Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fitting D&D into Europe's Middle Ages

It seems silly to try and talk about placing Dungeons & Dragons in a social setting which draws from Europe's Middle Ages; afterall, it has knights and castles ... isn't it already grounded in the medieval?

Image result for spaghetti western
But I've been reflecting on how the default assumptions about setting and the way that the fantasy world works owe far more to American Westerns than to other genres, despite all the swords and wizards painted on the outside.


    Image result for a fist full of dollars
  • wandering heroes who roam town to town, helping the locals and righting wrongs
  • frontier-style wilderness implied in modules B1, B2, B5 and elsewhere (parts of module N1, Against the Cult of the Reptile God read almost like something from Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • a complete absence of social class in which a man is as good as his sword arm and the PCs can apparently travel wherever they wish, bearing arms, without question
  • the notion of smooth upward mobility through developed skill and the acquisition of wealth, regardless of birth
  • assumed capitalism (xp is mainly gained from treasure, so wealth acquisition rather than birth, fulfillment of duty, or spiritual enlightenment is the way that one advances in the fantasy world)
  • things usually start in the saloon ... I mean "tavern" ... rather than in a lord's feasting hall, in the market square, or the napse of a cathedral
None of these elements are unique to Westerns of course, but they form a constellation that has more in common with Gunsmoke or The High Chaparral than Le Morte d'Arthur.

Strictly defined social classes and the ubiquity of the Roman Catholic Church are arguably the two most defining elements of Western Europe in the middle ages, but both are essentially absent from the default D&D setting.

Image result for the high chaparralAnyway, whether you buy that line of thinking or not, I've been wondering just how you would fit a mix-matched band of cunning adventurers into a social world that resembled the 14th century more closely than the 19th.

Here are the four ideas I had for fitting D&D, with all that is implied by its systems, into something a bit more like the middle ages:
  • The Tradesmen.  Dungeon crawling, it turns out, is a trade and the explorers are craftsmen of a sort.  Rather like expert cobblers, bakers, or tailors, one learns at the knee of his ol' da ("Ye've got to carry a pole lad ... no, not a six footer, tha will'na do!  She's got to be ten feet if she's an inch!  Why?  It's tradition boy!") and carries on the family trade.  Sure, it's a distasteful, dangerous, and somewhat disreputable trade, but quite necessary for the economy of the medieval landscape.  Afterall, how are lords to pay for all those wars if it wasn't for adventurers dragging cartloads of gold up from Pluto's vaults deep beneath the earth?  Spain could hardly have become the powerful empire that it is today had The Vault of the Drow not been claimed (and looted) in the names of Ferdinand and Isabella.
  • The Mercenary Company. The Italian duke can hardly trust his own kin, so when he needs someone to fetch the magic maguffin it falls to these free men-at-arms (condottierre).  Of course, mercenaries have the nasty habit of destabilizing the land that hosts them (and looting the peasantry at every opportunity), so once the job is done the lord will be eager to see the back of them.
    Image result for medieval procession
  • The Ecclesiastic Order.  Dungeoneers are a branch of the Catholic Church and each explorer has taken holy vows (completely apart from any personal feelings of piety or indeed, in the case of elves, whether he or she actually even has a soul).  They perform quests and descend into dungeons at the will of the Archbishop, whether to do good deeds or to enrich the coffers of the Church and so extend its influence in the temporal sphere. 
  • The Retinue.  German Prince Frederick calls the shots and the player characters are his retainers and lackeys.  If the he decides to go into the caverns and face the wyrm that sleeps there, then the PCs are sworn, bound, and beholden to come along in his train.  Many of the broader campaign choices center on the decisions of this high level NPC, but it's up to the characters to keep their meal ticket alive and happy.
Image result for medieval retinueI'm kind of curious why this last model didn't really appear much from the start of the hobby.

Having a more powerful and more experienced NPC "commander" ... a knight, bishop, or wizard ... seems like a natural way to ease new players into understanding the setting and making their first fumbling steps without a TPK.  It also provides an instant bond between characters which far surpasses, "you meet some strangers in a tavern ..."

Battles and encounters need not see the players relegated to a passive role either.  While Lady Torr battles the hill giant, the 1st level PCs deal with its goblin slaves ... that type of thing.

The Hobbit certainly set a precedent for how this sort of arrangement could work.  As the PCs (and players) grow in skill, they can go from supporting their lord to acting as her agents, rescuing her from threats, and eventually becoming her peer.

Has anyone seen or used this "retinue style" in play or print?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Today = Winning

Image result for broken bottleToday, in our after school games club, I got to return to Dwimmermount, introducing three brand new players to the joys of the dungeon with a fourth (a vet from this past summer's camp) leading the way.  A fellow teacher jumped in at the last moment to round out the party with "Oliver", a low Strength, level 1 magic-user with only a broken bottle for equipment!

Guided by the partial maps of prior expeditions and the keen memory of "Thanatos", the stalwart fighting man, the group made steady and cautious progress toward a stair leading down to level two.

Image result for rats maze

Stalked by a ravenous, seven-foot, bipedal canid, things looked ready to take a grim turn until Jack, a crossbow-wielding dungeon neophyte, decided to toss the creature a bone from a nearby heap.  One reaction check later and the group found a new ally!

"He's my pet!"

Image result for werewolf"Um ... I dunno.  I'm kinda freaked out by the big, hungry dog-thing."

"Maybe we can throw a bone and use him to go ahead of us to find dangerous stuff."

"No!  He's mine.  He likes me."

A bit further into the dungeon, the group came upon a narrow hall redolent with deadly looking fungus.  Sure enough, the words "deadly fungus" were even scrawled on of their maps in what looked to be about this location.  After lighting a bit of the growth with a cantrip, releasing a cloud of noxious spores, the group nevertheless decided to try passing through the area single file to reach the stairs beyond.

"Set a 20-sider.  One means that you are taking five minutes to tip-toe across the
room, going as carefully as possible.  Twenty means that you are dashing across in a second and a half."

The players set their dice ...  10, 1, 20, 20, 20.

Thanatos, started across at a walk, but a low Dex roll meant that he accidentally released more of the spores into the air ... leaving Oliver amid the cloud about the time that the three characters behind him shoved past at a sprint!

Image result for moldThe dice showed a cruel streak and character after character began to gasp and choke, clawing at their throats.  It was at this point that Jack's player decided that she would throw a leg across the big, canid monster and "ride" it across the fungal patch.  Reaction check ... immediate attack.

By the end of the session Thanatos, half blind, staggered back toward the entry hall with another fighter, leaving Jack and Oliver writhing and choking on the floor.  A lone mystic, blind from spores and foaming at his nose and mouth, wandered to the head of the steps and began picking his way down toward the hidden dangers of level two.

Image result for wiz-warNone of the PCs actually died, however, so next week may see them ready to return to the dungeon.


Meanwhile, at other tables around the library, former students (now in high school) ran Eberron and 5th edition D&D games for peers and middle schoolers while my own daughter continued her Basic D&D campaign.  Wizwar, RISK, Citadels, chess, and Munchkin-Fu were hosted at other tables ... practically a mini-convention now that the club has grown to 55 registered students with over 40 regular (weekly) attenders!

Original Edition Delta: Book of WarArriving home, after looking at a snake that one of my kids had treed and enjoying dinner with the family, my oldest and I took Delta's Book of War out for a spin to see how it played ... skeletal horde vs a doughty human warband (humans got shredded despite an excellent little flanking maneuver).

A pretty doggone good day all-in-all.