Saturday, January 7, 2017

ACKS and the Art of Not Being Governed

I have been reading The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia recently.  I'm pretty sure Noisms mentioned it at one point, but I can't find it if he did.  In any case, it's a bit rambling, but there are some excellent quotes which suggest new, exciting(?), and adequately-cynical ways to run the ACKS domain game.

Unfortunately I've done a poor job of logging interesting quotes as I read, so I'm going to go with bullet-point paraphrases and subsummaries.
  • Intensive wet-rice agriculture, dense populations, and population centers pre-date monarchial states, which were introduced by "political entrepreneurs" who captured rice production areas. 
  • Intensive agriculture is important to the formation of powerful states, both because it can support very high population densities (important for warfare, large-scale irrigation projects, and monument construction) and because it is relatively easy to tax (record, track, and steal) synchronized monocrop grain harvests.
  • Southeast Asia is (historically) not very densely populated, with lots of empty land to which peasants can escape from tyrannical kings.  While policies were often enacted to lure population to the early states, net migration was often negative, with peasants escaping out in to the wilderness.
  • The administrative reach of the court center was bounded logistically, by the ability to supply the army.  As an ox eats its own load in a matter of days, campaigns could be conducted only near navigable waterways, or in areas where provisions were readily appropriable (which is to say, where intensive grain agriculture was already under way).  Kingdoms often nominally extended about a hundred and fifty mile radius from the population-dense capital region, but in practice exerted direct rule over closer to a seventy-five mile radius.  Forests, hills, and swamps all imposed logistical barriers to military campaigns, and as a result became de facto state-free areas.  Their inhabitants might pay tribute to the state, but were rarely directly under its thumb politically. 
  • Early states also suffered from untrustworthy administrators and inaccurate population counts; one example is given of district administrators understating the population of their district by 40%, in order to keep the difference in taxes for themselves.
  • The monsoon season effectively limited the reach of the state to zero while it lasted, and often entailed expeditions to "show the flag" when the dry season began.
  • Because kings needed peasants and peasants did not much like being ruled and taxed, there was an ongoing war of sedentarization and slave-raiding against the hill populations, when possible.  Some Thai and Burman kings went so far as to forcibly relocate and tattoo their subjects.  States competed to amass subjects, both by force and by diplomacy (with eg hill tribes, offering special dispensations and status if they settled within the kingdom).
  • The primary focus of warfare between agricultural states was not taking and holding land, but capturing prisoners.  An example is given of a state taking 6000 prisoners and resettling them in the fields around the capital.  Prisoner-taking was not restricted to peasants, but also included military specialists and court poets.  A case is mentioned where a Burmese kingdom captured the entire court of a Thai kingdom (or the other way around, I forget) and brought them back to its own court, ushering in a temporary renaissance of Thai-Burmese fusion culture.
  • Meanwhile, in the hills, tribal / kinship organizations prevailed.  Agriculture was practiced, but it was nomadic slash-and-burn agriculture, supporting a maximum population density of 20-30 per square kilometer.  Hill tribes self-divided into predators and prey as far as the slave trade was concerned.  They also raided grain states when the situation permitted, occasionally knocking over a failing dynasty and setting up their own.
  • Hill tribes and grain-states traded extensively.  In addition to slaves, hill tribes sold a wide variety of raw materials to the agricultural states, including elephants, ivory, precious metals, medicinal plants, honey, opium, lumber, feathers, gems, fruit, livestock, and spices.  From the states they bought sea-products (salt, dried fish) and manufactured goods, including metal tools and weapons, pottery, cloth, and ritual/status items, like bronze gongs, crowns, and capes, which provide legitimacy to a chieftain.
  • Hill tribes often had their pick of trade partners, because it was relatively easy to relocate to a different watershed, which drained into the territory of a different grain-state (compared to moving a state and its attendant population and fortifications overland to a different river system).
  • In addition to hill tribes and grain-states, a few other types of states appeared.
    • Maritime states were confederations of port-cities, and gathered wealth by taxing or monopolizing trade between the up-river and the down-river / ocean.  Maritime states tended to lose wars against grain states, because they lacked manpower.
    • A similar sort of "trade state" was occasionally found in the hills, sitting at a major crossroads or mountain pass and gathering wealth by taxing trade.  These tended to be unstable, as trade shifts.
    • In the hills, there were often small pockets of land which were irrigable and hence usable for intensive rice production.  Small towns grew in these pockets, and sometimes formed defensive alliances with nearby hill tribes and other hill-towns against the slave-raiding predations of lowcountry grain states.  Terrain and logistics typically prevented unification of these hill confederacies into centralized states.
  • Religion is tightly-tied to mode of production / agriculture.  Highland tribes tended to be animist, while lowland states in the region were typically Buddhist or Hindu (and the maritime states were mostly Islamic).  There was an interesting note that when a particular group of highlanders tried to start growing lowland rice, they found that its successful cultivation required the execution of lowlander religious rituals, and the adoption of the lowlanders' calendar (hence cosmology).
This leads to a number of thoughts for ACKS.
  • The mentioned population support limits of slash-and-burn agriculture (20-30 people per sq km) translate to 310-466 families per six-mile hex, well within the "civilized" band for population density, despite the nomadic hill-people very much operating as borderlanders politically.
    • Might a tropical thing, though
  • Decreased focus on territory suggests an alterate approach to Simple Domains - only track population, not territory.
    • Clear an initial area for a settlement, then replace further hex-clearing operations with "domain random encounters" that occur over time rather than over space.
    • Assume sufficient irrigable land that the limits of supportable population density will never be reached in PCs' lifetime.
    • Also make population change somewhat interesting / actionable
      • Rebellion and exodus
      • Famine
      • Plague
      • Wars of capture
      • Hired slaving expeditions (insert cash, roll on "slave raiding outcomes" table...)
      • Diplomacy to get hill tribes to settle on your land
    • This approach might be viable in other low-population-density areas, like the Baltic
  • Frankly I could see doing away with Civilized / Borderland / Wilderness classification by population density, and replacing it with a domain type mechanism.
    • Nomadic / Tribal - Can't really be taxed / yields low profit to its nominal ruler outside of warfare, experiences natural population growth, provides troops, can relocate domain.
    • Settled Agricultural - Most like a standard ACKS domain.  Taxable (oh so taxable), requires a stronghold, experiences natural population decline.
    • Settled Maritime - Not very taxable agriculture, increased trade range?  Really needs some domain-level trade mechanics to work.
      • Provide some domain income based on number, types, and sizes of trade partners?
      • States of trade between domains connected by water:
        • No trade - sanctions or at war
        • Natural trade - some trade, but no particular protection under the law for traders from the other domain
        • Favored trade - traders from other domain are protected under the law, may be granted monopolies, possibly in exchange for exclusive trade (ie, a grain state offers a hill tribe favored trade status in exchange for that hill tribe cutting off trade with another nearby grain state).
      • This is probably too complicated already
  • Converting between domain types is roughly as bad for morale as New Religion Introduced, since that's basically what happens.
Whether any of this will ever see play is another question, of course.


  1. John I just want to say that your posts on these topics are right on target and very well thought out. You're hitting some of the concerns I had with the ACKS assumptions and coming up with some excellent observations and alternatives. One of the things I talked about with Alex back in the day was the sheer variety of subsistence systems in a medieval setting which his models did not account for, such as the hay based agriculture of the north Atlantic, transhumance, swidden agriculture, etc. etc.

  2. Thanks! Ultimately I don't really blame Alex for focusing on settled agriculture - most modern players probably don't care, and complexity is a pain... but it is fun to think about. Thanks also for mentioning transhumance; I figured that sort of migration was probably a thing, but had no idea of the scale of it historically before reading about it just now.