“When the Invoked Devastation came upon the Baklunish, their own magi brought down the Rain of Colorless Fire in a last terrible curse, and this so affected the Suloise Empire as to cause it to become the Sea of Dust.”
- World of Greyhawk (1980)
“And no bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death...And people said and believed, 'this is the end of the world.'”
- Agnolo Tura of Siena (mid-14th century)
I've circled around the margins of theme before—as have a few others—but there is a heady whiff of apocalypse in old school D&D. It's seen not just in the rather obvious stock elements--the countless ruins, the lost artifacts, the former sprawl of civilization lost to the wilds—but hard-coded throughout the rules proper whenever broad human society is involved.
The closer in I go with this AD&D exegesis the more I see this perspective reinforced in spades.
Let's get started by bouncing back to an unlikely place, the Encounters section of the DMG (Appendix C) to pick apart a peculiar section on outdoor encounters (pages 182-183).
Civilization: A Thin Red Line
For starters you get smacked over the head with how desperate life must be even inside the few “inhabited” zones of the implied world. For you see with every encounter rolled in such areas, there is a full 25% chance that the random encounter table should be utterly ignored and a patrol encountered instead.
And by patrol we are not talking about a small group of muddling watch or a handful of tax collectors/wardens, we are talking armed-to-the-teeth, recon in force. Such patrols are always lead by a fairly formidable leader, a fighter or ranger of a whopping 6-8th level, who has a lieutenant of 4-5th level and a sergeant of 2-3rd level (and this doesn't add in the 40% chance of a 6-7th level cleric and a 60% chance of a 5-8th level magic user). Even the enlisted men are tough, three to four alone being 1st level veterans sprinkled among a further 13-24 men-at-arms. All patrol fighters with levels have plate armor, mounts, and an arsenal of weapons. Even the grunts are humping chain (and scale at the worst).
The sheer frequency of meeting such heavily-powered up bands—hell even a mid-level party would find the standard issue patrol of normal men a tough go--inside the settled environs sends a strong message that this is a world right on the knife's edge.
Not only is civilization an obsessively-patrolled armed camp, it is also damn sparse.
The section counsels a DM who hasn't keyed out settlements to use the random terrain charts in Appendix B to do so. These speak wonders about how low the population density is: there's only a 16% chance per “area” (a mile is suggested) of a settlement of any kind. And 16 percent chance breaks down further with the highest chances being a single dwelling, a tiny thorpe/hamlet, or a ruin.
Compare that to 12th century Britain--which even though it's population density was less than half France's of the time—was still around 40 people to each square mile.
Yet if it isn't the12th century, it could be more the cataclysmic mid-14th century. Much like the mass sorcerous devastations of Greyhawk, bubonic plague depopulated Europe to an unprecedented degree—and along with the long wars and other disruptions of that period--unlocked a massive social and political disintegration.
Foissart, a contemporary chronicler, famously said “a third of the world died.” Modern estimates of a 50-60% mortality rate in Europe incredibly make that an understatement.
Whatever the death count, the breakdown of the old order is (relatively) well-documented. Here's Tuchman's Distant Mirror again; “Hill farms and sections of poor soil were let go or turned to pasture for sheep which required less labor. Villages weakened by depopulation...were deserted in increasing numbers. Property boundaries vanished when fields reverted to wasteland. Landowners impoverished by these factors sank out of sight or let castles and manors decay while they entered the military brigandage that was to be the curse of the following decades.”
The Lost Edge
Ok so if the DMG establishes that post-breakdown civilization is sparsely-inhabited garrison states, the very next section in the DMG oddly implies that the wilderness seems to be reasonably stocked out with fortified outposts. For every encounter in the wilderness there is a 1 in 20 chance that each and every random encounter will be superseded by bumping into...a fortress of all things.
And all these fortresses are not rinky-dink little palisaded affairs on the whole. There is a full on 45% chance that they are at least stout stone-walled medium-sized castles (large shell keeps and small or medium walled castles with keeps) and a further 20% chance of it being a large fortress of some kind.
The Inhabitants sub-chart clears up the mystery, these scattered sites are the markers for where humanity lost the fight with entropy--or is barely holding the walls.
See now 45% of the all the small forts are completely deserted (30% for medium and 15% large). Monsters inhabit a further 15-25% of the time. “Humans” (social “monsters” again, bandits, beserkers, dervishes with a full 60% chance of them being brigands) are encountered 10-20%. Only in the remaining minority of the time is the fortress held by the ruling name-level characters we would expect.
While there is much here to mine again about AD&D's domain-play, I will rest that thread for another time, but I think you get a sense of what I am going for here.
AD&D's isn't just a hard-fought world that merely experienced the fall of great empires centuries before, it's one where humanity came close to the abyss in the recent past—and has stayed there. It's on that stage of pure chaos that player-character, the rootless opportunists knocked out of the fabric of society, find themselves adventuring in.