On the post-apocalyptic nature of old school D&D.

This is a very interesting essay on the implied post-apocalyptic status of most pre-5th edition D&D games. The author was noting that one of the bonuses to leveling up above a certain level was the creation of strongholds and recruiting of followers. It was the thing that you did when you got powerful enough, and that has certain implications:

At first glance, that might not seem too apocalyptic. But the rules for Territory Development by Player Characters (found on page 93 of the DMG) are written assuming a vast, sparsely-populated wilderness as the default setting. A wilderness controlled by monsters, and littered with the ruins of countless, long-dead civilizations.

According to these rules, characters building a fortress go through considerable time and expense, selecting a construction site, clearing the area, paying and staffing a garrison, and conducting regular patrols to sweep for monsters. Once construction is complete, these strongholds attract settlers looking for safety and security.  

This is an interesting point, and one I had wished that I had seen before I had done that Arcadia mini-sourcebook*. Arcadia is set in the time period before an apocalypse, and now that I think of it I should have weaved more of that into the setting. Ach, well. Something to think about, for later.

Moe Lane

*Check out my Patreon!



  • acat says:

    I played 2nd-edition and .. disagree in part.
    It wasn’t that D&D *assumed* post-apocalypse .. it was more that D&D was flexible.
    At the time, it was competing with other game systems, some set in clearly post-apocalypse worlds – including that one with Vulture Squad**.
    ** SJG’s “Paranoia” .. but you didn’t hear that from me…

    • Luke says:

      **West End Games

    • RangerSG says:

      Yeah, I played going back to Blue Box even. And I don’t think this is an accurate assumption by the author. First, it assumes that civilizations have to have an “apocalypse” to fall. But history shows that isn’t true.

      Second, for a lot of DMs, including me, Hyborean Age was cool. But Middle Earth was just as likely. (In fact, I ran a Fourth Age AD&D Campaign once.)

      Third, which combines the previous two: I think the author conflates cataclysm and apocalypse. Most fantasies have some cataclysm that swallowed a civilization in them. True. But that’s not the same as an apocalypse that virtually destroys like and sets the whole world back to a stone age.

      I don’t think R.E. Howard would’ve called the drinking of Atlantis an “apocalypse.” Destroying their capital destroyed their empire. But their works and learning survived in the world. So yeah, this seems like a bit of an overreach. In fact, it wasn’t until Darksun that I recall a D&D setting that was openly post-Apocalyptic.

  • junior says:

    I disagree about the ruins. Listen to Sarah Hoyt talk about the area she grew up in in Portugal, with its Roman ruins, and you’ll realize that ruins no more make a place post-apocalyptic than feudal Europe.

    Building a stronghold might provide an argument for a breakdown in civil order. But, as an example, it wasn’t uncommon in ancient China for a group to build a fort in an outlying area and operate as “bandits”. But the difference between bandits and tax collectors is an awfully thin one, and politics would be the only thing preventing the “bandits” from becoming the court-sanctioned local rulers.

  • Towering Barbarian says:

    In a way that’s completely correct since I suspect Arneson and Gygax both had the Dark Ages in mind and the collapse of the Roman Empire and the closing of the Mediterranean by the Moslems probably did seem like that to those who lived through it. ^_^

    • Luke says:

      More to the point, D&D was explicitly inspired by Robert E. Howard’s works featuring civilization as a temporary state, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories which were explicitly never-coming-back-from-it post-apocalyptic, A. Merritt’s works featuring forgotten golden ages and sanity-blasting decadent precursor races, and that’s just the ones off the top of my head. Tolkien was the most optimistic source, but his underlying theme of events being a diminishing echo could easily fit in a post-apocalyptic structure (heck, you could even argue that it’s explicitly post-apocalyptic, and it would be very hard to argue against that point).

  • Jon says:

    The Vancian magic reference absolutely made me flash back to one of the early Dragonlance books, when describing Raistlin’s mind holding spells back, barely. (Early days Raistlin)

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