Wednesday 30 August 2023

Scenes from The Great North

Tom Kilian has sent me some more works-in-progress for art for The Great North (formerly The Meeting of the Waters). As a reminder, this is my follow-up to Yoon-Suin, in which I give the same 'setting construction toolbox' treatment to a pseudo-Northumberland; the text has long been complete and Tom has been beavering away at producing the illustrations. 

Some choice pictures, with text from the book itself:

Barghest - 'A malevolent and vindictive shapeshifter sighted in its animal form at night or at times of grief, but otherwise walking the earth in disguise as a solitary man or woman...' 

Followers of the Old Ways - 'A religious group whose members are still engaged in Emperor worship or even pursuit of the gods who used to walk these lands in the ancient past. Often such people are merely in love with secrecy and the excitement of strange ritual, but there are those with sincere belief that the Emperor will someday return, or that they can revive old spirits who are not gone, but sleeping...'

Grindylow - 'The lank-haired, long-armed pool-dweller who delights in drowning. She waits for passers-by who she can grab and pull beneath the surface of her dark waters, and spends the rest of her time plotting to expand her power and influence...'

Heron man - 'Long limbed, lurching walkers, with the feathered heads and beaks and sharp yellow eyes of the heron, and the gracile limbs of the man. Like the birds which are their namesakes they are patient and quiet; they prefer to wait for the chance to kill, and their eyes are as adept at spotting a chink in a man’s armour as they are seizing on the silvery flicker of a fish darting in the shadows of a pool....'

Hobgoblin - 'Foul mannish things who live to playfully ape some aspect or other of the life of mankind, poorly understood and perceived through a lens of pure malevolence...'

Knucker - 'A slithering, serpentine water dragon, enslaver of the weak-willed, coiling its mighty length in the murky depths of a lake or river....' 

Lamprey man - 'Slimy, sinuous swimmers, made of soft cartilage which renders them pliable, loose, bendy. They emerge from their watery homes to roam on land in search of prey who they can drag back to feed their young, creeping close to the ground before suddenly rearing up to walk bipedal on uncertain but unfailing legs. Their mouths are jawless, sucking, rasping, hungry - filled with circular rows of teeth for slicing through flesh....'

Nature spirit - 'The land itself is capable of feeling: of mourning, of yearning, of hating, of loving, of hoping. Anyone who has walked in a forest in spring as green life appears to instantiate itself from the very air around it, stood on a hilltop as the winds of autumn blow in wild, or strolled along a desolate and mournful beach in winter, will be unable to dispute this. Usually, these feelings are expressed only in the minds and hearts of those who are present to observe them. Sometimes, however, the land makes its emotions tangible in much more direct form, creating a spirit of great power to walk the earth and give voice to what made it....'

Ogres - 'The man-eating sons of Orcus, the Punisher of Lies, who have been in these lands since they came from abroad as mercenaries in the Emperor’s pay long ago. His rule bound them, but in his absence they have reverted to their old faith. Their deity demands of them that they kill and devour all oath-breakers, and since that word can describe all human life, any man, woman or child may be made their victim....'

Lares - 'Patron demigods were brought to the Great North in their thousands by the Emperor’s servants during his reign, each being given purview over a tiny sliver of public or private life - a road, a house, a family, a field, even a single room. Many have faded into nothingness now that their cults have disappeared and the places which they inhabited have fallen into ruin. But there are those which remain, often in the most unlikely places: a forgotten cellar on an urban street; a small shrine hidden in a  barn; a toppled statue in a copse of oak in a hidden fold of land; a narrow lane running from nowhere in particular to nowhere special. Some are sorrowful, some are imbued with rage, while others have long gone mad; a few, though, retain the devotion to protective care which they were originally given, and exercise it still...'

Monday 21 August 2023

Whither the Fantasy Gamebook?

Is there a place for Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf style gamebooks outside of the realm of mere nostalgia?

I ask because a recent podcast interview with Ian Livingstone put me in mind of that curious period in history, circa 1983-1993, in which such books were at the height of their popularity. I was at the perfect age (being born in 1981) to enjoy them at their zenith. So it is impossible for me to objectively assess their quality as games or reading experiences; to page through one is simply to be overcome with wistful memories of youth - trekking to the local library every Saturday morning, saving up pocket money to spend at WH Smith, swapping snow witches and lizard kings for appointments with fear and houses of hell at school lunchbreak, jumpers for goalposts - and immediately abandon critical discernment as I slide into a blissful, hazy, memory-swamp wherein I am blinded by rose-tinted mist. 

Put more succinctly: would people still read and play gamebooks with a straight face? Is there a market for gamebooks for grown-ups?

One interesting practical application of the gamebook is what you might call the ground-up explication of a game world or setting. Both the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan and Lone Wolf's setting of Magnamund were notable for, over the course of many iterations, gradually building up a picture of an entire fantasy landscape. Titan did not exist before The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, Creature of Havoc and so on created it; the exercise of mapping the world almost literally took place through the writing of the books themselves. This gives the setting a freshness and immediacy which is only accentuated by the second-person format of the narrative: these are not dry gazetteers that simply lay out the characteristics of a fantasy world, but settings which are almost experienced first-hand through the eyes of the reader. 

There is in fact no imaginative experience that is quite like a gamebook, then, in that it provides a way to experience another reality that is not depicted by somebody else (as it would be in a video game), or described to the reader for them to encounter passively (as it would be in a novel) but in which the reader is invited to partake in the conceit that they are exploring it for themselves. This in itself is an idea which I think has permanence, and permanent value, if taken seriously and done well. Probably the Sorcery! books are the pinnacle of what has been achieved to this moment in their combination of art and text and in the way they so successfully communicate to the reader the sense that they are exploring a real region of a genuinely inhabited world. But I would like to see it bettered.

Thursday 17 August 2023

An Important Question about Warhammer and Stamps

It turns out that this year is the 40th anniversary of the creation of Warhammer, and to celebrate, the Royal Mail is, er, putting out a line of Warhammer stamps and various other Warhammer-related paraphernalia. 

Times have changed. When I was a lad carrying around Warhammer paraphernalia in public would have been like being caught with porn; in fact if anything it would have been even more shameful, because at least possessing porn would have been indicative of the presence of vestigial red-blooded manliness. Being interested in Warhammer was indicative only of the willing (or resigned) embracing of pariah status - the act of a person who had abandoned all hope of ever having a girlfriend.

But this, as I have written about before, gave the game (and others like it) a subversive, counter-cultural edge. An interest in nerdish pursuits at that time was even in its own way somewhat punkish: a stiff middle finger in the face of mainstream pressures to wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, participate in the right pastimes. I don't want to suggest that this was in any way conscious. But Warhammer players had a rebellious, ornery quality. They saw the aesthetic with which they were expected by their peers to conform, and eschewed it. This made them despicable, and it took a certain amount of gumption and disagreeableness to accept being seen that way.

(I think class dynamics have a lot to do with this. For people towards the bottom end of the social scale, let's call them the working poor, conformity matters a great deal - it is how you get on in life, and is often the difference between making it and falling through society's cracks. People from my background generally took very seriously the quality of being like everybody else, and vigorously policed those who bucked that trend.)

Fast forward 40 years and things are better, but also worse. On the one hand, it's great that people are now generally much less judgmental about what hobbies other people have - as is evidenced by these Royal Mail stamps. The idea that there would one day be Warhammer stamps that you could actually send on envelopes would to my 13 year old self have been utterly preposterous. Yet there they are.

At the same time, however, I can't help but feel that this is partly the result of mainstream culture itself becoming more 'geekified', mostly as a result of market forces. The Warhammer nerds of my youth have all now grown up, have decent jobs for the most part, and therefore have decent disposable incomes - and there is thus now a big market to cater to their nerdish interests. As a result, because these people represent a fairly significant chunk of the mainstream, those nerdish interests have themselves become incorporated into the mainstream too. And this blandifies them. The gnarliness of old Warhammer books, with their awkward, gangly John Blanche illos and their dense two-columned text, has been replaced by a unified and banal vibe - everything looks as though an AI did it, competently but boringly. It's all terribly MOR. And the sense that one once had of partaking in an activity that was vaguely illicit is long gone. There is nothing subversive about it. It is firmly within the zeitgeist. 

This certainly has not harmed Games Workshop's share price:

But I do wonder if ubiquity is necessarily in its long-term interest. The love that the youthful nerds of the 1980s and 1990s had for Games Workshop games is undoubtedly what is powering the company's growth now, and that love did not arise from those games being mainstream - exactly the opposite. I wonder if today's adolescents are going to discover that love in the rather insipid notion of a game that inspires a line of celebratory Royal Mail stamps, and whether therefore in another 40 years' time there will remain a large body of adults to shell out the necessary cash to keep the operation going.

Monday 14 August 2023

The Dark Heart of Planescape

The Planescape campaign setting was described by its own creator Monte Cook as being self-consciously 'edgy', as a response to the vaguely grimdark turn taken in the world of RPGs in the mid-late 90s with the advent of the World of Darkness games (among others). Seen from the perspective of 2023 it looks very tame, but at the time it certainly struck me as being much more 'grown up' than what I was used to - although I was of course only a teenager at the time, and easily impressed by self-conscious 'edginess'.

The implications of the setting, though, were much more genuinely 'edgy' than I think Monte Cook or his co-designers were ever really consciously aware, and I have come to think of Planescape as perhaps the darkest fantasy setting of them all - pregnant with bleak import about the nature of reality and the lengths to which human beings will go in the name of constructed meaning.

Planescape, it will be recalled by those familiar with it, was based on the idea that all of existence is encompassed within a multiverse of many different planes. There was a jumble of concepts underlying this, but the one which was emphasised most strongly in the material was that these planes were related to one another by belief and alignment. Each of the outer planes was dominated by, and in a sense created by, a sliver of alignment ('Lawful neutral evil', 'Chaotic good neutral', etc.), which was where humans and demihumans of that alignment went when they died; where gods of that alignment lived, and so on. And changes in the alignment of the inhabitants of a place would actually cause its physical character to change, so that shifts between planes were possible: if enough people in one region of the Lawful Good plane became Lawful Neutral (or whatever), then the entire region would move from one plane to the other.

This was supposed to create the vague impression of conflict, evangelism, and philosophical debate continually unfolding across the planes, with each one constantly expanding or shrinking as the vagaries of prevailing belief changed from moment to moment, but as was (sadly) the case with everything in the Planescape line except the art and production values, the execution was a bit half-baked. The only time this idea was really treated with any seriousness or detail was in relation to the Blood War, wherein the Lawful Evil plane of Baator and the Chaotic Evil plane of the Abyss struggled for domination across the 'evil' lower planes. Otherwise the concept was just one in a long list of nice ideas which Planescape threw out there for individual DMs to puzzle through as they saw fit.

The political anthropology underpinning this concept was, however, fascinating if thought about in any depth. First, it is highly suggestive of the thought of the Nazi constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt, and the mostly French thinkers who drew inspiration from him and other Nazi thinkers in the middle-late part of the 20th century. To paint with a very broad brush, Schmitt understood human beings to be engaged in a life-and-death struggle over the most basic beliefs. In a pluralist, liberal democracy an attempt would be made to cover this struggle with fig leaves like general elections, freedom of expression and so on. But when the chips were down and an issue was at stake which spoke to a matter of intense conviction, those fig leaves would be blown aside as by a gale and fierce, winner-takes-all conflict would ensue. Politics was in the end, famously, a matter of friends against enemies - and what was 'political' was any issue (economic, legal, theological, artistic, etc.) which had come to be characterised by a friend/enemy distinction.

This has clear echoes in the work of thinkers such as Derrida, Baudrillard, and Fish, who eschewed foundational or rational explanations for political arrangements. For these thinkers - again, painting with a broad brush - it is not possible for human beings to get at the underlying objective reality through language, and since our thought derives from language, this is tantamount to saying that we cannot reach objective agreement through the application of reason. In other words, it will never be the case that we can reach any satisfactory political modus vivendi through the application of reason. Politics will ultimately to an extent always mean might making right: those who shout the loudest, and control the levers of power, get to make the political settlement, and that is that. Again, liberal democracy is a pipe dream: we have pluralism only insofar as there is not genuine disagreement. When there is genuine disagreement, a shouting match ensues, and to the victor in that shouting match go the spoils.

This sounds quite a bit like the metaphysics of Planescape. And it is what makes the setting so full of ominous portent. It is no accident that Carl Schmitt was a Nazi. The whole point of seeing the world in Schmittian terms is that all societies sit at the brink of tumbling into political violence and ultimately chaos. The violent potential implicit in the friend/enemy distinction can only be suppressed by a homegenizing, authoritarian state - but even such a state will have to rely to a certain extent upon violence so as to exclude the 'enemy' (and this violence may itself tip over into literal genocide). The idea that appeal to 'reason' will stave off this unpalatable conclusion is for the birds; there is no objective reason, or at least no form of reason that can access what is objectively true or real. 

Planescape's planes, then, if we take the premises of the setting as givens, would themselves be strongly characterised by brutally authoritarian efforts to manage friends and enemies and to exclude the latter; and they would also be the scene of continual life-or-death struggle over the substance of reality: the very moment the inhabitants of the Neutral Good plane feel themselves to be threatened by the shifting of perspectives and beliefs among some sector of the population, would be the very moment that forcible eviction would at the very least be on the table - ideological purity would literally be necessary for survival. And at the same time, genocidal war - the expunging of people holding belief X so that the people holding belief Y can metaphysically annex their land would be a fact of life wherever one plane abutted the other. In notionally 'good' planes genocide might take on the character of crusading war or mass conversion - that is perhaps something to discuss in the comments - but across the piece the implications are nighmarish. This is not so much an 'edgy' setting as one steeped in horror - something much more genuinely within James Raggi's 'fantasy fucking Vietnam' ballpark than Monte Cook's. 

Friday 11 August 2023

Still Satanic After All These Posts

Like a 1950s coal miner in a County Durham pit village, I return once more to the tap: yes, I am writing once again about AI art. (See posts here, hereherehere and here.)

This time, the trigger is a comment left on one of these posts, which raises important implicit questions that I think need rendering explicit and answering (if I was a posh French post-structuralist I might at this juncture invoke the magic word 'problematise'). I hope the person who left the comment doesn't take this personally; differences of opinion are what make the world go round. Anyway, here it is in its entirety:

I think there is an overlooked point with a lot of AI art that is much the same as when people get outraged about piracy: it's not a lost sale if the person wasn't going to buy it anyway, and equally it is not a lost commission if the person wasn't going to commission art for the project anyway. But it does mean that person has a thing they otherwise would not have had. Someone using AI art to make a whole bunch of character portraits for their home RPG is inarguably better off with AI art than if they are doing without.  

This obviously overlooks plenty of other moral complications, but democratization of information and art and other things is usually a good thing. Usually.

This is an instructive comment because it rests on a number of assumptions which people who are in favour of AI art, or see nothing wrong with it, tend to make. The first of these is that it is 'victimless' in the sense that it is not literally taking the bread off the table of any starving artists - all it is doing is giving people who would not normally be in a position to buy original illustrations the opportunity to make 'their own'. The second of these is that art is basically akin to a consumption good - the more that one possesses, or is able to have at one's finger tips, the better. The third is that AI art represents 'democratisation' in the sense that it makes art more accessible. And the fourth assumption - let's call it the meta-assumption - is that AI art can be described as 'art' in the first place.

The first assumption is easily 'problematised': a strict utilitarian might agree that since no identifiable individual is per se harmed by an algorithm spitting out pictures of Optimus Prime in a Starfleet uniform or Yoda replacing George Costanza in scenes from Seinfeld or whatever - no artist's work is being replaced! nobody is losing money! - then there is nothing wrong with it. But (even if we grant the premise, which I don't -  individual artists will surely at the margins lose out on commissions, and in vast quantities) strict utilitarians are always, rightly, derided for failing to see the bigger picture. Even if it is true that the proliferation of AI art does not hurt any one person in particular in pecuniary terms, it is still perfectly possible for it to cause something which we love and cherish to be denuded of value and distinctiveness and for our lives to be diminished as a consequence. A good analogy here is music: we now have more access to more music than ever before, at the click of a mouse button, but I think it is genuinely an open question as to whether we collectively enjoy music more in 2023 than we did in 1993. I used to own vastly less music than I can now listen to through Spotify, but I can't honestly say that I listen to it with anything like as much enthusiasm as I once did - and that's not a factor merely of age, but of the fact that there is now so much of the stuff available and of the fact that it is so very accessible. I can barely listen to a track from start to finish without my attention wavering to whatever is coming up next on the playlist, let alone become lost for weeks inside an entire album, listening to it over and over again, as I would have twenty years ago. Without going too far off on this tangent, I think the point is made: we can all recognise that a phenomenon can be 'victimless' while still making our experience of the world worse.

The argument against the second assumption follows from the first. Our commenter makes the (to my eye, highly tendentious) claim that 'Someone using AI art to make a whole bunch of character portraits for their home RPG is inarguably better off with AI art than if they are doing without [emphasis added].' Well, 'inarguable' is a strong word; I think it is really very arguable indeed. Is someone 'better off' if they have more of a good per se? It depends what 'better off' means and what the good is. This person using AI art to make a bunch of character portraits may be better off in the sense of having physically more art, but is she better off than a person who worked hard at learning how to draw so that she could produce her own character portraits, or a person who asked his son's friend, a talented amateur artist, to do some pictures and thereby encouraged the kid to take his work more seriously? Or is she even better off than somebody who is forced to rely entirely on his or her imagination? These, too, are open questions. The argument that more is intrinsically better needs more justification than simply saying it is inarguable. (And this takes us back, of course, to the music analogy made above.)

The third assumption, meanwhile, relies on another problematisable assertion, which is that the widespread availability of AI programs which can create plausible visual images to order for trivial cost makes art more accessible and hence will 'democratise' it. Now, nobody could of course dispute that the phenomenon of AI art will allow people to make almost infinitely more pictures than ever before, and of infinitely more variety. But this raises the important question of what accessibility and democratisation actually mean. Is outsourcing creative work to an algorithm aptly described as 'democratisation'? It doesn't feel that way to me. If anything it feels rather like the opposite of democratisation. Democratisation of art conjures in my mind increasing opportunities for people to create their own artwork and to receive an education in the history, philosophy and techniques of art, but if the use of AI to make pictures can be described as anything, it is surely not any of those things. Quantity has a quality all of its own, as the saying goes, but is having the ability to command a robot servitor to make billions of pictures per second really going to give anybody who did not already have the means available the opportunity either to get good at making art themselves, or to learn anything about the history of art and what that entail? 

Hovering over all of this, of course, is what I earlier called the 'meta-assumption' - which is that AI art is in fact 'art' in the first place. Is it? Or ought 'art' to mean something that is created by human hand? And is pastiche, which is essentially how AI operates - through magpie-like assemblage of prior images which are then glommed together to make things that are 'new' - to be understood as 'art'? Reasonable people will differ in their responses to these questions, and I am not about to launch into a full-scale discussion of the meaning of art here, but the point is sufficiently made: to call the phenomenon of AI art 'art' itself begs the question, and forecloses sceptical inquiry. If the assertion is accepted, a whole load of assumptions follow, and if it is denied, an entirely different lot of assumptions is made. 

More broadly, it increasingly seems to me that what is at stake here is much more fundamental than the issue of what happens to actual human illustrators and whether they will lose careers and livelihoods. Questions such as the meaning of art, the relationship between art and artist,  the distinctiveness and importance of humanity, the nature of man as distinct from machine, the artist's moral right over his own work and so on are now all, clearly, up for grabs - and reveal themselves to be genuinely divisive matters. Put bluntly, whatever one thinks are the answers to these kinds of questions, one's views seem to derive from coherent ideological frameworks that do not significantly overlap. This does not bode well for future cooperation - and suggests further fragmentation of the hobby as those for and against AI art go their separate ways. 

Tuesday 8 August 2023

On the Characteristics of Demihuman Empires

The other day, I made the case that a philosophy of empire would suggest that, since such a polity lacks an a priori geographical or ethnic character, its nature tends to be Historical with a capital 'H' - it imagines itself as the manifestation or driving force behind an arc of progress towards some idealised future state. I then suggested some examples from the real world to illustrate this.

But then somebody popped up in the comments to ask the interesting question: what about demihuman (or, for that matter, non-human) empires? What ideas and concepts would direct them and give their activities meaning across time?

Dwarf empires, for instance, might understand History as pointing towards an equilibrium in which all resources are deployed maximally efficiently (Pareto optimality all the time, everywhere), with the Empire conceived as the means by which this is achieved - through, of course, conquest and domination and then the minute micromanagement of its domain. Or they may imagine a kind of perfect interoperability between the living and the constructed, so as to eliminate friction and vastly expand productivity and power, with the Empire imagined as a mighty laboratory within which this interoperability can be realised (fuelled, perhaps, by a constant flow of slaves to power the experiments). Or they may simply imagine themselves to be engaged in the construction of a perfect artificial world for themselves to inhabit, or the pursuit of the perfection of a particular craft, such as architecture, masonry, glazing, pottery, etc., with endless resource acquisition the inevitable result. 

Elf empires, on the other hand, might understand History as bending towards ever more perfect knowledge: their expansion is driven by the need to encompass more and more of the world (its physical qualities, the experiences of its inhabitants, its emotions, its ideas) within their framework of understanding. Or they might imagine History as the perfection of a particular art form or even the perfection of a particular emotional state or states; the Empire expands on the basis that more and more of the world must be wrung out in order to reveal yet more experiences, more ideas, more innovations. Then again, elves are very long-lived, if not immortal; more risk-averse than any other people (because they have so much more to lose), their empires are empires of safety, imbued with visions of utopia in which no harm is permitted ever to befall anybody, based on total regulation and control or total perfection of individual conduct.

Orc empires, dragon empires, kobold empires - we can all imagine the kinds of ideas that would drive them. The 'universal and homogenous' orc, with all the peoples of the world united in the chaos of 'might makes right'. The massing together in one place of all of the wealth and wisdom in the globe. The cur paradise, in which the weak and subservient rule the mighty. I could go on; is the most interesting question of all what a halfling empire would conceive as its telos? This would I think be the anti-empire, the empire of no empires, the empire of paradox, spreading its decentralisation and hairfoot-anarchism across regions, continents, the world...

This, though, leads us to Horkheimer's gap between the existent and the conceptual: how an empire manifests itself in reality may in fact undermine and contradict the very vision that it purports to realise. Hence the dwarves, in pursuit of the maximilisation of productivity or some perfectly crafted artifice, take a wrong turn and end up depleting their resources or rendering their realm a desert - like Easter Islanders, pauperising themselves through quixotic pursuit of some utopian dream. The elves, in pursuing knowledge, end up narrowly focusing on particular ways of knowing (for instance, statistical or symbolic), and as a consequence find their decision-making afflicted by a lack of awareness of the whole. Or, in pursuit of safety, the elf empire ends up breeding in its populace weakness and lack of responsibility, perversely making them less capable of long-term survival. Empires aim to achieve some end state, in other words, but may pursue this in such a way that they are driven in the opposite direction.

All that remains to be offered is the critique of the halfling anti-empire, precisely on these grounds. In pustulating itself as an anti-empire, the halfling empire would thereby be totally ill-equipped to resist expansion from genuinely more powerful neighbours, with the result that the anti-empire would quickly become subservient or even conglomerated into bigger polities - becoming annexed into empires precisely because it eschews the means by which its independence can be secured. The anti-empire, in other words, would pretty quickly end up being forced to be the anti-anti-empire, with its very telos being not only undermined but transformed into its opposite. 

Thursday 3 August 2023

Single Class Paladin Campaign Book - First Glimpse

I have decided to write a book on running a single-class paladin campaign for OSR type games. Here is the introduction and opening section. 


The ‘old school’ playstyle imagines its protagonists as rogues: adventurers, tomb robbers, dungeoneers, vagabonds, vagrants, thieves. They gain power, fame and glory through the ill-gotten wealth they accrue. And they think it entirely appropriate to deploy murderous violence in pursuit of their ambitions. We are all familiar with their ilk; and, by and large, we love them.

This book, however, provides a means by which ‘old school’ gaming can be reconfigured, with the protagonists imagined not as rogues, but as the reverse: paladins, defined as those for whom their honour is more important than their lives. Whether or not they gain power, fame and glory is immaterial to them; whether they accrue wealth is a matter beneath contempt. What matters to them is virtue: pursuing truthfulness, justice, protection of the weak. And in that pursuit they ask not the number or size of their enemies, the distance they must travel, or the hardships they must endure. They ask only what is right.

This book provides you with the basic building blocks for running such a reconfigured ‘old school’ campaign – with rules for creating paladin PCs and running single-class paladin campaigns, tools for creating settings and sandboxes, and lists of foes. It provides you with a complete overhaul of the basic conceptions of ‘old school’ play – but in a manner which will be instantly recognisable to those who prefer the methods of gaming associated with the ‘old school renaissance’.

Some Questions

What is a Paladin?

A paladin, as stated in the introduction to this volume, is one for whom his honour is more important than his life.

This definition is deliberately broad. A paladin is not necessarily (though he could be) the chivalric knight that will inevitably have appeared in the mind of the reader the instant this book’s title was read. Indeed, the concept of a dedicated warrior who prizes virtue is both of ancient heritage and diverse lineage. It encompasses, of course, the wandering knight-errant, but also the Japanese samurai, the Homeric Greek hero, the laconic Spartiate, the gallant Sipahi, the proud hidalgo, the Roman eques, the Bedouin warrior, the Youxia folk-hero, and much more besides; such figures are indeed probably universal across societies of a particular type and level of development. What unites these disparate figures is not language or culture or background, but adherence to a particular set of values.


What are these values?

First, dedication to honour is distinct from dedication to glory. Glory means winning renown through great deeds. A paladin will sometimes perform great deeds, or at least attempt to do so, and may indeed win fame and status for doing so. But this is not his main aim. His goal is to live honourably: to know, and be known for, abiding by a moral code irrespective of the personal risk it entails.

Second, dedication to honour means behaving honourably: treating others fairly, justly, compassionately. It does not mean treating them as equals, and nor does it mean treating them well; what isa  fair or just way to treat a defenceless old beggar woman who has stolen a loaf of bread is different to what is a fair or just way to treat to a hardened outlaw who has kidnapped a child. What behaving honourably means, simply, is behaving towards others – once again – in accordance with a moral code.

And third, dedication to honour requires honesty in all things. This goes beyond ‘mere’ truthfulness, though truthfulness is an important facet of honesty. Honesty also means trustworthiness; it means integrity; it means loyalty; and it means sincerity. It means acting in good faith as an end in itself, even when there is no likelihood that one will be treated in good faith in return. It means staying true to one’s word, in all things and at all times. It means approaching the world with frankness.

A paladin’s outward appearance, the place from which he comes, the language which he speaks, what he chooses to call himself, and so on, may affect the nature of the external moral standards to which he attempts to abide. But the core values listed above are characteristics that paladins share in all societies, cultures and backgrounds where they are found.  

The remaining question to ask is, what does a paladin do?

There are two answers to this question, and they are at odds with one another.

The first is that a paladin does good in the world. He is physically and spiritually strong, and there are many who are weak and in need of protection. He therefore dedicates his strength to those who are weaker, so that they may live in a place of greater safety than it would otherwise be. He is their shield and sword.

The second, however, is that a paladin usually serves. One usually derives one’s status as a paladin from becoming enmeshed in a web of loyalty to higher temporal authorities – whether a king, lord, military order, religious institution, or the like. Yet it is the way of the world that men of honour rarely occupy positions of high office, and such positions are intrinsically corrupting of those who hold them. Since this is so, and since a paladin must abide by his oaths of fealty in all things, he might find himself required to carry out tasks that are orthogonal – or even opposed – to his conception of the good. Every paladin must therefore wrestle with the need to loyally and faithfully serve those to whom one he fealty while also staying true to the other strictures of his moral code. In a world filled with deceit and danger this is rarely if ever straightforward.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

On Postcolonial Scholars in the Peanut Gallery and Realistic Empire Building

Google alerts are an interesting thing. You get to read all kinds of things being written about you on the internet, and are never sure whether the authors are passively-aggressively intending you to find out or not.

And so it was this weekend, when somebody wrote a blog post decrying Yoon-Suin for *checks notes* being 'problematic and annoying' while also 'bland' and 'unimaginative'. This appears to stem from (as you may have guessed) something something postcolonial something something orientalist something something cultural appropriation something something. Apparently, I should be 'less defensive' and more 'inviting of discussion', which I think means that I ought to pay more attention to the views of dilettantes sorry, 'postcolonial scholars' on the internet.

This last point is where the mask slips, of course: what these people (I've encountered a number of them down the years) typically really want is to arrogate for themselves the freestanding and perpetual authority to declare what other people should or should not like, and to set themselves up in a position (preferably a nice university-level, highly paid sinecure, but failing that, a blog) from which to hand down their wisdom to the hoi polloi. You can easily tell this is the case, because 'postcolonial scholars' of this ilk never want to do the intellectual heavy lifting to reason through a coherent theory of what is, or is not, appropriate when it comes to the subject of cultural appropriation. Instead, what they want to do is to issue wishywashy announcements on a case-by-case basis - this is good, but that is bad - and thus, in the manner of a third-rate medieval hedgewitch, maintain themselves in perpetuity as a kind of arbiter of morality for the peasantry. 

If only the rest of us would listen to them, which I strongly recommend you don't.

This is, however, a good opportunity to share some thoughts on Realistic Empire Building for Your D&D Setting, because empire is a concept about which everybody has a vague idea but which people rarely think about in any philosophical way.

An exception to this was Alexandre Kojeve, who reminds us that the fundamental quality of an empire is that it lacks a physical a priori in contradistinction to any other form of polity. A city-state is bounded by the city itself and its citizens; a nation state is bounded by geography and/or ethnicity; but an empire is unbounded - its a priori are conceptual. Ostensibly any location, and any ethnic group, and indeed any individual, can be made its subject; what matters to an empire (to paraphrase) is that it is imbued with an Idea. This could be religious (see: the Umayyads or the Russian Tsars); it could be political (see: Napoleon or Athens); it could be economic (see: Japan's 'co-prosperity sphere'); it could be racial (see: Nazi Germany); it is very often a mixture of some or all of these imperatives (see: Rome, France, Portugal). The point is that an empire is generally a manifestation of a philosophical concept of History in which there is an arc bending towards a final end. Kojeve directs our attention to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who imagined an empire uniting all of the peoples under his rule in common worship of the sun-god Aten, but that basic pattern also informed the 'civilising mission' of the European empires and, in a sense, the conquest of the American West.  This is the path down which empire-building generally travels - it is not about conquest or plunder for its own sake, but the realisation of some overarching vision.

What this means is that empires are very often the product of discourses which themselves construct a vision of the empire itself as good and necessary and the subjects of empire as deficient and in need of its intervention. Hence, the Spanish Empire imagined itself to be doing God's work, rescuing the peoples of the New World from their pagan debauchery and cruelty, and the corollary of that was that it was also necessary to imagine those peoples as sunk in 'savagery' and barbarism. This is basically what Edward Said was hitting upon with his influential concept of orientalism: it is just a worked example of the wider phenomenon, wherein the British and French imagined themselves to be imposing civilisation, virtue and order onto the chaotic, irrational, lazy and over-emotional 'Near East'. Even the hideous Nazi empire can be understood in this way, as a vision wherein the supreme race cleansed Europe of the 'unclean' on behalf of its weaker cousins.

What Said also noticed was that it is often through art and literature that these discourses find expression. It is not reason that motivates human beings to leave their families; cross oceans; risk death from war, disease or famine, but emotion, and the language of emotion is the arts. This is why 'orientalism' was an artistic and literary genre, and it is also why Akhenaten spent so much of his wealth on the creation of bas-reliefs and statues depicting his subject peoples kneeling before Aten. It is also why, in The Bridge on the Drina, Andric focuses on the symbolism of architecture in the empire-building efforts of the Ottomans. Human beings do not understand the world through perceiving it directly, in other words; they understand it through metaphor, and through symbols. And power governs through this language.

What is the lesson here, though, for DMs who want to think a bit more deeply about the RPG settings they are creating? Clearly, it means that it is important to get away from the idea that empires are simply big versions of other types of polity that happen to spend their time expanding through force. There is more to it than that, and once one begins to think of empires as being based on conceptual rather than physical a priori, a very different vista opens up. What kind of ideas would animate an empire of orcs, an empire of elves, an empire of dwarves, an empire of dragons - or, for that matter, an empire of humans subjecting non-human peoples? What purposes would they imagine, and what destination would they consider the arc of History to be bending towards? Moreover, how would they give effect to all of this through their art, music, architecture and so on? Considering these questions leads to much richer depictions of fantasy worlds, and the people who inhabit them.