Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

I would not say with absolute certainty that The Whiskey Rebels is the best book I've read in 2013. After all, there is still another month to go and there is a lot of potential in that last month. Having said that, The Whiskey Rebels is the best book I've read in 2013. David Liss is always worth a read and this book, a done in one historical look at America right after the Revolutionary War, is a fascinating take on how to use historical fiction and fact to weave a fantastic story together.

There are so many things that make it useful to a person running a role playing game that it's an important reminder why people should regularly read outside of their genre, why they should stretch their mental muscle past its comfort zone.

I'll be discussing some specific things below from the book and how they might be useful in role
playing games.

Money. One of the biggest focuses of the book is in the accumulation of money. Anyone whose lived in America in the last, oh, say ten years, has seen the financial institutions take the economy to the brink and had to be saved from themselves only to eagerly go back to the very same behaviors that lead to the issues to begin with because they know that the government will back them up again should the need arise. This is something that doesn't necessarily get touched on often in role playing games because it can not only be boring, but can be more complex and less violent than a good old dungeon crawl.

In terms of money, no matter what the era, no matter when the time, there will be conflicts. there will be opportunities. There will be potential. As the book picks up right after the Revolutionary War, there are people attempting to control the new banks that are coming along. To fund them, or at least fund a specific one, there is a Whiskey Tax. This tax, on one side, seems harmless but to the people making the Whiskey?

Well, the whiskey in and of itself doesn't bring in funds. Instead, it's used as a bartering tool. An object of trade. There may be those who do make money off it, but those are not the people hurt by the tax.

Imagine Star Wars. The Emperor probably has those who are friends and allies and he could easily let slip that the Empire is going to build not one, but two death stars. Think of the manpower, the funding, the technology in terms of engineers and machines, needed to build that. Now we could go all, "Well, it's the Empire. No one is getting paid." Corruption pays off much better than tyranny. Look no further than China where it's not necessarily illegal to be bribed, merely illegal to be caught doing so eh?

Information is power. In a fantasy setting, if the players learn that a group of merchants is going to buy all of the land on the waterfront and sell it to the lords of the city in exchange for vast sums of wealth because they know that the lords of the city need that land for building defenses or something of that nature, what happens if the players decide to be the ones who buy the property? What happens if they already own it and are then put under 'scare' tactics? Hunting down such things would be an excellent use of the Gumshoe engine for example.

Character Change. Ethan Saunders starts the book as a near useless alcoholic. His talents in spying, in gathering information, are secondary to the notoriety he faces for rumors of him and his best friend Fleet, being British Spies who merely weren't brought up on charges because the war was ending and people had better things to do. Through the course of the novel, David builds the things that tore Ethan down into things that slowly build him up. Ethan missed out on so much of his life due to failed perceptions and not wanting to do anything to disgrace the memory of Fleet, because he secretly feared that Fleet was indeed a spy, that when the novel keeps bringing the 'truth' to the surface, Ethan has no choice but to change into something still flawed, but better than he was at the start of it.

The same is also true of Joan, who starts off wanting to be a writer, but whose apparent uncontested understanding of how the financial system works, makes her into a near unbeatable foe whose goal, the destruction of the government, seems almost within her power to be stopped by sleight of hand as opposed to straight out skill. The changes characters go through should influence the direction the game takes.

The Frontier. Joan starts off living in 'civilization' but poor. An opportunity comes up to seek out a new live on the Frontier in exchange for the script that shows the government owes her husband money. But after the Revolution the funds don't appear right away so are traded away for a 'better' life. This life is one of hardship. One where the simple comforts of the city, even the city of that era, are not present. Where one must be self sufficient to survive. Well, perhaps not entirely self sufficient for Joan's husband, despite his carpentry skills, and the skills he mastered in the war, isn't a full wilderness master like those already tricked, and already living there are. This brands them together being out in the wilderness against those who would further harm them. It makes them united against 'outsiders' even though Joan and her husband are still the 'new' people who must earn their way into the trust of the group.

Big Concepts: Joan and Ethan are both patriots. Ethan fought in the war to be free from English rule. Joan's husband did the same. Joan harbors thoughts on what a true free society is worth and what shape it must take while Ethan wouldn't see chaos and government failure run through the streets if he can help it. Some ideas can have multiple views that are both right but both must come across one another. When designing a setting, are there certain aspects of it that people might find distasteful but would rather have than absolute chaos? Are there some things that would make people change their minds about the country if only they knew?

The Unseen: Ethan has a slave, Leonidas. Ethan is able to use Leonidas status and his race as a useful tool for gathering information several times throughout the novel. In many settings, there are those who are looked down on. In modern societies, this could be as simple as the ignoring the cleaning people or the delivery people. In ancient societies, slaves were not often well thought of and things may have been spoken of freely in front of them. Another group in almost any setting could be children. Most settings have that 'underclass' that is always around and no one pays attention to. Using those resources can give characters and edge up against those who don't.

The Whoseitcalled. I was surprised to see reference to Jeffersonits. Those who followed Thomas Jefferson. And Hamiltonist. People who have followers will find those followers called by their specific name. While perhaps not in as much use today for personal names, Communist is a label still thrown about for example, but Putinists? Perhaps not so much. But in a setting where characters can be larger than life? Where you may have served, fought for, or directly assisted the person who liberated the whole of the country? Where those who take up stances against new methods and manners are on one side and those who take the opposing ideas on the other? Then indeed, it would seem nature that naming conventions might be s thing that use the giants of the era.

A Large Cast: When I was a younger and perhaps more apt game master, I had a huge three hold punch of characters. Whenever I added a character to the game, a throw away merchant, a named dragon, a hidden dungeon, or anything that had a name, I jotted it down into the book. I organized the book by region and was able to expand upon it and call upon it when characters where in a certain location. David Liss maintains a huge cast of characters here and it makes the world feel more alive. He mixes fictional and historical characters with the ease of a master juggler and the reader is never certain if who they are reading at the time is one or the other. Keep a list of potential names and descriptions for use at any time with the understanding that those names and characters may never be used, but that you have them if they are needed.

The Whiskey Rebels is a powerful historical novel that has a personal touch and focus and by having two viewpoints, brings the reader even deeper into the action.