Home > Uncategorized > Why I hate “pseudo medieval”

Why I hate “pseudo medieval”

Trollsmyth responds to Hill Cantons’ question: “what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?” with the answer Hill Cantons anticipated: there isn’t one, it’s fantasy.

But his response doesn’t grapple with the important/interesting bits of that question: (1) waddayamean, there isn’t a world? Every rule contains a theory about how the world works and (2) why does 0/1e D&D borrow so heavily from European history (ca. -1000 to +1600) when it really wants to be Conan/Lankhmar/Dreamlands/Vance? Sure, those sources borrow from European history too, but D&D’s rulebooks go off on disquisitions about polearms and the qualities of riding horses, while players get into

“debates about medieval demographics: what the exact number of bushels of grains in a harvest were, what the percentage of clergy and townsmen was compared to land-bound serfs, what population density was like in say England in 1253, what the weights and denominations were for the Angevin-era penny, etc.”

I could easily spend the rest of the month working through implications of the question – how closely does D&D map onto any familiar world? But I have limited time and maybe you would have limited patience for such a thing. So I’ll quickly list a set of issues that I think that deceptively simple question raises, and maybe revisit them in time. These are questions any DM should think about for their game world. The trouble with the fudge of “pseudo medieval” is that it covers them up or, worse, renders the answers ambiguous for DMs and players, because every player or DM ever has some model of what’s properly “medieval” kicking around in their subconscious, and the chances of them agreeing are not good.

How common are parties of adventurers? How common are dungeons/monster nests? (From Beowulf to Sindbad to Tolkien the answer is very uncommon or unique. In Mad Max and MMORPGS there are only adventurers and monsters)

What does everyone else do? Is there an implicit economy the players could engage in? (not in the rules, that’s for damn sure. And there are those who know they don’t want it. But their worlds usually do feature some peasants and tradesmen and armourers, for all that they keep them deliberately off-stage)

Where does technology/equipment come from? Can the players make it themselves/have it made, or must they work with what they find? (There’s a power gaming side to this, involving half-informed players who’d like to invent gunpowder, please, but I mean something more fundamental: how much command do PCs have over their own resources? Is all the really good cheese is to be found down the catacombs, or can you dramatically increase your effectiveness by hiring a dozen farmers and using basic tactics?)

What is the power differential between PCs and other people in the setting? What is the power relationship? (Can they bully people like warlords or are they sworn soldiers of the king? Are they 6th level in a world of 0 level farmers’ boys? Does the vizier have to be 12th level? What does any of that mean, practically?)

What world does the shopping list simulate? How does that simulation work against the balancing of game tokens? (I’m thinking in the first place about plate mail, which if it were a magic item would be like a +8 iron statue of defense. What if you replicate the effects of all mundane items with magic ones – what would their relative value be to an adventurer? Oil flasks, I’m looking at you: are you safflower, spermaceti or kerosene?)

What is special about the PCs’ contribution to the world? Are they mythical golden-fleece-retrievers or pest control agents? Is dungeon-swag suitable for decorating palaces or for cleaning toilets? Do they need to undertake special quests to be considered special/heroic, or does mere adventuring count? (goes to the common/unique question above, but also, what does it take to be celebrated? or consulted by the town council? Or feared by the thieves’ guild?)

What are the PCs’ social ties and responsibilities? How often will they come back to this town? (the sandbox default is zero here. Zak made a point that PCs having relationships of any kind is sorta New School storygaming. But the only non-D&D-influenced fantasy world I can think of where this is true is Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns)

What’s considered appropriate behaviour for wandering warriors? What is their social status, and will adventuring improve it? Will the PCs’ reputation spread? What will that mean? What will people expect from them? (The A Team turns out to be more nuanced than most games on this one. There’s soul-searching to be done for most parties – especially Cthulhu investigators – around the question are we heroes or villains? But more generally, how will strangers be likely to consider the PCs? Malory’s knights errant, or Ip Man’s itinerant thugs? AND WHY?)

How much interaction is there in the world in general? Is every valley its own Balkanized, introspective fiefdom, or are there great capitals and pilgrimage routes? (9and30kingdoms actually addresses this, most “pseudo-medieval” gamers think nobody ever went anywhere. I’d rather inhabit a world with a Hajj so that every village would have at least one person who’s seen beyond the horizon. It seems like fluff, but it’s replete with implications: can the world be revolutionized by a commodity? How long will that take?)

And only after all this, then what is the flavour of this game? What does its setting look like? And maybe, just maybe, a long way down the line, how many jewelry appraisers can I expect to find in this town?

For my JOESKY tax I’ll propose another month-long project: the Lady Gaga Bestiary. Entry 1: the Red Devil

Encountered alone, or more frequently in groups of 6-8, this creature will most frequently be found writhing in otherworldly agony. Its apparent helplessness is an act, however: it can jump cut (as a blink dog) up to 50 feet, in order to close to attack. It is activated by the rhythmic drumming of a cadre of priestesses: disrupting the drumming will confuse or immobilize it. Its main attack is a slow finger drag over the victim: this slices points of attributes off them randomly (d6), which can only be restored by a remove curse or wish. The Red Devil can choose instead to slice armour off the victim: a successful attack worsens AC by 1d6, to max AC10.
Hit Dice: 5
Armor Class: 7
Move: 5′ per round, or jump cut up to 50′
Damage: special: 1d4 to an attribute
Special: Requires ritual drumming in order to act.

  1. April 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Good thoughts! I’ve certainly spent some time digging at the implications (or lack there of) in the typical setting.

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment though, while interesting, how essential are some of these questions? Do Howard, Vance, and Leiber deal with them any better? I would say in most cases “no,” though there world’s cohere better than D&D, perhaps.

    Several of your questions are easily answered (apparently) by assumptions made by the reader of those works or the player of the game. Marvel Comics doesn’t need to explain the fact that the economies and political structures of their world is mostly like ours save all the folks in tights, because that’s what reader’s assume. Leaving aside, of course that that makes very little sense. 🙂

    The most interesting question you pose (or maybe it seems so because I haven’t thought about it before) is why did the writer’s of the game dwell so much on “realistic” minutiae rather than paying more attention to there sources. Game vs. literature? Wargaming background? Something else?

  2. richard
    April 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    The Marvel method is a great example of how fiction gets to do this. If it was exceptional they’d tell you. Same works in Cthulhu: it’s America ca. 1922. Cigars are fat, mobsters are trouble, flappers have dangerous uncles and people might call you “Mack.” It’s when the cigarette case has a curious, intricate filigree design that you know something’s up. But that all falls down in “pseudo medieval” town because the world is not the way you think it’s going to be, in some important ways. Note that outright gonzo town could have the same problems but you’re unlikely to encounter them the same way, because you know that you don’t know the rules. You’re not already sitting there with a half-pre-formed idea of what gonzo town should be but isn’t.

    The other thing is that non-interactive stories get to tell you a lot even by not telling you. If Cugel isn’t tripping over a ton of other ne’erdowell adventurers then you know adventurers are not common. If you learn something new about the world by surprise it’s a good thing. And you can feel empowered to make up further details in your mind’s eye because there are no costs involved. In a game all of that has to be explicit. And the implicit setting of D&D very often takes the harder road: if there is only one party of adventurers and everyone else is living their normal life, you can present a world normally going about its business. But D&D’s adventurers often seem like the whole population, and the dungeons often seem like they’re right outside town. And then you’re pretending that this totally weird world that obviously has alien rules is still kinda familiar, kinda historical.

  3. April 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Right. But player’s are able to make these rather illogical assumptions and play the game. That’s my point. Somehow, decades of player’s have in fact been able to hold these conflicting elements in their head and groove with it, so much so they people have been able to write numerous bad fictions that carry over those self-same inchoherent assumptions what the audience ne’er batting an eye.

    All this, though, should by no means be taken to imply that I don’t agree with your essential point that the game would be much better if it faced these inconsistencies. 🙂

  1. January 21, 2012 at 12:27 am

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