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"Decolonizing D&D"

vitruvian

Registered User
Validated User
It's not that it wasn't purely religious, it's that I don't think it was predominantly religious.

Yes, he was also a priest. But does this matter? Al-Baghdadi and Mullah Omar were warlords, and MbS is a straight-up royal; in the Islamic world the only state with rule by actual clerics is Iran. Modern Western dystopian fiction centering around theocracy goes back and forth on whether the rulers are actual preachers or just some rando politicians - I forget which side The Handmaid's Tale is on, but in the V for Vendetta film the chancellor is a politician.
Was he still a priest? Yes, and in a more distinct sense than the Julian emperors were priests due to the pontifex title. So, theocracy.

I'm objecting to adding criteria that aren't in the definition of the term, so I guess in favor of categorizing things by definition rather than by prototype or exemplar. You seem to want to exclude anything that's not a prototype or exemplar of how dystopian theocracies are represented in fiction.

Also, I would say that priests are still priests even when they are also politicians (for that matter, there are probably politics involved even when a church or priesthood doesn't claim any temporal authority outside its own organization), or even when they are venal or corrupt. So, pre-Reformation Catholic priests with incomes from indulgences and not-so-secret mistresses and families, and continually sinning and covering up or begging for forgiveness pastors like a certain Mr. Baker (sic?) or certain fictional examples, can still be regarded as priests and societies or states in which they hold the reins of power regarded as theocracies, even if not the particular type that is most prevalent in fiction. Basically, any rule by priests where the role of priest is not entirely or almost entirely ancillary to the power of the ruler(s) qualifies - so no, I wouldn't qualify the classical Roman Empire, or England once Henry made the King the titular head of the Church of England but still let that church be run mostly by the bishops so long as they didn't tick him off, as theocracies, but the Papal States even (or especially) when the Pope commanded armies, I would.
 

Lukas Sjöström

Society of Unity scholar
Validated User
Basically, any rule by priests where the role of priest is not entirely or almost entirely ancillary to the power of the ruler(s) qualifies - so no, I wouldn't qualify the classical Roman Empire, or England once Henry made the King the titular head of the Church of England but still let that church be run mostly by the bishops so long as they didn't tick him off, as theocracies, but the Papal States even (or especially) when the Pope commanded armies, I would.
I think this is key to the concept. In a theocracy, the way to achieving temporal power is through the religious hierarchy. Other societies might assign priestly roles to its leaders (such as your examples, Germanic or Celtic ideas of kingship, the pharaohs, etc), but the priestly title is not the reason they rule. As for the papacy at its most corrupt, I'd classify it as a dysfunctional theocracy, just like there can be dysfunctional hereditary monarchies where the order of succession is set aside because of frequent coups, dysfunctional democracies where all power really rests with a small elite, etc. However, I'd still consider these examples of their form of government, since that's the ideal they aspire to -- they just fail to do so. Alexander VI might have been made pope because of his uncle, but it still happened within a system where the formal requirements for rulership were based on religious rank, not bloodline.
 

mindstalk

Does the math.
Validated User
How about the periods when the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet? I'd call that a theocracy. Despite Buddhism arguably not having gods!

If you mean the pre-unification papal state, then I would say it was not a theocracy in the era of Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X, all of whom were fully secular rulers, but was by the 19th century, when Gregory XVI fought industrialization and state modernization and Pius IX was socially reactionary as well.
I'd disagree. The Pope is definitionally a high priest; Papal rule is theocratic. This is different from kings who may also have a priestly role (like the Roman King.)

If an alternate Rome replaced the kings with a Pontifex Maximum who held secular power on account of having been selected by auspices, I'd call that theocratic despite being polytheist and not having scripture.

In fact there are plenty of fantasy series where Bad Gods rule things literally
Like Middle-Earth under Morgoth or Sauron, as I mentioned.
 

Zaleramancer

Social Justice Warlock
Validated User
The other interesting brought up is "what to do with xp?" Using "killing monsters" for it is less then an ideal way to encourage not wanting easy "kill these guys on sight" type 'enemies' and "Gold for XP" isn't much better, that makes players want "morally okay to steal on sight" 'enemies.' Both of these can be more easily handled in a story driven adventure, which I'd guess is the majority of how people play RPGs, just make have the story cleary paint who is bad and who isn't and make sure a mix is used. its not perfect but just making sure not all kobloids you meet are jerks helps.

I'm not surprised to see the Twitter thread had one saying they just want with "you get X amount of XP every session/level up every X number of session" answer which is fairly common even in game rule-sets, but does have the minor issue of taking a bit of control away from players. You can't manage your risk/reward of taking on a bigger challenge to level up quicker. But again I think that's less an issue in a story driven game where that kind of play is not much of a thing.
Instead of very general milestones, you could introduce new specific actions that provide experience.

Imagine playing in an iteration of D&D in which you gain experience from:

  • Presenting a creative or interesting solution to a problem you face.
  • Going somewhere new and enjoying the beauty of the world, or appreciating the customs of its people.
  • Defending something meaningful for yourself or another.
These disconnect advancement directly from violence. You no longer *need* there to be people to defeat or kill in order to advance. Instead you are incentivized to present cool or interesting solutions to problems, to enjoy the world around you for its own sake or connect with the people you don't know, or protect things because they are meaningful or important to you.

This means you can have, say, a group of Orcs show up and the player-characters will be strongly incentivized to try to talk to them, maybe share some food, ask them if they need help, or spend some time learning orcish drinking songs.

You could also have completely non-lethal brawling or duels if the Orcs (or anyone else) are into that.

There's this temptation to create zero-sum situations where you enter the combat thunderdome and someone has to die, when that doesn't have to be. You can have an interaction with another element of the world and everyone benefits!

From a colonialist mindset, this also makes it harder to present other people as resources to be exploited by violent means. People and places aren't there for your exploitation, they are just there, and you can reach out and connect with them!

You could also include things like:

  • Return something precious to the people it was stolen from.
  • Learn something you didn't know before.
  • Have your beliefs challenged, and then grow from it.

In general, these offer places for players to present things they care about, and push things in a direction where adventurers are more likely to help challenge the colonial direction of taking stuff from people because you can use it better. It also encourages them to think about what they believe, and to allow their characters to change their beliefs more easily.

Now, some of these might seem.. kind of easy to achieve. After all, a player could just play a person with a lot of bad beliefs and just take every chance they can to let someone challenge them, and then change their mind.

But I think that could be a very compelling character arc, and don't really see a problem with it.

Experience is an incentive to behave in a particular way, and so long as the behavior is one you want, exploitation of the system to advance fast is just going to mean lots of the behavior you want.
 

Strange Visitor

Grumpy Grognard
Validated User
There are certainly D&D offshoots that disconnected advancement from combat per se. While its very combat-centric, you can argue 13th Age does this, as did True20.
 

NathanS

Active member
Banned
Validated User
Instead of very general milestones, you could introduce new specific actions that provide experience.

Imagine playing in an iteration of D&D in which you gain experience from:
.
I mean that sounds like a very interesting game, that would require either making an all new game from the ground up to accommodate or ignoring like 70% of the actual rules D&D has. (In fact I think their may be a Japanese RPG about traveling that this reminds me of)

And at its heart Xp has you treating whatever gives it to you as a resources. Especially viewed through the lens I was of "player controlled risk/reward like how do you judge which "beauty of the world" gives you more XP? If we're not bothering with that sort of player controlled element with XP why not just do milestones?
 

vitruvian

Registered User
Validated User
Instead of very general milestones, you could introduce new specific actions that provide experience.

Imagine playing in an iteration of D&D in which you gain experience from:

  • Presenting a creative or interesting solution to a problem you face.
  • Going somewhere new and enjoying the beauty of the world, or appreciating the customs of its people.
  • Defending something meaningful for yourself or another.
These disconnect advancement directly from violence. You no longer *need* there to be people to defeat or kill in order to advance. Instead you are incentivized to present cool or interesting solutions to problems, to enjoy the world around you for its own sake or connect with the people you don't know, or protect things because they are meaningful or important to you.

This means you can have, say, a group of Orcs show up and the player-characters will be strongly incentivized to try to talk to them, maybe share some food, ask them if they need help, or spend some time learning orcish drinking songs.

You could also have completely non-lethal brawling or duels if the Orcs (or anyone else) are into that.

There's this temptation to create zero-sum situations where you enter the combat thunderdome and someone has to die, when that doesn't have to be. You can have an interaction with another element of the world and everyone benefits!

From a colonialist mindset, this also makes it harder to present other people as resources to be exploited by violent means. People and places aren't there for your exploitation, they are just there, and you can reach out and connect with them!

You could also include things like:

  • Return something precious to the people it was stolen from.
  • Learn something you didn't know before.
  • Have your beliefs challenged, and then grow from it.

In general, these offer places for players to present things they care about, and push things in a direction where adventurers are more likely to help challenge the colonial direction of taking stuff from people because you can use it better. It also encourages them to think about what they believe, and to allow their characters to change their beliefs more easily.

Now, some of these might seem.. kind of easy to achieve. After all, a player could just play a person with a lot of bad beliefs and just take every chance they can to let someone challenge them, and then change their mind.

But I think that could be a very compelling character arc, and don't really see a problem with it.

Experience is an incentive to behave in a particular way, and so long as the behavior is one you want, exploitation of the system to advance fast is just going to mean lots of the behavior you want.
5e is already there, though, isn't it? As it stands, you can already gain full XP for dealing with a given challenge, regardless of whether you deal with that challenge by fighting, by use of social skills, or by managing to avoid it being a problem through other means (e.g., sneaking around the sleeping dragon). Some tables may not make full use of these options, and some published modules may not have enough explicit hints as to what might work, but the rules set does support them. The one weakness still present is that Challenge Rating and resulting XP awards are still almost entirely based on assuming a combat encounter, with no separate valuations for how difficult NPCs may be to persuade or fool rather than beat down.
 

junglefowl26

Registered User
Validated User
My immediate thought would be something like a republic of city-states rules by various local gods (possibly tied to geographical locations) who act as ruler and protector oft he community.
Huh, that is really interesting. I can see a lot of plot hooks growing out of the implications of such a setting.

In particular, if there are a bunch of powerful beings tied to a particular location, than in most cases the city's defense has a massive advantage over any attacker. Does war still happen in this setting, and if so what form does it take?

Gives an interesting place for divine characters, and player characters in general, operating in the areas beyond the direct reach of the gods.

I'm sure there's one in Pathfinder. Crinos would know. Someone page them.
Both Pathfinder and 5e have holy bloodlines, or something close enough that they can be easily refluffed that way

I don't remember if those were called tribes of clans, but they seemed clan-sized.

(To be fair, you had some serious differences in size of things normally called "tribes" among the Celts; contrasting the area the Brigantes were assumed to control and the Carvetti and you see that. But even the Carvetti controlled the whole of what we now call Cumbria).
Both - you start off as a clan, then you unite with multiple clans to form a tribe, and in the end game you try to unite multiple tribes into a kingdom.

And yeah, actual size can vary quite a bit from the implied size of the title, regardless of what system is being used.

People have an internal sense of human behavior, and for better or worse, that's going to get engaged a lot with their ability to roleplay effectively in most cases. It may not be entirely accurate for various reasons, but its probably a good enough model it at least allows them to get by, both in reality and in the game. Change too much--and that includes too many of their expectations of group behaviors, even if some of those behaviors actually existed historically--and they lose their ability to keep a grasp on their play
Yes, that's it. Well said, thanks for that.

A couple gods might rule a particular area as a theocratic oligarchy. Given a sufficient quantity of gods, there might even be a democracy of gods where the gods' majority decision is then imposed on the mortals.
Oooooh, very interesting, I like.

My take is that gods and alignment interact weirdly. Real-world mythological pantheons predate the alignment system by a couple millennia and don't work by the Manichean morality of Dragonlance. And then D&D itself is not Manichean but two-dimensional, to the point that the biggest conflict in Planescape isn't even the Upper vs. Lower Planes but the Blood War.

But more broadly, concepts like "theocracy" are very modern and very monotheistic, and don't really apply well to polytheistic societies. I cringe when I see popular media portray people who are canonically polytheistic but then interact with religion as if they were Christians *cough* BSG *cough*. We can describe ISIS during the era when it was a state as a theocracy because of its use of Sharia law as its sole source of legitimacy and its attempt to go as far back as possible with its religious interpretations, and we can describe Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy with theocratic trappings, but what does this even mean to assert that (say) medieval Europe was theocratic? The rulers were secular kings. The priestly class was privileged and the kings needed its support, but royals routinely intervened in church appointments, actual religious rulers like prince-bishops were rare, the papacy was weak as a power until Alexander VI, and the source of law was contemporary interpretations rather than any attempt at preserving biblical law. This goes doubly for a society that believes in the existence of multiple gods and has a bunch of different temples that you choose between.
I am hesitant to dismiss theocracy as a modern idea, and indeed feel sometimes we overemphasize differences in thought between the past and the present, since you did have things like the rule of the Dali Lama in Tibet, areas ruled by monasteries (in particular some of the provinces in Sengoku Japan were run by warrior monks rather than samurai), and arguably the White Lotus and Yellow Turban rebellions attempted to create Buddhist and Taoist theocracies, respectively.

And even beyond theocracies, I do think there is a tendency to look at polytheistic societies and assume that because there is no one true god anything goes in religion, but I know the Romans and Chinese at least did come down like a ton of bricks on religions that they declared to be wrong and heterodox - now, their choice of targets was usually political (undermining state authority, gathering too much wealth, having sketchy foreign ties) rather based on some specific point of religious doctrine they objected to, but still...



Okay, but I wouldn't call this a theocracy. China and Japan had the emperor-as-god model as well, but it's 100% incorrect to describe them as theocracies (even excluding shogunates). They had secular bureaucracies and evolving legal codes, which were more like the modern state than was anything in premodern Europe. I don't know to what extent Egypt was governed below the pharaoh level, and I don't even know to what extent this is known, not a lot of writing from (say) the Old Kingdom has survived.

EDIT: I'm nitpicking on this because theocracy, like fundamentalism, is a modern concept that links a bunch of different things, which I don't think historically coexisted before the Protestant Reformation:
- Scriptural literalism
- Extreme intolerance of the other, defined by belief as well as by ancestry
- Suppression of scientific or other inquiry
- State administration that prefers idealism to pragmatism
The first three were all present in the Reformation, though not in the big states that came out of it, i.e. the Netherlands and (much later) Prussia. The first three are present in Saudi Arabia today. All four were present in ISIS. The theocracy-suppresses-magic fantasy trope tends to include all four aspects, but what do fundamentalism and literalism even mean in a pre-secular, pre-scientific society?
Personally, I wouldn't even count China's emperor as in any way divine - they were perhaps appointed by gods as governors of the mortal world in the celestial bureaucracy, but they were still themselves seen as human, and the possibility of them losing the job and having their divine mandate given to another was acknowledged, and indeed even an important part of their political system.

Though admittedly translating foreign titles into English is a tricky business and even when done well the English term can have implications that are different from those of the original, and too often king, chief, and emperor are thrown around willy-nilly - and this is further complicated because a clear divide between secular and divine is far from universal - from what I understand, in Mesopotamia, would could argue that the rulers were kings, high priests, both kings and priests, or something else all together, depending on how you defined the terms and interpreted the evidence.

So, basically high elves. Seriously, if we take the racial traits in the PHB and assume they apply to all high elves in the setting (at least those of an age considered adult by their society), we've got universal magical training sufficient to have at least a cantrip plus universal weapons training in their culturally preferred weapons. It's almost like their whole subrace is composed of at least petty nobles... which makes a lot of sense if you have a fey empire with elves lording it over other races at some point in the past.
I could see that working very well. Certainly high elves are portrayed as so overall aristocratic that it becomes hard to imagine what a high elf commoner would even look like.

That's an interesting concept as well... although it does kind of assume a history where all sorcerous bloodlines are fairly consistent (as opposed to skipping over multiple generations or cropping up in new families) and have managed to attain noble status over the centuries. It would also help if wizardry as trainable by everyone is relatively new, or at least organized instruction as opposed to a few scattered masters and students is. You'd also have to account for other magical traditions and how they interact - e.g., bards require talent but not necessarily a specific bloodline, druids could also work very well as the basis for a class of Golden Bough-type sacred kings tied to the land, and so on.
Good points, good points.

I could see some different ways of handling it. Perhaps those who didn't become sorcerers lost their noble status, or were forced into the priesthood (with perhaps commoners who manifest sorcerous abilities quickly adopted into the nobility). Or perhaps wizardry was originally invented to help those nobles born without sorcery to fit in with their piers, and it is recently that an economic revolution has resulted in more non-nobles being able to afford a wizard education. Or some combination of the above options....

And yeah, working all the kinds of magic into the social system is something I will need to think about, especially wondering to what degree a non-expert can know or care about the difference between different styles of magic.

While at times they were dominated by priests of a specific god, the Egyptian priesthood also at times honored the entire current 'in favor' pantheon, with the pharaoh as at least ostensibly the head priest, so that could be another example. In general, priests don't need to be specific to the cult of one god, but can perform the religious rites for all of them at the appropriate holy days and festival times.
True. I would still like to research more about their priestly hierarchy worked, if the temples were connected or independent, if there were specialist priests or not, how high priests besides the pharaoh got their positions, if there was a ruling council of priests or something...

All interesting ideas, whether the current state of the setting or a part of the background and history.
Thanks!
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
For my revised Maztica setting, while there are (mechanically speaking) clerics who serve the Great Temples of the gods, each clan, district, village, or guild also has its own patron deity. This is frequently a warlock patron - Archfey, Fiend, or Undying (in the case of an Ancestor Spirit), although pretty much any source of supernatural power can be interpreted as a clan patron deity, since the Mazitcans don't really distinguish between what is normally considered a "deity" in D&D and other powerful entities - in the end, they (along with humans and everything else in the world) are all just aspects of the same divine force.

And anyone who leads the rites to appease/strenthen their patron deity will be considered a "priest", no matter their actual class.
 

Zaleramancer

Social Justice Warlock
Validated User
I mean that sounds like a very interesting game, that would require either making an all new game from the ground up to accommodate or ignoring like 70% of the actual rules D&D has. (In fact I think their may be a Japanese RPG about traveling that this reminds me of)

And at its heart Xp has you treating whatever gives it to you as a resources. Especially viewed through the lens I was of "player controlled risk/reward like how do you judge which "beauty of the world" gives you more XP? If we're not bothering with that sort of player controlled element with XP why not just do milestones?
I mean, it might take a lot of work to change how D&D focuses on things. That's true. It may be easier to just create an entirely new game, but starting from incentives isn't a bad idea.

Though, to be honest, you are correct in some of the adjudicating. From a certain perspective, you could just collapse the huge numbers of experience points down to a smaller number and reward small, regular amounts. If one experience per action is still a significant amount (such as how many PBtA games structure themselves), then you don't have to ask questions about how much experience an action nets.

You can argue that, yeah, anything that nets you XP is a resource, but in this case it's specific actions that are the target. It's not a matter of individual beings having a resource attached to them, but the actions of the players.

The reason for not doing general milestones versus this is mostly a matter of what you want to incentivize. If you want to construct, say, a narrative that works against colonialist thought, you may need to create incentives in the game that specifically work against that. Having, say, GM/player created milestones may not fully discourage that if the underlying game culture still pushes in that direction.

The things I selected are meant to encourage you to appreciate the world and the people in it, approach your problems creatively and thoughtfully, and to fight only when you're protecting something with meaning.

This also encourages players to project more meaning onto the world because they are incentivized to care about things. As a player, you don't have to have your character be moved by the beauty of the world, or to have things that they feel are worth protecting. You can just.. not have those things, and I've played in D&D games where most people were utterly disconnected from the world.

I think that's valuable in gaming, and If I were writing a game like this I would want to encourage it.

5e is already there, though, isn't it? As it stands, you can already gain full XP for dealing with a given challenge, regardless of whether you deal with that challenge by fighting, by use of social skills, or by managing to avoid it being a problem through other means (e.g., sneaking around the sleeping dragon). Some tables may not make full use of these options, and some published modules may not have enough explicit hints as to what might work, but the rules set does support them. The one weakness still present is that Challenge Rating and resulting XP awards are still almost entirely based on assuming a combat encounter, with no separate valuations for how difficult NPCs may be to persuade or fool rather than beat down.
There's a difference between offering the opportunity to do something and incentivizing it. I presented XP in a way that encourages players to not just murder all the evil things as their first answer by making their advancement tied to creativity and interaction with the world. If you took something like what I presented and used it, then you won't murder things as a first option because that may not get you experience.

If you're faced with, say, an ogre blocking your way, you're going to want to find ways to:

Creatively bypass or remove it. (Which may involve violence, but just killing the ogre is probably not super creative.)
Befriend it in such a way as to convincingly appreciate it's customs.
Find something you care about that you have to defend from the ogre (Which is unlikely if it's just there.)

In 5e, you can theoretically gain experience by defeating the ogre non-violently. If you make friends with it, or trick it into leaving, but the game doesn't make that the easiest mechanical tool for you to reach for; and, the expectation of the game is that you will fight and kill the ogre. That's why it has combat stats. The culture of the game expects that you will kill the ogre and that its death was just and necessary.

If a bunch of people who don't know much about D&D get together to play, they will probably be presented with monsters, and they will kill them because that's expected. That's kind of the thing, really.
 
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