Wednesday, August 8, 2012

AD&D's Apocalypse and Hereafter


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.  

31 comments:

  1. You can definitely see where they got the "points of light" idea that came bundled in 4E. It reminds me half of a degenerate apocalyptic science-fantasy angle, and half "stumble into Faerie" fairy tale/mysterious castle type of thing. I think there's more to be uncovered in the heritage of domain play in D&D.

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    1. While I am not really a fan of the game, I do have to give props to the 4e designers for reemphasizing such an important implicit and evocative theme in the game.

      "It reminds me half of a degenerate apocalyptic science-fantasy angle, and half "stumble into Faerie" fairy tale/mysterious castle type of thing."

      I like how you put that.

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    2. You know I never really thought about this before (I always just thought high-level spells), but it makes you wonder if the Greyhawk prehistorical apocalypse was imagined as some kind of nuclear ("Rain of Colorless Fire") or science-fantasy exchange. 

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    3. Empire of the East makes Appendix N for a reason!

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  2. I always enjoy when you do these weird "D&D is always right" setting interpretations.

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    1. As a leftist, it's probably weird that I find it so fun to do fundamentalist readings of these "biblical texts". Or maybe I dig the "revisionism".

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    2. Or maybe, somewhere, you realise that the left can really only exist where there is a safe niche that has been carved out by the centre, or right, a long time ago. That would mirror the history of the west, after all.

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    3. It isn't about leftism. It's about extracting the pure creative impulse that Gygax put in, without applying the filters we all put on to make the thing match our own world-ideas.

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    4. Also, of course, the filters we put in so it made sense... I always wondered, where did all those high-level people come from? You could be walking down the street and just bump into an 11th level illusionist you'd never even heard of before.

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    5. Sometimes there's a fine line between a "fundamentalist reading" and an "immanent critique". A post-Gygaxian D&D wouldn't come from moving away from the DMG (like 4e) but by moving through it. ;

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    6. The dialectic to the rescue.

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  3. Best yet. To flip the usual demographic arguments, it looks like if you lose your 6th level fighter/ranger, you can no longer run BTB "viable" patrols. That's huge!

    Given the endless ecology of the pole arm, I wonder if EGG wasn't thinking of wasted early 17th-century Germany as well.

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    1. All the monsters and encounters sections are at odds with the less frequent appearance of levelled NPCs that are said int he DMG to be found in cities. I guess you make the case that it's because the tough ones are "out there" beyond the walls, battling at the knife's edge.

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    2. Looks like the relationship between X.P. and civilization is a lot more complex than conventional "Gygaxian naturalism" would indicate. I'm sure someone's already come up with a unified field theory of risk, reward, town & country.

      Speaking of faerie, I just rediscovered an article in TD 40 ("Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality") that proposes a line similar to what you have in the Cantons between "Wyrd" and "Home" areas. Might be some ideas toward a trans-domain-level game in there. It generates a kind of proto-Pendragon, which is nice.

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    3. Ha you just outed me: http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2010/10/tekumel-and-use-of-weird-in-campaign.html

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    4. Oh no! Well, you're already cooking with the sauce I just found, so you're years ahead!

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    5. That was the first issue of Dragon I ever read, so it had a huge, if half-digested impact. There's still a lot to mine there. I like that idea of a World Pattern matrix that can be upset or pulled back by acts in the campaign world.

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    6. It's great stuff. His first appearance in TD 39 was my first issue and it blew my mind. Wonder what happened to him.

      Anyhow, what you uncovered here goes a long way to explaining why the kingdom heavies are so busy that the PCs kept getting shanghaied on "offer you can't refuse" missions. Strongholds aren't cheap in terms of skilled labor and materials and the loss ratios are just too high.

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    7. Wyrd and Weird are not the same thing at all. Weird is odd and strange... whereas Wyrd refers to a complex weaving of fate and destiny; Wyrd has three strands to it (past, present and future) which are all woven together at once; each moment's pattern is therefore different as the weavers weave their patterns in to the fabric of reality all at once. So reality does not resemble the past, nor the present, nor the future, from moment to moment, but actually, something else again. This is the Wyrd.

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    8. @Bombasticus
      I do wonder what happened to that guy too. He raised some provocative questions in both his Dragon articles (I went at looked at the Issue 39 after you pointed that out).

      Like this:
      "I do not wish to say that we cannot learn some lessons from Fantasy, but I would argue that Fantasy is not designed to teach us anything. If someone uses a fantasy game or novel as a soap box or a pulpit, that person has perverted Fantasy and has turned a form of art into a form of propaganda or pornography.

      Fantasy will not tolerate teaching or preaching. Nor will Faerie accept the imposition of moral concerns from “real life.” Nevertheless, there is an inherent morality to Fantasy. It is not a morality of law, but a morality of being."

      I don't agree with all of it, but I appreciate how serious and polemical he takes the discussion.

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    9. @Recursion King
      Yes I am aware of the difference. I deliberately switched and blurred the distinction from Bachmann's. In his account, the Wyrd is where a hero goes to fulfill their Campbell hero destiny. The HC's Weird is a rupture of the fabric of the human-made world. Adventurers don't enter it to make it as heroes, they go in because they themselves are shook out of the same fabric.

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    10. Douglas Bachmann, if you can see this, please come back and develop your extremely serious arguments further. Or if you've left the green fields of earth behind for good, all I have to say is thanks for blazing the trail!

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  4. brigand
    c.1400, "lightly armed foot soldier," from O.Fr. ... Sense of "one who lives by pillaging" is from early 15c., reflecting the lack of distinction between professional mercenary armies and armed, organized criminals.

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  5. You had me when you made that Distant Mirror reference! Great post!

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  6. 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.

    They were concentrated in certain areas. Figure that 70-80% of the isles were nothing but wilderness, which might match the DMG tables a little better. But I agree with you on the whole.

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    1. I hadn't thought about it in terms of overall distribution, a good point.

      Given the long population boom of the High Middle Ages, probably a better comparison would have been the 14th century anyway. I was reading last night that the population of pre-plague France was quite high, the equal of 17th century France in density.

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    2. Well the Doomsday Book seems to say otherwise.
      According to this Blogpost:
      Hexes and Villages

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    3. The Domesday Book might be a bit misleading, in that even a single household could be counted. I've read population estimates of as little as 2-3 people per square mile for northern England, for example. But I'm far from an expert, perhaps I'm wrong.

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  7. Yes. Nice bit of organisation.
    --Re: Gamma World's Legion of Gold's Intro and Starting Base make a 'bit more sense' in its early feudalism. GH is clearly the latter play-out of the same world-changing events.

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  8. Chris, I came to the same conclusion with OD&D:

    http://swordsofminaria.blogspot.ca/2010/07/reavers-from-wastelands.html

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