Saturday 23 February 2013

Roleplaying Ethics

I have a feeling that the narrative ethics post (the last one of 2012, if you missed it) seems to have gone some way to giving an account of why we, as wargamers, accept some games and reject others. Combined with the idea of a horizon of our personal experience and the sorts of questions we ask ourselves, it does seem to account for many of the major features of the ethical landscape of wargaming.

I am not claiming, of course, that a narrative ethic gives a full understanding of the ethics of wargaming. It does feel, to me, at least, a bit too empirical, and a little too woolly. The problem here is, of course, that it seems to be somewhat subjective. We can, or at least, most of us can, agree that however much we might like wargaming with SS Panzer units in France in 1944, they were not the clean living Teutonic warriors that myth has made them out to be. The graves of those shot by them bear silent witness against that.

So the question to ask is whether narrative ethics gives us any sort of traction on the whole question of the ethics of wargaming. One of the hallmarks of a decent theory is, of course, that it is more widely applicable than might be at first thought, and so the next step in developing the idea is to see if it applies outside the domain for which it was invented. In this case that domain was historical miniature figure gaming. The aim now is to widen the question into another area, allied by not exactly the same.

There are a number of possibilities here. We could discuss board wargames, or computer wargames, of science fiction wargames of the Warhammer variety, all of which would be entirely reasonable candidates for such an analysis. The problem is that I do not know very much (if anything) about them. I do, however, have distant and foggy memories of a variety of role playing games, both fantasy and other, so I think I might be able to comment coherently on them. We shall see.

The first, and obvious thing about role playing games is that the player is playing a role. In a miniature wargame, this is also the case but is not quite so obvious, in that the wargamer in a miniature games plays at a variety of different levels. A miniature wargamer is a general, but also a unit commander, often a sub-unit commander, and so on. Even in a skirmish game, the player would have a variety of roles. In a role playing game, as I recall, a maximum of three or so player characters could be run by a single player, but it was better the fewer there were.

This, then, counts towards the application of a narrative ethic in roleplaying games. The player identifies with the character, and thus what happens to that player-character is part of the life story of the player.

The second point about at least most fantasy role playing games at least is that there is, in many of them, a decisive moral landscape. In Runequest there was chaos and the Lunar Empire. The barbarians of Prax were, more or less, the good guys, while the Lunars were at best ambiguous. Even more marked in Call of Cthulhu was the division between good and evil.  The aim of the game was to cling on to those shreds of civilisation and sanity that was threatened by cultists and ancient horrors.

In other words, in these sorts of games, there is actually little room for moral ambiguity. The lines of good and evil are more or less drawn in black and white. ‘We’, as the player party, are the good guys; ‘they’ are the bad guys. There may be some people who are neither us nor bad, from whom we can get help and information, and there may be others who are simply not involved. However, the politics of most fantasy worlds seem to be drawn in fairly stark terms. We know that we are good.

I recall, years ago, being given an unmistakably evil character for a campaign, and my task was to capture a city, poison the wells, and slaughter the people and so on. Even as a callow youth I recall being slightly uncomfortable with this, although I confess, under the strong persuasion of the game master, as a group we were successful. The second part of the campaign was with our ‘normal’, “good” characters, sent along to right the wrongs, restore normality, heal the wounds of the land and so on. I still recall the sense of relief from the group as we picked up the good side again.

So was that campaign merely tasteless, the imagination of a callow youth, or was it an exploration of the dark side of ourselves, a bit like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat did to enter the mind of a master criminal?  

Of course, more sophisticated role playing games bring increasing moral ambiguity. Even in Runequest questions could be asked: was there a ‘good Lunar’? Was stealing money to buy food a good thing to do? If nothing else, this does remind us that the real world is morally ambiguous, but the question we are asking is about our player-character’s actions in some other world. Can we make those speech-acts in our world which reflect evil actions in the role playing world?

I think that the way these sorts of role playing games are set up the answer is ‘no’. There would be little fun in playing a mad cultist in Call of Cthulhu, for example. There would, essentially, be no game at all. So, overall, I suggest that the way these sorts of games are set up is a support for the idea of narrative ethics in wargaming.

Of course, not all roleplaying games are set up in this way. Paranoia, for example, has no real evil or good, as do, so I believe, the Warhammer family of games. But whether these games enter into our ethic, or whether the ‘pure escapism’ defence is sufficient will have to wait for another post and, possibly, someone else entirely to write it.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Language and Models

I have written quite a lot in the past here about the use of models in wargaming. The idea of a set of wargame rules is, in essence, to model some sort of real world combat situation, deciding on what is important and what is trivial. The important bits are assimilated into a model which, hopefully, when all the bits are assembled, articulates something approximating to the ‘real thing’.

As I have mentioned before, I am sure, the problems associated with models are manifold. In fact, if we did not have to use them in order to do any wargaming at all, we probably would not. Models can cause almost as many problems as they solve; we can consider some bit of our model so crucial that we believe that that bit, at least, has to be real, has to be a real representation of the existent world. Our model thus starts to shape our ontology, our understanding of what is really out there.

This attitude is, of course, shaped further by the reports of battles that we read. I can practically guarantee that, in a given battle report, be it by someone who was there, or from a secondary source, that, whatever the era, someone will say something like ‘the third regiment were pushed back’, or ‘the lancers recoiled’, or ‘the destruction of the tank brigade opened a gap into which the infantry poured’ or something of the kind. I am sure that you, as well as me, could pull numerous books off our shelves which would use this sort of language.

 Of course, we use the language ourselves. I confess that I skip over the battle reports on most of the blogs I read; I have not been convinced of the value of ‘after action reports’, certainly as straight reportage of a battle. Perhaps if the authors put in a ‘things I have learnt from this’ the value of such items may improve (and yes, I do know that I have perpetrated a few AARs myself here). But the language we use is similar – ‘the phalanx pushed on’, ‘the foot gave ground’ and so on.

Even the rule sets we use have such language – ‘recoil’, advance’, ‘follow up’ and so on. This is even described somewhere (I think in the introduction to one of the DB* sets of rules) as being the basic information which is available to commanders. Generals can see if a unit is being staggered by shot, recoiling, advancing to victory or running for the hills. They do not know the basic status of the casualties of a given unit, or its current state of morale, and so on.

There is thus a basic set of language which we use about battles, but it is important to realise that this language itself is based upon metaphors and models. For example, in an account of a modern (say World war Two) battle, it is perfectly acceptable to report that ‘the 21st brigade was pushed back’. But we need to pause for a moment and have a bit of a closer look at that statement.
How, exactly, was the brigade pushed back? This is the key question, and one to which there is no particularly good answer in a literal sense. No-one actually pushed the brigade. In the original sense, push back may well have derived from account of phalanx fighting, where it is possible (although controversial) to argue that the two sets of hoplites or phalagites did actually physically push against each other. However, by the twentieth century this was almost certainly not the case. The pushing is metaphorical and it is not actually clear exactly what it means.

How then does a brigade (or any other sort of unit) really get pushed back in modern combat? I am not expert at all, but I would hazard a guess that it is via intensity of fire, perceived threat to front and flanks, orders to withdraw due to increasing casualties or threat thereof, officers and senior NCOs saying ‘back lads, keep your heads down’ and so on. No-one is actually pushing. A whole complex set of activities by the enemy and by friends are encompassed in a rather simple, broadly and vaguely defined metaphor, that of the push back.

Now, it is arguable that a battle is one of those things which are indescribable. It is so awful, so complex, so confusing and terrifying that language breaks down. The participants cannot find the words to describe the sheer terror and horror of the combat, and so they resort to vague metaphor, to language which is designed to give some sort of feel for the situation without pinning down particular emotions or activities. Some things, as Wittgenstein observed, fall beyond language, and that of which we cannot speak we have to remain silent about.

The upshot of this is that it leaves battle reports and accounts vulnerable to the reporter simply recounting the action using other people’s language. For example, in the seventeenth century there are descriptions of the phenomena called ‘push of pike’, where two blocks of pikemen clash and push until one side breaks. Fair enough, let us put that in the rules.

On the other hand, H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen, in Simplicious Simplicissimus, his magnum opus about the Thirty Years War, argues that to kill a pikeman in a battle is to murder an innocent man, as pikemen cannot do or achieve anything in those circumstances.

What are we to make of this? We could dismiss the latter as being a literary construct, a conceit trying to make a point about the pointlessness of war, and continue with our pike scrums. On the other hand, we could observe that early modern military theory was shot through with ideas from the classical era, and the classical authors did describe pushes of pikes, at least in some way, so our reporters from the English Civil War included them as well, as that is what was expected.

Of course, we could continue and argue that pike only emerged onto the seventeenth century battlefield because everyone was following Alexander or Caesar or someone similar, so they had to be there, so they were used and did come to the push of pike, but only because the literature of military theory said they had to be there.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Legionaries and Auxiliaries and Combat Engineers

I suppose that the best thing for a wargame rule writer to do, once the rule set in question is complete, is to wrap the set, the notes, play test figures, books, papers and everything else to do with the subject in a large sheet and cast it into the depths of the ocean. The memory of the production of the rules should be deleted (I believe that some electric shock treatments can achieve this) and the writer should never, ever look at the subject again.

The problem is this: if the author continues to read about the subject of the rules, then they will be wishing that they had written the said rules differently.

I suppose that this is, in part, the human condition, but I have run across a case in point recently. In the PM: SPQR I say something, somewhere, about early Empire Roman auxilia and legionaries being similarly armed and having similar tactical roles. Somewhere else, I may say that legionaries are occasionally regarded, in modern historiography, as being more akin to combat engineers rather than the front line foot most of us take them for.

The original source for this idea, of legionaries being dual purpose close combat infantry and combat engineers comes from Edward Luttwak’s ‘The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century AD to the Third’ (1976, Johns Hopkins: Baltimore), on page 40 of my edition, anyway. Luttwak is discussing the early Empire legion and argues that the legionaries seem to do an awful lot of building and digging, and not a huge amount of fighting.  Perhaps because he is not a classicist but a strategist, Luttwak’s work has been rather neglected, when it has not been misrepresented in the literature, so all I did was pause, note this is an interesting idea, and move along.

This idea was returned to my mind recently when I was reading another book, this one by J E Lendon, ‘Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity’ (2005, Yale: London). This has taken me a while to get around to because the core of its argument is that most classical battle activity is based, consciously or not, around the basis of the fighting as described in the Iliad, and so, while I bought Lendon’s book a while ago, I felt that before reading it, I had better read the Iliad itself.

Now, Lendon observes that on Trajan’s column, legionaries and auxilia are presented in different ways. The auxilia are the “wild men”, in combat, taking heads, providing sentries for the legionaries who are building siege works, collecting wood, parading and so on. Legionaries fight in just four scenes, while auxilia fight in fourteen (p 242-3).

At the same time, the artistic and archaeological evidence for Roman legionary armour suggests that it became heavier and more protective from blows from above, which suggests, again, that legionaries had become more focussed on being siege specialists. The campaign in Dacia which Trajan’s column represents was, so far as we can tell, very much one of sieges rather than field actions.

According to Goldsworthy’s ‘In the Name of Rome’ chapter on the Dacian Wars, head taking had been outlawed for the Empire forces, but it was presumably acceptable for auxiliary forces, particularly those not in the regular army, to do so. The auxilia again are shown to be the wild side of the Roman army.

Lendon picks this up again in his discussion of the two sides of ancient soldier’s views. The first is ‘virtus’, the sort of manly courage and showing off that the auxilia, at least, demonstrate in Trajan’s column. Virtus was competitive, the aim was to be the best, the bravest, the most courageous, the most outrageously committed soldier to the cause.

The second side is that of disciplina, that is obedience to officers, to discipline, competition in controlled games, labouring, and inter-unit competitiveness. This sort of thing is seen in the markers on, for example, Hadrian’s Wall where there are inscriptions of the different units which completed assigned sections. It is also found at the siege of Jerusalem, where the lines of circumvallation went up impressively quickly under this competitive stress between units (Lendon p 250).

The suggestion that Lendon makes, then, is that these two virtues of virtus and disciplina existed and co-existed in the Roman army, and that both were encouraged. However, he also suggests that the latter was, perhaps, more focussed on in the legions, while the former was more for the auxilia. It would seem, for example, that auxiliary units such as the Batavians were recruited for their virtus (Tacitus Germania 29).

There is also the suggestion, made by Tacitus, that it was more worthy to win battles without spilling Roman blood (Agricola 35). On the other hand, the legions did deploy for battle, and would presumably have fought if they had been needed. It is rather hard to be sure in the Agricola, if Tacitus was not just making things up so it looked better for his father in law or not.

In terms of wargame rules, I am now thinking that I should have differentiated auxilia and legionaries by differing virtus and disciplina, which could probably have been spread to the other armies encountered in the period. The would then take account for the differences between formed and unformed troops, as well as the morale, élan and tendency not to obey orders which is encountered in the literature (not just among auxilia, incidentally).

Perhaps this sort of system would be a little over complex, however, and also the perspective of the general would need to be taken into account. Generals, on the whole, like their units to do what they are told, and Roman generals occasionally told their troops off for being too enthusiastic for the fight. It is noteworthy, however, that troops were never punished for being over-enthusiastic into the fight, even if it involved them abandoning sentry positions and the like.

Perhaps I should have stopped reading with the publication of the rules, then I would not be being plagued by these thoughts, but I suppose there is always the second edition, isn’t there.

Saturday 2 February 2013

The Right Flank of Roman Britain.

Every once in a while Santa comes up with the goods. I mean, your nearest and dearest ask you what you’d like the old man to bring for you in December, and you reply with something vague like ‘Oh, something on Roman Britain’, expecting to receive a worthy but dull tome on the Romans, the British or something in between. Having a broader eye, however, your nearest and dearest then supply Santa with something that you would never have touched with a barge pole, which actually turns out to have some very interesting ideas in it.

This last Christmas was, for me, a case in point. I had noticed the book ‘UnRoman Britain: Exposing the great Myth of Britannia,’ by Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock (2010, Stroud: History Press) a while ago, and thought rather little of it. I am something of one for judging a book by its covers, and subtitles like ‘exposing myths’ tend to set alarm bells ringing, along the same lines that ‘sensational new revelations’ about the family life of Jesus, or the Freemasons and their conspiracy to take over the world, or whatever other silly story happens to be running riot in the world at the moment.

Still, it has to be said that Russell and Laycock have a book with some very nice illustrations in, and so that is where I started to look. After that, slightly intrigued, I actually sat and read the text. Now, I’m not saying that the arguments have entirely convinced me, nor that what they are saying is entirely new, but there was sufficient of interest to make me read to the end and to feel happy at the investment of my time in doing so.

The overall thesis of the work is not, despite the claims on the cover, new. I was not aware before reading this that Britannia was a particularly well Romanised province and the author’s claim is that it was not. Fair enough. They put their case through archaeological finding and literature and come up with the idea that in Britannia only the top one or two per cent of the population ever bothered to become culturally Roman.

They also suggest that our picture of Roman Britain as Roman is due firstly to the artefacts of Roman occupation which we see around us, such as Hadrian’s Wall, assorted towns and so on, and the Victorian’s desire to legitimize their own empire. For that, the Victorians had to link the civilising achievements of the Roman Empire to the aspirations of a civilising British one and to argue that both had bought more benefits to the occupied than they had inconveniences. These arguments may have been as unconvincing to the British natives of the first century AD as they might have been to the average African of the 1880’s, but that was not really the point.

However, the thing that really struck me about the book was the bit towards the front discussing how the Romans actually came to be in Britain in the first place. I wrote a bit ago about how the impact of Rome changed the native British culture, in particular creating tribes by demanding some point of contact in the local structure. That may or may not be true, but certainly, even the standard history of pre-conquest Britain allows the Gallic wars and trade with Rome to have an impact on the British. For example, the Gallic wars led to the circulation of coins, and even the issue of them. Trade allowed the elites easier access to foreign luxuries and so on.

There is also some archaeological evidence for actual Roman military presence on the south coast by 30 AD, that is about fifteen years before the invasion. Now, unfortunately there is not enough evidence to determine what was going on, but it seems to me to be a reasonable enough guess that the Romans were there to protect their interests, be that in terms of trade or of protecting client kingdoms. As Russell and Laycock indicate, this was fairly standard practice with the Romans (p 40).

What happened in the 40’s AD seems to be that when Cunobelinus died (AD 40-3) he left the Romans with an undesirable situation in Britain. The British who felt they should be in power but were not appealed to Rome for help, and Claudius did what any good Roman general did in such circumstances, and attacked with full vigour and total lack of proportion. Within months the Romans were in Colchester receiving the surrender of British kings and proclaiming peace, good will and beneficence to all.

Now, strategically, the Romans wanted to strike west, towards the mineral reserves of Wales, the Mendips and Cornwall. Somehow, after all, empire had to pay for itself. To do this, they needed to secure the acquiescence, at least of the northern flank of their operations, and this meant the Iceni and the Brigantes.

The Iceni were largely left alone in the 50’s AD, and there is suggestion that they were, effectively, paid off by Roman gold, which is a classic client relationship. On the death of Prasutagus, the husband of Boudicca, things changed, however. Client kings negotiated settlements individually with Roman emperors. The death of one or the other required re-negotiation. Instead, Nero’s agents demanded repayment of loans and the Romans generally started to behave as if they owned the place and the people. Revolt was the next step.

The Brigantes were a bit more complex, but the loss of the client kingdom there was due to internal politics rather than Roman management techniques. Cartimandua was the victim of a palace coup and had no immediate aid from the Roman guarantors of her regime. The Romans managed to rescue her, but the die was cast for an occupation in due time and Brigantia was overrun in the 70’s AD.

So, the trajectory of Roman occupation can be seen to be a classic exercise in Roman dealings with client states, and of course divide, conquer and bribe politics. Is it any wonder that Britain rejected Romanisation?