Monday, July 03, 2006

Being medieval

Here's another rant inspired by Harshlands, but posted here to avoid a big unwarranted flareup. Also, it's not by any means limited to Harshlands, but affects all medieval-analogue game settings. Harshlands actually does the best in this regard of any game I've seen (other than a scant handful of pencil-and-paper games, including Harn-set ones) -- which is why the times it doesn't seem so important.

The medieval mindset is very different from the modern mindset in some key ways. One of the most important ways is that it was far more uniform. Diversity of opinion itself is a relatively modern concept, and was much more circumscribed in the Middle Ages. Here are some key social tenets that were nearly universally believed in the Middle Ages that modern people often have trouble with.

  • Nobles are different from commoners. They are genuinely better than commoners. They may have flaws, but even so, the flaws are exceptions.

  • Marriage is the core unit of society. The purpose of marriage is to create a family -- that means children. Those who reject marriage put themselves in the same fringe of society as occupied by harlots and thieves.

  • Worker's rights? What are those? The vast majority of people barely subsist and consider themselves lucky for it.

  • There's no such thing as free trade, and the idea of laissez-faire economics is absurd. Monopolies are not just part of trade, they are almost all of it.

  • Social mobility is a fairy tale. (Literally. Think back to the fairy tales you learned as a child. How many of them, especially the oldest, talk about the incredibly unlikely or even magical means by which a peasant leaves the peasant class?)

  • You can't hope to "deserve" fairness and justice. When you get them, consider yourself lucky. That's the exception; most of the time, might (and wealth) makes right.

  • Almost everyone is, by modern standards, ugly. Between poor hygiene, rampant disease, vastly higher costs for clothing (and even more so for colorful or luxurious clothing), and long work under the sun, people are drab, wrinkled, pockmarked, and plain.

  • Beer and ale are mainstream things everyone drinks. Water is often unsafe, but beer is more likely to be safer. And beer in those days is far weaker even than American beer today; distilled spirits strong enough to get drunk off are too expensive for you. Children drink beer and are none the worse for it.

  • Everyone professes a religion. Someone who does not is not to be trusted, and perhaps seen as somewhat insane.
It's entirely possible for someone in a medieval setting to deviate from one or more of these. Particularly player-characters, since they are by definition expected to be exceptional in some way. It's good roleplaying to deviate from one of them for some specific reason in your background, and then to live with the consequences as the society around you rejects you for that. It's bad roleplaying to deviate from most or all of them habitually, especially without a good reason. And it's worse roleplaying (or not roleplaying at all) to deviate from them and not expect and accept the in-character consequences.

When everyone in a game deviates from its setting's social norms, those norms start to get ephemeral and feel unimportant. It's important that a lot of players make a point of embracing most of these norms. It's fine to deviate from some of them to make your character more interesting, but you should also "do your part" by embracing others to help establish the norms. After all, if no one established the norm you're rebelling against, it won't be very interesting for you to rebel against it. So help other people get that same frisson by giving them bits of the social norm to contrast with when possible.


litlfrog said...

The one caveat I would give is that some people really don't want to play in a medieval world, but don't realize that yet. They like Tolkien and fantasy and haven't really grasped the social implications of those societies.

HawthornThistleberry said...

I couldn't agree more. It's just another matter of the game contract: it should be what it's promised to be, on all sides. If the GM has promised "medieval", and been clear that he means actually medieval rather than knights in shining armor and the like, then the players should be doing that.

The problem only comes in when someone comes to a medieval setting, which is explicitly described as such, like Harshlands, then refuses to play a character that fits it. That's almost as bad as when the GM doesn't deliver on the promise; the contract goes both ways, and even more so in a more-player type of game like a MUD, where player actions play a larger part in setting the tone.