Home > Uncategorized > Imagine if DnD were medieval rather than early modern

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.

  1. June 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Good insights. The Beowulf example suggests how you could sort of Pendragon up D&D by placing the charcters within a real millieu–instead of starting with characters and back rationalizing. The tombrobbers thing is also good. I suspect you may have had people like this after the fall of Rome or the Maya–though falls that are gradual may have left fewer valuables around to loot.

  2. June 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    This why I’m frequently drawn to LOTFP flavor of BX, because it tones down magic and monsters. Of course, it’s explicitly set in the early modern period.

    I’ve also thought late antiquity would be great for D&D, because you have the cosmopolitan Roman Empire and stable, long term trade that supported a powerful merchant class.

  3. June 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    One group I do like in the dark ages are the Vikings – there’s evidence of Viking trade towns all around the Baltic and the east, connecting them to Byzantium and the Middle East at a time when the Franks seemed mired in the manorial system. Good (sandbox) D&D requires that autonomy and freedom of movement that doesn’t exist in feudalism.

  4. June 5, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    That’s why I always refer to it as pseudo-medieval, I think it’s a view of the past from 1970s America shaped by pop culture, not really simulating any period of history. Hell, it was probably trying to be vague enough in spots so you can play some of the outliers on the same rules chasis (Pre-historic / Sword & Planet).

    Though, for my own game I have always despised the idea of professional adventuring parties– the adventurer guilds in Forgotten Realms seemed to be the point where the game becomes self-referential. And my game might seem more like you describe here, if it weren’t splashed with more freedom and diversity than would apear right, because of my 1001 nights influences.

  5. June 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    This is a really interesting and well-written post. I was just objecting on G+ to a somewhat similar part of DCC RPG. There’s a page about how treasure needs to “make sense” within the context of the game economy.

    I think some of these “stricter medieval” changes might run up against the game requirements of D&D. For example, if adventurers are so rare, then where will replacement PCs come from? And if you’re going to handwave that, why not handwave the distribution of monsters and treasure too? I mean, there is no requirement to take things to their logical conclusion if you don’t want to. Not that there is anything wrong with rare monsters and hard-scrabble adventure as style, but I don’t see why the social and economic forces need to behave in a recognizable way in a fantastic world.

    For example, think about how reliable continual light spells would change society, even if wizards were very rare. Such things would realistically lead to Eberron or other similar “magitech” societies. For comparison, plants that can fabricate microprocessors are also rather rare, and look how they have changed society. I prefer to take a radically agnostic position now that doesn’t try to explain such things unless PCs look at them really hard (which is greatly in opposition to my previous adoration for all things world-building).

    • June 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      There are CoC Dark Ages rules, right? I’ve never looked at them (actually, I’ve only ever briefly skimmed CoC in general, though I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how the system works from second-hand discussions). Perhaps CoC Dark Ages would work well for a campaign in the mode described.

  6. Bargle
    June 6, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Serfs and feudalism didn’t exist in pre-norman england. The henchmen rules and aquisition of land mirrors c.500 AD england (time period of beowulf) quite exactly. In fact I did a big long post over at 0dd74 boards showing that tolkenian/oxford beowulf scholarship permeates the LBB (if you ignore all the burrows and vance).

    Even D&D’s triumverate alignment system is lifted straight out of tolkiens lecture titled: “beowulf and his monsters”

    • Bargle
      June 7, 2012 at 4:05 am

      Here’s the thread.

      I don’t actually think they thought specifically of beowulf when they wrote out d&d, it’s just that western fantasy IS beowulf. The only other option for western fantasy is greek/roman mythology.

      Tolkien wrote the hobbit and lotr in part because he was afraid of losing anglo-saxon mythology as everyone since the renaissance has been obssessed with the greeks.

      • June 7, 2012 at 4:24 am

        The only other option for western fantasy is greek/roman mythology.

        I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I don’t really have the knowledge to refute it. Anyone else?

        (That being said, I think Beowulf is fascinating, so thank you for that link, I’m looking forward to reading it.)

        • Bargle
          June 7, 2012 at 10:05 pm

          I mean for general play. Maztica and japanese and indian mythology come in with monsters (marilith, ogre mage, queztiquatal etc). But the underlying mythology and history havn’t effected the game too much. Classic D&D is very much a game of oxfordian beowulf. (which maybe goes a long way towards explaining some peoples disinterest in the manga kung-fu game of 4e.

  7. John
    June 13, 2012 at 2:23 am

    So now I am picturing PCs going into dungeons and discovering tribes of Orcs, some cannibals, some noble savages etc. Then the people on top organise and come down with their superior tactics and technology, capturing Orcs and bringing them back to work in the cotton fields of Greyhawk.

  1. February 20, 2019 at 10:24 pm

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