Saturday, December 19, 2020

(AD&D 2e)A Mighty Fortress Campaign Sourcebook

 Man, these AD&D historical reference books are an emotional rollercoaster. One minute, they're telling me about Elizabethan cutlery and the politics surrounding neck ruffs ("size was limited by royal decree"), and I've got a huge grin on my face (seriously), but then it starts talking about using these terrible historical atrocities as the backdrop for a game and I'm like, "Dude . . . too soon."

I don't know what it is, but A Mighty Fortress has crossed the invisible line in my brain between "distant enough that it's basically most of the way towards fantasy already" and "recent enough that it's relevant to current politics and culture." Maybe it's Jamestown. This book covers the years 1550-1650, and while the USA wouldn't exist for another 130 years, it's still a period that's deep enough in our cultural mythology that Ted Cruz sees fit to lie about it.

Although, that may not actually be it at all. "The New World" gets precisely one page and barely shows up in the timeline. The focus is almost exclusively on Europe. I guess the sense of immediacy comes from the fact that this is a time and place that actually tends to get covered in high school history. There are parts, especially when it's summarizing the era's wars, where it feels a lot like the first chapter of an American History textbook (for those of my readers who were not educated in the USA, these things usually began with 20 pages or so that can best be described as "why the world was incomplete until the founding of the USA" and 16th century European religious wars feature prominently).

It's a little uncomfortable to see a discussion of this time period that doesn't cover the slave trade, colonialism, or the ongoing genocide of the Native Americans. Not necessarily because I want those things in my fantasy rpg, but because they are such foundational elements of the modern world that their absence makes the history feel overly curated. 

Not that I'd call it especially racist or anything. It's Eurocentric as hell, but I feel like that's mainly because it chooses to center itself on Europe. It wants to be about Catholics versus Huguenots and not about the equally interesting things going on China and Japan (despite mentioning them in its timeline), and that narrow focus might even be acceptable were it not for the fact that the European nations were in the process of becoming global powers.

I think the worst you can say about it though is that it's slightly Spanish-apologist:

In spite of the black legends surrounding the Spanish in America, their rule was probably less severe than that of most other European colonizers. Legally, at least, managers of the Spanish encomiendas (manors) had to treat their Indian subjects nearly the same as they would have treated Spanish subjects back home. The extent to which such laws were enforced in the remote American wilderness is anybody's guess. But it is noteworthy that only the Spanish and the Portuguese left any lasting European influence in their colonies; all other colonial powers treated  native people with undisguised disdain.
I'm not even sure what to do with that. It's not wrong, exactly, but I couldn't tell you what it was for, especially considering that this is the bulk of the book's text concerning political interaction between Europeans and the Americas. I think it might be a generational divide. Maybe the author is correcting a misconception from his own history education and reminding us that we can't just offload the sins of colonialism onto the Spanish.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't get far enough outside its Eurocentrism to actually justify attempting nuance with colonialism. You want to talk about the Europeans deplorable conduct in the Americas, do it through the perspective of an American.

But you know what, I've talked a lot about what the book isn't, maybe I should spare a paragraph or two to talk about what it is.

A Mighty Fortress is the supplement you reach for when you want to turn your Europa Universalis save into a tabletop roleplaying campaign. You can be a mercenary in the 30 Years War. A Calvinist preacher. A vagabond with an old-timey-sounding criminal specialty (my favorite was the the Prigman - "A vagabond who appears to wander aimlessly but in fact steals drying clothes from hedges").

It's a fascinating time period to set a D&D game in, because it almost, but not quite escapes the technological and social trappings of "standard" fantasy - there are still swords and princesses and eccentric alchemists and such, but they're starting to be subjected to modernist criticism. The sword is an affectation. The princess might marry a bourgeois merchant for his money. The alchemist is a crackpot.

My main complaint about A Mighty Fortress is that it focuses on these dour religious and political conflicts and not on early-modern European folklore. A lot of our current fairy tales date from this period of history and there's a lot of great fantasy potential there. We do get a brief chapter about the subject, but it feels perfunctory. Stories aren't linked to places and they don't do a great deal to integrate with the setting.

Mechanically, A Mighty Fortress is decent. Clerics get their spellcasting nerfed to hell, in exchange for nothing, so it's questionable why anyone would even want to play one. Wizards have their casting times increased, instantly obsoleting all of their combat magic, but hilariously their main drawback is that DMs are encouraged to actually enforce the rules about spell learning failure chances and material components. There's an interesting new rule that allows thieves to swap their thief skill percentage points for extra nonweapon proficiency slots, but that's less a creative innovation and more the game gradually stumbling towards a coherent skill system.

My final verdict on this book is confusion. It does a stellar job in building a world, so much so that I can heartily recommend it as a source of authentic-sounding details for anyone who wants to make a similar fantasy setting. But maybe it builds its world a little too well, because it sounds like absolute hell to live through, and I'm not sure I want to make light of that.

That's the central dilemma of historical roleplaying, though - in the words of the book "Please excuse us if we seem to glorify war." 

Ukss Contribution: My favorite thing from this book is actually a misapprehension I had for about an hour before breaking down and looking it up on the internet - Pope Sixtus V. My mistake was mixing this name up with Sextus V, meaning roughly "Sixth, the Fifth," but apparently the two names are etymologically unrelated. It was still pretty cool to learn that there was a Pope whose name sounded like an anime robot, though.

My second favorite thing is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Unfortunately, I don't think I should use it because the thing I like about it is how much I don't like it. I've got an idea for a cool fantasy religion, but it would undoubtedly be rooted in an antagonistic understanding of Calvinism, and that would be kinda uncool. Maybe, as an American, I have a right to satirize them (the USA is a country that aims to turn you into a Puritan, regardless of what religion you are), but why take the risk?

Third choice - ruffs. A ridiculous bit of fashion, but it's undeniably a look. I may be the first person to combine neck ruffs and mirrorshades, however.


  1. I am here for ruffs and mirrorshades. Maybe mirrorruffs.


    1. I laughed at "mirrorruffs," but then I was like, "what if . . ."

    2. I think that actually is the second, after TORG - its cyberpunk setting, the Cyberpapacy, takes its cues from late medieval France. One gang there is the Sun Kings/Queens, "streetwise posers who dress in the style of Ancièn France with pomaded wigs, chalked faces (complete with beauty spots) and elegant clothing."

      I always thought that was a delightfully mental juxtaposition which deserved to be explored further.