Friday, July 26, 2019

Using Some Historical Theory: Another 'Settings with Strata' Post

As I threatened earlier this month, I'm turning my thoughts toward further development of April's "Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings." As previously articulated, my "Settings with Strata" method boiled down to four core steps:

1 "In just a few sentences, articulate a main concept for your setting."
2 "Draw or sketch a rough map of a region that fits that concept."
3 "Write a very brief summary of your setting's history ... write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras leading up to the present."
4 "For each of those 3-4 periods, moving in order from past to present, mark approximately 3-5 locations that were most important for the history of that period on your map."

My earlier writing on this topic emphasized developments in Step 4, the point at which I find most of the fun and in fact many intriguing ways to surprise myself as I create a sandbox. I reflected that I find Step 3 pretty straightforward since, as a professional historian, I am accustomed to thinking in such terms and I carry a library of historical situations and dynamics around in my noggin. Realizing that this is simply not the case for many or most people, I decided that I want to flesh out a how-to approach for Step 3 (and to some extent, by extension, Step 1 as well). And here it is.

To get there, however, you'll need to be patient, as I want to set it up with a mini-plunge into some historical theory. Yet be of good cheer; if this works as I envision, a little initial theory will 1) help us avoid some pitfalls, 2) encourage any faint-hearted sandbox designers out there, and 3) suggest by analogy a structure for easy, straight-forward sandbox history-writing.

Good. Seatbelts on?


I think most professional historians today would be more or less comfortable saying that subjective interpretation is as important as facts for responsible history. That needs some unpacking. I'm not saying facts don't matter, and I'm not saying that historians are free to come up with whatever they want to say beyond or instead or against the facts. I am saying, again, that in the construction of a professional and responsible historical account of the past, subjective interpretations play just as important a role as do the underlying facts being interpreted.

Here's an example.

We all know how the history of the World Wars went down, right? Here's a quick recap:

"Not once but twice in the 20th century, America mobilized its armed forces, deployed them to Europe, and killed thousands and thousands of young Germans. Finally, in 1945, the Americans and their allies successfully invaded Germany, overthrew its government, and occupied its territory."

There we go: a nice, compact history of the World Wars - or at least of the European theater in those conflicts. Great, right? But why not? Is it because of factual inaccuracy? Nothing in those statements is factually false. That being said, I (and...I hope you too...) find it a thoroughly inadequate historical account - because of what it omits. As written, the short account above only includes a minority of content/events from the wars, and only presents material about American and Allied aggression. There was, most obviously, a very different side to the story, one in which Germany is not presented as a victim.

Ah, then perhaps constructing a proper history must instead require providing ALL the details so that the historian can't blind readers to a hidden agenda. Yes, then, let's re-imagine a history of WWII that includes ALL the details. Here's an (imaginary) excerpt:

April 4, 1941, 6:45 a.m.: "Bitte," Rommel said, gesturing toward the salt and pepper across the officer's mess tent table. He received the salt and pepper promptly, four seconds later. It took him seven seconds to complete the task of seasoning his eggs. Nine seconds later, he had returned the salt and pepper to their original place on the mess table.

Riiiiiight. Imagine trying to read through a hot mess like that; the history of WWII, now abridged in only 78,743 volumes...It would, of course, be utterly useless. On the one hand, no mortal really has access to all that kind of data. On the other, providing more and more raw data creates new problems; if I may paraphrase The Incredibles, when all the information is special...then none of it will be. It would have no order, no would have no use - unless somebody could highlight which bits really mattered. Writing a good history, then, involves presenting the important information and leaving the less important aside. Great. So how do we know which pieces are more important?

This is where subjective interpretation comes in and becomes inescapable. On the one hand, choosing which data to emphasize is subjective even on somewhat neutral analytical ground; two researchers who share the same intellectual and ideological perspectives may still disagree about the relative importance of this vs. that piece of information. On the other hand, people who favor different perspectives or different 'sides' in the relevant history will select 'important bits' very differently. Just think about a court trial and the struggle to control what information the jury gets to see. Our modern court system very clearly recognizes that access to 'all the information' is not a neutral right for the jury, but a contested legal battleground with enormous potential consequences for swaying opinions.

This is why most historians now take it for granted that their own subjective interpretations are as important as the facts - the data - with which they work. No serious historian feels free to make up or to willfully hide relevant 'facts,' but they all differ in which facts they consider most important, and what kind of overall pattern or message they draw out of the collected facts under consideration. This is why the great bogeyman of 'revisionist history' that some in the public fear should be such a non-issue; if it involves making up fake information and presenting it as accurate data, then that isn't history at all, it's just a fraud. But if it involves presenting accurate information and making an analytical case for its meaning that differs from the previous generation's understanding, then that is just what every professional historian does for a living, and must be subject to the discipline's standard norms of evidence, argumentation, and informed community discourse in order to be taken seriously.

One of the more influential scholarly approaches to historians' inherent subjectivity came from the work of the late Hayden V. White, a prominent academic historian and literary theorist.  This is no place for a full discussion of White's work or its potential pitfalls (but, OSR metal-heads; check this one out). In short though, I'll note that White argued that what historians do as they identify what info is most important and how to frame a meaningful narrative out of a sea of data is pretty similar to what authors do as they write fictional literature: they use emplotment. They end up writing in a genre (for White, historians write Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire) that orders the account and reflects the historian's understanding of the meaning of the story being told.


Ok, you Philistines, I will. But only because you insisted. How is anything in this nerd-fest relevant for writing history in a purely fictional setting, where the GM's word can be law and the stakes are a bit lower than figuring out who to blame for an international war? I propose that the theory presented above may help us game in at least three ways:

1: Because it urges us NOT even to try to lay down all truth, or all the information about a setting, in advance. If you're crafting a new setting, then adopting the when-did-Rommel-salt-his-eggs approach to your backstory may feel like a labor of love for your world, but it's a pipe dream. On the one hand, the RPG blogosphere is already full of effective, articulate guidance on the reasons for painting in broad strokes as you begin a campaign. That makes sense for pragmatic reasons in play. But it also makes sense (sniff) in light of historical theory. No matter how much time you pour into your beloved setting, you will never set down ALL its data. No matter what you do, no matter whether you admit it or not, you still have to make decisions about which data is worth inventing, or at least inventing next. So why not just embrace that fact? Embrace the liberation of knowing that you don't need, and can't have, a fully-documented setting.

2: Because it allows, welcomes even, alternate points of view and alternate emplotments of the same history. Imagine a history of Middle Earth written by Elrond. Now imagine a history of the same events, but written by the Witch-King. Even if nobody willfully lies, you're going to find radically different, maybe even un-recognizably different, accounts of the past. This means that when you create a backstory for a campaign, you are tying your own creative hands much less firmly than you may think. You don't even need to include misinformation or inaccuracies to present radically different histories of your setting. If the Fourteen Princes' tragic downfall before the Hobgoblin Horde set the stage for your current Age, you can be sure that there's a pretty upbeat Hobgoblin narrative out there waiting to be written! This also means that you can create a campaign backstory with a certain emplotted lens (a tragic story of rise and fall, for example) but remain free to develop a very different tone in actual play. Even in collapsed societies, PCs might write perfectly meaningful stories of joyful triumph and victory.

Musing on this, it occurred to me that Middle Earth and the setting of the post-apoc Fallout games are...pretty similar, in terms of their narrative backstories. Once upon a time, there was a golden age in the past, a time of higher craft and skill, of extensive, stable geopolitical influence...and then 'our side' meddled with weapon(s) they thought could save them but which, in fact, ended up breaking political boundaries -where they exist - are much smaller, and the world is full of wild wastes and crossed by bands of violent marauders, many of which would happily eat you.

There it is. If we were using my Settings with Strata system, you could use the previous paragraph as your overall concept, and you could flesh it out to end up honestly with Middle Earth or with Fallout world. The massive difference between them is that Fallout offers a much more dismal and tragic (or even farcical) meaning to the whole, whereas Tolkien's vision emphasized the capability for heroism and goodness to triumph even in such a broken world.

3: Finally, if we embrace our freedom to not establish everything in advance, and if we embrace the existence of overlapping or even contradictory narratives, but choose just one as a backbone for our emerging narrative, and if we focus our thinking (a la Hayden White) on what kind of story we end up with through that one perspective...then we have the makings of an actionable procedural-generation system for setting histories.

Ok, probably, that was a lot more preamble than really needed to get us here, but oh well, here we are anyway. Back at long last to my Settings with Strata process and its Step 3, writing a short summary of 3-4 periods, with a sentence or two for each period. To be clear, what I'm going to propose and hope to develop in future posts may be secondary and possibly unhelpful. If you begin with a clear concept and/or already have or come up with a compelling narrative summary for your historical periods, there is no reason one must go through the steps below. They are intended, instead, either to make such narratives feasible for folks who aren't there right now, OR to stimulate creativity by coming up with ideas you hadn't already (kind of like how the Tome of Adventure Design uses randomness to stimulate but not replace your own creativity).

Pick ONE faction or other controlling central point of view (but this isn't all reality in your setting, remember? This is just a technique for now to help us design, it doesn't tie your hands for in-game ethical or factional alignment). You're going to plot the changing fortunes of this faction from its own point of view.

It will probably be helpful to pick one kind of 'fortune' to plot throughout this process; a good default would be 'military-political dominance' or maybe 'political stability' but you could quite easily retool this for other dynamics.

Next one might pick the kind of story one will be telling 'across the ages' - which in turn will be fleshed out in much more (still simple) detail in Step Four. Will this be a tragic tale of rise and fall, or just the more triumphant tale of 'how we ended up on top' - or something else? Most simply, one could think of the transition between each period as either RISING/GROWING POWER/STABILITY, STASIS OR STAGNANT POWER/STABILITY, and DECLINE OR COLLAPSE IN POWER/STABILITY. Heck, you can even make that a die roll if you want to discover the history as you make it.

If this seems useful then what I may do is for each of those three kinds of trajectories - up, sideways, down - present random-generation tables with commentary discussing real-world types of such processes, not as straightjackets, but as loose guides to the kinds of effects each type might have, and other dynamics that might go along with it (cultural or economic effects that might be typical, ways such a development might affect neighbors' perspectives, etc.).

Apologies to any who really didn't want a theory-dump, but I wanted to get this out of the way, partly to emphasize that what we are looking at creating AT BEST are really narrow, limited perspectives on a campaign world - but that's ok.

Cheers. 'Gundobad'

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