A Magic-User in the Hundred Years’ War: Using D&D with Historical Settings (and Overthinking It)
HISTORY OR D&D? WHY NOT BOTH? For me, there’s no better way to build a RPG fantasy campaign than to start with real history and the real world. Green Ronin’s Mythic Vistas line with its pseudo-D&D variants set in the Biblical Era, in Ancient Greece, in the Caribbean etc., were some of my favorite books for 3rd edition. Many D&D settings are more or less obvious analogues of a particular historical time and place anyway — Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur and Rokugan, Atlas Games’ short-lived African Adventures, and of course Faerun, which while theoretically a giant smorgasbord of everything imaginable, is always focused in D&D5e on the most European-Medieval parts. If you’re gonna play a pseudo-Chinese fantasy game, why not play in “real” Ancient China? If your setting is a thinly disguised Medieval Europe, why not just go the extra mile and play Ars Magica? (Or at least Warhammer’s Old World, with its crooked continents obviously modeled on Real Earth Geography?) Maybe I feel this way partly because I love maps, and there’s something extra-fascinating about recognizable (or semi-recognizable) maps of the real world.
“Hold on,” you might say, “If you’re playing a fantasy game like D&D, it’s not going to be anything like ‘reality’ anyway, so why not just make something up instead?” And sure, a “total” fantasy world offers huge advantages to the DM — the ability to create truly weird and original settings, like the science-fiction/fantasy of Spelljammer and Planescape and Darksun, or the flat-earth-shaped-like-an-embracing-couple of Greg Stolze’s “Reign,” for example. But there’s also huge benefits to playing in a world based on “real” history, however loosely. All RPGs require players to have some understanding of the setting and genre for the game to work. This is why a RPG set in the modern day, or maybe even the 1920s (Call of Cthulhu), is easier to grasp than a RPG set in, say, the 1730s. In the case of D&D, the immersive illusion is filled in with players’ knowledge of “the Lord of the Rings” and a thousand computer RPGs and LotR ripoffs. But these generic (but satisfyingly familiar) LotR-derived ideas — castles, elves, dragons, check — quickly get weighed down with setting-specific baggage: worldbooks and canon that piles up, satisfying core fans but increasingly alienating casual players. This isn’t just a problem of published RPG materials: I can’t count how many times someone’s tried to tell me about their homebrew RPG world but hasn’t been able to boil it down into an elevator pitch, and I was lost hearing a huge, intimidating Bible of setting details, so that I couldn’t imagine how any new player would dare try it out. To put it bluntly: super-complicated settings with lots of history and/or weird stuff are a very high “ask” from players, and work much better in prose fiction than in RPGs.
On the other hand, take the real world. It’s a setting of infinite complexity and detail. It’s a setting that carries some authority because it really happened and because the names and maps are real: “lizard men invading Medieval Germany” has richer thematic associations than “lizard men invading the Land of Blarn”. And it’s a setting that, like genero-LotR-fantasy, almost everyone knows something about; everyone has at least a small stereotypical image of Bible Days or Ancient Rome or The Middle Ages, and to play in an escapist RPG setting, a stereotypical idea is all you really need to start. And unlike The Setting Your Brother Made Up in High School And Wrote 300 Pages About, everyone starts at more or less the same level of knowledge: explaining on a podcast why Lamentations of the Flame Princess is set in 1600s Europe instead of Faux-Earth or Generofantasyland, James A. Raggi IV answered wisely, “Because there’s so much material available! If someone wants a setting sourcebook, all they have to do is read Wikipedia!” Or to take another example: why should I play 7th Sea, requiring me to learn its complicated background of Colonial-Era Faux-Earth, when I can play a game set in Real Colonial-Era Earth instead? I’ll grant that the 7th Sea world materials are lots of fun to *read*… but RPG sourcebooks and fantasy novels that make good readin’ don’t always make for equally good play.
Of course, a fantasy RPG setting will develop over the course of play; ideally, both the DM and the players will help enrich and define it. Things will get weird and increasingly divergent from ‘reality’, whether in a semi-realistic “alternate history” way or a truly weird “wizards ruling London and orcs attacking cities” way. And that’s perfectly fine, because as long as the slight “real historical hook” remains, you’ve still got your elevator pitch which expresses a ton of things about the game’s mood and setting. But this leads us to the question, what assumptions about the setting are built into the D&D rules? How much CAN you use D&D tropes to run a game set in pseudo-history, before the game just starts feeling (in a bad way) like Genero-D&D with Polish or Thai or Chinese names tacked on?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve come up with a list. In order of “Most Intrusive” to “Least Intrusive,” these are the D&D elements that would be the most upsetting to our reality if they existed. In other words, they’re things to think about toning down, or working around, or removing in a historical campaign. I want to establish right away that I’m not saying these things are *bad*; this isn’t one of those fun-killing lists of “why everything cool wouldn’t work in reality”. It’s your RPG, so all crazy things are possible, but if you’re performing the alchemy of mixing high fantasy with low history, it’s interesting to think about their logical consequences. And obviously it’s better to keep things in rather than taking them out, so players can come to your game with some of their D&D wish-fulfillment expectations intact. But playing with those expectations, and with the whole world, can be super fun.
* ALIGNMENT. The first thing anyone learns studying history is that there’s very rarely clear good guys or bad guys; even fighters for a just cause can commit atrocities, and evil people are rarely motivated by the desire to endlessly do more evil things, but may spend most of the time living fairly innocuous lives. While for dramatic purposes, it can be satisfying to focus on the most egregiously black and white conflicts, it’s hard to imagine how either 2017 AD or 530 BC would work if it was possible to detect objective good and evil and sort people into categories. Basically, the alignment system is unworkable in a historical game, or really in any game that involves diplomacy and deception and gray-area morality, unless “alignment” refers only to outrageously lopsided supernatural beings, such as angels and devils. On the other hand, if Alignment exists but alignment-DETECTION magic is vanishingly rare, you could have something interesting going. (“Gasp… the Holy Sword glows red in the presence of Mike Pence! It’s never glowed red before!!”) Green Ronin’s Egyptian Adventures: Hamunaptra setting dealt with the dilemma in an interesting way, by changing “Detect Evil” spells into “Detect Religion”: in Hamunaptra every person is linked in worship to a certain deity, but whether you worship Ra through good or through evil is up to you.
Alternately, perhaps alignment isn’t about moral choices at all, but some kind of ‘fate’ that drives the character’s life without regard to their conscious morality, like the Law-Neutrality-Chaos axis in Lamentations of the Flame Princess; you may want to be good, but if you’re aligned with Chaos, chaos and evil are always drawn to you.
* DIVINE MAGIC. Divine magic is generally harder to incorporate into a ‘realistic’ setting than arcane magic (and, if you wanna go back into the genre roots, ‘cleric’ and ‘priest’ type characters are traditionally rare in fantasy fiction). Since divine magic is complex, I’ll break it down into several categories, again from most intrusive to least.
*** KNOWING THAT THE AFTERLIFE EXISTS. Most D&D campaigns don’t focus much time on this, but if people had *proof* there was an afterlife and your religion affected it, the importance of religion would be dramatically increased (even beyond its huge historical role). ‘Nuff said.
*** RAISING THE DEAD. At least with an afterlife, you know that there’s no going back…but what if death wasn’t the end, and people could be brought back to life days, weeks or years after death? It’s written into the D&D rules, but in practice this reads more like transhumanist science fiction than it does like fantasy. In this kind of world, the tragedy of death is no more than an inconvenience, life’s greatest sorrows can be cured with a spell. Even if the dead can only be raised when they didn’t die of “old age” (whatever that means), this is world-shaking stuff. Several D&D games I have played in have operated on the idea that spells like Raise Dead don’t always work, but only work when the dead person is “important to the gods” (i.e. a PC, instead of just any old NPC)). As you can also see this effect in the Game of Thrones TV series, perhaps keeping resurrection magic utra-rare the best way to do it, to prevent a world where clerics are like factory workers forever resurrecting a conveyor belt of corpses, and/or rulers with absolute domination over society due to their control of life and death.
*** KNOWING THAT THE GODS EXIST.…and sorta who/what they are. Over the period of centuries, traditional religions are always flowing and changing. Establishing that there is a single true religion, or even a single true *interpretation* of any religion, is a bold statement. Note particularly the idea of religious syncretism, wherein Ancient Greek and Roman scholars decided that the same gods were worshipped around the world under many names and with many different rituals; or the still-fractious idea in the modern age that perhaps “Judaeo-Christian”, or “Abrahamic”, or some even broader “Deistic” or “Spiritual” category encompasses all different ideas of god. Of course, even in D&D clerics don’t have to know *exactly* what their gods are up to, but a world that answered even a few of these questions would be a different world indeed.
(Note that it’s possible to imagine a world in which mortals are pretty sure that gods exist, but still don’t know what happens in the afterlife: the whole idea of the afterlife as a place where some people get punished and others rewarded probably came to the West through Ancient Egypt, but other religions, such as Judaism and the early Babylonian religion, are big on gods but much vaguer on the afterlife bit.)
*** MAGICAL HEALING AND DISEASE CURES. It’s one of those things too depressing and unfun to incorporate into almost any RPG, but for most of human history, getting wounded by an edged weapon meant a high chance of dying of infection within days or weeks. Even if you didn’t get stabbed, you might die of disease or plague. Magical healing in the D&D style makes a much friendlier universe (although, in Florence Nightingale fashion, it’s possible to imagine that less battlefield deaths would cause societies to be even more recklessly militaristic; if soldiers know they can heal a shattered spine and regrow a lost limb, why *not* charge into that battle, Valhalla-style?). Like with raising the dead, if magical healing really existed and was the sole province of clerics, people would want clerics everywhere, regardless of whether they believed in their God(s).
* NON-HUMAN HUMANOID RACES. This is the J.R.R. Tolkien stuff! Actually, mythologies from around the world often involve quasi-human creatures that might be good or evil or just different, but before The Lord of the Rings, these creatures were mystical: no one was prosaic and literal enough to ask how they bred, or whether they built houses, or what they ate, or if dwarf women had beards. And while Historian/Linguist Tolkien was expanding elves and dwarves into their own pseudo-ethnicities with their own made-up languages, pulp authors like Robert E. Howard were creating scarier, less sympathetic demihumans — snake men, lizard men, ape men, evil gnomish cavemen — that in practice existed mostly for the good guys to mow them down.
Mix these all up, strain out the more obvious pulp era racism, and you have the huge tapestry of made-up races of D&D. Unlike traditional deus-ex-machina fairytale sprites or demons from another dimension or some isolated monster in stasis in a dungeon, these ‘humanoid races’ have cultures, have industries, have ecologies, and most of all, NEED SPACE TO LIVE. In Star Trek and similar shows (whose more humanoid aliens are almost like sci-fi Tolkien), they can have their own planets…but in a historical setting, how could they exist alongside human cultures? Perhaps they’re secretly hidden away underground or in the unexplored corners of the world, like the fish-people and snake-people in Call of Cthulhu. (This is also the official explanation for dwarves, elves and halflings in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but they’re a tiny part of the game, only included for tradition’s sake.) Perhaps they live on new islands and continents in the sea; perhaps Tir na Nog really *does* exist somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s where all the gnomes are. Or perhaps fantasy races live out in the open in an otherwise familiar earth, jostling for space with humans, leading to the inevitable questions of inclusion and ‘fantasy racism’: if popular books like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series are able to convince readers that intelligent dragons existed alongside humans in the 1800s, surely it’ll be easy to convince your gaming group that there’s elves in the 1910s. (Of course, players, like readers, have got to *want* to believe…)
Lastly, you can have fantasy races simply replace human ethnicities or cultures. Maybe in your game universe all Europeans are goblins? (Can they breed with non-goblins?) Maybe all Asians are elves? In Warhammer’s Old World most of the America analogue continent is inhabited solely by lizard men. This can obviously get dodgy in obvious ways, but if you’re reskinning ancient countries and cultures that don’t mean more to modern gamers than an exotic name, it might work. (Consider how the Civilization video game series only uses super-obscure ancient peoples, like the Hurrians, for its barbarian tribes.) You’re welcome to go as far with this idea as your gaming group will let you.
* ARCANE MAGIC. If wizards are rare in your world, they’re the fantasy analogue of mad scientists. If they’re common, they’re the analogue of just plain scientists. Since wizards don’t (usually) claim to channel the power of the gods, they don’t upend history as much as clerics do. And when it comes down to it, D&D wizards aren’t so different from superheroes, who are usually assumed to be a rare and privileged few, with great powers and great responsibility. Worlds where magic is common, like cell phones, would be extremely different from our world (and probably science-fictiony)…but if magic is rare, who knows? To paraphrase Kenneth Hite: “Magic-users throughout European history would totally rewrite the history of the world, but one magic-user in the Hundred Years’ War works just fine.”
I’ve broken down D&D’s 8 schools of magic from most intrusive to least:
*** EVOCATION: The existence of large numbers of wizards who could blast armies and castles with fireballs would completely alter history. Evocation spells effectively duplicate cannons, firearms and siege engines, even surpassing them in many ways, since wizards aren’t large, heavy objects that need to be rolled around on carts. Like after World War I when infantry became effectively outdated in the face of heavy machine guns, tanks and flamethrowers, an army with wizards would have a huge advantage. Arcane spellcasters would be incredibly important, nurtured and taught by whatever means necessary, and different kingdoms and armies might compete in an “arcane arms race.”
*** TRANSMUTATION: Transmutation in D&D is a broad school of magic, mainly covering (1) movement effects and (2) shapeshifting. The former is far more world-breaking: wizards who can fly over castle walls, or even more shockingly teleport across continents, would reshape communication and trade. On the other hand, turning people into frogs, snakes, giants and mutant monsters makes a few people’s lives miserable (i.e. people who antagonize wizards), but results in much fewer historical changes, and fits the mythological depiction of wizards and witches perfectly well.
*** DIVINATION: People have always claimed to be able to tell the future, what if they really could? Divination magic as described in D&D is actually fairly weak (compared to fairytale prophecies, which virtually always come true, but which are hard to play games around) and easy to integrate into a “historical” world. The big exception is mind-reading magic such as “Detect Thoughts” and “Zone of Truth,” which would have huge implications for surveillance and diplomacy; if such magic existed, what important meeting of merchants, nobility or clergy wouldn’t use it? The answer is anti-divination magic, which leads to a sorta boring “spy technology” race between divination and counter-divination, unless divination magic is rare.
*** CONJURATION: Though D&D conjuration also includes many evocation-type blaster spells, the real soul of the school is spells that summon monsters out of thin air. Conjurations are generally more unreliable (and thus interesting) than evocations, with their implication that the summoned being isn’t just a force like a lightning bolt, but a thing with its own needs, desires and ecology. This is the basic idea behind everything from Cthulhu Mythos-style tentacled-monster-summoning to Pokémon. Since conjuration thus has a more “mystic” or at least more “personality-driven” feel than evocation (i.e. it’s about the wizard’s relationship with the monster), it feels less scientifically mass-reproducible, and thus less world-breaking.
*** NECROMANCY: Like divine magic, necromancy has deep implications about the nature of the cosmos, but unlike divine magic, it’s almost always evil and just kills people or creates undead abominations. This lets necromancy exist without stepping so much on religion’s toes, like in horror movies where terrifying supernatural stuff may happen without necessarily settling the question of whether there’s a god or an afterlife. Most human cultures have believed in curses & undead throughout history anyway, so why not? Plus, left alone, animated corpses probably rot away in a few weeks, leaving little evidence.
*** ABJURATION: Defense is less world-breaking than offense, although also less exciting. Abjurers’ spells would be valuable in battle and as bodyguards for the nobility, and don’t draw much attention to themselves. Abjuration w/o evocation could even slow the historical advance of technology, since in the real world, offense usually outpaces defense… but if your castle walls have magic shields, can cannons blast through them? Selective abjuration which blocked some attacks and not others might lead to interesting changes, like the ubiquitous force fields in the Dune series that block fast projectiles (like bullets) but admit slower things (like swords).
*** ILLUSION AND ENCHANTMENT: The difference between illusion and enchantment is essentially the difference between whether the illusion has an “objective” reality or merely exists “subjectively” within the victim’s mind. Both effects are easy to work into a “historical” gameworld. Cult indoctrination, the power of suggestion and the power of faith can already perform miracles, and it’s easy to imagine magic making it just a little more extreme. In addition, from the point of view of the skeptical and those who make their saving throws, this magic reinforces the idea that wizardry is “just” illusion.
* GIANT MONSTERS AND MYTHICAL BEASTS: Now we’re almost at ‘reality’! Having a few giant monsters, dragons and sea serpents roaming the world doesn’t require much historical hoop-jumping, and in fact makes the world more fun for everybody, except the people who get eaten. This is the realm of cryptozoology; perhaps creatures like dragons and beholders and displacer beasts were common in the past but were gradually hunted down by human beings, or perhaps they periodically invade our world from Hollow Earths, dimensional gates or other planets. Intelligent friendly creatures might become partners of human beings like dogs (or Temeraire dragons), while intelligent evil creatures might set themselves up as our gods or lords, with only human technology, cleverness and superior numbers to thwart them.
* SUPERHUMAN EXCEPTIONALISM. Almost too subtle to mention, but it’s there in the rules. In reality, it’s impossible to get stabbed by 50 spears and live: not in D&D. In reality, it’s impossible to sneak through a roomful of armed guards and pick their pockets without being seen: not in D&D. Dungeons & Dragons is a level-based game, where people gradually climb to superhuman heights of excellence, and also get enough Hit Points to survive being run over by a tank. It’s there to make the game more fun, and you can say people in the world don’t notice it, but what if they do? Even a D&D character without obvious magic, like a fighter or rogue, is essentially a superhero. The whole system of “gradually gaining levels and strength,” perhaps D&D’s biggest bequest to the world of RPGs and games in general, places us in an optimistic world where almost anything is possible… and who wouldn’t choose a world of Hit Points over a world where the world’s most skilled swordsman can get shot in the head or killed by a falling brick? D&D isn’t so much the world of Superman and Batman (they NEVER level up!) as it is the world of Shonen Jump manga, where heroes gradually climb from apprenticehood to dizzying heights. One Piece is a little D&D.
Together, these elements make up what people think of as D&D. Mix any of them with history, and you’ve got something interesting. There’s no need to go down the list in order; perhaps religion is real and visible in your world, but there’s no humanoid races, like in David Chart’s Medieval Player’s Manual? Perhaps there’s humanoid races and monsters, but no magic? Knock yourself out! And when you’re thinking of your next D&D setting, don’t be afraid to try the 1600s Caribbean, or Medieval Timbuktu, or the Fall of the Roman Empire.
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in pseudohistorical D&D, specifically in the Bronze Age, check out my Priestess class on DMsGuild!