The latest iteration of my superhero campaign has just gotten underway. Being set (mostly) on an alternate-history Earth, it holds a number of elements that may be of interest to readers, especially if I explain the thinking that led to the various choices that were made and my approach to the construction of a detailed alternate history.
The Point Of Initial Divergence
The first question, whenever creating an alternate history, must always be “what was the first difference?”
I had already determined that this was to be a world in which half the planet was under the control of a British Empire that was more substantial than any known in our world; in fact, all bar Asia, Oceania, Siberia, was to be part of this British Empire, while the rest of the world was under the control of the mysterious Mao (rhymes with “how”).
India, due to its historical connection with Britain, would be excluded from Asia, and part of the British Empire, as would Sri Lanka (still known in this world as “Ceylon”); to balance that, with some regret, I gave up the rest of the Pacific, including my homeland of Australia, Antarctica, and South America. I also chose to have Central America and the Middle East as disputed territory between the two. Because I would need their advances in electronics and miniaturization for various social and technological phenomena, the Empire would have to claim Japan, not the Mao.
Clearly, the age of exploration would be greatly altered. Changes to relatively recent history, like the 20th Century World Wars, wouldn’t cut it. Instead, I went all the way back in history to the point at which Britain ceased to be an absolute Monarchy – the signing of the Magna Carta – and chose to ‘meddle’ in the events which led up to that singular event. The change needed was only subtle – I made King John a little wilier, a little shrewder, and a little more intelligent. I had expected to need a more dramatic change, but…
I already knew of the broad significance of the Magna Carta and had some appreciation of the circumstances that led to its signing, but – having decided that this was potentially the point for this history to diverge – my next step was to research it more thoroughly. I read up on the relevant Wikipedia pages – Magna Carta and King John I – along with a number of other websites such as Magna Carta 1215 and Useful Dates In British History, and finally, a webpage that was once a useful general resource, The University Of Wolverhampton’s Distance Learning LLB Curriculum, but which has been replaced by a page that is more concerned with Distance Learning (and its pro’s and con’s) in general – still, no doubt, useful information, but not for the purpose for which I employed it (hence there is no link).
I also read relevant chapters of various History references that I have. At all turns, I was seeking not just What happened and When, but the more difficult questions of Why and How – and that all-important element, a discussion of the consequences and effects that events had on the future.
Of course, there’s a lot of context and interpretation in analyzing historical events; not all of these sources agreed with each other, and I did not agree with all of them, either. So this mish-mash of research was filtered through three sieves – plausibility from a 21st century dramatic context, internal consistency, and finally, whether or not the interpretation advanced the chain of events in the general direction I wanted it to go.
The Substitution Principle
It was going to be important to me that society have a recognizable shape and pattern, so that the players could simply sit down and start playing with no culture shock; the campaign was to be in the near future of such an Empire, about 2050, but a future derived from a campaign world that was already 20-50 years ahead of our own in technology. Technology and its repercussions, and a changed history, would already pose sufficient culture shock for the players, there was no need to add to the burden.
That meant that anything that was fundamental to our culture had to stay, or – if removed by events – be replaced by an analogue. This meant backtracking all the way back to the historical beginning and adding another plot thread to the background to bring about the existance of that analogue. The first example, of course, is the Magna Carta itself. Despite the erosion and removal of almost all the provisions of the document over subsequent years, the principles that it established were fundamental to modern society. That meant that the Magna Carta had to stay, but the weakening of the monarchy that its adoption reflected had to be removed.
With a little thought, I was able to devise a course of history that permitted John to come to the conclave with his rebellious nobles in a position of strength, and for him to offer the nobles a subtly altered version of the Magna Carta which recognized the Crown as the Protector Of The People – a fairly nice-sounding title of no obvious importance, just something that sounded nice at the time. The Nobles, thinking that John had made a mistake and granted concessions he did not intend, rushed to sign. Only then did they find that this innocuous title gave John all sorts of controls over what the Nobles could and could not do, while he was free to do things in this capacity that he was forbidden from doing on his own behalf. Rather than stripping John of a measure of authority and control, the Magna Carta restricted the Nobility, granting them absolute authority – within the bounds of constraints that John controlled.
In the process, a three-pronged power structure was established, which in due course would develop interdependencies, because the eventual result was Common Law – the British equivalent of the Bill Of Rights, insofar as it established what rights and privileges the common people had, and which the Nobility was required to provide and defend. The Monarch was the people’s spokesman and ultimate defender, and without them, the Noble’s estates would quickly fall into ruin.
Everything Stays The Same Until It Changes
Another of the principles that are the foundation of my approach to alternate histories then came into play. Having made the key change to history, I tracked it’s consequences forward in time, assuming that nothing that had not specifically changed had remained the same as recorded in the history books. Little by little, deviations from history accumulated; only if I reached the point where history was no longer trending in the desired direction did I go back and seek a series of events that would restore the desired shape. Slowly, the power balance in Europe was reshaped. There was still a Napoleon Bonaparte, who became the most successful General in Imperial History, and who also introduced significant social and legal reforms. There was still an American Revolution, and while it failed (since the English military strength was not being sapped by conflicts closer to home), it still forced democratic reforms on the Empire, and so on. There was still a First World War, and still a Hitler, and still a Blitz, and so on.
The Principles Of Genius
I believe I’ve mentioned this one in the past, but it’s worth reiterating. The concept is that a man (or woman) of genius will advance the art of their chosen field by as many steps in any alternate history as they did historically. Should something happen to prevent one of them doing so, it will set that field of study back by precisely the number of steps that the individual contributed, historically.
This plays into a second, related, principle: no advance is possible until the foundations exist. Sir Isaac Newton invented Calculus (as did a number of others, independently) in order to analyze and understand certain celestial observations, which led him in turn to his laws of motion. If those celestial observations had not been made, due to inadequacy of telescopes – and it was Newton’s study of telescopes that led him to his advances in optics – then Newton would have remedied the lack, at the expense of another of his historical discoveries.
Social and political changes have a role to play in these functions, because they dictate who one scientist can easily communicate with, and the ends to which their researches will be put, and where their patronage is coming from. That means that in some cases where a scientist had to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in order to advance their field, he was now free to advance his field by two steps instead of just one.
Working forward through history, from year to year, backtracking as necessary, produced a workable timeline. (Unfortunately, I never got to finish writing that history – too many projects of greater importance intervened. I only got as far as 2015 – though I have draft material that completes the history, and that I have to finish as soon as this article is written!) Some discoveries came sooner, some later; these brought some social changes sooner, and some later; and the whole history evolved forwards. (It’s my intention to use that history as a series of articles in Monday Posts once the GM Toolbox series concludes – that’s the only way I’ll find time to finish it!)
The End Result
A few of my objectives for the end product haven’t been mentioned yet, but need to be acknowledged. The first is overall tone: the previous incarnation was a world which was initially in very Dystopian condition, and in which the side effects of the PCs adventures slowly transformed into a more Utopian situation. As a distinct contrast to that, I wanted this world to be (at least superficially) trending toward the Utopian when the PCs arrived – things would be good, and with prospects of getting better. Sure, it would have it’s problems, but the overall tone would be positive – more Eureka than Blade Runner – at least at first. In the course of the campaign, it would grow steadily darker, until the Big Finish, when the PCs will get the opportunity (if they play their cards right and haven’t made any serious mistakes along the way) to usher in a new Golden Age.
The other objective was to provide an environment with a lot of scope for adventure. To that end, now that the preamble has been disposed of, I can finally get to the original point of this article – outlining the current political situation within the Empire.
The British Empire
There are essentially three divisions of power: the Nobles (now gathered into a House Of Lords that must ratify all legislation), a representative lower house elected by the people from amongst the candidates proposed and endorsed by various political parties, and the Crown, which appoints a Civil Service to provide a continuity of bureaucracy. The Crown is the Protector Of The People, the safeguard, spokesman, and authority when it comes to the rights of the ordinary citizen. As such, it decides who can vote, controls electoral boundaries, and so on. The Lower House is led by the Prime Minister Of the Empire, while the House Of Lords is led by the Lord Chancellor. Through modern technology, the Crown is in direct contact with the populace – and can also shape opinions. Complicating everything is the supposed subservience of the Civil Service which – in reality – has developed a degree of autonomy that they will aggressively defend. Half the Lords are appointed by the Crown – often from the ranks of the other bodies of government, and occasionally from the general public – and the other half hold hereditary memberships. Governments have a proscribed lifespan of 3-5 years, within which span a fresh general election must be gazetted.
Each country or nation member has its own, lesser parliament, organized along similar lines. Some nations are divided into districts, or states, or counties; these also have elected bodies. It’s quite possible for a nation to have a government of one political party while the overall Empire is controlled by the policies of a rival party. The national governments are constrained to authority over local issues only; deciding what is a local issue, what is a national issue, and what is a Imperial issue is the purview of the Imperial Government, as advised by the Civil Service – which must obey the instructions of the Crown.
In theory, Governments are elected by the people to represent their interests and decisions, but the rise of lobby groups and political donations as an avenue to power means that they are more about the Economic emphasis of the authority they exercise. The result is a complex situation in which there are many channels – and backchannels – of power. Industry elects governments, but can be overridden by popular sentiment, which is shaped by the Crown. The balance of power in the Lords is appointed by the Crown, which can also withdraw an appointment for specific reasons – and which acts as a check on the authority of the Government; in theory, the Lords are to take a longer, wider view. But there are backchannels to the House Of Lords by which Industry and Union groups and other factional interests can lobby, and the Lords can always be overridden by the Crown. However, the crown must always honestly reflect overall public opinion on any issue, something it can shape but not control – and which the other branches of government and lobby groups can also influence. And, functioning as the interface between them all is the Civil Service – which can have its own agenda.
The result is a perpetually-boiling hotbed of political intrigue in which no branch of the Government can dominate, or can thwart the intentions of the people for very long. Go too far, and the government will find its legislation blocked, with the support of the crown and the unions; or, should the Lords seek too dominant a position, they will arouse the ire of the populace, who will beg the monarchy to alter the balance of power within the Lords accordingly. And, should the monarchy go too far, it will either strangle the economy apon which they depend, or it will unite both branches of government against the Throne – and the combination has a veto over the powers of the Monarchy.
This would suggest a political conservatism, a creeping paralysis – but the Empire is too complex for that to work. The Civil Service, through reforms based on modern technology, is incredibly efficient; only if everything is perfect (or at least getting better) for everyone can a government afford to simply mark time. Any dissatisfaction, by anyone, will be seized apon and amplified by a hungry media pack, which are yet another influence over public opinion. The added complications of conflicting governments at different levels of hierarchy within the Empire ensures that no-one can get complacent; there is always something new coming up.
Various branches of the government, over time, have been forced to recognize the power of Social Gadflies. An outgrowth of the Court Jesters combined with the “Bread And Circuses” appeal of distracting the public, Registered Eccentrics are people specifically permitted to speak their mind – no matter what they might have to say – or do any crazy thing they like, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Selected entertainers, social commentators, some reporters, and superheroes – these people are there to keep the government, in all its branches, honest, and the people safe.
The rules for creating an alternate history in this way are simple, and the results credible (for the most part). Selecting the right departure point, and being willing to put in the research and development time, are all that’s needed to shape a culture into whatever the story of the PCs is going to demand. Along the way, surprises lie in store for both you and for the players – but that’s what makes the process fun. And, as a side benefit, you gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of the interlocking of cause and effect within the history of the world around you.
That’s not a bad deal.