In my mind, D&D is medieval. Technology is limited to that era, societal attitudes from that era are the norm, and there are no cupcakes…. because they are American, and weren’t invented until the late 18th century. And the US didn’t exist when D&D is set. And they are called ‘fairy cakes’ in this country anyway. But I digress. D&D’s roots are in games that attempted to simulate medieval warfare, and it’s easy to pick up on those themes when browsing through the 1E hardbacks for example – the weapons are drawn mostly from the period of AD1000-1500, as is the armour – though there are a couple of mistakes in there in the historical sense, as Studded Leather did not exist, and the jury is out on whether Ring Mail ever existed too. There are chapters on castles, complete with the correct old English terminology, and some of the terms used to describe spells and magical items are drawn from the Old English language – dweomer for example. The infamous ‘random prostitute’ table contained multiple archaic synonyms for the world’s oldest profession - Gary Gygax was clearly an avid enthusiast of European medieval history. Gygax’s own Greyhawk setting also showed direct feudal Europe inspiration – Perrenland is clearly Switzerland, and Veluna looks to be based on the Papal States.
Europe in the Middle Ages was a brutal place, cities were vile, rat-infested places, the general populace were uneducated and impoverished. Society was very superstitious and extremely intolerant of anything ‘different’ – resulting in religious persecution, genocide, mass public executions, civil war, and so on. AD&D (and the Greyhawk setting) reflected that. Various races did not get on with each other, certain states are at war, others are brought down by human frailties, and there are frequent clashes between devotees of various opposing faiths. It is a constant fight between clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is a grittiness to 1E and to Greyhawk, and beneath the layers of monsters and magic there’s that basis in historical fact.
Nobody really likes Half Orcs - quite right too, the smelly beasts!
As a child, the 1st fantasy novel I read was The Hobbit. Tolkien also drew on similar inspiration – the technology of his world is very much of the early medieval era, most racial groups are portrayed as being wary of ‘foreigners’, and his world is also very brutal.
So, in my early teens, ‘Fantasy’ meant a medieval setting with magic and monsters. I had no interest in the sci-fi that enthused many of my peers, and the modern day was just plain dull, no, when I retreated into my gaming world it was also back in time to an era of swords, chainmail, brave knights, and damsels in distress.
Towards the end of the 80s Forgotten Realms became popular, then the likes of Spelljammer (D&D in Space!), Planescape, and onto the techno-magic of Eberron. Over the next few decades it appeared that the historical grounding was being forced out - the game was becoming more 'fantastical'. Classes were opened up to more races, traditional racial enmities were quietly left to wither and die, as it seems the game attempted to incorporate more modern societal norms in its play*. Gone was Gygax’s colourful, lengthy, often difficult prose – in its place were more direct rulebooks written in a more basic and mechanical style. The game was no longer imparting its ‘feel’ on its players, it had become more of a framework around which DMs and Players could build their own definition of ‘Fantasy’ - for better or for worse.
But mine will also be that gritty, medieval, somewhat historical fantasy of the 1st Edition.
A time before cupcakes existed. And the USA. And Reddit.
· * something I’m planning to write on soon.