Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Fantastical Christendom Wargames Campaign

So what I have been working on developing is a fantastical Christendom wargames campaign. Emphasis on the word "Christendom." Why?

Well, interestingly, it seems to me that this should be fairly obvious, or assumed in the first published rules for fantastical medieval wargames campaigns, but it was and is not. So let me explain.

By the time Gygax and Arneson developed Dungeons and Dragons modern, "medieval fantasy" fiction had already grown in directions that attempted to divorce the Middle Ages from the church and religion that actually defined it, and, I think it could be fairly easily argued, made it possible.

Right now medieval fantasy is very popular. The "middle ages" or "dark ages" are not. They were too Christian! It is hard to believe it, but it is true. For over a millennium there was a culture and "society" on earth defined by a major religion: Christianity, and a single recognized authoritative institution: the church.

This is not popular because a.) Christianity is not popular in culture these days and b.) the "Christianity" that is most popular in modern, Western culture is not continuous with the Christianity of our Western Medieval inheritance. It sees itself, in fact, at times, as at odds with it. Let's just state this baldly for the record: it is "Evangelical" vs. "Traditional," at least in the inner-Christian culture wars. This does not help.

I think perhaps this fanned the flames of the fires of controversy in the early '80's about D&D. The Evangelicals that hated it were probably unaware of how their hatred was part of their anti-traditionalism and, again, to state it baldly, their anti-catholicism. Bummer.

But most non-religious or averagely-informed (is that a word)? folks who play D&D aren't even aware of the link. So let me make this clear. No (traditional, interesting, literarily and philosophically rich) Christianity, no middle ages. No middle ages, no medieval literature. No medieval literature, no medieval romance. No medieval romance, no medieval fantasy. No medieval fantasy, no D&D! Oh the beauty and simplicity of the logic!

I remember gaming one day and something came up about Christianity. But of course, in modern America "Christianity" for most means the popular, individualistic, anti-traditional Evangelical thing that is, well, fairly unique to North America despite its universalizing claims. So when I mentioned the link of D&D to medieval Romance and Christianity, I got a response from a fellow player something like "Christianity! Forget that! I don't want to have anything to do with that." I understood what he meant, in our American context. But I couldn't help it so I just said: "What are you talking about?" I pointed to all the iconography on the DM screen of paladins fighting demons and clerics turning undead and said," all that just is Christianity. Where do you think we got all this stuff from?"

D&D doesn't need a "Christian" version. It already is just insofar as it is trying to engage the classical medieval Western legendaria. There, I said it. That doesn't mean you are Christian for playing it. That doesn't mean your campaign or campaign world is very Christian. It does not mean you should be Christian to play it or enjoy it. It does not mean it will make you Christian to play it. It does not mean it will make you a bad Christian or no Christian at all if you do play it (we are past the '80's scare now, thankfully). All it means is that the tropes, metaphors, cliches and archetypes are all derived from the medieval project with its understanding of the nature of things, its myths and legends, its hopes and values, its Romantic and folk literature and tales, etc.

This really deserves a series of posts. But let me give the overview here.

Part of the medieval project of morality plays, allegories and Romances was that of building analogies in narratives for the Christian spiritual path (a spiritual path you do not have to be a Christian or even a believer in God to appreciate; even Jung and Campbell like it). Many of the over-arching narratives that became key archetypes and tropes within the medieval project have become definitive for what we now consider "medieval fantasy."

These over-arching categories and archetypes show up even in the names of the first three little brown digest sized books themselves: Men and Magic; Monsters and Treasure; Underworld and Wilderness Adventure. (Sadly, the beautifully obvious link to these tropes is lost in the later 1e name of the "core rule books," as the titles become far too driven by the practical use of the books themselves!)

A group of MEN (the adventuring party, broadly construed) must work together against all odds using what wonders they have available to them to make their way through a wonderful world. In ancient medieval morality plays, different virtues and vices (good and bad habits, addictions) were personified and portrayed by different actors. In the end, the virtues had to work together to defeat the vices. This "team effort" was the final integration of the (Christian) soul. Many fantastical things would happen along the way. "MAGIC," was all around.

The Hero (in this case, the adventuring party, taken as a whole) must descend unto the underworld, the very bowels of the earth. He will be surprised and confronted by many dangerous MONSTERS. He must defeat them, often slay them. When he does he will discover treasures hidden away for ages - TREASURES that truly belonged to him (or his civilization) that were stollen and hoarded by creatures who could not even appreciate them.

The UNDERWORLD is the "bowels of the earth." In the ancient and medieval Christian project, the bowels were the seat of our emotions and sometimes even the center of consciousness itself. But those guts can get all twisted up and sick. They are to be trusted, ultimately, when purged (I just had to go with my gut), for they are the source of our courage, our resolve (boy does he have guts!), but until purged they are not to be trusted for they are misleading (he's got no guts!) (I was over come by my passions!). So we have to go down there and purge out the monsters: the monstrous, the passions, the vices, the "skeletons in our closet." When we do, we find that most important resource: GOLD. And, as any good alchemist knows, this is the truest and most noble of metals, the metal which mystically corresponds to the purified soul on the one hand, and the rays of light of day on the other.

Once the Hero (again, the adventuring party working together as a virtuous team as a whole) has defeated the monsters in the bowels and regained his hidden treasures, he now has the wealth and acclaim necessary to do his next task: to raid the WILDERNESS and rid it of CHAOS. The wilderness is the realm of wandering devils and demons, the haunt of jackets and worse. What poor souls live in those desolate regions live in constant fear of the impinging chaos. The Hero conquers the even more dangerous demons of the wilderness, bringing LAW and order to the CHAOS and loss, reestablishing hope, renewing peace. He builds and maintains a stronghold - a place that makes other souls, weaker, less brave souls safe and sound as well. (Up to a 20 mile radius according to the rules!) These are the "wilderness wanderings" of the People of God (Law). This is the Dark Night of the Soul.

"ADVENTURE," of course, is another word for "Quest." And this is the Quest of the Knight Errant: the Christian warrior-soul conquering his own, internal demons first, so that he can be strong enough to help others conquer theirs.

I realize that what I am doing in trying to come up with a campaign setting that really engages this allegorical aspect of the legendaria is really what "DragonRaid" should or at least could have been. Less Evangelical, more classical, traditional. But that renders it unnecessary, of course. All the tropes are ready for exploration in the original game.

One of the problems with DragonRaid is the one-to-one allegory between the PC and a concrete Christian soul. But the allegory implicit in the traditional medieval fantasy, and therefore in D&D, is not a one to one player to one Christian allegory. Rather, the allegory is the adventuring party to a questing Christian soul. The party itself is so important (more posts to follow).

(So, in terms of my house-rules mechanics, coming up with balance between characters so that each represented a kind of virtue of the soul was important to me. I still wanted to make it that anybody could attempt just about anything. And that is where some of that complexity of my house-rules comes from!)

So, the subtitle of my house-rules "Dun Kells" document is "A Fantastical Christendom Wargames Campaign." Because, although "medieval" should say the same thing, it does not anymore. By claiming "Christendom" as the campaign context, I am making it clear that I am willingly trying to engage the more obvious over-arching Christian tropes of "medieval fantasy." But I did not use the word "Christian," but "Christendom." That buys me some distance so that I am not trying to game-i-fy anybody's religion. But explaining that and its importance is for another post!