The Case for Medieval Stasis

The Mechanical Case for Stasis

I would argue that, more than D&D having originally been engineered to mimic the medieval period, the medieval period was uniquely suitable for D&D. Historical wargaming, if anything, leans toward the Napoleonic and American Civil wars– and surely, there were enticing reasons to turn the clock backwards some. Gunpowder is perfect for a tabletop mass combat system: you roll the dice once, and simulate an exchanged volley, and it almost appears as if the two armies are taking turns’ just like they do in a wargame. Large units form into controlled lines and fight in a largely probabilistic manner. Cannons, muskets, and cavalry each fill well-understood tactical roles that leave plenty of room for clever expressions of gameplay. But when you reduce the company of riflemen to a single rifleman, gunpowder weapons become obviously unwieldy at the table. They require multiple resources to fire, don’t hit reliably, and have a long period of downtime between shots. Not until the late 19th century do gunpowder weapons become a viable basis for an RPG combat system (and I would argue that even modern firearms are unsuited to the TTRPG, being less suitable to theater of the mind’ combat and forcing unwieldy abstractions like line-of-sight and cover mechanics, neither of which are especially satisfying).

None of this is especially new. The TTRPG concept of the medieval is in large part based on the invisible, hazy boundary between the age of steel and the age of gunshot. Some of this is symbolic: handled realistically, crossbows, especially the powerful arbalests of the 12th century onward, pose many of the same awkward questions that muskets do– but we are more willing to accept unrealistic’ handlings of the crossbow, where its efficacy is neutered and the time taken to reload one is somewhat shortened in order to fit into a fantasy combat system. If we are unwilling to do the same for the musket, it is mostly because of what the musket represents.

Beyond gunpowder, the medieval period contains a few other useful elements: the leftover ruins from Rome, or some obvious facsimile of Rome, are the exact fodder needed to drum up a group of enterprising young grave-robbers. The medieval period was long enough, in fact, that even medieval ruins can easily be present without anybody needing to ask questions about the timeline. State capacity was generally low enough to enable the sorts of borderlands’ which are so suitable for the violent and capricious vagabonds that make an RPG tick.

The Literary Case for Stasis

There is also a certain attraction that the medieval period has as a canvas for storytelling, one which holds true beyond the limited medium of the tabletop RPG, and beyond the limits of the fantasy genre. We need not belabor the medieval period’s utility to fantasy: Even were Tolkien the first writer to make use of it, that would be enough to explain its continued influence. But more telling are the stories which seem to have influenced Tolkien and his contemporaries: the works of Shakespeare, whose histories and tragedies permanently anchored the medieval period in the cultural imagination of the English-speaking world.

Outside the Anglosphere, even, wherever a roughly analogous period can be identified, before the emergences of gunpowder, colonialism, capitalism, and eventually industry, it might linger in the cultural consciousness, to become a sort of stasis point for genre lit: Japan’s Edo period, the indistinct premodern of Wuxia and Xianxia.

My instinct is that after a certain point in history, we imagine each moment in history as a part of the upward curve of technological and civilizational progress, and to select any point in that process would necessarily warn the reader (or the player) of what happens next. Certain outcomes are swallowed whole by the history of technology between the Renaissance and today. The world becomes larger, more nations and cultures become parties in the fiction. We view technology as such a world-shaping force that it dwarfs any story whose consequences are merely political or personal. Just remembering that some invention looms in the distance warps our expectations. The middle ages benefit from a post-hoc narrativization as an internally stagnant period, one which Europe supposedly woke from in the Renaissance and from there began her upward ascent. By all accounts, this is not true, but it does help the period retain a mystery which is largely agnostic to the arc of technological progress. This sets it apart from the Enlightenment or the Renaissance, whose overarching narratives are bounded by technology and progress.

The medieval period, having been scratched from the story of progress, becomes a Tabula Rasa onto which we can, paradoxically, write historically without writing about history. We can inhabit the same numinous pocket of time that contains Arthur and Lear, Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler. The oft-criticized stasis of many fantasy settings only mirrors this absence of progress. And perhaps this is worth critique, but this is also a useful tool buried within reader expectations.

The Social Case for Stasis

But we have so far approached medieval stasis as if a single point of consciousness, floating in a boundless space, arbitrating. In the TTRPG hobby, we less often make decisions than contribute to them. Perhaps the most important utility of medieval stasis is that the same indefinite medieval creates a long period in history where we perceive any point as largely compatible with the rest of the age. An adventure set in a vague facsimile of early-medieval England is likely to be compatible with a game set in a vague facsimile of late-medieval Bavaria (or premodern China, if the VIN number has been filed off well enough) without raising much of an eyebrow. The technologies, politics, armies, and peoples of each century of the middle ages are perceived as more or less interchangeable. And so, in our fictions, they are.

If we set these works in an era whose narrative is more intertwined with technological progress, it would be more important to write in near-adjacent centuries, or to make conversions so to amend the presence or absence of a historically important technology. Compared to the subsequent ages, the medieval period feels spacious and vague. There is plenty of room in those centuries to contain the ouvres of countless game designers, writers, and bloggers. It is a gathering-place of considerable convenience.

Stasis also serves as a sort of social contract regarding technological progress: despite that players might know of technologies or circumstances from later in history that would have proven quite useful earlier on, it would be boring for players to try and go around inventing technological solutions to various problems (boring, that is, whether it works or not). Likewise, a GM doesn’t want to need to litigate questions of whether a given item is or is not available in the exact pseudohistory of their fiction, and this becomes more complicated if the game world is in the midst of a technological shift which somewhat parallels our own history’s without mirroring it precisely.

Any genre is a social convention (which is a more satisfying description than saying they’re marketing gimmicks, though they mean similar things), and for all the limitations of the long, nebulous medieval, it does remain a place that we can coordinate around, a set of norms that more or less ensure cross-compatibility between games, set expectations for players and GMs, and avoid some of the difficult or annoying hypotheticals that any historical or pseudo-historical game is prone to.

August 10, 2023