Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cowboys and Conquistadors: Looking for New Models of the Adventurer

Tlaxcalans and Spaniards enter Guadalajara, image from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala

Dungeons and Dragons is about adventurers. A D&D campaign consists of a string of adventures with downtime stretched between them. These ideas didn't come from nowhere. In his 3 part essay, The Sociology of the Murderhobo, Boris Stremlin explores the literary roots of the adventurer, as they are portrayed in D&D, and looks for a model of the adventurer not as a literary archetype but as "a social type" which emerges in early modern history.

In my opinion, Stremlin's essay series is one of the best fruits of the D&D blogosphere. It's articulate but not too inaccessible, well argued, and reveals both the interesting history of D&D and new ways of playing it. Though D&D owes much of its original conception to literature, Boris' analysis suggests that the fantasy of D&D is far from a-historical. The genres which inspired D&D (Weird Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, and Heroic Fantasy) all take influence from the historical and cultural context from which they emerge.

Boris finds that the literary forebears of D&D, in one shape or another, reflect the history of colonialism. The protagonists of Sword and Sorcery are strongly reminiscent of Cowboys from American Westerns. The protagonists of Weird Fiction confront "the immigrant, the politically mobilized but still undereducated industrial worker, the native" as often as they do the cosmic. Though Boris does not touch on the legacy of colonialism and race in Tolkien's epic fantasy, the connection is not difficult to make. (Sidebar: Though James' article explains the history of Tolkien's Orcs well, I feel that he draws too harsh a division between Europe and the steppe. There is a rich and complicated history of interaction between nomadic and sedentary peoples in Eastern Europe.)

All these genres also employ a distinction between a civilized zone, where protagonists hail from, and a frontier where the main narrative action takes place which makes a heavy impression on D&D. In Westerns and Sword and Sorcery this divide is most literal. In Weird Fiction these are frontiers of knowledge as much as physical spaces. The position of Rangers in Tolkien's books attest to a border existing between two civilizations if not between civilization and frontier.

4th edition's so called 'points of light' setting operates on the assumption that the world is composed mostly of "wild, uncontrolled regions" with city states between them. Similarly, in the very title of Gygax's Keep on the Borderlands the same dynamic is represented. There's a Keep, civilization, and the Borderlands, the frontier. Granted, not all D&D settings and adventures maintain a frontier vs civilization theme, but it's telling that this theme stretches from a core assumptions of a modern edition of the game right back to a module intended to introduce new players to it.

Though the legacy of colonialism is certainly sanitized in D&D, it is still present in the game's basic ideas. When we tell stories around the table of civilized heroes venturing beyond the borders to beat back the forces of chaos again and again we should take pause and consider what kind of narrative we are participating in. I'm certainly no less guilty of doing this than anyone else. Boris himself has pointed out how I project the frontier/civilization division onto my own Meager Country.

The connection between D&D and colonialism is also not new. I've begun with Boris' essay but others have reached similar conclusions by different means. But the question remains: in light of this, how should we change the way D&D is played?

 I think we need to base our campaigns off different types of adventurers who are not cowboys or conquistadors and we can find such figures in history. We need to look to the past for new stories, new protagonists, different relationships between 'civilization' and 'frontier.' This effort will not just remove a problematic element from the game but broaden the horizons of what can be represented at the table drastically.

4th Centruy Goth Warriors, Angus McBride

What is an adventurer? 

As Boris describes in the second part of his essay, the early modern adventurer is somebody who manages risk, be they a mercenary, merchant, or financier. The adventurer exists in a time of social change. Established hierarchies are starting to wobble. Great opportunities for disaster and success are emerging. The first adventurers were also the first colonizers. Hernán Cortés, Samuel de Champlain, and John Winthrop fit the word well. But Boris draws our attention to other kinds of adventurers through his discussion of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. This group doesn't appear to be very adventuresome when stood beside the conquistador, but commonalities soon emerge. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 14th-16th centuries, still developing and capable of offering greater religious freedom, is certainly a kind of frontier. Managing a business and setting up a community far way from one's home certainly requires a skill in managing risk. So an adventurer is not necessarily a colonizer and a frontier is not necessarily a terra nullius. 

What we are looking for is this: other conditions under which the adventurer as social type can exist. We are looking for groups of people who choose or are put into situations which require the management of risk to protect their communities or to move up the social hierarchy. These adventurers will also exist in times of change, whose outcome may depend heavily on their choices, failures, and victories. The frontiers they venture to may be states in crisis, far off lands in need of expertise of all kinds, or regions where valuable resources can be obtained.

Here are a few examples of good models of the adventurer, most drawn from the excellent Gundobad Games blog.

The Sea People (and others) of the Late Bronze Age Collapse

The international order of the Late Bronze Age relied on trade and communication between rulers facilitated by mobile populations. Such populations had great power to support or subvert the social order and can be easily seen as adventurers.

The Visigoths of the Late Roman Empire

The Visigoth were one of many groups forced into Rome's borders by the advancing Huns. The Visigoths faced great challenges in the form of corrupt Roman officials and anti-barbarian politicians as they became more and more integrated into the empire. A campaign based on this period would see the player characters adventure to ensure the safety and continuity of their community in exile.

The Vikings of the Viking Age

The Vikings traded, raided, and explored all the way from the White sea to Constantinople and beyond. Driven to win social status back home, pursuing economic advancement, and stimulating change at home and abroad makes the Vikings fit the model of the adventurer almost perfectly.

These are just three examples but in them is an incredible diversity of campaign concepts. I feel like D&D could have been founded on any of them as easily as on fantasy literature. But more remains to be discovered, more models await discovery by game masters who can pay careful attention to history.

This post is dedicated to Marshall Hodgson

Thursday, July 18, 2019

An Introduction to the Prophetess and the Way

Illustration of Canto 34 of Paradiso,Gustave Dore, 1864

How many countless hundred thousands pray
For patience and true knowledge of the Way
That leads to Him whom reason cannot claim
Nor mortal purity describe or name;
There soul and mind bewildered miss the mark
And, faced by Him, like dazzled eyes, are dark -
No sage could understand His perfect grace,
No seer discern the beauty of His face.
His creatures strive to find a path to Him,
Deluded by each new, deceitful whim,

-The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar

The Master said, "When a person's knowledge is sufficient to attain it, but his humaneness does not allow him to hold on to it, he may get it but will inevitably lose it again. When his knowledge is sufficient to attain it and his humanness allows him to hold on to it, but yet he cannot govern with dignity, the people will not respect him. If his knowledge is sufficient to attain, and his humanness allows him to hold on to it, and he governs with dignity yet does not act in accordance with the rites, it will still not be good."
-The Analects of Confucius, 15:32

First there was the Lord. He is ultimate, good, merciful, terrifying, other, universally sovereign. He created all that is on earth and beyond it. He shattered his infinite being to do so. The Lord adheres in the whole creation, each part contains a grain of His infinity and the perfection of His Holiness. But all things are also separate from their maker. Everything is doomed to stray from Holiness. Self and selfishness, greed, indulgence, pride and vice arise where the essence of the Lord is first removed from Him.

 Between us and He is the Gate. The Gate is separation, the border between the world we see and the one we don’t. There may be goodness, courage, bravery, humility, but if it does not cross this threshold and return to Fullness with the Lord, it will rot away. 

 The first to turn their backs on the Lord were His Archons, the First Ones, who inherited the greatest share of Holiness. They were charged with maintaining the creation, but resentment was born in their hearts. They wished to govern their own domains where they would wield the Lord’s sovereignty as their own. They became the gods of the earth and they ruled it as tyrants do. Under such cruelty, the people of the world strayed from Holiness and they turned on each other. Animals, plants, and finally the earth and water and air followed them. War, disease, famine, disaster. These are the fruits of the Traitor-Archons’ dominion over the universe.The Traitor-Archons did not fear the Lord. They trusted the Gate to keep the cosmos in their sway. The Archons placed their fingers over it to hold it even tighter.

Despite the Gate, the Lord still holds power in the cosmos. In old Beshara He was regarded as a deity of law and contracts. He elected prophets, people who would bring the nations of the world back to Holiness. None of them overcame the Gate, but they all foreshadowed greater things to come.

File:Beatrice Addressing Dante (by William Blake).jpg
Beatrice Addressing Dante, William Blake, 1824

When she arrives in the First Holy, the Book of Hallaj, she speaks from the background, among the craftsman and fishermen and shepherds. She is already old because she has wandered long years in exile. Her ear is pieced. It is a reminder that she was once property of the great chieftain ‘He Who Kills with a Glance.’ Her eyes have been cut out, for she spoke up for the bastard child abandoned in the desert and the supplicant denied justice in the court of Hujuz.

She calls herself Rashida. We know she is our Prophetess. She is one of the pale people of Beshara. The Lord came to her in the heart of the desert. All her wandering had led to Him, barely to the foot of His throne. He struck no covenant with her. He reminded her of Him. He gave her a phrase: ‘the Way.’

Her voice is always the same, no matter which scribe records her. She holds the Way in her mouth like a banner. She speaks with passion for the Lord and the Way, which is His gift to all the world. Her lips form graceful sentences in the old Besharan language, interlaced with the rough syllables of the tongue of the Bauda people. She denounces the world as it is, ruled by the tyrant pawns, the servants of the Traitor-Archons. 

The Way is the Lord’s plan for the creation. The Way is the formula that leads us through the Gate. The Way returns us to goodness, then to Holiness, then to Fullness with the Lord. Without it, no virtue and no truth can last on earth or beyond it. Some believe that Rashida opened the Gate herself once she ascended mount Arsir and left the world, ensuring that we could follow her. Others believe that she just slipped through the keyhole. You see, the Gate might only open from the other side and when it does only those who know the Way will be let through. 

The Way is a relationship. The creation is truly one with the Lord and it all must be accorded the respect He commands. 

The Way is a belief. It is the conviction that the self and the world can be redeemed through their own will and action. 

The Way is a practice. To stray from Holiness is our natural condition, but ritual keeps the Way in the foreground of our life and Fullness as our goal. 

The Way is all encompassing. It begins with a woman, it embraces the world. It begins with a word and a full sentence rises from it. It begins with one order of creation, the people of earth, and will move to bring the entire cosmos back to Fullness with the Lord. There is no person, no thing, no place, no time to which it is not relevant. 

The Way is a challenge. It demands our attention; it demands we bend our lives around it. It will be the measure of your deeds, your thoughts, and the deepest feelings of your heart. Your family, your community, your city, and your entire society will be held to account by its standard.

Though our responsibility to the Way and to each other weighs heavy on us, we can be assured that as long the as the cosmos retains its essential Holiness the Way will retain its infinite efficacy. But much remains unanswered. What exactly is expected of followers of the Way? What is forbidden? What will be redeemed and what will be destroyed? To whom do we pray - To the Lord? To the Prophetess? To the Way itself? When we fail in our pursuit of Holiness, where do we turn? What will a cosmos returned to Fullness look like? Is the Gate open?

Girl Reciting Qu'ran, Osman Hamdi Bey, 1880

We seek answers in the life of the Prophetess, as her voice comes down to us in the Five Holies. The books of Hallaj, Laila, Emrah, Idris, and the book of Attestations lay bare the deeds of the Prophetess and the knowledge of the Way which she imparted to her earliest assistants. We are reminded that Hallaj was once the Prophetess’ greatest opponent before his conversion. We are filled with hope. We read the tender words spoken between Rashida and Laila before they fled their enemies. We shed tears, knowing that the Way is not easy. Emrah recalls the judgments which the Prophetess gave at the city of Unah. This shows us that the Way sometimes requires as much pragmatism as conviction. Idris watches his Prophetess climb mount Arsir to leave this world behind. His grief, his awe becomes our own. We read the squabbles which occur amongst the assistants as the Prophetess shares her wisdom in the book of Attestations. We sigh, knowing that learning still escapes us.

Aged, pieced, blinded. Slave, serving girl, exile, teacher, judge, leader, Prophetess. 
Wandering, seeking, losing, finding.
Perspective, thought, belief, action. 
Self, community, society, cosmos. 
Pilgrims, commanders, merchants, mystics, princes, servents, farmers, nomads, governors, fishermen, basket weavers, artisans, scribes, builders, scholars, canal diggers, herders, parents.
All of these are joined in the pursuit of the Way. Like a canto being spoken or a tapestry woven, the Way continues on. Tomorrow may be a step toward Fullness or a stumble back to separation, but the Way will continue all the same. 

Our history stretches almost 800 years. Struggle has shaken and divided us. Compromises have been made. Power and the Way are so tangled as to be inseparable. But the spirit of our enterprise remains. The Way is strong, the Way is true, and we continue to rise to its challenge. 

St Francis with a Skull, Francisco de Zurbaran, 1630

I’ve touched on the religion of the Besharan empire before and made it a major mechanic in my last Meager Country campaign. However, I don’t think that last set of rules gives the right impression of the Besharan religion. All the sects seem like their own faiths with wildly different practices, rather than different expression of the same rich and varied religious tradition. I think my players had the same feelings. 

With this post, I wanted to take things from the top and give all the sects a more solid background to work off of. In future, I'll be add more posts detailing the sects and eventually circle back to writing more mechanics for playing priests and paladins and mystics of the Way. 

This post is dedicated to Rabe'eh of Basra