Tela: Laws and customs

One of the things that happened in the latest session of Tapestry, after the ship returned to its home port of Portus Argenti, was that the purser, Hanno, asked his mother about her progress in scouting out possible wives for him. I’ve now written up character sheets for three nixie women of suitable ages, and gotten three of the other players to take those roles in this month’s session.

But that led me to thinking about how the nixies of Urbes Septemplex (there are several nixie culture areas with different laws and customs) approach marriage and courtship.

One of my assumptions is that nixies, a people of rivers, lakes, and swamps, often act as middlemen, having the benefit of superior mobility. As a result, their cultures are less likely to think that being “in trade” is discreditable or low; the best families of Portus Argenti and the other six cities are distinguished by trading in larger quantities or rarer goods and by making much of their money as investors, not by being landed gentry. Nixies do farm, but in Urbes Septemplex they think that it’s proximity to a city or town that makes farmland valuable.

Much earlier in the campaign, I established one way in which this affects their customs: When they were recruited sailors for the long voyage, they had a young woman show up and ask about serving as “ship’s girl.” This primarily involves providing sexual services to the crew during a voyage. It’s regarded as a legitimate economic role; practitioners have a guild and expect to be treated with respect (in fact there was a subplot about how to deal with a sailor who persisted in not doing so).

Now, Hanno’s looking for a sustained relationship, and in fact for an exclusive one in which the woman will act as his agent when he’s away at sea; he wants more than retail. But I think that in his culture, it may be acceptable to treat seeking a wife as comparable to seeking an employee: He can arrange to meet various young women and assess their qualifications. This may not be as romantic as the West currently expects it to be: it’s desirable that the couple should have enough in common to be friendly with each other (and nixies also have less sexual dimorphism than humans and thus less male dominance), but it’s also important that they should trust each other’s integrity, and that they should have suitable skills for their roles. And in fact I’ve set things up so that Hanno is going to have to trade off these concerns against each other.

I’ve also thought about what form “marriage” takes. In the Urbes Septemplex, at least, writing is well established, and the idea of abstract rights has emerged. You can own land, not by occupying it, but by having a piece of paper that describes what you own, and you can rent that land to someone else, or leave it vacant and live on different land. So I think that nixies may marry by having a clerk make out a document defining their mutual obligations, and thus giving them rights which remain in place even when they’re apart.

Things are very different in Dumetum Furtum, the home of the other nixie PC, Onofrio. They don’t have writing; they have ownership by occupancy, but not abstract property rights; and they don’t distinguish clearly between trade and theft—though they do make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic possession linguistically. The sacred religious objects of a household are referred to as “Ours”; the tableware and ornaments as “ours.” And marriage is similarly informal; there are a lot of half-siblings, and the culture accepts marriage of half-siblings as proper.

(There’s also a third culture, one characterized by rice paddy agriculture and without a lot of trade, but I don’t know as much about it. I think they might be matrilineal and thing marriage is fairly unimportant.)

Anyway, I expect to have to explain this to the various players in the near future, so I wanted to sketch out my thoughts about it, to help get them in order.


This doesn’t seem to support the idea that there’s less male dominance in the species, unless there are also successful women who seek out young men to “hire” as house-husbands. Also, unless you intend this for a feature, the employer-employee relationship is necessarily somewhat distant (e.g., the employer doesn’t have any say in how the employee spends their time off) and transitory (e.g., the employee can always quit or be fired).

There is a meme in business that “a merger is like a marriage,” with the implications of mutual interest, intimacy, and trust. I suggest that you invert this, and have Urbes Septemplex marriages function like mergers or formal business partnerships (especially the unlimited variety): two economic entities deliberately co-mingling their assets, reputations, and futures. There would still be room for unequal marriages, where the more successful spouse brings in a junior partner, but the power dynamic would be less one-sided.

I don’t want to analyze all the semantic nuances of this, because I’m primarily concerned with the substance rather than with the language in which I’m attempting to discuss it. But I do want to make a couple of comments:

When I say “A is like B,” that’s not equivalent to saying “A is identical to B in all respects.” Rather, it’s a way of saying that one feature of the unique thing A can be compared with a feature of the familiar thing B to gain increased understanding of A. I used the phrase “comparable to” precisely because of this.

It’s possible to say that group P has comparatively low male dominance, without saying that it has none. In talking about Homo sapiens sapiens, for example, I don’t take contemporary Americans, Israelis, or Swedes as the zero point; I have in mind more historical averages. It seems to me that the historical average for complex human societies has been one where women are somewhere between second-class citizens and valuable property (in GURPS terms). None of the nixie societies I envision comes anywhere near to that end of the spectrum, and that makes them both more egalitarian than the human average and certainly more egalitarian than the historical average for TL1-3.

The other thing that strikes me is that you seem to be considering the employer-employee relationship as one of unequal power. I don’t see it that way, or not necessarily. In a society of free labor, with employment by mutual consent, there’s a basic underlying equality between the parties. One party may have more bargaining power than the other, but that varies with, among other things, the scarcity of labor when the hiring takes place. And “bargaining power” isn’t equivalent to the sort of power that emerges from the direct use of force or threats of force, or from unequal legal rights.

What I’m mainly trying to convey is that Hanno’s society is one where courtship isn’t as romanticized as it is in the present-day United States. Of course marriage is an economic transaction, but in Urbes Septemplex it’s more explicitly treated as an economic transaction.

I am not alone in this: it is the consensus view in defining sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace. The employer makes decisions and sets work conditions for the employee, and evaluates their performance. The employee has no inherent reciprocal recourse except to quit, which may not be feasible for any number of reasons.

We aren’t here to discuss real world legal or political issues, so I won’t. But even on that account, there is a massive difference between the situation of an employee who is, as you point out, free to quit (under, for example, the once standard “at will” contract), and a slave, or an indentured servant, or a draftee, or a minor child assigned to work by their parents without their own choice being involved, none of whom is free to quit, nor, commonly, to refuse “employment.” And for large parts of history, women were generally in the latter case. None of the nixie societies in my world puts women in such a position, and therefore there is less male dominance and less inequality of power than was historically the case for humans at low TLs.

I’m not trying to portray the Urbes Semtemplex as identical to modern societies, nor as a utopia of any sort. They’re a place where drama happens, and drama is the result of conflicts. So it would be silly of me to argue that I’ve portrayed a setting where no one will ever be unhappy, or have limited choices and have to decide how to make the best of a bad situation, or have to deal with someone else with opposing interests or desires. But it rather seems as if you’re expecting me to—as if, for example, when I say that nixie men and women have a greater measure of equality than is typical for humans, you are expecting that to mean that their societies fulfill the ethical aspirations of twenty-first century WEIRD people. And I don’t think you’re going to understand what’s going on if you take that perspective.

(In Doylist terms, one of the reasons for the existence of Urbes Septemplex is to offer players the option of playing an analog of Bilbo Baggins or Horatio Hornblower: A modern “man” in a nonmodern setting. Portus Argenti certainly feels exotic to an early 21st century American; but it has exotic versions of things we’re familiar with, like cities and trade and markets and money and legal codes and marriage, and for that matter beer and spectator sports. It also reflects my being a classical liberal who thinks free markets and the rule of law are admirable, but one who’s aware that they have historical origins and earlier forms, and is interested in what those looked like—though that’s more author appeal than the other. But in Watsonian terms, the Urbes Septemplex are as they are because nixies have certain climatological and ecological adaptations that have favored certain cultural patterns; that is, they’re speculative fiction about the effects of size, robustness, sexual dimorphism, encephalization, and preferred habitat and diet.)

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I pointed out what I saw as an inconsistency in your presentation, and offered what I thought was a reasonable alternative to resolve the inconsistency. I apologize if that comes off as some kind of utopian crusade.

I think that might be too extreme a paraphrase.

What I’m saying is, first, that there appear to be three different terms that can be compared. In terms of work, there are cases such as slavery, indentured service, conscript labor, corvée, and labor compelled by parents, where you are not free to quit the job, and often not to refuse to take it in the first place; there is employment, where you get the job by agreeing to take it and you have the right to quit (“terminable at will”); and then there are present-day standards. And each of those has a parallel case in terms of sexual relationships between men and women. And we seem to be comparing different pairs of cases. When I say “A expresses less dominance than B,” A is the second and B is the first. You seem to be taking A to be the third, and B the second, and thus rejecting my analogy of courtship to seeking employment on the ground that employment is not free from dominance; or perhaps contrasting the two comparisons, and saying that yours is a reduction in dominance, and that therefore mine does not count as a real reduction in dominance.

[There’s also an apparent underlying more abstract comparison. There is the person who works under unsatisfactory conditions because the alternative is to be punished or harmed. There is the person who works under unsatisfactory conditions because the alternative is to go their own way, and sever all ties with the employer, and look for other work. And then there is the person who is guaranteed their pay, whether they work or not, and who thus need never work under unsatisfactory conditions at all. I take the second person to be free, but then I don’t think “free to starve” is a contradiction; a person living a solitary life in the wilderness is completely free, because there is no other person there to compel them in any way, but they certainly have the chance of starving. I imagine you may believe that the third person is free and the second is not. That’s two radically different meanings of “freedom.”]

Second, if I am right that I am comparing terms 1 and 2, and you are comparing terms 1/2 and 3, then you’re wrong to suggest that there’s an inconsistency in my presentation. You think you see one because you’re taking me to be talking about, say, 1 versus 3, when in fact I’m talking about 1 versus 2. That is, I’m objecting to your evaluation, not because its standard is utopian, but because I think it’s irrelevant to what I was saying.

And third, whatever may be possible now, in a Bronze Age civilization you are certainly not going to have 3 as an option. It may be optimistic to suppose that you can have 2, but then, this IS a fantasy campaign, so I get to be a little optimistic.

As a follow-up on this, I’ve run the session where Hanno met the three young women his mother had suggested as possible wives:

He met Iltani (his mother’s top choice) in the most conventional possible way, by calling on her mother in the company of his mother. He dressed in his best clothes and offered her formally correct greetings while offering her a disarming smile that totally swept away her doubts about a suitor of lower social standing (Iltani is young and has little experience of being courted, but is desperate to find a husband who can repair her family’s declining wealth); she talked with him about his business ventures and then they played the Game of Twenty Squares on her family’s beautifully made old set, one of the household’s surviving treasures.

Belessunu came, by herself, to call on his mother and meet him, a somewhat unconventional choice, but Belessunu has a history of disregarding convention to spend time with artistically interesting people. She was wearing an exotic garment that she had bought at his auction of single items for the luxury trade; he was wearing a comparable such garment. They talked for hours about textile arts, so long that Hanno’s mother politely invited her to dinner, and she accepted and met Hanno’s trainee from Dumetum Furtum, Onofrio, who found her flirtatious manner fascinating and terrifying, until Belessunu noticed and backed off; she told both Hanno and Onofrio how much she looked forward to the possibility of one day seeing Dumetum Furtum for herself, as she had Regio Oryzae, a silk-producing land that Hanno had visited earlier.

Hanno and his mother called on Tabnit, a scribe who kept records on his mother’s rental properties, as his dinner guests. Tabnit’s former apprentice, Ettu, a scribe who had started out in his house as a servant girl at 11, showed up expecting to discuss a current case of embezzlement she was investigating, but managed to change gears and talk with Hanno about linguistics and the use of codes; she seemed bright and very sharply focused on moving up professionally, and in fact didn’t realize that this was an overture to courtship until after Hanno left and Tabnit suggested that this might have been the intent.

So at this point Hanno has three choices before him, each of whom has some qualities he really likes, but none of whom is quite the ideal wife for him. He can pay second calls on one or more of them, where he can talk more informally and with less supervision, and perhaps open the subject of courtship officially; he can go out and look for a fourth prospect; or he can continue to have his mother look after his interests while he makes another trade voyage.

We also dealt with the sale of Hanno and his partners’ imported goods, in three separate rolls, one for the luxury goods, one for herbs and seeds, and one for exotic bulk goods; given the fairly high merchant skills of the characters and the rarity of their goods, they ended up making just over a 20:1 return on their initial investments. They paid significant bonuses to their crew and officers, amounting to an extra two months’ pay at hazard rates, and asked them all if they could be available for another voyage in a few months; nearly all of them were interested, though Narseh, a man, asked for time to think it over, as he had been looking at going home to try to restore his family’s fortunes. This left them with enough funds to raise all their wealth levels and let them have a slightly larger ship built (an extra 10’ and about double the tonnage).

In the course of this, they learned about a possible complication: The Seafarers’ Guild, which had refused to provide them with a crew for the just completed voyage, as it was not on known routes or into known waters, was now preparing to petition the city council for an extension of its charter to cover voyages outside the Seven Cities. Hanno and Bengta saw problems with that, and a need to discuss how to either defeat the proposal, get it withdrawn, or induce the Guild to compromise on the rules for long-distance voyaging. They didn’t want to make a decision at this point; that was also reserved for the next session.

So in sum, we spent a lot of time on “social engineering” of various sorts, including the partially comedic theme of Hanno seeking a suitable wife. I have a couple of character sheets drawn up for possible outcomes of his search, one really good and one really bad, but I need to do another, for a possible but not ideal candidate, just in case.

In roleplaying terms, I had each of the possible wives played as a secondary role by one of the three other women players. They all did good jobs of bringing the respective young women to life, including notably Iltani’s demeanor toward her mother being affectionate and toward her father correct and formal (her father inherited his wealth and hasn’t quite been able to maintain it).

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The thing I particularly like about the “finding a wife” storyline is that, unlike many romances, it’s apparent that any of these choices could lead somewhere interesting - there’s no heavy-handed head vs heart dichotomy.

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Thanks! This is helped by Hanno’s player, who portrays him as someone who wants a woman who shares his (intellectual) interests, but who also is looking for a business partner he can trust to look after his (financial) interests and who comes from a suitable background. But I went to a lot of effort to make sure that each of Belessunu, Ettu, and Iltani would have a lot of traits Hanno liked and a couple that were problems. Interestingly, the big downside for Ettu in the player’s view wasn’t that she was (relatively) poor (just starting her career as a scribe) but that she was devoted to her career and might not want to set it aside to look after his interests.

In the last analysis, it just doesn’t make as good roleplaying if there’s an obviously “right” choice. The protagonist ought to have real conflict, not just conflict that fits a conventional plot.

Interesting. Iltani seems to me like a catastrophically bad choice. Why does Hanno find her appealing?

What I gave Iltani was the following:

  • She was from a higher social level than Hanno and marrying her would help him gain respectability in his own name
  • She was financially strained and might be receptive to a wealthy suitor
  • She would expect to stay at home and manage her husband’s assets, or supervise the steward he chose
  • She had been brought up with all the conventional skills for that role, from Accounting to Xenology, as well as skills such as Housekeeping and Savoir-Faire

Now, I did expect Hanno to rank her lowest; she was there partly as his mother’s top choice, to make the narrative point that Hanno’s mother didn’t quite understand her son’s tastes and goals. And in fact Hanno found her intellectually limited. But he also thought that either of the other two would have interests of her own and be reluctant to set them aside and devote herself to managing Hanno’s property. And in fact he thought Belessunu was the least advantageous choice, despite their many common interests, because she really wanted to travel and NOT stay home. That was a bit of a surprise, but the player who took on the role brought that aspect of Belessunu out and Hanno reacted to it.

I guess that those deals are all very well once you have made a prodigious fortune, but while you are still trying to put that fortune together the last thing you need to do is to support a bunch of wastrel in-laws in their aristocratic pretensions. Iltani desperately wants Hanno’s wealth for her family; he needs it to invest in his business. And if her family actually had management skills to teach her they wouldn’t have blown through her father’s inheritance. Unless she shows clear evidence of being able to defy her parents and siblings, the most likely result of marrying her would be for Hanno to return from his next trip to discover that all the wealth that he left in her care has been spent by her brothers, and that they have expectations against the profits of his second voyage.

Aristocratic relatives are a very expensive form of conspicuous consumption.

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Well, that could be a useful storyline if Hanno chooses to marry her. Right now he’s debating whether any of the three is suitable; he might decide to entrust the management to his mother instead. I have to admit that I hadn’t worked out all those implications; I wanted to give Hanno the option of a woman with more respectability than money, and “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” seemed like a plausible explanation.

What I’m thinking over right now is a design for a fourth possible wife who’s also somewhat plausible, but perhaps just slightly less good than the other three, in case Hanno decides to do his own search and succeeds; I’d like him to discover that his mother actually did find relatively good candidates out of a small pool. I’ve got specifications for the results of a critical failure (a gold digger from a smaller upriver city) and a critical success (the great-niece-in-law of a wealthy investor with an interest in Hanno’s voyages; she’s a widow a little older than Hanno, with a young daughter, and currently acting as her great-uncle’s librarian), but I need to think out what an ordinary success would get.

Iltani might not be quite that bad a choice; the slow decline of her father’s business is due more to lack of management ability, and Iltani’s mother has helped to limit the damage. On the other hand, Iltani’s used to a conservative business style that wouldn’t suit an entrepreneur on the way up very well. On the gripping hand, Iltani does have Sense of Duty to her family, and that opens the door to her parents not struggling quite so hard—like a drunkard who knows that his brother-in-law will “lend” him the money to pay the rent he drank up at the tavern.