History is a thing
History is a thing in Empire. I’ve already talked a little bit about historical research already, as well as our current project to overhaul parts of the Brass Coast brief and how that’s spilled over into other areas of the game. Mostly areas that we really ought to have addressed way back at the start but ran out of time to do so – or didn’t notice they needed doing.
Having a history in the game provides a foundation to build on for both players and writers. Knowing that the League was put together by a grudging agreement between three very powerful people to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new Empire tells you something about who you are playing 400 in-character years later. Knowing that Temeschwar started out Varushkan, in contrast to the more intrigue-and-masks southern cities, or that whole “Holberg should have been part of Dawn but they decided they’d rather be merchant-princes than earls” thing, helps you see ways you can create an interesting character that differs from your neighbours. At least I hope it does.
It also helps us write new things, and create plots. As I bang on about incessantly, being able to give something context within the game makes it cooler. You may not know that the man who oversaw the independence of Sarvos from Highguard was called Benedict, but all it takes is for someone you talk to to have that fact and suddenly this letter stuffed into a hidden compartment or this magic ring with a powerful aura of Ambition gais additional weight, additional power to ground you in the game.
Creating the feeling that the players are the leaders of a nation that has four hundred years of triumphs and defeats is an important part of our job, I think. It helps people value the stuff that happens during the game.
Nobody needs history
Nobody needs history, obviously. You can play a League citizen without knowing who the three merchant-princes who turned up to the original meeting with the First Empress were, or that Temeschar probably predates the nation of Varushka, or whatever.
But having it there, having it available as a resource, that has value. We talked a bit early on about what the live-roleplaying community might call “lore skills”. Whether we would have a skill like “bard” or “historian” that let you ask the referee questions. Unsurprisingly, given the way we run games, we decided we definitely didn’t want that kind of thing.
History, in Empire, is a hard skill. If you want to be an expert on the history of the game’s setting you have to actually become an expert on the history of the game’s setting. It’s like fighting with a rubber sword, or baking cakes, in that regard.
And obviously it means that some of the plot-writers also have to become hard skill experts. It’s harder than it looks, especially when it comes to adding new stuff, as you might imagine. Contradicting existing information isn’t impossible, but it has to be done very carefully.
Focus on the present
Each of the ten nations in the game has their own history page on the wiki, that lays out in broad strokes where they came from. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the pages are a little variable. Some nations have stronger histories than others. Navarr, Wintermark, and Highguard, for example, have their identities tied up in significant events from their past. Some of the original writers were more concerned than others with fleshing these sections out and occasionally it shows.
The actual founding of the Empire section tended to be where most of the focus went, for obvious reasons. But that meant that some of the nations had significantly less history than others. The League were one of the worst examples of this, I think. While there was plenty of information about how the League was formed, and about sexy genius swordfighter/raconteur/entrepreneur Aldones di Sarvos, there was comparatively little information about the actual cities themselves. It’s all very well to talk about how Holberg was this major bone of contention in the early empire, but where the heck did the city actually come from?
Oh incidentally, if I may digress for a moment… the Holberg story – how it was conquered by Dawn but the Senate made it a League territory – is a good illustration of one of the other things we do with history. A significant number of historical events are about illustrating things that you can do, or that can happen, in the game itself. In the Holberg story we tried to demonstrate a couple of things – that the Senate power of assignment is political in nature; that its absolutely okay to be unfair; that you can win in one area of the game and lose in another; that Dawn is designed as a nation of glorious knights and witches that finds the Senate tricky to navigate; that the League is clever and ambitious; and that non-player characters can have their own ideas about events in the world. I’m quite pleased with it as a piece of show-not-tell if I’m honest. Mind you I have no idea how successful it is at communicating anything more subtle than “the writers hate Dawn“.
Anyway. Sometimes that focus on the present can backfire a little, and one of the areas I find this particularly glaring is the question of where these damn cities came from in the first place. A slight tangent to the Brass Coast overhaul is that I’ve got the chance to address and answer that question. The challenge (as always) is doing it in a way that doesn’t become a wall of text, doesn’t contradict anything we’ve already written, lays groundwork for future plots, and provides tools for players to create interesting characters.
The triumph of optimism
The sections that follow are taken from the first draft of a section I’m planning to add to the League history page called “origins of the League” or something even less catchy. Please, for the love of God, do not immediately write angry e-mails to my boss about this. I’m taking a risk sharing work-in-progress, partly to see how it goes. If “how it goes” is that people mistake it for an invitation to design by committee, it’ll just mean I know I can’t do this kind of thing in future.
I’m partly doing this to demonstrate how we work, really. This is literal first-draft stuff; I banged out a few hundred words following some chats over the last month, and my memory of stuff that has already gone into play. This is pre-Matt-first-edit-pass even which you can tell by the number of typos. The final versions will probably bear little resemblance to these sections. As I’m posting them here, I’m almost certainly editing the originals as I spot things that don’t look right.
(Anyone who suggests the real reason I’ve done this is because I realised I was procrastinating about getting back into regular blogging post-Christmas and so was looking for something to write about that was less in-progress than the Zemress Island page we’re working on at the moment is probably on the nose, but also a hateful cynic.)
The Wolf in Winter
The oldest of the four cities, Temeschwar began as one of the westernmost vales of Varushka; there is evidence that a settlement has existed on the site of the city since before the union of the Vard and the Ushka. Ruled for centuries by a succession of powerful boyar, it was considered part of Varushka right up until the foundation of the League when – to the surprise of many – it chose to join the two southern cities in a political alliance rather than remain part of Vaushka.
Temeschwar is a great city. Whenever I think of it, I immediately think of brutality. The iconic story for Temeschwar is Ratibor driving everyone with a tattoo out into the freezing winter to deal with the organised crime problem. They’re the iron fist of the League for me. I know why they are a city – its the place you go to trade with Varushka with all its great mineral and wood-y wealth. It’s fur, and chunky rings set with sharp gemstones, and the masks its people wear are threatening and dangerous.
The fact I think it’s the oldest also plays around with some of the themes of Winter (as a realm and an in-game concept), and its Varushkan roots. Temeschwar isn’t Varushkan, though, and I’m not sure we do enough to bring that out sometimes.
I hope Matt has some ideas about why Temeschwar leaves Varushka to join the League. He’s much better at economics and politics than I am.
The Golden Wolf
Sarvos is the next oldest; along with Tassato it was founded by Highborn colonists spreading west along the shores of the Bay of Catazar. The Saravos family who gave the city their name were largely ostracized from Patrician society due to their enthusiasm for personal wealth and unpalatable beliefs about meritocracy and the value of free markets. As their town became more prosperous, and grew in size, they increasingly distanced themselves from their Highborn relatives and, when the chapters and the patricians went to war, they quietly seceded from the nation. After the violence, when the assembly of the virtuous was consolidating its hold over Highguard, attempts were made to return Sarvos and Tassato to the fold – but both cities resisted. An abortive attempt to conquer the city by force fifty years after thee burning of Pharos was defeated by the combined forces of the two former Highborn cities – much to the surprise of the virtuous.
Sarvos is masks, jewels, art, elegance, sophistication. It’s where this current bit of writing begins, actually. We were working on the Brass Coast founders, and actually looking at how the exodus from Highguard would work. We came up with the idea that the city was already there, and it played a part in the story of the Freeborn. It allowed us to cement the Brass Coat and the League a little better as descendants of and contrasts to Highguard. It allowed us to add some lower-fantasy elements to the story of three magic women leading a ragtag band of refugees to the promised land.
Sarvos is straightforward enough – but it also allows us to look a little more at the patricians, and why they were bad in a way that goes beyond “they didn’t like the Way.” The idea that Highguard might have tried to conquer Sarvos with force of arms once they’d finished their civil war is one I am pretty keen to explore a little more. For similar reasons to those that made me estabish regular border raiding between Wintermark and the Marches – to underline that the federation that is the Empire also helps protect its member states from each other.
You can also tell Matt hasn’t edited this because the sentence “largely ostracized from Patrician society due to their enthusiasm for personal wealth and unpalatable beliefs about meritocracy and the value of free markets” is still in there. That’s pure Raff, that sentence. It will almost certainly not make the final cut.
The Red Wolf
Tassato shares similar roots Sarvos, being founded by Highborn colonists along the banks of the Vassa. The story of Regario and Mestra, feuding siblings who each sought to establish a settlement here is well known and often credited with being the source of the conflict between the two halves of the city. Some scholars suggest that another source of this discord lies with the fact that the population of Regario was regularly increased by emigrants from Highguard, while Marchers unhappy with the life of the yeomanry – with its emphasis on agriculture – regularly resettled to Mestra on the western side of the river. When the assembly of the virtuous reached out to “bring home the lost children of Highguard”, Mestra and Regario unsurprisingly sided with Sarvos, fighting the Hghborn army in Riposi, Foracci, an Madeiras to preserve their independence. League scholars believe that it was the threat of Highborn conquest that first forced Mestra and Regario to work together, and ultimately lead to the two towns becoming a single entity in the years that followed. They remained fierce rivals of Sarvos – except where one city or the other was threatened by outside forces. A number of treaties between the two, and with the Freeborn to the south-west, ensured that the Brass Coast and the two city-states would fight together to oppose any would-be conquerors.
Tassato is my favourite League city. For me its a combination of London, Lankhmar, Ankh-Morpork, and the version of Verona that Shakespeare presents. Or possibly more like the version of New York that Sonheim presents – I’m easy. At the moment I’m not happy with this text. It’s a bit “Tassato was also there!” in nature.
I’m cautious about playing up the Marcher angle too much, but it makes geographical sense. Tassato borders the Mournwold, where the Marchers-who-like-mines end up. It also has a position where I can imagine Marcher merchants bringing their bounteous crops to sell to the city dwellers who then transport them up and down river to sell to Sarvos, Highguard, Varushka and the rest.
We probably needs something that plays up the diplomacy, the articulation, the politics of the twin-city. At the moment, its being overshadowed in this history by Sarvos which will not do. Again, a chat through with Matt will help. I think.
The Wolf in the East
Holberg is the youngest of the four cities. It began as a fortified Dawnish settlement in the mountains of eastern Semmerholm, prospering from rich caravans of lumber that travelled west through the mountains. The town was used to long periods of isolation; it was founded during a period of relative peace in Semmerholm when Dawnish forces controlling Estmure. When the local barbarians fought back, the land-route through what is today modern Semmerholm was closed, leaving the city surrounded by enemies. Many of the original nobles withdrew back to Weirwater and Astolat, along with most of the yeofolk. Those who remained behind eventually abandoned the distinction, and became culturally distinct. Noble and yeofolk merged to become “burghers” – hard working, practical, communally minded people united by the challenges of prospering in a difficult land threatened by orcs. When Semmerholm was finally conquered by the Empire in 52YE, the assumption was that Holberg would enthusiastically rejoin Dawn. In actuality, the bughers chose to remain independent. They traded with the Empire via the Gate but showed little interest in actually becoming Imperial citizens secure as they were in their massively fortified town. They also enjoyed reasonably successful foreign trade using the eastern route to the sea to maintain cultural and economic ties with the distant Commonwealth (?). The eventual conquest of the territory in 132YE, and their petition to join the League, are often held up as an instructive tale about the complexities of Senatorial politics and the danger of assumptions.
Holberg probably has more history than any other part of the League, inevitably. We recognised too late the danger presented by the “lost territories” – of which Holberg is one. The territories that started the game in barbarian hands had significantly more narrative weight than the boring old established territories. Probably worth an essay all it’s own.
I’ve already touched on the “lesson of Holberg” – the controversy in-game surrounding it becoming part of the Empire. The main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t entirely work. Where did these people come from? Why were they there to be conquered by Dawn? Where did their massive fortified city in the middle of nowhere come from? The problem has been compounded over time – a combination of geography, original history, and stuff that has been developed in play. By playing up Holberg’s isolation, for example, we’ve accidentally made the bit where the territory was conquered but not the city make less sense. Somehow I need to untangle these problems in an elegant and satisfying fashion.
Dave Young developed part of this on-the-field with some plot, building on the idea that the original founders of Holberg were Dawnish-folk who turned away from the sports-and-dragons traditions to do something else. It makes as much sense as anything else – one of the problems with the entire territory being that it is remarkably hard to get to being mostly land-locked and bordered on three sides by murderous Druj orcs.
I think this needs a lot of polishing. I can see it eating up as much discussion time as the other three cities put together.
Not single spy but in battalions
The joy of a wiki is how easy it is to edit. Unfortunately, that ease means that jobs have a nasty tendency to spread. Once this history section is signed off I’ll need to do an edit on each of the four League territory pages to make sure their history sections match up. I might mention the occasional border skirmishes in the regions of Tassato and Sarvos. I’ll maybe need to throw some lines into Highguard history, and might want to reference Temeschwar in Varushka, and Holberg in Dawn. It won’t be big pieces of work, but there’ll be lots of little ones. The more new information we add, the more we’ll need to check it against existing stuff, or link it into existing pages. Its a pain but in the long run probably worth it. A player who wants a Temeschwar character should be able to learn that their city has Varushkan links without needing to read the history of the League page.
We’ll also need to balance how much information goes on the history page, and how much goes on the individual territory pages, with as little actual duplication as possible. It might be that we end up completely reformatting and making a new page called “pre Imperial League” or something exciting like that. Working on Empire, especially its history, has a tendency to snowball unfortunately. As is probably demonstrated by the fact I’m writing League history as part of a project to remove matrilineal descent from the Brass Coast.