Saturday, April 18, 2015

Speculation

I am not a fan of revisionist fiction - which perhaps sounds strange for a D&D player.  My reasons probably spring from a distaste for propaganda, essentially the rewriting of history for the purpose of encouraging people to hate.

Revisionist history supposedly has a higher calling - to highlight a given ideology so that the reader will look at it and think thoughts like, "Wow, it really would have been bad if the Nazis had won World War II."  However, I don't believe this is really the writer's motivation.  I believe the writer is using the revision in order to flagrantly masturbate - and encourage masturbation - about a specific fetish while casually side-stepping the responsibility.

Allow an example of the same sort of thing as regards sex.  Television has always used this same principle in order to include soft pornography under the guise of the morality play.  Television movies like Portrait of a Stripper or Portrait of a Centerfold were just the sort of cheesy, obvious efforts to put wank-material on television in a time before even VHS allowed for renting porn.  Poor literature does this sort of thing all the time: introduce the waif, seduce the waif, show the waif getting involved in something nefarious, show the awful effects of the waif's actions on the waif's family and then have the waif discover the 'evils' of indulging in this terrible, terrible behavior.

There was recently a piece of shit film that came out in February this year that followed that plot to the letter.  Nothing has changed.

For a more direct example of revisionist history, I suggest Norman Spinrad's, The Iron Dream.  If you're the sort who likes revisionist history, I recommend it.  There's no reason your education should be lacking.  It's just the sort of book a munchkin would enjoy.

I suppose it's fine to like these sort of things (I'll have to toss in The Man in the High Castle by Dyck, for those who will be thinking of it right off), but I don't.  I think works like this encourage lazy thinking.  The supposition always depends on ignoring key points about reality in order to emphasize other moments - such as supposing that the Germans were ever going to possess the Crimean oil fields.  The Germans never got remotely close to that, while there's no doubt whatsoever that the Russians would have simply set them on fire, as the Iraqis did five decades later.  But that's an inconvenient fact . . . so we ignore it.

The same kind of lazy thinking pops up all the time in speculation about the effects that magic would have, must have, on a fantasy world, if magic existed.  Druids and other spellcasters, for example, would replace the need to even have farmers.  Mages would obviously invent all our present technology in a few hours, if only they were motivated.  Or magic would destroy any desire for ordinary science to continue development.  Or the existence of dragons, elementals and other huge monsters would surely demand huge changes in city lay-out, fortifications and the like.

Undoubtedly.

Let me repeat, because I don't want to be mistaken for being insincere, sarcastic or facetious. Undoubtedly, magic would massively revamp social structure.  If magic existed.

Only, here is the thing.  We don't know how.  We don't.  We can't know.  We have no experience with magic, no experience with what it would do to society or how people would react, or what things we would change about ourselves.  We can speculate like crazy about those things - and Oh My, Oh My, have writers ever speculated.  But we don't know.

Still, we can be SURE that if someone, somewhere, in a blog sets out to decide for themselves what magic would or wouldn't do, that someone will be cherry-picking which magic will affect which cherry-picked parts of society.  We can also be sure that the conclusion will be pulled right out of the speculator's asshole.

I've seen a lot of this sort of thing, taken part in it.  Arguments like this always descend into the other fellow's cherry-picked shit versus my cherry-picked shit.  It isn't possible to be comprehensive; there are too many spells, too much magic, too little factual analysis available to account for ALL possibilities . . . and yet everyone who indulges in this sort of argument will get bloody-minded that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Lazy thinking.

Let's take a simple, anachronistic example, as I explain why I have castles in my world, despite the magic that exists to blow castles all to hell.  Spoiler: I'm going to talk about my world now.

Players expect castles.  Castles are familiar, representative of the culture the players understand and therefore appropriate.  Illogical?  Maybe.  That doesn't matter to me.

Yesterday I was asked, quite reasonably, "Do fortifiers in your world make any allowance for airborne menaces like flying casters, dragons, etc."  It was part of a well-founded inquiry into the matters of my world.

Here's the thing.  I gave an answer in the comments field that sort of captures some of my thinking, but the straight answer is "No, I don't."

That's not bloody-mindedness.  I'm just not incorporating castles and other fortifications into my world to keep out non-player characters.  Forts are there to keep out players - and if the players decide to gather together and destroy a fortification with magic, monsters and their own forms of armageddon, they're welcome to do that.

My NPCs don't.   For the same reason we don't use nuclear weapons casually.

A castle is more than a fortification.  It is a statement of authority.  It says, "I have money, I have prestige, I have a will to stop you.  Don't bug me."

Magic isn't just a technology; it is an implied stalemate.  Like Robert A. Heinlein's Solution Unsatisfactory, it is a group of armed assailants standing together in a room, each with a loaded .45, pointed at one another, waiting for someone to do something stupid like start firing.  It is mutually assured destruction . . . and as such, everyone in the world, where it comes to using very powerful magic, must consider what they're doing.

In a truly cherry-picked fashion, it is generally assumed that if a druid were to start a wildfire that consumed a significant town, this would be a pity but, oh well, what can you do?

No, no, no.  The status quo has a very strong motivation to not let things like that happen - and to punish those who follow courses of action that change the status quo.  If the players ever get to be big enough to own a .45 of their own, so they can start blasting away with it, everyone in the world will turn around and blast away at the player.  Not just the infringed party.  Not just the person the players wronged.  Everyone.  Because everyone is threatened.

So, leave that castle alone.  Take it by conventional means, sure - that doesn't threaten anyone.  Want to put the gun in your pocket and have a fist fight?  Sure, go at it.  But leave that gun in your pocket.

Do the dragons, elementals and other big monsters understand this?  Oh yes.  They're part of it, too.

I know that this is a strange mindset to have about a D&D world.  Usually, it's assumed that if the players get to a level where they can have wish as a spell, that ability comes along with the indiscriminate right to use it.  Au Contraire!

Use it at your peril.



3 comments:

Mujadaddy said...

The first thing I thought of, far down from the view of the 24th-level Wizard(!), was the Magic Item Economy prevalent in 'modern' RPG settings, and how this necessarily would result in thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of "cursed Hope Diamonds" being tracked across their respective story arcs.

It also made me think of how (in, for example, my interpretation of your 1650-era) if a number of literal .45-caliber pistols were available, they would quickly be emptied of their rounds or at least be hoarded away from unenlightened minds...those few Artifacts with unemptied chambers would be secured far from the eyes of the rabble, kept out of the consciousness of the common man and would in a few generations become Myth which only the rare Adventuring Sort would have even hope of discovering...

Maxwell Joslyn said...

"The status quo has a very strong motivation to not let things like that happen - and to punish those who follow courses of action that change the status quo. If the players ever get to be big enough to own a .45 of their own, so they can start blasting away with it, everyone in the world will turn around and blast away at the player. Not just the infringed party. Not just the person the players wronged. Everyone. Because everyone is threatened."

Good paragraph.

The shit-game analogue to your sound logic is this kind of arrangement: the DM tolerates all kinds of idiocy in-game with no repercussions for the players - except when they occasionally just drop out the deus ex machina big-guns and blow you up with fiat.

They lack the world coherency to "push back" on the players in a way that has any bite to it, until they decide that the players are doing something they don't like, and then they bring out whatever levels of rails are necessary to stop the undesired behavior. God, it's like a psychology experiment or something - you can pinpoint what the DM is unwilling/unable to tackle by casting about until you strike a rail.

The better DM is transparent. For big-impact questions I think it's worth straight-up saying "I don't have principled rules for this thing yet, but..." Regardless, he establishes in plain sight some provisional rules, and maybe adds the issue to his will-fix list. The DM retains control without needing the illusion of knowing everything, the players get to try their cool plan, and nobody is stressed.


On a tangential topic which came up as I was writing:

For god's sake, I cannot tell you how frustrating it gets to hear someone talk about how they punish in-game as a response to out-of-game trolling. "Yeah, and then I kick him out if he does it again." Oh, he did it again? No shit? I never would have saw it coming... I like your soccer-game analogy for these situations.

Algol said...

When that push back happens, would it push the players into a higher tier of politics? If the players are running a bandit gang, they'd attract the attention of local town militias. If their bandit gang grows to a warband and starts pillaging villages, then they've gained the attention of the local lords.

So taking a castle with a conventional army would make news in any neighboring kingdom. Taking it down with meteor swarm might attract the attention of an archwizard half a world away eventually. Or any djinns, storm giants, etc.

I like it. When the players use a wish spell, they're now a dangerous rising power in the hidden world of magic. So then, the forces involved in high level magic would be a sort of hidden tier in the campaign. Thinking on this, around 10-15 is when the players are dealing with kings and armies. 16-20, when they start using truly powerful magic, they're dealing with forces beyond even a king.