Why The Medieval Setting Works
In my review of sci-fi game Stars Without Number last week, I didn’t mention one rule I really like. Most melee weapons in the game have a property called shock, which does damage to lightly-armored foes even on a missed attack roll. This represents both the psychological effects of close combat, as well as inevitable minor injuries sustained. In SWN, you always hit to some extent in melee combat.
What does this have to do with setting games in a quasi-medieval period? Probably not much, but it sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole that I’d like to share. Please note that this is based off of next to no research and is instead the result of my own musings and experience.
So first off, let me acknowledge the obvious. Dungeons & Dragons is based in a quasi-medieval fantasy setting and is the direct ancestor of modern roleplaying games. Its influence can easily be seen in games outside the roleplaying genre as well. So it makes sense that fighters and wizards and orcs and goblins are still popular just from a sort of cultural momentum. They were part of the original blueprint, so it’s hard to divorce them from the system. But why did the original tabletop roleplaying game happen to have this setting instead of something else?
I mean anyone who’s read about the early history of D&D can tell you why. War-gamers like Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson took their historical army combat rules and adapted it for dungeon crawls. They added fantasy elements from authors like Tolkien and Vance. But again, was it just happenstance that they chose this? Could someone in the 1970s have just as easily created a roleplaying game set in the American Civil War, and we just happen to live in the medieval fantasy timeline?
So several paragraphs in, here’s my theory. Melee combat is cool. Swords are awesome. Don’t get me started on glaives. Looking at history, once reliable firearms are introduced, the focus shifts strongly to them (Again, this is just my idea regarding an area I’m not an expert in, so don’t @ me about bayonets or whatever). The medieval fantasy settings of “vanilla” D&D and Lord of the Rings seem to be set as far forward as possible, while avoiding this shift to gunpowder.
I believe that this is part of D&D’s success. Combat feels believably balanced between ranged and melee fighters. This not only introduces variety in character archetypes, but introduces all sorts of tactical interest. In some situations, it’s better to pull out your longbow, and in others the battleaxe. In post-gunpowder settings, something has to give to make this dichotomy function.
The most obvious thing a game can do is defer to realism and acknowledge the weaknesses of melee combat. Even if hand-to-hand weapons do damage that is at all equitable to guns, there is the disadvantage of timing and range (and yes, I will agree that I do not want to be stabbed with a knife, even though it’s “only” 1d4 damage). I don’t play first person shooters much anymore, but when playing Counter Strike or Goldeneye, using the knife/slapper was usually done as a handicap or to pwn someone extra hard (For example). I’m sure I’m wrong, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any tabletop games in which ranged combat reigns supreme like this.
Other sci-fi settings, especially those with a strong fantasy influence, will create super powerful hand-to-hand weapons. Star Wars is probably the perfect example of this. A lot of settings just say “oh this high tech sword does as much damage as a gun,” but Lucas goes so far as to say that due to a Jedi’s reflexes, a blaster is no match for a lightsaber. Great world-building. I’m not saying that Star Wars’s appeal isn’t due to lightsabers, but you have to admit that it doesn’t hurt.
And finally, we’re back to Stars Without Number’s combat system. In the current incarnation of D&D, whether you are "swinging a sword, firing an arrow from a bow, or brawling with your fists,” it's all represented by one attack roll, which then hits or misses entirely. SWN changes this paradigm with its shock rule. A dagger deals much less damage than a laser rifle on a “hit,” but the game makes the believable assumption that it’s much easier to at least wound an enemy you’re right next to, as opposed to trying to blast them from across the room.
This does something very important. It gives a mechanical explanation for why melee combat should be effective. It also makes SWN the best “old school” tabletop RPG I’ve seen. Close combat feels super dangerous because you know that if you don’t take out your opponent on round 1, you’re almost guaranteed to take at least some damage.
I’m so in love with this rule that I’d even be tempted to graft it onto D&D. But then we’re back to my original thesis statement: combat (already) feels believably balanced between ranged and melee fighters. Can you imagine a wizard getting ambushed and taking even some damage every time a creature missed them? Or even knowing that your front-line warriors would get chipped away at every round? It’s a cool rule that makes getting up close and personal very dangerous, but it would require rebalancing the entire game.
Like I said, this is all based off my own ideas about games. But it’s something to consider if you’re one of the game masters out there who gets frustrated because your group only wants to play D&D instead of trying out other systems and settings. Maybe, like me, they just think swords are totally awesome. Maybe more games need to figure out a way to make that happen, regardless of their setting.