Please be warned, this is kind of a political rant – not about current politics – that is long and tedious. Basically, in my games, I ignore the political status quo in fantasy and historical games because doing so would mean the heroes either support the status quo – interested only in bettering their own condition – or fail to upset it, since this is almost always a long, torturous process that can take centuries to achieve. Better to ignore the likely implications of the setting’s form of government and pretend that our heroes can be heroes in a status quo that does not impose suffering.
Also, I’m examining something that I have identified in myself, and if this doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or ill-informed or anything else. It’s sad that I have to include that, but GD do I get emails every time I write something like this – which is, therefore, rare.
So, you have been warned. On with the rant/thoughtful introspection.
One of my current D&D campaigns was to be set in historical, early Anglo-Saxon England. It was going to be tinged with fantasy, but hewing relatively closely to the period. Of course, once one injects magic, without a Herculean suspension of disbelief, consistency tends to be difficult. So, we moved to a second-world setting that shared geography, some place-names, and a lot of history with our world.
Injecting a little magic in a setting can have unbalancing effect if one cares about consistency and believability. I’m not talking realism, because I don’t think that’s achievable (but that’s another discussion), rather I’m talking about verisimilitude, I mean a setting with which the players can interact without causing them to wave off inconsistencies with the excuse “this is D&D.”
And in many ways, for me, politics is the same. I was reminded of this when listening to Dr. Bob Brier’s History of Ancient Egypt from the Great Courses (I carry a lot of water for the Great Courses because I think they are so amazing). It was the discussion of the end of the Hyksos reign in Lower Egypt and the rise of the New Kingdom. Dr. Brier was, understandably for an Egyptologist, on the side of the New Kingdom and its pharaoh. I guess I understand, but one of the jobs of a pharaoh was to lead the army and impose Egypt’s power on the lesser states that surrounded it. While the Hyksos invaded and conquered Lower Egypt (which is how the pharaohs became pharaohs as well, but I digress), there wasn’t really a discussion on how they then exported force, imposing their will on trading partners. So maybe they didn’t? So who were the good guys again?
I look at fantasy and I kind of divorce it from the politics of the time. If there are kings and nobles, there are almost certainly serfs. There is certainly an underclass which the propaganda of the age is telling that they must keep their place in the great chain of being – or whatever other euphemism is used for the status quo. Heroes of the age generally are only interested in bettering themselves and their families – Robert the Bruce as a bit of a villain in Braveheart because his family is acting pragmatically rather than for the “good” of Scotland is only one of the many incredibly tone-deaf choices made for the movie, given that Wallace, even in the movie, is basically doing the same thing. Addendum: I love the movie and own a copy but the history and context is excruciatingly bad.
To be a world-shattering hero who accepts a status quo that is observably unjust is to be a villain in some ways – especially in a game with clearly defined morality like D&D. I always contend that most of us do not play characters of the age and place in which the adventure is set, but figures of our own age and culture in that situation. One can argue that the PCs should see the world as it has been defined for them – they should believe in the great chain of being – but then one should have no issues with other actions which they undertake which would be culturally acceptable. I generally cannot – I specifically remove the historical context from my Viking RPG because it is honestly repugnant for me. I like the saga renditions of Vikings as heroes, and I think they make great protagonists for stories, but I cannot find enjoyment in torturing members of a religious community in order to achieve material gain. This is basically the same approach of most modern Westerns – the hero needs to be disassociated from the common practices of the time.
And the problem with playing heroes who rebel against the status quo is that, really, they’re going to fail. I mean, their goals might succeed in the long run, but unless they are the last of a long line of heroes who have been trying to change the status quo, they are almost certainly not going to be the ones to bring about change, any more than the Gracchi brothers in later Republic Rome did – or Spartacus, for that matter.
In the end, too often heroes just decide on which side they want to play rather than trying to upset the board. It’s the same in my Anglo-Saxon campaign. The PCs exist during one period that has been put forward as the time of the historical figure whom we now generally identify as King Arthur. I don’t have a roundtable of noble knights, but since we’ve not got magic, I’ve got Merlin, and Merlin is fighting against the influx of Saxons. Saxons like the PCs. Merlin is also using means the PCs find questionable – slavery. The PCs encounter a fey spirit whom Merlin had bound, forcing it to act against its wishes. This – to the PCs – made Merlin the enemy.
But the PCs serve under Cerdic, a Romano-British leader who has imported large numbers of Saxon mercenaries. Cerdic is carving out his own kingdom and seeking causus belli against other leaders in order to go to war and take their land. He, however, is hiring rather than burying Saxons, so he’s the good guy.
Depending on one’s view of history, one might see one or the other culture at this point in British history as the romantic ideal of Britain, but both practiced slavery, both had a wealthy overclass enforcing its rights through the use of physical and political power, and both believed in the material gain through violence and oppression.
Even if one does something truly extraordinary how long will it last? As an Egyptian example, Pharaoh Akhenaten upset the status quo by imposing a monotheistic religion on the kingdom. That lasted until he died and the priesthood – inextricably intertwined with the nobility – forced Tutankhamun in his minority to return to the old religion and old ways. In any case, none of that helped those who suffered under the political status quo.
I can’t help but root for the underdogs during the Scots Wars of Independence – that would be the Scots in case you are playing at home – but I realize that while Robert the Bruce may have freed Scotland from English rule, but he certainly didn’t free the vast majority of the population. He just changed the head of the state and the nobility whom everyone else had to serve.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
So, yeah, I try to ignore the political context of the games I run. Roman legionaries are fighting for the legionary next to them and divorce their service from the aims and intent of the Senate/Emperor – otherwise they’re likely the villains. Vikings are adventurous spirits who find themselves in the position to fight supernatural threats and seek long lost treasures, not reivers and raiders who murder without a thought and prey on the weak. My Egyptian princess and her entourage are heroes of the age whom the populace love, and that populace doesn’t include slaves and everyone has access to justice and upward mobility.
I guess there is a political status quo in my games, but it is a mere fantastical sheen that would not withstand the pressure of the slightest scrutiny. I try to ignore it because I find it difficult to buy into without questioning the morality of the heroes.
But that’s just me.
You can find Dr. Bob Brier’s History of Ancient Egypt here.