My grandfather was born in the Pripet Marshes, the same marshes that split the Nazi invading forces in Operation Barbarossa, in 1886, in the south part of Belarus, or Byelorus as it was spelled then. Byelo is Russian for "white," and so he came from what is called White Russia, the literal translation of the country's name. He was only two generations before me, but his being quite old when my father was born (50) has meant that in the three generations between him and I there have been 125 years. That reaches back quite a ways.
My grandfather came to Canada at the age of 15, and thence dwelt in the wilds that then comprised the lands north of Toronto, that which is now the fringes of Algonquin park. What he did there is not well known to me; I have it on good authority that he did a lot of hunting right up to the point where Canada entered the First World War against the Kaiser. His hunting had given him a mastery, and he spent four years in the trenches of Europe as a sniper, one of those fellows who sits and waits and waits and sits until someone lifts his head up a little too high ...
After the war he drifted around at odd jobs, finally meeting my grandmother sometime in the late 1920s. They had three children ... my two aunts and my father, who was born in 1936. Not long after my father was born, my grandfather and my grandmother, who had never seen eye to eye on anything, separated. They were never divorced, but to the best of my knowledge they did not see each other again. But my father would visit my grandfather in the summers, and from him learned all about hunting and fishing, and the ways of the wilderness, and in this way some of that information was passed down to me.
As the decades passed, my grandfather became more and more reclusive, climbing higher and higher into the Canadian Rockies. Much of the land in Canada - more so at that time - is available for squatting, and that's what my grandfather became by the time I knew him. He lived in a little shack about the size of an office cubicle, 5,500 ft. above sea level, which had an iron stove he had hauled up himself and a bed. He grew fruit on trees he had planted. He fished in a kayak he had made himself. Once a year he would climb down into town where he would buy materials - not food - for his hobbies, and deliver his mail. He wrote articles about birds that were published in national magazines. He painted pictures which were sometimes locally shown, though my grandfather was never present. Beyond paper, canvas and some pigments for his oils, virtually everything he used in his daily activities he made himself, including the fishing line he used.
I mention all this because I believe it offers an insight that is nearly always lacking in the mind's eye of the players of D&D. Life was certainly hard. But more importantly, life was something that was managed almost universally by people who made for themselves everything that was needed. They fashioned their own clothes, tanned and cut their own leather, made their own wooden tools and even forged their own metal. An ordinary cotter could not hope to buy even a hammer head that was already made, but he could buy pieces that could be heated with charcoal he had made himself and beaten with stones until it adopted a useable shape. Perhaps not the clean, perfect edge of a manufactured craftsman, but serviceable in a community where there were no craftsman. And once that tool was made, it would cared for and passed from generation to generation, for two hundred years if need be, to be ultimately used by every family of the village.
We are such instruments of massive consumption that we can hardly reckon with an outlook like this. If the axle on a character's wagon breaks along a stretch of country road, naturally the character thinks to head for the next town, pay out a few coins and return with the replacement axle. It is viewed in exactly modern terms, only the missing gasoline that runs your car is replaced with the word axle and all goes on as before.
Only that was impossible. Without having the cart present, no person anywhere could make an axle to fit the cart. Even with the cart present, the carter can't simply fit the right axle in place and have you on your way. He would have to make a tailored axle to fit your tailored cart, and that would take him quite a lot of time. And no, he would not consent to come along with you to fix your cart twenty miles away.
Then what? Abandon the cart? We are so lock-stepped into the consumerist framework of mind that it doesn't occur to us that the characters would never have left the cart in the first place. They would never have thought, "get a new axle." They'd have made one. Then and there, with their own hands. It would not have occurred to them that they were unable to make an axle on their own ... not because they were naturally more proficient in that day and age, and more knowledgeable about such things, but because they had no template of a perfectly working axle in their minds to stop them from putting together an axle that would be - by our standards - a piece of shit.
When I say my grandfather made his own kayak, what immediately leaps to one's mind is a marvelously fashioned instrument lovingly crafted by my grandfather's hand. This conception is aided by museums, which present most every object from the past as a work of art, often clouding the issue by 'restoring' them to their past glory ... when in fact we have no certainty about what that glory might have been. And anything that wasn't a work of art didn't survive from the age of its construction, because over time it ruined with use. My grandfather's kayak was awful! It leaked ... just enough to make it uncomfortable for you and me, sitting in a cold lake, with our sensibilities, but not enough to sink it. My grandfather did not care. He could not make a better kayak with his abilities, and that didn't matter. Even into his 80s he was tough as nails, and if it got a little watery in the bottom while he sat and fished for four hours, what of it?
You and I, gentle reader, would attempt to make an axle for our cart only by absolute necessity ... and if we did make one that worked, we'd hate it with every turn as it bumped and ground along, with our minds full of what a perfect axle would feel like. This was not the conception of those living before the age of replaceable manufactured parts. They did not care. They had no 'perfect' axle to compare it with. This was the best axle they themselves could make, and if it jostled and shook, what of it?
It is not only that replaceable parts weren't available, it is also that the consumerist world they made possible had not yet come into existence. People often ask me about certain items on my equipment list, like clothes or tools, being irrationally expensive ... but in fact most people did not buy goods from town. Except that my grandfather could not make his own linen in the BC mountains, which he needed for paint canvas, or that he could not make his own paper for writing, he would have had little - if any - reason for coming down to civilization. His medieval ancestor in the Pripet marshes would not have, for there were no magazines to print articles, and no galleries to display his work, and no mail to distribute it to others. Even as a mountain man his life bore the stamp of the consumerist society.
(yes, aware of the pun)
I have been running the game for more than thirty years, and every player still thinks of no other means of obtaining goods except to buy them. Very rarely, if pushed into unusual circumstances, a player will fabricate something, but how often will they in the middle of town. Does a bard with very little starting income, staring at the frightening costs for instruments, think of buying a simple blade and whittling a pipe to play? No. The cheapest instrument is chosen from what is there and the silver is spent. A fighter knows a club is the cheapest weapon, but does the fighter ask me if he can make his own wooden shield? Does a thief haunt the local blacksmith for bits of metal and twist his own lockpick? Does a paladin buy red paint and mark his own clothing? No. Because in our minds it would look awful. Crusaders in every film, even those where the participants are covered in feces, still wear clothes where the seams are straight and every fold is perfectly tailored. The armor never has an explicit dent or bend in it. The squeaking from the cart remains at a carefully selected decibel so as not to disturb the dialogue. The coconuts have been neatly cut by a band saw.
We are trained to think this is normal. It isn't. It is modern, but it is far past normal when viewed from the perspective of human history. There are no replaceable parts. There are no uniforms, because nothing is uniform. But it is something you will have a great deal of trouble getting out of your head.
I am betting you won't be able to.