Thursday, March 2, 2017

Hunting for Inspiration II: Stranger than Fiction

I'm afraid I can't find the quote by Kenneth Hite, but it amounts to this: No matter how creative you are, the real world will come up with something stranger and cooler than you can ever come up with, and you'd thus be a fool not to pillage history.

This is especially important for Psi-Wars, for two reasons.  First, Star Wars, from which Psi-Wars draws is principle inspiration, is very thoroughly based on history, especially the History Channel favorites like World War 2 and the Roman Empire.  If we want Psi-Wars to feel the same, then we need to draw our inspiration from a similar source.  But more importantly, Psi-Wars must necessarily be larger than Star Wars, given that Star Wars is "only" a movie, while Psi-Wars needs to be a setting that supports a huge variety of different possible games.  That means we need more material to steal from, and there's hardly more material than all of human history.

As before, though, I intend to pursue emulation rather than imitation.  I don't want Psi-Wars to be the the Fall of the Roman Republic with the serial numbers scratched off, I want to understand what made Rome fall, and then draw parallels with that with the fall of my Galactic Empire.  This is the same thing Lucas did in the prequels though I'm quite sure I'll draw different historical conclusions than he did (It takes more than a single war to turn a democracy into a dictatorship).  We need to do our homework, and I certainly have (Look, I like history, okay!), and I've noted some sources below.  Those are just some sources, a place where you might start.  The point here is hunting for ideas, not necessarily a rigorous historical thesis, thus I've happily included semi-fictional works and well-researched RPGs.  It's not meant as an exhaustive bibliography of books I've gone through.

So, what part of history can I draw on for inspiration for Psi-Wars?

All of it.


Gladiator, from Wikipedia

My primary source:

Star Wars clearly draws a lot of its inspiration from the Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic.   Here, too, the Republic (with its Senate) is overthrown in a time of crisis by a man who becomes Emperor, only to face a civil war from his rivals, while barbaric (alien) threats press in on the civilized core.  The rightful order of the world is on threat from all sides, and the Emperor destroys the Republic to save it.

And, really, why wouldn't Star Wars draw inspiration from this rich source?  Rome is nearly as far back as you can go and still run into, as Dan Carlin puts it, "full color history," where we have a pretty good picture from the records of what's going on.  Suddenly, a strange and alien culture springs up that's utterly unlike our own, and yet still so recognizably human.  If their democracy could fall, then surely so can ours.  George Lucas clearly wanted us to pay attention to that danger.

An empire is defined as "an aggregate of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful sovereign or government, usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom

But the Star Wars version of events misses some key points, and we could draw on even more.  First, the Roman Republic didn't become the Roman Empire, it was already an empire!  Rome had conquered all of its territory first, and only when that conquest fundamentally changed the fabric of its institutions did the Republic collapse, to be replaced by an Emperor.

The change-over didn't happen all once either.  Every school kid knows about Julius Caesar, but he was never Emperor.  His adopted son, Augustus Caesar, was the first Roman Emperor.  Instead, what we see are long serious of events where to increasingly entrenched and violent sides come to blows, and when they kill Caesar (a hero to all of Rome!), that was a bridge too far, and then when Augustus Caesar wins, it's clear to him that the only way to end the cycles of violence is to clamp down with an iron fist.

And the "rebellion" wasn't nearly as clear cut as we see in Star Wars.  Instead, we see the Republic vs Imperial side, of course, but then once the Imperial side wins, that side devolves into a horrid conflict between the victorious triumvirate until Augustus Caesar is the last man standing.  This, by the way, is surprisingly typical for uprisings of this sort.  Moreover, the "liberty loving side" was largely aristocratic.  The war for the soul of Rome was fought by those who stood for the constitution, the aristocratic, land-owning, slave-holding elites, vs the dictatorial populist demagogues.  The land owning class had gained enormous wealth and power during the rise of Rome, and didn't want to share it with the increasingly impoverished common man, and one of the core justifications of the various power-grabs during this era was to better the lot of the common man.  This rather puts a new spin on the rebellion being led by a Princess, doesn't it?

In Star Wars, Palpatine definitely rises to power on the back of a war, as did the various populist Tribunes of Rome, but in Rome, the wars were of conquest and genocide or, more occasionally, in defense of the Republic against vast barbarian incursions.  Desperately frightened Romans would give more and more power to their best and brightest, who would turn around and impose some serious reform that would incense one side of the other and, especially if they were making reforms that benefited the people, resulted in their assassination.

If we borrow some of this for Psi-Wars, what alien menace represents our barbaric incursions that our heroic would-be Emperor can gain fame standing against?  Who are the aristocrats that stand for "the constitution" of the current Galactic Republic?  How does this Emperor die, and who rises in his place?  And how does that particular civil war play out?  We have the aristocratic side, but if they're largely defeated, does the Empire have to deal with other, upstart imperials from the alliance-from-hell that they made to take control of the empire?

And what fundamentally changed the fabric of the Republic so completely to allow this?

We have no Jedi in Rome... but we do have Christians.  Hunted by the Empire, eventually, in a civil war, a man sees their power and marches forth under their banner and unifies the empire once more, and then purges all of the old ways in favor of this new way.  In this version, our Jedi become a new order, not an old one.  The Sith, perhaps, arehe Gracchi Brothers the old way, a barbaric psi-practice that devours offerings and controls dark magics, but the new Jedi order, while lightly and holy, has its own inquisitors who are overzealous in their destruction of these old ways.  Light vs Dark becomes the New Enlightment vs the Old Paganism.

In place of Rome's staggeringly large slave class, we have hard-working droids   But in Star Wars, droids never revolted.  Why not a few droid revolts in our setting? Robots who seek to free themselves from the shackle of dominion, only to be pushed back down?  Who is our Robot Spartacus?

Some additional interesting characters or ideas:

World War 2

from "Meet the Men who Hunt Nazis," the Telegraph

If Star Wars is the story of how democracies fall and how they can be restored, I must admit that I find most discussions of the rise of Nazi Germany frustrating, as they seldom get into the root causes.  Instead, Hitler inexplicably rises to power thanks to fear and his magical, hypnotic powers, which matches how Star Wars treats it.  Personally, I found Hite's discussions of the origins of the Volkish movement and its connections to German nationalism enlightening, as well as the Interwar Period's discussion of the delicate balancing act the Weimar republic was forced to make, including its evident external focus and unwillingness to violate treaties the German people found increasingly inexcusable.  Thus, the rise of the Nazi party has more to do with economic hardship and a defiant wish for Germany to "take its rightful place" with the other European empires (the fact they were empires is sometimes forgotten in these discussions), as well as willingness to be "unapologetically German" in the sense that there seemed a general sense that being "unapologetically German" was controversial (perhaps because it was!).  You can also find a strong element of propaganda and secret police inside the Nazi party from the very beginning: one reason Hitler was able to rise to power was that as soon as he had any power, he used it to dramatically suppress dissent.

Thus, in Psi-Wars, what sort of economic hardships and politically incorrect ideas begin to give rise to the rise of the Empire?  What sort of secret police does the Emperor deploy to enforce his will upon the people and thus end the Galactic Republic?

Star Wars also borrows heavily from the imagery of World War 2, with great capital ships acting as carriers and battleships, while starfighters act as fighter.  Stormtroopers draw their inspiration from German storm troopers, the AT-AT from the German Tiger, and so on.  The Galactic Civil War of Star Wars is fought very much like World War 2, only "in space."

But the politics of the war is completely different.  In Star Wars, the only two powers are the Empire and the Rebellion, which isn't a foreign power at all.  This is an internal conflict.  In World War 2, of course, Germany allied with other powers (Italy and Japan) to form the Axis, and the Allies included freedom-loving British (including aristocrats and a commonwealth that contained colonized nations, like India) and America, as well as the decidedly unfree Russia.  If we draw the parallel further, who takes on these roles?  The idea of an aristocracy fighting to hold onto their old privilege matches nicely with the parallel for the Roman civil war, but how do we represent America? Are they heroic minute-men or grasping, corporate industrialists with imperial ambitions of their own, or both?  And what could stand in for Russia in the most brutal part of the war?  If communism represents the rise of a virtually enslaved labor class against their oppressors, then what if the role of Russia in Psi-Wars is an area of space where robots have overthrown their masters and seek to persuade other robots to join them in their revolution?  And what represents Japan or Italy?  Does some ancient and mDan Carlin's Wrath of the Khansystical culture join forces with the industrial might of the galactic core?  Or perhaps this is best represented by a fusion between a splinter sect of our not-Jedi-Order joining forces with the Empire?

The Germans sought to cleanse the world of Jews, but they had some rather specific reasons.  Setting aside centuries of racial mistrust of the Jews, conspiracy theories often center on banking and Nazi Germany was no different.  Germans held people like the Rotschilds responsible for their downfall after WW1 (and you can find this sort of conspiracy making the rounds every few years to this day).  We might draw from this a quiet (alien?) consortium of bankers, lenders and/or technologists who quietly empower people from behind the scenes (the "banking clans" of Clone Wars).  Alternatively, the Jews might represent the Jedi, hunted to the brink of extinction by the Empire... or perhaps they represented by alien races who are being purged by a human Empire that wants to remain "pure."

Fascinatingly, the lethal super-weapon of WW2 wasn't acquired by the Nazis, but by the allies.  What happens in a setting where the Rebel Alliance is the one that acquires the Death Star and uses it as a last ditch effort to kill literally billions by blowing major Imperial worlds?  What sort of tone does that set?

Some additional interesting characters or ideas:

Sengoku Jidai and the Edo Era

Total War Shogun 2 Wallpaper

Star Wars draws a great deal of its inspiration from historical japan and, in fact, the word "Jedi" comes from  "Jidai" (Jidaigeki, specifically, or "period piece", movies set in Japan's historical past).  Jedi are the samurai of the Japanese warring period, and Star Wars itself began basically as a riff on the Hidden Fortress, though the Phantom Menace draws more heavily on its ideas.

Using Japan as inspiration becomes difficult, because while the mood of a chambara film definitely comes across in Star Wars (at least the original trilogy), the history far less so.  When we discuss Japanese history in regards to the samurai, two eras generally spring to mind.  The first is the Sengoku Jidai, the warring era, where the Ashikaga Shogunate collapsed and various regional daimyos sprang up and vied for power until, at last, Tokugawa declared himself Shogun.  This is the era that features samurai in armor and on horseback, cutting one another down and dying for their daimyo.  It's also the era that features ninjas.

If we borrow from this for Psi-Wars, interesting things emerge.  If space knights are samurai, then this war is fought with space knights!  And the emperor is a ceremonial position by this point, a religious figure head and a rallying figure dominated by the shogun.  Each daimyo becomes the lord of a specific world, or a master of a few worlds.  This, in short, looks nothing like Star Wars... but interesting nonetheless!

The second major era that springs to mind is the one most commonly featured in the "Jidaigeki" so beloved by George Lucas, is the Edo era, long after the Tokugawa shogunate has established its dominance.  Now, the samurai has devolved back to his roots as bureaucrat and often enjoys a ceremonial position so long as his master continues to receive a stipend from the Shogunate.  This is the era of the kimono-clad samurai who uses his fast-draw technique in a sudden duel, where the man to first draw his blade wins.  It's also the era of the geisha, where whores play at being ladies for the amusement of their largely fallen samurai customers who try to pretend to be more genteel than they really are, while gamblers and yakuza thugs similarly pretend to be classier than they are, and the lines between "noble" and "commoner" begin to slowly blur.  It's a somber and often sad era, not entirely applicable to the great galactic war... but the mood certain fits a galaxy whose best, most energetic days are behind it, which yearns to return to that golden age of yesteryear, even as time draws it relentlessly forward into a new and strange era.

Interesting Ideas

Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Mandate of Heaven

You know, while we're out here on the "mystical orient anyway," let's discuss a civilization that has risen and fallen and risen and fallen in seemingly eternal cycles while locked in a constant struggle of "light" and "dark", while producing supposedly super-human philosopher-warriors: China.

While not exactly history, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the great pieces of Chinese literature, probably about as influential in sino-sphere as Arthurian legend, or even Shakespeare, is in the anglo-sphere.  If we look closely at it, we find a lot of really good Star Wars inspiration.  The military precision of the Chinese soldier is a good match for the precision of Storm Troopers.  Cao Cao becomes the Emperor, with Liu Bei as our leader of the heroic Rebellion, and the Sun family our third party, sometimes isolationist, sometimes willing to join in the Rebellion.  And like in Star Wars, this is a proper civil war, one that often matches the movements of the Galactic Civil War, with Liu Bei and his forces often on the run just a few steps ahead of the dangerous power of Cao Cao's forces.

It's also one that fits modern Action RPG sensibilities nicely.  Each side has their own over-the-top heroes, and major plot points turn on the actions of spies, assassins, and delicate damsels who have learned to turn heads.  When it reaches back for root causes, we have barbarian invasion, gluttinous usurpers, religiously inspired rebellions, and so on.

We don't have to stick with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, of course.  We can race backwards or forwards, because China has some of the most richly detailed history in the world, often going back farther than Europe's "classical" history.  Because of its surprisingly close parallels with Star Wars, I wouldn't view it as an alternate version so much as an interesting source for characters and locations.

Additional Characters and Ideas

Medieval Europe and the Templars

My primary sources:
The most common criticism leveled at Star Wars is that it's "Fantasy in Space," but that's not entirely unfair.  Star Wars draws a lot of its ideas from medieval Europe, from European nobility (Princess Leia, Count Dooku, Jedi Knights) to literal dragons to "crazy old wizards."  When George Lucas came up with the Jedi Order, the Knights Templar were definitely one of his core inspirations.

Like Chinese history, European history is rich with details that we can steal from, from knightly orders to wars to kings.  A few periods that particularly interest me are the Dark Ages right after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Crusades, and the various Knightly orders, all of which I think we can bring into Psi-Wars.  Why not include some leper kings, or explore the murky origins of the Leper kings, or ponder what crusader kingdoms look like a sci-fi setting, or how we might translate a struggle between pope and anti-pope during the Western Schism into Psi-Wars?

I must emphasize caution when exploring the templars as they represent both a very familiar history and a very strange, mysterious history, as conspiracies and magical thinking shrouds templar history in a veil of mystery and controversy.  However, we can grab whatever crazed conspiracy theories we want, and mix familiar medieval history with other histories (the rise of the Ikko Ikki, the fall of the Shaolin temple) to create something new and unique.


The Fire of Troy
My Primary Sources
GURPS Fantasy likes to discuss history in cycles, which is hardly knew, people have been doing that for ages because for most of human history, that's how it worked, at least close enough that we can neatly tie off history with a bow with a narrative like this.  European civilization rose into the Renaissance after the black death, which caused a collapse of High Medieval Europe, which itself rose after the Great Migration ruined the Western Roman Empire, which rose along with the rise of the Greek empire that caused the collapse of Pax Persia, which rose to fill the gap left by the great Bronze Age Collapse.

Personally, I find this last the most fascinating.  There existed a surprisingly cosmopolitan civilization, rife with shared mythology and diplomacy and trade and war, that started somewhere around 3000 BC and ran to about 1500 BC before a series of disasters (slowly, over the course of hundreds of years) destroyed it.  If you study that era of history, you find an ancient world that was ancient to people we think of as ancient.  When Caesar looked upon the Pyramids, they were older to him than he is to us.  Think about that.  Let that sink in.  Someone who is ancient history to us, whose statues have decayed, whose city has been so completely rebuilt that we barely have crumbling ruins of it, he met a queen who was part of 250 year-old dynasty, the Ptolemys, who had been invaders of a civilization that had been more-or-less continuously self-ruling for nearly 2000 years, and its greatest wonders were long behind it, more than 2000 years before the Greeks had seen the place, never mind the Romans!

Space opera loves this idea of ancient worlds and lost ruins, and who wouldn't? Pulp came into its own in the same era that Howard Carver was dusting off ancient Egyptian relics, and the man that gave us Star Wars also gave us Indiana Jones.  But more than that, it actually makes sense.  There's no reason to believe that every intelligent life form would evolve at the same time, so we would expect when we finally do go out into the galaxy to find the remains of lost civilizations.  Star Wars, of course, doesn't seek that level of realism.  It has ruins for the "Wahoo!" factor.  Even so, Star Wars often implies that the original Jedi and the original Sith weren't human, and that hunting down lost ruins and fallen civilizations is a vital part of the plot.  I definitely want that in Psi-Wars.

Furthermore, ancient history is huge, an entire region going from the Nile to the Indus Valley, all interconnected with one another, covering a span of literally thousands of years.  There's as much ancient history than there is classical, medieval and modern history combined, and they overlap in a fascinating way.

Religious and Philosophical History

My primary sources:
History isn't always political or military, as much fun as that is.  We can trace the history of fashion, or the history of culture or science or philosophical thought and theology, and this last particularly interests me, as Psi-Wars itself is deeply philosophical.  Studying the history of philosophy can give us an idea of what others believed, how they saw the world, and how events in the world impacted their beliefs, or how the beliefs of various cultures began to influence one another.

Another thing that leaps out to me as I study this topic is how one history can calamitously impact another. I had just finished listening to the essential collapse of Islamic philosophy after the highly destructive Mongol invasion, and then I turned around and listened to those invasions from the perspective of the Mongols, and let me tell you, that was an interesting experience.  Or, consider how much the Jewish faith has been shaped, first by their babylonian captivity, and then later by the Roman destruction of their temple.

We might expect the movements of religion and philosophy in Psi-Wars to follow a similar trail, with smaller philosophies swallowed up by larger ones, or watch conquerors grow fascinated by the culture and philosophy of the conquered and take it on (often with a few changes).  We expect certain cultures to obsess with certain questions, or take different things completely for granted (much of Roman and Islamic philosophy was obsessed with questions about God, such as how a truly good God could create a flawed world, and whether the world was eternal was created, while Indian philosophy seems much less concerned with God and much more concerned with the self and how to "discover it.").  I've already touched on these topics before, but again, studying history can help us enrich our own world.
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