Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thoughts about Rich Burlew's "The New World" Articles

Like many others, I found my way into studying the medieval through exposure to the medievalist. I read Tolkien early on, as well as other fantasy authors, and I played such role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons. I still read Tolkien and other fantasy authors, and I still--when time and resources permit, so not for longer than I would prefer at this point--play role-playing games. From time to time, I even attempt to make intelligent comments about them, and, on occasion, I am successful in such attempts. To make them, though, I have to continue my readings, and in doing those readings at one point some time ago, I came across Rich Burlew's "The New World" articles on Giant in the Playground. (It is a fine site, notable mostly for hosting the Order of the Stick webcomic--which is well worth reading.) Those articles--"Part 1: Purpose and Style," "Part 2: Class Decisions," "Part 3: Race Decisions," Part 4: "The Right Tool for the Right Job," "Part 5a: Politics," "Part 5b: Politics (Continued)," "Part 6: Geography," "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations," "Part 8: Names and Cultures of the Gnomes," and "Part 9: Names and Cultures of the Barbarians"--begin to sketch out what promises to be an interesting gaming milieu and lay out, at least in part, a world-building process that might be used to great effect not only by others setting up role-playing games, but by any who want to work on extended storytelling in a fictional or fictionalized world. The series has not been completed--and likely will not be, given how long it has remained in stasis--and it does present some problems in its approach to and treatment of medievalist materials; because role-playing games have served and continue to serve as introductions to the medieval, problems present in them become problems for those of us who study the medieval and its more recent reinterpretations. Even so, Rich Burlew's "The New World" articles

Burlew's medievalism does have its problems, despite the things that he gets right and the fact that, as a fantasy world, his does not have to cleave to history. For one, he calls his Viking-analog anacrhonistic (again, in "Part 5a: Politics"), although Charlemagne and his successors lived in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, during which time the Vikings--as opportunistic raiders and marauding conquerors--were certainly active. The dualism of the dominant religion is another point of contention, although it is easy to see the faith as truly one, more like the differences between monastic orders than between, say, Christianity and Druidism (although something like Druidism, broadly conceived, remains in Burlew's milieu, even if displaced from what approaches being the Celt-analog that would have druids*) or even between branches of Christianity. Perhaps most egregious, however, are Burlew's repeated references to "the Dark Ages" and "barbarians."** Both speak to conceptions of earlier times that are outdated; the Dark Ages were not so dark as is often popularly assumed, if the works of Anglo-Saxon scriptoria and others are to be taken as examples. "Barbarian," particularly as contrasted with "civilized" as is the case in "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations" and "Part 9: Names and Cultures of the Barbarians," bespeaks a worldview that normalizes the course of history in the Western world, making it the desired default and necessarily making everything else Other. It reads as a variant, perhaps unwitting, of the colonial project identified by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul in Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, one that is in need of correction.

That said, a role-playing game cannot be expected to reproduce the full complexity of the real world. If nothing else, the demands of simulation and play-balance mean that there will be some simplification and some adjustments made. Indeed, Burlew notes as much in "Part 6, Geography," writing that the article is "a gross oversimplification." He also emphasizes, in "Part 2: Class Decisions," that the construction of a role-playing game world needs to consider player attitudes and expectations; it is a reiteration of the need to address a specific audience, but it is not less valid for that, and, in that light, some inaccuracies in the medievalism to be presented are to be expected. As has been commented in this webspace, and by others than me, people are conditioned to regard as medieval something that is not quite what the medieval was. Addressing such expectations will necessitate the imposition of what those of us who make more formal study of the medieval have to regard as error. There is this, too; Burlew is writing about role-playing games in the Dungeons and Dragons tradition, games which include magic and non-human humanoid species, so the world is clearly not one that is meant to recreate the medieval, although it borrows heavily from it.

Too, Burlew does make a point of returning to at least some medieval views in his medievalist presentations. For example, he does work to ground his milieu in some (although probably not enough--but when is there ever enough?) historical reading about Charlemagne and the Carolingians, as he notes in "Part 5a: Politics," working from Frankish inheritance practices and the disjunction between Charlemagne and Louis the Pious in his background for the milieu. The integration of religion discussed in several of the articles rings true, as well, as do both the setting-aside of small nation-states for the faith (in "Part 5b: Politics [Continued]") and the push of the religion against lingering animist and shamanistic faiths, although the dualistic nature of the dominant religion is a bit of a stepping-away from medieval European practice. He also makes a point of writing in "Part 5a: Politics" that "we'll paint these Vikings not as heroic warriors, but as the Europeans saw them: murdering thieves who snuck into towns at night and pillaged"; he bespeaks wanting to work towards a more authentic medievalism than is typical among role-playing games, at least in some respects, and that is a good thing.

I am sure there is more to be said about such things, of course, both the problems and the many good things. I could hope that Burlew had continued his efforts on "The New World" series; despite its problems, it is an interesting series that would work well for many concerned with world design. And it does offer some hope that popular culture renditions of the medieval and medievalist can work towards authenticity and accuracy--even as it shows that there remains much work to do in that line.

*As a note, Burlew's assertion in "Part 7: Names and Cultures of the Civilized Nations" that "it’s important for anyone who picks up the book to be able to relate to the people in the world, and thus there should be a variety of skin tones in the characters depicted" is a good one, accordant both with the kind of thinking that represents the best of the creative communities and, albeit unintentionally, with the decidedly not "monochrome Middle Ages" Helen Young has identified as a problematic construct and which is repeatedly referenced in this webspace.

**Writing for role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons does permit some use of the term in a non-pejorative fashion, as there is a character class in Dungeons & Dragons called the Barbarian (along with the Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, Cleric, Wizard, Sorcerer, and the like). Where Burlew uses the term to refer to groups other than the character class, however, he does less than well.

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