How Medieval is D&D?

In my previous post, I examined the origins of the 5th edition Monster Manual and concluded that D&D was much less ‘European’ than might be supposed. Of the 215 monsters I looked at, around half, maybe more, originated elsewhere, and many, perhaps a third, were an invention of the game itself.

I see this claim online fairly frequently: that D&D is at its heart a medieval European fantasy. So, having looked at what we might call the geographic origins of the game, I thought I would have a closer look at its historical sources. Is it as medieval as people think?

As with last week, a few provisos. It bears repeating: this is a blog post, not scholarship. It is not going to be exhaustive. It is not going to be rigorously scientific. Please unclench before you take me to task. In terms of my own academic background, I have a reasonably good degree in Old and Middle English literature from a reasonably good university, but I do not claim to be an expert and would be more than happy to take on board constructive criticism. For my own sanity, I will be focusing again on the core rulebooks of 5th edition D&D, specifically the Player’s Handbook. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think the edition matters that much: the mechanics may be different, but when it comes to the fundamentals, there’s a huge degree of crossover. But hey, if you disagree, I’ll read your blog on it.

The term ‘medieval’ is fraught with problems. It is often erroneously depicted almost as a kind of ‘dark age’ between classical civilization and the Renaissance – a ‘Middle Age’ – and this is horribly unfair. And what a huge generalization, too: this is a period of almost 1,000 years! Focusing on a ‘middle period’ between the fall of Rome and the (European) Renaissance also encourages us to adopt an unhelpfully eurocentric lens. There was a medieval world outside Europe, and Europe engaged with it.

For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the time period from around the end of the 5th century to the end of the 15th century. But even this is arbitrary. People didn’t go to bed one night in the Middle Ages and wake up in the Renaissance.

I’m going to focus on three main chapters: races, classes (which, by extension, considers spell lists to some extent), and equipment.

Races

I excluded Player’s Handbook races from my post last week on the basis that none of the peoples therein are featured in the 5th edition Monster Manual. Some commenters on Reddit pointed out that dwarves and elves (and so half-elves, too) are European in origin, which is quite true. Both are found in Old and Middle English, in medieval German, and in Old Norse, and are therefore perfectly medieval. Tieflings, too, are more medieval than you might think. The name itself is an invention for D&D, constructed from German tief and -ling (‘deep’ and ‘offspring’), but the concept of humans with demonic ancestry is found in medieval stories. Merlin, in some stories, is considered a cambion. I would give this one a pass.

Halflings, however, are more dubious. They are clearly based primarily on Tolkien’s hobbits, and hobbits were more or less a creation of Tolkien himself. The same goes for orcs (and therefore half-orcs). While they are mentioned in Beowulf, the word used there, orcneas, probably meant something closer to ‘evil spirits’. Tolkien himself said that he revived the word ‘only because of its phonetic suitability’: his orcs, and therefore the orcs of D&D, are not particularly medieval at all.

What about gnomes? Sorry: not medieval at all. The original Latin term term, gnomus, originates in Paracelsus in the 16th century, and the word is first attested in English in the early 18th century. Renaissance at best. Their characterization as cunning inventors is probably Victorian.

Overall, then, the ancestries of D&D are pretty medieval in origin, and always have been. Of course, once you go beyond the core rulebooks, this breaks down considerably (viz leonin, tortles, and aarakocra, among many, many others).

Character classes

Let’s get one thing out the way. None of the D&D classes are realistic. Not one. Not the barbarian, not the fighter, not the rogue. They are a product of fantasy. All of them. By 20th level, they are essentially superheroes. Trying to compare them to real-life medieval figures is a dead end.

However: we can examine the extent to which they resemble medieval fiction. Are wizards much like the ‘magicians’ of medieval romance, for example? Or was Merlin more of a druid or a warlock? How much are bards like the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Those sorts of questions.

  • The concept of an uncivilized or primitive warrior can be found the world and throughout history, but the D&D barbarian is clearly based primarily on Conan the Barbarian and pulp. That said, the barbarian’s rage feature evokes the berserkr of Old Norse sagas and poetry.
  • The bard is pretty medieval, taking inspiration from characters such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Will Scarlet, and Taliesin, as well as the Viking skalds. The spell list doesn’t really fit with the way magic is conceptualized in medieval stories, though, and it would probably be pretty limited and rather boring if it did.
  • It’s hard to say where clerics come from exactly. OD&D was pretty brief, saying in essence that they were a mix of ‘fighting-men and magic-users’. While they bear some resemblance to medieval crusaders like the Knights Templar, their ability to turn undead is more reminiscent of B-movie vampire-hunters like Van Helsing.
  • Real-life druids were religious leaders in ancient Celtic cultures. While they appear as sorcerers in some medieval Irish and Welsh stories (most notably the Táin Bó Cúailnge), they were essentially extinct by the time Christianization was complete. Still, their signature wild shape feature recalls the shapeshifting abilities of Merlin, so in some ways they fit the mould of a medieval magician rather well. They wouldn’t have wielded scimitars or worshipped trees, though.
  • Fighters get a pass for being medieval, but only because they are so completely generic. Warriors are more or less universal.
  • The monk class was probably created either by Dave Arneson, one of the co-creators of D&D, or Brian Blume, one of the early game designers and a huge fan of kung fu. Gary Gygax also claimed that the class was inspired by The Destroyer (the Remo Williams series). Shaolin monks certainly practised martial arts in the Sui and Tang dynasties, but from the 8th century to the 15th – ie, most of the European Middle Ages – there is no evidence of Shaolin monks participating in combat.
  • The paladin class is largely based on the character of Holger Carlson in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which in itself is drawn on the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne. The knight-errant is very much a figure of medieval romance: historically accurate, no, but culturally of its time? Very much so.
  • The ranger is based on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Like fighters, though, hunters and woodsmen are fairly universal. Artemis and Orion would fit the bill, as would Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, two medieval legends. The spellcasting, though: that’s D&D through and through.
  • Regarding the rogue (then ‘thief’), Gygax stressed the influence of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack. The 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook gave examples of thieves such as Reynard the Fox, Puck, and Ali Baba. And thieves, like warriors, are essentially universal.
  • The sorcerer was new to 3rd edition D&D, where it was essentially a variant wizard (previously called ‘mages’ or just ‘magic-users’). It was felt that the latest fantasy fiction made Vancian magic seem outdated. Regardless, neither wizards nor sorcerers have much in common with the magicians of medieval romance. Merlin’s powers revolve primarily around shapeshifting and prophecy, for example, not fireballs and magic missiles. Medieval in name only.
  • Finally, what about the newest of the core classes, the warlock? The pact of the fey is in some ways closer to the medieval concept of magic than either the sorcerer or the wizard. Infernal pacts, too, are thematically appropriate, as witches and warlocks were feared for their deals with the devil, and as I mentioned above, Merlin himself was depicted as a cambion in some stories. Eldritch blast, though, is again rather flashy for medieval magic, and the Great Old One stuff is clearly Lovecraftian in flavour.    

How medieval is this, on average? I would argue ‘somewhat medieval’ at best. Sure, you could construct a fairly ‘medieval’ party with a fighter, a rogue, and a paladin, with maybe a druid or a ranger thrown in, but that’s being selective. You could just easily create a party consisting of a monk, a wizard or a sorcerer, and a bard or a cleric, and it wouldn’t be particularly medieval at all.

I’m going to skip Chapter 4 (Personality and Background) and move onto Equipment.

Arms, Armour, and Equipment

Am I going to dissect every item in the Player’s Handbook to evaluate how medieval it is? Hell no, because that would be about as interesting for me as it would be for you. Generally speaking, the D&D equipment list is pretty medieval. However, a few highlights:

  • Studded leather is not a historical term. Gygax was presumably thinking of brigandine or jack of plate. Chainmail, too, is something of a neologism, and this armour would have been called a hauberk, a byrnie, or simply ‘mail’.
  • Full plate arrived pretty late in the medieval period and was really more of a Renaissance armour. Its association with ‘knights in shining armour’ is largely the result of 16th-century jousting armour.
  • Overall, the weapons table is reasonably medieval. Like plate armour, though, the greatsword (which, confusingly, was probably referred to as a longsword) was really more of a Renaissance thing, the rapier even more so. The trident, conversely, was really a pre-medieval weapon, famously used in the hands of Roman gladiators. The hand crossbow is mostly a creation of fantasy.
  • The biggest issue with the weapons table is not so much what is included but what is missing. One word: guns! This is a long-standing and enduring convention of ‘medieval’ fantasy, but it is still rather bizarre. Europeans had knowledge of gunpowder from as early as the 1200s, and handheld firearms were starting to be used from the 1300s, yet they are usually presented in D&D as an optional rule in the DMG. If you really want to be authentically medieval, then add guns.
  • What about adventuring gear? This is a long old list, and much of it is fine, even for a purist. The biggest exception is probably the spyglass, as telescopes were not invented until the 17th century. The word backpack is anachronistic (20th century), but there would have been shoulderbags in the medieval period that fulfilled the same purpose.
  • And musical instruments? Again, a pretty medieval list. The viol was maybe a bit late, more Renaissance, but that’s splitting hairs.

Overall, D&D’s approach to equipment is pretty medieval, if you overlook a few specific items and don’t ask too many questions about where the guns are.

From a medieval point of view, though, there’s one massively fundamental problem with the D&D approach to equipment, and it’s this: D&D is capitalist! Or at the very least, it is a cash-based economy where feudalism and manorialism are conspicuously absent. There is a great post on this at Blog of Holding. As Paul Hughes put it, D&D is in essence ‘a swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.’

Conclusions

Image result for D&D 5e

The big question, then: is D&D medieval? My view: eh, not really. Sure, it has many, many medieval elements. But it is hardly purist, and some of the most iconic D&D elements like wizards, clerics, full plate, and greatswords, are not especially medieval at all. The game draws on pulp, classical mythology, Renaissance swashbuckling, and of course, modern fantasy fiction. Many of the monsters of D&D, as I wrote about last week, are not particularly medieval either.

Obsessing over D&D’s medievalism is a creative dead-end. It probably won’t lead to better fiction or better gameplay. It’s not particularly imaginative. In fact, it’s rather limiting. D&D is fantasy, not history, and this has always been the case. Even if the game’s roots lie in historical wargaming, the game we play now is something completely different.

Image result for combat wheelchair ruined D&D

Finally, it is interesting (and worrying) to reflect on where this call for medievalism comes from. There are gatekeepers on Reddit and Twitter who proclaim that monks have no place in D&D because they are not ‘medieval European’. I don’t see them calling to get rid of wizards, though, or the creatures from Greek mythology, or mummies, or zombies, or the hundreds of monsters that D&D has invented for the game. Why is that? Could it be that there is another, more troubling reason for singling out the only ‘Asian’ character class for criticism? And there are D&D players on Twitter who defend the use of racism and slavery in their games – ‘because it’s medieval’ – or get upset about the combat wheelchair, for the opposite reason. I don’t see them calling for the inclusion of firearms in the core rules. Neither are they proposing that we should adopt a feudal, manorial economy in our games instead of a free market based on gold pieces. Not with the same vociferousness, anyway. And they don’t have any problems with a knight in full plate mowing down orcs with a greatsword, even though it’s not much more medieval than a hobbit parachuting into battle while firing flintlock pistols.

As a hill to die on, it all looks a bit silly, not least because these calls for medieval realism are often founded on totally inaccurate assumptions about the realities of the medieval world. But one has to wonder whether it was ever really about ‘medievalism’ in the first place, or whether this has always been a figleaf for something much more concerning.

Medieval fantasy is inherently romanticized and backward-looking: it harks back to a mythical age of knights, castles, dragons and what have you. But it’s fantasy first. And if ‘medieval’ for you is a byword for a world which is white, male, ableist, and so on – if that’s important to you, if that defines your ‘fantasy’ – then you should maybe stop using medievalism as an excuse for your own prejudices. The game moves on. Maybe you should, too.

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Four Problems with Fantasy (and How to Fix Them)

Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy roleplaying games. After all, I do write a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. But I also believe that fantasy, and D&D in particular, is not without its problems, some of which can be fixed, or at least mitigated.

In this article, I plan to run through four issues I see with D&D and fantasy RPGs generally, and then offer some possible solutions to them.

1. Tired tropes and chronic clichés

Sidharth Chaturvedi on Twitter: "D&D: Yawning Portal Tavern. From 'Dungeon  of the Mad Mage.' AD: Kate Irwin. This was SO MUCH FUN to paint. Also one  of the few that I didn't

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has been around for nearly half a century, and there has been a huge amount of innovation in that time. But there are also some tired, tired tropes that have been done to death. Dwarves with Scottish accents. Everyone’s an orphan. ‘You all meet in a tavern.’

As TV Tropes explains, tropes are tools, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and even well used tropes can be subverted or deployed skilfully. But tropes can definitely be overused, becoming shallow, predictable, or unoriginal. And in a genre that revolves around magic and imagination, that’s a death blow.

To some extent, fantasy is an inherently conservative genre. It is nostalgic for the past. It draws on ancient myths and legends. It is almost pastoral: a land of beautiful landscapes and wild adventure, an escape from modern life. Roleplaying games like D&D emerged from historical war games, and for many gamers the association between fantasy and the medieval is pretty unbreakable. (Incidentally, D&D is not, and never has been, a particularly realistic simulation of the medieval world. Apart from being curiously resistant to the inclusion of gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century, D&D has Renaissance-level technology like telescopes and rapiers, completely ahistorical technology like studded leather and hand crossbows, and a wealth-based, free-market economy: no feudalism for adventurers, it would seem.)

Of course, not all fantasy need be like this, and there are numerous fantasy settings that reinvent traditional tropes in exciting ways. Final Fantasy VII, arguably a form of eco-fiction, uses an industrialized setting with an environmentally destructive megacorporation. Eberron takes inspiration from pulp serials and film noir. Planescape is grungy, gothic, neo-Victorian, and weird in the China Miéville sense of the word.

How to fix it: know your tropes and use them carefully (this applies as much to players as to DMs). Work with your players and try new genres: try gothic fantasy, or dying earth fantasy, or D&D in space. Resist the urge to fixate too much on historical accuracy: embrace the fantasy.

2. Prejudice and discrimination

Why Orcs Are Problematic in Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Buckle up: this one’s controversial.

D&D, and fantasy games in general, have been slow to adapt when it comes to inclusivity, representation, and diversity. To pick a few examples: the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook used male pronouns exclusively; Gary Gygax, a self-proclaimed ‘biological determinist’ on race and gender, believed that most ‘females’ do not play RPGs because of ‘a difference in brain function’; and in one of the first Dragon magazines, Len Lakofka argued that women should have ‘beauty’ instead of Charisma and have the ability to ‘seduce’ NPCs to make up for their lower Strength (because it goes without saying that women are physically weaker than men).

In some ways, D&D has come on leaps and bounds here. The portrait for ‘human’ in the 5th-edition Player’s Handbook is a black woman, for example, and the title page features a heroic, dark-skinned fighter. Chapter 4 explicitly declares that ‘you don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender’, adding ‘your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.’ Gone, too, are the chainmail bikinis and sexualized poses of earlier depictions of women in fantasy artwork.

But there are still battles to be fought. The Black Lives Matter protests led to a lively debate within the D&D community about the representation of so called ‘monstrous’ races and whether orcs were fundamentally racist. Disability consultant Sara Thompson faced a backlash for her awesome combat wheelchair rules, and the suggestion that D&D dungeons can, and should, be wheelchair accessible has been met with ridicule, with some users on social media even declaring that DMs should ‘target’ wheelchair users in-game because they are ‘easy targets’: textbook ableism. And while not technically a D&D incident, Adam Koebel, the co-author of Dungeon World, had to apologize after livestreaming a sexual assault scenario, seemingly for laughs. All of these things happened last year. Sexism, racism, and ableism are, sadly, alive and well within the D&D community, and while D&D is by no means unique in having toxic views within its fanbase, it is fair to say that the game has not always moved with the times.

How to fix it: support RPG creatives from a wide range of backgrounds, and read what they have to say about the game. Think about how many of your characters are straight, white, able-bodied, and male: we are all responsible for the fiction we co-create, even if you play in a group of able-bodied straight white men, so play your part. Get away from biological essentialism by using alternative approaches like Ancestry & Culture or the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Talk about lines and veils with your group. Introduce an X-card.

3. Combat fatigue

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition D&D claims to be built on three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Why, then, is combat such a huge focus within the game?

To some extent, this goes back to D&D’s roots in wargaming. It’s certainly part of the game’s tradition, and arguably requires a lot less effort for many players than compelling roleplay might. But it’s also what the game’s mechanics reward. There is so much of an incentive within the rules to be good at combat. What is your reward for exploration, for social interaction? Inspiration? Maybe a secret door with a magic item behind it? By default, killing things gives you XP, and XP levels you up. It’s not hard to see, then, why min-maxing is a thing.

Maybe fighting things is where you get your fun. If so, don’t let me stand in your way! But I’ve had a number of experiences with players new to D&D who have been surprised by the game’s focus on killing things. ‘Why do we have to kill the goblins? Can I pet the dire rat? Is fighting the only thing we do in this game?’

There are other game systems that do things differently. The Cypher System has a nice focus on exploration, for instance, and Fate promotes storytelling over all else – so much so that it is entirely possible to run a game without fighting at all.

How to fix it: Don’t only offer XP for killing things! Consider switching to milestone XP instead. Talk to your group and see what they enjoy. Try playing other game systems for mechanics you can steal: cyphers, for example, offer a really nice way of promoting exploration. Think about how you can make downtime interesting. If you are going to run combats, make them engaging, and try to have an interesting battlefield environment. Always try to make sure that combat makes sense within the story, and, if possible, an oppportunity to be avoided.

4. Characterization over character

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

Imagine you are writing a story, in a genre other than fantasy. You’re thinking about your main character. What do you think of first?

I bet it’s not ‘race’ and ‘class’. It’s probably not ability scores, either. Yet this is how most of us create a character in a fantasy RPG. Kind of odd, no?

I’ve written about this before (‘Creating Awesome Characters’), but I think it’s something D&D players in general are weirdly fixated on. (Myself included, at times – it’s a hard habit to break.) Being a dwarf or an elf doesn’t make your character interesting, and neither does being a warlock or a paladin. There’s also something more than a little icky about the idea that a character is so defined by their biology and ancestry. Do we really need this in our storytelling? Again, other systems do things differently. There is no need to pick a race in the Cypher System or Fate, and the game is no worse off for it.

How to fix it: Again, try alternatives to D&D. See what you like. Try using the new rules for customizing your origin in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Take time to think about your character’s values and personality: what makes them tick? Try to explain who they are without referring to their race or class.

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