Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lacuna Locurae: What is this fantasy/colonial thing?

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical sources to  inspire my thinking about the Lacuna Locurae setting, the island of Magyaru (on which one finds the Imperial port city of the same name). Now, loosely speaking, the Empire is an extension of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign, but there's a slippage in both style and chronology. Though we're dealing with sort of an "eternal now" approach, with characters from that setting moving back and forth between the campaigns, the "real" time frame is a few hundred years in the future. In European historical terms, we've moved from the medieval times to Renaissance/early-modern times. This is more an issue of technology, context, and tone than it is anything approaching historical accuracy. I'm not aiming to recreate European history, here, but to select elements of various colonial histories that I find interesting and useful for running a game. For this purpose, I've selected several broad models:

  • England
  • Spain
  • France
  • Rome
  • Ottoman Turkey
Again, the goal is not to make them historically accurate, but to cash in on the things that made those colonial powers, and the issues they faced, interesting. Some examples:

The three-headed monster that colonized the Americas (England, France, and Spain) provided some interesting fodder for the setting.
  • Conquest is about seeking riches. In the main, the Spanish were after gold and precious metals, but then established plantations for sugar, indigo, and other things. The French engaged in the fur trade for the same purpose. The English, by and large, cultivated tobacco as their main commodity, but had other commodities (sugar, etc.) in the Carribean.
  • There is a religious, missionary component. The Spanish and French were especially fervent in this regard, but religion was a strong part of the justification for colonization and conquest by all of the European powers. The Temple of Luz the Purifier has played a large part in financing and establishing this colony. They aim to preserve their influence here. Religion at the ground level also is burdened with the common people's folk superstitions and prejudices. Witches and wizards beware.
  • Relations with the native peoples are always a factor, and very complicated. In the real history, diseases brought by European powers to the Americas wiped out about 90% of the native indigenous populations. The idea that these areas consisted of howling wilderness was not true, at least until disease took its toll. In some cases, particularly with the French in the north, the colonists needed the indigenous peoples just as much as those peoples wanted the guns and tools provided by the colonial powers. There was some degree of mutual cooperation. However, they also played different groups of indigenous people off against each other; this dynamic sometimes was employed by the native peoples as well. The Spanish model was very different. Their nobility sought to get rich, establish repute, and aggrandize itself through conquest (and the acquisition of precious metals). They were often brutal and ruthless. Later, their missionaries moderated (to a limited extent) these practices, but not often and not enough. By that time, diseases had taken their toll. The English were, in a word, arrogant. They expected the natives to roll over for them, and the fact that they didn't was proof that conquest was necessary.
  • The lower classes had opportunities in the New World they didn't have in Europe. An English indentured servant, for example, could hope to receive an acreage in the colonies, to become a landowner. Land ownership policies in England (esp. "enclosure") had been eating away at this prerogative for many years. This was also reflected in the military, especially the navy.
  • Piracy became an issue (as is the use of privateers). The on-again/off-again wars between these powers provided a surplus of able-bodied seamen, and they gained experience with taking and plundering ships. When the wars were over, many employed those very particular skillsets for other purposes (i.e., piracy). The colonial powers all spent time stealing from each other, just as they stole from the New World's native peoples.
  • There's a level of lawlessness due to the tenuous control of the center over the periphery (though this varies over time, and due to circumstances). The competence, honesty, and loyalty of colonial governors, viceroys, etc., was not always assured, and this made life in the colonies somewhat chaotic in terms of how government got conducted. Further, there often were differences between "official" policies, especially toward other governments' colonies and the native peoples, and what those on the scene actually did. Later, this would result in rebellion over local control, taxation, etc.
  • The interests of the Church, the nobility, the Crown, the merchant classes and the commoners often run at odds with each other. This creates a great deal of internal tension. While the colonial Governor is, ostensibly in charge, power must be shared in order for the colony to thrive. How that sharing occurs is a matter of constant dispute, with the potential for violent disagreement simmering below a polite and respectful surface.
These are just a few of the Western European elements that I find useful as context for Magayru. Rome also provides great fodder.

My model of the native peoples of Magyaru springs more from Pictish/Gaelic roots than from the indigenous American peoples. In part this is because I'm fascinated by the Roman experience in Britain, as well as the interactions between the Vikings and the Britons. I'm also interested in "flipping" the usual visual imagery of colonialism. The "savage" native peoples in this setting are pale-skinned ("They look like demons!"), and the Imperials are more like Mediterranean Romans and Ottoman Turks. In my mind, Ur-Hadad of the Metal Gods universe is more closely associated with Turkey and Eastern Europe than with Tolkien's more Western/Northern European aesthetic. Mostly, this is cosmetic, I'll admit. However, I think it proves more jarring to may players who associate colonialism with an American model rather than a Roman model. I think the combination of the two is interesting and useful in fantasy/colonial role-play. Also, the "colonists" are from warm and sunny climes, and Magyaru is a cold, dark, and gloomy land, mountainous and covered in great forests, crisscrossed by rivers, and filled with ancient standing stones, barrows, and ruins. It is a far grimmer place.

Finally, there is my weird idea of Turkey/Hungary. To be clear, it is in this area that a diverge from history the most. I like the idea of a powerful ruler, a cultured and educated, cosmopolitan empire. A certain level of decadence combined with a sense of cultural superiority. In this sense, my Empire owe as much to Robert Howard's Hyperboria as it does to whatever historical sources I might be reading. It also owes much to Adam Muszkiewicz and my interpretations of Ur-Hadad as an idea (perhaps more than a place). Also, in the background, there is the history of the World that Went Before, which includes all manner of fantasy races and tropes, sorcery, and so forth. So, it's not Turkey and it's not Eastern Europe, but it does filtch heavily from aesthetic and other elements that might be found there.

Add on top of these things, and the Howardian influence, the presence of Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft, and you get a sense of where I'm trying to take this. I'm really enjoying playing in this sandbox, and seeing how the players interact with it and add to it. I think of this as an open world, and do my best to make sure the people who play in it are able to influence it.

Also, for our Zappadan offering, I offer this 1973 concert in Stockholm. Dig the grooviness of 1970s Sweden. Glorious!