One thing I am digging about writing the AD&D Domain Game series (now collected here under this label), is how fun and liberating playing the “D&D is Always Right” game can be. For those unfamiliar with the term that is instead of getting bent out of shape about how broken the seemingly wonky bits of classic D&D are that you embrace the notion that there may really be something there there.
Half the fun is in exploring the backward implications of those premises, so you'll forgive me as I digress a bit from the series focus.
Yesterday, we steered into some highly pregnant territory for that kind of exploration talking about the “monster” write-ups for normal humans in the Monster Manual. A number of readers riffed on what was up with all the bandit bands captained by name-level characters.
(Before we go too far down this rabbit hole I will point that this extrapolation game can often stretch analogies too far, often simpler explanations exist for the real design motivators like “we should keep historical feudalism out of this so people can imaginatively own their campaigns more”.)
UWS kicked off that round stating that “you can look at bandits and brigands as mercenary armies without a liege lord, or between services.” Bomasticus follows it up by hypothesizing about why mercenaries are so scarce: “Strikes me now that most of the armed men out there are already "working" as the various Monster Manual vagrant tribes. Maybe the mercenaries who show up are survivors of tribal or civilized armies that have lost their name level leader.”
John Bell followed that up with some astute historical comparisons: “Early D&D has an implicit near post-apocalyptic setting. I always think of the two closest historical representations of the milieu it's trying to create as post-Roman, pre-Carolingian Europe (late 7th, early 8th century) and Northwestern Europe shortly after 1348.”
This exchange resonated strongly with my read of the domain-play pieces and what it says about the somewhat-anarchic, implied world of the AD&D hardbacks. Many others have explored the notion that most iterations—even the newer ones (“points of light” anyone?)--of D&D have some implied cataclysmic breakdown, but what interests me is the specific bit John ends on because that period marks the series of cataclysms that brought down the established routines of medieval feudalism.
|The Funerary Monument of John Hawkwood|
Taking one of the best and most accessible accounts of the upheaval of the 14th century, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, you start to see a world with some eerie parallels. You could spend hours talking through chapters of that book, but let's focus back on the mercenary/bandit question.
Take this section from mid-book, note how it all feels so easily translatable back into the AD&D domain game context:
“Outside Paris the breakdown of authority was reaching catastrophe. Its catalyst was the brigandage of military companies spawned by the warfare of the last fifteen years. There were the Free Companies who write “sorrow on the bosom of the earth” and were to become the torment of the age. Composed of English, Welsh, and Gascons released after [the Battle of] Poitiers, as soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment...
Along with German mercenaries and Hainault adventurers, they gathered in groups of 20-50 around a captain...In the year after the truce they swelled, merged, organized, spread, and operated with ever more license. Seizing a castle, they would use it as a stronghold from which to exact tribute from every traveler and raid the countryside.
They imposed ransoms on prosperous villages and burned the poor ones, robbed abbeys and monasteries of their stores and valuables, pillaged peasants' barns...As the addiction took hold, they wantonly burned harvests and farm equipment and cut down trees and vines, destroying what they lived by, in actions which seem inexplicable except as a fever of the time or an exaggeration of the chroniclers.”
Throughout the rest of the book you find descriptions of Free Company leaders who almost to a man sound like the rootless name-level fighters rooting around the fringe of power we were discussing yesterday. Take the archetype, the marvelously named John Hawkwood, Captain of the infamous White Company, who rose from second son of a tanner to the man rich enough to immortalize himself in the art above.
Or Fra Monreale, a renegade Knight of St. John who “maintained a council, secretaries, accountants, camp judges and gallows” in his rough mercenary camp and who—undoubtedly emboldened by his massive accumulation of hit points—cockily waltzed into Rome alone only to be seized and tried. According to Tuchman, “he went to the block magnificently dressed in brown velvet embroidered in gold and had his own surgeon direct the ax of the executioner. Unrepentant he declared himself justified 'in carving his way with a sword through a false and miserable world.'”
Again it's highly doubtful that Gygax sat down and said “how can I subtly code in these great historical themes of the 14th century into the game?” But those themes, tropes and parallels did have their own distant mirrors in the pulp fantasy and historical wargaming influences that inspired the game.
Personally I like it because then it starts to weave it all into post (or pre) apocalyptic themes that can be stretched into any number of customizable campaign elements.
I had originally sat down to write this post with the tongue-in-cheek title “WTF Berserkers?” mostly because my MM reread had me scratching my head again about why the hell you had strange bands of anti-social Norse stand-ins tooling around the wilderness and first level of dungeons with such relative frequency. It still takes some creative spinning but in the above context you start to see it more. Maybe these are some of the former warriors who have succumbed into that pure blood frenzy, that terrible addiction of Tuchman's that truly have become “monsters”? See, wasn't that fun?
Now back to finishing that series, while I let you take a turn at the game.