Wednesday 24 July 2019

How Walter Scott almost invented RPGs 200 years early

I recently read Walter Scott's autobiography - an unfinished fragment that I found bundled in with my grandfather's edition of Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott. Scott's fiction isn't much read these days: he wrote in an age that considered length to be a virtue in novels, and modern readers often find his works maddeningly slow as a result. But his influence is hard to overstate, and even today, when most people think of 'the Crusades' or 'the Middle Ages', what they imagine is likely to owe at least as much to Scott's novels as to actual medieval history. Fantasy fiction, in particular, owes an enormous debt to Scott, and to the fictional world of knights and kings and barons that he first popularised two hundred years ago. (The basic line of inheritance runs Walter Scott -> George MacDonald -> William Morris -> Lewis and Tolkien -> everyone else.) I was thus intrigued to discover that, as well as laying the groundwork for the subsequent invention of fantasy fiction, Scott seems to have come surprisingly close to inventing the RPG.

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Scott as a young man, by Henry Raeburn.

Scott suffered a childhood illness that left him lame in one leg, excluding him from participation in the ordinary sports of the day. Instead, like many physically infirm boys before and since, he immersed himself in reading, especially in old stories of chivalric adventure. His best friend, John Irving, shared his passion for such stories. Here's how Scott describes their favourite pastime:

My greatest intimate, from the days of my school-tide, was Mr. John Irving, now a Writer to the Signet. We lived near each other, and by joint agreement were wont, each of us, to compose a romance for the other's amusement. These legends, in which the martial and the miraculous always predominated, we rehearsed to each other during our walks, which were usually directed to the most solitary spots about Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags. We naturally sought seclusion, for we were conscious no small degree of ridicule would have attended our amusement, if the nature of it had become known. Whole holidays were spent in this singular pastime, which continued for two or three years, and had, I believe, no small effect in directing the turn of my imagination to the chivalrous and romantic in poetry and prose.

This is essentially the same social context from which innumerable D&D campaigns were born two centuries later: nerdy, socially awkward teenage boys sneaking off to tell one another interminable stories of war and magic and adventure, taking turns as narrators, riffing off one another's ideas, and spending entire holidays developing the larger-than-life exploits of the imaginary heroes they created together, all while hiding from their peers from fear of ridicule. (Yeah, I know, D&D is cool now. But it certainly wasn't when I was a kid.) But it gets better: Scott's health worsened, and he spent several months stuck at home. Here's how he passed the time:

My only refuge was reading and playing at chess. To the romances and poetry, which I chiefly delighted in, I had always added the study of history, especially as connected with military events. I was encouraged in this latter study by a tolerable acquaintance with geography, and by the opportunities I had enjoyed while with Mr. MacFait to learn the meaning of the more ordinary terms of fortification. While, therefore, I lay in this dreary and silent solitude, I fell upon the resource of illustrating the battles I read of by the childish expedient of arranging shells, and seeds, and peebles [sic], so as to represent encountering armies. Diminutive cross-bows were contrived to mimic artillery, and with the assistance of a friendly carpenter I contrived to model a fortress, which, like that of Uncle Toby, represented whatever place happened to be uppermost in my imagination.
Just as Scott and Irving's story-telling sounds as though it was only a character sheet away from D&D, so Scott's re-enactment of historical battles on the floor of his own bedroom sounds as though it was only a few dice away from wargaming. The pieces were, quite literally, all there: he'd even been playing chess, itself a gamified representation of the clash between two armies. All it would have taken was for Irving to drop round one day for a visit, and for one of them to have the idea of using Scott's seed-and-pebble armies to reenact a battle from their shared stories rather than a battle from history, and for the other to glance at the nearby chess board and suggest making the battle a game rather than a predetermined narrative, and bam: fantasy RPGs and tabletop wargaming would both have been born in the 1780s.

But that's not what happened. Scott's health rallied, and his social skills improved, and he learned how to dress himself properly and stop being such a nerd all the time, and he ended up becoming a successful lawyer and novelist instead. The tiny crossbows and seashell armies and cooperative romance-writing were left behind - but not before they had instilled in him a fascination for tales of medieval adventure and daring-do that would lead him to write novels like Ivanhoe, The Monastery, and The Talisman. These novels became, in turn, the grandfathers of modern fantasy fiction, and thus the great-grandfathers of the modern fantasy RPG.

What I found most interesting about these anecdotes was their familiarity. It's hardly a surprise to discover that bookish, socially awkward, and physically infirm teenage boys have always gravitated towards fantasies of power and magic and violence, and towards idealised figures of masculine heroism with extremely strict honour codes: that was as true of Scott in the 1780s as it was of me in the 1990s, and doubtless for all the same reasons. But until I read this autobiography I would have guessed that the specific form taken by these fantasies - the knights and castles and wizards and whatnot - were more historically local, a matter of grabbing onto whatever available cultural bric-a-brac happened to fit the specifications. I was thus somewhat surprised to discover that the causality actually ran the other way around, and modern adventure stories about knights and wizards were first popularised by a man who did so because he fell in love with them during his own days as a nerdy teenager in search of escapist fantasy.

It couldn't have happened any earlier, within a cultural context in which the institutions of feudal chivalry was still held in deadly earnest: that culture first had to wax, and wane, and fall away, and become available for re-discovery and re-appropriation as a fantasy rather than a reality. Scott was a child of the Gothic revival, not of actual medieval Gothic culture. But Scott's autobiography suggests that once it was possible, at least part of its appeal stemmed from the fact that it was what we might now call 'gameable': much more easily adapted than, say, Classical mythology to improvised co-operative storytelling, or to refighting battles on your bedroom floor. And the much-remarked-upon dominance of medieval fantasy in RPGs and computer games - the fact that forms that could theoretically do anything keep gravitating back towards the same imaginative landscape of knights and wizards and castles that Scott half-excavated and half-created two hundred years ago - may have something to do with the fact that it was a landscape that was created for something very close to gaming in the first place.

I mean, tell me this doesn't sound like a scene from a D&D scenario:

"Lo, Warrior! now, the cross of red 
Points to the grave of the mighty dead; 
Within it burns a wonderous light, 
To chase the spirits that love the night: 
The lamp shall burn unquenchably, 
Until the eternal doom shall be.' 
Slow moved the Monk to the broad flag-stone, 
Which the bloody cross was traced upon: 
He pointed to a secret nook; 
A bar from thence the warrior took; 
And the Monk made a sign with his withered hand, 
The grave's huge portal to expand. 

With beating heart, to the task he went; 
His sinewy frame o'er the grave-stone bent; 
With bar of iron heaved amain, 
Till the toil-drops fell from his brows like rain. 
It was by dint of passing strength, 
That he moved the massy stone at length. 
I would you had been there to see 
How the light broke forth so gloriously; 
Streamed upward to the chancel roof, 
And through the galleries far aloof! 
No earthly flame blazed e'er so bright: 
It shone like heaven's own blessed light; 
And, issuing from the tomb, 
Shewed the Monk's cowl, and visage pale; 
Danced on the dark-brow'd Warrior's mail, 
And kissed his waving plume. 

Before their eyes the wizard lay, 
As if he had not been dead a day; 
His hoary beard in silver roll'd, 
He seemed some seventy winter old; 
A palmer's amice wrapped him round, 
With a wrought Spanish baldric bound, 
Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea; 
His left hand held his Book of Might; 
A silver cross was in his right; 
The lamp was placed beside his knee: 
High and majestic was his look, 
At which the fellest fiends had shook; 
And all unruffled was his face-- 
They trusted his soul had gotten grace. 

Monday 1 July 2019

Evil, be thou my good: the cult of the Wicked King

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Decades have passed since anyone anyone last saw him, and yet his face is everywhere. His statues loom on every corner. His tower blocks out the sun. His soldiers plunder you. His ministers lie to you. His secret police spy on you. His tyranny is in the air and the earth and the water. It hovers, unseen, between person and person, ruining and infecting everything, withholding you even from those whom you most yearn to love. It poisons you and it sickens you, reducing you to a mockery of the person you could have been. It deforms your personality. It withers up you soul. It breaks your heart.

He has not been officially deified. In the city's gilded temples, hireling priests offer up thanks to heaven each morning and evening for being allowed to live under a ruler so wise, so holy, so enlightened - but while they pray for him, for his health and his longevity and the continuation of his rule, they do not pray to him. Officially, he is no more and no less than the very best of mortal kings.

He has not been officially deified - but people pray to him anyway, just as one might pray to any other evil spirit of the land. Spare me, they whisper, before they sleep. Spare me just one more night. Spare my parents. Spare my children. Take my neighbours, if you must take someone. I will make you a bargain. I will make you an offering. I will be loud in my praise of your wisdom. I will burn sweet incense at your statue's foot. I will inform on the old woman for her seditious gossip at sundown. Only spare me, O king, O destroyer. Only spare me yet another day.

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In the streets, superstitions about the Wicked King grow like weeds, and the people regard his agents less as members of mortal institutions than as a race of folk devils to be evaded through luck and guile. If you eat while standing in the shadow of his tower, they say, the secret police will come for you within a fortnight. Scatter rice from a third-story window and the wrath of the King will be averted. Whisper the name of your worst enemy three times while facing the tower at midnight, and the secret police will come and take them away - unless they've hung a polished brass mirror on their door, in which case they'll come for you instead. Faced with the apparently random predations of the city's government, such petty rituals help the people to feel that they wield at least some measure of control over their own destiny. And who is to say that there is not some truth behind some of them? No-one, after all, really knows what it is that watches the city through the eyes of the king's statue network, or upon what principle his minions decide which luckless souls will be dragged away, wailing, into the night.

So the people pray to the king. They make offerings to him. Some of them even maintain sad little shrines to him in the darkened corners of their homes. But a few go further. In the dark of the night, they slink out and abase themselves before his statues. They croon songs of worship into their cold ears of stone. They sprinkle the dust around their feet with the warm blood of sacrifices. They join the cult of the Wicked King.

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The cult has existed for decades, now, ever since the people of the city began to grope around for some explanation of what had happened to them. In its most popular form, it teaches that the king is a kind of prophet, whose actions must be understood as coded or symbolic teachings. His power and immortality are signs of his semi-divine nature. His destruction of the city's name, his withdrawal from the sight of the people, and his refusal to proclaim his own divine status are understood as acts of negative mysticism, designed to encode the truth that real power and identity are to be found not in the outward world of appearances, but in some secret and numinous realm beyond them, hidden as the king himself is hidden, immortal as he is immortal. Some cultists think that his cruelty is a sign that the moral law is a lie, too. Others believe that he is punishing the city for its sins. Others still maintain that the body is the soul's prison, and that unleashing a gang of masked murderers to brutalise his people is the king's rather roundabout way of teaching them not to place too much value on physical things.

But these are rationalisations, and the true reasons that people are drawn to the cult of the Wicked King are the reasons that people are always drawn to power. Ambition: if I sacrifice enough to the king then he is sure to bring about my promotion. Desperation: if I pray hard enough to the king then maybe the secret police will bring my sister back. Justification: I'm not just a cruel and selfish person! I'm following the secret teachings of the king! And, perhaps most commonly of all, sheer exhausted frustration. Faced with the endless opacity of the city's government bureaucracy, the transparent injustice of its laws, the arbitrary depredations of its security services, and the spiritual inadequacy of its state religion, it it understandable that many people become desperate for even the illusion of having a hotline to the top.

The cult of the Wicked King is something of a wild card in ATWC. It's extremely disorganised and decentralised: a shifting web of solitary practitioners, semi-formal congregations, and splinter groups following individual teachers and interpreters of its makeshift theology. Doctrines vary widely from one cult member to the next: all that they really have in common is the belief that the Wicked King really does want his people to worship him and will reward them for it, despite the claims of the Ministry of Religion to the contrary. (Indeed, some of them see the Ministry of Religion as an actively malevolent force, keeping the truth from the people for evil reasons of their own.) They exist in something of a legal limbo, discouraged but not technically illegal: and the secret police, in particular, tend to regard the cult's activities with something resembling indulgence, a fact which discourages the other branches of the city's government from attempting to crack down on them too harshly.

The informal patron of the cult is Alisher the Just, the current Minister of the Heavens, who is himself a secret cultist of the Wicked King. Leading teachers of the cult's esoteric doctrines sometimes find themselves summoned for discreet meetings with the minister, who believes that proper worship of the king will help accelerate his personal advancement, and doesn't care how many human sacrifices he has to preside over in order to bring this about. PCs who oppose the Wicked King could easily find themselves targeted by vigilante cultists eager to win his favour by defeating them. But crafty PCs might also be able to turn the cult's beliefs to their own advantage, especially as it includes many people who would be willing to risk their lives for a chance to meet the king face to face.

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To see who leads the local cultists, roll 1d20:

  1. Broken-hearted old man furtively burning offerings in front of a statue at midnight in the hope of getting his children back.
  2. Psychotic serial killer using the 'need' to offer human sacrifices to the king as an excuse for murders he would totally have carried out anyway. 
  3. Ambitious young member of a local merchant house, who attributes his recent run of good fortune in business to the favour of the Wicked King. 
  4. Anxious band of low-level bureaucrats praying for promotions and the horrible deaths of their managers. 
  5. Wild-eyed conspiracy theorist determined to reveal the truths that the Ministry of Religion is deliberately concealing.
  6. Ageing debauchee who has seized upon the doctrines of the cult as 'proof' that nothing is true and everything is permitted. 
  7. Opium-addled visionary so lost in speculation that he has managed to convince himself (and his followers) that right is wrong, freedom is slavery, and war is peace.
  8. Loyal retainer from one of the Cobweb families, trying to win the favour of the king for his masters, and bring down his wrath upon their rivals.
  9. Small-time gangster who regards the cult and its practises purely as a form of practical street magic, and is entirely indifferent to their spiritual or political content.
  10. Eccentric clockworker convinced that the city's government is deliberately refusing to recognise the value of her inventions, and that the king would acknowledge her genius at once if only she could get his attention.
  11. Twitchy teenage street kid. Her adventurous older brother set out years ago on a do-or-die mission to discover what was really at the top of the king's tower. She still hopes against hope that he made it, and is now living some kind of life of splendour with the Wicked King himself. 
  12. Profoundly damaged Murder Harlot who joined the cult semi-ironically years ago, and has long since lost track of which parts of its doctrine she does or doesn't 'really' believe.
  13. Secret revolutionary who infiltrated the cult on behalf of the Red Brotherhood and ended up rising to become its local leader.
  14. Semi-secret neighbourhood congregation who believe that regular worship of the king helps to avert the attentions of the secret police.
  15. Member of a Labyrinth Doctrine mystery cult, who regards the Wicked King as an ascended and enlightened figure, and creeps up out of the Maze by night to participate in his worship.
  16. Self-proclaimed prophet, deranged but charismatic, who sees the king's face in her nightly nightmare-visions and now seeks to share her incoherent revelations with the world.
  17. Steel Aspirant convinced that only the Wicked King knows where the Cogwheel Sage is really hiding.
  18. Fantatical ascetic, consumed with self-hatred, who insists that the king's tyranny constitutes a form of divine collective punishment upon a city that richly deserves it.
  19. Master mason who has spent his entire working life maintaining and repairing the statue network, and is now convinced that the statues are whispering to him when no-one else is looking.
  20. Air Corps gyrocopter pilot who has flown close to the top of the King's Tower on several occasions, and is convinced that she heard someone in there screaming for help. She has concluded that the king is being held prisoner by his own government, and is plotting a daring rescue mission, for which she is certain that the grateful king will reward her lavishly.
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