Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest Blog: Charlemagne’s Paladins and the Problem of AD&D’s ‘Historical Campaigns’

We have a guest writing today, concerning the subject of AD&D's Historical Campaign settings. This essay doesn't represent my feelings about them per say (I'm much less interested in a slavish adherence to the outcomes of actual historical events; also, there probably was never a Roland, etc.) I do agree with some of his points. Enjoy!

The campaign setting is the base upon which is built the superstructure of the AD&D role-playing experience. A DM’s ability to create worlds out of whole cloth, thickly described and richly populated with dangers and delights is the hallmark of any great campaign. The wise (and not altogether unhandsome) operator of The Signe of the Frothing Mug once told me that to have a good campaign world, there must be at least three major forces at play. In a city, for instance, you might have guild corporations, a secular lord, and a religious culture, all intersecting and reacting with one another. Such is the fabric of our everyday lives: work, home, family, and friends – a Babel of competing interests that demand our time and energy.

The best AD&D campaigns, then, reproduce, as faithfully as possible, this fabric. The 2nd Edition system is limited only by the imagination of the DM and the PCs involved. But TSR, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, began to build and market its own campaign settings that required little or no ‘world building,’ Of these (and they are legion), the Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun are perhaps the best known and most beloved. I have had personal experience as a PC in the Al-Qadim world, a part of the famous group led by “Seventy-Two-Hour” Achmed. And I have always personally enjoyed the Gothic horror of the Ravenloft world.

Of the worlds that I have mentioned, most are adaptable. DMs may choose to focus a campaign in the city of Baldur’s Gate, for instance, or create a small town somewhere on the edges of the map, removed from the familiar world of the Forgotten Realms, but still subject to its political and cultural intersectionalities. There are some TSR campaign worlds, however, which are decidedly un-adaptable for the DM and his or her PCs. These are the so-called “Historical Campaigns.” I shall focus today on one in particular: TSR’s 1992 campaign sourcebook, Charlemagne’s Paladins. I contend that Charlemagne’s Paladins, its setting, and its rules are a detriment to the finely honed 2nd Edition system, as well as detrimental to the history that they profess to celebrate.

The basic concept of Charlemagne’s Paladins is a familiar proposition. In the world of the early Middle Ages (roughly 750 – 850 CE), Charlemagne (Latin: Carolus Magnus) united the European continent under his Holy Roman Empire. His state system and his culture of warfare was the beginning point for much of the feudal world, creating the first post-Roman knights, setting the foundation for Church-state relations, and organizing society into the rural, agriculturally-driven economy that would dominate until, roughly, the fourteenth century.

PCs in Charlemagne’s Paladins are plunged into a world of knightly warfare, where fealty, faith, and feudalism make up the fabric of the campaign. The sourcebook, in its later chapters, provides carefully drawn up campaigns taken from the primary sources of the eighth and ninth centuries, such as the Chanson de Roland (English: The Song of Roland), for PCs to participate in. PCs may become knights alongside Roland as he retreats from present-day Spain (only to be ambushed at Roncesvalles Pass), or follow Charlemagne as he conquers Germania, or fight his sons and carve out their own piece of Charlemagne’s empire after his death in 814 CE.

What precisely, you inquire, is problematic about this? I submit that a careful analysis of the sourcebook’s introduction and proscriptions for the creation of the campaign world, as well as the rules for character design do not, actually, combine the fantastic and the historical into a delightful synergy of role-playing. Rather, by jury-rigging the two together, neither the history nor the role-playing is workable.

Charlemagne’s Paladins offers to the DM “three strategies to develop an AD&D role-playing campaign” for the eighth and ninth century world of Charlemagne. These are the “historical,” the “legendary,” and the “fantasy” settings. I shall endeavor to analyze each of the three in turn to prove my thesis.

In an historical campaign, all fantasy elements are quashed in favor of what the authors describe as “the standards for accuracy as a historical novel or film.” This means no magic or mages, no Orcs or Elves, and a rigid dedication to the politics, society, and culture of the Charlemagne period. The Catholic Church becomes the burgeoning institution to which all PCs must cow-tow. The strict hierarchy of feudalism rules all social interactions, and the agricultural economy takes precedence over all others. Indeed, even the city of Paris at this time was a loose confederation of streets that would not seem urban even to the Europeans of the Renaissance, let along to those of us in the present-day.

In an historical campaign, the sourcebook limits the available PCs classes. The only allowable classes are the fighter, the cleric, and the thief. Personalization is limited to a narrowly construed set of social differences gleaned from the primary sources of the time. Fighters are generally nobles who can afford the trappings of knighthood (the mount, the arms, and the monetary resources necessary for combat); clerics may be noble bishops, cardinals, or other high officials of the Catholic Church or lowly priests and acolytes scratching out a living in their rural parish. The thief is perhaps the most open of all the classes, as he may be a wayward noble taken to a life of crime or a peasant who takes what he wants and needs out of desperation or evil.

This campaign setting, neutered of all its fantasy, cannot be called “AD&D,” at least by the spirit of the basic texts (PHB, DMG, et al…). I played the game as one PC among, in the ‘fat years,’ a group of five or six other PCs. We strove to create a balanced group – the brawn of swords combined with the wisdom and intelligence of magic and, generally, a bard or two thrown in there for flavor. But the “Historical Campaign” forces an imbalanced party which turns the entire role-playing experience into a banal world of ‘hack-and-slash.” This effectively eliminates what my eminent colleague has termed the “lore” and focuses only on the “rules.”

A group of six PCs, in an “Historical Campaign” would be best served, in this writer’s opinion, as a group of four fighters and two priests or three fighters, two priests, and a thief. Combat is reduced not to strategy of might and magic, but of an endless cycle of “slash/skewer/shoot – defend – heal.” Since it is an historical setting, priest spells that are obviously magical in nature are eliminated. PCs fight enemies until their steel is satiated and then move on, ostensibly to the next fight. This is especially true since the campaign is tied unalterably to history. Roland’s army must arrive at Roncesvalles. They must be ambushed. Any alteration to this plan ruins the historical nature of the campaign – the very thing the campaign is supposed to provide!

Thus, this clinging to historical detail above all else, as well as the elimination three of the ten player classes (NB. Charlemagne’s Paladins recognizes Psionist as a playable class. I never played in any campaign with PC Psionists, and I don’t recommend you do either) makes this a boring, unfriendly, and unimaginative campaign. It is worthwhile to note that the Paladin is not available here. The so-called ‘title character’ of the sourcebook is eliminated before play has even started!

The “Historical Campaign” also relies on the DM and the PCs’ abilities to maintain the historical setting. One must know that metal armor was far from generally available, for instance (and plate armor still hundreds of years into the future). They must also be familiar with the nuances of Church and state function as well – after all, this is an historical campaign. We wouldn’t want the game ruined if a PC cleric became a cardinal and thought that the College of Cardinals elected the Pope at that time! Unless you are obsessed with the history of the eighth and ninth century, I highly doubt that more than a few hours of gaming would arise from an Historical Campaign, until both PCs and the DM became frustrated at the rigidity of the rules and the limitations on imagination.

So much for the Historical Campaign; let us examine the “Legendary Campaign.” The Legendary Campaign “exploits the legends of Charlemagne and his Paladins as recounted in late medieval tales.” This campaign, then, is a fictionalized representation of Charlemagne’s world, an amalgamation of anachronisms read back into the past. Plate mail, jousting, and chivalry are acceptable, as are the minor magical elements, such as the presence of Haggaggi, the famous mage of the Matter of France.

In the Legendary Campaign, fighters, paladins, clerics, and thieves are available as playable classes. The rules on magic are loosened. Spells suddenly become “Miracles,” the power of God manifested in a righteous PC. “Cure Light Wounds,” a mainstay of the Paladin and Cleric classes, is, by rule in this campaign, a sign of God’s favor of the PC, which is not absolute. How might you ask? This is perhaps most deeply problematic element of Charlemagne’s Paladins. I quote at length a passage from Chapter Three, “Character Design”:

Most Western Church priests and followers are of good or neutral alignments, but evil and chaotic alignments are possible, so long as priests and followers with such alignments observe and respect the duties and restrictions of the Western Church. Sinning priests may lose their powers as a result or evil or chaotic actions.

Alignment, which my colleague has discoursed on below, is subjugated to the point of absurdity. A cleric in the Legendary Campaign must maintain his “good” alignment in order to cast his spells. Any deviation from this alignment results in a loss of power. Now, as my colleague contended below, the construction of “lawful” or “good” need not be absolute. It is subjective and situational: a Paladin might not lose his “good” alignment if forced to choose between killing his king and eating a baby. However, this argument is based on a wide understanding of the AD&D world. In Charlemagne’s Paladins, good is defined, absolutely and universally, as following the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, if a cleric were to be given a choice of regicide or baby tartare, no matter what decision he made (NB. more on the problematic nature of PC gender below), he would lose his powers. The third option – to do nothing and risk consequences – results in either the PC forfeiting his character to death (in the game, this would probably be construed as martyrdom) or forcing the DM to alter his rules and his campaign unnecessarily (if the penalty for the PC for not making a choice was death, then the DM would be forced to renege on his rightfully made threat as part of the drama of the campaign. This would, ostensibly, be to avoid a PC having to reroll a new character and avoid the DM having to introduce a new character into the adventure, especially when significant leveling up has already occurred).

Charlemagne’s Paladins says that PCs who lose their powers may undergo “penance” in order to regain their “good” alignment. This is absurdly broad. Must a PC simply partake in the sacrament of confession, or must a larger quest be undertaken (as I once had to do as a Paladin when I lost my “good” alignment)? Again, this can cause frustration for the PC and for the DM, who both must now drop the strand of their stories and adventure elsewhere. The motto of the Legendary Campaign seems to be one of compromise, where neither the PCs nor the DM is happy with the result of their adventures. Too much imagination, and you lose the thread of history (could a PC cleric perform Cure Major Wounds on Roland, and allow him to survive at Roncesvalles?); too little imagination, and the thread of fantasy is gone.

The final version of Charlemagne’s Paladins is the “Fantasy Campaign.” This campaign “melds a weak-magic AD&D fantasy campaign with various historical and legendary elements associated with Charlemagne and his times.” In this setting, rangers and bards are added to the available classes, but not mages. The world is open to magical artifacts and a broader range of spells, but still limited to the rigid parameters of the historical setting.

In terms of Charlemagne’s Paladins, this is perhaps the weakest of the three settings when it comes to maintaining the historical flavor of the campaign. According to the sourcebook, the DM should feel free to create NPC mages who can influence events, and even, at his discretion, allow a weak-magic specialist mage PC (for instance, an illusionist or thaumaturgist, but never an invoker/evoker or summoner). In this setting, the PCs might be able to enlist the aid of a powerful mage who might stop the Roncesvalles ambush, effectively changing history.

With so many paths open to the DM and PCs in the Fantasy Campaign, I contend that the entire meaning has become lost. If the desire of the DM and PCs is to role-play in the world of the eighth and ninth centuries and decidedly not in a pure fantasy world, then how would the Fantasy Campaign be at all worthwhile? Too much of the history becomes lost, clearly not the intended usage of the sourcebook by either the writers or the PCs and DM who have agreed to use it. At the decision to play in the Fantasy Campaign, I submit that it would be better to eschew all the rules and simply design a campaign that borrows whatever historic elements seem agreeable and fashion a world out of whole cloth instead. In that case, you’ve wasted what was probably $19.99 or $29.99 in 1992 when you could’ve gone to a library and borrowed a copy of La Chanson de Roland for free.

Before I conclude, I must address the wholly detrimental manner in which Charlemagne Paladins treats the gender of PCs. We are all no doubt familiar with the 2nd Edition PHB’s brief explanation of its use of pronouns. AD&D does an admirable job of avoiding problems of gender in its rules and its lore, and should be commended, in retrospect, for its ability to, at once, dispense with the falsely perceived masculinity of the role-playing genre that so often pervades larger society’s consciousness.

Charlemagne’s Paladins, however, manage to abrogate this calm:

Strong-willed women play a part in Carolingian history, but typically they are portrayed as villains – scheming, beguiling, and misleading the noble rulers and counts. Women had few rights in the male-dominated Frankish society…A ‘free’ woman was forbidden to live according to her own free will; by law, she must remain under the power and rule of men…Thus, the good action-adventure roles seem to be reserved for men.

There can be no doubt that the eight and ninth centuries were a patriarchal and masculine society, where women were relegated to a liminal role in everyday life as well as the high dudgeon of politics, war, and religion. But Charlemagne’s Paladins reifies this element of the past when it could simply choose to ignore it, to the benefit of all involved. Is it so integral to the historicity of any Charlemagne’s Paladins campaign that the repressive sexual politics be a part of it? Can you imagine telling your female friends that if they wish to participate in your campaign, they must do so according to the rules of the campaign’s history? More to the point, are you prepared to risk hurt feelings beyond the gaming table to do so?

Charlemagne’s Paladins, I contend, acts irresponsibly to the present-day by building a rules system that is plainly detrimental to female gamers. Undoubtedly, some who read this may say that I am making an issue out of nothing, and that many females have no problem playing as males. Well and good, I say. But we should all recognize that this same language is used by politicians to limit the real freedoms in our lives as well. I submit to you it belongs no place.

To conclude, Charlemagne’s Paladins claims to be a marriage of history and fantasy, sating the desires of PCs and DMs who desire both in their role-playing campaigns. Through the dizzyingly rigid and absurdly limited construction of the rules, neither history nor fantasy is the result of this experience. While TSR was responsible for a great many positives for the AD&D world, these campaign settings provide an unimaginative, uncompromising, and uninformed addition to that world. The ‘Historical Campaign’ is too deeply problematic for the AD&D world. Too many sacrifices must be made, either for the history or the fantasy, for it to be a workable concept.

—"The Hammer"


  1. Here are my challenges here:

    Having not read the Historical sourcebooks in a long time, it begs the question: who introduced the idea of being 100% accurate to historical events? Was it the sourcebook? Because I think the very nature of roleplaying in a historical setting belies the idea that the players are going to radically alter the course of history.

    As far as sexual repression, I think it could have (and should have) been dealt with in a better manner. There are plenty of options to have slightly less misogynistic social customs in Charlemagne's Frankia.

    I think the major flaw of the book, which you reveal, is that they fail to rebalance the classes to make sense in a no-magic or low-magic environment. THAT is a major flaw because, in my mind at least, this could be an amazing period to set a game in. However, the game must needs have the tools to be fun, and the core AD&D rules are balanced heavily with magic in mind. Something more along the lines of the Al-Qadim re-imagining of the rules, perhaps.

  2. Well, I have to disagree with the assertion that a world generated from whole cloth is the hallmark of a great campaign. A DM can still use a pre-generated setting, such as the Realms, and really breath life into the setting, building a great campaign there with rich characters, but the world was not generated by him whole cloth. His is the realm of details. Usually I find homebrew settings to be shitty munchkin fests of self-inserts, badly-written rules, and player entitlement magnetism. Not all of them have to be. But I would certainly not say that homebrew settings are a prominent hallmark of great campaigns.

    Not done reading, so, being the prick that I am, I may come back with more comments as I read along.

  3. The hammer responds...

    Idabrius -- With regards to the sourcebook, at least Charlemagne's Paladins, proscribes a strict adherence to the historical record, at least for the "Historical Campaign." I believe that it allows for the "Legendary Campaign" and the "Fantasy Campaign" in order to allow the more casual gamer (and those with a more casual knowledge of history) a place to play in the campaign. But the book specifically states that, in a historical campaign for instance, "the DM may toy with the PCs with historical knowledge. For instance, since none survive at Roncesvalles, the players will be in constant fear. Is there a chance of survival?" The "Historical Campaign" is clearly not meant to allow toying with the record. And I certainly bow to your much deeper knowledge of the history than I.

    Stephen: I have found the routine of, say, the Forgotten Realms, quite banal compared to a 'whole cloth' world. In fact, except for the Planescape setting and the Ravenloft setting, I have not played (on the table top) anything but a home-made campaign. Perhaps your personal experiences have been otherwise, but for more than a decade, I found the campaign worlds I played in to be consistently deep, thickly described, and more challenging _because_ of their "self inserts," "home rules," and certainly, I never felt entitled to anything therein.

    1. I think there is something to be said for running a good game set in a published setting as well.

      Anyhow, it seems like the books do take that 100% accuracy point of view, which is just ridiculous. I hereby yield to your assessment of their quality: without a massive overhaul of the core system and an appreciation for alternate routes of history, it seems unplayable.

  4. I finished it, and I think that it is very well written. I would like to say, however, that I'd like more examples of poorly-executed historical campaign settings than just Charlemagne's Paladins. It sounds like the writer's beef is mainly with this particular product-- I do believe that a well-executed alternate fantasy history, would not have these problems. It seems to me that the game designers tried too tightly to control the source material and shoe-horn in D&D rules.

    I should also mention that most of my experience with shitty homebrew settings has been online.

    1. I think there's something to be said for and against homebrewing, honestly. It might even encourage me to write an article about it...

      But just the FACT that you are going to homebrew does not put you above those that use the settings out-of-box. I used to think that way, but the TSR settings are, honestly, so detailed and well put together that you can get a great deal of mileage out of them. Each DMs iteration of Greyhawk, Planescape, the Realms, Dark Sun, or what have you will be so different; it is a more post-modern way of playing, if you'll excuse the term, because you are working with already extant materials but altering them (appropriating them?) to fit your needs.

    2. It isn't as though a homebrew world is anything BUT a confluence of themes and ideas the DM likes in the first place - the same things that will pop up when he runs his own personal iteration of the Forgotten Realms or Planescape or Ravenloft. Plus, it is silly to assume that nothing is mixed and matched, as in homebrew, in the process of creating and running a campaign within a published setting. It is very essentially HIPSTERISH (if you'll excuse the term!) to say that homebrew is the only way to go, or even that there is a massive difference.