Barbarian Laws and Role-Play Games

A short conversation arose on my twitter-feed the other day, about the potential to use a table-top Role-Play Game (henceforth, ‘RPG’) as a medium for teaching medieval history. My contribution at the time was simply to mention as an aside that my girlfriend has been trying to convince me to write a historical fiction murder mystery based around the Lombard laws. The response, from Melissa Julian-Jones (@MedievalMJJ) the starter of the thread bordered between positive and imperative, and I spent the weekend just gone musing about it seriously. While the writing of a story ran into a major stumbling block,1 I did start thinking about how I would turn a selection of the laws into an RPG.

A table-top RPG, for those not in the know, is essentially an act of interactive theatre in which the players are themselves (usually) the audience. The group of players normally comprises between three and six people in all, although more is possible. One player narrates and arbitrates the story, and depending on the game may variously be referred to as the ‘Storyteller’, ‘Chair’, ‘Host’, ‘Dungeon-Master’ (or, ‘DM’) or, perhaps most commonly the ‘Games-Master’ (‘GM’). I’m going to use ‘Host’ as it’s my preferred term, and will return to their role shortly.

Each of the other players portrays a single, major character within the story: one of its protagonists. Rather than being a fully improvisational form of theatre, in which the players can act out the role of their respective characters without restraint, each character is defined as a series of traits defining who they are, what they know and their relative chances of success or failure when attempting to perform any given action. Many of these traits are qualitative – a character might be, for example, ‘female’, named ‘Rosamunda’, ‘free born’, ‘Catholic’, ‘well-dressed’, ‘pretty’, ‘out-spoken’ and so forth. These traits act as hooks to direct the player’s imagination and shape the way in which they role-play the character.

An RPG, however, is also a game, and the storytelling is set in an arbitration system that combines quantitative values for traits identifying the characters chances of success or failure at a given task, with randomly generated numbers. By having the same categories of quantitative traits shared across each character, but at varying levels to represent their personal abilities, the character’s potential for success or failure are defined. Assuming a system in which the chances of succeeding are given as percentages, Rosamunda, from our example before, might have the following skills: knife-fighting (10%), climbing (20%), running (25%), weaving cloth (40%), leadership (50%). The higher the value on a skill the more experience she has in that area, and from this we can deduce something about her background before the story began. In the Lombard laws, women are not imagined as using weapons, most notably in Rothari No. 278 where it is stated that a woman cannot be accused of breaching another’s courtyard in anger (the crime called hoberos in the Langobardic language) as, ‘it is foolish to think that a woman, free or slave, could commit a forceful act with arms as if she were a man’ [The Lombard Laws, trans. by Katherine Fischer-Drew, p. 108]. This is not to say it didn’t happen, of course, but that is another story – and one which I’ve outlined in another blog-post, regarding the imputation of shame on women by the Lombard legislators. Conversely, ‘weaving’ is a skill that a free woman might be expected to be better at, and as such Rosamunda has been given a greater number of percentage points in that area to represent this. In role-play gaming a standardised proforma is used, a ‘character sheet’ on which the respective traits and values are organised and recorded. As the story progresses the character will use their skills, and may therefore improve them. These developments are also recorded on the character sheet.

The Host of the story, then, is surrounded by a group of players, each portraying a single protagonist of the story. The Host’s duty is to narrate that story, and arbitrate the outcome of events either with quick judgement calls or by identifying which of the quantitative traits should be rolled against, as the situation demands. For instance, imagine the following scene set out by the Host:

Rosamunda is out walking in the nearby woodlands, a basket in hand as she gathers berries. Suddenly, she hears a rustling from the undergrowth a few yards away. With a grunt and a crash, an enraged boar bursts suddenly out and charges across the mud towards her, its tusks glinting in the dappled sunlight that filters through the leaves. Frozen for a moment in fear, she notes a patch of dark blood sticky around the broken shaft of an arrow that protrudes from its flank.

How does she react? Despite the infinite range of things the player might say, the character has a limited set of actual options available to them. If the player says that Rosamunda should fly up into the trees, summon lightning form the heavens to strike the beast, or else use the power of her mind to cause a tree to fall on it then the Host can simply dismiss these options out of hand. Rosamunda possesses none of these abilities, so any attempt at them would automatically fail. Looking at Rosamunda’s other skills, some are equally useless here. A 40% chance of successfully weaving cloth will be of no avail, and there’s no one else present for her to use her vaunted leadership skills (50%) on. She has a knife, she could draw it and try and stab the creature, but at 10% the chances are slim. Her best options seem to be either running or climbing a nearby tree. The player opts for running first, but when rolling a die with a 100 sides gets a result of 26. One point higher than her skill value of 25% – and meaning that she has failed the attempt. The Host decides this means she gets five feet before tripping on a protruding root. She manages to catch her balance before she falls, her hand grabbing on to a low branch that hangs nearby. Meanwhile, the boar has closed nearly all the distance between them. Rosamunda opts to change course and swing herself up into the tree. The Host, deeming the first branch to be low and easy to climb decides she has an extra 20% chance of success on top of her innate skill, requiring a value of 40% or less. She rolls a 13. Well below the number she needs, and equating to a success for her:

Before the beast’s tusks are cutting through the air where she had stood moments before, Rosamunda is already three branches up the tree and still going. Looking down below her the injured beast paws the ground and circles the trunk, frustrated and furious. But she’s safe for now, at least, and has time to think up a plan of escape.

The Host, then, is framing the story; outlining and arbitrating events while letting the players explore their material. The parallels between this and a small group seminar, are hopefully obvious, with the Host being the tutor and the players students. The examples given here have already been positioned within a setting of early medieval Lombardy. Prior to the game session itself, the Host may set background reading for the players, just for any seminar: a chapter or two from an introductory textbook (Neil Christi’s The Lombards, or Chris Wickham’s Early Medieval Italy spring instantly to mind). More specifically, the Host will have sketched out some plot ideas they wish to explore within the story, perhaps revolving the main events in the coming session of the story (a chapter, as it were) on specific clauses from the Edictus of Rothari alongside scholarly articles on the subject matter. The players may have been instructed to read these first, or else the Host introduces them in the story itself, using the voice and actions of one of the ‘non-player characters’ (or ‘NPCs’ – that is all the antagonists, bystanders, allies, passing faces in the market and who knows what else who are present in the story but whose actions are portrayed by the Host rather than one of the circle of main players).

While such an approach may not replace a more formal seminar completely, it certainly offers opportunities for integration into a broader teaching framework. The greatest concern that a person might have when contemplating introducing materials this way (aside perhaps from stage fright!) is the gnawing worry that the students might take their fictionalised constructions as being fully historical. This, I would argue, is doing the hypothetical student a disservice. Just as small children learning through role-play know what is real and what is make believe, so can the role-player easily differentiate between game and reality.

At the end of the RPG chapter itself, I would suggest that the Host round up the subjects that have been covered, much as they would do for any other seminar. Any points that turned out in play to be glaringly at odds with the scholarship can of course be discussed, likewise where plurality of interpretations exist. When planning the session before the Host/tutor may plan a division of time that is, say two thirds gaming, one third review. Keeping an eye on the clock and the ongoing discussion, I suspect (although I have not tested this in the field, as it were) that the Host may well notice that the academic discussion has crept into the story itself. Any session of a role-play game divides itself between story, discussion and tangential asides. In addition to the fictionalised portrayal of them materials in the framework of the story, a parallel discussion will inevitably occur, and reflecting on the materials and its possible interpretations in moments that appear very much like the discussions held in any other seminar.

 

UPDATE: In April 2016 I began a second blog dedicated to expanding this project – under the name of Langobard: a role-play game set in the early medieval Lombard laws. The intention has been the gamification of the laws (focusing mostly on the Edictus Rothari) in the public eye. That project is now well underway. I announce updates on twitter under the hashtag #LangobardRPG,  and the blog itself can be found here. I hope you’ll come and take a look around, and look forward to any feedback you might have!

 

Notes

1. I now have a strong plot and collection of characters sketched out for a small Italian settlement in the early 730s CE. But I’m not comfortable with it. The theme is definitely worthy of a trigger warning, revolving in part around two clauses by Liutprand – No. 12 (717 CE) equating the marriage of girls under the age of twelve with abduction, and setting a 900 solidi fine, and, No. 112 (729 CE) which clarifies that the girls should be older than twelve years before being married, as ‘there have been many controversies over this matter and it appears to us that girls are not mature before they have completed twelve years’ [The Lombard Laws, trans. by Katherine Fischer-Drew, p. 192].

There are two ways of writing this story that I can see. The first option is lightly without engaging with the psychological implications beyond what is needed to reveal the motive for the murder and to explore the law-code. This, I feel, would be doing a discredit to any potential readers who have suffered equivalent abuse. I can’t see any way of writing in a light tone that would not turn the crux of the story into titillation so trivialising that any pedagogical value of the rest of the text would be drowned out. The alternative is to engage with the psychological subject matter fully as a text for a modern audience in conjunction with its historical role. I honestly do not think I am qualified to do that, and any attempt I made to do so would be both hurtful and insulting to the very audience I was trying not to dismiss or offend. So – back to the drawing board to find a less unsettling clause in the laws on which to base the story.

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2 thoughts on “Barbarian Laws and Role-Play Games

  1. Pingback: Have A Very Medieval Christmas – Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice

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