Imagine if DnD were medieval rather than early modern
This is a lazy post, in that I already wrote it as a comment over at Dreams at the Lich House. And it’s an old chestnut to many. In particular folks who’ve read ACKS (not me yet alas) probably know all this backwards. But it was kinda revelatory to me (since I’m a bit slow) so…
Beedo’s been doing some noodling of late about adapting DnD to the early modern period*, and the more he’s been writing, the more I think DnD as commonly understood** already is early modern. For instance, Beedo finds the world of Game of Thrones rather limited in scope and, let’s say, labour freedom compared with his view of DnD:
there’s certainly no freeman profession of “professional adventurer” the way we see it in more typical D&D
And I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken my brain to engage on this, but I think that right there is the canonical, secondary-school-history-class, Toynbee thing that separates the medieval from the early modern:
The rise of a middle class of professionals and merchants able and willing to speculate with capital.
Why does 1500 mark the usual beginning of the Early Modern Period?
Because that’s when overseas exploration and colonization pours accelerant on capitalist ventures and changes the world. That is, the Americas and other Indies*** provide a means for exchanging capital + risk for MUCH MORE capital.
Kinda like a dungeon. So there’s novel access to risky treasure, and a class of explorer/adventurers grows to exploit it (and is largely industrialized, BTW, by about 1650-70), and the model of seed capital + risk = PROFIT becomes dominant (simplifying here: see***).
And that’s an exciting prospect, because it points up how unstable the implicit world of DnD must be. What happens when you pour dungeon gold on a small town in the borderlands? Well, the Yukon and Saudi Arabia provide useful examples, but more widely, you must get a technology race devoted to extracting that gold, changing trade priorities, growing luxuries markets etc etc etc. And most games never explore that wave. Instead their fantasy worlds remain stolidly immune to the acts of their heroes who usually**** (for literary reasons) put things back the way they were rather than changing them for better and worse (note,it’s Sauron and Saruman who threaten to bring the industrial revolution to Middle Earth, and Good King Aragorn who restores the world to its safe medieval axis). Just a few of the support structures leak into Greyhawk and similar settings – principally the class of professional dungeoneers, supported by guilds, services-for-hire temples, Western-style general stores of dungeoneering staples, sages for treasure evaluation – the bric-a-brac of Ultima/Elder Scrolls/WoW towns.
But. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the implicit existence of a broad class of adventurers in DnD, and I guess this is why.
I propose that if dungeons and dungeoneers are anything other than very rare, the result must be at least “early modernity”****, and therefore stereotypical DnD is early modern, it’s just in denial about this, insisting it’s “medieval” based on tech level alone.
I propose that if you want actually medieval DnD then it’s best to turn the volume right down. Adventurers and adventure locations have to be extremely rare – the PCs are probably the only group of adventurers they know about, and they have to research long and hard, chase down unreliable rumours, go far out past the borderlands of civilisation, to get to the dungeons and find the treasure – just like John Mandeville or Gulliver or Marco Polo. Or like ancient Egyptian tomb robbers, relying on (maybe) networks of fences and local informants, old ambiguous maps, arduous speculative digging. Or like Cthulhu adventurers. That last one evokes an obvious touchstone for this setting (and god I know it’s been done to death but bear with me): Beowulf DnD (or, maybe better, ancient Berber DnD or Iliad DnD), where your murderhobos have to get introduced into the longhouse before they get to hear the rumours about Grendel. But it could just as easily be St Brendan’s Isle or Iona or Irem DnD, or little Champagne Fair towns punctuating a forest that covers the world.
Nothing has to change mechanically for this dungeoneers-light setting: men at arms – loyal retainers to feudal lords – still have the same skills and might still be cast out of their usual jobs. Ditto thieves, mages and holy men. Only the world has to change – the PCs have to be, not just unusually unattached and suspicion-worthy as befits strangers and explorers everywhere, but downright puzzling to average folks in the setting, like carnies who are also spelunkers and spies and conspiracy theorists, like Mulder or Tim Leary or William Lyttle – people who are doing something dangerous and deeply eccentric. The equipment list has to get less encompassing and directly useful – because who’s going to have mail for sale, in a world where soldiering is actually feudally organized? And if you bring a mysterious wand back to town you’re not going to find someone to identify it for you, so magic items would retain their mystery. And if you build a reputation as a treasure finder then you can expect to draw attention from far afield.
I also contend that such a setting would do well to ditch all those humanoids that operate at more or less the same threat level as humans. Let such threats actually be humans – bandits or pirates or toll-collectors or slavers or cultists or revenue men – and let the very rare monsters be truly monstrous and also whole adventures. Again, Cthulhu style.
The more I think about this low simmer DnD the more I like it, in fact. Low magic, low fantasy not just because mud is gritty but because treasure really is the stuff of legends.
* by early modern I think he means ca 1600-1850, rather than the usual 1500-1800, but whatever: the basic points still hold.
** yeah yeah. For the sake of argument I’m going to say that the clear, unequivocal expressions of Vanilla DnD – the examples we can hold up to the light and examine without doubt that we are looking at the same thing – are supplied by the computer game series Ultima, Elder Scrolls and Warcraft (and Diablo, I guess). No doubt these are not YOUR DnD. They aren’t mine either. In fact I always found them utterly depressing in the narrow scope of their imagination, their mechanisation of the tactical infinity and potential meaning of roleplaying etc etc, but they sure are vanilla.
*** before you historians lynch me, yes I know: actual profit from protocolonial trade was nugatory for ages – Columbus doesn’t explain the Renaissance, and there’s a whole population/productivity/enclosure/rationalisation of labour thing I’m ignoring here which is much more important. But I’m talking here specifically about the rise of an adventurer class and the way that such a rise and continuous capital/treasure injection would affect your tidy pre-capitalist settled-social-ties medieval world.
**** no I’m not going to define modernity, beyond what’s already here in this post.