Thursday, 29 January 2015

STRANGE GRAINS - D&Difying 'The Art Of Not Being Governed'

This is everything I could easily D&Dify from 'The Art of Not Being Governed' by James C. Scott.

Yeah! Free to question your civilization-centered discourse!

My god Robert E Howard would fucking love this book. I half suspect he came back from the dead and wrote it.

“How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?”

"Some subjects were no doubt attracted to the possibilities for trade, wealth, and status available at the court centres, while others, almost certainly the majority, were captives and slaves seized in warfare or purchased from slave-raiders."

(He never actually proves that its over 50%)

1. So ALL cities are over 50% slave populations, don't really see that expressed much in D&D.

"Virtually all hill peoples have legends claiming that they once had writing and either lost it and it was stolen from them."

"The Lahu, for their part, speak of once having known how to write their language and refer to a lost book. They, in fact, have been known to carry papers with hieroglyphic marks which they cannot read."

"Seven villages came together on the same mountain and swore to jointly oppose their Tai overlord. The oath was written on a buffalo rib, which was then solemnly buried on the mountaintop. Later, however, the rib was stolen, and "that day we lost the knowledge of writing and we have ever since then suffered from the power of the _lam_ [Tai overloard]"

2. Language and writing are actual treasures that you can actually seize and if you do then that people loses that language and loses that writing. It's a high level treasure and to either take or return a language from or to a people is a high-level quest.

"Thus precious commodities such as gold, gemstones, aromatic woods, rare medicines, tea, and ceremonial bronze gongs (important prestige goods in the hills) linked peripheries to the centres on the basis of exchange rather than political domination."

"aromatic woods, tree resins, silver and gold, ceremonial drums, rare medicines."

3. Ceremonial Gongs as quasi-currency based on prestige. (This also brings up the possibility of certain tones as a kind of currency.)

"To cite the most celebrated instance, Hsinbyushin, after sacking Ayutthaya in 1767, brought back as many as thirty thousand captives, including officials, playwrights, artisans, dancers and actors, much of the royal family, and many of the courts literati. The result was not just a renaissance in Burmese art and literature but the creation of a new hybrid court culture."

4. We have come for your artists. Wars declared specifically to abduct or commandeer the artistic cultural cores of city states, adding them to your own. Biggest culture wins.

(Scott does not go much into the attractive or generative power of art, probably because its something civilisation does well and the whole book is basically about civilisation being a bit rubbish.)

"Perennial manpower concerns favoured easy assimilation and rapid mobility and, in turn made for very fluid permeable ethic boundaries..... The manpower imperative was everywhere the enemy of discrimination and exclusion"

6. Moving up quickly in the City-State. So far, so D&D.

7. Another interesting thing that comes up later is hill peoples having permeable ethnic boundaries and an 'ethnic bandwidth' rather than a set race or culture – pretty interesting compared to the D&D race and culture selection process. You could start play with a diagram or something of your potential ethnic expressions, knowing multiple languages and able to shift your expression according to the circumstances.

Story Gamers would *love* this. I can almost sense the RPG.NET thread that is offended that all games aren't already like this. “I mean for god’s sake its 2014! Hasn't Mike Mearls read Scott?! God I am so tired of educating people on this.”

"The altitudinal dimension, however, was reversed, with the Inca centres at higher altitudes and the periphery being the low, wet, equatorial forests whose inhabitants had long resisted Inca power. This reversal is an important reminder that the key to pre-modern state-building is the concentration of arable land and manpower, not altitude per se."

8. In the Scottian analysis GRAIN=STATES and that’s basically it. Anywhere you can grow grain and communicate easily ends up being a state, where you can't - its barbarians. (This is over-simplifying, but not by much).

So all you need to do is work out where the arable land and communication channels are - that’s where your kingdoms will be.

So if you invent a new strange kind of grain that, for instance, grows under sheets of ice, or propagates in clouds, then that’s where the Cities are. So you just design your world starting from the phenotype of the grain and working on up and the stranger the grains then the stranger the world.

9. Scott also regards new crops as political factors which change societies by shifting the balance of power between peoples in the way they are grown. Which they are really. Potatoes are political and you could have a D&D game where the first potato is the treasure sought or set in a tumult as a new crop sweeps across the land and re-writes the agricultural power structure.

Each Dwarf is a state, or the memory of a state.
The deep memories of the Dwarves mean that what seems like dourness is actually heroic wrestling with deep history and struggling towards life.

"..this was especially so at the core and when the kingdom faced attack or was itself ruled by a monarch with grandiose plans of aggression or *pagoda-building*." - my italics

10 Insane Pagoda Building projects that bankrupt kingdoms., an entirely real thing I knew nothing about till now

"The late eighteenth-century mobilizations of Burmese King Bo-daw-hpaya (1782-1819) in the service of his extravagant dreams of conquest and ceremonial building were ruinous to the kingdom as a whole. First, a failed invasion of Siam in 1785-86 in which half the army of perhaps three hundred thousand disappeared, then a massive labour requisition to build what would have been the largest pagoda in the world, followed by mobilizations to repel the Thai counterthrust and to extend the Meiktila irrigation system, and, finally another general mobilization for a last and disastrous invasion of Thailand from Tavoy sent the population of the kingdom reeling."

"Despite their syncretism and incorporation of animist practice, Therevada monarchs, when they could, proscribed heterodox monks and monasteries, outlawed many Hindu-animist rites (many of them dominated by females and transvestites), and propagated what they took to be "pure" uncorrupted texts.

11 Transvestites in the hills doing animist rites.

12 Apes are simply men who became apes for political reasons. If you make certain political choices and end up in exile then you just become an ape. Therefore all apes have strong political views which are very important to them and this depends on the kinds of Ape.

13 There is an empire of cooked men. To join it you are forced into a pot and boiled. You come out like boiled meat but alive. As you rise through the hierarchy then you are cooked in more and more intensive ways. The Emperor is carbonised. No one wants to be cooked so the Empire keeps grabbing people to cook them. The punishment for not grabbing enough guys is to be promoted.

"While a grain-growing population whose granaries and crops were confiscated and destroyed had no choice but to scatter or starve, a tuber-growing peasantry could move back immediately after the military danger had passed and dig up their staple a meal at a time."

14 Potatoes of rebellion. Potatoes, and all tubers are banned by law, symbols and tools of rebellion and enemies of the state.

15 Some tribes avoid state control by taking off their heads an burying them in jars to make themselves useless slaves. They feel their way around by touch and retrieve their head once the agents of the state have passed. Others are simply out of focus, you can't really see them clearly up close, you can at a distance but the closer you get the more blurry they are.

"Another response to the pressure to create a political structure through which the state can act is to dissimulate - to comply by producing a simulacrum of chiefly authority without its substance. The Lisu of northern Thailand , it seem, do just that. To please lowland authorities, they name a headman. The Potemkin nature of the headman is apparent from the fact that someone without any real power in the village is invariably named, rather than a respected older male with wealth and authority."

16 There are no goblin chiefs or kings, and actually no Goblin government, and no Goblins. ‘Goblin’ is just a name that the people trying to kill them gave them, they don’t really recognise it, but the Goblins pretend there are and set up false kings to fight and die for false nations in order to confuse those who would control them.

Goblins don’t act chaotic because they are dumb or crazy, it is a political choice.

"The more turbulent the social environment, the more frequently groups fission and recombine, the greater the likelihood that more of the portfolio of shadow ancestors will come into play."

17 The Shadow Ancestors, in a D&D world, would be an active force rather than a mere reaction or creation of the living. Different groups of ancestors of different descents pulling the actions of their descendants one way or another depending on their power. Wars fought to re-arrange ancestral power.

"The Lisu, aside from insisting that they kill assertive chiefs, have a radically abbreviated oral history. "Lisu forgetting, Jonsson claims, "is as active as Lua and Mien remembrance." he implies that the Lisu chose to have virtually no history and that the effect of this choice was to "leave no space for the active role of supra-household structures, such as villages or village clusters in ritual life, social organizations, or the mobilisation of peoples attention, labour or resources."

18 Radically forgetting tribes. How far can you push that? Ancestor free tribes, then further away, one-year tribes, then in the reaches of the deeps, the one-day, impossible even to understand as they remember only for one day.

Under Scottian analysis, dispersed egalitarian communities create religious structures based around individual charismatic figures and has a kind of 'wide-low' spiritual world with the numinosity dispersed into lots of little places and things, centered hierarchical stratified societies create religious structures based around hierarchy and institutions and a spiritual world that is as ordered and pyramid-shaped as the society.

18 These gods and spiritual worlds are actually real and rather than man creation them, it really depends what kind of god or system you end up under. The Hierarchal god wants people to build empires and actually makes people do that, the animist network wants people to disperse and not form hierarchies and so makes people do that.

"Egalitarian, acephalous peoples on the fringes of states are ungraspable. To the command "Take me to your leader" there is no straightforward answer. The conquest or co-option of such peoples is a piecemeal operation - one village at a time and perhaps, one household at a time - and one that is inherently unstable. No-one can answer for anyone else."

"They are millenarians, forever generating warrior leaders, sects, 'white monks', and prophets, all persuading themselves that the Karen kingdom is, once again, at hand. Animists talk of the coming of Y'wa, Baptists of Christ, and the Buddhists of the Arrimettaya, the future Buddha. Somebody is imminent, Toh Meh Pah is coming, something will happen."

19 We can apply this stuff to Orcs and Gnolls if we like. It makes sense that a group with a very flat hierarchal structure would 'auto-generate' prophets and millenarian figures when it needed to operate on a wider scale. An interesting thing is how commonly these prophets bring together peoples from different ethnic groups and how often they are not core members of any of those groups but kind of 'barbarian-cosmopolitans of mixed backgroupd or mixed education or just full-on outsiders. Which fits quite neatly into a D&D game.

It also creates the idea of Orcs as merely Democratic Men. Extremely Free men.

Here's some more Robert E. Howard for comparison:

" What united the rebels was the belief that the python-god, a shared highland deity, had returned to earth to inaugurate a golden age. The dieu-python would destroy the French, and hence all taxes and corvee burdens, while those who followed the ritual prescriptions would enter the golden age and share French goods amongst themselves."

No, sorry, that was Scott. Like I said, hard to tell apart.

"Stepping back from this historically deep and remarkably widespread incidence of millenarian activity, there is a realist school that would regard the entire record as an abject failure of essentially magical solutions."


There is so much more in the book than this but there are limits to the notes I will take when I am doing this for fun. I might still try doing a proper actual review of the book because it is worth it.


  1. Interesting, thanks for putting this together. Where do Social Bandits and their domesticated crime syndicate progeny (the Costra Nostra come from banditry and the decay of the feudal order) fit into all this? The Thugee seem maybe a key development here, and even later caste based banditry like dacoit stuff going on into the present. Some of this underworld remains decentralized still, ideas of a crime "family" "caste" or "syndicate" without overarching hierarchy.

    1. Hey Gus, sorry, I don't know. Last time I read Hobsbawns book was a while ago and I think I might have disagreed with him.

    2. Yeah Hobsbawn can be disagreeable. I was think ultimately about Mexico's current civil war/drug syndicates as the ultimate expression of some kind of anti-state/anti-center criminal underworld. Of course these groups are against governance while at the same time terribly hierarchical and rules fraught.

  2. I like 8 and 9 a lot. A world where farming tropes are political status/mechanisms - reaping, a Plowman, the Scarecrow - would make an interesting totalitarian state. Similarly, fertility gods take on new meaning. Doing a Wicker Man style rite to curse your enemies with plentiful crops (and thus more vulnerability to the state) or uncovering an ancient shrine to a forgotten (evil) maize goddess both sound rad

  3. Whoa crazy, I didn't know this book existed, but some of the history explored in it sounds exactly why I made a homebrew southeast asia game last year. When I was sifting through wikipedia articles on Thai history (for a failed trip) the way Ayutthaya was often described as a node that only had a certain range of influence and that other cities/areas had small circles of influence of governance and culture immediately got me into D&D mode of what the places would be like that weren't in those circles. Thus the fictional mythical Hindu/Thai/Wuxia land of Difang was born at our table.

    I definitely have to check out the book as what you made D&Dified looks awesome to implement.

  4. Apocalypto: "There's your forest, just past the corn. Run to it."