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Friday, December 25, 2009

Campaign Assumptions

Greetings!

What kind of "Campaign Assumptions" do you make? Certainly, the rulebooks make some very explicit "Campaign Assumptions". Sometimes, we don't always realize why these particular campaign assumptions exist, or how they developed to begin with. I have some thoughts on this topic, as it relates to history and the game campaign. I'm also interested in your own thoughts and analysis.

Campaign Assumptions

Well, I often think about campaign assumptions in a broad context. First, of course, there are considerations that may affect the whole campaign
world--anywhere, everywhere, at all times and places. Then, there are more local campaign assumptions--say, particular assumptions concerning a
whole region of several kingdoms, areas, or realms--down to merely a single, particular kingdom, area or realm. These considerations can provide a
richer palette from which to build and design a campaign.

I admit--I am a professionally trained historian, specialized in Ancient & Medieval History, with a sub-specialty in Asian History. What this means in a
practical sense concerning the game and designing campaigns, is that I am routinely plagued by my knowledge of the vast scope, accomplishments, and
capabilities of Ancient India, the Ancient Chinese Empire, the Ancient Phoenicians, Babylonians, and Egyptians--as well as the Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire in particular--but also the Ancient Celts, as well as the Byzantine Empire and the infamous Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan. That is
to say, all of these sources tend to inform me, and colour and influence my thoughts and thinking about concepts, capabilities, and potentials long before the typical "Middle Ages" environment that the basic rules put forth as a more or less baseline standard set of campaign assumptions.

Indeed--in light of the huge scale of accomplishments and achievements of the ancient peoples of antiquity--I often wondered in amazement at how
pathetically myopic, parochial and primitive most Europeans were during the Dark Ages and the subsequent Early, High and Late Middle Ages.
Generally speaking, most of Europe did not really reach the same levels or surpass the achievements of their own ancestors in knowledge, technology,
standards of living, and so on until well, the Renaissance in most areas--and not until the Age of Enlightenment for some. Thus, it can generally be seen
that it took from 500 AD-1500 AD--essentially the beginning of the Renaissance period--or 1700 AD--the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment for Europe to achieve or surpass their own ancestors from antiquity. That's generally a period of 1,000 to 1,200 years! Quite startling--and even wondrously disturbing when you think about it.

However, while I was astonished at the primitiveness, parochialism, and myopia of the various European peoples during the Dark Ages, and the subsequent Middle Ages--something as a tonic to the pervasive arrogance of "Modernity" that has since developed after the Age of Enlightenment, whereupon the people of antiquity were hence seen as increasingly dated, primitive, and superstitious by our own lofty state of benighted progress--being confronted with such knowledge merely awakened me to the sheer scale and brilliance of the peoples of Antiquity. It is in that awareness--and also some knowledge of specifics, sometimes even seemingly rather trivial details or minutia--that the accomplishments of the peoples of Antiquity really dawn on you.

As an aside--it's entirely fascinating to realize that in contrast to old paradigms where scholars, experts and related "Intellectuals" once held implacably to the notions that we, in the modern age are far more advanced and superior in every way to our ancestors of Antiquity, and that our ancient forefathers were hopelessly primitive and quaintly superstitious and ignorant--and that knowledge, progress, and technological skill and capabilities are successively progressive and advancing--that many of the arrogant assumptions made by us in the "Modern Age"--that is, generally, from the 19th centuries onward to the present day--are, and have been largely and laughably false, wrong, and sadly hollow, often too cloaked in our own smugness and condescending arrogance of the amazing achievements of our own age to fully realize.

Thankfully--I am happy to admit--that in the last 20 years or so, certainly academically speaking, but also through the growing popularity and availability of such programs as the History Channel, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel on cable television, as well as increased awareness and consumption of popular books and access of information on the Internet by the general public and academics alike--such arrogant attitudes are waning--and we can see sometimes rapidly, but also sometimes more gradually--that the general awareness and consciousness of the accomplishments of the people of Antiquity has grown immeasurably. In addition, we have increasingly gained a better and more nuanced perception of our own accomplishments in relation to Antiquity, as well as the ways and methods of accomplishing various things in the manner that they were--by way of methods, and to the questions of why, how, when, and where.

Of course, we have also realized that contrary to our own past beliefs and assumptions that such a thing or method was exclusively and singularly developed here in this one place and in order by this one people at a specific time--that there is the reality of such a dynamic as diffused knowledge, and simultaneous or independent development. For example--it used to be commonly accepted that the "Cradle of Civilization" was the Mesopotamian region, of the Sumerians and Babylonians. That particular orthodox belief has been generally disproved by the multitude of evidence, discovery, and analysis, that roughly at the same time period of 5000-2500 BC, there wasn't merely one "Cradle of Civilization" going on at the Tigris/Euphrates River with the Sumerians and Babylonians--but simultaneously, there were similar "Cradles of Civilization" developing in India, along the Ganges River, and in China, along the Yangtze River.

And, intriguingly, each of these "Cradles of Civilization" in their different locations and climates, separated by thousands of miles, inhospitable terrain, and no knowledge-exchange--each was developing much of the same ideas, concepts, skills and technology. They often faced the same problems--but due to various local control factors of climate and resources--often approached solving the problem by way of a different method, but which achieved the same practical result. It's amazing, and totally fascinating stuff!

Well, anyways, back to my main discussion. The ideas of population, resource management and distribution, technological development, and so
on--especially in an environment affected by magic--does not have to be bound by the constraints of the medieval standards often promoted explicitly in the rulebooks. Even without considering the effects of magic, people in such an environment are capable of achieving more--there are particular and
specific reasons why the medieval Europeans for example were dealing with exactly what they had accomplished--and often as not, why they didn't or
were unable to achieve something different from what they did.

In thinking about the campaign assumptions, it is generally helpful and even enjoyable to realize and be aware of precisely what those specific conditions that affected the Medieval Europeans were. In general, such particular conditions can be seen as the following;

The typical "Medieval European Milieu" results from the following conditions:

(1) A Glorious Unifying Empire: A vast, advanced and unified empire at one time ruled nearly everything, and that advanced empire's influence and knowledge was pervasive, even influencing peoples and realms not directly under its rule and control.

(2) Huge Barbarian Invasions: Huge invasions of vast hordes of comparatively primitive barbarians swept in, and over the course of several generations, essentially destroyed the entire foundations of government, society, agriculture, economy, knowledge and technology that the advanced empire had provided.

(3) A Single, Dominant Religion: Previous to the barbarian invasions, during and concurrently with them, as well as after the barbarian invasions, there is a singularly powerful, controlling and dominantly pervasive religion that proceeds to not only destroy all evidence, knowledge, and practices of the earlier, ruling empire--but also actively controls and discourages the rediscovery of such knowledge, and enforces sweeping restrictions and promotes attitudes hostile to exploring and developing new forms of knowledge, technology and practices.

These salient pre-existing conditions are key to understanding why Medieval Europe developed the way it did--and the following ongoing conditions
help to explain why Medieval Europe developed as slowly as it did, and why it did not recover the achievements of Antiquity sooner than it did;

(4) Deep Cultural and Ethnic Divisions: The various barbarian tribes that invaded and conquered the lands of the old glorious empire are from different cultures and ethnicities, are fiercely independent and competitive, and typically hostile with each other and involved with ongoing wars with each other. In addition, they are also divided by different languages.

(5) Periodic, Ongoing Barbarian Invasions: There exist frequent and ongoing barbarian invasions--supplemented by invasions of other foreign forces as well. In Medieval Europe's case, besides constant wars between themselves per se, there were new invasions from different Indo-European tribes from the East; there were of course the Viking invasions from the far north; there were invasions by the forces of Islam; and there were invasions by the Mongols.

(6) Dominant Institutionalized Religious Influence and Control: The Dominant Religion maintains active and institutionalized control; however, it now also enjoys the pervasive, cumulative effects of the previous centuries of its control and institutionalized indoctrination of the general population--it has in many ways set up preconditions shaping what people can even imagine, or imagine to think or believe; the very way they ask questions and look at all aspects of reality and knowledge.

(7) Dramatic Climate Changes: There exist significant and dramatic climate changes. In Medieval Europe's case, there were dramatic changes in
mini-"Ice Ages" as well as soil conditions, and seasonal weather patterns that affected the soil, acidity, temperature, and so on.

(8) Frequent and Severe Plagues and Epidemics: There are several devastating plagues over the generations that annihilate entire communities and massively depopulate whole regions. In Medieval Europe's case, the infamous "Black Death" that annihilated an estimated one third of the entire
population of Europe was merely one plague--the largest one to be sure, though evidence shows that there were numerous other lesser plagues that
while more locally-concentrated, were still significantly devastating.

Thus, as can be seen by my offered analysis, that unless a particular campaign fully embraces them, the DM should be aware that the campaign can easily accommodate a different set of campaign assumptions, if desired.

Ok. So, what do you all think? Thoughts? Analysis? Debates? Let's hear it my friends!

Semper Fidelis,

SHARK

4 comments:

  1. Sorry, no disagreement here. :)

    I think that when folks set out to 'do something different', substitution and re-location is often the first layer, where an artist's pallet of ethnicities and temporal cultures are blended together into different (albeit, often similar) physical settings (Angkor Wat on the Nile, for instance) to synthesis a 'new' people and culture.

    The next layer is often to then transpose belief-systems (Hopi sympathetic magic in the form of Maize Dolls, etc.) onto an otherwise very different culture (Imperial Rome), and then adding in yet a third distinct practise (enshrined ancestor worship), for the purpose of obscuring the source material as well as synthesising an 'entirely new' culture.
    --Sadly, that is often where the world-designer stops, thinking that the salad-bar approach is enough to create a sense of freshness, not going on to think of the implications of each iteration in the hybridisation process.

    Could wheat-dolls inhabited by the ancestors really be a strong enough psychological drive to urge our quasi-Etruscans into empire building? Could the dynamic struggle between Devas and Asuras as the river of life really lead to the same military victories of the various Nile dynasties? --Moreover, could they have endured the Semitic Hyksos/Hyskos shepherd-kings 'invasion' of Joseph and his vast family of the Patriarchs (yes, I know this itself is in dispute) with its anti-idol core belief system? Etcetera.

    The other extreme, however, is to create such fantabulous peoples, places, and practices that readers are never fully able to draw analogies or correspondences: floating lakes and seas set amid a rainbowed fundament peopled by seven-limbed, two-headed hermaphroditic gelatinous creatures living inside the abandoned chitin of ancient and powerfully-psionic insectoids. Huh-what?!

    It seems that in drawing upon history for specifics it intrinsically brings 'baggage' due to the circumstantial particulars from whence the peoples/places/practises arose, and that without careful analysis of how those factors interacted with other p/p/p's, the 'charm' of the source material is often lost in the translation/hybridisation.

    What is one to do, then?

    I don't claim to have the answers, but I can offer two: Broaden ones knowledge-base and thus increase one's pallet of colours, or create a more intentional parallel history --an 'alternate reality', as it were.

    Neat discussion.

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  2. Heya Timeshadows! Excellent commentary there! Indeed, as you mention:

    The next layer is often to then transpose belief-systems (Hopi sympathetic magic in the form of Maize Dolls, etc.) onto an otherwise very different culture (Imperial Rome), and then adding in yet a third distinct practise (enshrined ancestor worship), for the purpose of obscuring the source material as well as synthesising an 'entirely new' culture.
    --Sadly, that is often where the world-designer stops, thinking that the salad-bar approach is enough to create a sense of freshness, not going on to think of the implications of each iteration in the hybridisation process.

    I love this! Yes, merely tacking on various culture elements to dress up a fantasy culture can create some very bizarre and nonsensical cultures, if one has not carefully put some thought into the process from how and why the culture developed such a particular custom or practice to begin with.

    Naturally, I believe that working out these answers--in a path of discovery, so to speak--reveals much or at least can potentially do so--about the particular culture, and why it does what it does. This, of course, may have significant impact on many interactions the player characters have while living or traveling in such a realm. (Much fun can be had here with that, to be sure...so many misunderstandings can make a train-wreck of the player's plans...and can often turn such efforts into comedic and enjoyable *misadventures*)

    I should also add that quite apart from any particular interactions the players may have directly with the featured culture--I, as the DM, often am bothered by any particular inconsistency, or *unanswered* questions or processes as to *WHY*. I can start chewing on stuff like that when developing or introducing NPC's from the featured culture, and as I go, I'm like...hmmm...wait a minute..how do they do this? Why do they believe that? How did all that attitude and philosophy develop? I like to have a solid grounding on NPC's culture, background, and why they do what they do, or believe what they do. It also makes the portrayal of such characters more vivid, consistent, and intriguing.

    Then again, though, like you mention about creating cultures that are *too different*--you easily have concept and relation problems. The players can't identify with the featured culture or cultures..and yeah, lots of problems can develop from there. Hell, even the DM can begin to lose focus on all the weird details, and become lost in the process.

    I sometimes laugh that people talk about..*whining* or growling--about "more of the same old Tolkien, traditional fantasy, blah, blah, blah"--and they want something different--but the key is *how different*? The truth for the majority however...seems to be firmly in the "Tolkien/Traditional Medieval European Fantasy* and so on. Modules and game-worlds that bother to jump into distinctly different cultures/themes/quasi-historical eras--have not historically sold well, or developed a large, thriving fan-base.

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  3. (Continued)

    I sometimes laugh that people talk about..*whining* or growling--about "more of the same old Tolkien, traditional fantasy, blah, blah, blah"--and they want something different--but the key is *how different*? The truth for the majority however...seems to be firmly in the "Tolkien/Traditional Medieval European Fantasy* and so on. Modules and game-worlds that bother to jump into distinctly different cultures/themes/quasi-historical eras--have not historically sold well, or developed a large, thriving fan-base.

    Which reminds me...there have been a few, Jorune, Arduin, and Talislanta--that seem to have endured, or gradually developed a fan-base and resurgent interest--though few is the operative, unfortunately. I'm not familiar with Jorune, passingly familiar with Arduin, and I have most of the stuff done for Talislanta. Speaking of Talislanta, it did everything weird and crazy and non-traditional. Hell, they even advertised way back when..."Talislanta...NO ELVES..."; LOL. Great stuff, by the way.

    I suppose it's only natural that a minority of gamers possess genuine interest in *weird and different*--but sometimes I wish people would expand their comfort zone a bit more.

    In some ways, though, if one chooses to embrace a deeper historical palette, I submit that many people don't want *too much* historical reality--admittedly, some of it can be disturbing and I think quite morally/emotionally/intellectually challenging--but I think that too, can be intriguing, if not always entertaining. Personally, while *fun* and *entertainment* is of salient priority--I enjoy being challenged and challenging the players, too, with some elements of history/historical cultures that cause them to stretch and do some thinking and pondering--not merely for themselves, of course, but taking a bit of a deeper look into their characters, as *people* living within the particular campaign world.

    Good stuff!

    Semper Fidelis,

    SHARK

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  4. "In some ways, though, if one chooses to embrace a deeper historical palette, I submit that many people don't want *too much* historical reality--admittedly, some of it can be disturbing and I think quite morally/emotionally/intellectually challenging--but I think that too, can be intriguing, if not always entertaining. Personally, while *fun* and *entertainment* is of salient priority--I enjoy being challenged and challenging the players, too, with some elements of history/historical cultures that cause them to stretch and do some thinking and pondering--not merely for themselves, of course, but taking a bit of a deeper look into their characters, as *people* living within the particular campaign world."

    Good stuff, indeed.
    --We're on the same page as far as this, and the general topic.
    ---Cool. :D

    Looking forward to more of this sort, re: Magical implications.
    --See you over there. :)

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