You know you're playing D&D differently when your player says, "I think I'd like to play in a Medieval Europe setting next; it would feel more exotic."
Up until then, we'd played in a science-fantasy setting reminiscent of Outlaw Star or Xenosaga and even tried our hands at Japanese gothic horror, but the last fairly European-inspired session we'd played was in about 2000.
PART I - What is Medieval Europe?
When I think of European-inspired settings, 2 large fields spring to thought:
1. Historical Europe, which one learns in pre-college textbooks was a stark and drafty place inhabited by a gray-skinned and disturbingly hairless people who wore ugly things like apple green with pink trim, spent way too much time in church, and probably perished in some nebulous event (XXXX-YYYY) on page 154. However did elves, magic, and fashionable video game heroes come from this?
Part of the problem is US K-12ers tend not to be taught history from things like the court records of Jeanne D'Arc or the diaries of Napoleon Bonaparte; they're taught it from some list of dates bleached of all faces and world context out of which someone screened most social meaning anyway to sell in those school districts that haven't moved past 1926.
2. The other is what you get when you go anywhere else. Many copied from the work of a man whose name begins with a T or the game of 2 men that's called D&D.
But without certain elements of a campaign setting (and I've yet to find a pre-published one I've liked entirely), where's the culture? What parts of the culture make it "Medieval European"?
Research! Every culture out there has interest in it, but you have to view the living thing. To wit: ancient Greece wasn't a place where everyone walked around in white sheets, carved white statues and made white buildings with pillars instead of walls; there's evidence togas were brightly colored, those statues painted, and many Greek buildings made of wood, mud, or clay: Anything surviving is just foundations or temples from around the 4th century BCE. (Imagine if all that survives from our century is parking garages.) Think ancient Greece looks a bit more interesting now?
So I rummage thru Joan of Arc by herself and her witnesses by Régine Pernoud, Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul Newman, books on historical knights, a complete copy of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and various articles on topics from the Wild Hunt and Sluagh to manor life and the price of a Saracen slave.
Did you know not all Jotunns were humanoid or even giant? Did you know the Medieval Church tried outlawing battle on most days of the week?
PART II - How to get there
Culture can be tricky to convincingly portray in a medium that often has few visuals and sound. The trick is not to merely rename things, but to change how they act, as appropriate.
Take this story:
Lord of Avon and Lord of Clane were to be given lessons in court etiquette by a powerful noble Marquis Clyde, one of the Duke's men. This Marquis was something of a grating character, and bore his students roughly. While Clane's counsellors bribed the Marquis to treat with their lord kindlier, Marquis Clyde's insults fell heavier on Lord Avon, even in public, for not offering similar favors.
In a corridor of the Ducal Castle, after one such outrage, Lord Avon attacked the Marquis's face with a dagger, managing but a light injury. Nevertheless, it was treason to draw weapons within the Duke's Castle.
In punishment, Avon's own castle was seized his retainers kicked out. A certain number of the lord's knights, however, sought revenge against Marquis Clyde, and planned his murder. Beforehand, they divorced themselves from their families lest the families be held legally responsible, for the knights knew the law against what they would do.
They later set the Marquis's head upon their lord's grave. The knights gave an abbot there what money they had, asking him to bury them decently and offer prayers for them. They then turned themselves in.
Does this smell strongly of Medieval Europe to you? Do you feel it?
I don't. This is the story of the 47 Ronin, a famous historical event in 18th century Japan. If this took place in Medieval Europe, 'twould seem to me the vassals wouldn't be punished for their lord's own misbehavior and any vengeful knights would not turn themselves in. Further, the story of court insults and offense seems more Japanese to me than Medieval European.
Some themes do carry across cultures (by this fact many Akira Kurosawa chanbara films were remade as westerns), but while like sacrificing oneself out of loyalty is fairly universal, it can be done in different ways (and each culture may have a preference). If one can't make D&D distinctly Japanese merely by trading trolls for onis and claymores for katanas, why would D&D waft pungent of Medieval Europe by the mere presence of plate mail and mead?
They must act the part! Where's the religious hierarchy in government? Where's the legal web of whose-fiefs-are-rented-from-whom? Are you a noble, free-man, serf? Knights lived on manors, you know! Must you know another language entirely to be able to speak in court? (At some point in England it was French; dig it.) Are your lands named things like Avenois, Vausten, or Westfalia (as opposed to those alien Ryk'tk'ixxz-Vaa names that pass for spelling in places)? Do your trolls have tails and turn to stone in daylight? Perhaps your next reward will be a mill that generates income depending on how good your rental prices are (instead of ABC gold pieces). Such things serve the heart of a culture beyond different looks and sounds, and therein lies the path to that exotic or familiar place you want your game to reach.