Q&A: D&D by Gaslight

Not 100% writing related, but my friend – who’s very knowledgeable about military history – wants our D&D campaign to be as realistically medieval as possible while also maintaining the fantasy elements. This is explanation as to why there aren’t many female warriors/soldiers/etc, and the ones we DO encounter will be magic users, because if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line. He’s a great friend and a brilliant DM, but am I wrong for having an issue with this?

No. Intentionally or not, you’re seeing someone try to justify their misogyny using logic that is internally inconsistent. The problem is really fundamental, fantasy elements, especially D&D’s, preclude medieval power structures and military strategy. It also, very transparently, exposes their misogyny, without them even realizing it.

So let’s start with that last one. The argument for excluding women from front line combat roles is that they’re unsuited to combat. This is an argument made in the real world where the list of sapient species capable of fulfilling a combat role is somewhat short. It’s also bullshit. It has no historical basis. Women have operated as frontline fighters throughout human history. Not everywhere. There have been mysogynistic cultures. But, the idea that women cannot fight, and never fought is shockingly unsupportable. I can’t remember the last time we linked, We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley, so, here it is, read up, enjoy.

But, when we’re talking about your game of D&D, we’re not talking about the real world. We’re talking about a world with Orcs, Minotaurs, and other races, all of which have innate attribute bonuses to their strength and constitution. They are, quite literally, stronger and more durable than human fighters.

The inverse is also true, (while 4th and 5th edition changed this), used to be Elves had a penalty to constitution, making them less suited to frontline combat roles. Again, if someone’s trying to say, “women aren’t suitable for combat,” while gleefully signing off on male elves, that’s misogyny.

It is reasonable to have basic stat prereq stats a character would need in order serve in a military. For example, they might not be allowed to enlist if their STR, or CON scores were below 10 or 12, there’s even some realism in that, most militaries don’t want recruits who are physically or mentally infirm. If you think every stat should be at least 10, cool, easy. However, female characters would have no difficulty hitting those thresholds.

Short version: If you’re saying that women can’t serve in your D&D military, you’re also saying that humans are unfit to serve, across the board. There’s some potential worldbuiling to be had there. For example, in Dragonlance, Minotaurs are frequently employed as sailors. Their physical stat bonuses make them ideal for a rough life on the seas, and many take to it happily.

And, to be clear, those physically beefier races are pretty well distributed through the population in Forgotten Realm’s Faerun. You don’t see a lot of half-orc infantry units, in general, because of social stigmas against them, and their numbers aren’t that high, but that doesn’t play well with the idea of a medieval power structure, or really the way power tends to work in general. In any plausible, medieval, world, those half-orcs would be conscripted into military service in some capacity. This highlights something about D&D, and high fantasy in general, that is easy to overlook: this is not medieval.

Medieval Europe was shaped by a lot of factors. For our purposes, the utter lack of individuals with godlike powers is a fairly significant factor to look at.

Let’s start with a specific phrase: “if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line.” This is very questionable thinking. How, exactly, are you going to convince someone who can cast Cloudkill, that you want them in an infantry role?

Warfare is not fun. It’s not an enjoyable activity. When you’re talking about a medieval conflict, a lot of your forces are going to be conscripted. So, how, exactly, do you conscript a wizard? Even at level 1, they have access to a host of dangerous abilities that makes forcing to do you want incredibly risky. This before you consider that not all magic users are wizards, and some are decidedly more dangerous to harass.

Wizards in D&D draw their magic from an education in the arcane arts. This means, many wizards actually come from academies or larger organizations. Organizations that would not appreciate having their members poached by a local despot. A local despot who would be hard pressed to survive the ire of higher level wizards and basically 5th or higher level spell.

Clerics, Paladins, Druids, and Rangers draw their spellcasting abilities from their gods. (In the case Druids and Rangers, it’s technically nature itself, but the distinction is more about the spell lists and fluff.) Ironically, if you wanted to see front line magic users, Clerics, Paladins, and Rangers are high on the list. Rangers often serve as scouts, while Clerics often serve as combat medics and Paladins are, literally, holy crusaders.

There is one more spell caster that draws power from an outside source: The Warlock. Warlocks get their power from bargaining with Demons, Dark Gods, Edlrich Horrors, or even more terrifying powers. Yeah, trying to force one of these guys fight for you sounds like a horrible idea.

There are two more magic casters in standard D&D. The Sorcerer and Bard both draw magic from within. Where the Wizard learns spells through study, or the Cleric prays to their god, the Sorcerer just kinda throws a fireball. They don’t really understand the intricacies of arcane magic, they simply “know” how to cast intuitively, much in the same way dragons do. Unironically, one common origin for a Sorcerer’s powers is a dragon somewhere in their family tree. Their magic tends to be chaotic and unpredictable, meaning they’re not a particularly good fit for any regulated military.

Personal builds aside, Bards are very similar to Sorcerers. As a player, you can make some pretty beefy builds, but as a part of the world, they don’t fit well with military campaigning. Though, a chaotic good kingdom could, plausibly, recruit and send bards to war to boost morale of their troops, that’s not really part of any campaign settings. (Incidentally, said chaotic good kingdom probably wouldn’t engage in conscription to begin with. That’s more of a lawful activity. They’d also be less likely to care about the gender of their recruits, because, again, chaotic good.)

I’m also skipping over some of the weirder classes that haven’t, necessarily, made it into 5th Edition, like the Spellsword, Favored Soul, Spirit Shaman, Archivist, or Warmage. There’s a lot of variation here. The important thing to understand moving forward is that, you can’t force a mage to fight for you, and you can’t have a fantasy version of Medieval Europe if it includes a single level 20 Wizard.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. You can’t have a fantasy version of Europe if you have any characters over ~ level 10.

Something a lot of people miss about D&D is how far up the power scale goes. Figure that your average military will never have characters above level 5. Elite forces and singular champions might get to 10 (though 8 is also a pretty reasonable ceiling for them.) The kings and warlords may get into the elite range, but they could easily be on par with the rank and file soldiers, ~level 3 – 5. And, you expect a level 12 warlock, who got their powers from bargaining with the forces of hell to just bend knee and go die for a petty little mortal?

When you start looking at character progression, after level 10, your character is, pretty much, a fantasy superhero. Your challenge rating table starts rolling over from bandits, druids, mages, and assassins, into mythical creatures, and other “big ticket” enemies. Your level 13 party shouldn’t be encountering mercenaries, they’re up to the task of going after adult dragons.

In case you thought that was just your character having the stats, the abilities that your classes unlock in the 11-20 range starts getting out of hand as well. For example, a level 11 Barbarian can, literally, be too angry to die. A level 13 monk gains the ability to speak and understand any language. They can also be understood by anyone. And then at level 15, they no longer need to eat or drink anything. I’m cherry picking, a little, but these abilities transcend the humanly possible.

This loops back to a fundamental element of D&D: The game is a power fantasy, and it’s built around that. You could not drop a level 11 character into 11th century Europe without them fundamentally altering the course of human history. They are that powerful.

When you’re creating wars in that kind of setting, saying, “I’m going to stick to medieval warfare,” doesn’t track. The short version is that you can’t have a medieval era in a conventional D&D campaign setting. The diversity of conflicting religions, backed by their own gods, mean you (probably) would not see a unified religion (or any other single body) taking control over a massive territory and forcing the society into a technological stasis.

Magic, frequently, replaces far more advanced technologies. I’ve written about this at length before, but if you have battlefield spellcasters, you now have mobile artillery, advanced communications, remote reconnaissance, and a host of other, “modern tools of warfare.” As a ruler, you now have political problem, because you need to secure the loyalty of those mages. It may be enough to secure personal loyalty from the individuals, but in larger scale warfare, you’d need the loyalty of the organization training and overseeing them. You cannot simply force to serve you, the way you could round up another batch of peasants for use as shock troops.

The, “problem,” with Forgotten Realms as a medieval setting is, it’s way too cosmopolitan. There’s a lot of physical mobility. There’s a lot of cross-racial interaction. Granted, not all interactions are positive, but you have a world that far better understood than what medieval Europe had. It’s also more technologically advanced.

Remember how I said that mages mean you have access to a bunch of modern technologies on the battlefield? Magic has also seriously impacted technological development. Firearms exist, but are vanishingly rare. This isn’t because they’re new, it’s because they’re kind of irrelevant. Magic can already do the things that made firearms revolutionary in the real world, and have been able to do that for quite some time.

While medical technology is less advanced, clerics and druids gain access to spells which will outright cure diseases at low enough levels for that to be a fairly accessible service. Even bringing someone back from the dead isn’t difficult, (though that is expensive.)

The power structures of the world tend to center around higher level characters (usually in the borderline-superhero range.) With that world in place, it’s basically impossible to recreate the real Medieval Europe with any kind of logical consistency.

There is one last part here, your friend is subverting the intended spirit of D&D. Wizards of the Coast recently published an article on diversity:

One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. “Human” in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.

The entire article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. However, this a takeaway, if anyone your roleplaying group is engaging behavior that makes you feel excluded, or marginalized, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

If your friend is an, “expert,” on medieval warfare, and thinks that women never fought, it seriously undercuts his research.

One of the ironies with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla‘s release were the idiots who threw a fit over the option to play a female viking. It almost feels like a straw man example, because Ubisoft preemptively released comments on the subject:

But the fact is, and I think what’s really important, is that it was part of their conception of the world. Sagas and myths from Norse society are full of tough female characters and warriors. It was part of their idea of the world, that women and men are equally formidable in battle…

Thierry Noel

The archaeological problem with vikings is that earlier archaeologists were determine gender based on whether the individual was buried with militant goods without checking if the skeleton was actually male. Meaning, they assumed that all raiders were male, therefore, all raiders they found were male, without checking to see if that assumption was true.

The debate, now, is that quite a few women were buried with militant goods. If we take the original assumption, that means viking raids were coed. Or burying them with a sword meant something different. However, Noel is right, looking at their culture, their myths, and then saying, viking women placidly stayed at home while the men, and only the men raided, is dubious at best.

Throughout history, women have fought in warfare. Not in every nation. Not in every time. But they have fought. Saying, “but it’s not historically accurate,” has no place in the real world. To say nothing of a world of elves, dragons, wizards, and bards seducing the goddamn spiders.


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