Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beyond the Reach of Law

The idea of nation-states, with clearly defined borders, is a relatively recent invention. The idea that a homogeneous group of people occupy a sovereign state that is defined by political boundaries, was first forwarded in France under Louis XIV. Many, if not most, fantasy  settings are based on this model. They may not shout it from their pages, but it's there. It's hard to get away from, since it's the world we live in and forms our point of reference.

One thing that has intrigued me for some time is a world where each "king" can only claim what he can hold. In other words, his holdings only extend as far as he is able to project his power. If he can establish a network of vassals to enforce his rule, his kingdom grows. Otherwise, he can only claim a realm that is no more extensive than he can traverse in a day or two's ride. A rebellion may begin far enough from the power base to gather momentum before the king and his army can arrive to put it down. The extents of a demesne are defined by the sovereign's ability to project his will to that extent.

In this spirit, I believe lies the seeds for great swords & sorcery settings. It wouldn't have to be geographically large in order to encompass quite a few "kingdoms". This would, in turn, allow many possibilities for politically motivated situations, or at least political maneuvers in the background. It allows upward mobility for characters, since in this model there won't be vast legions or standing armies. It somewhat mitigates the power creep wherein the leaders have to be 23rd level, so it supports a shallower, gentler power curve (which I love). Finally, it creates a great Points of Light situation. (I hate to use that term, but it is immediately communicative, so there.) Beyond the reach of the local sovereign the territories are also beyond the reach of civilization and laws. Bandits and worse may roam these wildernesses.

This also creates an ideal environment for a Law-Neutral-Chaos alignment paradigm. Law equates to the Rule of Law, society, civilization, and expansion. Chaos maps to the wild forces, untameable, uncontrollable, and ultimately antithetical to the principles of Law. Neutrality could then represent a number of possibilities including true detachment from the Law-Chaos struggle, to selfishness and conceit.

Obviously, this will not support a more renaissance-setting style of campaign and adventure design. So, it won't be for everyone. I prefer a setting where a king's reach is restrained by his grasp, where his authority extends no further than his ability to impose it. I like vast, lawless stretches where the characters are on their own. It is from those vast, lawless stretches that they will ultimately carve their destiny and seek to impose their will.

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