On Divergence from the Medieval Norm of D&D

Folks, I have something on my mind that was brought to my attention inadvertently while reading some Lamentations of the Flame Princess material. I’d like to talk about it, a lot, if you’d let me.

For those unaware, LotFP’s canon setting is a 17th century Europe rife with the weird and otherworldly. We’re looking at the capital-letters “Early Modern” era of Europe, with the Scientific Revolution well underway in the wake of the Renaissance, the Baroque period of art and culture, and the dominance of cultures like the seafaring flotillas of the Dutch and Portuguese – but with magic, and horror, and things from outside reality wreaking havoc and exacting terrible prices from mortals. So, I’m reading through some stuff and I think, “Well, this is indeed quite different from my D&D,” and then I realize that when I thought that, I wasn’t thinking of the D&D I actually play. I was thinking of the D&D in the rulebooks; that shared Greyhawk/Faerun milieu we can all close our eyes and picture when we think of D&D. But that’s not what my D&D looks like, really, and when I realized that I hadn’t examined that in detail with anyone before, I sat down and I started typing. I don’t want to do some kind of a setting or campaign guide, though. At least not yet. God knows there’s already a thousand of those by much better writers and artists whose creations are much more imaginative. What I want to do instead is sort of explain my choices.

First, something of a preface, so we can start on the same footing and you can see where I am coming from on all of this. Most people choose to play a D&D that is pretty firmly in the grip of a pseudo-medieval era, a fantasy version of mostly-European history somewhere between 1200AD and 1500AD or so. There’s exceptions all over the place, but they are scarce enough to be the thing that proves the rule rather than undermines it. You might have the seafaring tall-ship of some sort, or maybe a primitive people in the wilderness – but everything else is a shining chivalric knight and printing presses and large clerical orders with influence in political affairs often across borders and so on and so forth. That’s the D&D that coalesced in the shared experience, based on Greyhawk and Mystara and Faerun and lord knows what else. It’s the main line of D&D flavors, and it is this universally understood premise that makes things like Dark Sun, Eberron, and Spelljammer “outside the norm” of D&D. We all know what the main flavor of D&D is almost innately within just a few short minutes of exposure to D&D, and it’s that type of fantasy in turn that has informed literally countless movies, shows, books, comics, and more since 1974. 

In my games, however, the world is a little closer to a transitional Iron Age sort of thing. What is most important is not the technological stance of the world at large, it is the existence of a collapse. In real life, we had the Bronze Age Collapse, a tremendous cultural and technological shift where massive migrations and the end of great empires and trading partnerships plunged the center of Europe into great upheaval and disorder. There was no great power keeping tabs on the area, there was no communication between distant peoples, there was no good will and safe harbor and bright road. There was uncertainty and the vague memory of what used to be. Where once stood great peoples only ruins and remnants remained. Everything receded and became smaller and the darkness in between became bigger. Literacy was impacted. Commerce was impacted. Cultures and languages died entirely in just fifty or a hundred years out of strict necessity to move onward and assimilate into the new order to avoid the dangers of being left out in the cold. I suggest this transitional era for your campaign as it has served me well for a long time now. You need not pattern any of it at all on real civilizations or the real world; what is key is the world moving on from the old, again, as it has done before, and the transition into the new era.

In my games, the world is obviously not based on reality whatsoever, but it does borrow from it at times. It is ancient and built on countless fallen civilizations, and perhaps the knowledge of steel has come and gone many times. It’s not always identical levels of advancement area to area. Like real history, the Bronze Age didn’t end all at once all over the place. I have cultures using (or having used in recent memory) bronze weaponry. Some are using steel. I have lots of fictitious materials, too, to add some variety. I liberally stole red iron from Talislanta. I give some older cultures a lost/mythical form of bronze called orichalcum that is the Bronze Age equivalent of Wootz steel, so to speak, in my world. I have orcs favoring black iron out of fear of the maddening fey folk, while lots of folks all over the place use whatever is close to hand, including sharp bones and other such contrivances. But apart from material science, I festoon the world with the trappings of the earlier era of man’s civilization. Kingdoms, counties, societies at large – these are all small things. The world is massive, and empires are exceedingly few. The longbow and the crossbow are not common things – shortbows are prevalent and the composite recurve employed by the various peoples of the steppes is king. Religions are varied and their impact is just as mutable from place to place. The seas are plied by cogs and triremes and longboats. Instead of a mix of French, Italian, Spanish, and English cultures, I am informed by the Norse, the Romans, the Celts, the Scythians, the Mongols. Animals are still feared. Not just giant animals; any animal can be dangerous to the unlucky or the unprepared, though giant beasts roam freely. The tales of grand, cohesive societies from long ago spanning the entire breadth of a coast from sea to sea are distant cultural memories from centuries before or possibly just myth altogether; only the lucky few who find ancient treasures can truly say.

What does this fantastical take on the transitional era afford me?

  • D&D 4th Edition (to my knowledge) gave us the term “Points Of Light” as a setting descriptor. I had no word for it before that, but when I first read it, I was immediately in love. It fits exactly how I play D&D. I love the endless dark wilderness, varied and dangerous, constantly threatening to take back the tiny settlements and areas forcibly civilized by mankind. 
  • Greater material variety in common use all over the place, suitable for describing weapons wielded by the world’s warriors. This requires no more suspension of disbelief than any of the other parts of D&D unless you have the ghost of Ewart Oakeshott at your table (in which case, invite me) and frankly even he would probably enjoy hearing that someone had a bronze blade styled convincingly after the Celtic fashion alongside a steel shortsword in the vein of a Roman gladius. It makes differences between cultures clear, it makes for extremely cool descriptions, and it can enable clever players to pick up on clues and patterns.
  • I get to skip gunpowder and explosives and therefore I avoid stuff that isn’t up my alley for D&D. I got enough of those things in real life, thank you very much.
  • Armor is variable as heck. Chainmail is a fabulous defense, sure, but boiled leather is common, and things fashioned after lorica segmentata are all over the place. You can have some lizardmen in linothorax gear and stone discs across the chests of giants. Sometimes someone shows up in armor made of bones and lacquered wood and you don’t even need to worry about where it fits on the AC chart because so many things are already in use at the common AC numbers that you can just slot it right in there and stop giving a damn. You reserve plate armor as the baddest of the bad, worn only by the most established and truly cool Battle Dudes of the realm. And champions of this king or that cult get to wear that fully sick nipple plate worn by Greeks and whatnot.
  • Churches are not as monolithic and are not necessarily as powerful or as organized as you’d typically see in a medieval or renaissance setting. There’s so much room for small religious orders, variance from town to town even when they believe in essentially the same thing, and more. Cults are everywhere, and not always the horrible black magic murder kind (but usually the horrible black magic murder kind). You can have corrupt villages worshipping a storm god from a broad pantheon right next to a county dedicated to a monotheistic religion and it makes sense because there’s every chance that the two cultures barely talk to each other for one reason or another (or do, and are really tense about the whole blasphemy thing).
  • Stuff is mysterious, lost, dark, and unknown. There’s not necessarily been massive marches to crusade in the Holy Land-equivalent (but maybe there has been); so much of the map isn’t filled in. Sure, Kingdom A might have sent ships west to find the islands beyond the horizon, but Kingdom B might not know that, Kingdom C might not have even heard of the islands in the first place – and the map of how to reach the archipelago sure as hell isn’t being shared with any of them. 
  • The great old civilizations have collapsed; whatever was Rome or Greece or Atlantis or Egypt in the world simply is not there anymore, their ways and treasure and lands split amongst the many remnants and usurpers filling the void after their empires crumbled to time or hubris or magic or monsters. Ruins abound. It makes sense to have lost cities full of unpillaged treasures all over the place, or to find hobgoblins the armor like the stuff worn decades or even centuries ago because their tribe occupied a former fortress or garrison of imperial auxiliaries. 
  • No one knows a damn thing except what’s in front of them, or at best, what’s in front of their trusted advisors and those who report to them. Learning is handed down in bits and pieces and oral traditions; grand scholastic orders are not yet common, literacy is not ubiquitous, and the printing press is not even a twinkle in the eye of a goldsmith.
  • You get to be extremely variable in what sort of governing situation is going on, without trying to make too much sense out of its place in the world, because things are all over the place. The world is full of chaos and things are disconnected and scattered. You don’t have an established order of knights and nobles and fiefdoms and land titles and serfs and such in order to fund one kingdom’s military campaign against an identical enemy kingdom; it’s entirely likely for a petty king somewhere to be at war with his trusted cadre of professional soldiers against some 13th Warrior cannibal caveman holdouts in bearskins coming down out of the foggy hills at dusk.
  • This conjures a sense of the Robert E Howard sort of Conan adventure pulp. It brings back that Fritz Leiber Fafhrd style of mysticism and wit. It makes things timeless and unique; it is foreign even as it is familiar. This gets its own bullet point.
  • Nope, it gets two. Two bullet points. We’re playing an adventure game, folks. Make it adventurous. 
  • There’s a sense of progression before stepping on the magical gear mountain. There’s every reason to start PCs off in quilted cloth jerkins and bronze swords barely longer than a dagger. They’re gonna be excited as hell when they take iron blades off a slain orc and then use that to eventually gut a fairy lord who carries a mithril khopesh. You haven’t even gotten to +1 anything yet and you’re feeling like a cool dude.
  • Electrum makes sense. Copper pieces make sense. Silver being more common than gold makes sense. A golden torc is now worth more than just its weight in material; it is clearly unique and scarce and valuable. Money and treasure gain more variance and meaning and color. Again, there’s a sense of progression that is stretched out and made more involved. You can tell your players they discover ancient ochre pottery in the naga lair. They cart it out thinking they have wine jugs and they’re stopped by a wizened sage who tells them that the paint on the decanters makes it clear as day to him that they’ve unearthed a lost city of such and such culture. There’s clues to the world in things. Again, players get to learn and decipher patterns, and inform their play and interactions accordingly.

    The thing is, it’s not just that these concepts are possible. In D&D, anything is possible. It’s that they’re more akin to what is probable. It’s an inversion of what is probable in an orderly medieval society. In the high medieval fantasy D&D has clung to, you have the opposite case for nearly all of these points. Churches are extremely important. Great kingdoms and empires have conquered and homogenized tons of cultures. The spread of information and literacy is on the rise, rapidly. Things have been documented widely and elements of history are known and taught with consistency (if couched in theocratic influence) around the settled world. The advance of technology is marked enough to render prior ideas extinct entirely. And knowing this as a player, your experience in the world is informed by this lingering sense of reality and probability. It’s possible to work around these factors, because it’s still just fantasy, not reality, but the fact is that you would have to do so in order to evade some of these incongruities of experience as a participant in the world.

    A phrase I am fond of when I am explaining my alternative baseline is that it makes sense that things don’t make sense. It enables that relatable world feeling while allowing for the occasional gonzo bit to crop up without wondering what its place is within a world you’ve already mapped out and given names to. So much is changing, so much is still unknown, so much is still inexplicable and lost and hidden that it inherently seems to follow that there would be mystery, adventure, and tremendous differences all over the place. It makes sense that the world doesn’t quite fit together neatly like a jigsaw puzzle. Too many pieces are missing. Too many pieces remain out there that the PCs must hunt down to even know what the puzzle is supposed to be, let alone to fill it in and solve it. There’s the sense of the familiar, but there’s so much more of the sense of the great unknown. This is the feeling that drove real world explorers to seek gold and glory against all odds, and your players and their characters should innately feel that exact same sensation when they sit down and imagine the world. It makes sense that not everything makes perfect sense.

    So, sure, if you want to go and set your mind to it, you can do a lot of this anyway in “traditional” D&D – like I said, anything is possible. But it makes a natural sort of sense my way, I think. It feels more intrinsically whole and follows a curve not found in the main sort of fantasy medieval era common to D&D.

    Let me know what you think, and what era your setting is closest to (and why). Let me know if you agree or disagree with these points; after all, they’re just one nerd’s opinion! Catch me on Twitter @dungeonspossums or let me know in the comments here on the blog; I’m excited to see what’s up out there as far as era and tone go!

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    2 comments on “On Divergence from the Medieval Norm of D&D

    1. Unknown

      Insightful stuff

      I'm midway through making a setting that's somewhat like this, but a lot more incongruous with real world history–something more like a full societal collapse post 17th century, but if the 17th century contained both Franco-English type societies at the fore of development alongside Mesopotamian societies that hadn't previously suffered a collapse.

      I think more advanced materials such as Iron and Steel are common, but primarily through the already existing items pre-collapse. Literacy is somewhat common (say 35%), but only in the most basic sense, as books are very rare and print objects like newspapers nonexistent.

      But the above is mostly in response to your ideas, so, thanks! That sense of actually being the ones to discover the world, as it is now, and as it was, really is the core of adventure, I think. Or at least a really good instance of it.

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