Sunday, 21 August 2016

Behind the Swordplay

Europe in 1370, from Wikimedia Commons

That it has been more than a month since I last updated, and currently have no idea when we’re going to play after having abandoned the last session right in the middle of combat, gives me some space to pause and examine the game from afar in the interim. I haven’t done any preparation or study directly relating to D&D, much less read anyone else’s blog in the past few moons. My reading habits and musical inclinations, however, still lean heavily toward the Middle Ages, and in this connection I can contrast what I know (or think I know) of actual history with the expectations and preconceptions with which I’m frequently confronted in running the game.

The earliest campaign setting in which I can remember playing was either Europe or someplace like it. When I first tried my hand at DMing in the late 1980s it was almost certainly parts of England and Ireland. Bereft of the benefits of Google or even a decent library in the neighbourhood, I picked up what I could glean from the books my child’s mind could comprehend. Much of what into my early world building was filtered through my father’s interpretation of history. My knowledge was necessarily incomplete, to say the least; and I oversimplified things and got more wrong than right. Nonetheless, it was always the attempt at getting close to the way things really were—or, more precisely, could have been if everything people at the time believed to exist really did exist—that made building worlds and running in them so much fun.

It’s been established that what I seek from D&D isn’t always what players seek. That’s fine, because they don’t have to read all the books I read, or play out all the scenarios that following hooks might lead them to; and yet I still enjoy all the digestive and creative efforts. The thing is, any world I offer my friends as a playing field is going to be informed by the world, with all its attendant customs, rules, laws, by-laws, taboos, economics, and quirks of culture, including the way people work, eat, dress, greet each other, and even speak, although I don’t actually mandate speaking like Chaucer at the gaming table. That would be silly.

But it runs counter to what most fantasy role-players seem to be seeking. Without attempting to create a straw man, I would say that, based on what I have read online and heard from actual players, is not so much a game based on the Middle Ages but a fantasy game: In other words, one in a setting with medieval weapons and technology plus magic and witchcraft plus completely modern attitudes and sensibilities. (I’m tempted to add an additional plus of anachronisms like plate armour and kerosene lanterns, but I think this is not so much an expectation as simply a lack of awareness of precisely when certain things were invented.) It’s this last part, the modern attitudes and sensibilities, that tend to cause the most problems.

There is, for example, the tendency to treat teenage NPCs as children. In England in the 14th century, the setting in which our game takes place, a male was considered a man at the age of 12, but players have never been able to conceive of him as such, much less behave toward him the way people would have at the time. Likewise, players react with horror at the suggestion that their 20-year-old PC might bed down with a woman of 14, but their counterparts in the actual world would have found it completely natural.

There is also the expectation that anyone can buy and sell anything he chooses—a kind of medieval free market. I’ve played Runescape, so I know what it looks like, and medieval England wasn’t it. There is a very rigid class and mercantile system, and trade is closely regulated by the guilds. People still cheat, and are sometimes punished, but strangers in any locale—which the PCs are whenever they venture past the walls of Ludeforde—will find it much harder to cheat, and easier to be cheated, than the locals. I often have to remind players that they risk execution of they try to bring down big game in most woods, and that if they try to resist arrest when the king’s men come for them, the results will not be pretty. Yet even for this I have run sessions where PCs tried to attack the medieval equivalent of cops—and the players don’t get to claim their character was killed just because he was black.

This directly relates to the approach many players have to in-game social and mercantile interactions in general. Perhaps it’s not so much a consequence of modern sensibilities as it is a perception of what was acceptable in the Middle Ages corrupted by Hollywood and video games. ‘We’re never coming back to this town,’ they might say, ‘Why don’t we just kill this guy and take everything in the shop?’ Putting aside for a moment that, barring any house rules permitting telepathy, any verbal exchanges taken in the presence of the DM are clearly audible to any NPCs in the vicinity, their mere presence as strangers in any locale has already marked them with intense suspicion, and they’re unlikely to get away with much when quite a few eyes are on them and many more mouths are murmuring about their comings and goings all over town. Everyone knew each other in medieval towns. This is difficult for modern civilians to grasp, when we are so often isolated in our private cells with our little interactive devices, and our neighbourhood is not so much a community as a juxtaposition of persons. But without the benefit of alienating social trends and technology, everyone belonged, and had a keen sense of his position in the community. People paid attention more. When they heard a dog bark in the distance, they could guess whose dog it was.

The last point I’m going to mention before I bring this to a close for today, is that in almost every way, life in the Middle Ages was less healthy than our own. Part of the reason for the earlier maturity mentioned above is the shorter average lifespan. People in all pre-industrial societies suffered considerably, both from disease and scarcity, the two often going together. Like the hunting proficiency, the fishing proficiency gets abused: It’s sometimes taken for granted that every river and stream is so teeming with fish that a proficient PC can cast his line for half an hour and expect to waltz home with dinner. I usually just overlook this for the sake of moving the game along, but the reality is that climate and land formation make fish rare where settlements haven’t already been built nearby to exploit them—and the presence of any settlement, with septic refuse and offal from butchers dumped copiously into the waterways, makes them possibly toxic.

Much noise is made about the toxicity of the environment these days, with less awareness of how much more toxic it was in the distant past. We like to talk about how horrible the Industrial Revolution was, but we don’t think much about how much worse, in many ways, life was before it. This is the world in which we’re playing. It was, at the same time, an incredible world filled with beauty and enchanting discoveries—including, of course, magic and witchcraft, along with the host of other phenomena medieval people believed were real—but it’s not a place anyone from the modern world would be likely to enjoy experiencing, and most of us have a very meagre and nebulous concept of what the experience would have been like.

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