"Eberron in 998 YK is based on the idea that civilization is evolving."
- – Keith Baker, explaining why Eberron is not a normal campaign setting.
As the title implies, most fantasy worlds are stuck at a technological level roughly equivalent to Europe between 1000 CE and 1500 CE, being more advanced in some fields and more primitive in others, until the universe collapses. A knight's ancestors five thousand years ago fought against Orcs on the back of a great warhorse, wielding sword and lance, wearing plate and a greathelm, just as he does at present and how his descendants 25 generations down the line will. At best, some groups in the universe may be more advanced than others (some peoples might be building castles and forging plate armor while others live as primitive cave men armed with flint axes and stone tipped spears), but nobody will be developing new technology, or, on the off chance one or two factions are, it will never spread much or catch on anywhere else. This also applies to social structures such as feudalism, with a max of one non-Greco-Roman democracy per setting. It will be conquered and restored from edition to edition as fanboys war behind the scenes.
While it is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, as it creates a set mood and style of play, we run into the fact that many writers are hacks, and use it to both rip-off other writers (principally, Tolkien) and to keep the world stagnant enough that they don't risk smashing something people actually like that they didn't have the skill to realize they shouldn't smash, while still maintaining the illusion of forward momentum. The Forgotten Realms is a prime example of this, featuring both several powerful organizations out to stifle any attempt to progress the technological or socioeconomic advancement of the setting, and many lame-brained "advances" in story from edition to edition, most infamously with 4th edition's "Spellplague" and retconned twin planet where all the new 4e races were hiding.
A common thing among fantasy writers is treating firearms of any kind as a taboo. Many feel that featuring firearms would somehow ruin the medieval feeling despite the fact that firearms were used in the late medieval period (and in Warhammer.) Granted, many people's weapon history knowledge is such that they believe that having guns would immediately mean having AK-47s rather than merely having handcannons or matchlock muskets.
Note that in high-magic settings, sorcery sometimes gets so common and overpowered that it basically replaces technological progress. Why would you build robots or rockets if you can just create golems or cast Teleport Without Error?
Another issue with medieval stasis is that a lot of writers—most of them in fact—probably know less about the actual Middle Ages than the average Crusader Kings 2 player and thus present not only a world in medieval stasis but one that's in, at best, a theme-park version of the medieval period and quite often only really showing Anglo-French medievalism (and a bastardized shitfarmer version of it at that). The somewhat more historically literate might put in some anachronisms like references to ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, or to the Aztecs (usually a ramshackle mishmash of half remembered tidbits of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Inca thrown together with no real thought), and if you're extra lucky you might get something that's an extended reference to a (largely inaccurate) medieval Islamic polity or to the Holy Roman Empire, mixed in with the usual barbarian tribes, but that's usually about it. Like the Democracy thing mentioned above? It was nowhere near that simple in real life. A great many of the tribal societies we have records of were actually very democratic, where the King was elected and so were the chiefs below them and they absolutely did not have absolute authority over their subjects. And of course "feudalism" is simply a catch all label for a hugely varied and complicated array of societal organization systems that can be vaguely described as an aristocratic hierarchy based around land and military service and assorted ties of loyalty and bloodline.
And even in medieval Europe you had systems that broke the norm, like the merchant republics of Italy or the north German free cities, and of course you had lands directly ruled by the Church. Never mind that you also had rather different systems of organization elsewhere in the world, like in the Islamic world, India, the Americas, and of course, China's quite literal bureaucracy where civil servants hired based on their performance in examinations did most of the day-to-day governing of China; dynasties could come and go but the bureaucracy was eternal. Tolkien was himself, of course, a medievalist with very deep knowledge of the time period, even by today's standards, with our rather improved access to knowledge of the time period. Warhammer was created by history nerds who very much knew what they were writing about and so populated the world of Warhammer Fantasy with references to just about every political system that predominated in the medieval and renaissance periods as well as a lot of those that predominated in antiquity. So not only does Medieval Stasis perpetuate an annoying degree of sameness in the fantasy genre, it also tends to be based on a conception of medieval times that's not only essentially completely limited to France + England with some scattered references to other stuff, but is also almost completely wrong about everything and doesn't even scratch the surface of the depth of medieval history.
Some general historical points
One thing that should be known is that no one group of people has a monopoly on innovation. You have some stodgy conservative societies with "revere your ancestors and their wisdom" and "If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It" mentalities which hinders improvements and those which value innovation and believe in progress for the sake of progress and various groups in between, but nobody has been so dedicated to stagnation that they would shun all attempts at improvement in perpetuity. Civilizations which don't keep up tend to be conquered by those that do. Actual resistance to the adoption of new technologies is typically not to the effect of people in authority demanding the inventors or the presenters of the new breakthrough be burned at the stakes for witchcraft; instead, generally, it would be more to the effect of seeing a new device and declaring it to be an interesting novelty, but be reticent to adopting it because doing so would be expensive and its benefits are still unclear, that there is not a particularly pressing need to improve that field right now, that it might be profitable in one sense but on the other hand it might destabilize the social order of things that has stood for centuries which can result in social unrest as people which profit from the current set up become redundant or that this beneficial machinery might come with complications that leave them in the pockets of foreign powers (buying spare parts for their machines or importing foreign fuel). Concerns which generally do have at least a kernel of truth to them (example: industrialization leading to the rise of a prominent bourgeoisie which eclipses the landed nobility), and the attitude that they often engender is to adopt changes gradually, "on their own terms". Other factors are general xenophobia and resistance to the ideas of Methodological Naturalism as opposed to Dogmatism, though even these are not absolute barriers.
Most improvements don't come in big breakthroughs made by some lone mastermind; a genius hunter/gatherer did not one day decide "Lets start clearing out land, plowing it and sowing it with seeds and capturing animals to breed so we can have all the food we want". That process took thousands of years, starting with little things such as weeding patches of wild food plants which were gradually added onto with other practices until you got farming as we'd understand it, with silos, farmhouses, fields, plows, pens of livestock, irrigation ditches, and so forth. Improvements can come about by people trying to be more thrifty, having to do with less of a previously common resource, more of a specific resource becoming available or by minor accidental variations. The idea that technology comes all at once from super special smart people ex nihilo instead of being born of conditions produced by years of decisions made by everyone from politicians down to the lowliest peasant is something born of a combination of fiction being kind of clumsy at showing things at a societal instead of an individual level and narratives which are basically hagiographic propaganda about how great some inventor was (while almost invariably not crediting all the people who helped them), with a bit of market campaigning meant to make you think that a slightly faster electric toothbrush is some massive revolution. If you look at society as a product of decisions made by the masses under conditions, rather than some smart guy having a great idea, questions of why some people didn't invent some things become much easier to answer. Even in the last two centuries where quick spread of knowledge meant one genius could share their idea quick, it was still common for more than one of them to have the same idea at the same time. It's why some science concepts are named after two people instead of one (and even then, this is mostly limited to medical research, where it's actually indeed just one guy researching something).
Certain technologies and conditions are conducive towards innovation. Let's look at the history of literacy, paper, printing, and the scientific method, for example. If your tribe can farm you have support some artisans who spend all their time weaving, making pots and tools, building boats, working wood, etc. These guys and gals know more about their field of expertise and work out ways of doing it more efficiently. Writing (developed to keep inventory records) means that ideas can be passed down from generation to generation more effectively. Mathematics (ditto) is a major boon to construction and later engineering. Movable type means that both are more readily available to the masses. The scientific mindset is also a valuable aid in this regard and is allowed to flourish because the greater spread of reading pushed by the movable type press and the adoption of paper makes it easier to become educated as well as record the results of experiments and share them with others. Before you had paper and printing presses, writing surfaces were expensive and all copying had to be done by hand. Afterwards, you could print newspapers, books of natural philosophy and manuals for the operation of machines.
What does this mean for the scientific method? Well in this era to have a great, world renown library meant having one thousand or so books and generally they were chained to the library to prevent people from stealing them because they were literally worth their weight in gold. Today a random middle class bookworm could easily have more than a thousand books given some time to collect them, and the really big libraries have literally tens of millions of paper documents. So the massive paper trail of the modern scientific method was simply not affordable, and the need for manual copying basically kneecaps peer review. Add to that that paper itself was introduced to Europeans during the 1300s when Marco Polo returned from China (something many medieval fantasy writers simply gloss over out of convenience). Part of the reason why so little material survived from the days of Rome and earlier is because their preferred material was Papyrus, which takes very badly to any kind of humidity. Paper merely gets wet and the writing on it can be saved if it's handled carefully, Papyrus just dissolves. During the dark and middle ages, the material of choice in most parts of central and western Europe became parchment made from animal skins, which was extremely expensive and could therefore only be used to write and copy documents of utmost importance. But with cheap paper, a greater number of people able to afford it thanks to black death induced changes to Feudal Europe, and printing presses science as we now know it could really get into motion.
Refinements in existing technologies can be a prerequisite to the development of new technologies. As an example, the Romans knew the basic principle of how to make a steam engine and even how to put rotary power to work (having watermills for grinding grain and sawing wood) but they could not apply that technology because they lacked the ability to cast iron as they lacked proper blast furnaces, something you need to be good at doing to make one which is actually useful. The steam engines known to the Mediterranean world at the time were basically fancy toys for the idle rich. The Chinese had the technology to theoretically make steam engines, but the issue tended to be a lack of substantial need as well as China's bad habit of periodically exploding into colossal gigadeath civil wars. The Song Dynasty might have sparked the need for such technologies as they were rapidly transitioning towards a highly commercialised economy and out of the bounds of feudalism and were starting to run into issues of demand outpacing the ability of work to meet, but things didn't go too great for them.
Finally there is the matter of Diffusion, the spread of technology from one country or civilisation to another if they are in contact with each other. This can be done directly (kidnapping a blacksmith and telling him to train up some of your bronzesmiths to work iron and beat him if he does not comply) or indirectly (a trader from the next kingdom over comes into town with a donkey pulling a wheeled cart, a carpenter sees this, thinks it's a good idea and decides to try to make one himself). There is no point in reinventing the wheel from log rollers on up when you can just copy someone else's work. Moreover if the idea spreads there will be a hell of a lot of people working on it making wheels coming to useful improvements by accidents, making refinements and big breakthroughs which will in turn spread again. If you started in Portugal and went east through Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, The Fertile Crescent, Iran, Pakistan, India, Indochina and China, you'd come across a series of well developed civilizations that had existed for thousands of years and each one had dealings with their neighbors. Ideas that started in India or Rome or Greece flowed along that pathway to be taken and refined elsewhere.
tl;dr: Stop being lazy and go read Guns, Germs and Steel, or Why the West Rules—For Now.
The vision of medieval times that exists in fantasy is a gigantic pile of anachronisms, pop-history, and misconceptions. Much of this is due to Fantasy's scope of time being seriously out of whack even without innovations like gunpowder or industrial technology. See, our monkey brains aren't very good at really comprehending spans of time longer than a handful of decades (hence why your childhood and youth memories always appear a lot more recent than they actually are, yes, 1990 really was 30 years ago). So we tend to mash up entire "eras" of history into indistinct blobs in our headspace, even though the entire concept of a historical era is more or less for academic convenience and categorization. The Carolingian Empire founded by Charlemagne was as far back in the past relative to Joan of Arc as she is to the present day. And technology and culture certainly did not remain static in those intervening seven hundred years. Paris went from a fairly small city of a few tens of thousands to a bustling metropolis of nearly a quarter of a million people, mail or banded armour was largely replaced by solid plated armour, gunpowder was popularised, sugar was introduced to the European diet, the Magyars went from eastern horseback-mounted pagan invaders to a solidly Catholic and Europeanised mainstay of central Europe as the Hungarians, and eastern Europe was Christianised in a rather gory and unpleasant process, to name just a few of the drastic changes over the years. Of course, any Crusader Kings 2 player could tell you how ridiculous the idea of the political map of a faux-medieval realm remaining static for centuries is.
Let's now take the common complaint among Fantasy authors that guns render castles and knights in shining armour obsolete. Full Plate armour coexisted with man-portable gunpowder weapons throughout literally the entirety of its military service and was phased out because of reasons of cost as armies got bigger, not because it was ineffective against guns. Making a fully articulated suit of plate armour fitted to every soldier is expensive and time consuming, so as armies got more standardized as countries centralized, with equipment being given by the military rather than soldiers being left to figure it out themselves, it was deemed easier to just give people the basics needed to protect their bodies. In that case, ditching the limb armor to reduce costs while keeping the helmet and breastplate like the Swiss Landsknecht and the Spanish Tercio. Hell: in Japan, the increasing prevalence of guns is what made the Samurai go from only partially metallic lamellar armour to full metal plated suits in the first place.
Furthermore, Plate armour by and large did not coexist with other types of metallic armour. It straight up replaced them all because it was just flatly better. Whether it's just a breastplate, a suit of half-plate (half referring to how much of the body is protected), or full plate, there was basically zero reason to wear anything else. Once the metal casting technology for plate armour became widespread, other forms of armour largely disappeared save for covering joint areas because plate armour is simply better in every way and is cheaper to make. Full coats of mail or scale didn't coexist with efficiently made plate armour; there's no need for a chain shirt when a solid steel breastplate offers superior protection for no downside, and full plate is actually considerably more comfortable and lighter than a full coat of mail. So that adventuring party where the Barbarian is wearing chainmail for mobility and the fighter is wearing full plate to tank better at the cost of agility? Simply didn't happen. You're mixing your dark ages and your late medieval/renaissance era armour styles. Mixing armor did, however, happen with conquistadors, and may have occurred with other small groups of fighting men. This was due purely to costs, not armor types having pros and cons, as used obsolete gear was far cheaper than armor anyone actually wanted. The equipment log for the 287 combatant Coronado expedition lists five suits of full plate (four belonging to Coronado himself), four suits of plate armor for horses (all Coronado's), 16 sets of partial plate, 56 pieces of sleeveless chain armor for the torso (two vests only), one suit of sleeved chain armor, and 250 gambesons. Archaeologists have found a medieval kettle hat in New Mexico, which would have been obsolete for hundreds of years before it got there.
As for Castles, anyone who seriously believed that cannons made strong walls obsolete would be laughed out of any gunpowder-era military engineering course; hell, even as late as the World Wars, fixed fortifications were a very daunting task for artillery to try and crack and often required specialist super heavy guns, ultra high penetration air-dropped bombs or very sophisticated tactical maneuvers to break. After the development of gunpowder artillery, contemporary militaries simply converted their castles into star forts or polygonal fortresses (where the walls are made sloped and are backed by a lot of sloped compressed dirt. Meanwhile, in China, average city walls were already several meters thick and filled with lots of compressed dirt and gravel compared to the famous walls of Constantinople (which were two to three meters thick at best and less stuffed). This meant that the Chinese had less incentive to refine their artillery for centuries (which came back to backfire on them when modern howitzers and specialized shells were used against them by the Europeans when they sent out colonial expeditions). Have you ever heard the term Forlorn Hope? It refers to the supremely unfortunate soldiers who get the job of being the first to rush into the breach of a fortress when after what is typically days, weeks, or even months of non-stop cannon fire they finally break open one of the walls. Which is rather obviously a suicide mission for the first wave. If it were easy to crack open fortresses with cannonades there would be no need for them.
What actually changed about Castles is that as countries became more centralized, control over military forts passed unto the Kingdom/Empire proper and out of the hands of local nobles, meaning that fortresses largely stopped also being houses for the resident Baron or Count of whatever. This had the benefit of ensuring that local nobles had a harder time rebelling because the fortresses were loyal to the Capital, rather than being their private property. It wasn't until well into the 20th century with the invention of the atomic fucking bomb that a line of fixed fortifications was no longer regarded as a serious obstacle to a truly determined attacker and that was only if the attacker was willing and able to drop one on the battlefield. With conventional munitions, even today with all our missiles and precision weapons, a fortified line is something that most attackers would rather bypass than breach. Of course, most defenders know this and essentially use fortifications to funnel attackers into battlefields of their choosing.
And what about industrial technology? Surely that has no place in my pre-modern setting or would be obsoleted by magic! That too was driven in large part by increased centralization. Artisanal production is relatively fine if you never need to send products very far away from where they're made and are only meeting relatively small amounts of local demand and the occasional distant but super wealthy patron. But as realms centralize and unify and economies grow interconnected, suddenly monks copying maybe a handful of books a year at a premium isn't enough to meet the needs for more literature. You need higher output, which leads to mass industrialization and standardization of production which requires growing mechanization of production to ensure that quality remains consistent. This drives the greater reliance on machines in producing things and these machines make it easier to make better machines until you can meet the demand or until you get to the point where you're starting to reach the limitations of your power source like wind, muscle, or waterpower. As medieval societies got bigger, you saw more windmills and watermills to get more power for all this work.
Fantasy settings, however, offer magic and alchemy which should realistically, unless there are heavy restrictions on the commonality of either, make for ideal power sources to make for even better machines until you end up in industrialism via such powers. Whether they do this on their own or are used to augment mundane technology is mostly irrelevant. And indeed, powerful mages and alchemists are likely to end up as the predominant class as they control access to these all important resources. So societies that don't want to rely on either would likely double down on trying to find alternatives to having to rely on them, much like how Merchants pushed for quite a lot of what we take for granted in modern society to wriggle out from the thumb of the Aristocracy, like moving centers of production into cities not owned by nobles so they didn't have to pay the local Baron and would have better access to labourers not tied to the land as they sought to maximize profit in their class interest.
Societies are products of the conditions in which they exist. Things are the way they are because of responses to needs and pressures or perceived needs and pressures. They are never really static because the wheel of history is constantly turning and even something as simple as fluctuations in population size can result in radical transformations. Did a big war just depopulate a country in a fantasy setting? Well, gee whiz, now the labourers in the country have a much greater position of power and influence due to the scarcity of their services, which can lead to undermining the entire basis of medieval feudalism and pave the way for late Feudalism or even early Capitalism. Or perhaps something else entirely if the setting conditions allow for it (probably not a regression to Classical era slavery though; that required huge surpluses of labour.)
A note on Development Traps
Imagine your a Japanese guy in 1900 who's going around the world. Over your lifetime you've seen a fair deal of modernization from the railways and a proliferation of factories, many of them now using Japanese machines. Your nation was late to the game, but progress is being made. You sail across the Pacific and spend time in the US and see the automobiles puttering around LA, mechanized farms on the Great Plains and the Skyscrapers of New York. Once you cross the Atlantic England is still a beating heart of the Industrial World with shipyards that maintain an Empire on which the sun never sets. Paris has its grand boulevards illuminated by electric lights, theatres where you cans see moving pictures and the mighty Eiffel Tower. In Germany scientists and engineers have created mechanical marvels. Then your party goes through Russia, but along the way the train breaks down and it takes some time to get it going. You walk outside and you see a bunch of haggard peasants in well-worn rough clothes with hand tools living in crude timber houses. In a nearby village there are some basic tradespeople. You see more of these guys as you go living at medieval levels.
Now why is this the case? It's not that the Russians were stupid or ignorant of the modern era. Russia had produced it's share of scientists and engineers. The issue was that it was caught in a Development Trap. In Western Europe in the 18th century there was an increasingly wealthy and prominent Bourgeois: merchants, shop owners and so forth who were well off if not wealthy who'd be a market for mass produced goods and investors in the means to make said goods. In Imperial Russia that was generally not a thing. You had a small wealthy nobility who estates with retained tailors, carpenters, etc to cater for them and if they wanted something like a phonograph they'd import it from France or England cost be damned and a lot of dirt poor peasants living hand-to-mouth. There was some industry and railways, but a lot of that was set up by the Tsars specifically to produce guns, uniforms and battleships or to support said factories. Raising the standard of living of Ivan Average was at best a side-benefit. In general the incentives were not their to get people to develop their nation. Not that Imperial Russia was unique nor even particularity severe as far as Development Traps go. The Ottoman Empire and Qing dynasty China were in similar predicaments.
Why the Medieval Stasis of the Post-Roman Middle Ages Ended
In our own world, there were several critical developments which dramatically altered the status quo and led to the disruption of Medieval Stasis. These were:
- Printing: The invention of printing resulted in an upswing of literacy and education across all but the lowest classes of society. Greater availability of religious texts immediately caused schisms in Christianity as its foundational texts were scrutinized, while broadsheets and pamphleteering became the first form of ostensibly independent "news" through which the masses could be swayed to one view or another. The church had been instrumental in raising people to subscribe to the status quo and its disruption left the system it was propping up vulnerable. Printing (and the refinements of the techniques for producing paper) also lead to a revolution in administration, as the rapid reproduction of records and similar documents simply made it easier to govern by decree, rather than giving a local noble you appointed some broad orders and hope he would stick to them.
- Casting & Gunpowder: These two technologies were linked at the hip. Gunpowder weaponry was powerful, but also expensive and complicated to make (cannons are generally cast, and once you can cast guns you can cast all kinds of new things). It made feudalism untenable; no longer could a lord have his smith hammer out some weapons and outfit some men at arms. Instead he paid taxes so the king could buy guns made by...
- Craft Guilds (the Emergence of a Middle Class): The increasing complexity of creating of arms and desired goods drove the formation of labor organizations specifically focused on production; all kinds of production from guns to fabrics to ships and everything else. As these organizations gained wealth, they gained power and with it an awareness of their importance relative to the importance of their supposed betters; this awareness found its outlet in the growing public forum fueled by printing.
- Fractional Investment: With craft guilds and casting, economies were primed to begin growing rapidly, beyond the ability of the nobility to retain control or even complete awareness of what was going on. Into this the growing artisan classes (particularly in the Netherlands) threw in the concept of modern investment, allowing individuals of lower means to participate in larger endeavors at reasonable risk. Or for governments of some means to really throw their weight around. Whether it was building polders or sending ships on trading missions or establishing businesses, this lit a fuse for explosive economic growth which ultimately made feudalism (and its tendency to maintain the status quo) economically obsolete.
- Colonialism: This also goes hand in hand with the emergence of the Middle Class. The discovery of the Americas single-handedly fixed the decades long economic recession Europe experienced by opening up the vast deposits of precious metals (so vast in fact, that some of the mines established by the Spanish in the 1500s are operating to this very day) sitting there to the European powers (mostly Spain). Expansionism and wars between Nations as opposed to Kings over economical and strategic dominance (instead of dynastic struggles over thrones and titles) that seem more familiar to us became the norm as a result, as nations started to argue over their slice of the cake instead of the cake as a whole. Additionally, the founding of the colonies in the Americas and trade stations in Asia and Africa gave birth to the first vestiges of a globalized economy, where nations across the world directly started to interact with each other, with the sideeffect of adverse events directly impacting everyone involed. Colonialism changed the face of the world in ways that would take up too much space to even broadly lay down on this page, so we'll just leave it at that.
While there were innumerable other factors, these were major destabilizing elements that individually might have been coped with, but in concert made change inevitable. In designing a medieval setting, care must be given to the degree of technology that is introduced. As a general rule anything which cannot be created by the labor of a single person (excluding buildings, anyway), is liable to begin a chain reaction of economic activity which transfers wealth (and thus, power) away from a landholding nobility to a middle, merchant class.
This is why Venice with its shipbuilders and traders was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Unlike all the rest of Europe, Venice never succumbed to medieval stasis from feudalism; instead it succumbed to naked plutocracy. The middle merchant class of wealthy citizens (citizen in the Roman/Byzantine sense) grew so powerful so fast from shipbuilding and trade that they engaged in centuries of backstabbing and petty power grabs. In feudalistic countries, you were rich because you were king, and your line might reign for centuries. In Venice you were Doge (we swear, that's what they called the guy in charge) because you were rich and used your money to bribe/threaten/murder enough people to make you Doge; and odds were you'd be dead within a couple years to make someone else Doge. In a fit of irony, Venice, Ragusa and other merchant city-states eventually suffered a stagnation due to the closing of the Silk Road and the shift of trade lines from Mediterranean to Atlantic, this just goes to show how historical conditions can make or break a society.
Notable Examples of Medieval Stasis
- Lord of the Rings: Tolkien wasn't too fond of industrialization, having seen the First World War's highly industrialized warfare and the pollution-spewing effects of the Industrial and Transportation Revolutions on his native countryside up close and personal, so the heroes of his stories preferred Medieval Stasis as well, barring a few anachronisms like clocks and matches. Unlike most of the writers that he inspired, Tolkien had five hundred pages of background explaining why, namely because Middle-earth was in a state of decline due to the ravages of Morgoth and Sauron, the gradual decline of the elves and the Dunedain after the downfall of Numenor, and much of their technology was given to them by the Valar rather than inventing it themselves, and is intended as a mythological history of the world that ultimately explains why humans are on top and everyone else is gone. The funny thing is, based on supplementary books and scrapped stories, Numenor came quite close to being a Steampunk world power, equipped with steamships and even rockets, which, in their decadent colonialist period, they promptly used to imperialize the shit out of much of the world in a manner that led to their ultimate downfall. Indeed, that's why Harad, Rhun, Khand and other humans hate Gondor so much. The Numenorian ancestors of Gondor's people were taking them for industrial-level human sacrifices and doing other atrocities to them, so the descendants of their victims still hold genocidal hatred (abetted by Sauron playing all sides against each other). Also, it's worth mentioning that Tolkien designed his setting as a literal Earth backstory myth, so technically the age of industrialization and modernisation will start in Middle-Earth anyway.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: Westeros is extra static, because not only has everything been fairly stable for thousands of years until the Great Fuckening of the current time frame, some individual families have had unbroken rule over their lands for a hundred odd generations (The Starks being the prime example, as they have ruled in Winterfell for over eight thousand years) which is something patently absurd when you consider how much real life royal, imperial, and noble families have had to struggle to avoid patrilineal extinction in just a few centuries, decades even in some cases, with the oldest still extant aristocratic house being the Japanese house of Yamato and even then it's likely that they bent the rules of succession at least once in their 2500 year history. That said, it should be noted that part of the backstory involves the Bronze Age First Men defeating the Stone Age Children of the Forest, who were themselves conquered by the Iron Age Andal invaders everywhere but in the Iron Islands and the North (who adapted and adopted the technology of their would-be conquerors), and the records of the ancient days are spotty at best, full of mythical accounts and many of the Maesters believe that said events happened over a shorter timeframe. Granted, the whole "millenia old houses" might be something that tended to happen with noble houses IRL claming to be much older than they actually were and could not being contradicted in the absence of reliable records, all the way to the Ethiopian "Solomonids" that still exist to this day, and the aforementioned Yamato being helped by the fact that Japan did not have reliable calendars until the late 19th century, so there's that. While the exact timespan between the Andal invasion and the current events isn't exactly established, the stasis is still quite bad especially when you consider how dragons (essentially domesticated flying animals) are present yet people are none wiser on things such as flight or the use of heat and steam in proto-industrial activities.
- Forgotten Realms: Not only have things been more-or-less exactly the same for all of recorded history, there is a powerful, international, theoretically-good-or-at-least-neutral organization actively devoted to making sure that no progress of any kind is ever made: the Harpers. Whenever anyone invents something useful (guns, locomotion, steel plows, etc.) and tries to market it, the Harpers confiscate it and make it clear they'll kill the creator and their whole family if they don't go back to being a happy little peasant. Whenever a good-aligned king tries to unite and stabilize the warring states, the Harpers murder his ass (makes one wonder if the Harpers aren't part of the problem). Faerun hasn't budged an inch since Ao glued it together. And even Al-Qadim, located on a southern continent beyond their reach, is a somewhat-hidebound and conservative society where progress is uncommon. The only exception to this was the island nation of Lantan. The island was a theocratic state in service to Gond Wonderbringer, a deity whose portfolio included innovation and technology, who gifted his followers with knowledge of smokepowder which lead to functional in-setting firearms. At least until 4th edition blew it up along with everything else fun or interesting in the Forgotten Realms. As of 5th edition, the current (albeit scattered and/or vague) lore seems to imply that Lantan's destruction has been retconned like the rest of the Spellplague.
- Greyhawk: Despite the impotent bitching on the page for this oldest-of-the-old school settings, it also has a society where nothing much ever has happened or will happen to bring about changes in the lifestyles of its inhabitants. And this is the setting with a literal god of Old West gunfighting and an army of firearm-toting paladins analogous to sheriffs.
- Dragonlance: Apocalyptic calamities come and go, but Krynn stays at pretty much the same level of pseudo-medieval tech forever, world without end, amen. And, no the tinker gnomes do not count, since their stuff almost never does anything useful, gets mass-produced, or catches on outside the gnomes themselves. In fact, some material explicitly says that the reason for the stasis is because of the fucking gnomes; their absolute idiocy when it comes to producing technology has actually convinced pretty much every other culture on the planet that science is fundamentally inferior in every way to sorcery! The one culture that doesn't think they're entirely a waste of time is only interested because it pretty much hates magic... and is made of a bunch of knight-in-shining-armor types so hidebound that they haven't been able to properly fix their organization since the first Cataclysm, and so anything like vehicles or gunpowder is certain to get dismissed on grounds of being "dishonorable". So, yeah, fuck tinker gnomes.
- Warcraft: In a cartoony match for the Dragonlance example above, Azeroth's many factions never adopt one another's technological advancements. Goblins and gnomes can invent as many steampunk robots as they want, none of their stuff will ever change the world in a concrete way. Even the aliens are mostly just sword-and-sorcery types using magic for space travel and other advanced projects. That said, firearms had established themselves in the comparatively recent past.
- Ravenloft: This is probably the most interesting example. The Demiplane of Dread doesn't so much "advance" as it does "absorb some place where things are a little more complicated", and most of the Domains of Dread are already tailor-made just to torture their prisoners (and the Darklords can also choose to simply seal off all access to their Domains entirely when they're not just isolated by the Mists). Thus, though individual Domains might be advanced enough for common people to have firearms and gaslights or so primitive that they aren't even into the Stone Age (King Crocodile for the win!), they will almost never learn from or assimilate one another's technology even on the rare chance xenophobia doesn't get in the way first. Each Domain will be mostly frozen into the level it's at, medieval or not. Amusingly, this works both ways: technologically-advanced societies are no more likely to take up magic than lower-tech ones are to learn to use gunpowder. There's a notable exception in the Rokushima Táiyoo, which is listed as "Dark Age", but said to find the gunpowder weapons of Dementlieu "tantalizing;" this is a reference to the fact that that land is a pastiche of Sengoku Jidai Japan, and its Darklord of Western fanboy and gunpowder aficionado Oda Nobunaga.
- Star Wars: Not medieval, but absolutely in technological stasis in the Old Republic. In the 4000 years before the Battle of Yavin (the situation before and after this 4000 year period is discussed below) technological, the only thing that has noticeably improved is hyperdrives which have become faster and smaller. This would eventually be justified by a devastating war ~1100 years before the original film bringing about a dark age that killed several major technology companies and destroyed any FTL communication (sans courier) past the core worlds. This does not however apply to the period of 36 years covered by the films and the decades after it covered by the Expanded Universe (see below). There are some in-universe technological achievements that supposedly result in better results (the kolto made by an isolationist monopoly being replaced by the superior bacta made by multiple rival cartels, for instance, as the flesh-healing miracle drug), but none of them are really noticeable through the window the audience sees.
- Dune: One of the major inspirations for Star Wars (and Warhammer 40K). At some point in the past, AI went rogue and humanity's struggle against it became a literal holy war (the Butlerian Jihad), after it ended, development of any "thinking machines" was banned by religious fiat. As a result, technological and scientific development has slowed to a crawl, new technology is seen as suspicious, the "Spice" from Arrakis allows people to become human supercomputers, expanded lifetimes, and have space folding, so there was no desire to experiment and find alternatives, the development of personal shields made every other weapon outdated except for melee weapons (unless you shoot a lasgun into a shield, then the shooter, the target, and the surrounding landscape are deleted in a massive explosion) and the Bene Gesserit and Navigator's Guild collaborated to set up a feudalistic government with full knowledge that it would be easier to control. However, the main plot of the series is eventually revealed to be about making humanity escape this stagnation.
- Warhammer Fantasy Battles: Bretonnia is literally in Medieval Stasis despite having one of the most technologically-advanced nations right next door. The Elves of all types give no fucks about advancing their technology, but in their defense what they have still works, they have access to giant monsters such as dragons and hydras and the Dark Elves are a minor exception. The Warriors of Chaos are again literally medieval, but in their case they're Medieval Vikings who get supplied with advanced tech by the Chaos Dwarf allies or demons. Orcs have not been introduced to the wonders of "Dakka" yet; the Lizardmen still use wood and stone, but are literally designed for specific taskes and make up for it by also using dinosaurs and the best magic in their world. Lastly, the Ogres are pretty much in "Stone Age Stasis" as they're not very intelligent but they've started to reverse engineer blackpower weapons and under Overtyrant Greasus started to discover the benefits of commerce. Human nations outside of Bretonnia are at the tail end of the Renaissaince, while the Empire of Man is in slowly fighting through the early Enlightenment but they are under constant attack from various Eldritch horrors so progress is existent but slow. The various elf factions are averse to blackpowder weapons due to environmental damage (for High and Wood elves), using magic and monsters instead of technology and being "...content with weapons that will not blow up in (our) faces" (actual quote from the 5th Ed High Elves armybook). The only races that have had any technological developments on a grand scale are the Skaven and Dwarfs, and more so the Chaos Dwarfs. The Dwarfs are reluctant to share their technology with anybody other than the Empire and all their inventions must have at least several centuries of successful use before the guilds allow it to be mass-produced. While Skaven have guns, electricity and powered vehicles, most inventions of the Skaven end up blowing up in their faces and rely on the highly dangerous and unstable Warpstone (plus little regard for collateral damage). The Chaos Dwarfs' technology has gotten to the point of tanks and war golems, but it is literally built and run on daemons, souls and bloody sacrifices. You can see why others have not copied the latter two.
- The undead factions are an interesting case. The Vampire Counts vary with Luthor Harkon's pirate fleets using black powder weapons while outside that the most advanced technology seen in that faction was crossbows. The Tomb Kings had varying technology, with their most technologically advanced city, Lybaras, reaching the steampunk level. Also, they have superhuman abilities and being undead eliminates many of the needs that lead people to develop technology (no need to develop automation when undead laborers don't get tired or bored, no need for medicine because the dead don't get sick naturally plus their bodies can be repaired by magic and non-vampire undead don't need sustenance) and they also have magic and monsters.
- Not that any of this matters because the entire world got nuked by the Chaos Gods. The sequel setting, Age of Sigmar, has the successor factions be at roughly the same level as they were at the End Times, but stuff has become understood enough that Steam Tanks and Cannons won't randomly blow up as often and can be reliably mass produced, and it should be pointed out that Mass Production is itself a game changer. Stasis is more then raw technology: it is as much application. The Kharadron Overlords have surpassed steampunk via magic punk. The setting also has more-widely-available magic than the Old World did, significantly changing and improving the qualify of life of its inhabitants (in theory, in practice it's still pretty bad due to Chaos, Nagash, Greenskin and giant rampages and the realms being pretty fucked up places even when those three aren't involved, even Azyr is under a heavy dictatorship to prevent chaos of both lowercase c and capital C varieties).
- Banestorm: This one can be especially surprising, given the titular Banestorm makes the setting Portal Fantasy, so it's surprising that technology is still medieval. However, two issues present themselves: Most otherworlders are too familiar with modern society to function in the world of Yrth, and the powers that be specifically stop it.
- Fire Emblem: Throughout the whole series there is little to no advancement in the whole series when it comes to technology as no matter how many millennia pass, there will still be kingdoms and empires armed with knights on lances and swords with no new ideas on government types and administrations or military hardware, this is especially egregious in Awakening and Fates as the former takes places thousands of years after Marth was made king and his line ruled without interruptions or any severe shock or expansion until the war with Plegia and even then there's no significant change in Ylisse and the latter is implied by the Awakening Amiibo characters like Chrom that the main kingdoms of Nohr and Hoshido were set in the past, showing that indeed the stagnation was present even before. The only entry so far in the series that explains it's stagnation is Three Houses where DLC reveals that the Central Church had deliberately been holding back certain technologies like the movable type or telescopes by deeming them heretical, this is because the church is actually run by the survivors of a dragon race who's progenitor dragon gave advanced technology to the original humans of the continent only for them to grow arrogant and try and strike them her down... Which didn't work and they were destroyed almost completely, the survivors now want to avoid a repeat of that but even then cracks have begun to show in their system as the Crest(essentially special powers that enhance magic or the body and allows for the use of special weapons known as Hero's Relics) nobility steadily growing weaker as Crests become more rare, a new generation of nobles who wish to reform the current system into something less oppressive as well as the centralization of power via the rulers of the nations, by the end of any of the game's routes, there has been an opening up of the continent towards it's neighbors as well as major political reforms in how the unified continent is run that hints that advancement of not only the technological but also political and diplomatic changes will come and stay.
Notable Settings Without Medieval Stasis
- Warhammer Fantasy Battles: The Empire, Dwarfs and Grand Cathay are actually about the level of most European countries around 1500, at the start of the early modern period and the Renaissance. They're also advancing, albeit slowly, as the Dwarfs have steampunk helicopters and recently invented airships. But the problem is that they are under constant Chaos invasions and Chaos Gods themselves are not above screwing with the world, which puts something of a crimp on pure research. Imagine what Nurgle would do to the guy who discovered penicillin in this world. The fact that relations between the engineers and the Cult of Sigmar are not the best in the world does not help things at all. The Dark Elves have progressed from bows to rapid-fire armor-piercing crossbows, including a one-handed variety, during their war against the High Elves. The other notable technology users are the Skaven, but the Skaven technology only affects their weapons (god help the world if they ever figure out sanitation considering what it did to our own population) and it's almost all magitech based on weaponizing solidified Chaos. Undead straddle the line between the two, with the vampires not being afraid to use technology; the problem is most of their undead minions lack the physical and mental acumen to use it while the vampires physical, mental and magical abilities make technology practically redundant to them at a personal level. The Tomb Kings had technology at the steampunk level, though this isn't represented in the game, but they are more concerned about rebuilding their realm, which has fallen into disrepair due to hundreds of years of war, natural disasters and no maintenance, rather than advancing their society. They do have golem-esque undead constructs, which are the undead magical equivalent of robots.
- 'Warhammer: Age of Sigmar: As noted above, the sequel setting shows clear technological development with mass production of the best of the stuff known in the World-That-Was, with the Kharadron Overlords, the Cities of Sigmar subfaction Ironweld Arsenal and the Skaven Clans Skryre being the resident technological factions. The Lumineth are also a borderline case, as they've developed solar-powered golems, but knowing them magic might also be involved.
- Iron Kingdoms: The Iron Kingdoms setting is one of the best examples of steampunk fantasy. They're developed to the extent of the Victorian era (the mid-to-late 1800s), with a slow-but-growing industrial revolution and the discovery and development of electricity and chemistry, with the ongoing big international clusterfuck behind the wargame constantly fueling magical and technological advancement. At the same time, it remains a recognizably fantasy setting in many ways, with wizard orders, barbarian tribes, and dangerous monster threats on the frontier demanding plucky-adventurer solutions. (Or did before the wheels came off partway through Third Edition to make way for the science fiction spin-off nobody wanted. Still isn't medieval stasis though.)
- Eberron: Eberron is weird and expressly focused on subverting the usual D&D cliches, so the technology is a strange mixture of all eras with a side order of JRPG-style magitech. It's one of the few settings that avoids both medieval stasis and outright steampunk, since magic is so common that it has effectively displaced technology, but unlike most settings, this manifests as mass availability of magic conveniences. As there is no continuity and by default every game starts at exactly the same point in time as every other game, in 998 YK, there's no real status quo to worry about upsetting. Only modules/novels that are direct sequels ever reference the events of other modules/novels as having happened.
- Dark Sun: A weird example. Depending on edition, the past of Athas may have included anything from a standard fantasy setting to a bio-mechanical halfling empire. But, either way, the Brown Age is a barbaric decline of these past glories, with little metal and no feasible way of shaping more leaving the world in an oddly-civilized nigh-Stone Age. Still, there is an undercurrent of rebuilding and reforming throughout the more-heroic-minded books on the setting, helped by the same eventual anti-continuity Eberron had, so the idea that things could progress or get better isn't impossible.
- Ironclaw: The once-fantasy world is undergoing a pseudo-Renaissance shift away from magic and feudalism to machinery and Italian-style guild-republics. PCs are actually explicitly part of the burgeoning new middle class. Not bad for a furry RPG, huh?
- Mystara: Depending on where you are, there might be airships, magic-powered technological conveniences, and drill-tanks to explore the hollow earth full of dinosaurs. Either way, things are a little less generic here in proto-Eberron.
- Pathfinder: Golarion features relatively advanced technologies such as flintlock and matchlock firearms, the printing press, galleons (crewed by pirates reminiscent of the Golden Age of piracy in the Caribbean), and, in certain sourcebooks, steampunk/magi-tech spaceships. Not to mention the number of people whose clothes and equipment are explicitly based on 18th-century fashions (see, among others, Andoran, Taldor, and Alkenstar). At least one source (05-13: Hellknight's Feast) says high class dwellings have actual porcelain toilets. Also, there's that one random corner of the world where aliens are trying to peacefully settle and/or invade, only to realize they picked the *one* corner of the world where pleas of "We come in peace!" are met with warcries and the judicious application of battleaxes to various vital areas. One sourcebook (Technology Guide) includes *lots* of super-high-tech stuff and different class archetypes that make use of it. On the socio-political front, the Chelaxian breakaways Andoran and Galt have started to push for a less aristocratic government. Come second edition, cannons have become widespread on naval vessels.
- And Starfinder reveals that at least at some point various sci-fi technologies will be developed.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: It was true in the past, but by the time of the original series the Fire Nation has become an industrial power, complete with colonial ambitions towards the rest of the world. In fact, the main character's previous incarnation as Avatar Roku actually stopped the Fire Nation from breaking medieval stasis because that would allow the Fire Nation to subjugate all other peoples. This wasn't mere theory as Sozin, the Fire Lord during this industrial age and Roku's former friend, outright stated that's exactly what he would do and hoped Roku would join him. After Sozin got rid of Roku, the Fire Nation immediately went all Imperial Japan on the world, even inflicting genocide on the Air Nomads to stop the next Avatar, Aang (though he'd fled beforehand which worked out because even if they weren't the designated pacifist culture and he'd stayed, Aang was literally an untrained child and had no way of meaningfully stopping them... yet). Even the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes have a few tinkerers and inventors, and during the time of Avatar Aang, the first airships and submarines are invented, albeit the magitek varieties. At the end of the show, the protagonist Avatar Aang makes peace between all three surviving factions and begins the reestablishment of the aforementioned genocided faction, and the sequel reveals that doing so helped the world advance to a roughly 20s/30s era of technology, complete with automobiles, moving pictures, the printing press, political propaganda videos, and croneyist democracy.
- Dragonmech: Dragonmech's setting used to be in Medieval Stasis, then chunks of the moon started to rain down on them along with Alien Moon Dragons riding the rocks down for a full-on invasion, people first hide underground but then a dwarf kickstarts the creation of Pacific Rim sized steampunk robots to fight the Dragons and the whole world is now in a full-on steam-powered Industrial Revolution without the gunpowder.
- Star Wars: After the Celestials fell, the Rakata developed significantly and only failed as they lost their connection to the force. After the Rakata collapse, technology advances with some anachronisms due to FTL travel being discovered early on through Rakatan and other ruins and slave revolts against the Rakata. This continues until the period between the start of the New Sith Wars (2000 BBBY) to the Ruusan Reformation (1000 BBY) (where everyone was too busy killing each other, even more so than usual), and after that technology actually does advance noticeably throughout Post-Reformation Old Republic and especially the prequels (32 BBY onward) all the way to the era of the Legacy comics (138 ABY). Hyperdrives improve (in speed, how small a craft they can fit in and how big a craft they can propel) at a much faster rate than they did in the 1000 years since the end of the dark age. It's not just direct improvements either, with new technologies like Androids, relatively cheap cloaking devices that don't require unobtainum, silent and invisible blasters, biological technology merged with mechanical tech, and more. Even military strategy changes significantly between back and forth transitions between symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare. Amazingly all this occurs organically as new technology is introduced to allow a plot and gets improved upon in future installments.
- Gothic Earth: Perhaps the ultimate aversion as Gothic Earth follows real world technological history of tech development almost exactly, even stating players can only obtain certain items after a certain point in time. Ordinarily this wouldn't be notable, as Gothic Earth is still Earth, but Living Death included some technology that was explicitly anachronistic, such as submarines capable of cross Atlantic voyages and long term submerging, and a few people who have lived somewhat longer.
- Discworld: Entire Discworld novels revolve around a particular innovation that drastically changes how the Disc's society works: Moving Pictures - the movie camera, Soul Music - Rock N' Roll ("music with rocks in it"), The Truth - moveable type (i.e. the printing press, and with it, journalism), Going Postal - mail modernization and the telegraph, Making Money - paper money and modernized banking, Raising Steam - the steam engine.
- Arcanum: The world of Arcanum is in the midst of an industrial revolution with an in-universe acknowledged past of Medieval Statis. What makes it particularly noteworthy is how it portrays the ever faster changing world pushing old fantasy norms and customs away, with Technology replacing Magic entirely.