Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Abandon Realism All Ye Who Enter Here

A group of adventurers emerged from the dungeon under Heartstone Peak, hauling a dragon's head in their wake. They staggered up the stone steps that led into the complex, groaning at the weight. "Crom, whose stupid idea was it to drag this back," Griselda Dark-Mane growled, "Am I pulling this thing on my own."

"Peace, Orc, we're doin' oor best." Malzack Morrdanson grunted, "M'bloody beard's trapped on a horn."

"Keep pushing," Nyarli said, sweat pouring off her face. "Can we just get out of here, please? We can squabble on the way to get the reward." 

The others grunted and kept pushing, periodically cursing the ill luck that had led them to have present the dragon's head as proof of their kill in order to receive the bounty King Julius had placed up on Sirrathil the Wyrm. Griselda's boot burst the doors open and with a cry, and a heave she hurled herself through the doors and the head half way through behind her.

A cry went up as the Red Fist Guard emerged and they blinked, staring down at an impromptu camp that spread across the valley leading to the mountain. 

"Look, the townspeople have come to thank us," Herman cried. "Hello, hello. You can rest easy in your bed, dread Sirrathil is no more!"

"Oh thanks a bunch," one of the crowd shouted back. "There goes my tour business." 

"And my painted stein and novelty hat shop." A woman chimed in, a strange dragon shaped hat sat upon her head. She wore an apron with ''Ye Olde Dragonne Shoppe' on it.

A group of humans dressed in sandals and long robes produced placards emblazoned with slogans like 'Save Our Drakes' and 'Protect the Elder Kin'. They started to chant, waving the signs over their heads as they pushed their way forward.

"Eco vandals!" Their leader shouted, "Do you have any idea what a valuable niche the dragon holds in the natural world."

"Oh bog off, hippy," Griselda muttered. "Get out of the way, the lot of you. We have an appointment with the King." She began to push forward, jaw set and one hand on her mace. "I don't care how many heads I have to break but you're all going to get out of our way."

The others followed, forging a path through the milling crowd, regardless of if they were disgruntled locals or members of the League for the Protection of Monstrous Lifeforms. The Commoners parted, jostling and shoving against the Guard. More than a few of the League tried to snatch pieces of the head as it passed and it was only the efforts of Nyarli and Malzack that kept the trophy intact. A volley of rotten fruit and vegetables rained down on them, splattering on their armour and in their hair.

A regular camp had set up behind them, with tents and vendors hawking wares, including 'dragon sausages' which approximated the colour of a dragon's skin. Someone had put together a stage, a group of Orc bards sat dejectedly on the edge, waiting for their audience to return.

"Any change," they called as the adventurers passed.

"Get a job," Malzack growled back, casting them a dour glance.

At the back of the camp, right at the edge, was a large tent bearing the king's standard/ A man emerged, holding out his hands in welcome. "My friends, come and sit down. We can have tea." He beckoned them inside.

"Who are you?" Herman asked, crossing his arms; looking him up and down.

The man smiled, "Allow me to introduce myself, I am Stendar Marchant, his Majesty's Special Envoy to Freelance Acquisition Agents. Please sit." He clicked his fingers, "Bring us tea; lackey."

"I don't like this," Nyarli said, as she sat. "What's this about? Julius made it pretty clear we had to do this on our own. He said nothing about sending an envoy."

Stendar smiled, “It is part of his Majesty's policy on major quest." He took a seat, "We offer a number of services, including treasure validation, gem appraisal and weapons care... all for a reasonable price." He smiled widely. 

"Uh huh." Griselda said, fingering her knife.

The Guard did not look impressed.

Fantasy Role Playing Games are often based on a set of basic assumptions. They are usually built on a supposed Medieval Europe, on the idea that good and evil take tangible forms and on the idea that going into dungeons to kill things and take their treasure is a good way to make a living. At face value it seems fine but, for me, there's often a niggling feeling that something is wrong with the way the settings are written and that often they don't make much sense.

Let's take a few elements and examine them. I'm going to focus on race, economics, technology, history and culture, with a focus here on the idea of the adventurer itself.

I'm not sure that there will be anything new here, actually I'm pretty sure I’m repeating old ideas: but still.

Let's start with the idea of monsters and evil races. At a game level, the existence of races like orcs makes sense because you need a way for the Player Characters to earn experience points, painting them as a race without merit, often without a real reason for it. This is where I catch on it as a problem, because frankly it often seems, well, racist. I know they're fictional, and so it shouldn't matter that, say, Hobgoblins in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are quite plainly stand ins for the Mongols, whilst Orcs often have cultures, or artistic stylings that are reminiscent of African tribes. The fact that these races are usually obliquely portrayed as nothing but evil, is troubling, given that most other races at least present the option of individuals as having free choice, even if they are normally good or neutral (to use Dungeons and Dragons' ideas of alignment). Can you imagine if you applied this to the real world? It would be a disaster, not to mention vastly offensive to entire communities (and there are gaming companies who have managed to make this kind of blunder, White Wolf's book on Gypsies for example)

A good back story, such as Tolkien's Orcs or Warhammer's Skaven can provide an identity beyond generic evil guys and may mollify things. Many settings don't oblige here however, in favour of ticking the same old boxes; adding the crime of being dull to the charge sheet.

Even ‘goodies’ are not immune, the spectre of monoculture that lingers over the entire hobby, surpassing Fantasy. Elves and Dwarves hundreds of miles apart, for example, live the same lives and have the same cultural references (usually riffing off a tiresome element of Tolkien's Shadow, labouring under lore or grudges from thousands of years ago). Where differences do exist it usually means that a fresh niche is created, by putting an adjective in front of the race name (oh these are Elves they're Frost Elves and quite different, even though they um, aren't). This, incidentally, is why the setting I’m building over at the Sharoban blog uses humans as the baseline, and everything else is a deviation from that rather than a race that's older and cooler than humanity.

Moving on there's a problem in fantasy economics too. The dungeon crawl, where the group descends into the bowels of the earth to slay baddies and gather vast amounts of treasure is a cliché with a long history and to the outsider it is what roleplaying is all about. Again, in game terms there's a sense to it but let's be honest, it’s no way to run an economy and the result of injecting that much money into the cycle would be akin to Germany at the end of the Second World War, where people were paying for loaves of bread with wheelbarrows of money because the Reichsmark had been devalued by overprinting. Fantasy economies would crash and burn based on the antics of a few groups of people. I guess this is one of the sources of Order of the Stick's joke, early on in the series, where the people who live outside the initial dungeon vastly inflate their prices as soon as they hear that a group of adventurers are coming.

Add to this the idea that, miraculously, all the coins characters find are automatically legal tender; in worlds where the authors have lovingly laid down centuries of history. Somehow the coinage never gets updated, no new coins are minted to mark a new king's ascension to the throne. Money minted centuries ago remains legal tender, in defiance of the odds. Come to that currency is often simply hand waived away as 'gold crowns' or something similar. This plays fast and loose with the purpose of a currency, forgetting that whilst there were places and periods in European history where money was a chaotic mess, nobody has ever aspired to that situation. One reason England was such a coveted gem for both the Norse and the Normans was that it had a good stable economy, a controlled money supply and a centralised system of banking, even in 1066. Compare that with the multiple currencies and anarchic situation in France at the time where the monarchy ruled directly over Paris but little else. We have evidence that the Saxon kings kept their currency under control and didn’t let it slip out of control. I’m pretty sure that coins made in Alfred’s reign would have been out of circulation by the time Cnut took the throne.

This bleeds into how culture and history are treated in the hobby too; all too often the settings show no signs of development or progress, they've been stuck in their time period forever, show no signs of actually evolving no matter what events occur. History seldom matters, there are no long grudges or disputed stretches of land, no persecuted minorities or fringe sects (unless they're EVIL - differences of opinion are not really encouraged). Often there aren't even class clashes, only happy peasants tugging their forelocks to benevolent nobles whilst adventurers set up in petit bourgeois bliss as independent traders when they retire from a career of professional meddling. This isn't even fairy tale levels of how culture works, but something that feels more in line with American culture from the Cold War and the Wild West, black hats and white hats with a certainty that says that might is right and gold is the chief measure of success.

Even when they have a golden age in their pasts, a Rome alike, fantasy settings seldom bear signs of different ages or of sudden advances in technology or architecture. There's no influx of ideas from outside, as in the case with the 12th century Renaissance, because the way these games are set up don't allow for the movement of ideas. Which wouldn't be so bad but a lot of the trappings these worlds use don't make much sense as a consequence and often don’t fit the other elements their creators have used. Would a castle be the best fortification in a world where people can summon elementals or melt stone or would something more like a bunker be better? Technology dictates the form of society, and as magic is really a form of technology here, in that it’s predictable and repeatable, it seems odd that it’s so rarely taken into account in the way the background world is built. That's before we consider the monsters; even a strongly built castle does a lousy job as defence from aerial attacks and, as the first Hobbit film pointed out, dragons are pretty much fantasy WMDs. Throw in monsters that burrow or walk through walls and the castle starts to look like it’s there for the sake of familiarity, rather than because it belongs.

You get the impression that the weapons and armour don’t change either but are produced in the same plodding fashion as they always have been. It crosses into other media too: my Skyrim character has a suit of Roman armour sitting next to what looks like 14th century plate. I'm still working out how that one works.

Even in Warhammer (where you can arguably trace a stronger, more meaningful history, if only because of Sigmar uniting the tribes of men to fight off goblins and the composite nature of the Empire) there isn't quite a feeling of 'and then the people discovered this type of building, or this chemical process'. This might in part be because of Tolkien's influence, even if a lot of RPG settings don't have the same fallen world atmosphere of Middle Earth, and it might be because humans are saddled with the 'versatility' label whilst other races, especially Dwarves, get to be the builders and engineers. So to mimic history and show science changing the world might not be on.

This isn’t to say that there are no worlds out there where some sort of development has happened, even if it isn’t scientific. The D&D setting Eberron, for example, uses mass produced magic items and has magic street lighting, harnessing the arcane for the good of society. Iron Kingdoms has magical technology too, but its focus is on weaponry, not domestic use. Most settings though, are content to leave magic as a special thing that only certain people get to wield and science as something that can be ignored except for the purposes of drama.

So we're left with defences that are useless in many situations, history that is either too long or too vanilla (and which often doesn't matter anyway). You might as well strip all that out and leave the setting as a bubble of fantasy, untouched by time or change. For that matter you might as well strip out attempts at mirroring real world nationality, as the various ‘fake France’ or ‘replica Russia’ often feel forced and one dimensional. The American nature of the hobby means that, frequently the author is an outsider looking across the ocean, writing about places that they only know from textbooks.

This leads me to the role of the adventurer, who doesn't really make much sense. Adventurers are an anachronistic element in a game peppered with anachronisms. Nowhere in the world are people who drift from place to place accepted, nowhere are they feted or viewed as anything but a nuisance. Even pedlars and travelling salesmen are viewed with suspicion, we’re a species that values stability over freedom, unless it’s the freedom to buy what we want. The most likely response to a band of sell swords turning up on your doorstep would be to drive them off or imprison, if you had the power, or to bribe them to go away quickly and quietly if you don't. That's before you get to the way that adventurers are usually constructed as loners and orphans; people without social attachments who seem to hate or fear the world around them. Again, in the real world these people don’t prosper, you need to be a good troupe member to succeed.

Related to the vagrancy issue, can you think of any rulers who would be sanguine with the groups of highly armed adventurers tramping through the countryside? Highly powered groups of independent operatives wandering the world fighting whatever they please, would not sit well with the security forces, to say the least. Take into account the ‘die with your boots on’ attitude of most Player Characters and you don’t have a happy situation, either your characters will crush the kingdoms and set themselves up as petty monarchs or they’ll inevitably get killed in the melee as they grow in power. Failing everything they’re likely to find themselves under surveillance or controlled as they grow in power (oddly the best way to do this might be in endowments of land and power, which tie down the adventurers and force them to engage with the humdrum mechanics of everyday life).

So why does this state of affairs exist? In part this is because gaming is all about escapism and familiarity; there's a large amount of nostalgia invested in the games we play. Most players reach back to the games we grew up with, whether in subject matter or style, how many groups cling to playing Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulhu because they are familiar? They're a chance to recapture youth, to go back to being teenagers for being older players, whilst for the younger generation they represent a chance to go out and do something, without actually needing to do anything or suffering consequences in real life. You may kill a man in game but you may also get away with it, and I know gamers who use the game as a way to vent the frustrations of their lives. There are any number of articles about the benefits of RPGs, especially for young men and they're rightly lauded for their role in teaching communication and teamwork (and for GMs they're a pretty good proving ground for telling tales; a lot of fantasy authors started out running RPGs).

There's also the fun factor, getting bogged down in minutiae isn't too much fun, even if you're trying to simulate a particular society (okay, I like to have a 'we're not in Kansas anymore Toto' feeling in my games but then I like the social aspect of gaming more than I do the hack and slash and I emphasise the world aspect, especially in games like Legends of the Five Rings, but I accept most people crave familiarity; its why Star Trek and Star Wars still survive, even if they’re an older generation’s SF). Who cares about economics, as long as you can afford your beer, some persons of negotiable virtue, and buy new kit? Conan didn't, and he ended up a king.

I'm also conscious that for most of us, the thrill isn't in recreating anything, women don't want to deal with the mess of navigating olden times gender politics in order to feel useful as they do in Qin the Warring States. And realistic history isn’t very sexy, being told that your character smells, has no teeth and will be dead by the age of thirty is similarly off-putting. Most people want the roleplaying aspect, the fighting aspect, the game aspect or just to hang out with friends. They don't want to feel bogged down by obligations, and the illusion of freedom is a strong one. The freedom to walk away is seductive, so many of us want to just get out of our current circumstances and follow our heart's desire; something gaming encourages. You don't have to take that job to clean out the sewers, unless your GM is railroading you can even waive away the main plot, whatever it may be in favour of doing whatever you want. My favourite GM always used to make it clear that we could do anything, even spend the game sitting in the pub; it’s just that the world wasn’t going to stop because we did.

So perhaps the ahistorical nature of these worlds isn’t important, unless you’re a specific type of player. They’re largely beside the point when you view the world from the point of view of an individual, only vexing if you look at them from above. For the rest of us, well we must work on stronger settings with a better sense of history, make greater sense and still play like something fun. And somehow we must work out how to reflect change and progress in our gaming. 

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