1879: Turning Points

There’s been some interest of late in the alternate history of the 1879 game world, and more specifically about the differences between it and our own world. We started development of the 1879 game world with two basic assumptions: that it was similar to our own, with the major difference of the Rabbit Hole, and that it was a follow-on from Earthdawn, so the cycle of magic and the Age of Legend were integral to the world. From there, we started building. Rather than imposing further great changes on the game world, we decided to look for key events in history where things could have gone differently, turning points, and chase down an alternate path. This adds verisimilitude to a game world that has had a massive change imposed on it already. Let’s talk about the timeline and a few key moments.

One of the things we wanted to do was keep a strong Ottoman Empire, to give Russia an opponent to their south, and draw some of the pressure off of the British Empire, already stretched thin managing its colonial acquisitions on Earth and the new lands in the Gruv. While there were numerous economic and political reasons for the Sick Man of Europe, one of the foundational problems of the Ottomans was a lack of respect throughout the Maghreb, and that derived from a single cause: the sultan claimed religious authority in Islam but failed to hold up its pillars, specifically the requirement of the hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. All observant Muslims are required, if they are financially capable of it, to make the journey to Mecca for the hajj once in their lifetimes. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire had not done so in generations. By the 1880s, the Ottomans stood pretty much alone in the Muslim world, unable to call on their fellow Islamic nations for assistance or support, holding no respect while demanding their authority be recognized, a sure recipe for failure.

What we did was to go back to 1741, and the reign of Sultan Mahmud I, not one of the strongest rulers the Empire had seen. His viziers demanded that he make the hajj. The region was politically stable enough, and the Empire wealthy enough, and the sultan disposable enough, that they were able to pull it off, get him to Mecca and through the ceremonies and rituals and prayers and back to Istanbul safely. Mahmud I spent the next fifteen-someodd years as a figurehead, not really doing anything else of importance, but he had served his purpose. He had set a precedent. His successor, Mustafa III, made the hajj of his own accord, rather than at the demand of his council, and on his return was able to win the imams to his side and begin a series of reforms in the military and civil service. Those barely touched the problems that plagued the Empire, but it was a start.

Further sultans made the hajj similarly a year after their accession, until 1808, when Mustafa IV was overthrown before he could set out on the pilgrimage. The next year, the new Sultan, Mahmud II, made the hajj, restoring the tradition, but raised concerns about the pilgrimage waiting until after accession. It created vulnerability. In 1840, Abdulmecid I made the hajj, then sent his successor the next year, and made it a requirement for accession to the sultanate that the hajj already be completed. Considerable uproar resulted, a religious restriction being placed on what was ostensibly a secular government, despite the sultan ruling in the name of Mohammed and claiming theological power as well as political, but it passed. The current Sultan, Mahmud III, a hajji since his older brother died in a military training accident in 1872, has spent the five years since his accession in 1875 working on separating the Faith from the state, and advancing the Empire technologically. His sister, Princess Nazli, has instituted a series of cultural reforms, organizing the first Parisian-style literary salon in Istanbul, among other efforts.

A small course correction early in the voyage can result in considerable distance at the end. By making one possible alteration in the flow of events, the changes cascade down through history and result in a very different world indeed. We did the same thing with British railroads.

In 1815, George Stephenson and Humphry Davy got into it over the design of a miner’s safety lamp. The controversy lasted until 1832, when the House of Commons found that the men had equal claims to the design. Stephenson’s lamp was used exclusively in the Northeast of England, and the Davy lamp became the standard throughout the rest of the Empire. This ongoing argument over patent rights, and the conclusion, embittered Stephenson, giving him a lifelong distrust of London-based theoretical scientific experts, Parliament, and the south of England, whose elitism against the north was in fact a large part of the problem. Stephenson wasn’t well thought of by then anyway, having broken a verbal agreement in 1821 to buy cast iron rails from Walker Ironworks, and using wrought iron rails from Bedlington Ironworks instead for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. George set up the company in the name of his son, Robert Stephenson, to manufacture the locomotives, in our game world causing further tension between father and son. When Robert returned to England in 1829, after being gone three years due to the bad blood in the family, and won the Rainhill Trials with Rocket, the two had a difference of opinion that led to Robert removing his name from his father’s projects. The following year, Robert designed Planet, moving the cylinders inside the wheels. Robert and George had a very public falling out over the design, made worse when Planet proved to be substantially more efficient and did not break its crank axles like George predicted. At a major turning point, Robert moved to the United States to supervise the Camen and Amboy Railway. George refused to license out his rail patents, nobody really wanted to pay for them anyway given his increasingly poor reputation, and Isambard Brunel’s broad gauge became the standard throughout the British Empire instead of Stephenson’s so-called “standard” gauge. The narrower Stephenson gauge did get used elsewhere in Europe, where the laws did not require payment of licensing fees, which further embittered Stephenson. Thus, we wrote out a major figure, changed the way the railroads were built, and altered the game world substantially by exacerbating the argument between an angry old man and his son.

What else have we done? You’ll need to pick up the 1879 Game Master’s Companion when it comes out, and see for yourself in the Timeline chapter.

Tally Ho!