Friday, August 3, 2012

Medieval or Other?


While D&D is a mishmash of various (and often disparate) elements, as written its base is the European Middle Ages. This is true of most fantasy games that have could after it.

Of course, that’s not the only way to go. Supplements have been published that pushed the game back into the ancient world (Imperial Rome, the time of the Old Testament, etc.) and forward into Renaissance and the world of gunpowder. None of these options require too much chance to the basics of the game.

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I have a hard time choosing at times. Solomon Kane and the world of Warhammer Fantasy have their appeal. So does the ancient Rome of Tierney’s Simon of Gitta, or the Hellenistic era of Leiber’s "Adept’s Gambit." And in between the two Robin Hood and many of the historical actioners of Robert E. Howard have an attraction all their own.

I know most fantasy settings are a bit of a anachronistic hodge-podge: one can put together elements from several different time periods. Howard’s Hyborian Age allows Conan to fight Picts (American Indians) on the frontier and a wizard from Stygia (ancient Egypt). Still, Conan’s world seems mostly Medieval; Howard had to make a choice of sorts and so does every GM making up a setting.
Like I say, sometimes that’s tough, at least for me.  Choosing one door closes off others.  Anybody else have this difficult? Or do you have a favorite era that you seldom stray from?

20 comments:

JF said...

I think the default Euro-Medieval world is the one we all cut our teeth on, and then, as we learn about the variety of cultures and history, we branch out - like the way children who only eat cheese sticks and chicken fingers today will seek out Thai and haute cuisine tomorrow.

So, Euro-Medieval is like the comfort food of the genre, I suppose, and it can be very tempting to move toward its familiarity when contemplating having guests over.

Shifts in time don't always appeal to everyone's fantasy palate. Go too far back, and some don't like "simplistic" barbarism. Go too far ahead, and gunpowder and politics might get too complicated.

Overall, fantasy gaming is just that - fantasy. The setting only needs to follows the laws of whatever physics everyone at the table can accept, and that's my answer to your question. I tailor the world to my immediate audience. Some folks will only ever be able to believe that dragons are fearsome creatures that kidnap princesses, eat villagers, and hoard gold (I knew a GM of 15 years who was steadfastly of that mind). Others are more open to dragons being multidimensional lifeforms born of the discarded hopes of maturing children made manifest by the lies of adults and motivated to destroy mundanity. Or they're aliens. Whichever the group would like better...

Beedo said...

My default era is the European Dark Ages - I've run multiple Frankish campaigns, and am currently running a Viking themed one.

But I'm also a poster boy for gamer attention deficit disorder regarding the alternate time periods and settings I'd love to run for D&D - my 'junkyard of ideas' is full of half-launched cast-offs.

I frequently muse about games along the Roman frontier, or D&D during the age of pirates. The latest obsession is, 'why don't we have an awesome Asian megadungeon for D&D?'

JDJarvis said...

Picts weren't American Indians they were wirey prescandinavian invasion occupants of Scottland. Well, on actual earth.

A really alien setting for many a campaign would be the actual MiddleAges instead of the faux renfaire settings we usually use.

Trey said...

@JDJarvis - Yeah, I know who the real world Picts were, thanks. Which is why I specified in Howard's Hyborian Age. Also, I know that "Stygia" isn't a real place but a word Howard back-created from "stygian" (related to the River Styx) and has nothing to do with Egypt in the real world, and never existed anyway. But yeah, a more "realistic" Medieval setting would be cool.

@Beedo - That is a very good question.

@JF - True enough. Before you take it to the table to see what everyone else can accept you have to decide what you can accept. :)

Sean Robson said...

My campaign has more of a middle-eastern and north African flavour, with a lot of inspiration from Sinbad movies. But I've set in in a time before the rise of modern man, which gives me a lot of latitude to cherry-pick a variety of cultural influences; I've got Egyptian gods, Babylonian ziggurats, scantily-clad belly-dancers, and mix of middle-eastern and slavic cultural groups. It's fun to be able to use what you like without worrying about slavish adherence to historical accuracy.

Stephan Poag said...

I like the 'psuedo-medieval' era perhaps as much for nostalgic reasons as anything else... but I think the 'default' D&D is pretty ahistorical --- which is the way I would keep it. I mean, swords and 100 different polearms seems pretty much medieval I guess, but the way that players tend to play their characters, with a great deal of free will and self-determination, seems more like a modern fantasy to me --- but I think playing a historically accurate medieval peaseant (or even a noble) would not be much fun simply because they would always have some NPC trying to tell them what they could or could not do most of the time... and that feels too much like my real life. I mean, I know in theory I have more freedom than the average peseant, but, to be honest, I can't really just decide to pack my sack, grab some torches and go hunt goblins... my employer expects me to show up to work, my bills need to be paid, etc.
I think 'default D&D' is a melange of all sorts of genres --- to me, it's usually more like Lieber's Lankhmar than ancient Rome or Byzantium.
I say "Hooray for the hodge-podge!"

Gibbering Mouther said...

I find the Science Fantasy gonzo 80's cartoon world incredibly appealing, along with other industrial/post-industrial settings. The key for me is making sure that the setting is off enough where "realism" seems unnecessary and the basic components of the game - delving into strange places with some guy that can cast spells - are reasonable.

The classic D&D world of faux medievalism seems boring and all the wonder is usually drained out of it after 40 years of product.
Of course I am currently enjoying the heck out of an extremely, almost perversely, classic dungeon crawl game, with short bows and torches.

Trey said...

@Sean - That sounds cool as hell. I guess it's not so being a stickler for historical accuracy as aesthetic choice: Do the characters look like Musketeers, chain main glad crusaders, or sword and sandals heroes? I suppose you could allow all of those as possible choices, but a coherent world probably tends to make one of them.

@Gibbering Mouther - I'm all for gonzo, though I do have a leaning to "gonzo with verisimilitude." In many ways with Weird Adventures I tried to seriously extrapolate how the presence of d&d-ish magic would impact a 1930s-ish world. And again, for me its an aesthetic thing, for me. Having D'Artagnan (dressed and behaving like he usually does) teaming up with Bronze Age Heracles (ditto) fighting Hammer Horror 19th century Dracula is a gonzo-step too far without a very unusual world to support that (for me).

Johnathan Bingham said...

Man, there are so many things I'd like to see explored. Perhaps a neolithic fantasy setting. Copper Age, Age of Sail, Age of Enlightenment, other? Yeah, I'm hoping to see more unusual settings/adventures come out of the OSR. I wrote a little bit of what I'm looking at putting out there on Tim's Blog Gothridge Manor. Try, you actually fired up my imagination a while back about putting more Jack Kirby inspired themes into my fantasy and I'm aiming at doing just that. Delve! has some trappings of medieval fantasy if you read it that way, but I was much more working on it from a Jack Kirby meets Flash Gordon fiction meets pulp era horror feel.

Trey said...

@Stephen - Good point. Obviously, D&D's foundations are unrealistic.

@Johnathan - Glad to know somebody besides me wants to see more Kirby trappings. And like I say, I'm certainly not opposed to mixing elements, just often having the dilemma of choosing the base era to mix 'em into.

seaofstarsrpg said...

My fantasy world seem to end up gravitating to just pre-industrial level of technology and culture. Fairly wide spread literacy, decent roads, nation states, as it just is easier for everyone to work with. It is easy to forget how different the world was in the past.

Johnathan Bingham said...

Yeah, I like to mix eras, it keeps things interesting. And for sure expect to see more Kirby inspired themes from me.

Brendan said...

Gustie, would that be Pahvelorn you are talking about?

:-)

I think there are actually two components of this question for me. One is the structural societal elements. For example, an ancient game could be set in the Roman Empire, with big relatively reliable roads and cosmopolitan cities. I find that the default D&D setting, as I have actually seen it played, is often pretty close to this actually. There are countries, with kings, and politics, etc (though some of the nations use demihumans to emphasize difference).

Then, there is what I usually prefer, closer to postapocalyptic in societal structure, where the towns are few and far between, and you don't know what crazy customs will be over the next hill. There might be a veneer of medievalism over this, so that people can latch onto things like chain mail and swords, but other than that there is little connection. I usually think about this as a world structured like a Vance story.

The second component is the period style. Here I tend to lean towards ancient near east, Phoenicia, with a bit of Egypt and European dark ages, but I try to avoid direct analogues to real societies where possible. I generally find "fantasy Rome" (or whatever) kind of boring. For some reason, Hyboria is an exception to this despite the fact that most of the Hyborian lands have obvious real world companions.

I also have a thing for traditional fairy tales.

One thing though is that it is really really hard to communicate period style without pictures or touchstones, which is why for me the best published settings have such a strong visual identity (like Dark Sun).

Gibbering Mouther said...

@ Trey - Oh absolutely agree - Gonzo but with a consistent world. Not a complete mishmash. You can have laser guns and robots, but you best explain where they came from - and if you want to have swords and crossbows those lasers must not be easy to get or in mass production.

Gibbering Mouther said...

@ Brendan - it would. I think what makes it fresh is that it's well GM'd and the dungeon is so far very interesting. I guess that goes to show that regardless of genre, a creative and interesting approach by someone skilled can overcome my setting prejudices.

Trey said...

@Brendan - Totally agree on the visuals, because I think that have implications about the material culture, as well as getting the creative juices flowing. I won't say I completely mind the "fantasy stand-ins" as I think recognizability helps--but I think too many take recognizability to the point of idolatory. If you want to evoke "ancient Egypt" you can do that pretty easily while still adding in some other cultural tidbits. One of the things that allows the Hyborian Age to get buy for me is it's a fantasyland from a different era. What were obvious borrowings to a guy steeped in how these ancient cultures were protayed in pulp and adventure fiction of the day are not necessarily obvious to the modern reader. Some of the Hyborian nations (Koth, for one) you have to study close to see what he's drawing from.

Sylvaeon said...

You said: " don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I have a hard time choosing at times. Solomon Kane and the world of Warhammer Fantasy have their appeal. So does the ancient Rome of Tierney’s Simon of Gitta, or the Hellenistic era of Leiber’s "Adept’s Gambit." And in between the two Robin Hood and many of the historical actioners of Robert E. Howard have an attraction all their own."

I think that is a problem I have. I dig all of those elements that you list, but it is hard to integrate all of them into a game (and possibly counterproductive to do so).

I have wanted to go with the Hellenistic and/or Roman flavor in one game because of the upcoming RuneQuest 6. Sylvaeon is a high fantasy hex crawl and I have an urban campaign I am working on that has WFRP as one of its core influences.

I wish I could do a mishmash with all of these things, but sadly I cannot.

Great post... it made me think and it makes my head hurt ;)

Trey said...

@Gibbering Mouther - Very good point.

@Sylvaeon - I was meaning those thing as separate not mashed up. I agree with you to an extent. A good setting is like a recipe. Combine too many elements in heedlessly and you may ruin the flavor.

Sean Robson said...

@Trey: While my default aesthetic is 'swords & sandals' I allow any of the armour types in D&D, so it ends up becoming an anachronistic mix, like Xena or The Scorpion King.

Carl said...

I have been having a blast running a new-world style campaign in an Amazon jungle analog, with the campaign starting as a new boatload of miners and sellswords arrives on the relatively newly discovered continent.
The players get to have that comfort level of the standard pseudo-medieval background, but the land and cultures they are exploring are very alien.