Avoiding Anachronisms in Medieval TRPG settings

Ice RiggerWhile playing his character, the player should make an effort to look at the situations presented by the GM from the character’s point of view and try to suppress his knowledge of the modern world, to assume the frame of reference shared by the people of the gameworld, if not exactly the frame of mind, under the conditions set forth by the GM for his world. An anachronism is the act of taking an idea or item and transferring it, placing it, or even just referring to it, in a setting that predates its invention and original existence.

Separation of player and character knowledge is very important to proper play in still another way. Specifically, the suppression of what are commonly referred to as “game mechanics”, the nuts and bolts of the rules of the game. While these are certainly necessary, they are considered to be largely a necessary evil to be tolerated here and there during play, glossed over, between periods of actual roleplay. The player will be perfectly justified in keeping his character’s statistics private, personal knowledge, as the other players and their characters would have no idea of such things. Nothing spoils an intense moment of roleplaying faster than a reference to some attribute in relation to a score, or a skill and its “level” by number. The player should take every opportunity to ignore, deny or question knowledge or expressions of game mechanics while roleplaying “in character” and confine all such information to quiet exchanges with the GM, or even to the passing of notes. Much recourse to game mechanics can be avoided simply by providing a copy of the Character Record Sheets of the characters in the game to the GM, so he has it at hand when he needs to reference it, and doesn’t have to ask the players for that sort of “mechanical” information. The player should speak of his character’s skills in a more general sort of way. Using the labels or names they are provided with is a good way to start, as those are usually chosen from period vocabulary. Skill names should not be used as proper nouns, nor be spoken of as “skills” per se, in the context of the roleplaying game while attempting to remain in character.

Many of the labels or names for aspects of the mechanics are framed in period terms to make discussing them less disruptive to the mood and atmosphere of the gaming session, but the player should care enough about the quality of play and the enjoyment of the rest of the players enough to try to use them in a realistic context as far as the character is concerned when discussing or mentioning them to the other PC’s – to stay “in character” and maintain the integrity of the illusion of the game. The statement “I am a bit winded” is MUCH better than “My character is down 20 points of Wind” and “I am only a bit fatigued” or “I am utterly knackered” rather than saying “My character is down 10 Fatigue points”, “My character only has 10 Fatigue points left”. Unfortunately, some of the mechanics, mostly numerical statistics like Skill Levels and Trade or Class levels or number scores in reference to attributes, can’t really be framed in the same way when needed. These should be broken down as much as possible through roleplay, spoken of through their definitions rather than the labels used for them in regards to game rule conventions or mechanics when speaking to the other PC’s. The actual numbers on the player’s Character Record Sheet are no one’s business but the player’s and the GM’s, anyway.

If a contest is desired among the PC’s to see which character has the greater ability (higher score) or knowledge and expertise with a given skill (skill level), the GM can provide comparative information in general terms. As far as comparing degrees of knowledge and skill, the PC’s will have to wait until opportunities arise in the course of the game for the respective characters to observe one another in action. If one character finds himself taking a lesson from a demonstration of skill by another, he will know the other has the greater skill and knowledge. Characters in the context of the game do not have higher Agility or Dexterity, Strength, Charisma, etc. scores, rather, one is more agile than another, or stronger than another, or has a more polished and warm disposition, respectively. The physical attributes can be sorted out among the PC’s in this way, but the attributes describing intangibles are not so easy. Charisma or Charm may be judged generally, but the rest are difficult at best to make a “trial” of between characters. Over the course of long association some of these may become apparent, such as whose level of Awareness or Intelligence is greater, and observation will allow them to sort out who has the greater talent among those who wield magick, but that is about it. If a character’s chances to perform a given aspect of a skill is greater than another character’s with the same skill due to a higher score rather than higher level of skill, it should be said that he has the greater natural talent and aptitude or calling for the craft, rather than actual proficiency in knowledge of tools, materials, techniques and procedures.

Having a good grasp on the character, his skills and areas of knowledge, and his background and where he fits into the medieval milieu can help the player relate to the gameworld environment set up by the GM, making it easier for him to avoid mention of objects, ideas, or practices belonging only to the modern era.

The player who has taken the time to explore his character’s personality will have himself to thank for the ease with which he will be able to maintain the integrity of his persona throughout most of his gaming sessions, for he will have a much better grasp of the character’s place and point of view in the scheme of things in the GM’s gameworld. The level of intensity and enjoyment the player experiences will generally be equal to his level of commitment and how much of himself he invests in the game, its air of fantasy, and the character through which he experiences it, much like any other hobby.

The characters are people in a fantasy world very similar to our own during the medieval era, despite the significant difference of magick, monsters and the like. Many aspects of modern life and the modern world would horrify the denizens of the gameworld if they were confronted with them. They have no knowledge of our modern times and the conventions of roleplaying games, so the players should avoid making references to these and any other anachronisms as much as possible. Any reference to modern times and things unknown to the culture and period of the game setting should be avoided to preserve the air of fantasy and the integrity of the illusion which make these games such an engaging success.

Since many players may not be familiar with the specific details of the medieval period, an attempt has been made here to provide some help in avoiding inevitable anachronisms.

Though the commonalty (sum of the population of free and landbound commoners or peasants) cannot generally afford them, the wealthy bourgeois class and the nobility in the period of the game will regularly have leaded glass windows in hall and keep and palace, especially in their private solars and bowers (bedroom suites). These will be expensive, though, and will be mounted in frames that can be easily installed and removed to be packed and carted across the countryside from house to house in their travels. Plain wooden shutters, barred for security, will be used to fill the space and keep the weather out in their absence. These windows will not be the wood-framed panes commonly seen in Colonial-period buildings with which most Americans are familiar, but will be made up of small pieces varying in size from a couple inches to 4in’s or 6in’s in dimension all pieced together with strips of lead, or perhaps in regular square, rectangular or diamond shapes (which will cost a bit more), or even to create a picture or design motif (at even greater expense), like Victorian leaded glass. Stained glass is created using colored glass, and pictures rendered in the medium commonly detailed by painting enamel on the contour-cut pieces then kiln firing them to fuse the two together. When the main lights that make up a leaded glass window are round, like the bottom of a bottle, it is called “bottle glass”.

The player should be aware that, regardless of Hollywood’s love-affair with spectacular entrances made by smashing through windows, even in medieval period movies, the leaded glass or stained glass windows will be rather more difficult to get through. The hapless character will likely be caught against a web of lead. While the little panes and/or pieces of glass of which these windows are made up will shatter (if large enough) and the pieces be knocked out at the point of impact like any other, more modern glass, the pieces surrounding the point of impact are liable only to be popped out due to the stretching of the lead strips on impact, or cracked, the leading will remain to prevent the rest from breaking, to be hacked through even after all the glass has been knocked out. This lead isn’t so very tough to cut or punch through, but cut or broken it must be, at least enough for the hole to be stretched and pushed open wide enough for a body to pass through. Because it deforms rather readily, it will absorb a good bit of impact and stretch in the process.

This will all be especially true of the stained glass windows commonly used in chapels, churches, cathedrals and the public areas of other ecclesiastical buildings illustrating holy parables and figures as a means of teaching good religion to those who cannot read, as stained glass tends to be thicker and makes use of a much greater number of smaller pieces and scraps of glass, contour pieces to emphasize the design or scene they depict.

An amusing but significant point, nightclothes which are worn to bed are completely unknown in the period of the game. Although medieval people wear underclothes (“small-clothes”), they are taken off and stored under the pillow upon getting into bed.

Nightcaps and gowns and shirts are only just beginning to become popular during the medieval period, among those with the wealth for such a luxury, and are generally worn in cold weather but are not in general use. Dressing gowns to keep warm while sitting up in bed or wandering about the private bower getting dressed or preparing for the day are only just beginning to be used, as well, again by those with the wealth to enjoy such a luxury.

The beds of the wealthy and noble are arranged so the bodies lie in a half-reclining state, in the Byzantine style. This is handy for addressing the business of the household and estates in the morning, when the officers of the household bring it to the bower to be settled upon rising.

The rich carpeting of the Middle East and Far East which many still prize even in the modern world are also coveted by the rich and noble in the medieval gameworld, but will be hung with pride, displayed on the walls, heavy canvasses of great beauty used to block drafts or conceal alcoves and doors. To cast them upon the floor like common rushes or deface them by walking upon them is simply absurd to the Western mind – too decadent an act even for the richest nobles unless accustomed to and comfortable with the practices of the eastern countries whence they come.

The player must be aware of the fact that the making of paper is only just coming into its own and its use only just recently become widespread in the period of the game, used for day-to-day record-keeping, tracts, and small, relatively unimportant books. It is not believed to be durable, however, so parchment remains the preferred material for setting down records and manuscripts that are penned for the purposes of preserving the knowledge they contain.

Ironically, there are books rendered on paper still in existence that are 800 years old, some of which still retain a remarkable resilience and flexibility. The oldest known surviving paper document in the Western world is the Missel of Silos from the 11th century – c. 1,000 years old now.

Furthermore, the people of the medieval gameworld are strangers to cocoa, chocolate and tea. Coffee is largely considered to be a vile curse reserved for those of the deserts of the Middle Eastern cultures, passed on by anecdote in travellers’ tales. “Corn” is the correct period term for any sort of grain, whether wheat, rye, oats, etc. – the “corn” or “maize” of the New World is unknown. Rice, spaghetti, noodles, tomatoes, potatoes, and squash are all equally unknown, and the carrots that are just beginning to be available come only from the GM’s analogue to the Low Countries, and they are purple in color.

Ice and snow were commonly harvested and stored in pits under straw during the Roman era, and may still be done in the GM’s world where it is practical, for use during the warmer months. A dessert of snow or shaved ice drizzled with syrups of costly citrus fruit juices, historically called “Italian Ice”, existed in the period of the game as a delicacy for the wealthy, who may have had the snow or ice carried down from nearby mountains (at great expense), if it was not harvested and stored locally.

If the GM allows for the Arts of Wizards to be so demeaned for the purposes of providing mere creature comforts, such a delicacy as Italian Ice and the general benefits of refrigeration might be more widely known and enjoyed by those with the coin to pay, and ice itself become as great a commodity as it was in the 1800’s, and wooden ice-chests or boxes become a fixture in the kitchens of the middle classes and up.

Otherwise, to keep foodstuffs on hand fresh or edible throughout the year, fruits, vegetables, and herbs may be sun-dried or oven-dried, or dried goods may be imported. Fruits are also stewed in sugary syrups or made into jams and jellies. Meats not maintained live ‘on the hoof’ will be slaughtered in November when the grasses give out and the carcasses dried, smoked or salted. The same will be done with fish, but these may also be kept live in a small pool in the kitchen dooryard, or for temporary storage (daily or weekly) in a leather tanks in a corner of the kitchen itself, called a “vivarium”.

The most profound differences in the medieval world, however, will be in concepts of privacy and individual rights. Family life commonly spilled right out into the streets in the period. With open windows and limited accommodations for children, when even the common working family had a maid with whom family life was shared, privacy the way it is understood in the modern world was a foreign idea. Gossip will be rife and every bit of family drama will be all over the neighborhood in a matter of hours, if not sooner. If the drama is juicy enough, it could be all over the neighborhood in less than an hour.

As far as individual rights, there are a few. A man has a right to due process of law, though the legal process may leave something to be desired to the modern eye; and while he may get dispossessed of home or property he again has recourse to law to get it back if he doesn’t have sufficient force of arms to get it back himself (a man was generally expected to defend his own rights in his property); in regards to rights against search and seizure which were previously enjoyed in the US, noble lords and government functionaries like sheriffs are who much involved in the enforcement of law and government directives called “writs” have NO such constraints. A man CAN be sent to prison for failure to pay a debt, until such time as that debt is made good, presumably by his family. Kidnapping, the taking of hostages and demanding of ransom, is NOT as great a crime in the period of the game as it is in the modern world. In prosecuting the conflicts and all-out wars of the period it is a common and accepted practice.

Medieval states are basically fascist in nature – military dictatorships with a few customary restraints thrown in. Freedom the way it understood today is an alien concept, except to outlaws. The people of the period do not find this state of affairs oppressive (except when the governing officials abuse their offices), they find it comforting that they are looked after because they know how short and brutal their lives can be when there is no strong leadership to protect them.

The feudal structure of the noble hierarchy and the signeurial duties on the manors provide an order to life and the world that the Church teaches is the Divine Plan, the Chain of Being stretching from the Light Itself to the meanest beggar in the streets on down to every stone and weed. Virtue is its own reward, and when it is not, a much greater reward for it must await after death. As long as all goes smoothly and everyone plays his proper role and maintains his right place, everyone is content.

The player MUST understand this and accept it.

For those dependant on a lord or master for their living, a bad master is better than no master at all. Most of the retainers and henchmen of the Bad Guys who stand alongside them even in battle are more concerned that they will lose their positions and their livings when their masters are killed. For them it is a matter of economics and survival – except when the retainer or henchman is a Bad Guy himself, as well.

These concepts of freedom, privacy and personal rights are likely to be the greatest sources of anachronisms and verbal mis-steps in play.

As far as technology goes, while it is easy enough to look up the date of origins of an invention, practice or innovation, the date it occurs will NOT be the date at which it was widespread or common in its use. The GM will have the last word on the degree of common use of those things which first occur during the period assumed for the game.

The medieval aspects of the social structure are more important than the limitations of technology. With magick as a balancing force and postulated as having been around more than long enough to have had an impact on bloodlines and marriage strategies for both noble and royal families, and even Chivalric standards applied in some instances, the firearms which saw the end of the feudal fabric of society are largely irrelevant. Their only advantage over arrows or magick is that they require less training to use. Magick remains a more powerful and visually impressive force, and thus possesses a FAR greater impact on morale than even the thunder of canons.

The following timeline and roster is provided for a quick reference for player and GM to consult at a glance as needed to determine the status of various sorts of technological developments and amenities of daily life in history. Where it was possible, separate entries for original development and the point in time when its use became general and commonly accepted have been made. Some of the entries have to do with the advent of certain social practices, as well. To cover as many bases as possible in limited space, the roster goes back to the last days of the Roman Empire, the roots of the Dark Ages.

Developments in Technology

Date

Innovation

5000 to 400BC

Alchemy (Egypt)

1200BC

Alchemy (India)

332BC

Alchemy (Greece)

142

Alchemy (China)

500 to 600’s

Scissors or shears

640’s

Alchemy (Islam)

700’s

Pipe organ (France)

800

Padded, rigid horse collar, multiplied pulling power of the animal by 4, first full utilization of horse power, pulling 6.25 to 8-ton sledge-loads (stone quarries)

800’s

First guild, wall builders (Würms, Germany)

900’s

Pipe organ (England)

late 900’s

steel-armed crossbow

987-996

Mills for brewing beer (France)

c. 1000

Glass lenses (Arabs)
Iron horseshoes (in common use)

1000’s

Mouldboard plough

late 1000’s

Formal (true) fireplaces

1010

Water-driven hammer forge mill (Germany)

1040

Water-driven hemp processing (France)

1075 to 1095

Stone curtain walls, true stone castles (England)*

1086

Mills for grinding grain, crushing olives, sieving flour, fulling cloth (Normandy)

1093

First recorded reference to English guilds

1095

Coal mined for fuel

early 1100’s

Stained glass in use

1100’s

Hard milled soaps
Water-driven hammer forge mill (France)
Surnames (family-) in general use and heritable

1138

Mills for tanning leather (Notre-Dame de Paris)

1154+

Advent of commonly perceived rural beauty of “Merrie Olde England” (Henry II of Anjou), maintained largely intact to the 1800’s

1180’s

Windmills in common use (innumerable, throughout England and the Continent)

1190’s

Arrow loops built into castle walls

late 1100’s

Mufflers (chainmail mittens) attached to the ends of the sleeves of coats and shirts of mail

1200’s

Coat-of-plates armor (brigandine, laminated, etc.)
Chimneys
Tallow candles (good, hard fats) & metal kitchenware affordable for the peasantry (common use)
Fixed stern-post rudders on ships
Maps, portolanos (navigational maps for sailing), harbor maps
Compasses
Glass vessels (chemists’-style/quality)
Joiner’s planes
Pipe organs in common use (England)
Round-style (“drum”) castle towers
Spinning wheels
Tidal mills (Devon & Cornwall, England)
Toothbrushes (only by a few fastidious nobles)

1204

Buttons

1238

Mills for making paper (Valencia, Spain)

1250’s

Books multiply with the general spread of education (literacy) among the merchants and craftsmen in the towns (10% of pop.), regardless of the need for hand-copying

1250+

Phosphate fertilizers (recovered forge slag, Cistercian monks)

1268

Mills for making paper (Italy)

1272 to 1307

Height of castle use as a tool of war

1277 to 1300

Weight-driven astronomical clock

1280

Spinning wheel in common use (Germany)

1280’s

Spectacles, eyeglasses (for near-sightedness)

1283 to 1292

Large town-clocks spread, great processional-style and alarm clocks

late 1200’s

Buttons in general use (western Europe), never in matched sets
Hot water tanning process for leather

l. 1200’s to e. 1300’s

Astrolabe
Quadrant

1290’s to 1300’s

Button-holes, previously they were simply used as decorations
Advent of household clocks

1300

Alchemy (Europe)

1300’s

Counter-weighted gaffs for raising drawbridges
First orchestral concert (36 types of instruments)
Glass windows common (well-to-do rural farmers and craftsmen in towns or higher in station)
Nightshirts
Steel needles (previously bone and wood)
Woven tapestries, of the type now considered typical of the period (Gobelin)

1323

Mill-driven bellows for forge

1326

Mills for making paper (France)

1330’s

Rowel spurs (tined wheel-style), as opposed to the simple prick-style used previously

1345

60-minute hour and 60-second minute in general use, especially in the centers of commerce (previously only used by astronomers and astrologers)

late 1300’s

Handkerchiefs
Half-plate steel armor

1380

First blast furnace

1400’s

Hennins (ladies’ tall, cone-like “steeple” hats)
White Armor, full field plate

* This refers solely to re-surgance of the building of forts and castles following the Norman invasion, and only in the country of England, which is the basis for this work.

In all cultures starting with the Cradle of Man (Tigris-Euphrates River Valley) cities have been fortified with great walls as high as 50+ feet and as thick as 15+ feet, including the fabled city of Jericho (c. 8-7,000BC). The remaining and reconstructed fortifications of the Romans are daunting even today, and they inspired the beginnings of castle-building in the kingdoms of the Franks following the fall of the Carolingians on the Continent.

After the peace of Chippenham in 879 AD Alfred The Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, and his son and daughter became the first true castle builders in England. By the 900’s wooden palisades mounted on ditch and rampart earthworks were being replaced with stone. The invading Normans were master castle builders, however, and transformed the art in England after they arrived.

In addition, the player must consider that the GM’s world is very likely one which will essentially remain medieval as long as it is in use, and may well have been medieval in structure for a very long time already (the Ottoman Empire of the Turks was founded in the 1300’s, grew steadily until the 1600’s, and didn’t start to really fall apart and suffer from secessions of its constituent lands until the 1800’s).

Some aspects of technology that occurred in the Real World after the time frame specified for the period of the game are natural and normal extensions of medieval practice and/or technology and simply make sense to allow in an essentially perpetually medieval world.

The practice of refrigeration is generally unknown in the period, EXCEPT that the practice of mixing sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate to water as a cooling agent for tubs in which wine was kept for table service is recorded in 1550 along with the words “to refrigerate”. However, the earliest surviving description of the purification process for potassium nitrate was recorded in 1270 by the Arab alchemist and engineer Hasan al-Rammah of Syria in his book al-Furusiyya wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (‘The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices’). It is possible the practice could have been MUCH more widespread at a much earlier date.

Religious differences, fear and suspicion, mainly on the part of the Catholic Pope, kept a great deal of knowledge, including many classical era texts in geometry and mathematics, philosophy and the much more advance Arabic medicine from passing from the scholars of the Middle East to their colleagues in the West (where the Church largely had a monopoly on education).

Although the canning process was not discovered until 1809, it has been included as a skill for both the Cook/Chef and Alchemist skills, under the assumption that in a medieval world where magick works and information may be passed around a little more freely by somewhat more altruistic communities of scholars, the process would have been discovered sooner among alchemists as a means of stock-piling foodstuffs against famine and for transport en masse for feeding armies on the move (which was the original impetus for the Real World discovery). The large scale and domestic use of the process would no doubt have been relegated to those in the business of food – Cooks and Chefs.

The invention of lager beer came from a house of monks in Germany who discovered the fact that new beer kept longer when stored in cellars made in cool mountain caves (“lager” coming from “lagern”, the German for ‘to rest’ or ‘to lay’). Outside the mountain districts this phenomenon was not observed, but general knowledge of the principle could certainly have travelled, especially within the community of scholars of whom the monks are members, especially the alchemists among them, and their associates – the wizards.

A number of other, more technical, scientific innovations that occurred between the High Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s may well be allowed in the GM’s essentially perpetually medieval gameworld – especially those that improve the general quality of life or make the production of quality goods easier thus increasing general availability. These are discussed in detail in the GM’s Handbook, laid out for him so that he may make the determinations of which he will allow and which he will not.

The player should check with the GM to see what sorts of innovations have been allowed in the gameworld. These will no doubt affect the briefing the player is given to read prior to the commencement of the first game in the GM’s world.

All the information presented here can make for a more truly medieval feel to the fantasy of the game (except those anachronisms deliberately included, of course). Those that are ruled out by the GM (as firearms in general are in the author’s game) should be kept in mind, along with the general principle that, if it sounds like a commonly taken-for-granted convenience of the modern world to the player’s modern ears, it probably will not be available in the medieval fantasy gameworld.

Players who constantly make blatantly anachronistic comments, who use modern slang when supposedly “in character”, who play the game as if the medieval gameworld should conform to their (modern) personal agendas of right and wrong, social equality, technology, or convenience are doing the rest of the players a GREAT disservice. But worse, they will be missing out on the richness and variety of experience to be gained by finding their characters’ niches in the medieval fantasy environment and learning how to work within them, according to the vary sets of conditions and procedures that make them medieval. The adventurer’s place in society is already special, in some ways difficult but still providing sufficient freedom when needed to do most anything (eventually, anyway). The way things work in a medieval fantasy environment is different to the modern mind, but it certainly is not broken, especially to the common run of people native to it.