Alternate Alternatives

It was true pleasure to moderate a panel of delightful guests such as Julie Barret, Tim Morgan, and Sue Sinor for the FenCon “Alternative History” session.

Theme: Alternate History | Family | BoardGameGeek

It’s funny, I spent a week preparing for this panel and telling people I’d never published AH – before realizing I had. But, because of the filters of perception, it took me until the night before the session.

In 2019, I have the honor of contributing to Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith, a charity anthology of Dr. Who stories revolving around the eponymous companion, raising money for cancer research in memory of the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. My contribution, Swinging Londons, involves the space-time around London becoming dangerously unstable, shifting into alternate versions of itself every couple hours. Sarah Jane and the Doctor have to navigate their way through a panoply of Londons, some delightful, some demented, some dangerous, as they attempt to identify and halt the disturbance.

So, as it turns out, I’m going into moderating this panel significantly more qualified than I thought.

The Greatest Hits of All Time(s)

So, let’s talk about a couple of AH titles that have really influenced me both as a writer and a reader.

Lest Darkness Fall: “Rome Never Falls,” is one of the most hackneyed, cliché divergence points in AH. And yet this 1939 classic from L. Sprague de Camp doesn’t suffer for it in the least. There are several reasons for that. First, its focus is on why and how the Empire is preserved. Second, it takes as its starting point the late Roman Empire, when Gothic influence is already strong and a variety of Christian sects battle via polemic (and occasionally via pommel) in the streets, which is a very different beast from the “Salad Days of the Caesars” Rome that dominates AH. Third, while technically retro, its tone of innocence and clear-eyed optimism feels fresh and novel and against a genre that is often gritty and pessimistic. Finally, of course, with a 1939 publication date, the cliché that Rome Never Falls later become doesn’t really apply to Lest Darkness Fall (except, perhaps, for being such a brilliant book that it spawned countless imitators). (Bel NEMETON)

Lest Darkness Fall (Del Rey SF Classics): L. Sprague deCamp, Ed Emshwiller  - cover: 9780345310163: Books

The Difference Engine: Often considered the first great Steampunk novel, or at least the first to successfully marry critical acclaim with commercial success. Some purists reject the idea of Steampunk and subset of AH because it often utilizes (or at least implies) variant physical laws rather than a possible (in not plausible) divergence point. The Difference Engine offers neat refutation of that argument for at least some steampunk. Its divergence point is a simple matter of a plausible invention that did not work in our world being designed just a little bit better: specifically, what it Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” had worked, thus creating an effective mechanical computer in the 19th century. The Difference Engine’s world is understated, looking much like the Victorian Era we knew rather than the self-aware, over-the-top aesthetic that has come to characterize much of steampunk. For all that, I find the question of “what if the Victorians had the same ability to collate, process, and analyze data that we do?” much more provocative and far reaching than “What if airships were everywhere?” (And, no, I’m not hating on airships – they’re awesome).

Harry Turtledove: Okay, normally when I hear an author described as “The Master of” anything, I role my eyes and take it with a grain of salt. But the “Master of Alternate History” earns his stripes. Most of his oeuvre could justly claim a place on a list of The Best of Alternative History. His Worldwar series and Timeline-191 series are remarkable achievements in AH, rivaled only by Eric Flint’s 1632 series. Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic AH series, while well-crafted YA, pulls no punches either intellectually or emotionally.

To cite a lesser known but fully worthy stand-alone title. Ruled Britannia is tale of intrigue, occupation, and … theatre, in an England where Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is now a Spanish possession. The tale unfolds largely through the eyes of each power’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. As characters, they are wonderful and their interactions with each other are delightful to behold.

Anatomy of an Alternative History

Every AH has two components.

The man who was nearly Oppenheimer
  • The Divergence Point, is the moment at which the world’s history begins differing from our own.
  • The Affect (not the Effect) is the world which results from changes accumulating and compounding since the divergence point which the author wishes to portray in their story.

Stories about the Divergence Point itself, merging Divergence Point and Affect into a Singularity, are certainly possible: Lest Darkness Fall and Turtledove’s How Few Remain are examples that immediately come to mind. 

The two main approaches to developing Alternate History stories are derived from the relationship of these components.

Approach #1: the author starts be selecting a Divergence Point and then extrapolates out the Affect. 

Approach #2: the author already knows the Affect they want a retro-engineers a divergence point that plausibly brings it to pass. All my AH work, published or allegedly in progress, has used this approach.

Running Out of Steam?

From my perspective, steampunk has become to AH what zombies have become to horror. While there is still really good, ground-breaking work being done in the genre, it has become something of a “default setting,” leading to a field crowded with unimaginative offers retreading the same well-worn tropes. Some of the most exciting work I see being done in the genre mines the potential of settings and times away from the clichés of Victorian Britain, the American West, etc. For example, the Antics of Evangeline, by Madeleine D’Este, uses the very Steampunk-friend but underutilized setting of Melbourne, Australia at the height of the Australian gold rush as the setting for a series of fresh-feeling YA steampunk novellas.

“Missed it by that much.” Babbage’s analytical engine.

I like steampunk, but I still don’t entirely understand why it became such a phenomenon. I am curious whether any of the AH “baby punks” (atomic punk, clock punk, deco punk, diesel punk, steel punk, stonepunk, etc.) can or will become a literary and cultural phenomenon akin to steampunk. Personally, I hold out hope for clockpunk and diesel punk because I like the aesthetic (Brenden Carlson’s Night Call is an excellent recent example of diesel punk, with noir-ish nods to Blade Runner, American Gangster, and the Untouchables). Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been toying with ideas for a clockpunk series. Want a teaser? It…get ready for it…involves Da Vinci (wasn’t I complaining about over-worn tropes just a paragraph ago?)

And continuing on that theme, what of the three tired old monarch of divergence points: Confederates Win, Nazis Win, and Rome Never Falls? Given that, in addition to being cliché, two of them are potentially problematic if handled improperly, is there still a future for them in AH. For at least two of them, I think the answer is yes.

Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle shows there is still a public appetite for examining the grim consequences of Axis Victory. I am, however, more interested in the possible future for the other two.

We are seeing a reckoning and frank reexamination of the history of race and racism in America. The stories we tell ourselves about the Civil War is perhaps the fulcrum of the debate. Some intriguing work has already been done in the area. After his stand-alone novel Guns of the South (arguably as much a character study as an alternative history), Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191 takes a brutally frank look at the consequences of a Confederate victory, extrapolating it to an absolutely dystopian conclusion in the modern day. But I feel the current reexamining and awakening opens even more possibilities for AH on this theme. There will no doubt be some AH “Lost Cause” apologies offered in the mix, but I hope the vast majority of new works will reflect the more honest accounting we are seeing emerge.   

With America’s place in the world changing, and seemingly changing very fast, Rome Never Falls store have a new relevance. As a generation of US global hegemony seems to be fading into a world where America is just one superpower among several, I wonder if we are going to see a flurry of new “Eternal Empire” AH. And I wonder how many of these will be the vessel for some a kind of thinly-veiled FTFY narrative about American’s changing stature; and how many will be genuine if allegorical examinations of the choices available to us, and their consequences.

The Paradox of Alternate History

While ostensibly about the past, AH is really about the present in future. When authors chose divergence points and design effects, we are really commenting about what we believe is significant in the present, and broadcasting our hopes and fears about the future. Moving toward the close of 2021 and the birth of 2022, what trends do I see for AH in the near future?

First, yes, lots of pandemic and disease stories. Look for a plague (ha-ha) of Black Death stories, but also some potentially cannier AH outliers about the 1917 flu, the plague of Justinian, malaria, cholera, maybe even one where the 1970s Swine Flu outbreak proved as bad as few experts predicted. Oh, and if anyone wants to write a story was St. Vitus’s Dance was actual contagious disease…I will read the hell out of that.

And, of course, look for widespread use of themes of alienation, political and social division, unrest, and tyranny.

How Old is the Great Wall of China? - WorldAtlas
A lot of great AH…on either side of this wall.

I would love to see a move away from political, military, and technological divergence points toward a greater embrace of social and cultural divergence points. Some of this can already be seen at work, Apple TV’s For All Mankind, while using the space race as the inciting event, is really an AH about gender roles, inclusivity, and diversity.  But my poor little music journalist heart is always asking “Okay, but what does this alternate history sound like? Does it have a good beat? Can you dance to it?”

But my biggest wish for AH would be a broader and deeper range of voices contributing to the genre. Even when the divergence point or effect are not explicitly Western (as with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt or Harry Turtledove’s Through Darkest Europe, AH authors remain overwhelmingly of European descent and predominantly male. It would hard to refute allegations that the genre skews Eurocentric. All genres benefit from increasing the range of voices among their authors, but I believe such diversity would be especially valuable (and is especially needed) for AH.

“Role-Playing” not “Roll-Playing” (original, huh?)

“Do you like getting right up in a monster’s face and giving it what for?  Do you prefer to stand waaaay back and throw fireballs or shoot arrows?  Or maybe healing up your comrades is more your style?  Let’s discuss how to choose the right personality for your RPG character.”

It was a great honor to participate in FenCon’s “What’s my Role” panel with Chaz Kemp and Rie Sheridan Rose. Special thanks to Sarah Brigdon for successfully wrangling a panel whose passions ran to so many different yet worthy aspects of roleplaying.

Conversations along the lines of “Okay, I’m the frontline fighter. You’re the rogue. But we need a caster. And who is going to play the cleric?” are as old as gaming itself. Yet, the more analytical approach of party composition and conflation of combat role with personality is relatively recent, only making its way into the gaming community in the past 15 years or so (yes, my friends, against the long history of gaming, that qualifies as “relatively” recent).

Fourth-Edition D&D gave us the terms “Controller, Defender, Leader or Striker” and the part breakdown of “The Tank, The Damage, The Healer, The Support, The Control, The Face, The Scout” has become pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes, MMO terminology like DPS even makes its way into table top gaming.

We don’t “Murder-Hobo” anymore (much).

That this is a recent development is the more curious as, over the long line of gaming history, there is clear trend toward less time in combat and more time in other activities/challenges. There are, of course, exceptions. In seeking to emulate online gaming, 4E D&D was very much a throwback — and certain systems, including Traveler and the various Warhammer RPG products, can lend themselves to combat heavy games. But, for most gaming in 2021, it is important to look at PC roles beyond combat. Below, I take a brief look at three alternate lens for this issue.

Functionality: This lens considers a PC’s preferred approach to problem solving. Cyberpunk 2020’s use of “roles,” is a good example of this. A given “role” provides skills, experiences, and abilities reflecting an attitude and approach to the meeting the world on the PC’s terms. To cite a few examples: Yes, solos are “kill it with lead and monofilament katanas” kind of people. But there are fixers who, if they can’t do something or find something, know someone who can. Techies believe if a machine can’t solve your problem, any problem, it’s to sit down and build a better machines. Conversely, nomads feel there is no problem than can’t be solved by inviting along another sibling our cousin. This lens ensures party are well covered for a variety of challenges and settings, not only combat.

Archetypes: This lens considers the internal landscape and emotional constitution of PCs. One of the most obvious examples is the Nature/Demeanor system from White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe. Players chose both a nature (true self) and demeanor (exterior persona) from a large preset list of archetypes (Autocrat, Bon Vivant, Child, Loner, etc.) for their character. These are more than just guides for roleplaying, acting in accordance with one’s nature and demeanor is the main method for regaining Willpower, which is important in World of Darkness. Having diverse natures and demeanors in the party helps ensure that someone is always regaining Willpower. Even in systems where this is not explicitly rewarded through game mechanics, there is a qualitative advantage to party of diverse mental states and emotional constitutions to respond to a variety of situations.

A happy party…

Narrative Dynamics: Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling. So it is little surprise many of the tropes and dynamics that are effective in other forms of storytelling work in roleplaying as well. The right party dynamic, or even dynamic between two or more players within a party, can really bring an adventure to life. The dynamics between characters in other media can serve as inspiration or conversational shorthand for party composition. I’ve seen a party who, six sessions in, realized their Call of Cthulhu campaign was a cosmic horror Scoobie Doo. I’ve seen Shadowrun street samurai who might as well have been Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I’ve seen two Vampires go “Winchester Brothers in reverse,” tracking down hunters in a black van with blacked out windows. I’ve even seen a concept campaign inspired by Sartre’s “No Exit,” with characters designed to hate each other but be unable to escape each other. Nobody wanted to push it beyond three sessions, but those sessions were fascinating and entertaining.

No one of the lenses discussed above is inherently superior. And, yes, even in combat light games, the combat lens still has its place. Most parties will get the best results from using a mix of all of them, and the doing what sounds fun. These lenses are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is to create compelling characters with rich stories that allow them to engage with the world on multiple levels. Whether they gel in combat is not trivial, but is a secondary consideration. As a GM, I would happily taken on trying to design fights for a party that is sub-optimized for combat if it means I have a party full of compelling, three-dimensional personalities that let me create opportunities for rich and meaningful collaborative storytelling.    

With so many types of characters to choose from in RPGs, does playing a character that is different from your real self give you empathy for that type of person in Real Life? 

In 2015, a study administered the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standard psychological instrument for measuring empathy, to 127 frequent roleplayers. These gamers significantly outperformed a control group.

I suppose it should be little surprise that gaming can correlate to high levels of empathy. That, I think, is part of roleplaying’s appeal for many of us – the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. And, while people have different baselines for empathy, it is a learnable skill that strengthens with use.

Psychology and counseling make extensive use of free form roleplaying. Frequent uses include confronting phobias and managing stress, anxiety, or trauma – with the goal of patients gaining insights or experiencing emotional catharsis. In Relationship Counseling, role reversal is often used to promote exactly those kinds of insights and sympathy – the building of empathy.

Of course, just because roleplaying can build empathy, doesn’t mean it always does. Most gamers have stories about “That one player” or “The GM who delights in torturing their players.” If you’re lucky enough not to, or just want to indulge in some top quality schadenfreude, Google “Worst D&D player ever” (or equivalent), makes some popcorn, and settle in. Or, if you want more curated account of gaming with terrible human beings, check out Al Bruno III’s roman a clefThe Binder of Shame.” (TWs for just about everything).

Don’t tell the 1E Elves multiclassing is a bad idea (you’l get stabbed and zapped)

Multi-classing: Yay or Nay? And Why?

Somewhere between a “provisional yes” and “it depends.”

Personally, I enjoy multi-classing because my character concepts often do not fit neatly into the boxes of class-based which system (which is why I often gravitate to classless systems like FATE, Savage Worlds, or GURPS which are on a point-build or concept-build rather than a class-build. 

But there are things to consider before creating a multi-class character. I think the biggest one is to be sure that it’s actually your character concept…rather than that you have two concepts you’re having difficulty choosing between. In my experience, splitting the difference between two competing concepts through multi-classing is an emotionally unsatisfying compromising, giving too little of what attracted me to each class in the first place.

And while this, in itself, is not a reason to say “no,” it is worth remembering that, in many systems, including D&D and Pathfinder, a character who is Level 5 in two things is less capable that a character who is Level 10 in one thing.

But, for all my high-minded “only do it if it feels right,” rhetoric, sometimes multi-classing is a choice that is forced on you. When you’ve got two or three people around the table for a D&D game, it may make sense for someone to be the cleric/rogue.

How important is it to “stay in your lane”? Do you play your character as just a healer? Or do you try to pick the lock with the metal wire you happened to find on the ground?  

Any one of them could surprise you.

Honestly? Those are the moments roleplayers live for.

  • When the fighters are unconscious on the ground and the wizard is out of spells but manages to land that last blow, knocking the giant unconscious with a staff.
  • When the Dex 8 cleric evades an entire castle of guards to find the treasure room.
  • When the Barbarian is the only one who remembers the words to the secret chant.

Those are the kind of gaming stories that keep getting told…

In the best case scenario, such moments can serve as catalysts foe new directions of growth and development – enriching the charter, the party, and they player’s experience.

It only becomes a problem when it turns into what my gaming group always called “stepping on someone’s shtick.” Players want time in the limelight for their characters, that’s one of great appeals of roleplaying. Each PC having things they are uniquely good at helps ensure everyone gets the spotlight. So, when the party’s rouge suddenly starts dumping points in diplomacy, which, until then, has been the bard’s shtick, it can create tension and reduce enjoyment unless handled very carefully.