Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Communication Network

Our entourage has been milling about Shropshire for quite some time now, and has developed a reputation within its borders. This seems to have come as a surprise to at least one player, though, and so I'd like to make a brief excursion into the way in which information travelled in the Middle Ages. 

It's difficult for us to imagine life without the Internet, without television or radio, without printed media, when just about the only source of information to which anyone had access was human conversation. With people spending most of their lives in only one town, village, or hamlet, how on earth could anyone learn about anything happening as far away as the next shire?

The perhaps surprising answer is: Remarkably well.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, within any medieval man's given locality, he is known, to some degree, by just about everyone. Even in a large town, it's highly probable that nearly all of the residents would know each other by sight, as such residents comprised nearly all of one's human acquaintance for nearly all of one's life. At the very least, the guards at the city gate would be well enough acquainted with the denizens within its walls that they would know who charge entry tolls and who should and should not be going in or out. This, after all, is their job. Trying to masquerade as a resident to escape the toll simply isn't an option.
In turn, each person's connections would extend well beyond his place of residence. He might have relatives in several other municipalities, some of them perhaps hundreds of miles away. Aside from the letters that the literate would exchange, there is an intricate and highly-developed gossip network in place.
People simply spent a lot of time talking. There would be ample time to talk at the market, while getting water at the town well, when passing in the road in the midst of errands, over the merchandise bought and sold at the city stall, and over food and drink at the ale house. New information was exchanged with eager relish, just as it is today; only, with so much less of it to go around, medieval people tended to do quite a bit more with what they had.

At supper, families would have plenty of time to share all they’d learnt during the day, and this in turn would be passed on to each of their contacts the next day. If they left their village for the parish church, they would carry information there and bring news back. Likewise if they went even further, such as to town on a market day; and travellers on the roads between towns would eagerly share what they’d heard through the grapevine as well as significant announcements from the town crier. With sufficient time to talk, theories and opinions would be developed and exchanged, and lots and lots of detail would be included.

Since people encountered so many fewer strangers than they do now, they would be acutely attuned to differences in facial features, dress, and mannerisms, and would be able to describe these to the people they knew. It’s not hard to see how the party, on entering a town for the first time, might be recognised by people who had merely heard of them.It wouldn’t take long for word to spread to everyone who cares. It would be extremely hard to keep a low profile in all but the largest towns.

It’s even harder, perhaps, for people accustomed to focusing on their smartphones, and ignoring their surroundings, to place themselves in a world where paying attention is one’s only guide to knowledge. As the campaign world’s filter, the DM is the only source of that information.

I’m talking, obviously, about adventure hooks.

The entourage is about to embark on a hundred-mile journey, and perhaps go town-hopping along the way. This is splendid. They may very well end up in an adventure or more; it all depends on what they do with the information they’re given. Or perhaps I should say: The information they proactively collect.

As DM, I'm not going to be able to make too much happen to them. For one thing, now that this group is ten well-armed and, in a few cases, dangerous-looking people, who
will almost certainly all be on horseback by the time they leave the shire, bands of thieves are unlikely to bother them on the road. So that pretty much omits the DM force-feeding any action of that type.

They’ll have to talk to people, whether at the inns where they stay, the churches where they mingle, or to people into whom they bump on the street. They'll have to listen, whether to the town crier, to snippets of conversation overheard or misheard, or 
to things told directly to them, which could be the first clue toward incredible intrigue, or could be worth nothing.

Or they could ignore everything but the road in front of them, and have a right boring trip.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Entourage in Detail

The number of individual personalities surrounding the PCs in our campaign has increased to such an extent, including as it does henchmen, lackeys, and NPCs just a long for the ride, that it is now less precise to call this group a party than an entourage.

We’ve got a game coming up next week, so we could probably all do with a refresher on who everyone is. The picture below depicts the lot in what would be their most frequent respective postures. The description to follow outlines each character, from left to right.

Addy and Simkin (always a pair). Lackeys, 0 Level.
Role: Basically, they’re just there to carry stuff for the adventurers, and do menial tasks (gather firewood, set up and break down camp, cook, care for the horses, etc.) so that the adventurers can spend their time and energy on more important things. They have very few of their own possessions, so they can pick up a lot of the encumbrance that would otherwise slow the party down.
Goals: Having known only abject poverty their entire lives, they are content to live hand to mouth and be provided with enough to eat and a few coins here and there; thus far, they have never expressed any ambitions beyond survival from week to week.
History: The scions of peasant farmers of the lowest stock, they grew up living hand to mouth until even their own families couldn’t afford them. They formed a pair at some point, and took to roaming the countryside to eke out a living through seasonal labour, stealing chickens, and so on. When they met Dodge (see below), they attached themselves to him as lackeys, and have been following him around ever since.

Dodge. Fighter, Level 1.   
Henchman of Luna.
Role: Soldier under Luna’s command; proficient in sword, both bow types, and knife.  Supplies additional brawn for the PCs, and never complains about anything (nor, for that matter, does he talk much at all).
Goals: Live a life of adventure fighting for the cause of Good, and stay alive as long as possible. He would also like to remit wealth to his family in Posselau.
History: The third son of poor farmers in Posselau, his life was a struggle from the onset. He managed to obtain an apprenticeship to a blacksmith, but sought an opportunity to escape it soon after getting hit in the face with molten iron. Ran away once, taking refuge in a snake-infested cave, but was brought back and beaten severely for his transgression. Befriended by Hamish (see below) and learning of the existence of the PCs, he finally found a chance to leave Posselau (taking his lackeys with him).

Hamish. Cleric, Level 1.
Henchman of Luna.
Goals: Get as close to God as possible. Hopes eventually to retire to a secluded monastic life in old age and devote his life to more peaceful forms of worship than those currently necessary.
Role: Clerical knowledge of religion and healing. If necessary, can use cross-shaped staff as weapon with the shillelagh spell.
History: Was abandoned to a monastery in the far north as a child. For reasons not yet disclosed, he traveled south to Shropshire after having been swindled of all possessions. Has worked as a scribe, and taught Dodge to read and write in Latin. When rumours of the PCs and their reputation came through the church in Posselau, he persuaded Dodge and his lackeys to seek them out and petition to join them.

Waleran Thayler. Cleric, Level 3.
Role: Draw lightning down from stormy skies to annihilate opponents; fight with javelin and war hammer; heal the entourage’s wounds.
Goals: Wealth and power foremost, and fame secondarily.
History: After a sketchy and troubled youth, fell in with an underground temple of the Sami pagan deity Horagales, who blessed him with the power to call lightning. Still aligned with the temple, he adheres to the cult’s dietary and lifestyle restrictions, remaining celibate to maintain his magical powers. Mostly. Has had sex at least once, and really wants to again. His big ears and weird face tend to turn most women off, though. 

Luna. Paladin, Level 3.
Role: Ridding the world of evil; fighting; healing.
Goals: Serve the Lord; eventually acquire holy steed and holy sword to further this goal.
History: The eldest surviving daughter of the master groom at Ludeforde Castle, she had the opportunity to absorb her father’s skill with animals as well as noble decorum and connections within the Earl of March’s household. Her natural beauty and inherent religious devotion, enhanced with her charisma and prowess with weapons of war, set her on an inevitable course to travel the world on a holy quest. Somewhat unexpectedly, she has not yet expressed any desire to leave Shropshire.

Llewellyn Fjord. Bard, Level 2.
Role: Magically inspire and augment the power and prowess of the other adventurers through music, song and stories; fight with bow and sword when circumstances require. 
Goals: Fill the world with beauty and music, and have a smashing old time in the meanwhile.
History: Grew up somewhat sheltered in the remote reaches of western Shropshire, just inside the Welsh border. Was always so gifted with music that his talent seemed almost supernatural; and in pieces of history gleaned from his grandfather, suspects that there are some very bizarre facts surrounding his parentage.

Tabetha Hawthorne. Bard, Level 1.
Henchman of Llewellyn.
Role: Provide genius insight and scholarship, and music (especially harp and vocal) to augment the benefits of Llewellyn's; also a gifted archer, and will use the bow in combat when necessary.
Goals:  Ultimately, peaceful rest in Heaven when the Lord deigns to release her from the misery of mortal existence.
History: Clearly suffered something tragic, the details of which are shrouded in mystery. Travels with a horse called Richard, after the crown prince Richard of Bordeaux.

Ragnar Bjorgvinson. Barbarian, Level 2.
Former PC now under DM control.
Role: Specialist in battle axe, proficient in several other weapons, and can skipper a boat if that’s ever needed. Will generally do whatever the PCs, who are all more intelligent, tell him to do. 
Goals: Do as he pleases, take what he wants, and general satisfy his animal urges.
History: Grew up on the boats, as a mariner bringing shiploads of herring from Scandinavia. Walked away from service after a vicious quarrel with his captain when the boat docked at Bristol, met the party when they were still a small group, and joined them to a living by his axe. 

Hugh from Afar. Cleric, Level 3.
Role: Scholar. Only loosely associated with the entourage; not an official member. Sought to travel with them on hearing of Luna’s reputation for miraculous healing and other gifts of God. Currently engaged in writing a history of the region. Follows the party at a distance, learning as he goes; in a pinch, will provide clerical services such as healing and turn undead.
Goals: Gain knowledge, keep extensive notes, and keep a safe distance from actual combat. 
History: As a friar gifted with healing, helped to hold back the last outbreak of plague in the north. Parentage and upbringing unknown.  

When we left the entourage, they had just returned to the village of Clutune in the wee hours of the morning, taking refuge in a stable just as the rain began to fall. They had fled from the forest just north of the village with a monty haul of treasure with which they absconded from a desperate battle between an imprisoned demoness and her guardian spirit. Ten strong, the entourage are currently nursing their wounds while they pass the time till dawn, talking by candlelight and waiting for their adrenaline to subside. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

Don Quixote Stayed Here

During an excursion into Spanish literature with a member of our campaign, mention was made of Don Quixote, and I recalled that within that doorstop of a tome is plenty of fodder for encounter, and even adventure, ideas for our game.
The text in my possession is P. A. Motteux's 1712 English translation, still the best loved by many. The language is delightful, but might present an obstacle to anyone whose primary literary exposure comes from the 21st-century internet; that is to say, the majority of the general public. These days, even when I write for the university publication, the 'readability index' through which my papers are run says that they're too difficult to read, and I'm commanded to rephrase things in a 'simpler' (read: less precise) manner.
Don Quixote should really be read by everyone, though; all the better if they can read the original Spanish. Since I'm fairly confident that no one in our campaign is going to read it cover to cover anytime soon, however, I feel free to usurp, bastardise and cannibalise that cornucopia of ideas for all that it's worth--as soon as we start playing again, which, by the way, seems to keep getting pushed further and further back.
Our next session is at the beginning of November.
I am working on updating certain players' spreadsheets in response to the claim that two of them have ascended in level. The bare mathematics of the total XP of one of these two, however, forbids me to interpret that he has.
In the meantime, I'd like to revisit the subject of lodging as I offer a gem of a description of an inn, which serves to remind us how, despite the austerity, a stay at an inn is a big step up from lying in a rain-soaked mohair tent with only a bedroll between earth and weary body.
One of the servants in the inn was an Asturian wench, a broad-faced, flat-headed, saddle-nosed dowdy, blind of one eye, and the other almost out. However, the activity of her body supplied all other defects. She was not above three feet high from her heels to her head; and her shoulders, which somewhat loaded her, as having too much flesh upon them, made her look downwards oftener than she could have wished. This charming original likewise assisted the mistress and the daughter; and, with the latter, helped to make the Knight's bed, and a sorry one it was; the room where it stood was an old gambling cock-loft, which by manifold signs seems to have been, in the days of yore, a repository for chopped straw. Somewhat further, in a corner of that garret, a carrier had his lodging; and, though his bed was nothing but the panels and coverings of his mules, it was much better than that of Don Quixote, which only consisted of four rough-hewn boards laid upon two uneven tressels, a flock-bed, that, for thinness, might well have passed for a quilt, and was full of knobs and bunches, which, had they not peeped out through many a hole, and shown themselves to be of wool, might well have been taken for stones. The rest of that extraordinary bed's furniture was a pair of sheets, which rather seemed to be of leather than linen-cloth, and a coverlet whose every individual thread you might have told, and never have missed one in the tale.
It's striking that a night's repose in such environs is sufficient to regain lost HP (as, incidentally, it was for Don Quixote, whose bangs and bruises from his most recent skirmish were somewhat miraculously healed by the next morning). That should underscore the necessity of at least a roof and indoor heating after a hard day's travels; all the more if the party is recovering from combat.
Historian Ian Mortimer, in The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, reminds us that the medieval traveler's place of rest depends on where he finds himself at sunset. When considering the alternatives, when he has a chance to stay at an inn, he should most certainly leap at it. Innkeepers are aware of this, and are likely to charge accordingly. Mortimer calls innkeepers 'no-nonsense men, shaped like bears' who are accustomed to handling all manner of ruffians and other obstreperous clients. They have the power to turn a customer out without his belongings, or even without his clothes, if he fails to make good on the bill.
Thus far, the party have run into few problems with inns or their masters. Nonetheless, they should always be aware that they're lucky to be allowed to stay, lest they get any ideas about complaining about the smoke, the fleas and bedbugs, the barking of the guard dogs, the smell of stale beer and dog urine in the rushes on the floor, or the creaking of stairs and bodily noises of fellow guests coming and going in the night. The only option remaining might be to bed down with the elements, which at the very least will provide no recovery of HP, and very well might lead to infection and other problems.
Or perhaps they could take their chances in a cheap bed in a hospital, on ancient unchanged sheets next to a pungent leper.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Paladin's Dilemma

For lack of any other fodder for blogging, I'd like to respond at length to an inquiry made post-session by the player in control of the party's Sami pagan priest of lightning. He asked if his having revealed the source of his power, particularly in calling down lightning to incinerate a bear, wouldn't place any strain on relations with those members of the party whose powers come from the Christian God. My short answer was that that would be a dilemma for them to ponder. My slightly longer answer is to give them some fodder for pondering in this connection.
The party's paladin, who happens also to be female, is played by a male, who also happens to be an athiest. It's a challenge of a rather high to the imagination to put oneself in the character of such an opposite. It's not prohibitively difficult to put oneself into a character very unlike oneself, of course; I generally relish playing an ESTP, and I think I do it quite well, despite actually being an INTJ. I think, however, that if I had convincing and incontrovertible evidence for the existence of any deity, my view of the world would be radically different. It would be all the more so if I had a female body and brain whose thoughts were at least to some degree influenced by a greater presence of female hormones and other biochemical differences. Personally, I don't believe I could conceive of the resulting worldview sufficiently to pour myself into the portrayal of such a character.
It has to be done, however, in order to formulate the appropriate response to the presence of a heretic within the paladin's close acquaintance. The heathen exposed himself as a heathen in the process of squashing a threat to the lives of everyone in the party. The paladin will have to find her own answer as to whether she should continue to associate with the pagan lightning-worshipper, or perhaps flee from him and beg the Lord's forgiveness for having ever associated with him at all. Is keeping company with the likes of him actually contrary to the will of God, or merely contrary to the manner in which the majority interpret that will? Can a heretic be a temporary ally in the battle against evil, leaving the final judgement to the Lord Himself? Or is it a Christian's duty to turn the Sami pagan away from his heathen ways, even if it means losing a great source of power? These are questions with which the paladin will have to grapple. It's hardly as clear an issue as, say, breaking any of the Ten Commandments. If she cannot find the correct answer--or worse, if she willfully avoids contemplating the question--the Lord's will is likely to present itself, eventually, in ways she won't like at all.
One of the most powerful tools at the paladin's disposal is that bit of woowoo called detect evil. Up to now, it has been interpreted as a kind of 'detection of malicious intent', but this is an oversimplification. It also involves a sensitivity to auras that exude malevolence regardless of any specific intention. Thus, when our paladin encountered a demon in the last session, her powers of detection hit the proverbial jackpot. Demons are by definition evil. Registering the demon as malevolent, in this case, had no connection whatever to any desire to harm the party. As it happened, she had no such desire. This, however, does not necessarily mean she would have had any compunctions about destroying the party if it served her purposes--or, indeed, on a whim for reasons that would have seemed to the party absolutely arbitrary.
It should be evident at once that demons have a very different code of ethics from that of humans. That they inhabit a very different reality was merely touched by an exchange this demon had with the lightning priest. He asked if she was going to find a portal to get back to her own dimension. She answered, 'You're picturing something like a door or a window. But it isn't like that. It isn't like anything you know.'
The demon was a supernatural entity acting from her own innate nature, which registers as something closer to pure evil than anything the paladin had ever encountered before. What would her detection and interpretation be of a mere human who chooses to turn his back on the Lord and has in plain view flouted five of the Ten Commandments himself thus far?

Friday, 2 September 2016

What a Man's Got to Do

Today I’m going to round out the last two posts on fantasy-reality mismatch and maturity with a short diatribe on responsibility and manhood. I do this in the hope that this weekend’s session will inspire me to hold forth on a completely unrelated topic next time.
By this I mean, in part, that everyone will show up.
Somewhere on The Art of Manliness I came across a reminder of traditional personal responsibility that seems to have fallen by the wayside. I believe it was already on the wane when I was growing up, because there were always certain people who failed to show up when they said they would, or who would arrive egregiously last with barely an apology. I can’t find the post at the moment, but Brett McKay states that when you tell someone you’ll be somewhere at a certain time, you have in effect made a promise to that person, and when you show up fifteen minutes late you have broken that promise. I had suspected this to be true from a young age, but I also perceived that it was a rare trait to uphold despite its truth value. The situation was exacerbated when I moved from New York to California, where the constant sunshine, or something in the water, seemed to give everyone a subjective view of time. Besides drivers who forgot to use turn signals when they should have and forgot to turn them off on the rare cases they did use them, and the expectation of every customer service drone to engage in protracted and obnoxiously friendly small-talk before any ordering could take place, it was the thing that irked me most about living in California.

Punctuality and other promises were all the more important when the community relied on every man to uphold its standards. This is not so much the case now, when humans, even those who consider each other nominal friends, don’t appear able to contribute anything of value to one’s life that can’t be gained through the Internet or spending some disposable income for something produced in a factory—and besides, social norms have relaxed to such an extent that we don’t hold it against people when they dispense with punctuality, or with keeping any other sort of promise. We just accept that that’s the way they are.
Incidentally, Brett McKay also has a list of 100 skills every man should know. I’m a bit upset that there are 24 things on this list that I can’t do. That may be one way of saying I’m only 76% of a man.
Testosterone, in fact, has been on the decline for decades. There are numerous environmental and lifestyle factors said to be at blame for this, including increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the ubiquitousness of chemicals that mimic estrogen in the environment. Whatever the cause, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re less of a man than your father was at your age, and he in turn was a less a man than your grandfather. The causes are subject to interpretation, depending on your political bent and which conspiracy theory you prefer, but about the existence of the phenomenon there is little speculation.
It cannot be denied that the invention of electric lighting has changed the way we interact with solar cycles. Before Edison, it was still fairly common to go to bed when it was dark. Nowadays we turn on the lights and stay up later. The effects of sleep deprivation are well researched. If you use an alarm clock to wake up, you are sleep-deprived.
Further, some evidence suggests that this constant manipulation of the cycle of day and night has interfered with our physiological responses to the changes of the seasons. When living in tune with lengths of daylight that wax and wane slowly throughout the year, our bodies may be more aligned with the seasonal availability of food and our ability to store it. In pre-industrial societies, when life was dependent on the harvest, people tended to eat more during the bounty of summer and early autumn and less in other seasons. The body stored fat during these times of longer daylight so that it could live on excess stored fat during times of shorter daylight when food was scarcer. With the advent of universal electric lighting, we may be tricking our bodies into acting as if it were summer all year round—constantly consuming excess food, and developing metabolic syndrome and all sorts of health problems related to excess fat storage. This in tandem with lifestyles in which many of us spend long hours in front of computers, barely moving throughout the day, with little chance to burn off the fat. The excess fat also provides more storage for fat-soluble xenoestrogens.
Extended use of computers, and other screen-based technology, probably exacerbates the problem of low testosterone. I haven’t seen any research on the subject, but my hunch is that these things are driving our T-levels through the floor, even if there turns out to be no other reason than a reduction of physical activity. (And no, the Wii and Pokemon Go don’t adequately substitute carrying mortar all day, stalking big game through the woods, or defending your life with a sword.)
Granted, the Internet offers tremendous advantages in the sharing of information and opportunities to educate ourselves. There is a great deal on it that it immensely beneficial. There is also a great deal that is violent, pornographic, and just simply useless, draining both our time and our manhood as it smothers our resources both for self-reliance and interpersonal communication, as we swim in an information sea of diminished expectations and vicarious pleasures.
(On the subject of pornography, incidentally, society seems to just now be waking up to its potential for addiction. One would think, or at least I would, that this should have been obvious: Billions of dollars in R&D had been poured into deliberately making television addictive before the Internet was even a thing. That adding orgasms and unlimited personal choice would lead to compulsion should be a no-brainer. Now we’ve got an epidemic of young men who can’t achieve erections with physical partners because their neural pathways are attuned to pixels.)
At one time, and in fact until very recently, life was tough and sexual outlets were rare. Adversity and the necessity of delaying gratification made us who we were. The reverse of these factors makes us what we are today. And what we are, in the WEIRD demographic, is an increasingly meaty, complacent, dependent, and physically weak population of low fecundity and declining birthrates.
It’s easy to object, especially living as we do in Japan, that the increasing feminization of society also makes it safer. To say so is to forget that a man is supposed to be dangerous—that the very essence of masculinity is to protect women and children, and that a man is a man to the extent that he can do this. The expression of this ability is complicated by the intricacies of industrial society, but the essential definition of manhood is unchanged. A man who cannot do this at all is simply not much of a man. We may have to tolerate a bit of danger in society in exchange for the agressive impulse that goes along with it—one that helped push history's great heroes, explorers, and inventors to accomplish all the boons to civilisation which we now enjoy.
Now get out there and practise those manly skills.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Ages of Life: Medieval and Modern Perspectives

To pick up where I left off in the last update, I'd like to add a few more thoughts about what different periods of life mean in our campaign world, and how the differ from the world in which most of us live.
Researchers at the American Psychological Association coined the acronym WEIRD to describe the bias in psychological research almost entirely done on ‘Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic’ demographics. The typical cohort for study, they observe, is represented by only 12% of the world’s population. Most of what we tend to think is socially and culturally typical was quite the reverse for most of human history, and is still alien to much of the world. We just don’t pay attention, because that’s way out there, and all of us are over here.
That changes when we have to put ourselves in a medieval setting. Not so when the setting is a fantasy world as I described last week, but one rooted in the historical exigencies, quirks, and foibles of the actual Middle Ages.
We’ve had a reworking of society since then, through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and subsequent reworkings of cultural norms, with perhaps the 1960s marking the last big change in the West. For those of us who grew up after that period, it becomes increasingly difficult to conceive of anything different in all but the most deploring and condemnatory terms. Along the way, men became feminine, women became masculine, and no one seemed any happier.
Discussions of gender aside for the moment, our modern society has extended childhood to a degree that I’m persuaded is unsustainable. A typical criticism of the sorry state of contemporary education, for example, is the observation that most university graduates today would have a hard time passing an 1895 exam for adolescents in Salinas, Kansas. While standards for what sort of knowledge and expertise is necessary in a given society is subject to such change that comparisons are sometimes disingenuous, as the above link explains in detail, it is nonetheless sobering to consider research indicating that the average Victorian was 14 IQ points smarter than the average Westerner today, in spite of the Flynn Effect, which ostensibly raises average IQ scores over time. It turns out that the gains attributable to the Flynn Effect are in those areas not correlated with general intelligence. In other words, we’ve become better at taking tests. We’ve had to, because we’ve spent so much time taking them and practicing for them. Aside from that, our education now means so little that prospective employers view a high school diploma merely as proof that an applicant warmed a seat for twelve years. In the process he will likely have learnt little in the way of problem solving, discipline, etiquette, or self-reliance.
The word 'university', like so much else in our language, has become so debased that it seems it can refer to almost anything. I myself teach a few classes at a place that calls itself a ‘university’ but is in actuality a holding tank for the mildly retarded. In essence, my role is that of a glorified babysitter paid to keep overgrown children out of the job market for a few more years. Their ambitions, when they have any, are generally confined to getting a job with the (ever-expanding) government, because there is little of tangible productivity left for them to do.
This is because the intelligent members of our society have successfully innovated to the point where survival is no longer an issue. Survival of mother and child during the ordeal of birth is almost a foregone conclusion, and few children die before the age of five, as would have been the fate of the majority in the medieval period. We live longer, and have less to do, than ever before. As time goes on, prospective employers require more and higher degrees as qualifications, and thus the competing institutions continually lower their standards to accommodate the masses who have neither the interest nor curiosity, nor ability, for higher learning.
In the time period in which our D&D campaign is set, universities were for the elite few, and learning was the only goal. There are two in England at the time, Oxford and Cambridge, and both are within reasonable distance on horseback from the party's current location. At some point it's inevitable that they will have to visit one of these places, and thus will be revealed just how different they are to the modern concept of what a tertiary institution is.
In a pre-industrial society, of course, there was plenty to do. Simply surviving took so much effort that there wasn't much room to coddle children or to permit that fabricated modern interim period called 'adolescence'. At the age of twelve, every male member of the community went through a public rite in which he swore his allegiance to that community and promised to uphold its laws and those of the king. He was, in effect, a man. He might be called a 'young man', but by seventeen he would be simply a 'man'. A woman was in her prime by seventeen, and 'over the hill' by her early twenties.
I recently read a book by an author I admire greatly. I am obliged to make that preface, and withhold details of this work, out of respect for all that this author has done. My complaint about this particular book is that, although the setting is ostensibly medieval, the man character, a 'boy' of seventeen, is naive and irresponsible to an anachronistic degree. He lives alone most of the time, but does little in the way of work and is treated like a child by every other character. In short, it would have been more appropriate in context if his age were made to be about ten.
Now, even in some modern societies, such as Turkey (not ‘WEIRD’), boys as young as six are doing fairly responsible work--bussing tables at restaurants, porting luggage, and so on--and by ten are often holding desk jobs. This isn't because they have a lower life expectancy, though, but simply because the Turks haven't caught on to the idea that people should be babied and enstupidated until well after their physical bodies have begun their slow decline.
This is the way it was throughout most of human history. People learnt what they needed to live and work through their parents, mentors, and masters if apprenticed. If they were particularly gifted--and only then--they were allowed to study at increasingly higher levels. (This was easier if they were from the upper classes, but there were also programs in place for poor boys of particular talent, like Christopher Marlowe, to be educated at an elite level.)
It might help, when playing our campaign world, to think of all PC and NPC ages as the cultural equivalent of several years older than their number. Doing so will make the experience more familiar, at least, generating a sympathetic barometer of relative emotional maturity and wisdom of the sort gained by a life of hardship—and yet the arithmetic conversion must with great caution, for it is all too easy to forget that the younger a society is, the more naïve, the more accepting of superstition, the more prone to sudden change, and the more violent.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Behind the Swordplay

Europe in 1370, from Wikimedia Commons

That it has been more than a month since I last updated, and currently have no idea when we’re going to play after having abandoned the last session right in the middle of combat, gives me some space to pause and examine the game from afar in the interim. I haven’t done any preparation or study directly relating to D&D, much less read anyone else’s blog in the past few moons. My reading habits and musical inclinations, however, still lean heavily toward the Middle Ages, and in this connection I can contrast what I know (or think I know) of actual history with the expectations and preconceptions with which I’m frequently confronted in running the game.

The earliest campaign setting in which I can remember playing was either Europe or someplace like it. When I first tried my hand at DMing in the late 1980s it was almost certainly parts of England and Ireland. Bereft of the benefits of Google or even a decent library in the neighbourhood, I picked up what I could glean from the books my child’s mind could comprehend. Much of what into my early world building was filtered through my father’s interpretation of history. My knowledge was necessarily incomplete, to say the least; and I oversimplified things and got more wrong than right. Nonetheless, it was always the attempt at getting close to the way things really were—or, more precisely, could have been if everything people at the time believed to exist really did exist—that made building worlds and running in them so much fun.

It’s been established that what I seek from D&D isn’t always what players seek. That’s fine, because they don’t have to read all the books I read, or play out all the scenarios that following hooks might lead them to; and yet I still enjoy all the digestive and creative efforts. The thing is, any world I offer my friends as a playing field is going to be informed by the world, with all its attendant customs, rules, laws, by-laws, taboos, economics, and quirks of culture, including the way people work, eat, dress, greet each other, and even speak, although I don’t actually mandate speaking like Chaucer at the gaming table. That would be silly.

But it runs counter to what most fantasy role-players seem to be seeking. Without attempting to create a straw man, I would say that, based on what I have read online and heard from actual players, is not so much a game based on the Middle Ages but a fantasy game: In other words, one in a setting with medieval weapons and technology plus magic and witchcraft plus completely modern attitudes and sensibilities. (I’m tempted to add an additional plus of anachronisms like plate armour and kerosene lanterns, but I think this is not so much an expectation as simply a lack of awareness of precisely when certain things were invented.) It’s this last part, the modern attitudes and sensibilities, that tend to cause the most problems.

There is, for example, the tendency to treat teenage NPCs as children. In England in the 14th century, the setting in which our game takes place, a male was considered a man at the age of 12, but players have never been able to conceive of him as such, much less behave toward him the way people would have at the time. Likewise, players react with horror at the suggestion that their 20-year-old PC might bed down with a woman of 14, but their counterparts in the actual world would have found it completely natural.

There is also the expectation that anyone can buy and sell anything he chooses—a kind of medieval free market. I’ve played Runescape, so I know what it looks like, and medieval England wasn’t it. There is a very rigid class and mercantile system, and trade is closely regulated by the guilds. People still cheat, and are sometimes punished, but strangers in any locale—which the PCs are whenever they venture past the walls of Ludeforde—will find it much harder to cheat, and easier to be cheated, than the locals. I often have to remind players that they risk execution of they try to bring down big game in most woods, and that if they try to resist arrest when the king’s men come for them, the results will not be pretty. Yet even for this I have run sessions where PCs tried to attack the medieval equivalent of cops—and the players don’t get to claim their character was killed just because he was black.

This directly relates to the approach many players have to in-game social and mercantile interactions in general. Perhaps it’s not so much a consequence of modern sensibilities as it is a perception of what was acceptable in the Middle Ages corrupted by Hollywood and video games. ‘We’re never coming back to this town,’ they might say, ‘Why don’t we just kill this guy and take everything in the shop?’ Putting aside for a moment that, barring any house rules permitting telepathy, any verbal exchanges taken in the presence of the DM are clearly audible to any NPCs in the vicinity, their mere presence as strangers in any locale has already marked them with intense suspicion, and they’re unlikely to get away with much when quite a few eyes are on them and many more mouths are murmuring about their comings and goings all over town. Everyone knew each other in medieval towns. This is difficult for modern civilians to grasp, when we are so often isolated in our private cells with our little interactive devices, and our neighbourhood is not so much a community as a juxtaposition of persons. But without the benefit of alienating social trends and technology, everyone belonged, and had a keen sense of his position in the community. People paid attention more. When they heard a dog bark in the distance, they could guess whose dog it was.

The last point I’m going to mention before I bring this to a close for today, is that in almost every way, life in the Middle Ages was less healthy than our own. Part of the reason for the earlier maturity mentioned above is the shorter average lifespan. People in all pre-industrial societies suffered considerably, both from disease and scarcity, the two often going together. Like the hunting proficiency, the fishing proficiency gets abused: It’s sometimes taken for granted that every river and stream is so teeming with fish that a proficient PC can cast his line for half an hour and expect to waltz home with dinner. I usually just overlook this for the sake of moving the game along, but the reality is that climate and land formation make fish rare where settlements haven’t already been built nearby to exploit them—and the presence of any settlement, with septic refuse and offal from butchers dumped copiously into the waterways, makes them possibly toxic.

Much noise is made about the toxicity of the environment these days, with less awareness of how much more toxic it was in the distant past. We like to talk about how horrible the Industrial Revolution was, but we don’t think much about how much worse, in many ways, life was before it. This is the world in which we’re playing. It was, at the same time, an incredible world filled with beauty and enchanting discoveries—including, of course, magic and witchcraft, along with the host of other phenomena medieval people believed were real—but it’s not a place anyone from the modern world would be likely to enjoy experiencing, and most of us have a very meagre and nebulous concept of what the experience would have been like.

Monday, 11 July 2016

A Fungus Among Us

I'd been putting off writing for some time, because I couldn't think of anything to say that hadn't been said better already. Having received an unpleasant but prolific gift for my 41st birthday, however, I can comment on something relevant to D&D. 

A few weeks ago, a friend discovered a kitten under some industrial debris and texted me to ask if I wanted it. I didn't, particularly, but I promised to talk to my wife; when I did, she became giddy with excitement, and so the cat entered my house and I had to be nice to it. We did take it (or, I should say, her, the cat being female) to the animal hospital for a diagnostic, and she was pronounced free of parasites other than fleas, with which she was absolutely rife. The treatment for fleas was effective immediately; they dropped off overnight while she was confined to a cage. I had described the whole process in real time on a forum in which I sometimes participate, and one of the posters insisted, adamantly, that she be 'backlighted' (or 'blacklighted', I can't recall) for ringworm which, if present, would require a quarantine of two weeks. Although at this point I didn't quite know what ringworm was and put it in the same mental category as roundworm, tapeworm, and heart worm, I still put my trust in the veterinarian. I think I assumed, naively, that this was because the condition wasn't common in Japan; and for the past few weeks we have, stupidly, let her crawl all over us and sleep with us. 

I noticed my first spot a week ago while being swarmed with mosquitoes during a neighborhood shrine-beautifying event. Although mosquito bites normally disappear from my skin within a few hours, one spot seemed particularly tenacious. I thought it was strange, but didn't pay much attention until it became larger, more pronounced, swollen, and perniciously itchy. By the end of the week it had expanded into a bright red, puffy ring in the middle of my wrist. Then while showering I noticed an identical ring on my knee. Then another on my forearm, and on the opposite one. With the new one that appeared on my back this morning, I now have five total. 

Now, it is is my impression than in the West, skin conditions are generally perceived as ghastly. I've been careful to impress on the players in our campaign, for example, the extent of the terror fourteenth-century people feel toward leprosy, for example, quite often ostracising members of the community who might only have eczema, on the grounds that it just might be leprosy, which would mean the end of an individual's existence in society. Even now, at least among teenagers, there is a degree of ostracism associated with most skin conditions. In Japan, however, it's taken as quite normal; eczema and atopic dermatitis are omnipresent and death with by what amounts to a shrug of the shoulders. 

The environment is humid, particularly in summer, and fungal infections thrive. It's simply that they're not accorded any particular gravity. This cultural difference from the West is one to which my eyes have only now been opened. The best comparison that comes to mind is with the flu, which is no big deal in the US. It's similar in symptoms to the common cold, except that it's accompanied by fever and joint pain, and the treatment is basically the same: Rest, Vitamin C, hot tea, stay home if you can but work if you have to. In Japan, however, the flu is always called by its full name, influenza, and always pronounced in ominous tones. People are expected to wear surgical masks when going outdoors and are almost shunned in horror. This, I'm told, is because somewhere, at some point in history, someone died from the flu. Odd, I think, because gastroenteritis, of which I myself nearly died in my early 30s, has a much higher mortality rate, and yet is included in same sociolinguistic category as the common cold: kaze, which normally describes light ailments that are not life-threatening. 

I remember working on a translation of publicity materials for local hot springs with a Japanese translator; one bath was supposed to be good for what he directly rendered as 'skin diseases'. I pushed to have the phrase softened to 'skin conditions' on the grounds that Westerners wouldn't want to get into the water with people infected with contagious diseases. 

Knowing what I know now, I'd have left it as diseases and left it to tourists' judgment whether they wanted to get into the hot spring. 

In my aggressive search for information, I did see some sites that suggested ringworm can be spread in swimming pools and even house dust. I cannot vouch for the reputability of those sites, but I feel it is my moral duty to give as much information to the players in my campaign as possible, so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not they want to visit my house. 

We took the cat to the veterinarian again yesterday, and he fearlessly touched her with his bare hands and let her rub all over him. It seems to be okay if you wash your hands afterwards. He even said it's fine to let her sleep with us. In the meantime, I'm rubbing anti fungal cream on my five spots three times a day after washing them thoroughly. There is a treatment for fabric that includes spraying it with two different chemicals and wiping it down with a third just to make sure, and this is what we're going to do with all the dining room chairs, for example. The cat was given both oral and topical treatments--we have to massage her with cream and make her swallow half a pill every morning--and she's expected to recover in a week. Diagnosis is similar for humans, although because we don't have fur our spots will still be visible for a month or so. I can't go to the beach party looking like a leper. 

All this really impresses me with how inefficient are our standards of hygiene even in the 21st century. In the 14th century, living in close proximity to livestock and companion animals as so many people did, ringworm and other fungal infections, as well as myriad parasites, would have been ubiquitous. I live in a country and culture that prides itself on its cleanliness, and yet we succumb to infections like this, which make me afraid of my entire house and itch to an extent that my capacity to enjoy life is significantly reduced. Of course, the average medieval peasant would have been so covered with lice and fungus all the time that he wouldn't notice much difference. 

Which brings us to the paladin. 

The 2nd Edition Player's Handbook states that the paladin is 'immune to all forms of disease'. It says nothing about fungus, and as I've mentioned before, if she spends too much time in a wet saddle she'll end up with an itchy snatch. (This would amount to what, as children, used to call 'cooties'.) We'll also assume, for the sake of argument, that's she's usually got some lice. Perhaps not as much as the average Tom, Dick, and Beavis, but a few. Bear in mind that the medieval ritual of combing the hair was always done near a window, often with help so that the lice could be picked out one by one. 

In other words, the average person on the muddy, feces-and-offal covered street would be used to a fair amount of itching on a daily basis. Therefore the symptoms of fungal infections or parasites would have to be pretty severe in order for penalties to THAC0 and AC to apply. Anal fistula would certainly do the trick, though athlete's foot and cooties probably wouldn't unless they reached a certain severity. This could give our campaigning party weeks to treat the problem, or at least air the skin out enough to keep it from getting too much worse too quickly. 

These are all things the party should bear in mind, particularly now as the cold spell has ended and the humid summer will be soon upon them. A degree of circumspection should be applied when considering to walk about fully clothed in the rain, go for weeks without bathing, ride or wear armour for hours on end, and forego the price of a stay at an inn in favour of a straw bed where animals sleep, or an oily mattress in a roadside hospital. 

In the real world, we have a session scheduled for the 18th of this month. This morning we gave the cat a double shampoo before rubbing her down with the cream as usual, and we've done our best to decontaminate the house, but as I said, you use your own judgment.