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Finding Inspiration in Medieval History

Written by Expy - Published on March 22, 2010

A Search for Realism in D&D Play

by Guest Blogger David Frees

I am an avid fan of D&D. I am also a historian of medieval history. Since the early 1980s I have served as a DM for countless adventures and have created numerous mythical worlds in which players sought to make their mark. As I look back, I realize that it was my love of D&D growing up, and the writings of such authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, that fostered my interest in medieval history. Ironically, years later it was my knowledge of medieval society and history that influenced the adventures and worlds I eventually created and instilled within them an element of realism.

There is a common scenario that most players of D&D have experience, especially those who played in the early years. The DM gives you a map of a dungeon, completely filled out of course, through which you and your party begin to trudge. As you open the first door you discover the room contains five orcs, supposedly just standing around waiting for someone to open the door. The second room contains a rust monster and the third room (remember this?)…a red dragon. That’s right, a red dragon. How the dragon managed to get through all those 10×10 rooms and tiny doors is a mystery. Neither is there an explanation as to why these incompatible sets of creatures are just standing around waiting for someone to enter the room, nor why the combat created in one room does not alert creatures in the next to your party’s presence. In a word, these types of adventures are just not ‘realistic.’ Now before you get upset and go William Wallace on me saying that D&D is not supposed to be a ‘realistic’ game, especially given the obvious fact that it contains creatures like orcs, rust monsters and dragons, which are not real to begin with, please let me explain.

I agree that D&D is a fantasy based role playing game filled with mythical creatures and set in a mythical world, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot possess elements of realism. Not a realism that smacks the players upside the head every time they try to carry out a special combat maneuver or cast a spell, but a realism that exists primarily in the background of your encounters, adventures and the world you create.

I sense that as people grow older they expect some sort of logical consistency to the scenarios in which they find their characters placed. When I play D&D with my kids the above scenario is fine because all they want to do is roll the dice and destroy stuff. But for an older group the stakes are much higher. Again, this does not mean that an adventure should be boring or devoid of fantasy elements…most surely not! However, certain realities such as the cultural environment, governmental structure and village life should contain some sort of realism. When social conventions as those listed above are realistic in nature, it gives credibility to your world as a whole.

Realistic descriptions of background realities like village construction and layout, social customs and local/regional leadership structures can have a dramatic affect on the context in which your players adventure. As you probably know, much of this realism is already built into the game mechanics of D&D. For example, weight allowances for carrying items (excluding magically enhanced strength), travel restrictions regarding distances and difficulty of movement, combat maneuvers and available skill sets are all based on the physical realities of the world we live in. Each of these realities, however, are interwoven into a mythical setting that consists of elves, dwarves and goblins.

The question then becomes, “How is one to accomplish the task of creating a realistic context in which to adventure?” Glad you asked. I suggest the best way is to gain a better understanding of medieval history. While space does not allow me to go into detail regarding medieval life and all its unique connections to D&D, I recommend the following resources that will help you get started in this direction: Life in a Medieval Village, Gies (Harper Perennial); Life in a Medieval Castle, Gies (Harper Perennial); Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, Gies (Harper Perennial); and Life in Medieval Times, Rowling (Perigee Trade).

Even a general knowledge about medieval history will bring a sense of realism to your adventures and your world. It can also provide you with possible adventure settings into which your players can journey. With just a little reading the fantasy world you have created will take on a new dimension that will change the way your players experience the game.

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Written by Expy

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Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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12 Responses to “Finding Inspiration in Medieval History”
  1. Sean Holland says:

    Agreed, I cannot read a history book without thinking “that would be cool to see in a game.” While fantasy societies would certainly deviate from historical models, they are the best starting point we have to work from for ‘realistic’ worlds.

  2. kocho says:

    this article is a little funny for me, considering that I run a campaign set in a slightly alternate version of the real world (though the romans lasted longer than they really did, and the deities are different but there are some real-world religions)

  3. Nik says:

    You’re not alone in that. I got into history from RPGs as well. I find the limitations of the age fascinating.

  4. Longtooth says:

    For me, the balance of realism vs fantasy hinges on the need for suspension of disbelief in the face of the need to escape reality. These are the forces that tug at the core of your game and a tension that should be addressed as a DM. Too far toward realism, and we begin to feel that our escape has been replaced with the things we face every day. Unavoidable issues, inescapable laws of reality set on and endless expanse of moral gray. Too far into the fantastic and our brains will reject it, and we will find it difficult to become enthralled into the experience. How likely is it that your character can face every challenge carrying only a whip? Here, as with most all things, balance is the key.
    Great addition to the blog David, and Thanks for sharing!

  5. Elderon Analas says:

    You did not just say what I think you said! Here let m quote you! “…given the obvious fact that it contains creatures like orcs, rust monsters and dragons, which are not real…” I find this very harsh even by my standards. I guess I can’t post on here anymore guys! Apparently I DON’T EXIST!! Apparently I’m just a overgrown lizard or something! You better pray I don’t find you. I just might show you what it feels like to be ripped limb from limb by something that isn’t real. [toothy snarl] Well David, hope to see you in the near future.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    It seems to me that mastering the balance of the real and the un-real while gaming is essential to playing a great game of any type (i.e. while you’re defeating a dragon or buying and selling Monopoly properties). Thanks for the recommended reading!

  7. Elderon Analas says:

    @David
    Ok I’m sorry I yelled at you and threatened to eat you and all that. I was having a bad day and you blatently stating that I a dragon am not real, well that just put me over the edge. I again am very sorry. I hope this lets you sleep a little easier.

    @Andrew R
    You know you don’t always have to fight a dragon. I mean is that the only reference you guys can come up with. I mean I don’t go around comparing everything to fighting a human dragonslayer do I? No, no I don’t. But, I am feeling a little kinder than usual today. So, count yourself lucky.

    To everyone (as myself). If you feel I have a bit of an obbsesion with staying in-character that is fine. It is what I do to seperate myself, if only for a moment, from my hectic life. I’m sure you can agree with me on that. Sometimes I go a little overboard yes. But, doesn’t everyone sometime or another. If anything it just shows how commited I am to the game (i lose!) the people I play with, and you guys, can’t forget you. I have been a follower of this site for awhile and am very commited to if anything provide a bit of lighthearted dragon humor to the comments here and hopefully brighten someones day. Or, if not that at least point out my solid opinoin on the article and state my mind. I am very direct, (when I want to be) and I try to at least be polite as well as assertive. Hope I didn’t take to much of your time but, I feel this needed to be said, sooner than later.

    Your friendly Brass Dragon,
    Elderon Analas

  8. LordVreeg says:

    Versimilitude and immersion are tied together pretty closely.

    I like this article as it touches on what the game becomes as players evolve, the long campaign.

  9. TheWhite says:

    What we are talking about is internal consistency. A fantasy world does not (almost by definition) have to follow all or any of the rules of the world as we know it however it DOES have to obey all the rules of the world that have been determined for itself.

  10. Darthoridan says:

    I like what you had to say I would agree that there is a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. Many of us come to the table to play D&D to escape the real world if only for a few hours. However, I do get what you’re saying and it makes good sense.

  11. Elderon Analas says:

    @Darthoridan
    I take it some of that comment was directed at me. Thanks for your acceptance of my issues and feelings. It makes me happy that theire are people out their whos first action isn’t to try and stab me with a sword. But, again thank you. Not much more to say now, I may come back though.

  12. Toph says:

    I would also recommend a fun and very readable book: The TimeTraveler’s Guide to Medieval England (by Ian Mortimer).

    @TheWhite: That’s it exactly, and what I heard David saying. Fantasy can be as fantastic as you want, as long as it’s internally consistent. As long as it sticks to its own rules, the world is in a sense true, and believable.

    I.e., if it’s been established in the past that these orcs have been capturing monster babies and raising them in captivity, nobody will be surprised that they’re standing around guarding them, or that they’re too big to have gotten in there. But why are they doing it? Is it a monstrous petting zoo with ways to keep paying customers safe? Inhumane factory farming of rare materials for a wizard? Making the most outrageous things consistent with the rest of the world inevitably makes for bizarre, hilarious scenarios.

    Which is why we all love rpgs in the first place.

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