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

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I think we're getting into a 'define many' situation (also, if we are making a list, there's a Traveller port called Mercator). I would put the big names (some more recently than others) as CoC and the White Wolf Storyteller games -- and each of them have a very solid explanation as to why the police/other IRL powers that be don't step in and solve the problems the PCs are instead to solve -- no one believes the Miskatonic University crew team just turned into shark people, the Camarilla have all the police detectives on payroll, magical forces keep the locals from seeing the magical firefight on 4th and Main, etc.
I am only saying they exist. Once I read a GM criticizing realism when making a scenario in a sci-fi game, and the players used gravity to defeat the plan, except that fantasy worlds have gravity too. It was the plan that was at fault, not realism, eg poor planning means poor performance, whatever else is going on. Today on the trav discord, someone was saying that utopias don't work for adventures, yet the example of star trek would refute that, it is its writing that makes it good.
 

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I am only saying they exist.
Okay. I never said they didn't, so hopefully you understand my confusion.
Once I read a GM criticizing realism when making a scenario in a sci-fi game, and the players used gravity to defeat the plan, except that fantasy worlds have gravity too. It was the plan that was at fault, not realism, eg poor planning means poor performance, whatever else is going on. Today on the trav discord, someone was saying that utopias don't work for adventures, yet the example of star trek would refute that, it is its writing that makes it good.
I feel like we are having two different conversations. My exchange with Paul F was regarding how realistic historic settings (modern and set-in-past) don't have the advantage that futuristic and ahistoric set-in-past settings (typical fantasy fare) have in readily and easily explaining away why the police, military, courts, media, etc. don't come in and address a given problem more readily than a RPG playgroup-sized collection of individuals. We're not really addressing the overall topic of realism in games.

I can't really speak to your gravity scenario, as there are undoubtedly a lot of details I don't have.
Star Trek, is a tricky one. Aside from the occasional turbo-negative-space-wedgie knocking the ship offline (to give the crew a chance to work on their teamwork, or whatnot), the challenge of a week's episode often revolve around forces inside or outside the supposed utopia threatening or challenging it; the realization that the utopia doesn't work for everyone; or (especially in the case of DS9 and the modern series) that it never really was a utopia for all to begin with. I wouldn't hazard numbers, but I'd say about half of TOS and TNG episodes could be summed up as 'life is perfect! Oh wait, no it isn't!'
Definitely agree on the series being highly dependent on the writing -- when it is good, they are good, and when it isn't they aren't.
 
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dragoner

solisrpg.com
Definitely agree on the series being highly dependent on the writing -- when it is good, they are good, and when it isn't they aren't.
Yes, I agree. I think a lot of it has to do with genre conventions, and that they change so that what works with one genre, doesn't necessarily work with another. Sometimes it is difficult as a GM to shift between different genres.
 

I played quite a bit of FASA Star Trek RPG, and that had a very different sort of story structure to D&D. Firstly the players really need to buy into the idea of being Starfleet, and resolving things in an appropriate style. Then the GM presents the scenario captain's log style "You have been ordered to the Planet Urgroth Four to negotiate a trade agreement between the Yatoth and the Clog". The players arrive at the Planet of the Week and set out to resolve the problem in whatever way seems best to them. That adventure might least a couple of sessions, then it's off to do the next mission on the next Planet of the Week.

They did release some supplements for Klingon and Starfleet Intelligence campaigns that where a little more open.
 

Bupp

Adventurer
Early D&D, while being the American western draped over a magical medieval times dinner, had a lot more weirdness and tech than just the Barrier Peaks.

I'm not sure when, but at some point the default D&D has leaned more medieval, and less weird.

That being said, my current flavor of D&D is more Mad Max with a layer of fantasy magic draped over it than the middle ages.
 

MGibster

Legend
It's urban fantasy.
Fair enough. I've never heard them classified as urban fantasy, but, hell, it's not like Mary Shelly classified Frankenstein as science fiction. And I usually have a big tent attitude towards genre inclusion because otherwise conversations tend to get bogged down as people see if they can out pedant the next guy. But I don't think many people in the 40s, 50s, or 60s would have viewed either work as fantasy.
I played quite a bit of FASA Star Trek RPG, and that had a very different sort of story structure to D&D. Firstly the players really need to buy into the idea of being Starfleet, and resolving things in an appropriate style.
Player's buying into the setting has been my biggest problem with attempts to run a Star Trek game (and less frequently with Star Wars).

I'm not sure when, but at some point the default D&D has leaned more medieval, and less weird.
I'm betting it had something to do with all those damned polearms!
 


Child#5118

Villager
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!
Well I'm just going answer "Why Fantasy" question. Well because in Fantasy you can do whatever you want, you could a bird, dog, cat, ogre, elf, and manymore to come, so thats why Fantasy.
 



D&D medieval times can be broken down to Early Medieval period of 1945 to 1965 which cover Errol Flynn, Robin Hood and them movies with a castle. The Late Medieval Period of 1982 to 2005 which covers Cona, That Lord of Rings movies, and them there movies with castle and jump cuts.
I would divide them into the Pre-Mud and Post-Mud period. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) being the first D&D movie with mud.
 

Yora

Legend
Player's buying into the setting has been my biggest problem with attempts to run a Star Trek game (and less frequently with Star Wars).
Star Trek just really doesn't seem to lend itself well to RPGs, in my view.
The heroes of Star Trek are all captains and command crews who are in charge of hundreds of people while also acting on orders they get from above. This leads to a combination of too much responsibility and not enough freedom. There is no real space for just wandering off chasing after something that catches your interest and goof around to see what happens.
You could play a game in the Star Trek setting playing characters who aren't Starfleet officers. But why would you want to play a Star Trek game that isn't about what Star Trek is 98% all about?

Star Wars is a completely different situation. You can just hop into your own private space ship and run off to whatever little planet catches your curiosity and get into swashbuckling shenanigans with the authorities and criminals, blow everything sky high, and then fly off into the sunset with no further consequences.
You could play Rebel soldiers, but I never really see that mentioned when people talk about Star Wars campaigns.
 

Hussar

Legend
Excellent thread and excellent points being made!

Just to clarify my own position since I was part of the original conversation that spawned this.

My basic point was that in much of fantasy (both as a genre and an RPG) we tend to gloss over (the term I used was lampshade) the icky parts of what I mistakenly referred to as feudal periods. Again, people got a bit more caught up in chewing up the exact definitions rather than the point I was trying to make.

The point is this - yes, we use a Ren-Faire approach to a fantasy setting that is very loosely based on pre-industrial cultures, typically from Europe, although certainly not exclusively that. But, we then completely romanticize the whole thing. We have "good kings" that do good things and are "good kingdoms".

Meanwhile, players will absolutely lose their minds over things like the Wall of the Faithless in Forgotten Realms. Or the Cataclysm in Dragonlance. But, have no problems with autocratic governments where your character really has no rights or freedoms. But, because we ignore all that (mostly in service to creating an "old west" approach - itself incredibly ahistorical and romanticized) we wind up with these settings that, if you step back and pull off the lampshade, you realize that these settings are hiding a lot of nastiness that we just gloss over.

The reason for this whole sidebar was a comment about how war-games of the 1970's which formed the basis for a lot of D&D, also lampshade a lot of the more icky parts of history in service to fanstasy.

Again, of course we do. Heck, how many people play Grand Theft Auto and love it? Are they horrible people for liking the game? Of course not.
 

Star Trek just really doesn't seem to lend itself well to RPGs, in my view.
It works just fine if the players are Star Trek fans.
The heroes of Star Trek are all captains and command crews who are in charge of hundreds of people while also acting on orders they get from above. This leads to a combination of too much responsibility and not enough freedom.
You watched Star Trek? The crew are just moving wallpaper, there are only a few characters who matter.
There is no real space for just wandering off chasing after something that catches your interest and goof around to see what happens.
True. But for many players having a clear mission objective is an advantage. They don't want to goof around in the hope that something interesting turns up.
 

payn

Legend
Star Trek just really doesn't seem to lend itself well to RPGs, in my view.
The heroes of Star Trek are all captains and command crews who are in charge of hundreds of people while also acting on orders they get from above. This leads to a combination of too much responsibility and not enough freedom. There is no real space for just wandering off chasing after something that catches your interest and goof around to see what happens.
You could play a game in the Star Trek setting playing characters who aren't Starfleet officers. But why would you want to play a Star Trek game that isn't about what Star Trek is 98% all about?

Star Wars is a completely different situation. You can just hop into your own private space ship and run off to whatever little planet catches your curiosity and get into swashbuckling shenanigans with the authorities and criminals, blow everything sky high, and then fly off into the sunset with no further consequences.
You could play Rebel soldiers, but I never really see that mentioned when people talk about Star Wars campaigns.
If the assumed operation state of RPGs is murderhobo, than yeah Star Trek is a hard sell. Star Trek tends to be a smaller sandbox the sides are easy to see. For many that instantly means railroad. There is so much opportunity working inside such well defined boxes as Star Trek. YMMV.
 



Jer

Legend
Supporter
If the assumed operation state of RPGs is murderhobo, than yeah Star Trek is a hard sell.
That's true, but it isn't just the murderhobos who might object. There are players who don't like having a "mission framework" for their games and prefer to have independent operators. Any kind of authority telling them to go somewhere and do something is immediately seen as a railroad, so they reject the premise of a standard idea of a Star Trek game.

(I say standard idea because in fact I'd think that a Star Trek game could make a perfect sandbox. Set it on an exploration vessel out on a five year mission to explore the fringes of known space, let the players figure out where they want to go, and it's basically a big sandbox. But a lot of folks - especially those who are thinking Next Gen - see Star Trek and think "Starfleet command structure" and think it's going to be all mission based.)
 

Zubatcarteira

Now you're infected by the Musical Doodle
Excellent thread and excellent points being made!

Just to clarify my own position since I was part of the original conversation that spawned this.

My basic point was that in much of fantasy (both as a genre and an RPG) we tend to gloss over (the term I used was lampshade) the icky parts of what I mistakenly referred to as feudal periods. Again, people got a bit more caught up in chewing up the exact definitions rather than the point I was trying to make.

The point is this - yes, we use a Ren-Faire approach to a fantasy setting that is very loosely based on pre-industrial cultures, typically from Europe, although certainly not exclusively that. But, we then completely romanticize the whole thing. We have "good kings" that do good things and are "good kingdoms".

Meanwhile, players will absolutely lose their minds over things like the Wall of the Faithless in Forgotten Realms. Or the Cataclysm in Dragonlance. But, have no problems with autocratic governments where your character really has no rights or freedoms. But, because we ignore all that (mostly in service to creating an "old west" approach - itself incredibly ahistorical and romanticized) we wind up with these settings that, if you step back and pull off the lampshade, you realize that these settings are hiding a lot of nastiness that we just gloss over.

The reason for this whole sidebar was a comment about how war-games of the 1970's which formed the basis for a lot of D&D, also lampshade a lot of the more icky parts of history in service to fanstasy.

Again, of course we do. Heck, how many people play Grand Theft Auto and love it? Are they horrible people for liking the game? Of course not.
From skimming some Forgotten Realms modules and wiki pages, I think I can safely say that 20% of the population are polymorphed Ancient Dragons, 30% are Archmages, and the rest are Zentharim. No wonder no one wants to show the bad stuff, the players are screwed if they try to fight anyone.
 

payn

Legend
That's true, but it isn't just the murderhobos who might object. There are players who don't like having a "mission framework" for their games and prefer to have independent operators. Any kind of authority telling them to go somewhere and do something is immediately seen as a railroad, so they reject the premise of a standard idea of a Star Trek game.

(I say standard idea because in fact I'd think that a Star Trek game could make a perfect sandbox. Set it on an exploration vessel out on a five year mission to explore the fringes of known space, let the players figure out where they want to go, and it's basically a big sandbox. But a lot of folks - especially those who are thinking Next Gen - see Star Trek and think "Starfleet command structure" and think it's going to be all mission based.)
Sure, pretty much addressed in my comment.

Edit: Though, yes I did think about the 5 year mission and you are totally right. Thats how you get away from Fleet command and allow the players to do as they like. Well, assuming they are following the prime directives... ;)
 

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