D&D 5E How Things Get Lost IRL

Zardnaar

Legend
D&D has all sorts of tropes and this one is a major one. Technological stagnation.

Basically this means hundreds or thousands of years ago in the D&D world people were wandering around in full plate armor and using things like longswords. Hundreds if not thousands of years after they are still using the same equipment. The Forgotten Realms are a good example of this as you can find ancient weapons basically identical to the modern Faerunian equivalents. The other trope is that civilisations get destroyed and everything collapses where IRL the victors usually inherited the spoils and most people will survive something like a war or conquest.

At a most basic level this is fine, its fantasy. When it comes to world building however I sometimes like using example from real life either refluffed or at least using the concept. Fantasy worlds often have a few "dark ages" which IRL mostly did not happen even with things like the fall of Rome happened. For example IRL Roman engineering was already in decline before the dark ages landed and even then there was technological innovation (stirrups, crossbows) so it was not all doom and gloom. The collapse of one political entity usually means it is just replaced with another.

Some D&D books over the years have looked at this and written about it such as 2E Combat and Tactics book. Things like lost lands and ruins are a major D&D trope and I find if you can tie it together that much better it helps the players out in terms of caring about your world or the backstory.

Lost Lands

How do you lose a land? In most cases land does not disappear as such short of things such as volcanoes or coastal areas. Most of the time a lost land is due to spotty record keeping obscured by the passage of time or the land was not well known about or publicised to begin with. Historical example would be Viking settlements in Newfoundland and cities and lands mentioned in the bible for example. Language also changes and in some cases the records that have survived did not give very precise locations. For example The Egyptian Queen Hatsheput traded with the land of Punt, but we do not 100% know where that land was. Sheba is another lost land. Those lands are probably in what is now Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia but they could also have been in Yemen or on both sides of the Red Sea.

Language
How do you lose a language? This is one of the easier things to explain. Language changes over the years or another culture can displace another (by conquest, immigration etc). Not to many people speak latin these days.

Writing

Losing writing is a lot rarer than losing a language. Even when another culture invades over time what usually happens is one language or writing replaces another. Very few cultures have lost the art of writing once they discover it or aquire it from another culture. For example the Roman empire is gone but we are using its legacy to communicate on these forums using this alphabet. Generally you need a total collapse of society in ancient times or in an isolated part of the world. The Greeks underwent a dark ages which lasted around 300 years.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Dark_Ages

What probably happened was that a reasonably small amount of people were literate perhaps less than 100 people. War probably disrupted that time period and several cities were destroyed. The literate people were either killed or with the destruction of the city states there was a collapse of organised bureaucracy so any literate survivors probably had to become farmers or whatever to survive. The Mayans might be another example and their collapse is probably a combination of environmental problems and war- any literate survivors would have lost their state sponsored position.

Technology.
Technology is another example where it is quite difficult to lose it. Even in a war most people usually survive and the victorious nation/culture/state inherits. There are several ways to lose technology however.

1. It becomes obsolete. Sometimes people get a romantic idea about something but sometimes this explanation is a good one. For example Damascus steel has a certain belief and aura around it and it died out towards the end of the 18th century or early 19th century at the latest. The mines are still there, you can go and get some ore still if you want. Damascus steel was good for its time, notice that it died out when the industrial revolution kicked off? Damascus steel is not magical its not going to cut through concrete so why spend a week or more of your life forging it when mass produced industrial steel will do the same thing? That and the British for example could mass produce this

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_1796_light_cavalry_sabre

A more modern example would be WW2 equipment. Enthusiasts might love to get their hands on a Tiger tank but they are not made any more for a reason.

2. Loss of resources.
In the modern world we do not really have this problem (yet). In ancient times the Byzantines for example were famous for using Greek Fire. There were actually 4 overlapping technologies here- the Greek fire, the weapon that fired it, the dromon that equipped it and the pump system. Greek fire dies out however and there may have been numerous reasons the loss of access to oil in the middle east was probably a key factor. Another example was Roman concrete. The Byzantines kept a lot of roman technology and could build things like roads and aqueducts after the fall of Rome. Roman concrete however used volcanic materials found in Italy and the Byzantines lost control of Italy and the technology perhaps was lost before they actually lost control of the areas they could get materials from. Concrete was rediscovered later- in Italy.

3. Economic Reasons
This means basically that someone stops paying for the technologies application. This could be due to political or cultural considerations. I have used the example of Roman concrete before and writing and a similar argument applies here. In Roman times the state and rich individuals paid for things like roads, buildings and monuments. With the economic disruptions in the west starting in the 3rd century the Roman economy essentially collapsed and the old families lost their power. Things like aqueducts failing predated the fall of the Roman empire. What probably happened was that the work dried up in the late empire as other problems and less money to deal with those problems took priority. Fixing a public building took a back seat to the proverbial horde of barbarians literally kicking in the door. The western empire lacked the money, the eastern empire lacked the resources. Pozzolana would have been difficult to ship assuming the Italians were still mining it and the Byzantines had problems with Arabic pirates once they lost Egypt and Africa. The Byzantines also did not build monuments on the scale of Rome with a few exceptions such as the Hagia Sophia. Once again money may have been a problem as the Byzantines were smaller than imperial Rome and the loss of the Levant, Egypt and North Africa perhaps represented 2/3rds of their income.

4. We don't know.
D&D often takes this approach. Sometimes we do not know what some things were even used for or how widespread it was- for example the Antikythera mechanism. Here we had a tool from the 19th century found that the museum could not figure out what it was used for. After it was put in a newspaper it turned out it was used to manually put the barbs on a wire fence (to make barbed wire). The academics could not identify it because they are academics not farmers, and most modern farmers would not have known what it was either and I assume the transition between a wire fence and bared wire fence would have been fairly quick. That tool became obsolete fast and was not in widespread use anyway.
 

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Saeviomagy

Adventurer
Tangentially, I think the reason for the stagnation of technology in the forgotten realms can be squarely leveled on the gods. I guarantee you that, given how petty the faerunian pantheon are, Gond is going around messing up anything that resembles advanced technology any time it's not done under the auspices of his church and followers, and applying divine tweaks to the technology that's created by Gondians(?) so that they don't actually understand what they're making or have the ability to apply scientific method to their outcomes.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
One way to "lose a land" - especially an island - is to be lost at the time you see it, so you place it in the wrong location on your map.
Several fabled islands (which were visited only once and never found again) in the North Atlantic probably shared this fate.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Tangentially, I think the reason for the stagnation of technology in the forgotten realms can be squarely leveled on the gods. I guarantee you that, given how petty the faerunian pantheon are, Gond is going around messing up anything that resembles advanced technology any time it's not done under the auspices of his church and followers, and applying divine tweaks to the technology that's created by Gondians(?) so that they don't actually understand what they're making or have the ability to apply scientific method to their outcomes.

It's one part Divine Providence, one part a side effect of Magic being the Physics of the D&D world. There are gods mucking about and pulling the strings to be sure, but how the world works is inherently anti-advancement as we would know it:

On the one hand, you have to deal with a world where the Laws of Nature we take for granted and exploit in our sciences doesn't exist. For the easiest example, they don't have the Periodic Table of Elements, they have the Elemental Planes. That is a radical and fundamental disconnect on how the worlds work.

On the other hand, if you examine the way Magic works in D&D, it's a bit strange. Based loosely on Vancian magic, every time you use a bit of advanced magical knowledge (stuff above the cantrip level at least), it's temporarily lost in some fashion. And because Magic=Physics, every time someone learns an advanced bit of knowledge required to create an advanced bit of tech, it would be safe to assume the knowledge would be lost as a reaction to it's use, much like how a spell would be.
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
On the one hand, you have to deal with a world where the Laws of Nature we take for granted and exploit in our sciences doesn't exist. For the easiest example, they don't have the Periodic Table of Elements, they have the Elemental Planes. That is a radical and fundamental disconnect on how the worlds work.
Who says they don't/can't have the periodic table of elements? Just because the elemental planes exist doesn't stop the table of elements from existing. There's substantial chunks of science and technology that work just fine in D&D land.
On the other hand, if you examine the way Magic works in D&D, it's a bit strange. Based loosely on Vancian magic, every time you use a bit of advanced magical knowledge (stuff above the cantrip level at least), it's temporarily lost in some fashion. And because Magic=Physics, every time someone learns an advanced bit of knowledge required to create an advanced bit of tech, it would be safe to assume the knowledge would be lost as a reaction to it's use, much like how a spell would be.
Except... it's not actually vancian any more. You don't lose a spell when you cast it any more: you deplete your spell casting energy. And there's no way that magic = physics, because otherwise gravity doesn't work unless you're a spellcaster.

Mostly real-world physics works, except where the DM doesn't want it to (most magic, lots of creatures) or where they don't understand physics well enough to apply it to the game.
 

Who says they don't/can't have the periodic table of elements? Just because the elemental planes exist doesn't stop the table of elements from existing. There's substantial chunks of science and technology that work just fine in D&D land.

Except... it's not actually vancian any more. You don't lose a spell when you cast it any more: you deplete your spell casting energy. And there's no way that magic = physics, because otherwise gravity doesn't work unless you're a spellcaster.

Mostly real-world physics works, except where the DM doesn't want it to (most magic, lots of creatures) or where they don't understand physics well enough to apply it to the game.
This is entirely campaign dependent. In my gygaxian Greyhawk campaign, physics of the world are based on classical philosophy rather than modern science. This has very little direct effect in gameplay, but it does prevent shenanigans from players. For example, no matter how knowledgeable a player or character is, they simply cannot make gunpowder work... even if they import from another plane of existence. The chemistry simply doesn't work the same way, and the gunpowder is simply worthless black dust.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Who says they don't/can't have the periodic table of elements? There's substantial chunks of science and technology that work just fine in D&D land.
The gods mostly :p. More to the point: D&D has Alchemy as a real thing that happens in the universe. The Periodic Table of Elements is a thing that requires Chemistry. And yeah, technically a stick with a pointy rock tied to the end is technology. But we are talking about how technology is hobbled, we are not saying "technology doesn't exist"

And there's no way that magic = physics, because otherwise gravity doesn't work unless you're a spellcaster.
Everything in D&D is made out of magic, the air, the rocks, the people. And especially that "mundane" fighter whom you think doesn't have an ounce of magic in them. Spellcasting doesn't make stuff work, so much as it alters how stuff works. It's explained in the PHB on Page 205 in an evocative sidebar.
 
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Kurotowa

Legend
As I see it, the Catch-22 of D&D type fantasy worlds is that magic is both more and less powerful than technology. It's more powerful in that personal flight is only a third of the way up the potential power scale. The allure of bending reality to your will tends to attract almost all of the really clever people. Only it's less powerful in that it's harder to transmit and resists any sort of mass production. Rather than turning out a new professional in five or six years it takes decades to gain true mastery, and aside from some setting hacks like Eberron there's rarely any way to offer magic tools to the masses.

Technology pushes towards an egalitarian society because it produces ever improving tools that anyone can use. Magic solidifies power in the hands of an elite few who tend to guard their secrets jealously lest their rivals learn their weaknesses. So it shouldn't be surprising that magic predominated societies plateau at a relatively simple tech level and stay that way for a long time. Especially not when you throw in the semi-regular societal collapses needed to produce all those ruins full of treasure. Turns out demonic invasions and orcish hordes and magical disasters really do have consequences.
 

Horwath

Hero
One reason, for the elves at least would be their longevity.

New ideas usually go with new generations. But if you live 700 years instead of 70, new ideas will come 10×slower.


but warfare in our civilization was also similar for thousands of years.

Bows were used from stone age to early modern period when blackpowder was perfected and mass produced.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
There are countless examples of lost technologies. There are all kinds of megalithic structures the details of whose engineering remains mysterious. Or consider the Chinese Empire that created sooo many things, but by the time the Europeans came through, had forgotten they were the inventors of these “new technologies “. Medicinal use of maggots and leeches died out for centuries...until a decade or so ago it was discovered that they did certain things better than modern medicine and surgical techniques.

Sometimes, the inventors- and/or those around them- didn’t see the potential. Funding to develop the innovation dries up. After the inventor dies, so does his work. At least, until it gets rediscovered...

Sometimes, technology gets developed and marketed, but the market doesn’t support the innovation for long enough, and it withers away.

Some ideas & inventions are repressed for religious or political reasons.

Some inventions and ideas get rapidly supplanted by other ones deemed “better”....even if they aren’t.
 
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Quartz

Hero
In the real world, military technology did stay roughly the same for over 1500 years. A sword is a sword, though the size and shape may change somewhat. Romans used both chain and plate (to a modest extent). The literate class remained small throughout history until well after the advent of the printing press.

In a fantasy setting, a lost land can be explained by a cataclysm, an invasion by orcs or whoever who simply slaughtered every single inhabitant, or accidental magic.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
In the real world, military technology did stay roughly the same for over 1500 years. A sword is a sword, though the size and shape may change somewhat. Romans used both chain and plate (to a modest extent). The literate class remained small throughout history until well after the advent of the printing press.

In a fantasy setting, a lost land can be explained by a cataclysm, an invasion by orcs or whoever who simply slaughtered every single inhabitant, or accidental magic.

Go back far enough the literate class was really small in a few cases though. We do not have exact figures for Rome for example but they have found a lot of graffiti by lower class Romans and prices aimes at lower class Romans which implies they could read at least to some extent. They headteachers on street corners giving public lectures as well.

Universal literacy know but it was not just the elites who could read and write. I think the authors of Linear B IIRC were a very small group while some of the Egyptians deliberately made their writing harder to decipher in order to keep it exclusive.

The sword is a sword thing is a bit of a myth, military tactics changed a huge amount over 1500 years, You went from unarmored masses to hoplites to legions to cataphracts and then to Knights and then things like Tercio and Landsknect.
 

D&D owes more than a little of it's oeuvre to the pulps of the early 20th century - Burroughs, Howard, Lovecraft, etc. This was a period when Catastrophism, where the world was shaped by occasional, world-shaking, Biblical-style floods and earthquakes, was still a popular theory for geologic change and was often at the root of the 'lost civilizations' encountered in those works.
 


Quartz

Hero
The sword is a sword thing is a bit of a myth, military tactics changed a huge amount over 1500 years, You went from unarmored masses to hoplites to legions to cataphracts and then to Knights and then things like Tercio and Landsknect.

Yes, military tactics indeed changed over the centuries, but the basic form of the sword did not. A sword from 400 BC would be entirely recognisable and usable by someone in 1400 AD.

As [MENTION=277]jasper[/MENTION] alludes, a sword is a tool. How the tool is used is a separate question.
 

Oofta

Legend
I think it's always dangerous to say "D&D doesn't work like the real world" because that's not it's goal. Look at the whole "what's a gold piece worth" argument. Based on real world economics, a gold piece doesn't make a lot of sense, but we're talking a fantasy world not our reality; maybe gold is simply more plentiful but still scarce enough to be valued.

But when addressing this type of issue I try to do a logical "what-if" analysis. What if magic were real? What impact would it have?

D&D has all sorts of tropes and this one is a major one. Technological stagnation.
First, I have to admit I think the worlds with any line like "this tower has stood for 10,000 years..." is silly. Some elven civilizations might be able to make that claim, but a human civilization? Probably not.

So I don't assume that technology has been stagnant for thousands of years in my games. That doesn't mean that in the long run there will ever be an industrial revolution.

Let's take gunpowder as an example. Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century in China, but for a long time it's use was limited to bombs and simple rockets, it wasn't until the 15th century that we started using artillery and it wasn't until the 17th century that firearms were widely used. We tend to look at gunpowder and think only of modern firearms, but there was a long, long evolution of the technology. The first cannon would have been relatively inefficient and incredibly expensive when compared to what a moderately well trained war mage could do. Want to make things go boom? Get a mage and stop messing around with that flash powder.

In addition, I could see simple spells that could be used to ignite an enemy's gunpowder from a distance. After all a simple spark spark that would do no more than annoy a person would be enough to set off a keg of gunpowder. Then again, maybe the chemistry of gunpowder simply didn't work.

What about steam engines? Well, the first steam engine experiments on record were in first century Rome, it wasn't until the 17th century that we had anything that really worked. So even assuming the physics of a D&D world are similar enough to allow steam engines, that's a pretty big gap. But what if there were other issues? Would steam mephits look at a huffing-puffing steam engine as a mating call? Or could something that comes close to being a living creature spontaneously come to life? Have a few threshing machines develop a taste for flesh instead of wheat and they'll be banned pretty quick.

So where would the technology stagnate? Well, most D&D worlds assume we have pretty advance metallurgy. Plate mail is fairly common (whether anyone would wear it constantly like PCs do is a whole other question). Swords are not limited in any way to available material. Which makes sense for a civilization that has relatively advanced technology other than firearms and steam engines. The reason metal armor went out of fashion (and has now been replaced by kevlar and ceramic plates) is because of firearms. No firearms, not reason for metal armor to become obsolete.

Cheap paper and printing presses (cheap paper actually came first, no reason to develop a printing press if you can't afford to mass produce the books) could still be common. Advances in medical treatments would just be another type of healing magic.

So with a few logical assumptions, basic fantasy tropes do make sense.

The other trope is that civilisations get destroyed and everything collapses

In fantasy worlds you have magical cataclysms, and sometimes the victors are not interested in the conquered civilization's technology because the victor isn't always human.

I do think FR has seen way too many world-ending cataclysms. The "the world will end unless a hero/group of heroes can stop it" is far too common a theme IMHO. Threats to cities or regions? Sure. That would be cataclysmic enough. But a threat to the entire world? Meh. Not going to happen often.

However it can happen. One thing in my campaign is the idea that there was the equivalent of a magical nuclear war long ago, in part to justify ancient ruins and artifacts. In more recent times, some mages tried to re-invent the "magic nukes" and the gods put an end to the entire region.

Anyway, just my 2 coppers. Kind of fun to think about - what would the arc of history have looked like if we had magic but no gunpowder or steam engines?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
The argument in favor of gunpowder weapons in a world of magic is the same as it is IRL: force multiplication.

Training a wizard- like training an archer- takes a lot of time and money. And some people will never “get it”, will never master the skills. It’s a lot easier to train people to follow a recipe for making gunpowder or to make & maintain weapon and others to man a cannon.

So while a single war-mage may have more power at his disposal, a company of artillery units will be very destructive for the relative time and money...and will be MUCH easier to replace.

Also, technically, the first steam engine predates the 1st century Romans:

Early in the first century A.D., a Greek inventor named Hero of Alexandria designed the world's first aeolipile, or primitive steam turbine. Heron's aeolipile consisted of a hollow sphere, mounted on a pair of tubes. Heated from below by fire, the tubes transported steam to the sphere, where it was released through another series of tubes projecting from the sphere's equator. This movement of steam through the device caused the sphere to revolve, demonstrating the potential for using steam as a means of propulsion.
 
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Zardnaar

Legend
Yes, military tactics indeed changed over the centuries, but the basic form of the sword did not. A sword from 400 BC would be entirely recognisable and usable by someone in 1400 AD.

As @jasper alludes, a sword is a tool. How the tool is used is a separate question.

Only in the most superficial way. Swords changed a lot from 400BC to the middle ages and renaissance. The greatsword for example did not get invented sooner because of metallurgy and the Roman Spatha for example was shorter and more basic than later swords. THe best weapons such as Damascus steel and the Viking sword their nobles used were a lot better than earlier weapons due to cutting power for example

There is videos on youtube demonstrating this, an ancient sword will do a nasty cut or cash on a carcass, a Roman era sword a deeper cut and the medieval swords can sheer the thing in half. The blades got longer and the the metal quality improved.
 

There is no logic in DnD for races or civilizations evolution.

A DM may choose Gods are actively changing the World:
A god create a race. Demons mostly destroy it. The same god save a few ones and relocate them else where and give them some castle and cities.


A DM may choose Distant Gods World,
He can try to make a logic evolution, but considering Magic, Demons, and Magical cataclysm it can be almost anything.

Your points are good, for a logic world.
Is there any logic in DnD?
 
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