key public ceremonies. Not only do these "gods" lack decent names and personalities, they also don't appear to have immanent servitors or messengers in the form of saints, angels, or demigods. Nearly all expressions of piety by people - especially peasants, who are obviously suffering under the oppression of a fairly rapacious and impious nobility, and even moreso after the outbreak of war - are formulaic and devoid of passion. The seeming lack of tension with the older faith of the First Men (whose gods have no names at all) speaks to the tepid character of the Faith of the Seven, which Westeros could probably do without. A more sanguine variant - the cult of the Sparrows, and its transformation into a Faith Militant - is a little closer a historical religion, with the character of the High Sparrow being reminiscent of Savonarola, but even that is weak brew, that is easily dispensed with by Cersei's one act of incendiary violence. The religion of the Lord of Light bears the hallmarks of Zoroastrianism, and its practitioners actually possess power (as one would expect in a fantasy world). But this cult is a foreign import - from Essos - the part of the world currently least subject to historical change!

May the Father lull you to sleep with dad jokes...
I would expect the religion of the Lord of Light, and heretical sects like the Sparrows to occupy center stage in a world like Martin's, rather than clawing away at the margins. A world featuring erratic seasons which do not have uniform duration, and which can last for years, is a world in which static faiths like the Faith of the Seven - much better suited for conditions of regular season cycles - wouldn't survive. In fact, religions heavily focused on divine unpredictability, millenarian expectations, saving, and calculation would likely have developed much faster in Martin's world than in our own (though admittedly, the Citadel and the institution of the Maesters speak to the fact that Westerosi science is quite advanced in comparison to medieval science).

Why this matters. Worldbuilders, including many RPG GMs, are just as uncomfortable with religion as Martin is. As a result, religious institutions in game settings are frequently simplistic caricatures - they are either ridiculously pious to the exclusion of any other human trait or emotion, or ridiculously corrupt, and led by hierophants who believe only in the pursuit of power. Aside from dogmatic preaching, religious establishments are wall furniture - it's where you go when you need healing that party members are incapable of providing. To my mind, worldbuilding can only benefit by drawing from more historical exemplars which represent religions as a fundamental part of most people's worldview that is evident in everyday life, passionate and contemplative, as well as morally complex.  

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Background Check

Although it has recently been promoted into an official category, with rudimentary mechanics, the character background has been part of RPGs since the beginning. Sometimes, it was made up as a character gimmick to set your fighter apart from other fighters with the same general capabilities and equipment (my fighter happens to be a drunk, or the son of an important werewolf); other times, it was ad-libbed on the spot, and over time, became a character's calling card (that guy who always gets distracted by minutiae, and wants to go see the tiger at the local menagerie instead of getting on with  the adventure).

Formalizing the background as a key character feature speaks to the emergence of role-playing as a central aspect of the game. Role-playing always happened, as some grognards will hurry to inform anyone who will care to listen. But in the classic dungeon-crawl, it was generally incidental, a frill on the serious business of killing monsters and taking their stuff. Additionally, it tended to reinforce hierarchies within the gaming group. Good players roleplayed; average players sat quietly, paid attention to the group's stars, and were ready to roll dice when it was their turn. Today, the purpose of the dungeon crawl, the hexcrawl, or the urban escapade is not (or is not simply) power, wealth, and fame; it is also a product of the character's biography - a tough childhood, a family quest, a tragic flaw, a mission from a god or a patron, and so on. Moreover, a disengaged player is not simply shy or bored - they are the player of a character who has not been incorporated into the adventure, because the GM has ignored their backstory, or because their goals are not aligned with those of the rest of the party. In the modern gaming mindset, each character should get to roleplay and be the star at least once in a while, by having their background or backstory take center stage.

But to fully benefit from the narrative turn in gaming, backgrounds and backstories need to be selected with some care. Sometimes, a background which seems like it would be cool to play, and makes a character stand out, actually marginalizes the character, and breeds tension in the group. This doesn't mean that any background can't be made to work by the right player in the right environment. It simply means that some backgrounds are much more difficult to pull off in most cases. The key thing to remember when building a character is that a good background is not just for you - the player. It is something that helps embed the character in the world, and in the party. It provides hooks that the other game participants can easily latch onto, so they can develop the game into a truly collective enterprise.

Butcher, baker, mother, crone...


In what follows, I detail some typical backgrounds and backstories that are problematic, and a few that I believe increase both player and group enjoyment.

The Lone Wolf. Little more needs to be said about this type that hasn't been said already. Loner characters that march to their own drummer, never compromise their principles, and are always ready to strike out on their own might work well in novels or films, but they don't work well in media in which the Party, rather than the Hero, take center stage. In RPGs, the Lone Wolf typically refuses to accept party decisions, splits the party (creating a headache for the GM), and generally acts like the sociopath that most Lone Wolves are in reality. The Lone Wolf may be a model for the Adventurer Type (which accounts for the type's social marginality nearly everywhere). But even adventurers, as I have argued elsewhere, belong to and form social bonds if they expect to succeed. If you want a wolf, remember that most wolves are pack animals.

The Enforcer. This is a fairly common adventurer type that typically solves problems through force.  Subtypes may include soldiers or gang members. There is an important difference between the Enforcer and the Lone Wolf, however. Enforcers are a part of a power structure. They recognize someone's authority, and, when they can, replicate that authority over others when they can get away with it. This creates the potential for long-term relationships with NPCs, as well as long-term tensions that may yield role-playing gold. Attempting to force a PC party to bend to the will of an NPC will create problems, however, and becoming the henchman of the party leader will create even more.

The Guy Whose Family Was Killed. This is really a variant of the Lone Wolf. At first sight, it appears that the dead family creates both a motive for adventuring, and opportunities to solve the mystery of who did it. It can also prompt the GM to create a villain who will serve as the character's foil for the duration of the campaign. In reality, this backstory is a bit of a trap for all involved. If the character seeking the family's killers does not immediately find them, frustration can set in, as that player will not feature heavily in the narratives that are being spun around the party and its other members. It is possible to give clues here and there, but this only works if the character with the dead family is local to the area in which the adventure is set. If that character has come from far away, the suspension of disbelief begins to be stretched for the killers to suddenly turn up in the distant region as well. Then, even if they do, they will have to have some sort of relationship to other characters, or to the situation the party as a whole is dealing with. A creative GM can make such connections, but the background of the family-less character certainly limits her options. Assuming these pitfalls can be negotiated, and the killers are found, and dispatched, what then? The main part of the character's backstory goes up in smoke. On the whole, this trope tends to force the GM to focus attention on this character, or perhaps, after a few failed attempts, to increasingly push them to the margins of the main story. In many cases, I find that the trope is really just a placeholder instead of a real backstory: even when culprits turn up, the character whose family they wronged isn't even that interested in them. This character really needs to have an additional shtick, like a coming of age story (and letting go of revenge), or descent into tragic hero-dom, in order to make this background work.

The Quester. The Quester is a better option than than the person hunting for the family's killer. The thing the quester is looking for is probably an item (or occurrence) of importance to a wide range of people, not just to himself. Asking around for word of an artifact, or signs of the apocalypse is a credible course of action in any given session, whereas saying "hey, I lost my family, have you seen the person who killed them?" is not. A quester is likely to be pleased with any information, no matter how vague; and the quester implicitly recognizes that the Holy Grail lies at the very end of the adventuring life, and seeking it is as important, if not more important, than finding it. A person looking for a killer, or revenge, will not be happy with anything but concrete information leading in a particular direction.

The Frustrated Aspirant. The Frustrated Aspirant can be every bit as antisocial as the character looking for vengeance. This character turned away from society because of a personal tragedy (such as participating in a disastrous military operation), or because they were passed over for promotion or recognition. In either case, the Frustrated Aspirant is likely to develop a grudge against whole categories of NPCs, rather than specific people. From a role-playing standpoint, however, that's a plus, because it can apply in a variety of different situations, involving NPCs that the character dislikes. It also presents opportunities for growth - perhaps over time, the character can meet a variety of people that he once disliked, and to realize that these NPCs are not at all what he imagined.

The Emo. Artiste character types are not too common in standard fantasy, though they are more prevalent in urban gothic and other genres. Though they seem unique on the surface, they are really Lone Wolves, even if they may not always be as violent. Emos have a rich inner world, but narrating it often detracts from the collective character of the game. Their fallback perspective pits them against the rest of the world. They can form strong emotional attachments with other characters, though this does nothing to diminish their anti-social attitude toward all others - in fact, quite the reverse. They can work in a party if other members come to tolerate or enjoy their antics, but again, this places the onus to change on other characters (and players).

The Credit to the Family. The character with an extant family, with which she is in good standing, is a good option. Maybe she is working to save the family from a disaster, or possibly to find it a new home. Maybe she just has an aged mother on whom she drops in, and to whom she delivers a share of the treasure, or a wayward brother, whom she is trying to rescue from the gutter. Whatever the case, being on a family-related mission is usually a long-term enterprise that keeps the character engaged and committed to activities other than slaughter and looting. Having a family member near adventuring sites is also a good trope - other party members will be introduced to the aged matriarch, may receive favors and shelter from her, and in time, might even start to feel like a member of the clan. One caveat, though: families must not be allowed to completely dominate the game. The character who has an unlimited number of NPC cousins in a game with liberal levels of player agency can start to annoy other party members, and the GM, very, very quickly.

The Scion. I'm not one to dissuade people from writing multi-page family sagas instead of backstories. Whatever floats your boat. But aside from your own personal edification, there is little reason to compose family histories. There is simply too much material in a long saga to meaningfully incorporate into the game, and feeling that the GM is beholden to you to do so just because you invested the energy in writing it is to set yourself up for disappointment or conflict. As with cousins, be reasonable.

The Diplomat. Diplomat characters are useful. If your raison d'être is peacemaking, there will always be a call for you, no matter the situation. Problem-solving through innovative (i.e. non-confrontational) means is usually refreshing, and can put interesting twists on plots. Diplomats also tend to be skilled at languages, which opens more space to communicate with different kinds of creatures (that one might otherwise end up fighting due to communication problems). The drawback with diplomats is that they are often wishy-washy and indecisive. Their comrades typically pine for simpler decisions, and want to just pick a side, and then fight those on the other side. Diplomats seek peace and balance where they might simply be unattainable. Particularly stubborn diplomats will go against the grain of party consensus, and sometimes, they will slow an adventure's progress down to a crawl.

The Exile. This can be a variant of the character who has lost his family, but usually, it's a better variant. The exile can be sent away because of a crime, a misunderstanding, or being on the wrong side politically. This character is also focused on the past (as well as on a distant land), but his nostalgia exists in the interstices of past and present, here and there, and it is the contrast that makes the character interesting. He might be pursuing personal growth, atoning for the crime, or looking for an item or proof that will exonerate him, and perhaps allow him to eventually return. Waxing eloquent about the old country (or complaining about its barbarism) can be entertaining role-playing, if it is not overdone. The exile's player should also develop some of the details about the exile, and figure out how they might fit in with the developing campaign arc. Otherwise, the character risks becoming just another desperado.

The Specialist. The Specialist is commonly a craftsperson, trader, or perhaps a guard or a guide. She has a unique skillset, at least as far as the rest of the party is concerned (if not, the Specialist may become a bore, so make sure your merchant has something to trade, and your armorer - something to make or fix). Often, this leads to the character being curmudgeonly, which can be entertaining, but should be used in moderation. To be especially interesting, the character should have a shtick - sayings, superstitions, a particularly engaging approach to customers, a particularly grumpy attitude toward bosses, etc. A Specialist may develop a general appreciation of specialization, which would make her interdependent with other character, who can do things she can't. The specialist is therefore a good "buddy" character.

The Drunk. The Drunk is a gimmicky character who can provide comic relief to a party - for a time. The Drunk is the instant life of the party - at least until he gets his companions in trouble, whether through commission or through omission. When Drunks start being as much of a burden as real-life drunks, it's time to change things up a bit. The Drunk should have periods of sobriety and contrition, and perhaps try (seriously or not) to change their life - perhaps even by changing their class or alignment. Related character types - the Lech, the Lovable Rogue - usually evince similar trajectories. Following such characters on their benders, and watching them take over a session with their shenanigans one too many times is a common pathway to the dissolution of an adventuring party (or a gaming group).

The Preacher. The Preacher is another Drunk, though less entertaining. In the old days, when most clerics tended toward fundamentalism, Preachers abounded, always spouting off about their divine patron, and demanding some some level of obeisance in return for their ministrations. Today, they tend toward a more New Age-y spirituality, and are less likely to preach, though one still finds examples of the type from time to time, e.g. in the form of Evelyn Marthain (of the popular Dice Camera Action stream), who rarely goes more than two minutes without informing her companions and enemies about the Light of her deity Lathander. Given the character's wide-eyed innocence and her player's acting skill, the performance is a success, but for most players, the watchword should probably be: don't try this at home.

* * *

This seems a reasonable overview of backgrounds and backstories, although other types can obviously be added to the list as well. In a nutshell, the main concern when considering backgrounds should be: how will this play with the other group members, and with the GM's setting. Ask specific questions about others before writing your own story. In most cases, they will only thank you, because it will allow them to refine their own narratives, making them more interesting and lifelike. Also, try to have escape hatches that allow the character to change somewhere down the road. Going up levels is a progression, but the best characters grow as people, too.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

EN World Does Postcolonialism

A couple of weeks ago, EN World featured an article on East Asian-flavored supplements for D&D. The discussion centered on the Oriental Adventures sourcebooks that were published for the game's 1st and 3rd editions, in 1985, and 2001, respectively. The author, Mike Tresca, opines that, starting with the name, and ending with the content, these supplements constitute examples of exoticizing the Other, and cultural appropriation. Tresca approvingly quotes one reviewer to the effect that these published settings "reinforced western culture's already racist understanding of the 'Orient'". Conversely, the modern game, must reflect the diversity of its fan base. There is little reason to design culture-specific classes and other character options - after all, fighters, healers, and spellcasters can come from any culture. As such, the game is "unlikely [to] get another Oriental Adventures title", and, by implication, setting, which D&D, in his view, has outgrown.

A samurai from the 3e cover of Oriental Adventures
There are several issues to disentangle in this piece, which, in fairness, constitutes the beginning of a discussion, and not a well thought-out piece of social theory. If the focus is purely terminological, it is hard to disagree with Tresca's argument. Though there was little reason to expect that Gary Gygax and his collaborators, who had come of age in a wargaming milieu of the 1950s and 60s, should be familiar with the academic critique of Orientalism launched by Edward Said in 1978, the recycling of the title in 2001 really was inexcusable. The people responsible for the 3e version had not only been educated in academic environments that had been quite thoroughly transformed by Said's critique, but they had been exposed to historical-fantasy games based on fairly meticulous research, rather than a conflating Orientalism, from a fairly young age. Moreover, it is hard to disagree that the chanting of "Banzai" by white tournament winners of the Legend of the Five Rings card game that was associated with the 3e Oriental Adventures setting is in poor taste - a fact recognized by the LotFR designers, who removed the chant from their site.

With respect to broader thematic questions, the issue becomes significantly more muddled. Is any treatment of Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, Korean, and Mongolian culture an unjustified "lumping together" for the benefit of the totalizing and reductionist perspectives of the colonizer? Certainly, serious treatment of the East Asian region as a coherent whole exists in contemporary academic literature, and it exists in a variety of RPG systems as well. D&D, being a mass-marketed and well-established game, appeals to a broader audience that may not, in its entirely, always appreciate painstaking research of source material, but the notion that detailed historical research cannot inform D&D settings while it informs that of other game systems seems difficult to justify. For all its faults, the 3e version of Oriental Adventures was much better grounded in East Asian cultures than the AD&D version. There is little reason why further improvements cannot be made by designers who possess the requisite background in the region's history and mythology. There is no reason why the setting design cannot be sufficiently nuanced to make the players understand that it includes multiple cultures, instead of a single "Oriental" monoculture. To an extent, even the existing older versions have made this plain - the region of Kara-Tur is composed of multiple countries, some of which more closely resemble parts of China, others Japan, Korea, and so on. There is a legitimate point to be made about the rather Japan-centric perspective behind the class and race design of Oriental Adventures, which is certainly reductionist, but reflective of the legacy of that impact which Japanese culture had on western imaginations in the 70s and 80s, when gaming culture was young. It would certainly make sense to make a new edition more Sinocentric, reflective of the more outsize influence China historically had (and is now starting to have again) on regional development and integration. If that means more youxia and fewer samurai, then so be it. Calling a supplement Kara-Tur - a name familiar enough to the fan-base to facilitate sales - gets away from the Japan-centrism as well - the name is more evocative of Central Asian languages, anyway.

The larger issue in the review, to my mind, is a certain skepticism about historical or folklore-based settings in general. To my mind, this skepticism is unwarranted. Tresca is aware of the popularity of the Kara-Tur-based settings, and of the fact that part of its popularity is derived from a certain multicultural appeal. The fantasy feels different than standard-issue D&D, which draws much more heavily on a European cultural matrix. On top of that, the multi-cultural appeal is not simply one of othering - counterpoising an undifferentiated East to the West. There was (and is) a similar appeal to the Al-Qadim (vaguely Middle-Eastern or West Asian-themed) setting. Though there are Orientalist elements in this setting also, the existence of two distinct "non-Western" settings (three, if one counts the Mesoamerican-themed Maztica), which reinforces regional coherence, breaks down Orientalism. As Said pointed out, the Orient is undifferentiated because it is simply a negation of those properties associated with the West. If there one recognizes a number of distinct regions that are defined by virtue of their own coherence, then these regions are not simply exotic negations, but entities in their own right.

Cover art from the Al-Qadim supplement
I don't have much attachment to the Forgotten Realms as a whole, or to the specific geographic regions like Kara-Tur and Zakhara in which that serve as backdrops for such "alternative" settings. But historically-based settings speak to me in ways that most entirely fictional ones like Eberron, Dark Sun, or Dragonlance do not. I find the former more interesting because they draw on institutions, power relations, economic set ups, and narratives that are grounded in actual societies, and for this reason, are at least arguably capable of generating richer immersion and role-playing experiences than most purely fictional settings. Judging by the many of the comments on Tresca's article, many other gamers have their imaginations stimulated by such settings, too. Is this stimulation necessarily a sign of an atavistic colonialist mentality that seeks to enjoy the exotic by appropriating the cultural values of people whose historical roots lie in locales outside the West?

Policing the imagination in a hobby like role-playing games, which is escapist by definition, is a difficult proposition. One can certainly ask that those who draw on historical and real-world cultural material to design settings raise their standards, treat the material with respect, and draw heavily on material composed by people with a solid grounding in regional cultures. The biggest influences on early East Asian-themed RPGs were Kurosawa films and kung-fu movies, composed partly with a Western consumer in mind, but hard to accuse of being Orientalist impositions. Since then, the genre of East Asian historical fantasy has been greatly enriched by anime, wuxia films (most notably by Ang Lee), Jin Yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes series, and game-relevant scholarly production too numerous to mention (the work of the California School historians first and foremost). Working such material into setting design, and weeding out remaining Orientalist tropes seem like worthwhile projects. Dumping historical fantasy because it has been put to Orientalist uses before does not.

Chult: Orientalism or diverse and innocent pulp?
An additional issue revolves around diversity. The diversity championed by Tresca is graphically depicted in the art of the core rulebooks, which depict people of different races, genders, and cultural backgrounds. For an established system with vast reach like D&D, having these sorts of representations in the main ruleset, applicable as it is to a variety of settings, is right and proper. But the multicultural ethos that champions supermarket-style equipment lists, universally-applicable character class lists, and 'adventuring parties that look like America' may also be cited as a cultural imposition. Today, the hobby is fast expanding into parts of the world that may be multicultural, but that have an entirely distinct historical background and demographic mix. Historically-based settings should be open to a degree, but spelling out what the main ethnic and religious groups are, where foreigners are likely to come from, and distinct classes that are representative of the setting do not strike me as necessarily Orientalist.

If cultural appropriation and imposition is a problem, games like D&D still have a significant amount of decolonizing to do. The issue is not broached by Tresca, but it should come as a surprise to no one that many character options, abilities, and properties have decidedly Eurocentric origins. Classes such as paladins, clerics, bards, and arguably several others are based on obvious European exemplars, and most of the core races are taken from European mythology. The bulk of cleric spells evoke Biblical miracles. Blowguns and elephants notwithstanding, most items on equipment lists are representative of commodities available in late-medieval European markets. Arguably, the imposition of such models on non-European historical-fantasy settings constitutes cultural imperialism, no matter how such characters or items are graphically depicted. Similar (and legitimate) critiques were made of theorists like Andre Gunder Frank, who insisted that Chinese and Indian civilizations were based on market principles no less than industrial Europe. But what appeared as a critique of Eurocentrism was in reality a universalization of modern European structures.

Lastly, the notion that Wizards of the Coast is unlikely to do updates of Kara-Tur and Al-Qadim-type settings on account of their Orientalism stumbles on the reality that Wizards has arguably already published Orientalist supplements as part of the recent (5th) edition. Some commenters on Tresca's article point out Tomb of Annihilation, an adventure path published last year, and set in a jungle inhabited by dark-skinned natives speaking a click-based language, blowgun-wielding cultists, and mask-wearing goblins organizing themselves in battle stacks is clearly Orientalist. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the Curse of Strahd adventure path is a classically Orientalist depiction of Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is one region that it is still Ok to orientalize in RPGs, and champions of Strahdiana typically point out that the gothic adventure is made just for fun. I suppose: Is no fun, Is no Blinsky!

On the whole, despite possible pitfalls, I would like to see more historical-fantasy offerings from Wizards (including a more "European" setting, though I realize that it will never happen with Faerun), and I see no reason why these cannot be cleansed of Orientalist elements. It looks like it won't happen this year, which seems like it will bring happiness to fans of the Planescape, Dark Sun, and Eberron settings; but I take hope from Mike Mearls' excitement at the prospect of an update of the Al-Qadim setting in the future.

 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Putting More Class In Your Setting. Part III: Variations By Setting, Class, and Level

In Part I of this essay, I evaluated arguments in favor and against the notion that classes have standing as social structures, and then, in Part II, I examined reasons why this is likely to be so. Now, in this concluding section, I will look into how class structures are likely to vary depending on the class in question, the type of setting, and situational factors such as the level or power of particular characters.

* * *

The insistence on the universal applicability of class abilities and the character's right not to be implicated within social structures are both resonant with rejecting playstyles that may lead the GM to restrict or alter the class lineup for a campaign. All published character types, the argument goes, should be appropriate for any campaign, so long as it is within the fantasy genre. The insistence on a single, generic fantasy style into which any character can fit so long as its build does not depart from the existing mechanics seems to promote openness, but actually constitutes a limiting of styles to a single supermarket-variety blend.

Supermarket-style settings have a right to exist, and are attractive to some players because their default assumptions about what they may find there - towns with taverns, markets stocked with readily available goods, frontier areas with dungeons and monsters, authority structures somewhere far from the frontier, and mundane populations generally prove to be accurate, leaving them free to worry about other things. But even in a generic setting - Forgotten Realms, or Sigil - City of Doors, where characters may come a wide range of cultural backgrounds, social structures and class structures can still exist, and be influenced by the multicultural environment in a variety of different ways. This concluding section lists examples of how setting type may influence class structure, and the relationship between classes.

1) In general, the degree of class organization, from tightest to broadest, can fall into these four categories:
  • A formal organization, with specified positions and offices, regulations and initiations (modeled by the Knights Templar, the Naqshbandi order of Sufi mystics, or the Sword Coast's Purple Dragon Knights). These organizations can model a distinct class, or specialization within the class.
  • A collection of possibly unconnected people bound by a teaching, technique, belief, ideal, or patronage of a deity or other powerful entity (modeled by the Buddhist sangha [monastic community], literate mages recording spells in writing, initiates into the Mithraic mysteries). It is entirely possible that adherents of a particular religion or the priesthood of a particular deity constitutes a distinct class).
  • A broad social class, estate, or caste, as discussed in Part II. In this case, classes can roughly correspond to backgrounds, and as such, can include, or even be numerically dominated by, people without any special abilities.
  • People from vastly different societies who perform broadly equivalent functions or have comparable skills, who may find affinities with others because they use magic, are trained in arms, are concerned with honor, etc.
2) Generally, the larger, "traditional" classes - fighter, rogue, possibly cleric and wizard, will tend toward looser class structures, whereas the more specialized classes that started as subclasses (ranger, paladin, druid), prestige classes (bard), or "unusual" classes (monk) will tend to have tighter forms of organization. However, this may be true only if certain standard assumptions about what a fantasy social environment is like obtain. It is entirely possible to imagine settings where basic classes are differently organized, or even do not exist at all. 

The cleric class, for instance, was designed to model the warrior archbishop Turpin or monastic fighting orders (before the advent of the paladin). Its heavily armed and armored demeanor, and its spell list, strongly influenced by Old Testament imagery, is hardly representative of priesthoods worldwide. 2e actually went some way toward disaggregating the cleric class, and replacing it with a priest class that was far more generic, but subsequent editions, including 5e, restored the centrality of the more traditional cleric. It is quite possible to have the cleric class as a tightly organized, militant grouping if one's setting resembles a disintegrating Roman Empire, where the Church seeks to defend itself and promote conversions in a sea of paganism. Other priests in this environment would likely possess an entirely different class, without armor proficiency, and without the ability to turn undead.

It is similarly possible to imagine settings without fighters, or with fighters organized as a highly specialized class that stands out from the rest of the population. It has been hypothesized that the Harappan civilization was a civilization without war, and if there is no war, there are likely to be no (or at best, very few) warriors. Perhaps warriors have intruded on this sort of peaceful culture from outside. The same thing might be true of a setting that resembles Hy Brasil from the Erik the Viking film, where the only fighters were the vikings who sailed to the island in their dragon ship. Even if the warriors did not all come in one ship, it is likely that they would feel a great deal of kinship with other warriors in such an environment, and would at least attempt to organize themselves - for conquest, to prevent undue conflicts, to develop some sort of warrior code, etc. This would constitute a highly unusual setting, very different from generic fantasy, yet definitely an attractive campaign setting.

Given the changing assumptions about what constitutes an arcane spellcaster over the years, the notion that studious and literate wizards are generic "magic-users" may be outdated. Sorcerers with raw talent are actually better suited for the role, whereas wizards may be a newer group that recommends itself to the populace precisely because they are more responsible with the Gift, and have more control over other members of the class, because they subject them to long years of study.

Conversely, it is possible to cast the more specialized classes in generic roles. For instance, druids may be members of a generic ruling class of priest-kings who battled other clans or tribes for primacy (this actually quite accurately models the situation in much of northern Europe in the centuries and decades prior to the coming of Christianity). Monks constituted the ruling elite of Tibet until the mid-20th century. 

3) The more style-specific the setting, the tighter the organization of individual classes (and vice-versa: the more generic the setting, the looser the class structure). In a cosmopolitan setting, many people and many members of elites might be transplants from distant lands. As such, aside from having a vague sense of affinity with those who also have combat training, or magical training, or training in the manipulation of symbols, they may have nothing in common with others who technically represent the same class and possess similar abilities.

Yet no setting is ever completely cosmopolitan. We can delineate two distinct varieties of cosmopolitan settings. The first type represents capitals or major metropolitan areas (like port cities) in expansive empires, which use openness to facilitate expansion. This means that it has a ruling elite class (or occasionally, several classes) which is in fact a coherent group bound by shared training and a common set of values. More likely than not, it is one of the "basic" classes outlined above. Other classes might be rag-tag, but given their power, it is quite likely that the ruling class will be trying to organize them into a recognizable group, or at least several recognizable subclasses. In fact, an attempt to bring 'lone wolf' characters under the control of a class group to which they have been administratively assigned may constitute a major theme of a particular campaign. Alternatively, a character belonging to one distinct class (e.g. a sorcerer) may be pressured to submit to another (e.g. a wizard, which may involve opportunities to learn new spells, but also attempts at "erasure" of existing properties, like channeling wild magic surges (obviously uncontrollable by the powers that be), breath weapons (unnerving to the mundane populace), etc. The example of Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh models roughly this sort of cosmopolitan environment (the ruling class here was obviously a warrior one, with a typically martial approach to streamlining other classes).

Muslim warriors inspired Christian chivalry while living near Crusaders
in the Levant
A different type of cosmopolitanism obtains in shared frontier areas between powerful realms. Examples of such may include large urban trading emporia, or an extensive area of badlands, mountains or deserts featuring overland trade routes, bandit fortresses on mountaintops, and isolated oases preserving the remnants of ancient elites whose writ perhaps used to extend over much larger areas. Here, although diverse groups may enter into contact and even learn from one another, they still feel that they belong to distinct groups in their homeland, even if such groups do not heavily figure in the course of a particular campaign. Crusaders and ghazi represented distinct frontier forces on either side of the Christian-Muslim frontier, though over time, they came to resemble one another to some extent. Perhaps at a certain point they might come to resemble rival archetypes of a single ranger class, and the longer the frontier persists, the more indistinguishable from one another they become (as even rivalry fades into the background, since both groups feel more in common with one another than those enjoying the soft life in metropolitan areas in the cores of either civilization). Classes that form diasporas stretching across frontiers will also proliferate as political confrontations become more systemic. And unique classes or subclasses will hide beyond walls of oasis cities, offering their unique services to one side or another - for a price. Foreigners may also marry into a fossilized, diasporic, or frontier class, perhaps even turning away from their own people to join an elite on the other side.

Initially, when coming into contact with one another, functionally similar but culturally foreign classes may have important secondary features that divide them more than shared features unite them. Different groups of fighters may use different weaponry and armor. Casters may have unique, and not mutually comprehensible magical scripts, and perhaps even component types. If a character belonging to a combat class that allows its members a proficiency with heavy armor comes from a culture without such armor, its in-game acquisition may, at GM discretion, be accompanied by a process of cultural assimilation that aligns the character with foreign NPCs belonging to the same class. In some cases, it may make sense to design (or select) a wholly distinct class, however.

Conversely, when set in a non-generic fantasy culture, most classes are likely to have a tighter organization - legendary exemplars and founders, heraldry, training manuals, formal codes of conduct, etc. In extreme cases, different classes may constitute distinct castes that ought not come into direct contact with one another. That might call for a one-class campaign (in which the various characters represent different subclasses or archetypes, or belong to different races, to increase variety and the party skill range). Alternatively, some members of the higher classes may have to undergo special rituals during downtime to remove the "pollution" accumulated from long-term exposure to adherents of other classes.

Since non-generic settings and unique lands are rarely hermetically sealed, it may also make sense for the GM to outline foreign classes which may be present in such a setting. In the Lukomorye setting which I write about on this blog, there is no native tradition of literate high magic among the residents of Nor'. Yet wizards from wealthier and richer lands to the west and south do appear from time to time. They may be ambassadors, or in the employ of local princes (who have links to the fighter warrior elite). They will rarely interact with others of their class, but their activities are surrounded with class-specific accoutrements brought from home - star charts, kabbalistic diagrams, alchemical alembics, and so on. Similar provisions are made for paladins and monks, which also do not figure among the setting's main classes.

4) The higher a class is in a given social hierarchy, the more tightly it will be integrated, because with the highest power come the most stringent gate-keeping mechanisms. Formal training to advance levels requiring the expenditure of money and time will most likely apply to elite classes, while formal training for rogues would probably look silly in most circumstances. Ruling classes would also be more likely to have at least somewhat explicit rules of conduct and oaths or vows to uphold them. Failure to uphold these vows would likely result in concrete punishments that affected class powers and advancement. For instance, fighters who habitually flee from battle may be barred from training for higher levels, wizards that share secret knowledge may be barred from mysteries and initiation rituals, and members of any given class can be berated by superiors to such an extent that further advancement in that class becomes impossible - at least for a time. It may be that certain rituals, performed by higher-level members of the same class, are required to open access to a certain tier. This admission may allow not only the standard class powers like spell levels, but also social perks, such as the right to hold the office of bishop. In the Lukomorye setting, the priest class has a built-in hierarchy requiring the attainment of a particular level to hold such offices, but also to perform socially crucial rituals, most of which actually have a concrete mechanical impact on the game (for example, the ability to anathemize another straying priest or priestess, which strips them of power until they atone). Given this class' social prominence, there is also a built-in system that privileges them on Charisma checks - at least in environments where their leading role is recognized. Clearly, in non-generic settings, some classes will require at least a partial redesign to reflect their higher social power. But that is right and proper - settings and campaigns that stress social interaction more than those who tilt in a more default combat-heavy direction will be balanced (yes, balanced!) differently, and the most obvious way to rebalance is through adjusting class design.

For weaker classes, structure and identity will be much less evident. It is often argued that characters will use multiple designations to refer to themselves, and of these, the class name may appear as merely as one among many, or perhaps not at all. Thus, fighters may think of themselves as gladiators, guards, knights, or soldiers, rather than fighters. This may in fact be so, but it doesn't take away from the structural reality of class. Not only commoners, but full members of a given class may use different titles to refer to the same group (or even the same title to refer to different groups). But a sense of class belonging may be situational. Like the proverbial Ibo in Lagos, who becomes a Nigerian in London and an African in New York, a sense of solidarity with larger groups may develop in unfamiliar surroundings. A person may think of themselves as a member of a particular mercenary group back in their home town, a member of the Champion subclass in an imperial capital, and a fighter in a frontier region between multiple empires. Alternatively, in the company of spellcasters, two fighters would definitely think of one another as martial types, in opposition to the rest. In the company of rangers and paladins, they would quickly begin to emphasize the differences, and begin wondering why these others spend so much time in the woods, or in temples, rather than just honing their fighting prowess. And in the company of all fighters in the barracks, subclass differences would suddenly seem very important, as tactical commanders begin to complain about the show-off Champions who specialize in single combat. The initial lack of awareness of membership in a class early in life does not mean the class doesn't exist.

5) Class structures gain more weight as characters advance levels in a class. No matter how important to their self-understanding at the beginning of their career or adventuring life, mundane professions and regional origins will fade into the background, while class membership will loom ever larger. Characters will become famous for their exploits, and will attract others who would sit at their feet. Conceivably, successful characters could attract followers belonging to other classes, but given their skill-set, there is a limited amount they could teach them. Assuming they are in good standing, they will also receive offers to take up official positions or leadership roles within elite structures, because their fame now reflects well upon the group, and gives it greater legitimacy. On the other hand, success will attract rivals, perhaps those who have been passed over for special consideration, and now want to show up the winner of accolades as a fraud. Within tighter class groups with a secretive structure (e.g. because of official persecution) a limited number of top spots at top levels could require combat or other competition to advance to higher level. Such limitations existed for druids, monks and assassins in the 1st Edition rules. They may not work for everyone's setting, but it is hard to argue that as narrative elements they necessarily detract from a campaign: old-style characters spent a lot of time preparing for such ritual contests. It is also possible that certain powers, and spells, are only possessed by the highest-standing members of each given class, and finding them (to learn an 8th or 9th level spell) would constitute an important part of driving a high-level campaign forward. Offers to warlocks to displace one's patron, and to become a patron in their own right may constitute another class-driven plot device. The strain between fulfilling one's destiny (or saving the world) and taking up a position of power within one's society could be an interesting source of dramatic tension. Fear of being expelled from one's class for some real or purported transgression could be another.

If advancement implicates one ever more within class structures, what does that mean for multiclassing? The issue of multi-classed characters constitutes a key point of contention between those who downplay class structures, and those who emphasize them. If multiclassing is a birthright, and a character can always change class to any class upon gaining a level, classes certainly seem very fluid, and devoid of in-game substance. If, on the other hand, multiclassing is a customization option that is available "with the DM's permission" (PHB, p. 163), then the situation starts to look very different. I don't want to rehearse common arguments regarding the reasons for multiclassing. Most fans of multiclassing will insist that they do it for character-driven reasons because they like options, rather than for reasons of power optimization. Both surely have their place as explanations, though given the stigma against powergaming, the former will almost always be emphasized, including by powergamers themselves. But the key question is, to what degree does the insistence on multiclassing respect the narratives constructed by the GM? If class is regarded as a calling, the idea of multiple callings does present difficulties, as a calling is the driving element of a character's life. Some insist that a character should be a Renaissance genius, since we play the game for fantastic escape, and most of us do not measure up. But a quick glance at fantasy as literature reveals that heroes are rarely this type of person. There is no built-in assumption that most characters should be such.

In older versions of the game, there was a built-in narrative for multiclassing. Typically, the option was available to non-human characters who had very long lifespans, and ample opportunities to immerse themselves in various callings. A character began as a multiclass character, and advanced in all the chosen classes simultaneously. For humans, there was the option of dual-classing, but it was rarely taken, because the abilities associated with the old class were not fully available until the level attained in the new class exceed that attained in the old class. Thus, a prolonged period of training was modeled. In the 5e rules, the dual-class structure is adopted as the model for multiclassing, but all the powers of all the classes are immediately available to a switch-hitting character.

I am in principle open to multiclassing, provided that a character's backstory indicates such a propensity from the start. A nobleman from a society ruled by a martial elite may incline toward magical studies, but the foundation for combat training was probably laid into such a character at a young age. Similarly, a charlatan who was trained as an illusionist has plenty of reasons to consider switching to rogue at some point in her life. But simply picking up a level of another class for the purpose of "dipping" into an ability gained at low level does not strike me as justifiable, though a long period of downtime may make learning a new class possible. Even so, there is every reason to suppose that doing this will result in growing pressures from one's old class-mates. A fighter may have been marked for a leadership role, but now attracts suspicion from members of his order. A member of a class with very high social standing may meet with disapproval from "dipping" into a class with a lower social standing. A cleric picking up a level in rogue will turn heads, and a cleric picking up a level in warlock may risk expulsion (so she would do best to keep this new departure secret). A highly successful multi-class character may successfully break old molds, but they have to prove their success, and withstand social opprobrium. Subsequently, they may come to be regarded as demigods (or mythic founders of new archetypes); but the road to that happy end is a long and difficult one.

* * *

Ultimately, every GM will decide for themselves whether their playing experience will benefit or suffer from connecting class to setting social structure. As for me, I have laid out my case, and my own conclusion is unequivocal: get your ass with the class!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Putting More Class In Your Setting . Part II: Why Classes Form

In Part I, I discussed opposing takes on the existence of classes as in-setting elements. In this installment, I will examine the question why societies in which magic and unusual powers are highly efficacious are likely to organize their wielders into groups and institutions that more or less resemble classes.

* * *

The first and obvious question to consider is the social character of power. In itself, power - the ability to wield authority, control or influence over others - is socially corrosive. Because it rests on domination of others and is unevenly distributed, power generates social imbalances, which in turn breed social instability: these imbalances make those who lack power question the benefits they derive from belonging to groups and orders in which they are ostensibly participants. Thus, to perpetuate power, those who have it need to offer ways to distribute and regulate it. To be sure, in fantastic worlds, certain beings can have much greater individual power than an average member of society in comparison to our own, so that even strength in numbers might not guarantee a mechanism of control over the powerful. But even in fantastic societies, godlike beings require worshipers, which presupposes at least a minimal amount of buy-in by people without power into whatever recognizing the gods' paramountcy.

If distributing and regulating power is demanded by the powerless, who seek some guarantees and assurances of noblesse oblige so that their own interests will be respected to some extent, doing so is also in the interests of the powerful. Even fantastic cosmoi are not typically static, which means that power fluctuates: those who have it today may not have it tomorrow. Those who have it today will therefore do what they need to in order to still have access to the same power tomorrow, or better yet, that their right to that power is recognized as legitimate, so that they will not have to take undue risks to defend it. This means power has to be monopolized, protected and hidden: others have to be kept from acquiring it, from gaining access to knowledge that allows them to possess it. This further means that the powerful will construct laws and norms that prevent others from learning their secrets, punishing those who do so illegally, instituting specialized training techniques and secret societies that conceal the methods of gaining and exercising power, and so on. The idea that middling professions - carpentry, smithing, pottery, etc., are organized into guilds (as is suggested by the existence of the "guild artisan" background), but that warriors, arcanists, priests, and others who wield high levels of power lack their own organizations and orders just boggles the mind.

Power can be protected, monopolized and socialized in a number of different ways. One traditional way is to pass it down within family or clan structures, because real or imputed blood bonds typically create a higher level of trust between people who share power. This method of regulating power usually prevails in environments where a (smaller) group has conquered a (much larger) group of foreigners or outsiders, and maintains its grip on power by maintaining its identity as a distinct ethnicity, or a hereditary aristocracy. Societies that organized power along such lines generally had restrictions against non-aristocrats using weapons (or riding horses), because democratizing control over such implements of power would have led to their own downfall. Learning to protect themselves through techniques of unarmed combat - as was the case with Shaolin monks, for instance - was a 'weapon of the weak' that allowed the lower orders to fit into an existing power structure while generating a new technique of power of their own.

Meritocracy, though it is often seen as somehow fairer than aristocracy, represents another approach to monopolizing power. In societies without deep divisions of ethnicity or estate, some people can still rise to positions of great power and influence either through putting in the hard work of learning techniques of power, or through being born with inordinately large amounts of raw talent (or both). In either case, securing one's right to possess power - economic, political, symbolic, etc. - requires certification at the hands of established meritocrats, who administer systems of examinations and bureaucracies that require demonstrations of accomplishments before one is allowed to rise to the next power level. Examinations and bureaucracies are also schools of a professional ethos - how does one properly practice one's skill, treat those who are not in the know, and behave toward superiors and underlings? Exceptional candidates who are hard to entangle in such administrative boondoggles do crop up from time to time, and do undermine such systems of control, but the point is, meritocrats always try to control them, and, assuming a society does not collapse as a result of being challenged by upstarts, they generally succeed. At best, the upstarts are able to create and institutionalize a new form of power.

The social order of Latin Christendom
Simple schemes like hereditary aristocracy or meritocracy do not typically exist in pure form, or function in a vacuum. In most societies, they exist side by side, perhaps differentiating different power-holders, or elites, from one another. Most societies have multiple elites, and the various elites protect their power not only from the powerless, but also from one another. This may be demonstrated by the example of new and old elites, e.g. the Germanic warrior aristocracy, which had its rule legitimated by the Christian clergy that had taken control of the Roman Empire in the preceding century. These two elites became, respectively, the Second and First Estates of the medieval European political order. Similarly, the Tariqat, Shariat, Siyasat division of the Dar-al-Islam into a Persian-language scholarly and cultural elite, an Arab-language religious and judicial elite, and a Turkic-language warrior and political elite reflected compromises between old and new ruling classes in Islamic society as well. The origins of the Indian caste hierarchy is more shrouded in controversy owing to its greater antiquity, but some scholars regard it as another example of a compact between recent invaders and more established elites. The caste (more precisely, varna) system constituted an extreme instance of different elites protecting their power by differentiating oneself themselves in training, abilities, language, symbolism, etc. - as much as possible, to the point where the castes to have minimal physical contact with one another. In the European case, conversely, the First and Second estates interpenetrated one another to such an extent that while first sons of elite families inherited the family domain or realm, the second sons strove to become Princes of the Church.

The lower orders, numerous but subjugated and unorganized, often generated counterelites that challenged the established social order as well. Various "social bandits", including pirates, hejduks, uskoks, Cossacks, and Shaolin monks were not simply outlaw gangs, but groups that shared an ethos and a measure of support from the surrounding populations living within the law. The infamous ninjas were recruited from specific lower-class townships, while many of the Yakuza belonged to the burakumin outcaste, from which tanners, butchers and executioners also hailed. In medieval Russia, the izgoi - a term translated into English as "rogue" - were also members of an outcaste with no legal standing and no right to own property. They were not necessarily criminal, but they were literally outside the law, and dependent on their wits, rather than a master or any kinds of legal protections, for survival.

Some elites may cluster in specific geographic areas. These can include frontier areas dominated by tribal groups with special abilities, marcher elites on the margins of sophisticated (though frequently politically fragmented) empires, as well as merchant elites, which gravitate to commercial emporia that promote cross-border (or cross-wasteland) trade between empires. Though the designation may have been meant a joke, or simply an attempt to formulate real-world political forms in terms of D&D classes, the Companion Set DM's rules  characterized a republic (i.e. that form of government that prevails in interstitial commercial emporia) as "a democracy with elected rulers (or thieves)" (Mentzer, 1984, 11). Since then, of course, the term kleptocracy has become commonplace political vocabulary, though for some, it is only a specification of a republic, not its antithesis.

Common classes - fighters, rogues, priests, and possibly certain kinds of magic practitioners - would thus likely overlap with broad estates or castes. The commonality of the basic (or traditional) classes is accounted for by the near-universality of certain types of monopoly control - over violence, over symbolic power, and over the economy - of the imperial or quasi-imperial societies that serve as baseline models for most societies in the fantasy literary genre. Geographically localized elites, on the other hand, would likely represent the less common classes, like barbarians, or specializations within one of the larger classes. Many contemporary classes began as subclasses of the "Big Three" or "Big Four" with functional specializations - armed companions of a ruler or a monastic fighting order (paladins), a military outfit charged with the defense of a frontier (rangers), or a dethroned priesthood (druids). Some of the minor classes - meditative secret societies promoting communal self-defense (monks), or musical confraternities (bards) fit into this mold as well.

Magic, if it exists as a distinct force, would constitute an additional form of power that could be universally monopolized in such societies. However, almost by definition, magic is a superhuman force that people cannot regulate. That may be said for symbols (created by Thoth to represent the thought or speech of Amun, as the Egyptians had it), violence, or love (generated by gods such as Mars and Venus), but magic - the least stable and definable type of power, would have the most destabilizing social effect. Controlling magic would be one of the main functions of social institutions, or goals of social life in general. It was difficult enough to do in actual societies: Ashurbanipal's construction of the Great Library at Nineveh in order to discipline, regulate and professionalize divination has been compared to the Manhattan Project in the extent and importance of the undertaking; but how much more difficult would it be in an environment where magic had a much more visible and dramatic impact? One tactic, also paralleling what actually occurred in history, might involve differentiating divine from arcane magic: whereas divine magic leaves creation largely in the hands of the gods, and places only restorative power (healing, blessing, banishing evil spirits, in extremis - channeling divine wrath) in the hands of their human agents, arcane power is a hack - a mortal appropriation of the basic power of the cosmos. As such, it might be ruled out of court, as it for the most part was in societies dominated by Abrahamic monotheism; regulated at the margins, as was the practice of high magic like theurgy by university-trained intellectuals (at a time when the universities were controlled by the clerical estate); or forced to become handmaidens to imperial rule, as in China, where the shi scholar-administrators occasionally dabbled in alchemy, but only after they were brought under control by the system of imperial examinations, and the imperative to govern society on behalf of the Son of Heaven. A full magocracy might more resemble India - the Brahmin, although ritual specialists (hence priests) were often seen as superior to the gods, and therefore in full control of the creative power of the universe (though such power took purely non-material forms - otherwise it would be polluting); but precisely because it could be conceptualized as a society ruled by magi, access to that class was tightly regulated. It is perhaps no accident that a ruling magical caste is also depicted as essentially impermeable in the (otherwise forgettable) first Dungeons and Dragons film. Perhaps the wizards that rule such societies first take control over the cycle of rebirth upon taking power.

Varna (caste) in medieval South Asia


If some arcane casters can be policed by priests (and their divine masters), emperors (and their bureaucracies), literary traditions, and schools, what of those who possess natural magical talent (sorcerers), or those who cut a few corners by making a deal with otherworldly patrons in exchange for future considerations (warlocks)? Surely, as detractors like to point out, here we have two classes that can have no class structure at all, because there is no training, no techniques, and no necessary interaction with others who possess similar skills. Often, there is even no self-awareness and no individual choice about acquiring such powers - it just happens. To my mind, that represents less an inevitable conclusion than a simple failure of imagination. Those born with raw magical talent are typically scions of a magical bloodline, rather than simply freaks of nature (as commoners might think). An obvious course of development would be that a sorcerer turns to discovering her true family history immediately upon learning of her powers. Any social pressure - which is a likely response to individuals being born with raw magic - would almost certainly result in the isolated individual looking for allies - preferably among one's kind: only they understand the character's plight, and can help manage the dangerous aspects of raw magic. It is also quite possible that society would put significant resources into tracking such births magically, in order to eliminate or control all wielders of natural magical talent (the sarcastic suggestion that a society would institute a census to locate individuals in a certain class doesn't actually seem to me to be supercilious - the dominant religion of the Western world is premised upon the existence of a census dividing people into archaic categories, and also the capacity of Magi to be able to locate such miraculous children). Conversely, if sorcerers are descended from gods, they would form a ruling elite, while dominant figures within their bloodlines would act as sorcerer-kings - managing their populations to ensure that specimens with talent would be born in the safest and most propitious environments. As for pact-making warlocks, given their likely rejection of legitimate pathways to power, they would also require networks of support, which they would most likely find among covens or like-minded people contracting with the same entities. All these approaches strike me as more propitious to involving sorcerer or warlock PCs in a setting than simply assuming that they are one of a kind.

It is often objected that if the goal is to implicate PCs in social structures, it can easily be done without involving them as a member of a class: there are so many other options for structures to which PCs can belong to, while class is best left to player interpretation. To me, this makes little sense. Class is by far the greatest source of a character's power, so specially class abilities would be primary loci of social regulation, and developing or managing class powers would occupy a great deal of a character's training. Inventing yet other social categories to take the place of classes would be redundant within the setting, and aesthetically awkward from the point of view of gameplay - a kind of reinvention of the wheel. It is sometimes pointed out that class in the game sense is not the same concept as class in the socioeconomic sense. This is true as far as it goes - not all classes should overlap with broad social orders, but that does not mean that the terms are entirely unrelated in meaning, or that classes cannot denote similar categories. Another common assumption  - that placing characters within a preexisting class structure would constitute a trap - is unwarranted if the GM is not being heavy-handed (and a heavy-handed GM presents problems to players across the board, not simply in terms of imposing class structures on them). Within class structures, there is still more than ample room for player agency. Do you like being part of the elite? How well do you fit in with your peers? Are you a rebel against those who trained you? Does your background predispose you toward more than one class (and how would you respond to lobbying from multiple leaders and elites)? Are you on the run because of your talent, despite the fact that members of your bloodline are rulers of your society? Ideals, bonds, flaws, and personal histories can shape answers and approaches to class, instead of obviating them.

The same applies to backgrounds in general. Does having classes eliminate the need for backgrounds? Does it make certain backgrounds necessary counterparts to certain classes? Are all fighters nobles or soldiers, are all rogues criminals or charlatans, are all clerics acolytes, and are all wizards sages? Even if there is a degree of overlap (especially for NPCs), supposing so would again be a failure of imagination. A brawny commoner could have been noticed by the local lord at a young age (e.g. by saving him from drowning), and then trained in the use of weapons, and made part of his armed retinue. A wizard struggling to find tuition for university borrows money from the local loan shark, and, in the absence of collateral, is made to participate in break-ins and eventually integrated into the local gang structure. An aging artisan strives to escape from the pressures of family by entering a monastery. In an extreme case, a captured and enslaved tribesman is trained in the use of arms to protect his master, and then formulates a new approach to being a warrior (with the GM's approval, the GM and the player cooperate to design a Mamluk Fighter archetype, or find one online that the GM deems acceptable for the setting). The existence of other social pressures and mundane lives does not eliminate classes: the wizard running heists for the loan shark still wants to finish her education, and to be deemed legitimate by her wizard peers. Coming from exceptional circumstances and being able to bend the rules are the veritable exceptions that prove the rule, rather than arguments against the rule. And being a leveled cleric in an ecclesiastical institution that includes multiple priests with no discernible ability to cast spells does not mean that mundane priests are the distinct social category in question: star software engineers are more definitive of institutions like Silicon Valley, which exists to provide support for their skill-set, than the vast majority of mediocre ones receiving a wage, whom no one has ever heard of.

It is precisely the relationship between various class mechanics, which are far from a randomly thrown-together "bag" that the "no concrete classes" set somehow reads into the rules that speaks to the social character of class. Members of powerful groups frequently receive training that has no clearcut and immediate advantages to the increasing power in the short term, but that establish legitimacy and create solidarity within the group. For some classes (druids, rogues) these are class languages; for others (wizards), they are texts that organize knowledge into schools, and require extensive study for entry; for others still (monks, clerics) monastic or priestly institutions, or oaths (paladins) that stipulate their responsibility to society at large. For some classes, their various abilities are articulated by disposition toward certain terrains (which are, after all, social settings, too). The people who chafe at these restrictions and "useless" abilities are typically the same people that don't recognize that classes have any social standing. But this gets back to the crux of the issue: should a character's class always be about power projection in any circumstance (and in a parallel fashion, the display of the character's untrammeled individuality)? What is the impact of this approach on the social character of RPGs as a hobby?

* * *


In the concluding part of this essay, I will examine variations of class composition and organization in different settings, and different stages of a character's career.