Thursday, February 5, 2015

Changing Stations

First thing's first: congrats to the New England Patriots for their win in the Super Bowl. The dark elves took advantage of our injury-laden defense to take the lead in the 4th quarter, but it was the great play by undrafted rookie, Malcolm Butler that really snatched victory from the Seahawks. MVP Tom Brady (who was out-dueled by Russell Wilson for most of the day...even with the last minute pick, Wilson finished with a higher QBR and passer rating) was nice enough to give his free pick-up truck (the MVP prize) to Butler for his part in helping Tom achieve another championship ring.

[I know a lot of Seahawks fans...including myself...were distressed at the passing play called on 2nd down at the end of the game that led to Butler's interception. However, it wasn't a terrible call to pass due to the time remaining in the game. The more egregious issues was the burning of time outs leading up to that play, the specific play-call itself, AND the execution of the play by the players. In this regard, it was much more of a "team fail" than the fault of a single offensive coordinator]

Dark elves: smart, if sometimes underhanded. to the gaming stuff. Kind of.

I've been thinking a lot about princes and princesses the last few days. Princesses especially. As the father of a small girl-child (she's nine months old), the amount of clothing and toys and books and whatnot aimed as little girls that is "princess-themed" is just...ugh. Ugh.

[Lego actually has a line of "girl-oriented" sets that are NOT princess themed and that explore a lot of cool female characters, but A) they're a bit old for either of my children at this point, and B) I've never been big into Lego. But I might go that way if the market looks the same five years from now. Those Monster High dolls are still "princesses," just ones of the horror variety]

In a way, I suppose, it's a triumph of creativity that people can continue to find ways to rehash the princess theme...Disney's made their bread and butter on variations of the princess film for decades.

[by the way, I know we all love Pixar, but out of their fourteen feature films we have exactly one with a female protagonist? That would be Merida of the film Brave...and, yes, she's a princess]

ANYway...while princesses and princes and their travails are well-known in fantasy fiction (fairy tales, film, literature), they don't appear all that much in least not as playable character types. Being a member of royalty? Not really an option in D&D. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of the "adventuring thing:" your characters are supposed to be poor folk (well, poorer folk) out seeking their fortunes in the wide, dangerous world. The player characters may aspire to join the ranks of nobility by achieving great wealth (and being granted lands and titles upon reaching sufficient level) but the chances they'll ever become royalty themselves are pretty slim.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty strange considering the wealth of fantasy and folklore involving this exact subject which (presumably) D&D and its ilk is somewhat drawn from. Whether you're talking about Perseus or Cinderella or King Arthur or Aragorn or Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper or Shrek, there's always someone changing their station from commoner/outsider to royal ruler. Changing one's station (for the better) is often the objective of the story or a driving force of the plot, generally through a combination of their own actions/decision-making and the (authorial) Hand of Destiny. More than half of the stories that make up the "Disney Princess" franchise incorporate one person (either the princess herself or her male love interest) being elevated to the ranks of royalty through marriage.

But that was the fairy tale. In the pre-modern era, there wasn't a whole lot one could do to change one's birth mobility was a lot more difficult and the amount of movement (up or down) much smaller. And to be in the echelons of the wealthy and pampered (I think nearly all humans, at one time or another have wished for the comfort that comes with money) being royalty...or at least nobility...was really the only way to go. Most wealth was derived from being a land-owner, something restricted to the upper ranks, and while one could (and did) go pillage a richer town or nation for an extra cash infusion, such actions were generally under the purview of those who could afford to hire a fighting force, i.e. the same royal/noble folks deriving money from their lands.

The premise of D&D certainly falls on the more "magical" end of the story spectrum (rather than the "historical"), providing a means of achieving wealth other than soaking the peasants and tenants for taxes: treasure-finding. But this idea...of finding and securing secret or hidden pretty anachronistic. It is a 19th century concept, based in stories like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Christo...stories in which characters were able to elevate their station by digging up sufficient hidden wealth (through their courage and ingenuity) that others were unable to do. In a way, it is allegorical of the increase in social mobility (or what we might call today "The American Dream") through "hard work." But that's not the standard fantasy fare associated with magic and fairies and dragons.

[even though one might find a pot of gold or golden goose or dragon hoard in an old fairy tale, it was usually only a means to an using it to buy into the royal family (i.e. marrying the princess) and becoming royalty]

People might believe that "treasure-hunting" is as old as the colonization...that 16th century conquistadors were looting lost tombs and ancient temples for treasure. Such was not the case...what the Spanish engaged in was the same type of war and conquest that Europeans had waged against each other since before Roman times. The treasure being pulled from the New World was not "lost" or "secret" but booty and plunder of the same type the Templars brought back from the Middle East. It was wealth taken from living nations and living people, not gold secreted in hidden caves and subterranean passages.

No, the idea of discovering "non-owned treasure" like that from a buried pirate chest or being held by an illegitimate owner (dragons and monsters and brigands) is a 19th (and early 20th) century's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, not Beowulf. It's a modern fairy tale placed in a pseudo-medieval setting, a strange juxtaposition upon reflection, and perhaps the reason I find the premise of D&D so at odds with my idea of what fantasy (in the fairy tale-esque sense) "should" be.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to catch-up on the most recent Downton Abbey episodes.
; )

[sorry this took a couple days to starts again on the 16th and I should have more time for blogging then]


  1. You are gracious and magnanimous. I am truly heartened by your recap of the super bowl! I thought for sure we wouldt see you for a month or more!

    As a long time patriots fan who watched the game with a mixture of patriot haters, Seahawks fans, and pink hats there for a party, it was a gloomy scene at the end there. I appreciate you coming back so quickly afterwards.

    By the way, Seahawks are 5-1 favorites to win it next year ^_^

  2. On the topic of treasure hunting, you are correct that most of it historically was wealth taken from the hands of real people. However there is an historical antecedent to the buried and secret lost treasure trope. After the Black Death in Europe, trade diminished. Especially in England, the mercantile system meant that there was less use for coins. People thought of them as valuable, but couldn't use them. So they buried them in the ground or in the walls of their homes. Even today in England, three or four hoards of roman and newer coins are dug up by hobbyists and builders every year.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. @ Alexis:

      I am very familiar with the Arabian Nights tales. However, while there are certainly individual protagonists that find wealth in the tales, I'm hard-pressed to recall a single one who sets out to find treasure in order to change his/her station except and with regard to marrying a princess. Even Ali Baba and Sinbad (who do discover hidden wealth in the "adventurer" sense) only return to the state from which they originally fell (both being merchant sons who lost/squandered their fortune).

  4. Don't forget that there are also quite a few fairy tales that kill off characters that try to change stations (take the original Little Mermaid, for example). Disney gave a lot of those stories happy endings that just don't exist in the originals.

    Tomb raiding is an ancient practice. Yes, it wasn't for the purpose of becoming a prince, but people have been hunting for treasure for a LONG time.

    Finally, D&D is at its best in a post-apocalyptic or frontier setting where station really doesn't mean squat.

    1. D&d is by its nature post apocolyptic. All that buried treasure. The people who put it there are long gone. The means to get it easily through normal life are gone. What got rid of them? Something.

  5. I think that I generally agree that wealth, in and of itself, was not able to, generally, change a person's station in the time before the rise of the Middle Class in the wake of industrialization (though it could help, as you note, by opening doors of access not available to the poor), treasure seeking is certainly a part of many mythic cycles and magical practices from a very early date. There's a whole genre of magical rituals to find hidden treasure dating back as far as we have records of magical rites, for example, and contrary to what you say about Beowulf, a substantial part of early Medieval literature (see, for example, the Rheingold) is about the movement and (generally violent) transfer of caches of treasure. Beowulf itself ends with the dragon slain and:

    "Next the wise son of Weohstan
    called from among the king's thanes
    a group of seven: he selected the best
    and entered with them, the eighth of their number,
    under the God-cursed roof; one raised
    a lighted torch and led the way.
    No lots were cast for who should loot the hoard
    for it was obvious to them that every bit of it
    lay unprotected within the vault,
    there for the taking. It was no trouble
    to hurry to work and haul out
    the priceless store.…"

    This is, I think, because those stories developed in a background of looting-based economy in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire. Which, of course, relates to the assumed background of D&D, where a sort of timeless vista combining elements of the early and later Medieval periods anachronistically is the general background. There's probably a discussion to be had there, where the assumptions that hidden treasure can be taken by roving bands of heroes collide with the rise of Feudalism (not to mention the presumption of a naive Capitalism, where "money" has an assumed value in itself instead of being a contextual medium of exchange) and create a pretty unstable background. Maybe finding a way to rationalize those elements is in order…

    1. @ Faol:

      I would say that the movements of treasure caches in these stories seem incidental to the real story. If you’re just examining the Nibelungenlied legend (rather than the 19th century Wagner opera), the treasure that Siegfried acquires from a dragon is a minor note, save that it gives our hero the wealth he needs to woo (King) Gunther’s sister…a princess. The looting of the dragon hoard in Beowulf in a denouement to the main story: the dragon is ravaging the countryside and our hero (as king) has a duty to stop it; Big B doesn’t go into the lair looking for treasure.

      While I agree with Fr. Dave that “looting and plundering was an ancient practice,” the concept of treasure seeking to rise in status (i.e the basic premise of D&D) is a pretty modern concept, and (upon reflection) one that seems strange in a traditional “medieval fantasy” sense. Not that we are using the game to recreate the morality tales of several centuries past, but we’re placing modern sensibilities on our (allegedly) pre-modern setting.

      I suppose I'm being too nit-picky: D&D certainly draws as much (or more) from the pulpy S&S fantasy of Robert Howard as from tales of King Arthur. I guess I just think it strange how MUCH the one is emphasized over the other, given the general premise of fantasy folklore.

    2. The more I think about the Nibelungenlied specifically, actually, the more I think that finding the treasure increases the social status of the finder. The treasure is the driving force behind much of the action in the poem, since Kriemhild spends the whole second half trying to both get the treasure back and get revenge for Siegfried's murder. But, importantly, because Siegfried won the treasure in the first place, he was on a social level with Gunther and so able to marry Kriemhild. That becomes a plot point, in fact, when Brünhild thinks that Kriemhild has been married off to one of Gunther's vassals (and so beneath Brünhild's station), but Kriemhild puts her in her place by producing the belt and ring and calling her Siegfried's concubine.

      I do think that there is a later period where treasure-seeking isn't a way for rovers to rise in status, and that is the later medieval period that most people think of when they think of "medieval times", but the disposition of treasure hoards is significant in the early medieval period that includes the so-called "Migration Era" and so on.

    3. @ Faol:

      Certainly something had to lead to the establishment of royalty in the first place. But such ain't your usual D&D story.
      ; )

    4. Well, not the way it ended up being played, but there's all the implied "endgame" that seems to point to it being the original point of the game/story. Heck, in BECMI/Cyclopedia it became a significant goal to pursue. OD&D and AD&D included a lot of notes toward that "endgame", as well.

      In a way, it's like people who play Monopoly without auctions. Certainly there is still a game there, but it isn't nearly as satisfying as the one that was written. In the case of D&D, it's maybe even still fun (perhaps even more so for some), but it makes the central premise of the game-as-written distorted.