Monday, February 20, 2017

How Important is an Actual Grasp of Medieval Warfare to D&D?

I recently (oh shit, this was like six months ago now) went to a music festival/renaissance fair in the town over and I was struck at the reenactors' commitment to authenticity. As someone who plays a lot of make believe informed by the folkloric traditions of Europe and elsewhere should I have a better grasp on how war was actually waged?

I am torn. So listen to this internal conversation:
ConBon: I think it's important that we understand the conditions and reality of combat in the Middle Ages. We want our games to reflect life, even when there are dragons and baby-wizard-clones.

CWilly: I disagree, an attack in D&D is an abstracted way of simulating the action of swinging a sword. We have precluded the need to understand the swing of the sword by having game designers and dungeon masters assign attributes to weapons.

CB: So? If one of our players wanted to use the pommel of his sword to bludgeon a skeleton I would probably let him do that with no penalty, though for less damage than a sword swing. The players understanding of how a sword was built and used improves their ability to use it in game.

CW: Fair point, but the player that doesn't know that may be at a disadvantage.

CB: Good! That will encourage them to learn about their weapons and skills and really immerse themselves in the setting!

CW: No, I think it introduces a layer of complexity and inaccessibility to the game that detracts from its enjoyment. We should absolutely want to encourage immersion and creativity, but never at the cost of penalizing players with less "Player Skill".

CB: Touché my dear fellow. But I still hold that the DM have at least some idea of the means of combat in the setting/era that the game is taking place in. They don't always have to use/include this deeper knowledge, but the ability to answer the PCs probing questions with logical and thoughtful answers is valuable.

CW: Oh absolutely, but the same could be said about having a coherent idea of how magic works in the world. As long as you have a good idea about how you want it to work you can kind of make it up as you go along. Magic laser tanks don't exist, but if a PC asks if their is a self destruct button in one then the answer will vary on what role you want magic laser tanks to play in your Campaign.

And they walk hand in hand into the sunset still arguing...

Some of this may also help make a setting feel more sparse and "gritty" (though I am hesitant to use the phrase). For example, swords were incredibly expensive to make and not very versatile in their uses. Should a fist level warrior-type just starting out on their adventure be able to even have access to a sword? Or perhaps you can have a sword if your daddy was rich, but you get a wood cutting axe or a sickle or a spear otherwise.

I saw something come out of the D&D 5e Homebrew Tumblr a few months back that had stats for Dark Age weapons like seaxes and such. While I like the commitment to the setting and creating usable tools/analogs for DMs to run games in Dark Age Europe, I don't think that it is important to stat a heavy seaxe any differently than a greatsword. Its the same problem I have with the near-fetish like attention D20Modern pays to different gun stats. I don't really care what model Glock I have, I just wanna shoot stuff.

Now when I think of D&D 5e players I think of a lot of young professionals (~20s and 30s) just trying out D&D for the first time. I assume I have a better grasp of medieval combat than they do. But does that mean that my games are more fun? Or does it even mean that my games are a more accurate simulation of what combat would be like if medieval folks where fighting horrible magical monsters? Are those desirable goals? I dunno. What do you think?


  1. You know what the leading cause of death was for cowboys on the range back in the Lawless West? Drowning. Seriously, more of them drowned trying to ford rivers on horseback than anything else. Second? Disease, mostly dysentery. Point is it definitely wasn't shoot outs or getting scalped by Indians.

    The reality of the situation is rarely aligned with our romanticized take. I'd say that holds true for medieval combat in D&D as well. Are sci-fi campaigns more fun with physics professors? Can a sci-fi game even be fun since we don't know how zero-g vibroknife fights will actually go down on the Mars colony 100 years from now? What about magic? Or games with both magic and laser guns? We mostly pander to a Hollywood/fictionalized view of things, both because it's more familiar and it's a lot more fun for most people. If you're already buying in to Fireballs and Manicores a little hand waving at whether that's a Guisarme or a Fauchard and how you use it isn't much of a stretch.

    Despite D&D's pseudo-roots in war gaming it's always had more to do with Tolkien and Vance and Howard than actually slugging it out on the battlefield. I think your ideas of abstraction are really at the heart of it. As you point out, at the end of the day it has everything to do with what's fun and that will mostly come down to who you play with. In my experience a little gonzo works well and the table and mostly nobody's interested in the tedious details when you could be out kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.

    1. Real life knowledge can help with immersion, but if the GM goes overboard or screws it up, it can be the most painful session you will ever go through. And I had to go through this pain twice.

      Ten years ago, my regular group had developed the habit of picking up new players every other session. The couple at whose house we played would shove one or two people we have never seen before into the room and proclaim "This are X and Y, we met them at the Ren Fair. They want to join our group."

      In this case, X would go on to GM a session of an Fantasy RPG one day and Y would take up the mantle as our Shadowrun GM a few month later.

      X was a history buff, especially enamored with naval warfare of the 17th century, I think. Because of this, his adventure was a simulation of life on a ship during that period, only in a fantasy world with Elves, wizards, and dragons. We were hired as lowly sailor (being level 9-11 at the time) and to keep us in line, the officers of the ship were about level 14-18, including two absurdly powerful mages. We would sail around, hoist the top sheet or whatever, and when we failed our Sailing rolls, we would be thrown into the brigg and/or get fourty lashes. Truly, high adventure at the high seas. We finally had enough of this and one night, we met at the bow of the ship and my mage Mass-Teleported us out of the adventure, ripping a big enough hole in the ship to sink it. The GM was floored, he had a blast, and how could anyone not like a detailed simulation of history? He was never allowed to GM again.

      I keep the Shadowrun story short. Y was developing and deploying security tech in real life and he nixed every rule in the book that was "unrealistic". Of course he told us about certain rules not working when we wanted to use them, which resulted in us triggering the alarm and enacting a god-damn massacre to get out there alive because "of course I'm using the Red Samurai stats for the guards, why should the corp deploy anyone less qualified for guard duty?". It was hell, out of five characters two died one evening, two were caught and sent to jail for live and only the mage walked away because the GM didn't know the magic rules and had no magical security in place.

      I had a few other encounters with GMs who brought real life knowledge into the game and it was almost always painful, but at least not as painful as the two examples above.

      If you can use such details to enrich your game, go ahead. But if you bog your game down with it or even override the rule book because of it, don't do it. We are sitting around this table to have fun and not to get thwarted by our lack of knowledge about landmines...

    2. Thanks for both your comments (the first two on the blog actually!)

      To your points:
      I absolutely agree that doses of reality don't seem add too much to the games that I like to play. A little bit of gritty-ness is good, for example I see the encumbrance rules as nice ways of making resource allocation and realism meet. But there are certainly hard limits to the virtues of this. Heavy handed encumbrance rules suck. Hyper-realistic disease rules would suck. Too realistic combat (as discussed on the reddit posts of the this blog entry) is either helpful to some or detrimental to others.

      I fall on the side of simple abstractions are a virtue, but if players are interested in using some interesting historical tidbit in their character that's awesome. Joseph Mandola over at his blog "Against the Wicked City" balances the historical references and play-ability really well.