Reversion to the Sword

A couple of ideas in relation to roleplaying games:

(1) the idea of a culture deliberately abandoning gunpowder weapons and reverting to the sword, as happened in Japan.

(2) social implications for magic users based on medieval cultural practices of war.

…and a few notes from my Dragon Age game.

Reversion to the Sword

I’m inspired by Noel Perrin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  Japan had a culture which encountered firearms, quickly adopted them, and had the industrial skill to manufacture and improve on the imported technology.  After some trial and error, firearms became crucial weapons used in battle.  Yet, after unification under the Tokugawas, Japan largely gave up the use of firearms for 250 odd years.

A few key points here:

(1) Someone has to want the use of firearms to be given up

(2) They need enough power to make this happen

(3) There needs to be no external threat requiring firearms to be dealt with.

Japan had a unified government (2), which was based on a Samurai social class which was distinguished by skill in traditional weapons.  Firearms were easy to learn, affordable, and any peasant with an arquebus could kill a veteran Samurai at range.  So the potential threat to the social order motivates (1) and the Japanese disarm both firearms and other weapons held by the peasants.  As an island nation, Japan was able to isolate itself from external influences (3) and it took a long time before anyone outside Japan was motivated enough to go and take a look.  The real history is probably more complex than that, and Perrin’s work has had strong criticism for simplifying history to fit his views, but its a good basis for a narrative.

For a cliched fantasy setting, the traditional feudal class of western Europe would stand in for the Samurai, but I can also imagine that miracle wielding Priests and sorcerous mages would also stand opposed to the spread of firearms (“I spent thirteen years learning how to cast a fireball, and that buffoon learns how to fire a handgonne in three weeks”).  Having multiple centres of social power opposed to firearms would make it harder to reintroduce them.

So, people know firearms existed, and probably have a name for them that the elders know, and they are largely not around anymore, except possibly as a prerogative of the higher social estates, or for agents of the government.  If not an island nation, or otherwise isolated by distance and harsh wastelands, perhaps the realm is a very large Empire – one so old and powerful it has no peers or rivals to challenge it.  Another alternative might be that there is a Dark Lord ruling the realm, and they have forbidden the use of firearms, even if this is sufficiently contrary to reason to ensure the Dark Lord’s demise when the forces of good invade with their Boomsticks.  One side-effect of being a post-firearms society, is that you could have other post-medieval technology around without it being too out of place.

So in these settings what roles do firearms play for players?

  • potential macguffin to drive the plot of an adventure (find and rescue/destroy the gun, gunpowder, gunsmith, book of gun lore, etc)
  • possession is a symbol of favoured status in the realm
  • or possession is a sign of rebellion against the realm/membership of a criminal gang, cult or clan of ninjas
  • a character element – demonstrates the character is not a good member of a social class opposed to firearms
  • a potential reward/power-up gained through adventures
  • possibly a long term goal to research/engineer the lost technology
  • if the bad guys have firearms, then they can be painfully scary bad as the lead slugs penetrate enchanted mithril like a hot knife through butter
  • weather is important … firearms don’t work so well in the rain
  • if gunpowder is hard to find/expensive, then as a scarce resource decisions about whether or not to use it to kill an Ogre should be interesting decisions for the players to make.

Magic and War

I was reading Richard Abels Cultural Representation and the Practice of War in the Middle Ages (Journal of Medieval Military History, Volume VI, 2008) which, inter alia, looked at how medieval knights reconciled chivalric literature/culture (how war should be fought) with the brutal realities of combat (how war must be fought if you are to survive it).  Keeping in mind that in any given society there will be multiple cultural interpretations of correct behaviour, I thought it interesting to think a bit about how magic users, as an estate/social class like knights, might perceive warfare and how it should be approached.

One approach is for the mages to adopt attitudes similar to the medieval church, being inclined towards peace rather than war, and moderating the practices of war to minimise non-combatant suffering and collateral damage to (for example) libraries, laboratories and isolated towers where mages live.

Honourable, unremarkable and shameful behaviour:

  • honourable behaviour is that which enhances reputation (martial glory, should involve a degree of risk to the wizard concerned)
  • unremarkable behaviour is the normal day to day actions that do not attract comment (if a magic user is busy being a magic usurer and concentrating on material profit, its unlikely to be viewed as honourable behaviour)
  • shameful behaviour (cowardice, oath-breaking, black magic etc).

Circumstances and context play a role here.  A mage who kills prisoners who have just been captured and are still in armour, when the prisoner’s friends threaten to attack, is unlikely to be thought to have engaged in shameful behaviour.  The mage who takes their prisoners off to a secure location and then sacrifices them to a demon, is probably going to be thought ill of.  If the cultural group has some vilified enemies (heretics, orcs, demon-worshippers, etc) then harder methods may be used against them than against more honourable opponents.

For medieval knights, there is a strong connection between honour and prowess (being a good warrior in battle).  If mages share this view, then honourable action for a mage in battle involves using their magic to great effect, not hoarding their spells for later use.  A key difference here, is that in most game worlds, mages are “squishy” and non-users of serious metal armour.  So a mage takes big risks on the battlefield, one stray arrow and ten years of college education goes down the drain.  Looking at examples from Joinville’s Life of St Louis, Knights would discuss honour mid-battle, when trying to determine if going for help or running away was an honourable course of action. Running away and leaving your comrades behind is nearly always going to be seen as shameful action, which is a potential problem for squishy mages.

Where a mage differs from some medieval knights, is that they will be literate (although after about the 12th century literacy was getting common among the higher nobility, in part because you needed it if the lawyers were not going to rob you blind).  This means a mage is quite capable of correcting the course of history by making sure that the written account of a battle shows that their conduct was honourable (“I did not teleport away until after the standard fell and the King was captured…”)

One reason for the raiding and looting that occurred in medieval warfare, was that “war must pay for itself”.  Wars were often funded on the basis of expected profits from invasion. Fortunes could be made in minutes after a successful battle (When King Jean the Good of France was being squabbled over by various parties as to who had captured him after the Battle of Poitiers, he is alleged to have said “Gentleman, I can make you all rich!”).  So nobles at war paid for their troops with a mix of cash, loot, chickens and promises.  A mage is going to expect at least the same.  A mage serving as a mercenary is probably after hard currency, or perhaps first choice of the relics captured on campaign.  A mage fulfilling feudal obligations probably has customary limits to that obligation, perhaps 40 days service in the field.  A knight would expect to have their horse replaced by their Lord if it was killed in battle, a Mage will expect similar reimbursement for alchemical expenditure, loss of apprentices, harm to familiars, etc.

One of the medieval writers on warfare and its customs wrote “call no man a soldier if he does not know how to set fire to things”.  While the chivalric ideal of warfare emphasised noble deeds of arms against other knights and nobles, the knights of the middle ages understood that warfare as it was actually practiced involved rape, pillage and destruction.  Now any decent mage should have a fireball spell, so that means they can do the practical side of destruction easily enough, and perhaps mages are effective at intimidating reluctant peasants into revealing where their food stocks have been hidden.  But after consideration of the dirty necessities, what particular actions would a mage engage in, in order to enhance their reputation – which is why the knights are seeking deeds of arms, as reputation increases their status among fellow knights and the chance of rewards from the King.

If the mages in our fantasy reality have a code of conduct similar to the chivalric code, then we can expect a degree of adherence to that code. For example, picking up on an element of Samurai culture, for formal duels and battles between mages, you could have a cultural tradition of introductions.  In this case, the introduction involves telling your opponents your true name.  So if a mage flees the battle, their enemy has the ability to use their true name to easily find them through scrying magic or to work up a more effective curse or voodoo doll.  Thinking a bit further about dueling  would it be possible for mages to engage in a “martial sport” of a magic tournament, which provides a warlike training setting, competition for prizes, but is expected to be sub-lethal in outcomes (but not guaranteed).  Perhaps mages have an expectation of ransom from other mages, or a tradition of servitude for a set period if taken prisoner.

One important element of deeds of arms, is that they are public.  People see you doing them.  So if a mage is deployed in skullduggery, or the magical equivalent of electronic warfare, opportunities for public recognition and renown are slim.  Effective results may convince the King to reward, but a large pile of bodies with your signature singe marks on them is undeniable evidence of your prowess.  This suggests to me, that on a battlefield a mage is likely to add a few twists to their spells, to make them showy.  “The blue fireball, your majesty, the one that toasted their champion, that was my spell, as you can see it turned my fingernails blue…”

My Dragon Age Campaign

My “Secrets of Samaria” game has been running for almost three years now.  One current frustration is that the player’s characters have just about out-levelled the available rulebooks, and the third set has been “Coming Soon” for about six months now.  On the whole the Dragon Age system is a simple old school system.  Where its creaking a bit is from the combination of high hit point totals and a system where armour reduces damage. Now that most of the party has either high defence or high armour scores, its getting harder and harder for me to challenge them.

On the whole, the players still seem to be having fun and are interested in uncovering the next few “secrets”. It has been very worthwhile for me, seeing them get a clue, then cross-reference it back to stuff that happened years ago, and figure out the connections, back story, probable NPC motive, and then proceed to formulate a cunning new plan.  So in that sense the year or so I spent thinking and writing up background before the campaign started has paid off very well.

I have found that social interactions really eat up time.  The players blitzed a dungeon level in less time than it takes to do the formal introductions for a Clan Ball in the Eleven Capital of Trion.  On the other hand, the players do enjoy the social stuff, but I did not plan ahead, having three major social challenges for the party prior to the dungeon.  That took eight sessions (including travel time to the city), which with fortnightly games was over four months real time.  I can improve a bit there.

Anyhow, the players have started figuring out all of the major factions and what their goals are, they just have to make some decisions soon about who they will ally with long-term in order to prevent the Dragons from setting the whole world a fire in a few game years…

… so I am starting to plan story arcs that can bring the campaign to a satisfactory conclusion, but there is probably one-two years left at least.  My brain is starting to turn towards future projects though, possibly something involving Runequest VI.


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