Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So Swears the Zeppelin!

"I will have that back from you. That and everything else you ever stole. I swear it. I swear it." With those words, my character Glyph drove our game in new and unexpected directions, spawning a semester-long epic that the players lucky enough to participate in still remember fondly. The resulting quest took us into the heart of the Dreaming, and, on multiple occasions, to the edge of death and total despair.

The game was White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming. We were facing down the Lillyu, an eater of souls who had hollowed out the Duke's sister and was driving her like a car. She had just stolen a piece of Glyph's soul while visiting him in prison, where he had been tossed for the night after throwing a chair at his teacher, the Lillyu (the Duke's sister, remember). Why did one twelve year old's hastily sworn oath change the direction of an entire game? In Changeling, the fae (and the fae-sold changelings) must abide by their sworn word or suffer a wide variety of terrible consequences. Rather than force my character to break his oath, Jon (the Storyteller) gave me the opportunity to fulfill it, at great personal cost. I still consider the idea of binding oaths to be one of the best ideas in fantasy. It's also (of course) one of the most problematic.

I can practically hear you thinking: ok, Mark, enough with the war stories. Where's the cool?

The greatest part of the cool is in the scenario described above. An oath sworn in anger and frustration had consequences. Big C Consequences. Hell, big everything CONSEQUENCES. In addition to catapulting the entire motley (group of changelings) on a new adventure that lasted past the death of the Lillyu, the game enforced a transformation on Glyph's character. When he swore the oath, Glyph traded some of his childlike innocence and wonder for more personal mettle (that's Glamour for Willpower, for those of you who know the game). Even if that choice weren't enforced by the mechanics of that particular roleplaying game it would still be what Glyph did. What's awesome is that one choice could unfold into so much sheer, awesome story.

In a similar vein, binding oaths are fascinating examples of an inhuman constraint placed on human (or semi-human, in Changeling) characters. I consider it a very human trait to lie or otherwise bend the truth. Some of us do it out of hope and some of us do it out of cowardice. Even the act of creating a narrative - a story, a myth, a faith - is an act of fiction, and therefore on some level a lie. Absolute truth is anathema to us, but with the fantasy conceit of the binding oath, a human character can be intimately wedded to an inhuman concept. Aren't these sorts of justifications the very heart of what fantasy is?

In a somewhat broader sense, binding oaths also provide an opportunity to explore consequences in the broader sense. What happens, after all, if and when you break a binding oath? There are huge story possibilities in committing, justifying, and being redeemed from such a crime.

With all this awesome - awesome plot possibilities that get to the core of what fantasy is about, awesome potential for passion and CONSEQUENCE - what's the problem? What stops the binding oath from being the best thing in fantasy since Tolkien invented swords?

The biggest problem is one of world-building. In a setting where binding oaths are real, what's to stop everyone from demanding binding oaths for every third promise? If every broken oath is a matter of CONSEQUENCE, where is there room for petty treacheries and well-intentioned lies that make for smaller, but still compelling plot? I can see it now:

"Honey, why didn't you tell me that you were sad about missing the baseball game to attend my sister's wedding?"

"Well, it wasn't a big deal, and I thought I'd just let you enjoy your sister's wedding and not trouble you with my feelings."

"But… you promised! You promised that you'd tell me when you're upset about things!"

"You're right! I did! Nooooo…" [Insert here the sound of the earth cracking open and consuming the oathbreaker body and soul.]

On a more serious note, there's also less room for the bigger, potentially more plot-relevant treacheries. How can the border lord defect to the enemy side if he's bound by a web of supernaturally enforced oaths? How can you trust someone who refuses to swear an oath you know he has no good reasons not to? You get similar problems in settings where magical means of determining someone's truthfulness or "goodness" are common (or even present) in the setting. The solution to these problems is… careful world building (who's surprised?). For all it's awesome possibilities and copmlications, you can't just drop binding oaths into a setting and expect it not to cause any problems.

In my mind, anyone trying to drop binding oaths into a setting needs to answer the following questions:

What are the limitations of binding oaths?

Does the magic that binds oaths listen to the spirit of the oath, or just the words? Are there circumstances in which one can weasel out of an oath? Can the person you swear to release you from your oath? What about a witness? What if the person you swear to dies... or breaks his half of the oath?

It's important to understand the limitations of binding oaths, because the limitations are where dishonesty - and conflict, and passion, and plot - can happen. They are the cracks that let story into your world.

How hard is it?

Is swearing a binding oath difficult, or is it easy? Can anyone do it, or is there a special class of people who witness or swear binding oaths?

The right answers to these questions can do a lot to help and hurt you. For example, in Changeling: the Dreaming (the roleplaying game mentioned above), anyone can swear an oath and it's easy as pie. This is a good thing - because it means that oaths get sworn left, right, and center. It's bad, because in theory, it often makes bad and untrustworthy people easy to spot: they're the slimeballs who won't swear to anything.

What is the role of binding oaths in your setting's culture?

Because binding oaths are so powerful and unnatural, they certainly occupy an important place in a setting's culture. What is that place? Are they a practice of the nobility, or do commoners do it, too? For that matter, is the swearing of oaths something commoners do and nobles eschew? Is it rude to demand that someone swear an oath? Are there settings in which it is appropriate to swear oaths and others where it would be considered rude, blasphemous, or just plain weird? Are there certain classes of people who could, theoretically, swear oaths like everyone else, but categorically refuse to? How does this effect their social standing?

... and this is where Changeling finds its saving grace in the matter of binding oaths. The culture of the earthbound fae places a great deal of weight on binding oaths, so much that they can't be demanded (except in certain situations), only offered freely. Requiring that someone swear to something before trusting him is considered a fairly massive faux pas and makes you seem like the untrusting (and therefore probably untrustworthy) one. There are entire social movements that consider the swearing of binding oaths to be outmoded, tyrannical, and rude. Therefore, it's entirely possible that that person who merely promised to help you has no intention of doing so... and that's where stories happen.

And finally, most importantly...

What do oaths mean to you?

This is the last and most important question. As with everything else in world building, the swearing of oaths needs to have a place in the setting. Does it underscore the world's strangeness or allow you to emphasize a character's uniqueness? Is it an unnatural rigidity that your all-too-human characters must struggle against? Do oaths exist to make noble warriors more noble or to keep star-crossed lovers apart? These are the choices - the most important choices - that should drive the answers to the questions above.

So, in conclusion, oaths are neat, but use them well. If you do, you'll find they add a lot to your stories.

I swear it.

* * *

  • Where have you seen binding oaths used well in fiction?
  • Where have you seen them used poorly?
  • How have you used the concept of binding oaths in your work?
  • If binding oaths were real, what would you do with them? What promises would you labor under, which would you have your friends and family swear... and which would you avoid? How would it change our world?

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