Tuesday, November 19, 2019


I have no intention of abandoning Lukomorye any time soon, but my goal was always expand into other historical-fantasy settings - a Central European-flavored one, an Islamic-flavored one, and one loosely based on the Bronze Age Near East  - roughly in that order.

I'm not sure why the first of these settings has been on my mind lately - perhaps, with the likelihood of spotty attendance by the Lukomorye regulars during the upcoming holidays, I've been wanting to do some experimental stuff with those players that are available. Perhaps the drive to finally finish Peterson's Playing at the World turned my imagination to a setting that more closely resembled the original D&D setting.

On the one hand, for such a setting, fewer things have to be reconceptualized, and the availability of Lukomorye's reconceputalizations as a resource means there is less work to be done. That said, what appears here is still very much at the initial stages, and will have to be thought through more extensively, and informed by more external reading.

Michael Wolgemut, Tanz der Gerippe (1493)


The Totentanz has swept across the land. First, the winters grew longer, and the crops began to fail. Then, a plague struck all the large towns, before sweeping into the countryside. The corpses of the dead rose before the survivors had a chance to bury them, and marched across the land in the train of the Sensenmann, reaping those that had been spared. And behind the dead, other nightmares followed. Packs of hungry werewolves roamed the woods, and witches had grown bold enough to hold grisly rituals on hilltops within sight of city walls. The devastation destroyed commerce, as people feared to travel to areas where the Totentanz might still be raging. And many of those who were willing to take the risk lacked the coin to conduct trade. Initially, there were not enough miners to dig up silver and gold. But soon, the mines themselves ran dry, or creatures who dwelt in them no longer desired any intercourse with humans.

Those that were left, frightened and confused, turned on one another, trying to claim what fertile lands and important thoroughfares were left. The faithless, rightly or wrongly suspected of welcoming the Reaper, were driven out of their compounds, and forced to find towns that would take them in; those that failed to do so, starved. Many also blamed the Church, which had failed to either predict or to stop the disasters. New heretical sects flared up across the land. They were led by preachers who questioned its legitimacy, and proclaimed that a time of tribulations, heralding a final accounting before God, was at hand.

But in areas where the devastation had been less complete, or which had the good fortune to partially recover, new opportunities for those willing to face the dangers of the world left behind. Despite the scarcity of coin, magnates were willing to pay handsomely for to those who undertook to clear the royal highways to restore trade, or to keep the armies of the dead at bay. The Church was also willing to pitch in, especially to recover abandoned monasteries, or to root out witches and heretics. Towns in regions where mines had been plentiful sent out scouts to pump out water, in hopes of finding new veins in areas that had been submerged. Despite the Church's disapproval, rulers and nobles sought out magi who could make gold and silver out of base metals, unleash the power of the elements, and read fortunes to give their patrons an edge over their rivals. And mercenaries of various kinds sought work with anyone who would benefit from seizing their neighbors' treasure.

Rothenburg, Bavaria

Lay of the Land

A formerly prosperous region where major trade routes intersected, Markwald is dotted with numerous towns, each roughly 10 miles distant from its nearest neighbor. Most are inhabited by 1000 - 3000 people, though the seats of the magnates tend to be a bit larger. Some of the smaller towns have become deserted as a result of the Totentanz.

The towns that have survived are well-fortified to defend against the predations of bandits, monsters, and lords overeager to extend their domains. Behind the walls, one may breathe the free city air - many of Markwald's towns have imperial charters guaranteeing their right to self-government - provided one can put up with the stench generated by life in close quarters.

Most of the cities are ruled by councils that are composed of heads of the most important guilds. The councils, in turn, elect a Burgomeister, Shultheiss, or Vogt, usually based on how much money an aspirant for the office distributes to the individual syndics. The rough-and-tumble of political life is further stimulated by the patronage of major magnates, moneylenders, and the Church, all of which promote their own candidates and informal 'parties'. Successful syndics, it is often whispered, are those who have made mutually beneficial pacts with household kobolds or other Fee beings.

The insecurity of life for the underprivileged breeds anxiety that is often expressed through mass public gatherings. The majority of the population - including apprentices, unskilled laborers, and refugees from the country are not politically represented, and have little recourse other than to riot or loot when they want their voices heard. Aside from that, people turn out for funeral and holiday processions, public executions, visits by fiery itinerant preachers, bonfires of vanities, and fairs. Groups of itinerant Augurs occasionally encamp outside of the city walls, but in times of great stress or strife, town residents may carry out attacks against them. When strife within cities becomes pervasive, they are visited by the feared Vehm - a group of armed justices who punish guilty and innocent alike to restore order.

Beyond the walls lie tracts of woodland and scattered villages. The peasants are, if anything, even more anxious than the urban residents, exposed as they are to marauders without the protection of city walls. Many of them have sunk into personal dependence on the noble landowners, who, in exchange for work on their estates, promise to shelter the peasants within their castles in times of need. Some villagers have found that freedom is a high price to pay for security, though many suspect that they have instead made deals with marauders, or even the Dark Powers.

The roads that connect the towns to one another have, in many instances, fallen into disrepair. Places where they have become impassible often become sites of ambushes - by hungry peasants, greedy landlords, unpaid mercenaries, or even worse horrors. City governments, large magnates, and princes of the church are often willing to pay people to clear away roads and marauders, but they also act at cross-purposes to one another, favoring the restoration of certain routes at the expense of others.

Further afield lie abandoned mines and deep forest hollows that are haunted by creatures of darkness.
The Totentanz has encouraged some of them to return openly into the world. Some of them have even set up their own backwater estates that are tacitly recognized by the magnates in exchange for being left alone. Here, they lord it over peasants, forcing some to work, and some to be eaten. Other creatures, though typically not allowed to reside in cities, are protected by the major courts, and thus have some freedom of movement throughout Markwald. Worst of all are the abandoned villages and towns, which serve as gathering places for the dead, werewolves and witches - especially at night. Wondrous beings of a bygone age - unicorns and serpents, have been reported in some of the most out-of-the-way places, and their reputedly magical properties foster lords to hire hunters to harvest them for body parts, or to capture them for placement in menageries.

Augsburger Monatsbilder, c. 1520

The Economy

The crisis in silver production is more profound than the crisis in gold, which may still be earned by selling manufactures to more southerly regions. Although the dearth of silver makes it more difficult to stimulate local production, gold is somewhat more available for those who are willing to undertake strategically important work - prospecting for mines, hunting for buried treasure hoards, service as a mercenary, or alchemical research. The same applies to leading diplomatic missions into the domain of the dwarven King Goldmar, if he can be successfully persuaded to share some of his wealth, or at least to lend some money. As a result, the system of exchange in Markwald is more reminiscent of the traditional gold-centered economy of the default D&D setting.

Despite crisis-like conditions, the division of labor in the region is traditionally well-diversified, with mining, metal-working, textile, and dying skills particularly prominent. There are many well-qualified apprentices and masters waiting to be employed, though doing so will involve negotiating with guild masters, and probably, greasing some palms.

Selling exotic and magical items will be difficult in the towns, but buyers can probably be found among the magnates, if enough reciprocal interest can be generated. They may also be convinced to sell such items from their treasuries, if the price is right. Most dukes or counts have ancestral swords or armor that are marks of family prestige, but the need to raise money for armies or castle construction may force them to deal. The same can be said about the more unscrupulous bishops' and abbots' willingness to part with relics - this is the real reason for many establishments claiming to possess the same relics. Priests, in any event, are always willing to sell their services, and to offer incentives for adventurers to atone for their sins.

Player Races

The vast majority of people encountered in Markwald are human, and non-humans (or humans who do not accept the predominant Ecumenical Faith) will find it difficult to freely operate in the towns. Nevertheless, non-humans are present, though they do not in every instance resemble their counterparts from default settings.

Humans. Church teaching asserts that humans are God's stewards on earth. During the heyday of the Vallanda Empire, which it is said covered nearly all the world, that seems to have been close to the case in practice. The collapse of this empire 1000 years ago brought creatures that had older claims out of hiding, but with the spread of the Ecumenical Faith, they once again retreated from the world, into their mines, haunts, and isolated estates. Some say that the Totentanz was their punishment for human pride, though others insist that without a settlement between humans and the other races, the apocalypse unleashed by the Totentanz will be impossible to contain.
There are many human nations. Those native to the Markwald are called Tungri, while neighbors include Vallanda, Labdy, and many others.

Dwarves. These people are quite similar to the standard dwarf race. Under the leadership of King Goldmar, they have withdrawn from most intercourse with humans, and retreated into their marble halls. Mountain dwarves live in his realm among the unapproachable peaks of the Ardz mountains, and are a very race sight in Markwald. Surprisingly, they are rumored to be physically attractive. Hill dwarves are somewhat more widespread, and are said to dwell in the Düst foothills bordering Markwald from the south. Some of these, known as 'court dwarves', appear in the castles of the magnates from time to time. The Dark Dwarves (or Duergar) operate in secrecy, and are said to have fashioned networks of tunnels beneath some of the towns. Their nefarious activities help further poison dwarf-human relationships.

Elves. These are significantly more remote and dangerous than the beings depicted in standard D&D settings. The elves (Albe or Alpe) were the royal lines of the Fee, and in response to the spread of humans, have largely retreated back to their own world - Albenheim. Retreated, but not given up on taking revenge. They are said to sometimes carry out attacks against people who are asleep, though the purpose of doing so is unclear. They also steal children, and replace them with changelings. In the case of a certain Pied Piper - active in Markwald over a century ago - they do so en masse. Rumors have it that they control leaders of the heretical sects, and may ultimately be responsible for the Totentanz, and the Wild Hunt.
The two clans of elves - light (Eladrin) and dusky (Shadar Kai) are the two 'subraces' known in Markwald, though it is not clear that one is more favorably disposed toward humans than the other. The elves have their defenders, who argue that they are not evil, just misunderstood. Whatever the case, when they walk abroad in the world, elves are typically in disguise. Some changelings grow up to be half-elves, whose elven parent makes their desires and instructions evident, at some point.

Gnomes. Of the Fee, the gnomes (more commonly known as kobolds, wichtelmännchen, erdmännchen - 'gnomes' is the term used by scholars) actually interact with humans the most. The former two terms are used to refer to urban gnomes, who access the houses of town residents (perhaps through underground tunnels). They tend to be skillful at artifices, and sometimes reward certain craftspeople they like by leaving little gifts. Conversely, they torment those they dislike. Their motivations are unclear, though it is rumored that they seek alliances with certain artisan guilds, and are willing to share knowledge with them. The Erdmännchen are more likely to have forest haunts. They are wilder and more magical, and, like the famed Rumpelstilzchen are not above stealing (or bargaining for) children.
The former type of gnomes correspond to rock gnomes, they former - to forest gnomes. The deep gnomes who dwell in the mines may in fact be ancestral to both dwarves and gnomes.

Orcs. The orcs of Markwald are quite distinct from D&D orcs. Their physique does tend to be orc-like, though they are typically hairier, and lack mandibles. They do not live in tribes or march in large armies. They tend to be solitary, hiding in caves and swamps, though some have established themselves as estate owners in desolate locales. In such cases, they typically demand children to eat or spouses to marry as the price for leaving the rest of the people alone. Unfortunately, their spouses tend not to survive long, though some orcs imprison old spouses and practice polygamy. Solitary orcs sometimes kidnap partners from neighboring towns and villages.
The Church holds that orcs are descended from Nadad - the first human murderer and fratricide. This helps account for the orcs' monstrous lifestyle, but it also explains their close kinship with humans and ability to produce offspring with them. It is not clear whether orcs are in fact half-breeds themselves - in Markwald, there is no clear distinction between orcs and ogres. A subspecies may have magical abilities.

Little pockets not ruled by magnates might just be orc domains

Tieflings. Though church scholars are divided on the matter of whether the Fee are evil or destined for neither Heaven nor Hell, the beings that sire tieflings are clearly infernal. The appearance of such creatures are clearly marked as 'monstrous births', and though most die before reaching adolescence, some survive. Though priests typically do their best to save their souls, most tieflings who make it to adulthood are driven out from their native villages and towns. At that point, they turn to lives of highway robbery, or become mercenaries. The few that are magically gifted sometimes found heretical sects, or become sorcerers of some note. Various tiefling types exist, and trace distinct infernal parentages.

I'm undecided about the rest. I may choose to include some shapeshifters from Lukomorye, but given the greater distance between people and animals in the Markwald setting, I may not. Something like a goliath or volot might work - Gargantua and Pantagruel studied at the Sorbonne, as I recall.


Given how close this setting is to the default setting, derived as the latter is from a medieval European matrix, I can't think of a reason to leave out any of the standard PHB backgrounds (with the partial exception of the Folk Hero, on which more below). I'm not entirely certain about the Outlander, as Markwald lacks Lukomorye's extensive heathen hinterland, but Grimm's Fairy tales are certainly replete with wood collectors (i.e. foresters). That background would also work for orcs.

From the Sword Coast Guide, City Watch, Cloistered Scholar, Courtier, and Mercenary Veteran would probably be appropriate. Far Traveler would be, too, if someone chose to play a visitor from distant lands. Clan Crafter might work for a dwarf, and Knight of the Order - for members of the monastic fighting orders (on which see below).

There are some great nautical backgrounds in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, though the centerpiece of the Markwald setting is landlocked, for the time being. Fishers and Smugglers could certainly work.

From Lukomorye, I would certainly port the Peasant (still my preference over the Folk Hero), the Urban Laborer, the Healer, and the Vagabond. Merchant may work, and perhaps also the Scribe (although there are certainly Learned Doctors in this setting, who may deserve a background of their very own).

As for unique backgrounds, the I've worked out the Plague Doctor (and even had a chance to play one, briefly). The Augurs would get their own background, too - something fairly close to Ravenloft's Vistani. It's possible that there might be room for others - lay mendicant orders, special backgrounds for various types of non-humans, and so on.


At the outset, a few quick words about what's being left out. The barbarian, while possibly appropriate for a Viking Age setting, doesn't work here (and my experience with Lukomorye suggests that the Rage ability works just fine as a feat). Clerics as such don't really work in a historical setting without significant changes, so here, as in Lukomorye, they are altered. Monks are best left as a "foreign" class (though I do like the Sun Soul tradition as a kind of post-Cathar extrapolation). And a setting like this is probably too late for druids (there are several classes that would have access to most of their spells, and delaying the ability to polymorph to a more appropriate level is probably a plus). This leaves:

Artificer. For this setting, with its mills, clocks, and cannons, it would probably be appropriate, though I reserve judgment until the final version appears in the Eberron campaign book (which is being released even as I write this). I'm still a bit uncomfortable with an alchemist as a non-full caster in a high-magic game (transmuter wizards are the real alchemists), but that's probably a quibble. I do like the homonculi.

Bard. This is a pretty straightforward port, though the issue gets a bit murkier with specializations. The elite Minnesinger are an obvious subclass - but are they College of Valor (because they are knightly), or College of Lore (Wolfram von Eschebach knew a lot of occult stuff)? The Meistersinger are a good fit historically, but not into an existing subclass, so they might need a new specialization of their own.
I've never been a big fan of the 'newer' colleges, but for this setting, some of them might work. College of Glamour is a good fit for an elven bard - definitely a Pied Piper. College of Swords, and of Satire, might work for Augurs (though the latter might step on the Fool's toes).

Expert. This "sidekick" UA class might make for workable characters in this setting. In any event, I'd like to see them in action. Arguably, there are some prototypes - the Brave Little Tailor, the Skillful Huntsman, Clever Hans, Clever Elsie, and so on. All these characters might work better as rogues or fools, but they are generally more resourceful than roguish or foolish.

Fighter. There are fighters everywhere, obviously, the only question is, which subclasses to include. Battlemasters are the leaders of the Landsknecht mercenary companies like the Black Band. The more knightly fighters would probably end up with something along the lines of a hybrid between the Champion and the Cavalier - the latter subclass is a bit underwhelming, and Born to the Saddle can easily be ported over to the Champion without making it too powerful. As for others - Arcane Archer probably works for elves, Eldritch Knight - ditto (though some knights dabbled in the occult - is it better to have them wizard-based, as in the PHB, or sorcerer-based, as in Lukmorye?). I've never liked the Brute, it it would be OK for orcs. Sharpshooter is probably OK, the rest can safely be ignored.

Fool. I was accused by one Russian of only including the Fool in a Russian setting, though my response was that the non-inclusion was on the D&D designers, not on me. Holy foolishness was more widespread in Russia, but it existed in Europe as well. The fool was also featured in the Tarot deck, and village idiots were present as well. No Western fool matched Yemelia in the realm of cool, so the Idler's Aids specialization for the Simpleton archetype would have to be jettisoned. There may be room for an Everyman subclass for the Brave Little Tailors of the world, if they do not become Experts.

Friar. This is the revamped 'cleric' for this game, a more Western version of Lukomorye's priest. The friars sacrifice combat ability (armor, weapons, d8 hit dice), but receive more powerful Channel Divinity features, a much more extensive spell list, the ability to port spells from other classes' spell lists, and socially potent rituals to boot. I have observed one Lukomorye priest in action for an extended period of time, and she very much holds her own, and has an important role to play within her party (all of this probably indicates that the standard cleric is too OP, or too versatile). All the major mendicant orders (thinly disguised) represent their own domains.

Paladin. Definitely works here. As "foreign" classes in Lukomorye, they were reflavored to represent the monastic fighting orders. The Knights of the Ritterheim/Oath of Conquest (i.e. Teutonic Knights) definitely have Komtors in the region. As for Oath of Vengeance, it might just be better to give this over to the Holy Vehm - its officers are even called Justiciars (one of the level titles for AD&D paladins). Oath of the Ancients could world for elves (or their allies). Not sure what to do with the Oath of Devotion - could give this to the Knights of the Mitre (as a 'home team') in this setting, or could just leave it for unaffiliated paladins, as in Lukomorye. Haven't had much patience for the straight-up anti-paladin subclasses since I was an adolescent, so leave those be.

Ranger. Had to think about this one for a bit, but magnates still have their private woods, and there are still poachers to punish, and unicorns and giant boars to shoot down or capture - these are all Hunter rangers. Call them 'Wildhüter' for more local flavor. I haven't been a big fan of the new rangers, but for this setting, they may work - the Gloom Stalker to lead expeditions into old mines, or dwarf realms, and the Horizon Walker for Albenheim. I've always thought that Monster Slayers were a bit too similar to Hunters, but this sort of Witcher character actually works well for this setting. Normally, I'm a fan of the Beastmaster, and think they get a lot of bad press, but I'm not sure they work in a more urban setting like this one (ditto for the new Swarmkeeper). A rebranded version of the Lukomorye Ushkuinik (marine ranger) might work, however, if adventurers take to the seas (or discover that there are Lorelei to deal with somewhere downstream). 

Rogue. Of course. Most varieties work, and here, both assassins and their rural (Lukomorye) cousins - the bandits - would both be appropriate. Thieves's guilds are present here, and could play important swing roles in the multicornered struggle between cities, magnates, monsters, and the Church. Arcane tricksters would be appropriate for gnomes (but not only for them). Never saw much use for Scouts and Inquisitives (in a medieval setting), but Masterminds are certainly appropriate. Swashbucklers I can live with, though they are a little late flavor-wise. Not sure what to make of the new Revived - but this is a pretty undead-oriented setting.

Sorcerer. As with the ranger, I was initially uncertain, but in areas with tieflings and monstrous births, sorcerers certainly belong. The question is, which kinds. This isn't a dragon-heavy setting, and Chaos Mages are better in Swords & Sorcery environments (especially given the religious persecution of magic), so the two PHB types are not a great fit - hence, my initial difficulties. The same goes for the elemental bloodlines - they seem too heathen. The Divine Soul, on the other hand, is great - what better class for a heretical propheta who hears God talking to them? The Shadow sorcerer I've always liked, but they never fit. Here, with dusk elves, and the Grim Reaper, they may work much better. And the Lukomorye Netherworldly bloodline (pretty much the 'standard' sorcerer in any historical fantasy setting) would also fit right in. A shapeshifter bloodline might be good in Markwald, too, if there are no obvious shapeshifter races. And there are lycanthropous brooks to drink from...

Warlock. The Fae Pact and the Fiend Pact are both great for this setting (hello, Doctor Faustus! - or do you have magus levels also?). The Celestial might work also (though the Church doesn't care if your powers come from God - just ask Joan of Arc). Hexblades would probably work in combination with the Pact of the Undying (as in Lukomorye), with the Sensenmann filling in for Koshchei as patron. Lukomorye's Netherworldly pact is also a good fit (some named devils will have to fill in as patrons for various chthonic deities, though a Dusk Elf magnate could as well). The Shapeshifter Pact would also work really well here, given werewolf panic. Not sure about the Great Old Ones - there is probably enough going on here as it is.

Wizard. Unlike Lukomorye, this a terrific setting for this class. All the main schools can be in play, as students of ancient magical traditions they probably picked up as university students (I've reflavored illusionists as Kabbalists, transmuters as Alchemists, diviners as Astrologers, and so on). There is plenty to do in terms of tracking down texts, and if there is a printing press in play, there are lots of interesting decisions to be made about mass-producing spellbooks and scrolls, and what the likely response of the authorities would be. Wizards (probably 'magi' is better as a name here) are in an interesting position here - they are not exactly legitimate, and will be hunted down if they step out of line, but they produce useful services, and will have elite patrons who will defend them if they find them useful.

Other classes will have to be classified as "foreign". I toyed with the idea of including shamans, because in reality, they are much closer to hedge witches than members of the warlock class, but they conceptualize the spirits with which they traffic in animal form, whereas many witches in this period tended to be understand their partners as demons, and have an explicitly anti-Christian self-understanding, which doesn't really fit with shamans are they are currently written.

In any case, let's see where this goes.


Monday, October 28, 2019

Stratified progression, yesterday and today

I have been preoccupied by other things, and have neglected this blog of late. Happily, some of those things have involved actual gameplay, and not mere reflection on it. But I have also been somewhat deterred by the enormity of the village campaigns theme I undertook to investigate earlier this year. I still mean to tackle it. Soon.

This post, however, was elicited by my rediscovery of my copy of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World after several years of fruitless searching. It had become obscured by another book on one of our shelves, and after I found it, and dived right back into the enormous chapter on the game system, which I had left off sometime in 2016, when I first misplaced it.

After a valiant slog through the history of the 'kriegspiel', I happened upon a very astute set of passages regarding the system of leveling in D&D, which I reproduce in full below. It caught my eye because I have long felt that level advancement (along with character classes and funny-shaped dice) is one of the key reasons for the breakthrough that led to the rise of RPGs as a distinct style of gaming, and for the continued dominance of D&D within the hobby at large until the present day. This is so despite the fact that numerous competitors have criticized level advancement as highly unrealistic. This lack of realism is more than compensated by the psychological payoff experienced by players when their characters advance in level - a payoff that skill-based systems very much lack. Peterson is largely in agreement with this assessment, but what's especially significant is his analysis of the social mythology that made the rewards-framework particularly potent for the game's creators and early players.

Here is Peterson's take:

... the system of stratified progression, as packaged by Dungeons & Dragons, appeared novel, perhaps even disruptively innovative, to its early audience. No small part of the game's appeal derives from this innovation, and thus the development of progression holds a special interest for posterity (342)... If Dungeons & Dragons has an object of play, it is progression... the overarching reward for play is unending self-improvement. Levels serve as a universal status symbol, permitting players to track and compare their advancement with numerical milestones. "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress," Man & Magic asserts... The distance between the milestones of level are measured in experience points... Experience points derive ultimately from this sort of tally, growing with each victory over enemies. This system models the principle that practice makes perfect: the more fighting you do, the better you will fight in the future (351)... from this perspective, it might appear counterintuitive that the acquisition of material goods translates directly into experience. Ultimately, the accumulation of wealth in Dungeons & Dragons is tantamount to the growth of power, as it is in the real world. The story of a successful adventurer is therefore a rags-to-riches story, like many a swords-and-sorcery story arc. Experience shares something else in common with wealth - no amount is enough. Having more hit points is always preferable to less, and the same goes for other bonuses associated with level. The personal self-improvement fantasy of experience in this respect mirrors the capitalist fantasy of perpetually swelling treasuries: it promises in the Nietzschean vein that dangerous experiences always educate or exercise us, rather than rendering us less fit on account of wounds or mental trauma, say. Of course, if we players of Dungeons & Dragons dedicated ourselves to exercise and education with the same vehemence as our characters, our returns would be far more modest; the accelerated pace of rewards in Dungeons & Dragons, be they financial or physical or mystical, is a great part of the allure of the game. For our investment of time and risk (our character's risk, which we incur only vicariously), we feel disproportionately well-rewarded. We feel that we have taken risks and done work for wealth and power, but they come much more easily in Dungeons & Dragons than they do in life (352-353)... Through a variety of means, Dungeons & Dragons forges an especially strong bond between players and characters [-] a bond strong enough to withstand temporary sojourns to the grave; players often identify with their characters, and enjoy them just as much for their form as for their function. It is precisely this identification that makes personal progression elicit such a strong immersive reaction from many players... the first gamers to encounter Dungeons & Dragons as a commercial product praise the compelling system of progressing a specific, named character through adventures until they rise from a novice to a master. The uniformity of this reaction should make us suspect that personal progression is one of the key catalysts that triggered the new style of gaming which emerged in 1974 (358)...

Die Augburger Monatsbilder, Juli, August, September (Jörg Breu, c. 1520) 

In some places explicitly, and elsewhere, more by suggestion, Peterson uncovers that D&D's phenomenal success, not only as a commercial product but as an iconic cultural artifact of the last third of the 20th century resides in its ability to tap into the mythology of the dominant capitalist ethos, especially in its American form. The appeal of the game is fostered by:

  • The Horatio Alger story that lies at the base of every PC's adventuring career. The identification with the specific character is greatly strengthened by the fact that the character survives hardships and an inauspicious beginning, and becomes somebody. The character deserves their success, because they faced risks, worked hard, and persevered. This identification with the surviving character was all the stronger given the high rates of PC death in early D&D. And the identification with the successful character was further amplified by the fact that in this fantasy world, the capitalist promise came through dramatically enough to make us suspend our disbelief regarding its efficacy, at least while at the table;
  • The fact that open-ended character of the game models what Max Weber called the 'endless accumulation of capital'. This applies both to the PC's accumulation of wealth, and also to the accumulation of experience points, and therefore, power. There is no sense that the game has to end simply because the character has reached a certain level - further play has further challenges, and can bring ever more power. Though the perks of very high levels are often undefined, DMs are urged to make things up to motivate heroes, just like Walt Rostow, writing a decade and a half prior to the birth of D&D, said that capitalism would create other values to pursue after consumer society gave most people a high level of material comfort;
  • As for Weber, the endless accumulation of levels and experience would be a rational process, based upon a particular calculus. Monsters and treasure (and perhaps, puzzles, investigation, and other things) are worth a quantifiable amount of XP. The tallying of XP, keeping track, anticipating the earning of a new level, and comparing level and XP tallies with those of other characters provides an objective, numerical value of the character's (and in many instances, its player's) virtue;
  • Finally, the identification of player and character derives from the extreme value the capitalist ethos places on the individual. We succeed and fail because of personal decisions and actions, not as members of groups, and this is despite the fact that failure is sometimes caused by happenstance (bad rolls), and the fact that some groups (classes) may be more powerful than others. The character's story is, first and foremost, a story of their success. It is this that differentiates them from others of their type (again, this is especially important in early D&D, when the number of classes and races was very limited). And it is this that we commonly recount in the 'let me tell you about my character' stories.

Ultimately, it's the 'endless' character of the game and the individuation that made D&D a much more effective and appealing representation of the dominant myth than, say Monopoly.

Frontpiece to Huzinga's classic
(note the cultural similarities with
the above painting, often used as
a frontpiece to Weber's classic)
All this got me thinking about how changes in the dominant culture since the early 1970s has altered both D&D (in its contemporary, 5e form), and the experience of stratified progression by today's players. Perhaps it is not quite accurate to suggest that cultural changes have altered player expectations within the game, because the relationship between games and culture is rather more complex. D&D emerged, after all, at a time when mature capitalism had managed to provide sufficient leisure time that a sufficiently large group of people was able to reflect upon and reproduce this ethic in game form - that is, when the highly productivist Protestant Ethic had passed its apogee, and was already in retreat. In this sense, D&D was no mere capture of zeitgeist, because it had, like Minerva's owl, taken wing over that zeitgeist after dusk had already fallen. In the 1930s, cultural historian Johan Huizinga had already argued that games and play not only preceded the emergence of civilization, but were themselves formative of it - and Huizinga himself clearly looked forward to a time when gameplay would implode the humorless bubble in which industrializing, economizing and totalizing civilization had encased Western society since the 19th century. And René Reinhold Schallegger has recently noted the contemporaneity of the emergence of role-playing games and postmodern philosophy, which heralded the retreat of grand narratives, the reemergence of ludic rituals and local narratives as the key culture-generating rituals. The 'gamification' of culture, dramatically underwritten by the expansion of video games, which in turn were heavily influenced by D&D, has fostered the triumph of a mass culture of secondary reality that constitutes a defense against the hyperreality fashioned by capital (23).

In this regard, we may note that while D&D may have appealed to players who accepted the Protestant Ethic as second nature - and the Protestant Ethic (and its other industrialist spinoffs) was the ur-grand narrative at which the postmodern theorists aimed most of their fire - its transformation into a set of game mechanics, and its cartoon-like depiction of worldly success as a fantastic augmentation of personal power and hoards Monty Hauled from the dungeon were culturally transgressive. I even suspect that the tendentious accusations of occult influences that led to the Satanic Panic were merely a pretext - the underlying problem with D&D from the perspective of the true champions of the Protestant Ethic was that an awful lot of young people were spending am awful lot of time playing an immersive game, when they should have been preparing for a working life in a bureaucratic, industrial society, where their primary ritualistic outlet should have been the attendance of church on Sunday mornings (and perhaps, organized team sports, which Huizinga notably disparaged as "puerilisitc" and not truly ludic).

Nevertheless, D&D stood at the cusp of a new ludic age, and as Schallegger notes, those (such as Peterson) who overemphasize the identity of D&D and role-playing games in general miss the dramatic expansion of postmodern influence on design principles in subsequent decades. In particular, Schallegger argues that Peterson's emphasis on the simulationist and quantitative roots of D&D deflects too much attention from the more narrative and performative orientations of later RPGs. Similarly, he emphasizes that many later games abandon Gygax's notion of the "competitive, auterist and autocratic " Dungeon Master in favor of a more "process-oriented and democratic" style of play that incorporates greater player agency.

The question is, given the intensification of the postmodern turn by and within the RPG community, what kind of impact has it had on attitudes toward leveling, which Peterson underlines (correctly, in my estimation) as so terribly important for the breakthrough into the first RPG - Dungeons & Dragons? Notably, leveling is absent from most top games that are not situated within the D&D family of games (including Pathfinder and OSR retroclones), but, given the huge D&D renaissance after the release of 5e, and the fact that available statistics indicate that the majority of tabletop gamers are still playing one variety of D&D or another, leveling remains very important, and probably a key feature in pulling in large numbers of players.

So what has changed? Several factors must be emphasized:

  • The partial displacement of tallying XP by the 'milestone' system. This has taken place for several reasons. First, many DMs express frustration with calculating experience, which they see as arbitrary and needlessly time-consuming. This shift may be partially accounted for by the partial decline of scientific authority in society. If science is merely one language among others, as Derrida contended, then scientific claims to absolute objectivity, which revolves, first and foremost, around the quantification of knowledge, are merely self-referential language games, no more entitled to be designated as truthful than any other language. Conversely, the narrative turn makes recommends the awarding of levels experience on the basis of accomplishing the goals of the story around which the adventure is emplotted as a more objective. Simply killing monsters or accumulating loot because doing so is worth a certain amount of XP actually breaks immersion, and creates metagame incentives for PCs that are not consistent with their in-game motivations and personalities.
  • The democratization of stratified progression. This has four important facets. First, the level-advancement system has been greatly simplified. Whereas each character class had its own progression table (weaker classes generally gained levels more quickly), more recent iterations of D&D have made a single advancement scheme for every class, which in turn necessitated a partial redesign to ensure that classes were delicately balanced vis-a-vis one another, to make sure that no class could be regarded as better or stronger than any other. Thus, whereas the underlying message in older varieties of D&D was more individualist and worldly-ascetic - when making a new character, the player should choose wisely, and perhaps delay gratification (until one's pathetically weak magic-user blossomed into the awesomely overpowered archmage), the newer versions signaled that not only does being an adventurer make one 'special' right off the bat (the previously hapless wizard now gets at-will cantrips at 1st level), but advancement should not be affected by the choice of class in which one chose to advance. This system also made switching between classes easier.
Cyborgs, simians, hybrids - models for today's
character races?
  • Second, recent editions have completely eliminated the racial ceilings to level advancement. The original game rewarded humans, who lacked various magical and mundane perks at the outset, with unlimited level advancement. Today, these limitations are regarded as hopelessly racist, and in line with a preference for racial diversity, there is a tacit encouragement for players to take on a variety of exotic races - dragonborn, tabaxi, genasi, warforged, tortle, and so on. These preferences are very much in line with a postmodern disdain for racial and ethnic essentialism (that arguably informs the notion of races in early D&D), and a predilection for hybrids and cyborgs.
  • Third, the advancement system is democratized in the sense that it has become significantly easier to gain levels, especially in the early going. Whereas in early rulesets, the fighter had to accumulate 2001 XP in order to advance to level 2, now that same fighter is well into 3rd level by this point. The rationale for this change is that players like characters who have standout powers compared to a run-of-the-mill peasant, and that it is much too easy to die at early levels, so faster advancement should be facilitated. Moreover, guidelines recommending the rate of progression in the rulebooks, and published adventure paths make it clear that PCs should attain high levels, characterized by truly superhuman powers, quite quickly. Whereas the designers of early D&D suggested that it should take at least a year of intensive play to reach 'name level' (typically, 9th to 11th), 5e designers have stipulated that a character should ideally level after every session.
  • Fourth, there is now much more emphasis on characters in an adventuring party advancing levels together, and simultaneously. This is typically linked both to the simplification of the advancement scheme (which eliminates class distinctions), and to milestone advancement, which makes XP tallying unnecessary. The justification for this is twofold: first, people have lives outside of the game, and there is no reason to punish them for missing sessions by giving XP only to the players whose characters attended. Second, having all characters in the party at the same level is preferable, because having them more or less equal in power adds to everyone's enjoyment, and gives them a greater stake in the campaign, since they can all contribute without fearing that they are outmatched by antagonists pro-rated to fight their more powerful comrades. In any event, it should not be the prerogative of the DM, or some quantifiable system, to decide who deserves to advance, and when.
  • Having all the PCs advance together, and stipulating a rate of progression (based on the number of encounters or the number of sessions played) has created more of a demand for, and an expectation of, regular progression. When a particular DM has a rate of progression that differs markedly from that of others, or when playstyle affects that rate (e.g. a role-play-centered campaign has PCs progress more slowly than a combat-centered campaign, because less XP is given out, or plot problems are are navigated at a more leisurely pace), some players become annoyed by the irregularity. Relatedly, XP awards that give a character almost, but not quite enough XP to attain the next level are seen as arbitrary products of a purportedly 'objective' calculation. This demand for a greater regulation of progression is closely related to a critique of market-based (quantified, objective) regulation, as well as arbitrary state-based regulation (in this case, represented by an all-powerful, 'auterist' DM). In certain cases, the imperative to decenter the DMs authority even involves the players collectively deciding when they should level up. Finally, the regulation of advancement is also fostered by the fact that characters reach a ceiling at 20th level. Though there are some suggestions regarding how a character might keep advancing past that point, the lack of any level higher than 20th on the advancement tables (or even any mention of how much XP is necessary to gain higher levels), as well as discussions of "builds" that cap out at 20th level total has created somewhat of an expectation that 20th level characters have reached a pinnacle, and should probably be retired soon after having done so.
  • There is a greater emphasis on leveling as a unidirectional process. Although moving up was always much more common than moving down, there was a whole class of monsters - the undead - that specialized in level-draining - that is, reducing a character's level as a result of attack. Though there were remedies against this, they tended to be rare and very expensive, and it was far from unusual for characters who had been drained to have to begin their difficult climb in levels from scratch (assuming they survived these attacks). As a result, undead were arguably more feared than any other monster, precisely because attaining higher levels was the most important process in the game. In 5e, level loss is much rarer than it used to be, because losing levels generated so much negative response among the players. Therefore, the level-draining feature was largely replaced with necrotic damage and/or temporary max hit point loss, which can still kill a character and transform them into one of the living dead, but cannot permanently take away levels. Other common ways to lose XP and levels - e.g. by not following one's alignment - are also largely eliminated in 5e, where alignment is commonly treated as an optional role-playing guideline.
  • Though personality remains a key aspect of character (arguably, it has become even more important that in early versions of D&D), it has become partly dissociated from the system of level progression. Whereas initially, D&D characters started out as nearly a blank slate other than a simple set of statistics, and acquired an individuality which emerged from play and was often a factor of their exploits, 5e characters emerge from the heads of their creators much more fully formed, with personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Resolving a PC's personality conflicts has become a key part of the modern game, but it is essentially unrelated to the system of stratified progression.

Taking all of the above into consideration, what broad trends can we note regarding stratified progression in D&D in response to the 'postmodern' or narrative turn?

  • Although there is no question that the profound changes that have taken place in the culture at large (many of them driven by 'gamification' and the postmodern turn), leveling up remains an important draw for tabletop gamers, both old and new. The overwhelming dominance of D&D in the tabletop RPG market has many causes, including branding and a (relatively) big budget, the legacy market, the continued popularity of the fantasy genre, the coincident rise of streaming, and demographics (old grognards with disposable income and free time recruiting their children). Taking these advantages for granted does not explain why D&D has been able to maintain its top status - there have certainly been watershed periods (the Satanic Panic, the malaise of the 1990s when White Wolf Games became a serious competitor, the mistake of 4e) when it was possible for D&D to lose its crown to another franchise or family of games. But it has not happened. And a key draw remains leveling up, because it unlocks new abilities, which is how it works in video games (which are popular, and which originally got the idea from... D&D).
  • The continued attraction of 'leveling up', coupled with making such progression faster and easier manifests a complex interaction of distinct cultural processes, which both feed off and counterpoise one another. On the one hand, progression remains important, because it instills a sense of accomplishment, and provides discrete milestones which mark dramatic increases in character power. The way leveling up 'feels' about the same regardless of whether one falls in the "XP vs. milestones' debate. The failure to replace the Horatio Alger myth by the postmodern turn is to be somewhat expected - postmodernism is in the deconstruction business, not the mythbuilding business. At the same time, the more 'postmodern' current prioritizes leveling as a product of teamwork - in terms of tactical cooperation, 'collective storytelling', and well as player camaraderie (as opposed to individual accomplishment). It also, as we have seen, underlines the importance of narrative progress rather than quantitatively measurable progress. Thus, the curious thing is, that the postmodern turn notwithstanding, the formal aspects and the language of stratified progression - the main reward mechanism for both players and characters, remain largely unchanged, though the content of what is being measured, how it is being measured, the rate of progression - have undergone much greater transformation. In a nutshell, the dramatic reward- for-accomplishment mechanism of leveling up remains under DM control under the formal rules, but the cultural expectations around leveling has transformed to some degree, such that a significant number of DMs feel pressure to allow for faster, more collective, more regular, and/or less quantifiable progression. 
  • Because the cultural change has been at best partial (5e is an explicit compromise between the older 'adventure' games and the newer 'story' games), some reactions to them have pointed to the contradictions within the newer perspectives on stratified progression (and, implicitly, to unresolved contradictions within the old ones). A significant segment of players, typically older players with experience of the 'legacy' editions, have argued that it is newer, rather than older approaches, that restrict player freedom and give DMs too much arbitrary power. Their key points typically include:
    The railroad campaign corresponds with milestone leveling?
    • The milestone approach railroads players into pursuing the pre-planned GM narrative. Rather than increasing "player agency", it actually makes progression more arbitrary, and more subject to DM fiat. Players that hew to this line often mention that milestone advancement feels 'gimmicky' because it breaks immersion, e.g. by making the PCs the 'appropriate' level for fights that the DM has planned (and that can only result in a confrontation that ends in a decisive victory for one side or another). 
    • De-prioritizing combat-based XP in favor of rewarding better role-playing can not only result in differential advancement (the better roleplayers advancing faster), but it can have a more demotivating effect than making XP more combat-based. Failing to get XP because you lost an encounter because of inauspicious die-rolling, or even player absence, is not a personal reflection on the player, whereas getting less XP (or even failing to get Inspiration) arguably is. Worse, in some cases, players who are short-changed begin to suspect DM bias. 
    • Conversely, not setting incentives to reward good roleplaying or clever solutions can, in the estimation of some players, devolve games to the lowest common denominator - if I'm not being rewarded for thinking or getting into character, why should I bother? 
    • The calculation of XP, and its regular awards after each session provide a level of transparency that milestone awards lack. Not only do many players prefer to track XP, both to have a sense of accomplishment for their actions, and to know how closely they stand to making the next level; the idea that there is a system for determining advancement that is at least partly independent of DM desires and plans is highly appealing.  
    • Balance and regular advancement. Though as we have seen, balance is often invoked by those who champion the newer gaming culture, some critics of non-XP advancement also invoke balance to argue that the progression tables were designed to significantly slow advancement at mid-levels, because experience shows that is the 'sweet spot' for most campaigns (the levels which players enjoy the most, and the point, statistically, before most campaigns start to fail). Tinkering with this balance by awarding levels arbitrarily, by milestones or another non-XP system, disrupts the proper functioning of this built-in regulator.
  • In addition, there is also a sizable group that defends an explicitly 'traditionalist' take on leveling. They tend to assert that:
    • Leveling should be deserved. Only when it is deserved (as opposed to earned for being present, or even nominally belonging to the party) does the psychological payoff become real and worthwhile. It creates individual investment in the game, because rewards are so explicitly tied with right actions.
    • It is proper to explicitly incentivize actions that lead to XP (whether those actions are killing monsters, stealing loot, solving problems through negotiation, etc.) so that players know what kind of play is expected from them, and then draw the appropriate conclusions. Without clear (and preferably, calculable) guidelines, the market-like transmission of information between DM and players breaks down.
    • Failure to calculate XP for each session, and justifying this by citing an unwillingness to overload the game with crunch that has no visible impact on the enjoyment of the game is an abdication of DM responsibility, or, in short, simple laziness. People who apply this productivist logic toward DMs (and not just characters) tend to assert that players prefer such a crunchy, though transparent, system, and only lazy DMs choose to opt out of it, for their own reasons.
    • 'Modern advancement' at the rate recommended by the DMG for non-XP-based leveling (1 session each for the early levels, 2 sessions for levels 4-5, and perhaps 2-3 sessions subsequently) is too fast. Of those that support slower advancement, many want to replicate the rate of advancement present in earlier iterations of the game, where a significant investment in the character had to be made to earn higher levels. Some DMs and players, however, enjoy a lower-magic setting more for aesthetic reasons, so slowing advancement may have little to do with making advancement difficult for its own sake.  Some 'traditionalists', however, argue that slowing advancement is better done with milestones, precisely because standard XP values are determined on the basis of a faster advancement scheme. 
The sandbox - corresponds with awarding XP?
  • As expectations have diverged, and a range of approaches to stratified progression have emerged, distinct cultural preferences have, at the margins, crystallized into political preferences. It is an oversimplification to reduce the more traditional approach to a preference for a Protestant Ethic, individualist, competitive and 'auterist' style of running the game, and the newer, more 'postmodern' style the more collectivist, regulated, 'democratic' DMing, but it is difficult to account for the vehemence in a lot of discussions about leveling without seeing people's positions about game mechanics as reflecting real-life political preferences. It should be added that the vehemence is present on both sides, though it can be expressed in different ways. Whereas the traditional Gygaxian is often cited as "gently but firmly" disciplining players in order to elicit proper behavior or playstyle, or a traditionalist chides DMs who don't calculate XP for failing to understand human psychology, some 'postmoderns' have a penchant for lecturing DMs for awarding differential XP awards, especially by cutting out absent players. This, we are informed, is nothing but a powerplay by DMs who fail to recognize that D&D is a 'team game' which works best if all the PCs have roughly the same level of power, that players have work and family lives outside of the game, that the DM's job isn't to punish or control behavior, but to facilitate a fun experience for all. We should pause to unpack this set of claims, to lay bare certain, perhaps unwarranted assumptions, which are partly obscured by the tone in which they are often advanced:
    • There isn't a fundamental difference between someone who insists that players must deserve to advance, and someone who says every player who misses a session deserves to be treated the same way as those players who were present at it. In fact, players do miss sessions because of work or family issues; but, players who join a gaming group do so with the understanding that the group has a regular schedule. If a player has a regular scheduling conflict, they have a responsibility to the group to let the DM and the other players know about it ahead of time to allow them to plan accordingly; if their schedules are irregular, they should inform the group about such irregularities with as much advance notice as possible; or, if this is impossible, responsible players will either withdraw from the game, or put in occasional 'guest appearances', if that is acceptable to the group. On the whole, players who miss occasional sessions due to work, school, or family will not fall very far behind, because the number of missed sessions tends to even out over the long-term, and because players and DMs who have developed a respectful relationship with one another will reach some sort of accommodation. Remember, it's only a game.
    • Most reasonable people will not expect the gaming group's schedule to conform to the demands of particular players, even if one were to grant that on some objective level, the player's life trumps what happens in the game. But moreover, can it be established that most players who miss sessions do so because of work, school, or family reasons? Casual observation seems to suggest that players often fail to appear because they forgot, or because other 'non-serious' commitments arose at the last second. Some players simply can't be bothered to inform their fellow players that they will miss a session ahead of time. I recently had a player who failed to appear because it was his birthday, but he notified the group only through another individual player at game time. While family celebrations are certainly important, one surmises that someone is aware of when their birthday is well ahead of time. This player is a habitual 'skipper' - for a variety of reasons - and has now made it a common practice to give no warning (though he has seen fit to ask for makeup sessions for himself). Typically, such players get expelled from the group, because of their unwillingness to valorize the interests of the collective. If, for whatever reason, such a player is allowed to stay on, I see little reason why the DM is required to make sure that player stays at the same XP level as others. DMs should, indeed promote the interests of the collective, and respect the lives and commitments of their players, but if they are not respected in turn, they can become demotivated to such a degree that the game as a whole suffers. Whether a DM is 'auterist' or not, DMs invest disproportionate energy in the group - not only because they prepare the adventure and run the game, but because they generally assume the lion's share of administrative duties (planning, communicating, often hosting, etc.). Not awarding XP, or expelling habitual offenders is not so much a 'punishment' as it is the drawing of boundaries by a self-respecting person.
    • D&D may be a team sport that depends on some measure of balance, but does that mean that players must receive identical XP regardless of actions or presence at the table? How far is equity to be pushed? If characters must advance simultaneously or be granted identical amounts of XP, do they also have to have identical amounts of wealth? Do party members have to share money they found during a session with characters who were absent during this time? Do all characters have to attract identical attention from monsters? Is it unfair if one character is killed or maimed, while others are not? Do all characters deserve the same narrative attention regardless of how much time they spent developing a backstory? One can see how insistence on equity or balance can quickly become reductio ad absurdum. Stratified progression, as has been noted all along, is a central aspect of the game, so equality in level or XP outweighs equity in most other respects. But is it truly necessary to ensure at all costs that all characters must be identical in level, and have an identical amount of XP? If the Dungeon Master's Guide itself stipulates that "there is nothing wrong with" having absent players who are more frequently absent fall behind, because "a gap of two or three levels between different characters in the same party isn't going to ruin the game for anyone" (p.260), stipulating that the DM who does must be a tyrant comes across sounding a bit strained. The DMG later suggests adopting a more egalitarian system as a variant. Both are acceptable alternatives. Some players aren't going to want to be behind in any respect, claiming that this means they can't contribute. That is their right, and if they are candidates for a game in which a DM sees certain gaps as acceptable, they are within their rights to say that this DM's game isn't for them, just like the DM in question is within their rights to say this player is not a good fit. It should be added, in closing, that even Huizinga - cited as a champion of the 'ludic turn' and the separation between game-play and real life by postmodernists - insisted that all play contains an element of competition, which was fostered not by a desire to dominate, but a playful desire to excel (p. 50). When properly regulated to make sure that this desire does not transform into individual resentment, but instead translates into a higher self-regard for the group to which the virtuosic player belongs, then the insistence on absolutizing level and XP equality becomes a solution in search of a problem.
    • There is surprisingly little explicit recognition that different approaches may work for different tables. For example, awarding identical XP (or milestones) may be appropriate for a group of new or immature players, whereas a more hard-nosed approach may work well for long-running groups of players who have developed mutual trust, and can handle some measure of disparity between levels (some may even treat starting at low level as an exciting challenge). 
    H. G. Wells simulating war
    • The treatment of players who prefer different approaches to stratified progression as something akin to political enemies ignores that in-game preferences do not necessarily reflect out-of-game preferences. Adventuring parties - even those that regard themselves as heroic - commonly commit unseemly amounts of violence. Violence and the killing of enemies are pretty central to D&D, but we generally do not suspect that D&D players favor this method of solving personal or political problems in the real world. In fact, as Peterson relates, the transformation of war-gaming from a teaching tool to a hobby coincided with the rise of pacifist sentiments. Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells were both avid wargamers precisely because they saw such games as a sublimation of the warlike spirit which, in other conditions, resulted in the death of real flesh-and-blood people (Peterson, pp. 251-270). It is much the same with the Horatio Alger spirit that drives stratified progression in D&D. By playing through the idea that dramatic advancement must be earned, or reduced to a quantifiable formula, or assigned for individual achievement in a fantasy world, we obviate, to an extent, its imposition onto real social relations. And if playstyle does not serve as a screen on which we project real political commitments, then perhaps we might want to reduce the temperature in discussion about game mechanics like level progression.    
As important as level progression remains, and as bound up as it is with changing and divergent cultural currents, it would also be a mistake to overestimate the importance of different philosophies of progression to actual game decisions. Considering how sharply the lines can be drawn, and how often we hear statements to the effect that 'I will not play with a DM who uses milestones' or 'I will not join a game that awards individual XP', we might expect these considerations to predominate. In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of players join games for reasons having little or nothing to do with such considerations. Players join games that are available (if the alternative is not playing at all). Players join games with their friends. Players join games run by good DMs, regardless how they approach leveling up. And players join games that have a compelling settings, even if the DM happens to be a 'gamist', and the player - a 'narrativist', provided there is mutual trust and respect. Moreover, quite a few players and DMs admit to actually using different approaches, and playing in games that use divergent approaches to leveling and determining XP. There are plenty of grounds on which overlooking ones preferences is worthwhile. And, in point of fact, incentives also have fairly little impact on character decisions - most players have a preferred style (murderhobo, thespian, problem-solver, etc.) that seems to be little affected by how XP (or milestones) are awarded.

We conclude, therefore, that despite substantial cultural changes, leveling - a key feature of D&D, one that is grounded in an earlier culture that has retreated in society, remains very important. Given that D&D, for a variety of reasons, remains the most popular tabletop RPG system, and therefore, to some extent, a generic fantasy system, a multiplicity of equally legitimate approaches will remain in place. This multiplicity may reflect cultural and political predispositions, but it also represents preferences for different types of scenarios and genres, and even a desire to overcome old cultural norms through their transposition into play.

No fan of D&D would disagree with Huizinga about the importance of play, playability and fun. And yet Huizinga, who lacked a general theory of games and their interplay with sociocultural trends, stipulated that not all types of play, and not all turns toward a more ludic society were socially salutary (some were 'puerilistic', elitist, or too bound up with 'classical forms'). Some forms of play did little to prevent a society from taking an overly serious, and deadly turn (as the playful 18th century dissolved into a 19th obsessed with industry, business, and politics). Ancient Roman society was overwhelmed by a somber Christianity because its play forms proved to be culturally sterile. And finally, games and play give birth to competition and stratification - for good or ill, and regardless of whether one explicitly champions them, or thinks of them as atavisms.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Running Village Adventures (Part 2) - Layout and Structures

In the first part of this series on villages, we looked at thematic framings of village campaigns, as well as elements of PC village party coherence. In this installment, we turn to the physical organization of the villages themselves - their placement, layout, and special structures. Determining placement and layout goes a long way toward shaping a village's character, history, observances, etc.


People (and by extension, other intelligent social creatures) live together in large numbers for a reason. Villages  are first and foremost food producers, so frequently, placement about having access to resources that would allow the community to survive, expand, and grow powerful, but there could be other reasons, having to do with collective defense, or proximity to some nearby site that the villagers find significant. Sometimes, villages also grow up in proximity of existing structures, such as castles, inns, temples, and so on.

d10 roll (to determine placement)

  1. Especially fertile soil                                                                                                           
  2. Good pastureland
  3. Proximity to two resources (e.g. abundant fish and timber)                                                
  4. At a strategic, defensible location (atop a hill, confluence, island)
  5. Along a road or path intersection (multiple intersections if indicated more than once)      
  6. Proximity to other structure (fortification, inn/waystation, church/temple)
  7. Near old hermitage/saint’s abode (pilgrimage site)                                                              
  8. Near buried treasure (possible dungeon)
  9. Near magical resource (stream, tree, thunderstone, stove, magical zone)                            
  10. Roll twice (or more, if 10 is indicated again)

To survive, villages must also have access to a water source.

d10 roll (type)

1 - 5   stream/brook                                                                                                                         
6 - 8   pond/lake
  9      large river                                                                                                                              
 10     artificial (well, aqueduct, magical)


It's important to have a sense of how your village is laid out, not only for descriptive purposes, but also to be able to situate specific encounters in a concrete landscape.

There are several types of basic village layout. First, we may mention the linear layout, which one generally finds in villages situated at road intersections, along rivers or streams, or set along a lakefront. If population growth and/or favorable location causes a linear settlement expands to several hundred people, it will become a nucleated settlement, generally clustered around a central point such as a religious establishment (less frequently around an important enterprise such as a portage station or a hostel). The houses stand facing the main thoroughfare, while the barn, haylofts, sheds, bathhouses, outhouses, gardens, wells, and other buildings are discrete structures clustered in the yard behind the main residence. In a Russian-type setting exemplified by my own Lukomorye, houses are typically 100 – 200 ft. distant from one another, and are separated by a palisade fence (you may want to scrunch them closer together). Occasionally, streets in such villages will be paved with wooden planks – a necessary aid to traffic in the muddy spring months. Rarer still are cobblestone pavements.

In certain cases, houses are connected to one another by a system of tunnels. Sometimes, houses will be separated from the street with another fence, and anyone wishing to enter the property will have to open a gate in this front-facing fence. As a rule of thumb, each household contains 1d10 people (or 6 people on average). 

Specialized workshops (e.g. smithies, where appropriate) and communal storage sheds are generally found on the village edge. Communal pasture land, the village cemetery, and the trash heap are also located on the village outskirts (the latter typically in proximity to a temple, though there is a high degree of variability here; sometimes, a necropolis can be separated from the main settlement by water or some other impediment). 

Arable land is also usually located beyond the village proper, and is divided into strips (which are sometimes rotated between households to assure fairness). To insure that the land retains agricultural productivity, it is usually rotated between being sown or being left fallow (or used for pasture). In agriculturally productive regions (like Western Europe), the three-field system is in place (one field out of three is used for growing crops in a given year). In places where arable land is more scarce (such as Russia), a two-field system may prevail. Land that is overtaxed leads to soil erosion, and ultimately, to abandoned villages. Small orchards can be located within household compounds, however.

Smaller, hamlet-sized settlements predominate in agriculturally poor areas. Such dispersed settlements are characterized by individual nuclear family households that are typically ¼ to 1 kilometer distant from the next closest dwelling (although occasionally individual homesteads will be much more distant from other settled areas). Between 10% and 20% of such households will have more than one dwelling, to account for new families started by children of the original householder. In this sort of household, the sheds, barns, and other outbuildings usually be connected to the main house. A fence encloses the entire household. In these settlements, each household has its own, small separate plots of productive and meadow land, while the local village commune is more concerned with regulating commodity production (furs, honey, amber, etc.). Owing to the small size and poor yield of agricultural land, peasants in such settlements use the proceeds from sale to purchase supplemental grain in market towns. 

Circular settlement with corrals at the center (Masai village)
Some less common settlement patterns may also be appropriate for historical and fantasy milieux. The Fulani, Bantu and Masai people in Africa, as well as the Iroquois in North America, constructed circular settlements, which were commonly surrounded by a high palisade fence. The Muskogee people of what is now the southeastern US constructed rectangular settlements, also fenced on the outside. The fenced areas in both types of settlements served as corrals for livestock, and also contained the orchards and gardens of the village residents. Such settlements also had communal buildings (such as the Iroquois longhouse). In certain cases, a village could be also constituted by an individual (or interconnected) structure, such as the pueblos of the southwestern US, or the malokas - round, circular, communal huts - of Colombia and Peru. Variations on such settlements could be applied for non-human settlements, e.g. a settlement consisting of overlapping circles of circular houses might be appropriate for a gnomish village. 
North American rectangular settlement

It is difficult to recommend a random roll for deciding settlement layouts. GMs are best advised to decide which types of layouts predominate in the cultural region where their adventuring parties are currently operating. The following table is given only for reasons of convenience (though in certain cases, settings may be diverse enough to allow for truly random generation.

d6 roll (to determine village layout)

  1. linear settlement                                                                                                                   
  2. nucleated settlement
  3. dispersed settlement                                                                                                             
  4. circular settlement
  5. rectangular settlement                                                                                                          
  6. other (interconnected structure, single tree, sunk into the earth, series of caves, star-shaped, etc).


Village population can be shaped by a variety of factors, including the local culture and population density. It is also likely to be affected by layout.

The figures given here are idiosyncratic, and are merely given as examples. They make sense for my setting, but YMMV.

Dispersed settlements will commonly contain 3d12 individual households.

Linear and nucleated settlements will commonly contain 8d12 individual households.

More densely populated areas, like medieval China, or France, will likely have larger villages.

To determine the precise population, roll 1d10 for each household (or simply multiply each household by 6 and add all totals together).

Settlements with under 300 people will usually be classed as hamlets, whereas ones with over 400 people will be regarded as villages. There is likely no juridical difference between these two (but in your world, there may be one).  

Types of Structures

Building materials for houses and other structures in a village are best determined on a case-by-case basis. Wood is probably the most common building material, and the most easily available, but in arid climes, houses are more likely to be built of clay or mudbrick. Stone structures in villages are rare, and would probably occur in villages that are proximate to quarries (or else, in a very prosperous economy). In some places where wood is less abundant, dugout dwellings predominate, though these also often have a wooden superstructure rising up out of the ground. Dwellings made of animal skins would occur among nomadic peoples, though they are occasionally found interspersed with more permanent structures. Less durable materials, such as bark or straw might also be used.

A mudbrick Arabian village

Unless the village is located in a tropical climate, it will need some sort of heating system - a stove (in individual family dwellings) or a firepit (in a collective dwelling). Stoves will be made of stone, brick, or clay. Chimneys are found in more advanced constructions - simpler ones will have smoke-holes (and walls covered in soot). Owing to geothermal forces, dugouts will have warmer temperatures in the winter even without heating (which accounts for the main reason why they were built, even in paleolithic times). 

A neolithic dugout in North America

Size and apertures. As a rule of thumb, assume that each individual house is roughly 265 square feet (25 square meters). Structures with slanted roofs will be roughly 15 feet tall at their highest point. The most basic dwellings will consist of a single room often divided into a "men's side" and a "women's side"  (or perhaps with separate sleeping lofts for each). Larger or richer structures will have separate chambers (perhaps a mud room, and a special (unheated, therefore "bright") room for receiving guests. Houses will also have cellars for storing perishables (or occasionally, valuables). Kitchens would be rare in all but the richest households - the cooking is done on (or in) the stove or fireplace. Most houses have four windows, but remember that houses are difficult to heat (so windows were usually small). Also, glass would have been very expensive. Windows will have shutters and in summer, screens of gauze or similar material. Roofs can be made of logs, wooden planks, shingles, or straw (or other dry vegetation known as thatching). Toilet facilities would be located in an outhouse, in the yard. 

The size of collective dwellings depend on the number of families that live in them. An Iroquois longhouse could house more than 20 families, and be up to 100 meters (330 feet) long, and 7 meters (23 feet) wide. These are divided into "booths" for individual families. The structure would be covered in animal skins for insulation. The structure lacked windows, but had doors at either end.

An adobe pueblo
Adobe-type structures usually measured 65 to 100 square feet per room. Each had a flat ceiling around 12 feet high, and a cone-shaped oven. It was connected to other rooms, by ladders. The whole structure had a pyramid-like shape, and the largest could have up to five stories. They were centered around a collective courtyard. Islamic-type dwellings were of a similar size and construction, but rather than being laid out vertically, they were arranged horizontally within a jumble of courtyards and fences. (see image above)

Aside from family or clan residences, villages composed of individual family households typically had barns, storage sheds, haylofts, and the like. Sometimes, these abut the house, forming an "L" or "U" shaped structure, sometimes, they are free-standing structures in the yard, which is usually surrounded by a fence or enclosure of some kind. Typically, these structures are smaller than the house itself. The lower floors of haylofts were used to house farm animals. For a typical family, assume the ownership of 1 cow or its equivalent (3 pigs, sheep or goats), as well as 2d6 adult chickens. Note that in places with harsh winters, animals were often stabled inside the house during the cold months (since the barns were unheated).

In villages with a circular structure, livestock will be housed in circular pens, which are in turn surrounded by houses.

In larger villages, granaries are located on the outskirts (or are laid out as separate "granary villages" beyond the village proper). This was done in order to to preserve the village’s most important source of wealth should a fire break out in someone’s hut. Granaries usually had two stories in order to allow the grain to dry, and to preserve it from floods and rodents. The upper story was accessible by an internal or external ladder. Such structures were also used to store or dry fish or animal pelts in places where these formed an important part of a village's livelihood.

A Russian bathhouse
Depending on the culture, a village might also have a bathhouse. It is typically communally-owned and managed. It must be located near a body of water, though it may be separate from the rest of the buildings in the village. It and contain a stove or firepit of some kind. In villages that feature communal housing, the bathhouse or sauna may be replaced by a sweat lodge. Bathhouses are sometimes gender-segregated.

Villages with collective residences will sometimes have separate structures for cooking food, a medicine hut, and perhaps some sort of sacred space (like the underground kivas for rituals in Native American adobe villages).

Overall, it is difficult to devise any kind of universal 'random buildings table' for villages, because so much depends on culture, climate, and population. Occasionally, it may be useful to have such a table in the case of chases (someone runs into a random building), or simply determining layout on the fly (if a village has not been mapped). In such cases, the following tables may suffice, if only as blunt instruments:

Villages with individual residences:

d20 roll

  1 - 9      residence                                                                                                                         
10 - 13    barn
14 - 15    shed                                                                                                                                
    16       outhouse
 17 - 18   granary*                                                                                                                         
    19       bathhouse*
    20       special**                                                                                                                          

* - if appropriate. Treat as "residence" if not present
** - see below. If special structures are absent, treat as residence

Villages with collective residences:

d20 roll

 1 - 10      residence                                                                                                                        
11 - 14     animal enclosure
15 - 16     cooking structure                                                                                                           
17 - 18     medicine house
    19        sacred space*                                                                                                                  
    20        special**

* - if appropriate. Treat as "residence" if not present
** - see below. If special structures are absent, treat as residence

Special structures such as ice houses or smokehouses may be present in certain villages as well.

An Iranian ice house

Specialized Structures

People who live in villages focus on primary production, so the division of labor there tends to be quite primitive. Still, although they are not urban centers, villages can occasionally attract certain specialists, and may possess specialized institutions.

To determine the availability of specialized structures in a village, roll a d20 for each one on the list below. If the die roll equals or exceeds the DC, the village possesses the specialized institution. For every 100 people in the settlement, add 1 to the roll. For every 5 points the roll exceeds the DC, there will be an additional structure of that type. Note that not all specialized institutions are appropriate for all settings (e.g. horse stables cannot be found in settings without horse domestication).

Structure Type   DC

Church/temple       13                                                                                                                   
Tavern                     14
Smithy                     18                                                                                                                   
Horse stable            19
Hostel/inn              20                                                                                                                    
Mill                         21
Postal Station          23                                                                                                                    

Brief descriptions of specialized structures:

Church/temple. Obviously, the precise character is setting- and culture-specific. Assuming a standard "church"-type structure, it will probably be the largest and tallest building in the village, located at or near the center, perhaps 25 - 30 feet in height, roughly rectangular or cruciform in shape, and with a spire or dome of some sort. If the village is prosperous enough, it may be built out of more durable materials (i.e. stone rather than wood or clay, though this is far from always the case). There may be an accompanying tower (belfry, minaret, stupa), etc. Obviously, different religions may call for an open-air temple, a closed structure hiding a holy-of-holies, a grove, grotto, an underground space (like the kivas, above), and so on.

Horse stable. This will be located in a normal stable, albeit of a large size. It will probably be found in villages that are proximate to a noble estate, or some sort of waystation. Assume 1d6 horses for every 100 population.

Hostel/inn/tavern. Historically (and contrary to the standard fantasy and RPG tropes), these were simply be large households that put up or feed people on the side. They probably don't even have a name. Eating quarters will be together with the occupants, while sleeping quarters will usually be in empty rooms, barns, or sheds, together with other visitors (if any). Of course, feel free to have your Tudor-style cottage with a thatched roof, and call it the Green Dragon, if that suits your needs.

Mill. Mills will be found only in the largest villages in proximity to the largest towns (elsewhere, grinding is done by hand - historically, windmills are actually relatively late technology). They are likely the tallest structures around, and can reach 30 feet in height. Mills are located away from the rest of the settlement, and near the fields. Windmills are designed roughly like granaries. An internal ladder (or an external ladder leading to a platform allows access to the millstone, shaft or spokes, in case anything should go wrong. Suspended above the platform are wooden funnels into which grain is poured prior to milling. After milling, the flour descends down a chute into the same kinds of wooden storage bins that are found in a granary. Some have external chutes, if customers commonly store flour themselves, but in villages where this is done by the commune, mills sometimes replace granaries as storage facilities. Water mills are somewhat more rare, and less imposing. They stand on water’s edge, and are elevated on stilts on the water side, while the other side is built into the riverbank. The main entrance to the water mill is on the higher level, while the bins are located on the lower floor, as far from the water as possible. The miller’s family usually lives in a hut that abuts or stands near the mill itself. 

Postal station. This is likely a large household, that also caters to a messenger service (whether the Mongol Yam, or the Shire's Message Service). The establishment may be indistinguishable from a hostel, but it is likely combined with a stable, allowing messengers to change horses very quickly. The proprietors likely have the protection of powerful states or potentates. Alternatively, a postal station can be a portage station - a business that specializes in the overland transportation of goods from one water source to another.

Smithy. Smithies are also located near the village outskirts, near a body of water (to control the fire and to quench metal). The area of the smithy is roughly comparable or slightly smaller than that of regular hut, but with a much lower roof (which also tends to be flatter). The forge, along with the bellows, is located opposite the entryway. Unlike house stoves, it is always attached to a chimney. The anvil stands in the center of the room, while the slack tub stands in front of the anvil, toward the door. There is a dirt floor, a larger window next to the entryway, and smaller windows on the adjoining walls. Tongs, hammers, chisels, hardies, and other tools hang on the sidewalls when not in use.

* * *

Hopefully, this material is neither too generic, nor too specific (the base text was taken from my own setting description), and has succeeded in generating ideas to help design up different kinds of villages.

In the next installment of this series, we will take a look at modeling village social relations, with a view to making them interesting bases for adventuring parties, as well as for 'social crawl'-type adventures.