Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Historicity and D&D-Land 1/6

It's Wednesday again...

... And it is the year 2012, Western Reckoning.

I am keenly aware of when I am, at all times. That's not to say you can accost me at random and demand that I tell you the time. I am probably less able to correctly estimate the time of day, without resorting to artificial aids, than the average person. No, I am talking about a more coarse-grained kind of time: The time period.

This awareness is with me not only when I am in the here and now (when I am, I expect people to think and behave like rational citizens of the 21th century, rather than as 1st or 6th century desert nomads), but also when I visit other places, other times. When I am reading a novel, or watching a movie or television show, or playing a computer game or a roleplaying game, I have some degree of awareness of when it is supposed to be, and thus I have some expectations. And I have great potential for becoming disappointed, when the author or script writer, or game designer or GM, isn't even trying.

In most people's minds, the past is a blurry place that they effectively equate with D&D-Land. They know that back then, in the D&D Age, people rode on horses, and they used bows and swords to kill each other, instead of guns. "The past" is all an indistinct blur. Which is acceptable, in a way, as long as such people don't set themselves up as authors or script writers, or game designers or GMs. Because when they do, trying stops being optional, and the most extreme kinds of failures are deserving of great ridicule.

For anyone with just the basic insight into history that everyone ought to have, as the result of a commonfolk democracy-preparing educational system, the past is not a blur, but is rather divided into clear and easily understood periods. Defining these periods is tricky, yes, and yes they do also blur a bit around the edges. Get three historians into the same room, and ask them when the medieval period ended, or when the Viking age ended, and if you don't get at least four different answers, then it is my sad duty to inform you that you're dealing with some woefully inadequate historians.

The silly argument
That doesn't mean that historical periods are meaningless, even though some anti-intellectual factions may want to promote that idea.

The three historians in our thought experiment will, if competent, respect each others' arguments for why the medieval period can be said to have ended in various years (or begun in various years - most would probably agree on when the Viking age begun, though, which is why I am not using that as an example).

Squabbling about individual years is silly, and squabbling about decades is often pointless. That which I ascribe value to, and that which I am so often disappointed to not find any trace of when people offer me the opportunity to visit the past, is an understanding of the bigger picture, the overall chronology. The fact that some things clearly came before others; that some things were not present - flat out non-existent! - in certain periods.

Anachonisms can be good when used to deliberate humorous effect. And alternate history is a legitimate subgenre of speculative fiction. But most anachronisms committed are not deliberate. They are not at all grounded in factual knowledge, but rather in ignorance. Unrepentant ignorance. And please note that I have nothing at all against people who are factually ignorant - as long as they hang their heads in shame, and shut the fuck up in public!

But when such people produce something, as authors or script writers, as game designers or GMs, something that looks historical but is entirely devoid of historicity, of factual insight into the past, into the way things and societies were shaped in the past (and the reasons - very often inevitable reasons - for why this was so), then disappointment happens to me.

D&D-Land, recipe for
This reprehensible place, D&D-Land, is often defined as medieval fantasy, even though in fact it is an ahborrent mishmash of concepts, social structures, technologies, institutions, and memes and cultures, from a wide range of time periods:
  • Classical Rome and Greece
  • Medieval period (including the Viking Age and the late Iron Age)
  • Renaissance
  • Wild West (sometimes including Victoriana)
Yes, there is medieval stuff there too, as acknowledged by one of the bullet points (one out of the four), but the average GM, or the average RPG designer, has at best a feeble capacity to correctly point out those features and phenomena that are properly medieval, whether in their own works or those of others. And that's RPG designers I'm talking about. Designers of computer games are, on average, even less competent.

That's not to say there aren't exceptions. One of my previous entries was about a high-historicity medieval fantasy television show. The Darklands computer game is widely celebrated for having been built on insight into both renaissance reality and renaissance mythology and superstition. The RPG tradition that I come from, based on systems such as Ars Magica and GURPS, is several orders of magnitude superior to D&D, in terms of intellectual legitimacy. Some of my favourite novels, such as "The Long Ships" (historical) and "The Isle of Glass" (historical fantasy) are of very high historicity, combining great insight into myth and reality. Same goes for Gillian Bradshaw; I've yet to read anything by her I didn't like (and it's no coincidence that I created the article about her in English Wikipedia, years ago, although I can not take any credit for its current contents - others have made vast improvements since late 2005).

But those are the exceptions. Most of historical fiction, and most of historical fantasy, is utter crap. What are these people up to? How come such crap sells? Who the fuck wants to visit Poughkeepsie?

In the next four entries, I'll try to provide a brief guide to medieval historicity. Some aspects of it, anyway. Ones that are interesting, or which are often gotten wrong, or which just add fun flavour.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. I hope the entire "Elfland" article series can be of use, to GMs and authors who want to increase the historicity of their stuff.