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Netflyer 31


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Role-playing with Clio

Clio is an interesting woman, but an eternally misrepresented one. As someone who spent a long time trying to understand her I feel it's time to come to her defence. All too often game designers, role-players and all sorts of other people abuse Clio with absolute freedom and very few people notice, never mind care. Still, being a chivalrous sort and one who feels a particular obligation toward Clio I shall step forward to defend her - the muse of historians and someone who they occasionally feel obliged to write about in the first person.

Clio has many gripes, but most of them come down to people's failure to understand how different she is. "The past is like a foreign country, people do things differently there," said one historian, bravely sticking up for her, and they certainly did. Now far be it from me to make sweeping generalisations about the past, but if you go back a century or so you'll find that most of the following are true to some degree.

People are more religious. Clio is a very religious lady, and a lot of what she's seen over the years was inspired by it. She remembers a time when every village had a priest, rabbi or other religious leader, when a well judged sermon really would reform people's morals for a time. When crops failed, the weather turned bad or rumours of war began people turned to their god. On the other hand she's quick to point out that visions of pious peasants living good lives are seriously misplaced. People sinned quite a lot; they just spent more time praying for forgiveness. Those with really devout feelings entered the church, took vows or attached themselves to a monastery, the better to avoid the sinful outside world.

Not that this always worked. Clio tells a good story about a Spanish monastery that endured under Moslem rule for years. When the reconquista liberated it the monks promptly converted to Islam and decamped to Africa in order that they could keep their mistresses. Equally cynical, she goes on, was the French king who made donations to the church to attract the intercession of saints, the size of the donation depending on what intercession he was seeking and how important the saint was. As far as Clio can tell the King did his best to drive a hard bargain with the heavenly host.

People are also more corrupt. They're not any worse though, Clio assures me, just under far less supervision. After all, she says, there was no reliable accounting system, offices were bought and sold and it wasn't uncommon for rulers to forget to pay their servants. In such circumstances it was only natural that people sought to profit from their jobs, indeed for centuries most efficient systems of taxation worked by charging a noble a lump sum then encouraging him to recoup it from his subjects in the form of taxes. Corruption, Clio points out, was fairly endemic, officials could be bribed, taxes would be too high and justice was for sale. Of course if things became really out of hand popular pressure would force officials to do their job properly, after all no-one wanted to be responsible for starting riots or rebellions.

Clio's wardrobe is not something she's especially proud of. Her day-to-day clothes are for the most part grey woollen things. They began life as blue, green or brown, but years of wear made Clio's world quite a dull one. As a result when she does have money to spend she tends to buy things that most of us would consider garish. Her jewellery is as ostentatious as possible, her party frocks are in bright, bright colours, pastel shades are not something she has in her wardrobe. Her most treasured possessions are those that came from a long way away. Foreign dyes, silks and spices are things she craves. It's not because they look nice, she explains, it's because they're different. These things cost a fortune: when I go out dressed like this I'm letting people know I'm rich, and that means I'm important. If I could afford it I'd dress like this all the time, clothes are status and people know it. Look at those Roman emperors, she goes on, reserving a whole colour for themselves. Imperial purple was a status symbol long after their empire was forgotten.

Her tastes in art are similar. Most of her collection is full of large, overwrought pieces in expensive materials. Take the Bayeux tapestry, months of labour went into that, and it was only commissioned to show how important the people who commissioned it were. The same goes for most of the bits and pieces she's accumulated, for the most part they are large, expensive and impractical. She even owns a number of castles notable only for their military uselessness and architectural expense. Their original owners were just showing off, she explains.

Indeed Clio is notorious for showing off. If you've got it, flaunt it, has been her enduring motto and what she's usually talking about is money and rank. Any friend of Clio who has rank is sure to insist on his proper titles, wear his badge of office at every opportunity and will not fail to come down hard on anyone who tries to usurp his privileges. He's also likely to engage in enormous displays of wealth to impress his equals, preferably to the point at which they will admit that they are not in fact his equals but actually his inferiors. Clio remembers one particularly good party in the sixteenth century called the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Henry VIII was the host, the French King Francis I his guest, Clio is not joking when she says Henry spent enough on the party to have fought a war.

Not that Henry was averse to fighting wars. Henry, like a lot of Clio's more important friends fought wars for fun. 'The sport of kings' they call it, says Clio and to them it really is a game. Unfortunately most of the players have no idea why they're there, haven't been trained and take out their fear and frustration on the unfortunate spectators, most of whom are as much afraid of their own side as the opposition. In fact many of the unfortunates caught up in such games don't even know who the enemy is. Most of Clio's friends don't travel much and will believe all sorts of stories about people from far away places. They certainly haven't seen any maps, not any accurate ones anyway. The downside to this is that if you look even a little bit foreign they're liable to entertain all sorts of funny ideas about you.

Given all this you can see why Clio gets upset when we write games about her friends. Most of us portray them as just like us, only a bit more stupid and in different clothes. We don't take account of their completely alien world view, the moral outlook that saw them pray sincerely every day while pocketing the rewards of what we would view as corrupt practices. We don't realise how grey their world was and just how much they'd give for the luxury of a piece of dyed silk. We can't appreciate how dull and boring their food was, although if we could we'd understand why orange sellers followed Napoleon's armies all over Europe, hoping to attract the disposable cash of soldiers. (Some of these young women were even selling oranges!)

So what can we do you ask? Well for a start we can avoid all the faux pas outlined above, but what really annoys Clio is the fact that along with her followers among the historians role-players should be able to avoid bruising her sensibilities more than most, and the key to this lies in empathy.

You see empathy is what historians call role-playing. Its about getting inside someone's head and imagining what it was like to be them. Some historians spend a lot of time pretending to be very important people, Gladstone, Disraeli, the exuberant Henry VIII or even the enigmatic Saladin. Others devote equal amounts of attention to people who weren't important enough for Clio to remember their names. What was it like, ask these historians, to be a soldier in 1917, a Londoner during the blitz, or a peasant who had a few too many beers, swore a daft oath and woke up the next day on a crusade to Jerusalem?

Amazingly, role-players who are quite keen to get inside the heads of starship troopers, magicians and all sorts of other people who never existed, arguing about their motives, their feelings and what makes them tick grind to a halt when asked to do the same for their own ancestors. Most at fault are the GM's of course, after all if your 'historical world' is a thinly disguised copy of our own, just with taverns instead of pubs and more thees and thous than strictly necessary you can hardly blame your players for not behaving properly.

Of course the thing that really, really upsets Clio is not the being abused, but the being ignored. As she points out (and as I can confirm) she is a fascinating woman, who tells a far better story than any of our modern authors. Her characters are real people, driven by real passions and ideals. The good guys don't always win, but its rare to find a genuine bad guy either. Nations rise and fall in her stories, a perpetual globe spanning tapestry in which nothing can be discounted, however small. In the end though the best thing about Clio's stories is that they're all true.
Martin Lloyd