D&d is anti-medieval

A friend of mine just shared this post from 2016 and I found it extremely interesting, especially with regard to two topics we already touched a couple of times here:

  1. How medieval are our games
  2. Eurofantasy and how it’s perceived outside the USA (sadly, I don’t remember in which topic we discussed it)
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I agree with that post that the implied setting of OD&D isn’t strictly “medieval.” I also agree wholeheartedly that D&D is a distinctly American fantasy at the inception.

I don’t agree with the post that D&D was “anti-medieval.” The characteristics that the author comes up with for what counts as medieval are not representative of “the Middle Ages” in general (as you, thekernelinyellow, pointed out in our earlier discussion). But if we understand “medieval” as British and French medieval, then yes, it’s not very medieval, is it?

The observations made in that post are in line with criticisms of D&D that began at the outset already in 1975. People thought it was supposed to be “medieval,” and felt it wasn’t “realistic” enough. Gygax fought back bitterly saying that realism in fantasy is a stupid thing to argue for, but he missed the point that people wanted a historically relatable fantasy world. Hence came games like the Canadian product Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), which were supposed to provide a more “authentic” medieval setting (even though it’s also a medieval fantasy caricature).

Gygax seems himself to have attempted to address this perceived shortcoming in AD&D, where he aimed, for example, for a more historically specified array of arms and armor. In his Players Handbook we don’t just have the pole-arm, but the bec-de-corbin, etc.

All this is to say the debate about the medieval-ness of D&D started at the beginning, but it was framed (misleadingly) in terms of “realism.” Gygax responded to it in the same problematic terms.

After all, the rulebooks said on the cover that they were for “fantastic medieval wargames.”

I think that the post is right to point out the frontier background of American culture, but that was far in the past of Gygax’s world. Gygax did not participate in settler activities. He knew the frontier adventure culture through games of “Cowboys & Indians,” pirate fantasies, cinema and TV shows, and such media. So did Arneson. We should also mention vampire movies and monster movies like The Blob.

Let’s also not forget that the theme of exploration of unknown lands full of potential foes was in the background of the culture of every single European (former) colonial power. The US has never had a monopoly on that theme.

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Thank fuck it isn’t. The last thing I’d want to do is to run a historically accurate campaign.

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D&D is medieval-ish. It makes nods at certain things but isn’t any sort of attempt to model a fantasy world in terms of a cohesive civilisation. The weapons and armour stuff I took to be something left over from wargaming, that would appeal to wargamers converting over to D&D. There are various gaps all over the place as far as certain things are concerned. For example, there is coinage but no idea who minted it or where, and by what authority. There is a monetary system, but we’ve no idea who decided on what that would be. But I’m guessing that there was no real intent to bore players with sections in the DMG or PHB on economics.

Generally I think D&D was inspired by various things medieval - and an American version at that - but it wasn’t trying to be any sort of simulation of actual medieval life. Various things in were and still are cod-medieval, born from American ideas about what medieval Europe was like. And, as this and other things weren’t laid out in terms of being explained, the game seemed to imply that you had to add what you wanted to the mix for your own particular gaming needs.

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JerryB, I think you are right about all of that.

You bring up the economy, and I think that it is a critical issue here. Dave Arneson published his booklet The First Fantasy Campaign in 1977 which is a mess of notes from his original (pre-D&D) Blackmoor game, the thing that inspired D&D. This was a wargame with real-world campaign seasons, with each lord having an income in GP based on land property. Somehow Arneson mined sources from prior wargames and did a bit of amateur research on financing premodern armies to come up with his figures. (He did this kind of research for other areas, such as sailing vessels.)

The dungeon under Blackmoor Castle was introduced as a surprise source of income to finance the wars (hire fighters) against the Egg of Coot, the chief “Baddie” of his multi-year campaign. I think that the scale of character advancement by level, with its link to GP earned, is connected with this wargame system. He had decided how many GP in income each village and settlement earned. He also worked out costs for each bridge, road, temple, fortress, anything a lord could want to build.

Player characters would correspondingly advance more toward a lordly level of command in charge of greater forces with GP to back them. This is the origin of the concept that GP gives access to higher levels, in my view.

To connect this back with the theme under discussion, there was thus an effort to create a “realistic” premodern economy in terms of GP. But that led to dungeon adventures. Soon enough, the dungeon adventures, with the hidden map component of the game, were abstracted from that context and its rationale, making it a game about becoming more powerful through the collection of gold, something that everybody agrees makes little sense by itself (except for those who say that GP are for training), but are willing to overlook because they like it that way. That’s why people are still writing supplements about what to do with that gold between sessions. Arneson had specific items for heroes to spend money on that would help in the war against evil, which was the origin of the campaign (and indeed the word campaign as applied to dungeon adventures).

In a way, the attempt to capture a “medieval” economy was there, in the background, but the shift to dungeoneering deprived the game of its earlier premodern pseudo-historical context even more, and I’d say made it almost irrelevant.

Records of the earliest players (1974, 1975, 1976) indicate that they frequently would run into oddities like bowling alleys, elevators and escalators, telephones, game shows, and other whimsical “modern” weirdness in the dungeons. This was not genre-busting because the genre wasn’t established. Still, this bugged people who pointed out that it was “supposed to be medieval,” as the game books said on the cover.

The term medieval was adopted because the idea was that it wasn’t Napoleonic warfare, which most Midwestern wargamers were interested in then, but an “earlier stage” of technology like that represented in The Lord of the Rings, the basis for the Chainmail rules.

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I think Gygax would’ve been equally condemned if he actually had included a system for the economy and the societal structure of D&D. I still get the impression that D&D just has various ‘stuff’ and that that is pretty much a sandbox for whatever you want to do with D&D as a DM. It might also be the case that D&D might have been less successful if this were not the case.

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You’re right, because there is no accounting for preferences. That’s the way these games work: people adapt them for their own interests. D&D does imply many specific setting features, but within that framework people do a lot of different things.

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The fact that the rpg still exists and in various different forms demonstrates that it has legs, and it got that way without being a detailed simulation of a world, fantasy or otherwise. Human imagination being what it is, people will go down various rabbit holes trying to figure out the whys and wherefores, but that’s part of the fun. You can even ignore 100% of anything apart from the basic rules and still have a functioning game world of sorts (which is pretty much how I run my 1E AD&D games).

From edition to edition, D&D has seemed less like a medieval-themed world as the rpg has developed. It still makes various nods at it thematically, but the influences have evolved into other things. Certain things have become locked down to the point of being a cliché, but you can still ignore those bits too and bring in your own stuff.

I can’t argue with that! Another take on it, though, is that D&D was really failing in the '90s. In my view, it would have remained a retrograde game if it were not for Wizards of the Coast and big Hasbro behind it. The OGL that they created was the gateway for the OSR. If not for those factors–basically the big brand–there would have been some other fantasy game that everybody is playing today.

From my own point of view, that’s too bad, because I really dislike most of the features of the D&D system–even though I play with it sometimes! As you say, it can be ignored, but the fact that the system needs to be so regularly ignored, and it has been by players since '74, suggests that it’s not a great system except in its ignorability! That tells you how little the system does, and that is probably its main virtue.

I also agree with you about the diminishment of the medieval theme over time. The generic D&D fantasy continues to evolve in directions that seem more like anime and superhero fantasy and video games. Even the art has taken a course that I simply don’t understand, because I lack the shared frame of reference. That’s one of the things I love about your own art, JerryB. It speaks to me and supports the tone of play that I want to bring my own players into.

The RPG industry has generally been prey to slumps and I don’t know how much the OGL actually rescued D&D itself. I also don’t think any of D&D’s competitors/peers would’ve had the clout to have been a big hitter in a way that D&D has become. If D&D hadn’t had a shot in the arm from WotC/Hasbro, maybe it would’ve died out after the collapse of TSR and generally RPGs would be a niche hobby. D&D was a big hitter in the 70s/80s but one wonders how things would’ve turned out if TSR was still around today in a form that didn’t have all of the nastiness that once plagued it.

I still have a soft spot for 1E AD&D simply because I played it alot, although that was essentially a stripped down version as none of my RPG group could afford the books. I ran a game 5 or so years ago and it all seemed to work fine when I had the books to hand. From 2E onwards I started to lose interest. I’ve played 5E a few times but it seemed less challenging than 1E - although it still seemed medieval-ish in more of a warped way. The look of it isn’t my cup of tea but you could ignore that and maybe get a vaguely similar vibe to 1E.