Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Exorcism of ... Political Correctness? "Who are the Nibelungs?" Part 2

There are several problems with what Lost Songs of the Nibelungs could be and it can be hard to form a coherent setting without getting some of it out there and out of the way. So this will be a collection of thoughts I had about some of the problems a campaign set in the Dark Ages might have and how I intend to circumvent them (instead of solving them, because, you know, those are some harsh topics ...). Let's get on with it (or read Part 1 before that).

Could be party poopers in any game:
Slavery, Women's Rights and Christianity

Well now, see what I mean? Those topics are all somewhat crucial parts of the Dark Ages, one way or another. To design a game set in the Dark Ages will always bring those issues to the table. If they are ignored, they'll sooner or later find their way into the game anyway. Be it because there's a history buff at the table who starts asking the wrong right questions or just the simple destruction of the Suspension of Disbelieve by the use of some half-cooked common knowledge. So if it's not somehow addressed, it'll possibly disrupt the game at some point. Who'd want such a thing? No one, that's who.

One obvious route would be to go all "political correct" with this, but it usually is just a can of worms better untouched, because if you try to not piss some people of, you damn sure will piss some people of (I know, it makes no sense at all, but just wait for the next flame war ...). Maybe not the same people either way, but people nonetheless. In the end, if you try to do them all justice, you'll have done no justice at all.

Better not tell people what to think, but instead give them all the information and help them make their own decisions. Anything else would be beyond my powers anyway, so why start when writing a game?

Another reason for not going that route is to avoid producing another toothless vanilla D&D-Disney fantasy setting by removing/ignoring/misleading all controversy instead of dealing with it. But you see my problem, right? Just writing about those topics could produce all sorts of ill will towards me, the blog or LSotN just by being not clear enough about my position on them (and even then, fer chrissakes).

So let's be clear about it.

Slavery in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs

Slavery was over the course of history very popular and is, if we like it or not, still a common occurrence in today's world. There is no use denying it and lots of our comfort was made possible by supporting slavery one way or another. And I'm not talking the pyramids here, but today's cheap clothes or the tin in our smart phones. Nobody really likes to think about this either, as we in the "western culture" should be by default against the very thing that makes our cars so cheap, but are instead busy producing the illusion that this is not happening by not talking about it ...

I don't want this discourse in the game, of course. Not like this, anyway. It would be poisonous, as it is always poisonous to point out that we, while playing our games, have reason for guilt. You know, the kind of argument where someone tells you you're a murderer because you just ate that steak. 


Instead I see a game as a chance to make room for the possibility of experiencing something worth contemplating.

Describing slavery as what it is in a setting where such a thing was kind of common and mostly undisputed opens lots of narrative possibilities that might even enrich the game experience. It's not for the rules to tell you how to handle this in your game, but a game can be realistic and neutral about it and maybe even show the opportunities it allows for the game.

To be perfectly clear about this, slavery is a crime but also very real. Even today. Using it in a setting may help in understanding why it is a crime, just not by telling those playing the game what to think, but by giving them the opportunity to get there themselves. The game can only be neutral about it, it's for the DM and the players to decide how it is used!

Women's Rights in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs

This is simultaneously easier and harder to argue than slavery. Historically speaking it is quite clear that women in the Dark Ages where at least not among the famous fighters. But that really doesn't mean they didn't exist. On the contrary, the Migration Period and the end of civilization as the Romans knew it would have been hard on everyone trying to survive during that time. Having some fighting skills could only have helped and there is really no reason to forbid teaching it to women.

By the way, there is some evidence that fighting woman where at least not uncommon among Roman gladiators (here is an abstract of a paper on jstor). Additionally there are theories that bands of vikings not necessarily consisted only of men. And not just because of the tv-show Vikings or Tolkien's Eowyn, but because of historical evidence suggesting that those Shieldmaidens did indeed exist and fight in wars.

So ironically it's today's preconceptions that make it difficult to see in women warriors anything else but exotic birds. To be clear about this, historical evidence suggests that the opportunity to become a warrior was gender-indifferent, especially in the time of the Migration Period (which is the time just before LSotN starts). People had to carve their place out of a hostile environment and had to fight to keep it. Our idea of weak women and strong men protecting them is just misguided.

Anyway, it is a problem and, again, it's not for the game to solve it but, instead, to allow easy access to the concept of fighting women. It needs to feel natural in order to allow women players the same variety of character choices as men. And this is achieved easily enough in a game about Nibelungs by using one of the cast to illustrate what a female warrior could look like: Brünhild, the warrior queen.

Brünhild on a postcard by Gaston Bussière [source]
She is the very impersonation of the Valkyrie in the Norse mythology and famous for her power and fighting skills. Being of high birth sure didn't hurt, but that's not even important right here as our heroes are to form that very basis of being "noble" by being successful (as in "leveling up") and bequeathing that power to the next in line (as they did back then).

The game being about the Lost Songs of those Nibelungs leaves additional wiggle room. A small and now forgotten kingdom ruled by a group of female warriors is entirely within the Suspense of Disbelieve and works fine with the historical and the mythological background of the setting.

Christianity in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs

Religion is always an awkward and (sometimes) dangerous topic. There is no doubt, historically speaking, that Christianity helped shaping the political landscape in the Dark Ages and it was a widespread believe in the Europe of the Middle Ages.

But still, it was most of all at first a political transition. With the land being as fractured as it was after hordes and hordes of Germanic tribes tried to settle there, it must have been a melting pot of different believe systems and philosophies. And communication between communities was as scarce and random as one would expect during trying times as this.

It is not too far fetched to say it took several generations (any many military campaigns ...) for Christianity to become as widespread as it would be around 1000 AD and until then it was a wild mix of several faiths with a high cultural variety. Christianity was the new and uprising faith, while pagan religions like those of the Germanic tribes or the Romans were in decline.

Easy enough, one might think. But the Mythology in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs relies heavily on ideas originating in Norse Mythology and Christianity was opposing, destroying and assimilating exactly that generation by generation. So while Christianity is a part of the setting, it is a destructive force. Not necessarily evil, but destructive nonetheless.

I believe this to be problematic, mostly because it might perpetuate the idea that Christianity back in 550 AD is the same as Christianity nowadays and that the diachronic criticism (or just historical facts like the crusades a few hundred years later, for that matter) somehow translates to being of that believe today.

It's a bit like with slavery discussed above, but something I really don't need in the game, as it gives the wrong focus in either making Christianity the evil force destroying all the magic in the world (which is quite popular, but nonetheless) or making it harmless enough to maintain current sensibilities unruffled - loosing an important driving force of the time in the process.

Instead I'd go the way of the D&D and take all of it but the name. It's not only a method that worked in D&D (didn't work well and is criticized for it, but it worked), it's especially an idea that has some strong roots in, to give but two examples, the late David Gemmell's Drenai Tales or Paul Kearney's The Monarchies of God series.

So who are the Nibelungs (Part 2)?

It's a harsh world the Nibelungs live in, haunted by the evils of a lost civilization. But it's also a world of opportunity for man and woman alike to claim a part of and become legends if it is their fate. Within this legendary realm everything is possible and a Nibelung could rise from slave to king.

It is a semi-historical setting they live in, with the pagan believes of the old world struggling and fighting the rise of a new religion that threatens the very fabric of magic itself. The Nibelungs are all the Germanic tribes and their lost songs.


  1. Interesting. I'm currently writing something about the transition to the Early Medieval, contrasting the Germanic kingdoms of East Anglia and Italy in the reign of Theoderic, looking at precisely some of those questions of power, politics and cultural change in the 'conversion period'.

    One thing you haven't mentioned in the section on Christianity is the fact that, at least until about AD600, many of the Germans were Christians, but of the Arian sect, rather than Orthodox (which at that point meant Catholic). As well as those who were pagans until the last kingdoms were converted around AD1100. Is your intention essentially to make 'Clerics' Christian priests, or have I misunderstood? Even if it is the case, there could still be two competing Christian cults, one loyal to Rome and one to ... some other hierarchy. Apparently, the last Arian monarchs were Grimwald and Garibald, Lombard kings in Italy.

    That reminds me, I must send you some info about my 'Dark Age Europe' setting, where the Lombards (and Burgundians=Nebelungen for that matter) are Dwarves and the 'Angli' ('Orghul' in Medieval Welsh) are Orcs...

    On women's rights - Brunhild is a good example, and the idea that we don't know everything is also very solid, but Tacitus mentions, 'bordering on the Sviones [ie Swedes] are the Sithones, who resemble them in other respects, with the single difference that they are ruled by women. To this extent the have fallen not merely below free men but than slaves.' (Germania, 45).

    1. Very interesting indeed! I'm just an enthusiast in this and I really appreciate informed feedback like yours. This is good stuff!! Having two "Christian" factions warring for influence is a good idea and worth pondering on. That other hierarchy would be king Chlodwig, right? Or did you have something a bit more sinister in mind?

      But I really don't believe that so many Germanic tribes had already been converted to Christianity in AD600, mostly for the reasons I state above (lack of communication, mostly political conversions and a huge dose of propaganda in the sources). It was present, sure, but it didn't arrive in the population at large until much later. That's at least the argument I'm trying to make here. I mean, the Vikings hadn't been fully converted. Here we have enough sources and we speak of a period somewhat between AD850 and AD1050, right? (Or is this just pop-cultural reference?) It's just open to interpretation, I guess.

      'Clerics' will be (Christian) priests, yes. At least some of them or several aspects of them: some could be merely academics, some could be able to work wonders, most won't take up arms to defend themselves (?) ... still toying with ideas here. The main distinction will be that those of the "true" faith will be able to repel evil (like turning undead) and those of the "old" faith will be able to work magic (in a fairy sense). Demons will exist, too, so witch-pacts could be several things (or just a short-cut to power with a huge price-tag ...). Let's just say there will be several possibilities :)

      Those Sithones are exactly what I had in mind, nice quote. Thanks for referencing it, too! I'll definitely use this somewhere.

      I'm still interested in seeing what you did there with your campaign. What did you have in mind, posting it on your blog at some point or send it via mail (for that matter mails may reach me on disoriented dot-thingy ranger with the google-crowd)?

  2. My campaign never really assumed electronic form - it's mostly still in either pencil on bits of paper in my loft, or thought-form in my head. It leaks out sometimes, such as in the idea for the 'Observer's Book of Monsters' - the distribution of 'Giants' in Central Europe/the Baltic is pretty much an amalgamation of Jotunheim in Norway with the territories - real or imagined - of the 'Eoten' (Jutes), the Gotar/Geats/Goths, and any placename (eg Gottingen) that might refer to them. So in assimilating Goths Jutes etc to 'Giants' (and in D&D terms that can mean anything from Goblins upwards) and marking their conquests (from Ukraine to Kent) gave me a distribution for Giants (of all kinds). Likewise Orcs: Orghul (Angle) I've already mentioned, but there's the Orcades of course - now islands or Orcs (and beyond Britain, both the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia and the Iroquois Confederacy in North America are Orkish). The Franks are werewolves(Franci = Varangi = Vargr), the Gaels are Ghouls, the Hellenes are Elves... and the Lombards are Dwarves.

    The setting was a mish-mash: part 'Arthurian' in a Pendragon sort of way, partly something a little more based on archaeology, part out-and-out fantasy. The Empire had collapsed in the west and to an extent, in the former imperial territories, people were living with a fading understanding in the midst of crumbling ruins. Warlords set themselves up with bands of horsemen operating from old decayed cities and military camps, and demanded tribute from the surrounding peasants. Seems like a great background for adventurers! I may post more detailed bits on the blog I suppose but the background was never really 'written up' - it was more of a framework for fitting other things into I suppose.

    One thing it did frame (as the primary focus was Britain AD495-505, or there abouts) was the idea of the time-frame of a campaign that I'm carrying over into my current campaign; I structured space and time around external events (in this case the legendary battles of King Arthur) and used these as a background for the actions of the characters.

    As to Arianism - the Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals, and I think the Alemanni, as well as the Lombards a little later, were all converted to Arian Christianity, whereas the Franks and Anglo-Saxons were pagan when the entered the Empire and converted to Catholicism. This section of the wiki on Arianism is interesting I think: . I don't think the Arians really established a lasting organisation - in the areas of the Empire conquered by Arian Germans, the Arian Church lasted as long as it had official support but not long after. But for at least the period AD400-650, it was competing with Catholic Christianity in some places, due to the influence of Germanic kings who were Arian Christians.

    You're right that in Germania and Scandinavia that there were many unconverted Germanic peoples after AD600 - I was referring to those closest to the Empire really. I came across a timeline the other day of when different kindoms were converted (though I did mention that there were 'unconverted kingdoms' as late as AD1100, as I think Sweden was converted around this time).

    1. I love it! Some very nice ideas and I like how you used the setting to implement D&D. That's how it's done, in my opinion.

      And thanks for the clarifying about Arianism. Some interesting insights and definitely a dynamic I'd like to have in Lost Songs!