With the release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition I’ve decided to run a fantasy campaign again. One of the things that’s bothered me about D&D and its emulators over the last decade or so is that they don’t “feel” medieval. When every village has clerics with magical healing powers and every city has magic item shops, one wonders why the setting remains medieval/renaissance?
I do realize that I’m overgeneralizing and that its been possible to run medieval settings; it just hasn’t been intuitive for me when running D&D-style games. My current problem is that I came up with a fun new campaign arc and it really depends on a medieval setting – primarily human, with only hints of magic and monsters in the corners. The local priests don’t have access to spells, nor is there a wizard in every village. The mere sight of an elf traveling down a country road would cause farmers to stop and gawk, that sort of thing.
But what of the players? While I may be salivating over my dark ages setting, they’re poring over the new Player’s Handbook and loving the options. The last thing I want to do is dissuade them from playing anything they want, but how do I balance that with my vision for the setting?
The answer, as it turned out, was simple: treat the PCs as superheroes.
I’m not talking about putting them in spandex and giving them secret identities, but rather treating them as if they were aberrations in the world, much like a four-color superhero universe seems to follow the normal course of history in spite of super-scientists, gadgeteers, aliens, super-beings, and even magicians occasionally protecting the city streets from equally colorful villains.
With this model, the fact that the PCs have abilities above and beyond the average tenant farmer, man-at-arms, and priest would be something special. Should they be discovered, the PCs would be treated with fear and awe. A third level fighter becomes akin to a masked mystery man with awesome fighting abilities, while a cleric with a daily cure spell would be treated as one of the blessed by the local, non-spellcasting acolytes. And, when a strange monster rears its head or someone gets lost in a ruin, it’s these “superheroes” that the villagers turn to.
This is not to say that “supervillains” and “secret societies” wouldn’t exist. Yes, there’s a Wizard’s Guild, but it’s in a faraway city or in a remote spot somewhere – traveling wizards are few and far between. The vast mountain kingdom of the Dwarves exists on the edge of human civilization and it’s largely responsible for the occasional forged magic item. The Elves, too, live in an isolated forest somewhere, content to live apart from humanity save for the few carefree members (superheroes and supervillains) that have decided to travel the world.
This does mean that the world is mostly populated with 0-level characters but, in a superhero genre, that’s largely as it should be. The cultists and henchmen of a particular “super-villain” are another matter, as they’ve been given power for their allegiance (this also provides a rationale for followers of evil deities – they offer spells and abilities more freely than the more discerning good deities).
I’m taking this tact with my current group; I hope it works! How about you? Have you ever successfully run a “medieval fantasy” while still allowing the PCs a full range of character options? Did it work well? What didn’t work? Did you find yourself instead “upgrading” the rest of the world as the characters advanced?