Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Category: Web Excerpt

Retinue Versus Followers

September 3, 2022

The retinue did not consist of only soldiers…but also of servants, artisans, professionals, estate officials, treasurers, stewards, lawyers and generally all that was needed by the normal operation of society. And, as the lord grew in status, so did the retinue; so that a sort of “bastard feudalism” developed, in which middle ranking figures under a king or major noble would compete for money, offices or influence…. The collective name for these retainers was “affinity,” which also happens to be a word that began in c. 1300 [C.E.] as “relation by marriage.” In a sense, the retinue were “kin,” or part of the “neighbourhood,” words that have developed other meanings over time. For this post, [we will] go on using the word retinue and retainer, but try to keep affinity in mind….

Obviously, this would mean that many persons outside the retinue would always be seeking to be a part of it, if they had no affinity of their own. This meant that outside the retinue were an amorphous group of general supporters and contacts, most of them completely unknown to the lord, but known to the various members of the retinue. Thus, even a minor lord could potentially affect hundreds, even thousands of persons, simply by their existence at the heart of his or her retinue. This made political maneuverings and the raising of an huge army a realistic possibility…. In [Dungeons & Dragons], we tend to think that to raise an army, we need to scatter out agents and interview people. In fact, the more likely truth is that there would be large numbers predisposed to our cause; we would need only to canvas our own connections, gain the support of other nobles and let them canvas their connections, and thus through specific persons already in our employ, we would dredge up the very people we needed from both our lands and from those wanting to be part of our lands. Thus, every war begins with a promise of land—which we will naturally take from the losers, when we win.

All this makes the retainer far, far more valuable than the follower—though, it must be said the retainer has less reason to be directly loyal. Ultimately, the retainer serves the office, not the individual. A lord is sure to be surrounded by trusted, reliable followers and henchmen, the “inner circle,” while sorting out the trusted members of the retinue from those not quite so trusted. In general, the retinue is expected to fall in line because the lord has the retinue’s general welfare at heart; if the lord fights to preserve the lord’s lands, he or she also fights to preserve the retinue’s lands. So all join together in the common cause.

Retinue vs. Followers – The Tao of D&D

Author’s emphases are in italics. Mine are in bold.

Everyone Is Religious

April 9, 2022

The world is a dangerous place, full of death and chaos. What little people have been able to figure out about it they’ve passed down to their children and grandchildren. Societies that discover the right way to live might prosper; those that don’t are doomed to fail.

This hidden knowledge of the ages isn’t something you can afford to ignore. It’s folklore and science and culture all wrapped into one. This is religion.

In our present day, there’s a rift perceived between religion and science, two areas of life set at odds against each other. To many, religion is something you do in private for vaguely “spiritual” reasons or to “be a better person”. Science (like its aft-facing counterpart history) is seen as a proper area of learning and study, where useful knowledge can be obtained.

With that mindset, it’s easy to forget about religion. …[Everyone] is religious, in one way or another.

  1. Religion is ancestral. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, a tangible link to the ancestors who came before you. You might not own anything your great-great-grandmother once had, but you can still practice her religion and know her story.
  2. Religion is cultural. If all our people do things the same way, that way identifies us as a people and shows who belongs to our group.
  3. Religion is political. When religion determines identity and prescribes conduct, religious authority becomes political power.
  4. Religion is knowledge. The ancestors did things this way for a reason. We’ve lost a lot since the apocalypse; following their ancient rule may save us from dangers in ways we don’t even understand.

Religion That Can’t Be Avoided – Signs in the Wilderness

Author’s emphases.

Violent Logic of Feudalism

April 1, 2022

So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. “The economy” is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and—by the way—you’re in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we’ll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like “feudalism” makes sense.

It’s how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don’t have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It’s also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I’m pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can’t actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I’ll let you take charge of a chunk of “my territory,” and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up “his territory” for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel…the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East…. “Feudalism” was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call “feudalism” makes a very coherent in-setting response—though it might take a million different forms….

The Logic of Feudalism – Gundobad Games

Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.

On Divination

March 7, 2022

If I’ve learned anything about divination in the succeeding years, it’s that divination doesn’t do a very good job of telling you what you should do. Divination will show you where a given path or course of action is likely to take you, but it’s up to you to figure out if that’s a good thing or not.

A Need For Divination – John Beckett

Understanding a Character’s Feelings

February 4, 2022

When I’m playing a role-playing game, I’m much more interested in hearing what someone’s character feels about a situation than what they do.

If we understand the character’s feelings, even taking no action is informative. And if we don’t know their feelings, any action remains a mystery. Why did they do that? We don’t know.

And if you ask a player what their character feels about something and they can’t answer, all the more reason to slow down, dive in, and let them figure that out. Take that time! Understanding your character’s feelings makes deciding what they would do a whole lot easier.

Feelings > Actions – ars ludi

Author’s emphasis.

Retinue of Retinues

January 25, 2022

The phrase I drill into my student’s heads about the structure of medieval armies is that they are a retinue of retinues. What I mean by this is that the way a medieval king raises his armies is that he has a bunch of military aristocrats (read: nobles) who owe him military service (they are his ‘vassals’) – his retinue. When he goes to war, the king calls on all of his vassals to show up. But each of those vassals also have their own bunch of military aristocrats who are their vassals – their retinue. And this repeats down the line, even down to an individual knight, who likely has a handful of non-nobles as his retinue (perhaps a few of his peasants, or maybe he’s hired a mercenary or two on retainer).

…The average retinue…was five men although significant lords (like earls) might have hundreds of men in their retinues (which were in turn comprised of the retinues of their own retainers). So the noble’s retinue is the combined retinues of all of his retainers, and the king’s army is the combined total of everyone’s retainer’s retainers, if that make sense. Thus: a retinue of retinues.

How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part I – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

Author’s emphases.

The Iliad and Dungeons & Dragons

December 23, 2021

I thought about D&D a lot while I was reading it, because I think the case can quite easily be made that The Iliad is the most D&D thing ever written other than D&D itself (or, vice versa, that D&D is the most Iliad thing ever written other than The Iliad itself, except obviously Mazes & Minotaurs?). What is Achilleus, other than a 20th-level fighter in comparison to the 1st-4th level Trojans he dispatches with ruthless ease? What are the Achaean invaders, if not murderhobos in search of booty, glory and XP at the expense of all else? How else can the behaviour of the protagonists be explained, other than that they are being controlled by the kind of wild uber-machismo that often overtakes groups of teenage D&D nerds?

On High Level Warriors, Gods, Mortals and More – Monsters and Manuals

There Is No Block

December 19, 2021

There really is no such thing as a block in traditional martial arts, at least not in the commonly understood sense. You see, the Japanese word uke means “receive” rather than “block” as it often incorrectly translated, a very significant difference both mentally and physically. Your defensive technique receives the adversary’s attack and makes it your own. Without this vital context you’re merely fending off a blow knowing that another is on its way, staying behind the count, whereas a “proper” block can end the fight all by itself without the need to throw what is commonly thought of as an offensive blow…..

There Is No Block – Kris Wilder

Different Fortifications Against Raids Versus Sieges

December 16, 2021

The earliest fortifications were likely to have been primarily meant to defend against raids rather than sieges as very early (Mesolithic or Neolithic) warfare seems, in as best we can tell with the very limited evidence, to have been primarily focused on using raids to force enemies to vacate territory (by making it too dangerous for them to inhabit by inflicting losses). Raids are typically all about surprise (in part because the aim of the raid, either to steal goods or inflict casualties, can be done without any intention to stick around), so fortifications designed to resist them do not need to stop the enemy, merely slow them down long enough so that they can be detected and a response made ready….

In contrast, the emergence of states focused on territorial control create a different set of strategic objectives which lead towards the siege as the offensive method of choice over the raid. States, with their need to control and administer territory (and the desire to get control of that territory with its farming population intact so that they can be forced to farm that land and then have their agricultural surplus extracted as taxes), aim to gain control of areas of agricultural production, in order to extract resources from them (both to enrich the elite and core of the state, but also to fund further military activity).

Thus, the goal in besieging a fortified settlement (be that, as would be likely in this early period, a fortified town or as later a castle) is generally to get control of the administrative center. Most of the economic activity prior to the industrial revolution is not in the city; rather the city’s value is that it is an economic and administrative hub. Controlling the city allows a state to control and extract from the countryside around the city, which is the real prize. Control here thus means setting up a stable civilian administration within the city which can in turn extract resources from the countryside; this may or may not require a permanent garrison of some sort, but it almost always requires the complete collapse of organized resistance in the city. Needless to say, setting up a stable civilian administration is not something one generally does by surprise, and so the siege has to aim for more durable control over the settlement. It also requires fairly complete control; if you control most of the town but, say, a group of defenders are still holding out in a citadel somewhere, that is going to make it very difficult to set up a stable administration which can extract resources.

Fortification, Part I: The Besieger’s Playbook – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

Author’s emphases.

The Risk of Literalizing Fantastical Concepts

November 15, 2021

Once Orcs are not about the ancient threat of Neanderthal dominance,

Once Vampires are not about the nightmare of rape and the violation of our sanctity,

Once the immortal Lich is not about horror of structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born,

Once Werewolves are no longer about the terror of our inner animalistic impulses overwhelming us,

Once Zombies are not about our innate and unending fear of the implacable advance of gluttonous death,

then they are just housecats that we can kill from behind the safety of our +2 blade that adds two to our to hit roll, allowing us to strike at the monster if we roll an 8 or higher.

On Cultivating the Fantastic – Hack & Slash

Author’s emphasis.

Thank the gods for the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, else I could not have linked to the source blogpost.

Warmth and Competence

September 18, 2021

What are the two things that are most important to know about a stranger? Or a group of strangers?

Social psychologists know. But so did the early authors of D&D.

The stereotype content model, elaborated by Susan Fiske and other social psychologists, describes how we organize beliefs about other people and social groups—traits and stereotypes. Over the past 20 years, dozens of studies have supported the idea that two key traits, warmth and competence, are major players in our attitudes and behaviors toward other groups.

Warmth is how cooperative the group appears to us. Competence is how strong—how able to do meaningful things—they look. So, jolly halflings might be seen as high in warmth but low in competence. Dour dwarves are the other way around, not very warm but very good at what they do. Kobolds, maybe, are low in both.

When two groups meet in an adventure, the rules of most early forms of D&D have them sizing up each other precisely on these two dimensions….

Morale and Reactions – Roles, Rules, & Rolls

The Opposite of Impact Is Fluff

September 18, 2021

So, you’re playing D&D and you’re fighting some orcs. All the orcs are armed with feather dusters, so they [are] actually incapable of harming anyone. And your DM doesn’t give [experience points] for combat, so they’ll yield [zero XP] upon death.

This combat is a waste of time. You’re just rolling dice until the orcs die.

The encounter is shit because the encounter has no impact.

Impact: the ability to permanently change the game. The opposite of impact is fluff.

Impact – Goblin Punch

Author’s emphasis.

Religion, Socializing, and Gods

September 18, 2021

…So in real life, Ancient Greek sacrificial practice was like a cool barbecue, people got together and hung out while singing and eating the fleshy bits the Gods didn’t want (which just so happened to be the bits that taste the best to humans). People would come from all over to honor the Gods and have cook-out. It sounds like it was rad….

Religion, Socializing and Gods – Tabletop Curiosity Cabinet

Monster Difficulty Should Increase Slightly Faster Than Characters’ Abilities

September 18, 2021

8. “Race you can’t win rule.” The game’s monster difficulty should increase slightly faster than the advancement of the [character], given average stats and default equipment, so as to force him to rely upon items and tactics.

The reasoning here is that if the player doesn’t have to rely on randomly-found stuff then [that stuff becomes] unimportant to play. However, if it’s required to have specific items to be successful then many games will be outright unwinnable. The balance between these two poles is what makes random dungeon generation difficult, but it’s also part of what makes random dungeon gameplay interesting….

@Play: The Eight Rules of Roguelike Design – GameSetWatch

Good and Evil Are Moral Extremes

September 18, 2021

…[It] might just be that good and evil are moral extremes embraced by a select few. Good is prized because it’s laudable, not to mention rare. Evil is reviled because it does harm and threatens all others regardless of their philosophical bent. But neutrals predominate….

GOOD characters aren’t simply decent people. They’re philosophically committed to advancing good, fighting evil, and bringing justice to others. Indeed, their attentions are for others, and they act with deep compassion and mercy for the downtrodden. This is the questing white knight. The one beloved by good folk and resented by the wicked.

Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to do what it takes to get there, and herein lies the high regard champions are held in. Few want the job!

Shifting to Neutral (‘Cause Most of Us Are) – Pits Perilous

Druids Can Barely Live in Harmony With Each Other

September 17, 2021

Myth #3: Druids exist in harmony with all living things.

Druids can barely live in harmony with each other. These people are possessed by spirits of Nature, figuratively but also possibly literally. When one commune meets another, it is like two wolf packs catching sight of each other across the timber line. Sometimes there is murder. Sometimes there are “marriages”. Sometimes they exchange small bits of news and go on their way….

7 Myths Everyone Believes About Druids – Goblin Punch

The Sorcerer as Terrorist

September 17, 2021

…A sorcerer uses their arts and powers to live off peoples’ fear of them. In myths and folktales, from sources as widely spread apart as Russia’s koldun and the mangkukulam from my own country, the sorcerer or witch is depicted as making demands backed up by threats of curses, essentially blackmailing the community. In other words, terrorism….

The Sorcerer as Terrorist – Hari Ragat Games

Thank the gods for the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, else I could not have linked to the source blogpost.

Mud Is a Hazard that Is Totally Natural for RPGs

September 17, 2021

…Mud is a hazard that is totally natural for RPGs. Outdoor locations are extremely liable to be mud-spattered in rainy seasons, while underground locations with an earthen floor could, under sufficient flooding, turn into a quagmire not unlike those in Passchendaele. Particularly nasty is when the characters are caught in a torrential downpour and the area around them changes from fields into a swamp. The mud in Ypres was compared to the consistency of cheesecake, and soldiers would slowly sink in like quicksand….

…Armor is absolutely a disadvantage in these situations. A World War I soldier’s kit is fairly comparable in weight to a fully loaded fighter wearing plate armor; if a character in plate falls into sufficiently deep mud, they need to be pulled out or they will drown. Chain is less heavy and probably gives a better chance to get out, although the armor might be ruined by caked-on mud holding water close to spots that will then be rusted out….

…And mud is a great place to hide pretty much anything. It could be treasure that was once buried, or a door half-hidden by muck where opening it is a logistical challenge, or a floor now covered that holds a secret message….

Mud and Gas: Taking Inspiration from World War I – Semper Initiativus Unum

Encounters with Drovers

September 17, 2021

From the time of the Norman conquest to the middle of the last century, any traveller in Wales might find his way blocked by hundreds of cattle, large herds of sheep, pigs and flocks of geese….

Encounters with Drovers – Monsters and Manuals

Magic Is the Opposite of Banality

September 17, 2021

…[Magic] is the opposite of banality—try to use magic for banal ends and it will simply refuse to cooperate. If you want to illuminate for the next thousand years the hidden tomb of a dwarf lord buried with an artifact of great power, Continual Light is your friend! If you would instead like to spend your time lighting up street corners in the muggle village of your choice, the spell itself will tell you to go fuck yourself….

Let’s talk about Continual Light – RPGnet Forums