Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Cosmopolitanism of D&D, Vietnam and Xenophon

Fantasy role-playing games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons, involve a lot of different characters - or at least types of characters. The adventuring party of cliche involves a remarkable assortment of people doing different jobs: the Half-Elf Ranger, the Dwarven Cleric, the Halfling Wizard, the Human Barbarian, the Minotaur Psionicist...this is without layering on top of these cosmic alignments (the Chaotic Good Half-Elf Rogue, the Lawful Neutral Dwarven Cleric...) and the political, religious &c. entanglements any given setting may contain.

Setting is the key word here - if the choice is given to these players to be all those things, then the setting has to contort to get to the fact not only that there are extensive dungeons to plunder, but also that you can all meet up in an inn (the Minotaur clipping the low-hanging beams with her horns). As such, whatever world you are in seems remarkably mixed. This is not as such bad - but it does seem very 'D&Desque' - which may feel a touch artificial or forced.

There are two further things I wish to note before: firstly, that any given party might be made up of characters with different backgrounds, skills and from different species - but that is not quite the same thing as what the zeitgiest currently calls diverse (cosmopolitanism seemed a usefully different way of expressing this). This will be to a degree a question of setting; if the setting is firmly Celtic or Pseudo-Celtic, you are more likely to be playing Cu-Chulain or Not-Vercingetorix than Mansa Musa - but you are equally unlikely to play a Druid in Steampunk-country. (This is useful post on the subject).

Secondly, that this feels even odder in video game RPGs than on the tabletop, in some ways. There is no desire on the part of multiple players to fill different roles. I enjoyed the Mass Effect games, by and large; the setting was a part of this. But stepping back from the game, it does seem odd that our hero, Commander Shepherd must assemble a group in the way she does. This isn't the frontier country of Greyhawk; surely the thing to do is put in a request to the Galactic Government for a brigade of veteran star-commandos rather than pick and choose a gang of (undeniably talented) freelancers with their own agendas?

Indeed, the propensity of any rag-tag band of adventurers to turn on itself always nudges a bit at credibility: why hasn't the Lawful Good Paladin throttled the Chaotic Neutral Rogue yet? Who would employ such folk? There are answers to these questions, and I have enjoyed games with a party assembled of such dissipate types. But I have a different set of thoughts.

This, then, feels like a core part of Dungeons and Dragons and all inspired by it. What happens if we strip it gently away? To play not as a member of some adventuring party picked from the shady desperadoes in the saloon, but as soldiers in the same platoon or as monks of a militant religious order or as blood-oath sisters of the same war-canoe?

Let us assume we maintain a similar set of mechanics. Different races drop out of the picture; race-as-class has to be renamed; I like Pioneer for Dwarves (sans heat-vision, I fear) and Scout or Guide for Elves; if nothing else it gives it a Last of the Mohicans feel (Native Guides for colonial forces; not that this is an intrinsic element of the mechanic) fitting for the D&D frontier - and even echoing the usual Dwarf/Elf rivalries. Classes are downplayed in favour of a group of soldiers armed after a similar fashion - though not utterly: not ever role in a platoon, military order or war-canoe is identical, after all! The Prophet renaming for the Cleric used by The 52 Pages looks a touch off here; who let the bearded man with the End is Nigh! sign into the barracks? I would prefer something less explicitly like another occupation; IE, Sopespian is a Follower of the Pietistic Discipline* who grows into a Cleric/Prophet role.

* In Castle of the Otter, Gene Wolfe defines a Pietist as "One who hopes to achieve direct contact with the Increate". He uses the word in a different way than Wikipedia, but not unreasonably given the Dying Earth setting of Book of the New Sun and how real terms are used to refer to things outside our own context. Either way, I felt this worked as a good verbal defanging of Prophet, that it fitted the narrative discussed below and that it dovetailed with the 18th Century angle hinted at by Pioneer and Guide.

[We might look briefly at a pair of RPGs based on belonging to explicitly military organisations and derived from the wargame Warhammer 40,000. In Deathwatch you play as a band of Space Marines; in Only War as soldiers of the Imperial Guard. Neither prompts you to play as five troopers and one corporal, offering a variety of classes; Deathwatch even utilises an in-universe organisation made up of Marines from a variety of Chapters. This multiplicity of classes is perhaps fitting, given the Byzantine and baroque nature of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40,000.]

So: what might be the value of increasing the uniformity of an adventuring party? Well, it would bring into sharp relief the isolation of the players, walking into the unknown without a mine-dwelling Dwarf or a Gnome able to speak Kobold pidgin. The tone takes on a darker element.

And this is where Vietnam kicks in - or at any rate, the cultural image of Vietnam; a journey into the heart of darkness, full of violence and terror.

The more I contemplated this, the more I liked it. Consider the image of a First Level party like raw recruits; with crewcuts out of the opening montage of Full Metal Jacket and service issue rifles and flak jackets (or crossbows and chainmail, as the case may be). They emerge from the dungeon with loot intact and start becoming adventurers: with new scars, with trophies, clutching their Swords of Eldritch Fire or Dragonscale Shields or an Amulet ripped from the neck of a Goblin Shaman. Eventually, they start to resemble more the squad from Predator or the broad pastiches seen in Tropic Thunder than any platoon that ever passed inspection.

The notion of D&D-but-everything-is-like-'Nam requires a certain amount of finessing, however. The Heart of Darkness-Apocalypse Now connection makes itself, but more could be done. Werner Herzog's Aguirre the Wrath of God occurs to me also or something faintly Mad Max-ish. Here's the best idea thus far, though: the Anabasis or March of the Ten Thousand of Xenophon. An army of Greek mercenaries are defeated in battle and must make their way home through hostile territory.

I like this perhaps the most. Consider: first level characters are rolled up (if we imagine some newcomers to the rules, perhaps the Vietnam anachronism could be extended to a few boot camp scenes!). They join up with an army, and go on a vast hexcrawl to their first battle when they are given their first taste of battle, and the captains of the expedition are slain. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our heroes have to lead their comrades to safety through hostile territory -rising to the occasion as great leaders, warriors, clerics, magic-users, &c..

Now, if one player took on the part of The Extras as put together at Against the Wicked City, this could make for some interesting fun Re. divisions of the spoils (only one Frostfang Axe to go around!), the privileges of rank and the potential for mutiny....

Of course, this has all taken quite a leap from cosmopolitanism. Would the semi-uniform adventuring party hold up? I believe it would, but I have hardly pictured players in the roles of individual pikemen in a phalanx. That would be another story altogether; to play not only as a uniform group, but a disciplined one acting under strict orders. A further departure from Dungeons and Dragons than simply not having the option to play an Elf.

EDIT: To say briefly that I am putting together a follow-up post, compacting some things and drawing areas that got left out of the first post.

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