Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feudalism Ate My Sandbox

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.
--Fight Club

Desperate rogues and cutthroats swigging ale in a smoky tavern, pouring over old maps, and swapping tales of plundering ancient ruins is the meat and drink of the D&D experience.  This vision of freebooters is quite removed from the feudal manorial system, where the majority of people are tied to the land as servants or defenders, and there are no inns and taverns for hard luck adventurers to plan their next delve.

Of course it’s odd, because the default tech levels in D&D reflect the early medieval world, and tales of knights, chivalry, and adventures with the fey realms would be ripe for inspiration.  I loved Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and it certainly seemed inspirational for many elements in D&D.

The good life
Joking about running feudal era characters, someone posted this on the RPGsite as a potential character background table:

Roll d10,000:
1 nobility
2 clergy
3-6 merchant
7-15 craftsmen
16+ serf

The point is well taken; running a dark ages campaign has always seemed problematic because of the social conventions.  Who would be the typical D&D style adventurers in such a setting?  Desperate outlaws that slipped their manorial bondage to live in the woods as bandits?  Everyone else is too tied to the system.

HR2 Charlemagne's Paladins, the 2E era historical reference for 8th and 9th century France, puts the characters in the role of members of a noble household - sons, daughters, and fosters of a Frankish count.  I've been reading Pendragon lately, the Arthurian game, and it's somewhat similar - everyone starts the game as a newly made knight, owner of their own manor and possessing a fair amount of starting wealth - at least by 1st level D&D standards.  Even a poor knight in Pendragon starts with armor, weapons, a pair of riding horses, a squire, a warhorse, and a sumpter pack horse, along with a small manorial holding and annual income.

That's one way of solving the problem of a feudal setting - letting everyone start the game as a noble with a degree of standing, and not a hard luck scrabbler eager to mug some goblins for their coppers.  Dark ages nobles were a rough and tumble lot, required to defend their small manors and support their lieges with military power, so it's not a bad role model.  But it turns the D&D end-game on its head, since knights are usually represented by mid-level fighters or higher, and the typical D&D character doesn't get property until name level.  It also undermines the desperate need for that next pouch of drinking money that underpins swords & sorcery and picaresque adventuring.

I ran a dark ages sandbox some years ago, with the players starting as members of a noble's household, and it left me a bit unsatisfied as a sandbox; too many of the adventures were "what is the noble count going to send them to do now?", since the players were essentially vassals (like everyone else in the setting) and it ended up more like 'mission of the week' and less like the players planning their own delves.  You need to be able to turn the keys over to the players, put them behind the wheel.

Another approach would be to cheat the historical aspect a bit and slide in some market towns and the occasional inn and tavern, de-emphasizing the feudal manor as the starting point.  There's an old school sensibility to the idea that knighthood and standing is something earned during play by proving one's worth through feats of arms (instead of being born a snowflake).  In the chaos of the dark ages, shrewd counts and kings will elevate tough and worthy warriors to the nobility through enfeoffment.

The feudal world has been on my mind lately, as one of my kiddos has been reading King Arthur stuff, and I had picked up Pendragon before the storm.  I tend to think if I did a feudal sandbox, it would be the latter approach, allowing the players to exist outside the manorial system and move into the ranks of landowners later in the campaign.  The dungeons and adventures in such a setting are topics for another day.

How about you, have you run a sandbox game in a feudal setting, and if so, how did you reconcile the freedom and autonomy inherent in a D&D style sandbox?