Friday, June 24, 2011

Get your reality out of my fantasy

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Which way do you go as far as using social conventions in your game world?  Humans are not nice to each other.  Reading history is more shocking than any horror movie could be.  Forget about the large scale horrors of genocide and colonialism and war - even more mundane elements of past societies - the degree of racism, slavery, sexism, casual attitudes towards infanticide or child abuse - are revolting to the modern person.  (I hope they're revolting to the rest of you, too).

So the question is, how much do you aim for historical verisimilitude in representing your fantasy world?  I suppose I can see a number of common positions.  One is to put all the historical elements in place, and turn the past into a foreign country - the players need to learn the social conventions - "Slavery is okay here!" - in addition to adventuring.  Sword and Planet stories, right here on Earth!

Another approach would be to use anachronistic, modern social conventions - women and children aren't just property, for instance.  Modern players then don't need to grapple with social problems and can focus on adventuring.

Finally, in a fantasy world with an alternate power structure than 'might makes right', there doesn't seem to be any problems ignoring real world social conventions.  There are many leading female characters in fantasy worlds that don't have to deal with glass ceilings and double standards.  Magic is a great equalizer.

I see myself working more in the quasi-historical space going forward (not the Black City, mind you, that's 100% fantastic) so it's an interesting question to me.


  1. Well, depends on the game, but for my Old School campaign I'm aiming for a Middles Ages feel, but with an even stronger religion that effectively governs the land; women are equal, if only because the Empire is ruled by the Eternal Empress.

    I am trying to go for a low-magic, gritty game, with elements of weird and horror.

    How much weird and horror depends on the adventure really. It'll start off with bandits, and I'll work from there.

    There are things I'll avoid: I'm not interested in going too far with the gruesomeness of the era, but the implication that bad things can, do, and will happen will be there in the background.

    Of course, once the game starts it all depends on the players and how they act. It might turn into a farce and mockery of the Middle Ages; you just never know for certain.

  2. I tend to prefer that cultures generally have social mores bearing a close resemblance, in terms of the overall level of human rights and civility, to those of the historical period most closely resembling that of the setting, and to avoid importing modern ideas about human rights.

    At least, this is likely to be the typical case with most cultures - if exceptions exist, they'll probably be notable for it, and it's likely the existence of these exceptions that makes the setting feel like 'fantasy' and not just an alternate history.

    As far as 'alternate power structures', the resulting social structures would depend to a very large degree on the exact details of the alternate power structure. Magic in particular tends to be something that can work very differently in different settings, so whether it's an equalizer is a setting-specific detail rather than a general truth. If only certain races or sexes are capable of making use of magic (i.e., inherently so, rather than due to lack of magical knowledge) it's not likely to be much of an equalizer.

  3. My general rule is don't include something you're not prepared to have an awkward (and genuine) conversation about. I go in for verisimilitude, but only if I feel versed in the modern implications of the topic. The players are all modern, after all, and they're the ones that have to deal with it.

    That said, my characters are fantastically racist (and mundanely racist ;p) because I feel confident in those conversations with my group. I trend away from sexism, because my (mostly female) group would probably steamroll me no matter what I thought I had to say. Other uncomfortable social conventions I keep adding until I get that "I don't belong here; I'm uncomfortable," reaction from players, and then stop until they get jaded. No sense overdoing it.

  4. I'm with Antion in that about half of my players are women, so I could either disenfranchise my PCs or make a more gender-equitable society. I might make the nobles more gender split, as the characters are pretty lowborn. It's all fluid.

    Slavery exists, but is technically illegal. It's a lot like illegal aliens IRL, where it is an unspoken, but important, part of the economy.

    Otherwise, I try to keep enough verisimilitude to not have to explain everything they encounter, but enough strangeness to keep things interesting.

  5. One of the advantages of running a campaign with an assumed pseudo-Christian culture is that our "modern" attitudes toward things like racism, slavery, sexism, infanticide and child abuse are all informed by Christianity. Thus, there needn't be a major gear shift in POV and cultural assumptions to immerse yourself into such a campaign.

    This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't cultures in the campaign world to be discovered/encountered that have radically different ideas about racism, etc. Personally, I think that allowing players to come at such encounters from more familiar cultural mores actually increases the horror/alienness of the encounter.

  6. I tend to tailor this with my players in mind. I'd usually rather have to change something about my setting than make my friends uncomfortable. Unless, of course, confronting whatever it is that's uncomfortable is one of the major themes of the game.

    What this means in practical terms is that my fantasy worlds tend to have slavery, sexism, racism and all that, but that it stays unmentioned in the background unless it becomes a plot point for the current adventure. This has caused the occasional double-take ("I didn't realize that Robert was a slave!"), but it hasn't caused problems.

  7. So the question is, how much do you aim for historical verisimilitude in representing your fantasy world?

    In Zama, my home-brew world, societies perceptions very much match that of classical history: slavery isn't evil, it's a fact of life. Soldiers rape and pillage. Graft and corruption abound in politics and local officials. Children are sacrificed to the gods or thrown off cliffs in some societies if they are born deformed. Woman are murdered by their fathers or husbands for having affairs before (or prior to) marriage. In contrast, cheating men are lauded for their accomplishments. Whole cities and peopes are executed or sold into slavery as punishments for rebellion, first born sons are murdered by superstitious rulers. Women frequently die in childbirth, disease is rife. Medicine kills as often as it cures. I could go on.

    Heck, it's not a world I would ever want to live in that's for sure

  8. I think I like the approach of putting all the historically accurate stuff in the setting, but not making it so 'in your face' unless it's part of the story. It gives you the ability to dial it up or down based on the members of the group (for me, that could mean having one of the 9-10 year olds sitting in on a game).

    This is a small sample, but the theme seems to be accuracy over catering to modern tastes. Could be worth a future poll.

  9. Antion has it down, I think. Nothing gets in that I wouldn't be comfortable exploring in conversation with the players, without the safety net of a fictional world. There's a time and a place for using fictional worlds to explore uncomfortable questions of prejudice and privilege and discover things about yourself. That time is not the same time as the time when you have some mates round to explore that fictional world and tell some collaborative stories with dice - unless all those mates have agreed that that's what you're doing and are as comfortable with the social-analysis meanings of Race and Class as they are with the D&D meanings of same.