Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Does Vanilla D&D Have a Historical Analog?

Netherwerks writing on Old School Heretic, one of the many blogs that make up his sprawling Internet empire, recently ponied up an interesting post on the revolutionary effects of chocolate.

No, it wasn't a belated April Fool's joke, nor was he writing recipes for tasty post-session snacks; rather he was talking about how chocolate as a commodity was introduced historically into renaissance Europe and the tremendous effects that had on the political, cultural, and economic structures of that day. It's a theme that resonates with me and is worth checking out the post for it's own sake (as is a classic, somewhat similar one by Doc Grognard on the paradigm shift that the under-appreciated potato had on his campaign world.) 

A few simple sentences dropped in the original post inspired a mental tangent for me last night that kept with me til this morning, “most Fantasy RPGs like OD&D onwards predominantly feature a setting that is loosely based on Europe in the 1400s to early 1600s. Some go earlier, some go a bit later, most mix it up vigorously and see what shakes out.” 


That sentence--and the post in general--reintroduced a question that nags me: what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?

My own age-old assumption was that particular flavor of vanilla always had a sanitized version of an earlier feudal-era England or France standing somewhere close behind it (roughly somewhere around 1100-1300)--even when the outward trappings are presented as coming from the more exotic pages of pulp fantasy. It's rare to never stated that precisely, of course, and I would hazard a guess that most GMs would rather just shrug their shoulders and say something “who cares, it's fantasy” (A sentiment that I can at least sympathize with at moments myself.)

Yet, the throwaway references to that kind of world are so thick and common from the earliest days to now that I don't even feel like I need to quote them. Dig around any major old school D&D board and you will inevitably find these deep and consuming discussions and debates about medieval demographics: what the exact number of bushels of grains in a harvest were, what the percentage of clergy and townsmen was compared to land-bound serfs, what population density was like in say England in 1253, what the weights and denominations were for the Angevin-era penny, etc. References to the Domesday Book or the pay scales of a longbowmen in the Hundred Years War fly thick.

Indeed one of D&D's earliest spin-off comparisons was Chivalry & Sorcery, an entire system predicated on the fact that OD&D and it's successors were dead wrong in the detail and feel about it's supposedly feudal setting. Each iteration of that game dug deeper and deeper into the implications of that trajectory—and Harn followed as its spiritual successor.

I admit to loving both the obsessed discussions and the period-obsessiveness of C&S all dearly and I still find myself reading and rereading these threads constantly as the Domain Game grows, but I wonder straight-out if it's a lot of smoke and fire generated for a period that simply doesn't match the political, cultural, economic fabric that is implicit in the bog standard D&D campaign. Do D&D characters live in a world even vaguely like ours in that time?

Ok folks, I am going to stop short of banging you on the head with my own strong opinion on this (at least until the comments), as I started this post trying to fish for a more open-ended discussion.

I am curious fellow over-thinkers, what connection do you see the standard D&D campaign having with a real-world historical analogy? How distant of a mirror is it? Why? What changes do the elements of the fantasy and the weird make to that analogy?

Did you place your own campaign outside a feudal European analog? Why? What changes did this bring to how you thought about the game?

Does it even matter?


  1. The armor, weapons, and technology presented in Gygaxian D&D are most assuredly 14th century -- or rather the 14th century as filtered through the Victorian imagination and into Gygax's imagination -- and the RC states that it's roughly analogous to the same period.

    However, I myself am way more interested in the 12th and early 13th centuries (at least in Europe) as they provide a world in which one could still win a kingdom by adventure, such as Robert Guiscard and William the Conqueror, and Bohemund of Antioch. Well, at least thats how they appear in my imagination.

    I think though the majority of the D&D playing populace see it as "medieval" which means it has shining armor, the Feudal system, vikings, and a number of other trappings which may or not have existed and which certainly didn't exist at the same time.

  2. Depends what culture I am developing. Some will be various stages of technological advancement. And depending on how common magic is. In one of my cultures magic has stunted technological advances because it already does things better. When you add magic into the mix it changes a lot of things.

    Good question. One worthy of a piece of cake or pie. I forget which one you prefer.

  3. I can't give you the dates, but the answer has got to have knights in platemail (not plate armor) and Swiss with pikes.

  4. I'm going to be the odd man out. When I do straight fantasy, I always think of the Aegean/Near East prior to the 4.2 event (with a bunch of anachronistic technology thrown in). The monster selection in most versions of D&D supports this pretty well, too.

  5. Stupid internet...typed out a long response and it got deleted. Oh well.

    A short reply that gets the same point across: you cannot simulate meaningful historicism if you introduce magic accessible to the players. You can run kickass Conan-style campaigns if they're all fighters, but as soon as a player becomes a mage, the game is now D&D, not anything resembling history.

  6. It matters to some people. A lot of people see their game as being more or less an accurate 1426 -- or whatever -- then slapping magic and monsters on top.

    I don't really care as long as it's fun. Plate armour is in if it's fun, but so are robots and laser guns; I don't have any interest in how a mediaeval society should work in game terms. It's not a bad thing to have such an interest, but it's not my thing.

  7. I agree with Evan, that the game works best in a pseudo-early middle ages.

    So I have silver pennies, no plate armor, and petty little kingdoms grasping to hold on to what parts of the old empire they started with.

  8. I dont think it matters for two reasons: demi-humans and monsters. I have yet to see a setting that places D&D in a historical context without turning entire ethnic groups into either demi-humans or monsters.

    What I'd like to see is a D&D setting that has a a rational reason behind the placement of demihuman and monsters in a setting, and what effects that has had on already established human cultures.

    I guess a more interesting set pf question could be: What historical cultures are represented as humans in D&D? What historical cultures are represented as either demi-humans or monsters in D&D? What happens to cultures that have been displaced because of the introduction or presence of demi-humans and monsters? Lastly, Where the hell do these demi-humans and monsters originate from?

    Trying to place D&D in a historical context means having to ignore much of history for it to fit.

  9. Feudalism need not equal Europe, as Professor Barker demonstrated very well.

    There are tons of ways to bring magic into a historically oriented game without ruining it with making the mages too powerful. Look at John Dee, or Tycho Brahe, or Agrippa...

    The more we rummage around in the old notes and the old books, the more it seems like it's just more fun to mix-and-match whatever you like into a patchwork that you then go back over and smooth out a bit. Throw in some good old fashioned psuedoscience, and you're in business, as long as the business is to have fun.

    Writing historical simulation has got to be much more fun that being subjected to it, unless you're a history-buff. But really, if you're going to go to all that work and effort, write a book. People might be mor einterested in a particular historical setting if they've had a chance to read the book that it is based upo, said book being based on the game...ouch...that hurt. Sorry.

  10. Sure it matters, as much as any of this D&D crap does! It's an interesting subject. I guess in the end it is mostly a technological thing for me- the earth history analogue holds as much substance as a suit of platemail might, displaces as much water as a viking longship. The explicit pre-gunpowder "rule" buried in the DMG kinda caps the analogue there. History however is imported pretty much whole cloth (history as a quilt and separated into its patches)- it is hard for me to concieve of the social world of D&D-landia without kings, without city-states, social constructs of mankind as we have seen them.

  11. "Vanilla" D&D can mean very different things to different people, depending on when they started playing. I think of Vanilla as Mystara, as someone who started with Red Box, but in recent editions that could mean Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms or even Eberron, and each are at slightly different places.

  12. Great discussion so far, some point by points coming later.

    This post was in someways another case study for why one shouldn't rely on memory alone. When I pounded out the post this morning I was remembering that most of the older edition D&D rules said little to nothing about what most standard campaign worlds would be roughly analogous to, that it was just implicit in the price lists and other pieces. But then I found Gygax's passage in the first ed. DMG, Social Class and Rank in AD&D (p. 88-89). A really inspiring read and quite specific in saying that people's imaginations SHOULDN'T BE limited by a High Middle Ages social structure, but that you should think about the bigger societal implications for all kinds of combinations of institutions. He even takes three paragraphs to flesh out an entirely different kind of polity than your typical European feudal one ( a non-hereditary aristocracy). The things you find in that book.

    It's worthy re-reading at any rate (I may even spin off a post from it.)

  13. @ckutalik: totally! D&D I think is more about exploring interesting scenarios that could happen between fantastic cultures.

    Emulating history can be cool at times, but far less interesting than the critical thinking involved with weaving your own fictional history and seeing how it plays out with your group.

    Plus who doesn't like battle axe swinging cyborgs fighting alongside mages with laser guns!

  14. I don't think there is such an analog, Chris. The game's assumptions were informed as much by fantasy fiction as history, and in all ways the history was viewed primarily through the lens of the 20th century non-academic. My sense is that most people that started playing D&D had an abiding interest in the game prior to considering the wages of English longbowman. The beauty of D&D,though, is that it's chassis can accommodate both the irreverent anachronist as well as the stickler for accuracy.

    For my own game world, its the expected mish-mash of whatever floats my boat... but over the years this mish-mash has gained a sort of internal logic even if it doesn't map even loosely to history. My Arab mash-up cultures trade with my Meso-American cultures. My Japanese Empire is parked on the doorway of Egypt. Half the fun of building that world was trying to sort out what it would look like given these sorts of things. As I've matured, it has too.

  15. For me, Xena has long been a great example of how I see the setting of D&D. The truth is, if you scratch the surface, it is (at my table) actually the here and now that you’ll find underneath the ancient/medieval/renaissance façade. Trying to actually get into the mindset of an ancient, medieval, or renaissance character would be more work than fun for me. (Though, it would be some fun.)

  16. @ckutalik: To answer the original question: I don't think it has a target 'timeframe'.

    However, it might be possible to look back through the pulp inspirations of some of the early game content and compare them with more popular wargaming scenarios.

    This is still a worthy question to ask, because the answer above leads down a particular path:

    If we believe that D&D evolved out of wargames, it's possible that Gygax, et. al. saw their new pastime as an escape from the clutches of historical accuracy that can be such a touchy point in wargaming.

    Perhaps the early 'sandbox' philosophy was born out of a desire to leave the strict battlefield boundaries AND strict historical accuracy.

  17. There may be no stated time frame for original D&D, and Gary may have said it's all fantasy (both true), but one can infer certain real-world facts from some of the norms implicit in D&D. People have already mentioned polearms and platemail (and gold coins). I'd also add the healthy specialized economies present in most D&D cities (e.g. Greyhawk). While its true that EGG may have been thinking of Lankhmar more than 15th-century Paris, it is pretty indisputable that such heavily differentiated economies (and large population centers - what was Greyhawk, something like 50,000 people in size?) do not reflect a 12th century Europe, or even, probably, a 13th century Europe. That is, if one were looking for analogues (without requiring that they exist), I'd put D&D squarely in the very late Middle Ages or early Renaissance (say, 1380-1550).

  18. I've had a poll rolling along for a bit (I'm swinging around to the camp that D&D might be *best* if it models a later time period, but have usually defaulted to early Medieval).

    37% are using Dark Ages, 11% are saying Middle Ages.

  19. @Rick: The best I could offer in response to that is probably pre-Black Death medieval Europe for the Greyhawk 'setting', but what then is Greyhawk city?

    Is there a better 'trail' found in researching individual areas of Greyhawk? I would think that specific places would've had an inspirational root...

  20. I have no idea about any official setting. The weapons and archetypes listed in the game are all pretty anachronistic. When I was younger what I imagined was about 1000-1200AD with platemail. I was shocked to find out the Normans didnt wear Plate. My new game is about 1400-1600. I think any pulpy S&S type setting would be 2000bc-500ad.

  21. My paticular campaign is is set in a period that is analagous to the time slightly before charlamagne's reign. Check out wikipedia and look up Karl the hammer from french history. Or at least that is where civilization is at after the fall of the previous empire.

  22. I've avoided medieval western European tropes like the plague (sorry) since I was a teen DM in the 70s. I've always gravitated toward Dying Earth, Tekumel, Glorantha like settings (although Glorantha's west has a bit of the European Middle Ages going on). I am drawn to late European prehistory, Bronze Age and Iron Age...this is a very mysterious period, even archaeologically speaking...hill forts, ships filled with skeletons in huge burial mounds, Wyrd, vast wilderness. I think this is Redwald territory...

    I also try to avoid fantasy cultures that are straight up analogs of real world cultures. I'd rather have the Thujans be Incan-Tibetan-Gran Bretan-Stygians rather than Persians for example.

    I read an interesting essay by John M. Harrison a while back that is relevant to this topic. I'll have to look around for it...

  23. I also lost my long comment, so I'll make this short and write my own post on related matters. Trollsmyth does exactly what you said - he says it doesn't matter, it's just fantasy and you should enjoy it as such. I'm not going to do the same because it has mattered to lots of DMs and players, myself included. I could never find a core of internal logic in D&D, and the designers' frequent recourse to "pseudo-medieval" I found actively misleading.

    I find D&D as written flavourless - unlike vanilla, which has a flavour that happens to combine well with lots of other things. I used to call it a relentless gumbo but really it doesn't even know to stop at foodstuffs - it throws whole machines and clothes and cultures and institutions in there, and what you have is an inedible mess. Sure, it works just fine as long as you're swinging swords in a hole in the ground, but if you want to make a world out of it you have to do just that: put work in to make a world. And much of that work I think has to be subtraction.

    Mechanically I think D&D suits Wuwei best of all, complete with bands of wandering adventurer-heroes. It's also pretty good at Arabian Nights. There are much better choices for historical gaming, though.

  24. @scottsz - good point about separating 'setting' from 'city'. I will admit that it's the city part(s) that seem most 'late medieval' or 'renaissance' to me. As someone else mentioned, the tropes of wide open frontiers, etc., and scattered quasi-feudal settlements are probably vaguely early medieval (or, more probably 'old western'). as for druids, they didn't exist in any historical period of the middle ages!

  25. Technologically: high-medieval/renaissance Europe. Platemail and polearms. Galleys and galleons. Bound books, but no printing. Feudal robber-barons in castles.

    Although most of the above also model pre-modern China quite well too...

    Socio-politically: IMO D&D presents a mash-up of the Bronze Age and the Age of Exploration. In both eras - as in D&D as written - it was perfectly acceptable to go raiding, stab/enslave the other guy and take his stuff, and then wander home with a clear conscience and a fat bag of swag.

  26. @Rick: Excellent point... AD&D Druids are basically a 'what if' kind of creation.

    Something tells me that researching all of this to a suitable set of conclusions would take years.

  27. I see a lot of North America in many settings. Look at the animals and plants you often see: tobacco, skunks, pumpkins, porcupines,etc.

  28. Blast. Wrote two paragraphs to say basically the same thing Chris did....

  29. It's a spectrum. Sometimes I try for a Renaissance world, where magic substitutes for some technology. Other times I try for a cruder 6th century world of invasions.

    Just as I'll play on the spectrum which Neal Stephenson's book Reamde describes as the forces of Bright vs. the Earth tone coalition. Sometimes I want it to be realistic, sometimes I want silly mages who are making fortunes by feeding the city with an unending banquet.

    AD&D was always meant to be a variety of environments, even before 2e came out with the variants for different eras.

  30. I think all my D&D worlds are mash ups of culture, tech and politics. Usually it'd be more true to say "My Yggsburgh campaign is set in 1970s British Hammer Horror" or "My Yggsburgh game is set in 18th/19th century literature - Ivanhoe meets Moll Flanders", rather than an actual historical period.