Saturday, February 9, 2019

Lukomorye By Gaslight: Response to Dreams and Fevers

Eugène Jansson, Hornsgatan by Night (1902)
Wallpaper for the Dreams and Fevers blog

A 'response' to a review typically involves contestation, and not infrequently, a fair amount of snark. This is not what I aim to do here: my main goal is to be responsive - to acknowledge the attention the author has devoted to my own work, to note the degree to which their concerns overlap with my own, and only then, to clarify areas where our perspectives diverge (and to offer some thoughts as to why they do).

The reviewer in question is a Toronto-based undergraduate who authors a new gaming blog called Dreams and Fevers. I have come to know them simply as "T". Since encountering T virtually on (the soon-to-be-defunct) Google+, I have also come to know them as a player in one of my Lukomorye campaigns, and they have impressed me as a broadly knowledgeable person, especially for one so young, and especially in Northeast European/Eurasian history and mythology - subjects arcane subjects, as far as most gamers are concerned. In their review, they drew not only on the Lukomorye Player's Guide that I recently circulated online, but also on various blog posts I wrote over the last two years. Many of these concerned issues not directly related to Lukomorye per se. Thus, T displayed an engagement with my writings that even a published game designer would be privileged to have elicited from a reviewer. For all of this, and for publicizing his review on various social media, they have my heartfelt thanks.

Instead of a composing a long introduction discussing our shared interests, I will just dive into the substantive points of the Dreams and Fevers review, and allow our commonalities and differences to emerge organically in the course of my response. A reader wishing to obtain a more granular view is best served by reading T's blog (as well as this one).


Mike Mearls has recently remarked that anyone who wants to self-publish RPGs needs to understand that the art is the most important part of the product. T makes a similar point about the art and layout of Lukomorye. They are particularly unimpressed by the the faux 5e layout format, the insufficient space for some quality illustrations (notably, Viktor Vasnetsov's 1882 masterpeice Bogatyr at the Crossroads), the lack of proper credit to the artists and illustrators, and the editing.

I don't really have much of a defense in this regard, except to recapitulate the fact that Lukomorye is a work in progress, and to acknowledge that illustration and layout do not rank particularly high in my skill set. I initially started using the Homebrewery platform, frequently used by homebrew designers and Dungeon Masters Guild authors for its ease and familiar layout, to throw together some individual monster stat blocks. As time went on, the collection of "brews" grew to include races, classes, and ultimately, whole chapters, and eventually expanded to a book-length .pdf file. As this transpired, I knew that I would eventually have to try my hand at InDesign, which I've toyed with, but which has so far seemed a daunting undertaking, requiring time to master a much more complicated instrument. Time, which I've thus far devoted to research, writing, and design.

Illustration presents an even steeper hill to climb, given my lack of talent, as well as incongruously exacting ideas about what I would like the finished product to look like. Ideally, the first page with the floral border containing Pushkin's prologue to Ruslan and Liudmila - which T marks as the most attractive page in the book - is in fact fairly close to my vision of what I want the final product to look like. Public domain illustrations by Vasnetsov, Bilibin, and other classic Russian illustrators would certainly have gone into the finished product as well, with full credit. There are not enough of them to fill a rulebook, however, and I would certainly have to solicit original art, for which I do not for the time being, have the funds. For now, the illustrations are place-holders, largely for the benefit of my players. I have been given unsolicited advice by another reviewer about where I could find free illustrations. It is a venue worth exploring, but for quality illustrations that match the vision, I would probably have to turn outside the gaming community, and pay through the nose. That, or wait for my 12-year-old budding artist daughter to hone her skills (assuming she in fact wants to be exploited by her father).

As for editing, the book has been through one full redaction, though every time I look, I find new typos or mistakes. I still return to do rules tweaks as issues come up in the game, but I don't figure I'll do another thorough edit until I reformat the LPG on other software. These tweaks often require expanded text, which sometimes results in image shrinkage. It's unfortunate that this happened to Bogatyr at the Crossroads in particular, since I've long been a big fan of this illustration, and have used it in academic presentations long before Lukomorye became a serious project.

I also agree that a pronunciation guide for some of the Russian terms would have been helpful, but it's actually a more difficult task than it seems. First, I'm used to the formal Library of Congress system of transliteration, which is useful for scholars who can read Cyrillic script, but less so for gamers, who cannot. Transliterating words like "volkhv" (the Slavic counterpart to the druid) presents special challenges to anglophone players not used to Slavic consonant clusters. In other words, transliteration often requires the design of a new system, suited to the task. And as it is, simply listing Russian and transliterated titles for the classes and races is already a turn-off for some potential players.

But enough said about art and layout.

Character Design

On the whole, I'm largely in agreement with T about what the strongest and the weakest parts of the design are, although in spots, I think they underappreciate the complexity of making a design that is simultaneously (relatively) balanced, resonant with existing 5e rules, and sufficiently respectful of the folkloric or historical source material. I should add that this applies not only to Lukomorye, but to 5e design itself.

In Chapter 2, like a number of others who have looked at Lukomorye, T likes the new skills (Consumption  - the ability to hold one's food and drink, and to thereby impress the hosts - and Literacy), as well as the Pravda and Krivda points that serve as a supplement to the Inspiration rules and a partial replacement for the alignment system. They think that a system for awarding experience should be detailed here, though a player's manual is really no place for that. Curiously, T later complains about some generic rule variants in Chapter 7 that are not specifically tied to the setting. What they propose here would certainly be another instance of such a generic system. Awarding XP is an idiosyncratic business, and a lot of 5e GMs prefer to not be bothered by it at all. In any event, the plan was to make the XP system part of the (forthcoming) Lukomorye World Guide. But partly at T's prompting, I have recently laid it out here.

With regard to races (or Kinds, as I call them here - partly because "kind" strike me as a better translation for род (rod), partly because the language of 'race' in RPGs has always rubbed me the wrong way, precisely because it is inevitably understood in a modern and not a medieval sense): here I feel that T lets their OSR predilections get the better of them. Though they like the fluff descriptions of the various player options, they find the mechanics unimpressive, and wish the game reflected a more humanocentric, OSR-type system. With regard to the latter, I can only say that Lukomorye is not, strictly speaking, a historical simulation, and I think leaving out non-humans in a Russian-based fantasy setting would have been a huge missed opportunity: the folkloric creature types are simply too interesting to leave by the wayside in order to conform to any sort of design model. And I say this as someone who finds much to like about OSR, and who usually plays humans when on the other side of the screen. My players' interests in the various Kinds has been pretty well distributed between humans, changelings, shapeshifters, and more alien creatures, which suggests to me that both the selection and the writeup are somewhere near the Golden Mean. Making the selection more human-focused would have probably meant either a) bonuses for particular ethnicities, which is even more distasteful than "races" to begin with; or b) jettisoning kinds altogether to focus on feats/special abilities. This, I think, would have resulted in a substantial loss of color, and long lists of generic "feats" that are not particularly representative of the setting.

T wants the Kinds to have a unique "shtick", like the ones in the 5e Player's Handbook, but at the same time, they complain that the PHB, with its passive bonuses and race-class synergies, doesn't do it enough. In fact, glancing through the PHB, the "unique shtick" design is used inconsistently. Elves still have their Fae Ancestry, halflings now have luck, half-orcs have a slew of features (Uncanny Endurance first and foremost), and dragonborn have a breath weapon. Dwarves' resistance to poison is not really much of an outstanding feature (and notably, T dislikes resistance to necrotic damage as "the" feature for Lukomorye changelings); their true "shtick" is the ability to wear armor regardless of class, which, to put it mildly, is not very interesting thematically or design-wise. Gnomes have saving throw bonuses, which no one else gets, but which are not very "gnomey". Tieflings and drow, like Lukomorye changelings, get a slew of resistances and cantrips. If one were to suss out a design principle from these, the Lukomorye chudy (Fair Folk, more or less) do, pace the reviewer, have one, or even a couple of unique "shticks" (even if some of these are 'lifted' out of the PHB: they have stonecunning, they have sunlight sensitivity, and they can talk to small animals). They may seem like a hodgepodge of elves, dwarves, and gnomes, but the point is, no other Kind has these characteristics in Lukomorye. As far as giving them knowledge of a great secret, as T recommends - this seems like something best left to individual player backstories.

The fundamental point is that the race designs in 5e itself do not have "unique shtick" or "new types of party synergy for a new dungeoning experience" as their prime directive. 5 is a legacy game that wanted to bring people back to experience traditional character archetypes. In a sense, Lukomorye does that, too, although the archetypes it seeks to represent are not D&D-fantasy, but Russian-folklore-fantasy. The design is from the archetype up. In that regard, a basic cantrip like Mending seems like a good feature to give to a half-domovoi (a changeling birthed of a human-'house goblin' union; the latter keep the house clean if well-treated). To me, cantrips seem underutilized as racial features, given that non-humans have particular affinities to magic. From the point of view of player preferences, extra cantrips are always attractive (especially in a system where magic is subject to various limitations). No one has played a half-domovoi yet (though there have been plenty of other changelings - half-ovinniks [human/barn goblins], half-poleviks [human/field goblins], half-rusalkas [human/water nymphs], and half-letuns [a kind of cross between a tiefling and a dragonborn]). If someone ran Lukomorye for me, I'd definitely play one: I like their down-to-earth feel, for the same reason I like humans. In general, most of the Kinds in Lukomorye are able to pass as humans, which does make it feel more like a human-centric game while at the same time giving players the option to run interesting non-human characters.

Additionally, I feel like it's not quite fair to say that the "shtick" of the changeling characters is reducible to resistance to necrotic damage. First of all, the changelings in Lukomorye are not really a race in the way D&D dwarves are a race - a distinct group sharing physical and cultural characteristics. They are a very broad group of creatures that share descent from nechist' - "unclean", goblin-like beings. Beyond their "unclean" blood, which gives them necrotic resistance, they don't share much with other changelings, as they are descended from very different types of nechist' beings. There are nine subtypes of changelings, as opposed to the usual two or three. Each sub-type is much closer to a "race" in its own right - the better analog for changelings is 'demihumans' (a term that has dropped out of 5e owing to a proliferation of races). And the unique features of each type of changeling are not a particular ability, but the complex of traits. The bonus magic and skills they receive are not random, but thematic: ovinniks get Animal Handling, because they live in barns, and preside over barnyard animals. They get access to fire-starting cantrips because they are creatures of fire. There is no fundamental difference between that and a vodyanoi's ability to breathe underwater (because he is a water creature). T prefers the latter as a defining ability, but does it really make a difference if the feature is expressed in terms of a spell or not (in fact, the vodyanoi's "amphibious" trait is described in terms of the Water Breathing spell)?

The ovinnik as represented by Pathfinder
The creature's stats are pretty similar to what I assign to the
half-ovinnik changeling in Lukomorye

On the whole, I understand the penchant for wanting a unique shtick for each type of creature - it does seem like elegant design. Perhaps, as Lukomorye evolves further away from its 5e roots, a redesign along these lines might make sense. But at the same time, I think the "shtick" approach can become a false idol. I don't (at present) see how each changeling can be assigned its "own" ability without making a hash of the folkloric bases of these creatures. And assigning them a "shtick" simply because "it's good game design" is putting the cart before the horse. From what I can gather, people want to play changelings because they focus on the story aspect. What is it like to grow up among humans, and be different? To be constantly drawn to a world beyond the human social sphere? To try to blend in, while knowing you never really can? That seems like the main reason people choose to play different Kinds. It's about character development - and that's something a 5-type game does better than OSR games, with their much higher level of character mortality.

T gives the shapeshifters more love - because they have an obvious game-changing "shtick" - the ability to change form. Making them was more difficult, because shapeshifting and getting a bonus attack are such powerful abilities, that they have to be nerfed by a series of crocks, and a staggering of features until higher levels - otherwise, no one would want to play any other Kind. Simply copying the Eberron changeling (much closer to Lukomorye shapechangers than Lukomorye changelings) seemed uninspired. I don't know if Eberron fans like changelings, but I saw nothing outstanding about them story-wise. As for my shapechangers - they are part lycanthrope, but also part fairy tale beast (not unlike those in the Uncle Remus stories), and it is the latter aspect, and the mechanics that express it, that makes them appealing as characters. As a result, they have a rather large number of (positive and negative) features that may not be optimal from the point of view of simplicity and clarity. The same applies to the giant volots, which were also difficult to balance (but making them Medium-sized, like 5e does with goliaths and firbolgs) seemed like a cop-out, so I opted for an experimental design that limited the buffs they get from being Large-sized. Like the chudy, they were added to the lineup late for the sake of increasing variety. I may want to change them in the future, but both types of creatures are popular with players (though probably because they remind them of 5e cognates).

There is little to say about T's take on Stations (backgrounds, but slightly altered to be more along the lines of occupational groups) and Callings (classes, with their quality as heroic professions stressed to a greater degree than usual). They like them, and likes them for the right reasons. The stations are historically based, so they would work for a mostly human, or low-magic (or straight historical simulation) game that T prefers. I agree that the callings are the best part of the rulebook, and if anything, the reflavoring of the standard classes for the setting was even more fun to do than designing new classes. I was certainly more cognizant of the "shtick" imperative here than I was with the Kinds, but this sort of emphasis seems more necessary for classes than for races (which seems to be reflected in the 5e design as well). I agree that the bogatyr (knight errant) is muddier than the fool, though I'm not sure at this point what I can do better, and how. I definitely will not remake it as a barbarian archetype - the flavor is just too different, and the Bogatyr's Might feature is not rage - it is much more versatile, though it has similarities mechanically (in terms of uses per long rest). Flavor-wise, the bogatyr is more paladin than barbarian, but the spells and the ability to lay on hands just don't work for an Ilya Muromets or a Dobrynia Nikitich. Ironically, Bogatyr's Might may actually be closest to a fighter's Action Surge and Second Wind. But bogatyrs as a distinct class strike me as too good of a thing to get rid of even if it leads to a somewhat muddy hybrid design. They definitely need mounts (whereas mounted combat gets very short shrift in 5e in general). There is more justification for them to have d12s than for barbarians due to their physical differences with normal people. In the end, I like the idea of them as 'the sorcerers of the martial classes' - characters who are born to their calling more than they are trained for it.

Speaking of muddiness, I'm a bit surprised that T likes the priests - a traditional cleric reconfigured along the lines of actual Orthodox or Catholic clergies. The point was to enhance their casting options in such a way as to transform them into something akin to religious wizards. But doing that also muddies the design, because the lack of combat prowess makes it necessary to provision the priest with features like more versatile variants on channeling divinity, a much more extensive spell list, access to socially useful abilities like Mysteries, and so on. In general, I think 2e actually made it much easier to fashion this sort of cleric than 5e, which makes it much harder to tinker with hit dice and armor. But I'm glad T chose to play a Dominican priestess (more or less) to help me test this design out. Until now, there have only been two priests played: the first one died a heroic death at 1st level while trying to steal an icon from a nunnery; the second one I played myself when my daughter was trying her hand as DM for the first time. She was a bit of a monty hauler when it came to awarding XP, so my advancement along the sacerdotal career ladder was probably not representative. 

The foreign callings in Chapter 8 were a bit of an afterthought. In a bid to make it possible for players to take class options not commonly available to characters in the Land of Nor' (an analogue to Rus', with the name being derived from a 'Noriki' - a synonym for 'Russians' that crops up in the Primary Chronicle), I relegated paladins, wizards and monks to this section. Figuring that Muslim character types need some representation as well, I looked at options in 5e homebrews of the al Qadim settings, and found them a bit lacking. In particular, the absence of a a sacerdotal clergy in Sunni Islam increasingly made me want to design a non-magical cleric/administrator, rather than taking the Gygaxian model as a template. The Magistrate calling was the result. Is the Magistrate's signature feature - reciting scripture to negate enemy actions - contrived? Probably. In a vague sense, my model for the Magistrate was the non-magical Scholar class in Adventures to Middle Earth. They have more of a story-game kind of feel, and seem a bit more contrived than the Magistrate. A lot of their abilities were based on preparations the character supposedly made before the adventure. The Magistrate is a an attempt to make a similar character on a more simulationist basis, where player choices and rolls represent character actions, rather than plot twists. To another reviewer, generally less favorably disposed toward the whole project than T, these unique features made them attractive. Perhaps their appeal is greater to a power-gamer (as opposed to historical-gamer) mentality.  I don't know. Time will tell how they perform during play. So far, there has been one Magistrate, but it was active during the more roleplaying-focused sequences, and didn't get to test many of its features.

Lastly, T's concerns with regard to the Krivda accumulated by amoral spellcasters seem like the product of a misreading rather than that of a different design philosophy. Pravda and Krivda points are given out for particularly altruistic (or selfish and cruel) actions, respectively. They can be given for any sort of action and to any character, whether what they did involves magic or not. These points work similarly to Inspiration, except the fact that they can be stockpiled, and the fact that they must only be used toward 'good' ends (for Pravda) or 'evil' ends (for Krivda). Accumulating a lot of one or the other probably affects a character's conduct (since you have incentive to use the points you have). But they do not really hamper a character mechanically. The (variant) rule with respect to arcane casters is that they must find a way to unload their Krivda points prior to death if they do not want to rise as one of the living dead. The best way to do so is to impart your Krivda to an apprentice prior to death. But in any event, a character's death is a rare enough occurrence (and what happens after death is generally outside the scope of the game) that worry about what happens then is most likely a roleplaying challenge than a mechanical limitation to the character.

Mechanics and Flavors

T is basically correct to ask whether the mechanics for interaction, exploration and combat are of a piece with the rest of the Lukomorye Player's Guide. Most of what one finds there have little to do with Russian-flavored historical fantasy. The core of the chapter is simply a bunch of houserules that I have accumulated since I began playing 5e.They began with a "gritty" healing system, initially based on what one already finds in the DMG. The one main aspect of 5e that I find myself unable to accept is the near-total recovery of hit points after short and long rests - partly because it just "feels" wrong to someone who grew up with learning resource management in the old AD&D game, partly because the "balancing" assumptions of 5e entail having a very combat-centered game to justify this easy hit point recovery. In addition to that, I developed a critical system that incorporated lingering injuries, a fumble system and a system for spotting the opposition. Over time, these rules were tweaked and refined, and supplemented by a more granular system for skill checks (derived more from 3e than any other ruleset), rules for adjusting AC based on creature size (ditto), some systems for downtime activities (largely inspired by Xanathar's Guide for Everything), a morale system (based on the old AD&D DMG) and a few other houserules.

It's hard for me to judge how "intuitive" these systems are for anyone who is not me. The system for critical hits has quite a few variants depending on the severity of the wound (whether it was caused by a critical hit, a reduction to 0 hp, or both), and the type of weapon or damage that caused it, but implementing it is quite speedy, and I have not found it to break up combats (especially since in practice, many effects occur after a fight is concluded). A few rules do seem ponderous (like the system for catching thrown objects). This was something I was aware of when I was designing it. Mostly, it was an exercise in making a "logical" system based on rules that were already in place, and seeing if I could easily implement it. The reform (or even overturning) of the system of catching objects is something I'm certainly not opposed to. I mostly just want to experiment with these rules, and see if I can get to a point where I can use them with speed and facility. If I (or anyone) can get there without too much sweat, than they're "intuitive" enough. If not, then they're not. The same applies to e.g. the morale system, which is fundamentally a "translation" of the one Gygax made (but probably didn't use) for 1e. The "rulings, not rules" guideline is just as important for Lukomorye as it is for 5e in general - so I saw no reason to include clear statements on whether e.g. undead should be affected by morale considerations or not (it should be added that Lukomorye nezhit' aren't wholly identical with D&D undead).

T is also irked by my providing DC values for actions that "one should be able to do" - like tie a knot in a rope that suspends one's pants - but these are there largely as humorous examples of actions with a DC level of 5. For the most part, they can be easily ignored, though losing one's pants in combat from time to time could be an amusing ice-breaker.

There are a few examples of systems in Chapter 7 that are more or less setting-specific. Downtime rules for making successful marriage matches or doing charitable works, knowledge DCs for awareness of specific political and religious institutions - these systems are a good fit for Lukomorye, though arguably, they would be useful additions for most historical fantasy settings. The AC adjustment for size is also important, because it is factored into the AC for 'critters' that appear in Appendix 5 (and whoever thought it was a good idea to give a cat 12 AC has never tried to catch a cat that didn't want to get caught - just ask Arya Stark).

Fundamentally, Chapter 7 is there as a reference for my current players, rather than something that needs to be there in a player's manual. In the interests of having all non-standard 5e rules as one file in one place, it was better to include it in terms of 'full disclosure' of what characters might be up against, and so perhaps to help players make decisions about what choices to make in selecting character options. But as Lukomorye transitions from being a vanity project to something that may have marketable value, it is quite likely that most or all of these rules will get axed, and revert to what they are - homebrew options.

In terms of the larger issue of the relationship of the variant's rules to its style, I think T is right to note a disjuncture between the fairy tale flavor that seeps through in the Guide and the emphasis on grit and social embeddedness that I have outlined in this blog, but probably wrong to characterize the disjuncture as a contradiction. The issue is a compound one. First of all, there is no necessary connection between grit and embeddedness. OSR games are typically gritty, but tend toward the asocial - the characters are dungeon delvers or travelers to distant lands, but their own social bonds and obligations are remote or nonexistent. Second, there is no necessary disjuncture between embeddedness and a fairy tale setting. The idea that classes are callings, or incorporate archetypes is pretty resonant with the notion that mythological (hence, fairy tale) heroes are embodiment of archetypes. In fact, the random tables to determine family relationships are explicitly based on fairy-tale tropes (twins, seven brothers, orphaned children, etc.). Moreover, in certain cases, the causality between what appears in Lukomorye and the theoretical considerations are expressed in my blog posts is the reverse of what T suspects. Covens and the priestly hierarchies were designed first, and later the general ideas they express percolated into more general musings about class.

Most importantly, although T has taken the trouble to search through posts on this blog to contextualize the ruleset and style of Lukomorye, they seem to have missed the most relevant post - "Introduction to Lukomorye: A Setting of Russian-Themed Fantasy" - one of the first to appear in this space. In it, I detail various styles of play which one might select to play in it (these are also to appear in the Lukomorye World Guide). The list of styles - a riff on a similar list of fantasy styles from the 5e DMG - includes tropes like heroic fantasy, mythic fantasy, fairy tale fantasy, fantastic voyages (a twist on swords & sorcery), historical fantasy, and rustic horror (horror with a Gogolian twist). It is unarguable that magical fairy tales are a central influence on Lukomorye. But a quick look at the character types reveals that they are far from the only one. The bogatyrs are derived from the byliny - a cycle of heroic lays that, unlike fairy tales, do have some historical substance. Nechist' and changelings are creatures of popular religion and mythology, not fairy tales, and have a much grittier, horror-type feel to them. Lukomorye rogues, as well as its political and social structures, are historical in origin.

The upshot is, Lukomorye is not a fairy tale, dark horror, or a historical simulation, but a) is all of these mixed together, injected with a dose of D&D-type fantasy, and/or b) offers the person who runs the game and the players who play in it a chance to emphasize one style over others. The Lukomorye Player's Guide also says as much, right in the Introductory chapter, and then again in the final appendix on source materials. None is unquestionably the "right" approach. And although I think 5e D&D high magic rules are well-suited for a fairy-tale type game, I don't agree that a fairy tale game necessitates starting characters to be accomplished heroes. That is demonstrably not so in many fairy tales and legends themselves: Vasilisa the Wise is a simple peasant girl living in a bad family environment who gets sent out to the woods to look for light (she does happen to be related to Baba Yaga, as it later turns out). Ivan the Fool is the idiot no one takes seriously. And Ilya Muromets starts out as a cripple who cannot walk! So folkloric characters very much have to deal with gritty, medieval Russian reality from the start. They don't turn into archetypal heroes until later in the narrative.

Nu Pogodi!'s Wolf boogies with Baba Yaga in the iconic hut
There is a wide enough field in which crossed styles do not become
a tasteless mishmash of 'generic fantasy'

Another point outlined stressed in the introductory chapter of the LPG is that what makes a Russian-style fantasy game different is the alternative distribution of 'civilized' and frontier spaces, as well as the mythic and mundane spaces. Typically, fantasy games divide into those that emphasize historicity and social embeddedness, the frontier and gritty adventure, or a truly mythic landscape. Given the characteristics of Russian geography and history, these lines are much more difficult to draw. The Forest and the Steppe are distinct, but the Forest is itself a frontier area, one that starts at the edge of every town and every village. The mundane and the mythic intersect within most villages - often, all you need to do to find unclean spirits or uncover the Old Faith is a trip to the bathhouse, or to the local wise woman. There is no reason to track to the proverbial dungeon. So the idea that setting needs to emphasize one specific fantasy trope is out of place in Lukomorye - by design.

As I underlined in the post on non-equilibrium 5e, which T cites in support of the fact that my general (gritty) outlook on the game conflicts with Lukomorye's fairy tale character, my choice of system is specifically guided by the fact that it is sufficiently supple to facilitate its development in a DIY direction. This is precisely what makes it possible to develop a spinoff variant like Lukomorye, and to suffuse it with variant play styles.

Taking Stock

On the whole, T's review is insightful, and their judgments and conclusions are more often accurate than not. I am particularly thankful for their appreciation of what both they and I agree are the best parts of the manual - the callings and the stations, as well as the appendices dealing with the Realms ('planes') and religion. I am also pleasantly surprised by their appreciation for the equipment chapter, which players without their level of historical knowledge are sometimes impatient with. I made the equipment lists more extensive than they need to be because I had a few good sources to work with, and decided to err on the side of completeness. In a published version, I would probably have to cut back.

T's criticisms of the graphic, formatting, and editing aspects of the project are on target, and I can only be thankful for their patience and ability to look beyond these flaws and to see to things that they (and I) find worthwhile. I do have my work cut out for me in these respects, but given that a more or less complete version of the Guide exists, I do think that the glass is more than half full.

With regard to what T flags as the weakest parts of Lukomorye, I am largely in agreement. Down the road, all or most of the seventh chapter will likely be excised. If parts are saved, or transformed into a set of homebrew rules for players only, some weak rules will have to be revisited. I would like to test these rules out in play for a while longer before I make the final decision.

To a lesser extent, that applies to the Kind design. I see where T's criticism is coming from, but at this point, my feeling is that someone who sees the setting and the system as they do can easily just focus on the more human characters. With time, I may come around to do a more streamlined design with more of a focus on "shticks". But at this point, what I see in terms of player preferences, as well as my own reading of 5e race design in general, is telling me to wait, in favor of 'doing no harm' in the long run. The key thing here is again, playtesting - the more the options are put in play, the clearer it will be if changes are in order.

Lastly, I believe that our stylistic preferences and design visions simply diverge at a certain point. T sees the disjuncture between the fantastic and the historically grounded to be a bug, whereas I see it as a feature. My choice of the 14th century as a historical backdrop was largely dictated by the fact that the Appanage Period which coincided with Mongol rule brings together the largest set of tropes to explore on a single canvas. Russia neither ancient nor modern, neither frontier nor empire at this time, the presence of paganism was still quite evident, and the fact that the Mongols feature so prominently in Russian epic and fairy tale consciousness makes it possible to investigate the myriad ways in which all these features might interact in a game. T's own Meager Country game, which I find an interesting project, is a more classically OSR-style construction, where 10th century Rus' plays the role of frontier for a more sophisticated Dar al-Islam. For my part, I see that period as an example of a recurring attempt to transform the region that would become Russia into a secondary core, rather than a typical instance of a urban metropole/underpopulated hinterland relationship. And, in a game with this backdrop, I would always be wondering what Baba Yaga, Zmei Gorynych, and Koshchei the Deathless are up to.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Non-combat XP awards

Though it's frequently said that D&D is a first and foremost a combat game, this does not actually accord with the way a lot of people play it in practice. There may be built-in "assumptions" about how many encounters make for a properly balanced game, but there aren't really many games that that incorporate these assumptions into actual play. On top of that, one of the strengths of D&D has been its versatility: not only can you play different sorts of games with the basic ruleset, you also have a large-enough player base to be able to select the type of players and to play the type of game you want.

I talked about putting this up, and it keeps coming up in private discussions, so I figured I would bite the bullet. It is a set of guidelines I use to award XP to make the the game less combat-centered, and to reward players that want to do other things. It's designed for 5e, but in principle, it could work for any D&D iteration. Some of these are vague, and need to be adjusted to the situation, but I still find it a useful blueprint. Some people prefer milestone leveling, of course; this provides a more granular system that allow you to reward individual character actions. It also allows a GM to slow advancement through the lower levels (to provide that old-school feel) by allowing characters to focus more on interaction and exploration.


Wilderness survival                                                                                   10 XP/day
Wilderness survival – extreme conditions                                                20 XP/day
Urban survival – familiar                                                                           0 XP/day
Urban survival – unfamiliar territory                                                         5 XP/day

Urban survival – extreme (hostile environment, minority, poverty)        20 XP/day
Wilderness hazard - (depends on type; probably requires a separate post)

Creature encounter
Managing creature/object (incl. parlay, expeditious retreat)                      10% value
Outwitting creature                                                                                     20% value
Defeating creature                                                                                       50% value
Vanquishing creature                                                                                   full value

Saving a life                                                                                                 creature XP value
Redeeming from slavery/rescuing                                                               50% creature XP value

Social mobility
Negotiating favorable solution with institution                                           pop. value
Major personal advance in/vis-à-vis institution                                          pop. value x2
Decisively changing institution                                                                   pop. value x5
Intentionally destroying institution                                                              pop. x10

Learning information about person(s)                                                         XP/10
Finding person(s)                                                                                         XP/2
Learning information about treasure                                                            value/10
Finding treasure after seeking                                                                      value/2
Learning information about item/finding after seeking:                               one fact/all
            Common (village)                                                                             5/25
            Uncommon (district/town)                                                                50/250
            Rare (principality/city)                                                                      500/2500
            Very Rare (kingdom/realm)                                                              5000/25000
           Legendary (cosmos)                                                                         50000/250000

Good action/suggestion                                                                                 1% bonus
End of chapter                                                                                               10% bonus

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mimetic Worldbuilding: Historical Fantasy And Why To Do It

Michelangelo Caravaggio, "The Sacrifice of Isaac"
Front-piece to the Princeton Classics edition of Erich Auerbach's "Mimesis"

In fantasy-type RPGs, we can, without too much oversimplification, delineate two basic types of worldbuilding: the sub-creative and the mimetic. The former is overwhelmingly predominant, for reasons that are hardly mysterious: the inventor of the sub-creative method was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, who justifiably claims the mantle of founder of the fantasy genre in general.

For Tolkien, sub-creation denoted acting in the image of God by composing a second, imaginary world. This world was not to be the equal of the Primary World, because we would fashion it with the psychic and spiritual tools made initially by God and put at our disposal through his Grace. Moreover, as sub-creators, we would have to take care to remember that we continued to live in the Primary World, which our Secondary World could never replace (so long as we wished to keep our sanity and remain within God's Grace).

Nevertheless, these Secondary Worlds were to be free and independent creations, not dictated, contrived, and pale imitations of the Primary World. Rather, they would be vivid, beautiful, supernatural - populated by creatures of Faerie, larger-than-life heroes, magical animals that talked, and also the darkest villains. The more disbelief in these things was suspended, the more real the Secondary Worlds became. These 'faerie tales' have been told from time immemorial and are an inalienable part of all human cultures - to entertain, to escape the drudgery and misery of the mundane world, and to rekindle hope by showing that there are other Worlds where, despite the presence of Darkness, Good triumphs over Evil in the end.

Fantasy as a literary type was, for Tolkien, a project for restoring the Secondary Worlds of Faerie in the conditions of a runaway modernity. In a thoroughly disenchanted world, he saw all thought, action and communication as being enslaved by the necessity of scientific, socioeconomic or political facts and to which there could be no alternative. Imagination necessary to appreciate sub-creation, and the suspension of disbelief were discouraged or punished, and relegated to the sphere of children: the wise and terrible elves of old shrunk to the tiny, winged Tinkerbells that still inhabited 20th-century tales of 'fancy'. Fantasy was to restore the right to imagine and sub-create to adults who, if anything, were even more victimized by disenchanted modernity than children. In a world where the myths and fairy tales of old were declared to be atavisms or screens veiling "real" social relations or primitive scientific knowledge, and mercilessly caricatured by science and bad drama, sub-creators could not simply retell old tales, but had to fashion them almost de novo in order to imbue them with a heavier dose of imagined reality. These would have to be internally consistent, living worlds, with their own history, genealogies, legends, poetry, and languages (which Tolkien, himself a linguist, would proceed to fashion).

A further stipulation of the sub-creative method in fantasy was the injunction to keep the Secondary world strictly separate from the Primary. Any leaking through, any blurring of boundaries between the two would not only undermine the inner consistency of the former and blur the line between reality and fantasy, but also threaten to implicate the Secondary Worlds in the political conflicts of the Primary, which they were explicitly constructed to escape. It is on those grounds that Tolkien objected to the use of allegory in fantasy. Reducing an elfin or divine being to a manifestation of a natural force weakened sub-creative power. Explicitly rejecting the notion that the War of the Ring was in any key sense an allegory of the Second World War, Tolkien indicated that if it had been such, it would have concluded with the taking of the Ring and its use to augment the power of the victors, which would have obviated the therapeutic power of his sub-creation. Similarly, in contrast to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, which were an obvious allegory of the ministry, passion and resurrection of Christ, Tolkien, though he saw the Lord of the Rings as a fundamentally Christian work,  felt that such a heavy-handed insertion of Christianity would not only undermine the integrity of the fantasy, but also of religion: by inserting an explicitly Christian preachiness into Middle Earth, he would also turn the latter into the domain of political and doctrinal struggle. Instead, the truth of Christianity in a compact, symbolic form, which would become only become transparent over time to an emotionally-invested reader.

It requires little argumentation to demonstrate that Tolkien's method was not only successful in introducing a new literary style, but that this style has attained the semblance of hegemony in speculative fiction, in role-playing games, and arguably, even in the culture at large. It is Re-enchantment, rather than Disnechantment which is now feared, because instead of the End of History, we are in fact living through the End of the Future (so it is no surprise that fantasy has displaced science fiction as the ascendant vision of that future). In the 1960s, the Lord of the Rings became a bestseller on the crest of a popular revolt against disenchanted modernity. In the 1970s, it midwifed the birth of D&D and (roleplaying games generally). The Tolkien-created races - elves, dwarves, hobbits/halflings, orcs, as well as humans continue to form the core of the official D&D legendarium. D&D and the fantasy genre has continued to dominate the world of RPGs, and this dominance has only been reinforced with the 5e renaissance, which has brought D&D and gaming into the mainstream. And in the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise at the turn of the century, fantasy finally tamed drama, which Tolkien saw as being opposed to it. Now that Secondary Worlds can be dramatically represented in non-caricatured ways, the full power of the culture industry can be brought to bear on the ceaseless expansion of sub-creative worldbuilding - a fact reflected in the imperative to make D&D sessions and descriptions "cinematic". 

Much about the playstyles, play process, and worldbuilding in D&D continues to reflect the imprint of Tolkien's sub-creative method. Consider the officially published settings for 5e, as well as those of earlier editions that many fans call to have updated for the new ruleset: Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravnica. All are Secondary Worlds, wholly imagined, wholly fictional, with internal coherence and distinct histories. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are, to an extent, parallel worlds to our own, but it would be hard to suspect them of being allegorical (certainly with respect to contemporary politics and culture). On top of that, the more "ethnic" areas of those worlds that might be recognized as versions of particular cultural regions have been deemphasized (to the point of their near-absence) in newly published materials.

Consider as well the separation of the creatures in these worlds into good and evil. Although alignment as a game feature is in decline (making these Secondary Worlds less like Middle Earth over time), it still exists. Planes of existence that embody these alignments, and planes such as the Faewild parallel Tolkien's Faerie quite closely. The popular reference to D&D-type games as "elf games" is sardonic, but it contains more than a grain of literal truth.

Moreover, claims to the effect that the PCs are heroes, and should be played as heroes, are still quite widespread. How often do we hear comments from people who say that they want their characters to do heroic things, because in real life, they are quite average, and want to escape their hum-drum existence when they are engaged in elf games at the table. And how often do we hear comments to the effect that at that table, they want to deal with simple, diverting fantasy, and not with morally- and politically-complicated issues that suffuse their personal and professional lives? How often do we see people on gaming lists insisting that cultural and political issues have no place there? All of this testifies to the preeminence of the sub-creative model.

Sub-creation: the music of the Ainur

* * *

The sub-creative model is not, however, without its detractors. In his critique "Epic Pooh", Michael Moorcock accused Tolkien of putting on airs, when in fact, there was little difference between the Lord of the Rings, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz. All were children's stories, but in claiming that his work was something more, Tolkien was infantilizing his reader, isolating him from sexuality, politics, and other adult themes, and in so doing, promoting a veiled reactionary political agenda. Moorcock, of course, was a fantasy writer, too, but he saw no fundamental distinction between fantasy and other varieties of belles lettres, which were intended to challenge its readers morally, epistemologically, politically, and syntactically. Tolkien-style fantasy writers dismissed most contemporary fiction as "boring", while glorifying pulpy cliches and escapism as the only basis for good writing - a testament, as Moorcock saw it, to the disenchanted and discredited worldview of antimodernist social groupings that formed their worldviews, as well as to the decline of cultural standards in the second half of the 20th century. In opposition to this tendency, Moorcock cited fantasy books that are based on real-world mythological and legendary sources (Gillian Bradshaw), as well as fantasies that incorporate anthropological and non-Western perspectives (Ursula K. Le Guin).

George R.R. Martin, while generally more appreciative of Tolkien as a forbear, similarly faulted him for his lack of realism. Why such stark division into good elves and evil orcs - do the latter also have evil orc babies? Why is there nothing about the monetary system or the taxation policy of the realms of Middle Earth? Why is it based on such a primitive political philosophy - as long as Gondor has a legitimate king descended from the Numenorians, then all is right with the world? (Unsurprisingly, it took a Russian, Kirill Yeskov, to extrapolate a realist spin on Aragorn's claim in the Last Ringbearer, where the Future King turns out to be a politically ambitious ranger who marries an elf princess, practices genocide against Mordor, and ultimately, uses these to assert a royal claim reaching back thousands of years [!]). For Martin, being a good guy or a legitimate ruler is not enough: even in a fantasy world with magic and dragons, you have to make hard choices, and occasionally, act to cruelly to save more lives down the road. All sides in his world advance moral and religious justifications for their actions. On top of that, there are more than two sides. Sometimes, good guys fight good guys, and ally themselves with evil guys to do it. This type of fantasy world accords more with our own historical experience: notably, Martin is quite explicit that the inspiration for A Game of Thrones came from real conflicts (the Wars of the Roses first and foremost).

The concern for realism, and for a more academically informed fiction does not mean jettisoning fantasy altogether. For better or worse, we live in a world Tolkien made, and internally consistent Secondary Worlds - with their own history, with magic, with creatures that don't exist in the primary world - these have become so widespread that they now even infect 'serious' literature (Umberto Eco, Alice Hoffman, Michael Chabon). It does, however, mean adopting a different methodology for fantasy worldbuilding, at least in part, precisely because our world has changed, and with it, so has the meaning of fantasy. Whereas Tolkien was confronted with what he saw as runaway industrialization, disenchantment, and an existential struggle between political ideologies, we are confronted with a more complex, multi-cornered struggle between many identity groups which all advance claims for recognition. Some of these - heretofore the most dominant, but sensing challenges from all sides, have even begun to draw on the Lord of the Rings to justify war-making in defense of such claims and of their purported ethical superiority.

The epigraph to Chapter 11 of David Gress' From Plato to Nato: the Idea of the West and its Opponents. The chapter looks at the conception of the West following the end of the Cold War, and envisions its assault in its traditional homelands by various postmodern ideologies.

In addition to the use of sub-creation toward explicitly political ends in the Primary World, the imagination of new magical worlds into being has become increasingly exhausted, runs into the turned in upon itself, derivative and solipsistic. For commentators (and sometime fantasy writers) such as John Michael Greer, what's missing from popular, pulpy kind of fantasy - precisely the kind that Moorcock disparages, is mimesis:

The distinction between cliché and personal vision is also the difference between the two categories of fantasy mentioned above. Read a volume of Thongor of Lemuria and the thoughts that you’re experiencing are utterly familiar, the generic mindset of pulp fantasy, replayed in an endless loop with only the most minor variations. Read a volume of the Zimiamvian trilogy and the thoughts you’re experiencing are unique to Eddison. You get to see how someone else thinks and feels and experiences life. In the process, the range of thoughts you’re capable of thinking and feelings you’re able to experience gets expanded. That’s what I mean by mimesis: the experience of a work of genuine art guides you toward new ways of being in the world...

In contrast to the currently dominant conception of art as a vehicle for self-expression, the mimetic theory of art stipulates that, "[a]rt is a means—the only one we’ve come up with so far, despite a vast amount of tinkering on the part of assorted mad scientists—of enabling one person to share, in some sense, in another person’s experience of the world."
Curiously, although Greer promotes mimetic theory in part to defend Tolkien from (his now mostly forgotten) high-brow critics in the 1950s, the definition of art (or fantasy literature) as a representation that is experienced, understood, and appreciated by a passive recipient is quite a bit different from Tolkien's own idea of sub-creation. It's not that the two approaches are inimically opposed to one another: Tolkien certainly put great stock in being able to spin a good yarn that others could enjoy. But there is nothing in imagining Secondary Worlds into being that necessarily involves effectively sharing the experience with others: sub-creation may involve communion with God, but it is, and not infrequently, a solitary business - I create worlds because that is how I express myself, and if people aren't able to appreciate them, that is their problem, and not mine. In sub-creating, I partake of a divine genius, and that is all the justification I need. 

Though Greer does not explicitly tell us what makes one's artistic representations relatable, he is drawing upon the notion of mimesis introduced by the literary theorist Erich Auerbach shortly before the appearance of the Lord of the Rings. For Auerbach, the ability to think and feel together with an artist was made possible by the fact that the latter successfully represented an external reality which he (typically) had no hand in creating. This reality could be the physical reality of what people do and say, the psychological reality of the tension between the external and internal selves, or the historical reality of trying to change oneself in a constantly changing world: in any case, the imagination of the artist is focused on representing the Primary World rather than trying to create a Secondary one. For Auerbach, this mimesis was the red thread running through Western art and literature, and the successful representation of the Primary World, despite the toil and complexity involved in doing so was the primary criterion in determining whether a particular work was to be adjudged as "great" and accepted into the canon. It is for this reason that fantasy such a difficult time at the hands of tastemakers and literary critics - until recently. Creating worlds that were explicitly not intended to represent reality was seen as a shirking of the artist's responsibility, and avoiding having to learn the difficult techniques of the writer's craft. Fantasy as a whole was seen as self-referential, and hence, not admissible into the canon.

The suitability of the mimetic approach for fantasy worldbuilding has already been broached in the discussion of Moorcock's and Martin's critique of Tolkien. Martin, in particular, insisted that his series could have "the gritty feel of historical fiction as well as some of the magic and awe of epic fantasy". Westeros and Essos have internal consistency - their own timelines, ruling families, languages, gods, magical creatures, and still take inspiration form the Wars of the Roses, the Vietnam war, Hadrian's Wall, and a myriad other real-world influences. In some cases (as with Moorcock's invocation of series based on the Arthurian legends or the Celtic Prydain of Lloyd Alexander), fantasy worlds could even derive their 'inner coherence' from real-world history or mythology. And where but from history does one get ideas about how people, even in fantasy worlds, act in response to the pressures of family, social status, economic scarcity, and geopolitical competitors? Where for Tolkien, sub-creative worldbuilding had to preserve elements of nature, which he thought were steadily being destroyed by industry, for the mimetic worldbuilder, historical and social structures had to be preserved in fiction and game to resist a world in which symbolic production was being overwhelmed by the entertainment industry that had already largely incorporated the sub-creative approach.

Examples of mimetic-type worldbuilding certainly exist in fantasy RPGs, though they have been overshadowed by sub-creative worldbuilding. The first genuinely mimetic FRPG was Backhaus and Simbalist's Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - a game born out of a desire to simulate a medieval European society, as well as a general dissatisfaction with D&D's lack of realism. C&S had dragons and magic, too, but as add-ons in a setting that had a more-or-less realistic economic system and price lists, a real feudal-type social hierarchy, and a political and legal system that actually impacted PC actions. C&S also had Christianity, which was left out not only by Tolkien but also by Gygax (who, too, was a believer, but also guided by practical considerations, as D&D was hit by a fundamentalist backlash in the early 80s, and had to assert its purely fictional bona fides). The creators of C&S insisted not only on immersion, but also on complexity: the worlds in which characters operated were not to be mere dungeons where one killed monsters, but 'total environments' - an imperative that evokes Braudel's 'total history'.

C&S was followed by a host of mimetic FRPGs - Bushido, Man Myth and Magic, Pendragon, Legend of the Five Rings, Nyambe, and a host of others too numerous to mention. Beginning in the mid-1980s, mimetic settings began to appear under the D&D imprint, which provided them a framework for much wider circulation. Settings like Kara-Tur, al-Qadim and Maztica were mimetic in the sense that they reflected non-Western historical regions and mythology, at least in a way that resonated with the average fantasy fan. As such, they enjoyed a measure of popularity, especially in the 1990s. However, these settings were incorporated into, that is, subordinated to, generic fantasy settings such as Forgotten Realms. And despite the fact that Forgotten Realms has served as a vehicle for the vast majority of 5e adventure paths, these specific regions have not appeared, except in passing, in any 5e publications.

Map depicting the world in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series -
a good example of mimetic worldbuilding

More importantly, these settings have come under attack from within the 5e gaming community on account of being Orientalist, culturally appropriative, and not reflective of the diverse and multicultural fanbase of the current D&D game. I have addressed these charges elsewhere, and will not recapitulate my arguments here. I will underline, however, that the attack aimed at a broader target than mere exoticism. In its insistence that the D&D franchise has accepted multiculturalism, thereby dictating its system design "to embrace the construction of Orientalist fictional worlds where the Orient and Occident mix, mingle, and wage war", it took aim at mimetic worldbuilding in general. The idea that historico-cultural bonds (of any kind) could no longer play the role of suffusing settings with inner consistency, implied that settings now had to be wholly fictional, thus ruling out 'total environments' of the C&S type, even if the latter did not partake of any cultural appropriation. D&D, according to this perspective, has outgrown mimetic worldbuilding: if it survives, it would only be in niche markets and communities, perhaps wedded to complex mechanics, and appealing to people who were more interested in historical simulation, rather than freewheeling play, and 'having fun'.

A separate issue, but one that nevertheless resonates with charges of Orientalism leveled at mimetic settings, is the explicit Eurocentricity of mimetic theory. As laid out by Auerbach, mimesis was a key component in specifically Western cultural production, rooted as it was in the Homeric Epic, classical Greek drama, and Old Testament theological history. This led many scholars to deny that regions outside Europe had mimetic artistic production of any sort. One might, therefore object that an approach to worldbuilding that is grounded in a theory positing an absolutely external, transcendent reality is grounded in cultural imperialism - it is precisely such an objection that I find implicit in the insistence that worldbuilding be 'multicultural' referred to in the preceding paragraph. However, historical cognition is not a purely 'Western' phenomenon - examples of Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, etc. histories are simply too numerous to mention, so historical simulation in itself does not constitute Orientalism or cultural appropriation. Moreover, the notion that mimetic cultural production is absent outside the West has been convincingly challenged. Writing about mimesis in the case of Chinese aesthetics, Ming Dong Gu demonstrates that the Chinese system of writing, Chinese landscape painting, and the description of social life in Chinese literary works all testify to the presence of mimesis in Chinese culture. Owing to the centrality of epic and drama, which stress narrative, in Greek aesthetics, and of lyric poetry, which stresses spontaneity and embellishment in the Chinese, mimesis does not occupy a dominant role in the latter. However, both the world-creating and the world-reflecting "models exist in Chinese aesthetic thought, but the emphasis seems to rest on the second model. Mimetic theory must exist in any literary tradition that has formed a system of aesthetic thought, because imitation is a basic human instinct". In fact, a multiplicity of appraoches is present in the West as well, as is demonstrable in Tolkien's case in particular: despite the political uses neoconservatives have found for the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is clear that world-creation is not a Western or even specfically Christian feature - sub-creation is a universal divine gift. If for Tolkien, the overemphasis on world-reflection demonstrated an imbalance which he attempted to correct, the same might be said regarding greater emphasis on the mimetic in Chinese culture since the Revolution.

On the whole, arguments that mimetic worldbuilding in RPGs is culturally imperialist, or only of interest to niche gamers, strike me as being off-base. If anything, I think there is likely to be increased interest in such worldbuilding, given the market-saturation of sub-creative games, the presence of a new player base that flowed into the hobby as a result of the 5e generational shift. As they mature, many of the new, younger players are probably going to be looking to play (and to make) something different and more complex, just as the original cohort of RPG players did in the late 80s and 90s. Recommending more mimetic, historically-realistic settings, are:

  • Simulation. Well-made, well-researched historical RPGs can be a highly effective tool in exploring life in past societies. Just like VR technology can give us the sense of what ancient cities may have looked like, historical RPGs can tell us how life in these and similar societies might have been experienced. The recent 'dramaturgical turn' that has accompanied the rise of streamed games has been to the hobby's benefit, because psychological exploration of a PC's emotions and inner world has greatly augmented the role-playing aspect of RPGs. Paying a similar level of attention to making vivid and realistic settings can do the same to the simulation aspects.
  • Immersion. A world with inner coherence is much easier to achieve if it borrows heavily from historical exemplars. I don't claim that sub-creative worlds cannot do this, but how many GMs are worldbuilders like Tolkien? Of course, Tolkien's own worldbuilding drew on the mimetic method as well - particularly, Celtic, Germanic, and Finnish mythology (as well as the Old Testament). Similarly mixing and matching historical influences, or emphasizing particular elements for the purposes of closer exploration can also aid in understanding processes of historical change, much like alternative histories or hypotheticals can.
  • Difference. For all the talk about multiculturalism, making worlds that look like fantasy versions of present-day United States does little to effectively promote difference, or escapism. When (again, following Tolkien), the simmering Cauldron of Story in which setting elements cook over time turns out to contain the same ingredients time after time, or when people insist that the Cauldron must contain all ingredients, sub-creation suffers as well, because playing in such settings, while possibly entertaining in small doses, becomes no more escapist than shopping at the local supermarket. If the Cauldron is cooking up a story and not a shopping list, the limitation of ingredients, and some notion about which ingredients go with which others, can make the final dish much more enjoyable. Historical settings provide us with tried-and-true recipes, giving us a solid base on which to experiment.

The degree of mimesis is obviously going to differ in each case of worldbuilding. Some people will opt for near-complete historical simulation (in which case, we are no longer really talking about historical fantasy). Others will want to borrow different elements, mix and match, go for alternative history, and have a lot, some, or no magic in their settings. But the question of magic brings us to another approach to mimetic worldbuilding, one that may apply more to largely or even wholly fictional worlds. To use Martin's case as an illustration, he allowed his friend to convince him to put dragons into A Song of Ice and Fire, likely because in an age where reenchantment has returned into a society that still possesses tremendous technological potential to alter its environment, mimetic worldbuilding seems like an especially apt choice because of its allegorical potential. Play as social critique suggests that it can also be applied toward thinking deeply about one's own society, deriving ways to transform it in a desired direction, but also finding ways to accept changes that cannot be turned back. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this function belonged to utopian and dystopian fiction, but as these genres became increasingly formulaic and overloaded with predictable sets of political signifiers, their utility declined.

Tolkien's sub-creative approach, as we have seen, evinces a powerful allergy toward allegory. In this, it follows the well-marked out path of the Romantics, which whose aesthetics eschewed allegory in favor of symbolism (notwithstanding Moorcock's criticism of Tolkien's obsession with the soil and conservative 'good sense' as anti-romantic, the latter explicitly regarded romance as a close synonym to 'fairy story'). Like the Romantics, Tolkien found allegory heavy-handed, and disparaged it in favor of the symbol. Allegory was the product of another age - the Baroque.
Allegory conveys historicity and temporality, whereas the symbol encapsulates immediacy and makes it seem eternal. A symbol functions like a revelation, a lightning flash, whereas allegory is always a construction. A symbol fuses the signifier and signified, whereas allegory separates them. As Todorov explained, “the symbol is, allegory signifies"... The reader’s task is not to empathize, as was customary with contemporary sentimental novels, but to decipher... Allegory, dissolves all suspension of disbelief... The Romantic poets reacted to the rupture of modernity not only with the rhetorical choice of symbolism, to capture a lost unity for which they yearned, but also with allegories that represented and emphasized the experience of laceration. As Andrea Cesarini put it, allegory as “an alternative rhetorical procedure to symbolism ... renounces any nostalgic attempt at recomposition, is bitterly pessimistic, [and] lucidly catastrophic'.

Tolkien's strategy was clearly to try to capture lost, timeless unity. The utopians (including early science fiction authors) as allegorists accepted the revolutionary rupture of modernity, and tried to shine a light on the way ahead. And occult philosophers like Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin - an allegorist of the French Revolution and the the main hero of the article just cited, as well Frankfurt School thinker Walter Benjamin, call on our reasonable faculties to make sense of the tragedy that the winds of revolutionary change wreak, while yet leaving ourselves open to the possibility of salvation despite the bleak landscape that we perceive. Curiously, as for Saint-Martin, the allegorical tale might even feature a struggle between Good and Evil, though unlike for Tolkien, the tale, simplistic on its face, is more important for what it leaves out for the reader to infer about what Good and Evil is by reading between the lines.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus" - the image that served as the
basis for Benjamin's backward-flying Angel of History

A good allegory uses a good code, which can be interpreted in multiple different ways. Read allegorically, A Song of Ice and Fire is not simply about dragons as stand-ins for modern weaponry. It's about how big wars started by those seeking power rarely end well - for them. It's about how rediscovering the magic of the past can simultaneously lead to the salvation of the world, as well as its destruction: who can doubt that Westeros as we know it will not survive the clash of dragons and Others? And who can doubt that Daenerys' fight to rid the world of slavery will end, not in a post-historical triumph of the one right political system, but tragically, with her own death, and possibly the death of magic (we know that one of the dragons has already perished)? In that sense, the Lord of the Rings is allegorical as well, and also concludes with the death of magic.

Our age is also about the rediscovery of magic. Today, there is much talk about the old magic of tribes that causes us to divide people into us and them, and to demand blood sacrifices to keep the bonds between us strong. Somewhat less frequently, we remember that those who not long ago called for the rediscovery of 'true' liberalism - one with little state interference in the economy, with negative rather than positive freedoms, one which laid out the only truth path to modernity - also stirred up old magic, and perhaps the most dangerous tribe of all. Then, why not spin an allegory about elves - attractive, long-lived, talented, public-minded, ethical, ruling on the basis of meritorious service to civilized life - and, increasingly, cut off from their less attractive but more numerous subjects - whom they no longer benefit, who tire of their tutelage, and who see through their self-serving and self-destructive attempts to cling to power? If RPGs are a new art form, as many claim, why do they need to be art for art's sake, as opposed to a medium that can also explore pressing issues of primary reality? 

Notes in the Margin: I'm starting a Facebook Group for discussing Historical Fantasy worldbuilding. If you're interested in mimetic worldbuilding and other theoretical approaches, and, more importantly, practical issues involved in designing and running such worlds, check out the Never-was Worlds group.