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Worlds of Design: A Time for Change

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Silmarilion set a fashion for fictional civilizations lasting many millennia without much technological or social change. This worked for the literature, but rarely makes sense for games.



It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.” Carl Sagan​

One of the things Tolkien did with Middle Earth has encouraged an unbelievable view of history as something that very slowly changes over millennia. Perhaps one reason was that in Middle Earth there were people who remembered the First Age. They were alive then, a consequence of the practical immortality of the elves (and some half-elves). If your world doesn’t have the continuity of immortality then barely-changing history stretching thousands of years makes even less sense.

What I’m trying to do is point out why these fictional civilizations that last for millennia don’t make sense. Why is this important? One word, immersion. People who know much about history will probably see your worlds very long history-without-much-change as unbelievable, thus destroying the immersion in the world that’s so important to engaging play. Though those who don’t know much history may not find it distracting at all.

Often, the very long histories are a form of self-indulgence, the writer writes what he wants even though it is hardly necessary to the game.

The funny thing is, it’s not necessary to have thousands of years of history to do what you want; a few hundreds of years will be just fine. What was our world like 500 years ago? The end of the Middle Ages, the recent discovery of the New World, the beginning of the end for Mesoamerican civilizations, China drawing back into isolation, the Ottoman Empire growing into Europe as it was no longer opposed by the no-longer-extant Byzantines, Russia still a benighted land fighting the Tartars, India dominated by Muslims, and so forth. Armies still included pikemen and others not yet armed with gunpowder weapons. The first circumnavigation of the world was being accomplished.

And that’s only 500 years ago.

Now if we go back 5,000 years there were nascent civilizations only in Mesopotamia and Egypt (China and Harappa (India) came later), and technological change was slow (though faster than we may think today because the changes were so fundamental, such as the development of writing). Iron-working had not yet been developed, bronze was very expensive, and horses were much too small to pull chariots, let alone to ride. When iron-working was developed it took many centuries to spread throughout the Old World.

Furthermore, a civilization with iron or steel armor and weapons, with well-developed ships, is not going to sit in stasis unless someone is deliberately trying to suppress change, as we see in some fantasy and science fiction stories (see David Weber’s Safehold series).

There are lots of reasons why civilizations cannot remain static - which is the primary way you’re likely to have histories thousands of years long, civilization in stasis. There are resource limitations: if you use iron for many centuries you’re going to use up easily accessible sources, and have to develop new technology to be able to continue to obtain iron ore. That’s true for many other resources, even renewable ones such as timber. If you irrigate land long enough (as in Mesopotamia), it begins to deteriorate from salt deposits. You can’t continue doing things the old way because the resources change.

And the longer your civilization goes on, the more you must change.

If you’re writing a separate setting, one that is not part of a particular game, then circumstances are somewhat different. There are so many supplements available, whether world settings or adventures, that you can’t really expect many people to use them directly in games even if they read them. In other words, many people are reading them for the story more than for their utility in a game. That’s compounded perhaps by the people whose RPGs are primarily storytelling machines and not opposed games. (There’s no possibility of failure.) Those folks are naturally going to read settings and adventures more as story than as game.

In these cases, indulging your storytelling bent at the expense of game makes perfect sense. So those long histories, if they are relevant to the stories, are no longer self-indulgence.

Rome (kingdom, republic, and empire) had a history approaching 1,000 years - more if you include another thousand for the Byzantine Empire that succeeded Rome, and called itself Roman. China has a history more than 2,000 years long. There were empires in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago - but they were lost to memory until archaeologists excavated ancient mounds that turned out to have been great cities, that used fired-clay tablets to record information. A 3,000 year history is a very long time.

Of course, if YOU want to write thousands of years of history for your campaign or your RPG rules, that's your choice. It may help you create your game. But do you want to inflict all that history on the gamer? I enjoy history (that’s what my Ph.D. is in), but very long histories for games are not my preference. Your mileage may vary.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

aramis erak

Explorer
I can understand the reasoning here, and agree with it in most circumstances but there is one key factor that's not mentioned: fossil fuels. Pretty much every technical advance from the late middle ages onwards came in some way from the mining and use of fossil fuels. Yes, you can invent the steam engine, but without an energy-dense power source such as coal you're not going to get much further - sure, you can use charcoal but the energy density is not the same and making charcoal is a labour & time intensive process. After that, you have no oil and so no gasoline, no natural gas, no internal combustion engine, no gas lighting/heating/engines.

You can apply this thought experiment best in a post-apocalypse setting, given that our modern world has already pretty much exhausted all easily available sources of fossil fuels and we now have to use high-tech industrial methods to eke the last few ounces out of the ground.

So, if you want to move a medieval-like society forward, figure out a way to do it without fossil fuels - it's not as easy as you think.
Everything I can find cites typical charcoal at around 30MJ/kg, and Coal at 16 to 36 MJ/kg, averaging 33 MJ/kg.

Biodiesel is variable, but typically mid 30's to lower 40's.
Petroleum is in the 40's and 50's, but biodiesel at upper 30's to lower 40's is comparable to bunker oil.

So, lack of petroleum won't be an issue until looking for the highest fuel efficiencies - it'll slow rockets and aircraft more than anything else.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Re: energy sources

One of those survival shows I watched years ago had a guy who heated his hot tub by placing it in the center of a parabolic mirror he fashioned out of snow. He was able to do so because he was kind of a black MacGyver.

Obviously, you’re not going to be able to make parabolic mirrors from snow your primary energy source, but it’s just one example of how smart people can work out innovative solutions.
 
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MGibster

Explorer
A lot of RPG fantasy settings are post apocalyptic. Or at least posit a distant era where ancient now extinct civilizations created wondrous buildings and powerful magical items player characters adventure for. That could explain why things haven't changed a whole lot.
 

Hussar

Legend
A lot of RPG fantasy settings are post apocalyptic. Or at least posit a distant era where ancient now extinct civilizations created wondrous buildings and powerful magical items player characters adventure for. That could explain why things haven't changed a whole lot.
Kinda sorta. Even post apocalyptic settings do advance eventually. Sure Europe kinda wallowed for a while after the fall of Rome but it wasn’t millennia to recover, but centuries.

It’s actually pretty rare for stagnation to occur. Not impossible but rate.
 

Ath-kethin

Explorer
I posited in another recent thread that any powerful nation with expansionist tendencies and a powerful navy would make learning spells like Magic Missile part of the basic training for “any sailor capable of learning” those spells- expanding the capacity of a ship’s crew to take down their opposite numbers with no fear of missing is too big of an advantage to ignore. I also noted that a similar requirement might be imposed by a government with a mindset similar to England’s when they passed laws making learning the longbow mandatory.
The 2e book DM's Option: High Level Campaigns had an interesting demographic breakdown based on standard stat generation method (3d6 at the time) and how many members of a given class would result in a given population. Of course, at the time classes had minimum stat requirements, which makes the numbers less applicable for WotC-era games, but it's still interesting.

Of course, that was pre-Eberron, pre-5e and pre-Magic Initiate feat. I actually wrote an article on the Kobold site about the impact Magic Initiate could have on armed forces:

https://koboldpress.com/cult-activity-order-of-the-jinx/

It's mostly a list of NPCs created using that logic and approach.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
Kinda sorta. Even post apocalyptic settings do advance eventually. Sure Europe kinda wallowed for a while after the fall of Rome but it wasn’t millennia to recover, but centuries.

It’s actually pretty rare for stagnation to occur. Not impossible but rate.
Even then, a lot more innovation happened during this time than we commonly give credit, both outside of Europe (e.g., China, Eastern Roman Empire, Abbasid Caliphate, etc.) and inside of Europe.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
That's an interesting thought. What if magic only works because that universe's physics are "fuzzy", and so hard science, as we know it, doesn't exist. So even the art of chemistry/alchemy is a crap shoot, or at least difficult enough that only masters can produce something potent consistently, making gunpowder a very rare substance.
An alternative is that magic itself works according to laws, but possibly highly uncertain ones. Lyndon Hardy, who is a physicist, explored this in his fantasy novels, the first of which is Master of the Five Magics.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
I don't think you can have this conversation without at least nodding the direction of lifespan. D&D is full of sentient races that live for hundreds or even thousands of years. And actual deities and other immensely powerful beings that are essentially immortal. That's going to have a huge impact of the development of technology. How it should affect technology is a complicated thing of course, and I'm not suggesting I have the answer there. Setting lifespan next to magic does start to index reasons why the development of technology might be non-standard though, with lots of those talking points mitigating for a slower progress there than the real world comparisons. That said, I don't think that a completely static culture makes any sense either.

I like Eberron as an example of a D&D setting that takes some of the things in this thread into account.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
An alternative is that magic itself works according to laws, but possibly highly uncertain ones. Lyndon Hardy, who is a physicist, explored this in his fantasy novels, the first of which is Master of the Five Magics.
It could be. Notice that you can't just copy a spell from someone's spell book straight into yours. You have to "personalize" it. In 5E it costs you 2 hours and 50 GP per level of the spell to decipher / translate it and write it into your own book. I guess it could be "bad hand writing" on their part :D or it could simply be differences based on "you", not being the same as "them". The 5E PHB (page 114) talks about having to decipher the "unique notations" of the other mage. That could be one of the laws of magic, but that makes it pretty uncertain. There used to be a chance of failure in previous editions when you did this and no one volunteered their own spell books because they could be damaged iirc. And scrolls were erased in the process. Scrolls on the other hand when used "just work"... presumably because the scroll contains the personalized elements of the writer. Interesting. For me, this is what makes magic an "art" rather than a "science". As always ymmv.
 

Hussar

Legend
I don't think you can have this conversation without at least nodding the direction of lifespan. D&D is full of sentient races that live for hundreds or even thousands of years. And actual deities and other immensely powerful beings that are essentially immortal. That's going to have a huge impact of the development of technology. How it should affect technology is a complicated thing of course, and I'm not suggesting I have the answer there. Setting lifespan next to magic does start to index reasons why the development of technology might be non-standard though, with lots of those talking points mitigating for a slower progress there than the real world comparisons. That said, I don't think that a completely static culture makes any sense either.

I like Eberron as an example of a D&D setting that takes some of the things in this thread into account.
Realistically, as far as I'm concerned, those "long lived" races should be extinct pretty quickly. Not so bad in 5e D&D where elves only live a couple of centuries, but, back in AD&D, when elves lived for a thousand years or more and generally only had one or two children, simple attrition would have wiped them out.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Realistically, as far as I'm concerned, those "long lived" races should be extinct pretty quickly. Not so bad in 5e D&D where elves only live a couple of centuries, but, back in AD&D, when elves lived for a thousand years or more and generally only had one or two children, simple attrition would have wiped them out.
They didn't live thousands of years in AD&D, but more like a few centuries, and it didn't consistently say they had only one or two children. That's lifted from Tolkien, where elves really really are going extinct! AD&D elves were decidedly less alien. Regardless, D&D has really never pretended to be a paragon of consistent world building. Most D&D worlds are way overloaded with apex predators, to say nothing of fantastic carnivores (or whatever-ivors) that make no sense in a standard ecology but make perfect sense narratively in terms of providing threat for the PCs.

Furthermore, lots of things that are generally appropriately powered compared to other abilities would drastically change the world if the logical conclusions were drawn. Light spell (now a cantrip!) is a good example. It's not that great a spell vis a vis other spells. Thinking in a purely gamist fashion, it's totally appropriate the way it is, but it would utterly shift the world were they to be available so easily and Continual Light is even worse. This is to say nothing of spells like Plant Growth or the effectively infinite sources of fire provided by Create Bonfire or food from Create Food and Water. These spells would totally shift the world were the logical conclusions taken.

However, most players don't care---they're interested not in simulating some slightly shifted version of reality but in heroic fantasy. Of course, everybody's got their point of what they're willing buy into, but this is going to be some mixture of genre concerns, story, "realism", and just personal taste.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
It could be. Notice that you can't just copy a spell from someone's spell book straight into yours. You have to "personalize" it. In 5E it costs you 2 hours and 50 GP per level of the spell to decipher / translate it and write it into your own book. I guess it could be "bad hand writing" on their part :D or it could simply be differences based on "you", not being the same as "them". The 5E PHB (page 114) talks about having to decipher the "unique notations" of the other mage. That could be one of the laws of magic, but that makes it pretty uncertain. There used to be a chance of failure in previous editions when you did this and no one volunteered their own spell books because they could be damaged iirc. And scrolls were erased in the process. Scrolls on the other hand when used "just work"... presumably because the scroll contains the personalized elements of the writer. Interesting. For me, this is what makes magic an "art" rather than a "science". As always ymmv.
Yeah, some of the "no spellcaster ever allows anyone else to look at their spellbooks" were pretty clearly done to prevent the obvious sharing of spellbooks among party members. 5E has a few similar with the "nobody ever sells magic items". I think it's much more of an art than a science, and it seems to involve personal will.
 

Hussar

Legend
They didn't live thousands of years in AD&D, but more like a few centuries, and it didn't consistently say they had only one or two children. That's lifted from Tolkien, where elves really really are going extinct! AD&D elves were decidedly less alien. Regardless, D&D has really never pretended to be a paragon of consistent world building. Most D&D worlds are way overloaded with apex predators, to say nothing of fantastic carnivores (or whatever-ivors) that make no sense in a standard ecology but make perfect sense narratively in terms of providing threat for the PCs.

Furthermore, lots of things that are generally appropriately powered compared to other abilities would drastically change the world if the logical conclusions were drawn. Light spell (now a cantrip!) is a good example. It's not that great a spell vis a vis other spells. Thinking in a purely gamist fashion, it's totally appropriate the way it is, but it would utterly shift the world were they to be available so easily and Continual Light is even worse. This is to say nothing of spells like Plant Growth or the effectively infinite sources of fire provided by Create Bonfire or food from Create Food and Water. These spells would totally shift the world were the logical conclusions taken.

However, most players don't care---they're interested not in simulating some slightly shifted version of reality but in heroic fantasy. Of course, everybody's got their point of what they're willing buy into, but this is going to be some mixture of genre concerns, story, "realism", and just personal taste.
Depends on the kind of elf. Grey elves lived up to 2000 years and even high elves were (IIRC) over a thousand. That's one of the consistent grognard complaints about WotC era D&D - elven lifespans are MUCH shorter.

OTOH, your final point about players simply not caring is very, very true. Most folks just really don't watch the sausage being made and are perfectly happy.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Realistically, as far as I'm concerned, those "long lived" races should be extinct pretty quickly. Not so bad in 5e D&D where elves only live a couple of centuries, but, back in AD&D, when elves lived for a thousand years or more and generally only had one or two children, simple attrition would have wiped them out.
Maybe, maybe not. Give someone a thousand years to level up. Each loss would be serious for a long lived race like AD&D Elves with low fertility, but for every one you kill, how many human soldiers buy it? I'd call it even at best. Given the long life span there's no reason for them not to pursue a class that levels up, the militia might only devote a few decades or so... the hardened professionals would be terrifying and the cream of their military would be like facing a pack of demi-gods. I think, as a human, I'd sit that war out :D In earlier editions the Elves were limited in level they could go up, but other than youth (and there are not that many of them in an Elvish population) there was no reason they wouldn't all max out and in more recent editions without level limits... it could get really ugly.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Maybe, maybe not. Give someone a thousand years to level up. Each loss would be serious for a long lived race like AD&D Elves with low fertility, but for every one you kill, how many human soldiers buy it? I'd call it even at best.
Looking at the game mechanics as presented? Elves don’t really have anything about them that makes them über as compared to the “mayflies” they share the world with. Nothing to suggest there would be any significantly lopsided kill ratio in their favor.

Now, Melniboneans and Pan Tangians in Stormbringer, OTOH...
 
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Aldarc

Adventurer
Realistically, as far as I'm concerned, those "long lived" races should be extinct pretty quickly. Not so bad in 5e D&D where elves only live a couple of centuries, but, back in AD&D, when elves lived for a thousand years or more and generally only had one or two children, simple attrition would have wiped them out.
The issue here is less about their life-expectancy but, rather, their birth and fertility rate. I'm not sure why we are treating elves as if they were pandas. I don't really see an issue with saying, "elves live long lives and have lots of kids." If people are worried about elves over-running the place, then one can introduce the idea of "the Longing," where elves who reach a certain age are drawn to live in the fey courts of the Feywild. We never see elves over a certain age because the rest join the "Hidden Kingdoms" of the fey. Explanation made.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
Personally, I don't think there is a singular answer here, especially to the tech part because I think it can depend a lot on the particulars of things (many of which have already been mentioned) like:

How does magic work? or Vice Versa: If magic works, what of our physics/chemistry/science doesn't? (Player: "So I've put the Charcoal, Sulfur, and Saltpeter mixture in the tube. I light it with a twig..." DM: "Nothing happens." Forget all that nonsense about Carbon, lad! You get better steel when you sing the right Dwarven Forge Hymns. Personally, I get the best results from Her Beard Was Rusty.)

Which creatures in the MM can be tamed or are domesticable? (The Firebeetle Lighting Company worked well until we discovered they can only lay their eggs in dead Carrion Crawlers.)

How do magic and magical secrecy affect the way educated people interact with each other? (Wait? You think I'm going to just let you print copies of my Principia?... No thank you, I'm much more comfortable being the only one who knows how Prismatic Storm works.)

Simlarly, will science or the scientific method ever occur to people in a world where magic works? Curing a plague isn't a matter of inventing sanitation or antibiotics or vaccines...its a matter of having enough clerics around. Will academic types spend time on it when they will gain more personally from learning magic? ( Why waste time inventing Calculus when Fireball is so much more entertaining?)

How do living/real/active gods/celestials respond to technology? What happens when they disagree? If progress is often randomly set back by a godswar, that could explain a lot of stagnation. (Things were going great until the High Priest of the Temple of Kuff the Plague-Bringer ran across that new toilet thing.)

Similarly, politics and history would be greatly impacted if tribal inhabitants greet explorers with summoned giant sharks or allosaur calvary. (...after Captain Columbus stabbed the fellow, a few of the old ones shouted something in their gibberish and we saw the ship just...get...devoured! It had huge tentacles like an octopus and a shell like a giant turtle with massive flippers. They started to scatter into the trees and our Father Tomas started to say a prayer, but this huge.....thing...swooped down out of the sky and carried him off....) If Druids and highly active nature gods/spirits are around, will an advanced civilization be allowed to thrive?

The more I think about it, the more that the presence of magic and MM creatures can really profoundly change how the world works. All that being said, I still think this is a question that more affects authors, rather than DMs and games.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Depends on the kind of elf. Grey elves lived up to 2000 years and even high elves were (IIRC) over a thousand. That's one of the consistent grognard complaints about WotC era D&D - elven lifespans are MUCH shorter.
I did find the relevant table in the 1E DMG (it's on pp. 12-13) and you're right, some of the Venerable ages do go that high. However, if the grognards are attacking WotC for it, they're attacking the wrong target (typical...) because those changes were well underway in 2E. Max age was about 500-700 years (p. 23-24 PHB2E). Elves in 2E aren't listed as dying, but they "disappear."


OTOH, your final point about players simply not caring is very, very true. Most folks just really don't watch the sausage being made and are perfectly happy.
Indeed. While I like a fairly logical world as well as the next guy, I do think that it's not actually a smart investment on the part of the DM designing said world to put an extraordinary amount of effort designing parts of the world that most players don't care about as opposed to the parts they do. As much as I don't buy many of the specifics of the original post, I do think the overall message is correct.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Maybe, maybe not. Give someone a thousand years to level up. Each loss would be serious for a long lived race like AD&D Elves with low fertility, but for every one you kill, how many human soldiers buy it? I'd call it even at best. Given the long life span there's no reason for them not to pursue a class that levels up, the militia might only devote a few decades or so... the hardened professionals would be terrifying and the cream of their military would be like facing a pack of demi-gods. I think, as a human, I'd sit that war out :D In earlier editions the Elves were limited in level they could go up, but other than youth (and there are not that many of them in an Elvish population) there was no reason they wouldn't all max out and in more recent editions without level limits... it could get really ugly.
They weren't level limited as Thieves, hence the 1E joke:

Q. "Where are all the elven thieves?"
A. "All around you."

;)

In my own campaign world, due to world events from a long time before the campaign timeline, the "fae races" fertility (this included dwarves, gnomes, elves, and some goblins) had been altered, by what turned out to be an open gate to the Far Realm. Humans were immigrants from elsewhere and not native to the world. Elves and dwarves had very few children because they literally couldn't and needed to use magic fertility treatments to do it. However, they were extremely potent in their own particular areas, especially due to the presence of some really badass high level leaders and heroes, but, slowly but surely, were fading out of existence simply due to population loss. Over the course of the campaign, the fertility-reducing effect was undone, but the consequences of that have not yet begun to manifest.

Various other explanations were offered over the years for why elves don't level up so much, living the good life/laziness being a classic one.

D&D has really never had much of a mechanism for things like level loss due to aging or retirement (understandable because the game really wasn't set up that way), but if we look at nearly any real life person who's achieved a very high level of expertise or excellence in an area, a lot of effort goes into maintaining that level and it is, ultimately, a losing proposition over time. This is true for athletes, musicians, and many other folks trying to maintain elite level performance.

If we wanted to make the game more like Pendragon, where adventures are rare and the lifetime of a PC is indeed quite finite, it would make sense to put in atrophy rules. But they're not there in D&D, so if you take things literally there should be scads of medium to high level characters floating around. The designers really never cared about that level of simulation detail.
 

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