Series Info...Playing with History #11:

Settings, Part III: The French Revolution

by Michael Karlin
June 25, 2003

"Revolution is like Saturn, it devours its own children." — Georg Buchner

People are wildly emotional creatures, and oftentimes are completely incapable of accurately communicating their emotions. After a while they get angry, pick up a gun and shoot someone. While this is somewhat of an exaggeration, history has shown that a revolution is a good way of handling pent-up ire in a population. This is a situation with an exceeding amount of conflict, and as such is perfect for exploration in an online RPG. Unfortunately, it's a bit tricky to manifest.

Despite the years of evolving thought in France, the ruling aristocracy remained static in an anachronistic role of Divine Right. Rhetorically, they thought themselves chosen by God to rule France above all others, and thus deserved all the trappings and lucre associated with aristocracy. Unfavourably for them, society was beginning to change at a rapid pace. Many of these nobles were actually bankrupt as were the vassals beneath them. More and more people had access to basic education and thus reading and writing were two rare arts that were proliferating among a certain group of people who were centralised in densely populated areas. Thirdly, while you had a growing class of capable people, opportunity was still held at arm's length from them because they lacked the lineage necessary to advance through the social gamut and succeed. The increased use of the printing press allowed those who most eloquently dissented to get their point across quickly and regularly. French society in the 18th century was ill, but the government was expert and ensuring that it stayed that way. The storming of Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 was one event at the apex of years of seething, burning rage. Instead of accepting that problems were rampant, the crown worsened the situation by becoming increasingly oppressive and dictatorial in their methods, drawing in previously reluctant people into the revolutionaries' cause. While the American Revolution occurred earlier, the American colonists were not overthrowing a thousand years of political order. They were a series of colonies borne from different values than the mother country; the French Revolution marked one of the first times in history that an ancient, rigid order was completely and utterly dispersed with. This would be copied during the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, but never parallelled. Oddly enough, the revolution was hardly singular, but a disintegration of the societal organisation along a myriad of lines.

This cause was not monolithic. One of the most interesting aspects of French society prior to and during the Revolutionary period was the splintering of society along lines never before seen on the continent. Monarchists simply wanted to replace the current royal family with one who were enlightened, whereas the exceedingly volatile Jacobins who wanted to butcher the royals and their sympathisers and create a republic. Besides the machinations and political intrigue born during this prepubescent party period, open skirmishes were a regular occurrence. The themes of this genre are transition and the birth of modern ideology, the differences in the beliefs of people as to how a country should be structured and how far they are able to go to makes those thoughts heard and be realised.

How to apply this to an online RPG? I suggest starting early, some time before 1789 to when the anger was beginning to fester. Make the grievances known, and allow players to choose whom they support. Although the staff should be involved in nurturing the various groups and the opportunities available within them, I do not believe that staff should predetermine historical events. It is up to the players behind revolutionary characters to recreate the radicals' romantic victory, or it is up to the players behind the royals to change the outcome of one of modernity's most crucial events. The pre-revolution game is one of order very similar to my Cold War model. Things are kept secret, meetings spread among few people and information disseminated carefully. While I believe this to be wildly exciting, it can also preclude your new player population from really growing. A society based on secrecy is not going to be open to many new entrants. Therefore, you can balance this by having opportunities available on the "other side," with the government loyalists. It would be nice that, when the first shot is made in the Big Event, the two sides aren't completely outmatched for one another.

After the event that triggers the big battle to determine the winner (which may take weeks or months), or who will administrate society from then on, the game opens significantly and politicking becomes a much more dangerous game. Republicans of Jacobin or Girondin persuasion must argue against the constitutional monarchists, a battle that often becomes argued with blades rather than words. Fear is an important theme during this time, fear of change and what the future will bring, as well as fear whose head would be taken next by the guillotine. Thousands were executed at the onset of the Revolution for their beliefs, and many were called for by prominent Jacobin Maxmillian Robespierre in order for him to easily dispense of his enemies. Despite this, the post-Revolutionary period immediately before the Imperial period (when Napoleon ascended) is one of staunch individualism marked by a vicious streak. This is very much like the Western model I described two articles before, but probably on a larger scale.

This seems like a combat-heavy setting, and it is. Mass confusion arms people, and the casualties were very high. People will quickly get replaced, groups created and destroyed, and advancement blockaded by the more Machiavellian. It is therefore very easy to neglect the non-combat, non-political facets of this time that were quite interesting and should not be disregarded. As well, feel free not to use Paris as your setting. The French Revolution occurred throughout France, and yet most popular examination of the event revolves around the capital.

Change is always going to be interesting. An online RPG can make it fun.

I'm going to pause the series on settings and return one month from now. In two weeks, I'm going to talk about certain key themes in Egypt that we'll be exploring.

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