Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Blog About Fantastic Societies

Greetings all,
My name is Boris, and this is my blog, Bardiches and Bathhouses. The main purpose of this blog is to explore synergies between two long-term interests of mine – role playing games and historical sociology. To me, a great part of the attraction of role-playing games, especially in the fantasy or historical genres, has always resided in the exploration of worlds different from our own, yet ones resonant with our social experience. While I might enjoy pure tactics, dungeon crawls, and more personal and psychological investigations of character, I like the thrill of adventuring and interacting in a rich, sophisticated setting most of all – one that is worthy of suspending disbelief. Although fantasy literature and related genres do provide useful elements of such a setting, in most cases, I tend to draw on sociohistorical analyses of the past, and anthropological or literary studies of the worlds of meaning such societies constructed, simply because real societies and real-world legends stood the test of time, and offer the best models to utilize when extrapolating fantasy worlds and settings.
I sometimes ask why, when people design settings for campaigns, they tend to start with complete world maps. After all, most people in premodern societies did not conceive of the world as a globe, and knew little, if anything, about other continents. If we are designing a setting where magic and planes of existence are “real”, why not experiment with a flat world, which has an edge from which one can tumble? Or a world that rests on three giant elephants atop a giant tortoise? The typical response is that yes, one can do that in a fantasy world, but it is much easier to assume that it exists on a planet more or less like ours, for the sake of simplicity, so that the poor GM does not have to invent the laws of physics from scratch. It is a good counter: if you want people to take your world seriously, and if you want characters to be able to make tactical plans in light of common sense expectations, then it is better and easier to take the workings of a real planet Earth, which modern physical science has revealed to us in the last several centuries, as a baseline, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. However, when it comes to subject matters that are commonly investigated by the social sciences, people are much more willing to throw caution to the wind. Want to have evil races? No problem! Special ops teams based on a highly technical division of labor available for hire in every town? Sure, why not? Economies based on extracting buried hordes from dragon caves? Come on – we’re not playing Papers and Paychecks here! Magic that just “exists”, without any form of social regulation? Who cares, if everyone is having fun? But although most people are unaware of this, the unwillingness to take systems of social organization seriously at the same time as demanding that worlds should have “normal” natural laws has nothing natural about it, but is the product of how knowledge is ordered in our own society. Natural and physical sciences are respected for telling us what is “real”; the social and historical disciplines – significantly less so. But if you are playing in a fantasy settings that, at their best, are created to model medieval societies, this denigration of social knowledge makes very little sense, and it detracts from worlds that could be significantly more interesting if questions of their social organization were taken more seriously. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who plays fantasy RPGs should be obsessed with these questions. But we continue to return to Middle Earth because its societies have well-developed philologies and histories, and we return to Westeros because George Martin designed it to have a credible economy, and a credible states system. Similarly, GMs know how societies in their world work are GMs whose worlds provide an immersive experience. They are also GMs who can make good decisions about what non-player characters in their world do and say on the fly. Games are not books, but the best games reach for the level of sophistication that books are expected to have.
Toward this end, some examples of issues I would like to explore in this blog are:
·      The social character of “adventurers”
·      The political configurations of the “typical” fantasy setting
·      Social regulation and hierarchies in worlds of “actually existing magic”
·      How fantasy societies would be impacted by some people having the capacity to bring others back from the dead
·      The social and economic impact of trade in magical materials
The name of this blog, Bardiches and Bathhouses, reflects a longstanding project to design a fantasy world that extrapolates Northern and Inner Eurasian (particularly Russian) historical and folkloric elements, rather than those of Western-Latin Europe, that still serves as fodder for most fantasy world construction in gaming and literature. Sometimes, the posts will deal with the specific elements of this world, which I will call “Lukomorye”. Sometimes, I will post material about other settings I am thinking about or running games in. I will occasionally write about “systems” or rule variants concerning combat, interaction, and exploration, as well as reviews of gaming materials, books, and aspects having to do with my life and interests outside of RPGs. I hope to contribute something which people in the community (and beyond) will find interesting, thought-provoking, and at best, stimulating to their own world-building endeavors.