Thursday, September 9, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Theran Empire

 Why is Barsaive in Ukraine? That's the question I have to ask before I can even begin to form an opinion on The Theran Empire. It might not seem entirely relevant, but the bulk of the book (120 out of 176 pages) is devoted to fleshing out Thera's conquered provinces, regions that are politically very much like Barsaive, but which have not declared independence (yet), so if I can work out the process by which Barsaive was constructed as a setting, then I can determine how surprised I should be by the worldbuilding in this book.

So far, Barsaive has mostly been "what if D&D, but it showed its work," and it's been great. There's these places and sometimes they're a trope (like Kratas, the city of thieves), and sometimes they're riffing on a unique idea (like the Blood Wood), but they're still D&D-fantasy-style places. That's not to sell Earthdawn short or anything. It's done D&D fantasy as well as anyone ever has, but it's clearly working within a genre. You could call it "generic fantasy," but it has a very specific set of assumptions. Or perhaps "European fantasy" except that it doesn't really resemble any specific place or time in European history.

And that's important, because it seems like the answer to "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine" is "Why not?" Maybe it's because I don't know a lot about Ukranian folklore, but there doesn't seem to be anything in the setting of Barsaive that demands that it be in this specific location. The coastlines match up, but everything else about the cultures, the cosmology, and the creatures of Barsaive suggests that this is more of a riff on Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk than a deep dive into Slavic mythology.

Something like that could go anywhere. You probably want to keep it in the vicinity of Europe, to avoid any unfortunate "this land was once home to an ancient society of white people" nonsense, but Barsaive could be in Germany or France or Great Brittan and we wouldn't be terribly confused about the strange location of this prototypically Ukrainian fantasy world.

That being said, I don't think the choice of location was entirely arbitrary. If you're making an rpg that is the secret history of the Shadowrun universe, even as just a sly little easter egg, then you want it somewhere that people can look at geographical landmarks and make the connection, but if you want it to be able to stand on its own, you don't want to be too on the nose about it. With all due respect to my Eastern European readers, for whom I'm sure the coastline of the Black Sea is immediately recognizable, Ukraine offers a nice compromise. Point it out, and you'll get an "oh, yeah," but you're not dealing with a province of Talea type situation

Can you guess where this location is in our real world?

People who've read The Theran Empire will probably have picked up on what I've been building up to, but that map there is more articulate than anything I might have said. You might ask "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine," but there is never even a moment's doubt as to why Talea is in Italy. The text is somehow less subtle than the map.

The province of Talea is divided between fractious Dukes who must contend with the powerful Signori who rule the cities and employ mercenary armies paid for by their extensive mercantile interests and all of them answer to the leader of a celibate religious order, called the Pompate, who worships a god that preaches the virtues of poverty, but whose church is massively wealthy and houses its important priests (called "paders") in opulence while building an enormous number of expensive monuments. . .

And look, I'm not saying it's bad, but it is a style of worldbuilding we've not seen in Earthdawn before, and is extremely weird in a place that is literally the physical location of the culture it's plagiarizing, just 8000 years in the past. You could pitch me "Renaissance Italy with the serial numbers filed off, but in a fantasy world with elves and dwarves and gender equality," and I'd be mostly okay with it. I'd probably ask what you were planning on doing with Christianity, and I wouldn't be entirely comfortable if you replicated this book's approach (the church is convinced that some important figure is going to be born in the future, and have assembled some kind of ramshackle theology based on what they think his teachings are likely to be, an approach described in-character as "mind-bending nonsense"), but I get it. By basing it on history, you get some automatic verisimilitude and by making it fantastic, you're ensuring that your players can't peek at your campaign notes by browsing Wikipedia.

And if Barsaive were specifically Ukrainian, I could probably leave it at that. "Oh, they're doing to Italy what they did to Ukraine, the so-called 'Age of Legends' is just a funhouse mirror version of our current historical age and so everywhere you go, you're going to run into tropes." But Barsaive is not Ukrainian. It's 95% fantasy nonsense, and so my reaction was more like "whoa, what game am I reading and what did it do with Earthdawn."

Now I'm forced to talk about cultural appropriation. Sometimes I get the dark suspicion that my reluctance to venture into these waters is an affectation. "Ooh, I'm so humble, I know I don't know enough to have an informed opinion, but the book is forcing me to talk about it" . . . and then somehow getting into this situation at least three or four times a year, but The Theran Empire really does some weird things with culture and I've been treading water in this post to delay talking about it, but I've already dipped my toe in Talea so I might as well take the plunge.

So . . . Thera is an empire. It goes around the world conquering and enslaving people. Its book, then, is largely about the places it's conquered. And this is important to note because cultural appropriation, as a concept, is about imperialism. It often gets simplified into the idea that it's wrong to use ideas from cultures you don't belong to, but that was never really the issue. The issue is more about which voices get heard when you talk about a particular culture.

Look at it this way - Alice and Bob go out to dinner with Charlie. There's a fundamental difference between Charlie saying "Alice, tell me about yourself" and Charlie saying, "Bob, tell me about Alice." The second question is extremely rude, because we assume that Alice is capable of speaking for herself. 

It doesn't necessarily have to be. There are mitigating scenarios. Maybe Alice and Charlie don't share a common language and Bob has to translate. Maybe Bob and Charlie are really good friends and Alice is just tagging along, taking no interest in the conversation and playing on her phone. There are any number reasons why Alice may be perfectly content in not participating in the conversation.

Now, imagine that Bob has a history of exploiting and abusing Alice. Suddenly, this line of speculation got a lot less fun. Even if those old excuses still happened to be true, the conversation is now undeniably creepy.

"Cultures influence each other" - it's not just something people say when they don't want to talk about cultural appropriation, it's also important, good, and true. The world would be a pretty barren place if we didn't have the capacity to learn from each other. That's the rub, though. "Learning," in order to be actual learning, must come from a place of humility and respect, or else it might cross that fuzzy line into "copying" or, god forbid, "parody."

It's the difference between "I traveled to a distant land and the artisans there really helped me improve my bowl-making skills" versus "look at this cool bowl I made all by myself" (oh, and in the interest of not replicating this error - this post owes a lot to the cultural appropriation primer) versus "isn't it funny how dumb this bowl looks, that's how they make them in a distant land." It can be frustrating that such a fraught issue can rely on something as ephemeral and subjective as "attitude," particularly when there's no guarantee that your attitude will be judged with generosity, but it is what it is. 

And I made this long digression because I have not the slightest clue what The Theran Empire is trying to accomplish, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with at least some of the stuff I just said.

That's why I started this off by singling out the province of Talea. It's an example of that rude, 3rd person conversation, but I'm pretty sure Alice and Bob have a decent relationship. It's the Age of Legends and what are things like in the region that will one day be known as "Italy?" They're like a fantasy version of renaissance Italy, but everything is under an alias and maybe some of the philosophy and theology is a bit sloppy because this is just a game.

Fair enough. Now let's look at the province of Creana. "It is known for the fertility of its central river" and "fabulous monuments to the dead." It is ruled by a monarch called "the Pharon" who sits atop a rigidly hierarchical society called "the pyramid of Name-givers." Also, there are mummies.

Can you guess where in the world Creana is supposed to be?

Okay, that was a gimme. Now for the tough one - what does it mean that Creana isn't that much like Egypt after all? It's a subtle point. Barsaive isn't Ukraine, it's European fantasy tropes, but Creana isn't Egypt . . . it's European fantasy tropes . . . about Egypt. It's all very surface, but the surface is very consistent.

When I think of the way this book handles Egypt and India and North Africa, what I'm most reminded of is Oriental Adventures (Italy and German were also Oriental Adventures, but they're European so it's . . . okay . . .?). Which is to say that I got a sense of moderate amounts of research deployed in compiling a list of cool ideas and then using those ideas in a fairly slapdash way to build a setting by more or less the same process as you used to create the base campaign world. And because this is Earthdawn we're talking about, that slapdash worldbuilding does tend to be better justified than most - the reason not-Egypt has so many rogue undead is because a leftover Horror is blocking passage to the Lands of the West (the afterlife) and so the spirits return to their original bodies and just sort of mill around . . . except for mummies, who have their brains removed as part of the process and thus get reanimated as mindless killing machines (because, apparently, the brain still serves a purpose, even to the undead).

But despite being more than a little bit Oriental Adventures, these sections are also a product of 90s FASA, so they're plausibly, if confusingly woke . . . relatively speaking . . . for the time period. Near the beginning of the India Indrisa section, it talks about "the moral bankruptcy of Thera's imperial aims" and that's kind of a running theme throughout the book. Like a lot of other Earthdawn products, The Theran Empire is kind of a book within a book within a book. Ostensibly, we're reading first-hand accounts, collated by Merrox, chief of Throal's Great Library, and then . . . published . . . by FASA? So the pattern is that the bulk of the book is from the Theran perspective, and it's pretty awful, but then the framing device says, "look at this dickhead, the concrete details are probably correct, but don't trust his spin" and thus the majority of the actual information is tainted, but you're supposed to know it's tainted, and FASA knows you know, but you know that they know you know, and I guess the conclusion is that slavery is very definitely bad, but it's not as if Thera invented it . . .

The thing I want you to know is that this has been a very difficult post for me. I'm on something like hour 12 of trying to hammer my thoughts into place, not counting all the pacing back and forth I did while reading the book, muttering to myself "how the hell am I going to turn this into a post?"

What's getting me all tied up is that Earthdawn is advantaged in the fact that Barsaive is the victim of imperialism, so the game is automatically inclined to say the right things about imperialism, but also Barsaive is white, and so the suspicion is there that this is just special pleading . . .

I don't think that's what's going on, but the evidence is largely contextual. There are sections that definitely, without a doubt, attempt to justify imperialism and slavery, but the narrators of those sections are specific characters that the book means to portray as assholes . . . except maybe that one guy who was Thera's leading philosophical proponent of slavery, who the narrator "half-expected . . . to be an evil man. . . Instead [they] found him to be kind and moral but profoundly self-deluded. [They] could not bring [themselves] to hate him. But he and Name-givers like him must be driven from power before Barsaive can be truly free."

What am I supposed to do with that? I think maybe I need to acknowledge that I've been radicalized in the last few years and that this is generally a good 90s take. If we pull back and become even more contextual, we can see that the book puts the lie to Thera's rationalizing that they only enslave criminals by seeing an example of them boosting their slave numbers by arbitarily criminalizing the population of Marac (north Africa). That's a trenchant observation - the tyrants can't be trusted to play by their own rules. If your territory isn't producing enough "criminals" to meet their labor demands, they'll diplomatically recognize the rump government of a deposed tribal leader and declare two thirds of the country in open insurrection.

Then the framing device will say it's uncomfortable with assassination as a tactic, even as other parts of the framing device suggest that the Barsavians could stand to learn a thing or two from the other provinces' resistance movements.

That's the paradox of this book, though. The Therans are the evil empire, but they're also the ones doing most of the talking. This was so prominent in the chapter on Indrisa that it made me uncomfortable. There's no doubt in my mind that the text views the Theran conquest of Indrisa as wrong. Indeed, this is the region where the Therans are most nakedly brutal. They started off their invasion by destroying a city that was home to hundreds of thousands of people. What's unnerving about the chapter is that it's mostly about how these terror tactics worked. There are rural communities who combine banditry and political resistance, but the big cities are so cowed by Thera's air power that they pay their tribute and try to  go about their lives.

And I don't know. Maybe this just isn't a story I want to hear about India - about how it's a profitable colonial holding for a ruthless imperial power. The chapter casts the right people as villains, and it eschews the "white man's burden" narrative as forcefully and directly as it can while still pretending to be written by characters who were born 8000 years before Rudyard Kipling ("All that mess-hall slop about the blessings of Theran civilization isn't designed for provincials. It's designed for us - to make us feel better about what we're doing. . .It's stupid to tell a people you're subjugating that you care only about their well-being. Most of them will see this as the paper-thin nonsense it is.") But in the process it still manages to be all about how Thera feels about the conquest.

So The Theran Empire gets one . . . two . . . three slow-claps from me. I know that you know what you're doing is kind of offensive. But maybe you could have just not put yourself in this position? Maybe you could have worked fantasy India into your antediluvian prequel setting in a different way? 

But I guess the name of the book isn't "The Indrisa Boxed Set" it's The Theran Empire, and because of airships and mumble, mumble, mumble, the Empire included India and Egypt, but none of the lands between.

I've been jumping all over the place, and have so far included none of the cool fantasy stuff that made it into my notes (one of the Theran noble houses is based out of a mile-long, sword-shaped floating citadel), but I'm ready to wrap this up. I can't tell you whether this book is good or bad. If I were inclined to be snarky, I'd say that it's Earthdawn committing to its "D&D, but, like, on-purpose" bit by replicating the embarrassing part of the Forgotten Realms where it has grafted-on continents that are just non-white-cultures-as-genre and then trying to make an anti-imperialist statement about it. But honestly, the anti-imperialism isn't forceful enough to be impressive and the worldbuilding is at least a tier below Barsaive. I think this is one of those "exists to fill a slot" supplements that would have benefited from a bit more sense of purpose and a lot more time in the oven.

Ukss Contribution: The morality of this book is beyond my ability to judge, but I think it's on the side of good, and there were definitely parts I liked. My favorite is the Fruit of the Passions. "Passions" are what Earthdawn calls gods and the story is that Vasgothia's (Germany's) native gods decided to hang back during the Scourge and fight the Horrors head on. The result was a draw. The land was twisted by the power of the battle, but it was not tainted or destroyed by the Horrors. Also, most of the gods died during the conflict, leaving behind magical fruits that contained a fraction of their power. It's loot that PCs are definitely going to want, and by its very nature it justifies venturing into a creepy, monster-infested forest. Exactly what I love most about Earthdawn as a game.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that Barsaive was placed in Ukraine because it's usually thought to be the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European people, but that might just be a coincidence.