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Thursday 22 July 2021

Manners maketh man

“It was their pity Driss hated. They seemed not to be aware that he could destroy them at any moment he chose. Destroy them and loot the little safe in their office, where they kept all their earnings from the bed and breakfast. They were not even aware of the compassion he was showing them. They looked right past his manhood and ignored it, as if it didn't exist and he was just a child who needed a bowl of milk every day.”
In Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Forgiven, an impoverished Moroccan named Driss illegally makes his way to Spain and is given a job by Roger and Angela Bloodworth. The Bloodworths shelter Driss from the authorities but they don’t appreciate that their liberal culture is not universal. The openness and trust they show to Driss, he takes as an affront to his masculinity. Wary hospitality according to a strict code would be fine. It’s the casual assumption that he can be treated as a member of their household that he finds disrespectful.

You don’t get much culture in fantasy. Oh, occasionally somebody will say, “It’s our custom to wear only green velvet coats on holy days,” but that’s barely skin-deep, a merely satirical look at the arbitrary nature of human customs. From the inside customs don’t feel funny, they feel like a matter of life and death. A Bedouin is obliged to offer hospitality. A samurai must atone for shame with seppuku. A calling card with “somdomite” written on it can destroy a reputation.

When roleplaying is set in a world with its own social structures and mores, and players are trying to get inside that mindset rather than play 21st century characters parachuted into a superficially exotic environment, then what you are doing is culture gaming.

Here’s an example of culture gaming from a convention game run by Michael Cule. There were a bunch of players who were new to Tekumel, and they were barbarians who’d arrived fresh off the boat in Jakalla harbour. Vortumoi, a priest of Hrü’ü played by me, brought them to be interviewed by his clan uncle, Lord Vrimeshtu, who wanted to hire them for an expedition. Also present was my bodyguard, Karunaz, played by Paul Mason. We sat on cushions to discuss the expedition over a meal – a real feast of Thai snacks that Michael brought along! – and Karunaz remained standing off to one side. (He’s Livyani, so never ate with Tsolyani, and in any case it was not his position to sit with his employer.) The tricky moment arose when Lord Vrimeshtu pointed to the wine and said, "Get your Livyani to pour for us, Vortumoi." Well, Karunaz was low clan but he was nonetheless a warrior, and you don't expect a bodyguard to serve you at table like a menial. What to do? Then I had it: “Allow me, uncle,” and I got up and served the wine myself. I could do that without loss of face because I was doing my uncle’s bidding rather than doing a favour for the barbarians. Thus my honour and Karunaz's were preserved and the clan head's wishes were fulfilled.

Whether you think that kind of thing is the lifeblood of a roleplaying game or a distraction from the main business of the adventure will tell you if you’re a culture gamer or not. It’s really the old (and often slightly forced) dichotomy between character-based and plot-based fiction. I lean towards character-based myself, much preferring Anton Chekhov to Robert Harris – though my bookshelves have room for both. And you do need both. If you think of the characters as heading towards a light, which stands for the plot objective, and the medium they’re moving through is their society, it’s the turbulence in the medium that makes the journey unique. Without it you’ve just got a straight line. But if there’s no light then they go around in circles or do nothing. 

(Examples of stories that are powered by events but flavoured by social constructs: Julian Fellowes' Belgravia, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Francis Spufford's Golden Hill. Or any truly compelling narrative, really.)

So the plot isn’t just a MacGuffin. Still, I don’t actually remember the adventure from that session. I think it involved a ruined fortress in a swamp. Probably there were monsters to fight. The barbarians will have run about and hit things, but it’s the nail-biting nicety of that dining-room etiquette problem that has stayed with me.

So do we need rules for social interaction? Obviously there are rules – we live our real lives according to such rules, usually unspoken but very well understood. We are alert to nuances of manner in our own society, even if we couldn’t actually sit down and explain the rules of conduct to a foreigner. But do we need game mechanics - do we need that kind of rule?

I don’t think so. We use game mechanics for the “stage directions” of a game. “I climb the wall stealthily and the guards don’t hear me.” Do you? And do they? We’ve got dice for that.

But social behaviour happens in the dialogue. Players can handle it perfectly well in conversation and mechanics couldn’t cover all the permutations anyway. Often a dispute in social terms comes down to very fine distinctions, and it’s possible that neither party is wholly right or wrong. If you wanted game-mechanical rules for social interactions, in order to cover every outcome they’d need to be highly abstract. Something like this:
“I seek to impose my status on you, rolling 6.”
“I roll a 3 and resist the attempt, countering with a critical social roll.”
“Now let’s decide what our characters actually said.”
Some people like to play that way, but I prefer immersion. Fortunately all you need is a sense of what the society’s rules are in common situations and in general principle, and a willingness on the players’ part to throw themselves into that. For example, Tsolyani law treats injury or death as a civil crime which can be settled by means of shamtla (weregild). Once you know that and the form for demanding shamtla or for taking the case to a duel, you get a lot of emergent possibilities.

Then when you include the fact that in Tsolyanu insults are also regarded as an injury, your social outcomes explode into Mandelbrot-set level richness. Your players might even forget there’s a monster-stuffed ruin out in the marshlands, because the cut and thrust of society is much more real and involving. Instead of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re in the territory of Sense & Sensibility – and, speaking as a culture gamer, that makes for much more memorable games.

By the way, although Tekumel is an ideal setting for culture games, I don't want to give the impression that it can only be played that way. Professor Barker said that everyone should create their own Tekumel, and I'm sure most campaigns are very far from the "real" Tekumel. An example: in the Five Empires, belonging to a legion, especially in the heavy infantry, is a respected profession. In the most prestigious legions you'd need to be high-medium status even to sign up, and even "sergeants" (hereksa, commander of 100 legionaries) are mainly from aristocratic clans. Promotion is affected by your social class, manners, bravery and even looks as much as by your competence. That's the culture gaming version. Many Tekumel campaigns, however, treat soldiers as usually uneducated and poor, because that's what players in modern Western societies expect. Personally I can't see in that case why they wouldn't play D&D or something similar instead, but everyone should choose whichever style gives them the most fun.

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