Thursday, July 13, 2017

Annoying Anachronisms

There is no particular epoch which fantasy-historical RPGs must model. In theory, crossover genres mixing aspects of the archaic, baroque, modern and futuristic are all the rage, and perhaps that is for the best. But in practice, there is a particular period which is all too often reproduced in game settings. That period is our own.

There is nothing particularly surprising, or even problematic about this. Our own age is the one we live in, and are most familiar with. Accepting features of our of society simply as "the way things are" is second nature to us. When we invent worlds de novo, we do not know them anywhere near as well, even if have taken the time to make up their religions, languages, and history. Given the presence of a huge number of blank spots, and the imperative to conjure things up on the spur of the moment, we understandably turn to what we know. Sometimes, we turn to well-worn tropes in contemporary fantasy literature, written by authors who are products of the same world as ourselves.

But sometimes, certain features are overused, to such an extent that continuing to replicate them constitutes a large-scale failure of imagination. We play RPGs to explore, to push back boundaries, and to learn new things. When settings become cluttered with the same baggage, boundaries retreat, and doors close. Sometimes, we should try snapping ourselves out of ruts where we implement the same material over and over, even if it requires a bit of work and preparation. Doing things a bit differently will, under the right conditions, cause our players to play their characters in new ways as well.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not object to the features I discuss below being in specific fantasy-historical settings. Some of them are not, strictly speaking, modern inventions at all. What I find distasteful is their near-ubiquity, their generally modern form, and the relative lack of alternatives.


The stereotype of the tavern as the starting point of adventure is so pervasive that some recent publications have even shifted to treating them ironically. Thus, the Yawning Portal tavern is the linchpin tying together a multiplicity of old school adventures. You finish one, then return to the tavern to learn about the next one. The tongue-in-cheek element present in the construction obviates looking for other connective elements (though I know from personal experience that people running Tales from the Yawning Portal seek something more substantial as the tie-in for a campaign).

Taverns are the places you go for news and information. It's where you learn whether anyone is trying to kill you, and why. It's where you make connections with seedy, underworld types. And it's where you go looking for a fight if you can't think of anything better to do. The entire world recedes behind the tavern, because there is really nothing worth noting going on anywhere else that isn't the dungeon.

Taverns, of course, are nothing new. Alcohol consumption has been part of human society for some 6000 years, and much of that consumption has taken place in public. But the form of the public drinking establishment has varied greatly. The fantasy RPG tavern is a curious blend of the late medieval and Renaissance English pub and the modern dive bar. Like the former it should have a colorful name like the Yawning Portal; you can even generate similar names randomly here and there. Like the latter, it has a bar, at which the regulars sit, and booths, where adventuring parties can confer quietly.

Over their 6000-year history, most drinking establishments did not look like this. In many cases, "publick houses" (hence, pubs) were simply private homes which were opened to customers seeking victuals and potables, which were usually produced in-house. Oftentimes, these establishments did not have a name, and were simply known as "the house of so-and-so, where you can get something to eat and drink".

It may seem like a minor point, and perhaps even a poor choice to make establishments less flavorful and memorable by calling them Johnson's instead of the Merry Mermaid. But the differences need not be merely cosmetic. Family-run taverns usually organized space differently than modern bars, which invariably serve as the models in games. If you drank there, you were essentially invited into people's house, into their familial environment. You were in a common area, sitting at tables (or even a single large table) with other patrons, and mingling with the servers, and often, cooks. If the tavern doubled as a hostel or inn, the guests also slept in the common area (or in a shed, with other guests, and not in private rooms made up with beds, chairs, desks [!], and other hotel furniture short of a TV). There was often little or no division between the areas where the food was prepared and the drinks poured, and the area where the customers consumed what was being served.

A more typical medieval tavern
The atmosphere of such establishments was more intimate. Although money might be exchanged, the visitor was more guest than client. The host's or hostess' family, including children, was usually present. It was significantly more likely that outlandish guests attracted much more attention than they would in a bar, where the only important thing was that they paid with coin. Children could become fascinated with, or frightened of, exotic visitors. Family problems would be much more visible, and the proprietors much more likely to ask powerful-looking strangers for help (without offering much in return). Long-term friendships and intimate relations with family members might arise much more frequently, but so would incidents where a desperate family might murder or rob a wounded adventurer. On the whole, a frequenter of such establishments would more quickly become integrated into the fabric of the local community than the customer in a modern-type bar.

If adventuring parties are looking for information, or meetings with influential people, there are places to go other than taverns. Most cities and towns had public squares, where markets were set up, and where gatherings of the town assembly took place. Some cities had town criers who announced important news at such venues. The harbor or port is another locale to gather news, and so are religious establishments. The latter may even provide free room and board, though supplicants can expect to receive offers to join the flock, or donate money later. A caravansarai (if such an institution exists in your world) is another place where information about interesting locales, or even work as a caravan guard can be acquired. With their open-air layout, mysterious alcoves, and beguiling stories by mysterious foreigners, they provide a very different feel from the typical tavern.

The citadel of the local ruler is also a good place to gather information and offer one's services. Trying to get an audience with the ruler or official isn't the same as going to a bar and spending some coin. It might involve preparation (like buying presentable clothes, or the procurement of gifts, or forging letters of introduction), but the role-playing opportunities at such venues are arguably greater and more varied than in taverns. And coming to know the local notables is another step toward integration in the community.

Wealthy merchant cities had feast circuits where important people met, hobnobbed, and exchanged intelligence. Those who gathered there wielded influence and had money to spend. As members of the elite, many of them were also skilled combatants, thus privy to knowledge about expeditions and adventure. Getting invited to a feast wasn't easy if you were an unknown or a new arrival, but trying to gain admittance by performing in public, or pretending you were a foreign prince could sometimes result in an invitation. If that didn't work, hiring oneself out as a servant could get you in the door, where you could then overhear all kinds of things. How often are adventurers in the position of servants, instead of customers? Why aren't they? As a variant, VIPs can also get together in a bathhouse; it would really change things up to have an encounter there, rather than in a bar.

Finally, all too often, taverns are nodes in a widespread criminal network. In fact, the slum-filled metropolis was a fairly rare occurrence in history before the 18th century. Most societies were simply not wealthy or stable enough to afford a large criminal underclass (plus, punishments for even minor crimes were generally quite severe). People who engaged in criminal activity were not career criminals, but generally poor people who acted out of need. This doesn't mean that there are no gangs, or gang-infested taverns in the cities frequented by adventurers. It does mean that thugs and thieves usually have day jobs, and spend time at establishments other than bars. I recently ran a session in which players were looking for a companion who disappeared. It turned out that he was last seen in the vicinity of a fishmonger's shop. The owner of the establishment, and a few sailors who supplied him with wares were subcontracted by a notable to make an undesirable person (one of the PCs) disappear. They were not mafiosi or thieves' guild members, just sailors and a small merchant who wanted to supplement their income. The fight that took place in the shop was great fun to run (the fishmonger flung a fish at one of the PCs at one point). Yet another barroom brawl would likely have been much less interesting.

Mercenary Companies

Can't think of why the PCs should be working together? Make them part of a mercenary company! Mercenary companies do what adventurers like best - the collect disparate individuals from different walks of life together into a team that likes to kill people and other creatures for money. In a way, mercenary companies are even easier than taverns - instead of going around looking for the right people at the right bar, and spending money to learn things, you just go to the headquarters of the mercenary companies, and see what the boss needs done, or just look on the bulletin board.

Like taverns, mercenaries have been around since antiquity, but they were not ubiquitous. Typically, the widespread use of mercenaries required the coincidence of two partly contradictory factors: political and social instability, coupled with high levels of wealth. Such conditions prevailed in 14th century Italy, which was politically fragmented, and significantly richer than the rest of Europe owing to its greater integration into long-distance trade networks centered in the Muslim heartlands and other parts of Asia. Mercenaries were convenient auxiliaries for seigneurs and urban republics because they did not fundamentally threaten internal social balance. Mercenaries turned to brigandage and kidnapping on occasion, but they lacked the wherewithal to take power into their own hands, at least not for long, and they could be quite easily destabilized through the fine art of poisoning, provided the right commanders were targeted. This was the golden age of mercenary companies, such as the renowned White Company, headed by the Englishman John Hawkwood.

But these conditions did not last. Already by the 15th century, the city-states that hired mercenary companies turned to standing armies, in part to address the problems of brigandage and the mercenaries' loyalty deficit. In addition, as the wealth gap between Italy and other states began to flatten or disappear (in great part, because of the discovery of the Americas), opportunities for mercenaries to earn good coin as 'guest workers' began to dry up. Technological advances directed rulers to invest more money in cannons and defensive fortifications rather than mounted mercenaries. So, while mercenaries have been around for a while, they were far from common, and prospered only under certain conditions.

Another factor to keep in mind about mercenary companies is their structure. Judging by the form they take in many GMs' settings, mercenary companies are made up of various unattached individuals from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and possessing diverse expertise as specialized warriors, safe-crackers, demolition mages, and so on. In fact, mercenary organizations were significantly more homogenous than that. Some were simply composed of the retinue of a particular aristocrat who was looking to make some money, or carve out a new domain. In other words, the mercenaries were actually bound to their captain by oaths, and not merely by wealth. Outfits like the White Company were more diverse, but even they consisted primarily of Englishmen. Maintaining the coherence and fighting élan of a military unit was much easier if its members share a sense of identity, and a language. Most of the private mercenary companies in Italy during their 14th century heyday were composed of Englishmen and Germans, and companies would frequently get into scuffles with one another to defend national pride. Identity factors typically do not figure at all in most fantasy RPG mercenary groups.

White Company mercenaries. Note the obvious distinction
from SEAL-style commandos
Perhaps the most noxious instantiation of mercenary companies in games is when they are explicitly presented as fantasy versions of commando or special ops units. Their tools and training are hyperspecialized, and they reflect a division of labor that one simply does not find prior to the 20th century. To me, technology disguised as magic makes the magic lose its mystery. If people want to play larger-than-life characters patterned on modern exemplars, fine, but it's the incessant replication of Navy SEALs in fantasy garb that's becomes grating if you've seen it one too many times.

I have suggested several alternatives to the mercenary company-style adventuring party organization. Perhaps they are all bonded to the same lord or lady. Perhaps they are traveling with a caravan, pilgrim group, performers' troupe, or gang of vagabonds. Perhaps they all originate from the same village, and are actually related to one another. It's not that these approaches are necessarily "better" than just making everyone into a mercenary. It's just that it's different, and builds on the recent imperative to actually make characters real people with social ties, rather than bags of statistics.  Why bother having a background if the only thing you use it for is to narrate stream-of-consciousness thoughts before you swing across the chasm in a special rope contraption while blasting minions with smithereens from your rechargeable wand?


Of all gaming anachronisms, this one is the most anachronistic, and my pet peeve. Everybody who is anybody has an office. The commander of the watch has an office. The gang kingpin has an office (usually several, so they are harder to track down). The priest at the local temple has an office. Mercenary companies, of course, have offices, and tavern owners have offices, too, somewhere in the back.

What do they all do in those offices? Well, produce and collect documentation, of course. All transactions in fantasy worlds must be documented. Not only sales and purchases, but also reports on everything imaginable. All people in offices carry on wide-ranging correspondence, in writing. And, owing to the absence of computers, such documents are all filed away, using a rational system, like alphabetic order. In filing cabinets.

There is a built-in assumption in many popular fantasy RPG systems that nearly everyone knows how to read and write. If that is the case, then perhaps the mass production of documents is not out of place. However, mass literacy was a rarity virtually everywhere prior to the late 19th century. Even in places with relatively high literacy rates, such as Renaissance Italy, or Greece in the 5th century BCE, the ratio of literate people rarely exceeded 25%. And even then, a lot of the writing was done on things like potsherds, owing to the fact that there simply wasn't much stationery available. Because the large-scale manufacture of writing implements doesn't make much sense if most people are illiterate.

This 'office' was called the Steelyard. Note what this
merchant wrote on, and how he filed documents
There were many reasons why most people remained illiterate until fairly recently. The most important has to do with the fact that most people were engaged in primary production (i.e. agriculture or herding, when they weren't hunting or gathering), and primary production does not in itself require documentation. There was insufficient surplus available to maintain more than a few record keepers and manipulators of symbols. And training people to use these symbols was a lengthy and expensive process that most simply couldn't afford. Additionally, those that could read and write generally tried to prevent most people from trying to learn, because they knew that knowledge was power, and did what they could from upending the established social order in which they enjoyed privileges (in fact, periods when literacy and documentation expanded were usually periods of great social convulsions). So, if mass amounts of documentation were not produced, there was no need of offices, and certainly not office spaces. For people who did know how to write, and did store documents, their "offices" often had multiple functions - counting houses, scriptoria, libraries, coffee houses, domiciles, sand so on. In other words, offices spaces doubled as manufacturing, consumption, or residential spaces.

How much damage can you do with
this mace of office?
The word "office" and its cognates has been around since the 12th century or so, but initially, it simply meant "work", "function", or "service". The position was not symbolized by having a space with a desk in the corner of a glass-and-concrete building, where you could enjoy a view from two windows, as opposed to only one, but by a weapon - a staff or a mace - granted by one's superior or a religious official. This object was usually ceremonial, and kept in a treasury, from which it was only removed on special occasions, but in a fantasy world, a commander of the guard is much more likely to be swinging a magical mace of office and dealing damage with it than hanging out behind a desk, shuffling papers.

The definition of an office as a place of business is not attested prior to the mid-16th century (significantly, about a century after the European invention of the printing press). Most office workers at the time labored away in state chanceries, which were relatively small institutions compared to later ministries and departments. In subsequent centuries, joint stock companies like the Dutch East India Company - a globe-spanning conglomerate that functioned much as a state in the areas in administered, were among the first to actually construct office buildings that served as their headquarters. In some cases, they had earlier prototypes, such as the kontors of the German Hanse (another early "multinational corporation"). But such operations - progenitors of today's corporate multinationals - were exceptional - a far cry from our own age of office ubiquity, where "going to the office" is nearly synonymous with "going to work".

A related institution where documents were kept - the library - certainly existed, but was significantly rarer and more difficult to access than is the case in many RPG campaigns. Usually, getting admittance to one is about as difficult as getting a library card if you are a contemporary gamer moving into a new town. But monastic scriptoria were often fortunate to own ten volumes, and those who labored there frequently had to write books on top of older ones, owing to the dearth of writing materials. Huge libraries existed, but institutions like the Great Library of Alexandria, or the Bait al- Hikma in Baghdad were truly extraordinary. They did not survive to our own day precisely because the materials they housed were so fragile, which in turn necessitated restricting access. There is a great sequence in Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind (to use an example from fantasy literature) that depicts the difficulties of the hero, a matriculated university student named Kvothe, from accessing the university library, despite the fact that he technically had the right to do so, and had to, in order to complete his education and become a scholar. There were restrictions at every turn, often thrown up arbitrarily by those who guarded the stacks, simply as a demonstration of their power. There was a restricted section where the truly valuable tomes were kept, and it was inaccessible to virtually everyone. And even having access didn't guarantee being able to find anything, because, in the absence of a universally recognized system of classification, each new library administrator invented a new one upon gaining the office. The whole place was a hot mess, and finding what you needed was a long-term enterprise that usually required the help of friends. To a lesser extent, this would apply to searching for the right thing in someone's "office": things are tucked in randomly here and there.

I would personally prefer if every written document, even a shopping list, contained a magical spell inscribed on it, to having offices stuffed full of well-organized documentation on every corner. It would be extreme, but it would better represent the phenomenal power writing possessed in most ages. In my Lukomorye game, I don't even bother making casters with spellbooks find special ink or stationery to scribe new spells, since the regular thing is hard enough to find. I also make Literacy a distinct skill that you need to possess if you want to be able to read and write. Magical spells can be written in normal languages, but since most people can't read, it might as well be a magical script. So reading and writing are rare, but at least there are no office buildings to deal with. I should note that my Wax and Wendigoes setting has fairly widespread literacy, and even joint-stock companies (hence, not a few offices). But that's the thing - it shouldn't be the only, or even the most common type of setting.

Does having few or no offices complicate meeting the right people at the right time, and keep you from what you want to do? Not necessarily. It might make meeting important people different every time (see 'Taverns', above), instead of a rerun of the same social situation. Since people's work tends to be more active, and often takes place outside, rather than in an office, NPCs might need to be tracked down. Perhaps you will need to make use of messengers, which involves entering into another social relationship. Perhaps one of the messengers is even a PC (why are rogues and bards never messengers?). Perhaps finding the VIP necessitates the use of spells, which can involve planning and strategizing. I actually find that some spells, like Augury, are much too underutilized in the game, in the same way that meetings in offices are overutilized. Meetings with office-holders can then take place in a variety of locations - feasts, bathhouses, and yes, taverns. And breaking into places that contain records would be a major undertaking, because documents are so precious. They would be protected by magical wards and guardians, and be difficult to find. So mind-reading and scrying spells would find much more use than they typically do as well. As would Harry Potter-style memory globes.

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