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Author Topic: [TSoY 2nd] Free-ranging attributes of Near  (Read 10063 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: December 14, 2008, 11:17:07 PM »

Something Harald mentioned here reminded me of this thing I've been meaning to write about:

Near has some questions that are not answered very comprehensively in the canonical texts. This is just fine for me, and I'm going to make this explicit in my text. The following dimensions may be determined on a per-campaign basis, and I'll be adding sidebars where necessary to address how different choices will impact certain elements of the setting.
  • Development level: As the text has it, all of Near is at all but subsistence level. They don't even have money, not even the Ammeni. Regardless, I've witnessed and played a lot of games where this sort of "nuance" has been happily ignored, which convinces me to not push this point very strongly. In my book the Ammeni may range anywhere from early Assyrian to renaissance Italy in their level of development. I know that individual groups differ a lot in what sort of things they focus on (not the least because of the knowledge and interest bases of everybody involved), but at least at my table it's sort of important to have a sense for this stuff, as something like whether there are professional linguists in large cities (or whether there are large cities in the first place) is often something we want to figure out based on something else than a "rule of cool". While the basic relationships and elements of the game certainly work at almost all societal development levels, they will express themselves differently at different development levels. Also, scale - different levels of development often imply different scales, as saying something like "the Ammeni don't have cities, only port towns and large manors" says quite a bit about the imagined scale of Ammeni and Near in general.
  • Magic level: Just like development level, I see a lot of variation on how "flashy" and common magic is in people's games. I'm notoriously against utility myself, it's just not real magic to me if it's not difficult and awesome. The book will thus give the tools for going either way - how to deal with threecorner magic so that at least improvised workings will basically have to be done at a laboratory, how to describe Zu summonings so that Eero's brains don't start leaking out of his ears. Also, how common or uncommon rated equipment is or should be; individual games range between "all swords have a rating" and "if a sword has a rating, then it's magic".
This is similar to how Dogs in the Vineyard does not care about the level of supernatural an individual campaign will adopt, it's all good for the rules system. In practice I see the SG making these calls most of the time, but if the group finds it interesting to choose for themselves, that's all good. Some character concepts and such might be more believable with a certain sort of set-up as regards these dimensions.

Are there other "dimensions" of freedom I should take into consideration when doing my write-up? I was going to make the issue of how true the monomyth history of the Skyfire is into a dimension, but it's really not that, it's just a bunch of facts that might not prove so facty in actual play after all. Different peoples of Near will naturally have their own ideas of how it all went down. So I'm not looking here so much for places to insert soft truths, but for fundamental aspects of the setting that genuinely need to be addressed by either fixing them down or facilitating them in the way I'm planning to do for different levels of magic and development.
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dindenver
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« Reply #1 on: December 15, 2008, 07:40:34 AM »

Eero,
  I think the reason people sort of default back to a coin-based economy is that the economy of Near is not well documented in the rulebook. And to top it off, there is Key of Glittering gold to muddle the matters a bit...
  If you look at the text critically, you can see that Clinton is very careful to avoid any reference to money. But he doesn't actually say there is no money. And he definitely doesn't explain how merchants operate in these harrowing times.
  Also, its hard to imagine 200 (I have heard 100 and 300 as well) years have passed and people haven't reconstructed any of the old systems (meaning money and tech and what not). Honestly (and this is not a jab at the game or Clinton, I respect them both), the economics of TSOY feels more like a "reaction" to fantasy RPG tropes and less of a creative inspiration than any other part of TSOY.
  I think it would be a vast improvement if it was laid out that all trade is done via barter because no one respects any leader enough to assign any value to a coin with his face on it. Instead of pussy-footing around like we have now.

  As far as magic goes, I think the text does a decent job of conveying the rarity and oddity of magic in Near. But, I think this is just offset by the fact that every culture has a magic tradition (if you stretch magic to include the alchemy that the Ammeni have going on) and that the rules are so cool.

  Also, the technology of the setting is a little muddled. At points I get the feel that there is a real fight for survival/subsistence thing going on. But in other areas the book talks about printing presses and Demolitions. I understand that this is an uncertain age and that different areas will have access to different levels of technology. But the difference in technology and rarity is not very well addressed. for instance:
1) Can we expect a village to have access  to some of the higher levels of tech (watch making, demolitions), or is this reserved to cities with higher concentrations of people, wealth and central authority?
2) Can we expect one village to have a medium level of tech (whatever that is) and its adjacent neighbor to be bereft of even basic knowledge like irrigation?
3) Are all the cities relatively high tech because of the concentration of people? How rare is the exception?
4) Are there fantasy metropolises? Even in the dark ages London was around 1 million people (before the plague obviously). Is there a confluence of events (trade routes, good harvests, infrastructure, etc. To support urban sprawl at this level in Near?
5) What is the length and breadth of naval technology? For instance, can they leave sight of shore?

  For instance, reading the book, I can't answer these questions. I can make up answers. And something tells me Clinton would be happy if I did, but I think that this philosophy hinders communication between players.
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Dave M
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: December 15, 2008, 02:56:36 PM »

These are the questions I plan to address, but not particularly by nailing them down, but by confessing to flexibility regarding them. Personally I like the pre-financial economic state of Near, but realistically that would mean losing many specialized, cool social functions that Maldorians and Ammenites would benefit from. So my personal preference is for Maldor and Ammeni to be relatively highly developed, while the rest of the world can muck about with barter.

The value of coins is not in the seigniorage (royal stamp), by the by, but in the precious metal they are made of. So we can have situations where people already have "money" in the sense of respecting a particular metal as a common trade good, while they don't have actual standardized coins to account for the weight of the metal. This is how the vikings had it for a while, and perhaps it's how Khaleans trade now.

But considering how I'm not planning to splurge on loving essays about the economical details of Near, in practice it's every group for themselves in regards to the less important issues. Just look at the cultures and issues you're really going to use in the game and make the appropriate choices for those.
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dindenver
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« Reply #3 on: December 16, 2008, 08:26:33 AM »

Eero,
  Two followup questions:
1) If Ammeni has little to no metal, what do they use for money? I agree with you that they could/would be culturally advanced enough to use money as opposed to barter. But, what would they use as coinage?
2) I think it would be beneficial (if for nothing more than giving Key of Glittering Gold some context) to define what each culture sees as wealth. I mean how much more interesting would it be if the Qek measured wealth as how many wives a character has as an example? I feel like you might be over thinking it. I don't think you have to come up with a whole ecology of Near economics, but a one sentence description could change this game profoundly.
  I hope you don't feel like I am harping on you, its just one aspect of the game that has been difficult for me to reconcile and convey to my groups (I am running two games both starting this week).
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Dave M
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oliof
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« Reply #4 on: December 16, 2008, 01:29:43 PM »

In Ammeni, debts are tattooed on your forehead by an alchemical ink only the appropriate money lender has the formula to make the dye go away. Ammenites never take debts lightly, and this procedure is a reason why 'trade arrangements' and 'partnerships' are usually preferred.

Trying to find out how to undo an alchemical debt tattoo is one of the many ways to make your life full of various dangers, of course. People who are often in debt are also known as "Bleakheads" since their facial skin and hair turns into a sick greyish color over time.

Ammenites have learned not to give debt tattoos to Elves about a generation ago.
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dindenver
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« Reply #5 on: December 16, 2008, 02:07:19 PM »

Harald,
  That is wild, but it doesn't really cover large purchases with cash on hand. What is that cash?
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Dave M
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #6 on: December 16, 2008, 05:13:30 PM »

My call would be to go with the sensible choices in this regard. And the sensible choice pretty clearly is metals - rare or not, they can't be so rare as to not be available for being used as money. Also, if the rest of the world (Maldor, mostly) runs on the gold standard, good luck using your money for the most important purpose of long-distance trade if it's not the same stuff. Different monetary economies only exist in disconnected environments.

So I'd be inclined to interpret the scarcity of metals in Ammeni as scarcity of mining and bulk materials suitable for making tools and weapons of. Gold and other noble materials will make the rounds even if they're originally dug out of the ground in Goren or wherever. Or heck, if metals are for some reason super-uncommon in the whole eastern Near (remember that Khaleans go for wooden weapons, too) due to metal-eating groundworms or whatever, then I guess the currency of choice could be iron.

Of course, even if there is money in the form of metals, and even some primitive seigniorage by the most ambitious lords, that doesn't mean that wealth is held in such an uncertain and fragile form. Rather, I imagine that wealth in Ammeni is in land and slave ownership propped up by men whose loyalty you have bought. Similarly, the mostly barter-based Khalean economy probably recognizes noble metals, which are used to make jewelry and for convenient bartering materials. But wealth will be tribe-based and communal, with most of it invested in the living conditions and tools of survival - the prosperous tribe will have good clothes, nice homes, good tools for farming and hunting and even some bronze or steel weapons.

Also, good stuff on debts, Harald. To be clear, I think that being definite and avoiding ambivalence is a virtue at the level of the individual campaign. That's what setting-ownership, one of the SG duties, is for. So while I might not write many definite details in the book, that's definitely not to say that such details are to be avoided in actual play. Rather, consider those unanswered questions as opportunity to make your own choices whichever way you find interesting.
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oliof
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« Reply #7 on: December 17, 2008, 01:40:17 AM »

Yes, this is of course an idea that just might be the thing for one campaign. For Ammeni, I can also see letters of trust or simple contract work; maybe even scraps of paper painted with alchemic inks for paper money.
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #8 on: December 17, 2008, 11:41:29 AM »

So, almost completely by accident the Ammeni in my games have almost always had a huge element of the early medieval South-East Asian empires (mostly Srivijaya, or the Khmer).

Partially as a result of that, Ammenite trade was almost always based on spices as much as metals, with different types of spices having a more or less fixed value per weight. (In the early stages of the Spice Route the market fluctuations weren't really a huge factor, it wasn't until the mass scale trading of the early modern period that became a problem.) The truly wealthy had gold, mostly brought in by trading spices outwards, but most merchants and internal matters were done in "spice weights" -- even when the exchange of actual spices wasn't at issue.

Which brings me to something else, Eero. Development level is one of the areas I'd love a side bar on, and tied to it but separate is trade level. How much do the people of Near trade with each other? Internally? Externally? Who knows what about who, and how far do merchants trade goods?

Like, in the real world, nutmeg from the Banda islands was known as far as France by 100 BC, despite the fact that no one in the Bandas had ever heard of France and the Gauls had no clue the Bandas even existed. But someone from the Bandas (probably a small group of someones) knew about Java, and Java knew about Sumatra, and Sumatra had some kind of tie to India, and so on and on. OTOH, at the same period of history folks from Rome had direct literate contact with China, and knew pretty accurately about the land route from whence came their silk.

So, who trades? And in what? And how far? And how much cultural contact and exchange goes along with it?
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- Brand Robins
Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #9 on: December 17, 2008, 08:07:02 PM »

Quite so, Brand. I'm going to be adding some minor crunch for the Ammeni to develop and maintain trade routes, so there'll certainly be material related to that. In general the specifics again fall largely into the "depends on the campaign" box for me, as it depends on the campaign which cultures - and therefore, which trade routes - are pertinent. If I want a city that is the nexus of trade between the Goren and Ammeni, I'm very well going to have it.
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #10 on: December 18, 2008, 12:27:58 PM »

Eero,

After my last post I went and read the Qek playtest and laughed, thinking to myself "So I see Eero was already all over that."

Another development index that I'd like a sidebar about is centralization and legalization of authority. It makes a big different in a game if there are existing authority structures, and how much weight (both in terms of force and moral jurisdiction) those authorities have. Like, I've seen this go a bunch of different ways in TSOY games: from Ammenite games (yes, we play a lot of Ammenites) where there is a very powerful central authority, located in the houses, to Khale games with bardic lorespeakers and blood-price being the default of the law.

It often ends up being an important axis, because how much and how quickly the characters will take the law into their own hands, and what methods they have to use the law and the system to persecute each other, depends a lot on what the system is like. If you've got nothing but the strength of your sword arm and the swords of your brothers you'll end up with a very different game then one where you're a lesser member of a great house that jealously guards all control over crime and punishment.

The one game in Maldor I played (briefly) ended up hosed because we didn't communicate well about this. Two of the players built characters understanding the setting to be strongly feudal, with lesser justice belonging to the local nobility and greater justice belonging to the royalty (whoever happened to have the power to claim such title at the moment), and the other player built his character understanding the world to be survivalists in local bands eeking a lawless existence out of the wilderness. And while a setup like that doesn't have to go bad, in our case it did because as soon as things got out of scope of the immediate character group, there were endless frustrations over how the rest of the world should/could/would respond.
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- Brand Robins
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« Reply #11 on: December 19, 2008, 01:34:25 AM »

Brand, Eero,
I get the impression that playing in Maldor is actually the hardest thing for all of us since there the free-ranging nature is expressed here most. "War-torn pseudo feudal society tries to resurrect itself, in danger of self destruction" is maybe just to broad a sketch to get people hooked on specifics as contrary to some of the very tangible elements in Khale or Ammeni, and even Qek which, even if it is just more of a footnote in the original book, evokes some strong ideas with just a little prodding.

Maybe this needs a separate topic to discuss, but it ties in nicely in the aborted attempts of play I heard about, Daves questions about the validity of the myth of the maldorian empire, and my lack of vision for the maldor-based game I run (although we have a nice holiday-season cliffhanger right now).
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shadowcourt
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« Reply #12 on: February 25, 2009, 06:50:38 AM »

I am *extremely* late to the party here (so much so that I'm almost as rudeness levels of topic-bumping, for which I apologize... it's been a crazy three months at work), but I thought I'd throw in my two cents, as this is a fairly interesting topic, and one my own house games have had fairly good success with.

First, in terms of the non-metallic nature of Ammeni, my own games have weighed heavily towards the spice-trade culture which Brand talks about, but have gone even further into the mercantile model. It's been a personal conceit of mine that Maldor and Ammeni were almost Renaissance cultures before the Skyfire, and are less medieval now than Renaissance-after-the-bomb as they try and resurrect themselves. As such, our Ammenite Houses have endorsed scrip in many occasions, as:
a.) plant matter is plentiful, and paper-making isn't really hard in marshy, lush Ammeni
b.) most people can't read, so forgery isn't an immediate threat to promissory notes and the like
c.) Ammenite culture is already highly procedural and invested in the idea of the relatively stability of the Houses and their trade relationships. As such, this faith in the Houses translates into a greater comfort with the idea that a House can back its own debts, or else will be likely cannibalized by the others. The cutthroat philosophy also ensures that a House is eager to collect on its own debts, and won't be stiffed by people without suitably mutilating or murdering the appropriate parties. When the tax collectors are also trained torturers, people don't shirk their obligations so easily.

We also played around with the idea of ceramic coinage which was more transferrable and floating in the open market. I think that as long as its backed by the Houses, and relatively hard to fabricate by your average joe, you've got a moderately stable economic choice for Ammeni.

Elsewhere, in Maldor, there's an odd mixture of ultra-poverty serfdom and the relative land-wealth and occasional metal-wealth of the Maldorite Lords. Your average village peasant engages in barter most often, and lives agriculturally. In places where there are large enough communities, Maldorite lords who have high pretensions of themselves as Absolonic figures sometimes strike their own coins, but the reality is that there's still a decent amount of coins from the Old Empire floating around, kept particularly valuable both by the fact that they're made of precious metals (silver, gold, etc.) and also by the Maldorite obsession with their own past and history, making them collector's items which sometimes exceed their own metal value. This results in a lopsided, quasi-stable economy at best, but that's not really a bad thing for a fractured Maldor.

I'm surprised to hear that people have a hard time playing in Maldor, though. Has there been much aborted play there? I've had pretty successful games set there, and I'm fairly keen on using it in the future, particularly grittier than I did it last time. My last Maldorite campaign was a port town which had a moderately high level of societal stratification, and I found myself missing peasant politics and the potential for a classic "Robin Hood" style game, with cruel lords taxing the common folk heartlessly and the constant fear of conscription against a neighboring Lord you couldn't care less about.

-shadowcourt (aka Josh)
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