Thursday 7 December 2023

Shieldwalls and Sorcery

The furniture of D&D is high medieval Europe, but tonally, it is a Western. The PCs are not medieval Europeans who are buried beneath complex layers of rank and status and bound by chains of obligation. They are rugged individuals wrestling with the world one-on-one: they are pioneers, not peasants. 

This is the case for two obvious reasons: the authors were American, and anyway it also just works better that way. There's a reason why Ars Magica or Harnmaster are less popular games (as good as they are on their own terms). And there is no particular problem here - in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice, as generation upon generation of D&D players have proved.

Still, it remains the case that actually by default it probably makes more sense for the standard D&D setting to be more like the European Dark Ages* - a time of great upheaval, generalised collapse, and consequent freedom from social bonds not exactly like North America circa 1650-1850, but not exactly unlike it either. In Europe one had the retreat of the Roman Empire, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. In North America one had the collapse of pre-Columbian civilisations, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. There are of course huge differences between the two situations, but there is a similar mood music. Everything is in a state of flux, a new world waits to be born, and for a brief moment it feels as though almost anything is possible.

This makes the Beowulf period particularly fruitful as a template, as commenters on a recent entry here observed. Anglo-Saxon England (okay, Beowulf is technically set in Scandinavia) is almost the Dark Ages in microcosm - all of themes are there, from retreating Rome to barbarian invaders - and everything was gloriously kaleidoscopic and patchwork (see below for a map); this was a world in which a story like Beowulf, in which a brave adventurer just goes off and fights a monster to win fame and glory, makes perfect sense. 


Shieldwalls & Sorcery, then, is a workable concept, not as a faithful representation of historical fact, but as a kind of Yoon-Suinization of that period. Here is what I am thinking, in bullet point form:

  • When people think of Dark Ages England, they tend to instinctively take the sides of the Celts, who are the underdogs, and have the inherently appealing figure of King Arthur on their side. Shieldwalls & Sorcery, though, should have the Anglo-Saxons equivalents as the focus: they are the adventuring pioneers who have come to win fame and fortune in a strange foreign land; that's therefore who the PCs should be. 
  • This means that the native Celt-stand-ins should be stereotypically Celtic, dialled up to 11. They like sinister magic and hiding in misty forests and fens; they engage in weird sex cult rituals; they go in heavily for human sacrifice; they consort with elves and worship weird gods; they are unpredictable and fiery and given to fits of melancholia and strange flights of fancy; they are maudlin but good musicians. (All very much like a typical Saturday night in Glasgow.) They are antagonists.
  • This is historically probably wrong, because the native Celtic Britons received Christianity before the Anglo-Saxons did, but in my not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages setting it seems to make more aesthetic sense to imagine the Anglo-Saxons as the Christians, or pseudo-Christians, who have a sense that they are engaged in some sort of good vs evil struggle. This is important, because it allows me to bring in...
  • ....the idea that not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages is also populated by the Sons of Cain; different categories of monstrous enemy birthed by the murder of Abel and roaming the Earth ever since.
  • There are therefore different intersecting imaginable campaign styles here - the PCs as pioneers exploring a brave new world and winning renown; the PCs as adventurers raiding the ruins of the not-actually-Roman-Empire that has now receded; the PCs as paladins smiting the Sons of Cain and heathen elf-loving Celts; the PCs as protectors of their people, newly arrived from beyond the sea; and so on.
  • I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?

*We're told by historians that this is a misconception, blah blah, and that we are supposed to call it the Early Medieval Period or somesuch. Fuck off, historians.

52 comments:

  1. This hex map of Britian in 411 is what I used for my similar campaign. It’s about 100 years to early but could at least give you a bunch of sites of ruins: https://darkagebritannia.weebly.com/

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  2. Just finished reading the second book of 'historical' fiction telling the story of the Anglo Saxon Saint, Hild by Nicola Griffith. Tremendous research went into the book, enough that one could imagine visiting the sites Bernica, Deria, and Elmet and finding the terrain familiar. Shieldwalls and Sorcery might be a better name than what I envisioned for a game of the period, Oaths and Omens.

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  3. The Early Middle Ages is perfect to drop the population from Monsters Manuals in ancient ruins.
    Is no for nothing that this is the period where the western european legendaria is settled.

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  4. If you're not aware of it, you might be interested in the rpg Wolves of God. It follows a lot of your suggestions, including making the PCs the Anglo-Saxons. I like your lurid Celts-dialed-up-to-11 though.

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    1. Kevin Crawford always gets there first....

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  5. "I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?"
    Look at TSR HR2 Charles Magne.

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    1. Yes, I have that one somewhere.

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    2. I think I'd have the Anglo-Saxons be Fighters and Barbarians and Thieves. No magic using classes. Then have the Celts be Fighters, Rangers, Druids and Bards. The French (and any King Arthur remnants) get Fighter, Clerics, and Paladins. Wizard, Warlock and Sorcerers would be free-lance, leaning towards the Celts and keeping far away from the French/King Arthur types.

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    3. I like the idea of PCs not having access to magic but not sure in D&D it works. In Pendragon it works on the basis that magic is rare and can just do whatever the GM wants... You can't really do that in D&D because magic has known, and very serious, effects. If the PCs have no magical response of their own it gets ugly very easily.

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  6. The majority of the population even in Saxon strongholds would still be Celtic, so you could have an interesting continuum of Saxon into Celtic. Also the Celts could be doing the human sacrifice thing to keep something worse at bay. Arawn, or Herne, etc.

    You could play into the rivalry between the Angles, Saxons, & Jutes.

    Though dating from a bit later you could have the magic of the Saxons be related to the Cunning Man trope, using the bible verses and Tetragrammaton, and holy relics.

    Both sides should have bards, and there should be bardic duels.

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  7. Wolves of God by Kevin Crawford is an interesting take on this very theme and time period. Three classes: Warrior, Saint and Galdorman (sort of wizard). Sorcerorous magic is changed to things that you might imagine would be more relevant to farmers of the time (crop failures, curses, etc.).

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  8. Great read, I once ran a game based off of the anglo-saxon period but more based on the Heptarchy and welsh heroic period (Yes I am one of the historians who refer to it as the Early Modern Period) where the kings war band would be no more than 100 men. the Early Modern Period (don't worry I'll be fucking off soon) is a great source for a good setting and monsters.

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    1. Jokes aside, I get why 'Dark Ages' is not appropriate in the round but it definitely fits what was going on in England.

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  9. As one of the commentators on the previous thread pushing for a Shieldwall n Sorcery aesthetic I was very happy to see this post only to be horrified by what I found in the second half.
    Look, I’m (rabidly) Welsh. My players are Welsh. I can’t think of anything more calculated to inspire horror and disgust than the prospect of playing a bunch of Saxon barbarians roaming around our ancestral lands and bullying proto-Cymros. Between this and Wolves of God, the hobby has taken on a vile and hideous and disreputable anti-Cymric attitude.
    You’ve got the whole thing backwards, in my opinion - the players should be heroic defenders of (mostly) Christian Romano-British civilisation against the pagan invaders, who really were (at least occasionally) practitioners of dark and bloody sorceries. That lends a suitably High Heroic aesthetic to the campaign and a veritable horde of baddies to fight.
    Actually I don’t think villainising either Celts, Saxons, Angles or Jutes is necessary. My preference for a campaign setting(s) is a great hall where all the boasting, politicking, carousing and occasional monster attack takes place. It’s a point of light surrounded by misty hills, fens and ruins, where all the monsters lurk and treasures are hidden.

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    1. Haha! My anti-Cymric attitude is all in good nature. As a fellow Celt (Scots-Irish, here) I take the point, but I suppose what I mean is that everyone gets the King Arthur aesthetic. Doing it the other way round is just rarer!

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    2. I'm not sure that the Anglo-Saxon perspective is rarer at all. I can immediately think of three recent products that take this approach: Wolves of God, Wulfwald, and Wolves upon the Coast. Wulfwald even explicitly casts the Celts as "wildlings". Give me a game like Harry's any day.

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    3. FTR I've been running the Great Pendragon campaign for about 2 years at this point... our proud Cymri have just seen death of Good King Nantelod. Passionately hating Saxons is at an all time high.

      The feasting Hall idea is is a good one - I'm immediately reminded of Runequest and also the awesome Heroquest supplement 'Sartar: Kingdom Of Heroes'

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    4. Yeah, Runequest, Heroquest, possibly also Rolemaster may be better systems for it.

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  10. The Formarians are the Celtic own-brand horrific precursors. I'd swear more things than Slaine must use them for High Fantasy purposes, but I can't quite bring them to mind.
    'The Isles at the Ends of the Earth, choked with horrors that not even the Romans could fully subdue....' It's a good meaty hook.

    I think an Anglo-Saxon magic class could look like the 52 Pages mystic. https://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2014/02/next-52-militant-and-mystic.html Cf. Arthurian hermits, and isolated Celtic monks.

    I'm quite willing to use 'Early Medieval' as a way to shove people out of the 'horned helmets, muscles, big beards and heavy metal' Viking stereotypes, or for purposes of contrast - it wasn't that Dark for Byzantium, and we do see trade across Europe and Byzantine goods ending up at Sutton Hoo. But if we are focussing tightly in on a pseudo-Britain and times of peril and struggle...sure, let's refer to the Dark Ages.

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    1. Moorecock's Corum featured Fomorians as an enemy. There may have been others, but that's the only fantasy series to feature them that springs to my mind.

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    2. Been a while since I've read the Corum books. Enjoyable nonsense. But yeah, can't think of another example - except maybe in the Stephen Lawhead books? I think the first one features them, or something that is based on them.

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  11. Wolves of God is a great reference here of course. Before that there was Raedwald. And now Wulfwald.
    https://shop.lostpages.co.uk/products/wulfwald-boxed-set

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    1. I am a bad person but I'm too lazy to learn new systems now, sadly... Wulfwald does look nice though.

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    2. Sorry, I reposted the Wulfwald suggestion further down. I didn’t realise that B/X D&D is beyond the pale.

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  12. I love this! It shares a few elements with the Peakrill campaign setting which I started working on 3 years ago, and would love to turn to some time (Peakrill is set in a 10x scaled-up Peak District in 999AD for apocalyptically-resonant reasons, but actually modelled on about 300 years earlier, with society split between workshop of the Anglo-Saxon gods and recently top-down imposed Christianity).

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    1. Project explosion! It'll be back at some point, but the queue's getting long, and at the moment I'm getting more into the publishing side of things, facilitating other people's stuff and pulling together collaborative projects.

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  13. Tone and period differences aside, perhaps Chaosium's Pendragon line might provide fodder for putting together the magical classes. In most editions magic is removed completely to the GM for use as a plot device as they see fit. Nonetheless, the brief descriptions and categorizations might be helpful. For example, see the first edition "Campaign" supplement or the third or fifth edition core books. As far as I know, only the fourth edition of the game has rules for magic-using characters and magic in detail. (I have not seen the second or sixth editions.)

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    1. The only edition I know well is the fifth one. I didn't realise there were actually magic rules in the fourth one.

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    2. Forty pages worth!

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  14. For more individual-focused Dark Ages stuff it's hard to beat the Icelandic Sagas which intersect a lot with things like Beowulf and sometimes have episodes in England.

    PCs are often prideful jackasses so having them kill some dude and then have that dude's relatives have a feud with the PCs by trying to burn down the house they're staying out while blocking all the exits helps the story tell itself. People like Grettir Ásmundarson or Egil Skallagrimson are a whoooooole lot more like a stereotypical D&D PC then you're going to get in just about any other bit of literature out there.

    One issue is that a lot of the content is farmers feuding with each other which is a bit low-powered for even old school D&D but then there are the more legendary fornaldarsaga that have more fantastic elements.

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    1. I've not read many of them but Egil's Saga is great. A real pageturner. But you're right - the content is very low stakes.

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    2. I thought something like the setup for Gisli's Saga would make a pretty good short campaign.

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    3. Hey noisms, sorry for the very late response but I know you always read through posted comments to check if they're spam so you'll see this one in an old post. Egil's Saga is great, it's my absolute favorite but for the stakes problem you have some issues as it's actually one of the higher stake Sagas (since Egil and his family feud directly with a freaking king).

      For the low stakes arguments there's a few ways around that:

      1. The Icelandic Family Sagas make great source for very low level PCs, when PCs can still be threatened by mobs of angry villagers trying to burn their house down. They also provide a good model of how random villagers deal with a bunch of murderhobos as the kind of shit that PCs get up to really REALLY often crops up in the Sagas.

      2. The Icelandic Sagas (I'm thinking specifically Gunnar in Njal's Saga and Finnbogi in The Saga of Finnbogi the Strong provide a good model of what happens when you put a higher level PC who is very very good at kicking ass (Gunnar or Finnbogi) into a low level world. They can win pretty much every fight but even if they're in the right by simply racking up such a big body count they piss off more and more people until they're finally taken down by sheer weight of numbers as each of their victories simply pissed off more people.

      3. Take a look at the more powerful Icelandic Saga heroes who fight more fantastical enemies (such as Grettir of Grettir's Saga or the more fantastical Sagas) and use those for inspiration rather than more grounded sagas.

      4. They're enough hilarious nicknames, one-liners and episodes that they're worth hitting for inspiration even if the general tone is off (such as Thorgeir Butter-Ring getting bribed with a winter's supply of butter to bonk someone on the back with a sheep head on a stick and then getting chased about by an angry mob while crying for help). Again I can't recommend the Saga Thing podcast enough for their dedicated mining of this sort of thing, have been binging it since the middle of November and it's great.

      5. Scale things up. Use the stories of the feuds between farmers in the Icelandic Sagas be inspiration for feuds between families of giants in your world. Then hey presto you have higher stakes.

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    4. Nice - good ideas! Thanks.

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  15. Fuck off historians, with your facts and knowledge. Don't you know we know longer respect learning? That's for woke liberals, not real men.

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  16. Dragon Magazine #257 could also serve as a great resource for your ideas.

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  17. See also Raedwald, which is an RPG basically with this premise.

    https://www.lulu.com/shop/lee-reynoldson/raedwald-ebook/ebook/product-1k9628zq.html?q=&page=1&pageSize=4

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    1. Rædwald is being re-released for Old School Essentials as Wulfwald.

      https://shop.lostpages.co.uk/

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    2. Aha. I was confused by the distinction. Thanks for explaining.

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  18. "in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice"
    Actually, not true - and many problems and misunderstanding within D&D history are rooted in this imnsho. %)
    Agree with Beowulf as a good basis for a setting, though I personally much prefer more Nordic themes. ;)) Or Byzantium, of course. Or mixing them for a Varangian Guard campaign... %)))
    Mike

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  19. Handiwork Games’s Beowulf is a good take on Beowulf.

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  20. Sounds a bit like the taking of the Promised Land in Exodus-Judges, but substituting the Anglo-Saxons for the Israelites and Celts for the demonolatrous Canaanites. If you really want to thumb your nose at the historians, I would have the protagonists be Brutus' Trojans and the island's original inhabitant-antagonists be a vaguely Celtic & Minoan-coded bunch of hedge-builders who cavort with Gogmagog and practice odd Machenian rites like 'Mao Games' and 'Troy Town' (under a different name since the refugee Trojans represent Law) in cyclopean-stone labyrinths.

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    1. I have often had it in mind to run a 'Judges' campaign. I think it would be great.

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    2. I agree! By the way, just watched an interesting discussion between Jonathan Pageau and Richard Rohlin about the Cainite or Nephilim origins of elves, giants, and Grendel-- they think that the Beowulf poet got access to the Enochian material through Theodore of Tarsus, the 7th century Archbishop of Canterbury. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqjUNiU6TBA He was a Greek from Tarsus who was familiar with much Greek and Syriac apocrypha. Pageau and Rohlin have other interesting discussions about how Western Europeans fit their legends into the universal histories they derived from Christianity and Rome. I believe Snorri Sturlson's euhemerizes the Aesir by stating their descent from the Trojans (just like the Romans and British). Other heroes of legend become sons of Noah and so forth. The Christianity in Beowulf imbibes the slaying of the monsters with greater purpose, as the hero fights the enemies of God's plan for mankind. Both the taking of the biblical Promised Land from wicked Principalities (and the human & supernatural forces who fight for them) and a mythical taking of Britain from similar forces could make for great campaigns!

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