Sunday, February 21, 2021

Another exorcism of thoughts: Who are the Nibelungs, Part 3 (final word on culture? magic?)

I should be doing something else, but I felt the urgency to at least make an attempt to put those ideas down before they are lost in the bliss of a Sunday in the sun. It connects to a serie of posts I started 6 years ago about what understanding of the "Nibelungs" I want to evoke in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. We had the base assumption in Part 1, going something like this:

Historically speaking it would be the children of those desperate and armed refugees that settled among the ruins left by the Romans. They are to explore the deep forests and dark valleys, following whispered rumors of treasure, secrets and sorcery. They will leave their mark on the world, as it is their time.

The game is about their lost songs.

 And then we talked a bit about difficult topics of the past and future in Part 2, concluding like this:

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.

This leaves a couple of questions open, all of them are about getting an idea how those tribal people mapped the world around them. What patterns did they see? How did they explain the world and why? This is an exorcism of thought and not yet fully fleshed out. You have been warned.

A world without reason?

Culture is a collective mental state ... let's begin with that. It's also dynamic. My understanding of how that dynamic might work, is (among other things) derived from what I could gather in the (great and highly recommended!) book Authors of the Impossible by Jeffrey J. Kripal (a book that'd be featured in the research list I plan to include in Lost Songs).

So the firt step would be to get an understanding how our culture works, then extrapolate towards 550 AD, right? Bridging this cultural gap would make the past playable while adding the extra value of gaining a deeper understanding of that Germanic mindframe back then. In a sense, they already did all the work for us in the stories they told (or what we know of them), so there is that. However, reading those stories today (like, say, the Edda), always seems like it needs a whole lot of extra knowledge to get the references, the subtext ... all the symbolic stuff that you'd read in those stories that, by our understanding, comes down to magic.

There's no bridge. You see: reading those stories is like seeing an island in the distance, obscured by mist. What you deinitely can't do in a roleplaying book is make it an excursion into history and demanding of the reader to catch up to "get it right". No, nothing of that sounds right to me. And what would knowing the history more than, say, superficially actually bring to the table?

See? Like that. No bridge at all ... [source]

I've talked at length about how language should be used in the game (and you can start falling into that specific rabbit hole here). It's also easy enough to get an idea what clothes they wore or how they fought, what they paid with, all that good stuff, for sure worthy. What all the trivia doesn't do, though, is giving you a mindmap, of sorts, that brings to live what made those people tick. That a day started for them with the sun going up, not in the middle of the day, like it does for us now, gives you an inkling of an idea what I'm talking about.

But I digress. My goal would be to cook all of the above down to an abstract level where that other culture transcends 'just' by playing the game and without using any visual material other than description. The Narrative Generator is the biggest tool in this, but just one side of the coin.

However, to do this examination proper justice (to build that bridge), or so I've learned, we need to understand that culture is the collective decision to interprete the world as concluded by an intellectual elite, with what is negelected making a comeback in popular culture. In other words, if your world is run by reason and science, the spiritual will be popular in the stories we tell. That's the premise, that's the material for the bridge laid out..

People in the past didn't have it good ...

There is a popular understanding that life was hard in the past and people just didn't have the richness of experiences and safety we indulge in today in huge parts of the world. Stuff like "I wouldn't want to live in the 18th century ... all that misery, the health issues, the harsh living conditions. Horrible, horrible stuff." or some tune like that. I'm of two minds with this: for one, I agree. If someone growing up in our cultural environment would be transferred a couple of hundred years into the past, they'd most likely die fast. That doesn't mean, however, that the people living back then felt the same about their lives.

Off to the Dark Ages ... to DIE! [source]

There is that joke where one doctor tells another how he stopped drinking and smoking and eating unhealthy so he had a chance of a longer life, and the other doc just looks at him puzzled and asks: why would you want to live longer, if you had to live like that?! I always found this 'joke' stupid and unfunny, for the simple reason that it puts consumerism on a pedestal it doesn't belong. If you just live to consume, well, you don't live at all, imo. There is more, for sure, if you care to look.

Anyway, it all connects. I'll even raise you one: the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman had a great talk in a podcast the other day (see it here, it's worth your time), and he talked about the plasticity of the brain and how we can rewire ourselves to receiving dopamine awards for things we did rather than for things we consumed. Turns out (or so is my understanding), people that manage to do that, will need nothing else to thrive and be happy.

No need for expensive cars or meals or holidays or houses or whatever, just reading that one book, a page at a time, just doing that sport routine, doing the things that help you grow, is not only 'enough' to be content, it'll give you the energy to push harder, to go further. People producing material like crazy have unlocked that for themselves, one way or another. As a matter of fact, the best way to make this happen is pushing through stress. Do what you feel resistance against, and the brain will award you for it. Crazy (I'm still mulling over that, as a matter of fact).

Well, you are probably guessing what I'm hinting at. We are not wired to live like fat cats in comfy chairs, we are wired to do stuff. Our brains and bodies actually help us doing more than we would think we are able to achieve ...and to get by with way less than we actually have. Our genes haven't changed much in the last, what, 300.000 years? Assuming that we are just now able to live properly is preposterous.Commmon sense will tell you that, and science is right there with it, nodding wisely.

So there's no reason to believe that people weren't living fullfilled lives in 550 AD if the basic needs were met. There genes weren't different, the dynamics, generally speaking, would be the same as today or a couple of thousand years before that. They would laugh and love and sing and grieve and hate. kids would play, and have toys to do so. That said, they'd also live in very, very different surroundings than we do. Here is a little bridge to build up to that big bridge we are talking about: the dynamics apply, just on different surroundings, because it needs to work in the environment to allow survival and even growth.

I'd even submit that they didn't know less than we do, they just had different explanations and methods to get by (broadly speaking ... I'd fight you on this, though). That's the bridgehead.

Building a bridge across cultures, time and space ...

... with just some dice in hand. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyway, let's talk UFOs, because that's the logical next step. Why is it that we have more than 80.000 witness reports of encounters like that, all over the globe, and no proof? How is it that a lot associated with the UFO phenomenon relates so closely to religious experiences? It maps nicely (again, Kripal, quoting others). So nicely, in fact, that we can see the same dynamics between religious hagiography (basically stories what saints experienced) and UFO abductions ... or our ideas what those abductions are like.

I won't (can't!) go much into detail, but let's assume, just for the game's sake, that those phenoma are ... similar, only their interpretation in a different cultural environment will just turn up differently. Angels, fairies or aliens, all follow the same principle (abstractly speaking). I hope you see that bridge shaping up at this point. We can now conclude from our culture, to some extent, what that culture 1500 years ago might have set as priorities compared to us. There's the map, there's the pattern, if you will.

Not that I have done that yet to any reasonable degree. This is me playing around with some fresh impulses, so to say. But we know we can take the Enlightenment out of the equation. We can assume that life back then was way more spiritual than our lives today are. And going by the little I know about the paranormal and the unconscious and the idea of how all is connected, it is by no means said that we are entirely on the right track in our completely reason based cultural assumptions. So they might have compensated some of our advantages with knowledge now lost to us (as a matter of fact, that rising religion back in the day did their damnest to assimilate or kill that cultural heritage off). 

Who are the Nibelungs? (Part 3)

From what we can tell, it's been a very dynamic mix of different cultures settling down. In a way, the people starting their new lives in what would become Europe had their own intense culture war going. We know who lost, in hindsight. But how that war was fought is a different story. We also know of the tribal nature of those settlers, how they travelled a lot, and how they took impulses from everywhere. In that particular time, we can say we have lots of leeway to be creative within the imaginable. The smaller, the more isolated a tribe is, the more strange it could be.

Other than that, the Nibelungs are a spiritual people. How else could they have lived meaningful lives back then? Tapping into the (collective?) unconscious like that should offer some alleviation, help and even healing, but it also (for sure) brings our heroes a lot closer to things we'd love to keep in the dark nowadays. Those struggles back then were as real as today. Them going out to fight dragons or haggle with the gods should tap into the same sphere as us getting hunted or abducted by aliens. And just like we will find traces but no proof, because we tend to ignore those things in general, they might have encountered and fought those things for real (which is a leap I'll allow myself, since this is a game, after all).

What exactly that might mean and which symbols and systems to use to express it all in the game will be for me to explore in the future. A lot of it is already there. If you take a look at character creation (which is pretty much the same after all those years ...), you can end up with an elf, a dwarf or a troll. The sleight of hand here is that I'd argue that it is still as historically accurate as history can be. Ha!

Representing history accurately. Ha! [source]

One last thing. You might ask yourself, why go through all that to write a game, to which I have to say: it's fun, what else is there to know :) If there's value beyond that, we'll find out, I guess.


  1. Excellent post that touches a lot of important stuff - I would expect nothing less!

    As you know, my day job is archaeology. I'm going to tell you a terrible dirty secret about archaeology, that relates to some of the things here. The secret is, archaeologists are absolutely awful at explaining what we mean to people, and the thing we're worst at explaining is the word 'ritual'.

    I will try to explain what we mean. The European Enlightenment changed a lot of ideas bout the world. One thing it did was put things into boxes or categories. This is agriculture, that is politics, the other is meteorology, a fourth thing is 'religion' and so on. But in pre-Enlightenment societies, things weren't structured like this. Agriculture was part of a bargain with non-human forces, the weather was a result of these bargains, and politics is a matter of finding the right ruler to rule in the right way. All of this is 'religion', what archaeologists call 'ritual'. The idea of there being an intimate connection between action here and now, and the way the universe functions, is absolutely crucial. This way of looking at the world - what may be called 'magical thinking' - certainly exists as late as the Renaissance. The works of Shakespeare for instance are full of the idea that if the 'wrong' king is the throne, there are plagues, comets and eclipses, horses kick each other to death, crops fail and the sky rains blood. The separate spheres of weather, celestial phenomena, epidemiology and so on are all intimately bound together and in turn that is related to always opening doors with your right hand not your left or never putting silver and gold in the same purse (I made those up) or other things that to us are 'superstition' but to other ways of thinking are as 'logical' as anything we believe (eg, that there are tiny devils that make us sick but we can stop them by wearing special masks and washing our hands).

    Anyway, just in case you have lost the point of what I'm talking about I'll stop. Hope it all makes sense mate!

    1. Thanks, Red! And I totally get it. Kripal and the authors he's talking about (I'm pretty sure you'd totally dig that book, btw!) describe the same as the sacred and interacting with symbols. Rituals are totally up there, as is Daoism and synchronicity and even quantum physics, all lurking at the sidelines, waiting for there comeback. Maybe it's the next thing after postmodernism, who knows? So, yes, I hear you loud and clear. As for Lst Songs, I think I'll take the symbols route (language and oracles) and see where that gets me. You make a great point about the weather (a point you made years ago about thunderstorms being dwarves hammering in the mountains, or some such thing ...) I need to be reminded about every now and then: it's ALL connected. It doesn't need a different system! Well, we'll see how far the esoteric can be pushed into an rpg :) Thank you for a great comment!

    2. Thanks Jens, and I'm glad I was making sense.

      I'm actually reading a fantasy novel at the moment set in a world where magic consists of a kind of energy that flows round the world, a bit like tides or weather patterns. Part of the consequence of this raw magic stuff is that it interacts with people's psyches. Strong emotions - particularly fear, but also faith - can cause psychic phenomena to manifest themselves as monsters (in the case of fear) or conversely as places or weapons of holiness (there are church-sanctuaries hallowed by the faith of those who build them to withstand the magic-born demons). It's a neat concept that reality is shaped by the interplay of belief with magic, and I think worth exploring in game terms. I'll probably do a post about it myself if I can get my thoughts in order (that is, if I have enough faith to impose my will on the raw magic...)

    3. Magic is such a difficult subject to tackle (unless we are talking fireballs ...). I had several systems cooked up for Lost Songs, working more or less well. Not sure if I have to start (somewhat) from scratch with it all. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't like a system that makes magic appear as a commodity. What you describe would make itmore like a(n unreliable?) resource, I think, and that's another direction I wouldn't want to go. That said, it sure sounds like an interesting concept! I'll keep an eye out for that post of yours :)


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