Friday, November 16, 2012

Strife of Interests

Author's note: By request, I am re-running my posts on the cape-and-sword endgame. Originally posted over several weeks, I'm re-posting them as a single series over the next several days.

Over the past month I posted about the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

Earlier posts focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts and favors, clients, and strongholds. These are the tools the adventurers acquire or build as the campaign progresses toward the endgame.

Recently I started posting about the endgame from the referee's perspective, beginning with adventurous action and a model of social structure for the campaign endgame. Now I turn to the nature of political conflict.

Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. - Ambrose Bierce
At the end of the social-network-as-megadungeon post, I suggested that political factions represent a synergy of the personal and the philosophical, of the private and the public. While I'm sure most of us accept the notion that contemporary political figures are motivated by a mix of private gain and public service, it can be hard to grasp just how inseparable these two concepts are to a sixteenth- or seventeenth century mindset. In a cape-and-sword setting which draws from the real-world of the period, a career as a pork-product inspector or a court prosecutor a colonel of a regiment may be something that is not only a family tradition but an actual inheritable asset passed between generations.

There's a brief scene in the movie Vatel that encapsulates this for me. The prince de Condé treats King Louis XIV to a lavish visit to the prince's château de Chantilly. Condé is one of France's greatest generals, victor of the battle of Rocroi, but he is out-of-favor with the king, and the visit to Chantilly is to entice the king to give Condé command of the royal army for the impending war with the Dutch. Condé is deeply in debt and hopes to use the commission to restore his fortune as well as regain the king's favor, which leads to the following exchange.



"What exactly do you need to borrow so much money for?"

"The better to serve France, Your Majesty."
In the cape-and-sword endgame, the distinction between what is good for the actor and what is good for the state may blur to insignificance.

More broadly, there's a spectrum reaching from the most rank opportunist to the most ardent partisan. During times of political upheaval against the established order - the English Civil War, the French Revolution, &c - the influence of the true believers may become more pronounced, but political conflict rarely strays far from the "strife of interests."

So what are those interests?

Patronage and venality - the sale of political offices - has already been covered as part of building a clientele. Factions may be seen as politically-motivated clienteles; patronage is used as a means of extending the faction's influence and as a reward for loyal service. The higher in the hierarchies one goes, the fewer the positions available and the greater their influence, and more important their control to the various factions becomes. Patronage and clienteles may be used to secure control over a geographic area; a provincial governor, for example, may attempt to make city mayors (using the Flashing Blades position titles) clients while an ambitious mayor with his sights set on the governorship may do the same, or a bishop may replace the pastors of the parishes in his bishopric with loyal priests. Grands - the wealthiest and most influential nobles - will be particularly motivated to exercise control of both eccelesiastical and secular offices. Patronage may also be used to manage an important aspect of the economy; Cardinal Richelieu, aware that France was uniquely situated to control the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, but lacked both adequate tonnage of shipping and ports to service them, devoted himself to naval affairs for much of his tenure as minister of state, making himself master of navigation, buying up the various admiralties and the governorship of Brittany - France's most important maritime province - and putting a trusted client in charge of La Rochelle after the Huguenots' defeat, and establishing a chartered trading company. In addition to power, offices also bring with them revenue, particularly offices with opportunities for graft.

Finance - in particular taxation - is a constant preoccupation of . . . well, just about everyone. The tax exemption of the First and Second Estates - the Church and the nobility, respectively - is a source of constant complaints and petitions for redress from the bourgeoisie of the Third. The crown, on the other hand, needs to feed its ravenous maw a never-ending flow of specie, and devises all sorts of methods to extract more and more taxes from its overburdened populace. Popular figures promise tax relief while royal ministers search for new ways to exsanguinate a tuber. Financiers of the monarchy seek stability above all, to insure that the crown pays its bills on time and in full, guaranteeing their own wealth and standing as well as the possibility of upward social mobility.

Families, from peasants to monarchs, are absorbed by succession. Planning for succession protects a family's wealth - including things like titles and offices owned - and may provide a pathway to increasing social status. Succession involves both marriage and inheritance. Though the virtue of romance is extolled by poets, most marriages have more in common with corporate mergers, right down to contractual obligations and assumed debts. Marriages between social peers maintain the status quo and build important alliances, but the ambitious family will look to nuptials as a means of advancing its position. For every family looking to improve its lot by marrying above its station, there is a family struggling to maintain its tenuous hold on the ladder of rank. The combination of an ambitious and increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie and a nobility scrambling to maintain its pomp leads to mésalliances; this is one of the subplots in Molière - aka Shakespeare in Love en Français - as the bourgeois Jourdain seeks to marry one of his daughters to the impoverished nobleman Dorante. Such mésalliances may also be used to secure political alliances as well; both cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin used their positions as ministers of state to arrange marriages for their nieces to nobles far above their rank - Richelieu even managed to marry one of his neices, Claire-Clémence de Maillé-Brézé, to a prince of the blood, le Grand Condé, which further rankled the grands who saw the country nobleman-turned-prelate as an arriviste.

In a society obsessed with social status, precedence is serious business. Street brawls and lawsuits alike could be prompted by a change in the order in which guilds were allowed to line up for processions on feast days, and King Louis XIII once broke up a fight between the prince de Condé and the comte de Soissons over who got to hold the king's napkin. Precedence is an expression of one's power and authority, a tangible cue of one's dignity, and as such it is the object of a great deal of jockeying for position, from members of a guild or confraternity to the household of the monarch. Petitions to the king to change orders of precedence can be expected to excite a general outcry.

Late Renaissance and Early Modern society is familiarly litigious, and the quest for justice in matters mundane and extraordinary involves layers of courts as well as the extra-judicial influence of the monarch. Lawsuits may involve everything from disputes over property and contracts to orders of precedence and the outcome of duels. Moreover both the crown and the Church maintain separate systems of justice, creating another source of conflict. Lawsuits and countersuits may take years to resolve, with several appeals possible, and expediting justice is a powerful boon.

Confessional allegiance dominates the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and there are few more bitterly contested political conflicts than those surrounding the profession of faith. Even where tolerance in matters of conscience is the official policy of the realm, living a life free from religious coercion is a challenge.

Finally, there is honor. Honor is a measure of integrity, and to impugn one's honor is to question one's integrity. In a society based on personal connections, like the patron-client relationship, honor is a commodity to be protected at all costs.

From these conflicts the political milieu of the game-world is constucted, which will be the subject of my next post.

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