Sunday, 24 February 2019

Fake Authentic Medievalism

My name is Dom, and I’m a fake authentic medievalist. I like to present the world of Legend as an authentic late Dark/early Middle Ages setting for my games. I want the setting to feel real; to have a gritty, downbeat, darkness to it but I’m not going to die in a ditch over historical authenticity. After all this is a fantasy RPG we’re talking about. It’s a game not a simulation. It has to be fun, otherwise what is the point?

That balance between realism and fantasy, natural and supernatural is important. Clearly I’m not the first to discuss this, and like much of what I have written about RPGs, it is a matter of taste. My taste tends to run to the low magic, low fantasy, end of the spectrum predominantly. I like Sword and Sorcery a lot though, and Superheroes, and ER Burroughs like Sword and Planet. I’m not as keen on whatever D&D 5E is, high fantasy I guess.

What we’re saying in the tl:dr version is that to having the games fantastic elements actually feel fantastic then the majority of things should be mundane. Otherwise if everything is fantastic, then nothing is and we’re now firmly in Sword & Planet/5E territory. However dwelling too much on the mundane is the reverse of fun. So in my Legend games I tend to use a few simple things to try and suggest an authentic medieval reality without going overboard.

Fantasy? Ours goes up to eleven.

So, as Gary once said “blah blah blah STRICT TIME RECORDS etc. As luck would have it Dragon Warriors furnishes us with a very serviceable calendar for Legend. The names of the months feel real and the days of the week track to our own so they are easy to remember. This is a good GM tool, if a basic one. By keeping track of time in the campaign in helps to create the verisimilitude I’m after and ground it in the days, months and seasons of the calendar

Another dull thing we like is encumbrance. Encumbrance in Dragon Warriors is based on the number of weapon sized items you can carry based on your strength stat. The average number is 10 items and armour is handled separately according to your Profession. So no fiddly weights in pounds, or even worse in “coins” (Basic D&D, go and stand in the corner in shame...)

Social order is important. This is stressed through NPC interactions. PCs will behave like player-characters but no one else will. Peasants will not talk back to lords. They’d regret it probably for the rest of their lives. PCs used to other play styles will not generally observe these conventions as a matter of course. Showing tat he than telling is best but sometimes gentle reminders are the order of the day.

Social inequality in action. Noble: Sweet chair. Peasants: Fabletics leggings. 

The church is important. People’s beliefs in religion are extremely literal, and this is to be expected in world that actually trolls exist, even if you might go your whole life and never actually see one. Therefore the church has a lot of power, resulting in both money and political clout. The main populist religion of Legend is the True Faith (although they’d argue that in the South or in Krarth for example) which is analogous to the Catholic Church of the The Middle Ages. There are even Crusades, which is nice. Well, not for everyone obviously.

Then we get to magic. Magic is definitely real in Legend. It should actually feel magical though and that’s the tricky part. I think the first port of call is the lack of demi-human player characters. Elves, dwarves and hobbits are not mundane. There is enough variety in common or garden humanity for your character differentiation without resorting to Tolkien pastiche. Unless of course you’re just after cool racial bonuses, in which case you’re making me get sad.

When I started my current Dragon Warriors campaign I did not allow the players to choose the magic using professions. I wanted to keep that stuff out of their hands as much as possible. Any magic system for a game is going to be reductive in how magic is seen by the players. This is one thing we don’t want to feel mundane, so it should be rare. It should also come at a cost. By this I don’t mean in terms of magic points or whatever but that when mortal man messes with the supernatural there should always be consequences. Magic is powerful but it’s a devil’s bargain. Overt displays of magical power should be avoided, so no casting of fireballs or bolts of lightning then. Keep it mysterious. Seriously, it’s more fun.

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