A month ago I set this blog to autopilot while I was on holiday in England and France. Traveling always fills my head up ideas for adventures and characters. I’ve mostly visited “exotic” places within the U.S., which provides fodder for interesting adventures, but with a distinctly American theme. Going to London and Paris was like visiting the source material for the PHB. Those cities have all the basics: knights, castles, kings, royal jewels, priests, grand cathedrals, etc. Most of the gaming inspiration I found was best suited for campaign or adventure ideas, but I want to focus on player aspects where I can.
Hundreds of years of wars between England and France meant a pretty steady advance of military technology for attack and defense. Both London and Paris’ main castle/royal residence started out a tall tower with guard wall, which slowly expanded over time. Years of modifications to monumental structures leave interesting architecture for fights (think bridges, stairs, ledges, and corners) as well as passages long ago forgotten. Castle building is expensive and therefore generally unpopular with the peasants, but the kings and queens who build great castles and palaces are among the best remembered and the most accomplished. It’s important to think about where a character grew up. Whether on a remote settlement or major city, it seems like everywhere was pretty much under the threat of attack, so growing up inside versus outside the walls probably had an affect on a person’s outlook on life.
The culture of middle ages Europe was different than it was now. There was huge emphasis put on the church. Think of the sheer number of churches, plus their grand scale and opulence combined with how even the secular-powered kings were concerned with their souls and afterlife. Knightly orders had religious underpinnings and often met in churches, with their own reserved rows and altars. Even peasants were expected to live according to church customs. Art and relics traveled across the land to those who could not go on pilgrimage to visit them in their home churches.
The D&D world is filled with a whole pantheon of gods that have the ability to directly influence the world, but in my experience only the Cleric character has any sense of religion. Players should think about their character’s view of the gods. Did she grow-up religious: going to the temples every week or was she dragged along against her will on pilgrimage by her parents. Does he have a healthy superstition, thinking any unexplained action is the “will of the gods”? Or does he blame Pelor for the conditions that sent him adventuring in the first place. Maybe your character worships the main gods in a non-traditional way, other gods or no gods at all and is persecuted for it, or at least is uncomfortable that everyone just assumes he worships as they do. Customs and beliefs in a fantasy world is probably not that different than the superstitions of the medieval Europeans.
Knighthood & Chivalry
Both the English and French had several different orders of knighthood. The most prestigious were mainly made up of the King and his relatives, but it is possible for a knight (who in those days was already a noble) to distinguish himself and earn entry in a prestigious orders. Perhaps your character is a member of an order and has taken vows to uphold a certain way of life. Or he has had a knighood thrust upon him by birth that he wants no part of but is afraid to shame the family. Or he is aspiring to be a part of a particular order, perhaps to be in the inner circle of friends of the King. In 4e, the knight isn’t a class type, so it’s possible to think of most class types permitted in a general order of knights, or having their own order (e.g., Wizards of the Rose, the Warlords of the Misty Mountains, etc).
Wandering around the great churches and palaces helps give a sense of spatial and historical context to the age, but so much the stuff that inspires the arcane side of d&d can be found in the great museums. There are items that were already old and had years of legend around them by the middle ages: crowns and swords of the early post-Roman kings, relics from the Saints of early Christianity, etc. By the time wealth started ramping up after the crusades, these items were re-branded with additional gold and jewels. Looking at fancy, 600 year old jewel-encrusted scepter surrounded by history and legend, it takes imagination not to believe that the item holds real magical power. Combine its appearance with the fact that people back then actually believed that certain items had healing or luck powers, or it could be used for direct communication with God, and you get a true sense of wonder.
Crown jewels and reqliquaries with their gold and jewels are the inspiration for many aritifacts and wonderous items listed in the PHB and DMG. A player should not only think about an item’s appearance, powers, and history (including who most recently owned it), but also how NPCs react to its presence. If the GM hasn’t come up with a lot of history for it, feel free to make some up and share it with her. Is its description well known from legends? Does its appearance fit well with your character’s? People may assume you a king from another country or perhaps have stolen the item if it looks to good for you to own. Does the item have religious significance? Will people want to rub it for good luck, or banish you from their town to avoid the wrath of an angry god? Do your items inspire jealousy from other characters (or do you secretly covet another’s)? Does a magical ring start a desire to collect as many different ones that you can, even if you have no intention of using them. How do you store them?
There’s a lot to think about even the simplest item. Fancy items in the old days showed off how rich and powerful you were by giving them away (more so than simply owning them). Kings would give each other fancy crowns and jewels to show off their own wealth. A king could honor a knight or servant with coins, jewelery or gifts. If your character preforms good service, he could expect a token inscribed with the royal arms or visage. If you play in a campaign where you get to choose your own items, instead of founding it in an old tomb, it is a gift from the local lord.
If you’re going to make your own magical items, do think about how they look and and fit into the art and culture around you.
On Wednesday I’ll have more thoughts from my travels, concerning various people and arms & armor.