Friday, 14 April 2017

Points of Dark

The Dark Ages loom large in the historical imaginary of Western societies, bolstered also (I think) by the regular bouts of social collapse which seem to have happened with such regularity throughout European history (the Black Death, the religious wars, the Thirty Years War, etc., etc.).

I believe this is why the whole "Points of Light" idea is so compelling - it taps into a faint but deep-rooted collective vision of little beacons of civilization huddled behind walls while chaos and evil reign outside. That motif was first given the moniker "Points of Light" by the D&D 4th edition team, but it can be traced via Tolkien all the way back to Bede.

(This may also be the reason why cowboy films and sengoku era Japanese stories find such fertile ground.)

What is the opposite? Naturally, "Points of Dark". A civilized world where there are spots of evil and lawlessness existing here and there like a cancer, but a prevailing stable society overall. I'm no expert on this at all, but I have a broad sense that this may be more in keeping with a Chinese historical imaginary - a society kept broadly in harmony by law, Confucian principles of governance and a well-educated bureaucracy, though threatened perhaps by corruption or moral degeneracy. The Points of Dark setting is not one in which evil lies openly around every corner. It's one in which it has to be rooted out, or searched for, or revealed. Or, alternatively, one in which there are simply very deep, focused concentrations of disorder and malice dotted around the landscape - like, I dunno, entrances to the mythic underworld?

Adventurers in the "Points of Dark" setting would not, I think, be desperate vagabonds, cut-throats or madmen. They would be more likely to be something akin to knights errant, or, to use a different and more interesting analogy, adventuring civil servants - officials of the bureaucracy sent to investigate, diminish, subdue or co-opt the black places on the map, wielding their wax-sealed papers and regulation staves. Their aims would be less "bring back treasure for XP"; more "report back to the local court judge/imperial representative; bring back treasure for tax purposes if possible". Their activities would be just as risky and just as interesting, but their status would be official. Not so much murderhobos as murdercrats. 

33 comments:

  1. You could look at Empire campaigns in Warhammer Fantasy as Points of Dark style campaigns. But I'm pretty sure "desperate vagabonds, cut-throats or madmen" describes most WHFRP parties... Even in a Points of Dark style game, the Light doesn't have to shine too brightly. I would argue that it's more interesting if it doesn't.

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    1. Warhammer is a points of light game, without those points of light. Instead it has points of even darker.

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    2. Yeah, I agree with Zzarchov. I don't really think the Empire fits the bill for being a generally harmonious place.

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  2. That's kind of the premise of the Dark Heresy RPGs of the Warhammer 40k line, as well - the PCs are an Inquisitor's henchmen, charged with sussing out and defeating the many evils that lurk in society. It's hopeless though, so I don't really know if that's "points of dark" or just "edgy emo scifi."

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    1. Could be, but I think the default setting of Warhammer 40k is so grimdark that it's hard to see it as being anything other than just points of even-grimmer-and-darker-grimdark.

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  3. Johnstone Metzger's OSR game, The Nightmares Underneath, is set in the Kingdom of Dreams after Law has achieved lasting, stable victory over the worshippers of the old gods and various other agents of Chaos. Nightmare Incursions (i.e. dungeons) worm their way up from the underworld in the remote wilderness or hidden away in urban labyrinths. Definitely worth checking out.

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    1. Somebody else on G+ suggested that. Sounds really interesting.

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    2. It's awesome. And there's a free PDF (everything but the art) if you want to sample first.

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    1. No - I am talking about a setting in which everybody knows about the points of dark just as in a points of light setting everybody knows the world around them is dark.

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  5. Thought-provoking as ever. I think your characterisation of Chinese perceptions is accurate. One thing that often strikes me about the Chinese view of history is the concept of *yeshi* - "wild history". That is, most history is *official* history, and the non-official stuff is the exception. That's very different from the Western set-up, where most history is written by churchmen, who tend to be critical of temporal power (Gildas, for example, but countless others too) and answer to a higher authority than the king/emperor. There was no higher authority in China - and most history was written by court officials. That, I reckon, works well with your "points of dark" approach: those adventuring civil servants might even be official cartographers, chroniclers and historians.

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    1. I quite like the idea of civil servants as being like surveyors just trying to figure out what's in the realm. In a fantasy setting that could be really fun.

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  6. I want to be a murdercrat now.

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  7. I love the *murdercrat* conception.

    Seems like a lot of superhero games could be cast as a points of dark settings.

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  8. I love the *murdercrat* formulation.

    Seems like a lot of superhero games could be cast as a points of dark settings.

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    1. Yes, that's true. I guess Metropolis is kind of a points of dark setting.

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  9. murdercrats! HOLY MOLEY THAT'S GREAT!

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  10. I ran a convention game like that. Each player was from a different department of the government and had a separate goal to achieve besides the group mission. They had to keep their secondary mission secret from each other. It worked out well.

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  11. I think a campaign set in the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth would fit this idea, especially the whole corruption aspect.

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  12. I've been thinking about running some sort of "Late Old West" game set in the Pacific Northwest in 1880s/90s when it was still far enough from the East that was effectively a "Point of Dark" inside the largely civilized and modern US.

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    1. Blue Rose is actually sort of along the lines I am talking about I suppose, but I just don't like the particular execution of it.

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  14. If you conceptualise darkness as chaos rather than evil, and light as law & order,
    The points of dark concept could be pockets of resistance (or difference) within an overbearing tyranical Order. The points of dark could be underground cults (such as early christanity within Roman empire) of old or new gods, (magic) researchers, cultural or philosphical groups or organisations of support with beliefs or activities antithetical to the greater order. These may not necessarily good or evil or seeking overthrow, but are sought out by the greater order for removal or absorption. The moral ambiguity of all this is potentially delicious. The greater order can be both good and tyranical at the same time. Noone expects the Paladins of the Spannish Inquisition.
    K

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  15. Interesting you should mention China... it's got too much geography and history to make one single generalization, of course, but as I understand it the Wuxia milieu is more similar to the "points of light" image - except that it's social rather than spatial.

    In Wuxia stories there are technically governments and police forces, but they're corrupt or impotent or distant or foreign occupiers or a combination of the above. The roads are beset by brigands, but even in the city you're not safe because that's where school rivalries and selfish/arrogant/cruel kung fu masters operate. Safety comes from the protective social umbrella of a master or lineage, from bonds of friendship and obligation and honor.

    If somebody invents an RPG system with mechanics oriented toward exciting one-on-one or small-group dueling and social interactions, then a Wuxia-flavored world would fit it perfectly, in my opinion, in the same way that dungeon crawling fits well with a mechanical system based on resource management and planning, as D&D was.

    PS. I too enjoyed the term "murdercrats." Cute.

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  16. Murderator may be better than mudercrat. Not entirely sure but leaning towards ator over crat.

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  17. The issue, of course, with this scenario (as has been written before, this is not my idea) is that it's low on agency.

    Being this kind of enforcer tends toward a much more reactive role. You are given a task, execute it, and wait for the next task. Or if you're self-directed, you still are more reliant on the GM to cue your actions. You can hardly ignore the portal of evil that appeared outside town because you feel like taking a ship somewhere today, or something.

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    1. That's true. There is still a way to make sure the PCs retain some agency, though - you just have the PCs being given very broad commands ("Sort out the problems in that village"; "Make sure corruption in town Y is rooted out"), etc.

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  18. For some strange reason, and seriously I blame my wife for this, I'm finding it difficult to get out of my head the anime "Story of Saiunkoku." It's not a perfect fit, but the concept of "adventuring civil servant" really is part of it and the entire thing is about a young woman entering civil service and going about the task of setting to order the parts of the government that are out of order and chaotic. With a few tweaks, corrupt government officials can become government officials co-opted by demonic chaos, etc.

    Hmmm, a method of D&D I'd not really considered.

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    1. I had not considered that either, but I quite like it. Bureaucratic intrigue may not be a great fit for D&D though?

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    2. The kebiishi and their provincial samurai allies in the late Heian era of Japan are also a perfect fit for a murdercrat campaign. So perfect, in fact, that I've written a whole damn RPG about it--release date TBA--although I don't use the term "murdercrat"...but I may have to change that... ;)

      Some quick details on the kebiishi and associated groups: http://bit.ly/2okfeRz

      There was a Japanese TV movie called Onmyoji that came out about 15 years ago which is set during this period, and that is roughly about what Mr. Hamlet up there is outlining: warrior-bureaucrats teaming up with a wizard to root out demon-possessed civil servants. Good stuff.

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    3. Nice! Make sure people know about it on G+. Sounds great, and earlier Japanese history needs more exploration in RPGs.

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