Monday, May 09, 2011

The Wessex Manifesto

Gameblog reader Richard commented in a previous post to ask:
Do you have any kind of manifesto document for your Wessex? Anything to do with rough date, geographical extent, degree of verisimilitude? I always wonder with campaign worlds that have stuff in common with European areas of one age or another where they contact history and where they diverge.
Seems like this would be a good opportunity to write a comprehensive overview of what I'm trying to do in my recent D&D efforts.

"Wessex" is the name of the setting.  The campaign (meaning the setting in action, or the setting over time) is called "A Surfeit of Lampreys".  Though neither of these terms come up very often in play.  This is because I don't bring them up.  The players are quite satisfied knowing that the gameworld is roughly analogous to medieval England of a certain period (more on that in a moment).  I don't ram home the name of the region or the artsy-fartsy title of the campaign because I believe that for every x of material the players care about, worldbuilding DMs tend to create 10x of crap no one else at the table finds interesting.  I try hard to keep that extra 10x out of the players' way, though sometimes I do drone on about how "Oh, no.  In my campaign we don't use platemail because it wasn't in use until blah, blah, blah."  But usually I try to focus more on how the slimy thing with the tentacles is trying to eat Sir Yourdude's head.

"A Surfeit of Lampreys" is the traditional way of describing King Henry I's cause of death.  He was an old king with digestive trouble.  His physicians warned him to lay off the fatty foods and heavy oils, but the dude loved him some lampreys in oil.  I've seen at least one historian blame the cook for over-oiling the lampreys, but come on.  The king could have sent them back.  He's the friggin' king.  In my opinion the old coot has to take full blame for killing himself by gorging on lampreys because he had been specifically warned off such fare.

Anyway, I find the story an hilarious example of how human foibles can ruin a whole kingdom because Henry I's death kicked off the succession crisis/civil war/total fiasco referred to as The Anarchy.  During the Anarchy (1135-1154) merry ol' England is ripped in twain by the forces of Henry's daughter, Empress Matilda and the king's nephew, Stephen of Blois.  Mr. of Blois gets himself crowned King of England early on in the conflict, but Matilda is able to control vast swaths of what is ostensibly Stephen's realm.  Some chroniclers of the period emphasize the breakdown of civil order and misery of the regular people.  I've read historians who consider that stuff to be anti-Stephen propaganda, but for me the banditry and disorder described provides an opening for PC shenanigans.  If the social order is stressed by national events, the PCs can act like normal PCs without the full weight of the justice system falling on their heads.  This is important to me, as I find one of the key psychological functions of rpgs is to provide a socially acceptable venue for the participants to take their ids out for a stroll.

I should note that by setting the game in the Anarchy, and more specifically during the period when Empress Matilda is most active in England (starting in 1139) I am consciously rejecting the Gygaxian concept of the "ongoing campaign".  I think it is often overlooked that before Gygax solidified his model of the campaign (which he discusses at length in the 1st edition DMG) most everyone pretty much was working off of the wargamers'/actual soldiers' definition: a set of military actions in a specific, finite context.  Thus we can talk about the campaigns of the Punic Wars or Rommel's campaign in Africa.  It wasn't until the boys-trying-to-make-summer-last-forever insight "Hey, these games can run indefinitely" that the campaign as we know it today was born.  I can't quite tell if it was Gygax who figured out that D&D campaigns don't have to end.  Maybe it was Arneson or someone else.  But it was Uncle Gary who explained it to the rest of the world.

So I'm trying to resurrect the previous usage in A Surfeit of Lampreys.  Barring extraordinary PC action (which I do not rule out) the campaign covers June 1139 through November 1153.  If we reach the end date of the campaign and everyone is still digging the Wessex scene, my plan is to start over.  Lots of things could be changed in the second playthrough, but the overall geopolitical situation would be the same.

Geographically, the campaign world is much smaller than many others.  I'm really only interested in a rectangular slice of southwest Britain defined roughly by Oxford in the northeast, the Isle of Wight to the southeast, the tip of Cornwall (Land's End) to the southwest and the southernmost part of Pembrokeshire, Wales in the northwest.  You can see the latest version of my campaign map here.

The region so described corresponds roughly to the fictitious Wessex country of Victorian writer Thomas Hardy, plus a piece of Wales.  Hardy was one of the first authors to really figure out that a good way to sell books was to set them all in a shared universe that held some sort of romantic appeal to the audience.  Hardy wasn't a fantasy author or even a Gothic novelist; his Wessex books have very little to do with knights or dragons or ghosts or anything that would be immediately useful in term of plot elements.  But Hardy really inspires me in two ways.  First, he renames a crapload of places in his books.  Instead of Salisbury, he calls pretty much the exact same place Melchester.  Instead of Corfe Castle he uses Corvesgate, etc., etc.  Mentally this helps me construct a pseudo-historical campaign, which I think is very important and superior to an actual (non-pseudo-) historical campaign if one is going to run a game with functioning magic and flying dragons.

The other way Hardy inspires me is that he considered himself a poet but is remembered as a novelist.  He pretty much wrote the Wessex novels for his public and his poetry for himself.  That's a pretty good analogy for what I try to get out of being a DM.  The PCs live in a prose misadventure but on my end I hope to see a moment of poetry now and again.

Which brings me around to my retro/stupid/pretentious theory of roleplaying games.  It's been five years since I first outlined my threefold model of rpgs.  I've run a lot of consciously retro/stupid games since then.  A Surfeit of Lampreys is my attempt to hit the trifecta.  In order to inject some pretension into the mix I'm looking at legit history (both primary sources and analysis by modern experts) and Brit lit.  In addition to Thomas Hardy so far I've also borrowed material from John Keats (his unfinished play King Stephen was the original inspiration for choosing the time period), John Milton and William Blake.  I've also done a little research into older occult sources (real grimoires, etc) in order to write some more fauxthentic spells.

So that's what is going on in my head when I think about this campaign.


  1. Nice overview. It's cool to get the sort of "drector's commentator" bits to see people's conceptions are behind their creations from time to time. I embarassed to say, though being familiar with Hardy's Wessex, I hadn't connected your Wessex with it until now.

  2. Anonymous6:59 AM

    great post Jeff, like the ideas - though there's a load of schooldays nostalgia in there for me as I had to write a long essay on the significance of Diggory Venn when I would rather have been playing footy and getting my chat on with the lasses.

    I like the approach to campaigns, interesting.

  3. Thanks! That's a much more complete and enlightening answer than I had any right to ask for.

    I didn't know Henry was partial to lampreys; I'd assumed they were threatening to feast on the PCs.

    Civil wars seem like the optimal gaming environments to me - more uncertain, tricky and just better than the manifest destiny land grab that's so popular. This one is rich with unfamiliar opportunities. I wish I could see it in person.

    I grew up in hex 1402, BTW.

  4. i like the word 'fauxthentic.'

  5. Yes, thanks for sharing, I didn't know that Hardy and other Brit Lit sources had played such a role in inspiring your gaming.

  6. I love how you have finally put the three spheres of your model into a sweet spot. Does the current campaign knock World of Synabarr off its pedestal?

    Am I alone in thinking that how nasty is to think of anyone eating lampreys--let alone dying from over-consumption of them?

  7. Just a couple of random tidbits...well, one tidbit and one screed from the Victorian novelists flame wars:

    1. The period of Civil War between Matilda and Stephen is often referred to as "When Christ and His Saints Slept" and there is a historical novel about the period of the same name.

    2. Re: Hardy's Wessex...please, everyone knows Trollope published the first Barsetshire novel (The Warden) in 1855 almost two decades before Hardy wrote A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1872...your boy just copied the real creator *snaps* ;)

    Actually, like Trey I'm embarrassed I didn't pick up the connection although now I'm wondering about a steampunk or Victorian magic Barsetshire.

  8. Ha! A Trollope fan! I've never read any of his works. I did try to read one of Angela Thirkell's comedy of manners type novels set in 20th century Barsetshire. I got to page 250 or so before I realized nothing had actually happened plotwise. It was like one of those moronic modern comics where all it does is recap action in the previous companywide crossover; you are assumed to already care about all the characters sufficiently to put up with no action.

  9. Can I direct you, in case you haven't already read it, to the excellent Sharon Penman novel "When Christ and His Saint's Slept".

    The characterisation of the major figures is excellent. The novel really does an excellent job of demosntrating that, far from being an evil man, the reason that Stephen was such a bloody awful king was because he was far too nice.

  10. Am I alone in thinking that how nasty is to think of anyone eating lampreys

    No. Lampreys freak me out. I've eaten frogs and snails but I draw the line at lampreys. And spiders.

  11. Jeff,

    I just put two and two together and realized your Wessex manifesto covers the same territory examined in 20 books by the British author Ellis Peters and her Benedictine Monk mystery series (the Brother Cadfael chronicles) which takes place between 1135 and 1150 around Shrewsbury (north of Wessex). Great source material if you need it!