Friday, August 2, 2013

Settler

Now that the gloves are off I feel free to run wild.

There's something up with blogger. I can't seem to compose in "compose" mode, and the sidebar on this blog is screwed up - its been moved to the bottom of the page, presumably because blogger is rebooting. Been off and on like this all week. But still, I know enough HTML to get by.

I don't know how many gentle readers have played Civilization IV. It isn't that I think the game is the greatest ever made, but the fellows did their homework and it is a great template to talk about a wide variety of things ... not just the things themselves, but even the way those things play out inside the game. For example, the Settler unit. At the beginning of the game, you do not start with a village, you start with a Settler, allowing the freedom to choose what exact spot on the map pleases you for your main city. It's the sort of flexibility that is largely missing from most games.

Settlers and the process of settling have been a central element of storytelling for thousands of years (its the main theme of the Bible's first five books). Regions with vast hinterlands, such as Russia or America, were defined by the process of loading up animals and wagons and 'conquering' the wilderness, and that's how we tend to see settlers now - mostly in terms of the Old World settles the New World formula. Wikipedia makes a distinction between 'settlers' and 'indigineous peoples,' since in most every historical case this has been the central conflict. Joshua and the other Judges and Kings must clear Canaan, the Australians must push off the Aborigines, the Europeans seize lands from the Amerindians and so on.

But of course, in reality the indiginous peoples were settlers too, going back a long, long time ... and they did not set out to conquer new lands for fame and wealth, but because the old lands were full of people and not enough game. At some point, a given clan is too successful, gains too many offspring, and a change in the environment causes the local game to drop substantially in number ... and so part of the clan acknowledges that things must be better elsewhere, they pick up everything they'll need and try their luck with the next valley over. Or the next valley beyond that, until they find a valley that's empty and has enough meat and vegetable matter to support them. Thus it is that all mankind springs forth from Australia until they occupy nearly everywhere.

The question is, why is the settler ideal not more central to D&D? Wagon trains certainly made good stories in their day, and we still like that motif for ships heading out to other planets. Has it occurred to anyone that very rarely does someone make an adventure - or initiate one, in a sandbox - that involves getting a load of settlers out of this place and into one far away?

One thing about the wagon train ... we are a lot more interested in the 'getting there' part of the story than in the actual settling. Getting there sounds interesting - fight off some natives, some animals, lose a person or two to disease, lose a wagon over a cliff, have sex with a girl and so on. The actual settling part sounds boring and doesn't hold our attention, so the movie always ends with the expected shot of the new village, colony, what have you, and everyone happy and holding hands while they look out at the camera from their pile of supplies and their hastily established temporary shelter. We don't care what happens next. There's probably a lot of work to be done, but we're satisfied the drama is over.

In Civ IV, when your old village creates a new settler, the first thing you want to do is get that Settler established in a new location so that it can start building and so you can pop a military unit on top of it. Though the Settler climbs over hill and dale, across rivers, through jungles, striving towards the oasis in a desert or the uninhabited coastline - you get NO feeling whatsoever in that game that your Settler is on an 'adventure.' The game gives you the big picture, that Settlers are there to seize and expand territory, to build cities, to enrich the state, etc. About the only drama you feel in the actual travelling is that the Settler is vulnerable and very easily made dead ... so you don't waste time about it and you don't send the Settler off alone.

Seems to me there's a lot of ground there for player characters in a sandbox wandering about trying to think of something meaningful to do. But it must be understood that in a medieval society settlers don't just sprout from the roads. Travel WAS dangerous, and most people - even if they did want to move on - would be loathe to do so.

So when you conceive of your "Borderland" adventure, the very simple one where the party stumbles out into the wilderness to kill things the law doesn't protect, to bring them back in order to buy more stuff to kill more things to buy even more stuff to kill even more things, consider a venture into the heart of empire, the steady gathering of people to make good settlers. The selection process to find a willing blacksmith, armorer, assayer or competant sage; the purchase and allocation of goods and transport; the clearing of the road throught the kingdom, as its necessary to pass by towns with your charged populace without rousing the panic and anger of the locals; and finally the arrival at the borderland, the establishment of a piece of land, the struggle to feed all these people and their necessary defense from what used to be bags of water that were killed for treasure (humanoids like orcs and so on). Of course, for all that, you'll need a DM who can see beyond split-open-bag = experience ... and you'll need to realize that the art of settlement is more complicated than just cutting down trees and planting.

Part of the real crime perpetrated against D&D is the idea that it must be a linear arrangement of events, like the course from the beginning to the end of a story. Or even that it is a host of scattered cameos, isolated onto themselves and without much import beyond the fact that they were interesting for a time. D&D has the potential to look into the big picture, too, the art of development and creating a personal footprint on the world, to change the world, not just be a passenger in it. How would it be if you could get out of your seat in a movie, walk onto the screen, slap the stupid actor carrying the idiot ball, point a pistol at the people you prefer and MAKE them apply themselves to something more substantial? "No, no, we're not going this way with what we know here, we're going that way - you, get some guns up here, put that girl on a goddamned train and someone get me a sandwich! We have work to do."

D&D is hands on. The work is the drama, not just getting there. You'll never realize the full potential of this game until you, the player, learn that you ARE the Settler.

'Course, you're the warrior too, but that's another post.

4 comments:

Gort's Friend said...

I'm familiar with Civ IV, it long ago became one of by go to games, because it is a mix of war and growth. It recognizes that it takes a military-industrial complex, without neglecting the value of research.
That is just me gushing about the game.

Now for your topic. I've set more than one campaign around this precise idea. Once by accident, the other time by design. The first time it came about because of the Tornado of D&D campaigns, that is the Deck of Many Things, which has never ceased to cause havoc in any party who has ever found one. A casual card turn resulted in a player getting a "small keep" as his reward. Which seems pretty innocent at first, a home base, a club house for the boys.

Till I turned it into a money pit. Always stingy, their brand new keep turned out to be in a bad neighborhood, it required a lot of maintenance, especially after a lavish Dragon hoard resulted in a large copper hoard being brought home (In my defense, I never thought they'd get it home. It looked cool, I just never did the math on how many square feet of copper it was.) They were always trying to entice freemen to come settle the lands, hiring more smiths, guards for the supply train, and even more guards for the walls. Only to have things go south when that angry Frost Giant King tracked them back to their lair for once. Then it's back to recruiting new servants.

The other time it was deliberate, rather than improvised. I was experimenting with using real world maps and had set a mythical empire in central Russia, with it's edges lapping the Alps and India. A deliberate attempt to use all the races in the Humanoids book, but in one cosmopolitan society. The party was a retiring group of soldiers, who once again got that free keep, and decided to take their fortunes and retirement benefits (in a Roman style)as settlers on the new frontier.

They arrive with the deed to their new land, to find the basement is infested with squatting orcs and the neighbors are a variety of avaricious customers, including a werebear Baron with an eye on their property. I was experimenting with long term story lines at the time. Soon they'd domesticated the orcs and trying to improve their land, but just like Pa on the Prairie, found that they need to get some work away from home if they were going to pay for things.

I have to say, that trying to build their own settlement, to fight back barbarians and outwit the neighboring cattle baron was pretty rewarding.


JDJarvis said...

I suppose any one playing vagabond to hero to lord is playing the settler game but there sure isn't a lot of focus on that in recent years. Lot's of hexcrawling with no real reason to stay put looks awfully common.

Lukas said...

I've been in a handful of settling based games and have been disappointed in all of them. I would create a character more aligned to the job of settling than fighting, and then inevitably the game would fall apart before the actual settling bit.

Two are technically still 'running' or will get back to the point, but I try not to count my eggs before they hatch.

That said, I look forwards greatly to the founding of our mission and hope there will be lots of fun in getting all the goods and people there. I look forwards to shipping in exotic goods, creatures and people. I also look forwards to learning about the local flora and fauna.

I think the only limit to that phase is the limit of the GM to come up with interesting things to happen in one hex.

Quincy Jones said...

I like the idea of a settlement campaign arc, but I've yet to see the player who can handle it. Stay in one place for too long and they get antsy. It doesn't seem to matter how much is going on; the confinement just starts to chafe.

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