Decline & Fall Part II: Sources & Theories

My primary source has always been Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel, although Foundation and Empire was worth a read. For a more historical look at the Roman Empire I have been reading Adrian Goldworthy’s How Rome Fell. To add to the mix, we have Joeseph Tainter’s sociological theories on the collapse of complex civilisations (you could of course go with the current vox pop Jared Diamond, but I found him a little too subject to geographical determinism).

The Foundation Series

Examining the classic novels only, not the later drek that attempted a grand unified storyline.  So what does Asimov give us to work with:

(1) all inhabited worlds owe allegiance to the Galactic Empire – so the whole game map.

(2) the Empire has been around for 12,000 years – which about six times as long as any real life human institution so far.

(3) Trantor, the Imperial Capital, is the Manhattan of Space, an enormous clot of steel and people, a completely urbanised world. “This enormous population was devoted entirely to the administration of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task. (It is to be remembered that the impossibility of proper administration of the Galactic Empire under the uninspired leadership of the later Emperors was a major factor in the Fall.) Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor …. Its dependence on the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to siege. In the last Millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emepror after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor’s delicate jugular vein…”

This is equivalent to the grain ships of the Roman Empire, but for the western Roman Empire, Rome itself ceased to be the effective capital of the Empire in the 1st-2nd centry AD.  The Senate declined in actual influence, and the real capital was the Emperor’s court, which was increasingly located in more defensible locations and closer to where any campaigns were being coducted. 

(4) “the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” – some useful events to use in-game.

(5) “As Trantor becomes more specialised, it becomes more vulnerable, less able to defend itself. Further, as it becomes more and more the administrative centre of Empire, it becomes a greater prize. As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.” – the specialisation of the capital fits well with Joeseph Tainter’s theories.

(6) Asimov’s theory of psychohistory, a degree of scientific predestination that feels a bit uncomfortable, but its the gee whiz theory underpinning the Foundation series.

(7) “The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receeding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors.”

This a bit like the caste system in Diocletian Empire, but a lack of social mobility.  There are a lot of theories about why some Empires fall, most of which suffer from a lack of records and data to analyse (both due to the records being destroyed and the ability to create new records being lost), so sepculation runs rife.  The damming of curiosity is expanded in a conversation with Lord Dorwin, Chancellor of the Empire, in which his version of the scientific method is to read the great books of antiquity, and then through textual analysis determine which of them is more correct – not a hint of field work or lab tests involved.  Earlier stagnation of intellectual inquiry is identifed as a cause of revolts, communication breakdowns, eternal petty wars, and technological decline.  I think thats going a bit far, but its another list of events to incorporate into the game.

(8) “Already they recall the lives of their grandfathers with envy. They will see that political revolutions and trade stagnations will increase. The feeling with pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account. Ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back.” – so our players should be motivated to be ambitious and unscrupulous, and some more event ideas.

(9) One theme running through the early Foundation series is the role of Atomic power, and how part of the fall is the loss of Atomic power. The Empire’s response to a meltdown is to place restrictions on the use of atomic power as there are few technicians left who understand it, and the idea of training new technicians was not considered.  There is no comparable resource for the Roman Empire, although the Roman Army comes closest as the indispensable resource of state, gradually lost through lack of funds, internecine civil wars and the occasional barbarian calamity.  In The Encyclopedists, atomic power is what allows the Foundation to survive as the balancing power on the periphery of the Galaxy.  In The Mayors, atomic power through the lens of Clarke’s Third Law, dominates the adjacent petty kingdoms through the cloak of religion.  In The Traders, the Empires loss of atomic power is revealed, and in The Merchant Princes it is the effect of economic sanctions and the loss of atomic power that forces the Republic of Korell to surrender to the Foundation.

As an aside, there is no point designing a game about the Foundation – as the way the Foundation prospers is to do nothing and let the sweep of historical forces propel it inevitably towards destiny. Not a lot of interesting decisions for a player to make there.

Joeseph Tainter’s Theory

“According to Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge.

In Tainter’s view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is an economic one, inherent in the structure of society rather than in external shocks which may batter them: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. For contrast, Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, focuses on environmental mismanagement as a cause of collapse.” (Wikipedia)

Its been a few years since I read Tainter’s work, but from memory there are a couple of ways societies collapse.  One way is to fall all the way to the stone age in one mighty armageddon due to catalcysmic disasters and catastrophic loss of all the infrastructure underpining the civilisation.  This is not especially useful for a game, unless you want some kind of “Great Sombero Disaster” to nuke the game five minutes before you score victory points.

The other way is to have a staircase down, where the society collapses down a rung on the ladder of complexity to simpler forms of societal organisation that are cheaper to organise.  This is more useful for game design, as it means having a mechanic in game that allows the players to modify the game rules, changing the costs of various in-game actions, or eliminating some action options and adding new action options in.

So, initally we need something that makes the game gradually more complex, then a trigger for making the game rebound and be much simpler.

Adrian Goldworthy’s Thesis

In a nutshell: the available economic and military data is crap, so we have to go with what we do know, which is how the Emperor’s tended to die and what we can estimate of the psychological motivations for Imperial security.  There is insufficient information to prove economic decline in any absolute or relative extent.  While there is some information available on military affairs, when it comes to the detail of army organisation, strength and effectiveness, the surviving documents may bear as much resemblance to reality as Hitler’s ORBAT did in April 1945.

So, how did the Emeprors tend to die?  Mainly by being murded by members of their immediate retinue when they lost confidence in the Emperor.  It should be noted that after AD69 and the death of Nero, no dynasty ever managed to rule the Western Roman Empire for as long as the Augstine dynasty had managed.  So nearly all subsequent Emperors struggled for popularity and legitmacy, as most new Emperors were former military commanders who were victorious in civil wars.  This was in part a consequence of the loss of influence and real political power by the Senate – Emperors were able to prevent rivals gaining political power, but it was impossible to prevent Generals in command of armies adequate for border security from gaining enough military power to threaten the security of the Emperor.  As Tacitus put it in describing the civil war of Ad69-70: “for now had been divulged that secret of the empire, that emperors could be made elsewhere than at Rome.”

So succession to the throne tends to be drawn from (a) members of the Imperial family – if any were still alive, (b) members of the Imperial Court (usually a military officer) where no family member could be co-opted, or (c) Army commanders following a civil war.  What this suggested to me in terms of designing a game, was that I needed to track confidence in the Emperor among three different groups: the wider population, the political elite, and the military.  Loss of confidence among any group creates an environment of political uncertainty which can result in the Emperor being murdered, which triggers a civil war.

In Part III I will describe my attempt to put this into mechanics and how well this worked in a playtest.


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