Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Written by Walter Isaacson
Published by Simon and Schuster Paperbacks
$19.99/$8.93 At Amazon

I don't delve too often into semi-modern historical bits on the blog as I mainly play Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, both settings firmly 'rooted' if you will, in the 'dark ages' although they often rise up to technology and living standards that surpass many modern parts of the world.

If anything, reading Benjamin Franklin increases that dissonance I have with most fantasy settings where full plate is a common thing but guns aren't. Where swashbucklers and pirates are a common theme but again, guns are verboten.

For example, as many 'lone wolf' characters as we often see in fiction and at the tabletop, they would stand out in direct contrast to many of their friends and families. Benjamin Franklin himself is one of twenty children his father had with two wives.

Twenty children. It's a large number for sure, and the kids range in age all over the place, but there are others who had numerous children at the time as well. Maybe it's not so unusual when a player says his name is whatever the 2nd!

Another terrible thing, even in Benjamin Franklin's time, was that for women, it still was not a safe time to be giving birth.  "It was not unusual for men in colonial New England to outlive two or three wives. Of the first eighteen women who came to Massachusetts in 1628 for example, fourteen died within a year." (pg. 13)

The other thing in having a family is it adds drama. Franklin fathered a few children himself. One died of Smallpox before he could be inoculated against the disease. At the time, even then, there were "anti-Vaxxers" who believed it was bad to be inoculated. Franklin was not one of them and made his positions clear on the subject often.

Among Franklin's brood was William, an illegitimate son, who in turn sired Template, another illegitimate child. William was a Loyalist to England who wound up on the wrong side of history and estranged from his father.

What was worse was that Template was with Benjamin Franklin instead of being with his own father. This gave Benjamin huge swathes of influence over the young man. The generational gaps would never be healed in their instances.

In games with long-lived races such as elves, who can bear half-elves, generational stories might not be that unusual. For his time, Franklin lived an enormously long time, dying at 84. In a game where characters can live hundreds of years?

Franklin was also a bit of a scientist. One of the things he invented, or at least is credited with, are bi-focal glasses. My mom long having used these, it's one thing I'd have to tip my at to him for.

But another thing is the lightning rod.

Reading this book, it quickly became apparently that lightning strikes inflicted much damage to property, setting fires and killing scores or people at a time. "For centuries, the devastating scourge of lightning had generally been considered a supernatural phenomenon or expression of God's will. At the approach of a storm, church bells were run to ward off the bolts. "The tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning," declared St. Thomas Aquinas. But even the most religiously faithful were likely to have noticed this was not very effective. During one thirty-five-year period in Germany alone during the mid-1700s, 386 churches were struck and more than one hundred bell ringers killed. In Venice, some three thousand people were killed when tons of gunpowder stored in a church was hit." (pg 137)

And Benjamin Franklin solved that problem.

Which is probably just one of those things taken for granted in pretty much every fantasy setting. While still ignoring guns. Because you know, guns are bad?

I know I'm harping on it but it strikes me as strange, and I get that for other people who've grown up on just traditional fantasy that it's just the way things are.

Like most fantasy settings being one giant continent and travel being a matter of going from one place to another via horse. Whereas Franklin himself made some odd eight trips across the ocean. He traveled from his home in America to London. He traveled to Paris. He traveled all about in those places including Ireland and Scotland. Most fantasy settings have a hard time getting one period of England, so they tend to include all of them. And Vikings. And pirates. And various merchants boats that really have nowhere to go as even in the Forgotten Realms, their 'Jungels of Chult' is still on the mainland itself.

So the fantasy books fill their pages with these massive and impressive ships trying to capture the era and age of piracy and capture the look often, and some of the technical specs, but then, of course, leave out all of the cannons.

Mind you, I suspect part of this is that most game mechanics fail to get weapons right in the first place. The stats most weapons have isn't based on historical accuracy or leathalness, they are based on balancing game mechanics.

I've  read in some of the Cornwell research and elsewhere, including this book, that Franklin bemoaned the lack of trained archers in the colonies because archers could be so much more dangerous than the standard musket fire of the time. The speed, accuracy, and intimation factors were huge bonuses.

The amount of time Franklin lived, and his practical application of science to the working world, also allowed him to change it. This is something that most games seem reluctant to do. Oh sure, they'll make changes in a huge edition switch, move the timeline up, ignore players and their characters for a hundred years, and render numerous sourcebooks obsolete, but allow the players themselves to change the setting?

In a way, it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If you allow the players to make huge changes to the setting, future sourcebooks in the setting become less and less useful. Oh, these nations invented X finally? The players in your campaign invested and distributed X months ago in the real world and over a year ago in game time.

In addition to the inventions, Franklin lived in a world of shifting alliances. The French would use natives to attack the then British colonies. The colonies would have to form their own militias and also seek out help from Britan. Britan would send help, but there was always cost associated with that.

Later, when fighting against Britan, the Colonies would seek out help from the French, who themselves had to work with their allies, the Spanish, as both countries were against the British but had lost much face and strength against the British in previous wars.

There are also the numerous places Franklin goes and visits and the happenings around him. This is a man who formed the Junto, an organization of like minded thinkers to advance each other's social standing and financial standing. He's also a man so well loved that when he last left France, the party thrown for him aboard his departing boat lasted until four in the morning.

His home in America was changed to accommodate his larger family including a connection between the two houses. This could lead to some interesting designs if there were upper walkways as opposed to just two houses connected through a basement.

Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, is a well written and well researched tale. It gives you a taste of those in power, those rising in power, and the era that Franklin would help herald in. He was far from a perfect man, and his deism ways would cause friction with numerous parties including such famous individuals as Samuel Adams among others.

Walter Isaacson brings the time, the struggle, and the flaws of the great man, the so  called First American, to light in a way that few before or after have mached. Well worth  the reading if you want to get the old brain juices flowing.