RPG cosmology


I have been reading Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, by Dimitra Fimi, in an attempt to get a broader insight into some of the background of Tolkien’s world-building and the ideas underlying it, and it has been presenting some interesting and I think new ideas about how Tolkien’s world developed, some of the reasons for some of the ideas in the world, and some of the challenges he faced in putting it all together. One interesting challenge that Fimi describes in some detail in the book, with perhaps more emphasis than I think it deserves, is the importance of the shape of the world to Tolkien’s thinking, and the extent to which the world’s physical structure troubled Tolkien. Reading the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, it never occurred to me that this mattered, but apparently it did. The world changed during its construction from a flat earth to a round world, and Tolkien appears to have been uncomfortable with the change.

Dr. Fimi gives a rough creation timeline to Tolkien’s ideas, in which the stories of Middle Earth played a role as a kind of reimagining of an ancient history of England, which as it solidifies over time becomes harder and harder to reconcile with actual England. By the time of writing the Lord of the Rings, the fall of Numenor and the associated flood have become a kind of cataclysm that delineates a sense of mythical history from a more concrete prehistory of the actual world. In this interpretation of his creative process, western Middle Earth’s shape is not accidental – it is representative of our modern world, in some pre-historic sense. For Tolkien, the cataclysm that destroyed Numenor served to separate a mythic time of fairies from a more prosaic era more closely connected with modern history (though still preceding it and unknown to its modern observers).

One strange consequence of the importance of switching from a pre-historic mythic world to one closer to our own is the need to switch from a pre-historic physics to a modern physics, and somehow in all of this the world went from being flat to being a normal sphere, with heavens and stars. There are apparently maps and notes which explicitly show this transformation, and Tolkien himself wrote of it in a letter to a friend:

A transition from a flat world (or at least an [Greek word] with borders all about it) to a globe: an inevitable transition, I suppose, to a modern “myth-maker” with a mind subjected to the same “appearances” as ancient men, and partly fed on their myths, but taught that the Earth was round from the earliest years. So deep was the impression made by “astronomy” on me that I do not think I could deal with or imaginatively conceive a flat world, though a world of static Earth with a Sun going round it seems easier (to fancy if not to reason)

Here Tolkien expresses directly the difficulty he has in writing a plausible world based on genuinely mythical precepts – he needs to ground his magical world in some basic reality, even though he puts the science of that reality in scare-quotes and wishes to believe that he has a similar sense to the ancients. Fimi links this to the placement of the stories in the timeline of the real earth; early versions of his stories (in the Book of Lost Tales) are imagined as only being a few hundred years in the past but as he thinks more about the structure and cosmology of his world the timeline changes, so that the same stories are suddenly before the last Ice Age.

Tolkien’s letters on this topic are notable for the use of many scare-quotes: in another letter he puts the words “spherical” and “space” in scare-quotes. I don’t think this is an indication that he sees the science of heliocentrism or astronomy as incorrect, but indicate that when he writes about his stories, Tolkien places himself (at least partially) inside the framework of his world. Fimi reports from an interview in 1963 in which the interviewer (Anthony Curtis) felt that Tolkien spoke about his own world as if it were a true and real place – he had been building it so long, he no longer spoke as if he were not in it. I think this is the provenance of the scare quotes in the above passage: for Tolkien astronomy is real, but when he speaks of cosmology from within the perspective of his imagined world, astronomy becomes “astronomy” and the structure of the earth becomes a matter of conjecture: once it was flat, and lit by trees, but then there was a cataclysm and now it is round. What of it?

Perhaps this is part of the source of the power of Tolkien’s creation. He placed himself inside his myth as if it were real, and tried to create it as if there were nothing outside of the knowledge contained in that world. Modern myth-makers see a world as an interesting prop for a story – an interesting setting is essential to fantasy, after all, and every author needs to make a setting – but Tolkien saw the stories as useful ways of explaining the mythical world that he had created, and lived inside when he was writing those stories. This world that he created was originally tied quite closely to his  idealistic political goals, conceived of both personally (the creation of a “mythology for England”) and in conjunction with the political goals of the society he and his friends created and dominated (the Tea Club/Barrovian Society), and part of these goals was the promulgation of certain ideas about how England was and should be; so it was inevitable that the stories would take on uses other than just the expression of Tolkien’s own mythical vision, and it is almost certainly the case that his mythical vision was influenced by and not inseparable from his political vision (which did not seem to include any racial elements, incidentally). But it appears that as time passed (and the Great War destroyed his and his friends’ idealism) these original political visions faded from his mythmaking, and it became a more personal aesthetic quest (for example, obviously Catholic language disappeared from his dictionaries of Quenya). However, no matter how deeply involved in this quest he became, it appears that he was still tied to a basic need to keep his stories accessible to a broader readership. Making his earth round appears to have been an explicit part of this process.

In the development of Tolkien’s myths we see his transition from boy to man, idealist to cynic, and embarrassed philologist to accomplished story-teller. It also appears that we see his journey from (mythical) flat-earther to reluctant heliocentrist. We will see though that there is one element of his world that does not change across all this time: the racial heirarchies of his world. I will come back to this in a later post on Fimi’s work, which I haven’t yet finished but am finding a very engaging and insightful perspective on Tolkien and his legacy. I strongly recommend it to those who are interested in the details of the development of Tolkien’s world, and I think I can say that it serves only to deepen the respect with which one views Tolkien’s creative achievements, and will not leave one disappointed with Tolkien or his legacy.

I once ran a campaign in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, shortly after the war of the ring during the period when it could be reasonably imagined that elves were still present in Middle Earth, and the kingdom of Gondor was still recovering from the war. I imagined that this would be a fairly free and lawless time, when political powers would be jockeying for position in the new order, Orcs and Goblins would be in flight and causing trouble, and enterprising adventurers could make their fortune. But the main reason I chose the Fourth Age was simple: its politics and culture are not set in stone in the canon of Middle Earth, and so it is a more flexible setting for the types of campaign I like to run. My preferred campaigns involve a lot of base politics and the exercise of temporal power, as well as many of the banal consequences of the evil that ordinary men do. For some reason, setting a campaign in any of the prior ages of Middle Earth – the ones that had been written about extensively by a better world builder than me – felt like it would be blasphemous unless I a) stuck to the setting faithfully and b) made it somehow directly connected to the canonical events and movements of those stories. This kind of campaign could also be fun, but it’s not the kind of campaign I’m best at.

Though not at all an exercise in post-colonialism, what I was engaged in was of a similar flavour to the post-colonial project in literature: adding political and temporal context to a work from the canon that is already, essentially, set in stone. In my case the campaign rapidly evolved into a story involving a small group of elven fascists attempting to recreate the ancient elven kingdom of Lindon, at the expense of the Dunlendings with whom the people of Beleriand had made an uneasy truce. I also slowly reconceived the Dunlendings as simply politically “evil,” that is they had served Saruman only for the purpose of regaining ancestral land as a crude political calculation, and had no native sympathy for his evil visions (though they were far from a nice people in my retelling). So it did have elements of a classic post-colonial rewriting: giving a bad side to the “good” people, or re-examining their inherent goodness through a political and temporal lens; and giving a political or cultural explanation for the behavior of the evil savage, or attempting to explain the savages actions as if their story were of equal validity to that of the heroes in the original text.

Good examples of this type of post-colonial reworking of the canon are Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which attempts to give context to the “mad wife” of Jane Eyre; and the frontier stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard, such as Brumby Innes and Coonardoo, which attempt to tell the stories of the Australian outback with a sensitive eye to how they affected women and Aborigines, and without the usual rose-tinted glasses that were applied to the conquest of the Australian frontier in her time.

One common argument mounted against my claim that Tolkien’s work includes a strong racial essentialist element is that in fact none of the “evil” of the Easterlings and Southrons is inherited or racially inherent, and their alliance with Sauron is a purely cultural and political decision, perhaps driven by cold calculations about the value of the alliance and what they can gain, or driven by particular cultural features that make these peoples more likely to be sympathetic to Sauron’s claims to their loyalty than those of the people of the West. Good examples of such possible arguments might include, for example, tension over land rights in the areas east of Mirkwood, or Sauron claiming to restore old empires in Harad. I recall Tolkien himself implying (or stating) in The Two Towers that part of the reason the Dunlendings sided with Saruman was anger about being driven out of their land by the Rohirrim, so the precedent is there. Unfortunately, Tolkien wrote nothing at all about the events in Harad or the East during the Second and Third Ages, and the Easterlings and Southrons only feature in the Lord of the Rings when they rise against the people of the West – this is exactly the kind of role allotted to savages in colonial literature, as essentially culture-less lumpen opponents, with no story or voice of their own. Since we don’t know anything about the stories of these peoples, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the claim that their alliance with Sauron was simply a calculated political move rather than an innate property of their race.

But, the absence of a story for these peoples qualifies their regions of Middle Earth for the same treatment as I gave the fourth age: they’re a blank slate, there for their story to be explored by enterprising GMs or writers. I think their story would be an interesting one. How did Sauron corrupt them, and what political and cultural battles were being fought within the Empires of the South to decide who to follow and what to do? Did colonialism by the Numenoreans turn the Men of Darkness against the West? Was it something to do with their failure to receive the same birthright as the Men of the West. If the shadow of Morgoth is real, could the Men of Darkness fight against it and if so how did this manifest in their society? Were most Southrons inherently corrupted, but small kingdoms held out against them? Were their political currents opposed to working with Sauron? Did he present himself as an anti-colonialist, in a similar way to the Japanese in World War 2?

I think the general view amongst Tolkien’s fanboys is that his canon cannot be touched and reinterpretation is impossible, but role-playing doesn’t allow this view 100%: those who play in Middle Earth will always change it in some way. But the peoples of the South and East only enter the canon as two-dimensional faceless enemies, and so reinterpretation of their story need not affect the core of the work at all. I think a post-colonial rewriting of their story – to give the context and background for their alliance with Sauron – would be an interesting and entertaining phenomenon, whether done as a role-playing campaign or in fiction. I don’t know if it has been tried, and I guess many would disapprove, but it could also lead to a very interesting and rich gaming or reading experience.

Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.

Background

Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.

Presentation

I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.

Conclusion

If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

This post continues my thoughts on ideas and inspirations from Iceland. It’s another post about both the social and political structure of a norse campaign, and about insights into how medieval worlds functioned. Again, it’s based largely on what I saw, was told by guides, and read during my stay in Iceland, with maybe a little influence from Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles.

Slavery

The early Icelanders kept slaves. Slaves in Icelandic society don’t seem to have been the storybook slaves of legend, kept in pens and treated like animals – rather, they appear to be a particularly low and over-worked form of indentured servant. They seemed to be able to escape, sometimes they would be freed, and I get the impression they could also be accorded honour (though I have no concrete proof of this). This random site describes the class structure of norse society and the types of abuse (and freedom) that slaves experienced, and suggests that slaves could own property and save money to free themselves.

Like all GMs I tend to have rules about what I will and won’t allow my players to do, and in general keeping slaves has been one of the things that I have avoided. I know this is ridiculous – my players do a lot of slaughter, and occasional human sacrifice and more than their fair share of demonology -but it’s just one of those things, and I think every GM has them.  So I’m guessing that if I ran a norse campaign I’d probably be omitting the slavery part from it. I guess also that if I did allow it I would probably require the PCs to be “good” slave-keepers, which doesn’t seem impossible given the accounts but isn’t really much of a step up. Of course slavery also opens up alternative adventure ideas – the PCs could start off as escaped slaves or slaves who had bought their freedom, and of course slavery would be an interesting alternative to the TPK – but in general I would be avoiding it. Norse society in the 12th century was nasty enough without introducing this as well! Also, slavery was an abomination of the early part of Icelandic history – the norse world banned slavery between the 12th and 13th centuries, i.e. a good 4 centuries before the UK did, and half a millenium ahead of the US. So it’s pretty easy to choose a setting where slavery is optional.

The Cultural Sophistication of the Medieval World

We moderns are used to thinking of the medieval world as unsophisticated and brutal because of their lack of scientific knowledge, and it’s true that their lives were nasty and brutish and their ideas silly, but the ideas they lived by take on a very different meaning if the fantastical and magical backing for those ideas were real. This has been a central theme of my Compromise and Conceit campaign, which is an attempt to imagine how the post-enlightenment world would look if all of the religious ideas its people subscribed to were true, and backed up by real temporal power (i.e. magic). The same can be done in any other setting, of course, and when you play this game suddenly the medieval world is no longer unsophisticated and backward, just very very different. It’s a fun game to play.

For example, the Vikings had particular beliefs about the origins of the Northern Lights. One of these, that the Northern Lights were caused by stored light in glaciers being emitted into the atmosphere at night, opens the possibility of a mad wizard’s adventure to collect the light for some crazed ritual, and of course in our magical world this could really happen. Or the PCs could reach the point of the light, and discover that the Northern Lights really do come from light reflected from the armour of warrior’s souls as they travel to Valhalla – the PCs discover a pathway to Valhalla at the “foot” of the Northern Lights and thus an extra-dimensional campaign commences.

The same kind of backwards sophistication is true for much of the rest of medieval thought, much of which was the topic of frenzied debate at the time. The PCs can even get caught up in these debates, as they are employed by scientists to explore the kingdom beneath the earth, or taken on a trip to Japan to find Jesus. Umberto Eco’s Baudolino gives some amusing examples of the crazy stuff medievals believed (and his Island of the Day Before gives some funny examples of what might happen if enlightenment-era science were taken seriously). Many of these ideas are also quite fluid, so potentially by taking sides in a debate the PCs may get their chance to shape the structure of the world. Obviously in a norse world a lot of these ideas will be tied up with Valhalla and Viking cosmology – why not explore it and see what kind of world you can create if these ideas are true?

War is Costly

The Icelanders set up their parliament, the althing, in 980 AD, and one of the key reasons they did this was that they could not afford to continue waging wars over petty slights and land disputes. War in the dark ages was a costly business, and in the absence of modern medical and agricultural technology, the Icelanders simply didn’t have the ability to maintain civil society and keep fighting wars. Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles makes this problem very clear, as each Autumn all wars cease so that soldiers can take in the harvest. Society at this time was a single failed harvest away from chaos, and any society that failed to produce enough food had no choice but to invade its neighbours and steal theirs. In the precarious conditions of Iceland on the raggedy edge, everyone saw that this was going to be a disaster. And so the althing was formed. It seems like a lot of medieval kingdoms were more than happy to wage war at will, but I guess this is largely because the ruling class were so divorced from those who did most of the fighting (the levied ranks of ordinary soldiers) and those who paid for it (their peasants). In free 980 AD Iceland this wasn’t the case – chieftains didn’t have peasants to fall back on, and had to get some form of consent to pay for war, so I guess they had to find ways to avoid fighting.

A lot of political entities in gaming are actually too sophisticated for their putative time – democratic or oligarchical city-states in an otherwise medieval setting, for example, or even societies coming close to constitutional democracy, which is really a post-enlightenment phenomenon – and it’s hard to imagine those types of state being able to venture willy-nilly into costly wars against the backward communities around them. Where such states exist – or where hard-scrabble societies live on the fringe of e.g. Orc-controlled territory – it’s likely that there will be a lot of espionage work for PCs that is primarily aimed at preventing wars. While in our fantastic worlds we tend to find that the main method for avoiding war with Orcs is genocide, the more likely real world compromise would be tribute, and it could well be that the PCs would be paid to either organize, guard or renegotiate tributes. In a norse world that takes slaves, tribute could be an unpleasant business as well, with unwanted slaves being sent to the Orc lair along with trade goods. PCs could also be charged with all sorts of black ops to prevent, avoid or delay wars, or to guarantee their victory through economic sabotage.

Taking into account the real cost of political error in the dark ages when planning campaigns means, I suspect, that there would be a lot of careful skullduggery being thrust upon the PCs, and some very nasty espionage jobs. When war does come to a kingdom the PCs may find themselves in a land plunged into near total chaos as food shortages, disease and social breakdown spread. If they gain their own strongholds they may even find themselves going to great lengths to pacify their neighbours, and doing very unsavoury things to avoid conflict. Forcing players to these kinds of unwanted compromises can be a truly pleasurable experience for a GM with a sadistic streak, and if you set just a few real world constraints on the political and economic climate the PCs operate in, you may find them becoming very creative in their endeavours to control their neighbours and enemies…

Religions can Coexist

For much of Icelandic history it appears that christianity and paganism have co-existed, with christianity gaining the upper hand by simultaneously co-opting pagan ceremonies and ignoring minor pagan rituals. This situation also obtains in Japan, where Buddhism and Shintoism get along very nicely side by side. In a magical norse campaign, this means that Druids and Clerics (both Christian and Odinic) can coexist, maybe even sharing worship space, spells and political goals. Alternatively you can envisage a society where they coexist in the minds of the people but fight viciously for political supremacy at the level of the clergy. This makes for some very interesting political crises to thrust the characters into the middle of, and introduces a kind of industrial espionage-style adventuring, where the PCs are paid to undermine the religious rituals and powers of an enemy church. Ultimately, of course, one church might want to destroy the Gods of the other – a nice high level goal for any PC! In an alternative-history Iceland this opens up the possibility of completely changing Iceland’s future direction (christian fascist? Pagan dictatorship? Roman-style pagan democracy?) I’m going to be exploring this in my Svalbard campaign once I can get it running, and for me the role of religion in determining politics in such societies is very interesting – especially since their real magical powers means that people will listen to them in a way they never would in the real world. We know that the christian church was very active in politics throughout Europe, and it’s very interesting to imagine how that involvement would have turned out if their beliefs were true, and backed up by real magical powers.

Conclusion

GMs can make a great deal of headway in campaign planning with very little real background work by choosing a historical point in a well-understood culture, backing up the religious ideas and fanciful scientific notions of the time with real magic, and then choosing a crisis point to dump the PCs into the middle of. The results can be history-changing, which is satisfying for everyone and sets up further adventures in the future. It’s also easy to do both geographical and political sandboxing – you know what major events are coming up, and can fit the players into a narrative that they have every opportunity to change. Incorporating some of the constraints and social problems of the real world can force creative (and often challenging) decision-making, but magic prevents the players from being completely constrained by these forces. The results can be a very interesting and exciting campaign world, with minimal GM effort. With the background ideas I’ve written here, a map of Iceland and a few pages of background material, I think a GM could easily come up with a fruitful and challenging campaign.

 

You must gather your party before venturing forth ...

I gained a great deal of inspiration for role-playing from my trip to Iceland, and I hope that much of what I saw and experienced there will inform a Compromise and Conceit campaign run in Svalbard. Much of the inspiration gained from my trip to Iceland will come simply from amazement at the stark beauty of the landscape (useful background information for an Australian planning to set a campaign in the far north) and from an appreciation of the general coolness of the Nordic universe[1]. But there were also some particular ideas, and some specific information, that I gleaned from this trip, which I think is useful for grounding a campaign in particular historical periods. Some of what I learnt is very general, some specific to Iceland, some generalizable (perhaps) to a Norse-specific campaign. I was simultaneously reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, so I can’t guarantee it hasn’t been coloured by his very specific view of how pre-medieval pagan societies worked, but I hope that at least some of what I found in Iceland has currency beyond my own campaign ideas. So here it is, in no particular order. A lot of these ideas serve to establish a campaign in which the majority of the community is living in poverty and pretty low settings; this may not be to everyone’s tastes, and so some of what’s suggested here may not be worth adopting (and it may be exaggerating the state of life in 12th century Iceland, which I’ll use as my focus for a campaign setting).

Travel and the Weather as Adversary

Until the 19th century Iceland had no proper roads, and to travel from one part of the country to another required trudging over essentially wilderness on tracks beaten out by other travellers. In winter this meant passing over snowy ground, and the path was not kept clear. Instead it was marked by little cairns of stones every couple of hundred metres, and travellers simply moved from cairn to cairn. Traveling a modern road in a comfortable bus on a perfect Autumn day it was easy to forget what this means for your average 12th century traveler, but our guide told us that in winter or fog the weather could be so bad that, even quite close to Reykjavik, travelers could easily lose sight of the next cairn, and become lost on the moors easily. Getting lost in a winter storm in Iceland would be a death sentence for all but the very lucky, and the natural consequence of this is that one would not travel in winter. This has huge ramifications for much of human society – trade, war, adventuring and life in general would grind to a halt, and the whole world would be waiting with baited breath for spring. In turn this places huge stress on festivals that mark the thresholds of seasons and changes, because they also represent the return of life, motion, and human congress.

I remember speaking with an Afghan doctor about his research project when I was teaching statistics a few years ago. His interest was in reducing maternal mortality (a huge problem in Afghanistan, and intricately related to infant mortality), and he told me about a very simple problem that does not exist in modern Nordic countries. In winter in many parts of Afghanistan the heavy snows block passes and roads and prevent all forms of travel. This means that if you’re giving birth in winter, you get no support of any kind beyond that which is available from your immediate neighbours. Given the single best protection against maternal mortality is access to medical care (or, in a fantasy world, clerics) when complications occur, this basic lack of infrastructure (cleared roads) that we in the west take for granted presents a huge barrier for Afghan women’s health. The same would apply in any rural town in 12th century Iceland, but even worse – food and other vital supplies would also be frozen in, making preparation for the winter of crucial importance. One need look no further than this to understand why brutal strongmen were capable of popular rule in such societies: no one cares that they demand a virgin a year, if they guarantee security for your winter preparations. To return to Afghanistan, an interesting article in today’s Guardian suggests westerners have misunderstood Afghan support for the Taliban for these kinds of reasons:

Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).

and they credited the “good Taliban” with not doing these things, as well as the ability to provide justice swiftly and fairly. In dark ages societies this was no doubt a very easy way to be liked: guarantee your subjects security to prepare for winter, and you can take what you want from them (within reason) in spring.

Food

Hang it, smoke it, mash it, and wash it down with ammonia

This brings us to the topic of Icelandic food, which is an interesting mix of the delicious and the horrific and, in some ways, still recalls the food culture of old. Iceland still relies on imports for most of the things we take for granted, and until the 1930s couldn’t grow most vegetables or fruits locally, so a lot of the old-fashioned foods still persist. The worst examples of these are thoramatur, a disgusting series of foods that obviously derive from a period of history when food was less reliable than it is now, nothing could be wasted, and much had to be cured or preserved using gross or stinky methods[2]. More generally, the food that Icelanders ate 100 years ago was very limited in its variety, very simple, and indicates a very limited palate. I have found in GMing that food can be used to add elements of vivid realism to a campaign setting, and can serve as an indicator of e.g. hostility, poverty, welcome, and the importance ascribed to meetings or deals[3], and food in an Iceland-style setting could be easily used to establish that sense of living-on-the-edge that a medieval Icelandic setting should have. Consider the examples in the picture above, which I ate at the Loki Cafe near the main church in Reykjavik. From top right, going clockwise, we have smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, in the middle we have wind-dried cod with butter, and at the rear (thankfully hidden from view), rotten shark. For Icelanders over a certain age, these last two are a delicacy. I have to say the wind-dried cod is palatable compared to your average Japanese dried smelt (though I didn’t try it with beer – Japanese dried fish tastes fishy before you have a beer, and then it literally explodes with a new dimension of fishiness once you take your first sip). The dried shark, hakarl, tastes very strongly of ammonia – it goes up your nose like horseradish or mustard, only it’s ammonia. Why anyone would eat this I don’t know, but I guess historically this served a very useful purpose. Your village catches a 5m long Greenland shark, which would provide enough meat for your whole town for a week, but it’s poisonous, so you have to rot it to get rid of the poison. You lay it down in Autumn, stick it in barrels before the snow comes, and by mid-winter you have a week’s supply of meat when everything else has run out. Imagine sitting in your wind-blasted, freezing 12th century hut, with 3-5 hours of sunlight a day, down to your last few kilos of smoked lamb, drinking nothing but intensely strong rye spirits (because beer doesn’t exist), eating stale rye bread, and knowing that in a week you’ll be down to nothing but the rotten shark. That, my friends, is living on the raggedy edge. I don’t know if Iceland was that poor in the 12th century (they also had trade items that may have made them very rich) but I’m guessing that away from the centres of cultural life things could go this way in lean times – and remember that the little ice age struck Iceland at that time too. By varying the food culture as your PCs travel across the frozen land, you can easily give them a sense of increasing poverty and/or desperation, as well as a sense of realism.

Women’s roles and Inequality

Not a nice way to end an affair

Iceland prides itself on its feminism and its advances in women’s status, and there is some evidence that women had some form of equal voting rights to men (at least at a local level) before they did in the rest of Europe, enacted through the peculiar system of Iceland’s local parliament and its local voting system. Early rules in the settlement era (from 980 AD onward) suggest that women were allowed to own land (as much as they could walk a heifer around in a day!) and be the head of a household. During the reign of the Danish monarchy it’s likely that a lot of these rights were ignored or stripped away, but in general it seems like Iceland had a (relatively) progressive outlook on women’s rights from an early era. My guidebook suggests this may have had a lot to do with the precarious environment – not many Icelanders would have had much leeway to keep women sequestered in the farmhouse in this period, and the right to work is a huge driver of women’s equality. More generally, this tells us something about women’s equality in medieval societies in general, and how it is a much more nuanced and complex issue than modern lay interpreters of medieval history generally believe. Modern views of women’s rights in history seem to generally be that women had none, had few leadership chances (either covert or open) and were victims of an intensely patriarchal society. I don’t think it’s that simple, and my general guess is that women’s equality was actually at times and places quite advanced amongst the peasantry, and quite restricted amongst the nobility; conversely, the poverty of the lower classes worked against women’s health and welfare much more harshly than it did men. For example, most modern images of marriage in the medieval era see it as a restrictive bond on women, but in fact before the Victorian era in the UK (for example) marriage was a pretty haphazard institution, not particularly well adhered to amongst the lower classes and implemented in very different ways at a local level. Thomas Hardy’s description of a registry office in Jude the Obscure gives a nice insight into the way the lower classes may have looked on marriage at that time. Meanwhile, of course, high-class women in the medieval era were definitely used as pawns in political games, but this may not have been a general problem for other women. One common feminist critique of Victorian and Regency literature is that it was propaganda for a new form of marriage that took an absolute and regressive view of women’s bondage to men within the marriage compact[4]. As another example, two of Britain’s most vigorous, most expansionist and most culturally active and successful periods were under the reign of powerful and well-respected female leaders (Elizabeth and Victoria), and I think it would be hard to say that they were figureheads.

So while the popular fantasy of medieval countries may be of women oppressed and powerless, the reality is likely much more nuanced. Obviously in our fantasy worlds female warriors, thieves and wizards are a dime a dozen and this is completely ahistorical and something most of us aren’t going to ditch from our campaigns, but it’s not necessarily ahistorical to have these women supported by a culture in which women’s rights may be contested, diverse, and at times quite liberal. Women farmers, spokespeople, politicians and criminal masterminds are not outside the realms of possibility in the real world, so it’s perfectly possible to extend that further in the fantastical world without stretching the truth overmuch; and it’s perfectly possible to smooth out the worst historical abuses of women in the interests of having a campaign world that isn’t completely detestable, without making the political and cultural landscape unrecognizable.

Which isn’t to say that women’s life in Iceland was easy. The picture above is of the “drowning pool” at the historical parliament, where women were drowned for “sexual crimes” and infanticide. Men were burnt at the stake or hanged for the same crimes.

Inclusion and Consensus

Having shown that rather disturbing picture, it’s worth noting that very few people were executed in Iceland during the era of drowning pools and burnings; although empowered to use capital punishment, Icelanders generally considered this punishment abhorrent, and opted instead for blood money or outlawry as an alternative. The worst punishment in Iceland was considered to be outlawry, in which a criminal was driven out of society. In fact, this is how Greenland was settled. This points to a society which considered exclusion to be a terrible fate, and I think there is a very simple reason for this: in a place like Iceland, being driven out of the polity is a death sentence, because of the need to work together to survive the harsh climate. In other places (especially, e.g. large parts of Asia and Europe) it would be very easy to make one’s life anew if cast out of one’s local society, because the land was bountiful enough to live off of without much support. Not so in Iceland. I think the same thing applied historically in Australia, and the result is a political and cultural system based on consensus rather than conflict. It was for this reason that the althing (the parliament) was established, and it drives a certain type of politics. The flipside of consensus cultural models is that there is an extremely strong pressure not to deviate from cultural norms: witness the restricted range of roles available to men in Australia, and its historical disapproval of homosexuality, as an example. Most British will tell you they find Australian men alarmingly macho, and this is because British men have a more diverse range of roles and available characters. There’s more space for cultural play in a society which doesn’t value consensus so highly. This type of politics will go to huge lengths not to exclude people, and will respond warmly to a cultural group once they are granted the status of “included” (see, e.g. Australia’s rapidly changing views of Aborigines since the 1960s). The downside is that once you’re out, you’re really out. You don’t get to live in a contested space like, say, the Travellers or asylum seekers in Britain – you’re gone. In historical Iceland you were also, literally, gone – you sailed over the seas and that was that.

In gaming terms a consensus society probably doesn’t figure highly until it comes time to resolve conflicts between powerful groups. Then, the players will need to find subtle ways to deal with their political opponents, and may need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t kill them but have to settle for subversion, or even maintaining their enemy’s public facade while removing the source of their power. In my experience this type of adventuring – political intrigues, problems that can’t be resolved with a blaster – is harder to do and very hard to do well. But many players like games of subtle intrigue where covert action is essential, and it certainly enables the GM to keep his favorite bad guys alive and causing trouble for longer. Even though Iceland comes from a Viking heritage, it doesn’t necessarily present the kind of climate where you can just bash your enemy until he hands over his potions – unlike a lot of classic fantasy adventuring worlds. Such a world probably also means that the PCs will be accepted even by communities that might side with their enemies, but once they cross the rubicon they are doomed – no one will take them in even if threatened, and even if not on the run from the law they will face a miserable existence. Can they turn this on their enemies? And how does it change play to be aware of these rules?

I think it’s for these kinds of reasons that the Icelanders came to a parliament so early, and in the next post on this topic I’ll try to talk about the costs of war, variants of slavery, and the cultural sophistication of the early medieval period.

fn1: I guess it’s hard for Europeans to grasp, but for Australians a place like Norway or Denmark is exotic; for Japanese, the UK is exotic. So while Europeans might look at Norway and think, “meh, Vikings” and consider Australia a foreign and alien landscape, for me everything Nordic is new and exciting.

fn2: It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry on the mid-winter foods and festival of Iceland makes it clear the festival was revived (or created!) in the 50s, and that although it was based on historical foods these foods weren’t necessarily staples of the diet. This is a really cool and interesting example of invented culture, but I’m guessing that the foods used served the role I ascribe to them here, as mid-winter survival foods – just like sausages and smoked meats elsewhere in Europe, or that weird and disgusting rotten fish in Sweden.

fn3: I think I should elaborate on this in future

fn4: I don’t claim to agree with this view, or to know much of anything about it

Following my thoughts on post-scarcity fantasy, I found myself reading the Chronicles of the Black Company, which presented me with a range of examples of a world where the relationship between magic and culture is not static, and magic is not treated as a technology that fell from the sky. Where a lot of fantasy worlds seem to have been designed as straight depictions of a medieval world with magic unthinkingly bolted on, Cook treats it as a living part of the world, rare but subject to innovation and capable both of causing social change and being adapted and enhanced by it’s society, as well as interacting with undone technology. We are also presented with an idea that is often ignored or under-played in classic fantasy: the importance of research, literacy and the historical record.

There are many examples of innovative use of magic in this book, mostly in the military context. The simplest example is its use in spying and finding spies. The Black Company keeps its use of wizards very secret, like Guinness and its use of statistics, and as a result its enemies never understand how the Company can know so much about them, nor how they can catch spies and scouts so well. The Company exploits this by spreading misinformation and suspicion, giving the impression that it has spies everywhere and deliberately spreading a reputation for cunning and counter-espionage. Wizards in this world are rare, and the Company ruthlessly exploits the relative advantage they give it, as well as both protecting them and keeping them secret.

The wizards also fashion minor amulets and magic items when they are really essential, and though they aren’t powerful they serve to give Company members a slight edge at certain times. Their mighty leaders, the Taken, go further than this, however, employing magic liberally in battle to destroy, mislead and hamper the enemy. Storms, powerful chemical weapons, fireballs, illusions and all manner of enchantment tricks are employed, as well as magic to rally the troops. The Taken also have flying carpets, which early on in the war they use primarily for their own personal missions. Later on, as matters get more pressing, they use them to ferry key Company members about and later still for troop transport. Finally they start building larger carpets which are designed to glide, fitted with ballistas, and used as aerial attack platforms. Eventually simple bombs are designed, and they enter a kind of aerial warfare arms race with their enemy. This is the kind of thing that I expect magic to do in the world, but very rarely see described with any sense in the genre. Cook further backs this up with occasional references to other innovations: at one point, for example, Croaker is given a painkiller derived from a rare locally-sourced herb. He immediately seeks out it’s name and suggests stockpiling it for the Company, only to discover that the Taken are considering cultivating it after the war for civilian use. This is how I expect any rational person to react to a magic or medicinal herb, but in most fantasy stories this knowledge remains strangely sequestered, and is never converted into any benefit for the wider community. In this book, the eternal bad guys think about it as soon as they see the possibilities it contains.

The most refreshing aspect of Cook’s approach to fantasy in his world is his depiction of research. Croaker,being the Annalist, is literate and aware of the importance of documents, and his Company consider documents to be more important than loot. At one point they stumble on a cache of key rebel documents in a captured camp and as soon as they learn what they’ve got they become ruthless beyond compare. They kill every rebel captive who might identify that they were there, set a trap to delay reinforcements, and flee with the documents before the soldiers have had any time for pillage. Amongst these documents they find evidence that they may be able to learn the true names and history of the Taken, and possession of these documents becomes the most important consideration of the story. At later stages of the series Croaker and some of the Taken prioritize the safety of these documents over that of their men or their treasure, and exhaust themselves researching them. Even the knowledge that they possess them is a death sentence for anyone not of the Company. I don’t think I have ever read a fantasy story where research is so explicitly worked into the narrative and so key to military success, and it’s both refreshing and enlightening. Obviously other stories – e.g. The Lord of the Rings – have the success of research as a trigger in the narrative, but this story works the ideas of research, espionage and secrecy into the fabric of the story in a much more sophisticated way.

This book’s treatment of magic as an integral and living component of the world is a good example of what I was pining for in my discussion of post-scarcity fantasy. It shows how much richer and more interesting the fantasy genre can be when people think more deeply about the role magic plays in the world than just seeing it as the domain of pre-destined teenagers and bearded old men.

In my reading of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company I was, of course, confronted with scenes of violence and rapine such as one might expect of a company of mercenaries fighting on the side of an undead evil. However, I was also struck by the difference between the depiction of this aspect of the story and it’s depiction in, for example, the tv adaptation of A Game of Thrones, about which I have complained previously.

Taking A Game of Thrones as an example, we see a modern “gritty” fantasy writer’s view of the behavior we might expect of men and soldiers in a world where women have few rights, war has no laws, and the all moral decisions are supposedly painted in shades of grey. In Martin’s depiction, men are constantly spouting venomous, misogynist language, sex work is ubiquitous and glamorized, women are under constant threat of rape and rape culture is omnipresent and accepted. There is very little sense that men even see rape as wrong (except perhaps as a property crime), or that soldiers and victors should (or even could) be expected to act with any decency. We also don’t see any evidence that gender inequality might be differently constructed in a world of magic and dragons. Instead we have a vision of a world that you can’t help but think of as a misogynist teenager’s daydreams.

In Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company we see the same setting, of gender inequality and war with no laws, but instead of reading the tale of men who have to make hard moral decisions to win, we find ourselves squarely on the side of a bunch of famously bad-arsed mercenaries fighting on behalf of an ancient and powerful evil. This is an evil that takes no prisoners and allows it’s favorites to commit any crime. So how is this setting depicted?

First of all, we see that our soldiers take no prisoners – they often kill their captives, and torture is done wherever necessary. They also use rape as both a tool of war and a reward. But neither activity is dwelt on in the text at all, and there is not really any point in the story where the plot takes a turn such as to make these unsavoury activities necessary to the story or to bring them to the fore in the narrative. Furthermore, although we get the impression that some of the main characters may be capable of it or may have done it – certainly Croaker orders or condones the murder of both military and civilian prisoners, including the elderly – we don’t see it as necessarily pleasant for them, and we don’t get the impression they think it is not wrong. In general rape is seen as a crime that soldiers can get away with, those who don’t want to are respected for it, and men who commit acts of violence to protect e.g. children are even given extra leniency in considering their punishments. There is no revelling in rape culture here, but a kind of guilty acceptance of it as one of the many bad things that happen in war. The Black Company is composed of exiles and criminals and held together only by it’s own internal honor and allegiances, so it is generally expected that soldiers don’t turn on their own over external moral principles, but this doesn’t stop them from condemning the crimes their members commit, and it certainly doesn’t require that the author revel in them, or enable his readers to. This is rape culture with a context, not stripped of its historical and social meaning and presented to the reader as a kind of warporn.

We also see a very different depiction of female characters in this story. Being a story about a company of male soldiers, most characters are male, but two characters in particular are women, and some are of indeterminate gender for much of the story. The women come from both sides, and both wield great power. One is perhaps supernatural and both are magical. Both expect equality as a consequence of their temporal power and the men around them give it without question. These women, like most of the characters in the story, have human flaws, but their flaws are not the usual kind of gender-specific hysterics and weaknesses one expects of a fantasy story. Indeed, one of these women is a rape survivor, but it’s not particularly relevant to her character and she has no obvious weaknesses or flaws as a consequence of it. Certainly her character and narrative role remain largely unrelated to this, so she is not defined by the acts of men. Indeed, although both characters enter the story initially in relation to the evil acts of the men around them, they soon define their own place in the world and supplant the men whose shadow they might otherwise have been expected to remain within. And there is certainly no way you can claim, as some do in relation to Martin’s work, that only a terrible fate befalls powerful and successful women.

Another aspect of this story that I really liked was the ability of these women to form non-sexual relationships with men. There is one relationship particularly that would surely be expected to become sexual under the standard fantasy conventions, but in this story it remains a friendship, and neither member of the friendship seems challenged by this. These are real human relations as we might imagine them in a medieval world where gender inequality is commonplace.

This book offers us examples of how we should expect modern writers to provide us a realistic view of a dark and vicious fantasy world, without either sugar-coating the bad stuff or revelling in it. Cook manages to present a world of gender inequality where vile deeds are commonplace without making us think that he admires it or we should enjoy it. He also asks questions about how women’s role might change in the presence of magic, and assumes that essentially our relations would retain their fundamental humanity in such a world. This is very different from what I saw in A Game of Thrones, and, I submit, a far more mature approach to the sub-genre and to fantasy writer’s interpretation of misogyny and violence in the medieval world.

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