Where the Word ‘Medieval’ Doesn’t Apply
My recent series of reviews on Savage Tide took a sidetrip into the characters that played through the module, wherein I talked about how the characters had to adapt to the scenario as it played out, swapping in and out with specific magic items to better optimize their builds and the kit they carried into battle.
The Barbarian held onto his old original war axe as long as he could before he switched up to the Holy Greatsword that became his iconic weapon, enchanting it with new powers before he made the changeover. The Rogue, Druid and Gun Mage kept careful track of the number of charges used and remaining on their respective Wands of Sleep and Cure Light Wounds, updating their shopping list when they needed to replace depleted items.
Not exactly preserving the myth and mystery of magic, is it? When arcana is no longer arcane, but everyday, what does that do to the game?
While Gregory sparked the idea today, I’ve chewed the concepts over before, worrying them into a wet and only barely recognizable mass before moving on. A lot of my original thought came with the release of the original Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition rules, when magic item enchantment became quickly and easily codified, and low level Wizards were given access to create Scrolls and Potions at a whim. In the day, I’d started to argue that the application of Medieval sensibilities (and the attendant Feudalism) to the game no longer held any value, as the widespread access to curative magic and basic low-level arcana removed most of the concerns of the era.
Consider what wonders are available to base initiates of the arts, generally at will and constantly, in the form of Cantrips and Orisons. A 1st level Wizard can cast Mending as many times per day as they have time and basic concentration. This has the weird effect of taking the place of an entire slate of workmanship and shifts out the role of the Tinker from the society. While there may be mechanical limits to the ability of the spell, it’s largely up to the GM’s discretion. Worn and broken tools are quickly and simply restored, water and fire damage are dealt with in short order, and virtually anything of lasting value is kept in working condition beyond the limits of logical wear and tear. This is a simple, at will spell that’s considered something of a throwaway, and it has the ability to reorder most of the concepts of Medieval society.
In the mean time, a 1st level Cleric has access to both Create Water and Purify Food and Drink as Orisons. These two spells remove a fairly obvious amount of what plagued society throughout the Middle Ages, when disease ran rampant simply due to the fact that people had no access to basic necessities. Create Water changes quite a bit of agriculture, as the range of arable land is immediately extended by virtue of bringing water to places where larger and more complicated mechanisms would be required. And Purify immediately removes the threat of dysentery and other food borne illnesses like cholera from the slate. Considering that dysentery was a significant factor in warfare until World War One, the ability to effectively cure this disease outright is nearly unthinkable. Not only does it change nearly everything about the situation in wars, it alters the very face of society in general, lowering the death rate of young children in simple application.
And with the inclusion of Sorcerers and Oracles into the game lexicon, untrained ‘savants’ could have access to these wonders without years of academia and training.
For my own part, as a GM, I’ve given a lot of time and consideration to ideas like this and how they would go about changing the perception of arcana and divinity within the society that holds them. There’s a tendency to want to hold onto the more Arthurian outlook of magic being the province of the hermit and education being the realm of the cloistered monk, but the view from the ground shows that without some sort of limiting factor imposed on the very practice of these arts, society would adapt to allow for such wonders. Over time, it could be argued, these sorts of development would simply replace similar technological innovation, to the point that it would be commonplace.
And this is where the term ‘DungeonPunk’ starts to show up.
A criticism I’ve heard occasionally is that D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder no longer present the medieval worldset that the grognards of old would prefer in their fantasy RPG. This is valid, but most of this is because the perceptions of what such a society would become have been glossed over. There are still a number of game systems that cater to the more low fantasy ideals of this genre, but by and large, they’re not Dungeons & Dragons any longer. Off the top of my head, I would swing to titles like Warhammer Fantasy, Ars Magica, Song of Ice and Fire, Pendragon and Shadows of Esteren. Any of these five can be used to portray a gritty and unforgiving fantasy world where magic exists, but it’s well beyond the grasp of the peasant, thereby preserving the wonder of it all. These games go out of their way to keep things dirty and vicious, and exactly which flavor of hopeless social condition depends on which game you decide on.
In the mean time, the Pathfinder games I run take into account the prevalence of magic in everyday utility. It may take away the fresh faced awe that our source materials may prefer to apply to it, but that’s the sort of game that I’ve come to enjoy running. It isn’t a cynical accounting of resources so much as it’s just another tool of the trade for the seasoned adventurers.
As something of a tangent, this is also the reasoning that I’ve taken to apply to the usage of firearms in my games. There is a prevailing idea that guns of any sort would utterly change the course of a fantasy world with their inclusion into the setting, as though the discovery of gunpowder was to be followed immediately by the development of the Colt .45 Revolver. As such, companies like Paizo have tried to come up with rules to simulate the level of damage that they believe early pistols would wreak upon armored foes.
It hasn’t worked very well. Leaving aside the historicity of the weapons in question, none of it takes into account the prevalence of magic in a setting (again) or the actual role that the Armor Class numbers signify. (And this is where a discussion of the early Hit Matrices of 1st Edition AD&D would come in, where Blunt, Slashing and Piercing weapons have a different effect on different armor types.) And by modifying the rules to fit the weird perceptions that they’re working with, they’ve rendered the inclusion of firearms of any sort as something that simply shouldn’t be done. It unbalances the game too far, to the point that no reasonable GM would ever allow it. (It’s long been my contention that any attack that can be resolved as a Ranged Touch is unaccountably powerful. As such, it either needs to be severely limited or outright removed. It definitely shouldn’t be allowed into the hands of low level characters.)
So, the question is this: Does the DungeonPunk aspect change the way my players approach the game? Yes. Does it ruin it, compared to how it probably should be played? It might, but not for my purposes. A lot of this delves into the role of Player Agency within the context of how the game is run. In a DungeonPunk milieu, my players are free to customize their characters without an in-game hook to allow it. They’re able to shop around for specific items to upgrade one aspect of their character or another. And they’re able to build out a very detailed, unique character from the available tools, something that the RPG itself goes to great pains to allow.
On the other end of the spectrum, in games like Pendragon or Song of Ice and Fire, there’s very little opportunity for the players to be able to lay their hands on this or that item of power. Unless it shows up somewhere in their travels, they have no access to a bazaar of wonders where such things would be bought and sold. It simply does not fit the flavor of the game. Any sort of arcana is the subject of a long quest, a series of trials that serves both to test the mettle of the character seeking the item and to fix the precious nature of it. Some games (Blue Rose, specifically comes to mind) make a point of introducing new items as a story component, simply to better suit the tropes of the genre. The legendary sword will be brought into the narrative when it’s dramatically appropriate, usually after the trusty weapon of the main hero was broken in combat.
These are techniques of a different game, and ones that I would argue do not fit within the context of Pathfinder or D&D, as they are now. I understand them, appreciate them and feel that anyone who uses those sorts of narrative devices is probably doing so to enhance their games accordingly. It’s an excellent thing to include.
See, while I might not have any interest in keeping magic items rare and valuable, I’m never going to dismiss people that do or games that promote this thinking. After all… those games that I listed out? I own them all, in one form or another. I may not be playing them right this minute, but they were solid enough RPG’s that I went out of my way to pick them up. And gods willing, there may be a point in the future where I’d even look at running them.