One of the selling points of many fantasy games is that they exist in an alternate world and an alternate time. The setting, the culture, and the world are all unique creations, reflections of the creators mind and the creativity that they can express. However, one of the more finicky things that defines a setting that is often disregarded is focusing on the appropriate technological level in a detailed way. Lets take a look.
Framing the Foundation
Technology has a fairly strong influence on the entire definition of a setting, and creating certain anachronisms, without proper explanation, can create some strong disbelief. This is one of the reasons I’ve always tried to focus on the specific time frame that I’ve come to believe that Dungeons and Dragons represents, and learn more about that period. I believe that time period is somewhere between 1250ce and 1450ce, give or take a few decades. The combination of Longbow, Crossbow and Full Plate gives us a pretty solid bounded range, with Plate only coming into prominence in the late 1300’s, and the crossbow and Longbow vying for dominance in the late 1100’s, with the crossbow still expensive and hard to product, this would indicate they were a rarity, not something that would be easily accessible to a commoner, as they would later become. The 100 years war, from 1337 to 1453, is likely the best place to focus ones attention, as all three items were utilized extensively by the forces in the war.
This gives us a basic timeframe to work with, allowing us to extrapolate out to different forms and functions of the world, and make sure that we have a frame of reference that seems realistic. We are sitting just after the viking age which ended with the conquest of England by William, duke of Normandy in 1066, and before the Renaissance. Weaponry and armor are at their peak, as are some of few technological advances. The Black Plage gets underway about 1345, blazing a path of death and devastation through the continent and the surrounding lands.
This frame of reference will be used many times when making sense of what type of systems should be employed, what type of theories should be focused on, and how people lived.
This creates a distinct feel in the world, allowing you to make sure that you’re not introducing anything that would cause a rift with the current believably.
Keeping the concept of maintaining realism in our games, and with our timelines, there are a number of other interesting time periods that we could build a game around, each having its own flavor and feel. I encourage you to take a look at, and consider doing the research into, games in these eras.
Imperial Roman Era 44bce – 400ce- This is a great time to run an adventure. Whats great about this is that you don’t have to change much. The weapon technology was similar – though with less variation in pole-arms. you’d not likely have to worry about that due to the relative uncommonality in player usage. armor is similar, if of a different style – Full plate wasn’t unheard of, but half plate and/or breastplate could be reproduced through Lorica Segmentata. Senatorial and Roman life was very different, with a more symbolic religion, a more interconnection, and stronger and larger military. There is a lot more going on here, but the point is made. it would be interesting to adventure in a Roman Based area.
Dark Ages 400ce – 800ce- The Dark Ages are an evocative time period where the loss of the Roman empire rang loudly through the known world. Europe was divided into man small fiefdoms and kingdoms, each run by semi-roman aristocrats. This era has a lot of play possibilities, though the heights of technology have faded. Full and Half plate are likely the heirlooms of great families, Crossbows and well made weaponry are the province of the wealthy. Many live in uneducated, dark, miserable squalor. Everyone, everywhere is secluded, suspicious and terrified. Among the many things that rise in this time is church power, making it a mainstay of life.
Viking Age 800ce-1066ce – With the dark ages receding and the Roman influence fading to myth, the stability of the world looked on an upswing. Then came the Vikings. This is an interesting age as it set about warfare, raiding, and fear on a large scale. When they weren’t busy loosing power, kingdoms and princes could consolidate power as they wished, becoming the focal point of life and security against the raiders from the north. Full plate is extremely rare, as are crossbows, but other forms of weaponry are common, and even many of the polearms and cavalry have become common place. Its not the age of the polearm yet – as the High Middle ages become, but they exist.
While each of these time periods has a historical bias, what we don’t want to forget is that we are in a fantasy world, While we may be in the dark ages, or the Roman era, we still need to find a place for Monks and Warlocks, Elves and Dwarves and all of the other fantasy beings that are around the game in its day to day.
That means taking a look and measuring up all the previous articles and trying to figure out how each of them fit within the scope of the provided timeframe. If your located in the viking age, trying to make sure that you understand how a gnome interacts with the world, or how the school of divination interacts with the raids and fear that the world would be wracked with is an interesting challenge to take on.
For instance: I have a Roman based civilization in my basically Dark Ages world. This civilization replaced the Imperial roman Senators with the Magical schools, each of which has power and influence based on their age, prowess and current political position. Senators are mages, the follow a variety of the Cursus honorum, with levels of Magus reaching into the Magus Imperator. It has been awesome studying and putting together the character and idea of the country, and trying to make sure that I’m as faithful to the concept so as to not break the suspension of disbelief.
Figuring out what time period best fits you and your story, and your audience is a great endeavor fully worth working through. Making sure you stay true to the time period, while not imperative, will definitely provide a solid and trustworthy background for the characters to work off of.