Friday, February 24, 2012

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett, Pt. 2

Part 2: Class, Civilization, and Rugged Individualism in Hardboiled Gaming

Edgar Rice Burroughs laid down the tropes for sword & planet fiction, which in turn were inherited from the Lost World genre. Frightful savagery, "oriental" tyrants, superstitious cults and the rotting splendor of fallen cultures are integral aspects of colonial adventure, but Brackett turns these on her head by casting the main character as a "civilized savage" who arrives on Skaith as a prophet of doom, representing the coming changes that will wreak havoc on their way of life. In doing so, he acts as the catalyst for those changes, despite his reservations over being thrust into a messianic role.

This criticism of colonial adventure is not the only modern concern that Brackett brings to her work. The Galactic Union is a sort of ineffectual bureaucracy that, due to a blend of progressive moral relativism and political expediency, is willing to allow their own agent to die rather than raise a ruckus with the rulers of Skaith. One can certainly see here a mirror of Howard's cyclical histories of savagery/decadence/degeneration, with the Union cast in the role of Rome before the fall, but also a  satire of the United Nations' non-interventionist policies.

Yet, despite such modern concessions, these reinforce the Western ideal of the rugged individualist, who is not hoodwinked by the veneer of civilization but rather determines life on his own terms. This is a key to understanding hardboiled sword & sorcery, which not only reflects the actions of the players, but of the people they interact with. I discussed this a bit previously in my essay on "The Snow Women", but it bears examining with a bit more depth.

From the deeply cynical view of the hardboiled genre, along with revisionist Westerns, social structures and normative beliefs exist as a method of exploitation, through which the few may control the many, and the weak can subvert the strong. Piety, ideology and similar platitudes exist only to justify bad action and as a consolation to those who are getting the short end of the stick. Howard clearly displays such sentiments in his early Conan stories The God in the Bowl and Queen of the Black Coast, where the conflict between the forces of civilization and our Cimmerian protagonist lampoon modern sentiments. Conan, who only understands the plain truth of power, will not be swayed by noble sentiments to bow to any man.

One is hard-pressed not to extricate a political subtext to all of this. Perhaps the most honest interpretation would be an American Libertarian view, where the sword and sorcery hero is akin to the protagonist of an Ayn Rand novel, the only decent and forthright man in a contemptible society. Depending on your proclivities, however, you could also move sharply in the opposite direction, as the Italians did with Zapata Westerns such as Duck, You Sucker! These films emphasize the abuses of a corrupt elite and, while they do not deify the lower classes, one's sympathy certainly lies with the "common man".

How can we bring such sentiments to the table? This can be best handled in the portrayal of NPCs, casting the majority into a series of broad categories:

Middle Class: Priests, bureaucrats, merchants, shopkeepers, robber barons, and the like, the middle class is the single group most invested in the perpetuation of the "lie" of civilization. They are often small-minded moralizers, quick to preach of their virtue and look down on others while constantly scheming to rob everyone else blind. They will spit on adventurers and other ragamuffins, disdaining (and secretly fearing) them for throwing off the yolk of the class hierarchy. Never ones to engage in direct violence, the cowardly middle class will be quick to throw the book at anyone who threatens them and, failing that, will use deception and/or hired thugs to eliminate such opposition.

Lower Class: The unfortunate majority, the lower class is the serf, the common laborer, the unwashed mass. Barely scraping by, the lower class have been treated like dogs their entire lives and, for the most part, they have learned to act that way. They will take any advantage, accept any charity, suffer through any indignity from those of a higher station and thank them in return. That said, the lower class is not fooled by sermons of virtue or the greater good, but have only learned to smile and nod in obeisance. They do what they must to get by and, while wretched, are a patient and crafty sort. Unwary adventurers will likely be drugged and robbed blind, while a foolhardy tax collector who fails to bring a personal guard will not survive long, as farm implements quickly become weapons.

Upper Class: Unlike the middle class, the elite care little for the stories their governors spin about their charity, grace, and mercy. Frankly, they find the plight of those below them laughable and care for little except their own indulgences. Most are so indolent as to be useless except for their great wealth, but they can be incredibly dangerous if inconvenienced or, worse, threatened. Unaccustomed to being denied any pleasure, should their ire be raised they will often become obsessive with destroying whoever slighted them. They can prove lucrative patrons, but their capriciousness make them unpredictable, at best.

Free Agents: Not everyone is willing to accept things as they are, or the station which they find themselves born into. Crooks, fallen women, highwaymen, artists, pioneers, prophets, revolutionaries, treasure hunters and the like take on a heavy burden of social stigma, but in exchange enjoy a freedom that few know. Almost universally feared and despised, these fortune-seekers blaze their own trails, and while most die in ignominy, a few manage to become legendary in their own right. PCs generally fit into this category. There are a number of broad archetypes clumped together within this category that deserve to be looked at more closely, but free agent serves as a catch-allow for individualists and non-conformists (at least for the purposes of this essay).

Barbarians: Those not of civilization at all, barbarians are those that hail from nomadic or tribal cultures. They are generally forced into undesirable or underdeveloped regions where civilization has not been able to take hold, and are shaped by the rugged landscapes they inhabit. Although "savage", they are generally understood to be exceedingly honest and straight-forward, caring little for the niceties of "decent folk", and generally hold city-dwellers in contempt. Like the protagonist in Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, the simplicity of their lifestyle gives them a nobility which is to be admired. At the same time, the tension between these people and agrarian communities often flares into violence, and there are no guarantees that visitors will be treated kindly. Moreover, their frankness means that they're willing to employ sometimes brutal methods to get what they want, and many casually engage in violence and thievery.

Savages: Distinct from Barbarians, whose nobility of spirit make them a class of people to be admired, savages are primitive people who are to be despised. Low, cunning, and degenerate, savages most often are the remnants of a fallen culture, but can also come from a subhuman race, such as orcs or tharks. In-fighting, a love for cruelty, and dirty tricks define the savage, who can only be dealt with through a show of strength. Individuals can sometimes rise to the class of barbarian, and those that do often emerge as great leaders (as long as their lieutenants don't stab them in the back). It is usually possible for savages to be redeemed, but they'll kick, bite and curse you every step of the way.

Just keep each of these distinctions in mind when designing NPCs, and you're game will quickly move into a more hardboiled direction. Although it's good to mix up player expectations now and again, these stereotypes are even more useful when dealing with faceless characters plucked from a crowd.

Next: In our final article on The Ginger Star, we discuss social satire in game design and present a couple new monsters from the book.


  1. Good essay. I would say that Eric John Stark (at least as portrayed in the two earliest novellas) does indeed resemble Sean in Duck You Sucker! on any number of "disappointed idealist" heroes. While each story opens with Stark as a man apart in some way, resisting connections to others, he inevitably gets drawn into them--typically in a fight for the underdog. We're also told he helped native peoples struggling against oppressors in events never portrayed.

  2. Thanks, Trey.

    Assuming you mean "The Secret of Sinharat", I found that story particularly interesting because of the extended political allegory.

    It may have just been my imagination, but the antagonist of Sinharat seemed like a stand-in for T.E. Lawrence and his vampiric, immortal masters being a representation of the British Empire.

    From this viewpoint, Erick John Stark is the personification of that "disappointed idealist", the United States, who weren't entirely comfortable about how the Brits were intending to screw over their Arab "allies".

  3. Good read on "Secret of Sinharat!" Actually, I was thinking of both that and "People of the Lens"--though in the later, I suppose his immediate motivation is "honor among thieves." The backstory given in "Secret" (that he had been running guns to the rebel tribes on Venus and that this is the biggest crime he's being pursued for) is perhaps the strongest hint at his character.

  4. Hmm. I'm not convinced that "honor among thieves" is the real impetus for Stark in "People of the Taliman".

    His sympathy lies with the people of Kushat, of course, as it does with those of Skaith, though he complains loudly in both about how he doesn't want to get involved. This conflict between caution and a desire to fight for the underdog is one of the central traits of the character, and certainly fits the "disappointed idealist".

    In both cases, however, it is the bonds he develops with individuals amongst the oppressed that ultimately push him to action.


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