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HR2 Charlemagne's Paladins, the 2E era historical reference for 8th and 9th century France, puts the characters in the role of members of a noble household - sons, daughters, and fosters of a Frankish count.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?


  1. The closest I ver came to run something like that was with Midgard, not D&D (low Fantasy and a lower power curve), but I think the basic assumptions apply. The setting was loosely oriented on the scottish clan system and the setting was a tapestry of clans with a few black dots on the map (magic forest, wizards, etc.). Fractured is one key word here, magic another.

    The smaller kingdoms or duchies or whatever are (Germany, to give an example, had kingdoms where you could throw a stone from one frontier to the other...), the more freedom the players get alone with the possible individual diversity inherent in the setting.

    Magic is a game changer in such a setting, too. Take the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm for instance. They mapped black dots in "their" setting, by asking the people what stories they know about the area they live in. Fairy tales are, mostly, stories about something that couldn't be explained otherwise. As soon as magic is real, this becomes the "truth" nonetheless and another possibility for players to bring in a character, (be it elve or pixie...).

    Add some big scale war and chaos to it to cut the characters loose and you got (in my experience) all the freedom and autonomy you might want (plus ruins and dungeons).

  2. Outlaws in the woods is pretty much timeless, and there could be communities of escaped slaves too. You could also have free tenants experimenting or pushing the limits, villeins slipping their bonds via the city and bordars being dispossesed by an act of enclosure or similar.

    It could be that the campaign begins at some point soon after just such an act, with all kinds of newly 'free' agents trying to subsist any way they can, and the violence of the dispossesion having coloured the landscape.


  3. The traditional origin for adventurers in fairy tales and stories is for the younger son of a minor noble, who can't expect much in the way of inheritance, and sets out to seek his fortune. Or the PCs could belong to a desitute noble house, that has mortgaged all its land and been reduced to living like commoners, whose heirs set out to become hired swords to restore the family's wealth.

  4. That's really a great point - that 30-180gp wealth a character starts with is the inheritance of a destitute noble or non-1st born, knee-capped by primogeniture. Most adventurers would still be higher born than the 99%, putting them a bit in the snowflake class, but you wouldn't undercut the motivation to plunder by starting as landed nobles. I like it.

    The chaos of war and other great upsets to the recent status quo could create a greater degree of social mobility and opportunity as well - I saw a similar phenomenon when comparing the chaotic Sengoku period of Japan to the later Tokugawa shogunate.

  5. I haven't tried a real "Medieval" game. But it might be worth setting a D&D sandbox game either really early (the Roman empire is still retreating but there) or later (post-Black Death, to explain the flush of cash and prevalence of untouched ruins). Either way the more authentically European it is, the more player buy-in you need for "stay within the social order to succeed." If your players are like my players, that's not especially likely. ;)

  6. Have you read the Harn setting by Columbia Games? It has a medieval structure but with a social class of Freemen who are not bound to the land, so PC's could be from this level of society.

  7. Harn frightens me. It seems immensely detailed and well-conceived, but if I were to start reading it, I'd be consumed by the need for completion and get lost in canon.

  8. You could start the characters after being mustered out of an army or a Free Company that broke up.

    This would give a starting player martial training, equipment and weapons, a little money (from booty and pay), no home, and a desperate need to find a way to make a living outside the army even though all they know is war...

    If a major conflict just ended, it provides a ready explanation for where all these nutbars (the characters, their henchmen and hirelings, replacement characters, NPC adventurers) with swords and nothing better to do than kill monsters and take their stuff came from.

  9. Reading Norwich's history of the Byzantines, I was surprised at how often an offhand line gave a glimpse of pervasive rural violence and the people involved in it, even during relatively stable parts of the empire. The reconquest of Crete involved "wild men coming down from the mountains" and an emperor just ran into some Turkish mercenaries on the way to oust his predecessor next door to Constantinople itself. I suspect that, like with the historical origins of Confucianism, the authoritarian and paternal hopes which underlies the feudal project is a reaction to a pervasive social chaos.

  10. I would suggest you're not quite looking far enough back.

    Late Antiquity/Migration Era/Dark Ages (the later term, as I understand it falling out of favor in the past few decades) has much more social mobility. The Germanic invaders of the West are less hierarchical. In both their and post-Roman society the ability to organize men to raid or protect from raids is the route to power. Hengest and Horsa were name level fighters taking their band to found their baronies almost straight out of D&D. I have often thought the period from 450 to 650 in the British Islands was the perfect historical D&D world: little known history, source of a classic legend (Arthur), little organized authority like you would see before (in Rome) or after (in feudal societies), and both groups (Romanized Celts and Anglo-Saxons) having a much stronger tradition of free men than you'd see on the continent in the same time period.

    Another period where you see that is the First Crusade. It was less a noble effort to defend Christiandom from Muslims than second and later sons carving out new fiefs in the mysterious East.