Referenda ad Senatum: August 6, 2021: Feelings at the Fall of the Republic, Ancient and Medieval Living Standards, and Zombies!

Welcome! This is going to be the first of a new sort of post we’ll do from time to time where I answer a number of shorter questions posed by my patrons over at Patreon who are at the Patres et Matres Conscripti tier, which entitles them to a seat in the ACOUP Senate (which is apparently more like the imperial senate, given that it has a strict wealth requirement). Questions that get posed for these posts which end up being too long and complex will go back to the ACOUP Senate for a vote to determine which topics get full posts dedicated to them.

As for the title of this post type, in Latin the phrase referre ad senatum (‘to refer to the Senate’) meant that a magistrate would convene the senate and pose a question for debate (the final decision of the Senate in such debates, expressed as an up-or-down vote on a proposal, was called a senatus consultum or ‘the advice of the Senate;’ such advice was, in the Republic, non-binding – it was not a law – but nearly always followed). So these posts are Referenda ad senatum, ‘things which must be referred to the Senate’ (Latin can be a wonderfully compact language sometimes).

I do want to note at the outset that the answers to these questions aren’t quite the same as a planned and researched blog post; these are mostly off-the-cuff responses and should be taken as such.

But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Via Wikipedia, Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari. This isn’t an accurate layout of the Roman curia Hostilia (the Senate house where the speech in question would have been delivered), which was rectangular in form and would have been a lot more cramped than this. Nevertheless, as it is probably the most famous depiction of the Roman Senate, it seemed a worthwhile title card.

Q: Vitali asks: How did the Romans feel about the crumbling of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire? Did people in the provinces notice? What about people in Rome?

A: Note of course that we are talking about the collapse of the republic (so the first century BC) not the collapse of the empire (in the fifth eentury AD).

The Romans themselves had a lot of thoughts about the collapse of the republic. First, we should note that they were aware that something was going very wrong and we have a fair bit of evidence that at least some Romans were trying to figure out how to fix it. Sulla’s reforms (enforced at the point of a much-used sword) in 82-80 BC were an effort to fix what he saw as the progressive destabilization of the the republic going back to the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus (133). Sulla’s solutions were hamfisted though – he assumed that if he annihilated the opposing faction, crippled the tribunate and strengthened the Senate that this would resolve all of the problems. Cicero likewise considered reforms during the 50s BCE which come out in his De re publica and De legibus. The 50s were a time of political turmult in Rome while at the same time the last years of the decade must have been loomed over by the knowledge of an impending crisis to come in 49. Cicero was never in a position to enact his idealized republic.

Overall the various Romans who contemplated reform were in a way hindered by the tendency of Roman elites to think in terms of the virtue of individuals rather than the tendency of systems. You can see this very clearly in the writings of Sallust – another Roman writing with considerable concern as the republic comes apart – who places the fault on the collapse of Roman morals rather than on any systemic problem.

We also get a sense of these feelings from the literature that emerges after Augustus takes power in 31, and here there is a lot of complexity. There is quite a lot of praise for Augustus of course – it would have been profoundly unwise to do otherwise – but also quite a lot of deep discomfort with the recent past, revealed in places like Livy’s deeply morally compromised legends of the founding of Rome or the sharp moral ambiguity in the final books of Vergil’s Aeneid. On the other hand, some of the praise for Augustus seems to have been genuine. There was clearly an awful lot of exhaustion after so many years of disruption and civil war and so a general openness to Augustus’ ‘restored republic.’ Still, some Romans were clearly bothered by the collapse of the republic even much later; Lucan’s Pharsalia (65 AD) casts Pompey and Cato as heroes and views Caesar far more grimly.

We have less evidence for feeling in the provinces, but of course for many provincials, little would have changed. Few of Augustus’ changes would have done much to change much for people living in the provinces, whose taxes, laws and lives remained the same. They were clearly aware of what was going on and among the elite there was clearly a scramble to try to get on the right side of whoever was going to win; being on the wrong side of the eventual winner could be a very dangerous place to be. But for most regular provincials, the collapse of the Roman Republic only mattered if some rogue Roman general’s army happened to march through their part of the world.

Q: Dillon asks: How did living standards and technology compare between Rome and later medieval Europe?

A: This is a frequent question and obviously a full response would require several books to write, but I think I can briefly chart some outlines of what an answer would look like.

The first crucial question here is exactly when in the Middle Ages one means. There is a tendency to essentialize the European Middle Ages, often suggesting that the entire period reflected a regression from antiquity, but the medieval period is very long, stretching about a thousand years (c. 500 to c. 1500 AD). There is also the question of where one means; the trajectory of the eastern Mediterranean is much different than the western Mediterranean. I am going to assume we really mean western Europe.

While I am convinced that the evidence suggests there was a drop in living standards and some loss of technology in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, most of that drop was fairly short-lived. But exactly when development in medieval Europe meets and then exceeds the same for antiquity (typically we’re comparing the second century height of the Roman Empire) also depends on exactly what kind of measure is being used.

If the question, for instance, is agricultural productivity on a per capita basis (the most important component of per capita economic production), medieval Europe probably moves ahead of the Roman Empire fairly quickly with the introduction of better types of plow and widespread use of watermills for grinding grain. My understanding is that by c. 1000AD, watermills show up fairly frequently in things like monastic charters, suggesting they were reasonably widespread (the Romans used watermills too, though their spread was uneven) and by that point, plow technology had also moved forward, mostly through the development of plow types better suited to Europe’s climate. So as best we can tell, the farmer of c. 1000 AD had better tools than his Roman predecessors and probably had such for some time.

If the question is technology and engineering, once again what you see depends on where you look. Some technologies don’t appear to have regressed much, if at all, ironworking being one example where it seems like little to nothing was lost. On the other hand, in western Europe, the retreat in architecture is really marked and it is hard to say when you would judge the new innovations (like flying buttresses) to have equaled some of the lost ones (like concrete); certainly the great 12th/13th century Cathedrals (e.g. Notre Dame, the Duomo di Sienna and I suppose the lesser Duomo di Firenze, if we must include it) seem to me to have matched or exceeded all but perhaps the biggest Roman architectural projects. Though we have to pause here because in many cases the issue was less architectural know-how (though that was a factor) as state capacity: the smaller and more fragmented states of the European Middle Ages didn’t have the resources the Roman Empire did.

If one instead looks for urbanization and population as the measure of development, the Middle Ages looks rather worse. First and Second century Rome is probably unmatched in Europe until the very late 1700s, early 1800s, when first London (c. 1800) and Paris (c. 1835) reach a million. So one looking for matches for the large cities and magnificent municipal infrastructure of the Romans will have rather a long wait. Overall population is much more favorable as a measurement to the Middle Ages. France probably exceeds its highest Roman population (c. 9m) by or shortly after 1000AD, Italy (c. 7.5m) by probably 1200; Spain is the odd one out, with Roman Hispania (est. 7.5m) probably only matched in the early modern period. So for most of the Middle Ages you are looking at a larger population, but also a more rural one. That’s not necessarily bad though; pre-modern cities were hazardous places due to sanitation and disease; such cities had a markedly higher mortality, for instance. On the flip-side, fewer, smaller cities means less economic specialization.

So one’s answer often depends very much on what one values most. For my own part, I’d say by 1000 or 1100 we can very safely say the ‘recovery’ phase of the Middle Ages is clearly over (and I think you could make an argument for setting this point substantially earlier but not meaningfully later), though even this is somewhat deceptive because it implies that no new technological ground was being broken before then, which is not true. But the popular conception that the whole of the Middle Ages reflects a retreat from the standards of antiquity is to be discarded.

Q: Casey Larkin asks: When did you know that you wanted to study history as a career? Was there a specific event or have you always been interested in it?

A: History has always been something I’ve been interested in. I am one of those rare creatures who entered college majored in exactly the degree I walked out of the door with. The only major question I had was what sort of history I wanted to study, though the draw to Rome was always very strong (I had taken Latin in high school). When I was very young I was mostly drawn to the flashy parts of history – battles, kings, etc. As I got into college, I found myself drawn into what I’d describe as ‘imperial dynamics’ – investigating the extremely complex structures of very large states and the ways those structures shaped the lives of people who lived in those states (often for the worse). I took a wide range of coursework trying to figure out exactly which mega-state I wanted to specialize in, but Rome spoke to me the most.

In particular, from that question, Rome suggested itself because it is far more often held up as a model of ‘success’ on those terms – in expansion, encouraging provincial buy-in, improving quality of life, etc. The actual Rome doesn’t quite live up to that rose-tinted hype (it was, after all, an exploitative tributary empire), but it comes a lot closer than most historical empires. It is, after all, very rare for an empire to fall and then have its former exploited subjects spend the better part of a millennia at least trying to reinvent it. That said, that very process of trying to mobilize the memory of Rome in support of new imperial projects is part of what leads to the excessively rosey reputation Rome enjoys.

I should note I do have a post planned discussing what graduate school and getting a Ph.D in history is like, so I won’t steal my own thunder there. I will say that, while I’ve always been interested in history, actually delving into the work of history itself has changed around my interests a fair bit. Often it seems to me many history ‘buffs’ want to relive or experience history and certainly as a kid that was me, but at some point that impulse only gets one so far (because, after all, you can’t actually relive a historical moment) and one begins to seek to understand history rather than experience it vicariously. That shift fundamentally changes the kinds of questions you ask and the evidence you look at.

Q: Adam Haun asks: Zombie Apocalypse! How would ‘zombie tactics’ work against a modern-system army with NBC (Nuclear, biological, chemical protection) suits. What about logistics issues?

A: This is in a way a bit of a trick question. The core components of the modern system – cover and concealment, maneuver offensives, and the acceleration of operational tempo beyond the opponent’s ability to adapt – none of these are really applicable to a war against mostly unthinking enemies who employ only melee combat and don’t have morale or coordination to speak of. So a lot of the operational art behind the modern system wouldn’t be applicable. But the tools and training developed to make the modern system work, it seems to me, probably would. The whole reason the modern system emerged was because it became clear that no amount of concentration or élan could actually achieve offensive breakthrough against modern firepower.

That said, first we need to concede that it is certainly possible to craft a fictional zombie apocalypse so severe that this doesn’t matter. If your zombie apocalypse is the result of an airborne pathogen which is lethal in 99.99% of cases well then nothing much here is going to matter. But at that point, I should also note that the zombies are entirely incidental to the pathogen in terms of causing destruction. So here I am going to assume the classic forms of zombie transmission: either by bite or by the dead reanimating on death. If that’s the transmission method, I am actually very confident in a modern military’s ability to contain a zombie outbreak.

First, we want to dispense with ‘the soldiers fire uselessly, not realizing they need to hit the zombies in the head’ issue. Modern rifle bullets move very fast and deliver lots of energy; they do not punch a neat hole in a target, but instead create a brief, much larger cavity produced by the transfer of kinetic energy, which stretches and damages tissue around the point of impact. While zombies may lack vital organs and might not be able to bleed out, they do rely on the basic physics of muscles and bones in order to move. I suspect the world’s armies would discover fairly rapidly where they needed to shoot to actually disable a zombie target, but in the meantime, concentrated rifle fire is likely to work on isolated zombies, particularly since zombies cannot regenerate damaged tissue. It does not matter that zombies feel no pain: if their leg or arm is shot off, or their spine shattered, or their muscle-tissue is reduced to goo, being able to move is a question of physics, not determination. Moreover, because these bullets are moving fast with a lot of energy, striking an unarmored human target (that is, a zombie) is not going to stop them; clustering lots of zombies up will mean bullets or bullet-fragments exiting the first zombie and striking the next. And the next. Barbed wire would also be effective; we’ll actually talk about this in a few weeks, but a zombie whose clothing or skin is caught on the wire would be every bit as stuck as a human, giving abundant time to be shot, stabbed, etc.

For large groups of zombies, I think the issue here is that Hollywood and popular culture often don’t have a clear grasp on how lethal modern high explosive munitions are. A grenade goes off in a movie and it kills the two guys in the physical dust-cloud of the effect; an actual grenade, like the M67 fragmentation grenade is lethal in a radius of 5 meters and can produce grievous (and also potentially lethal) injuries out to 15 meters and beyond. Something like the 2000lbs Paveway III (GBU-27) is supposed to be lethal in excess of 350 meters radius around the point of impact. Now we’ve discussed before how concealed or entrenched positions can evade or endure that fire, but zombies don’t dig in – a crowd of zombies moving down a road or over a field is exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of firepower. Again, you don’t need to ‘aim for the head’ if your bomb shreds everything within two hundred yards. I am put in mind here of the ‘ineffective’ M270 MLRS barrage at the ‘Battle of Yonkers‘ in World War Z where the rockets are ineffective because the zombies are tightly packed; the actual M270 MLRS fires the M26 rocket (twelve of them) each of which deploys something like 600 (I’ve seen different numbers) cluster-bomblets, each with about the anti-personnel capability of a hand-grenade and enough punch to beat up to 4 inches of armor. There is no amount of ‘tight packing’ which is going to make that not cause head injuries to (zombie) infantry caught in the open. Bone and tissue isn’t a meaningful obstacle to the shrapnel created by those cluster-munitions, so packing in the zombies just increases the lethality of the strike. And let’s keep in mind just how long even ‘fast’ zombies would be under artillery fire; the M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer has a range of 13 miles. Assuming our zombies run at around average human sprinting speed (most athletes can sprint around 15mph) and they maintain it continuously (a thing humans cannot do) they’re still under fire for an hour. And also being handily outpaced by the cars following the speed limit in the right hand lane.

Zombie fiction often papers over this by making the zombies tremendously, inexhaustibly numerous, but again, assuming we’re working on the traditional bite-infection model, the humans merely need to achieve a modestly favorable casualty ratio in order to run the zombies out of zombies. And I think achieving that sort of a ratio wouldn’t actually be an enormous challenge. By and large, combatants with automatic weapons tend to have a considerable edge on combatants reduced to clawing and biting (two methods of attack regularly thwarted by clothing). We haven’t even gotten to things like the use of armor (by which I mean vehicles) – a tank, with the crew buttoned up, doesn’t even need to shoot to be effective, because a 50+ ton armored object moving at 30mph is weapon enough (the top road speed of the M1A2 is 42mph, so you are faster than zombie Usain Bolt). Taking the ‘Battle of Yonkers’ example again, the entire fight could have been won by simply driving the tanks up and down the highway (RIP the highway, but also the zombies). Tanks have awful gas mileage, but they have appropriately massive fuel capacity to cope; the M1A2 has 265 miles of operational range. Tanks are designed to resist hostile entry by intelligent humans with tools and potentially explosives; zombies trying to scratch in with their nails are unlikely to succeed. You might well easily drive down the highway, say 20 miles, crushing as you went, turn around and drive back and have time to refuel while the zombies (average human running speed of 5-6mph) are still running to catch you

And while we’re talking about zombie numbers – a lot of zombie fiction relies on creating great hordes of zombies that equal or exceed the populations of humans they’re derived from. But definitionally, zombie numbers are limited to the supply of living humans at the onset of the outbreak. Assuming again this isn’t some hyper-contagious airborne zombie-pathogen with extreme lethality, the zombies are not going to wildly outnumber the humans initially.

And herein we have the zombie-lethality-problem: a zombie, even a fast one, is not actually a very lethal opponent. Zombies attack with fists, finger-nails and teeth and you only get new zombies when bites actually penetrate. But biting through even fairly thin fabric is extremely difficult! Humans, unlike cats or dogs, do not have mouths and teeth designed to disable resisting prey (which is why we needed tools to do that). Our canine teeth are kind of pathetic – and penetrating thick fabric with teeth or claws is not a sure thing for animals like cats and dogs that do have developed claws and fangs. By contrast, an adult human with a good kitchen knife or a frying pan (much less a home defense firearm) is substantially more lethal! Sharp, metal things like shovels and knives can penetrate skulls just fine (much less things like machetes or weaponized entrenching tools). In the absence of mass numerical superiority that lets zombies mob down individual humans, it’s hard to see how they achieve that higher-than-1:1 casualty ratio they need to not simply fizzle out, even against civilians with improvised weapons.

Honestly, given opponents who can only attack with their teeth and fingernails, I’d go further and say that the advantage is probably held by any disciplined, iron-age or later army if the issue came to an actual battle rather than an issue of epidemic disease control. Even thick clothing – much less modern riot armor or combat armor – is likely to be extremely resistant to zombie attack unless the wearer can be pulled down and held down. The thing is, a dense mass of heavy infantry – be it modern soldiers with rifles and bayonets (a thing we still issue to troops, by the by) or just men with spears – is effectively immune to such mobbing tactics. Spanish military performance in the conquest of the Aztecs and the Inca demonstrate what happens when close-order heavy infantry are engaged by far, far larger numbers of enemies whose weapons have at best limited effectiveness against armor. By way of example, at the Battle of Vilcaconga in 1533, an Inca force of several thousand caught an ambushed a Spanish force of 300, on favorable terrain (a hillside where the Inca had the high ground), with the element of surprise, against an exhausted foe (the Spanish had marched all day)…and still lost (to be clear, it wasn’t guns that won that battle, but swords and pikes). The Inca took some 800 killed-in-action to the Spanish five. And those were clever, careful-planning, intelligent Inca, not mindless zombies; it’s also a sign as to why ‘fast zombies’ don’t actually change much here – Inca warriors were presumably every bit as fast. Again, you can propose massively oversized zombie hoards, but remember they need to achieve at least a 1-to-1 casualty ratio; getting beat 800-to-5 over and over is going to make short work of your zombie apocalypse.

(The Battle of Vilcaconga and the technological and tactical conditions that produced it, discussed in J.F. Guilmartin, “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539” in K.J. Andrein and R. Adorno, Transatlantic Encounters (1991): 40-69)

So unless the initial infection is hyper-lethal, extremely fast moving and can compromise NBC equipment (but then again, why isn’t your story about super-ebola, rather than zombies), my money would be on industrialized armies and their massive firepower and failing that, on disciplined tight-order formations wearing any kind of armor (including just improvised layered textiles) and using whatever kind of sharp, metal weapons they can get. If the zombie apocalypse comes down to the zombies matching arms with still functional human militaries, the zombies are hosed.

And that’s it for this week’s deliberations. There were a lot more questions in the first round of question-asking which were very good and on my to-answer list (I’m hoping to keep a rough balance of historical questions to profession ones to fun, silly ones) so fret not if your question didn’t get answered here, we will get to it eventually.

224 thoughts on “Referenda ad Senatum: August 6, 2021: Feelings at the Fall of the Republic, Ancient and Medieval Living Standards, and Zombies!

  1. If Zombies wouldn’t work, what would be with zombie-like Vampires, for example the ‘virals’ from Justin Cronin’s Passage? They have great strength, are fast, have teeth and claws sharper than human teeth or nails, have a kevlar-like skin with only one point over the sternum, where it is vulnerable, and use ‘tactics’ by moving in pods of three and preferring to jump down on their victims from above. Transmission is also by biting but not killing the victim. In the novel it is said, that every tenth victim is transformed. I am leaving out the swarm mechanism used on large scale operations by the even stronger swarm leaders, the Twelve.

    1. It seems like the same problems apply (with the caveat that I haven’t read The Passage, so I could easily be missing something.) Unless they’re strong enough to tear apart a tank with their bare hands and bite through body armor, and fast enough to outrun a speeding car, they’ll be reduced to chasing after opponents they can’t catch and can’t harm. “Kevlar-like” skin won’t do much against explosive weapons or sustained gunfire, for the reasons discussed above.

      They could have success as ambush predators, relying on opportunistic attacks against unprepared humans, but that only works when the humans greatly outnumber them. Even if we leave out human responses (and an effective human response to a local zompire apocalypse would be *leaving*), obligate predators need to coexist with a much larger prey population or starve. If the zompires are smart enough to employ things like group tactics, they’re probably also smart enough to realize that taking over the world would be the worst thing they could do for themselves.

      1. Yes, they are holding humans in ‘herds’ to feed on them, or, when they don’t find any prey, they hibernate in swarms around their ‘queen’, one if the twelve first virals, underground.

    2. “have a kevlar-like skin with only one point over the sternum, where it is vulnerable”

      I feel like everyone read the part of Dracula where they put a stake through Dracula’s sternum, and no one read the part where they need a hammer to do it.

      1. If you are going for Dracula, remember that consecrating a lot of places and having everyone hide in them at night would fix him.

      2. It was Lucy Westenra’s sternum that got the hammer+stake treatment.

        Dracula was offed by a bowie knife wielding cowboy who took a mortal wound for his trouble.

    3. Zombie-like vampires are much rarer than zombie-like zombies, and their “rules” much less well-defined. (Everyone knows that zombies are mindless, slow, and only die to headshots, for instance.) So, um, it defends on how you define your criteria. I can see interpretations of your description which would let a naked vampire run through a Roman legion like Superman through a Nazbol meeting, and I can see interpretations which would let the Romans hold them off long enough to stab them directly in the chest. There are also questions like “are they dumb like zombies?” and “are they sun-vulnerable like vampires?”, which matter quite a lot (especially if they’re dumb enough to let themselves burn in the sun, heh).

      That said, any undead which uses ambush tactics rather than just forming big hordes is going to do way better against any kind of organized human force, because those ambushes take away so much of what makes organization effective. Attack at night, when most of the army is asleep and the rest is dispersed, keeping a few night-blind eyes out for attackers who can slip through the trees overhead. That, more than any superhuman characteristic, is what gives those “virals” an edge over Romero zombies.

        1. Basically nothing. Religion is very resilient to supposed “disproof,” especially now that we’re living in a world where all religions have either survived a centuries-long “disproving” process or managed to develop in that environment.

          If Mormonism can survive Joseph Smith straight up incorrectly translating the so-called Book of Abraham, religion in general can survive the existence of vampires. It isn’t as if very many religions have a settled position on vampires anyway.

          1. More generally, religion would need a re-think if the gods were undeniable and unarguable (no squabbling about many theological points if you can just ask and get an authoritative answer). I had to think about this and settled on a retreat into mysticism as one answer.

        2. That is one of the questions Justin Cronin trys to answer. The trilogy is connected deeply with Religion and a biblical-like idea from immortality. Look up the age of Noah and you get the idea. Or read the books

        3. That’s an interesting question that depends on the vampires, the religion, and—to be blunt—the individual people interpreting the vampires through the lens of their own folklore.
          And if vampires are a thing that just always existed, obviously religion and folklore would be shaped by them, in ways that vary drastically depending on how vampires integrate themselves into the culture’s social systems.

      1. They are ‘dizzy’ at day, resting, and are mostly active at night, except when they are really hungry or are disturbed. A Roman army, that is prepared and knows of the sweet spot could hold them of long enough, I think. And the attack at night through the trees would be the most realistic tactic for them, yes.

  2. Zombie apocalypses are really overhyped. Shaun of the dead was ironically one of the most realistic depictions of a zombie apocalypse, a brief night of terror quickly crushed by armed response units.

    1. The same thing happened in Night of the Living Dead as well. The protagonists of the movie were hosed in a brief night of terror, but the zombies themselves were completely neutralized in less than a day by a group of cops and other random civilians who were armed with pistols and hunting rifles. I’d imagine that the National Guard and the US Military had an even easier time of dispatching of the zombies elsewhere in the US as the events of Night of the Living Dead occurred.

    2. The only real way to make it workable is the airborne pathogens triggering zombification. Massive die-off causes social collapse and give the zombies a huge numerical edge which evens things up a lot for the zombies.

      1. The Newsflash trilogy did a really clever take on it. The airborne form of the virus is dormant, and activates on death or a bite from a zombie. This means that for most practical purposes it acts like a traditional zombie apocalypse – you need to not get bit, aim for the head, and check any survivors for bite marks – but on a societal level it acts like an airborne infection – you can’t contain it since every person who dies anywhere can potentially start a new horde.

  3. This made me consider how many of us own at least one pair of very effective anti-zombie armour, we call it jeans, and for some reason we tear holes in it as a fashion statement.

  4. For the zombie part – I’m reminded of day of the Triffids where the Triffids are only a real threat after a global apocalypse renders everyone blind. As is the main characters keep them out for years with fences and the threat is more as time goes on the ever increasing amount that appear at the fence every morning.

  5. John Green (yes, the YA author) wrote a “bad” (his word, not mine) zombie novella about a corn-mediated prion disease that makes people zombie-level obsessed with growing corn, which I found one of the few zombie apocalypses to actually be in any way convincing – the disease is already present in millions upon millions of people before anyone notices, and the protagonist says that if only a few thousand more people were as lethal as she is, the disease would have been wiped out, but it turns out that most people aren’t comfortable with killing, even when it’s someone approaching you with a sharp stick in one hand and a corn-prion infected corncob in the other. The zombies also retain at least some aspects of their pre-corn capabilities, only slowly regressing due to vitamin deficiencies, so they can, in the early stages, continue to use some equipment, spot ambushes, stage their own ambushes, retreat to safe locations, etc, though they can be drawn out by threatening their cornfields. It’s a weird book, to be clear, but pretty engaging.

  6. I have so many thoughts on zombies vs pre-modern militaries. Particularly with reference to fantasy settings and directed armies of the undead.
    1) Given supply and logistic issues faced by pre-modern armies, how much advantage would an army of undead, directed by an intelligent force (e.g. a necromancer like Sauron) have in campaigns against living enemies. The ability to march through areas with no food and without having to manage supply lines would be a tremendous advantage.
    2) While unarmed people vs armed and in good order soldiers is clearly a win for the soldiers, how might we account for the morale effects of fighting ravenous, hungry corpses? Especially since any person you lose is going to get back up again against you? The stench of an army of undead alone would be hugely unsettling. Its entirely possible though that I am underestimating how horrid ancient battlefields were though and that soldiers might acclimatise to fighting the dead after successful victories against them.
    3) Given a large enough force of zombies, how could an ancient army prevail? Zombies do not tire, do not fall back at nightfall and do not suffer from issues of morale. While a Roman legion (for instance) would no doubt triumph in a field battle against a similar sized army, how long could they keep the fight up against an army that will continue to fight until every last one of them is destroyed. After all, armies do not lose battles because they are all dead, they lose battles because their morale breaks. Admittedly, gathering a large horde would be an issue, you’d need to de-populate several large towns/cities, but you’d be able to increase the numbers of your zombie horde with every village it encounters.
    4) might fortifications become very much more important as force multipliers. Zombies aren’t known for their siege engine capabilities, and assuming a lack of siege engineer necromancers, zombie forces, even when well directed, might struggle to take fortified positions. On the other hand, would the lack of morale issues be even more relevant here. How much easier to continue assaulting a fortification if you don’t fear death?

    I’m thinking that the actually killing vs morale issues becomes significantly more tilted towards killing than morale when fighting zombies.

    Of course, modern militaries still hose zombies, even ones directed by intelligent necromancers. I don’t see a way through the “run them over with tanks” gambit unless the zombies develop the ability to use anti-tank weaponry, at which point we aren’t really talking about zombies anymore.

    1. You are now giving me fond memories of the old Microprose “Master of Magic” game,. I should fire it up again and play a necromancer type, cast Zombie Mastery. But then again, even the zombie master style play in that game usues the zombies as auxiliaries, not the core component of your armies.

      1. I need to learn to program so I can make a necromancy game that goes from waking up in a crypt to taking the capital of the kingdom. It’s a very different sort of thing from classic zombies but still interesting.

        1. You’re going to need to learn to do more than program. Either you need to learn everything from game design to visual art to SFX, or you need to learn how to pitch your idea to a team of people with those skills.

          (More practical advice: Askagamedev on tumblr has lots of posts for people who want to make their own games. I’m sure some will be useful.)

        2. This reminds me of “Right Click to Necromance,” a short game-jam game about similar topics. You don’t quite take the capital, but it really is about managing the oddities of the kill ratio when necromancy is involved.

      2. If you do, install the Insecticide unofficial patch by kyrub. It’s careful to provide only minimal gameplay changes but fixes several pages worth of bugs. It also improves AI to the point where artificial resource bonuses on higher difficulties are reduced.

          1. Whatever, it’s based on the same patch and kyrub worked on the community patch too.

    2. The intelligent force qualifier means that much like asking why the threat isn’t the super-ebola, a guided zombie apocalypse becomes about the Necromancer. And at that point, we’ve got a lot of variables. Is raising the dead their only magic? Do they only get zombies or more broad spectrum undead?

      A Vampire Counts Warhammer army made up of just zombie infantry is gonna get chewed up by most opponents. Throw in some cairn wraiths & spirit hosts that are immune to small arms fire, vampire mechanized cavalry, and an oversized bat air force,

      Ultimately, it’ll distill down to how effective a commander & leader is Nagash?

      1. If you’re going the Necromancer route, you might as well go all the way back to the folklore and make the zombies the slaves of the necromancer.

        Nice touch, that the zombies have their minds intact but have no choice but to attack you if ordered. Also, they can think and do other work.

        (The original horror was, of course, not being attacked by a zombie, but being a slave FOREVER.)

    3. 1. Yes. An army composed 100% of the dead would have operational freedom unimaginable to real-world armies until maybe the advent of casually air-dropped supplies. (An army with undead privates and living officers would have more difficulties, but it would be leagues easier than feeding the entire army.) This would let them catch their opponents off-guard, as long as the necromancer was reasonably skilled at military operations and their opponents unfamiliar with fighting the undead (say, real-world Roman generals).
      2. That depends a lot on the soldiers and the zombies—and perhaps most importantly, whether the soldiers were familiar with zombies. Obviously-rotten walking corpses would be enough to make an unexpecting legionary at least quake in his boots.
      3. Define “a large enough force”. It should go without saying that, for any army, there is a theoretical zombie horde large enough to overwhelm it. Also, fighting retreats are pretty standard for most armies; I can’t imagine they’d be tougher to execute against mindless, shambling corpses than aggressive human enemies.
      4a. Obviously, fortifications are important force multipliers (if the zombie horde isn’t defeated in the field). In the case of zombies versus humans…standard zombies lack enough understanding of siegecraft to understand that standing against the wall lets the tasty humans drop rocks on their heads, let alone any way to breach the walls. The only way they could breach the walls are from pressure (pushing hard enough that the walls fall over—not likely for anything with a decent foundation), starvation (obviously), or just throwing enough bodies at the problem that they build a ramp out of zombie bodies. And they probably won’t all gather on one part of the wall for efficient ramp-building. Morale would be an issue, but “the enemy is building machines to overcome the wall” versus “the unhallowed dead stop us from leaving the fortress” seems like, on average, a lateral move.
      4b. An intelligent necromancer-general could direct them to do so, but said general could also direct them to actually besiege the fort properly. The necromancer-general has several advantages over a normal general. First off, the army can work around the clock; depending on how fine control the general has over its zombies (directly a la Skitter or indirectly through officers), it could throw together counter-fortifications, siege engines, earthworks, etc in a fraction of the time a living army could. Zombies’ mindless determination would also aid in any actual attack on the fortress; the necromancer can safely assume any attempt to take the wall will continue until enough zombies are physically incapable of continuing. If the zombies are contagious, throwing corpses over the wall is even more effective than normal. And, of course, the necromancer adds the “unhallowed dead” morale impact to the “the enemy will breach our wall” impact rather than replacing it.
      On the other hand, depending on just how mindless the zombies are, the necromancer will have extra troubles. For one thing, can a zombie stand guard effectively? This is less of a problem when the army is moving, since they can just march around the areas an army can be, but a mindless army is an army with no scouts or watchmen. I think I had others, but they slipped my mind by the time I got this far, because holy frick did I write too much again.

    4. A lot of these questions are dependent on the precise rules of fantasy necromancy. For example, 1) presumes that undead are (fragile) perpetual motion machines that require no input after their initial creation and then endure forever. Which is not how undead behave in fantasy fiction generally, so there’s clearly some kind of implicit limit which forces zombies and skeletons and their like to require some sort of upkeep, which in turn introduces logistics questions. (And in strategy video games, this is often a requirement of upkeep in the form of magical objects like crystals, which if we take literally would suggest that undead are extraordinarily expensive to maintain. More reasonably, we conclude that undead are not a logistics-free military even if their shuffling hordes require less wagons than living beings for support.)

      But without a sense of what those rules are, it’s very difficult to say just what an undead force is capable of.

      And similarly, 3) relies on the assumption that undead are perpetual motion machines that never run down. Fantasy fiction tends to assume undead go dormant if left alone, particularly in video games, so we can assume that there’s some kind of fatigue equivalent that would presumably force them to withdraw beyond a particular point, but without any clear awareness of just how much that fatigue equivalent differs from human exhaustion.

      Note on the matter of 2) that undead which are actively decaying and thus produce the sickening stench will also be time-limited in their effectiveness, as after two weeks they will have lost their teeth and nails and thus their primary method of injuring people, and before this point they will have begun bloating and lost some mobility. After a month, the body begins liquifying in earnest and the zombie will fall apart, or the skeleton will be hampered by dead weight. So I would assume that an undead force wouldn’t stink of active decay, whether by material or margical taxidermy.

      There are also real questions about how the undead work on a psychological level- are they animated by the will of the necromancer(s)? Or at least given the capacity for intelligent-ish action by psychic command by their animators? Are they animated by some kind of summoned spirit, which would have a psychology of its own? Are they animalistic enttiies, are they a kind of magical robot? There are many ways in which an undead army would have its own morale which would drain and could be broken, and far fewer where it was truly inexhaustible.

    5. ad. 2)

      If you mean literally dead bodies, maggots and fungi would make very short work of them. They’d fall apart in a matter of days. George R. R. Martin was careful enough to make zombies appear together with winter, but this brings its own problems like blood freezing.

      Finally, zombies would be unable to heal any trivial injuries, such as stumbling, falling, and possibly breaking something. I’ve heard the most dangerous thing about knockouts in ring fights is not the blows, but the fact you fall down unconscious. When that happens you can’t cover your head with hands or shift your position to soften the fall. But zombies supposedly don’t care, right? Very bad coordination.

      ad. 4) Assuming zombies for some reason don’t rot in a matter of days, their most powerful “strategy” would be starvation among defenders.

    6. Reminds me of one of… was it Shad? One of the YouTube ‘weapon pop culture historians’ talked about the ‘best weapon for a Zombie Apocalypse’- and their answer was CASTLES. Because, yeah.

      1. Definitely sounds like Shad. If he said “a ditch”, it would be Roel Konijnendijk, “let me show you its features” – Joerg Sprave, and Skallagrim is the pommel guy. Tod Cutler would debate the type of crossbow bolt, scholagladiatoria would chat with the zombie, and Bret Devereaux would have a couple of disclaimers.

    7. Re pre-modern armies vs. zombies: if we’re talking “scientific” zombies, the problem is that they have a very strict expiration date. You mention them marching at night and the like – if you replaced a human brain with a zombie computer and tried to order around their body, even turning off pain receptors and the like means you have a pretty strict time limit on how long this zombie is going to last. 48 hours should be enough to greatly weaken a sleepless human body that isn’t getting useful sustenance, and a week should kill them all off. It’s relevant for the pre-modern experience because population density is low, so the zombies can’t find enough new recruits fast enough, while in modern times you could at least hypothesize spreading in a very crowded & dense area like southeastern China to make the math work.

      If these are “magic” zombies vs. an Iron Age army, all bets are off, but then the obvious question is “how strong is the magic binding the zombies together”. A zombie immune to hunger and muscle atrophy and the like seems like it might also be immune to getting sliced with a sword. (Which is in fact how some series do it! Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three features Cauldron-born, who are just totally invincible to anything short of knocking them off a narrow mountain path to splat in the valley below.)

    8. Cheapest response to running massed zombies over with tanks would probably be developing an antitank mine sized to be concealable inside the apparently otherwise unused portion of a typical zombie torso. Depending on what sort of magic we’re assuming, such a thing might even grow in spontaneously rather than needing to be intelligently installed – like the “boomers” from Left 4 Dead, or some sort of necrotic energy which jams moving parts and eventually penetrates heavy steel plating by virtue of unnaturally accelerated rust rather than immediate kinetic force.

  7. I have sometimes thought what the effects of a Zombie virus would be if it spreads very quickly but remains asymptomatic until the infected person dies. (I think it is like that in The Walking Dead, but I never watched that show.) As outlined, it almost certainly wouldn’t lead to any kind of apocalypse. But it would have interesting impacts on society, especially the mortuary business.

    1. Crematoria would get a nice boost in business as every other form of disposing of the dead would rapidly fall into disuse.

      1. I read in a Warhammer book that people in infested regions just bury their dead upside down, because Zombies don’t have the mental capacity to realize that where their head is pointing =/= up. So they’ll try to dig FOREVER

        1. That’s a real world thing as well, burying someone face down, in some places, was a way to keep potentially problematic dead from causing trouble, for apparently the same reason. (They’ll dig down instead of coming up.)

    2. I can’t say for sure about the show, I believe it would be the same, but in the comic it’s never explained. That was an intentional choice by Kirkman, it’s not the point after all. The Walking Dead is about the people, it’s about them and not the zombies after all.

  8. With regards to the Roman Empire versus Mediaeval Western Europe question: one significant difference I’ve noticed concerns Britain. The Roman province of Britannia was not very wealthy and for most of the empire was just there. The various kingdoms of what was to become England turned out to be quite wealthy, such that the Vikings targeted them for that wealth. Primarily due I suspect, to the improved agricultural tools.

    Concerning zombies, yes, we’re not a carnivorous species in our dentition (our teeth), which are quite unspecialized and primarily plant-focused thought not exactly herbivorous in the sense used of horses, sheep and cattle. We retain a full set of premolars, which (from my point of view) indicates that we vary our diet (I’ve hardly done a thesis on this, but I’ve noticed that every animal with premolars tends to have a diverse diet: the ones that have lost their premolars – herbivore and carnivore – tend to be quite specialized in their diet. I don’t know if anyone’s done any thesis on this, but it seems self-obvious to me.)

    1. Britannia may not have been wealthy compared to Italy or Syria or Egypt, but I’m sure it was very wealthy compared to Norway. We know that Britain was very poor in the sixth through tenth centuries — there was a great deal of depopulation (historians used to believe that London was entirely abandoned, although evidence has been discovered that this was not the case, it simply shrunk tremendously), stone building largely disappears and even rural population was in decline, as there’s evidence of extensive reforestation. I highly doubt that Alfred the Great’s England was wealthier than the Province of Britannia.

      Also, I think you’re confusing two different portions of Viking history. In the early years they were making raids and razzias to sack and pillage monasteries like Lindisfarne and Jarrow, not kingdoms. They didn’t stick around long enough for the local king or ealdorman to gather his forces and show up. When they came in force against the kingdoms, like Guntram attempted and Rollo succeded at, it was about seizing the land itself to rule and settle (I’m sure this was why they were suddenly willing to convert to Christianity even when Rollo had Charles the Bald dead to rights: he got Normandy, becoming Catholic would keep his subjects happy and ensure peace with the Franks).

    2. Other people will have better points of disagreement with you, but you’re overlooking how the loss of road maintenance changed everything in Britain with the withdrawal of the Empire. Great Britain has, at best, two navigable-in-the-typical-style-of-Mediterranean-watershed-rivers rivers; without roads reliable enough to replace river trade, you can’t get a standard of living that any Roman with any wealth at all would consider acceptable. The area became poorer but simultaneously much more worth raiding because ALL of the wealth moved as close to the tideline as it possible could.
      Also check out patterns of meat-consumption in chimpanzees, they have almost the same teeth as us.

      1. Great Britain has, at best, two navigable-in-the-typical-style-of-Mediterranean-watershed-rivers rivers

        I may be misunderstanding the “navigable-in-the-typical-style-of-Mediterranean-watershed-rivers rivers” but this video on medieval transport suggests that river transport was much more available. However I don’t know how much work would be needed to make some of the rivers navigable.

    3. Yes, we’re not carnivores or herbivores, we’re omnivores. Dentition is studied extensively in biological anthropology since some hominid species are only known by their teeth, so I’m afraid your thesis proposal would be rejected due to not adding any new knowledge.

    4. Eh, there are definitely ways to study premolars and diet as a novel study.

      That said, the idea that ‘carnivores and herbivores have both lost their premolars’ is demonstrably untrue, so the thesis as presented would probably be rejected on those grounds. Cats and dogs have premolars (in fact the famous ‘carnassial’ tooth diagnostic of Carnivorans is a premolar, although they have other premolars as well). Most herbivores have them, too, although in many herbivores that eat a lot of grasses etc. (like cows and horses) the premolars tend to be molarized.

  9. Yeah, the World War Z thing never made any sense. For your common-or-garden zombie apocalypse, the assumption generally seems to be either
    a) the army is out there somewhere, they got caught on the back foot but they probably held up okay and they’re just Doing Something Else (possibly something nefarious and conspiratorial) and not here at this shopping mall, or else
    b) by the time the army got its helmets on and realized this was a war, the insidious, slow-burn nature of the infection had already compromised key supply and logistical resources. There were already lots of infected personnel inside almost any secure area before the Powers That Be ordered a lockdown, etc. There are certainly units still fighting, but they’re having to conserve fuel and ammunition to the point where they’re not much more effective than any other survivors.

    Either of those scenarios works. So, for that matter, does the “the army had a field battle and mulched thousands of zombies, but it didn’t matter because the infection just went around.” But “jet fuel can’t melt zombie brains?” Really buddy?

    But then again, the Yonkers setup still made more sense than the Russian segments. I don’t know if this is common knowledge, apparently Max Brooks is unaware, but did you guys know that the Russian military has designed and produced new equipment since 1944? Like, they have a whole other set of tanks that actually still run! And they’ve produced literally millions of AK-47s and AK-74s! So in the event of a war… Well, Brooks is probably right, I’m sure they’d drop all that new garbage and run straight for the nearest museum in hopes of finding some sweet old Mosins or a T-34 they could get running.

    1. As a literal depiction of a zombie war, it’s pretty nonsensical. As an allegory of the Iraq War, it’s a fascinating text, with a weird mashup of ideas from the Left (the military-industrial complex is not actually useful, but persists because it has figured out how to game American politics, which is harmless enough until it has to actually fight a war) and the Right (our enemies are mindless monsters who don’t care if they live or die and don’t have any infrastructure for us to attack, but this actually makes them harder to defeat).

      1. In particular, Brooks’ fascination throughout that book with the Israeli response to the zombie outbreak is extremely telling w/r/t the right-wing racialized ideological undercurrents at play in the basic tropes of the zombie apocalypse genre, viz the idea that Israel’s fetishized history as a “nation under siege” (by vast, bloodthirsty, savage hordes of postcolonial foreign Others) has left it exceptionally well suited to weather the zombie outbreak: first, that it has an unconventionally farsighted capacity for insight and threat analysis to anticipate the zombie outbreak ahead of other countries, resembling Israel’s status as early pioneers in the ideological discourse of “counterterrorism” that came to the fore throughout the West more broadly in the 80s, 90s, and especially 2000s; second, that it has a penchant for exceptionally level-headed practicality and realism, leading it to casually set aside its ethnonational differences with the Palestinians in the name of enhanced security against the zombies, which needless to say stretches credulity well past the breaking point to anyone remotely familiar with the political and ideological climate of modern-day Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian question; and third, that it excels at innovative development of physical security infrastructure and technology, like the “Masada” style of zombie-proof building-on-stilts housing developments, which have obvious ideological resonances with West Bank hilltop settlements.

        Possibly even more telling though are two sequences that don’t appear in Brooks’ book, at least not directly: first, the Jerusalem battle sequence from the Brad Pitt movie adaptation, in which it’s genuinely hard to tell which features of the security infrastructure shown onscreen (high concrete walls around “secure” areas, segregated walkways protected from the city around them by chainlink and barbed wire, etc) were built post-outbreak to protect against zombies versus pre-outbreak to protect against Palestinians; and second, the pivotal turning point of the human war effort against the zombies in the book, the sequence where humanity adopts the “Redeker plan” originally developed in apartheid South Africa as a strategy for the white population to survive and suppress a black uprising, which with a few quick find-and-replace queries could’ve easily been rewritten to be about an Israeli plan for use against the Arabs.

        1. You seem to have missed the parts where Brooks presents the Redeker plan and its variants as being morally compromised and not really that great.

          Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

          1. Maybe I’m misremembering, but I thought the in-universe moral critique of the Redeker Plan was that it involved writing off certain groups of humans (i.e. certain groups of Afrikaners in the original plan, or certain groups of Jewish Israelis if we want to rewrite it that way) as a lost cause, basically dangling them in front of the zombie hordes (i.e. the blacks, or the Palestinians) as short-term bait to buy time for the defenders to fortify their primary strongholds against the inevitable main assault — which is very different from the broader moral critique we might have as real-world readers of the story, that the ease with which “white colonialist plan to suppress nonwhite anticolonial rebellion” can be transposed into the key of “human plan to suppress zombie outbreak” should probably compel some introspection as to the underlying ideological reasons why zombie apocalypse fiction has such cachet in our pop culture to begin with.

            Or to put it another way, we have perfectly good reason to believe that the cigar here is more than just a cigar, because Brooks himself openly uses the more-than-just-a-cigarness of the cigar (i.e. the equivalence between fictional zombie apocalypse scenarios and white supremacist plans for carrying out a race war against nonwhites) as the pivotal plot point of his book!

        2. All true, but on the other hand, the Israeli government’s sensible decision to grant refuge to Palestinians is immediately ruined by other Israelis, who launch a civil war over it- a sequence that seems inspired by the Rabin assassination.

          This is what I meant by weird left/right mashup- on the one hand, Brooks seems unable to imagine any sort of reasonable Palestinian grievance with Israel, and his obligatory “both sides” mouthpiece for Palestine is a naive conspiracy theorist who thinks the zombies are a Zionist hoax. On the other hand, the book’s biggest obstacle to Israel/Palestine cooperation is the Israeli right, which arrives to ruin things for everybody largely out of spite, and kills more Israelis “on screen” than either Arabs or zombies do.

          1. Yeah that seems right on, it’s genuinely fascinating how well Brooks’ funny little zombie story ends up embodying the contradictions of the real-world liberal Zionist mindset: on the one hand he wants the zombie apocalypse scenario to be a catalyst that forces Israeli society to “get real” and drop its hardline far-right racist tendencies in the face of total annihilation, but on the other hand, the basic underlying premise (that Israel’s experience fighting Palestinians and/or Arabs, treating them as an atavistic savage horde who can’t ultimately be reasoned with or coexisted with, and can only be subjugated, expelled, or destroyed lest they bring about total annihilation, is precisely what leaves Israel so well prepared to reckon with the threat of zombies) seems hard to distinguish from the exterminationist logic of the far-right racists from whom Brooks is so desperate to distance himself.

            Although to be fair to Brooks, his depiction of the Palestinian refugee family is pretty humanistic by ordinary Zionist standards, first in that he acknowledges them as having a legitimate claim to a “right of return” at all (a stance that would make one an instant pariah in Israeli politics) and second in that the Palestinian viewpoint character’s reactions in the novel (initially writing off the notion of a zombie outbreak as a bizarrely improbable fantasy tale, which in fact it is, and initially being deeply suspicious of the Israeli government’s face-turn toward allowing Palestinian refugees to return, which would in fact be suspiciously out of character) seem rational and understandable.

          2. It’s a solar myth.

            It’s amazing how people who see something everywhere never notice how the common factor in all these things is themselves.

          3. Unfortunately, in doing so he betrays a serious lack of understanding of Israeli ideological divides.

            The ultra-Orthodox (who refuse to serve in the army) and the National Religious (who are fervently nationalist and attached to the settlements) are two separate groups. The latter is very well-represented in the army, including in the officer corps.

            Brooks presents a religious-right-wing faction whose motives come from the latter, but whose military capabilities come from the former.

  10. The best comment I’ve seen regarding zombies is something to the effect of “There is a reason why no creature in nature has its sole source of food and reproduction also be its chief predator.”

    It’s a fun fictional trope in some ways, but let’s not confuse it with anything realistic, even if you assume zombies existing in the first place.

  11. Zombies, I think, can work as an added source of pressure (both as a physical threat and as a complicating social issue) in a post-apocalyptic scenario caused by other or related factors, although I think they tend to e a bit overused even in that niche. More Triffid movies, says I!

  12. Makes me wonder a bit about “As a general, how do you wage war in a Dungeons and Dragons world?” Obviously well-organized and tightly arranged heavy infantry is the way to go (the Roman tortoise could walk all over loose Goth formations, and later on the Swiss pikemen would make even heavy cavalry look silly – but those equations change a little when someone can drop a fireball or ice storm into the middle of that dense infantry formation…

    1. There’s another thing to consider: in D&D, a high-level fighter, all by himself and without any sort of tactical advantage, can take on a whole lot of low-level fighters, just because he’s so hard to kill. I think warfare in a Dungeons and Dragons world would have a lot of focus on producing and using highly capable people instead of large armies.

      1. It might wind up looking a bit like what we know of Bronze Age warfare from Homer etc., with champions battling in place of armies more than occasionally.

      2. That’s less true with 5e mechanics than it was with earlier editions. It’s not untrue, but it’s almost impossible for a fighter to raise their AC so high that mooks need a natural 20 to hit, and if they did so the mook doesn’t need to confirm a critical hit. 20th-level fighters can still tank dozens of hits before going down, but a hundred archers can hit him dozens of times in a single round instead of ~5.
        Also, the number of attacks high-level fighters and especially other fighting classes can make in a single round has been reduced significantly.

      3. And then he leaves town, and you get conquered by the neighbor who prepared the army of zero-levels for that contingency.

        Characters who can level are supposed to be rare — for no really good reason in any world, their abilities are not that much better — no matter how illogical it is — for instance, healing magic is supposed to be rare, but the women of D&D worlds do not basically spend their adult lives pregnant or nursing, which was needed to maintain the population at basically replacement, so SOMETHING must be suppressing the infant mortality rate. Better food would work as well as healing magic, but the agriculture magic is even less. (” Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children–no human being could stand it. ” — Virginia Woolf)

        1. Re Characters with levels being rare: This was true in early D&D, but didn’t really last. Writers did not really have the discipline to keeping to a very small stable of relevant heroes & villains and wanted to have lots of equal level allies to meet or foes to beat up, so most D&D settings rapidly decided that reasonably high-level people were everywhere, ancient liches were hiding in the local cave, etc.

          1. The rules still state that leveled characters are rare. Inconsistency is not unknown in D&D

        2. Did Virginia know about Maria Theresa? Ruled an empire and bore sixteen children!!! Women’s experiences of child bearing very enormously depending on individual constitutions. Some are terribly debilitated by pregnancy and suffer hard births, others have an easier time.

          1. True but that wouldn’t help with morning sickness, back strain and labor pains.
            For a queen empress Maria Theresa was a very attentive parent. So for that matter was her husband.

          2. Queen Anne presumably also had many servants, all the food she wanted, etc., but had 17 pregnancies with 0 adult children to show for it. Poor woman.

          3. I know. Poor, poor Queen Anne! That she remained a functional if not inspirational ruler under that kind of trauma is greatly to her credit.

      4. There’s very little fiction that even tries to address this; Gandalf, for example, is commonly understood to _maybe_ be a level 5 wizard (nevermind the de facto angelic powers he also has).

        Fighters aren’t even really the issue; wizards (and to a lesser degree clerics and druids) are vastly more game-breakingly powerful at higher levels. The first fantasy series addressing this that comes to mind is the Black Company, which tries to treat fantasy as realistically as possible. There are wizards of epic power levels taking on entire armies, but the upshot is that armies would eventually adopt magic as any other technology. Things like standard issue magic artillery weapons and countermeasures and invisible flying recon, and so on, but after account for magical tech it’s still supply lines, discipline and morale that win battles.

        1. The famous post I recall is “Aragorn is a 5th level ranger”. Gandalf casts Wall of Fire vs. the wolves before Moria, so he’s at least 7th level. 🙂 Not to mention his “off-screen” performances at Weathertop and fighting the Balrog, which probably exceed the endurance of a 30th level epic wizard.

          Black Company books are pretty cool. Magic doesn’t seem that common — I suspect the Dominator tried to kill everyone he didn’t control and destroy knowledge, and I also suspect weak wizards get the torch and pitchfork treatment due to memories of evil strong wizards — but the powerful wizards shape events. The Company has a few mid-level wizards, when most opponents *don’t*, and they go to a lot of effort to not advertise their magic resources, like talking loudly about spies to divert attention from magical scrying.

          The Company also fits the mold of “being clever with your magic to multiply mundane force is more useful than just killing people directly with it”, though the powerful wizards are often good at just killing people.

          1. Gandalf is unambiguously in the ‘monsters with character levels’ category, as an Outsider who studied and adventured; the most intriguing question is whether he has a Sword Proficiency or just plays through the non-Proficient penalties? But I wanted to talk about magic in the Black Company.
            The Black Company’s spellcasters represent the closest thing to a discontinuity in the series. Initially, magic is presented as something that any mercenary company could invest in, but that hardly anyone considers worth the cost; in the Black Company, the wizards’ skills are barely supernatural, but the Company keeps them because the Company will take any survival advantage, even those that don’t make economic sense. As the books progress, the Company finds itself facing more magic, but wizardry is explicitly rarer than initially described, so writing the Company’s mages as more relevant requires that Cook also write them as more unique and more powerful. As of the most recent book, at least one of those mages was both verified by two immortally powerful beings as inconsequentially weak and had always been powerful enough to possibly kill those immortals. Yes, unreliable narrators, obfuscation, these are still awesome books with a fantastic story and setting; but it’s clear from a reader’s perspective that Cook didn’t have the place of magic in his world quite nailed down when he started writing!
            Lastly, I should note that the early Black Company books are known to be sources for the videogame ‘Myth: The Fallen Lords’ from the late ’90s, a game that remains one of the best explorations of tactical undead use. That’s the way that the game most departs from the Black Company books, but it’s on topic for this post so I have to mention it.

          2. As Endymionologist gets at, equating Gandalf to a PC character class is a mistake. One compounded by the fact that Middle Earth is a low magic setting relative to standard D&D. There are a fair number of magic items, magic infused in nature, but spellcasting is extremely rare and limited.

            In D&D terms a Solar or Planetar, or some other celestial, would be a better equivalent for Gandalf.

        2. Another story that goes into this is “A Practical Guide to Evil” which is published online. The story involves “Named”, people who are essentially main characters according to the world and get fantastical powers. There is also magic with the ability to throw fireballs or have scrying spells and such.

          The normal magic is most effectively used in combar by the Evil Empire of the story: A few decades before the start of the story the new Black Knight from the Dread Empire of Praes reformed the army to actually make good use of the mages, essentially using them to make magic shields against missile attacks or throw fireballs. That kind of stuff could be common in a higher magic D&D setting.
          But in the meantime possibly more important is the combat between the few and far between Named and their plans. If they remain unengaged for too long they can often shape the entire battle in their favour, for example the main character once manages to open a magic portal above the enemy portal… and below a lake, instantly killing so many enemies it is the main thing that wins that battle.

      5. Weren’t “Hit points” supposed to be an abstraction of dodging, parrying, skill and experience in general?

        Besides, D&D is known for “linear fighters, quadratic wizards”. I wouldn’t worry about _fighters_.

          1. Evidently there are people from both the ‘gaming’ and ‘simulation’ ends of the spectrum commenting here.

            In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which came out around 40 years ago (my god that makes me feel old) it was written in the rules that lots of hit points represented the ability of adventurers to use their experience / talent / plot armour to turn potentially fatal or disabling wounds into lesser injuries. A high level fighter would come out of a massive combat with cuts, bruises, sprains, and cracked ribs instead of being dead several times over. But even though a Mighty Hero can fight with a torn hamstring or whatever, they would still need to be healed afterwards.

            As the years passed D&D shifted away from its wargaming roots with a wider player base, and computer games made gaming rather than simulation mechanics more familiar for many or most players. So now a D&D adventurer has hit points that are lost in combat and need to be regained, just as the “hero” of a first person shooter computer game has a health bar, and regains health by running into crates stamped with a red cross. No justification provided, that’s how the game works.

          2. I played AD&D. A cleric, at that. It said that about lots of hit points, too. It also required that every last one of them be healed, and at the same slow rate regardless of level (until I intervened).

    2. This depends on precisely which assumptions from the D&D books we consider, and what assumptions we make to fill in the gaps. Taking everything at face value, armies seem to mostly fight like Hollywood medieval armies, plus a few mages and a surprising number of small unreliable mercenary bands.

      A few specific points:
      ► What edition are we talking? This mostly changes the exact numbers. From here on in, unless stated otherwise, I’m assuming the 5e ruleset.
      ► What is the typical level distribution of the setting? Most settings assume the overwhelming majority of the population is low-level, with high-level characters being almost unheard of (though the line between “fairly common” and “high-level” varies from 6-7th level to the upper teens). At the same time, PCs can advance from 1st level to arbitrarily high levels within a year or so, depending on the campaign, and the party never struggles to find a replacement for any dead party members (or a character for new players to play). The play experience clashes with the lore here.
      Note: The 3.5 DMG has a set of town-generating rules which provides an answer, if combined with some pre-existing assumptions about how common each type of settlement is, but most people find the suggestion that every metropolis (city with 25k+ people) has the equivalent of a couple near-epic adventuring parties in it ridiculous.
      ► What do high-level characters do? Again, there’s a clash between how NPCs are written and how PCs act. NPCs of even moderate level are at least local VIPs, and truly powerful ones are usually recluses who only emerge when a writer needs a deus ex machina. But high-level PCs often just act as an errand-boy to somewhat more powerful nobles than were ordering them around at first level, or even the same middle-management-noble patron they had then.
      Generally speaking, the more that high-level characters (especially but not exclusively spellcasters meddle in political affairs like wars, the harder it is to make definitive statements about how they’d turn out.
      ► How common are spellcasters, and how willing(/forced) are they to act in their ruler’s best interest? This is the big one—even low-level spellcasters can change the world in large numbers. For instance, create food and water is a 3rd-level cleric spell (meaning it needs a 5th-level cleric, because Gygax hated synonyms or something); a single casting can feed 15 humanoids for a day, and a 5th-level cleric can cast it twice a day. But that’s nothing compared to goodberry; while it only feeds ten people, it can be cast at 1st level, meaning any apprentice druid can feed 20 people indefinitely. (And a 5th-level druid can feed ninety, if they dedicate all their spell slots to the task.) This kind of basic logistical/supply magic is going to affect wars (and civilian life, which affects armies, which affects wars) more than any fireball.
      Of course, clerics are tied to temples, and druids to their circles. Whether the holy churches/druidic orders are political entities in tension with local nobility (like the medieval Catholic church, but with magic) or part of the same political structure (like the Roman Republic/early Empire, but with magic) is not exactly addressed within the books. And obviously, rulers are going to want to use these incredible magic powers for things other than feeding people. But utility magic is going to matter more than the obvious battle spells.
      ► How common/usable are supernatural beings? This is a bit of a catchall question, handling everything from taming dire animals to raising armies of the unhallowed dead to gating in solars/pit fiends to building oversized golems to alliances with great wyrm dragons (perhaps of the golden variety). Suffice to say, almost everything in the monster manual could change warfare in some direction or another if they joined an army in significant numbers.
      ► Why are there so many wild areas and monsters, right next to powerful centralized kingdoms? Not all settings have this, but most do, including basically all of the “default” ones (e.g. Faerun, Greyhawk, Golarion). After all, “civilized” realms serve as a home base for adventurers and something to protect, while “wild” areas are a source of mystery and wonder and danger. Both are necessary for PCs. Which brings me to…
      ► Where do the PCs fit into this? D&D covers a wide variety of settings, from the rigidly-generic fantasy of Faerun to the quasi-steampunk of Eberron to the post-apocalyptic deserts of Dark Sun to the city-world of Ravnica. There are worlds dominated by European kingdoms, Greco-Roman empires, orientalist chop suey, disgustingly racist savages, and more; any world with enough books published for it will have distant regions dominated by different cultures and political entities. The only thing all D&D worlds have in common is D&D—by which I mean the game. Sure, D&D worlds can exist outside the confines of a D&D table (Dragonlance is probably better-known for its novels than its campaign setting), but most were designed for the table before the page, and that’s how most people will primarily experience them. Any analysis of “D&D worlds” which ignores the D&D part is either missing the point or asking the wrong question (wanting a “generic fantasy” answer instead of a D&D answer).

      Sorry for the wall of text. But hopefully that explains why you can’t just jump straight to “How would phalanxes need to adjust to account for fireballs?” You need to figure out what society is producing the army before you can understand what army they would produce.

      1. Clerics and druids frequently have little to no ties to churches.

        Indeed, they tend to have little tie to the gods they nominally worship. I could garner strange looks from other players merely by having my cleric use the god in an exclamation. (Depends on play style, but lots of gamers treat them as healing magic sources.)

        1. That’s just bad DMing, though. If a player is deliberately OR accidentally bent on making a name for their character as an outsider to a local power structure (church, druid circle, feudal kingdom, etc.), the DM should be creating a full series of NPCs who show up, complain, interfere with your shopping, and also scheme in the background to turn the other local power structures against you. For a higher level nonconformist cleric, you might even add in an NPC cult that reveres them as a living saint and causes endless trouble for (and defamation of) the PC.
          Basically a refusal to role-play in a roleplaying game should always be met with obstacles that you can only role-play your way out of.

      2. A friend who has read a lot of history felt that D&D settings make sense in a post-collapse setting. Lots of stuff and buildings with far fewer people, relics and magical leftovers,…

        1. Maybe it’s a continuing episodic collapse?. Every so often a deity notices that people are wearing mixed clothing or eating herons and smites the place. Meanwhile the area next door has recovered after a smiting so severe that the deity lost all his followers and is now powerless.

          There’s always a retcon…

          1. I think that the period of European history most like the classic D&D setting is the 30 Years War. You’ve got a relative absence of central authority, bands of heavily-armed men travelling the country killing and looting as they please, regular wolf attacks from animals grown used to eating the abundant dead bodies, and a state of heightened fear over the supernatural and specifically witchcraft. Of course, the cause of this societal breakdown in the game isn’t mentioned – in fact it’s implied that this is a stable state of affairs and it’s just taken for granted that this is how the pseudo-medieval world works.

        2. D&D itself is inspired by Dying Earth – 4 fantasy books published by Jack Vance between 1950 and 1984. The Earth turning into a red giant is a big theme in the book, no one wants to invest in anything long term. The magic system in particular is copied straight to D&D. Spells have to be committed to memory and once used they’re forgotten. Presumably they need to be memorized again, but I only read one book – it has only recently been translated – and there may be more to it.

          1. Vance had that you could memorize any spell you could lay your hands on. It was just dangerous because they were dynamic.

        3. This is also my view: the type of world that a D&D campaign tends to be set in is one of reclaiming lost land. Players tend to go out into the wild, into abandoned things that are obviously a product of civilization (dungeons, ruined castles, towns with abandoned districts, that sort of stuff) without the knowledge of when exactly it came from.

          To me this implies some collapse in the past and the resulting power vaccuum and mess result in the campaign setting. In the game I play in the collapse consisted of a god being imprisoned in the center of our subcontinent a thousand years ago and trying to break out ever since, making most areas (nearly everything except hill and mountaintops) too dangerous to live in.

          In the game I DM, the players are part of a “colony in the new world” kind of thing, but in a continent that just went through a worse case of a post-Rome collapse giving them lots of stuff to find in the wilderness as well as roads that still exist.

      3. A lot of the early D&D is also post-apocalyptic in a very specific style ripped wholesale from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books. The DMs knew this; the players sometimes knew this. At this point, though, it’s so tropified that people haven’t stopped to think about it much in at least a decade.

        There are also questions about the limits of things you can do with magic, and especially things in an arguably magitech style. This ends up being extremely rule-specific because a lot of them have been patched out in later editions or alternately houseruled with something to the effect of “We all know where this ends up. Kindly don’t do that.” When taken to their logical extreme, you end up with stuff like Eberron if you’re whimsical, or something indistinguishable from Iain M. Banks’s Culture if you’re really aggressive.

        For example:

        Can I have traps that cast spells? Any spell? What if my trap casts Create Food and Drink? (Is this a Star Trek style replicator? Maybe it only outputs nutritious sludge.)

        Are stable teleportation circles a thing? Are they networked? (Can you have competing networks? This could make teleportation circles a security vulnerability.) How many can you build? What happens if I build a bunch in every city in the world? (One DM I knew had an answer to that last one of “Demons come out and eat you if you build too many, so don’t.”)

        Teleportation in general is a security nightmare. How do large political organizations handle teleported special forces attacks? (Could an enterprising set of PCs murder every king until people stop declaring themselves king?)

    3. The question that Arneson and Gygax were trying to answer was ‘how do you take rules for modelling army-on-army battles and adapt them to small/individual tactical scales?’ Hence “Dungeons”. I haven’t played myself since 3.5, but up until then at least the sourcebooks were full of items, spells, and fantasy setting history indicating that the realities of state-on-state conflicts are largely unchanged beyond cosmetic considerations. Magical arrow-repelling helmets balance out Bow +2s, the rarity of unique spells and the counterspelling mechanics also help to keep magic roughly as decisive as pre-modern gunpowder, and nations that in the real world would have had to develop saltpeter logistics still have a need to develop reliable sources of odd feathers & holly berries & powdered gemstones. In AD&D, most classes got forts and armed subordinates as a mechanical leveling benefit, a properly-played 17+ level character was intended to be so constrained by leadership obligations that the player would want to retire them and have fun with a new char.
      Just like in the real world, you should see battlefield disasters. In D&D Ice Storm or Fireball (or more likely some sort of Acid/Hedgehog/Basketweaving custom spell cooked up by an evil wizard) would be the mechanism of those disasters, but they would not be more common than here in the real.

      1. The problem is that AD&D and 2nd Edition (which had broadly compatible rulesets in many respects) have this kind of “it’s enough like real life to be recognizable” dynamic going on in theory. But in practice, as soon as you go over the spell lists and available options with a creative eye, things look iffy.

        There are too many spells that aren’t well balanced to fit into the context of mass warfare unless you make very strong assumptions about just how rare and restricted they are.

        For instance, armies face all the usual battlefield disaster problems, plus the fact that any competent caster with access to fourth level spells can cause localized battlefield disasters on demand at least once per day. It cancels out if both sides have roughly equivalent caster support, but only in the same sense that “both sides have machine guns” cancels out- by the time the effects are fully resolved and felt by both sides, the nature of warfare has changed greatly.

        Dense formations of low level infantry have very poor survivability if the enemy has wizards- a simple Grease spell can cripple them just before the point of contact, and the gods help you if they have someone with seriously damaging area effect spells. Many of the best ways to turn the tide of a battle revolve around a small number of very powerful individual beings (ogre mercenaries, high level fighters, high level wizards), and the rock-paper-scissors tactics of using or neutralizing those beings does a lot more to win battles than the actual armies of mooks do. ‘

        Enemies who have more than one kind of powerful being are especially nasty (a giant throwing boulders from behind my shield wall is good to have, a wizard who can cast Protection from Normal Missiles is good to have, both is a whole far more dangerous than the sum of its parts!)

        1. One thing I often consider when trying to conceptualise magic-infused warfare that doesn’t render conventional forces completely obsolete is that defender’s advantage could play a large role. If it’s a lot easier to stop a fireball than to make one, any force with a decent level of caster support will presumably have to be attacked conventionally.

          Alternatively – in the Prince of Nothing novels IIRC the mages on both sides of the pseudo-crusade have army-killing power, but spend most of the campaign desperately husbanding it because whoever expends too much first risks their spellcasters getting immediately attacked by other side’s and losing the war.

    4. Unearthed Arcana (a 3.5e supplement full of miscellaneous rules hacks) had some suggestions for running high-magic or low-magic campaigns. It suggested that a high-magic battlefield with wizards on both sides would look something like WWI trench warfare – a heavy reliance on concealment and cover because any group of soldiers in the open will eat a fireball or cloudkill. And there’s no tank-equivalent in D&D magic to allow units to break the deadlock.

      Alternatively, if you want to ignore flavor and just ask “how would D&D spells as written shape society?” take a look at the “Tippyverse.” Basically, D&D has spells that completely upend a medieval-fantasy economy. You can set up permanent teleportation networks, create endless food and water for free, generate massive material wealth, etc. The result is a setting with incredibly wealthy and dense cities built around teleportation circles, while everything outside those cities kind of withers away, because less dense settlements have a wider area to cover with fewer wizards, meaning that they can’t take advantage of permanent spells as easily and they’re more vulnerable to, say, an army getting teleported to their doorstep.

      1. That’s only if you treat clerics as wizards. What do you think the goddess of agriculture will think of everyone leeching off her magic and not even trying to work for her bounty? It sounds like a quick route to no spells to create food, or, at best, a world in which relying on such spells, even in necessity, is a fault to be alone for.

        1. By RAW, clerics are indeed basically wizards with more HP and weapons, and their spells can be stored in wand or scrolls or magic items just like a wizard’s. Everlasting Rations and the Decanter of Endless Water are right out of the books. If you want to invent a reason why the gods won’t let this be used on the scale of a society, that’s between you and your GM.

          Also, any cleric can cast “create food and water”, not just followers of the god of agriculture – I imagine that the god of magic would greatly approve of a society powered by magic items, and that most good-aligned gods would approve of giving free food to the poor.

          Also also, even if the clerics refuse to be a part of the economic revolution for religious reasons, the sorcerers, wizards, druids, and bards can do almost everything just fine on their own. The most obvious workaround would be to summon or bind a creature that casts cleric spells, but there are lots of options – D&D has a *lot* of economy-breaking spells.

          1. That’s lousy world-building. Yes, every cleric can cast every spell, but the power has to come from somewhere, and if the cleric of the death god can create food and the power does come from the land of the dead, you have a hole the size of the galaxy.

          2. The underlying theology of D&D is sketched out in very rough terms that do not necessarily include “where does the gods’ power come from?”

            There are fairly detailed descriptions of the Outer Planes where the gods reside. Because those are places that the characters can conceivably visit with magic. And there are detailed descriptions of the beings that reside there. Because those are entities that the characters can summon or encounter for combat, and D&D is far more detailed about anything adjacent to combat than anything not adjacent to combat.

            But it’s not necessarily even true that the gods’ power is limited in D&D, in the sense that there is some finite well of energy that is diminished by spells, and that the gods must therefore dole out in a limited manner. Because not every DM would automatically want to run their campaign that way, so it’s not built into the rulebooks.

            Part of the problem with the picture is that D&D isn’t so much a worldbuilding exercise as it is a game engine. It’s designed to provide a toolbox that someone else can use to perform a worldbuilding exercise… and then implement that worldbuilding exercise in the form of a hack-and-slash dungeon-delving roleplaying game.

          3. “The power has to come from somewhere.” Since when does D&D have to obey the laws of thermodynamics?

            Maybe the power is channeled from the infinite Plane of Positive Energy. Maybe the cleric acts as a transformer that turns generalized “divine power” into whatever the cleric wants (which would neatly explain why it takes a more experienced cleric to cast greater miracles). Maybe the Gods get more power from the worship of people who love free food than they lose in conjuring it. Maybe the exertion of power is only in creating the magic item, and after that it runs off ambient mana. Maybe divine power is like solar power – available in such quantity that humans will only ever use the tiniest fraction of it.

            I thought of all those explanations in about five minutes – you could probably think of more yourself if you stopped fixating on the idea that power needs to have a cost to be “balanced” or something.

            Also, I specifically said that Tippyverse is neglecting flavor and saying “let’s suppose that D&D spell mechanics exactly as written on a mass scale, what world does that imply?” – so replying with “D&D spell mechanics are stupid” seems pretty irrelevant.

          4. I’m sorry, “clerics can cast spells outside their domain list” sounds like the sort of thing that should trigger a war of the gods? If a Level 1 cleric of Pelor casts Inflict Light Wounds on an enemy, Nerull should swoop down to the Material Plane and smite him for stepping out of line? You think that’s a thing players should expect to happen in D&D?

            Have you ever, like, actually played a game of D&D? Did your DM make you play a cleric like that? Because if so, I feel sorry for you.

          5. Does making up the argument you want really strike as a strong position?

            Clerics putting farmers out of work was the claim.

        2. As was said, maybe Good gods are happy to help out. Divine motivation and limits is a setting detail, not rules.

          Magic utility varies with edition; I made a list of useful cantrips and first level spells in 5e D&D. Mending and a spell that cleans stuff are very useful arcane cantrips. Cure Light Wounds helps with everyday injuries. A bird familiar gives you a messenger smart enough to fly back and forth between locations. Ray of Frost cantrip should logically let you produce ice at will.

          1. In no D&D setting are the Good gods so passive and nice that they will just let themselves be exploited endlessly. They have character.

          2. You can build a world where magic is mostly used practically (I have done so, made a home-brew game and written a few books set there), but it’s not any kind of D&D. too many flow on changes, to gender relations, religion and more. Doesn’t make D&D a bad game – I play it too.

      2. Yeah, UA was a really annoying book. 3.5 was the PEAK of the ‘wizards-do-nothing-because-of-other-wizards’ rulesets: not only did you still have Dispel Magic’s original full counterspelling mechanics, there was also adversarial spell disruption from Knowledge (Arcana) checks, and for a variety of reasons (rule bloat) the average saving throw was easier to succeed at. So they printed a book all about how, ‘no, magic is really cool and powerful still,’ but if you took the time to build out the setting and enforce the written rules, it didn’t change much.
        Anyway it’s true that if your D&D setting world doesn’t have permanent teleportation networks it’s for the same reason that it doesn’t have an Interstate Highway System, that is, because nobody’s built it. Still, I’ve been waiting for the publication of the supplement with the rules for income tax financed public infrastructure programs since I bought the Stronghold Builder’s Guide back in the Naughts…It must’ve come out by now and I’ve just missed it, right?

  13. I suspect that for most Roman provincial, the main impact of the establishment of the principate was that armies marched through your province a *lot* less often. The last few decades of the Republic had been an ever-escalating kaleidoscope of civil wars that showed no signs of stopping without some kind of existential reformation.

  14. Zombies would I think only be effective in conjunction with other forces. They are great terror weapons (they would cause panic among the civilians and probably rout less cohesive forces). In the context of medieval technology, you have basically the perfect anti-cavalry measure, as they would scare the horses and blunt the charge, seeing as they don’t have the mental capacity to be afraid of the horsemen. You could also use them to great effect in sieges. They would keep the defenders busy and allow your more valueable fighters to stay out of the attrition zone.
    But you should 100% back them up with actual human combatants.

    1. Would they scare the horses, though? I don’t think they’d be any scarier than living infantry. Animals don’t get creeped out by corpses.

      1. If we talk about rotting Zombies, then yes, they would scare horses. Of course, warhorses are trained to tolerate the stench of blood and rotting meat, but horses now that if something smells rotten, it should not be moving at all anymore. At least on first encounter I could imagine horses freaking out when they see a human with his clearly rotting organs coming out of them.

        1. I’m not convinced. I don’t think horses are sophisticated enough to be all that bothered by seeing things that challenge their preconceptions.

          1. On the other hand, horse are spooked by notably dangerous objects such as the stump they pass every day or a bucket that’s not in the usual spot.

          2. If you don’t know horses, you ought to try reading Judith Tarr’s series on writing fantasy horses accurately. You can find her listed on

          3. They absolutely are; as Dr. Devereaux has pointed out, cavalry horses will even shy away from camels if they’re not already familiar with them.

      2. Horses get freaked out by camels. I think saying that zombies creep them out would be reasonable.

        That’s not getting into how zombies are consistently depicted as unnerving animals (especially dogs, but also livestock, wild animals, etc) more than either corpses or humans would. Sure, arguing from media depictions of zombies is weaker than arguing from how real horses behave, but most zombies need something unrealistic just to move, focusing on the characteristics of individual zombies in media seems reasonable (even if we disregard their depiction of horde dynamics).

    2. Depending on the details of zombie psychology (in particular, whether they can be trained), zombies might well be as dangerous to your own side as to the enemy. Getting animals as smart as elephants to consistently attack the enemy rather than your own troops was surprisingly difficult, I’m not sure how you’d get literal zombies to do it.
      Not to mention that, depending on the details of how zombie-bitten corpses become zombies, this would probably render battlefields far more dangerous in the hours or days after the battle—though whether this is a good thing or bad presumably depends on your operational and strategic objectives, I suppose.

      1. In some media, Zombies can be controlled just like robots by a Necromancer. Otherwise there is no way in hell they’ll ever cooperate with you. Most of the time they seem about as smart as slugs or other invertebrates. They move until they encounter something edible, at which point they attack it or die trying. Obviously such organisms are too dumb to train for anything. So I’m mainly thinking about the Zombies-are-flesh-robots version here.

    3. I’m not sure zombies are all that scary in general. Any dairy farmer or home health-care worker has to deal with things more disgusting than zombies every week.

      1. But those things are hardly ever wanting or trying to eat the farmer. Health-care workers might be more experienced at that, I admit

  15. One of the reasons Rome lasted so long was that chaos in the center never had much effect on the provinces or on the classes below senatorial rank. The system was strong enough to keep rolling while the elite were distracted.

    Personally I’ve always felt explosive ammo and flame throwers were the thing to use against zombies.

  16. I feel like crows and bears and a lot of other animals would just eat the zombies, and that would be the end of it. Unless animals can themselves become zombies; then we’re screwed.

    1. That’s what happens in Stand Still, Stay Silent. All mammals (pretty much) can get zombifies so humanity was very screwed.

  17. Also in the zombie situation with still functioning sates… why do soldiers still keep wearing gear designed for fighting humans with guns and fighting modern war? Seems to me if bite is the method of action and that all the zombies got some modern chain mail suit, gauntlets and full helmet kinda let you stand about kill zombies by any means at hand. Personally before I went looking for a shot gun I be raiding the MET for a suit of gothic plate I could cram into.

    1. I mean, I’m old enough to remember when the Pentagon tried to stop the families of the deployed from privately sourcing anti-shrapnel plates for body armor. It was a little bit after the Occupation government decided not to guard one of the world’s largest stockpiles of explosives, because they were construction-industry charges not labeled for military use.

      1. I’d like to see a little bit more details on that. The story I heard (and I did a little bit of research on it after hearing) was that DoD forbade the use of a specific type of body armor by the troops that was said to be more effective than the issue armor. When I looked into the claim, the reason for the ban on the use of the armor was because the carriers were made of synthetic material that would melt and stick to the wearer in a fire (causing additional damage and making treatment more complicated), whereas the issue armor was either cotton or of a non-melting synthetic that would not stick to the wearer.
        (This is a concern in any environment where there is a significant risk of fire – it was part of the lock-out/tag-out training I took in an IT job where the IT dept was subordinate to the Electrical Facilities dept)


        My brain dredged out the brand name from the old memory, and Wikipedia says “it’s complicated” (and that I was substantially incorrect)

        It also specifically addresses your claim: “On March 30, 2006 the Army banned all privately purchased commercial body armor in theater. Army officials told the Associated Press that the ban order was prompted by concerns that soldiers or their families were buying inadequate or untested commercial armor from private companies”

        1. The ban was justified as a ban on substandard and untested materials, that is true. It was probably also an accurate justification. I also believe there were cases of private companies preying on insecurities. And…my old brain also combined my memories of vehicle armor shortages and body armor shortages, so I apologize for that. But in 2004, this still happened:
          “‘War is a come-as-you-are party,’ said Lt. Gen. C.V. Christianson, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics, in an interview yesterday.”
          We remember a lot of Rumsfeld’s worst statements as if they were personal gaffes, but they were Department policy. When the ban came down, most families weren’t sending cool flare to hotrod up their sons and daughters, they were sending basic equipment that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

    2. Gothic plate? Why would I go all the way to the museum without protection! In my house we probably have 3 times as many sets of gloves as people, some in different kid sizes and some thin and some thick. 3 layers of gloves and 4 layers of socks, a raincoat and rainpants over my normal ones, then a bike helmet and mouth mask and a bunch of scarves and I think as Bret says at that point I’m basically safe too, at least for the duration of my trip to the store.

  18. Five stars for your zombie analysis. I enjoyed the book, and the film was no more silly, and zombie rampages are fun popcorn munching movies, but people really have no idea what grenades, bombs and artillery do to the people such rounds hit.

    And don’t me started on the big scene in the book where they lure the zombie hordes into a free fire zone and grind them down. It makes no damn sense from any sensible understanding of ballistic effects, let alone logistical requirements to cover the weight of the ammunition fired.

    Basically, a 50 cal browning machine gun would do a good enough job of cutting any zombies down, let alone a GECAl (50 cal rotary cannon). So bravo. Well said.

    And for the haters, if anyy, I still love me some zombie fest action.

  19. Barbed wire would also be effective; we’ll actually talk about this in a few weeks, but a zombie whose clothing or skin is caught on the wire would be every bit as stuck as a human, giving abundant time to be shot, stabbed, etc.

    I’d put money on a typical zombie getting stuck worse than a human. Humans understand why the barbed wire is holding them in place, zombies might not.

    I am put in mind here of the ‘ineffective’ M270 MLRS barrage at the ‘Battle of Yonkers‘ in World War Z where the rockets are ineffective because the zombies are tightly packed—

    Wait, in what universe does packing targets tightly make explosives less effective?!?

    Honestly, given opponents who can only attack with their teeth and fingernails, I’d go further and say that I’d say the advantage is probably held by any disciplined, iron-age or later army if the issue came to an actual battle rather than an issue of epidemic disease control.

    Interesting. Why “iron-age,” specifically? From my amateur point of view, it seems like most of the advantages you talk about iron age armies having would apply to Bronze Age armies, at least ones from the later, larger, and more-organized states. Not as much—when it comes to military organization, the Egyptians were no Romans—but enough that the zombies wouldn’t win.

  20. “the top road speed of the M1A2 is 42mph

    And that’s the governeed top speed.

    It is generally thought that they are capable of going rather faster in the real world, if you turn that off – which might happen, say, any time there’s a Real War.

    1. Possibly, but I’m pretty sure the governor’s there for a reason. Most engines that have a governor installed because otherwise, when run at their designed maximum power output, they could damage parts of themselves.

  21. The word “zombie” comes to English from colonial-Caribbean religion; but nearly all of the narrative elements of the common zombie stories (and especially Hollywood Movie Zombie Stories) derive from 17th and 18th European plague diaries. Nearly all, I say: zombie ARMIES, of course, come from fascism, and zombie BITES come from rabies.
    In these plague diaries, the ‘mindless’ are people who emerge after the initial wave of mass death, rendered shambling and unsocializable by grief and the constant sight of corpses, but this was all before a real germ theory of disease and before any respect for mental health crises, so the zombielike behavior is maybe just additional plague symptoms.
    I mention all of this because it means we should understand an apocalypse-creating ‘zombie plague’ not as one infection, but two. An airborne disease that kills quickly and massively but burns out completely by the start of the story, and a second (waterborne?) disease that is widespread but nearly harmless until you die. Perhaps bite-transmission is even a third infection, even literal rabies. Regardless, your organized-military-versus-the-zombies scenarios should assume a truly disruptive-sized mass death event precipitating the conflict, or you aren’t being true to the genre.

    1. On the contrary, I think there’s a fairly compelling case that nearly all of the narrative elements of common zombie stories derive from 19th and 20th century Euro-American racial narratives (one might even say “racist narratives” if one was unafraid of offending certain special snowflakes) about small groups of embattled white colonialists nobly combating the savage, atavistic, bloodthirsty rage of the nonwhite colonized masses, from the “white colonial explorers encountering the barbarism of the Heart of Darkness” trajectory (as expressed in the earliest American popular zombie stories, like the 1932 movie “White Zombie” set on a Haitian plantation), to the classic Western archetype of cowboys/cavalry vs Injuns, to the more modern reactionary archetype of police and/or armed suburbanites suppressing an uprising of urban ghetto dwellers.

        1. Half-Orcs written by Americans tend to be stand-ins for African-Americans, but I wouldn’t call it any kind of secret. Fantasy ‘races’ are normally vehicles for depicting racial conflict without depicting specific real-world ‘races,’ but you unfortunately can’t rely on writers to always do the hard work of creating something truly original, so you often get fiction that just reskins existing packages of stereotypes.
          Now, maliciously bigoted fiction does exist, but mostly writers are just humans doing the human thing of putting in the least effort they can get away with w/r/t interrogating their own subconscious biases. So you’re maybe too absolutist, but I wouldn’t say you’re wrong.

          1. Something that most people don’t know can only not be a secret by being nonexistent.

        2. Like I said above, it’s pretty easy to pursue this line of argument when the work being discussed is World War Z, because the metaphor isn’t just subtext, it’s explicitly part of the text! The characters in-universe are fighting and losing a zombie war, they come across an apartheid-era South African strategic plan for the embattled Afrikaner minority to fight and win a war of racial extermination against the black African majority, they consciously decide to apply the same strategic framework one-to-one to the zombie war, and they succeed.

          I mean come on, the allegory is so clear and direct that on some level I’m not sure if it even counts as an “allegory” anymore, and trying to argue that it isn’t there at all seems like trying to apply the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” canard to a cigar that’s sold under the brand label “Allegorical Phallus Cigar Company: Hey Everyone, This Cigar Is Intended to Symbolize a Phallus.”

        3. I love this attempts to sarcastically handwave away analysis like these because they never state the implicit alternative: “the social system in which people lived and the values they absorbed had no influence on their writing of fantasy settings. Sure, a lot of kids in the US grew up reading novels about the heroic Englishmen fighting the savages, playing cowboys agains indians, and being socialized by adults who would have rather died rather than drinking to the same water fountain of a black person, but the moment they started writing fantasy or SF all of this disappeared because yes” is much more reasonable position, right?

          Also, sometimes you don’t even to be speculative. We now FOR A FACT that Tolkien modeled dwarfs to be the fantasy equivalent of “semitic people”, and that Campbell wanted aliens to be the SF equivalent of “inferior races” (and demanded all authors working for him to do the same (hence the lack of aliens in Asimov’s stories: he did not want to play the game). But god forbids to suggest that maybe these tendencies held for sure by more-than-influential writers might have been representative of (or even cause of) a broader trend

          1. People commit crimes. This is obvious.

            Nevertheless, I can not just declare that you are a murderer, because you are a person, and murder is a crime. You must prove it in each case.

            In particular when you assert that “We [k]now FOR A FACT that Tolkien modeled dwarfs to be the fantasy equivalent of ‘semitic people’,” when in reality Tolkien described how in some respects their situations are analogous, you need to provide extra good evidence because you are arguing in bad faith.

      1. … small groups of embattled white colonialists nobly combating the savage, atavistic, bloodthirsty rage of the nonwhite colonized masses, from the “white colonial explorers encountering the barbarism of the Heart of Darkness” trajectory (as expressed in the earliest American popular zombie stories, like the 1932 movie “White Zombie” set on a Haitian plantation)

        Yeah, I get the impression that people making this argument have generally never seen a lot of early zombie movies, and certainly not White Zombie, where the “nonwhite colonized masses” are either a handful of zombie slaves of the sorcerer, barely visible in a single scene (in contrast to his more visible and threatening white zombie slaves) or are (all two of them) sensibly scared of the sorcerer. (The sorcerer is himself white.)

        It’s really a story about visiting Americans threatened by local whites from some vaguely defined ruling class — specifically, the plantation owner who wants the American girl for himself and the sorcerer (who lives in a cliffside castle) who he hires to get him the girl.

        I suspect very few early zombie movies actually match your proposed narrative (and certainly not, e.g., the “Nazi zombie” movies that were their own sub-sub-genre by the 1960s).

  22. Hollywood seems to think that modern warfare is just rifle infantry and the occasional tank, with CAS for big dramatic moments. Artillery is rarely seen. The only times I can remember seeing artillery make a big appearance is in things that are closely adapted from real operations (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Generation Kill). Any zombie horde is going to get pasted by as much as a single artillery battery.

    But I think zombies might fare better against an Iron Age army than you give them credit for. They are doubtless going to terrifying to whatever poor soldier has to face them at spear-length, and their disregard for formations will allow them to envelop an enemy formation. Zombies probably won’t stack themselves very deep so they’ll need smaller numbers to present the same frontage. That said, we have to make some pretty significant assumptions about zombie mutations to give them weapons capable of harming an armored infantryman.

  23. Zombies are often portrayed as thermodynamics-violators; so arguably right from the off if you’re positing actual ‘walking corpses’ and not, say, violent infected hoodlums (think Garth Ennis’s ‘Crossed’), you’re introducing something supernatural into the mix. It should be noted that the original European vampire is much closer to what we think of today as a ‘zombie’ (a risen corpse driven to feed on the living) than the zombie (a soulless body used as a personal servitor).

    Raiding the vampire legendarium gives us some undead monsters that could presumably pose a greater threat – such as the nelapsi, which kills you if it sees you, or the varcolaci (confusingly, the term means ‘werewolf’ and also refers to a more recognisable werewolf) which calls out its victims’ name to kill them. Usually however these weren’t envisaged as multiplying quite so readily as the Hollywood zombie – a noteable exception being the German Neuntöter, which is explicitly a plague-carrier which rises to kill nine people, who each themselves rise as Neuntöter (arguably an attempt at understanding the mechanism of a pandemic).

    This all makes me wonder – what about an army of undead *revenants* (think the Norwegian aptrgangr); soldiers who retain human intelligence but no longer need to eat, sleep or breathe? Clearly such a force would be more formidable than an equivalent human force (assuming decay is not a factor) – but how much more formidable? In a reversal of the classic zombie trope, you would need to meet them with a larger force of warm bodies to account for the frailties of flesh. The revenants, with no supply train, would not be reliant on bridges, could outpace any living force, and would not tire in the course of a battle. Would this counteract the fact that their equipment presumably could not be replaced except by plunder?

    1. Would the White Walkers in Game of Thrones qualify as revenants? (I’ve only read the books once.) If so, the answer would be that yes humans can defeat them but it’s very very difficult and the best defence is a bloody great wall.

      1. The White Walkers are the ice monsters who make the zombies.

        The zombies are highly flammable, and I suspect they’re vulnerable to obsidian like their masters. Apart from that they’re very difficult to fight because their parts still work after being cut apart. Aiming for the head doesn’t work great because they can fight without their heads.

    2. The question is whether they are human and just happen to not breathe, or driven by some compulsion.

      The first raises the usual question about negotiations.

      The second, whether people can appease them so they die again.

  24. “Would this counteract the fact that their equipment presumably could not be replaced except by plunder?”

    Why could they not get their equipment the same way living soldiers do? Presumably their master would become a king if he isn’t already, so he could just spend tax money to buy equipment. And they’d be cheaper than regular soldiers too. Every king’s dream: an army that doesn’t eat.

  25. I think the Iron Age Army vs Zombies issue really depends on if we’re talking a pitched battle or isolated incident. If the Iron Age Army can stay in its castle and skirmish isolated groups of zombies, then yes, I would agree that they could defeat them. In a pitched battle with fairly equal numbers though, I’m much less sure of victory for the iron age army.

    I think Zombies would be a very hard opponent to take down in hand to hand combat when they’re in a group. They will not go down when they receive a normally fatal wound (such as a gut wound) or retreat when wounded. If they all jumped on the people in front of them, they could easily pin them down and find an exposed area to bite, adding to their numbers. I remember reading that dismemberment with a hand to hand weapon is surprisingly hard. If we assume we need to sever parts of the body to disable the zombie, it would be quite hard to disable them. Being tireless, they could keep fighting for hours and hours. If they have some kind of darkvision (depends on which zombie we choose), they could even keep fighting during the night. It gets even worse, of course, if the iron age army has no experience fighting zombies, they could easily rout, but they don’t have a significant speed advantage over the zombies.

  26. Of course, the real reason zombies effortlessly curb-stomp the military in modern fiction is that they are actually New Soviet Man (being free energy machines doesn’t hurt). Their main weapons are the internal contradictions of capitalism. If a zombie apocalypse should happen, I would expect the generals to order their soldiers to punch the zombies in the mouth with their bare hands, since that’s how genre conventions work. (I will be pouring zombie blood in the water supply. I know the winning team when I see it.)

  27. John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series uses just what you specify — an engineered pathogen, highly contagious, as the method for creating zombies. Which, as you say, makes the answer much more challenging.

    (The series is up to ten books by now, with coauthors for some of the novels, and several collections of shorter works by multiple authors written in that world.)

  28. Zombie vs the current US military would actually be even more lopsided than described. The Paladin’s range is closer to 35km with rocket assist and ERCA has demonstrated 70km range. Rheinmetall is claiming 60 km+ ranges currently. If you remove the governor on the Abrams it can go much faster…. The main gun would also be very effective. The blast overpressure itself would destroy any nearby zombies. Canister rounds were developed for the gun for “knocking on doors” in Iraq. They would do a very good job on reducing zombies to a mist. Directed energy weapons would also do a number on massed zombies. They make you run away by heating the water in your skin. Since a zombie wouldn’t run I expect it would instead of what liquid is left in it would explode like a Gremkin in a microwave.

  29. Shadowrun introduced something to approximate zombies (they’re spirits that possess dead bodies, the age of the body doesn’t much matter, but the condition at time of possession limits what they can do – they spread by making more dead bodies).
    In anyplace with a barely functional or better government-like organization; they’re at worst a public-health nuisance, despite being notably harder to put down than the average zombie (if they are not “lethally wounded” by a single attack, they regenerate to the base state)

  30. Bullseye – good point. I was starting with the assumption that the revenant army would not be well-regarded by the living and would essentially be trying to accomplish whatever goals brought them back from the dead without assistance from human states. If their goal is, for whatever reason, simply to kill anything living, they are going to be limited to whatever they can produce or capture. I did reflect that if the revenants are not generally hostile to the living, they may even find popular support if they tried to overthrow the living state, as they would be less prone to live off the land. Such an undead legion, if composed of former soldiers for the regime, might even be romanticised as ‘fallen heroes returned to life to confront the tyrant!’.

  31. Regarding the population history of the city of Rome, how certain is the evidence that its ancient population peaked around 1 million? I believe some folks have argued for a significantly lower population peak, but I can’t remember where I read those skeptical claims.

    1. I recall the skeptics tend over emphasis the city wall circuit and pour in the nominal density of say Calcutta. Then see you could not have that many people in the space Rome had walled off by the Aurelian Walls. First problem there are famously a couple spots where the walls incorporate the parts of Insula in them. Conclusion the city was bigger than the walls and I doubt the emperor had to put with emanate domain law suits. But more important if you take the density of slums in the Third world say in Kibera in Nairobi it is pretty clear you can pack a lot more people into a the space than the average density of the overall City would suggest. Archeologically you can find a fair amount of evidence a lot of the Insula are heavily post construction internally sub divided. Not only that I doubt real slums would leave much in the way of record to find given the size of the modern city.

      1. Colin McEvedy (Penguin Atlases of Ancient History) was one such doubter. Not just space – also known populations of other ancient cities compared to size, various calculations of density and so on. There are only a handful of classical references to population, none unarguably accurate, so the debate goes on.

  32. Wow! One day late and I’m 100 comments behind!

    Bret, I had no proofreading corrections until you began the Zombie section:
    where they needed to shot > shoot
    regenerate damages tissue > damaged
    It does no matter > not
    Zombie fiction over covers over this > <fiction often covers
    some hyper-contageous airborn > hyper-contagious airborne
    and say that I’d say the advantage > [delete second instance of “I’d say”]

  33. “In no D&D setting are the Good gods so passive and nice that they will just let themselves be exploited endlessly. They have character.”

    Is it even “exploitation”? Again, maybe the gods are happy to help.

    And I don’t know of a setting or edition where gods can cut off clerics — as opposed to paladins — for bad behavior. Once a cleric, always a cleric. And gods aren’t always existent or necessary. BECMI was very vague about religion, only later adding Immortals, and only near the end giving them a god-like cleric-empowering role. Eberron’s gods may or may not exist, and 3e rules specified that clerics could be powered by their faith or philosophy… I think that’s rather lame myself, but it’s the rules. Druids are divine casters, but ‘Nature’ has even less specified opinion on how spells are used than gods do.

    Control Weather started as an arcane spell, and everyone has it in 3e. Bards have Cure spells as arcane casters, so you don’t even need divine casters for those things.

    Oh, I take back one thing: 3e does say “A cleric who grossly violates the code of conduct required by his god loses all spells and class features, except for armor and shield proficiencies and proficiency with simple weapons. He cannot thereafter gain levels as a cleric of that god until he atones (see the atonement spell description).” So you can be cut off. But it also says “If a cleric is not devoted to a particular deity, he still selects two domains to represent his spiritual inclinations and abilities. The restriction on alignment domains still applies.” So you can be basically a ‘spiritual’ wizard who wears armor.

      1. @Mary
        I think you’re making a lot of fairly specific assumptions about what the gods in a fictional setting should think. Which is fine, in that they’re not unreasonable assumptions as such for a single campaign, but they don’t invalidate every conceivable setting that can be written within the set of game rules.

        The core point here is that in D&D, certainly in all editions beyond maybe the first one, the gods are extremely generous with cleric spells. For that matter, in 3rd Edition and later, you can be a cleric of an abstract impersonal force such as “fire” or “the moon” and I’m pretty sure that Fire Itself isn’t implied to have personal opinions in the matter.

        Now, individual DMs (understandably, especially if they’ve read up on the matter a la Dr. Devereaux’s Polytheism series) may choose to make the gods more restrictive and choosy. But the core text of the setting’s rules as written does not require this, and the kind of “Tippyverse” speculation we’ve been discussing is entirely, explicitly about exploring the outer limits of what is possible with the rules-as-written, then ignoring or dismissing all plausible objections about why it would be unrealistic except the ones found in the rules as written.

        One can argue that this is the point of such speculation in the first place- to argue that the powers and abilities D&D regularly confers on characters should make it impossible for a stereotypical fantasy setting recognizable as “medieval _____, but with real magic-users and monsters” to exist in the first place!

        To some extent, I think this is D&D overcompensating for the days when religious fundamentalists had enough clout to try and get it banned from schools and things like that. Making a lot of overt references to religions and how a cleric of Pelor has to overtly revere the sun god or whatever would probably draw them adverse attention from people with power to harass their target audience.

        D&D may also be trying to be nice to atheists who grumble about half the setting’s magic being inaccessible to any character who doesn’t worship a literal person living on the equivalent of Mount Olympus. Which is realistic in a setting where the gods exist, but sends some messages about the real world that they don’t like, so eh.

        1. The gods have definite characters which are as much given in the source material as anything else.

          1. Maybe in some specific settings, like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance. Not in the rules, and not in many settings (Mystara, Dark Sun, Eberron).

          2. Oh, you want to look at the gods in the core book? Does “Boccob the Uncaring, god of Magic” sound like someone who would have a problem with his clerics mass-producing magic items?

          3. If he doesn’t care that the other gods have a problem with his horning into their spheres, he will rapidly cease to be a god.

    1. “And I don’t know of a setting or edition where gods can cut off clerics — as opposed to paladins — for bad behavior.”‘

      2nd. Edition, pretty explicitly.

      1. In the first edition, the rules stated that a cleric had to explain why a third or higher spell was needed.

      2. Yes. Even in 3rd, all Divine casters are getting their ‘memorized’ spells inserted into their heads as gifts from some Outsider somewhere, even if they don’t have a personal relationship with a Deity. From a player perspective, getting cut off by your God should not be mechanically very different from getting blacklisted by the Fire Elementals’ Rotary Club or whatever.

  34. There’s actually a surprising amount of mathematical models of zombie outbreaks;
    (This one has a link to an online simulator tool)
    (This is a video that explains some of the mathematics going on here; basically a modified version of the SIR equations used to model regular disease spread)

  35. ‘You can build a world where magic is mostly used practically (I have done so, made a home-brew game and written a few books set there), but it’s not any kind of D&D’

    Eberron tried to be just that, a D&D setting with widespread low level magic incorporated into society. Less intensely, the Glantri setting within Mystara was a high magic country.

  36. One of the things that I liked a lot about Runequest compared to D&D was that most of the magic was what people would really want, rather than the killing and adventuring tools. So you bless crops and animals, have minutes long orgasms to build unity, and make sure births are trouble free. And a few sociopaths worshipping Death that get the killing machine magic but are expected to die soon with things such as not wearing armor…

    1. As discussed above, a lot of D&D magic would have practical uses in daily life: purify food and purify drink spells alone would make a huge difference to the quality of life.

      Definitely for game designers, probably for authors, D&D “flashy” magic that is really only useful for adventurers has the tremendous advantage that it doesn’t break the default medieval-ish fantasy setting. The more magic there is in the daily life of your fantasy setting, the more explaining the GM / author has to do. Castles and peasants and taverns may be clichéd, but everyone has an idea of what to expect.

      I’m not saying RuneQuest is bad, I’ve played RQ and liked it. But it requires more effort from the players if you want to go past the “kill the monster” stage of adventuring and have a wider impact.

      1. There are some literary examples of worlds where magic is routine and generally applied; the Lord Darcy stories for one example, Alera for another. Come to think of it Pratchett goes in for Magitek in his later discworld books. Though plain old tech gets more popular use.

        1. A few of the many examples of ‘magic-tech’ have been mentioned. along with the D&D versions that have it. I’ve read a few – I think what most miss are the social and political transformations that some (not all) forms of magic tech would bring. A world of not just contraception and cheap medical care, but where women can be effective fighters (counting magic-users in this) or where ordinary people with some skills have access to equalising power is a very different world, with a spectrum of different attitudes.

          1. I’ve often thought that magic would be a great equalizer.
            Of course in Alera magic is linked to status and those born with high potential control the rest. Tavi fixes this by having the Great Fury Alera turn furycrafting into something that grows with study and application rather than an innate gift. In other words one only becomes powerful through hard work.

  37. I know this caused a lot of consternation in the comments section of an earlier post on this blog, but it still seems worth raising a fairly obvious point about the “realism” of the zombie apocalypse genre: what gives zombie apocalypse stories their sense of verisimilitude isn’t necessarily the literal level on which they conform to any “real-life” sense of the physics or tactics of armed conflict against hordes of unarmed biting shamblers, a level on which (as you outline quite well) their realism is laughably poor; rather, their verisimilitude comes into sharpest focus on the level of allegory and metaphor, the sense in which combat against zombies taps into the deep ideological fears of affluent middle-class people in wealthy societies like the US against the specter of a mass uprising by the nonwhite lower orders of society, the sort of apocalyptic conflict that neo-Nazi types would refer to as “racial holy war.”

    In essence, watch “Night of the Living Dead” while wearing the ideological-demystification sunglasses from “They Live,” and what you’ll see is something resembling “Assault on Precinct 13,” or maybe even “The Reliant.”

    1. It’s worth pointing out both that non-whites make up a respectable proportion of the affluent middle class in America and are still less than half the population. The US is not South Africa.

      1. In fact I think the original commenter is somehow mistaken in overtly racializing it. But I agree on the main point that zombie movies play on the fear of the mob and of conformity (together with the survivalist fantasy).
        In a mass society, the original fear elicited by the zombie stories (being a slave forever) could not have as much emotional resonance as the idea of being the only sentient individual hunted down by a mindless, bloodthirsty and perfectly unified mob whose only aim is to destroy your individuality (they literally eat your brain, could it get more silver-plattered than this?) and force you to join them.
        This also explain why in most stories the people faring better during the apocalypse are not, as realism would suggest, structured organization able to deploy and operate modern weaponry and to effectively coordinate resistance (aka, the military), but small groups of survivors acting as their guts tell them and having flexibility as their main resource. If your fantasy is the fight for your individuality, you don’t want to be told that the best to retain it is to hold the line and obey orders, after all.

        1. What does that have to do with the obvious effect of failing to see it as the Solar myth that it is?

      1. Then throw away all art criticism, or even mere discussion about art. Commenting on the character development and how it fits the journey of hero is watching the movies with glasses. Noting that a certain scene might be an homage to a previous, genre defining movie is watching the movie with glasses. If you write on how the happy childhood the author had while living with the granpas in a farm might have shaped the setting of the story is wearing glasses. Commenting on how Thersites represents the Greek that bodily vigor and desirable personality are inseparable is wearing glasses.
        People wear glasses all the time, but doing so when the glasses are politically charged in current year is a big nono for some reason

        1. I note these are all irrelevant to the question of whether every story can be justly read as racial conflict.

        2. In particular, your position equal demands that all art criticism be thrown away, or even mere discussion about art. Unless you can say that some positions about some art are wrong or entirely unsupported, there is nothing to discuss.

          1. I mean, OP gave tons of arguments about on why at least some zombie stories are somehow tingling the fear of colored uprising. For WWZ, it is quite hard to deny this when the author explicitly tell us that all governments end up implementing a plan devised by Boers in order to survive a widespread black insurgency, or that Israel is particularly effective in fighting off zombies do to their experience in fending off Arabs.

            You act under the strange premise that your idea is a null hypothesis that require extraordinary evidence (evidence that simple cannot be provided for a literary text in most cases, hence my argument that if you ever were to be consistent, you would throw away all literary critic) to be overturned, whilst to be charitable there no particular reason to give your ideas such status, and to be more serious, it is quite ludicrous to believe that an author who grew up in a strongly racialized society did not put any racial aspect in his fictional one.

          2. No, he didn’t. He made assertions.

            To make an argument, he would have to offer reasons to exclude other interpretations. Such as their being a solar myth.

          3. I also note that there are solar myths, which proves the solar myth theory as well as claiming that one zombie story fits the interpretation.

          4. I observe that movie zombies do not act like Haitian zombies but like medieval vampires, so the tale is older than the situation that is claimed as the source.

    2. Well Zombie films are popular internationally in places without racial divisions so the non white part doesn’t hold although there is always an underclass. But then the physics of the early monster horror movies are suspect, The Mummy, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon etc. Do these all require some associating the monster with some unconscious social economic problems to give them verisimilitude?

      1. The modern (post-2000) revival of zombie films is largely due to their popularity in 1990s Japanese video games and the two really successful British films of 2002 — 28 Days Later and Resident Evil (based on the Japanese video-game series). I wasn’t aware that Japan, for example, was particularly obsessed with “the specter of a mass uprising by the nonwhite lower orders of society”, but I guess they must be….

        1. WLGR does specify “like the US” when they mention ideological fears of mass uprising, so while no, the Japanese are generally not paranoid about imaginary reprisals for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that’s not a real argument.
          Without looking anything up, I can think of at least one thing that Japan’s mushy-middle-class and temporarily embarrassed fascists would get anxious dreaming up retributions for.
          Cultures are different, but humans are essentially the same, and cultures talk to each other primarily via mass-market fiction. It’s no surprise when cultures rhyme.

  38. “I’ve often thought that magic would be a great equalizer.”

    Totally depends on how access to magic is distributed. Something anyone can learn, or hereditary gift, or random gift?

    An Exalted RPG book about the First Age took an interesting approach: society wasn’t equal at all, given there could only be 300 supremely powerful Solar Exalted. But a new Solar was more likely to be some ordinary person, socioeconomically, so the government tried to have ordinary life nice enough that a new Solar wouldn’t be angry at the whole system.

    Bujold’s Lakewalkers have hereditary powers, and would totally be lords if they hadn’t sworn off lordship for historical reasons. MZB’s Comyn have hereditary powers, and are lords…

    1. Yes, you’re right. It would all depend on the accessibility of magic. But I was mostly thinking about how it might make the sexes more equal if both were equally likely to be highly gifted.

  39. Random thoughts on zombie wars:

    1) Why do zombies eat non-zombies when there are lots of zombies to be eaten around them? Logic suggests in this case they would ‘eat their own’ first.

    2) Actually, why are they hungry? If these things can keep going without sleep or rest or oxygen (I suppose) why do they need to eat? Is it to keep their body and soul together?

    3) Why do some zombies devour a living human when a bite makes the human one of them? A lot of zombie stuff has one person bitten and joining in a rampage, while another is devoured by a ravenous mob. Why the difference? Is it the flavour of the meat tasted?

    4) I liked Brooks’ ‘World War Z’ novel, hated the movie. So it goes, though high-speed running zombies rushing like a flood was fun to watch. But while humans adapted to survive by, for example, living in castles then how much of the land could they farm? I would think a lot of castles (still with sound walls) would find the growing areas inside limited. How about livestock, which needs more land? Can’t remember if all the animals were eaten by the hordes, but did the human survivors all become vegetarian because there was no protein from animals?

    5) The ‘Battle of Yonkers’ in WWZ was fun to read to highlight idiotic military thinking, but I seem to remember the tanks were dug-in and armed with armour-piercing shells. How effective would they be? Why would a tank be dug in when movement –and crushing– is an advantage?

    6) What creature comforts, after food and water and a safe place to rest their head, would people miss most in the zombie-ridden future? In WWZ I think someone finally gets a hot shower (on a nuclear submarine, from what I recall?) but what else would be vital for sanity?

    1. My response was in part to speak to (5) because the ‘idiotic military thinking’ described really didn’t resemble actual military thinking at all. World War Z was written in 2006 and supposedly the US Army is using ‘outdated cold war tactics’ but the Cold War tactical playbook of the 1980s was Airland Battle, which emphasized rapid maneuver and airpower – not digging trenches and digging in tanks (there are times and places for tanks being ‘hull down’ but zombies ain’t it). Those troops ought to have been filling HESCO barriers, not digging foxholes against enemies with no explosives or guns.

      And while we’re here, by 2003, the Abrams tank could also fire a M1028 canister shot; one assumes they’d use that.

    2. Regarding #1 and #2, I’ve never really seen an explanation other than that the story requires it. The story needs them to attack people, rather than attack each other or just stand around.

      Regarding #3, what I’ve seen is that the zombies want to eat up everyone. If someone gets bitten but gets away, that’s the person who get infected and becomes a new zombie.

    3. For #1-3: Some of the natural philosophy that preceded science was actually supernatural philosophy. Not just theology and exegesis, theories of magic were common discussion topics for people and societies for whom magic was(/is) real. So you get these lines of thinking about how stuff works in various cultures that is not factually true, but that you would need to believe in order to make sense of their monsters and the memetic descendants of their monsters.
      Since we’re talking about eating, I guess I should use the analogy that movie zombies are sort of the American fusion cuisine of minor monsters. And because these are stories, every iteration is subtly different from its priors, so you can’t rely on the original explanations for how zombies work to apply without their own layers of iterative adaptation, but here goes:
      The living are powered by a power, an invisible quality that is finite and damageable and stealable, but also renews naturally within the living; in humans it may or may not also have special unique features. The undead are also powered by this power, but as they are dead it does not renew naturally within them, and they must take it from the source. It is only natural that strong-willed sources which continue to struggle to renew themselves in the face of extraordinary bodily harm will in turn continue to be devoured, while weak or spiritually damaged sources cease to renew themselves immediately and no longer provide any power when munched (and need to get munching too). That bit is especially hard to grasp for modern, reality-based people, because it applies two other false truths from how humans operate in narrative-defined contexts: first, that they are not equal, and second, that every dying human(sometimes every living thing) only finally dies when it chooses to.
      I hope the above makes any sense after I collapsed it into generalities, and also doesn’t give anyone nightmares.

      1. Nah, magic was natural philosophy. It was merely wrong. There is no difference in kind between a willow bark tea to cure headache and cooking a ruby in the soup so it strengthen the blood.

        We only call the wrong ones magic because they were wrong.

  40. Considering your interest in Rome and your recent posts concerning EU4 and Vicky 2, do you have anything similar planned for Imperator?

  41. Mostly a note to self, but AFAIK the progress of the zombie apocalypse in a standard fictional zombie-naive society is based on catastrophic failure of organization and planning.

    Frankly, the world’s experience with Covid makes zombie apocalypse stories much more credible IME.

  42. Graydon Saunders Commonweal series is the best treatment of magic combined with actual system and social dynamics I’ve come across. IIRC he based the setting loosely on the Black Company series, but went another 100,000 years or so into the future of a world with powerful magic users (hint, it ain’t pretty).

    I’ve never seen any other fantasy novel that goes to such incredible worldbuilding efforts. The ‘Line’ (military of the titular polity) is built explicitly to fight and destroy powerful wizards, and goes to great lengths to consider the logistical and social costs of doing so.

    Really good stuff for the type of people who like this blog, I would think.

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