Choice of Rebels: Stormwright (XoR2 WIP)

In the last three days of October, I churned out a short, direly unbalanced, but kind of fun little grim yarn for the Halloween jam. I’ve been reading and enjoying the other ones too – and I’d encourage y’all to head over and vote (for minimum 5 of the short games) before next Tuesday or share feedback to encourage the authors and organizer.

In our world, projectile throwers powered by small hand-pumped reservoirs were a thing for a couple of centuries before air compressors and (a century later) pneumatic actuators were invented. And those were centuries where a parallel tech track involving steam was also taking off, which it isn’t in the gameworld. I’m pretty comfortable saying that in the Hegemony, even more centuries could pass than in our world between the invention of air rifles and the invention of pneumatic engines.

My idea of Karagond factory techne is that it generally involves making the most of a junior Theurge’s study time; they get a big flywheel going, and pause every few minutes in their intensive reading to juice the wheel. The rotary motion is turned into linear motion to drive a machine, as lots of early industry was in our world. That Theurgic approach has so far worked well enough (not just in terms of output, but in terms of efficient use of Theurges’ time) that the idea “we could power this with a huge tank of Theurgy-compressed air instead,” or that we could swap over from Theurgy to steam power, hasn’t occurred to many people or spawned a new wave of tech inventiveness.

Siege weaponry would not (I think) work better with pneumatics. Non-Theurgic air compression can’t launch a large projectile effectively, and if you’ve got a Theurge around, they can do that (and a lot more) directly. The tactical importance of the air rifle is that, with its hand-pumped reservoir, it can be used by non-Theurges from cover to get bullets into enemy Theurges. I don’t think there’s an equivalent that would allow non-Theurgy powered artillery to become tactically viable.

With explosives, I’m open to the idea that pneumatics could play a role… but I think it would likewise need to involve a tech approach and tactical use case that didn’t require a Theurge to be close at hand to set them off (since, again, if you’ve got a Theurge in the squad close enough to detonate a pneumatic bomb, they’ll be close enough to directly deliver the explosive, caustic agent etc. with a lot more versatility and reliability).

I don’t see how pneumatic grenades could work, for example. Any handheld pneumatic explosive would need a non-gunpowder detonator mechanism (to prevent an enemy Theurge from sensing the powder and triggering all your grenades from a distance), and I don’t see how you could manage that without an unacceptably high failure rate. Maybe this is my ignorance talking, but I can’t envision a workable pneumatic “pin” mechanism; and a grenade that would reliably explode from the impact of being thrown by hand is going to have a high rate of going off on your own soldiers.

Explosive traps would I think also run into detonator problems. If as I suspect the only reliable non-Theurgic detonator for a pneumatic landmine or pressure cooker bomb would be some sort of explosive agent like miner’s powder, then your tactical use case is “where we’re pretty sure the enemy will be moving through the area without Theurges”… and you’d be better off just using relatively simple black powder mines rather than Theurgically expensive compressed air ones.

On the other hand, Theurgically forged compressed-air shells dropped into a siege zone from long distance by catapult or Theurgic launch could I think work, with the force of impact providing a sufficient detonation mechanism. The bang wouldn’t do much to degrade non-flammable fortifications, but the shells could produce a lot of shrapnel, a terrifyingly loud noise, and a burst of whatever harmful stuff you’ve got inside. And they could be tactically useful in striking from outside of Theurge-vision range, getting explosions into the enemy ranks without sending your Theurge corps into danger.

You couldn’t get shells like that across a Ward, of course, so as long as the Hegemony remains the only power controlling Wardgates, pneumatic shell-bombs would be a weapon used by the Hegemony against Halassur rather than vice versa. (Except in the very rare cases where Halassurq infiltrators manage to get their hands on a stash on the Erezza side and wield them there.)

Thoughts on any/all of the above?

The MC has the chance to say that in a G1 conversation with Horion: “Spend enough blood, milord ${delelle}, and you can change anything.” That metaphor is indeed a core theme of the game. But so are the limitations of that metaphor. The Hegemony was built on the principle that there’s no problem you can’t solve by sacrificing enough people – and it’s falling apart. There are practical as well as moral limitations to the “drown it in blood” approach to problem-solving.

I love that you’re saying this about aspirations to efficiently tax the whole population, by contrast with the existing system of ritual mass sacrifice with a priest and God-mage presiding at the front. :slight_smile: Totally get your meaning, but it’s still funny.

I can see how this would be a point where the metaphor of “blood = human suffering” lends itself to an uninspiring conclusion – “the best achievable system still directly fuels itself on human suffering, just within a more tolerable institutional framework.” That reading could feel quite dissonant with the ethics of the literal in-game change; after all, moving from a lethal to a nonlethal way of fuelling your world system is I think a pretty huge moral shift, not just a “more sparing” evil.

I hope I’ll be able to write the blood tax path with a less dissonant, more coherent pairing of literal and metaphorical significance: that it points to the prospect of addressing the big problems through shared cost, shared suffering, rather than trying to solve them in a way that pushes all the cost and suffering onto an exploited subgroup of society.

In your volcano metaphor (which reminded me of one of my all time favorite nonfiction books, which has also left its mark on XoR’s ideas of nature)…it would be like your community refusing the idea that you face a dichotomous choice between relocation or tyranny, and instead self-organizing in new ways to face the crisis. You’d look for an institutional framework that lets you build walls quickly (so probably less consensual and more directive than whatever you had before) but equitably shares the risk of death rather than imposing it on a few, and doesn’t lock in institutions like slavery or dictatorship that will leave your community lastingly awful post-eruption.

For all the flaws of Graeber and Wengrow’s work, I think they’re right to emphasize that institutional experimentation and innovation – self-organizing in new ways toward different ends – is one of our species’s key superpowers. I’d like XoR to nod toward that.

Committing to deal with all problems the hard and maximally moral way has always been one of the options on the table. But as in the real world, the hard way involves accepting a lot of suffering that’s avoidable on easier ways, and accordingly you’ll find it hard to bring all your neighbors along with you down that path.

In general, I think, it’s easier for small countries to act ethically than it is for big empires (even when, as with the EU, it’s a law-governed empire of consent rather than conquest), and a small state can take a purist, exemplary approach that larger political entities would struggle to sustain.

Hopefully the game will provide a rich reading experience for non-optimists and optimists alike.

I think that’s true of the gameworld as well. If Hera had exterminated all the helot-designated populations during her conquest, she’d have had enough blood to fuel her empire for a few decades at most, and she’d still have needed to find an agricultural workforce somewhere. Her short-sightedness would at best have produced a Napoleon- or Alexander-style flash-in-the-pan empire, not a centuries-long one. Even if Karagon had had a bigger population than it did – ready to facilitate a continent-scale genocide and resettle the emptied lands in the wake of the Harrowed populations – the blood would one day have run out and the empire would have had to develop more sustainable institutions to supply its magi.

A subjugated population – and ideally a growing one, allowing you to extract more blood to meet your expanding needs – is still the indispensable foundation for empire in the gameworld. There are other possible equilibria, sure… like a predator kingdom that creates a huge empty wasteland around it by sending out its magi to indiscriminately harvest every human they find outside their borders. But there’s a lot of risk in that model, where the people you’re exploiting to death will pretty consistently fight you back and/or flee, compared to successful subjugation, where they often won’t/can’t. The real-world considerations of risk, cost, and effort that encouraged bandit warlords to turn themselves into “stationary bandits” and eventually petty kings would I think apply here too. Especially in a world where there are rival powers out there that also have magic, so your harvesting parties would be contending with enemy magi, not just desperate hunter-gatherers.

Depends on which Erezzianos you asked. There’s a unity faction, based in Soretto but present throughout the isthmus, that would mostly reject it. They would fear that once the unity principle was abandoned, there would be little to prevent an Erezza divided into thirds (i.e. Soretto, Halassur, and you) from collapsing further into at least twelve states.

Then there are others who would take your proposed deal in a heartbeat – the folk of Cocenza and points west, Avezchenes with close ties to Shayard, rebel helot-run city states whose main concern is preventing the Theurge/aristo-led neighboring states from overrunning them.

I’m not going to comment on governability of specific maps, since there will be a lot of factors involved, not just a matter of square mile land area. But I will note that Scarthe is going to be far from irrelevant. In a Shayard hypothetically divided between multiple factions, where different groups held the Southriding, Westriding, and Coast, whichever one held Scarthe would have a much greater ability to supply their fleets and control the seas. A Coast-plus-Scarthe faction, in particular, would be well-placed to become navally dominant and interdict most sea trade by any rivals whose access to the Olossar Ocean depended on Shayard City or Corlune. (And those rivals might include not just Shayardene factions but a number of possible Rump Hegemony configurations).

A pretty limited extent. Not to sound like a broken record, but following the violent disintegration of a continent-wide authoritarian empire, most of your struggles are going to involve instituting basic rule of law and restoring/protecting enough economic function to stave off a total economic collapse. If you limit your territorial ambitions to a relatively small state, Game 5 will have more opportunities for institutional innovation, but you’ll also have to spend a lot of time dealing with threats posed by neighboring states/zones of anarchy.

There would be an interesting game to be written that focused entirely on the choice of new national institutions following a less anarchic collapse – Choice of Yegor Gaidar, or Shigeru Yoshida – where there would be much more scope for intentional system design at a high level of detail. I don’t think XoR is ever going to have quite as much of that as you’d like, because of the gameworld’s overall social tech level as well as the violence of its collapse.

It is possible to try to take over rather than destroy the Hegemony’s taxation system. As for teachers, that’s the priesthood, and it’s certainly possible to take that over too.

Given low literacy rates, not very far at all. By the very end of the epilogue, a literacy-maxing player might be able to see mass print journalism on the distant future horizon?

It should be. I’m writing a number of stat checks that are for (CHA+INT) or (CHA+COM), where either a maxed or hybrid player could succeed, and there will continue to be plenty of stat = 1 or stat = 2 checks, not just stat = 3.

And I’ll continue to do so. For example, right now the most typing-efficient way for me to check “if CHA+INT = 4” is “if COM = 0,” so I’m going to do that even if it makes the game wonky for modders and stat-tamperers.

If the merchants and yeomen believed that your redistribution was going to stop at the aristos, they could be won over to it, especially if tax breaks were part of the deal. (But a player handing out too many tax breaks may struggle to keep an army in the field, get food to starving regions, etc.)