One of the basic tenets of Western-centric history is the inexorable march of technology. The hoe gives way to the harrow, which gives way to the plow which eventually down the line gives way to the John Deere automated Combine. This steady advance, food production, metallurgy, warfare, social programs like hospitals and rehabilatory prisons, have all taken steps back. But these steps have been temporary, and like the Dark Ages, were generally followed by Renaissances.
Standard Genre Fantasy however doesn’t follow this trend in the slightest. In fact, the opposite is usually more common. The knowledge of the now long fallen ‘Empire’ is generally superior to the modern setting. Magic, itself a rather abstract science of alchemy, ritual and formula, is insular and often backwards compared to the Golden Age.
An Inconvenient Trend
While the truth of this trend is rather simple, the solution isn’t. Standard Genre doesn’t advance because most gamers don’t have degrees in anthropologic sciences, History, or those other areas of expertise that look at what was and compare it to what came later, and what is now. Another reason is that the major cultures that preceded the Dark Ages and Medieval era are distinctive enough that they don’t fit into a Euro-Centric Tolkienic setting. It is often a stretch of the imagination to put the standard fantasy races in togas, gladiator arenas, riding in chariots or carrying kopesh swords. The styles of the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians are unique enough to either resist conversion to Genre Fantasy, or require more effort than most are willing to invest into such an endeavor.
There are a number of instances in history where the tread of progress hasn’t been felt. In some parts of Polynesia, the first wheel seen a native was attached to an airplane.
The Quakers, Shakers, and Amish have long eshewed technology, electricity, and labor saving devices. This tradition in a larger hierarchial faith could retard the development of traditional non-magic technologies involved with food production, construction, and metal working. Magical research and development could be non-existent in such a setting. There is a down side in that religious dissidents would certainly embrace these areas and further their advancement. The faith could persecute and suppress this advancement, but it is a stop gap measure. With better food supply, weapons, and education, the dissidents would eventually gain the upper hand.
The Emperor Says No
At one point, China had a massive and well developed navy, superior to any ships the West could field. Then the Emperor closed the borders and disbanded the navy and dismantled the ships. With a strong absolutist despot, technological and social advancement could be brought to a stand still. This isn’t automatically an iron-handed dictator hated by the populace, but could be a well approved king or emperor whom the populace obey out of faith, tradition, honor, or simply convenience. If the Emperor says a man shouldn’t waste his effort thinking of ways to scribe a book faster, who is a scribe to question the will of the Emperor? The downside is that unless the Emperor is in control of the entire setting and there are no outside powers, the Empire will eventually encounter outside powers. If they are more advanced, the technologies will be spread either by the fall of the Empire or osmosis.
There are a few instances where a society will not advance because the current level of technology is sufficient to meet the needs of the society. This won’t work for a large society, but smaller groups or ethnicities can fall into this category. Being massive in size, strong and intimidating, Ogres and trolls aren’t going to invest time in making better weapons. Giants, being a far flung and not very populous aren’t going to be great innovators either. With small numbers and isolationist trends they are going to be more concerned with day to day survival than with creating irrigation systems and agriculture. Nomads, such as the genre standard Orc will raid and pillage for things they need. It is easier to steal from others than to develop the infrastructure and social system to produce said goods.
The Reset Button
My personal solution for the constant level of technology is the regular use of a Reset button. The use of the button breaks the current setting and steps it back several hundred years in technological development and societal advancement. The Reset Button is a metagame term for any sort of event that causes the deaths of a large percentage of the civilized population, destroys goods and services not essential to survival, and causes organizations larger than local area (intercity guilds, military brotherhoods, nations and kingdoms) to dissolve rather than overcome the challenge.
Pick Your Poison
Pandemic - A supernatural illness sweeps across the land, killing 9 out of 10 people. Soon, most of the great cities are vacant ruins and only the lucky and the strong survive.
The Dead Rise - A plague of zombies sweeps across the land, the dead rise, the living fall. Heroes stand tall defending their homes in hopeless battles, only those who can find isolation or the best prepared castles can hope to ride out the waves of corpses, disease, hunger, and despair.
Warfare - While the standard fantasy setting doesn’t have nuclear weapons, it can have things that are close. Through long term warfare, the use of highly dangerous magical weapons, and the famine and unrest that often follows, societal collapse can happen. This is more likely if it is a racial based war, such as humans against the dragons, a demonic invasion, or the like. Victory is won, but at great cost.
Natural Disaster - A giant comet or meteor strikes the planet, causing massive damage and killing a vast majority of the population. Civilization doesn’t begin to rebuild until the climate stabilizes.
Divine Wrath - The arrogance of the Atlanteans caused the Gods to smite Atlantis and destroy that legendary city. Perhaps in a similar strike, the gods have been offended by some mortal act and have acted with extreme prejudice.
Isn’t this Post-Apocalyptic?
In essence, the Reset Button is the Apocalyptic event, and for a while after the event, the setting would be Fantasy Survival, or Post-Apoc Swords and Sorcery. this can be spun off into it’s own setting, where arrows are rare unless someone knows fletching, magic items cannot be recharged, and once common commodities like healing potions, hireling NPCs or horses might become as rare as tanks and bullets in a standard post-apoc. During this reset period, the old Kingdoms are lost, their histories warped by nostalgia, mutation through oral record, become the mythic Old Empire.
Unlike modern Post-Apoc, most folk in a genre fantasy setting are rather self sufficient, rather than hair-dressers, stock brokers, grocery store cashiers, or the odd ex-soldier. One of the basic tenets of modern Post-Apoc is the irrelevance or pointlessness of many modern jobs, services, and goods compared to their actual importance for survival.
X-hundred Years Later
The event is ideally several hundred years in the past, with the current society starting to climb back up the ladder of social, magical, and technological advancement. During the Reset Event, a significant proportion of the population died, people with non-essential skills were converted to farmers, hunters, or soldiers. Without leisure time to ponder and experiment, the recovery of old tech takes some time. New technology is unlikely to emerge until the old is fully recovered. There is certainly no reason that there won’t be flukes here and there, but that is an exception rather than the rule.
There are some ideas, notions, and conventions that we generally accept. Some of these are viewed as inhuman or antique, while others we often take for granted.
Modern settings and most genre fantasy settings give women equal rights as men. Following the reset button event, many would consider women more important for breeding, repopulating the species. While this could elevate their status, I think pessimistically that women would be given important status more akin to livestock. Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed, so the crass and tasteless expression goes. The current setting could see women as being more import than simply a means of sustaining the species.
Following the event, democracy, voting, and all of that will go out the window. The weak will follow the strong, and strong leaders will be a terrible commodity. The best will save their flocks, the worst will become tyrants over them. With strong traditions, these leaders will pass the mantle on to their heirs, be they blood or otherwise. It will take centuries before society returns to a level where the common populace, or even the gentry or landowners can demand a share of leadership.
From the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, or the Bridge over the River Kwai, slavery gets stuff done. It is likely that in the breakdown of civil order that follows the reset event, slavery can and will make a resurgence. The extent of this human bondage can vary from extensive in terms of agricultural labor, to civilized indenture like the Romans, where a slave could own property and whatnot.
Be it intra-species racism, or humans hating orcs, racism might be much more common following the reset event. The worst would be reserved for those deemed responsible for the event in question. The most common butt of this hate is usually reserved for mages (meddling with magic) clerics (Where were your gods!) old nobility (Why didn’t you protect us) and non-humans (stupid goblins making a mess, dwarves hoarding the gold, elves being all haughty and stuff)
A static state of advancement can be maintained in a setting. The trek of progress can be measured like the undulating waves of an oscilloscope, the waves instead of being fractions of seconds apart are instead measured in centuries or millennia. Standard genre fantasy is generally going to be located on the upswing of the curve, not near the top, the glories of the old age are still out of reach, but the common populace isn’t engaged in a desperate struggle to survive day to day. The reset event exists only as a point of reference for calenders, a great calamity in the past. Fear of such an event recurring could spur societies and PCs to struggle against great odds.