Episode 119: Too Busy Starving To Have a Civil War

This month, Mike and Roger try to end slavery. Turns out it’s quite hard.

We mentioned:

GURPS Essentials again and GURPS Horror at the Bundle of Holding (until 7 November), the Monster Hunter International series, GURPS Black Ops, GURPS Banestorm, the book about the philosophy of trusting experts is Don’t Think for Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy by Peter Adamson, a couple of GURPS Magic variants (Michael was thinking of Wild Talent, Basic Set p. 99, while Roger was thinking of Threshold-Limited Magic, Thaumatology p. 76), and Shimmin Beg’s analysis of large-scale GURPS spellcasting.

Here’s our tip jar. (Please email or leave a comment as well; they don’t always tell me when money’s gone in.)

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com and other royalty-free sources.


It occurs to me to wonder whether William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery was the first time that anyone effected the idea that the government could change society. Was social engineering — a deliberate act to change social structure by legislation or otherwise — even thought of before the Enlightenment?

Payment to slaves is pretty much necessary to get any sort of (skilful, diligent) output out of them beyond what can be forced out under close supervision, and is therefore very common except in unskilful work that can be easily and cheaply supervised. This is part of the reason that slavery is only actually cheaper than wage labour under limited circumstances.

I think that historically serfdom developed out of slavery as essentially a more effective way to screw the workers, and I’m doubtful that a model is plausible that includes both alongside each other.

For an example of a liberated slave who discovered great talent for leadership I draw your attention to the unhappy Toussaint Louverture.


I suspect (and you’re almost certainly better read here than I am) that pre-Enlightenment there isn’t much of a concept of progress, certainly not of society-wide progress; rather, the default state for pretty much everyone is that my life will be just like my parent’s, and my child’s life will be just like mine, and this is the natural way that things are. (And, harking back a couple of episodes, when that doesn’t happen, such as when the French system of farmland division leaves you with a whole lot of proud farmers starving on their tiny plots, you get real anger.) Sometimes wars or plagues or famines come and make things worse, but afterwards you try to put things back as they were.

Re payment: for me at least it’s hard to remember that the American model, about which I’ve heard most, is relatively unusual as historical instances of slavery go.

The original GURPS Fantasy seems to treat the serf as a sort of slave who has to work on a farm. Phil’s GURPS Banestorm for 4e tries to draw a bit more of a distinction. I can’t think off-hand of any historical examples of both existing in the same society.

I highly recommend Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh as a relatively accessible read to learn more about Toussaint.

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Civil War: Why tie it to slavery at all? If the empire is corrupt and the emperor tries to reform things (if anything to claw back power from the corrupt power brokers), you have the ingredients of a coup. The coup fails and morphs into a civil war. It’s not an uprising, but sides will form and lines will be drawn. You can have the Hospitallers against the Templars (you can pick which sides with the emperor). Typically, the peasantry and slaves aren’t really on a side but are just the victims of the chaos and turmoil, but either side could draw them in (“Defeat the demonic emperor who is just like his father!” versus “Rise up against your oppressive lords!”)

Technology: I favor putting in some magical impediments to the energy that fuels advanced warfare and industrialization. Burning black powder summons fire elementals. Generating enough heat and pressure to make a workable steam engine creates a rift to the elemental planes. Electricity above a small threshold angers the fairies. In this way, you can prevent the type of technological progress that shapes economies and societies without re-writing physics and chemistry.

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Certainly, serfdom continued longer than slavery in England and there was only a slight overlap. Serfdom lasted longer in Russia.

But I am sort of constrained to take into the mixture the background I have from GURPS BANESTORM and I suspect the Empire of Megalos is set for maximum Evil and not for plausibility.

I could always restart this somewhere else… and that has it’s appeal. But for now let me continue with the setting I have.

I’m including slavery because it is a natural outgrowth of the first season of the post-Demonic Usurper campaign.

At the moment the situation is tense but odd. The Templars have their own territory on an island in the Eastern Ocean. They have a large number of clerical magicians who are mostly taking the Grandmaster’s word for it about who was to blame for the Usurpation. (A number of them are starting to suspect that the Emperor is telling nothing but the truth when he says the Grandmaster is.) But they have lost their financial and land holdings on the mainland and soon they are going to have to either remove the Grandmaster and beg the Emperor’s pardon or go for an all out civil war. Their last couple of cunning plans have gone ga-ga partly thanks to player characters.

The Hospitallers are at the other end of the Empirer trying to leverage their position into greater influence and a new crusade against the Muslims.

And in the middle of the lake in the middle of the Empire the necromantic disctatorship of Abydos is stirring things up in the hope of causing enough war that they will be able to seize some parts of the mainland. .

As I said on the podcast I’m happy with the explanation I have for the technology ban. But I suspect there are a lot of people like Roger who don’t find other outre bits of the setting objectionable but balk at the technology ban. I’m not sure why.

You can include slavery without it being the instigating event or catalyst. It could have just been the fear of what the reformer would do to the institution that sparked the coup that led to the civil war. (Strike now before he does something we don’t want!)

It’s all about suspension of disbelief and how the ban is explained or executed. All the technology we experience is based on the application of natural forces and by banning technology, you are messing with how non-technological things work. If you just say, “electricity doesn’t work,” then it breaks chemistry.

Technological progress is generally gradual with no clear dividing lines. Even “great technological advances” were just extending paths already laid down. If you have some outside force monitoring tech levels and “sending them back to the stone age” if the line is crossed, it raises questions like how is the line defined? How do they know someone invented crucible steel or movable type or a Sterling Engine? How do you ensure the knowledge is lost so that it doesn’t just pop up again?

If you just set the campaign during a particular time period with specific technology, you don’t have to worry about it. If you demand that there be no technological advancement beyond a certain point, then you are demanding more of your audience. Some find this more difficult than others.

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Especially when you have people from modern Earth being bamfed in. I mean, this is not merely a fantasy setting; it’s a cross-world setting. The classic fantasy of cross-world travel is to do a Lord Kalvan: raise the tech level, turn the world or at least your local area from warring principalities into a modern unitary state that doesn’t grind away its population in pointless internecine struggle. (GURPS, at least 3e, even has rules for one person heroically raising a local tech level.) And then Banestorm says no, you can’t do that, there’s this shadowy organisation that is somehow 100% effective at preventing any knowledge from getting out, not only of Sterling engines but of printing presses and democracy.

So not only does the setting offer me an enjoyable thing and then snatch it away again, it’s asking me to believe in a conspiracy-theory level of effectiveness across multiple states each of which is desperate for any advantage over the others, and it’s not making that the important foreground point of the story either: the Ministry of Serendipity isn’t there to be the big campaign villain, it’s just an immovable object to prevent players from having a certain class of fun.

I’m not saying Michael is bad for liking the setting, and there are plenty of other people who are fans of it, but to me the cross-worldiness always feels like an excuse to have real-world religions in a fantasy setting (and a little bit of the Witch World style one-way portal fantasy), plus a lot of desperate patching-over the implications. If I were to rewrite Banestorm for my own use, I’d remove that element completely and have a different reason for the religions – or make the campaign about fighting the Ministry.


Hey, we said that the printing press had made it over! (The thinking there was that even if The Conspiracy is implausibly effective at suppressing stuff, it’s run by fallible mortals who fixate on the dangers of things that go “Bang” and ignore the way that an information revolution is going to tear their little world apart, with or without black powder. After all, plenty of gamers have made the same category error.)

Was Wilberforce the first person to try and reform society by legal dictat? Dunno, I’d think that the French Revolutionaries at least tied with him. Whether we need to discuss Frederick the Great or Peter the Great may be a matter of definitions, though you can say it’s all sort-of-Enlightenment. But then you have to discuss all the pre-medieval monarchs who converted to Christianity and converted their kingdoms at the same time by dictat. Or Mohammed. Or Plato, at least in theory (I believe that his attempt to put the idea into practice was a total eff-up.) Or Confucius, or the Legalists…

Anyhow, my ears are burning… Though I’m afraid that the Megalan Empire was more Jon Woodward’s part of that job than mine, and anyhow a lot of it is taken fairly directly from 3rd edition Fantasy. I think that Jon, very sensibly, took a lot of his ideas from the Byzantine Empire, which is indeed probably the best model to look at for a post-Classical Christian empire with slavery, governed by detailed laws. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about slavery in the Byzantine Empire, but there’s a Wikipedia page…

…Which says that it was mostly an urban thing, the countryside being more feudal. Which reminds me; I think you could find serfs (or something analogous) alongside slavery both there and at least on the margins of a few other medieval domains. The thing is, though, that while a serf isn’t bound to a master, they are by definition bound to the land. (Modulo variations in Russia, where the treatment of serfs clearly sucked on an industrial scale.) So you can’t just convert most slaves - especially urban slaves - into serfs, by way of an upgrade; they need a specific patch of land to be tied to, and to be plugged into the feudal hierarchy. Serfs aren’t just slightly less downtrodden slaves; they’re a different category entirely.

The other thing you have to allow for in Megalos is, of course, nonhuman slaves. There aren’t many, but there are some, and many of them are members of species which are at least assumed to be violent and untrustworthy - and even if the assumption is wrong, they’ll have been brutalised by prejudiced humans. Just one more worry for your reformist PCs.

Oh, and by the way, about sumptuary laws - my understanding is that somebody in Roman times proposed requiring slaves to wear something to mark them out, because there were too many slaves flouncing about getting above themselves - and somebody else screamed NO!, because there were too many slaves, and if the slaves themselves could see how many, and communicate with each other, they’d Rise Up In Revolt and Kill Us All In Our Beds. It’s a basic terror for slave-owning societies; the owners know at heart that slavery sucks, and so any slave revolt is always going to get bloody and unpleasant for the owner class. So nothing that enables slave revolt can ever be allowed. Uncontrolled mass emancipation could carry a lot of the same risks, so don’t expect it to be popular with the upper classes.


I did try to answer the points raised by the way I depict the ban, the Ministry of Serendipity and their foreign equivalents.

Firstly, this isn’t the ‘magic and technology are mutually incompatible’ thing which unless you’re playing a game like MAGE THE ASCENSION with multiple possible natural law paradigms is both uninteresting and stupid. This isn’t that though for some reason people assume it is.

This is an international political order which does its damnedest to suppress the rise of technology. They pick up incomers from Earth whenever possible (they don’t always succeed) and after interrogating them with all the aids magic can provide, erase whatever memories they regard as hostile to their current order. Yes, they have been implausibly successful in the past but they have excellent motivation, at least in my version of Yrth. The dragons have made it clear to the founding fathers of the conspiracy that if human tech rises above certain (mostly unspecified) levels the dragons will burn the human civilizations to the ground and eat as many of the species as they can.

The dragons, being dragons (entitled, lazy and self obsessed) don’t provide much help (though they may have taught the Detect Banestorm, Seek Banestorm and Detect Newcomer spells) just a lot of motivation. (And I’ve not yet decided how much the average MoS agent knows about this. Does the Emperor know? I dunno. Yet.)

This said, Phil and Jon did add the Underground Engineers to the mix so I’m not at all sure how long the current situation can hold.

My thanks to Phil for the pointer at the Byzantine Empire. I am going to have to do some research in that direction!

The French Revolutionaries did indeed proclaim universal emancipation but were never firmly enough in control of the overseas territories to put it into place. And then Napoleon came along and sharply reversed the policy. (Or was it done before him? I’d have to check.)

And yes, I was thinking of the reported Roman policy of not marking the slaves in any way so that the numbers remained vague in the minds of the oppressed.

And, no, I wasn’t expecting emancipation to be popular with the upper classes. That’s sort of the aim of the campaign idea. I want maximum transformation and adventure without actually ever quite overthrowing civilization.

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That puts me in mind of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light.

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The question about Wilberforce was not whether his was the first attempt at mass emancipation; it was whether he was the first person to attempt top-down social engineering. (And the answer really is “No”.) Mass emancipation, or even general rejection of slavery, hadn’t really been a thing very often previously, though I believe, for example, that Elizabethan English law courts tended to rule that slavery was an icky thing that happened overseas, even if it was Englishmen running it there, and if you brought your slave into England, they became a free person.

(Well, as free as anyone else of non-aristocratic status was in Tudor society. You might not be a slave, but that didn’t necessarily mean you were masterless.)

That dragon threat doubtless carried a lot of force in the early-post-Banestorm days, but I wonder if any modern Yrthian leaders contemplate it and go “Hmm”. A human-dragon war would doubtless be horrible and apocalyptic, but with the modern human population base, human knowledge of advanced magic, and the dragons’ lack of organisation, I think it might go worse for the wyrms. There’d be a temptation to go “Would you risk it?” if the threat was repeated over specific issues. This isn’t bloody Glorantha.

(Which begs the question of when it was first issued. Probably not the moment humans arrived on Yrth - they weren’t that advanced then, and why give them ideas? - but were the dragons keeping an eye ought for reports of gunpowder, or what?)

And the Underground Engineers were perhaps added because they’re the kind of thing that a certain type of player would insist ought to exist, and would probably try to found if it didn’t.

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I just had a weird idea that the dragons were so on the lookout for gunpowder that they never saw the rail guns coming.

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The way I decided it had happened was a Banestormed French ship appearing during the first stages of the second large Banestorm wave that inflicted a defeat on the draconic overlords of Yrth’s equivalent of the British archipelago. The dragons’ ‘leaders’ (in as much as they have those) decided that this had to be nipped in the bud and sent agents to the rulers of the human lands to explain how much it was in their interests as well as the dragons to ensure the gunpowder technology did not spread. “You want your species to go on existing? You want to go on ruling it? Well, then…”

(You say one sixteenth century warship wouldn’t be much threat to a dragon? Not if the dragon was competent and smart enough to understand that the little people had something that could take him out.)

I hadn’t thought of the parallel with LORD OF LIGHT but given it’s one of my favourite books, then yeah.