Wednesday, November 03, 2010

On World Weaving Political Campaigns

In contemplating the political aspects of World Weaving, I find it helpful to consider historical events, and one of the best sources to study is the Peloponnesian War, wherein political idealism confronted realpolitik in no uncertain terms...

"The Athenians were now determined that the next siege would lead to the death of every captured male, not the sparing of either all or some, as happened respectively in Potidaea and Mytilene. It may have been in the long term a counterproductive strategy, since many sieges depended on developing treachery from within, an impulse harder to encourage if the besieged thought they were all going to die indiscriminately. [The obliteration of the city of] Scione had not convinced cities that opposition to the Athenians as synonymous with obliteration. Yet upon landing at Melos, the Athenian generals Cleomedes and Tisias immediately sent envoys to demand that the Melians either join the Athenian empire or perish, willing to do to them what their Spartan friends had done to the poor garrison at Hysiae. The Melians refused to let the Athenians address the popular assembly, lest the Melian poor find the offers of inclusion under the auspices of a democratic Athenian Empire seductive to their own landless citizens. The dialogue as reported by Thuciydides that followed between the Athenian envoys and the Melian elite, a magisterial exploration of moral right versus realpolitik, is one of the most famous passages in all of Greek literature. The once-underdog and idealist Athenians, who over sixty years earlier had saved the Greeks from the Persian horde, had forgotten their own past of fighting for ideals of independence and freedom against impossible odds.

Now as would-be conquerors like Xerxes before, the Athenians lectured the Melians about why they must accept the reality of power, give up hope ("danger's comforter"), relinquish their freedom, and thus submit, reminding them on the eve of their own greatest defeat of the war at Syracuse that "the Athenians never once yet have withdrawn from a siege." In Thucydides hands, Melos comes after the Spartans had butchered and besieged Hysiae, and yet right before the Athenian disaster to come at Syracuse, as the tragedy of the Peloponnesian War saw an endless cycle of violence and counterviolence, of bold conquerors unknowingly lecturing about their own fate shortly to come.”

- "A War Like No Other", p. 186, by Victor David Hanson


In the above excerpt from "A War Like No Other" we find Mr. Hanson explaining a facet of the events in the Peloponnesian War from a historical viewpoint. How can we apply this to World Weaving and Gamesmastering? Well, there is of course a great deal of context that is merely alluded to in the paragraph but it should serve to illustrate a methodology for the building of Political Campaigns.

In the first paragraph we get the setup and the context for the scene. In the second paragraph we get a hint of the underlying political irony of that scene. The Athenians, supremely confident, have no idea that they are on the verge of being humbled to the point of devastation. In their pride they make a speech that is enormously hypocritical, and foreshadows the dark reality of what soon would come to pass.

Now, lets say that the above passage will serve as the basis for our RPG scenario. Lets assume that our Envoys are our Player Characters, having been sent by the Athenian (translated into the local campaign as some naval empire) Generals from their ships into the fortified city of the Melians. Through the huge wood and iron-shod gates they quickly are hustled, and up the broad fairway and through the bustling market square as the crowds of Melians stare in silent trepidation at this unprecedented event (there is a full navy in their harbor). Our two or so Envoys in their best and brightest bronze armour, crimson capes, and regalia, are briskly ushered up the steep stone stairway into the Magisterial Hall flanked by Melian soldiers. There may or may not be words spoken along the way, however, the Gamesmaster is reasonably assured by past experience with our Players that they will not run amok or do something out of character, and will arrive in due time at the appointed meeting place (if not then things may go wildly astray, but we learn to live with such things or GM around them). Our Player Characters are faced against the Gamesmaster's non-Player Characters, all members of the Melian Council.

At this point, in a properly conducted and constructed Political/Literary RPG, the PCs know and fully appreciate that they have come from The Empire with a message from the majority of Athens (as was decided by vote in the Athenian Assembly) and that this message is that the Melians must not rely on their allies the Spartans to rescue them from the starvation and devastation that the Athenian Siege will bring about if they do not capitulate. This simple message can be amplified by references to recent or distant history, the Gods, or appeals to human emotion. It can be delivered by the Players as either a speech (preferred), or as talking points against which the Gamesmaster will roll for Effectiveness. Either way, the Gamesmaster will provide a counter speech, or talking points, and then the Players will have a final rebuttal and the meeting will end, either in victory for the Envoys (they convince the Melians to capitulate) or defeat (they fail to convince them). Now, having established that the Melian elite are not inclined toward capitulation, they have a substantial defensive posture to begin with.

For the Political mechanics I will use the Elthos One Die System as a basis for the discussion since the numbers are small, ranging from 1 to a maximum of 6, and therefore fairly easy to understand. The mechanic is a simple Difficulty vs Skill level matrix, rolled against with a 1 six sided die. In our scenario the difficulty level of the Envoy's effort is high (5). Let’s say that our Envoys have some experience with Oration and have previously selected Rhetoric as a skill and are in fact 4th Level Orators, which for the purposes of my example in the Elthos ODS system is a high Level. The Melian elite, lets say, are 3rd Level Orators with a +2 Bonus with an “Entrenched Prior Opinion” modifier, making the Difficulty Level 5. So it's an “Attack” of 4 versus a “Defence” of 5.

The Gamesmaster rolls the first round. The Envoys give their speech (and hopefully in our game the Players actually Role Play the speech which is much more fun). The Gamesmaster replies with the Melian arguments against the Athenians and the Gamesmaster Rolls Attack vs. Defence.

Ooo… the Melians win the round! They get an additional bonus of +1 for having won the first round, making the Defence 6. It is now attack of 4 versus Defence of 6. The Envoys give their second (and final) speech.

The Gamesmaster rolls again and wooo… the Melians win again (to their sorrow, for in the end they are starved and the Spartans never did show up)! And so the Envoys, having lost the argument, leave the city and return to their ships, with a final word to the Melians:

"Well, you alone, as it seems to us, judging from these resolutions, regard what is future as more certain than what is before your eyes, and what is out of sight, in your eagerness, as already coming to pass; and as you have staked most on, and trusted most in, the Spartans, all your fortune, and your hopes, so will you be completely destroyed."


The irony at this point is reserved for the Gamesmaster who is aware (in our hypothetical parallel-to-history scenario) that the Syracusan campaign is doomed to fail because some God had cursed Alcibiades, the leading Athenian General who (literally) jumped ship and defected to Sparta as the Navy was sailing off the coast of Sparta toward Sicily! Soon, the Gamesmaster knows, the Envoys, our Player Characters, will be confronted with the stark reality that their own Empire has been devastated, and that the decision to invest Melos was an act of dreadful hubris after all.

And this, friends, is what is I offer as an example of what I mean by “Literary” calibre worlds. World Weaving a story of literary calibre is not so easy as throwing scarcely connected scenarios together and loading a dungeon with zombies and ghouls. One needs to consider themselves more in the role of an author or historian, and the better one does at this, the more literary in quality their World will be.

It is not a trivial task. We all know how much work goes into Gamesmastering as it is. LOTS. To add on top the Literary quality aspect can be daunting, and in reality I suppose it takes years to get good at it. Part of the reason why is that it really does require a substantial understanding of human nature, politics, socio-dynamics, many other things besides, and as well a near-genius level creativity to make the lessons of our own human past potentially useful in the weaving of Worlds that incorporate fantastical creatures and races. To get that understanding may well require reading a great deal of literature (classical literature and mythology) and over time absorbing the themes and methods of story telling that are embodied in those works to the point where such knowledge become second nature in the mind and heart of the Gamesmaster. From that point on I think the task becomes much easier and more fluid, but it takes patience to get there, and quite a bit of effort to both read the good source materials and to let them melt into one's overall framework of consciousness to the point where they become useful for world weaving, let alone improvisational Gamesmastering.

Again, I am not in any way suggesting this is easy. I am only suggesting that despite the difficulty it is worthwhile. My view is that as the tools to help World Weavers and Gamesmasters make the art easier to manage there will be more time available for the development of Literary Quality Worlds, which will then begin to flourish and become known as Great Works. Some day in the future, perhaps, people will look back at this dawn of Role Playing Games and be glad for the invention, as people may look back and be glad today for the inventions of canvases, film, recording studios and the like that have given us so much pleasure over the years. Great Literary Quality Worlds that can be enjoyed by myriads of Players, never the same way twice, is to my mind a worthy goal to aspire to.
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