RPG cosmology

It’s often bugged me that fantasy writers don’t take advantage of the cosmology of their worlds to examine how social, political and economic relations would change in a magically-imbued world. It’s not as if this is without precedent: sci-fi writers do it all the time, but for some reason fantasy writers can’t move past a grotty mediaeval slum, modeled on (usually) the social relations of 15th century Europe – a very poor period of our history that surely would have been completely different if the people there had access to magic. Iain M. Banks has managed to envisage a galaxy with no limits, due to what he calls post-scarcity economics; this is based on the availability of technology that essentially frees humanity from the constraints of limited energy, and the ability to travel very very fast. This kind of technology is available in fantasy worlds too: magic fundamentally breaks the law of conservation of energy, which means that, in theory, the achievements of fantasy societies are only limited by their imagination. How would a society with unlimited energy function? How would class, race and gender relations change in a world where, for example, no one gets the clap and women never die in childbirth? What happens to feudal relations in a society where plants grow magically, and no one ever needs to go hungry? Why don’t fantasy writers try to explore this concept?

I thought I’d take a look at how this works through access to the fantasy role-playing canon. Using the D&D 3rd edition DMG and Players Handbook, let’s consider how we could construct the social relations of a small fantasy town.We’ll take a development focus, just as if it were a poor developing nation in the modern world, so our key interest is to increase wealth by:

  • Reducing child and maternal mortality
  • Improving agricultural production
  • Infrastructure development
  • Access to universal healthcare

These roughly mean we’re covering most of the millenium development goals. In the real world, the MDGs haven’t been met, even with all the developed world throwing our aid resources at them; those MDGs that have been met have largely been due to development in China. Some countries are held back by HIV/AIDS, others by war or under-development. Let’s see what happens if a single mediaeval town got to open the D&D Player’s Handbook and make it real.

The Demographics of Faustville

Faustusville is a town of 10,000 people, ruled by a benevolent, enormously intelligent and stunningly good looking dictator called Lord Faustus, who has a harem of 20 incredibly good-looking women, is revered by his people, and has written a book of sayings, The Little Green Book of Faust, that all his people love to hear readings from at their (completely voluntary) 4 hour Sunday community meetings. Everyone loves him, and it is his plan to keep it that way through an extensive development program. By improving the health and wealth of his people he aims to:

  • Make them richer (so that he can collect more taxes)
  • Make them tougher (so that no one overruns his community)
  • Make them love him even more (if this is possible)

From the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide we can estimate the total number of magic-users in this community (see Appendix 1): it’s a surprisingly large number. In fact, there are a total of 118 people capable of divine magic, 128 capable of arcane magic, and 4 semi-magic users (i.e. rangers and paladins). This is without including adepts and bards (the movies in this town will be great!) Fully 2.6% of the community are magically capable, which is not so extreme really. There are only 56 Clerics, which is probably enough to maintain two churches.

Of the remaining people, let’s assume the following:

  • Birth rates: birth rates in this town will not be those of a developing nation like Afghanistan, due to the primary intervention I’m going to propose, so I’m modelling them on a country like Chile: about 14.3/1000, or 143 people per year
  • The black death: this is the worst disease that can possibly strike the community, and I calculate the death rate for this (from Wikipedia) to be about 1 in 9. That’s right, wikipedia tells me that in 1348 -1350 (two years!) the black death killed 100 million people out of a global population of 450 million – which is about 50 million per year, giving an incidence rate of 1/9 per year.
  • HIV/AIDS: if there were to be an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Faustusville, it would strike hard (no condoms – though actually you could probably create them using certain spells). Let’s assume that, like their leader, Faustusites are a bunch of libertines. HIV incidence rates in, for example, Uganda are probably about 0.48 per 100 person years (they had 120,000 new infections last year in a population of 37 million; if you assume 25 million sexually active, this gives you about 0.48 per 100py). Let’s triple this and get 1.2 per 100 person years. Uganda is not the worst-affected country in Africa, but it has a high prevalence and countries with twice its incidence are probably those that are suffering economic consequences from HIV; this is the sort of disease that, if you could magically cure it, you would be well-served in so doing.

So, in this context, what can our noble Lord Faustus do?

Development Through Magic

Clerics and Infant Mortality

The first development goal Lord Faustus prioritizes is infant and maternal mortality. Infant and maternal mortality are linked, and high infant mortality is a key driver of high rates of childbirth. High childbirth rates lead to high poverty. To improve productivity in society and reduce population growth, we need to attack infant mortality. In the real world this involves a complex system of vaccinations, childbirth centres and ante-natal care. In Faustusville, it involves clerics. The primary cause of infant mortality is injury during childbirth,preventable disease and diarrhea, all of which are preventable (except some of the injuries). How can my clerics fix this?

  • Cure Light Wounds: My clerics can heal a maximum of 125d8+99 hps per day[1]. No one in my town will die in childbirth due to any of the common physical sequelae
  • Cure Disease: My clerics and druids can cure a maximum of 27 diseases per day. No one will get gangrene through industrial accidents, poor birth conditions, or in fact any other possible cause. Septicaemia will never happen after childbirth.
  • Create Water: My clerics and druids can create at least 125,000 litres of pure water per day with a mere cantrip, which is enough for a city of 4x the size of Faustusville. No child will ever die of diarrhea in Faustusville

With 143 births per year we’re seeing one every 2.5 days, roughly. I have 10 divine spell casters capable of casting Remove Disease, which means I should be able to have at least one of these clerics on hand at every birth. If the lower level ones can’t handle it, the higher-level ones have Heal. Any trauma that might have long-term effects can be fixed through Restoration spells. My clerics can cast 2 Raise Dead spells per day. There is no reason to expect that anyone should ever die in childbirth.

Note also that Druids can create Goodberries days before birth; women giving birth can take these in the first instance and call clerics later if they continue to experience difficulties. And no one will die from caesarian section: not only can we make holy blades with extremely good surgical properties, but we can heal everyone involved immediately afterwards, and bring the dead back to life if we stuff up. In fact, in the worst case we could just kill the mother, cut out the baby, and bring the mother back to life; done quickly, this could even be more humane (and I have clerics who can kill the mother with a word).

Clerics and Disease

I also have some Paladins. In total, my divine spell-casters can cure 192 diseases per week. This means that they can prevent an outbreak of black death in its first week, and the town is completely capable of dealing with black death, Spanish ‘flu, a full-blown HIV outbreak and ebola all in the same week. It’s also trivial to stock up on remove disease potions; one potion costs 30 xp and 375 gps, and the clerics can make them every day. 375gps is a lot of money, but a wand of Continual Flame will fetch 2000gps, and my wizards can make 16 a month without losing a level – the trade options are huge. This means that in a year we can stock up on enough Remove Disease potions to handle a major outbreak of any single disease. In fact, there is no reason that anyone should ever die in Faustusville except through old age or war. Disease and accidental death are things of the past. Even industrial deaths of the worst kind are completely irrelevant -we have Heal, Raise Dead and Restoration spells, so even heavy industry is largely rendered completely safe.

Nothing Ever Breaks in Faustusville

Mending is a 0 level spell. My Clerics, Druids and Wizards can all use it, and this means they can easily repair up to 300 or so broken minor objects every day. So if someone has invested a lot of money in a saddle, some good shoes, a large amphora for the storage of oil, whatever – it will last forever, essentially.

Agricultural production, trade and consumption

We have up to 13 Plant Growth spells per day, and my clerics can feed at least 117 people per day just through magic. They can create enough pure water for the whole town, with a lot to spare for storage, baths, whatever. This means that agricultural production in this town will vastly exceed consumption, and Faustusites can trade a huge agricultural surplus with neighbouring towns. We’re probably all very fat. There is no scarcity in winter, because we can preserve food and clerics can create food. In the depths of winter, if every cleric focused all their spells on this one create food and water spell, we could probably feed the whole town. No one will ever starve in Faustusville. No drought will ever reduce agricultural production (we can create rain with the Create Water spell). We can pollute the river with all our effluent, and clerics will just purify it.


The clerics in Faustusville are capable of casting Control Water spells that will drive a total of 68600 cubic feet of water into a dam. A 1.6kW hydro-electric dam requires 17200 cubic feet of water flowing from 20′ above the location of the plant, so if we lived near the sea the clerics could produce about 6kW of electricity a day (at least) through this spell; they can add small amounts using the Create Water spell. Furthermore, wizards and clerics can both cast Continual Flame; in about 3 months we could have installed lighting in every house, shop and factory in Faustusville, which never runs out and has significant effects:

  • never have to make or buy candles
  • factory and shop working hours are extended in winter
  • reduced risk of fires

The latter is particularly important; fire was a deadly risk in mediaeval times, and could destroy huge sections of a city at massive cost. Though obviously, Faustusville doesn’t need a fire brigade. We just have a wizard with the Quench Flame spell. But if that doesn’t work, we’ve got huge amounts of spare water…

Magic And Justice

Mediaeval society was capricious and superstitious, with strange methods for determining the truth about crimes and criminals. Not so Faustusville. No one is ever wrongly convicted in Faustusville, and very few crimes go unpunished. This is because we have a wide range of judicial methods at our disposal. Besides the obvious investigative tools – True Seeing, Detect Evil, etc. – we have an excellent selection of interrogation tools:

  • Detect Thoughts: Second level! I just need to ask a few questions and my wizard scans surface thoughts. My wizard can be invisible while I do this; we can disguise it as a bar conversation using an Alter Self spell. I have a total of 24 wizards capable of this level of sophistication, so investigations will be over pretty quickly. But I don’t convict someone on the back of this alone, oh no
  • Zone Of Truth: Another 2nd level spell. Once we’re suspicious that you’re either a suspect or know something about the suspect, we call you in and slap on the Zone of Truth. You don’t even need to know it’s there – you walk into it and bang! you’re answering my questions honestly. Not only does this mean you can’t hide your own crimes; it means you can’t intimidate witnesses, and you can’t get your family and friends to cover for you. And note: rape is non-existent in my society, because every woman knows that she can make an allegation and the truth will always be discovered. There’s no he-said-she-said in my world, and no false allegations. The only way you can protect yourself is to bribe the wizard who interrogates you; but this is trivial to prevent, because I can roll a die and select another wizard to interrogate the wizard who interrogated you. Which means that no wizard will ever be able to be corrupt. In fact I have enough spells to randomly interrogate every wizard every week as to whether they have been corrupt in the last week – and to randomly interrogate every official functionary every year. I also have Detect Lies spells to back me up. How’s that for “enhanced governance”?
  • Commune: If there’s any doubt, I can just ask the gods themselves whether a particular person is guilty.
  • Sending: Also note that you can’t run, and you can’t hide. I can send a message to every neighbouring town days before you get there, if you decide to run; and my more powerful wizards can fly or teleport there ahead of you if they know where you’re going. And once I get there I will always find you with my Locate Creature spells. There is no escaping justice in Faustusville, and the right of appeal is absolute: a cleric just asks the Gods, in a Zone of Truth.

And if that fails, I have Power Word, Pain.

This is almost infinitely better than our current justice system. Even the death penalty is pretty simple – I have Slay Living, Cloudkill and Inflict Critical Wounds. You will die when I tell you to, painlessly, and I will destroy the body. Plus, I will resurrect the person you killed, heal any negative emotional effects on the person you injured and/or raped, and if necessary make them forget the whole experience so they don’t have to relive it. And I can use charm person on your friends and family so they don’t resent the act afterwards.

What’s the point of crime in such a world?

Infrastructure Development

Modern society is made much better through paved roads and sewage systems. This is all pretty trivial in Faustusville. We have Shape Stone to make it easy to set up particular structures; paved roads are trivial – we dump rock on them, cast Rock to Mud, smooth it out, and then cast Mud to Rock. We can soften stone to make it easy to work with, then harden stone to make a structure. Paved roads with drainage ditches, sewage systems built through simple magical procedures, and magical methods to purify water and produce water where there isn’t enough, in a society with street lights and house lighting that never go out. We can make dams for water, and we can move water upstream as well as down, so our water wheels and mills never fail to function. If we want, we can build esoteric towers and crazy structures through the work of the Druids of the town. No one needs to live in a hovel, and we will never have a shortage of firewood for heating because we don’t need it for anything else and anyway, we can just grow more with our Plant Growth spells.


This is the best part of the whole deal. There are two wizards capable of casting Permanency, so the spell can be cast twice a day. It costs 500 xp to make Comprehend Languages permanent, so we can basically cast it on every 2nd child, and then every year the wizards will have to go adventuring to maintain their current level. With a bit of research, this effect could be extended to intelligence, so we could cast permanency on a Fox’s Cunning spell, for every 2nd or 3rd child born. Note that this is a bootstrapping process. We start with our existing mages researching this spell, and casting it as much as they’re able (with permanency) on the next generation. As this generation gets older, they select the best and train them to be wizards. The number of children capable of becoming wizards increases, so we get more in the next generation, and so on. Eventually, we have enough wizards to cast Fox’s Cunning on every child; our population is 4 points of intelligence smarter! Which also means it’s better able to cast other spells, so in time will become wiser, tougher, etc. Ultimately, over maybe 4 generations, we’ll find that people of Faustusville roll 3d6+4 in order for their stats –  race of essentially super heroes, who never die before their old age, can speak every language, never get sick, never experience disability or madness, and live in a crime-free society.


The D&D magic system is, as magic systems go, pretty limiting, but I think I’ve shown that even under this system groups of wizards and/or clerics acting together can achieve almost anything. As an individual cleric you may not be able to go more than 3 or 4 rooms deep into the dungeon; in concert with 50 others you can build any building, solve any crime, and prevent any epidemic. In short, you can build a post-scarcity economy. And this is not the limit; the DMG tells us that cities of larger than 12000 people have an even larger number of higher-level magicians, and commensurately more lower level ones. The world where these wizards, druids and clerics live will indeed be a post-scarcity paradise. Of course, as our society becomes richer magical technology becomes more common (as it is easier to build and trade). Ultimately I imagine every family will have a few magical trinkets to hand down to their children – +1 charisma, or +1 strength, maybe a ring of resistance +2, ultimately ioun stones and magical mounts and all sorts of other things. And although it might take longer, even societies with a much smaller number of magically capable people will do the same thing, ultimately. I’ve constructed this post-scarcity economy in  a society where only 2.6% of the whole population are magically capable, and the vast majority of them are 1st or 2nd level. But even then, it’s clear that no serious problem will ever afflict anyone in this society. Even without experiencing an industrial revolution, it will attain a state where crime is always caught, no one ever dies except by old age, and everyone lives in a good house in a clean and beautiful place. Gender relations can be revolutionized, class relations become irrelevant, and injustice disappears.

But for some reason almost all fantasy literature ignores this kind of concept. The stories remain bogged down in a filthy, primitve, ignorant feudal world, where life is hard, racism and sexism is rife, and injustice is the order of the day. Does it seem reasonable that this is even possible in a world where the basic principles of our mediaeval history don’t apply? And what does this tell us about the imaginary space that the fantasy genre occupies?

Appendix 1: Magical Complement of Faustusville

1 x lvl 12
1 x lvl 7
2 x lvl 6
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1
Total: 46
1 x lvl 9
1 x lvl 12
2 x lvl 6
2 x lvl 5
8 x lvl 3
16 x lvl 2
32 x lvl 1
1 x lvl 9
1 x lvl 8
2 x lvl 5
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 8
1 x lvl 7
4 x lvl 4
8 x lvl 2
16 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 8
1 x lvl 10
2 x lvl 5
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 10
1 x lvl 9
4 x lvl 5
8 x lvl 3
16 x lvl 2
32 x lvl 1

fn1: Yes, I calculated this and other spell-level figures. I did this on the assumption that all my clerics had no wisdom bonuses to spells. If they do have wisdom bonuses, their usefulness increases significantly. Same applies for the wizards (and did I mention the movies the bards can make?)

The French soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt were so exhausted by the time that they entered battle that they could barely have fought, according to new research reported in the Guardian. A professor of biomechanics asked staff from the Royal Armouries Museum to walk and run in replica armour from the 15th century, based on a variety of designs, and took measurements of oxygen use, which enables estimates of energy consumption. The Guardian website has a video of how they did it.

Apparently running in a typical suit of armour uses 2 times as much energy as running in normal clothes, because the armour weighs up to 30kg; but worse than that, running in a backpack carrying 30kg of weight uses only 1.7 times as much energy. This is because the armour distributes some of that 30kg onto the limbs, which move more than the back during ordinary movement. Additionally, armour constricts breathing. The news report also points out that in Agincourt the French had to slog through mud, which would further add to their energy load. Interestingly, armour is comparatively more efficient when running (1.9 times the energy load) than walking (2.3 times).

I’ve always been suspicious of mediaeval re-enactors oft-repeated claims that plate armour is easy to move in and not that exhausting. I suspect this comes from their limited experience of battle. I’m guessing that most mediaeval re-enactment battles cut straight to the chase, and ignore the lived experience of 15th century soldiers. Most battles probably consisted of many hours of standing and walking, and obviously we don’t do things like mediaeval re-enactment in order to reproduce the tedium of ancient warfare (or the cholera and dysentery, for that matter). So if you cut out the long, arduous process of getting to and from the battle, waiting fororders, etc. the armour probably doesn’t seem so bad. But if you think about moving around for hours in it, and the battle itself just a short part in the middle, you can see that the energy expense of just walking would be a terrific burden on the use of armour. When we think about adventurers in caves and dungeons, slogging around for hours in their full plate, it makes sense that it should put an inordinate penalty on their combat actions to represent this. Warhammer 3 reproduces this nicely with punitive encumbrance rules that quickly punish characters with fatigue penalties; I don’t think D&D was ever so good at this (largely because no one ever bothered with the encumbrance rules, I guess). Of course Rolemaster does it with complex movement manoeuvre penalties, which would be really good if they were combined with fatigue (which I don’t recall RM using).

I think the Guardian has probably over-egged the pudding on this one though, so here’s a few additional thoughts:

  • The study subjects weren’t fit: Some workers at the Royal Armouries are probably re-enactment types[1], and might be used to armour, but at a guess most of them weren’t that fit or trained for running in armour. My guess is that, just as longbowmen trained to use the bow, mediaeval soldiers trained for their armour, though this guess could itself be over-optimistic (“training” is actually a pretty modern concept). So it could be that the relative burden of armour compared to no armour is reduced in mediaeval soldiers compared to modern archivists, since fitness training tends to adapt the body to specific activities
  • The study subjects were modern: and thus almost certainly physically healthier than a mediaeval soldier, with better diet and less childhood illnesses to reduce fitness. However, they were likely also bigger, and bigger people (I think) use energy less efficiently. But one should never underestimate the importance of good modern diet, housing and healthcare (as well as childhood fitness training at school) in improving the fitness of modern people over their ancestors. So it could be that armour was even more exhausting for the mediaeval knight
  • Study bias due to armour type: Wikipedia tells me that actually most soldiers didn’t use the type of armour depicted in the video on the Guardian site, and were more likely to wear weaker wrought iron or composite armour types, that are probably also easier to move in (though wrought iron full plate could be awful, I would guess!) It also tells us that the elite knights in the vanguard at Agincourt[2] were relatively unharmed by the longbows. Still, they would then have to engage in melee combat against lightly-armoured and mobile foes while exhausted. So the best tactic for these guys would be to ensure they were surrounded by less heavily-armoured allies while they regained their breath; unfortunately, the longbowmen would have reduced the numbers of those less armoured mooks quite hideously (the stats and description of the bows at that wikipedia entry suggest that for the lighter-armoured French soldiers Agincourt would have been truly terrifying). In any case, the army fielded at Agincourt would not have looked much like the army being tested in the linked study
  • The longbow was actually not that effective: Wikipedia also tells us that, although they had a few successful battles, the French quickly got the measure of the longbowman as a weapon of war, and in some battles either defeated them or routed them. This is probably because tactics based on the longbow depend on this phenomenon of exhaustion – you thin out the lightly-armoured troops in the charge, and by the time the knights reach you they’re too buggered to fight. But I guess this depends on either a numerically superior force or having very good positioning to force a long charge (as happened at Agincourt, with mud). This goes to show that tactics are ultimately more important than most single weapons or devices. Also, I guess that although the longbowman appears, superficially, as an appealing strategic investment (lightly armoured, so cheap to equip, and manpower was something every mediaeval country had an excess of), he was probably actually a type of elite professional troop that was highly expensive to develop (15 years on that bow!), and you only need to beat them in battle once or twice to have essentially destroyed a once-in-a-generation investment. So maybe as a military tactic the longbow was as much of a dead end as the knight. The pikeman, on the other hand…

It’s nice to see science attempting to answer some of these questions about how the ancient world waged war or achieved some of its more impressive peace-time achievements (like the science of longitude, cathedrals, etc.) Some of what we think of now as quite barbaric or backward practices, or don’t esteem because they’re trivial in the modern world (like church-building) actually required prodigious talent and willpower (like any kind of mediaeval warfare) or skill, and it’s good to appreciate that.

fn1: If you’re from the Museum and you’re reading this, please don’t sue me for this slur

fn2: Ah, the days when the people who chose to go to war actually had to lead the charge! I bet if that were expected of your average modern politician, we would have much much lower “defence” budgets that were actually for defence.

Definitely a Celtic fan…

From amongst the classical typology, of course. In life Jesus was clearly a powerful cleric, capable at the very least of Create Food and Water, Dismissal, and Water Walk, as well as the various Cure and Remove Curse spells. We see no evidence of his having used the reverse forms of these spells – except perhaps in throwing the money lenders from the temple, which may have been simply mundane combat – but he must clearly have been an evil cleric, because he came back from the dead under his own magical powers, and the various guidebooks make it clear that this is something only ever done by evil clerics. He also appears to have come back in a form possessed of its previous memories and with a strong will, which rules out the possibility that he was just a restless spirit (reasonable to wonder, given the nature of his death). At the very least he was possessed of a vengeful will, but more likely he planned his return from the dead in some way.

So considering this, he must have been either a Wight, Vampire or Lich. But I’m pretty confident from the descriptions of his actions after his reanimation that he ventured out during the day, which rules out Vampirism. I’m not clear on whether Wights have a problem with sunlight, and the only extant description of a Wight – from Tolkien’s work, which addresses a time that I think predates christianity – isn’t clear on the matter as far as I can remember. But anyway, Wights don’t usually retain magical powers, and also we have no evidence that Undead Jesus could do level drains, and he did seem to at least retain possession of the Geas spell[1]. So, I’m thinking he must have been a lich.

This is bad news for the world, but it does explain how christendom spread so quickly after his reanimation. It might also explain some of the subsequent troubles between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Clearly the elder figures of Judaism in that time were wizards of various kinds, and probably wanted rid of this troublesome lich; while I don’t think it’s a stretch to presume that Islam’s founder was some form of Arabian paladin (as well as a social reformer), so he would also have had problems with liches. Though his disputes with the elder figures of Judaism suggests he may have had a problem with magic-users too, so maybe he was a form of Barbarian[2].

So perhaps the great historical movements of the early christian era need to be viewed in terms of questing adventurers in classic classes, rather than this silly stuff about social-cultural movements etc. You heard it here first.

Now, the obvious result of this lich operating behind the veil of chrstianity is his influence on the popes. As time passed he would surely have crumbled to demi-lich status, and been interred somewhere in the vatican, from where he would control the various popes in a vice-like grip. Maybe even Avignon’s anti-pope represented a genuine clerical reaction against him? The problem of course with killing a lich is to find its phylactery, which I think many would construe as being the Turin shroud; but we’ve seen this is a fake, so what else could it be? My suspicion is that Jesus is a cunning old lich, and has disguised his phylactery in the form of the piss-christ. He knows that the greatest enemies of christendom are the liberal-arts media, so of course he has disguised his phylactery in a form that they will defend to the death.

Truly, 2000 year old Undead minds are devious.

Note that this theory isn’t without its detractors. Some experts believe that the Pope is a devil, possibly even Satan himself, exerting his will on earth through the powerful focal point of Scottish soccer. Despite the obvious improvements that the campaign against the Pope’s influence have brought to the Scottish game, I don’t think there is any evidence to support claims that Jesus, the Pope or any of the other elders of any of the main churches of Europe or the Middle East are Infernal Outsiders. Though I grant you the possibility that Tony Blair is.

In any case, the best solution is clearly to take off and nuke the entire site (the Vatican, and Scotland) from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…

fn1: Or is it Quest? I always confuse which one is a clerical spell. But maybe Jesus was a cleric/magic-user. He seems to have had access to a lot of enchantment-type magic that is more traditionally seen amongst wizards…

fn2: I think the Barbarian character class is an interestingly misnamed one, because the word in western history implies a savage or wilderness-oriented figure, but the character class actually allows a much broader range of characters than this. For example, the bedouin or the tribesmen of Afghanistan during the era of the crusades could probably be construed as “barbarians” under the character class system, but I think they actually had quite a sophisticated written culture, and at least in Afghanistan they had cities, armies, orchards, etc. … see Flashman for descriptions of the palaces and cultural practices of Afghanistan in, e.g. the 19th century for an example of “enlightened” “barbarians”.

Recently I have been watching The Walking Dead, a new Zombie apocalypse survival TV show from the US. So far – 5 episodes in – it’s awesome, with all the hallmarks of a good zombie show (zombies, good make up, gore, tension, nowhere to run) and all the hallmarks of a good US TV show (fine plot development, excellent acting, good scripting), and at the moment I’ve already enjoyed more zombie tv (5 hours’ worth, roughly) than I can usually bear. I won’t say more about the TV show yet except that it really is very good and you, gentle reader, should be scaring yourself grey on it as soon as possible.

This post is more about the sociological implications of zombification, something I don’t usually think about but was brought to contemplate by this essay on zombies as symbol of working class uprising. (I think this article is well worth a read even if you don’t agree with this part of its conclusions – it has some interesting ideas about keeping-up-with-the-jones’s and zombies as an allegory for individualism in modern pop culture that I quite like ). Zombies are rich with symbolism and, like Winnie the Pooh, just begging for analysis from every political and ideological perspective, so it’s no surprise that a socialist would fixate on them as a symbol of bourgeois fears of a working class revolution. I think there are a few flaws in that image, which I will describe in a moment, but the article got me to thinking about the rich symbolism of the modern zombie, and some of the many metaphors they can represent. Let’s go through a few.

Zombie as Working Class Revolutionary

This is the idea presented in the linked post, that Zombies represent middle class fears of the working class/ lumpen proles rising up to get them and take their stuff or destroy their lifestyle. Under this metaphor, zombies represent all those huddled faceless masses who are excluded from the tranquil pleasantries of middle class life, and whose exclusion is an essential element of the continuation of middle class life. In the zombie movie they come to take your pleasant life away from you, and you have to fight them off. This is a superficially interesting metaphor but I don’t think it works, because it’s a-cultural and a little bit a-historical. Particularly, the Zombie movie sprang up in 50s/60s America, when the industrial working class were well respected and integrated into American life, and the lumpen proletariat (i.e. the long-term unemployed) didn’t really exist. Had the Zombie sprung up elsewhere, e.g. in 30s Europe, I can see the power of this metaphor, but it didn’t. Furthermore, the linked essay doesn’t seem to take account of the importance of race in America, and given that the Zombie movie originated there, I think it’s important to consider. The main social tension in the US in the 50s was the final destruction of the barriers keeping black Americans out of ordinary life, and there was a strong fear of the loss of the established peaceful order of things. I imagine to many Americans at that time black Americans were faceless masses who threatened them, and the zombie may make the perfect image of the black American they fear – even the name is a caribbean import!

Which isn’t to say that the original creators of the Zombie (Romero?) were scared of a black uprising. They just read the mood and saw an excellent theme for a story. The zombie has remained an enduring vehicle for expressing certain social fears, and doing so doesn’t mean that we the viewer (or the creator) themselves feel those fears directly.

Zombies as New Left Demonstrators

If there was any political movement in the US in the 50s and 60s that could have genuinely stirred mainstream middle-class fear, it was the New Left with its huge anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, marches for equality, desegregation riots, etc. These people actually presented in public for the first time in a generation as a mass of faceless people on TV, confronting out-numbered and beleaguered security forces and all emitting the same senseless, mindless noise (“slogans”). These people didn’t usually carry weapons, but overwhelmed security forces by means of their bare hands and weight of numbers. Worse still, anyone could be infected with this disease – your daughter, your brother, white or black people, they’re all down there at the flower-power sit in. If the earlier Zombie movies represented a fear of any radical movement or revolution, it was surely the New Left, and the New Left was many things but it was not socialist.

In this sense we can see the survivors as the image of the security state, having to police each other for signs of nascent zombification. In earlier movies the police state was quite benevolent – you had to be bitten by a zombie, and they could wait for you to die before they administered any radical measures. But in the newer versions – particularly 28 Days Later – we see a newer, very post-9/11 (and I would add, very British) form of pre-emptive security. In the early minutes of that movie we see a brief, perhaps 2 second long debate between two survivors, in which one has been bitten and the other one gives him barely a moment to protest before terminating him with extreme prejudice. This is the logic of the modern security state, of control orders and imprisonment without charge. It’s the post-apocalypse-cinema version of executing a Brazilian chap on a train because he might be a terrorist, and getting away with it.

Reclaiming and Neutralizing Undeath through Zombies

The earlier Zombie was explicitly Undead – “when hell is full the dead will walk the earth” – but later Zombies have become a biological phenomenon. In later movies – especially 28 Days Later but also The Walking Dead and maybe Biohazard – they are a biological phenomenon, explained through viral studies and, for all that biological phenomena are explicable and potentially curable, infinitely more terrifying than the earlier zombie. The virus is transmitted even through a drop of blood, and in some cases can turn you to a zombie before you even die. Rapid intervention is needed, any form of exposure is not to be trusted, and there is no redemption or salvation. In earlier movies, the infected could be given a period of grace, could even be allowed to die with dignity. Not so anymore, the only solution to the viral zombie is immediate and extreme eradication. This change in the modern Zombie obvious corresponds to the development of modern public health consciousness, particularly the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, that most terrifying of infectious diseases. But in transforming the Zombie from undead to biological, we have removed the terror of ghosts, hell and the grave – we have rendered the undead into merely the viral, another form of explicable natural law, a pest that can be controlled. We know we can end the disease, and we know that no viral phenomenon is beyond modern science and public health. The modern zombie transforms our understanding of undeath, from a mysterious curse or magic to a mere biological mistake, easily cured.

Note also that the 28 Days Later storyline explicitly reflects modern fears about the transmission of disease from animals to humans, and indeed incorporates one of the main suspected causes of HIV into the story.

Zombies as critique of Urban Planning

Note that through all the eras of the zombie movie, the prime action tends to take place in a modern urban development of the time. From the suburban house of the 60s, to the shopping mall of the 70s, the pub in Shaun of the Dead, the metropolis and then the military camp in 28 Days Later. These places figure in the consciousness of the time and are incorporated into the movie as a central place of conflict between the main characters, who are aware of their difference from the masses, and the masses themselves. We may be defending some ideal of urban planning (the detached home of the early movies), retreating to the bastion of the modern order because it supplies all our needs (the mall in the 70s movies) or finding ourselves betrayed by the complex urban structures of our modern lives (28 Days Later), but in all cases the latest debates in urban planning are central to the development of the story, at least until it takes on its inevitable survivalist theme. Even survivalism takes on some form relevant to the modern debate about how we are living or should live – the pub in Shaun of the Dead, and the military camp in post-9/11 28 Days Later. Zombies are the ultimate, mindless incursion into our urban planning dreams and nightmares.

Drawing a long (cross)bow

These ideas are all silly, of course, or limited in their validity – there is no single rhetorical or metaphorical meaning to a zombie story, and they’re all very easily debated or dismissed. But I think when we watch the movies they invoke a lot of these kinds of themes and the sociological and political commentary makes a welcome undercurrent to what is usually a gripping and powerful story. This is why I think zombie movies have enduring appeal, even when their format is often very similar. It’s the setting and the underlying ideological conflict that makes the otherwise formulaic stories new and interesting. They’re a very versatile blank canvas on which to paint ideological and sociological debates. While blowing brains out.

While I was travelling my blog attracted the attention of a Danish Fascist group, the Danish National Front, for its posts on Tolkien and fascism. A post went up on their message board indicating that the Tolkien books are recommended reading for fascists and giving my post on Tolkien’s racial theories as an explanation of why. I’m not, of course, going to give a link to the message board, since I don’t want to give them traffic (from my thousands of readers, ha!) and neither do I want to draw their attention (more than I have). The post about my blog only has two replies but one of the replies, translated in google translate, gives an excellent insight into how fascists and nazis think about Tolkien. Here it is, post-google:

There is no doubt that Tolkien’s books based on a Germanic mythology, even his linguistic inventions are rooted in language studies.

In contrast, Harry Potter pure fiction mixed with Marxist ideology of equality. I would never let my children read Harry Potter, but even read Tolkien’s books aloud to them – there is a readily available version of them as suitable for children and adolescents.

The post above this one also claims CS Lewis for the fascists, because

CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was surely also a racist or at least accused of it (especially for being anti-Muslim and producing Middle Eastern people as bad guys, etc). May I look at a time.

These two comments also give support to some of my claims about the conservative appeal of high fantasy.Note as well that this stuff transcends any individual national interpretation of Tolkien – now I’ve found it in the UK, Italy, America and Denmark. All strands of fascist thought in the Western world seem to have a strong appreciation of Tolkien’s racial and hierarchical themes, and see them as excellent propaganda material to expose their children to. They also don’t seem to have any concerns about the putative multiculturalism of the Fellowship, presumably because they see all the races of the West as representative of “white” men, and don’t care about the (huge) differences between dwarves, elves, halflings and men. The fact that there are no black men or “mongoloids” (Tolkien’s term) is more relevant to them than the fact that elves and dwarves are so racially different that they can’t even inter-breed[1].

This last point perhaps also is relevant in defense against the claim that the colours of the antagonists in Lord of the Rings are not symbolic of anything. Fascists take the whiteness of dwarves and elves as symbolically more important than the fact of their racial difference. This is a pathological level of focus on the real world notion of race, since their perception of skin colour transcends the very real, “scientific” differences described in the book. But they are largely only able to do this in the works of people like Tolkien and Lewis. I think that this ability to transcend the actual racial codification in the books, and to map onto it their own models, is made possible by the reassuring conservative environment of the books, and the germanic mythology underlying them. These books contain a lot of coda that reassure fascists that they are reading the “right” type of conservatism, and thus able to draw the “right” conclusions about the racial messages in the book.

I’ve read a lot of apologies for Tolkien’s worldview in my various posts about the racial theories inherent in them, but I think the way fascists view him and his work is a pretty clear sign that his politics is not worth rehabilitating. It’s possible to read Tolkien critically without losing enjoyment of the books, and it’s possible to play the fantasy RPGs that inherit his conservatism and racism with the same critical eye, without losing enjoyment of them (or indeed, enjoying those unrealistic aspects of their racial theory that make them so different to the real world). What it’s not possible to do, as far as I can tell, is read Tolkien while somehow claiming he is presenting a world devoid of racial theory, or even (as some seem to want) a world that is at least neutral with respect to modern standards of racial equality and racial determinism. This view of the books is only possible through sleight of hand (e.g. pretending the Fellowship is a multicultural symbol) or outright deception (e.g. claiming, as regularly happens, that the Southrons weren’t meant to be black). Fundamentally, it’s a text on scientific racism, and needs to be read as such.

Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great book. It just means that it’s a product of its times and, seen in a certain light, a work of virulent conservatism and racism. But so what? It’s still a fun read.

fn1: as far as we know…

In a recent skype conversation, one of my players from London accused my GMing style of being “very sandbox,” and even went so far as to imply that there is little difference between me and the OSR. This has me a little confused as to what sandboxing is, since I don’t do any of the following:

  • Random terrain generation
  • Random monster encounters
  • Random adventure generation
  • Morale checks, or any kind of non-deliberative decisions about monster behaviour

and, as far as I know, most of my campaigns have a strong plot element (though I tend to allow the players to decide what direction to go, including which side to pick).

So I’m wondering – if I don’t do any of these things, and I like “story,” is it possible to be a sandbox-GM? Jesus, these days I don’t really even make maps.

Today I discovered an interesting interview with one Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, which was conducted in 2003 by the German Tolkien fanclub (at least I assume that’s what it is). At that time it would appear he had been working on a research theme similar to that which I’ve gathered here and here, about whether Tolkien is racist, racialist, or vulnerable to interpretation as such. The interview contains support for the claims I’ve made before about how Tolkien can be read, and contains some interesting information I hadn’t previously found about the way in which Tolkien is used by the far right in Europe[1]. The interview came out in 2003 and is, I think, a bit unfair on Peter Jackson – I think Shapiro has a very uncharitable reading of the poster advertising The Two Towers.  I’m no film critic so I can’t say anything about the claim that

In visual terms, there are also uncanny references to both Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If so, that’s a bit disappointing, but it’s also maybe not unexpected – Leni Riefenstahl is supposed to have done revolutionary stuff, isn’t she?

Shapiro also suggests that Jackson’s film could have been tolerably done in a more multi-racial fashion, and says

For Jackson’s part, he gives viewers too little credit, since many contemporary fans in the “fantasy and role-playing community” of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Everquest often encourage players to avoid racial stereotypes in their games, Jackson makes no concession to ethnic heterogeneity and often seems not to have considered if a non-white viewer would feel that her or his dignity had been degraded by the film’s representations.

I don’t know if I agree with this – D&D et al are games which, while they superficially “avoid racial stereotypes,” tend to also err strongly on the side of making the protagonist white[2]. Also, these games strongly encourage racialism, and I’m not sure that racialism is compatible with “avoid racial stereotypes.”

Shapiro also states that he is aware of someone else (internet link now dead) who claims to have proof that Tolkien subscribed for 20 years to an extremely right-wing, racist magazine called the League for Empire Loyalists. I don’t think this claim can be tested from the comfort of my armchair, so I’d like to add that I know someone whose dog has eaten someone’s homework, and on that homework it was clearly written that Tolkien was a member of NAMBLA.

There is s sizable section of this interview which backs up my earlier evidence about how Tolkien is used by the far right. For example, the Heathen Front (some kind of long-since collapsed British organisation of right wing “volkists”) admired him as “racialist”, and he was also extremely popular on the far right in Italy. One far right movement even ran paramilitary youth groups called “camp Hobbits”, and infiltrated the Italian Tolkien Society in the 80s. The modern Italian far right developed from a rump movement that survived Mussolini, but it developed along very different lines – it eschewed the modernist futurism of pre-war fascism and instead developed a philosophy based on sacred fascism, in which a traditional and a modern world view are in constant conflict, with the traditional worldview slowly decaying but then reasserting itself. This decay is associated with a decline due to racial mixing and loss of religious strength. This ideology of the “sacred Right” is consistent with the themes in Tolkien’s work, and is a very common view across much modern extreme right thought – David Duke espouses it, it’s crawled all across the pages of Stormfront and the other far right websites[4], and the people who are closest associated with it also seem very likely to be Tolkien admirers. The links between the spiritual fathers of modern Italian fascism and Tolkien are well described in this essay, which also points out that modern fascism is now so diverse that it is difficult to ascribe it a single guiding philosophy or even to define it clearly as “fascism” anymore.

I think that had Tolkien’s work been popular in the ’30s it would probably not have been popular with the Italian fascists, who were much more into futurism and total war than they were into romantic recreation of bucolic rural utopias. It might have influenced those who wanted religious re-development under the regimes, but these people were never popular with their leaders[5].  Had it been associated with Fascism then I doubt it would be very popular now, either, so it’s all round good luck for us that he published just a tad late. But I think in the post-war age there are clear parallels between the mythology and cultural history of the Lord of the Rings and the tale of cultural decline and racial mixing which the modern far Right want to tell. It’s not a coincidence, because like his fellow fantasy authors (and pretty much all of the white world) in the pre-war era, Tolkien believed in the Aryan mythology, the now-discredited model of Aryan archaeology, eugenics and the dangers of racial mixing; and he was, apparently, on the right-wing of British literary activity. Because he wrote such a detailed, lyrical and evocative world based around these ideals, he has become the literary standard for those elements of the modern far right who subscribe to the same mythology. I think he would probably see a lot of things in the modern far Right of which he would approve, but I think he would also see a lot (particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy) that horrifies him, and I think it highly unlikely that he would ever have supported the goals or politics of any fascist organisations in the 20th or 21st centuries. But his writing supports their ideals and he has been used shamelessly to reinvigorate their cultural background in the last 20 years[6]. Given the influence of Tolkien on role-playing and the fantasy world today, I think it’s fair to say that role-playing has a cultural heritage in these fascist ideals, and the closer one hews to the work of the pre-war canon that was steeped in them, the closer this heritage is to one’s game.

I don’t wish to draw too many conclusions about what this says about people like me who enjoy playing in these worlds. Some choices:

  1. It’s actually really easy to sterilise artistic work of nasty meaning if you like the work itself
  2. Good literary work can transcend even very powerful politically objectionable ideals (Nabokov, anyone?)
  3. The reader’s intentions and goals are much more important in the interpretation of the work than even the most blatant political intent on the part of the author[7]
  4. I’m an outrageous fascist who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes

I do think, though, that there must be some extent to which this racialisation in standard fantasy and role-playing has to make it seem exclusionary to non-white readers. Even if 1) were true, some proportion of non-white readers who would otherwise enjoy the work must be put off by their obvious placement on the wrong side of the story in the pre-war canon (and by extension, much of the post-war canon). I wonder how many role-players in the creation of their own worlds unconsciously move away from the outright racialism in the early work, or subvert it in some way. I know I have done by, for example, making Orcs noble (I did this long before I knew about this critique of Tolkien) or by making Elves fascist (in my 4th Age Middle Earth Campaign)[8]. But it’s really hard to preserve D&D in any original sense without keeping the racialism, and I think this must be a turn-off for some people, and I would guess particularly for non-white readers who are perhaps more aware of the consequences of racialism than a lot of white readers are.

fn1: For those who don’t want to wade through all the other crap I’ve written on this, I should point out that although I think the association of LoTR with the far right is evidence that it is easy to read as racist, I don’t take it as evidence that Tolkien was racist and I don’t care if he was[3]

fn2: There is a whole literature and 15 years of internet debate over whether making your protagonists white is a sign that you, your story, your game, or your movie, is racist. I think that it’s better if, where race is an explicit motif, the races in question are inclusive. I don’t think in early D&D they are. I don’t take this to mean Gygax (or anyone else) was racist

fn3: In the sense that, I think it’s bad to be racist, and I think it’s bad if a book sets out to tell a racist story, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of all the other appreciable elements of the book. And I think it’s interesting to investigate the politics of a book and of its writer, but that doesn’t mean I think every book should be PC, etc. blah blah, insert other ritualistic disclaimers about not being a killjoy here.

fn4: As ever, I’m not going to link to these sites, because they’re evil and I don’t want them coming here!

fn5: Am I the only person who thinks it highly suspicious that “hyperborea” and “hyborea” sound very, very similar? I might have to investigate Howard, who wrote “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

fn6: It’s worth bearing in mind that after a movement engages in the level of monumental fail that the fascist movement fell to, they need some serious help reinvigorating, and a completely new ideological direction. It’s a miracle really that they’ve managed to survive in any way, shape or form and I’m sure any kind of long-term survival depends on their finding a new ideological basis.

fn7: Again, I’m not saying here that fascism was Tolkien’s intent. It’s worth noting that Orwell is consistently misused too, and loved by people on the right, even though he’s obviously a ferociously left-wing writer

fn8: This is really piss-poor subversion, because it doesn’t change the inherent racial essentialism of the framework, just reverses who gets what trait. Is this better? I would argue not… it’s just fun. I think Stephen Donaldson may be a good example of a popular canonical fantasy writer who screwed with the racial essentialism in the most obvious way – by writing a recognisable fantasy world mostly devoid of racial structures.

I discovered recently a blog post on Racial Essentialism which describes some definitions of racial essentialism, something which has been debated (and confused) here.

I also discovered a blog entirely devoted to race in D&D, though it hasn’t been updated since this time last year. It includes a lecture on race in D&D that was presented at the rather ominously entitled Nerd night. I haven’t had a chance to read it in depth, as I’m in the middle of a profane and sacrilegious ritual of great evil; but when I’m done despoiling all that is good in the world I’m going to give it more thought.

This is a particularly appropriate topic given how I just wrote a fake Indian myth for my own role-playing campaign…

A question for my reader(s): what is stranger? That my blog gets the top hit on a google search for china mieville “curvaceous women” or that yesterday two people did that search? Strange.

I read an article in the guardian on Saturday morning about the fall of Ceacescu’s Romania in 1989. The article is  a bit rambly, and like most attempts at opinion by journalists it fails to reach a proper conclusion. But it has this excellent passage in the middle, which struck me as a classic moment of life being stranger than role-playing:

One day, as we walked the gallery floors, the view across the cobbled square through a large opening blown in the elegant wall by an artillery shell was of tanks grinding over charred debris, nervous young soldiers – with flowers placed in their helmets by the people – returning the occasional crack of sniper fire, and crowds come to gawp at the fallen fortresses of the Ceausescu regime. It looked like war from another time, on black and white newsreel; a week had passed since Ceausescu’s execution, but it had taken days to subdue the stench of gunsmoke, shellfire and scorched masonry.

Beneath our feet as we walked were the incinerated remains of the museum’s inventory – paintings were pitted with bullet holes, the canvases strewn like corpses in a morgue. “As you can see, there was heavy fighting here, the Byzantine room,” Cruceanu said. “And a lot of shots were fired in the 19th-century national school, where we think our army had come in. But the Securitate [Ceausescu’s secret police] must have come through the forbidden corridors from the palace, or a skylight”… and we ascended to the third storey… “so that most of the shooting was here among the European paintings, of which I’m the curator.”

My notebook recorded that there was damage to Boccaccini’s Samson Breaking the Pillars of the Temple, Gentilleschi’s Mother and Child and Rembrandt’s A Man Begging the Forgiveness of Esther. At the end of the gallery was a piano, lightly coated in snow which had drifted in through the holes punched by shellfire and the top of a dome that had been blown off. Cruceanu raised the lid and played a few notes of, I think, Bach. “It works!” she said. “So you see, there is hope.”

It reminds me of Iain M Banks’s work, or something you would see in a Cyberpunk adventure.

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