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The History of Illegal Things

Posted in Correspondence

There’s many reasons to recommend Caroline Dodds Pennock’s On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe, but this portion entirely reconfigured my understanding of history in a few sentences:

Since the enslavement of Indigenous peoples was, for the most part, illegal in the Spanish empire, its victims are often effaced from the records – hidden from both society and history – and its magnitude is almost impossible to detect. Andrés Reséndez also points out that ‘since it had no legal basis, it was never formally abolished like African slavery’, further ensnaring its victims in legal complication. The failure to clearly liberate Indigenous Americans had extraordinary ramifications, and many of them remained in forms of forced labour into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.

The impact of academic methods of research and the sources they prioritize on the stories that get told is fairly clear with respect to cultures—if your ancestors happened to pass down knowledge primarily through an oral tradition instead of writing it down and then putting it on a well-organized shelf their history is going to be primarily reported in academics sources via second-hand tellings that did get written down or reconstructed from physical evidence. But I’d never considered how even with cultures that prioritized recording knowledge in physical forms the legality of what was being recorded greatly impacts what we know of the past.

Pennock is writing about Indigenous American experiences in Europe, but the same can go for any number of ideas or identities that were at some point illegal or semi-illegal: atheism, homosexuality, interracial relationships, gender transition, just to name a few obvious ones. We’ll never have the kind of “proof” of the presence of these ideas that would allow us to truly track their relation to our current moment where these ideas can be discussed (unless you’re at a school in Florida, fuck you Ron DeSantis) because writing down your desire to change your body to match your gender identity in most of Europe for most of the last thousand years or so would have been like writing down your desire to rob a bank—probably not a good idea for your own safety.

Imagine how much more colorful the past was than we can see.

  • John Battle is done doing RPG reviews. It’s unfortunate that all the most interesting reviewers seem to end up burning out their authors with flamewars. There’s nothing out there quite like John’s reviews. I can’t say I always liked them or agreed with them, but that’s not the point of a review, or at least not of a critical review like John’s. This may be just me, but I don’t need RPG reviews to tell me if a game is “worth buying” because I simultaneously will buy any RPG that seems mildly interesting and could also game happily forever without ever buying another RPG. What I do need is more people trying to unpack the characteristics of RPG design through unfolding a huge poster or an imagined conversation with their younger self.
  • Still not quite as dedicated to posting every review as the wonderful It Came From The Bookshelf, but Rune did send me on a bit of a rollercoaster. I honestly can’t recall why I backed it—the subject matter is in the style of Elden Ring, which I’ve played and enjoyed but not gotten deep enough into to really want a solo pen-and-paper RPG based on it. I started flipping through and in addition to the FromSoft games it cited Spanish Love Songs which is a hell of a way to spark my interest. The game, though, is much more of a tactical puzzle than I was expecting. My play in solo RPGs tends to gravitate towards games that create something reasonably related to the action—Thousand Year Old Vampire being an obvious reference point—and drifting towards challenge-based play with not so much a narrative as a tone moves it somewhere down my list of games to play. It is a nicely breezy read with a simple but expandable mechanical chassis, so there’s a lot going on if that’s your thing.
  • No The One Ring for the past few weeks and none this week. It’s the reality of life being slightly less pandemic-constrained, I guess. But it’s also given me some time to consider how to continue to evolve my campaign notes and share the framework I used to build them.
  • Chip Zdarsky is one of my favorite comics writers right now. He’s got an amazing ability to slip in large statements about a character into nearly-standalone issues in a larger series. He does it again with Batman: The Knight #9 which fits seamlessly into the overall series and the story of how Bruce Wayne developed the skills to be Batman, but it also answers a question I’d never really considered: in a world where magic is real and people can master it with study, how has Bruce Wayne not mastered it along with basically everything else?

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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