Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thinking about Warhammers while reading Wolf Hall

I recently read Wolf Hall, partly because it's well regarded and I needed something to read but mostly because it's mainly set from 1520 to 1535, or about the time that a bunch of ne'er-do-wells are getting caught up in goings-on at the Schaffenfest in Bögenhafen. It seems well-researched but, even if not, it's plausible enough to be taken at face value, especially as my primary interest is for insights for an RPG set in a fictional, historical-ish world.

I'm not sure what themes Mantel was hoping to bring to the fore when she was writing the novel but to me a number stand out -
  • The functioning of power
  • The role of religion (clearly a major theme of the book, and of the time)
  • Status, class and wealth
  • The emergence of modernity
  • The medieval family 


 The functioning of power

This is central to the book, given the viewpoint is that of Thomas Cromwell who rises to become Henry VIII's chief minister. But the key point is that all power comes either from the King, or the Pope (although some claim to be servants of God) with nothing by way of checks or balances other than "what will other kings think" (e.g. if you de-throne their niece) or "what does God think". Being human that source of power is rather arbitrary, especially when (depending on how charitably you look at things) they're a man in their late 30s / early 40s with a roving eye or a king with no heir whose father siezed the crown on the battlefield (or both!).

First Cardinal Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell gain tremendous power and wealth by gaining the ear of a king who's prepared to delegate, but having gained that ear he still needs to be treated with kid gloves. Both are clearly very able men, one being the son of a butcher who's risen to become the preeminent churchman in the realm, the other the son of a blacksmith who's become a successful lawyer and investor. Being close to even a fickle source of power they almost can't help but enormously enrich themselves, with all sorts of people just wanting to shower them with gifts for some reason, while the king is also awarding them propery, incomes and titles.

I'm not quite sure how to take stock of this in game terms, and am not at all comfortable with the idea of a game with the players functioning at these sorts of levels. Nightmare GM pretty much describes both how the game would need to be played and how it would seem - not a fun prospect.

So I think the take-home needs to be not to even think of the term "power" without the modifier of "fickle".

The role of religion

There are two connected religious developments which are highly significant for Cromwell and his peers - firstly Henry's desire to break from Rome and hence grant his own divorce (and handily also get hold of those taxes which would otherwise go to the Pope) and also the stirrings of Protestant reform and in particular the forbidden tome that was Tyndale's Bible.

There are two aspects to this which I struck me as eminently gameable -
  1. The absolute belief in God
  2. Heresy
On the first point you have a king who's trying to divorce his queen, and nobles who are trying to dispose of a cardinal who's displaced and undermined them, and in both cases one of their major concerns is "what will God think?".

From a secular modern perspective this absolute belief has always been the hardest part of a game for me to "get", and in most game settings it's even more important than it was historically given that, in the words of the great Terry Pratchett, the gods have "a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows". Why do players very rarely seem to give as much weight to the gods as their historical or fictional counterparts would?

This leaves me wondering whether some sort of mechanical impact of divine disfavour is needed, not just for cleric types but for anyone. Perhaps (for minor disfavour) once per day a successful roll is converted to a fumble (the player gets to chose which roll). For severe disfavour, who knows?

On the heresy front it seems to me that the Warhammer world is missing several tricks. After all, what could be more WFRP than this Wolf Hall quote - "They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press"? In Warhammer of course you have witch hunters and rumours of forbidden gods, and more openly the rivalry between Ulric and Sigmar, or the displacement of the Old Faith by newer gods. But what's entirely lacking (as far as I've seen) are struggles within the following of a particular god, which is both far more interesting than the chaos / not chaos choice but probably also rather vicious.

The two heresies we see in Wolf Hall are Lollardy and Tyndale's Bible - heretical primarily because they undermined the authority of the Catholic church but also in the case of Lollardy being seen as a threat to the establishment more generally. Given how close it is to the establishment in The Empire I think some heretical beliefs about Sigmar are called for...

Status, class and wealth

Part of what makes the Renaissance interesting as a setting is the emergence of the merchant class and how this plays upon the gulf between the nobility and the commoner. But the gulf is still very much there.

Henry VIII is notable for advancing people based on merit, but both Cromwell and Wolsey are commoners in a courtiers' world. Cromwell and his merchant friends are in many cases significantly more wealthy than the nobles they interact with, with at least one noble being heavily in debt to them. But the nobility have status and, equally importantly, heritage. The word of the son of a blacksmith is worth very little, but even physical evidence doesn't stand up particularly well to the friendships that the nobles have nurtured from a young age, or the fact that their grandfathers fought together on some battlefield long ago.

Couple this with the gentry being concious of their relative loss of status and these elevated commoners are on oncomfortable ground.

The emergence of modernity

Another aspect which makes the Renaissance a refreshing change from the pseudo-medieval setting of most RPGs is the emergence of recognisably more modern elements of architecture and culture. The elite are now building palaces rather than castles (Mantel suggests that one reason Henry was keen to reduce Wolsey in status is so that he can claim Hampton Court Palace for Anne Boleyn) and gentlemen are laying out impressive gardens and worrying about the cultivation of strawberries. As a GM you can mix in a dash of costume drama into the grim dark.

The medieval family

The family though is still thoroughly medieval - there's a high mortality rate and a lot of interdependence. Cromwell's wife and daughters die of sweating sickness when he's in his mid-forties, while his nephew Richard Williams adopts the Cromwell surname and prospers as much as Cromwell's own son thanks to Cromwell's favour from the king.

Cromwell also gains a wide variety of hangers-on, running a large household and having minor gentry "apprentice" their sons to him in the hope of them learning his knack for making incredible amounts of money, while Mantel also speculates at various wardships. Certainly his household is exceptional in some ways, considering both his humble beginnings and the high status to which he arises, but the complex, fascinating and slightly melancholy picture which emerges is hopefully one that will stay with me and enhance my game worlds.

And finally...

Most of the way through the book WFRP was at the front of my mind but it belatedly occured to me that it was also saying something about Warhammer 40K, and probably other sci-fi settings as well. In a dystopian future the messages about the fickleness of how power is gained and exercised, as well as in the importance of status and how it influences or limits people's rise and hastens their fall are well worth bearing in mind.

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