When historical accuracy makes for better fantasy

Containing the exhumed bones of about six million dead behind walls constructed from human remains, the Catacombs of Paris is perhaps the largest example of historic charnel hosues. It also provides inspiration for a perfect necromancer lair for any fantasy RPG. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game is that players don’t need advanced degrees in history in order to have a playable fantasy. In fact, not being historically accurate (at least about the historical Medieval society most D&D campaigns mimic) can sometimes be an advantage, as fantasy gaming is less about how things were as how players think they were (for more about managing player expectations, consider reading this post). Just as truth is often stranger than fiction, though, there are times when accurate history can lead to better fantasy; one such situation involves how Medieval and Renaissance societies disposed of their dead.While reading a section about the development of modern cemeteries in Harold Schechter’s The Whole Death Catalog, it dawned on me that many of my homebrew adventure settings – and a surprisingly large number of published RPG settings – were historically inaccurate about graveyards in ways that could result in missed opportunities for creating unsettling, and therefore memorable, settings for D&D encounters.

Few players or dungeon masters know that the typical RPG cemetery, represented by the tiny churchyard with a handful of graves, was inspired more by the large, park-like cemeteries designed in the 19th Century than interment methods of the Middle Ages. In the early Middle ages, most burials were conducted on the outskirts of a settlement; later, as it became desirable among Christians to be interred at or under consecrated sites, remains were buried in churchyards or under the churches themselves in sprawling catacombs. In some cases, graves were piled one atop another, so that after a few generations, the ground level of a graveyard sat well above that of adjacent streets.

Caves filled with human bones in the Paris Catacombs were sealed through the construction of walls such as this one, which appears to be made from skulls and tibias.

Sometimes, especially in urban areas or during times of plague, churchyards quickly filled. To help correct the problem, the dry remains of the long-buried were exhumed and carried to a charnel house or ossuary on church property, where they were unceremoniously deposited with the bones of hundreds or even thousands of others in a great jumble that slowly rotted to dust. Some cities, such as Paris, France, sought to solve the problem by creating a central mass burial ground in the city for interment of the dead who couldn’t pay for burial; this site, the Cimitiere des Innocents, served well for a time, but eventually posed a health threat serious enough to be recognized by Renaissance standards, leading to the creation of massive underground catacombs in an abandoned quarry. this site, the Paris Catacombs, served as one of the largest charnel houses in history; in it, the bones of almost six million people are randomly interred behind walls built from the artful arrangement of various skulls and leg bones.

These images from Wikimedia Commons provide an idea of the eerie nature of the place:

Sometimes, arranging human remains in such a way was more of an expression of faith, artistry or both. For example, consider a chapel constructed by the Capuchin Monks in the 17th Century in Rome, Italy. as a reminder of how swiftly life on Earth passes, the monks used the dry remains of some 4,000 members of their order to construct their chapel. Their craftsmanship is at once poetic and disturbing:

Clearly, these actual settings are far more fantastic than the traditional RPG burial ground, yet they are true, if extreme, examples from history. For the dungeon master, such sites, combined with a bit of background knowledge about burial practices of the last few centuries, can provide both greater historical accuracy and better fantasy settings at the same time.


5 comments on “When historical accuracy makes for better fantasy

  1. D. says:

    I’ve generally found that a knowledge and an appreciation of history did nothing but increase the enjoyment of the game by both me and my players. As you noted, “reality” has some amazing things that add an immense amount of depth to my games.


    • Alric says:

      I agree. And after a few historical references, players are more likely to feel immersed in the setting – even if they didn’t know the history – because they know the DM is doing his homework.

  2. Brandon says:

    Great article. I’m gonna have to put this into my games now. Interesting how something that was considered normal then is considered creepy to us. I enjoy using customs from other areas or societies to make my towns or races feel special or unique, but now I want to start digging through history some too. Thinking about it now, I bet there’s tons of great information.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Alric says:

    You are most welcome, Sir. And thank you for your visit.

    At some future time, you may want to check the “Setting Design” category of posts here. You can access it by clicking the drop-down menu in the navbar at right, or by clicking the post index link in the page header. There are roughly 30 articles in there about making unique settings and adventures.

  4. Plamen Kovatchev says:

    Actually, there are whole churches and cathedrals decorated with human bone, including at least one bone chandelier. The poster is definitely right that truth can oftentimes be stranger than fiction. Places like Moria, Lothlorien, and Mordor actually do exist, if you look hard enough. For example, the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

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