Thursday, September 1, 2011

Replaceable Parts

My grandfather was born in the Pripet Marshes, the same marshes that split the Nazi invading forces in Operation Barbarossa, in 1886, in the south part of Belarus, or Byelorus as it was spelled then.  Byelo is Russian for "white," and so he came from what is called White Russia, the literal translation of the country's name.  He was only two generations before me, but his being quite old when my father was born (50) has meant that in the three generations between him and I there have been 125 years.  That reaches back quite a ways.

My grandfather came to Canada at the age of 15, and thence dwelt in the wilds that then comprised the lands north of Toronto, that which is now the fringes of Algonquin park.  What he did there is not well known to me; I have it on good authority that he did a lot of hunting right up to the point where Canada entered the First World War against the Kaiser.  His hunting had given him a mastery, and he spent four years in the trenches of Europe as a sniper, one of those fellows who sits and waits and waits and sits until someone lifts his head up a little too high ...

After the war he drifted around at odd jobs, finally meeting my grandmother sometime in the late 1920s.  They had three children ... my two aunts and my father, who was born in 1936.  Not long after my father was born, my grandfather and my grandmother, who had never seen eye to eye on anything, separated.  They were never divorced, but to the best of my knowledge they did not see each other again.  But my father would visit my grandfather in the summers, and from him learned all about hunting and fishing, and the ways of the wilderness, and in this way some of that information was passed down to me.

As the decades passed, my grandfather became more and more reclusive, climbing higher and higher into the Canadian Rockies.  Much of the land in Canada - more so at that time - is available for squatting, and that's what my grandfather became by the time I knew him.  He lived in a little shack about the size of an office cubicle, 5,500 ft. above sea level, which had an iron stove he had hauled up himself and a bed.  He grew fruit on trees he had planted.  He fished in a kayak he had made himself.  Once a year he would climb down into town where he would buy materials - not food - for his hobbies, and deliver his mail.  He wrote articles about birds that were published in national magazines.  He painted pictures which were sometimes locally shown, though my grandfather was never present.  Beyond paper, canvas and some pigments for his oils, virtually everything he used in his daily activities he made himself, including the fishing line he used.

I mention all this because I believe it offers an insight that is nearly always lacking in the mind's eye of the players of D&D.  Life was certainly hard.  But more importantly, life was something that was managed almost universally by people who made for themselves everything that was needed.  They fashioned their own clothes, tanned and cut their own leather, made their own wooden tools and even forged their own metal.  An ordinary cotter could not hope to buy even a hammer head that was already made, but he could buy pieces that could be heated with charcoal he had made himself and beaten with stones until it adopted a useable shape.  Perhaps not the clean, perfect edge of a manufactured craftsman, but serviceable in a community where there were no craftsman.  And once that tool was made, it would cared for and passed from generation to generation, for two hundred years if need be, to be ultimately used by every family of the village.

We are such instruments of massive consumption that we can hardly reckon with an outlook like this.  If the axle on a character's wagon breaks along a stretch of country road, naturally the character thinks to head for the next town, pay out a few coins and return with the replacement axle.  It is viewed in exactly modern terms, only the missing gasoline that runs your car is replaced with the word axle and all goes on as before.

Only that was impossible. Without having the cart present, no person anywhere could make an axle to fit the cart.  Even with the cart present, the carter can't simply fit the right axle in place and have you on your way.  He would have to make a tailored axle to fit your tailored cart, and that would take him quite a lot of time.  And no, he would not consent to come along with you to fix your cart twenty miles away.

Then what?  Abandon the cart?  We are so lock-stepped into the consumerist framework of mind that it doesn't occur to us that the characters would never have left the cart in the first place.  They would never have thought, "get a new axle."  They'd have made one.  Then and there, with their own hands.  It would not have occurred to them that they were unable to make an axle on their own ... not because they were naturally more proficient in that day and age, and more knowledgeable about such things, but because they had no template of a perfectly working axle in their minds to stop them from putting together an axle that would be - by our standards - a piece of shit.

When I say my grandfather made his own kayak, what immediately leaps to one's mind is a marvelously fashioned instrument lovingly crafted by my grandfather's hand.  This conception is aided by museums, which present most every object from the past as a work of art, often clouding the issue by 'restoring' them to their past glory ... when in fact we have no certainty about what that glory might have been.  And anything that wasn't a work of art didn't survive from the age of its construction, because over time it ruined with use.  My grandfather's kayak was awful!  It leaked ... just enough to make it uncomfortable for you and me, sitting in a cold lake, with our sensibilities, but not enough to sink it.  My grandfather did not care.  He could not make a better kayak with his abilities, and that didn't matter.  Even into his 80s he was tough as nails, and if it got a little watery in the bottom while he sat and fished for four hours, what of it?

You and I, gentle reader, would attempt to make an axle for our cart only by absolute necessity ... and if we did make one that worked, we'd hate it with every turn as it bumped and ground along, with our minds full of what a perfect axle would feel like.  This was not the conception of those living before the age of replaceable manufactured parts.  They did not care.  They had no 'perfect' axle to compare it with.  This was the best axle they themselves could make, and if it jostled and shook, what of it?

It is not only that replaceable parts weren't available, it is also that the consumerist world they made possible had not yet come into existence.  People often ask me about certain items on my equipment list, like clothes or tools, being irrationally expensive ... but in fact most people did not buy goods from town.  Except that my grandfather could not make his own linen in the BC mountains, which he needed for paint canvas, or that he could not make his own paper for writing, he would have had little - if any - reason for coming down to civilization.  His medieval ancestor in the Pripet marshes would not have, for there were no magazines to print articles, and no galleries to display his work, and no mail to distribute it to others.  Even as a mountain man his life bore the stamp of the consumerist society.

(yes, aware of the pun)

I have been running the game for more than thirty years, and every player still thinks of no other means of obtaining goods except to buy them.  Very rarely, if pushed into unusual circumstances, a player will fabricate something, but how often will they in the middle of town.  Does a bard with very little starting income, staring at the frightening costs for instruments, think of buying a simple blade and whittling a pipe to play?  No.  The cheapest instrument is chosen from what is there and the silver is spent.  A fighter knows a club is the cheapest weapon, but does the fighter ask me if he can make his own wooden shield?  Does a thief haunt the local blacksmith for bits of metal and twist his own lockpick?  Does a paladin buy red paint and mark his own clothing?  No.  Because in our minds it would look awful.  Crusaders in every film, even those where the participants are covered in feces, still wear clothes where the seams are straight and every fold is perfectly tailored.  The armor never has an explicit dent or bend in it.  The squeaking from the cart remains at a carefully selected decibel so as not to disturb the dialogue.  The coconuts have been neatly cut by a band saw.

We are trained to think this is normal.  It isn't.  It is modern, but it is far past normal when viewed from the perspective of human history.  There are no replaceable parts.  There are no uniforms, because nothing is uniform.  But it is something you will have a great deal of trouble getting out of your head.

I am betting you won't be able to.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Alexis. Good writing and useful message.

Only thing, I don't think buying versus crafting is necessary a modern outlook: it's consumeristic and industrial, and sure modern the way modern architecture is (I always wonder when reading "modern" if people mean "of our times" or opposed to postmodern). If that's what you ment then i ignore me :)

I feel diy, arts and craft and urban gardening, due to economic downturns and peak oil, are going to change attitudes back to more self-reliant and less consumeristic lifestyles.

It's also the first time I read about Pripet without mentioning the nuclear disaster: I wonder what your grandfather would have said about it.

Anonymous said...

Also I totally didn't get that you were doing a Civilization post: replaceable parts are quite useful in the game, and it means industrialization, rifling and railroads are close. Happy times :)

Speaking as an engineer, the point of replaceable parts, and their attractiveness, is not that they are standardized and uniform, but that their interfaces are more or less standardized and uniform. It's an engineering problem, not a market one.

This means being able to produce axles in advance knowing that if one breaks you don't need to file down a log in the dark while it's raining, but you simply need to swap it with the new one.

Or that you can salvage another cart for its axle. Of course this creates strong market forces, but as a bespoke software developer my work is closer to the work of an artisan that every time has to deal with different carts.

And I still appreciate and use replaceable parts, even if I make the part to use them myself, because it still is more convenient.

Alexis said...

I appreciate that tsojcanth, and you're not wrong ... except that my chosen perspective for this particular essay was the sociological influence of Replaceable Parts. Having worked a great deal with engineers, and my father being one, I am aware of your position.

But tell me: did you learn anything from mine?

scottsz said...

For anyone wanting to see a documented example of the 'way of living' that you're focusing on:

Richard Proenneke Wiki Link

It is a glaring RPG oversight not to have more material on crafting/building even in a fantasy world (at the very least a procedure for a DM to adjudicate crafting).

Anonymous said...

Yes, i was contributing a point that i thought the post missed yet felt interesting and related; (some types of) replaceable parts are also half of the topic of my master thesis, which i'm delivering next week, and I didn't realized how it completely railroaded my thoughts. I hope to be able to go back to normal soon. :D

I learnt that consumerism is disempowering for consumers, and that it is so awfully disempowering and completely integral to our perception of the world that, makers apart, even in a fantasy world where the game core relies on empowering players' avatars, we still behave as consumerists, expecting supermarkets in thorps.

Which for a socially aware/concerned/anticapitalist gamer is frankly harrowing: despite being empowered, we still fall back to relying on others, because of factors that are in our reality and that don't exist in the fantasy. I never made the link myself before and it took a while to seep in.

Will make sure to take this in consideration for the writing i'm doing.

Anonymous said...

More players should have a better understanding of this position. Fortunately, I have players who are frugal enough with their coppers to be motovated to make what they can for themselves. They stitch their own clothes, catch their own food, and not just saying my ranger walks around in the woods for a few hours and catches something. Life skills, even for fantasy characters, are important.

My games don't have every vendor or shop with shiny, newly minted merchandise. It's a great way to shock the Mall-mentality out of players.

Players are from the modern era, and not all play the game with issues of social and economics normality at the forefront of their minds. Note, I am note falling back on "it's just a game".

Adding to this model, the Fantasy Setting elements skew the expected norms. Human history now has to add sociological and economic factors from non-human societies and cultures that will have their own factors to the equation.

These are some enjoyable elements to explore, especially so if the players are so inclined.

Roger the GS said...

Even if a player realizes they can't buy it ... and they will have to do something else ...

"But ... but ... I don't have the Craft Cart Axle skill!"

Alexis said...


I am stunned at the sheer chance of writing this article at this time. I was inspired to write the post this way by this marvelous BBC piece from 2002, which if you have the time (you haven't naturally) you ought to have a look at. Not that I believe everything in the documentary...far from it. But I was awakened, none the less, and it is worth seeing. It is also about the rise of consumerism from a psychological perspective.

No worries about pulling out your shotgun and making the comments you did; perfectly understandable.

Alexis said...

scott & Grendal,

These are my sentiments exactly. I don't have anything to add because I agree with you. Too often I tend to answer only when I disgree with people, and it behooves me to make some comment, also, when I agree. Here it is.

Alexis said...


Even the skill-set concept is consumerist in structure. Kind of fucks over the whole 3rd edition, doesn't it?

Oddbit said...

It doesn't entirely fuck over the third edition unless your GM is a dimwit. You can either use the skill system to empower your players, or to weaken them. This all depends on the 'arbitrary' DCs created by the GM.

If it is assumed that 'everyone can do it' the DC should be low, as in roll over a 5 on a d20 and you did it on the first try, unless you are using the system to screw the players. That's when the player suddenly falls to their death climbing a 2 foot step ladder because they critically failed a dc 12 climb check or some nonsense.

It's just like how in your system, you may make it difficult for a player who wasn't a mason to build a perfect wall. It doesn't screw over your system at all. You will assume the players know how to make an axel and probably make the rolls (if any) easier.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alexis, I've been meaning to watch The Century of the Self for almost a year so to avoid procrastinating it again it just appeared on my "post-handin to-do list" :)
Are you going to release a PDF of the tech posts when they're done?

Alexis said...

I sort of felt writing them on the blog, which can be cut and pasted into any format you wish, worked for publishing documents.

So no, tsojcanth. No.

Alexis said...

My hands are up, Oddbit. Please don't take none of my money or shoot me Mister; I'll cooperate.

ckutalik said...

There's a post that you wrote a while back about guild production--how very different it was from the dynamics of production and consumption in the modern era--that I come back to my mind often.

It's a failing in not just D&D, but most fantasy rpgs, that such basic features of life are made so friggin' mundane that even the historical past seems fantastic in comparison.

gdbackus said...

This issue keeps coming up more and more in my own thinking. The idea that there is supply ready to meet players demands whenever/wherever these demands occur is absurd - or at least not how I would like to play. Particularly implements of war. Weapons, armor, shields - these just are not objects that sit on a store shelf waiting to be bought - these are things made to order and that order is made by someone (read: a ruler) who means to make war. Most people do not question their assumptions about "the market", I suppose because they are not interested in the subject.

Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

A number of mine and my husband's characters are quicker to make something than to buy something. We've had characters make their own bows and arrows, cobble together a cart and a harness to go with it based on what they have on hand.

The trick to getting players to think DIY and not buy-buy-buy is in making the DCs to make a basic version of something really low, and the cost of finished products really high.

On the subject of crafting, I read something the other day about how in the early iron age, smiths would occasionally make a steel sword completely by accident. All I could think of was that this would explain the difference between a regular sword and a mastercraft sword.

Making a mastercrafted anything, I think I'd give a percentage chance equal to skill ranks of crafting one for every successful crafting roll a character makes.

Anonymous said...

In a simulationist perspective, it's possible to retcon "equipment shopping" as an opportunity cost of DIY. The player rolls up a starting number of silver pennies or gp or what have you. That is the coin wealth the player would have, "but for" their acquisition of starting equipment.

Generously presuming that a fighter can produce a wooden shield so efficiently that their lost productivity as a fighter costs no more than what a skilled carpenter would charge, then the "shopping trip" can make sense even in a pre-consumerist setting. Or maybe the retcon is that no work for fighters was available, and the player filled the time by repairing a broken shield.

Eric said...


Running the numbers, 3.0/3.5 does cover this decently. - arbitrarily rule that 10% of the 15 GP cart`s value is in its axle.

Craft is Intelligence based and works untrained; assume a wizard in the party has a +3 Int bonus but no points in a relevant Craft skill. DC 10 to craft a normal-quality item, but -2 on the roll for using improvised tools.

The players will need 5 SP worth of lumber. This, you'd need to figure out, if the players are in an environment where timber exists.

Once you have that lumber, however, the 150 CP of work is pretty easy to come up with. If there's no adverse weather or random encounters, it will take two days by taking 10 on the Craft check. If the wizard needs to or chooses to roll, a 1-4 will ruin the lumber, a 5-8 is no progress, 9-13 is partial progress, and a 14+ completes the axle in a day.

Alexis said...

My world, on the other hand, presumes you either can or can't make an axle. If you think you can, and you're not actually good at it, it will bust within a day or so, so it is immaterial. You can make an axle if you have any woodhandling/teamster/practical experience, which usually someone has.

In addition, things are never universally priced as they are in most games. Right, Eric?

It prickles when someone offers a 3.0/3.5 solution on this blog, as I consider 3.0/3.5 to be a huge messy disaster full of utter corporatized crap, evident by the fact that the edition itself doesn't even have a recognized, established NAME, and has to be referred to with slashes. Sheesh!

No offense meant.

Satchmo said...

This post reminds me of the Qin Dynasty of China, and it seems to resonate well with Alexis's point- there is a major change when one can buy something and it fits any machine.

For those who don't remember their history, Qin Shi Huang (first Emperor of China), was a Legalist, a follower of a philosophy that espoused control, political diplomacy and equality under law to run an empire. However, these values could be used tyrannically, and often were- Qin Shi Huang was a totalitarian bastard who used state secrets to destroy his political enemies and governed the peasants like his soldiers: telling them to live in regimented ways.

Under the Qin Dynasty, weights, measures, the currency, the Chinese language, even the length of wagon axles was standardized. Now to be fair, the empire Qin Shi Huang was large and culturally varied. If the empire wanted to make money, it would be much easier if people could pay taxes with the same currency anywhere in the empire, and have it transported in easily replaceable wagons along well-paved roads, the empire could support itself. Of course, standardizing society like this also had its darker sides: the Confucian scholars who spoke against this were burned along with their books. Instead of the local landowners, peasants were reliant on an "Imperial standard" to conduct their everyday lives. True, they could make their own wagon axles, but pity the peasant whose wagon was too wide for the road and wouldn't let an imperial one pass.

I mention this because I don't think it's much of a stretch in the D&D world to have standardized items like wagon wheels or axles or even uniforms to be bought like today's markets. True, the DM may have to justify it, but it's a well known fact that the D&D world has a standard metal-based currency, a language called "Common", as well as an agreed upon set of miles, yards, feet, pounds...