Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's unfair that Serenwilde is right

Lusternia's design includes six (so far) separate nations each of which embody a different set of principles (and associated symbolism). While they are set up in pairs which are opposed to one another (and complex relationships between each and the four others, allowing for shifting alliances), there's almost nothing that's clearly "right" or "wrong". Even the obvious "bad guys", Magnagora, have a little more to them than just being evil; they have enough reason for their choices that you could present a cogent defense of their viewpoint that would be fairly compelling. Each nation also has its blind spots, and each nation has a pretty solid argument that can be made against it. The idea is that you can play a character who stands firmly behind the ideology of any one of them, while at the same time realizing that in some ways, their ideology is "wrong", and makes some mistakes. And each nation has a litany of explanations of the mistakes made by each other nation (and their denizens are often happy to recite them to help reinforce the disagreements).

But there's one flaw in this balance: Serenwilde's ideology happens to actually be right. They're not really bogged down by a real blind spot.

Naturally any Lusternia player reading this is probably going to conclude that I'm just having a failure of roleplaying. Plenty of players who aren't that good at IC/OOC separation will indeed start thinking one side -- typically the one their main character lives in -- actually has the right of things, and everyone else just rolls their eyes at the failure of imagination. And while I've been spending a lot more time on my Hallifax character lately (Hallifax is the city of order, science, and structure), my primary is still my Serenwilde character (Serenwilde is a forest commune based around nature spirituality and ecological principles).

But if you look at the history of Lusternia, one thing that stands out is that time and again, all of creation is threatened by the same two threats.
  1. The Soulless: These are the ultimate bad guys, flawed creations determined to destroy and devour. They are a lot like H.P. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones in the way they lurk as an unseen, insanity-inducing horror. However, unlike in Lovecraft, the Soulless aren't ancient, alien powers on a scale as far beyond mortals as they are beyond bacteria. The Soulless are essentially "equal" foes to the Elder Gods, and mortals are just shards of Elder Gods, who can aspire to becoming minor godlings. An individual mortal can't fight a Soulless the same way a soldier can't fight a tank, but the mortals have Elder Gods on their side sometimes, and in some situations, can even beat Soulless. In any case, mortals can understand the motives of the Soulless, and are nearly as smart as Soulless.

  2. What Man Was Not Meant To Know: Sometimes but not always tied back to the Soulless, there is a strong theme, particularly in later Lusternia history, where each terrible threat to all creation is caused by the meddling of mortals in the pursuit of knowledge or power accidentally releasing terrible side effects. That might be the Soulless or their byproducts, or it might just be terrible energies, environmental catastrophes, powerful creatures, breaks in the time-space continuum, etc.
So consider defending Hallifax. It's all about the pursuit of wisdom, structure, and order, through arts and sciences. Technology is far advanced beyond everyone else due to a rigorous system of rewarding reason and creativity, and promoting the talented within the caste system. It's like the promise of all egalitarian and communist manifestos, but without the negative sides (notably, people really can and do move through the caste system, and this is almost totally based on merit, not the circumstances of birth or rampant corruption and abuse of power). Everyone else really are uncultured barbarians. And yet the blind spot is easy to notice: Hallifax regularly engages in the kind of experimentation that frequently threatens all of creation. They wilfully twist the fabric of time and try (and often succeed) to tap into eldritch energies of incalculable scale. Many of history's greatest disasters come from them stubbornly insisting on trying again at things that caused terrors before (because that was just bad luck -- and you can't really blame them; their ideas do make sense, they just happen to be in a world where the writers need excuses for terrible dangers on a regular basis).

You can do a similar analysis for each nation, but when it comes to Serenwilde... Serenwilde was the first nation founded. The ravages of the wars between the Elder Gods and the Soulless left the newly-formed mortals to try to survive in a world totally destroyed, little more than a post-nuclear wasteland, with poisoned soil and water. A few of the survivors banded together and happened to find ways to get the nature spirits to help clean and heal the land (and thus the nature spirits), and from this, Serenwilde was formed with the explicit mission of saving the world against the ravages of the Soulless.

Later, cities were formed, and immediately started doing things that unleashed terrible disasters on everyone, over and over. Serenwilde got the idea -- and this is as near as it has to a blind spot -- that the reason that cityfolk keep making these mistakes is that living in sterile cities, cut off from the natural world and the nature spirits, they forget how to tell what's important, and become willing to sacrifice everything that really matters in exchange for some short-term profit, usually in the form of power. Ultimately, because of the recurring theme that civilization does continually prove to be the source of threats, but rarely (and only in part) the solution for those threats, Serenwilde is right on both counts. It was founded saving the world, and continues to save the world, over and over.

It's true that maybe there is a way for civilization to be a useful thing in the world, a source of good works and culture, and they might be rejecting too much by insisting to live in the woods. On the other hand, most of the things that make living in the woods hard (poor agriculture, disease, weather, etc.) are not simulated in the MUD, so they really pay nothing for eschewing civilization. Serenwilde has even been the cultural center of the Basin more often than not, suggesting that hippies strumming lutes in the woods and putting on plays in a field can be the equal of grand symphonies and operas -- which may or may not be, that's a matter of taste, but there's got to be some benefit to the grander scale.

But if a Seren wants to sit around smugly talking about how Serenwilde has saved the world more times than anyone else, and has, to date, never actually been the source of anything that threatened to destroy it (while pretty much everyone else has), he really could get away with it, and really far better than anyone else could. I suspect that the game's creators intended this to be more even, where no one could actually turn out to be any more "right" or "wrong" than anyone else, and they've done a great job, but they didn't quite get there. Sometimes when I pontificate about this from my Seren character's point of view (his job is explicitly to pontificate about this kind of thing, and inspire people with it) I almost feel bad about not having, in my back pocket, a clear refutation for everything I'm saying, like everyone else does, and like I do in my other character.

But if it's unfair, at least I can take comfort in knowing it doesn't at all matter. People don't join any side because of whether it's right or wrong, and Serenwilde has been both preeminent and the Basin's whipping boy (it has been the latter for a very long time at the moment) regardless of consistently being the most right ideology the world has. People aren't more interested in participating in things based on that. Even if anyone cares about who's more right they can easily use each nation's blind spot to avoid realizing that they're not it. It's not going to change anything that Serenwilde is right. But not only is it amusing, it's amusing that it doesn't change anything.

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