Waiting for Robin Hood

I am outlaw’d. I am none the worse for that.
I held for Richard, and I hated John.
I am a thief, ay, and a king of thieves.
Ay! But we rob the robber, wrong the wronger,
And what we wring from them we give the poor.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Foresters

The City on the Saturnine isn’t in our world. It draws on real history for inspiration, to fuel grounded fantasies and incite outlandish (and sometimes historical) ideas, but the city is ahistorical. It’s a fiction.

For one thing, the Saturnine City lacks some of the classic, iconic elements that define our real-world histories and cultures. One big thing that’s missing is that symbol of righteous, roguish thievery. The City on the Saturnine has no Robin Hood.

This is by design. The mythologies of thieves are rife with famous rogues and nefarious princes of crime. We definitely want that in the game world—criminal icons with long shadows, cool nicknames, and infamy. I wanted thieves to admire and thieves to pit, thieves to fear and thieves to hope for. But did the game world need a heroic icon to follow, either as a leader or as a symbol?

While thinking about it, about the purpose and effect of a Robin Hood figure in the history of the Saturnine City, I think sometimes of John Keats’ Robin Hood:

And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave,
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep, and he would craze:
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fall'n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas;
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her—strange! that honey
Can't be got without hard money!

—John Keats, “Robin Hood”

I also think of something Marian says in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Foresters:

The silent blessing of one honest man
Is heard in heaven—the wassail yells of thief
And rogue and liar echo down in Hell,
And wake the Devil, and I may sicken by ‘em.
Well, well, be it so, thou strongest thief of all,
For thou has stolen my will, and made it thine.

Robin Hood’s outlaw philosophy and moral themes speak to a complexity, a quandary between ideals and action. Robin Hood also simplifies that quandary by personifying a position, sticking with it, and being merry about it. Even when he is a rogue—villain to some—outside the normal course of his culture, he can be a symbol of hopeful ideals.

Robin and the Sherwood crew embody questions—different questions over the centuries—that have complex answers. These questions recur over the life of the legends, as we wrestle with them in our lives.

The Saturnine City calls many of the same, legendary themes into question. You can put these themes in the foreground of play by having your character voice and question them in actual dialogue and deeds. You can push them far into the background of your campaign, out of mind for your character, but Robin continues to sneak around back there in the awareness of we the players.

Whatever you think of him, we still think of him.

My city up on my back tight
How can I possibly act right?
I'm Robin Hood, I'm the Black Knight
I know you heard 'bout my last fight
'Cause I win, over and over again
Battlin' evil, I'm hopin' to win

—DJ Khalil, et al, “Elevate,” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Robin Hood isn’t a Spider-Man or a Batman. Outlaws are not inherently heroic, of course. Neither are vigilantes. Heroism is an ingredient that can be added to either, but heroism doesn’t make them the same.

The vigilante enforces the law without legal authority—taut and ironic, sure—but the law remains a cause to uphold. The outlaw exists outside the law, removed from its protections. Robin Hood is always an outlaw. Does being outlawed by an unjust state really make one a villain? What does it mean to defy an unjust society’s unjust laws? When laws are cruel, what do we think of outlaws? Robin Hood has been dancing, singing, and sword-fighting atop these questions for half a millennium.

Outlaws and vigilantes; either, neither, or both. The vigilante who imagines themselves above the law for the sake of justice and the outlaw do-gooder who relishes their freedom from a corrupt society—these are fantasies suitable for play. But Robin Hood isn’t a vigilante. He rejects the authority of a ruthless king and defies the law of a callous kingdom. He wrongs those who do wrong to others, status quo be damned.

But it can all be more wonderfully complicated than that.

Your thief is a trespasser, a burglar, a criminal. Whether they find moral justification in their motives or not, their deeds make them scofflaws at best and, perhaps, outlaws (or prisoners). Thievery isn’t a question in this game. It’s part of the premise. Push further, therefore, to ask the next questions: Why is your character a thief? How do they feel about their own means and motives? What do they steal? Where does the money go? When would they feel it’s time to stop?

The City on the Saturnine is no one’s ideal world, but it is a place worthy of fantasies that confront, defy, or undermine corrupt and internecine houses. Who has the power to cast whom out? Who decides the bounds of the law? Of moral action? What do just and righteous folk do in a corrupt and unjust realm? Who is to judge?

The specter of the real Robin Hood already does the job of suggesting a moral and ideological landmark to players. Your characters don’t need that same figure.

The absence of a Robin Hood in the world—conspicuous or not—gives us room as players to ask familiar questions again and maybe answer them in ways that surprise us. If the game world were more outrightly dystopian, the questions would be simpler and the answers less surprising.

In a similar way, having a Robin Hood already in the game world can let us off the hook for deciding what kind of thieves we’ll be. (“We don’t need another Robin Hood, we have one already.”) But I wanted all of us players to be on that hook, as bait for the big, spiny questions.

Will your thief become a legendary figure for this world? Can they become legend by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Or do you have other plans for the fortunes they steal? Will your campaign become a tale of roguish heroism or a tragic crime drama? That stays up to you.

The lack of a central hero-thief can motivate you to pursue some kind of heroism or it can provide a sordid backdrop for grim criminal adventures. Is the absence of a heroic figurehead a motive to become one or a justification for acting as nefariously as the locals do? In an imaginative game, we get to explore various answers.

Ultimately, whether the city gets a Robin Hood is a matter of play. It emerges out of countless decisions you make along the way, made somewhere between moral outlawry and immoral criminality. Is your thief a Robin Hood for this sordid city? Play to find out.

In the meantime, the City on the Saturnine does not have a Robin Hood.

Not yet.

(Essay by Will Hindmarch)