Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is an interesting book, amazingly easy for non-economists to read. There are several ideas Piketty discusses which are of interest to our work as Ars Magica players and authors. In the next series of posts, I’ll examine these insights.

Piketty notes that in populations where family size is small, inheritance plays an increasingly significant role in wealth transfer. Conversely, if populations have large numbers of surviving children, those children tend to disperse, because they cannot depend on the capital passed down by their ancestors to maintain them. The Order, oddly, does not behave this way: it has a ridiculously low birthrate, and yet it has virtually no useful mechanism of inheritance. Why is this?

Well, first, it’s because Ars is, if not written by Americans, written for Americans, and it buys into their myths of the frontier. Characters go and carve out a chunk of wilderness: taming it. That genre convention assumes that inheritance is not viable. When I mention Americans here, I’m not wanting to be particularly controversial. My point is simply that English myths tend to have heroes who have been dispossessed form their patrimony and are fighting for its return. Scottish and Irish folk heroes tend to have lives framed in terms of resistance to invasion. Australian heroes tend to focus on class: they have no money and take it from the rich, not for redistribution, but simply because the rich, in some sense, deserve it.

In some of my work I’ve looked at the inheritance problem, and I’ve sidestepped it a few ways. House Tremere acts as the heir to Tremere magi, not their children. This means the mechanism of the House sucks wealth away from new player characters. House Criamon don’t care about wealth. House Jerbiton did care, but has lost a lot of its wealth due to its indolence (that is, the ancestors did not save anything) and the fall of Constantinople.

Let’s try a concrete example: the Order has approximately 1 000 members. Let’s assume the average magus lives for 100 years and that the population of the Order is stable. Let’s ignore redcaps and Lartans. That means that about 10 magi die each year. That’s very rough, but arguable. Even if only half of these magi have talismans, that means that in the two decades from 1200 to 1220, they left one hundred talismans behind. This is sufficient to crash the magic item economy, and to create a pool of capital that can be used to change the world. The Virtue mechanism works poorly if rejigged to allow inheritance. In contrast, the Covenants mechanism can be used, relatively simply, to model this form of succession, because it allows the purchase of items of greater value.

I’d argue that the Order’s population is stable: Piketty notes that in populations which are growing rapidly, social change occurs rapidly. Roles are only inherited in societies where the population and technology level are stable, and the Tribunal system seems to have perpetuated for centuries. By chance, we see something Piketty mentions in Transylvania, where redcaphood is being redefined by inheritance pressures.

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7 replies on “Thomas Piketty Meets the Order of Hermes: Inheritance

  1. Talismans are the least of my worries in this context. We see fairly few of them, and many of them are locked, in the sense that some or all of their powers can be activated only by the original owner/creator. This may be a feature of my troupe(s), but does tend to be the case.
    But what about all the other enchanted devices, specifically designed such that others can use them? I see a lot of Lesser Devices, because the economy of making them is fairly good, even if you do need a high labtotal. These worry me significantly more in this context.

    And devices are far from all there is. Familiars at least, cannot be generally inheirited, which is good, because 5th edition has been very good to familiars and they tend to be common and are often powerful.

    but what about libraries and laboratries? Inheiriting a lab isn’t always just a good thing (Covenants even has flaws specifically for this), but even a small covenant can accumulate a huge library in surprisingly short time if they are willing to trade or write themselves. And easy access to good sources of study (XPs) can be potentially as world shattering as a few devices.

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  2. Nothing interesting to say, I just wanted to thank you for these interesting bits. Like all good authors, you widen our horizons, make us look at things differently.

    Books is an interesting tidbit, in that this is only viable if we accept the (AFAIK endorced by the RAW) mythic premise that old knowledge is at least just as good as new knowledge. If we posit that an old book on Creo is full of old notions that were discarded, it may have a “lower” quality and level to modern readers.

    How to put it? We know that, before Conciatta, Vim was divided in 4 forms, one for each realm.
    So there was, say, a great summa of Lvl 20 Q15 summa on Magical Vim.
    Would a modern reader be able to find insights in it? Probably. Would it help him that much in his study of Modern Vim? Maybe not. Maybe it acts as, say, a Lvl 10, Q 08 summa, most of it being useless gibberish.

    Maybe that’s why the order ain’t swimming in books, anymore than we study physics from books written in 1850.

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    1. This is not a bad idea – I’ve discussed it before, with friends.
      The problem is implimenting it.
      How fast does knowledge deteriorate? And even worse, how do we impliment the loss of quality in a library with pages of titles? It can be done easily enough, ofcourse, if all books are kept electronically stored, but then we’re tying Ars Magica to being played with a computer right in front of you, at all times. Something I know many who’d rather avoid.

      Any suggestions?

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      1. Not really.

        The only suggestion I may make is this: Since books theoretically have a “written by X in Y” desciptive bit attached to them, have, say, its quality + level decrease by 1 every 50 years.
        This should be relatively easy to compute on the fly, so a Q10 hermetic tractatus written in 1015, right after the Schism War, would only have a quality of 06 by the time the game begins.
        A Lvl 25, Q15 Legendary Ignem summa written by Flambeau in 800 would be Lvl 20, Q10 to “modern” readers.

        Another, maybe better possibility is to consider that the older it is, the more it loses its value, taking a penalty akin to one step on the Arts table per century. You might want to cap this at no less than half the original value
        So:
        A book from more than 1 century would have -1 level and quality
        A book from more than 2 century would have -3 level and quality
        A book from more than 3 century would have -6 level and quality

        Meaning that the aforementioned Tractatus would be Q07 instead of 10, and that the Awesome! Flambeau! Summa! would appear to modern readers as not so great, being Lvl 15, Quality 08.

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          1. Yeah, i agree. You don’t have to either. You can have it as fluff, to explain to your players while they aren’t swimming in good books. “Sure, you’ve got a batch of 10th century texts, but they’re quite outdated, most of their concepts no longer relevant.”

            But this is one of the areas where games may differ heavily, since so much depends on the progress of hermetic magic over the years and over similar assumptions

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