Wednesday, September 7, 2011


As these Civilization IV technologies progress, it becomes less and less a question of how the game is affected by their presence, and more so how the game continues in their absence.  In no previous case more than Liberalism, which is at present the driving force of all our culture.  Liberalism brought in its wake property rights, labor rights, the development of the modern democratic state, the separation of the church, the abolition of slavery, the pursuit of personal freedom and the pursuit of national freedom, human rights, the recognition of war crimes, universal healthcare and so on and so on ... those are just the biggies that come to mind first.

I don't propose to talk about how all this came into being.  I recommend starting with either John Locke or Voltaire, progressing through Jean Jacques Rousseau (if you must), Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mills and then probably Sigmund Freud ... and then going back again and doing some serious reading, since all you've done at that point is dangle your feet.  The very last thing I'm going to do in this savage and hostile blogging universe is make an attempt to describe to the gentle reader why you're an enlightened person and how that came to be ... as an enlightened person you're responsible for finding out these things yourself.  All I am going to do here is talk about what an unenlightened person most likely was.

To begin with, largely guilt free.  Robert Louis Stevenson proposed with his novel the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that a rational, 'modern' person without a conscience or a sense of guilt was quite probably a monster, terrorizing his way through the streets and pubs of 19th century London - depicted by Hollywood as imprisoning women and scaring them a lot.  I am not proposing that the 14th century counterpart was the same hideous creature - familial ties and responsibilities went a long way towards keeping the average individual under social restraint - but I am proposing that the 'horrible' things that the 14th century individual saw or did in their lifetime was probably managed without huge amounts of guilt.  Caving in someone's skull with a club for the purpose of 'fun' was seen quite differently then - depending upon the use the hapless owner made of that skull just prior to its bludgeoning.

Because you see, while guilt was not the constant companion of the medieval mind that it is of the modern counterpart, what did exist was a steady and absolute certainty - for most - that 'badness' would lead to the most awful consequences.  That is, Damnation.  This is why it was so important to get God's approval upon your upcoming actions, to be assured that the skull-caving you hoped to spend the afternoon doing was completely sanctioned.  If it was, well, go at it me boy, cave what you can reach and bring back a pot of the brains for good measure.

Since obviously we tend to be spontaneous creatures, why did this not bring terrific amounts of guilt to the medievalite whenever they happened to spontaneously bludgeon a random fellow to death?  Well, two reasons really.  The first, if it really turned out to be someone who needed it after all, you could be forgiven after the fact ... which cleared you of any guilt absolutely, just as though you'd done the deed with getting the sanction first.  And the second, if you by circumstance killed the wrong person, well, you could still get forgiven, but you'd also get very dead ... far too quickly to bathe in the glow of any after guilt.

I've been talking about murder through this to make the extreme point, but the truth is the standards hold for every kind of action across the board.  If you steal, if you covet, if you sexually jump someone or what have you, it ultimately all comes down to being A) forgiven and B) killed.  For most of history it didn't take much to get yourself killed by doing something wrong.  For a lot of women in the middle ages, all they needed was to be widowed and have property ... a witches' property went immediately to the church that burned her first, so it was all out justice against anyone who could have that moniker hammered ... er, burned ... onto their person.

The nice thing about all this is that the force doing all the forgiving were themselves subject to being sanctioned in most any action they performed by themselves - like a 9/11 investigation commission.  Clerics tended to get into trouble only when they stepped on the toes of other clerics ... or when they stepped on the toes of people other clerics were adamant to keep in power, like kings and so on.  Provided they did neither, the money would nicely roll in and support all this lovely forgiving and these executions for citizen wrongdoing.  The only real shame was so much of the money pouring in had to be channeled to other clerics higher up.  It's an enlightening way of looking at the Reformation when you realize that Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and so on weren't half so interested in stopping the flow of cash into their own pockets as they were cutting off ties with the people to whom they were expected to give money.  But that's really beside the point.

In this environment, where your immortal soul mattered far more than the property, rights, importance or humanity of your fellow earthly occupants (who were mostly going to hell due to their being not quite so pious as you), the distance between justification and skull caving was a lot shorter than one with which we'd be familiar.  Once Henry V tells you that slaughtering the French is a holy act, supported by a group of bishops standing around him waiting for Henry to wrest money out of the hands of other bishops, it's very easy to lift that mace.  When Caesarius of Heisterbach tells you to slaughter every person in Beziers, Catholic and Cathar alike, because "God will know his own," that is going to make an enormous amount of sense to you.  God DOES know his own, doesn't he?  There is nothing on this Earth more certain than that.

If this all seems strange or uncomfortable for you, or if it seems I'm not talking about liberalism at all, question how you yourself would handle being at Beziers on the 22nd of July, 1209, when the 20,000 inhabitants of the city were slaughtered, and if your priest giving you his blessing after the fact would have much influence on your thought process.  The failure of that blessing to affect you IS the effect of liberalism ... an effect which your player characters, were they living in the 13th century, wouldn't be feeling.

Disgust, unquestionably.  Doubt about quite a few things, oh yes, I'm sure of that.  A certainty that life was fleeting and that it could disappear in the blink of an eye?  Yes, that too, and not just from the occasional slaughter of 'innocents' - though no one was, by definition - but also from the terrifying and sudden onset of disease or the tenuous presence of enough food for all.  All the more reason to throw one's lot in with the priests, who have it in their power to reassure you that this life is merely a passing thing, an antechamber for the next life.

I've read some rather silly things online about how magic would bring about a utopia of some such, with food and healing for all, and naturally a freedom from the ordinary sufferings of daily life ... and I wonder if these writers are able to recognize a human being when they see one.  If the reader supposes for a moment that real magical power put into the hands of a person like Caesarius would bring about a age of universal happiness, you live in a liberal cocoon of truly impressive thickness.  Why should any person with power directly aid any person without power, when the power itself makes the powerless immaterial?  Liberalism came into the universal consciousness because the power of the ruling class was questioned, then ultimately seized in an horrific orgy of fear and hate - comparable, I might add, with the slaughter of Beziers.  This lovely spreading of human privilege and freedom was planted in very bloody ground.

If Louis XVI of France and all his secular and religious attendents were not ready to surrender a fraction of their untold wealth for the purpose of feeding the peasants food the peasants had grown themselves, how does one imagine that Louis or anyone else would sit up for hours memorizing spells in order to vacation in the countryside distributing them?  Even if a diseased person could be healed every day, it takes time and trouble to find these diseased persons, and the facts are the privileged class is not inclined to take much time or trouble for anyone.  Truth be told, if the shitfuck who very nearly hits me everyday at the pedestrian crossing can't be bothered to stop and wait when the lights are blinking, what is the chance of his coming around to see me when I'm unwell?  Perhaps, if I pour enough money into Louis' coffers, he might let me hang around his court, for I'd be paying him ... but I wouldn't count even then on having his cardinal cast spells for me that might be needed elsewhere by Louis before the day ends.  Never mind giving them to the peasants.  Those are the simple facts of life.

Characters in D&D, however, will always be acted out to be as liberal as their player puppeteers ... you puppeteers cannot help yourselves.  You may think characters slaughtering the women or children of a town, or thieving, or raping women, or selling off slaves or whatever other nightmares you might conjure is a loathesome way to spend a Saturday night's running - but I propose that the characters themselves, free of your puppeteering, would find your perception of their world one of inexpressible weakness.  They would view your pampered, fat greasy bodies with an eye that revealed you as hardly worth leaving alive - something their clerics would advocate were better killed than let to live and infect the minds of decent, god-fearing persons.  Your characters would be certain they'd be forgiven for your deaths ... who in the world could miss squeamish, pathetic worms like yourselves?


Jason Juta said...

I've been taking tentative steps into finding out about 'real' medieval life recently, and that was a thought-provoking article - thank you.

Butch said...

Great post. Makes you think about what a real-life Paladin would do in the name of his God. Lawful Good indeed.

JDJarvis said...

My teen son moments ago while discussing this post and how it related to a raid the party launched against a tribe of stone-aged hill-men in our campaign recently said "we didn't murder anyone we killed savages, we are conquerors."

Some of us don't have much trouble playing pimps, murderers, tomb robbers, arsonists, slavers, and conquistadors. But yeah the hobby tends to frown on some of that.

Alexis said...

And I have never had any trouble running players like that, JD. Liberalism has no place in D&D.

Oddbit said...

I wonder how a liberal party would react when their perceived enemy uses liberalism against them. Especially if said enemy could be easier killed without repercussions...

Beedo said...

I question a base assumption, which seems to go unstated - that any given play group is attempting historical simulation. The world view you describe is nigh impossible for a modern audience to appreciate or attain, that callous disregard for life and the guilt-free approach to mayhem. Some groups do "try on" alternative mores like trying on a different set of clothes, but that seems more like a social experiment - the kind of unnatural "role-playing" folks point fun of when they see it in LARPers, or speaking with the funny accents in character. (I do recognize I'm in a glass house here).

The point about utopias through magic is well taken. Even in the modern world, with Liberalism run amok, we haven't solved major world problems through technology.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that any base assumption is correct to question, Beedo, think also on the base assumption that the player-characters are heroes, informed by a liberal world-view. This essay makes a strong case for why that shouldn't be presumed... but of course we're all free to play the game however we see fit.

Alexis said...

Yes, Beedo, I recognize that most would rather our cold and nasty history did not make it's way into the RPG universe. I make no pretense to simulation at all, myself. On the other hand, part of my sense of fantasy includes no restrictions upon the activities of the players resulting from 'morality.'

I'm not certain why you say it is 'impossible' for a modern audience to appreciate or attain these things in the game. You may not be aware, but right now, this very moment, there are people appreciating and attaining exactly the medieval equivalent, in Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar, Zaire, Indonesia, parts of Colombia ... and even on a small scale in Syria and right here in Anglo-America. Not to mention China, which continues to execute people while being given carte blanche by an indebted United States. Why should you think we can't do this in fantasy when it is being done in reality?

Liberalism is a thin veneer. That too was R.L. Stevenson's point.

Let me finish by stating again, however: NO limitations. But not to worry, this hasn't resulted in players becoming mass butcherers of imaginary populations, despite my having this policy for 32 years. What's important is that it's a player CHOICE and not a DM mandate.

Fantasy isn't always pretty.

Anonymous said...

In this regard I am very fond of several literary works that depict medieval mores with different brushstrokes but the same general shape:

The White Company / Sir Nigel (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891);

Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett, 1989).

R.L. Stevenson's own Black Arrow, with his beautifully psychopathic rendering of Richard III.

Ishmael Beah's true/false(?) work A Long Way Gone (2007).

And of course, this list would be incomplete without reference to Deliverance (James Hickey 1970).

Tedankhamen said...

Fabulous post Alex, well thought out and very engaging.

“Caesarius of Heisterbach tells you to slaughter every person in Beziers, Catholic and Cathar alike, because "God will know his own," that is going to make an enormous amount of sense to you. God DOES know his own, doesn't he? There is nothing on this Earth more certain than that.”

THIS is why I trust religion about as far as I can throw the pope…

“Why should any person with power directly aid any person without power, when the power itself makes the powerless immaterial?”

THIS would be a great seed for a campaign world. Call it ‘The Tyranny of Magic’. Uncaring at best or even despotic at worst mages and clerics hold the lives, deaths, and afterlives of average folk in sway. Great antidote to a lot of the touchy-feely fantasy going around.

“I propose that the characters themselves, free of your puppeteering, would find your perception of their world one of inexpressible weakness.”

No doubt, which also implies that those modern players we term ‘misanthropes’ who rob the king, ransom back the princess, then slay everything that walks or crawls in both the dungeon AND the village have been playing the game ‘right’ while those of us liberal fools who just save her have got it all wrong. In the eyes of natives of that world, that is.

Keep them coming!

Alexis said...

Thank you all. It is most appreciated.

But one thing, Tedankhamen ... if you will kindly not call me 'Alex,' I will not call you 'Ted.'

Tedankhamen said...

Oops! Understood. Seems I fell for the false familiarity of the internet again. Apologies, Alexis.

Roger the GS said...

It's the mark of a certain outlook on morality - morality as disgust; morality as contagion - that the thought approaches the deed; "if you have lusted in your heart, you have sinned."

It's this outlook, applied to gaming, that makes conservatives wary of 15 foot demon statues and liberals wary of slaughtering members of an evil race.

I'm not going to judge this outlook because we all possess it to some degree, guarding our own sacred cows. But it's the opposite of "hey, it's only a game." Eventually, if an imagined thing becomes obsessive enough, it's hard to see it as anything but a repressed desire.

Alexis said...

Thank you Tedankhamen. As a matter of fact Alexis is my real name - pronounced A-lek-see - and everyone I know uses all of it. I have just always liked it in its entirety, and have avoided any shortening to it, as I don't want to one day be known as 'Al.'

By all means, be familiar; nothing wrong with familiarity. By using my full name you will be more like my friends than the phone solicitor.