Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sources of Inspiration: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 46

This week the Play on Target podcast does a round-robin to talk about various sources of inspiration. Each host offers up two different books or tools they've been thinking about and what that's brought to the table. Some of us talk about games, some about online resources, some about fiction books. I scribbled down some things I'd never heard of. I particular happy with our back and forth about how you'd translated some of these concepts into play. 

Since we cover things tightly tied to gaming in the episode, I want to talk about some interesting non-gaming books here. I listen to a lot of my books now- while I’m driving, doing busy work, painting figures, playing Euro Truck Simulator. But I can only do that with non-fiction. For some reason my brain can’t track fiction books; they leave me cold. I had the same problem with radio dramas, so I should have expected that. 

In any case I’ve worked through some just blah books recently (What if? by Randall Munroe; When to Rob a Bank by Levitt & Dubner; and Forensic History from The Great Courses series). But three others have stuck with me. I tend to read for gaming. If I’m doing a particular genre I try to read materials at least tangentially related. So when I last worked on fantasy, I went through Byzantine and Arab history. When I was thinking about wuxia and L5R, I worked through Chinese and Mongol histories. I even listened to a massive biography of Howard Hughes for a Changeling game (long story). I sometimes read off-topic, as you’ll see. Of my recent reading, I can recommend three  books, with some caveats.

Blood Royal by Eric Jager is ostensibly a true-crime medieval murder mystery. In 1407 Louis of Orleans was killed by assassins in the streets of Paris. That appealed to me. I’m running a City Guards game, so I wanted to see some of the primitive investigation process and its limitations. Not that I’m bringing any realism to the table, but sources like this give me details and ideas to throw in. It’s narrated by Odo from DS9, so that’s a plus.

But a murder mystery this is not. It is a procedural for the first half of the book. There’s a good deal of sharp set up: detailing the investigator Guillaume de Tignonville, Provost of Paris; the nature of the city; the political realities of the time; and the atmosphere of the early 15th Century. That has lots of cool bits and some ideas for relations between institutions. However, if you’re an amateur medievalist, you’ll probably already know most of this. Anyway, we get a ways into the book before the murder happens. Then there's some cool stuff about the investigation: how they interviewed, what they looked for on site, how they secured the scene. But then the murderer’s revealed: pretty quickly and pretty obviously. In some ways it feels like the investigation doesn’t matter.

And then we switch to the second half of the book covering the political fallout from that revelation. That goes on and on and on. The second half’s more a history of the civil war and English invasions which tore France apart. Don’t get me wrong, it has sharp detail but it’s far away from what the title promised. It is a great book for anyone doing courtly stuff: lots of detail on the back and forth, as well as how different parties responded to different slights. So I recommend this with reservations. If you go in knowing the limitations you might be cool with it. 

Forgotten Ally: China’sWorld War II 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter was an impulse buy. I don’t know Asian history very well so I’ve been trying to correct that (Foundations of Eastern Civilization and Barbarian Empires of the Steppes from The Great Courses). I had a fairly good sense of the Victorian era, especially about Shanghai. But I had no clue about the 20th Century. Since I planned to run an alt 1930’s game, I wanted to explore parts of the period I didn’t know well to help with my world building. 

This book is heavy. This book is hard. Everything’s in painted in shades grey or maybe really everyone’s just dark as night: from the Japanese devastation of cities in the invasion, to the Nationalists breaking the dykes on the Yellow River and killing 500,000 people, to the earliest Communist confession campaigns. Everyone's awful. Beyond that, the attitude of Western officials and their treatment of China throughout the war is sickening, from Churchill to Stillwell to Roosevelt. I knew that the conflict between China and Japan had happened before WW2, but I hadn’t had the context. China became vital to Allied strategic objectives once the the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But the Allies seemed to ignore that the country had been at war, on their own, for four+ years already.

So, for me at least, it colored in a whole page of history I had only the briefest knowledge of. It isn’t a pretty picture, but does show the political and cultural realities of the time. If the book has a shortcoming, it’s that focuses on big name actors: Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei, Mao Zedong, and their various rivals, allies, officers, and family members. We get some on the ground details: usually about conditions in cities under siege, horrors in the countryside, and observations from elites. The book was especially interesting since I read Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem about the same time. Having some of that historical context made many references come alive in that sci-fi novel. Recommended, but only for those who have a real interest in the period/place.


So yesterday the Bundle of Holding posted that they’re doing a bundle for Aces & Eights, a Western rpg. I always check out the BoH offerings, and I’m generally a sucker for them. Then I read that in this setting, the South won the Civil War and the North splintered into fragments.

And I got a little nauseous. Because I thought about the implications of that. Not about the game; I don’t know it; it might well be awesome and redemptive.

But I’d just gotten through The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. And that’s all I could think of when I heard that premise: all the horrors and violations of the Whipping Machine, the corrupting hypocrisy it infected in everyone, and the sufferings of the enslaved under a terrorist authority.

The Half Has Never Been Told analyzes just how integral Slavery was to the growth of America. It punches through the bootstrap notions of the rise of American industry. It makes clear how much the North depended on the South to even begin to become what it was. And how much everyone knew that and acceded to the demands of that institution, because they’d invested and bought into it. The book breaks down and analyze the machine that was slavery. It shows how it squeezed efficiencies out to rival industrial development. And it did this via murder, rape, terrorism, and torture. How it consciously and deliberately shattered the enslaved destroying family bonds, corrupting religious connections, and making them into raw materials.

This book changed the way I look at things. It tints statements about economics and humanity I read. It’s amazingly well-written, painful, and compelling. I could say more, but it’s almost more a gut feeling. If you’re at all, even vaguely, interested in any facet of this: 19th Century history, economics, the Civil War, race relations, slavery, or the like, I really, really think you should try this out. 

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