A system-agnostic sourcebook in 3 volumes for any fantasy or historical game.
Gary Gygax started me down this path. He drew inspiration from the real-world, and chucked it wholesale into 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I might not have been sucked into using history, biography, and information about other cultures as fodder for my own games. Where other people were inspired by the fiction in Appendix N, I was drawn to the strange (but real) vocabulary that he used. Weapons I’d never heard of before. Dungeon features that I had to look up to know what they were. Terms for characters of various classes and levels that were drawn from actual occupations and designations that existed in the past.
While it has become less prevalent over time, medievalism was a heavy component of early tabletop roleplaying games. You could drag in elements of Moorcock’s Melnibone, Lieber’s Lankhmar, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Asian and Middle Eastern societies, anything you wanted, but they’d all end up assimilated and patched over the default, baseline setting of some fictional Medieval Europe. There has been justifiable criticism of this in the decades since, but it can’t be denied that the Middle Ages were a powerful influence on D&D and nearly all tabletop fantasy.
My complaint with fantasy roleplaying in relation to history isn’t that everything imaginable should be available to use as you see fit. When viewed as a toolkit, rather than an implied world, it makes sense that Dungeons & Dragons draws from the broad span of history. My issue is that most gamemasters and worldbuilders try to have all of these things existing at the same time. There is no progression from Greece to Rome, Empire to Byzantium, scattered “barbarian” tribes to Crusades. They all exist in pocket kingdoms that don’t come into being as outgrowths of one another. Their simultaneous existence makes things stagnant, which is terrible when you’re looking for adventure seeds .
The object of the Medieval Reference series is to show the influences that shaped the Middle Ages. The Greeks and their mythologies, the Romans and their Empire, and the rise of Christianity all had to exist in order for what we think of as Medievalism to come about. The earlier events contextualize the period. Understanding how Europeans interpreted, remixed, and assimilated those cultural influences allow us to make sense of some of the strange, brutal, and beautiful things we think of when we talk about Medieval Europe.
Even if you’re not using a medieval setting, understanding the period can help you become better at worldbuilding. You can craft better adventures, not just by cannibalizing and remixing tales from history, but by understanding the connections between historical events. Having a grasp of history can even help to create better characters, by connecting them to richer back stories, understanding the cultural, religious, and political motivations for their actions, and giving them a grander sense of purpose.
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