Thursday, June 20, 2024

Dynasties and Demagogues

Nine times out of ten, when one of my posts gets really weird, it's because I decided to look at a naively conceived fantasy book through the lens of politics. "Hey, Exalted, nice pro-authoritarian subtext you've got there. What's that Earthdawn? You're going to be even-handed and enlightened in your presentation of fantasy races, but then pedal-to-the-floor stereotypical about real cultures? Oh, you." And as weird as it can get sometimes, I don't really regret it. In fact, I often feel the opposite. I'll lie awake in bed gently crying into my pillow, "What if I didn't roast Al-Qadim enough?" (Spoiler alert for those going back into the archives to check the post - I probably didn't).

It's this bizarre pattern of behavior that makes Dynasties and Demagogues (Chris Aylott) feel like a gauntlet thrown down at my feet. It's practically mocking me, "We've called ourselves 'The Sourcebook of Political Intrigue.' Now whatcha gonna do about it?"

And I genuinely do not know.  Argue with a ghost, I guess. Because that's what reading "Chapter One: Political Settings" felt like - like I was receiving a visitation from the ghost of political opinions past. There was nothing here that was not completely quotidian for 2003 (even the bit about orcs potentially launching a jihad was something I'd already seen in Crusades of Valor . . . I don't want to excuse it, but I'm not surprised it was a pattern), but it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I could chide them for being so casual about fascism.

I should unpack this for my younger readers - there was a time in this country where, if you were a sheltered white man, you could fool yourself into thinking fascism was safely in the past. And because it wasn't perceived as a looming threat, you could just kinda be playful with it. Not like, "ha, ha" playful, but writer's playful. You could make it the sort of villain that gets a humane and nuanced presentation. You know, the ol' "these people did harmful things, but they were possessed of certain admirable virtues and did not think of themselves as the bad guy" treatment (those are scare quotes, not quote quotes).

There was no way anyone could ever predict that 20 years down the line, the (quote quotes) sentence, "Hitler and Mussolini won power by promising to put hungry people back to work and make their countries great again" would send a fucking shiver down the reader's spine.

On the one hand, it's nice to have a reminder that there was a time in this country when a regular person, with no particular axe to grind, could casually observe that "make [country] great again" was a fascist slogan. On the other hand, "Dictatorship is about order" and "Dictators are intelligent, charismatic, and ruthless" are way too generous to the authoritarians. 

It's that writerly playfulness at work again. You're presenting dictatorship as an element of fantasy worldbuilding, so you think, "hey, they must be doing it for a reason that at least seems good to themselves. It's not like you can have an entire nation fall under the sway of howling bigots, so lost in their own alternate epistemology of 'war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength' that they build a constantly collapsing system of endemic graft and inefficiency out of a maniacal spite that would sink the entire ship of state so long as they get to be the last one above the water line." In the year 2003, the collapse of the Soviet Union was too far in the past and the resurgence of right wing nationalism too far into the future. You could be forgiven for losing track of what authoritarian regimes were really like (and I have to include younger me in this - I was, during that same period, writing the sort of absolute gibberish alt-history fiction that I would mercilessly roast if I came across it today, and I'd have even less of an excuse because I was 12 credit hours into a subsequently abandoned Political Science major).

But as I said earlier, this is like arguing with a ghost, because this book isn't notably pro-authoritarian. In fact, it's the most democracy-friendly D&D book I've ever read. It's just that all of its opinions scream, "late 20th century AP World history" to me. It's similarly generous to political anarchism, even as it's dismissing it as only practicable at a small scale. How are you supposed to interpret the inclusion of a d20 stat block for Peter Kropotkin that lists his alignment as Chaotic Good? Now, how are you supposed to interpret that information juxtaposed with the chapter's later assertion that "An empire develops when a vigorous nation absorbs several surrounding nations."

As an elder millennial, I can feel the sympathetic cringe from relying on 20th century historiography, but even in 2003, there had to be a better word than "vigorous." I should nonetheless extend it the same grace I'd hope would be extended to me, were I in a similar situation.

Besides, it's not really a difficult thing to do. When Dynasties and Demagogues is not busy being old-fashioned, it's actually a pretty thorough and accessible guide to fantasy worldbuilding. I imagine that all its talk about bureaucracy, empire, and the various forms of democracy would be quite an eye-opener if your previous understanding of politics in D&D-style fantasy was, "I don't know, I guess there's like kings and dukes and knights and shit." (Incidentally, this is not a poke at the political sophistication of fantasy fans, it's more a scathing indictment of the way the D&D implied setting kind of vaguely gestures in the direction of European political titles, but only rarely bothers fleshing out even a quasi-historical feudalism-light).

The best possible use of this material is as a stepping stone to broaden the horizons of new DMs.  There are times when it really tries to sell "political intrigue" as an entirely new type of campaign. Like its target audience is purely people who've only ever run dungeon crawls (the final pre-appendix page has a flow chart that's designed to look like a dungeon map to accompany a wrap-up that uses the dungeon as a metaphor for politics - "Unlike real dungeons, the political dungeon will probably never be 'cleaned out'.") It can sometimes cozy up to the line between "helpful" and "condescending," but I think that if you're in a position to need this information, you'll be grateful that it's presented so cleanly and succinctly.

The second-best use of this material is to help old hat GMs expand and rationalize their plotting abilities. The "Adventures in Politics" and "Political Campaigns" chapters contain a lot of really good GM advice. It claims to be a lot more politics-specific than it actually is, but it can broadly apply to any game that's centered around either "the PCs drive the plot" or "the villain has an agenda that is constantly advancing." I found its schema for classifying adventure types - Character Pieces, Consequences, Rival Plots, Setbacks, Golden Opportunity, Investigation, Move/Countermove, Red Herrings, and Climax - to be illuminating. I genuinely feel like I'm a better GM now than I was a couple of days ago (though let's see if it sticks).

The "worst" (scare quoted because it's not at all bad, just not as strong as the other uses) use for this book is for expanded mechanical options. There are systems for using skill checks to resolve elections and political debates, but they can be a bit fiddly (the debate system gives you a "political defense" score that's calculated by averaging your modifiers in four different skills). There are new spells and magic items, many of which are interesting and fill a new social niche, but they aim for "useable in any setting," which is not a style that particularly appeals to me.  

I will say that the new prestige classes are exciting from a game-design perspective. The "Discreet Companion" class gives the ability to use charm person as an extraordinary ability, which is a seismic shift in the way d20 classes handle special abilities. Basically, it's saying that the class's mundane charm is so effective that it can best be modeled by a spell effect. It's such a sensible and powerful idea that it's kind of shocking how little it was used in official D&D products. You've got these huge lists of discrete rules exceptions in the form of the standard spell lists, why not squeeze some more value out of them by using them as class features for non-caster classes? I greatly admire the way the book is willing to give its politicians some genuinely drool-worthy abilities (even if both the caster classes have a full 10 spellcasting levels, on top of their new social abilities) and if I were still designing custom d20 content, I'd definitely be borrowing some of its technology.

Overall, I'd say that Dynasties and Demagogues is a book I should have read 20 years ago, but I didn't have the internet 20 years ago, so I inexplicably waited until 2020 to pick it up, and in that context I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it. I think it aged well, as far as these things go, and it definitely still has some utility, but it's in this weird position where if you want to play the type of game it suggests, you've got plenty of better options, but its main strength - encouraging a new playstyle inside the D&D ruleset - is made impossible by the obsolescence of its rules. The people who need it most have the least use for it and the people who need it least are the ones who can use it best. I guess that's just part of growing old, though. Your wisdom is wasted on the young and is yesterday's news to your peers. 

Thank goodness blogging is an immortal art form.

Ukss Contribution: The thing I liked most was an entire campaign pitch - the Empire of Owls. Brief summary - the world's elves grew concerned at humanities rapid technological advancement and territorial expansion. They were (from their nigh-immortal perspective) quickly herded into ever-shrinking forest reserves and on the brink of extinction. So they engineered a centuries-long conspiracy to cause the collapse of human civilization. And it worked. More than fifty human generations have lived in small rustic villages as the forest reclaimed the land, all the while unaware that they sit atop the ruins of their ancestors' great empire. The elves act as a kind of noble class/game wardens who purposefully keep their human charges isolated, dependent, and weak while they themselves enjoy a perfected elven lifestyle.

It's a fascinating variant of the faerie myth. Humans are a small and huddled species, surrounded by these otherworldly, immortal beings and their dangerous sylvan idyll, but there's this dramatic irony - they used to be more. The elves' eco-feudalism is itself an unnatural lie. I could base a whole fantasy setting off this idea.

Which is, unfortunately, why I am not choosing it as my Ukss contribution. It doesn't really work if there are still regular human kingdoms outside the Empire of Owls' borders. Maybe in an isolated valley or on a lost continent, but I think it really needs a certain level of post-apocalyptic melancholy.

So I'm going with my second choice - Brycwyrcan, the god of glorious toil. I love me a god where you can't tell with certainty whether he's on humanity's side or not.

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