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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Ways into Sparta

I’m not one of those who are scornful of the struggles that actors face in getting into character. It’s not as hard as coal mining? Can’t argue there, but it does drive some needles very deep into the actor’s psyche and sense of self-worth. Don’t discount emotional hardships, is all I’m saying.

Take Charles Laughton, driven almost to despair by his inability to get a handle on his part in I, Claudius. He finally solved it by playing a gramophone recording of Edward VIII’s abdication speech right before he’d walk on set. Similarly, though with a lot less of the hand-wringing, Sir Kenneth Branagh reportedly sought advice from Prince Charles before embarking on the role of Henry V.

The point is: you need to find a way in. Paul Mason and I used to talk about finding “the Englishness of Heian Japan” or whatever abstruse setting we had picked for our latest roleplaying campaign. It’s not that we really believe there is any “English” component there, and in particular not that we wanted to anglicize the setting in any way, just that you’re looking for the stepping stones that will get you started. Once you have that first step, you can start to build a mental model of your character within the exotic setting – until eventually it doesn’t feel exotic any more. You have passed through the stage of liminality and, now that you inhabit the setting, you can jettison those familiar analogies that got you started.

That’s the good way to do it. The bad way is to try to conform the setting to tropes you find familiar. Leaving aside the speedos, Frank Miller reduced Spartan culture to a bunch of violent libertarian nutters. That said, Miller reduces everything to violent libertarian nutters, so maybe we shouldn’t read much into it. As an approach to roleplaying in Sparta, it’s barren ground; it will lead you back into your own concerns and cultural views, not closer to the mind-set of a Spartan. The film adaptation of 300 likewise. The 1962 movie The Three Hundred Spartans was long mocked for being inauthentic, and lord knows I’m not recommending it, but arguably it’s still a lot more authentic than anything Zack Snyder has ever perpetrated.


You could look at Steven Pressfield’s book The Gates of Fire. Pressfield was a Marine, so he knows about soldiering. Trouble is, the type of soldiering he knows is likely very different from the experience of a hoplite in 480 BC. I’m not talking about drill or weaponry. Recruits into modern Western military forces tend to be rural or suburban and from a lower socioeconomic status than the general population. This leads to a specific style of training, a particular idiom of social interaction, which in British Army terms we might characterize as the “you ‘orrible little man” attitude. Or, going back to the US Marines, who can forget the Gunny’s welcoming speech from Full Metal Jacket?


If Pressfield were familiar with the Gurkhas, he’d know that if your soldiers come from a society that esteems military service you don’t need to treat them like dirtbags to get what you want. No sergeant or officer in the British Gurkha units ever needs to scream at a Gurkha soldier. Theirs is a martial culture. In such a culture, discipline flows from self-discipline. That is nearer (perhaps, for we can only surmise) to the Spartan way of thinking. All of these spartiate warriors are, after all, the aristocracy of their world. Martial values have been inculcated in them from childhood. They’re not unruly rednecks who you have to break down and rebuild into soldiers.

That suggests to me another analogy. You know the saying, apocryphally attributed to Wellington, about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton. Those young Spartans, graduates of the agoge, are maybe not so different from the pupils of a tough Victorian or Edwardian public school. That system produced exactly the sort of chap who adhered to the values of his parents and grandparents, who would politely give up his seat to an elder, and who had the reckless courage to throw himself into battle at the head of his men armed with just a pistol and a stiff upper lip.

That’s one way into Sparta, anyway. I’ll reiterate that you’re not aiming to describe Sparta in terms of Rugby School or the Marine Corps or NRA anti-federalists or Baywatch extras. That would just be cultural chauvinism and it gets you nowhere in either acting or roleplaying. What you want is the key that opens a door in your own imagination so that you can construct a credible and internally consistent Sparta there.

And incidentally you might need several different keys. One of my players, seeing the map in the Sparta Sourcebook, said, “I never realized there were so many shrines and temples.” If you’re a Westerner who has travelled in the Orient, particularly somewhere like Taiwan, you won’t find that kind of society hard to comprehend. Even less so if you’re Taiwanese, of course.Another player was surprised that Ares wasn't much worshipped in Sparta, except as a cult among immature boys. The truth is that professional soldiers throughout history have rarely regarded war as anything admirable. A Spartan would tell you that it's not battle they worship, but victory.

Roleplaying in non-traditional settings doesn’t appeal to all tastes. It takes commitment, but when you carry it off it reaches a deeper place and yields more rewarding results than any campaign with Scottish dwarves and hippy elves ever can. So, if places like Tekumel or Sparta or Heian Japan are your bag, what tricks do you use for finding your way in?


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