Tuesday, April 05, 2011

When is D&D?

Over at the Hill Cantons blog, ckutalik wants to know:
…what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?
It's an interesting question. The clues lead us all sorts of contradictory directions.

For instance, the argument for a late Renaissance to Early Modern dating is largely based on equipment. Plate armor, halberds, and two-handed swords primarily date from this time period. Ditto for such things as the widespread use of coins, glass for windows, lanterns, and spyglasses, carriages, theaters, harpsichords and pipe organs, standing armies and navies, clockworks, and even potatoes and tomatoes and pasta. Likewise, Mr. Gygax himself is quoted as setting his games in a Renaissance analog.

Which is all well and good, until you start talking about druids, large and unexplored frontiers within walking distance of the civilized world, feudalism, and the absence of gunpowder. These aren't even the trappings of the high Middle Ages of the 12th century. Most of these belong to the dark ages between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne.

It gets even worse when you start poking at all sorts of assumptions that the players have. Private rooms at the inn? Even as late as the American Revolution you're more likely to end up with up to eight people, mostly strangers, in a single room and in a single bed! Homes with glass windows, wooden floors, fireplaces, and separate, private bedrooms are also completely modern. The attitudes of most, especially in "good" lands, directly adhere to what we expect to find in suburbia, except with less football and a greater reverence for monarchy.

So what's going on here, and when is bog-standard D&D set? The answer is: neverwhen. It is a crazy stew of common assumptions, misunderstandings, and outright laziness of the sort that gives us Sir Lancelot in gleaming plate armor and allows Xena Warrior Princess to both rescue the Ark of the Covenant from Babylonians and meet Julius Caesar.

And why the heck not? Rigorous historical play can be fun, but that's usually not what we're about in these games. Letting our cleric of Bast and her kung-fu monk best friend go mano-y-mano with a high priest of Cthulhu for the broken shards of Excalibur in a back alley of Sanctuary while the city is under siege by an army of Barsoomian apes under the sorcerous command of Yyrkoon of Melnibone is just fun! Sometimes, what you really want is the no-time that is every time implied by the old Deities & Demigods book. If D&D truly has a default setting this is most assuredly it.

Art by Vittore Carpaccio and Frank Dicksee.

16 comments:

Trey said...

You're right. It's the collect pop culture consciousness of the Middle Ages formed from film, legend, and literature, adulterated with more esoteric geek influences like fantasy fiction.

kesher said...


Letting our cleric of Bast and her kung-fu monk best friend go mano-y-mano with a high priest of Cthulhu for the broken shards of Excalibur in a back alley of Sanctuary while the city is under siege by an army of Barsoomian apes under the sorcerous command of Yyrkoon of Melnibone is just fun!


Um, and I need to play in this campaign as soon as you get it set up... Really. :)

Talysman said...

I started calling vanilla D&D's implied setting "pseudo-medieval" a long time ago. Without the non-European or post-medieval anachronisms, it's basically the implied setting of fairy tales as retold in the 19th century, with these key elements: feudalism without fiefs, no gunpowder, no Industrial Revolution.

I think that people overstate the Tolkien influence on D&D too much, but the pseudo-medieval setting is definitely in Tolkien. Stuff like the private rooms at inns are Tolkien rip-offs that most people never notice.

ckutalik said...

Man, do I dig your header more than my own.

I mostly agree with your point. A good D&D campaign should have a fever dream quality to it, but I think there is also a strong tradition of also making sure campaign worlds have the pretense of internal logic.

I think sometimes we all tend to overemphasize pop culture, pulp fantasy, and all the rest of the fictional stew in D&D and give short shrift in talking about the non-fictional pieces.

trollsmyth said...

Trey: Yeah, I almost certainly should have mentioned movies more, but I'm still coming to grips with what Peter Jackson's LotR did to the landscape. When his orcs showed up in "Sucker Punch" my friend and I couldn't resist a few outright guffaws. ;D

Kesher: Not happening anytime soon, I'm afraid. My time belongs to my early Iron Age Doom & Tea Parties games while my heart has been captured by post-apocalyptic science-fantasy a la The Metal Earth.

Talysman: Yeah, I imagine you can draw a direct line from those fairy tales through Dunsany and Howard and Tolkien without much trouble at all.

Frankly, Howard probably is the model, with his Dark Ages picts, priests of Set, and High Middle Ages Aqualonia. That certainly seems to be the vibe that Paizo's picked up and run with.

ckutalik: This guy did my awesome header. Now that LotFP's Grindhouse boxset has gone to print, he may have time for more commissions, but I'd hit him up fast before he gets swamped again.

I myself am a huge fan of internal consistency and logic, and frankly, while I could enjoy playing in the sort of wild everything-stew that D&D sorta is, I almost never run it that way. I'm trying to learn to relax and embrace the crazy more, but...

I think sometimes we all tend to overemphasize pop culture, pulp fantasy, and all the rest of the fictional stew in D&D and give short shrift in talking about the non-fictional pieces.

I'm really curious what you're talking about here, but I imagine that's the topic of your next post? I'll be looking forward to it.

Timeshadows said...

I like to imagine Oerth and other D&D worlds (such as the Judges Guild world) as being post-apocalyptic (post-Gamma World, in fact), as is the case with Privateer Press' Caen of their Iron Kingdoms setting.

With this premise, the incongruities make more sense: The secrets of certain technologies are known, but simply out of reach through contemporary means --apart from magic, while others are as easily re-created to suit the lower tech-level, such as Plate Armour and Great Swords.

As with Caen/Iron Kingdoms, the magic and creatures can be explained via the Weapons of the Ancients, the Changes they created, and the rise of 'standardised' Mutations becoming Spell-Like Abilities and Spell-casting Ability (and Psionics).

I realise that doesn't explain Oerth's being orbited by its sun, but perhaps they got that wrong and will soon realise that Heliocentrism is where it is at.

Anyway, just my blather.

2eDM said...

You'd have to go back a bit further than the dark ages to have vast tracts of unexplored wilderness within walking distance of civilization for most of europe. Even just after the fall of the western empire there really wasn't much "wilderness" left. d

Chaos Clockwork said...

When I first got into roleplaying (around 10 years old), I really, really loved the Al-Qadim campaign setting. I remember the writers specifically saying their three sources of inspiration -

1)The actual, historical Middle East.

2)The stories in 'One Thousand and One Nights'.

3)Old Hollywood movies about Arabian myth, especially the Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

I've always held this to be perfect way to riff off of a culture for fantasy roleplay use - combine together their actual culture, their legends, and our own exaggerated but cool misconceptions. Strangely, though, it's never really occurred to me that this is exactly how it's always been done, especially in DnD. Maybe it's because it's medieval Europe that's getting the treatment in 'generic' DnD.

Evernevermore said...

I think Timeshadow is going in the right direction. Personally its always felt to me that D&D could be best described as the Renaissance where things fell apart. Rather than a post apocalyptic world think of one where the Renaissance somehow failed. Little bits of technology and progress were made but some of the key concepts failed to materialize.

As to druids and unexplored lands - well when your magical rites actually have a realworld influence suddenly to have more power and influence then historical. And when your god gives you the power to smite someone, suddenly its easier to resist the encroachment of the monotheistic faith from those weird folk to the south...

Jayson said...

Timeshadow's comment reminds me of the two most personally interesting thoughts regarding campaign settings I've learned reading OSR blogs, though I can no longer recall who said either:

1. As Timeshadows noted,the default setting is post-apocalyptic: Wide stretches of wilderness, uneven tech levels, and ruins galore.

2. Also, the way players tend to envision the campaign world (particularly when they stroll into town)is as the Wild West with swords instead of shootin' arns.

richard said...

Timeshadows does heroic work there retro-fitting D&D into a setting that could make some sense out of it. Bravo!

There are more problems with D&D as a basis for world-building, though: in so many ways it only works if you half-close your eyes and ignore the holes. How common are adventuring parties? And dungeons? How could an economy be sustained? What do people actually do, how do they live? What are their expectations? The "default" pseudo-medieval setting - to the extent it pretends to be any iteration of Europe ever and doesn't just lean on "pseudo" as a get-out clause - contains loads of implications: enough to offer a painted backdrop and meaning to your fighter's portrait. But not enough to engage with as a meaningful world with its own logic.

Again, for lots of games that's just fine. The PCs spend most of their time looking at their own reflections in dragons' eyes or golden goblets. You don't need that world if all you see is a dungeon, or your interaction with the city never gets out of the tavern or consists of escaping the vizier's guards in an airship. I can't do that for a long campaign, though. I want to know, if I touch the world, how it will react.

...all that said, I reckon Wuwei fits better than pseudo-Europe. And I do love Barsoom, even though it doesn't have an economy.

anarchist said...

"Letting our cleric of Bast and her kung-fu monk best friend go mano-y-mano with a high priest of Cthulhu for the broken shards of Excalibur in a back alley of Sanctuary while the city is under siege by an army of Barsoomian apes under the sorcerous command of Yyrkoon of Melnibone is just fun!"

When I read that, Dragonforce started playing - and my CD player wasn't on.

anarchist said...

Ken St Andre described the Tunnels & Trolls setting as

"The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in."

trollsmyth said...

Timeshadows: The existence of Common almost demands the fallen empire, though I think Rome is more the model here. In my Doom & Tea Parties campaign, the common is trader's pidgin of Lizardfolk, as their empire-in-decline is the latest of the greatest.

I'm currently feeling a fantasy post-apocalyptic itch, but I want the "tech" to not look like tech. Boiling weapons down to "something that kills but doesn't look like a gun" has been a fun exercise.

2eDM: If you substitute orcs and giants for Saxons, Goths, and Vandals, it works pretty well.

Chaos Clockwork: Yeah, as Talysman pointed out, it's really the default of European fairy tales, and those have become so ingrained into our culture, it's almost unconscious. It's all the baggage of assumptions and expectations that boil up when we hear the phrase, "Once upon a time..."

Evernevermore: Yeah, and with working magic, you can kinda see why tech would stumble. Magic can do so much already, the only reason to really try tech is that it's cheaper and easier to mass-produce. But if the princes are happy to keep that sort of thing to themselves, you won't get the sort of patronage that supported folks like Galileo and da Vinci. So it's not beyond reason.

Richard: As you say, most of the time, that's enough. When it's not, I default to the basic assumptions of pretty much any pre-industrial civilization: most folks are spending most of their time producing food, and their primary concern is not starving, followed by not getting molested too much by their overlords or tormented and murdered by invaders. Adventurers make perfect sense in this world, if you throw in abandoned ruins from the more epic and successful past.

anarchist: Thanks! I think The Sword was actually playing in the background when I wrote that.

DHBoggs said...

mostly agreed but all of you are missing something - where is not when. Where you are and who you are will complelety alter your perspective. If, today, in this year of 2011, you are a midwife living in Yanomamo village, or a blacksmith in a small city of Himilayan Bhutan, or the wife of a fisherman on Tristan de Cunha, your world experience is very different from an american teen with chatting on an iphone - but you live in the same world and breathe the same air.

The point is any "realistic" world should have people living in radically diferent technnical and social conditions.

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