RPG cosmology


I’ve played a few sci-fi and cyberpunk campaigns in my time, and DM’d some too, and I certainly enjoyed them, but I think there are some aspects of sci-fi as a genre – and Cyberpunk particularly – that encourage[1] a kind of criminal nihilistic campaigning which I don’t generally find enjoyable[2], particularly when I’m DMing. Other recent commentators on cyberpunk probably think this is because I am a bleeding-heart liberal, but this is not the reason at all. I don’t like it when I’m DMing because

  • Nihilistic campaigns tend to deviate significantly from the plot, and DMing without preparation is a much more varied practice – with greater rewards sometimes but also a lot of the time it falls flat
  • It’s really hard to set a challenge for the PCs when they can just arm up to face it, they don’t care about dying or the solution would inevitably put them into conflict with the law
  • It’s really hard to interfere with PCs actions coherently, because in any sci-fi future the power of the state is so overwhelming that the one consistent thing criminal PCs can expect is that they will die horribly and probably before they even know what happened; but there’s no reward in doing this, so you have to contort your story to enable them to escape and still be challenged

Here are 2 examples of the type of nihilism I mean, from my DMing experience:

  1. The PCs were meant to bust a drug deal, and I set up a complex trap for them which would put them into a seriously challenging combat. This was a low law-level world in Traveller, so they simply scraped up all their money and bought a suit of combat armour.  The battle ended when the main fighter just stepped into the middle of the room, in full view of all the gang, and gunned them all down while their bullets bounced off.
  2. The PCs wanted to negotiate with a local crime boss, and his goons were hanging out the front of the disused apartment complex waiting to cause trouble. The characters, unafraid of dying, just marched up and demanded admittance. Of course I should have just denied them, but then the adventure was killed dead; so I tried to engage them in some kind of diplomacy-style intimidation effort. The players ignored it and just started a firefight in the middle of the street.

This kind of stuff is fun when it happens occasionally[3] but when the players start to do this too much, not only does DMing become a bit boring but one gets the felling that the main pleasure the players are deriving is from bucking the DM’s plans (which they must consistently be, since the main way they wouldn’t buck your plans in most sci-fi worlds is by being eviscerated from orbit). So why do I think this nihilism-drift happens?

  • Guns and money. There is a mechanic in sci-fi gaming – and particularly in cyberpunk, but also quite blatantly in Traveller – in which guns are easy to come by, and so is capital advantage. In fantasy role-playing you have to work long and hard up a chain of increasingly powerful bad guys[4] to get your +3 vorpal sword; in a lot of sci-fi games, you just need a PC in your group who has a rich mummy, and a jaunt to the bad side of town/Mexico/low law-level planet. And when players rock up to their law level 3 planet and you won’t sell them Battle Dress they always seem to get pissy. This is because they, like you, expect consistency in the game, and a consistent feature of much of the sci-fi genre is dirty guns done dirt cheap
  • Crime as necessity: Fantasy role-playing games have a much more odious property than this, because they have genocide as a good outcome. But this isn’t nihilistic because the people you slaughter are chaotic evil, right, which is the definition of anarchic badness. On the other hand, in sci-fi games committing criminal acts is either part of the genre (Cyberpunk) or a necessity in some places. It’s just like the problem of illegal dope – you just want a small high, but to get it you have to associate with shady people. In time the criminality sticks, or the players spend a lot of time pushing the grey line. This is fine – it’s nice that we can play criminals in our fantasy worlds and don’t have to in real life – but I have noticed that it tends to lead to a kind of fatalism about the necessity of crime. Once you’ve committed a few frauds, gang-banged some lowly perps, and hacked someone’s computer, why not mug a passer-by?  And, especially, once you’ve run into trouble with the law, all bets are off. A lot of cop-killing and gratuitous stuff happens as the law enforcement pressure increases. Morally not an issue, I suppose, since it’s only a game, but it’s at this point – the “hung for a sheep not a lamb” part where players realise there’s no going back – that force starts to rise up the list of solutions to common problems, and the main solution to this – killing them as chastisement – falls into my definition of bad DMing. [5]
  • Isolation and neo-piracy: There’s a strong sense of cultural and social isolation in the underbelly of cyberpunk, and a strong sense of physical isolation in Space Opera campaigns, which encourages people to think of their PCs as a law unto themselves. Space Opera often has a strong feeling of semi-legal privateering about it, kind of the 17th Century in space. Again, this is fun to play and offers lots of opportunities for adventure; but it also encourages people to go native/ go AWOL/ go psycho/ go pirate. And this can spoil the fun. Fantasy role-playing tends to remove this sense of isolation by setting the characters as heroes in a religious and cultural context, or giving them an alignment they pay dearly for straying outside of. No such luck with sci-fi.

I am a big fan of morally grey settings – this blog is named after one – but I think they are easier with constraints on them in order to keep some basic structure in the role-playing. Fantasy role-playing has a lot, built in through levelling and monster power and alignment and scarcity; but, short of constantly chastising the PCs through the use of heavy weaponry (which is no fun) it’s much more difficult to maintain these constraints in a lot of sci-fi settings, and especially in cyberpunk. And unless your idea of fun DMing is “this week will be a bigger battle than last week”, the relentless pursuit of heavier firepower and more money begins to look a bit boring after a while[6]. Which is why I am leery of DMing cyberpunk campaigns.


fn1: Note the use of the word encourage here, as opposed to other words like require or support or valorise.

fn2: Although recently I played in a Traveller campaign where I was the one encouraging the nihilistic criminal enterprise. Oh look! A kettle!

fn3: I still maintain that my nihilistic criminal suggestion from footnote 2 would have been more interesting – and have delivered a lot more virgins – than the campaign written in the book

fn4: Quite improbably, obviously, but because it’s part of the genre style no-one really cares

fn5: Serenity is an example of a story in which this happens, but it’s an adventure or a short campaign only, and there are quite a few moments in Serenity where Mal has a brilliant idea that 99% of players would completely fail to think of. Instead, they would decide to arm up and face down the next fleet to come their way, which gets really difficult to DM in a way that’s fun. This makes it hard to have the kind of over-arching mystery-story campaigns – like Serenity – in reality, because the PCs spend too much time finding blunt, brutal “solutions” to the elegant problems you set them. Though if you can carry this off, the feeling at the end of the campaign is truly awesome.

fn6: Actually, this sounds quite a bit like a lot of peoples’ fantasy RPG campaigns, doesn’t it? Especially, dare I say it, old-school campaigns…

In response to the recent stoush over Tolkien, race and conservatism, I did a little more  research on Tolkien’s racial theories and their similarities to other eugenic and racial theories floating about in the interwar period. I don’t have my primary or secondary sources with me, because my Tolkien Bestiary is in a box in Australia, I returned the MERP books to my mate, and I don’t have copies of the original books, but there are two online resources – the Tolkien Gateway and the Encyclopaedia of Arda – which I am going to use to provide some context and better research to my theories. In this post I am going to give more detail about the human races in Middle Earth, describe Tolkien’s racial mixing theories in more detail, compare them to the Aryan Invasion Theory of history, which was still popular when he wrote, and draw a few conclusions, some of which aren’t so pretty.

It’s my thesis that, independent of Tolkien’s actual political views, his books are a model of interwar racial theory, which holds that whites are superior to blacks, that when whites interbreed with blacks they civilise them but dilute the “good qualities” of whites, and that in general race determines psychological as well as physical traits, and racial mixing is bad. This doesn’t change the significance of Tolkien’s work, but it has ramifications for the political position of the genre it spawned.

Tolkien’s races

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals suggested in comments that a “formalist” reading of Tolkien is necessary to properly understand how the races in Middle Earth might reflect real racial differences. Others online have suggested that Tolkien didn’t give any formal characteristics to his races – that he never said elves are white and Haradrim are black – and that subsequent racially-specified images of them reflect the readers’ prejudices.  But reading Tolkien doesn’t support the view that his races weren’t racialised. For example, here is the first Haradrim we meet:

…a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword…

We’re talking here about a race with brown skin and black braided hair, which lives in the Jungles and deserts of a hot Southern land, and which rides elephants. I don’t think the racial symbolism of this accidental. They were in the thrall of Sauron and fought for him, so also therefore presumably evil.

There is very little about the physical nature of Easterlings in the descriptions in the novels, because they don’t play a big part; but their most famous contingent are the Wainriders, who pretty clearly represent the mongol hordes. The Easterlings are clearly also allied with Sauron, and are evil. As we will see in the next section, Easterlings were of a different racial stock to the Men of the West. Whether they were physically distinguishable, they were clearly racially distinct.

Tolkien himself described the Orcs as

…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types

and some Orcs are black-skinned. They are clearly racially distinct from humans and elves, and by definition evil. He also clearly associated the Dwarves with Jews in one of his letters. Details of this controversy over race in LoTR are given a very balanced exposition at the Tolkien Gateway.

Tolkien’s racial theories

Tolkien obviously construed the Elves as superior to Men and Dwarves. He also clearly constructed a racially deterministic world, where some races (Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings) were evil and some (Mixed and High Men, Elves and Dwarves) were good but flawed. While his good races were capable of doing evil, his evil races were incapable of doing good, or at the very least were so vulnerable to the thrall of evil that they were for all intents and purposes racially evil. But of particular interest here is his division of humans into two racial kinds – Wild Men and Middle or High Men. Wild Men are explicitly under the thrall of evil – they were corrupted from their genesis. On the other hand, the Edain escaped from Morkoth and were contacted by the elves, who gave them special gifts (of long life and magic) which ennobled them. They then returned to Beleriand, and settled in the western half where they slowly intermingled with the Middle Men, and diluted their special gifts. Some of these Middle Men (such as the Dunlendings) are described as swarthy, and were oppressed by the Edain.

The strongest and most obvious example of this racial theory in action in the books is Aragorn. Racially pure, he has retained the gifts of High Men and so has special rights to command his undead ancestors, to use the special magical devices of his old people, and to use magic no-one else knows. Some of these properties are drawn from his noble lineage, but some are a consequence of his racial purity. Noble lineage in the third age is, of course, associated with racial purity, and with nobler traits.

Aryan Racial Theory

The Aryan Invasion Theory is a theory of classical history, used to describe the civilisations of the Indus valley particularly, which posits that a bunch of horse-riding nomads destroyed or captured the peaceful civilisations of the Indus Valley and subsequently learnt the culture of the Indus valley, before writing the greatest religious texts of India. The original theory is mildly neutral or pro-Indian, suggesting that the Aryans were barbarians who were civilised through contact with the Indus valley; but subsequent incarnations of this theory in the interwar period held the Aryans to be a superior Norse race who civilised the Indians. There is no evidence that any of this history ever really happened, and the theory is roundly hated by Indians for its obvious racist overtones.

There is evidence in Tolkien’s letters that he at least knew of Aryan racial theory, and subscribed to it, because he had the singular misfortune of having to argue with Nazi publishers over his books, which would not be published in German unless he could prove he was Aryan. He appeared to subscribe to elements of this theory:

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.

though his letters make it pretty clear he doesn’t like Nazi racial theory, at least as it pertains to Jews. Like most scholars of his time, he probably believed the then-mainstream theories about racial history which pervaded the academy, but whether he extended this to his perceptions of the relative superiority of whites over blacks or asians at the time is not known, nor to be assumed.

Tolkien’s novels seem to contain a kernel of this racial theory, in that the most superior race ennobles the Edain, who then ennoble the mixed men they encounter, but are in turn brought low by interbreeding with them. It’s clear that the most noble races are white and the least noble (Orcs and Haradrim) are swarthy or black – there is a colour spectrum here. This pattern follows the pattern of the more racist incarnations of Aryan theory extant when he wrote – particularly those of Abbe Dubois, which were translated in 1897, and the archaeologists who uncovered “evidence” of western influence in the Indus in the early 20th century. It also follows some other theories floating about then about the influence of Nordic culture on the “inferior” slavic and Eastern races, the development of which can be read about in any good (or bad!) text about the antecedents of Nazi racial theory. While these theories are discredited today, they were not at all unpopular or disputed at the time that Tolkien wrote.

Aryan Racial Theory and Fascism

Hitler loved Aryan Racial Theory, which became the cornerstone of Nazi demography, social science, biology and history. Some of the theories on racial mixing – particularly about Jews – propounded by the Nazis can be read online at the Calvin University Nazi Propaganda archive, which is a fascinating way to pass an afternoon. Hitler also took up the Aryan Invasion Theory and ran with it, as part of his two-pronged mission of retaking Europe and founding Nazi colonies overseas. The Nazis believed that Western culture owed all its best properties to the Nordic races, and all its worst properties to the “untermenschen” of the East and South. Any model of racial history which supported this belief was imported and adapted, particularly if it supported any claim to lost homelands in the East or overseas.

Aryan Racial Theory is also very popular with modern Nazis. David Duke (to whom I will not put a link) has a very telling essay on his webpage about the Aryan invasion of India and the effects of inter-breeding with the locals on the morality of the paler Aryan overlords. Modern and WW2-era Nazis both believe strongly that races shouldn’t mix – the Nazis presented the Japanese as racially superior because their island nation had prevented “mixing” with degenerated mongols, for example, while the whites of the US were degenerate through association with Jews and blacks.

Tolkien’s politics

Tolkien clearly objected to the Nazis’ anti-semitism, and plainly thought their race laws silly. He opposed apartheid and didn’t believe language and literature should be held apart. He didn’t like the treatment of colour in South Africa, though it’s possible he did think that blacks were degenerate, or at least that white South Africans were persuasive:

The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long.”[1]

Tolkien was willing for his books not to be published in Germany rather than be subjected to silly German laws about racial purity, but he also strongly and openly believed that Nordic society had done much good for the world, but had been ruined by the Nazis:

Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

This quote again suggests an Aryan racial theory for Europe, which has been ennobled by the “supreme contribution” of the Nordic races.

Tolkien is also known to have supported Franco, on the basis of some rumours about Republican atrocities in Spanish churches[2]. His letters and stated opinions suggest a man with politics very similar to most upper class white members of the Commonwealth at the time – racial isolationism, tinged with a strong hatred of Nazism drawn from a class bias against National Socialism (“that ruddy ignoramus”, Hitler) and a conservative distrust of radical politics. But like most members of that class at the time, he didn’t necessarily strongly oppose or even disagree with the racial and political theories at the heart of apartheid or Nazism. In the 30s, particularly, Hitler’s theories were much admired in the West, and their philosophical basis had not yet been discredited. Though we don’t have clear evidence either way in the case of Tolkien, it’s difficult to read his letters and get a clear indication of a man swimming against the current of his time.

Tolkien and British Nationalism

Tolkien ended up required reading for the Youth Wing of the BNP, on the basis of its raical theory and lauding of western ideals over eastern savagery. His inclusion may have been subsequent to the movies, which are rather popular amongst people who like watching dark-skinned people getting butchered; but it is no coincidence that the far right associates his work with their message on racial identity. Fascism and racialist nationalism hasn’t moved its racial theories on from the 30s when Tolkien wrote, and there is a lot of concordance between the racial essentialism of his world and the kind of racially segregated world that the modern BNP would like to see.

What this does and doesn’t mean

It’s unsurprising that an upper class academic from South Africa, writing in the 30s and 40s, should subscribe to a racial model for the creation of his imaginary world. It’s also not surprising that his racial theories would be consistent with Nazi-era racial theories or modern nationalist writing, since all three are drawn from the same source and people at that time were generally supportive of some portion of racial theories of history.

This has obvious consequences for that stream of “High Fantasy” which is highly derivative of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien’s worlds aren’t necessarily popular because of this racial essentialism, but much of the derivative work carries these ideas with it. Some of these notions are comforting for modern writers, some are just easy, and some are fun to play with. But copied whole, they project into the modern literary world a view of race relations which is anachronistic and highly consistent with mainstream conservative views of 60 years ago. They are also congruent with modern fascist politics, which of course holds racial essentialism at its core.

This doesn’t mean that Tolkien’s work is more or less admirable. The timeless appeal of Tolkien’s work as a whole is not due to its political-racial content, but the powerful story elements, the myth-making and the characters. For these elements to maintain Tolkien’s popularity even as the politics underlying the stories becomes anachronistic, they must indeed be very well crafted. This is the miracle of literature – a story whose fundamental social and political basis is no longer valid can still appeal to us, as Shakespeare does, through the power of its non-political elements.

It also doesn’t mean that Tolkien was a fascist or a racist, at least no more than any other upper class man of his time. But most people alive today would  consider the politics of an upper class man writing in the 40s to be quite repulsive, and its no surprise that some of Tolkien’s racial theories fit this category. But being a racial isolationist or believing that mongols were inherently inferior doesn’t make Tolkien a fascist, nor does it invalidate his work or even make him a bad person. However, it also doesn’t liberate his work from the obvious criticisms : it promotes a divisive vision of racial separatism and essentialism; and as an influential work in the genre, it has been essential in the reproduction of conservatism in High Fantasy. Critical reinterpretation of this work can liberate modern High Fantasy from the racialist and fascist origins of the genre, without necessarily leading to its political debasement or politically correct caricatures. Just as Tolkien can write an inspiring and great novel with odious racial politics, modern genre writers should be able to liberate the genre from this type of conservatism and still write inspiring and great novels.

fn1: A lot of people quote the first half of this sentence approvingly as evidence that Tolkien was opposed to apartheid. The second part makes me think that, while he opposed apartheid, he didn’t necessarily oppose the racial stereotypes underlying it.

fn2: which were certainly known to have occurred, but also exaggerated in a viciously anti-Republican western press. See, for example, Antony Beevor’s work on the Spanish Civil War.

In the interview linked to below, China Mieville claims that high fantasy is conservative, and that due to its prominence the fantasy genre in general is judged as conservative by critics. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, but over at Monsters and Manuals this claim was disputed as a shallow interpretation of Tolkien and of high fantasy generally. It’s not just the 3 people I’ve been arguing with over there, either (hi guys!). Many people try to rescue Tolkien (or their other favourite high fantasy writers) from this claim, because they think that somehow being conservative means they shouldn’t be reading it  (or that people think they shouldn’t be). But it doesn’t work. Tolkien’s books are fun but they are politically pretty obnoxious, and the same goes for high fantasy generally. I’m going to expand on Mieville’s throwaway points in that interview, and add in a few of my own, with examples. Then we’ll discuss the core issue of choices. It’s been a while since I read much high fantasy, so I hope my examples aren’t too off beam – and of course when i say “High Fantasy novels say that…” I don’t mean every novel shares every point. Just add a silent “in general” to my phrases. Let’s first look at the characteristics common to most high fantasy novels:

  • Racial Essentialism: This is the main criticism of Tolkien, and it’s definitely a strong one. High Fantasy tends to divide the world into races with really clear essential characteristics, both physically and psychologically. The physical characteristics are exaggerated, and the psychological characteristics are really restrictive. Dwarves are stubborn and proud, elves are more intelligent and creative than anyone else, etc. This extends to the evil races too, which are clearly intellectually and socially inferior. The stereotypes of the evil races clearly relate to stereotypes of black people that were extant in the 30s, and in general the evil races also happen to be swarthy and kind of, well, blackish. If the humans ever have any racial diversity, this also follows strict characteristics – the “cruel haradrim”, for example. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the races follow black/white colour lines, because the key conservative point is the essentialism. Races are different, and they shouldn’t mix, and when they do society degenerates. The model for Gondor and the mingling of High and Common Men is a clear reference to racial theory of the 30s. Wriggle as much as you like, but Tolkien is an established eugenicist and his writing doesn’t shy away from that. This trope is repeated in an awful lot of subsequent high fantasy – it’s a struggle to find any that doesn’t contain this idea, and this idea is a cornerstone of 20th century conservatism.
  • Racial exclusion: almost all heroes in high fantasy are white. For more information about this – and for some example of what it means and has meant historically for non-white readers – I recommend this article, which I came to from Ursula le Guin’s website. This problem has been discussed extensively as well in the world of literary criticism, and as far as I can tell it’s not up for debate anymore. High Fantasy is white. Now, it may be that the authors only want to write about their own colour, but if that’s the only reason, it’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence that racial exclusionism also happens to be an essential element of much conservative politics.
  • The male saviour: Most fantasy stories involve a male saviour rescuing a crumbling nation state from an external threat. The saviour is always male, and of course white. Harry Potter, Belgarath, Frodo (not to mention everyone else in that story), Eragon, the kid in the Robert Jordan series, Druss, Tanis Half-elven, Conan, whatever… they’re all male. When women enter high fantasy they do so as teachers or wise women, or occasionally in support roles.
  • External threats and nation states: In LoTR, the world of men was crumbling through racial intermixing, and awaited a racially pure king to resurrect the nation state. In most High Fantasy there is an external threat which only a strong nation state can protect against, and the role of the hero is to uncover their puissance and take power over the nation state, guiding it again to greatness. Although the nation state was not a strong concept in Dragonlance, the external threat was (it was an evil god); but the presence of both together is prevalent throughout the genre. The enemy within is usually a nerdy, anti-war figure who accomodates the enemy out of fear and is used as a spy or traitor. Consider the Wheel of Time, that awful Terry Goodkind stuff, Stephen Donaldson, the Worm Ourouboros, Eragon, the Belgariad, Magician, etc. It’s a very common idea.
  • Gender roles: sure, in modern High Fantasy there are sometimes female characters, but the world itself is continually recreated as a world in which women serve and men rule. It’s fantasy, anything goes, but for some reason women always are “goodwives” (shudder) or feisty aunts at best. And the female characters are not acually quite the feminist achievements one might expect – read this review of the Wheel of Time for a good description of how female characters often serve to reiterate classic stereotypes of feminine weakness, intransigence or triviality. Often as well the powerful ones get knocked down a peg or two before the end, and although women in general can’t rule in these worlds, they are often over-represented amongst the bad guys (e.g., there are two female characters in Dragonlance and one is evil). Harry Potter is a good example of this – Hermione is ostensibly a strong female character, but at every climax in the first novels she is knocked unconscious or otherwise unable to be an active participant in the plan she helped formulate, ultimately being rescued by the boys.
  • Nuclear family: we know that in the middle ages Nuclear families were not the norm, and that this is a modern invention, as is childhood as a concept. Yet High Fantasy worlds – which are sticklers for the truth when it comes to the role of women in peasant societies – seem to be very good at ignoring the real family structures of their carefully reconstructed societies, and instead populating them with perfect nuclear families. The nuclear family is a touchstone conservative issue, and is reproduced out of time and place in almost all fantasy novels.
  • Inherited Wealth: Not necessarily in the form of money, because in fantasy worlds money plays second fiddle to magic, which is usually inherited either as a talent or through attendance at a special school which it is only possible to enter through selection. Even though magic breaks the rules of conservation of matter, and therefore in principle enables High Fantasy worlds to be utopias like The Culture, magic is always hoarded by a powerful class who dispense it amongst their favourites. Harry Potter is a really good example of this – there is an elite world which he is allowed into by dint of his having inherited this form of wealth, and throughout the novels he is given for free things which only the very rich can afford. Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t – a conservative trope, and well reproduced through the medium of magic.
  • Heteronormative: do we know of any gay characters anywhere in High Fantasy? How coincidental, in a world of nuclear families…
  • Glorification of war: having read the Silmarillion, I find it impossible to comprehend the claim that Tolkien doesn’t glorify war. That’s all his stories are about. I  suppose you could excuse it because he’s british, but still… it’s also not the case that “glorifying war” means saying “yay! more people dying”. Literature which glorifies war always talks about the tragedy, the loss of youth, the hardship. It’s part of the admiration of muscular masculinity and discipline which is going on beneath this glorification. It’s a hard life to be a soldiering bloke, but how noble it is, etc. This is prevalent throughout fantasy too – in The Worm Ouroubouros, at the end of the novel the battles are over and they all go back to their homes to plan the next war because life without war is boring. The Sturm side story in Dragonlance is a classic example of this mixed glorification/tragedy complex. High Fantasy stories without war at their centre are rare.
  • Genocide is cool: because of the glorification of war and the racial essentialism, it’s inevitable that the bad guys are going to be wiped out to a man. This has been discussed extensively as a criticism of D&D and it’s true – there is an unquestioning acceptance throughout High Fantasy that mass murder is acceptable. It’s worth noting that when the genre began, eugenics had taken over in anti-semitic literature, and extermination as the “final solution” was beginning to become an acceptable notion, because racial essentialism based on biology (rather than culture) demands it. You can read about this link in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (which is otherwise a pretty dodgy book). I don’t think anyone believes Tolkien supported genocide in reality, but the logic of High Fantasy demands it and that is essentially what was planned throughout the novels, by both sides. It has continued to be an acceptable act in subsequent iterations of the genre.
  • Libertarian or authoritarian communities: High Fantasy tends to allow the good guys only two types of community. On the one hand we see small rural idylls run on generally libertarian or communitarian grounds,  because life is so simple that they can be self-managed, and there is no racial mixing to cause crime; and on the other we see large kingdoms run by strong men, usually inheriting their position but sometimes voted in. The concept of a strong man appointed by popular election was popular in the interwar period, when liberalism and democracy were beginning to look a bit shonky, and it was supported by a much larger segment of the world than  just Germany and Italy. In fact most of Europe was under this leadership, and many in England and America beyond Oswald Mosley were looking for the same thing. This is reflected in modern High Fantasy, whose origins lie in that turbulent time. In contrast, the bad guys often have a classless or semi-classless society, run by a strong man or sometimes anarchist, often with strong inter-racial mixing. Sounds a bit like a well-described conflict from that time…

We can’t help that the original stories were written in the interwar period when racial essentialism, nuclear families, eugenics and dictatorship were popular. But we can help the choices we make as modern authors. Why, for example, do modern authors decide to be meticulously careful in their reproduction of mediaeval gender roles for their fantasy society, but completely ignore the family structures of the time? In both cases, the result fits perfectly with a conservative project. Why do they go to great lengths to reproduce the poverty of that time, while sprinkling the world with a series of perpetual motion machines (i.e. magic) which could solve all economic problems overnight? Because they want to reproduce and intensify structures of inherited wealth, and present them as inevitable, objective facts even where the solution is freely available. This is why those early fantasy novels provided the means to ensure free health care to everyone (healing magic) but you never saw it in action – except when the king goes to war, and his soldiers go to the healing tent.

Many authors are no doubt reproducing these tropes without thought, but when you reproduce a conservative worldview without consideration, you are by definition being conservative. That’s what conservatives do. Some authors (such as Goodkind and Tolkien) are more actively using their work as a political screed in favour of conservatism. The beauty of the High Fantasy world is that it is fun, so you can reproduce these things without boring your readers’ socks off. But let’s not pretend that the world couldn’t be just as interesting without a few changes – women and men being equal, for example,  or racial intermixing being positive instead of negative. And if you don’t want to do these things, you have to accept the conservative label which this kind of thoughtless reproduction of conservative politics will earn you.

Our DM (who is so old-fashioned he doesn’ t even have a blog) is drip-feeding us information about the Feng Shui world, so I can’t say too much about where we are or what we are doing, but our characters have ended up in 2056 in a strange future “dystopia” controlled by a bunch of transdimensional lunatics called the Architects of the Flesh. I suggested to the other players last night that this dystopia’s properties say a lot more about the politcs and insecurities of the authors than it does about the evils of the Architects of the Flesh. I originally thought that the properties of the 2056 dystopia marked out the writers as a bunch of libertarians, but now I’m not sure if they are right-wing or moderate liberal Americans. Here’s a list of the properties of the world in 2056 which are supposedly different from the world of 1996, and what political leanings I think they point to:

  • There are no cars: In 2056, cars have been banned “for environmental and health reasons”, which is a classic fear of libertarians and small govt right-wingers everywhere. First they imposed speed limits, then they took your cars, etc. Margaret Thatcher once made a beautiful comment about how every new car on the road was a new conservative voter, and followed it up with some nice observations about how the Tory party were trying to change peoples’ minds as well as the economy (look it up in Prospect magazine ). So this is a tick for “writers are crazed libertarians”. Even East Germany had private cars!
  • First they came for our guns…: In 2056, the Architects are trying to abolish the study of martial arts, having already banned all guns. This is a classic fear of libertarians everywhere, and the American right generally. Compare this dystopia with the classic cyberpunk dystopia, where everyone has access to guns. Obviously a choice was made in this regard. And the slippery slope logic that since they banned guns, now they’re going to ban martial arts, is just classic unmarked-helicopter stuff.
  • There is a minimum wage!: Obviously most societies have a minimum wage now. Making a point about this when describing your vision of a dystopia as if it’s a bad thing is like a big neon sign saying “I’m a libertarian fuckstick”.
  • You can’t earn more than £1 million!!!: The guidelines state explicitly that there is an upper limit to the amount a person can earn, which is 40 times the minimum wage. It’s also pretty clear from the text that there is no tax in this dystopia (bit weird, that, we’ll get onto it…). In London today the minimum wage is £5.73 before tax, which means that this dystopia would have a maximum wage of about £240 an hour before tax. That’s about £500,000 a year. Of course, on the minimum wage you don’t pay much tax – to get an after-tax income 40 times the after tax income of the minimum wage, you would need to be earning close to £1 million in London. The text states that this wage can only be earned by 60 categories of person. Doesn’t sound so bad to me! And in these straitened times, it’s hard to imagine many people getting up in arms over the fact that they can only earn a million a year. This seems like a classic libertarian fear – that people will be banned from earning more money than they will ever actually get a chance to earn.
  • Rent is 30% of your after-tax income: this is presented as if it were a bad thing. For the last 10 years of the housing bubble, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find someone who paid this low a proportion of their after tax income in rent or mortgage. In fact, it’s below most definitions of housing distress. But in the text it’s presented as if it’s a catastrophe. (Admittedly in the tax-free dystopia (?!) this also means you pay 30% of your before-tax income on rent. But I know people in London working full time who pay 70% or more of their  before-tax income on rent – on a room). I’m not sure what political streak this shows, except perhaps “trustifarian” (I live in mummy’s house, and the thought of paying more than nominal rent frightens me) or council estate bludger (ditto, but replace “mummy” with “govt”) or, I suppose, cheeto eating wingnut who lives in mummy’s basement and doesn’t know the price of eggs
  • There are no taxes: This is a big hint at socialist writers. Only socialists would imagine that you don’t pay taxes in dystopia.
  • Everything is pay-per-use: even the slidewalks! This suggests the writers aren’t libertarians, since libertarians would have this property in their utopia. But maybe it just means they’re stupid? Or socialists? Imagine a pay-per-use NHS…

On balance this suggests to me that the writers are naive or libertarians or both (the two go together don’t they?) They could be just trying to make an original dystopia, but a dystopia which suits feng shui would be cyberpunk, not this weird version of socialism.

A few other small points would be in order about how futuristic and dystopic their vision of 1996 is. In this dystopia:

  • the food is tasteless
  • the clothes are grey and everyone wears the same style
  • the cops kill people by pushing them over until they die
  • there are CCTV cameras everywhere
  • all the products are sold by one shop

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but a society where everyone wears the same clothes, eats tasteless food, lives under the gaze of cctv cameras, pays for everything as they use it, and doesn’t have any guns, buys everything from one shop , and lives in terror of the police sounds an awful lot like London now. They just need to ban cars and put a limit on how much you can earn (a popular suggestion at present, due to the credit crunch) and they can rebrand the government as the Architects. If the wage limit is more than most people ever have a chance of earning (say, a million pounds) and one works inside the congestion zone, one pretty much wouldn’t notice the difference…

A whole bunch of RPG bloggers have recently pointed to this post which compares the obsession with game mechanics in RPGs with the obsession on certain mechanical details in pornography (hereafter referred to as pr0n to escape the spammers). 

I think they are getting way too hung up on the pr0n=D&D thing. The argument is clever, and I like it, but it simply consists of observing that the mechanics of a product can overwhelm the underlying purpose during the drive to market the product. Pr0n is just the most obvious representation of this phenomenon, which I think it’s reasonable to say occurs in many areas of commerce etc. But I think its too simplistic, and over-simplifies the dynamics of modern pr0n and RPGs.

The most obvious way in which this can be seen is the article’s claims about splatbooks. They just don’t serve the role Wax Banks claims. The article ignores the importance players put on the imprimatur of game authors over products, i.e. we buy expansion packs because we trust our game company to develop the ideas which interest us in such a way that they work within the game rules. Good expansion packs are the very opposite of the “splat” which Wax Banks claims. Anyone who has tried designing their own character classes or systems should know that doing so in a balanced way is extremely difficult, and because game designers are often better than us at this we prefer to buy their version than use our own. An obvious example of this is the classic fantasy character of the warrior mage – there is no starting class of this form in AD&D, so if one wants to have such a class one needs to design it oneself or buy a book containing such a design. Chances are, the game designers’ version will be better than your own. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the example of the monk, a triumph of balance in designing a character which threatens to be either really weak or way too powerful.

On this kind of evidence, I would contend that the drive in modern games is not towards mechanics for the sake of it, but towards the use of mechanics to balance simulationism and playability in a game which appeals to people who want to imagine fantasy worlds. Mechanics are important for this, just like body parts and methods are important in good sex. And just as pr0n-o-graphic styles and emphasis change over time – as fashion changes, as relations between the sexes change, and as our relationship with ourselves changes – so role-playing styles change under the influence of the customers, the parallel geek worlds of computers and fandom, the literary and cinematic worlds which influence us. AD&D 3.5 may be much more mechanical than AD&D 2, but it’s better, it gives a better balance of high fantasy and realism, and the characters are more interesting and better balanced. The AD&D 3.5 ranger is a lot of fun, because of rather than despite the rules.

Similarly modern developments in pr0n don’t necessarily always represent the victory of mechanics over feeling. There is not “always a money shot”, which is in fact a reasonably modern innovation in pr0n. Modern mechanics in that film genre at least partially represent the increasing diversity and vibrancy of modern human sex lives, and may actually continue to reflect the fantasies and desires of ordinary people. It’s not as if the study of this genre is exactly unbiassed enough to provide clear answers as to what the viewer “wants”, which makes comparisons with it pretty dangerous unless, like Wax Banks, you’ve watched an awful lot of it. Who is to say that the money shot or gonzo stuff represents a focus on mechanics over fantasy, rather than the predominance of a particular fantasy among the viewers? Maybe the modern focus on mechanics serves to aid the viewers’ fantasies, rather than to overwhelm them in grotty detail? If 80s pr0n is like AD&D 2, then maybe pr0n 3.5 just represents a better way of showing people what they want?

(Interestingly, I tend to think that modern internet pr0n is much nastier and more sexist than earlier stuff, and particularly the predominance of really humiliating nastiness in American internet pr0n is quite disturbing. I recommend anyone who wants to investigate this compare any of the major purveyors of internet stuff from America and Japan. The Japanese stuff – famously sexist – strikes me as much more gentle, and much less degrading (in general) than the American stuff. Wax Banks had some things to say about the American national character and the focus on mechanics which are interesting in light of this comparison)

(But, it’s dangerous to compare internet pr0n with anything. Nobody pays for that stuff (what a shocking idea!). And as with all things, if you want to get your kicks for free you have to compromise, and the compromise with American internet pr0n seems to be that you have to suffer through the misogyny to get your excitement. bitTorrent notwithstanding, one usually pays for role-playing books, so one tends to have some consumer power as regards what goes into them…)

(And in closing, can I just say that Wax Banks’ blog is excellent!)

Cruising the canals of Amsterdam over the weekend, I discussed my musings on virtual economies with my good friend (and WoWer) the good Dr. A. His response to my ideas about a virtual economy built on real money was to ask “why”?

Good enough question, I suppose. Why would a company make a risky game where players can lose money when a perfectly good subscription model exists?

One obvious answer is that, well, it works with poker. The company would be gambling that it can make money from low-level players to cover losses to high level players (kind of like insurance).

Another possibility is that, by opening up a world based on real money, the company could license out bits of it to other companies, to design adventures or campaigns or just spaces. This would lead to diversity in role-playing experience, which presumably the consumers are after (sometimes, looking at WoW, this is hard to see – but I play NWN2, so what can I complain?) There could also be the lure of players at high level getting to build their strongholds as a kind of licensed instance.

To this suggestion my friend Dr A replied – “But Blizzard do this perfectly well and people are willing to pay decent money to adventure in a world entirely controlled by Blizzard”.

To which I replied – “So you think players are happy with socialism, and unwilling to try a transition to a market economy?” By socialism I meant, of course, that this is exactly what Blizzard are doing. Everyone pays a fixed amount of monthly money, and in exchange they get everything provided for them – the economy, the environment, their workplace rights, and of course even the price of health care (i.e. potions) is fixed… that’s socialism man. My model is radical free marketeering!

My friend Dr. A’s response? “Of course – look at me, I live in Amsterdam!”

And Amsterdam certainly does seem to be a better place to live than London…

In explaining why I am considering a reconfiguration of D&D and the d20 system, I mentioned the key goal of making a single universal skill system the driver of the entire gaming process, so that it would cover skill resolution, combat, magic and saving throws. Under such a model there would be no process which could not be resolved by application of a suitable skill to a task. This begs the obvious question, since I am reconfiguring D&D: why the d20 skill system?

I used to be quite enamoured of the idea of a skill system with grades of success, as represented by the over-complexity of Rolemaster. Under this model, a skill check gives a series of possible outcomes – complete or partial failure, partial or complete success. However, continuing attempts to apply this skill system in actual gaming situations over many years (using Rolemaster, derivatives of Rolemaster, and various homebrewed systems) all led to the same problem: many tasks aren’t amenable to a graded system of categories of outcome, and these categories often bear little relationship either to reality or to the relative powers of the characters as represented in their attributes. For example, should a Rolemaster thief with a pick locks bonus of 36 be the sort of character who routinely gets partial or complete success against a lock which is, say, “difficult” to open? The whole process of assigning difficulties and results is too abstract. And in the case of opening a lock, what is “partial success” anyway? Either it opened or it didn’t. All too frequently, “partial success” meant “try again”, which really just slows gameplay down considerably. In situations where partial success might be relevant – say, trying to sneak up on someone – then it was the skill of the opponent which ultimately became  relevant to success, when they got a chance to do a search check as a consequence of their partial awareness of their stalker. And then how does one resolve a result of “partial success” on both sides of this challenged skill check?

In such instances the character is essentially making a challenged skill check against their target’s skill, but mediated through the assignment of difficulty levels dependent upon the environment. To follow our previous example, first one assigns a difficulty to the thief’s stealth attempt dependent upon lighting, cover, perhaps also the target’s degree of alertness; and then, one assigns a difficulty to the target’s perception check dependent upon the result of the player’s roll. It would be much easier just to have a direct challenged roll – one skill against the other – and apply a net adjustment to the player’s roll dependent upon the environment.

This is exactly how the d20 system works. The difficulty is set by the environment or by the target’s skill check, and the result is either success or failure. The success contains within it a certain level of magnitude, given by the difference between the roll and the target number. This skill check system significantly simplifies the process of skill resolution, and speeds it up. Even combat rolls as currently envisaged contain an element of this. The attacker makes a skill check, and the target is the enemy’s AC, which behaves very much like a challenging skill. If one were to replace AC by, for example, the result of a reflexes save, one has essentially a challenged skill check. One could then go further, and rule that all combatants are assumed to be “taking 10” if they also attack … which is what the current rule system pretty much assumes with AC. 

This can be taken even further if one takes the difference between the target number and the roll as damage done, with some appropriate weapon-related modifiers. So if the opponent’s AC is 15, and the attacker rolls 18, 3 hps damage are done (plus strength and a weapon-related modifier).  In such a case we have wrapped the skill roll and its consequences into a single determination, removing the need for further dice rolls and decisions, and relating damage done in combat directly to level of skill. 

Of course, the same considerations could be applied to magic. The target for the spell is set by some kind of saving throw, and the difference between the spellcraft roll and the target number, multiplied by spell level, is the damage. From this determination system it is a simple step to eliminating spells altogether. Effects could be given a level, so that for example daze is level 0, stun is level 1, fear is level 2, etc., and  the duration of the effect is determined by the spell roll… 

This covers all the major aspects of the role-playing process. The best part, however, is that under the d20 system the scale on which difficulty is determined for an action (usually between 9 and 20, for example, or a d20 roll plus a skill) is very similar to the scale  on which skill bonusses operate (usually between 1 and 20). So there is a natural symmetry in using skills to determine the difficulty of all tasks, and using skills to determine the success of those tasks. We can complete this symmetry by finding a way to relate hps to a skill in some way, and also relate the availability of spells to a skill in the same way. Having done this we have reduced the entire process of character development to the process of generating attributes, and generating skills. There will be no saving throws and no armour class; just skills, and skill modifiers.

This completes the other part of the challenge which I have always seen in role-playing systems – making a single, internally consistent system for resolving all tasks in an imagined world. There is no particular reason that one would have to do this except a sense of completeness, and it is this completeness I want to achieve by reconfiguring the D&D skill system.

In discussion with the good Dr. A and Miss B. in Amsterdam (and we weren’t stoned) I conceived randomly of a kind of alternative or next stage business model for WoW gold farmers. I don’t know if the model itself is viable, but were it to become so it would represent a huge contribution of the gold farming business to the online economy of world of warcraft, though not necessarily for the better. 

The model I envisage is one in which a gold farming company establishes a kind of value-added process for producing gold. Instead of sending lowly warriors out to grind weak beasts for small amounts of gold, this farmer employs moderate level characters, and buys in-world large amounts of raw materials – gold, herbs, essences etc. – and all day has his employees use their secondary talents to turn these materials into product –  swords, potions, etc. – which are then sold in bulk to guilds (or individuals) for real money. They could also be sold in-world for gold, and the gold sold to players for real money in the usual way.

For example, according to thotbot an Insane Strength Potion costs 7 gold 53 silver at auction, while its ingredients (3x terocone and an imbued vial) cost a total of 2 gold 60 silver at a vendor. So by buying these objects in world from a vendor, our enterprising businessman can recover 5 gold. Apparently these things sell at auction in lots of 5, so there is already an option for bulk sales. I imagine before a big guild raid one would need at least 5 of these, and a lot of mana-enhancing stuff, so a guild practicing one of its big raids could easily fork over 30 or 50 or 100 gold in a single night to a suitably equipped business. Maybe this would be a more rapid way of generating money than merely farming it…? By comparison, a mottled boar (again according to Thotbot) drops items in general worth 4 or 5 coppers… so grinding those poor bastards is going to take a while to build up gold.

It occurs to me that there could be a whole vertically-integrated business model for this. One enters Gold Farmers Inc as a level 1 loser, and spends time grinding monsters  for coppers. One will of course ultimately gain levels doing this and become more powerful, capable of killing better monsters faster for more gold. One could also do after-work study (i.e. play a lot) to build up skills, and when one had reached a level with talents, one could apply for a promotion. Then one would be sent around the world gathering raw materials based on one’s talent – e.g., gathering herbs or metals. One might be content to do this, but if one was really career focussed one could aim higher, continuing to play one’s level up in one’s spare time until one could build items oneself, and then apply for a promotion to start making items with the raw materials one’s junior colleagues provided to  the company. And of course there would be a role for middle management, who would collect all the raw materials coming into a mailbox from across the world and send  them on to suitable characters; or one would spend a lot of time going backwards and forwards from the mailbox to the auction room and the vendor… I can see a whole corporate structure building here, with peoples’ position in the office determined by their character’s role in the world… 

… but the whole business would be completely dependent on the economy of the WoW world, since there is a finite rate at which resources replenish, and others might compete for them. Flooding the world with potions would push down their price, etc. And of course players would object to this industry – currently the players occupy a position in-world very similar to the individual artisans before the industrial revolution (though occasionally they gather into … appropriately … guilds), so any industrialisation of the means of production of magical items would of course impact the value and esteem of what they do. They might be tempted to try and pass laws against these industrialists – and if that happened they might scapegoat the workers, attack the looms, or even attack the workers themselves. Economic change is never an uncontested thing…

The idea that I really like behind all this is the possibility that an enterprising company could pay the gaming company for the right to change or manipulate the underlying physics of the world, to make new items or spells. Obviously they would need to make items which were useful for people, which would require some kind of R&D process. And they would need to stay abreast of the plot and quest changes going on in the world, since they would need to know what new markets for their products to target. The best way to do this would be to petition the gaming company for particular quest lines or monsters… a kind of lobbying, if you will.

Lobbying God, effectively. I think the possibilities inherent in this are endless…

So, it is my plan to adapt AD&D for use in the world of Compromise and Conceit, perhaps using my colleagues at the London role-playing club as a test group, or using my current skype players (which is harder – explaining rules over skype is difficult). But one might ask (if  one were reading this blog, which one is not): why?

I think that AD&D used to be a really bad system (back before 3rd edition) and I avoided it like the plague, playing Rolemaster for years, and then my own system. Rolemaster had a complex system of graded success using skills, which I thought was spiffy, but now I have given up on that idea. Long experience has shown me that graded success just doesn’t work practically. In essence I think that the AD&D skill system is effective but simple, and I like it (and I will have more to say on this). But AD&D and Rolemaster shared the flaw of not being universal, and I see a way to fix it…

By “not being universal”, I mean that the system does not define all the essential elements of the world in a single model  of random chance. Rolemaster had a separate system for saving throws (and by extension magic), hit points, wound effects and skills. AD&D has the same problem. The system I developed myself made a large step towards eliminating this problem, but had the problem (introduced by me) of being completely crap. But I have recently seen a way to modify AD&D so that the entire world can essentially be described through the skill system. So one’s wounds, one’s magic abilities, one’s saving throws and all one’s skill checks are handled under the same model. 

I have a vision for a magical cosmology which is infinitely flexible, and allows the difficulty of the magic system, all forms of damage and damage resistance, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different supernatural creatures, to be incorporated into a single model described by 4 skills and a simple diagram. I think my system will be extensible, in that instead of having to develop a new set of spells and a new magic system for every campaign setting – or having to try and adapt the Forgotten Realms spells of AD&D to a new world – one simply changes the diagram, and everything else will follow.

I think I have also found a natural way to incorporate penalties due to damage into all skill checks. If you develop a character which ignores physical toughness, you will die quickly but suffer relatively few penalties on your way out; on the other hand, a character entirely focussed around physical toughness will take forever to die, but will spend most of that time incapable of successfully doing anything. Further, I think the skill system as modified will enable players to develop any character they want without choosing character classes.

The big drawback of particular systems is that they are only functional in their particular worlds. I tried using Shadowrun outside of Shadowrun once, and it was a disaster. AD&D works very well in a particular type of elfy-orcy-high-fantasy setting, but it doesn’t move well to other settings. But a system based entirely around a skill resolution method, and with a cosmology defined by a single flexible diagram, can be shifted to a new worldview very easily.

Of course, when I design it the actual system will be crap. But it’s an interesting exercise, no?

I ran the initial Compromise and Conceit campaign for about 2 years in Sydney, Australia with a variety of different players, and I aim to restart it in the next 6 months. The last version was played with my own rule system (which was bad), but I aim to restart it with a variant of AD&D (or just with AD&D 4e if my variant proves to be bad). 

I think the skill system underlying AD&D is actually really good, and a lot more versatile than I might have admitted to a few years ago. So with some redevelopment it could well suit the kind of world which Compromise and Conceit is.

Compromise and Conceit was interchangeably referred to as “the World of the Essential Compromise”, and it was based around this fundamental idea, that the Victorian era was an era of Essential Compromise. I never do anything original, and so I got my original idea for compromise from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, in which one of the characters gives a disquisition on the difference between Victorian and modern notions of hypocrisy. 

In the case of our role-playing world, the Essential Compromise consisted simply of the use of Demons, and more generally Infernal Technology, to power a golden age of Victorian (and more generally, European) power in the world. The Victorians had a similar, real compromise with technology, of course – their rural way of life (still much-valued by the British today) was destroyed by the Industrial Revolution and they had a real price to pay for their newfound wealth and the maintenance and extension of their corporeal power. In my role-playing world, they pay this price in Infernalism rather than Industrialism, and the industrial world develops more slowly, and is infected and overrun with Infernal technology.

In this world the original Infernalism was discovered in the 16th Century by Shakespeare and his peers – Ben Johnson, Cristopher Marlowe and Spenser. Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus was written as an allegory and a warning about the use of the Infernal powers his peers were uncovering, and he subsequently eschewed the use of the new powers. At that time magical power was derived directly from the conjuring of demons, as described in Marlowe’s play, but in later years this coterie of conjurors started to research the use of magic independently of their conjured benefactors, and magic was slowly reintroduced into the world. By the Victorian era it was highly advanced, being organised into schools throughout Europe, having infiltrated the church as “Divine” magic, and having a profound effect on industry through the discovery of new materials and production techniques. In this Victorian era they have steam trains, but do not use coal – instead a Fire elemental drives the train. By this means the Victorians have avoided the physical corruption of their environment attendant upon industrialisation, but in the eyes of authors like Marlowe they have invited the moral corruption of Infernalism. This, in essence, is the Essential Compromise.

Such a compromise necessarily involves the conceitedness of believing that the pursuit of English power is so important as to warrant such a hazardous compromise. It also involves another conceit (in the sense used by metaphysical poets) of dealing with the devil to further the will of god. Thus the name of the campaign, and the definition of the essential dynamic driving the adventures therein.

Interestingly, in this world the non-christian nations also have a powerful magical history, and they use it to defend their interests against European incursion. This gives further impetus to the Infernal project. In this light one cannot view the Infernal project as a European embellishment on existing history, but a whole alternate history of the world, in which European contact with the Orient and the New World reveals to them the importance of having adopted Infernal powers, since all the Heathens were doing it anyway. 

This campaign is suitable for a system cut from the whole cloth of AD&D. But I have a plan to make a more specific system, in which combat is more deadly and magic more versatile. I have always thought that AD&D wizards were too weak, and now is my chance to test this complaint against reality…

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