30 November 2013

The Black Elf Follies ...

My apologies for being quiet the last couple of weeks, but I’ve been plowed under with rehearsal and concert schedules for both the ensemble I’ve been in and my college chorus’ alumni reunion concert, celebrating the conductor’s 40th year at the helm.  (NUCS forever!)  But since you’re not here to hear about my singing ...

One of the hoary old standbys of gaming discussions is the player who bucks the campaign’s premise.  I've editorialized on what many call “special snowflakes,” a term often applied to the resulting PC, but more along the lines of my distaste for the term being used as a code slur for “Anything I don’t like.”

But that doesn’t touch the original syndrome.  Allow me to quote from a post in one of these debates, which illustrates one side of things.

Whether this is a problem and who’s  problem it is all depends on who's being the asshole. If the players wants to interject something cool or unusual into his character because he has a fun idea and it's going to get him into the game more and the GM pulls some sort of "No, in my world elves aren't black!" or "there are no female dwarves!" bullshit? That's the GM being a dick. That stuff is just another way for GMs to take the often reasonable "this is mostly my world and ideas" and throttle the players with it. This is also where a lot of GM horror stories come from, especially if people push their own pet peeves, control issues, or even racism and sexism through this crap.

No, screw that noise.

In joining my game, you're joining a campaign.  It has a defined game system, a defined setting and a defined milieu.  Someone agreeing to play in my campaign agrees to all of these elements. It is not "mostly" my world; it is entirely my world. Characters are created within that setting, as natives to that setting, and exist within that setting. If you don't like that setting, if you don't want to engage with it, then what are you doing at my table in the first place, instead of seeking out a campaign better suited to your needs and preferences? 

For my part, I miss where insistence on rejecting the setting helps someone "get into the game more" -- it sounds like, by so doing, the player would be getting into the game LESS -- and I definitely miss the part where (say) Being A Black Elf is the sort of make-or-break character creation decision which makes the difference between a Fun PC or an Unfun PC.  (As to that, I also miss the part where a GM is a dick for refusing to permit a character that doesn't fit with his setting, but a player isn't a dick for refusing to play a character which does.  Come again?)

Are black elves part of my gameworld?  No.  Would I prevent you from playing a black-skinned elf? No. But, by definition, you'd be playing someone wildly abnormal.  Most people would presume your PC to be accursed in some fashion ... and very likely they'd be right.  Cityfolk would more often than otherwise recoil from you, villagers would grab the torches and pitchforks, and any ghastly crime committed within a week of your arrival OR departure would be presumed to be your doing.

That's the point where most Special Snowflake players throw a tantrum. See, they're usually fine with playing their bizarre I Must Be Different Than You Peons characters ... but they're not nearly as sanguine, in my experience, with facing the fallout of their choices, and often throw out accusations that they’re being unfairly targeted or “punished” in some way.

I reject, contemptuously, this concept.  If you decide that you're going to play an assassin, you run the risk of the law and heroic types hunting you down.  If you decide that you're going to play an orc, you run the risk of prejudice and fear in areas where orcs aren't well loved.  If you decide to run a priest, you'll run into people opposed to your faith.  These are all your choices to make: I am not going to force you to play an orc, an assassin or a practitioner of an unpopular faith.  If you want to play a character that twigs as few knee-jerk prejudices as possible, you can.

There are prejudices in my campaign.  Some make sense; many don't.  People are down on one another for the many reasons this happens in real life: racial, economic, class, profession, nationality, ethnic group, hair color, speaking voice, what have you.  I quite understand people who don't want to encounter prejudice in their gaming, the same way there are people out there who don't want to encounter violence, who don't want to encounter fantasy ... what have you.  You've every right to seek a campaign that meets your requirements, and I wish people the best of luck in finding one.

Let me reiterate: the players don't get to decide what is or is not true in my game setting.  I do.  The details aren't up for voting.  If I wanted a Generic Fantasy World where anything goes, I'd play one, and no doubt that campaign would attract those who prefer such settings.  I don't want one, and I don't play one, and my campaign has attracted a couple hundred players who prefer those settings.  I am no more about to change fixed details for every newbie who can't stand coloring inside the lines than I'm going to stop running GURPS because that newbie prefers to play D&D, or that I'm going to stop running sandboxes because that newbie really prefers a nice, straight railroad track.

Here’s another quote from one of those debates: "Is the consistency of the world really that important compared to all you having fun at the table and being friendly?"

Why is it that some presume that "consistency" and "fun" are mutually exclusive values? My players like the consistency just fine, and they not only have fun, but they've been having fun for many years. Three of my current players have been gaming with me for over twenty years; a fourth has been doing so eleven years.

But hang on, let's turn the question around. Let's say you've just joined my main group. There you are, with the aforementioned four players. You're the newbie at the table. Why is being inconsistent really that important to you, compared to everyone having fun at the table and being friendly?  Don't you think it's UNfriendly to decide that the setting doesn't apply to you, and that you don't want to follow the guidelines that every other player's not only followed, but have done so for many years?  Wouldn't, in fact, YOU be the disruptive one here?  Why should the fun of other people be spoiled for your benefit?

23 November 2013

Medieval Demographics Done RIGHT (Pt II)

1)    Location

Any urban area, whether village, town or city, arises out of the need for trade.  While a small town can coalesce in a prosperous farming district or gather around a castle (indeed, skilled labor is necessary for a castle to be built), larger towns or cities only locate on navigable rivers or natural harbors.  Just as an example, how many cities in the United States before the railroad era were NOT founded on a navigable waterway?  (Answer: Indianapolis, and the founders thought that the White River was navigable.)

Consider also access to building materials, wood for fuel, fresh water, and nearby arable land.  The more negative factors there are that deter growth – the site's on an invasion route, a lack of forests, mountainous or swampy terrain – there must be counterbalancing benefits that want to make people live there (there’s a large gold mine, the location is unusually defensible, the kingdom’s northern border army needs a base).

You’re also not going to get a town of any size far in the outback, away from trade routes or transportation infrastructure, no matter what the benefits.  When all is said and done, the main reason people live in towns -- dirty, smelly, crowded, verminous, dangerous places at medieval tech -- is to find work.  If work isn't to be had, they're not going to stick around.  If there are no resources and no trade, a ruler would have to be mad (and filthy rich) in order to subsidize a city out in the middle of nowhere, for no good reason whatsoever.  It's expensive enough, and hard enough on the soldiers, to subsidize a strictly military outpost in the middle of nowhere: ask the Romans, the French, the British, or the mid- to late-19th century Americans, for that matter.

If your realm tries anyway to maintain a sizable town or city away from natural resources (see below), that means you need an equally-sizable logistics train to support it.  This is easily disruptible by the realm's enemies.  (This, of course, can form the basis for plots.)

2)     Resources

In basic terms, a town of a thousand people will consume twenty-five bushels of grain, around 800 gallons of wine, tea or beer, about three cattle, and about a hundred smaller livestock ... daily.  Throw in vegetables, fruit, cooking oil, herbs ... Coming back to water.  A human needs about two quarts of fresh water a day (or liquid equivalent) in order to survive.  The various industries of a large town or city, at the medieval level, uses roughly ten times that much per capita – for tanners, laundries, fullers, foundries, smiths, numerous others.

You’ll have to have market squares (and probably more than one) to hawk that food.  That means wagonloads of food and drink (the twenty-five bushels of grain alone takes up not quite two wagons), each and every day, and if your roads are impassible in winter, you need many more wagons coming through before then.  Storage?  Well ... if you keep your civic food stores dry, protected from vermin, and secure, they’ll keep two to four years without magic.  Maybe.  Say, does your gamesystem have a food preservation enchantment?

Also consider the stability of the countryside.  If you have continual plagues, invasions, bandit hordes and wars trucking through your lands, you’re not going to have prosperous cities, because there won’t be enough peasants left to grow enough food to feed them, nor enough traders surviving the gauntlet to provide raw materials and needful goods at economically feasible prices.  (That thousand-person town will need a minimum of five square miles of dedicated farmland, exclusive of the aforementioned peasant farmers needed to grow that food ... presuming the soil is good and the land is well watered and flat, there are no droughts, famines or civil disruptions, that the farmers employ sound agricultural practices, and that the harvest isn't whisked away to support a far-off royal capital or the realm's own marauding army.  For anyone who knows anything about medieval life -- or, indeed, low-tech agricultural travails generally -- that is a very tall order, and most medieval towns were food-importers.) You’ll also need a surplus enough to support non-productive elements, such as religious centers, universities or the bureaucracy of a capitol city.

3)    Trades

A large part depends on the size of your town.  The absolute basic tradesmen without which a village doesn’t exist are a blacksmith and a miller.  Next in importance comes potters, carpenters, weavers, leatherworkers, masons, a general merchant and at least one tavern. 

A small town will have multiples of the more important trades, and in such a case specialization will start to occur: blacksmiths turn into farriers, silversmiths and armorers; weavers into tailors, dyers and fullers; leatherworkers into saddlers and cobblers; carpenters into coopers, cartwrights, cabinet and furniture makers.  Specialized businesses will appear: scribe/notaries, brokers, herbalists, shipwrights, healers, various food occupations such as brewers, bakers and butchers.  As a town gets larger, more specialization will be the rule.  Some towns will concentrate on particular trades – the center of a wool-producing district will have a preponderance of cloth manufacturing trades (as much as two-thirds of all merchants), as well as wool merchants and factors for outside trade.  A grape-producing district will not only produce vintners and distillers, but coopers and glassblowers as well.  Two-thirds nautical trades is pretty standard for any port city – chandlers, shipfitters, boatwrights, brokers, longshoremen, and the several elements of a fishing industry.  And so on.

Below is a rough outline of what businesses will be found in your population:

Village up to 500 people:

1 church (with 1-2 clergy, and appropriate acolytes)
1 healer/herbalist/physician (in some cultures, this would be one of the priests)
1 scribe/notary
1 inn/tavern

1 mill
1 smith
1 general merchant
2-3 miscellaneous businesses, depending on the nature of the town.  A seaport village might have a boatwright (and the general merchant doubles as a chandler), a farming village might have a tanner, a mountain village might have a mining concern, anyone might have a cartwright – especially if the village is on a highroad.

The village wouldn’t have much in the way of bureaucracy:  the mayor/reeve/headman, who’d be a respected farmer or businessman, and perhaps a single representative from the local overlord or central government, a tax/toll collector if the village is on a major trade route, perhaps a small barracks of a sergeant and a dozen soldiers. 

In addition, most other residents will do various jobs – carpentry, pottery, basketweaving, brewing, weaving, masonry – on a part time basis.  There wouldn't be storefronts or colorful shop signs – why, when everyone knows what everyone does? – but be more along the lines of "Eh, ma'am, if'n ye want some good jars, Goodwife Adrienne's a dab hand with the pottery.  That there's her cottage, the one wi'the gate missin' a hinge.  The smith promised he'd get t'that next week."

They also take on minor posts on a part-time basis – a village will have a constable (if there aren't soldiers doing the duty), a handful of aldermen and selectmen, and other more minor posts.  The village may have a one-room schoolhouse, depending on the culture, and classes might be taught by the scribe, a priest, or an educated villager.

Town up to 1500 people:

1 bank
6-10 scribes/notaries/lawyers (some working for the others)
2 churches (with 5-6 clergy between them and appropriate acolytes)
3 healer/herbalists/apothecaries
2 butchers
1 baker
1-2 fishers or trappers (depending on location)
1 full scale inn, 3 taverns, 1 brothel
3 blacksmiths (one a specialist, such as a farrier), 1 silver/tinsmith
3 cloth shops, one which is likely to be a rug or tapestry maker; 1 tailor
4-5 general merchants, one which is likely to be a specialist (outfitters, say)
2-3 mills
1 large-scale pottery
1-2 masons
1-2 carpenters, 1 cart/wheelwright
1-2 leatherworkers
7-8 miscellaneous businesses

Now we have a prosperous town, and the center of its district.  When the local farmers say "I'm walkin' t' town, be back tomorra," this is where they're headed.

This is the point where a small bureaucracy would arise.  The town would have a mayor, a captain for the local militia and who’d also be responsible for maintenance of any city defenses, a tax collector and a dedicated scribe.  The mayor might double as the magistrate.  If a regional center of any sort, the town would attract central government staff – a district governor or noble and his staff, an army company and officers – and there'd be an appropriate building housing the same: a manor house, a small keep.

For towns of over 1500 people, use the following percentages:

* Bakery: 1 per 750.
* Brewers: 1 per 1500, at a ratio of 3:1 between brewers and distilleries/wineries; obviously variable depending on what booze-producing crops you have.  Inns and taverns often brewed their own tipple.
* Butcher: 1 per 800.
* Carpenters: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 2:1 between carpenters and specialty crafts such as wheel/cartwrights, cabinetmakers, coopers and carvers.
* Churches: 1 per 750.
* Clergy: 1 per 200, obviously hugely variable depending on how religious your town is.
* Dyers: 1 per 3000.  This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Financial: 1 per 1200, at a ratio of 1:2 between banks and moneychangers/lenders.
* Fishmongers: 1 per 1000.
* Foundries: 1 per 5000.
* General Merchants: 1 per 350, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between “country stores,” salters/spice merchants and brokers/factors/large-scale shippers.
* Inn/Tavern: 1 per 200, at a ratio of 1:5 between inns and taverns.  These neighborhood taverns are not your stereotype Giant Common Room places; a period neighborhood tavern seated about 30 with a bar about the size of a kitchen counter, and the clientele was exclusively from that block.
* Leatherworkers: 1 per 800, at a ratio of 2:1 between generic leatherworkers and cobblers/saddlers/etc.
* Masons: 1 per 750, at a ratio of 1:2:4 between sculptors, masons and stonecutters.
* Mills: 1 per 600, at a rough ratio of 3:1 between grist mills and sawmills, fulling mills and the like.
* Potteries: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 1:4 between glaziers/glassblowers and potteries.
* Scribes: 1 per 150, at a ratio of 1:2:5 between lawyers, notaries and scribes.
* Smith: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 3-4:1 between blacksmiths and silver/tin/goldsmiths/armorers.
* Tanners: 1 per 3500.  This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Teachers: 1 per 200, of which 1 in 3-5 are non-teaching scholars and scientists, who might nonetheless do part-time teaching and tutoring to raise some coin.  Small neighborhood schools and academies were far more common in medieval and Renaissance times than many folks imagine, and literacy rates in urban communities were 50% or better above the blue-collar classes.
* Textile trades: 1 per 100, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between weavers/spinners/carders, tailors/carpet/tapestry makers and furriers.  A town of this size probably has at least one large-scale cloth manufactory.
* Universities: These come around one to a city.  Starting at about 10,000 people, you’ll get at least an advanced institute of learning of some sort.  Capitals of any size, as well as major regional cities, will have a full-blown university.

Miscellaneous Shops: 1 per 200.  Possibilities for these:

* Common: stables, brothels, ropemakers, herbalist/apothecaries, barbers, lampmakers, painters, bathhouses, sharpeners, thatchers.

* Less common: bowyers/fletchers, ship’s chandlers, candlemakers, horse trainers, jewelers, outfitters, pawnshops, soapmakers, undertakers, messengers/heralds.

* Rare: gaming houses, perfumers, papermakers, seers, engravers, clockmakers, animal trainers, architects, cartographers, engineers, instrument makers. 

Keep in mind regional trades – for instance, a seaport would have sailmakers, at least one ropewalk, fishdryers, nautical carvers, chandlers, warehouses, specialty ship’s carpenters and smiths, navigators, steersmen, boatmakers, tattoo artists, shipwrights, and if large enough marine underwriters and freight shippers.  A mountain mining town would have specialty manufacturing shops producing mining tools and equipment, sawmills, assayers, alchemists (to produce certain chemicals necessary for mining and assaying certain ores), trappers and the like.

This is the population level where guilds will start to exist; around 4-5 similar businesses is the minimum number to form a sustainable guild.  Those aren’t the only support groups, of course; churches will have at least one sodality (and usually more than that) each.

Towns this size will have a market square, at which the local farmers sell vegetables and itinerant traders peddle just about everything else.  These are often heavily regulated and taxed, and crackdowns from town guilds are frequent.  Entertainers also exist, largely performing in the market, in front of any civic building or church, or available to play in an inn.

Towns and cities of this level have sizable bureaucracies, operating out of a civic hall.  Areas such as tax collection, records, justice and civic defense spawn whole departments.  A seaport would have a harbormaster, his staff, and naval units; any trading town would have an official in charge of weights and measures.  Formal military companies almost certainly exist. 

4)    Design

Cities aren’t particularly logical – the odds of having a nice grid layout, if you’re mapping it, are poor.  Consider that your city started out as a village.  It’ll have a relatively primitive tangle of streets in the center, haphazardly radiating out of the original village, which will center around the river/harbor/major road running through the middle, or perhaps around a religious center, castle or other fortification.

Planned towns did exist, but it took certain situations: a government seeking to settle an unpeopled area, a feudal lord wanting the profits and trade a town could provide.  Even so, most of them quickly spread organically from its original planned center ... those that survived.  (Many planned towns quickly failed.)  Plans were sometimes imposed upon extant towns and cities by new rulers or by the growing unsuitability of the original town; numerous cities in Europe had "oldtowns" and "newtowns" pressed together.  Another factor would be in the aftermath of a major fire (that being the chief danger to a medieval town), where entire city blocks and neighborhoods might be redesigned after being razed.

Obviously, waterborne businesses (mills, shipwrights) will cluster around said river.  It was common for a river town to expand to the other bank, which necessitated at least one bridge.  Oftentimes the rich and poor parts of town were differentiated by which bank of the river they were on.

Low-class and odoriferous trades (tanneries, dyers, soapmakers, slaughterhouses) will cluster downwind in the “poor” part of town.  Beyond that, certain trades required a lot of space -- metalworkers, cartwrights, potters -- and gravitated to the peripheries where land was more available and cheaper.

As towns grow larger, civic areas and buildings emerge: courts, wells and aqueducts, town halls, theaters, market squares, caravanserais, jails, belltowers, stadia.

Buildings would also grow taller.  As the town got increasingly cramped, the only way to grow was up.  Townhouses gained a second story, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.  Seldom designed to take the load and with oft-mediocre building materials, structural collapses were all too frequent.
 
5)    Defense

If the town is walled -- and unless your town is in a strong, powerful realm with secure borders and no internal threats (not a hallmark of RPG settings), it absolutely will be -- it may have been so quite some time before.  If so, chances are the town’s grown beyond the perimeter.  Medieval towns were almost invariably horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden places, and while it took extreme population pressure to abandon the protection of the walls, sooner or later it happened.

Some medieval cities had several separate walls, built somewhat haphazardly over centuries, all attempts to maintain some manner of defensible perimeter.  Consider also that such construction is expensive – building a castle in just a few years took so much money few nobles managed it.  It's also expensive to maintain, and it's entirely possible that broad sections of the walls are in disrepair.  Indeed, the reason why so many Roman-era buildings were in ruins or disappeared entirely is that they were often cannibalized for the stone necessary to build or repair walls, in addition to other buildings.

6) Personalities

A theme that keeps repeating throughout medieval annals is that towns and cities are firmly in the grasp of an oligarchy.  A small handful of families and personalities dominate local politics, commerce and social life.  They own the guilds that matter, public posts are filled by their patronage, civic amusements are graced by their money and presence.  The laws and rules are rigged in their favor, and the culture is nowhere close to being a meritocracy.

This ethos doesn't sit well with the average gamer, raised in a Western democracy relatively free of corruption and bearing at least the appearance of a meritocracy, and bringing to the gaming table the paradigm that the PCs are the swaggering masters of the earth before whom lesser mortals (read, "NPCs") all kowtow.  And it's okay if that's one of the aspects of medieval life -- along pervasive filth, disease, slavery, racism, fanaticism and sexual abuse -- you don't want to play.  YMMV ("your mileage may vary," code on many a gaming forum for "Whatever works for you is okay, it doesn't bother me if you have different preferences") is one of the more useful aphorisms to keep in mind when doing tabletop RPG setting creation. 

7) Giant Cities

Yes, I know.  A lot of gamers love giant, million-man cities.  A lot of gamewriters love them, too.  They just don't work.  A city of half a million people or more on medieval tech -- a Rome, a Constantinople, a Baghdad, a Chang'an -- requires a continent-spanning empire and awesome transportation infrastructure to survive.  Once the empire falls, once the plug is pulled, those cities collapse overnight.  In the course of a hundred years, the population of Rome fell twentyfold, and it didn't get back over a million until the 1930s.  And why bother?  A city of 10,000 will have several hundred businesses, more than all but the craziest gamers are ever going to create.  

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POSTSCRIPT:  A kind reader commented on MDDR Pt I, and made a remark that provoked this postscript: that he'd read Ross' numbers, as many gamers have, but that the numbers didn't work for him.

This is important.  Let's take those 52 scabbardmakers, shall we?  That seems ludicrous, but presuming the number is accurate, there are a few possible explanations.  One is simply that there were a honking lot of swords and daggers in 13th century Paris.  (Not the rapiers and main-gauches most people think of when they think of Parisian swordsmen – those weren't invented for over 200 more years.  We don't actually know what kinds of sword for certain; the earliest known combat manual, the so-called "Tower manuscript," dates from no earlier than 1300.)

So, okay: now what happens if you envision Paris with severe weapon restrictions?

Answer: you probably don't have many scabbardmakers.

And that's the notion you ought to have in mind when assigning business numbers.  If you have an illiterate populace, there'll be far fewer booksellers, papermakers and the like.  (The number of scribes and teachers might not change – business still needs to be transacted, and those teachers might be working on rote memorization!)  If there's no native clay, and far fewer potteries, there'll be more basketmakers, more turners and more leatherworkers churning out substitutes, and buildings will be made of wood, not brick.  If the Word of the Gods is that anyone who sails out of sight of land is accursed and damned, a "port" town might have a few coast-hugging vessels for bulk transport and a modest fishing fleet, and that's it.  And so on.

One last factor that you might want to keep in mind, not just for demographics but for anyone trying to tell you How Things Were In Medieval Times: we're talking about a few hundred years.  The notion that "medieval" was some monolithic state of being where everything was exactly the same for 400 years, everywhere, is nonsense.  Poor, chilly, backwards, thinly populated Scotland was a far different place than the rich, densely populated, glittering city-states of Northern Italy (and, as to that, both were far different places than China or India, lands our Eurocentric myopia usually leave out of "medieval" equations).  The 11th century was a far different time than the 14th.

Heck, think of our own era, and how quickly things change.  What kind of businesses exist in our cities, and in what numbers?  In 1954, computers were giant installations that cost millions of dollars and filled large rooms; you could no more obtain them retail than you could walk into a store and buy an armored regiment.  In 1984, indy computer stores were popping up all over the place: I bought my first one from a dedicated Atari ST store in Boston.  In 2014, those computer stores are now mostly gone – computers are ubiquitous consumer appliances you can get in your average department store.  I doubt it'll take until 2034 for "personal computers" to be museum pieces, and everyone's using smartphones and tablets ... or their successors.

So – YMMV.

16 November 2013

Medieval Demographics Done RIGHT: Stuff You Can Use

Medieval demographics and economics have long been an interest of mine.  I minored in the subject in college (seriously), largely because I wanted to become as expert as possible in the field for gaming purposes.  Between a divorce and what’s available on the Internet, I’ve trimmed down my library on the subject to a few dozen books, but I certainly have my opinions.

My opinion is that what you’ve been taught from gaming sources about low-tech cities is almost certainly wrong.

The most influential RPGer on the topic is S. John Ross, whose Medieval Demographics Made Easy article is widely cited and quoted as to what businesses existed in medieval cities and in what numbers.  Now S. John is a smart guy.  We were once on the same GURPS APA together, and we’ve corresponded; I respect the fellow.  But his article has some critical flaws, and I’d like to present this rebuttal both as a rant and for Wednesday’s Stuff.

* For instance, let's take his number on universities: "There will be one University for every 27.3 million people. This should be computed by continent, not by town!" Heck, by 1500 Italy alone had twenty universities which survive to the present day, let alone ephemeral ones in existence back in the medieval era. France, Spain and Germany each had over a dozen in medieval times ... even tiny Scotland (est. population in the Middle Ages, between 500,000 and a million) had three.  I've no idea from where he got that number.

* His break point on the population of town vs city is 8,000, but the true figure is around 5,000; most cities were chartered in England at between 4,500-5,000 population.  In Europe generally, the numbers and definitions were wildly skewed: in much of Germany and eastern Europe, for instance, the great majority of so-called "Free Cities" had a population of 1,000 or less.

* He asserts that a square mile of land will feed 180 people on medieval tech.  This is, in fact a hugely variable number.  Under ideal conditions, after the invention of the horse collar and crop rotation, on table-flat completely cleared land, in two-growing season areas like the Nile Delta and northern Italy, presuming the land's at peace, you can manage over twice that.  The presence of forests, orchards or pasture land?  A tidal wave of smallholders tilling just a few acres and not hugely efficiently?  Oxen instead of horses?  Poor soil, swampland or inadequate water?  Cold climes like Scotland or Scandinavia?  Hill country?  (And, oh, let's not discount politics and war.)  If you can manage a third of that number for much of Europe, most of the time, you're doing pretty well.

* The real killer are the totals for businesses, which are way, way, way out of kilter.

See, what Ross -- and many a gamer who doesn’t know any better -- uses for a guide is a single source: the so-called “1292 Parisian tax roll” cited in the end notes of Joseph and Frances Gies’ seminal work, Life In A Medieval City, which purports to give a comprehensive list of the 51 types of business in Paris in that time, and produces some oddities like there being 58 scabbardmakers in Paris in that year.

Yeah, but.

For openers, Paris was a very atypical place.  For most of the medieval period through to the 18th century, it was the most populous city in Europe, the national capital of Europe’s greatest kingdom.  Your average good-sized fantasy city would be a tenth the size, much less likely to have baroque luxury trades, and much more likely to be near or on the seacoast and have the nautical trades Paris lacked.

For a second thing, the Gieses heavily truncated that list.  The real list didn’t have 51 entries; it had several hundred.  (As to that, the Gieses made some errors.  The list didn't cite 58 “scabbardmakers,” there were 52.) 

For a third thing, what they were working with was itself an edited list: one a mid-19th century historian named Hercule Géraud edited from the original manuscript.

For a fourth thing, the accuracy of the list is in dispute.  Géraud lists 116 goldsmiths, more than the combined number of inn- and tavernkeepers, half again as many as there were coopers ... indeed more than any other profession except for barbers, cobblers and leatherworkers.  In the words of medievalist Norman Pound, "it is difficult to explain [their] presence, unless we can assume that their market covered much of France."  It's far from the only inexplicable result: only two lawyers?  Two lacemakers?  ONE roofer?  ONE fletcher?  Huh?

Most importantly, it wasn’t what the Gieses thought it was.  Géraud wasn’t attempting to present a comprehensive occupational list.  He was presenting a list of occupations with matching surnames – the French equivalent of “Joe Smith the blacksmith,” “Karen Cooper the cooper,” and suchlike.  If you went by (say) “Bob Traynor the notary,” then Géraud didn’t include you.  If you were a Jew that went by a patronymic rather than an occupational surname – a large percentage of them – then Géraud didn’t include you.

(If that sounds like the 19th-century equivalent of a Wikipedia-style "List of African-American jazz players from Texas," I don't blame you.  The guy researched what he wanted to research, and I'm sure there must have been some good reason why he put it together that way.  One wonders whether late 13th century Parisian goldsmiths just were in the habit of going by patronymics, and contemporary lawyers, lacemakers and fletchers didn't.)

You can see why I wouldn’t trust that list even if I hadn’t stared at it and immediately gawked at the notion that there are twice as many scabbardmakers as blacksmiths (the fundamental business of the medieval world, and which was underestimated on Ross’ list by a factor of six).  Certain businesses are omitted entirely; potters, for instance, and most of the nautical trades.  (These do appear on Géraud's original, but in startlingly low numbers.  12 sailors?  Seriously?)

Relying on a single source – never mind a single source far out of context – is poor scholarship. For example, I own a 1945 telephone directory for the city of my birth.  It has listings for only five barbers; by contrast, it has four pages of listings for beauty salons.  Now I'm sure there are those who'd swallow that factoid whole and infer that in a city of 75,000 men wore their hair to their ankles ... or – in an era of close cropped haircuts – it might have been that neighborhood barbers had plenty of walk-up business, didn't do appointments and didn't feel the need for the expense of telephones.  (Or, for that matter, that a telephone directory wasn't any more intended to be a complete record of every business in the city of Quincy, MA, than Géraud's list of occupational surnames was intended to be a complete record of every business in Paris.  Go figure.)

My own take on the numbers comes from a basket of sources: Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt, Medieval Trade In The Mediterranean World by Lopez and Raymond, the renowned 14th century The Practice of Commerce by Francesco Pegolotti (Evans' translation), Streider's translation of the 14th century Palaelogus by Georgios Pachymeres, the Milanese and Genoese 12th century reductions published some years ago in the Journal of Economic and Business History,  the 13th century Florentine business list I copied from a lovely text in the BPL, The Merchants of Cahors by Denholm-Young, The Medieval City by Norman Pounds (part of the superb Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World edited by Dr. Jane Chance and published by Greenwood Press, which I strongly recommend) and the magnificent corpus of work of Fernand Braudel.  And since this is rambling on a bit, I’ll save the actual chart for the next post.

09 November 2013

Magic-as-technology, take II.

Knobgobbler, my first kind commenter, gave me the notion to elaborate on the theme, something I would've done sooner or later anyway.

Caveat: we're talking realism here.  If you insist on million-person cities, Spelljammer-level ubiquity of powerful magics and all the trappings of High Fantasy, terrific ... just handwave what you want and have done with it.  YMMV.

Let's say you have a respectable sized city of 10,000 people.  (This really is a respectable sized city; it'd make the top five in England at most points in the medieval era.)  If wizards are as common as blacksmiths, you've got about 20.  Terrific, right?  Plenty of enchanting muscle!

Well, now, hold on.  Are all those folks practicing enchanters?  Of course not.  There are two major factors.  For one thing, most fantasy game systems require wizards to be of a certain power level to be a successful enchanter, excluding some -- or many -- wizards from ever doing it at all.

For another, why would every wizard be a professional enchanter?  Take Master Elaina, the water wizard -- sure, she’s the city’s most powerful mage, but she’s a full-time adventurer; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Mistress Syrielle is a legend, but she’s mostly retired now, and spends her time puttering in her garden from her wheelchair.  Master Ravenswing works for the Duke, mostly in divination; he’s not enchanting for a living.  “Whisper” is the hired mage of the richest fellow in town, and they say her telepathy and anti-thief magics are why he’s so rich; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Master Nightflame is the professor of thaumatology at the local academy; he’s not enchanting for a living, and neither is his sister Arathena, who got stuck with the Guildmaster job of the local wizards’ chantry after Syrielle retired.  No one trusts Master Hamal any more since he fell into the bottle; he’s sure as hell not enchanting for a living.  Whether anyone trusts Master Pando after the magical accident (he's yet to be able to cope with enclosed spaces, precious metals and the color red), he doesn't seem to be enchanting these days.  And Master Detheril is the new Knight Marshal of the city, and on the short list for a coronet the next barony that opens up; he’s not enchanting for a living.

So you might have ten enchanters; you might have half as many.  Just remember, though, if everyone else is an enchanter, you don’t have spare wizards for anything else.  Need someone to cast a divination spell for you?  No one available.  Want a wizard to teach your party’s wizard a spell?  Sure, spend three months in Nightflame’s next class (it’s about necromancy, by the way), and you can; otherwise, not.  Need that magical scroll written?  You’re SOL.

Well, alright, half of what’s left.  Six enchanters, then.  How liberal is your game’s enchanting rules?  I use GURPS, myself (and let’s ignore that published material suggesting that only one wizard in ten be of a power level high enough to enchant at all, shall we?).  Purify Water sounds like a good, basic spell; an item that is self-powering takes 550 mage-days to enchant.  Which means that all six of those wizards, working together, can reasonably bang out an item in three months; it can purify nearly 3000 gallons of fresh water per day.  In a year’s work, they can enchant enough to handle all the fresh water needs of the city for drinking.  (Unfortunately, the cooking, bathing and industrial needs for fresh water are about TEN TIMES as much.)

But sure, they stick with it.  Now the city has plenty of fresh water, magically created!

Fair enough.  But it doesn’t have magical streetlights.  It doesn’t have magical weapons.  It doesn’t have magically created food. It doesn’t have anything else enchanted.  And even that much rests on a few very flimsy premises:

* Every enchanter is a skilled water enchanter.  Why would they be?  Is every wizard you run?  Mightn’t they just as likely be earth enchanters, or fire enchanters, or temporalists, or communications specialists?

* None of them have any better gigs going on than creating fresh water for the city.  What happens when agents for Countess Silvermist come and ask a couple of the enchanters exactly how long they plan on playing Third String Waterboy for the Duke, when they could come work for the Countess for double the pay and their own private towers?

* As I mentioned in the pertinent GGF post, nothing ever goes wrong.  The Purification items don’t get stolen and sold on the black market, the city’s enemies never decide to ruin them, the wizards never strike for more money, the city always pays on time and in full, none of the wizards ever gets sick, the Duke never concludes that the city has plenty of water already and the money’s better spent refitting his cavalry troop after they got pasted in the last battle, the fire that torched a fifth of the city miraculously missed the Water Works, or the Duke’s never an egotistical snot pissed off that Countess Silvermist’s water purification items are made of gold, so his ought to be too, ditch the old ivory ones?

So sure; there are some ways wizards can have a material impact on life in a city.  If your system has a Predict Weather spell, one forecasting mage can save the lives of a lot of fishermen.  One wizard with long distance telepathy ... well, we know what instant communications can do.  A battery of wizards, as a long term civic project, well funded, might be able to implement ONE change - pure water, magical street lights - as long as that change is simple, and nothing goes wrong.

So do the math for your own systems.  How many people get to be journeyman wizards?  How many wizards are capable of enchanting?  How many wizards do you want to task to do other things: battlemages, teachers, researchers, detectives, adventurers, court wizards, mages-for-hire and fussy old coots who just want to putter in their gardens and not be bothered.  Does your magic system encourage/require specialization?  How long does enchanting take?  Can just anyone use an enchanted item?  Can an item work without supervision?  How fragile are magical items?

This is why you don’t have “magical” economies.

02 November 2013

NPC of the Day: Kardo

I've been at this, as I've mentioned, for a long time.  I can't readily count how many significant NPCs I've created: hundreds, I expect.  I'm minded to present a new one from time to time.  They'll be posted under the GURPS system, but the numbers ought not be too tough to parse out for those of you unfamiliar with the system.



Something in which I believe is what I call the "viewpoint NPC."  Being a player, IMHO, isn't always easy.  You're not really standing in Swordpoint Ravine, looking up at the ruined tower occupied by orcs, ankle deep in the late spring mountain snow.  You're in my living room, balancing dice and your laptop with a plate of pizza and a can of DC.  You're not going to recall, instinctively, that you've got a loop of rope over your shoulder and you're carrying a heavy packload.  You're not going to perceive, instinctively, that it's getting pretty damn cold, you're above treeline and you've only got two hours of light left.  You may have forgotten that your pal over there, in the fall that happened an hour ago game time -- but, in real life, happened at the last gaming session two weeks ago -- has a wrenched shoulder.

I like, therefore, to have a viewpoint NPC.  He or she's almost always a grunt fighter, without unusual or arcane skills, and has a background consonant with the party's theme.  The VNPC's generally self-effacing, and doesn't take a lead role in much; they're not brains or problem solvers, and don't aspire to be.  I'm pleased if the VNPC is a bodyguard or sidekick to one of the PCs.  What the VNPC is for, more than anything else, is to contribute editorial comment of things that I believe would be painfully obvious to adventurers on the ground, and less so to gamers lounging on my living room couch ... and so I don't need to go into third-person omniscient, which I prefer to avoid.  "Sorry, boss, but I don't like it.  Arkis can't put his full weight on his shoulder, it'll be full dark before we'll be more than halfway up that wall, and the wind's picking up something fierce.  Want me to start pitching camp?"

Kardo -- the disreputable fellow lounging above -- is the longest-running VNPC I've ever had: he's been around a full decade now, the Ally of my original Quincy group's wizard, and following her around from just-out-of-the-academy to being the greatest PC mage of my campaign's history.  He's undergone a lot of changes over the years, but this is more or less what he looked like in 2003:

ST: 12     DX: 13     IQ: 11     HT: 12     Per: 11     Speed: 6.25     Move:  6  

Advantages: Combat Reflexes, High Pain Threshold, Night Vision+4, Rapid Healing+1, Reputation (+2, as badass pirate, among other pirates, wharf rats and lowlifes)

Perks:  Improvised Weapons, Naval Training, Weapon Bond / favorite cutlass

Disadvantages:  Code of Honor (Pirate); MMA/Rheumatism; One Hand; Sense of Duty: the "crew"; Social Stigma: Second-class citizen; Struggling; Stubbornness, Trademark

Languages:  Avanari (is illiterate) 

Skills: Area Knowledge (Warwik City)-12; Area Knowledge (Eastern Avanari coast)-12; Artist (scrimshaw)-10; Boating-13; Brawling-14; Cooper-10; First Aid-11; Gambling-10; Thrown Weapon: Knife-14; Leadership-11; Scrounging-12; Seamanship-14; Shield-14; Shortsword-15; Smuggling-12; Streetwise-12; Weather Sense-12; Singing-12 

Quirks:  "I am a tattoo artist," "Old Salt," Scrimshaw connoisseur

Raised a cooper's son in the stereotypical Small Outlying Village On The Coast, he ran off to sea at an early age.  Many years of vicissitudes aren't pertinent, but he eventually became a pirate, and a successful one.  Unfortunately, he lost his (off-)hand in a foray, and feeling he couldn't keep up any more, retired to the waterfront of the capital city, where he befriended the family of an inn catering to pirates and rogues.  Their elder daughter became a wizard, and he promised her (now-deceased) parents he'd look after her.  He's done that ever since.

Kardo's a stereotypical, sardonic Old Salt Pirate, and social graces aren't his mug of grog.  (He prefers tea to grog, as it happens.)  Even deep into middle age, he's still respected by other pirates and those who know who he is, and he can still bring it in a fight.  He's a sword-and-board fighter, preferring his favorite cutlass above all.  (It does take him a long time to get his shield settled and on, at least a couple minutes unassisted; any sudden fight, and he won't bother.)  If you're in his "crew," so to speak, he's very loyal to you.  If you're not, well ... He's not well off, and doesn't own more than he can carry.  He has some underworld contacts, which he uses when the wizard reminds him of them.

About his oddest quirk is that he fancies himself a tattoo artist, and carries a comprehensive tattoo kit, complete with several colors of inks.  (His tattoo skill, in GURPS terms, is 7 by default, which is quite poor.)  If he has the time or opportunity, he'll tattoo prisoners with insults taken from prepared stencils, which are about as legible as you'd expect.

There you have it.

For those of you unfamiliar with GURPS, a few explanations: that Night Vision level is "pretty decent night vision," as opposed to "sees like a cat."  High Pain Threshold means that he doesn't suffer particularly from shock, and wounds don't slow him down unless he's unconscious.  Rapid Healing gives him big bonuses to health for day-to-day natural recovery.  Weapon Bond gives him +1 for *that* particular cutlass, and no others.  Naval Training gives him surefootedness on a swaying, bloody deck where others would take heavy DX penalties.  Struggling means he's a bit on the impoverished side; in Kardo's particular case, at this stage in his career, he doesn't own more than he can put in his sea bag.  The rheumatism?  Give him a HT daily, bonuses on hot dry days, penalties on cold wet ones.  If he blows it, he's -2 to everything.  Ow.

For further explanation of system stats, check out this link.