d&d is anti-medieval

You can be forgiven for thinking that OD&D is a medieval European fantasy game. After all, Gary Gygax himself says so. He describes the original D&D books as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval War Games” (on the cover) and “rules [for] designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign” (in the introduction). However, in the game itself, there’s precious little to suggest feudalism, Europe, chivalry, a post-imperial dark age, or even the existence of a monarchy at all. Apart from the technology suggested by the weapon list, it could just as well be a simulation of the professional meritocracy of Byzantium, or the city-state sovereignty of Barsoomian Mars. (There’s more explicit textual support in OD&D for Mars than there is for fantasy medieval Europe.) But neither of these strike the mark. OD&D’s cultural details suggest a society original to Gygax – nonsensical as a medieval fantasy, but coherent and striking as an American fantasy of empowerment and upward mobility. It’s an armor-clad repudiation of medieval feudalism, like Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.

It’s not feudal

The way you advance in a feudal society is to win glory in battle for your overlord. Then he grants you land, which is the main form of wealth. Unless you’re a peasant. Then you can never advance at all.

That’s not at all what happens in D&D. There is no overlord to grant you land. Land, instead of being a form of wealth, is completely free! (“At any time a player/character wishes he may select a portion of land (or a city lot) upon which to build his castle, tower, or whatever. The following illustrations are noted with the appropriate cost in Gold Pieces.”) The cost of building a structure is merely the a la carte cost of all its architectural elements. It costs nothing at all to acquire the land to build on, even inside a city.

Wealth in D&D is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle, making the D&D economy more modern than medieval. Some have suggested that D&D takes place in a time of exploration and renaissance when coinage, and the middle class, is eclipsing the power of the nobility. I’ll go further. There is no sign that there is any nobility to eclipse, even a waning one.

If you build a castle in the “wilderness”, you have to clear the area of monsters for 20 miles around. You then gain control of a handful of villages within this area. You don’t have to compete against any other ruler or pay taxes to any overlord for these villages! This omission seems significant, since Gygax will always gleefully mention any relevant obstacle if it exists.

The people who live in villages are called either “villagers” or “inhabitants”, not “peasants,” “commoners” or “serfs.” They pay you taxes. If you piss off the villagers, the DM is encouraged to annoy you with “angry villagers”, “city watch”, “militia”, or “a Conan type.” Notable in its absence is any local form of knighthood, gentry, nobility, or ruling class to oppose you.

There are no knights

The word knight doesn’t even appear in OD&D. But there is one group of people who act distinctly knight-like. The wilderness contains castles, ruled by fighters, magic-users, or clerics. The fighters will challenge players to a joust (using Chainmail rules), taking the loser’s armor and offering hospitality to the winner. This has a sort of Arthurian chivalry to it, but Pendragon it is not. Gygax carefully avoids calling these folks “knights.” They’re fighting-men, with retainers (monstrous and human) and armies, looking very like the ones players can acquire. Furthermore, castle-owning fighting men are just as rare as castle-owning magic-users and clerics. The Outdoor Survival game board, which forms the default OD&D map, has a land area of 25,000 miles, half the size of England. There are about six castle-owning fighting-men in that area. In other words, castles of the wilderness aren’t dominated by an analogue of a knightly order, leavened by a few fantastic spellcasters. It looks, rather, as if they were built by a small handful of adventurers, appearing in roughly the class proportions of a typical adventuring party. (Fighters are, if anything, under-represented.)

There are no vassals

Let’s talk about how you gain followers. Gary says, “It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form.” In a truly medieval game, there’s a model for that: people swear themselves to your service in exchange for your protection. You raise an army by requiring service from peasants who live on your land. In other words, you gain vassals. D&D ignores this model, replacing it with one in which you pay retainers and specialists by the month. Loyalty is bought with a mixture of cash and charisma. You can hire armies, too, from Light Foot to Heavy Horsemen. (No knights.)

There are no kings

There’s no evidence of a monarchy. You never have to declare fealty to anyone. While you can create a barony, there is no way to level up and become a duke or King. There are no rules for controlling territory more than a day’s ride from your castle. In the hostile emptiness of OD&D’s wilderness, power doesn’t travel well.

The only mention of kings in the little brown books is in the descriptions of humanoid monsters, e.g. in a goblin lair “the ‘goblin king'” will be found. (Gygax quotes the term “goblin king”.) It seems unlikely that the term implies a crown, a system of divine right, inheritance laws, etc. Since a goblin king leads a single lair of 40-400 goblins, he’s probably just the local boss, just like the less evocatively named “leader/protector type” who rules every 30-300 orcs.

There is no lost empire

There certainly seems to be a power vacuum in the world of OD&D, ready for the player/characters to exploit. What used to fill that vacuum?

There’s no evidence for (or against) the idea that OD&D takes place in a dark age after a fallen Roman Empire analogue or during the death throes of a feudal kingdom. Sure, someone built those “huge ruined piles” under which lie the dungeons. But based on the treasures to be found there, the dungeon builders were part of a coinage economy just like the current one. There hasn’t even been significant inflation or deflation since the dungeons were built. The richest dungeon treasure hoard, on level 13 and deeper, averages out to about 10,000 GP in coin. That’s as much as a baron can earn from a year’s worth of taxes: not an insignificant sum to sock away in a dungeon, but not kingly or imperial either. This doesn’t suggest that dungeons are relics of a far richer past. It seems rather that things used to be like they are right now.

There are few European details

The monster descriptions of “men”, “elves”, and “dwarves” don’t suggest that the game is set in a European culture. The types of “men” are Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers, Pirates, Cave Men, and (perhaps) Mermen. Berserkers are a little Nordic in flavor, but are balanced out by Dervishes and Nomads from the “desert or steppes”.

The government suggested by the player’s “barony” is almost completely a-cultural. A player builds a stronghold, and then they can extort money from the surrounding people. This is the structure of every non-nomadic human society. The only European element is the technology level of your stronghold: it has merlons, barbicans, etc.

The D&D weapon list has a medieval feel to it, but partly that’s just because that’s what we’re expecting to find. In fact, it’s a sort of survey of (mostly) pre-gunpowder weapons. Most of the weapons and armor appear in ancient Europe and in Asia as well as in medieval Europe. Partial exceptions: Composite bows are mostly non-European, while longbows are associated with Europe. The halberd is basically a Renaissance weapon, and the two-handed sword appears in medieval Europe, India, and Japan, but not the ancient world. No one knows what “plate mail” is supposed to be.

If not medieval, what?

All over, the D&D rules seem to be explicitly eschewing a medieval, feudal model in favor of a cash-based economy, a nonexistent or powerless government, and a social-classless society in a sparsely inhabited, unforgiving world.

If the OD&D rules suggest any government at all, it is a meritocracy, or more precisely, a levelocracy. Creatures with more XP and hit dice rule lower-level ones, from settled barons and goblin kings to wandering bandits and nomads. This is not only non-medieval, it is anti-feudalistic and anti-aristocratic. Level requirements for baronies are at odds with the hereditary gloss added to D&D in nearly every subsequent setting.

OD&D also exhibits an obsession with money-gathering for its own sake that is suggestive of mercantilism or capitalism.

D&D is not “fantastic-medieval.” It’s not even “fantastic renaissance” or “fantastic-post-apocalyptic.” It’s “fantastic American history.”

How did Gygax set out to write a fantastic-medieval game and end up writing an American one?

OD&D is meant to be setting-free. The game’s referee is to create his or her own campaign, ranging in milieu from the “prehistoric to the imagined future” (with emphasis on the medieval, especially for beginners). In the later 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax further explains, “There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”

But it is very difficult to write a document with no cultural assumptions at all. Gygax consciously excluded the trappings of a medieval society, and filled that vacuum with “real life” American details. Gygax wrote D&D in a country where, 100 years before, frontier land was considered free for the taking. (19th century propaganda depicted the land’s original Native American inhabitants as inimical savages, like orcs). At the same period, the success of America’s industrialist “robber barons” taught the country that birth and family weren’t the keys to American power; the American keys were self-reliance, ability, and the ruthless accumulation of money.

While it’s possible that D&D’s modern details slipped into the game unobserved,
Gygax may have been quite aware of his game’s implicit setting. After all, his original pre-publication Greyhawk campaign drew heavily from his own American experience. It took place on a United States map, with Greyhawk at Chicago, and Dyvers at Milwaukee. His buddy Don Kaye’s Greyhawk character, Murlynd, was a gunslinger from Boot Hill. I think it’s quite likely that Gygax intentionally gave his game a New World spin.

220px-gygax83greyhawkboxcoverIntentional or not, OD&D represents a milestone in American fantasy – and maybe the last un-muddled example of the genre it inspired. Most of D&D’s thousands of imitators, in game and fiction, preserve the game’s democratic bones (cash economy, guns for hire, rags to riches stories) while overlaying a medieval-European skin. The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a “Conan type”, is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings, in which no fellowship can alter the fact that Sam is by birth a servant, Frodo a gentleman, Strider a king, and Gandalf a wizard.

OD&D’s American strain of fantasy didn’t even last within TSR. In 1980, Gygax himself reworked the World of Greyhawk into what looks, from its cover, like a supplement about Arthurian Knights.

But it’s worth taking a step back from the medieval-fantasy cliches that overran later D&D publications, and playing the original, more coherent setting: A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.

xposted here

14 Responses to “d&d is anti-medieval”

  1. Lizzie says:

    Fun read! I’m sold.

  2. Sean Holland says:

    That has been discussed before, it comes up quite regularly on “Ken & Robin talk about stuff” for example, and there is much to say for it. D&D is an American story, specifically drawn from the Western, while the wandering band of militant problems solvers has different resonances in other cultures.

    I would argue that early D&D, certainly the way we played it, did not have any cultural assumptions and, frankly, very little evidence of a world outside of the dungeons at all. It is though later play that people started building worlds for D&D and since the default was that this is the middle ages with magic, that is what a lot of the early fantasy RPG worlds looked like with varying degrees of success and coherence.

    And there were certainly periods of history in Europe where by the strength of one’s swordarm, you could ascend into the ranks of the nobility. It was tough, but who wants an easy victory?

    What D&D does not want in a world is a heavily settled and organized realm, there is not much of a place for adventurers in such a setting.

  3. RPGPundit says:

    The product you want for “Medieval Authenticity” (late-medieval, that is), is Dark Albion. it addresses much of what you’re talking about. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

  4. I never played OD&D, but AD&D definitely has a strong frontier quality to it, yes, unless you impose some kind of political and sociological order to fill in the gaps. It’s always struck me as more early modern (Renaissance/post-Renaissance, in European terms) than medieval (the cities are too complex, and as the post notes, feudalism would have to be imposed by the DM)

  5. Allan Grohe says:

    Good thoughts, as always, Paul!


  6. Fredrix says:

    I’ve long believed that the culture of D&D and most (but by no means all) fantasy RPGs is essentially frontier Western in nature. And the trope of the “murder-hobo” player character has its origins in the outlaws of Western pulp/cinematic myth. But I don’t put this down to Gygax alone, rather the development of player culture being a mostly US thing in its formative years.

    I disagree with Sean Holland though, heavily settled and organised realms have plenty of scope for adventure, see spy thrillers, Arthurian myth, ripping 19th century tales, Samurai films, the Three Musketeers, etc etc. It’s just a different type of adventure, with fewer Murder-Hobos :)

  7. Sean Holland says:

    Fredrix, you misunderstand me, I never said that there was no adventure to be had in civilized realms, I just that there was not much of a place for what we usually define as D&D Adventurers (or you, less charitably call murder-hobos).

  8. Hoomun says:

    I’m not sure if it was thought through by Gygax or arbitrarily posited that way, but in a way, it makes sense that a perilous land roamed by monsters and demons be a pretty inhospitable environment for the development of a strictly controlled class-based society.

    The nature of OD&D’s dungeons somehow reveal the fate that awaits any human construction in a more or less remote future: castles overrun by monsters, lost temples, abandoned cities. Any edifice garnering too much prosperity and riches, and slipping into placidity, may fall prey to wandering hordes of orcs and kobolds or earn the unwanted attention of a dragon.

    A feudal noble lineage would be snipped in the bud by beholders as soon as the 20th level adventurer who started it passed away. Incidentally, roaming bands of monsters affect the economy as well: in a world where cattle may need frequent replacement and land ownership proves difficult to maintain, durable forms of riches like gold and gems would certainly be more desirable.

    Your post actually gave me food for thought: I never really considered how the existence of monsters and the frequence of their encounters would affect the structure of human society…

  9. Spudeus says:

    A dissent: I’m not sure Greyhawk was ‘changed’ to reflect a medieval world – it was my understanding that EGG was always interested and well-read in that period (I mean, sheesh, the guy statted out 12+ medieval pole-arms in AD&D). The swords & sorcery fiction he loved (e.g. Howard) was a potpourri from history – feudalism could be found, but so could analogs of ancient Egypt, Rome, Age of Sail pirates, Mongols, etc. I think OD&D was left a blank slate to keep all these cultural options open. Imo, character advancement was simply a tool to keep players engaged, not a remark on specific historic norms (and in any case, the US has a class system – just not a traditional landed gentry one).

  10. Roger says:

    EGG may have been *interested* in the mediaeval (and other) periods, but his knowledge was weak. He simply consulted some populist sources and ended up propagating many myths, particularly about armour: e.g. neither banded mail nor ring mail are real things, and the way they were invented is quite funny, in a sad way. He also happily coined his own terms for other things, e.g. he seems to have coined “shortbow” to contrast with longbow, and it really isn’t clear what he meant by “plate mail.”

    [Aside: the term “mediaeval” is somewhat vague. It could refer to any of the three periods called “Middle Ages” by historians, which covers a period of over a thousand years. However popular usage roughly aligns with the High Middle Ages: a pre-gunpowder fedual society ruled from castles by armoured knights on horseback.]

    Ironically, some of Garry’s most notorious errors are in one that you cite:
    “… the guy statted out 12+ medieval pole-arms …”
    Alas, his remarks on polearms are riddled with errors, many of them quite major. For a start, many of his “mediaeval” polearms are actually early gunpowder era and some are as late as “Age of Exploration”, nearly half a millennium too late. It’s not just gross anachronisms. Most of his weights are far too high — sometimes nearly triple the realistic weight. A few of the weapons probably never existed at all: they are hypothetical reconstructions based on a few lines of text. Those lines could just as easily mean that the peaceful monk writing them was no expert on contemporary weapons.

    (As an aside on weights: most of EGG’s weights are far too heavy but a couple are absurdly light. Based on weight, burning time, and radius of illumination, I genuinely believe that EGG based his candle on a birthday candle.)

    There are many other elements that jar in a mediaeval setting: composite bows; no kingdoms or feudal lords; land is free but a place to sleep is not; cash economy based on gold coins (and absurdly large ones at that); huge coaching inns; no monasteries; churches have real miracles but no temporal power; etc etc.

    None of this matters hugely. After all, the game is a fantasy: it also has elves, dragons, and orcs. But it is a little disappointing that history education is so poor that you can mush together all this incompatible stuff, and people not only don’t notice: they say “Ooh, this guy knows his stuff!”

  11. Dirk says:


    On the contrary; it was inhospitable, perilous conditions that lead to the rise of feudalism, as a defense against the attacks by the Norse. Having a trained warrior and retinue immediately at hand to repel invaders (as travel time of the era meant anyone who wasn’t locally based would arrive far too late, the Norsemen having departed with loot and captives), along with some form of stronghold to take refuge in should the number of attackers be too many to drive off, was a must.

    In a world where cattle need frequent replacement due to loss, it is the CATTLE that become even more valuable, not the gold and gems.

  12. Claire says:

    The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a “Conan type”, is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings…

    When I think “medieval plus meritocracy”, I think of those fairy tales where a peasant boy ends up winning a princess’s hand in marriage or otherwise becoming rich. Though that would still be more “medieval as seen through the lens of the Brothers Grimm” than purely “medieval”…

  13. Jesse says:

    D&D – a quintessentially American institution!

  14. Cptn says:

    D&D has always been a kitchen sink, and nothing else. It is a mashup of all things stereotypically fantasy and little else. Gygax might have called it medieval, but that’s like calling Star Wars Sci-Fi (there’s little science to that saga); It evokes an image of a stereotype, but it doesn’t inherently mean it adheres to all the historical trappings that are implicit to the word itself. I.e. it’s a faux setting.

    I wouldn’t read too much into what Gygax or others of his ilk called it, however. The setting has always been and will always be a kitchen sink and that’s become its hallmark.

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