D&D General Why Fantasy? Goin' Medieval in D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In another thread, ostensibly about the recent revelations regarding M.A.R. Barker, a side topic came up that was of interest to me- specifically, the idea that all of this "fantasy" and "medievalism" in D&D is nonsense. After all, what are we doing with our campaigns, but reinforcing out-of-date concepts intertwined with feudalism while neglecting to note that people end up playing the game with their own modern sensibilities. Moreover, it was dashing knights supporting monarchies- where are the Marxist revolutionaries?

I ... don't really agree with that analysis, for a lot of reasons, but I thought it was worth exploring for various reasons. Fundamentally, however, I find the objection that D&D (and fantasy settings) both reinforce outdated tropes AND allow people to unthinkingly import modern sensibilities into the game to be somewhat akin to the old joke about the curmudgeon at the restaurant- "The food tastes terrible. And the portions are too small!"

That said, this will require a little bit of explanation. I recommend looking at the original thread, roughly starting here, if you want a feel for the original debate. I would also caution that I can't see one of the contributors, so I might be missing important nuance. Also? I'm kind of distracted by trying to settle on a new avatar. So there's that.

A. Why is Fantasy so Dominant in RPGs, and D&D?
The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn't to search for meaning. It's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead.

Let's start with the basic question, before getting into the "good" and the "bad" of fantasy. Why? Why fantasy? The short and simple answer is similar to the reason we climb mountains- "Because it's there." The slightly longer reason is because of the historical antecedents- D&D was the first RPG. The early RPGs that followed were often either reactions to D&D (Bunnies & Burrows), or were, for the most part, house rules and expansions of the original D&D rules (Chivalry & Sorcery). The gestalt of the 70s, from Tolkien to Led Zeppelin to Baker-era Doctor Who to Star Wars (which was "A long time ago ..." and featured swords and wizar.... um, Jedi) was conducive to fantasy. There was definitely a first-mover advantage. But while that is all true, it isn't the entirety of the truth.

I would say (and I have said) that another reasons that fantasy predominates in the RPG world is because fantasy, moreso than any other genre, particularly lends itself to both the "campaign" and to the reward play loop (zero-to-hero) that so many people enjoy. In addition, while other genres have examples of group play (Science Fiction has Star Trek and the bridge crew, while Super Heroes has, inter alia, the Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy), few genres have such a well-entrenched (and copied) example like the Fellowship.

Arguably, it's an advantage that accrued from the beginning, and continues to be reinforced. Other RPGs do an excellent job at many aspects that fantasy RPGs can't or don't handle well, but the fantasy RPGs dominate for tables looking for long term, group play, zero-to-hero campaigns.

B. D&D, and Fantasy RPGs, Do Not Attempt to Realistically Depict Medieval Societies.
A fur coat in a movie made in 1946 approached a state of being cruelty-free, so far was it from its original foxes.

I feel like this point is so banal it should not require me saying it- but I will. Wait, I won't, since this was a point already made in 1975-
Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. ...You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! ... I mean, if I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!

Yeah. So, one thing most people agree on is that fantasy, generally, tends to be a reactionary and small-c conservative genre. It is the imagining of some bygone time (that never existed). It often involves battles between identifiable forces of good and evil. There is usually the presence of various governments that are autocracies, and the main concern with the autocracies are whether they are good (kind, benevolent, for the people) or evil (bad, tyrannical, expansionist) as opposed to an in-depth look at the nature of autocracy. It is exceedingly common for power or importance or skill or magic to be the result of bloodlines- it might be hidden (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, etc. etc.) or might be overt (Strider/Aragorn). Even the subversion of the tropes often reifies it (GoT and Jon Snow). None of this is, or should be remarkable.

What is surprising is the extent to which some people assert that D&D necessarily resembles medieval Europe- or would have feudalism (to use the example that was brought up in the other thread). To start with, D&D is fantasy, but while it borrows tropes from European (and other) fantasy stories, it doesn't resemble any specific historic period so much as it resembles ... itself. Arguably, D&D incorporates has, from the beginning through 5e, incorporated elements from 2800 B.C. (Middle Kingdom of Egypt) through the Roman Period (~100 BC on) continuing on to King Arthur (eh ... invented later, but backdated to the 6th century AD) on to the Medieval period and then through the Renaissance and incorporating, arguably, elements right up to the industrial revolution (we will say 1760). ....and that's assuming you're not running Eberron or some other similar campaign.

A large part of this is because D&D is a game, and the games are usually fairly static; again, they don't model reality. When was the last time you massively adjusted prices skywards in the local town for the large influx of gold, or had the economy crater because someone suddenly injected the GDP of several small nations that they grabbed off a dragon? For that matter, how much time have you spent working through the sanitation systems (or working out how much excrement is produced in your town, and how it is dealt with) other than to make cool maps of the sewers "to explore." I think I could go on, but most people understand- we are playing a game in a fantasy world with magic and dragons and unicorns in order to have fun; we are not playing Serfs and Sanitation, the Feudalism Simulation.

C. So ... What's Up With all the Monarchies, Anyway?
The Flat Earth Society announced it had members all over the globe.

This is going to be a three-fold answer. The first is kind of a... well, a "Duh" thing. You are playing a fantasy game. Fantasy, as noted above, traffics in certain tropes- notably, autocracies and bloodlines. Whether it's fairytales about princesses or the "rightful king" reclaiming a thrown or just plain ol' King Arthur and some dudes in plate hanging out at a round table ... fantasy has long used these concepts.

....but D&D doesn't always. I could point you to the random government table in the DMG (magocracy, anyone?). Instead, I'd like to look at the original TSR campaign setting, Greyhawk. Oh yeah. You knew it was coming. YOU KNEW. Greyhawk is notable not for the monarchies, but for the wild diversity of government types- rule by clergy (e.g., Almor), anarchic chiefs (e.g., Bandit Kingdoms), hereditary principalities (e.g., Bissel), an individual elected from the gentry (e.g., Dyvers), an individual elected by the people from the nobility (e.g., Gran March), an individual chosen by the oligarchs (e.g., City of Greyhawk), a freely elected individual (Highfolk- free town), a Magocracy of multiple wizards (Spindrift Isles) or a single wizard (Valley of the Mage), or a ... kind of Republican form of government (Yeomanry) ... etc.

Simply put, to say that D&D necessarily apes medieval feudalism is reductionist both when it comes to actual history as well as the diversity of games played in D&D.

Which brings me to the necessary third point- one thing you will note when looking back at the original Greyhawk is despite the incredible diversity of government types, almost all the countries have a listed "leader." And I think this gets to the heart of why monarchies and autocracies are so common in RPG games. The emphasis is on the game, on the conflict. And conflicts and stories work best with identifiable personalities.

Look, I don't yuck on anyone's yum. If you want to play a West Wing-style game, more power to you. Perhaps you set it in the Yeomanry, and the campaign involves the party's attempts to convince the greater landowners (who elect the Freeholder) and the council of Common Grosspokesmen (who are elected at local meetings) to enact voting and land reform. I mean, they already allow the demi-humans to be electors, but maybe we want equal suffrage from the (old term here) humanoids. I dunno.

But generally, people want to interact with a single point of contact- and rulers ... whether they are kings or queens, autocrats or generals ... they allow streamlined play and roleplay. They make the game easier to run, and for many tables, more fun to play. It's not just a trope of fantasy- it's a crutch of a lot of storytelling. Which is probably why, in the decades that I have played campaigns in Greyhawk, I am hard-pressed to think of anything major that happened that involved the Yeomanry, while the Great Kingdom (to use one example) is always a rich vein for campaign fodder.

Anyway, while I have more thoughts on the subject, I wanted to get a post up. I also didn't think the other thread (given the intense subject matter) was a particularly good one to discuss it. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments below!

log in or register to remove this ad


Guest 7034872

I actually looked for something to disagree with here. Nope.

One friendly rider clause, I guess: I suspect love of mythology does a lot to drive D&D toward the pre-medieval and medieval and accounts for some of D&D's popularity, too. Futuristic RPGs tap into the imagination in a different way than ones steeped in ancient myths. That's what I say made Lucas' Star Wars trilogy so remarkable and ground-breaking, quite apart from the special effects and what-not: he found a way to elegantly combine the futuristic and the mythic. That's no mean feat.


Moderator Emeritus
When was the last time you massively adjusted prices skywards in the local town for the large influx of gold, or had the economy crater because someone suddenly injected the GDP of several small nations that they grabbed off a dragon?
Three sessions ago, when PCs found the price of some basic PHB stuff in town had gone up because most resources were being directed to a war effort.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I think fantasy was all the rage at the time RPGs came into being and just left a major cultural impact. I mean, wargaming was all over the place. It was medieval, Civil war era, WWI, WWII, future sci-fi, etc... D&D came in and really pulled in folks that were jamming to Lord of the Rings, Conan, Elric, and other fantasy media. Later, you had all kinds of movies like Conan, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, etc... Renaissance festivals started popping up all around America. Once video games started to get going, you had all kinds of D&D sims. A decade or two later you have MMOs. It was like every 5-10 years a new doubling down occurred that just further stapled the fantasy genre into place.

There were other RPGs, I mean Traveller came out at nearly the same time as D&D. I think Snarf nailed it though that SW was more space fantasy than science fiction. It just didnt have the same impact on RPG as it did the wider culture. It was like D&D brand fantasy was Coke Cola and everything else is Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew. Many choices, but really just one king of the hill.

I think the modeling real medieval society might be a hold over from wargaming. Those folks were pretty hard core about emulating the time period that the setting takes place. D&D busts all the rules on that by adding Dragons and magic. There is no way to realistically model that in any type of world because it has never existed in our history. So, you are boulting on fantastical imaginary elements to realistic historical ones, and since the inception of RPGs there has been a pull in both directions. I like this dynamic because there is at least an attempt to link this fantasy element to a historic grounding piece that gives us a great place to imagine that is both fantasy and historical. YMMV.

I think the monarchies leans into the historical piece from wargaming. It's not a system that's in use now culturally, so its fun to reenact and imagine what that type of setting would be like. Its one step removed from reality and one step into past history. It's both easy to imagine in practice, and as a fantasy "what if?" Also, DD brand fantasy is the coke of RPGs. It's where people start and move on from there (if ever).

Nice posting Snarf.


Moderator Emeritus
Look, I don't yuck on anyone's yum. If you want to play a West Wing-style game, more power to you. Perhaps you set it in the Yeomanry, and the campaign involves the party's attempts to convince the greater landowners (who elect the Freeholder) and the council of Common Grosspokesmen (who are elected at local meetings) to enact voting and land reform. I mean, they already allow the demi-humans to be electors, but maybe we want equal suffrage from the (old term here) humanoids. I dunno.
Shudder. . . I loathe The West Wing - but that being said, an election and its outcome is the backdrop for some intrigue and adventure that I have planned for both my current games (since I am playing through the second a few months behind the first and trying to re-use as much from one in the other since no players overlap).


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I would still like fewer monarchies as they are just so common and easy to just kill by random adventures plus why not have every hypothetical government share a world it would be funny certainly with all the nuts ones.
Based on my thoughts, I think its because monarchies are that historical anchor of the game. It's something we have references on so its more difficult to play with the template than say magic or dragons. It would be like a fantasy game with no swords, its quite possible, but you are moving away from that hard expectation.


Great Old One
I think the monarchy thing is also linked to the fact that, in a fantasy world, it's the easiest to link personal power to secular power, and to show valor through achievements. Conan is a great example (in a pseudo-historical setting), but there are also many legends, more or less magical, around the value of the king. It also makes dedication easier, to a person rather than to something more abstract like an ideal, country, etc.


He / Him
The medievalism of D&D reminds me of the book "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Mark Twain, in a note in the beginning, notes that the Camelot of his book isn't meant to be a historic recreation, but instead is a sandbox in which he has placed all the atrocities of human history.

In D&D we put these little castles and dungeons and kings and pirate ships in our sandbox not because they reflect real medievalism, but because they are symbols that reflect adventure, intrigue, and imagination!

I think that's why the "medieval" setting of D&D crosses over so well with Renaissance, Pulp, Sci Fi, Cosmic Horror, etc etc etc. All those little toys can be added to the sandbox because they are all also symbols for adventure!

In an interview about the movie Gladiator, Ridley Scott said that his Rome wasn't supposed to be historic. Instead it was the Rome of movies... It was the Rome that had been shown in the movies he grew up watching.

In the same way, the medieval world of D&D is the medieval that existed not in the real world, but in the fantasies and stories that used medieval tropes to symbolize heroes, villains, and quests.

Remove ads


Remove ads

Upcoming Releases