Hello again everyone. Today I’ve got a write-up that deals with maintaining a sense of realism when we include more technologically advanced and pseudo-industrial societies in our DnD settings. This is born from a desire by many DMs to have a mixture of early to mid industrial style technologies (like electric circuits, or pneumatic devices) while still largely maintaining the mid-medieval settings and social structures we are used to in DnD.
In this piece I want to talk about how to accomplish tying together this mess of historical pastiches while maintaining a sense of realism. Surprisingly, it’s easier than you think.
An Issue of Eras
Naturally, DnD tends to fall into medieval-esque settings as a rule. In reality this covers a vast swathe of history, so in regards to technology and society we see everything from feudal-style systems to late-medieval and renaissance systems. There are those who gripe that mixing these different eras already breaks a sense of realism, but I would beg to differ, and in that begging hope to demonstrate why also mixing in industrial sensibilities isn’t inherently unrealistic.
Let’s begin by looking past real-world things like Damascus Steel and Greek Fire, wherein advanced technologies that we can’t recreate even today existed long before what we consider to be ‘technologically advanced times’ (which, for sake of convenience we will describe as being roughly 1750-1900). Let’s instead look to how and why technologies emerge when they do.
Our History Is A Line, But History Is Not Linear
We often think of real-world history as mainly being a progression. As time goes by, things tend to become more advanced. Because we inherently look at history in retrospect it’s easy to see the constant cause-and-effect progression of technological advancements, but it is folly to believe that this is because history is supposed to progress in this exact way, or that because we discovered one technology we were then able to discover the ‘next one’.
As such we might come to consider that a gun is way too advanced to exist alongside something like a claymore when this is in fact not inherently true at all. First of all these things could and did coexist, but also there’s the more general concept of history not actually being an inherent progression from one technology to the next. In fact, to better figure out how the technological history of our fantasy setting has progressed we can look to our real world history to gain a more nuanced understanding of why advancements happened when they did which strips back the cause-and-effect view of history.
Let’s also take a brief moment here to handwave away the Eurocentric aspects of how we view the advancement of technology in history when discussing Industrialism. It is an issue, but not one we need to dissect for the purposes of this write-up. Suffice it to say that we’re often taught of technological history in a Eurocentric fashion, and we need not be bound by that in DnD.
The Industrial Revolution
I’m not going to summarise the full ‘how’s and ‘why’s of the Industrial Revolution happening when and where it did. It’s something I spent literal years getting an education on, and even then it’s not some cut-and-dry thing that you can wrap in a bow and summarise. It’s complex. It’s enormously complex. Instead I’m going to bring up some of the facets of the Industrial Revolution that we can fiddle about with so as to make Industrialism coexist in our DnD settings alongside the regular medieval stuff.
In the Industrial Revolution that actually happened, a number of reasonably centralised states were able to invest in technological advancements in such a way that saw the rapid spread of things like train networks, electrical grids, telephone lines, and more. These are the sorts of things Governments usually invest in, as the cost of building such networks is prohibitively high for private entities who need to turn profits within reasonable lengths of time. It’s exactly why Governments today tend to be the entities that do things like build roading infrastructure, or maintain waterworks and sewerage.
This is, by the way, a massive simplification of how these things really happened. The main takeaway should be that economically strong states with the ability to build these things ended up building them.
But what if a non-centralised state in the midst of an economic crisis suddenly discovered electricity? Would it become widespread as rapidly as it did in the real world? I would think not, personally.
So What Would It Look Like Then?
Well, that question there is the space you have to develop your fantasy electricity-having society. Perhaps in the absence of a strong centralised state, a single eccentric Elf has put many long years of work in to building an electrical grid in the city he happens to live in. As the city emerges as a political power in the turmoil of the larger state’s collapse they begin protecting the secrets of this technology. As a result, electricity does not become widespread.
This is something I like to call the Industrial Pocket, and it’s a great way to roll out pseudo-industrial technologies in your DnD settings without having them have to be widespread like their real-world equivalents were. Again, history does not have to progress in your fantasy world the same way it did in the real world.
We already lean on this concept a lot when we look at things like Gnomes having a propensity for tinkering and, by extension, often coming up with technologies that stay confined to Gnomish society. We can expand on this concept ourselves though by using the Industrial Pocket to divorce ourselves from the vanilla ideas of ‘Gnomes are inventors’ and the like.
The Magitech Caveat
There is that other common way of introducing pseudo-industrial technologies in our fantasy settings, and that is to have them be born of magic rather than industry. In settings that lean heavily on these, golems and other constructs are used as a kind of mechanised workforce that allows for things like factories to exist. We’re able to have things akin to wireless radio networks by having fantasy phonebooths where regular people can use the Sending spell at-will. If you’re not fussed about the basis for your Industrial pastiche being technological then the ‘Magitech’ approach is a good way to go.
Personally I like to use a mix, because…
The Disgruntled Masses Want Guns
We’re tired of the way Wizards control everything now. Because they are the only ones who know how to make Golems, we’re all beholden to them in order to have a workforce. They control all the major positions of power and they don’t give a shit about us common folk who can’t sling spells. It’s time to put power back in the hands of the people.
Now certainly the idea of scientific technology advancing in reaction to Magic or Magitech isn’t a new one, but it is a good one. If we’re too reliant on magic then those who can do magic become too powerful compared to those who can’t, and scientific technology is a way of evening out the playing field. It acts as a kind of ‘check and balance’ on societies that use lots of Magitech.
DnD provides us the unique opportunity to examine how technology develops in a world where magic is a factor and can do much of what we rely on technology to do in the real world. The idea of it being reactionary to magic is one with so much potential. I’ll throw in an example from a setting of mine here.
In this setting, the Aasimar invented firearms. As the power of the divine beings they were descended from waned and their own bloodlines became more diluted, the Aasimar’s own divine magic waned (‘Once we could resurrect entire armies, now we can barely close a wound.’). This created an impetus to change and find some other source of power. Now for some this led them down a path of corruption where many struck Warlock-style pacts with higher beings, but for others they found technology was a way to stay powerful (and thus relevant) in a world where their people were in decline. One group of Aasimar developed firearms, and as a result they were able to keep their lands safe. They survived, then thrived, and all the while guarded their technological secrets closely.
This is just one example of how technology can exist in a setting because magic exists, not in spite of magic existing.
The Ancient Empire Caveat
Another common trope in DnD is the idea of there being an ancient and powerful empire that has long since disappeared from these lands. All that remains of them are long-buried ruins (read: dungeons).
There is one common way this is implemented:
The ancient civilisation was more advanced than ours.
This leans on a lot of our ideas about post-Roman medieval Europe where technologies were lost to time and societies became less advanced. Granted this is again a simplification, but the trope still holds water. We see this trope a lot in fact. Game of Thrones uses the Valyrian Empire to accomplish this (with Valyrian Steel being a clear pastiche of Damascus Steel). The Kingkiller Chronicle leans on this considerably in terms of both technology and magic.
It’s a great way to have sources for technological advancement in your settings, where an old technology is rediscovered or finally reverse-engineered (like us rediscovering something like Greek Fire). It’s also a really convenient way, as I said above, to allow for things like dungeons to exist more organically in your setting.
But there’s another great way to implement the ‘ancient civilisation’ trope:
The ancient civilisation was less advanced than ours.
This is one that even leans on some real-world ideas. Think of things like British explorers delving in to ancient Egyptian tombs. With the Power of Technology(TM) these ancient secrets were finally able to be unearthed! (Let’s ignore the real-world cultural issues surrounding this for a moment).
Perhaps in your setting instead of having ancient ruins where fantastical advanced things are found you have ancient ruins that can finally be accessed because our modern technology has at last surpassed that of the ancient civilisation.
Perhaps the ruins could only be excavated because the mass manufacture of clockwork servants allowed for a more sustained digging effort. Maybe doors held shut by ancient magical wards were finally blown open by modern explosives that the ancient wards had never accounted for. The possibilities are endless.
The Cloak of Many Industrial Pockets
The Knights Fusuliar have developed an exotic new weapon and have, after many centuries, reclaimed their position of political power within the Fulkurian Empire. The people rally behind them as a source of security, and the ruling nobles know better than to oppose the will of an armed populace.
The Humans did something with old Dwarven Golem formulae that the Dwarves never even considered. Now there are clockwork men of living metal populating the armies of the new Independent Colonies, able to think for themselves and react dynamically in the heat of battle. They have already delivered the Homeland a series of crushing defeats.
The Atric Inquisition has once and for all found a way to stamp out the practice of Arcane magic within Svarturborg and its allied city-states. Terrible machines that absorb magic and fire it back in bolts of electrical plasma have allowed them to eradicate the blasphemous spellcasters of the city once and for all.
Consider these approaches to Industrialism in your DnD settings. I like many folk like to preserve a layer of realism in my settings, and justifying Industrial-style technologies is often difficult. But I would say it’s mostly made difficult by a reliance on copying how these technologies emerged and existed in our own world. By examining more closely the origins of major technological advancements and their paths to becoming widespread we can find opportunities to introduce these technologies in our DnD settings without having to have them become as widespread as they were in the real world. Through this we can allow more of a mix-and-match approach to real-world historical ideas existing in our DnD worlds.
It is fully possible to realistically have post-Roman early-medieval feudal states exist alongside early-industrial nations and magically advanced late-medieval merchant states. Do not let yourself be limited.
I hope you enjoyed this piece. If you have more thoughts you wish to add them please feel free to share them in the comments! There is a lot of potential to realistically justify a broad range of technologies and historical concepts in DnD. I’ve definitely not listed them all, and I would love to hear yours!