D&D is a post-apocalyptic game. Someone was around in the past with more wealth than we have now. Otherwise that wealth wouldn’t be there to be found in the dungeon. And for that matter, there wouldn’t be all these dungeons around if someone in the past did not dig them all. The process of excavating and treasure hunting is one of reclamation of the past. So there, we may say that the pseudo-medieval setting D&D is different from the real world setting.
But we would be wrong to say that. Because the real Medieval world was one of apocalypse and post-apocalypse as well. The apocalypse we really had back then was the black plague of 1347-1349.
During those gaunt years, our best guess is that about 1/3 of the population just suddenly died. That is by any reckoning an apocalypse! Imagine that one out of every three of your family members died in two years, or your friends. It is unthinkable, and yet it happened to Europe in those plague years.
There were a number of effects germinated from seeds sown by the plague.
Economics: Economically, the labor supply contracted by the largest amount ever seen on a macro scale. Each worker immediately gained 50% more bargaining power, and with it, greater income. Industries which were previously sated by excess manual labor turned to technology to pick up the difference (as well as raising wages by quite a bit). For instance, mills devised wind power and water power solutions, while illuminated manuscripts were replaced by Gutenberg’s wondrous printing press. Among those who play gnomes and sometimes dwarfs: does this sound familiar to you D&D players?
Now that there were many, many fewer people, there were fewer avenues for trade. Merchants simply did not come around as often, and the people who remained in place at the manorial level operated mainly on barter. Therefore, there were a great deal of coins whose value simply collapsed. People knew what the value of their money was, but there was no market for it. Therefore, much of it was hidden away in holes in the walls or buried in the ground somewhere safe. Does this sound familiar to D&D players?
Military Power: Now there were fewer people to be policed as well. That meant that men-at-arms who had previously been employed by sovereigns were now unemployed bandits and brigands. They were not going to go back to peasantry, but instead became reavers on the countryside, committing acts of terror to force settlements to pay up or else. Does this sound familiar to D&D players?
Disease Vectors and Demographics: Those communities which were isolated from trade and from other nearby settlements fared the best simply because they were not exposed to as many plague vectors as more-connected towns were. That means that these isolated hamlets were left intact in disproportionate numbers. There were tiny villages here and there, perhaps completely isolated from one another or relying on one central power such as a baron’s castle for trade and defense. Larger towns were hit harder and therefore there were fewer of them remaining. Numerous isolated small villages: Does this sound familiar to D&D players?
Spiritualism: There was a spiritual overhaul that went along with the plague. Death was everywhere. Everyone knew many people who had died because of it. The psychological toll on the survivors was unthinkable, and it reflected in the art work of the day in the theme of danse macabre. The danse macabre, or dance of death, showed living people traumatized by embodiments of death- most commonly, undead skeletons come to molest and harass the living. These skeletons represented a kind of living death, for they did not lie still in the ground but did the same things that the living enemies of Men would do. That which is reflected in the paintings must have seemed real based on the recent experience of the multitudes. And against such an inhuman and unholy power, the only ones who could really stem the tide were the clergy, at the right hand of God. Does this sound familiar to D&D players?
Now the black death wasn’t the only apocalyptic event visited on Medieval Europe. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought between Protestant countries and Catholic over control of Christendom, was almost as devastating in terms of sheer horror and loss of life. This could also be a kind of apocalypse for those of us who like to play a little later on, with full plate armor and gunpowder firearms. But the effect on the people is the same, and will certainly lead to the same kinds of results (especially those under the header of Military Power).