Witness the inherent violence of the system!

Wait, what? Games can make you rethink how you look at the world? I never thought about this before, but the structure of Dungeons & Dragons implies a fallen world, in which people are picking through the debris of a collapsed civilization. It suggests that gangs of murder hobos looting the wreckage is a perfectly normal, ordinary way to see your culture.

In a nutshell, the argument is that—independent of campaign setting—the rules of AD&D imply the game takes place in the wake of some unspecified, civilization-ending cataclysm.

​For what it’s worth, classic sword and sorcery fiction tends to make this same assumption. Conan’s Hyborian Age is perhaps the most famous, taking place thousands of years after “the oceans drank Atlantis.” Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique tales are more properly classified as Dying Earth stories, but the effect is the same: the last vestiges of humanity cling to superstition and sorcery on the Earth’s last remaining continent. Not to mention The Dying Earth itself, where technology and magic are both remnants of long dead empires, and are completely indistinguishable from one another.

Simply put, without the collapse of some ancient civilization (or several), the landscape wouldn’t be littered with ruins for the characters to go dungeon-diving in. But that assumption can hardly be called unique to AD&D. Later editions still feature plenty of ruined temples, lost cities, and dungeon delves, even if they are significantly less lethal than the old school variety.

I never noticed! I wonder if this might be a relic of a medieval way of thinking, where Europeans saw themselves living in the ruins of fallen Rome, and it was normal to live surrounded by bridges and aqueducts and statuary built in the past.

We Americans don’t have that — instead we have a history of belittling the constructions of our predecessors. Cahokia must have been built by wandering Hebrews, don’t you know, because Indians couldn’t possibly have accomplished anything. We have our own biases, though, and another game reveals that.

Would you believe Minecraft mechanics encourage colonialism? Also it’s another game where your ‘wilderness’ is sprinkled with dungeons and temples and lootable structures. This video explains the perfidious possibilities in a sandbox game.

I’ve played a bit of Minecraft, and I hadn’t thought of exploiting the villagers before, but I knew of the mechanics. The latest edition has some other curious additions: there are pillagers who will raid you or nearby villages, which lets you play the role of protector and patron, killing the bad NPCs and saving the good NPCs. It’s an interesting evolution of a game that once was kind of the digital equivalent of building ships in a bottle, or cultivating bonsai. It’s not a game unless there’s an opportunity for violence!

(Note: I am not saying D&D and Minecraft need to be policed for their violence, but only that it might be a good idea to be conscious of how the rules can create a bias towards certain behaviors.)


  1. says

    That’s so funny.

    That was actually one of my first observations when a friend introduced me to D&D when I was 11 years old. Why all the ruins? was a question that occurred to me, but the real thing that made me convinced this was post-apocalypse (post Fall-of-Rome, whatever) was that there were stashes of gold coins, like, EVERYWHERE. How did economies work if someone/something was constantly stealing and burying gold? Answer: they wouldn’t. If that were really happening in the present, it would make economic sense to raise a huge army and crush the thieves’ civilization/race/religion/whatever. But most people are just going about sedentary lives. yes, there are an unusual number of murder-hobo brigades roaming the countryside, but there aren’t large campaigns mounted by the rulers of lands. Ergo the rulers of lands are mostly content with their level of income and level of security. Therefore, the gold lying about in ruins isn’t coming from those rulers’ pockets. Therefore, it all came from a previous civilization with no ongoing connection to the current one such that current rulers would feel a need to “take back” what was “theirs”. QED.

    Anyway, it was all very interesting to us what civilization came before, and we constantly compared it to a Fall-of-Rome scenario and spent an inordinate amount of time inventing variations on the “common” tongue (english to us), some of which was inspired by reading Chaucer, some of which was inspired by researching Celtic, some of which was inspired by French, a very small amount of which was inspired by Scandinavian words and runes, and the rest was just plain made up. But we loved to have reasons why person X couldn’t understand inscription Y on the wall of a tomb we were attempting to plunder. At age 11 we had a terrible time constructing a consistent, cohesive plot. But we sure did a lot of proto-world building.

  2. inflection says

    Another reason I’m a fan of GURPS. The main fantasy setting of the GURPS system is Ytarria, which has by and large suffered one major disaster, the Banestorm – which was also a colonizing event, but even the colonizing was involuntary, by people being dragged across various worlds and left with no way home and some fairly justifiable anger at the nations whose wizards did it to them. The economy is fairly well written and dungeon diving tends to be places like operational sewers or slums in Kowloon-like cities that decayed for normal reasons.

  3. kome says

    I think the particular aspect of the sandbox builder game you’re talking about is going to be re-written by the success of the newest addition to the genre, Dragon Quest Builders 2. This game is radically different on so many fronts to the rest of the genre in fun, fulfilling, and positive ways. The segment of the gaming community I belong to has generally come to the conclusion that this game isn’t like Minecraft, instead Minecraft is a lesser and uninspired version of Dragon Quest Builders 2. You progress and attract villagers and build your village/town/farm/etc up by making people happy.

  4. PaulBC says

    I never thought about this before, but the structure of Dungeons & Dragons implies a fallen world, in which people are picking through the debris of a collapsed civilization.

    I won’t claim I said it in so many words, but the observation doesn’t strike me as a surprise. I never actually played (my friends did), but aren’t the “ruins” often inhabited by some ongoing civilization like Drow Elves, who out of pure bigotry count as an encroachment? I think the setup is an extension of Tolkien’s world-building and whoever influenced him. The mines of Moria, now “infested” with evil creatures, etc., etc.

    It’s also the premise of “archeology” in the vein of Indiana Jones or actual historical plunder of pyramids. Civilizations have come and gone. Sometimes they leave treasure behind, and there’s a clear incentive to steal it.

    I admit I was addicted to the tty game Nethack for a while, and to a lesser extent Moria. I preferred Civilization, where you at least have the opportunity to build something new.

    But anyway, D&D is a game with a certain perspective. If you change that perspective, you get a different game. I don’t think you could have a creative, innovative society within that rule system. It would be interesting to develop a fun multiplayer game in which you do. (Civilization isn’t really it, because you just accept innovations from a slate as they appear.)

  5. lumipuna says

    I haven’t read much pseudo-medieval fantasy, but the trope of medieval Europeans living among Roman ruins comes up a lot in historical fiction. AFAIK there was actually a lot of cultural continuation from Roman to medieval times, even in Western Empire. Until Renaissance, people didn’t even think Roman civilization had “fallen” – it had just suffered from political fragmentation. With no clear political border between “civilized” and “barbarian” lands, Christianity and associated Latin literacy became the defining feature of Roman civilization.

    (I’m baiting Cartomancer to elaborate on this)

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    Empire of the Petal Throne, which came out a year after D&D, was the same way. The mighty empire of Tsolyánu was built upon the ruins of the ancient Engsvanyáli empire, which was built over the long-dead Bednalljin empire, etc. Eventually the deepest, oldest, dungeons and ruins your bronze-to-iron-age-tech heroes can explore are the lost tubeway car stations, laboratories, space ports and other remnants of the starfaring empire that colonized the planet of Tékumel tens of thousands of years earlier.

  7. says

    One fly in the ointment: Tales of adventurers seeking treasure go back to Ancient Greece (Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Perseus, Hercules, etc.) pre-dating the Roman Empire. Celtic, Norse and Finnish mythologies date back to post-Roman empire, but one could argue they’re independent of Roman influence, happening after the empire went away. How many of their tales are influenced by Greek/Roman mythology?

    Elfquest makes for interesting comparison, a group of elves landing unintended on a primitive Earth-like world, living in secret while the indigenous people develop. Their adventures happen mostly amongst their own kind or magical creatures, trying to stay out of the humans’ way.

  8. jrkrideau says

    The Roman Empire lasted to the 15th century so there was no sudden collapse and medieval times saw some tremendous technical and scientific progress in Europe so there was no sudden collapse. The invention of a heavy plough that could handle clay soils, made a tremendous difference.

    In some parts of Western Europe there was a drastic decline in living standards for 3 or 4 centurys but the recovery was impressive.

  9. lumipuna says

    To continue on my previous comment: My country (Finland) is very much European but seen from this far northeast, the concept of having Roman ruins seems exotic. Or generally, the concept of local written history and stone architecture going back thousands of years rather than just hundreds.

    Now, in North America there was very little cultural continuity from Native cultures to modern settler culture. Also, it makes sense that Native architecture and technology wasn’t very impressive to early modern Europeans. Most of the Native buildings weren’t much durable either – just like here in Finland, almost everything in ancient times was built from timber rather than stone or brick.

  10. microraptor says

    Actually, in the majority of canon Dungeons & Dragons settings (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Eberron, Birthright, Dark Sun, etc), that the modern kingdoms are built on the ruins of ancient collapsed civilization is explicitly spelled out in the game’s backstory. And that’s just the human/elven/dwarven civilizations: the game lore also has it that before the rise of player character races, the world was ruled by Dragon, Giant, and other monster civilizations.

  11. lumipuna says

    I know. Though there must have been some real sense of civilizational collapse even among Native population when imported diseases wiped out entire villages, leaving the houses and fields amid growing jungle.

  12. numerobis says

    microraptor: that’s pretty much a calcque of Greek mythology (and they don’t hide it much). Interestingly, Inuit mythology also has an long-ago age of giants.

  13. numerobis says

    Brony: if creepers left you along until you start industrializing, that might be an interesting game mechanic.

  14. davidrichardson says

    There are plenty of places IRL which could get you started on ‘ancient sites full of hidden treasures’. There’s an excavation going on at Sandby Borg on south-east Öland (the long, thin island off the south-east coast of Sweden), where a massacre took place about 500 CE. The raiders, whoever they were, took all the weapons and armour, but left the corpses of the slain (maybe 300 of them) where they fell. What they didn’t even look for were the inhabitants hidden treasures, like gold necklaces and bejewelled ornaments, which are being found now.


  15. blf says

    Another place of ‘ancient sites full of hidden treasures’ is the Black Sea. The lower waters are significantly anoxic, and may contain largely undistributed habits / farms from times when the Sea’s water levels were lower (I do not recall if any have actually been found, albeit there have been some searches). There certainly are eerily-preserved shipwrecks from across a spectrum of times…

    Neither Jason nor the Argo nor his Argonauts have been found, much to the disappointment of Newton, and the glee of the mildly deranged penguin…

  16. bcwebb says

    Actually, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords” does sound very Dungeons and Dragons…

    moistened bints less so.

  17. F.O. says

    In D&D good and evil are inherent parts of the setting.
    There are actually people and creatures who think of themselves as evil.
    It’s the bigot’s wet dream.
    To me that’s D&D’s original sin and why the setting and its derivative are not particularly interesting.

    I fell in love with the setting of Exalted TTRPG.
    Morals in shade of grays, every single faction with plenty of skeletons in the closet, actually interesting moral choices, no hard-coded concept of good and evil, antagonists that have actual, real, human drives, agenda and passions.
    The characters are often demi gods and have to deal with the consequences (and the corruption) of power.

    It really pisses me that D&D is trending as the only TTRPG ever.
    It’s not that good.

  18. F.O. says

    Also, the next videogame I write (if I ever manage to find the time and the mental resources to dive in another project) is going to be non violent, it’s going to show colonialism from the side of the colonised and it’s going to show an imperfect anarchist society based on a gift economy.

  19. pilgham says

    And the line is “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!” But, yeah. OTOH Roman Britain had twice the population it had at the time of the Norman Conquest. People are still (infrequently) digging up roman treasure that some Roman thought he was going to come back for. Something happened, but I don’t think we know what.

  20. DanDare says

    The thesis is not totally accurate. Original DnD was an open toolbox with no setting. Early dungeon modules were either the lost construction of a mad mage or lived in structures like the Temple of the Frog. Gold was there as a point score system without any economic rational. Lew Pulsipher suggested in the late 70s we should see gold in dungeons as some kind of nourishment that monsters fight over.

  21. DanDare says

    And re violence combat was something to be avoided when possible. It was deadly. Experience came mostly from treasure.

  22. says

    Perhaps you could play that way, but D&D evolved out of a wargaming system, Chainmail. It was all about fighting battles with miniatures, and additional rules were incorporated to allow leaders to acquire magic & experience, and eventually the tail was wagging the dog and all the army combat stuff ended up by the wayside.

  23. microraptor says

    PZ @25: And it took something like three iterations of the rules before the game even had rules for things outside of combat.

  24. microraptor says

    F.O. @20: It’s worse than just people and monsters that think of themselves as evil, there are entire races defined as being Always Chaotic Evil. There’s the bigot’s real wet dream- they can simply walk around slaughtering people for being the wrong race without and the system thanks them for it.

  25. PaulBC says


    That’s consistent with Tolkien’s mythos. Orcs, for instance, are just an evil imitation of elves. And he is clear about this in his notes. It struck me as a little odd at the time but now it strikes me as odd that I didn’t find it completely repellent.

  26. Trickster Goddess says

    they can simply walk around slaughtering people for being the wrong race without and the system thanks them for it.

    That’s the thing that eventually soured me on watching zombie movies.

  27. microraptor says

    PaulBC @28: It’s also consistent with numerous mythologies: monsterous creatures like ogres, goblins (which orcs were a synonym for until D&D), oni, gorgons, basically if something was ugly looking in mythology there was a good chance that it was hostile toward humans and probably also considered them delicious.

  28. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    As DM, I often discourage blatant wanton acts of murder-hobo-ism from my players. But yea, it’s definitely “part of” the game’s legacy and culture. We zig-zag between playing it straight and subverting the trope. I also like to think that due to the constant lapshape hanging, we all recognize how completely sociopathic our characters are at these times.

  29. PaulBC says

    microraptor@30 Yes, of course Tolkien didn’t invent it. However, it’s harder to reconcile with his lofty theological aims. E.g. he made a big deal out of portraying Gollum (originally the Hobbit-like Smeagol) as morally ambivalent but Orcs were consistently treated as an abomination to be wiped from Middle Earth. It’s clear he took all this very seriously as moral allegory (and wrote about it in letters). He was also writing in the 20th century in a post-Enlightenment society and in the context of real-life genocide. And he was extremely influential. Hippies loved him especially. Like WTF? I just find his legacy highly questionable, though I read his work (including posthumous) voraciously in my youth. It is world-building at a level rarely matched, but also something I can’t really endorse at this point. (I did like Peter Jackson’s film adaptations; I didn’t think I would live to see anyone manage to do it, especially with epic fails like Ralph Bakshi’s).

  30. unclefrogy says

    it might be a good idea to be conscious of how the rules can create a bias towards certain behaviors.

    I thought that was the point of playing games. to figure out what “the rules” required to win the game. all games have behaviors that are required to win sometimes they are stated directly other times they are only implied and to win the player needs to figure out what they are and then do them.
    To win in role playing games it would seem to me that the task would be to learn what the implied rules are and execute the “preferred behavior” without being caught up in the setting and backstory.
    uncle frogy

  31. chrislawson says

    Yep. The alignment system was always the thing I most disliked about D&D, especially the way many classes of sentient creature were pinned to one very specific part of the map.

    Gygax said that he adapted it from Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. It’s interesting to read Gary Gygax’s explanation of how it evolved in D&D — mainly because his attempts to explain the system and how to use it in a D&D campaign don’t clear anything up at all!

  32. chrislawson says


    In theory, the rules of RPGs are intended to allow the players to have an interesting game rather than “win”. However, many D&D settings (and computer RPGs) end up with “win the game” mechanics anyway. But not all. In D&D it depends on the players/dm and in computer RPGs there are a handful like Fire Watch or Journey where the “win” is to experience the game world.

  33. chrislawson says


    I think hippies loved Tolkien because of his reverential treatment of bucolic communities and smoking weed.

  34. chrislawson says


    It’s always nice to meet someone else who thinks the Roman Empire only truly ended in 1453.

    But I wouldn’t say that there was no sudden collapse. I would put it that the empire suffered numerous sudden collapses but was able to survive until the fall of Constantinople.

  35. whheydt says

    Re: PZ Myers @ #27…
    Actually…. Miniatures wargaming, both fantasy scenarios and historical battles is alive and well. I was recently (like, the past week) looking a photos and videos of a session doing Pickett’s Charge. The GMs even went so far as to use fluffed up rolls of cotton to show where the clouds of gunpowder smoke were and had flashing LEDs embedded in them for cannon fire.

  36. whheydt says

    Re: chrislawson @ #36…
    Yabbut… “Pipeweed” is tobacco, not pot. (Tolkien is clear on that point.)

  37. whheydt says

    re: chrislawson @ #37…
    On Sept. 4, 1976 at MidAmeriCon (WorldCon that year), we held a party to commemorate the sesquimillenium of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. A friend of ours got L. Sprague de Camp to come. de Camp was delighted to be there for the occasion. (Note: No effort was taken to adjust for calendar changes.)

  38. unclefrogy says

    another thing about Tolkien’s story is the reluctance for war of the central characters the Hobbits and how all the ‘heroes” turned away from dominate power.
    I have a hard time reading it and not getting hungry they eat so often food is a big part of its appeal
    uncle frogy

  39. PaulBC says

    unclefrogy@41 Yeah, Tolkien was strongly moral in his own way. I still just find it hard to swallow the notion of an entire “race” of beings who are beyond redemption. I don’t want to sound too petty about the whole thing.

  40. says

    I like the take on this that’s in Nodwick: yes, there was a more-or-less utopian super-civilization in the past. In order to force civilization to exist, the gods created a special tree of wisdom, consuming the fruit (or other products) of which would make you smarter. Unfortunately, humans became so smart that they were arguably more intelligent than the gods, which the gods found annoying, and so the gods destroyed the tree and as the people with boosted intelligence died off, the world was left with more and more people of average intelligence trying to operate genius-level devices and spells, and finally one of them decided to time travel into the future, more or less for fun, but forgot to take off his wristwatch, which was magical and caused a massive magical explosion which destroyed all of the utopian civilization.

    Sadly, the Nodwick archives got destroyed years ago and the later strips — including the whole Time Traveler story which described the apocalypse — never got recovered. But the ones which remain include an occasional sidelight on the whole idea, as well as the later story describing what became of the tree of wisdom’s stump

  41. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @42:

    I still just find it hard to swallow the notion of an entire “race” of beings who are beyond redemption.

    Not quite beyond redemption;

    They would be Morgoth’s greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad. (I nearly wrote ‘irredeemably bad’; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making — necessary to their actual existence — even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good.)

    And he made his feelings about genocide quite clear;

    There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don’t know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done.
    J.R.R. Tolkien — September 23, 1944

    Actually, the closest to genocide mentioned in LotR (AFAIR) was the Rohirrim hunting the Wild Men of the forest like beasts. Until the Wild Men helped them out, anyway.

  42. microraptor says

    PaulBC @32:

    Yeah, the most positive thing I’ll say about Tolkien’s stuff is that at least he wasn’t as blatant with the Christian allegories as CS Lewis.

    I’ve always preferred the D&D settings that try to get away from the cookie-cutter Tolkien clone stuff: Planescape is by far my favorite. That’s a setting with the idea that you can’t do the standard murderhobo party and it both explores what it means to be “good” or “evil” while insuring that such neat categories don’t actually work as far as determining who’s an enemy and who’s an ally.

    Also, it’s a setting that avoided using the standard Tolkien races as the default PC options.

  43. suttkus says

    @ F.O. in #20

    Check out the Eberron setting, as D&D’s only setting that turns it’s back on your Original Sin. “Always X alignment” is inapplicable to material beings (only things like angels and demons or aberrations can be so fixed). The world’s backstory has the “old empires” being highly developed civilizations orcs and goblins and the like. And going around killing random goblins for their treasure is called “mugging” and likely to get you tossed in a non-abandoned sort of dungeon.

    The gods are distant and standoffish, so you could even be, say, an evil worshiper of a good deity (specifically to allow for the possibility of corrupt priests) or vice versa. And there are clerics of non-divine concepts as well, who also get magic, so it’s quite possible that there are no gods at all, just people who really, really believe in stuff in a world where believing empowers you. So, yeah, it’s possible to be an atheist cleric.

    I’m not going to say the setting is entirely SJW approved, and it does still reflect a lot of the problems with colonialism rampant in our culture, but compared to most D&D settings, it’s a breath of fresh, morally-ambiguous air.

  44. John Morales says

    Well, D&D is a game, but not all games are D&D.

    But yes, I remember kids playing “indios y vaqueros” in the late 1960s in Spain.

    (Bows are cooler than guns, when playing)

  45. brain says

    OMG PZ…

    1) Ruins -> living in a post-collapse society
    Please come and visit Italy. I won’t say that we are a thriving, growing country, but neither we are a post-apocalypse one. We are the standard, slowly fading western country. Still, there is plenty of ancient ruins, abandoned buildings (old and modern), castles, churches. You can’t go hiking around without finding some very interesting, abandoned place. In a 5km radius from my house I could show you an old ruined castle, a burnt-up abbey, an old and barred mining site 3000 years old, and tens of old stone ruined houses. (We do not have dragons and fireballs, still)

    2) D&D is set in a collapsed world
    That’s not true. The basic assumption is that you play in a different world. There is magic. There are dragons and monsters. There are gods who actually answer your prayers and sometimes show up to say hello or to burn up your army. Many DM and campaigns made a great job trying and imagining how such a world would be organised and ruled: probably having powerful gods clashing among themselves and battling powerful wizards would leave some bit of a mess in some places? Could it be that evil and powerful wizards would not set up a democracy and that you wouldn’t get nice policemen to protect justice, so that you would need to rely on your skills to protect your rights?
    It’s a fantasy world, created to let you play and impersonate warriors and fight. What do you expect, to set it up in present-day Switzerland?

  46. F.O. says

    @Microraptor #20 absolutely.
    Having entire races “evil” is kind of a requirement for having “cultures” that think of themselves as evil.
    This allows the genocide of those races to be pretty much a moral imperative for the “good” ones, to the point where good and evil become just two empty labels, no more than a “us vs them”.

    @suttkus: #46:
    I appreciate the suggestion, but I find that DnD is still a very poor system for a TTRPG, at least the way I like to play.
    There are so many great underrated settings and systems and DnD is so unnecessarily crunchy and limiting.

  47. brain says

    Also: in Europe buildings were traditionally built with stones, not with wood as in the USA. And we used stone crypts and cellars and basements a lot. Wood was mostly used for rooftops, and that’s the part that collapses over time (we also had a lot of time: thousands of years, not a few hundreds like in the USA). So you get a lot of old stone ruined buildings without a roof but with ruined stone stairways going underground. I don’t know you, but for me as a kid that was more than enough to imagine endless dungeons and any kind of ancient, unknown world down there.

  48. says

    @37, @8 re ” thinks the Roman Empire only truly ended in 1453″
    Really, the 4th Crusade / Venetians killed it in 1204. Yes, there was this zombie corpse (really corpses plural, since there were several successor states that were at each others’ throats for a while) that lingered on for another 250 years until the Turks finally got their act together and kicked it over, but counting a city state that, for the final century, was barely Constantinople + suburbs as an “Empire” is a bit much.

    One could also argue that what Diocletian and Constantine created out of the crisis/wreckage of the 3rd century was quite different from what came before and far more oppressive (file under: Why the Muslims had such an easy time of it)

  49. says

    we sometimes D&Ded as parties of Evil adventurers, in a world where the various civilizations were highly organized with lots of random wandering law enforcement out there to ruin your day, scenarios ending up with the boss monster being a high-level paladin, and where coming back to town to fence your loot was perhaps the hardest part of all.

  50. says

    @Drew, in what way? Don’t you ever muse on the fictional settings that interest you? Wonder how Joe the Cop never gets fired for gross abuse of authority, or wonder where the pirates on Planet X get their food from?

    Other ’70s and ’80s RPGs were certainly based on the fallen societies trope. Gamma World is basically D&D with mutants and lasers, set after a final 24th century war. Traveller quickly ended up with a backstory where players are operating in the third interstellar empire to rule their corner of the galaxy, which had followed 1700 years of chaos after the previous second empire had fallen apart.

  51. jefrir says


    Also: in Europe buildings were traditionally built with stones, not with wood as in the USA. And we used stone crypts and cellars and basements a lot. Wood was mostly used for rooftops, and that’s the part that collapses over time (we also had a lot of time: thousands of years, not a few hundreds like in the USA).

    There have been people in what is now the USA for around 20,000 years, and plenty of them built permanent structure.
    European architecture is far more varied than you seem to think; wood has been a common building material in Russia, Scandinavia, and parts of Britain, for example. Large areas Britain made extensive use of wattle and daub between timber frames for thousands of years, and thatched roofs of reeds or straw were common until very recently. In some areas lacking either stone or timber, cob is used – basically compacted earth and straw.

  52. brain says

    Still, stone is far more used in Europe than in USA. And we have had much more civilisations rising and falling, each one on top of the previous one.
    As I said, going not further than 5km from my home I can reach hundreds of buildings from hundreds or thousands of years ago, and this is pretty common at least here in Italy. How many places do you know in the USA where you can say the same?

  53. says

    Most the USA can kind of be viewed as a backwater.
    I have seen a few of the Anasazi ruins in Arizona.
    For repeated collapsing civilizations that worked in stone you have to go to Latin America.

  54. says

    I’ve really come to dislike D&D lately. It’s not an intro game, it’s a deadend game now, and it’s a total fucking dinosaur that serves to keep ideas in design alive that have been obsolete for sometimes more then a decade, that anyone designing or GMing for other games has to laboriously break much of the playerbase from. And there’s little chance of improvement as Hasbro will never go out of biz, and will never let D&D suffer from it’s obsolete design, as the RPG division of WOTC exists as an IP farm, and as such, quality of product is not exactly needed to fulfill that goal.

    The only good D&D settings have been out of print for longer then some commenters here have been alive. Hasbro is furthering the general TTRPG death spiral as a scene.

    I’ve basically given up on trying RPG as a hobby as it’s all either that or that pathfinder clone, and I don’t have the time or energy to be a permaDM.

  55. says

    Captain Jeep-Eep @59

    it’s a deadend game now,

    Sales figures, not to mention numbers of YouTube/Twitch/Mixer channels and podcasts available, websites, forum boards all dedicated to it, begs to differ.

  56. says

    By deadend, I mean it fails to feed the rest of the ecosystem, YOB. Look at the non-D&D numbers right now.

    Also, D&D is run by one Mike Mearls, who forwarded the deets of folks complaining about harassment to the harasser.

  57. nomuse says

    Or the LBA collapse.

    When Homer was writing about the Heroic Age, the ruins of Mycenaean palaces littered the landscape, some constructed with stones so huge some said they must have been built by the race of Cyclops. The Mycenae on Crete camped out in the largely collapsed ruins of the Palace of Knossos, so even they had an ancient civilization to look back in awe upon.

    What New Kingdom Egypt thought about the pyramid-builders of the Old Kingdom is less clear to me, or who may have looked upon Sumerian, Akkadian, or especially Hittite cities like Hatusa and marveled at past wonders.

    Yet I also wonder just how much of this particular idea has less to do with generalized memories of golden ages and more to do with that specific coincidence of time that sent artists with a fresh sense of perspective and naturalism out to where largely Greek and Roman ruins were being made increasingly accessible to Western tourists, just as copper-plate printing took off and everyone could see these visions of lost elegance overtaken by nature.

    It seems to me that is very much the era that formed so much of the common fantasy milieu. That pool of inchoate ideas of chivalric romances and the fading of real-world empires and strange ideas of Noble Savages, a world which hadn’t quite caught up to Champollion and still thought of Hieroglyphs as magical writing about mysterious lost worlds, a roiling mass that snapped into a shape we are still looking back on nostalgically and stealing from today.

    I still can’t shake the way the worlds of so much entertainment, but especially the landscapes of games, tend towards the demolished. It is hard to sort philosophy from the ease of gamification, though; the reboot Tomb Raider series takes place in the modern world but even above-ground Lara is almost entirely in lawless, ruined landscapes filled with nothing but enemies and caches of fresh ammunition. The colonialism and the White Girl’s burden and the looting of conveniently unclaimed treasures takes second place, I think, to having the proper physical environment for endless gun fights and other murder sprees (and the by-now obligatory Crafting mechanics that add the bindle to our virtual murder-hobos.)

    Many, many other games take place either following general social collapse or on literal battlefields. Even the Mass Effect series, for all that the first two games stood out as taking place in largely clean and peaceful surroundings, revealed an ages-long cycle of destruction and loss beneath the surface. There is a range but it does seem to be always there, from the Elder Scrolls where the mysterious collapse of the Dwemer and the rather better documented flight of the Dragons has left oodles magnificent ruins to mark the convenient treasure troves, to Bioshock which revels in its aesthetic of grime-fouled Art Deco.

    It is a strange virtual land we inhabit, where the most hopeful message occurs in a game that explicitly takes place after the atomic war and is characterized by ravaged survivors scrabbling for existence amid the rust and ruins. We still survive, says Fallout, and although the future may be no better than the present, we have a future. Because war, war never changes.

  58. cartomancer says

    lumipuna, #5,

    You chose the wrong weekend for summoning me, as I was unexpectedly away comforting a friend who had been mugged, and I only get back now the thread is sixty odd comments old.

    A lot of people have said much of what I would add. I think the most important things to point out are that there wasn’t just one “Medieval” way of thinking about ancient ruins and precursor civilisations, and that a lot of what we might think of as medieval approaches to the subject are either much older, originating from classical or preclassical times, or more modern, stemming from a distinctively Renaissance or colonialist / romantic Early Modern millieu.

    Some medieval people very much did think of the ancients as elevated, enlightened precursors whose wisdom and learning was the model and first degree of all achievement, with moderns (i.e themselves) as the dwarfs on the shoulders of those giants (Newton got the phrase from John of Salisbury, who himself got it from Priscian). Some rural communities very much did find themselves in the shadow of ancient ruins far grander than their current dwellings, and attribute such things with magical or religious significance. But that’s mostly a Romantic-era notion, dealing in ideals of classicizing European superiority that the Middle Ages didn’t really go in for. The division of history into discrete successive ages like we do was not common in the Middle Ages.

    When medieval people spoke of the Ancients (antiqui) and the Moderns (moderni), they generally didn’t see the sorts of cultural and societal differences we do, just a gulf of time separating them. To most medieval people the Romans weren’t some other civilisation that happened before they arrived – they were the early part of that same civilisation those medieval people thought they were doing right now. Particularly in the Mediterranean, where Roman cities and Roman culture had persisted with no great break or division at all. Many people in Medieval Rome were even living in the same buildings the Classical Romans lived in – it wasn’t until a Renaissance ethos of conscious imitation of classical models emerged that people began to think that medieval civilisation was really quite different, even opposed to Roman civilisation. When the original, half-ruined, ancient St. Peter’s on the Vatican was knocked down, and Bernini and Michaelangelo commissioned to make a new, consciously classical, one, it marked the arrival of a rather new, distinctly non-medieval conception of the world. Medieval artists and storytellers tended to cast the tales of the ancients in modern (i.e. medieval) dress. Walter of Chatillon’s Alexandreis portrays the ancient Macedonian conqueror as a very medieval king, and every Medieval Aeneid illustration has the Greeks, Trojans and Romans in medieval dress. There just wasn’t the same appreciation of historical periodicity that developed in later times.

    And most people in Medieval Europe saw their own times as times of great artifice, enterprise, expansion and endeavour. Castles and Cathedrals were going up all over the continent, along with all the infrastructures of commerce, trade, farming and education to support them. Ancient ruins were more likely to be scavenged for building materials to make new structures than left alone and revered as markers of previous peoples. The Colosseum in Rome was used as a marketplace, dung storage facility and residential structure at times throughout the Middle Ages – it only became a haunting tourist attraction redolent of ancient wonder in the 18th century. The biggest trove of ancient treasures – Pompeii – only became open for plunder in the 18th century too. That was the time when this romantic vision of ancient ruins ripe for plunder emerged, and it affected the American imagination of what Europe was like just as much as the European image of its imagined past.

    Though Medieval Europe did have stories about ancient precursor peoples far greater than modern men. Though these it inherited from the ancient world – the Greek and Roman myths (someone mentioned the gigantomachy earlier in the thread) and the stories from Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern literature in the Bible. There were plenty of medieval folk stories about how some local landmark was built by ancient giants, or the devil, or angels, and suchlike.

    One also has to note that, in the Old World at least, medieval people were quite aware that settlement patterns changed, that war and plague could wipe out villages and regions, and that this process had been going on since time immemorial. An abandoned city from centuries past would be more likely viewed as a failed settlement project and a good source of free stone than a mysterious labyrinth of peril and adventure.

  59. cartomancer says

    In fact, I would venture to say that the Dungeons and Dragons take on Medieval European Fantasy is a quintessentially American take, informed by New World sensibilities despite using the aesthetics of the Old World.

    Because the New World essentially is a post-apocalypse landscape. The ruins of the pre-colonisation civilisations, and the isolated pockets of their survivors, very much do represent this vision of ancient ruins as someone else’s weird, abandoned business that we can penetrate into and explore for our own adventure and profit. Past civilisation reduced absolutely to geography, ignoring the human input that made it what it was.

  60. anarkitty says

    As an avid Minecrafter I joke about Minecraft being “Manifest Destiny: the Game”. It’s ultimately a game about finding yourself in a dangerous and unspoiled wilderness and BeNDinG iT TO yOUr WiLL!!!
    Sure, you can play it as a simple adventure game and move through the world with minimal impact and living in harmony with nature and the locals, but then you miss the chance to create massive industrial farms for plants, animals, eventually dangerous monsters, and finally NPCs.
    On the other hand, it’s just a video game. I’ve played hundreds of hours and I would still never kidnap a random person and trap them in my basement and force them to trade goods with me in real life.

  61. voidhawk says


    I think I realised that at the start of my current big building project – colonising Hell itself. I barged my way into the local town (Nether Fortress), slaughtered the local wildlife (Blazes, skeletons, etc.), repurposed the buildings to serve my needs, imported a load of soil from the main world, started growing colonised wheat, raising colonised livestock, and building houses more in line with my coloniser’s aesthetics than the local styles.

    The only reason I haven’t got a population of kidnapped villagers working my colony’s farm is that I haven’t been able to find a village on my current world.

  62. astro says

    late to this party, but i’ve been thinking back to the D&D games i played in the 1980s, and even early 1990s. i don’t recall many ruins, or really lots of gold everywhere. i remember two campaigns vividly – (1) playing temple of elemental evil/against the giants/vault of the drow as a continuum, and (2) an undefined campaign set in greyhawk, where a nation of orcs was mobilizing for war against a human nation weakened by an inept king.

    which lead me to the conclusion that D&D wasn’t about finding and exploring ruins, but about the conflicts that arise when vastly different populations with vastly different world views collide.

  63. brainleakage says

    Hi, all!

    I’m the guy that wrote that D&D/Apocalyptic Ruins post the OP is quoting. Just stopping in to say how glad I am that I helped trigger such a thoughtful and meaty discussion here. Lots of excellent points, and plenty for me to chew over as I work on my follow-on posts.

    @cartomancer, I’m especially interested in your observation that D&D is a quintessentially American take on Medieval European Fantasy. I’ve been thinking something along those lines myself, especially in the overlap between frontier/western/adventure pulps, and the SF/Fantasy pulps that helped to birth D&D. Which, of course, rubs up against real-life history. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs (an overlooked but important influence on the game), had a short-lived career as a cavalryman, chasing Apache outlaws in the Arizona desert. These experiences were undoubtedly on his mind as he was creating the crumbling, ancient world of Barsoom for his own ex-cavalryman hero, John Carter.

    Like I said, plenty to chew over.