Features of Victorian Settings

   Today it’s another request: some basic information for running a Victorian or quasi-Victorian setting and how various environmental changes – such as the presence of nonhuman sapient species and magic – might impact that setting.

   To look at that, we’ll need to take a look at the basic elements of a quasi-Victorian setting.

   The first thing we need is a fairly stable group – whether nation, race, or organization – with a great deal of prestige and confidence in it’s own superiority. Our dominant group must have enough confidence to feel little need to actively oppress people or affirm it’s own superiority. In fact, they should feel that it’s self-evident – and that belief needs to have some sort of justification sufficiently strong to keep other groups from gratuitously challenging them.

   In the real world this was due to a notable edge in technology and military organization. While that was mostly a product of historical circumstances and chance, there’s certainly no reason why that couldn’t be the case in a fantasy world. On the other hand, forms of magic which rely heavily on individual “talent” and beliefs, and less on organized social support structures, tend to even out technically-based power differences. Worlds with personal magical talents will be most believable if there’s some additional reason for a particular group to claim superiority.

   Of course, in a fantasy world, that could be virtually anything.

  • One race really could be massively superior to the others – although this probably isn’t desirable in a game unless some equivalent mechanical penalty is applied, such as a d20 “effective character level” adjustment.
  • One group could have more advanced magic. In general, this calls for complex magic which requires extensive training and organized groups to use, since, if magic is personal and talent-dependent, new techniques will spread quickly and easily unless they rely on some special local resource or racial talent – in which case, we’re back to racial superiority. Of course, magic like that is difficult to tell apart from a local technology.
  • One group could simply be more favored by the gods – although this is a wonderful reason for general resentment unless there are compensating demands from said gods.
  • One group could simply be far more elegant and stylish than anyone else. While it’s usually hard to use this as a “weapon”, or to maintain in the face of hostile foreign cultures, it works pretty well as an internal control mechanism.
  • One group could simply be that way as an innate attitude. That’s unlikely, but it could be an amusing parody to have everyone else putting up with the patronizing group just because “they can’t help it”.

   In any case, our dominant group must be self-confident enough to see itself as a genial patron to the rest of the world – and to usually get away with it, even while looking down on and exploiting other people (members of the dominant group may or may not realize that that is what they are doing).

   Excellent reference works here include Kipling and movies based on his works, such as Kim and The Man Who Would Be King. For example, in Kim the British Military does not care if a boy who’s presumed Indian smokes, starves, takes absurd risks on the streets, or goes without education. If the child turns out to be white – well, he must be fed, bundled off to school, taught proper behavior, and ensured of some sort of future. On the other hand, if it will serve the British Empire, they do not hesitate to ask said child to serve as a spy and risk his life. That is, after all, the burden of being white. In The Man Who Would Be King, we see casual acceptance of the idea that a couple of British military men, a small supply of modern rifles and ammunition, and a few locals trained by those two adventurous Victorians, will doubtless be sufficient to overthrow an entire ancient kingdom. Now THAT is self-confidence.

   The motives for such a group to expand towards an empire are legion. For profit. Out of a near-religious sense of destiny. Out of a sense of obligation towards the lesser groups which obviously cannot properly govern themselves. Because adventurous individuals insist on pushing the boundaries outwards. To simply enjoy the game of intrigue. To see and explore new things. In the final analysis, perhaps it is simply because they can – and because it is in the nature of all life forms to take advantage of new opportunities.

   Such a group may have rivals, and will almost certainly have enemies – but its supporters are likely to be limited to closely-related groups, to oppressed locals who find the groups dominance more tolerable than that of their former overlords, and to small groups who hope to ride their coat-tails to a level of success that is superior to what they could have expected to obtain otherwise – even if it will always be inferior to that of the dominant group. Local rulers and cliques will, however, rarely be pleased to see the groups boundaries moving towards them. After all, a group that sees itself as truly superior will rarely be interested in accommodating local beliefs and traditions, power brokers, and rulers.

   The social consequences of such a belief are quite dramatic – and usually become a set of unquestioned values. After all, goes the logic, they are our values, we are better than everyone else, ergo our values are better then any others.

  • Determination is obvious. If your group is superior, that it follows that it has the most competent members and the best methods of making decisions. Ergo, unless some major unexpected change in circumstances turns up, there is no need to reconsider a decision and certainly no reason to listen to some outsiders opinion. It follows that resolute strength of purpose – often expressed as bravery and leadership – is one of the most admirable traits around. Sadly, while this is great for getting things done and when persevering in the face of obstacles, it also makes it almost impossible or shameful to admit to having made an error, leading to inflexibility, intolerance, rashness, a militant tendency to impose your will on others, and occasionally doing very stupid things.
  • Enthusiasm is really just another aspect of determination. After all, when you’re sure that your ideas are the best, you might as well throw yourself wholeheartedly into things – and there certainly is no need for second thoughts. Assured of ultimate victory, obstacles and delays can be accepted with good humor, the classic “stiff upper lip” is only to be expected, and vigorous effects can be easily sustained. As always, of course, this attitude has it’s downside – impatience with planning and research, anti-intellectualism, lack of foresight, and a failure to learn from history and the experiences of others.
  • Group Pride is another blatantly obvious value. To not take pride in your obvious superiority is to cast doubt upon it – which is socially unacceptable. Ergo, taking pride in your group is something of a civic duty – and failing to do so is tantamount to treason. While this brings obvious benefits of confidence, self-esteem, and group cohesiveness, it also means that such a group will often fail to appreciate the true strength of an opposing group, that admiration for anything from outside the group must be accompanied by expressions of how the source group is otherwise vastly inferior, and that the group will tend to become obsessed with trivial distinguishing features. Over time, this also means that the group will tend to become extraordinarily class-conscious. The casual acceptance of the inherent superiority of the group is easy to extend to equally casual acceptance of the inherent superiority of the upper social classes – and once you have that, it provides a comfortable rationale for the misery of the lower classes and for institutions like workhouses, child factory labor, and child prostitution. It’s associated with a certain amount of sexual repressiveness as well; after all, mixing with other – inferior – groups is obviously undesirable, and the same goes for mixing with lower social classes. On the flipside, a relationship with someone in a higher social class is obviously a matter of pride for the people on the lower end of the scale – a system which neatly supports the classical tenant-servant-master series of relationships.
  • Honesty is important for group cohesion – and the superior group should always stick together. Besides, what need is there to deceive inferior groups? Our quasi-Victorians should place great on their word of honor, their personal integrity, on dealing fairly, and on negotiating openly and honestly. Unfortunately, this also tends to make them naive, easily fooled, and uninterested in other – obviously inferior – codes of behavior.
  • Loyalty is a pretty obvious value. After all, when you’re a member of the superior group, to betray that group is obvious insanity – thus explaining the massive stigmata attached to “going native” or, indeed, to recognizing any real value in other cultures. By extension, loyalty to smaller subgroups – such as schools and military units – is expected and cultivated. A powerful sense of duty and willingness for self-sacrifice in pursuit of group goals is expected. On the downside, even minor disagreement can lead to ostracism, dubious orders are likely to be followed without question, and incompetence – and even blatant misbehavior – is likely to be quietly condoned and overlooked.
  • “Progress” is a somewhat double-edged value. After all, it is obvious that it will be difficult to improve on the general social organization of our dominant group. When they make technical progress, however, that is only to be expected. In fact, a steady flow of improvements is to be expected and encouraged – fueling a belief in personal scientific tinkering, exploration, and adventure. When other groups imitate the dominant one, that’s good: it acknowledges the groups superiority and is vaguely complimentary in the “being imitated by a pet” way. If other groups should somehow get ahead of the dominant group – well, that just isn’t possible unless they’re cheating somehow.
  • Self-Discipline follows from the assumption of superiority; if you lack superiors to discipline you, and yet wish to function in society, you must discipline yourself. On the positive side you get self-motivated individuals who value hard work, restraint, good manners, thrift, temperance, and respectability. It contributes to judgement, to coolness under pressure, and to reasoning rather than reacting emotionally. On the downside you get intolerance of weaknesses, coldness, difficulties in personal relationships, emotional and physical child abuse, and difficulties in understanding or sympathizing with others.
  • Sportsmanship also follows from the assumption of superiority: you don’t need to win to demonstrate that you’re superior – since you already know you are – and thus certainly have no need to cheat or seek an unfair advantage! In fact, conceding such advantages to your opponents is the only way to really be “fair”. Combined with loyalty, progress, and enthusiasm, this provides a recipe for personal fitness, team spirit, and even a sense of justice. On the downside, it leads to obsession with games and other trivia, the tolerance of grossly-disproportionate punishments for crimes and various other offenses (whether on the grounds that “they knew the risks” or “they cheated” and thus deserve it), failing to attempt to do something about bad odds, and an acceptance of dueling.

   At his, her, or it’s best, a quasi-Victorian individual is likely to be a being of integrity, courage, zest, drive, enthusiasm, and boundless loyalty, prone to hard work, progressive thinking, helping others, and taking appropriate pride in personal and social accomplishments. At the worst, such a being will be smug, intolerant, obsessed with games and trivia, half-witted, unable to learn from experience, unwilling to admit to mistakes, willfully ignorant of faults in superiors, judgmental and harsh, prone to leap into things without thinking, and hostile to every new idea that comes along. Unfortunately, by modern standards, all of those traits were likely to appear in the same person.

   The Victorian culture is notorious for sexual repression. I don’t see any way to derive this dubious “feature” from the basic assumption-of-superiority. That’s probably a good thing, since research tends to indicate that it mostly wasn’t true; Queen Victoria was somewhat obsessed with presenting the appearance of frosty respectability thanks to her early experiences, but the major sexual foibles of the Victorian age resulted from an admixture of another set of ideas – the earliest, and thus oversimplified, technical analysis of social roles.

   That’s pretty simple: a quick look at sex roles shows that, in humans, the females spend a lot of time encumbered by pregnancy, nursing, and caring for children. Ergo, the males have a lot more time to spend going out and doing other things.

   Thanks to this, the early analysts were mostly male. Thus they considered the things that males did inherently more important than the things that females did, because those things were most important to them – and that, combined with the values listed above, sufficed to “demonstrate” that females were inherently inferior to males. Ergo, the ideal pattern was for the weak, inferior, females to stay safe at home (where rival males couldn’t prey upon them), obey their far more competent husbands, and bear children. They should always be chaperoned or under the supervision of a relative, since they were vulnerable on their own – and they didn’t need to know anything about sex, since their husbands could explain that. The female should be quiet, demure, and confined, while the husband should be public, competitive, and forceful. Sexuality was for the purpose of reproduction, and thus should be confined to properly married pairs.

   Any other form of sexual behavior became a “perversion”, and a threat to the natural social order – an idea which fueled yet more abuse of “deviants” – including adolescents caught up in anti-masturbation crazes.

   In reality, things are a lot more complicated than that.

   Even at the time, the “ideal” was more theoretical than actual. In 1887 the Lancet medical journal estimated that there were nearly 80,000 prostitutes in London, out of a total population of 2,360,000. Still, while prostitution was seen as detrimental to the Empire, it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seen as being much more serious than blasphemy, drunkenness or any other public disturbance. A review of preserved diaries and letters tends to reveal that actual sexual behavior wasn’t much different from any other period before reliable contraception came along, although there was a good deal of public lip service to the theoretical “ideal”. Reputation and appearances were far more important than actual facts – again, pretty much as usual.

   Still, the Victorian values did have some impact; self-discipline encouraged restraint (at least until after marriage), seduction became a “sporting” proposition, mistresses and bastards were commonly recognized and well-supported – a reflection of honesty and group (family) pride – and so on.

   Now, if magic had provided reliable and easy methods of contraception for some time – as the original question indicated – there probably would be a good deal more acceptance of casual adolescent and young-adult sexuality (partially dependent on the prevalence of sexual diseases and countermeasures for them). Of course, such private behavior need have no effect at all on public displays and professed attitudes; hypocrisy is much older than the Victorian era.

   Personal magic, of course, will have social effects – indeed, depending on the nature of the magic system, it could have pretty much any effect you can imagine as well as a fair number that are probably beyond me.

  • If personal magic can provide a substantial powerbase, and women and men can both be equally good at it, I’d expect a lot more sexual equality: any society that attempted to discourage half the population from exploiting a highly useful ability would tend to lose out in competition with other societies. I’d also expect a world oriented as much around powerful mages as around other power sources – which doesn’t really fit in with a Victorian world.
  • If personal abilities are relatively subtle and/or require a great deal of practice, they’ll probably tend to be regarded as a menace in members of other groups, with suspicion in members of the lower classes, while – as in the middle ages in the real world – with casual acceptance in members of the upper classes.
  • If personal abilities come with particular positions, such as the “Divine Right of Kings”, you can expect society to revolve around those positions and for members of would-be rival groups, and technologists, or researchers of other kinds of magic, to be regarded with grave suspicion.

   Magic might or might not have much to do with religion. If it’s restricted to physical and/or “elemental” effects, it might not have much of any effect at all. It wouldn’t have anything to say about spiritual matters – and would probably be of no more interest to religion than any other tool.

   If there is spirit magic, then the effects on religion will depend on what it has to say. Do spirits dissipate shortly after death? Exist on a misty astral plane? Return to advise their descendants? Deal only with holy men? On this one I must plead “insufficient data” – although, if given more details, I’ll be glad to speculate.

   Now, the original question specified that direct magic was quite limited. Most magic used elementals as power sources, channeling their energy through devices and runes to generate various effects as well as using them as simple power sources for steam engines, weapons, and other war machines – which basically sounds like another branch of technology, using elementals instead of fossil fuels. Depending on the details that could change a lot of the mechanics of the early industrial age – but it wouldn’t necessarily change the nature of the society much.

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One Response

  1. […] Features of Victorian Settings – Things to consider during character creation in any vaguely Victorian Setting like Verdan […]

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