Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bloody Marvelous

Only a few days ago I wrote about guilds, and made comment about the staggering change in productivity that led their demise.  Then, last night, I sat down with my copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, intending to bone up for the Economics essay I'll write sometime in the future ... and found this, first page, Book 1.  I'd forgotten it was there:

"To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade, nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations ; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another ; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper ; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day."


A very weak part of modern historiography has begun a vast rewrite of various persons and events without this in mind ... insisting, instead, that human beings have always been the same, and that they have always perceived the world in the same way, regardless of technological or cultural innovation.  In popular culture this manifests itself in ridiculous presentations of historical figures as ludicrously fore-sighted, often liberal or sympathetic creatures, such as Spartacus' speeches from Kubrick's movie of the same name, or the recent insistence that Marie Antoinette was really a nice person and deserved none of the damning rhetoric about her.  That such opinions should hold in films is de rigueur ... the audiences are modern, even if the figures are not.  But when it comes about that serious books are written to defend positions like this, it demonstrates the cognitive dissonance of the historian's profession, that can preach the commonality of rewriting history for the sake of the winners while in the same breath rewriting history to satisfy the social mores of those who donate to university coffers.

I titled my last post Racism in the hopes of prodding a bit of discomfort among my gentle readers - but I saw no evidence, which in fact encourages me to believe that political correctness does not have the pull that the media suggests.  I should have called the post something along the lines of Genetic And Geographical Considerations Regarding Chromatic Distinctions As Applied To D&D Characters.

(forgive me, I'm reading War And Peace and Wealth of Nations; I'm stuck in an era two and three centuries ago)

But since the question hasn't come up, I'll pose it:  Is the game responsible for restraining ideas like racism, sexism, child abuse, rape, cannibalism or other such activities consistent with the course of historical behaviors?  Would you allow any of them, or others, in your game?

If a character decided that his particular interest was picking whores off the streets, fucking them, beating them within an inch of their lives and then paying them on the way out the door, would you make an express effort to A) hoist them out of your campaign; B) ensure very quickly that some game karma was turned around on the player; C) make streetwalkers extraordinarily hard to find; D) calmly look the other way with the recognition that, "Well, that was fairly common"; or E) would you calmly ensure there was a streetwalker visibly available for the character every time he drifted into town?

When you read the title of this post, no doubt the gentle reader assumed I meant the fortuitous discovery of Adam Smith's point ... but now I would imagine that same title seems a bit uncomfortable, now.

I want to say that thirty years ago, playing the game with boys much younger than I am now (and being a boy much younger than I am now), killing women and children, raping, burning things down just to hear the screams of the victims inside ... those were fairly common elements of a ordinary Friday evening session.  There's something about human beings that encourages us to explore the darker sides of our nature.  Anyone who's put a lot of chairs and fireplaces into a home in the Sims knows that.  Incidentally, doesn't seem to work as well in Sims 2 ... but the microwave is a death trap, as always.

If we can do it in video games, why not D&D?  Everything else about VGs gets co-opted for RPG's, so why shouldn't the whole range of human behavior be casually explored?  Only, the horrors we can commit with VGs are limited to what the programmers mistakenly (or intentionally) allow past the radar ... while human imagination is not quite so limited.  So if Genghis Khan (and others) have enjoyed their success through the heaping of tens of thousands of human corpses for the purpose of see what flames be made from human skin and oil, why shouldn't my slightly deranged character?

For the same reasons, I suppose, that we don't join groups in bars that chatter about things like that.  Nerds and geeks are possessed with the same reluctance to embrace sick, psychotic behavior as anyone else, and having a player slavering at the table for descriptions from the DM about how much blood they've managed to squeeze from the whore's (deleted) does tend to make all present wonder about Johnny's other, non-RPG-related proclivities.   So let's not invite Johnny back, hm?  Better yet, let's tell Johnny we've all moved.

I'll be honest, I don't have to police this one.  My own imagination is worse than my players (as some of the above should show), and I am fine with restraining myself.  The players have done some questionable things, like butchering a hundred orc women and children for no reason, when they found a village where all but the very old and the very young had gone off to war.  But such behavior gets cat-calls and abuse from the women members of the group (which the male members are in relationships with), and things get sorted out.  I've always thought a DM ought not to get involved in the squabbles of players.

But I'd run the other if players were willing ... for a time.  It can be, honest, very 'bloody' marvelous, taken in short bits.

At some point, that sort of hedonism tends to wear, as the effort to be more and more demented becomes a very tired point.  I have the Marquis de Sade's writings for excess being done well (I recommend Juliette), and frankly I'd rather run a party interested in construction rather than destruction.  A greater challenge, better conflicts, and overall a sense of accomplishment that cannot be achieved in wallowing.

Which is not to say that if construction cannot be done upon many, many corpses.  Some of which, it must be said, might be less ... virginal ... than they were previously.

See?  I am not out to lunch.  Given this sort of distinction regarding production, you cannot base any economic system applying to pre-Industrial history by post-Industrial standards.  Like every other aspect of D&D, from culture to religion to politics, the game designer must think differently, and not within 20th century frameworks.  The present has come about due to technological innovations which did not exist, and therefore can not be assumed to have had an impact, on earlier human behavior.

5 comments:

James C. said...

F) I'd neither be immediately appalled nor particularly interested. I'd be boooooored.

I personally have as much interest in exploring a player's rape and murder fantasies as I do in exploring their shoe fetish or keen interest in always speaking elvish, in character. This is a game folks. A shared experience. Be interesting. Advance my enjoyment as well as your own or leave.

A recent post on another blog discussed how, in group play, the author dealt with annoying or intolerable players, as a player. I have my own methods. I don't play with them. D&D is like a small dinner party of intimates or a dark, quiet corner at a pub to me. You share it with worthwhile people or it becomes less worthwhile itself.

To quote the author:

"... frankly I'd rather run a party interested in construction rather than destruction."

James C. said...

To offer my opinion on the first part of your question, "Is the game responsible for restraining ideas like racism, sexism, child abuse, rape, cannibalism or other such activities consistent with the course of historical behaviors?"

No, the game isn't. The game is only bound by the imaginations and interests of its players. The publishers? The industry? Absolutely.

Padre said...

"Is the game responsible for restraining ideas like racism, sexism, child abuse, rape, cannibalism or other such activities consistent with the course of historical behaviors? Would you allow any of them, or others, in your game?"

No the game is not. The environment created for play is the shared work of the players and the GM who provides a setting with numerous choices, those that were prepared and those that were unanticipated.

"If a character decided that his particular interest was picking whores off the streets, fucking them, beating them within an inch of their lives and then paying them on the way out the door, would you make an express effort to A) hoist them out of your campaign; B) ensure very quickly that some game karma was turned around on the player; C) make streetwalkers extraordinarily hard to find; D) calmly look the other way with the recognition that, "Well, that was fairly common"; or E) would you calmly ensure there was a streetwalker visibly available for the character every time he drifted into town?"

F) An STD that makes AIDS seem like a pimple. In all seriousness, it would depend upon the makeup of the group in terms of players and also the particular setting they were playing. While I would prefer that they not, I would not necessarily try to curtail their actions. It would also depend on how well I knew the players. I can handle players engaging is what we would consider evil behavior today if I already know them to be a decent person outside of the game. However, if all Barney can talk about after playing is how he got another dead-whore notch on his belt, I doubt I'd invite him to play much longer. I am sure I have more to say, but I have babbled enough.

Sigilic said...

If you were checking to see whether gentle readers scan further than the first and last ...

well, yes, we do. when we read this blog.

mizeri: oddly apt to the topic.

shimrod said...

Good post. When I was a teenager I played in a few games with such elements, most of it the sort of juvenile antisocial wish fulfillment you see a lot of gamers report. An imaginitive alternative to blowing up frogs with firecrackers. Mostly it was a couple of dumb kids, though there was one adult I briefly played with whose homebrewed variant of Runequest/Stormbringer included such useful entries on the character sheet as c*** depth/c*** length, and found uses for them in his game.

As an adult the only games I've played which had sadism and serious player-driven brutality as significant features were World of Darkness. The context of it being a Horror game seemed to put it in a different light. We had the conceit that we were exploring dark themes as dramatic elements. When we've had evil characters in D&D, we've dealt with torture or other wickedness briefly; rather than lingering on the details. As adults no one's trying to gross out everyone else, and there's less boundary-pushing.

If I wound up with a player who wanted to linger on those details, I think how I'd handle it would depend on the comfort level of the group. If it was done in such a way that was skeeving people out, it'd be an interpersonal issue and I'd discuss it with them as a person. If it was distracting from the game elements the rest of the group preferred, I'd limit the time spent on it. Nasty consequences ensuing would depend on the nature of the game and the character's precautions taken to avoid them.