Sex, Class, Romance, & Genre§

What follows are some essays on a few matters of particular concern to the players of Arcadia.

How does this relate to Jane Austen?§

One cannot talk about the Regency, and Regency fiction, without talking about Jane Austen. She has defined our image of what the Regency was, or at least, we think she has. To be honest, even for those of us who have immersed ourselves in her writing, the film and TV adaptations of her work still exert a tremendous influence on our understanding of the time, place, and genre.

The first thing to say, then, on this subject, is that Jane Austen is a terrible model for how to play characters in Arcadia.

In addition to the fact that her work is edited, and therefore can have a kind of tightness and attention to detail that an improvisational medium like a game can never achieve, she is also perhaps one of the best writers in all of English literature. She can make characters who seem [1] to have no problems still be engaging, which is a feat that I would not suggest any player attempt. A character with problems and insecurities is one with immediate needs and drives, and keeps you as a player urgently engaged with the events of the game.

If you must take a Jane Austen character as a model, think of Lydia Bennet, Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood. Think of Frank Churchill, Colonel Brandon, John Willoughby. The romantic figures, the cads, the people who do what they are not supposed to.

The second thing to say is that Jane Austen did not write romantic comedies, and this game is not a game of romantic comedy.

She wrote love stories, yes. Jane Austen’s heroines end up with a suitable romantic match. But the screen adaptations of her work always bend the story to fit the demands of the similar-but-different genre of romantic comedy. In her books, romance is not merely fated: it is sought and it is chosen over alternatives of security, stability, suitability. Her characters find themselves making difficult choices that sometimes pit them against the expectations of society, and they don’t simply fall for a romantic hero, but rather someone who can be an equal, a complement, and a collaborator.

This game, though, is perhaps more tragic. While the characters are by no means doomed to a bad ending, the road they travel is a hard one, and an alienating one. No magician settles down to a happily-ever-after. Even a romance between magicians is a relationship defined around the work, and the risks and hazards that come with it.

[1]Though it is only “seeming”; all her characters have deep and urgent problems if you scratch beneath the surface.

Playing with Romance§

Romance. It’s the natural next word after “Regency”. Whether you’re talking about the Romantic movement or Georgette Heyer’s novels, “Regency” and “Romance” go together.

It’s a time when passions and feelings and untamed nature are all increasingly valued, or at least given lip service. But it comes on the heels of a couple centuries of rationality and duty and family obligation. And so a tension is coming to the fore, the tension between marriage as a contract between two families, and marriage as an expression of the love of two individuals. Marriage is changing from a business matter to a personal matter.

The notion of love between individuals as the basis of marriage frees marriage to be, mean, and do different things than it had heretofore. Suddenly, people could seriously contemplate marrying well above (or below) their station. They could imagine marrying without parental consent. They could dream of marriage as a private and personal choice. Not that all this was impossible before, or perfectly acceptable now, but there was a social change underway.

So if love and marriage involves the feelings of individuals, how do you incorporate that into your game?

First, with the explicit consent of all involved. You can’t force a player to have their character fall in love with another. But if you talk about it, suggesting “Hey, I’d be really interested in exploring a romance between these characters,” you might get the buy-in you seek. Keep checking in and communicating as you go.

Then, to explore these characters’ feelings about each other, be sure to have some chances for the characters to interact in relatively normal situations, not fraught with family expectation, deadly smugglers, or conniving fairies. And then, also, explore how these characters get along in moments of extreme stress: with rivals, with misunderstandings, with fairies.

In many romantic stories, the couple in question are destined for each other. In an improvisational game like this, you have to be open to the possibility that this could equally be a story of love found, love lost, or love from beginning to end. Don’t decide on an outcome and play to it, play and see how it turns out.

Finally, consider the themes, tropes, and constraints of the genre: heterosocial contact is limited, and homosexual love is prohibited. Characters frequently deal with romance in the face of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, secret engagements, “understandings”, cads, rakes, and conniving “friends”.

To this I would like to add a caveat, for this or any other game: if you have feelings for another player, do not explore those feelings through your characters without their full, explicit, and informed consent. Otherwise your interactions could lead to very different things. I would repeat this warning if you have, say, a desire for murderous revenge on another player, too, but I think romantic feelings are much more likely.

The Comedy or Tragedy of Manners§

The stories we tell with Arcadia are mannered stories: the characters exist in a world constrained by social expectation, each character expected to act in certain ways and potentially being punished for stepping outside that role. And yet, that in no way constrains what these characters might want; passions never exist merely within society’s expectations.

The genre that might leap to mind, then, for some people is the comedy of manners, a genre in which the audience can observe and criticize the morals and manners of the day. This game is not that, at least not directly. We may look at our modern manners and morals through the lens of historical ones, but we don’t know when we begin a game of Arcadia whether it will have a happy or a sad ending. It may as well be a tragedy of manners as a comedy. When a character is driven by passions but bound by manners, there’s a very real possibility of tragedy no matter which course they take.

Your characters’ reputations and social roles should give you some guidelines for what society expects of you, and help you to see how and when to step outside those bounds safely, and how and when to do so unsafely. But we’re modern players, playing a modern game, so if you need to express something in modern terms, don’t be afraid to do so. Like all stories about history, we tell them to make sense of our own times.

Sex, class, and privilege§

In portraying characters (whether as a main character, or as the Host portraying supporting characters), you must navigate a Scylla and Charybdis: remember that those with privilege still have problems, and those without privilege still have agency. Here, let us talk about the latter case.

The social roles in Arcadia come in three flavours: powerful and privileged men, women of some standing, and those of lower classes. Both the female and the lower-class roles still have agency and goals and desires, despite a society that seeks to push them into convenient and pliant caricatures.

When you play an upper class man, there is very little distance between what you must do to pursue your desires, and what society rewards you for. The other roles do not have this luxury, and must find ways to get what they want while appearing always to be what society expects of them. When we consume media that portrays women and servants as only perfect exemplars of Regency mores, it can be easy to fall into the trap of playing such characters that way ourselves.

How society’s expectations restrict behavior manifests differently for upper class women and lower class people, and of course for lower class women, the intersection puts them in a particularly difficult spot. Generally, the female roles will be expected to react, and the lower class roles will be expected to obey.

But you must remember, at every turn, that these are people whose wants and needs are every bit as real as those with power and privilege, even if the ways they can pursue those wants and needs are constrained. Every time you find yourself stepping into the shoes of a character lacking privilege, take a moment to imagine them fully, and find the ways in which, even if they act on the surface like a perfect example of period propriety, they do not, in fact, fit perfectly into that mold.