The literacy debate


Re introduction of faults
I hear the concerns about ‘gamifying’ this further, and I promise that this is as far as it goes. Age will not have added drawbacks. I was just interested to see how people would play it. Being illiterate is optional for all people, other than those from Tribes. The reason I gave an extra skill is if you aren’t being taught to read and write (i.e. going to school or being given lessons at home) then you were out there doing other things and learning other skills. [/quote]

I guess this is kind of my point though. In absolutely no way has being illiterate ever led to more skills that someone who is literate. If you can learn then you can learn more. Learning language and reading and writing is not that hard. Even some of the tribes will have some form of written language.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be illiteracy. I’m all for illiteracy. But the honest truth is that people are kept illiterate to hold them down. A slave empire might never teach literacy because it is in their interests to do so to control the population. Illiteracy leads to less skills not more. And it’s not like every illiterate person is going to be a 6’5" muscle bound brute that can brawl and arm wrestle everyone under the table because they could never read and write. I mean some of them are. So I guess if one person choose to be Illiterate and got Hardy for free at the expense of science, tech, medicine etc… (I would have to read the list again) then that’s probably okay. But if you get 5 hulking illiterate brutes it might get a bit silly.

Idiot may have a fantastic example of a society where I am dead wrong though.


Except in non-literate socities where you have to grub for survival in the mud. Which is how humanity has lived for most of its existence, and how it is living in this setting.

We take literacy for granted because its universal now, and its so pervasive, we just don’t think about how much work it is, or how much we invest in it. Most people in our society spent between five and ten years learning this skill. Think about what else you could have learned in that time. think about what kids used to learn before education was compulsory. Think about what they did. Child labour is a vital component of pre-industrial societies, which is what we are positing (its where thread comes from, its what keeps the birds off the fields and the sheep in the right place and gets the berries and minds the other children). Learning to read takes time, and that is a luxury when you are grubbing in the mud.

Besides that, its a totally cool non-combat school for people to have. It creates a niche for characters, gives them value and plot-leverage. It creates connections and relationships (who taught you to read? What do you read? Where do you get it?) It should totally be a skill.

The major reason people weren’t literate for most of history wasn’t lack of teachers, or conscious decisions by the authorities to suppress learning, but because it was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford, and the rewards were too abstract, and there wasn’t anything for them to read anyway (books being luxury items). These BTW are all great hanging plots, and someone should totally run with them.


Besides that, its a totally cool non-combat school for people to have. It creates a niche for characters, gives them value and plot-leverage. It creates connections and relationships (who taught you to read? What do you read? Where do you get it?) It should totally be a skill.[/quote]

See when put like that it makes more sense. Instead of it being a flaw, it is a skill that unlocks the various sciences. But I guess in many ways I see that any of the Tech or science skills are unlocking literacy.

I still basically don’t think that not being literate is worth a bonus skill over someone who is literate. Sure a 10 year old may have spent his time on the farm learning farming or he may have spent his time learning literacy. But he probably still learned to farm. By the time both kids are 18. One can read and one cannot but they can both farm and play with swords. The illiterate farmer really has no advantage.

Basically you start getting into that and then you start getting into numbers and everything. To me it seems like a roleplaying choice, not a mechanics one. I agree that a lot of the elements are really interesting but I’m not sure that they are that easy to explore in a roleplaying setting.


You could probably do a lot of that stuff less efficiently off oral tradition. Literacy just makes it a hell of a lot more efficient (for a start, you can learn from people you’ve never talked to, or even from the dead. Literacy is necromancy!)

Well, he might be a better farmer. But more likely, his family will be better clothed and fed, because he was able to invest x hours a week on that, rather than on learning a pointless skill with little practical application in his society (unless he has pretentions of social mobility - but there’s not much of that in The World That Is. No priesthood to join, no university to go to, no skilled professions where literacy is a requirement, no way up because there is no “up” unless we build it again)

Actually, if you’re so keen on literacy, make it a story. Catnip had the idea, before she decided to crew, of “the library”, people who preserved all the old books they could, and were actively seeking more, and perhaps trying to persuade people of the value of learning. The Wild Shore had the oldest guy in the village who had a cache of pre-collapse books (but note: it was ~50 years post-collapse; we’re ~150, and from a probably post-paper society. I have a 125 year old book on my shelf, but my pile of modern paperbacks won’t last that long) and taught people to read in exchange for food, so they’d know what they’d lost and what they could have again. It also had the town with the printing press (a relic, but not that complicated; any smith can make one, the fiddly bit is the type), which shockingly was printing short books written by people who lived there, or (more shockingly) had travelled and seen things. Being someone like that, trying to collect people’s stories to publish, show them what we are and can be, that’s a story waiting to happen. As is a newspaper.

Maths isn’t literacy, and you don’t need to be literate to be a shopkeeper or count coins. As for accounting, or algebra, thats for people with economies beyond the subsistence.


I basically just completely disagree with this. If you have the opportunity to learn to read and write it won’t take up . If you have to learn as an adult that is a bit of a different story. It will be frustrating. But if you learn as a kid it is what you are learning, along with language in general. You will have learned most of what you need to regarding reading and writing before you can even move onto learning other more practical skills. It makes learning other things much easy. The 10 year old who learns to read and farm and the 10 year old who learns to farm, when they are 20 you cannot convince the non reader is a better farmer.

Just because most of the world was wiped out doesn’t mean that literacy didn’t survive given that the percentage of people that survived all valued it.

I don’t really care either way regarding my character. I assume he can read, but it’s an assumption based on the fact that we do, that there will be signs, that people will still write stuff. Of all the types of people we can be only the Savages really seem like ones that are trying to disregard the past in favour of a new way of living.

It’s such a huge social change, that you either make the entire population mostly literate or mostly illiterate. If you do the latter then the GMs lose a bunch of tools that could have used. It also means that all the players have to try and play in a world without literacy, which is always going to be difficult.

All of that aside. It’s not that I have a problem with it in the game. I just don’t think it a mechanics issue, not the way the skills are currently built, which is nice and simple. As it stands by not taking science or tech or any of the skills that seem like they might require literacy you actually get another skill anyway because you didn’t take those other ones.


I basically just completely disagree with this.[/quote]

That’s because you’re still in the mindset of a modern society where literacy is universal and useful. But that’s not the society we’ll be playing in.

We view literacy as a fundamental gateway to education. And it is - now. But think about why that’s the case: not just because we have a huge educational infrastructure of schools and universities to enable it, or because we have mountains of relevant written material to benefit from, but fundamentally because we are a rich society with a highly developed division of labour, in which there are hugely specialised roles requiring years of training. And that just doesn’t exist in the World That Is.

Outside the Arcs, the World That Is is a society of isolated, agrarian communities. A peasant society. There’s no lawyers, because there’s no law, or at least nothing widely-enough agreed upon to sustain someone dedicated to it. There’s no IT consultants, because there’s no computers. There’s no film editors, because there’s no films, and nothing to play them on anymore. There are no accountants, no engineers, no scientists, no publishers, no “consultants”, no academics, not even any office workers. Its a society of people catering to their immediate needs: growing food, not getting killed by savages or militia when they try to take it from you, not dying in childbirth or when you cut yourself while chopping wood, and making the tools for all of those. Books from the World That Was don’t tell you very much of use about those things (the exceptions being medicine, and religion).

And there’s no hope. The next village is just like yours, economically speaking. There’s no big city to run away to. Which means your kids will be doing what you are, and their kids, and their kids. There’s no prospect of social mobility, and that removes the greatest historical incentive for education.

Basicaly if you start thinking about technology and its social and material dependencies, you get all sorts of interesting possibilities. But they require stepping away from cosy modern assumptions.


Hi guys,

I’m loving the discussion around literacy and the effects that it does or does not have. But I just wanted to weigh in a little bit.

I firmly believe that if we didn’t have a system which allowed us all to read and write that many of us (and in fact for many people around the world currently) the time would be spent doing other things and learning skills that we don’t learn sitting in a class room from the age of 5 till 18.

I like the way it’s set up. I don’t think adding an optional literacy component upsets the balance of the game and I certainly feel that it backs up the feeling I’m going for of a world in collapse and the creation of a new staus quo.

Like everything though I only want to support people enjoying the game and improving their experience. I’ll review everything after the first session and if need be will make sweeping changes to facilitate this.

Ok, with all that said back to your fascinating discussion!


I firmly believe that if we didn’t have a system which allowed us all to read and write that many of us (and in fact for many people around the world currently) the time would be spent doing other things and learning skills that we don’t learn sitting in a class room from the age of 5 till 18. [/quote]

I could read and write by the time I was 8 (maybe 9). I could ride a bike by the time I was 7. What could I have learned by those ages that would warrant me getting another skill. I didn’t spend my whole time learning, I probably spent a lot of it playing. It’s kind of amazing how fast you can pick this up, of course if you are not exposed to it you won’t.

I don’t think we learn to read and write until we are 18. In fact most of secondary school is learning other stuff like complex maths, science, art, sport.

It’s not that I’m against illiteracy, but a literate person should not be less skilled than an illiterate one. A lazy person should be less skilled than a non-lazy person.

I just think the system is too light at the moment to introduce a tangible advantage for illiteracy. I mean it’s probably fair to assume that for the most part the characters literacy skills are pretty minimal, but reading road signs etc… If you ave Tech and Science or whatever you are probably more literate than most, if you are a savage you might be less.

I had an interesting discussion with some people at my D&D game tonight regarding this. One of the cooler things that came up was the idea that in a possible future we will become less literate because of our reliance on video and audio as learning tools. We could become an aural tradition again. This could be cool to explore for Arcs where Tech might have survived but data takes up much less space than paper.

Additionally if you look at 1 of primary sources for this game - Fallout - which is 50 years after the bomb, the population might be full of hicks but for the most part they can read and write. It’s only 150 or so years after. It’s not all small farmlets struggling to survive. It’s savage tribes, makeshift kingdoms, militia ruled states, Arcs with small or long reach.

The thing against reading and writing is really the availability of paper, the use of printing presses, stuff like that. But if there are couriers then there are news. Probably mail. It’s not likely to all be word of mouth.

And to be more positive rather than negative about looking at the skill list there isn’t a lot of what would I have learned if I didn’t spend the time learning to read and write. The skills are pretty much smithing, healing, fighting and science. Survival is about 4 or 5 things bundled into 1. I would buy that someone learned all 5 skills of Survival rather than reading and writing, while the person who learned to read and write might have only got fishing, hunting, building a fire and no tracking. Herb lore would be a bit up in the air and it’s more the providence of First Aid anyway. Which I think is the problem. The simple system is cool. It’s simple. The rest should just be roleplaying.

Also Idiot FWIW Engineering would be a hugely useful skill, not useless at all. Building dams, building bridges for perilous rivers to trade with another town because they have X and you have Y, building houses so they don’t fall over, building retaining walls.


I’m not able to come down for this game, but I just wanted to suggest another way of looking at this.

In the real world, some people are really fast learners, are naturally physically talented and hard working, and if you represented them in a roleplaying character they’d look quite maxed out. Others don’t have the same dedication or luck with circumstances and talent.

Often in role-playing games you buy a number of abilities for your character. Starting characters end up “balanced” in terms of their capabilities. This doesn’t represent the real world, where a hard-working person could be much more capable all around. Role-playing games seldom represent the real world distribution of capabilities. Instead, each character is individually plausible and starting characters have similar utility based on the sum of their abilities.

So, if The World That Is takes that utility-balancing approach, which it seems to, then the question isn’t really “would learning to read and write always mean you’d have less of other skills in the real world?” Instead, the question is “does literacy have similar utility in the game as other abilities with a similar cost?”


You’re still thinking about skills in isolation from their material and social circumstances. I said that there were no engineers - no-one devoting their life to it, because there is no surplus to support such a division of labour (and hence, no way of getting a better lifestyle by training to be one) - not that nobody knows anything about (civil) engineering.

For every skill, don’t just think about “would this be useful”, but also “is it done every day in a village of one hundred people” (and if not, “is it done regularly enough that such a village would devote some of its scarce surplus to maintaining that skill, either locally or in the form of a wandering craftsperson”), “how much labour does it use”, and “what are the raw materials and where do they come from”.

The latter is the killer for all sorts of things. Chemical engineering? The backend infrastructure of equipment and chemical supply required for even the most basic chemistry is immense (hence why we didn’t really see even the beginnings of proper chemistry until the C16th - 17th). Electronic? Modern chips last 10 - 20 years before brownian motion and alpha particles kill them, so there’s no scavange, and you sure as hell can’t make new ones (older chips, like the classic 6502, will last longer); even the more primitive components require rare earth minerals requiring very fiddly chemical processes to extract, as well as highly sophisticated manufacturing techniques. Mechanical? If it can’t be made by a man with a hammer and anvil, you’re shit out of luck (so no fiddly bits, and nothing requiring precision or repeatability; even clockwork is probably beyond the available technology, because it requires far too much specialisation). Civil? No concrete or lime-based mortar (lime is easy to make, as are bricks, but both require a lot of labour, so aren’t likely), nails are made by that man with a hammer and anvil again, and you don’t have the labour to build anything really large anyway (so its basically houses, ditches and palisades, the latter requiring everyone in the community to pitch in).

Life outside the Arcs in The World That Is sucks. We’ve got nothing beyond the basics, and don’t have the capital or labour surplus to even begin to drag ourselves up. Throw in the militias and the savages, and its nasty, poor, brutish and short - the very definition of hell.