Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p1

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Part 1 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

There is one time period that fascinates me like no other – the Middle Ages. Knights in armor, kings and queens, and Crusades… what’s not to like? When I was a young kid and played my first game – I had no idea what medieval times were like. Honestly, I didn’t care. I got to kick goblin’s teeth in – wee! But as I got older I found that my suspension of disbelief was harder to swallow. So I thought quite a bit and wondered – what the heck was that time period actually like? On a summer vacation I picked up several books of medieval history and read them voraciously. That’s something I still do on occasion. I realized that the sort of Tolkien-esque worlds I’ve played in or had run, although fascinating, really paled to bits of real history. It also made me realize that the best way to smooth over the disbelief issue is to inject a lot of historical realism into things.

So I’ll tell you a little of my gamemastering journey. Hopefully it’ll make you think of a thing or two or be vaguely entertaining or interesting.

First off, I started thinking about the people. What they believed, why they believed it, and what were their lives like on a typical summer day. High magic worlds like I’d been running really would destroy everything the medieval people believed in. You can embrace high magic and it can make a rich setting that’s fascinating – those to me feel almost quasi-steam punk. But I wanted to take the players into a mythical, fantasy version of medieval Europe – so that didn’t work. So I decided to try and make it that the medieval peasant wouldn’t have to change his whole world view in my game. If magic were uncommon enough I think it would actually reinforce some of their views instead of upending their world.

A lot of my thoughts were about how to inject the fantastical to a player’s perspective – yet keeping it plausible that the peasants, nobles, and clergy wouldn’t seem like dimwits. Humanoids really weren’t a problem because they’re very analogous to barbarians, something parts of medieval Europe were entirely too familiar with. But spells really threw me for a loop. I’d always taken for granted that people could be resurrected in fantasy pen-and-paper games – but as I thought through the consequences I was appalled. If resurrection existed to powerful clerical types – those clerics would be enormously powerful politically, kings and high nobles that could afford their services would be guaranteed a natural lifespan to achieve things. I imagine people would start reacting like the denizens of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld Saga – where strategic suicide could be a legitimate tactic. Any element that started making the society seem alien to me had to go – so no resurrection.

Every spell in the book (and I used two systems over the life of the game setting – Rolemaster and Dungeons and Dragons) I went through with some thought. Some spells got nixed or heavily modified for other reasons. A pet peeve of mine are spells that reduce NPCs into tools, not people. If I can command any Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street to do my bidding and tell me anything about everything – it sort of kills role-playing. You could easily go the other way, because mythical mages like Merlin certainly could have that sort of power. But for me, I wanted people to have to interact with the high and low and use their wits, guile, and persuasive abilities to get by.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.