Dungeons and Historians
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Dungeons and Historians

A tunnel into darkness under Schloss Neuhaus in Südtirol. Any similarity to the tunnel under the Playmobil pirate island is totally coincidental; I can’t comment on whether there were any giant centipedes, gnolls, or 10′ deep pits inside, although for enough money I might sell a badly-drawn map and some cryptic warnings. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2015.

A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.

In Achaemenid studies, one of our basic tools is deconstruction and looking at the ideological and literary context of ideas. And when you look at the history of D&D, you notice that people have been complaining about some things for a long time. Back in 1986, TSR released a Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide full of information about spelunking and natural cave formations. Dungeon ecology was also a major theme in the first hardcover books and illustrated magazines for roleplaying games. And in 1978, Poul Anderson proclaimed that “the time is overpast for drawing inspiration from other milieus — Oriental, Near Eastern, North and Black African, Amerindian, Polynesian, an entire world.” So for a long time, there have been complaints that heroic fantasy is Eurocentric and neglects how caves and buildings actually work, and some help for people who wanted to do things differently. Why didn’t this criticism and teaching have more of an impact?

Well, on one hand, I don’t think its fair to expect high-school students from the Midwest or librarians in rural Ontario to speak about chimneying like veteran cavers, or the design of fortified farmhouses like military historians. Learning those things takes time and money, not everyone is interested (although I hope that my blog is helpful for some who want to learn). Even if one player has experience hiking long distances through the wilderness with a heavy pack, he can’t transmit that experience to everyone else, and gaming is a collaborative experience where people tell a story together, not one where an expert lectures to a passive audience. Dungeons make for great stories which people of all ages and backgrounds can tell together, even though writing down those stories is rarely satisfying. But on the other hand, I think that Tolkienesque fantasy has become a ‘thing’ which limits people’s imagination as much as it inspires it, and that it draws on a lot of colonial dreams about venturing into distant lands, hacking through hordes of faceless natives with barbarous customs and terrible gods, and hauling back vast treasures. Many 20-year-olds planning their next adventure have never heard of the Third Burma War, and think that archaeologists making their way through Central Asia with the help of machine guns and Ford automobiles only exist in movies. The fantasy has erased the history which inspired it. But I think that that history has cast a shadow. Alexiares has some thoughts on this from a Métis perspective in her Steampunk Reflections.

The cover of the 1e AD&D Player’s Handbook by the late, great Dave Trampier. Had he read his Kipling? “Now remember when you’re ‘acking round a gilded Burma god / That ‘is eyes is very often precious stones; / An’ if you treat a nigger to a dose o’ cleanin’-rod / ‘E’s like to show you everything ‘e owns. / When ‘e won’t prodooce no more, pour some water on the floor / Where you ‘ear it answer ‘ollow to the boot / (Cornet: Toot! toot!) — / When the ground begins to sink, shove your baynick down the chink, / An’ you’re sure to touch the —
(Chorus) Loo! loo! Lulu! Loot! loot! loot! / Ow the loot! . . .” I don’t think that Kipling thought his narrator was in any ways Lawful or Good, but I do think that he wanted to communicate something about human behaviour under great strain and great temptation.

Second, there is some question about the realism of bands of loosely-connected young people wandering the countryside and slaying things. As I said above, I don’t think that stories about dungeons are set in a world that works like ours, so complaining about this sort of feels like complaining that fighters in Star Wars move like aircraft in an atmosphere not spaceships in a vacuum. And from my perspective as a historian, wandering bands of rootless young men are dead common, and so are shatter zones dotted with warring communities and riven with intrigue. English-speakers should have a general idea of the situation in Ireland from prehistory until the 17th century, or on the Scots-English border from the 14th to the 16th, but there are plenty of other examples from South Asia and the Americas. For most of history becoming a mercenary soldier or bandit or pirate was one of the main ways which a poor farmer or fisherman or charcoal burner might try to advance, see the world, and not have to wait an unimaginably long time like ten years before they could afford to marry. The work was risky and brutal, but so was being a peasant in an unequal society. Sometimes they even found great treasures and turned respectable, or ended up in unimaginably distant parts of the world full of strange creatures and shocking customs. 15th century Ottoman or 18th century Mahratta armies regularly recruited a few myriads of volunteers who served for loot and went home when they had stolen enough or thought that they might lose a battle, and those volunteers appeared and disappeared in small groups. I am sure that the villagers hated these bands of hungry and well-armed youths with their outlandish customs, and occasionally the adventurers did something too outrageous and were ambushed or murdered in their sleep, but since their job was to do horrible things to the enemy’s peasants and camp followers, their future employer was rarely fussy.

Not just that, but these bands were often a wild jumble of classes and ethnic groups, and some people took advantage of the confusion to break free of the rules of behaviour which the dominant society tried to impose. When we get views from without (which is quite often) we usually get the language of moralism and gossip, which somehow keeps the same tone whether accusing people of slave trading or wearing the wrong kind of clothes. When we get views from within (which is not very often) we usually see people who are just trying to live their lives with as little fuss as possible, and are not especially impressed that someone in a distant centre of power thinks this is improper. Roman tomb inscriptions tell us that some ordinary Romans were living in family arrangements which Roman law never imagined or explicitly forbid, and there is a good deal of evidence that throughout antiquity experts wandered wherever there was a market for their skills even if they was among foreigners. So while our world never saw a man, and elf, and a dwarf set out together, I suspect that ancient adventurers were a motley bunch (and that Mania of Dardanos had her working-class counterparts).

“You all meet in a tavern” is a cliche, but specialists in Renaissance Italy have read a lot of confessions and informers’ reports, and it seems that a lot of plots did begin with “hey amico, how is that wine? Listen, I have been thinking we need to overthrow the Medici tyrants, are you interested! Great, come to my warehouse on the cattle market after sunset Saturday, and bring your weapons.” (I wish I could give the citation, but I read that article too many years ago). Somehow, fantasies about adventure in superhero and fantasy and mystery stories have erased the history which inspired them. One of the points of George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman stories is that tales weirder than H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote were everyday news in the period from the 1840s to the 1930s.

Telling stories about people like this is hard, especially if we want to look beyond very recent times like the 18th century. Wandering adventurers are not known for keeping careful records and depositing them where they will be looked after for centuries. The Japanese buried a lot of treasure during their occupation of Southeast Asia, and ever since then people have been searching for it. There are various rumours that people found a great stash, and every so often someone in the Philippines wanders into an unmarked mine field or is shot by unknown parties. However, the details are very hard to pin down, because people who find great hauls of stolen gold don’t carefully document everything and publish it (and it may shock my innocent readers, but professional adventurers sometimes say things which are not strictly true, and sometimes fail to mention important details). Now if it is hard to pin things like this down in the 20th century, imagine how hard it is in earlier periods!

Like almost everyone, I have thoughts about how to avoid the worst logical and ethical problems of traditional dungeon fantasy, and opinions about things like whether mixing steampunk or science-ficton elements into dungeon fantasy makes it more fun. However, this is already a long post, and the Internet has plenty of thoughts and opinions on it already (if you are really interested, please say so in the comments!) So like Martin, I hope that some of the things I have written are useful to people who want to tell stories about the distant past or fantasy worlds, while not spoiling anyone else’s fun. I would rather help people who want to tell other kinds of stories, but need a little specialized knowledge to do so, than rant about other people and their hurting wrong fun.

Further Reading: Lindy Beige has lots of thoughts and opinions on gamer-friendly history, and is not afraid to lay them all out and watch the fireworks when people disagree https://www.youtube.com/user/lindybeige There is a new life of one of those Victorian adventurers who was sufficiently British, male, and book-learned that his story is not too hard to pin down https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/the-fantastic-adventures-of-the-tartan-turbaned-colonel/ I suspect that he and Xenophon would have had a cracking good time together, and he might have even let you live if you called him a murder hobo.

The most famous stories about a robber’s cave full of treasure, perils, and wonders come from the Arabian Nights, but they have ancestors. The fantastic version shows up in the Aethiopica of Heliodorus (translated in the collections Selected Ancient Green Novels and Five Greek Novels) and the historical version in Jewish and Roman stories about life in Syria under the Caesars (Benjamin Isaacs, The Limits of Empire).

Edit 2022-12-09: fixed links broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

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8 thoughts on “Dungeons and Historians

  1. Martin Rundkvist says:

    Good post, Sean, thank you! I agree that there are numerous historical environments where you might find travelling bands of murder hobos. It seems highly unlikely though that they would run into any dragons or dungeons.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome Martin! And thanks for your reminders about the differences between caves and ruins and tombs in our world, and caves/ruins/tombs in D&D and its imitations.

  2. Jeff S. says:

    Good heavens, there’s so much here that’s right up my alley I wouldn’t know where to begin. For starters, this post brought back vivid memories of the debates about “the physics of falling” in Dragon magazine back in the ’80s!

    I can certainly speak to this:

    But on the other hand, I think that Tolkienesque fantasy has become a ‘thing’ which limits people’s imagination as much as it inspires it, and that it draws on a lot of colonial dreams about venturing into distant lands, hacking through hordes of faceless natives with barbarous customs and terrible gods, and hauling back vast treasures . . . The fantasy has erased the history which inspired it. But I think that that history has cast a shadow.

    The scholars who study modern medievalism have, in recent years, begun to refer to this phenomenon as “neo-medievalism” (as distinct from other ways the term has been used by political scientists or by Eco). They use the term to distinguish between someone like Tolkien, who drew directly on his knowledge of the Middle Ages (or, heck, even writers who take a quick spin through Thomas Malory before writing the latest Arthurian novel) versus the creators of MMORPGs like Worlds of Warcraft, who are likely basing their fantasy milieu on secondhand and third-hand emanations of Tolkien and have zero direct understanding of anything medieval. Shadows of shadows.

    The tedious debate about where to draw the line has gone on for years in the journal devoted to the subject, but I find the distinction useful. You’re right that Tolkienesque fantasy has morphed into a thing of its own, and its relationship to Europhilia here in the States is complex. That’s one of the things I’ll be curious to see when I’m an old(er) man: as the U.S. population becomes more diverse and people who aren’t descended from Europeans continue to assume larger roles, will American medievalism still find a niche, or will it endure in heroic-fantasy tropes as a neomedieval echo?

    Anyway, thanks for a rich, thoughtful post. The ethics of role-playing is a worthy topic, especially when it’s discussed without finger-wagging designed to ruin people’s fun.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome Jeff! “A Brief History of the Pulp Magazines” has a few anecdotes by people who said that they learned to write westerns (or whatever) from reading other stories without ever going riding or travelling west of Chicago. Something similar happened in the fantasy boom of the 1970s/80s/90s.

      Back in my tabletop gaming days, someone in the group had served in the army and the navy (and collected a range of stories beginning “there I was, back in the day, and because I was young and bored …”) and travelled around the world. And I thought to myself … I have read a lot of fiction, and studied the real middle ages, but I have never spent days hiking with a heavy pack, or felt an artillery round exploding DANGER CLOSE. So I can’t think of myself as the expert here, just someone who is doing his best to help us tell a good story together.

      I would love to hear someone who attends more Bavarian Ritterfeste (barbarian pikes in your choice of beef, chicken, and tofu!) talk about their version of the middle ages.

  3. Pen Name says:

    What is the Army or Air Force equivalent of a Sea Story?

    How do you tell the difference between a Sea Story and a Fairy Tale?

    A Fairy Tale typically begins “once upon a time” and usually ends “and they lived happily ever after”.

    A Sea Story often begins “this is no bull” and ends with “and that is why things have been messed up ever since”.

  4. russell1200 says:

    A number of the early monster (rust monster and bullet come to mind) were based on common plastic toys you could find in the penny bin of the day.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yeah, that is another area I could have talked about … the tension between seriously working out the demographics of orcs, and “that is so cool, I am going to use it!” or “hahaha, when they step on the staircase it will eat them.” Maybe someone whose games leaned towards “because magic” could talk about that?

  5. Despoilers of the Golden Empire | Book and Sword says:

    […] about Silver Age science fiction don’t want you to hear. This story takes the fact that many science-fiction stories recycle adventure plots from sometime between Gilgamesh of Ur and Franz… and runs with it. A few years earlier, the main competing magazine had literally printed a passage […]

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