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What’s for Dinner?

A number of gamers like to mix their passions– at the moment, food’s on the upswing for me. I’m not the only RPG Blogger with this strange blend of interests: Dice Monkey’s Bridget [1] stirs in articles of real world recipes with game world names. (Once recent dish: Troglodyte Tequila Lime Fillet.) On the stew, Adam Nave wrote provocative articles about food at the gaming table, including GMing for weight loss [2].

My current interest in food has two sources; a new cookbook [3] (a Christmas gift) and finally tracking down and subscribing to a local CSA farm. Long story short, I now get strange vegetables every week, along with some interesting recipes.

Gee that’s nice, but how does that affect my game?

It is sometimes difficult to remember, but we have access to a huge amount of cheap and varied food today. Depending on when and where you set your game, you can tell the players quite a bit, indirectly, just by inviting the characters to dinner.

One big item is the relative price of food to income. In 2005, the USDA Economic Research Service compared food shopping [4] in several countries. Their results were vaguely familiar– I know I’d read them before, and recently, but the still surprised me.

“U.S. consumers spend approximately nine percent of their income on food compared with 11 percent in the United Kingdom, 17 percent in Japan, 27 percent in South Africa and 53 percent in India.”

(The link includes many more countries and updates to 2007.)

Inviting a character to a meal can be an act of beggaring hospitality, particularly for those on the lowest end of the economic ladder. Conversely, many of us were raised to disdain wasting food, so one way to subtly vilify an NPC is to introduce them to the PCs while they’re eating piggishly, spilling, and wasting food.

Food in History

Our heroic versions of the middle ages don’t often linger on food, despite the grim reality of famine and instability in real world history. If you are running a more historical medieval game, famine and its threat are huge influences on the world. Kingdoms often came to crisis during famines; rulers may deplete their treasuries to fend off the starvation of their people, while farmers wiped out by bad weather turn to banditry or poaching [hunting animals in the ruler’s woods] to feed their families.

The poor transport typical to the medieval world can lead to famines only a short distance (as the crow flies) from abundance. For example, rulers of England often had trouble feeding their citizens during famines, because sea transport was so much better developed that English citizens would break the law and sail to the continent to unload their desperately needed crops at foreign markets. They’d do this because it was much easier and safer to transport the goods by sea.

Pendragon, set in Dark Ages England, has the winter phase, where you check on the year’s harvest and see if your peasants provide you a profit, or if you have to put off your armor purchases for another year.

S. John Ross’s article, Medieval Demographics Made Easy, tells you upfront that “There are many factors that determine the population density of a land, but none as important as arability and climate. If food will grow, so will peasants.”

Irish characters in Westerns are often recent immigrants driven from home by the Potato Famine [5] of 1845 to 1852. (Far and Away was a 1992 film that featured immigrants fleeing the famine and trying to adapt to life in the US.)

Even in relatively modern history– like your Call of Cthulhu game set in the 1920s, buying food still took more than 20 percent [6] of the average family’s income. The bread lines of the great depression, or the Joads watching farmers destroy produce while they starve, mark the 1930s. Rationing during World War 2 meant that sugar and chocolate were very rare treats. Incorporating details like these can add texture to the everyday experiences of the characters, and help immerse players in the era.

Food and Morality

Moral conundrums from food are easy to introduce into your games. Bandits who are failed farmers are probably more sympathetic than murderous scumbags, and everyone has been asked “Would you imprison a mother who stole a loaf of bread to feed her children?”

Al-Qadim (an Arabian inspired setting for AD&D) features several food related customs. The Bond of Salt [7] was a formal tie that could force a host to defend his worst enemy. By offering the salt, the host vowed to protect the guest from harm for the duration of the salt bond, three days. In the game world, infiltrators would go to tremendous lengths to avoid sharing salt– even an assassin might feel compelled to defend their host if they had shared salt earlier.

The health of the land was often tied to the ruler’s deeds in myth and legend. Diane Duane’s Tales of the Five shows the Kingdom of Arlen in the grip of famine because of the rightful king’s absence. Mage the Ascension’s Verbena sacrificed kings to bring rain to a land in drought. Each is a good chance to ask if the sacrifice of one for the many is justified, or about the responsibilities of rule.

Modern games add intent, turning shortages into policy, not just the result of ill weather. Movies like To Live [8] show the toll of starvation while China attempted to make the Great Leap Forward. North Korea is often used as a short hand for an irresponsible nation today because it maintains a large military while its people starve. Or, how does your character feel about selling food at exorbitant prices because your Megacorp has an exclusive contract?

Normal and Exotic

In the Europe of the Middle Ages, spices were an ostentatious luxury good. Today, it can be hard to find a recipe that doesn’t call for several spices– and foods without them often taste bland. Salt was valuable enough that it was kept in locked salt cellars, and few were trusted with the key. Today a pound of iodized salt can be found for 33 cents at the super market.

Smells can make a good shorthand for what’s comfortable or strange to a character. A pot of roasting meat with rosemary might be one character’s comfort food, while another character dumps Tabasco on everything after their stint in the military. When you read books set in Narnia, notice that the Calormen always smell of garlic.

Historically, meats were much less a part of the average person’s diet, grains and vegetables had to fill up hard working peasants and serfs. Many traditional meals (like borscht) stretch food through the long winter; Haluski is a big pot of noodles and a head of cabbage– a way to provide lots of nourishment inexpensively. If your peasants don’t include a meat dish at their meal (and except for feast days, many won’t), make sure you mention it. It’s another shorthand that reinforces the differences an adventurer’s life brings.

Making use of it all

Many articles have been written about the power of smells in memory, in setting a scene, in making a description vivid. Mealtime is a great time to bring in those smells, to subtly mark certain characters as exotic or local, wealthy or poor. Many adventurers get beyond scraping by for food quickly, but a feast continues to impress for a long time.

Food can build conundrums into your setting and are a great chance to introduce shades of gray. Starving farmers turn to banditry, angry mobs riot in protest of bread prices, or wealthy lords eat imported delicacies while their people starve. Food related taboos and customs can add depth to a culture quickly.

Have you made food a center point of an adventure? Are your taverns and restaurants constantly filled with the aroma of slow roasting pig? Have your characters picked out a favorite baker and lurked outside his store at 6 am just to smell the fresh baking loaves? Tell us about how you’ve worked food into your games. I look forward to borrowing lots of additional tricks from this comment thread.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "What’s for Dinner?"

#1 Comment By Azmo On March 26, 2009 @ 5:03 am

In my gameworld for D&D, there is a town called Mossburg. The town lends its name to a brand of beer known throughout the western kingdoms. This Mossburg Stout is dark, full bodied and ‘drinks like a meal’. Halflings from this town carry a pint of it with them to ward off hunger, disease and the terrible effects of prolonged sobriety. I also mentioned that the brewery dominated all the yeast in the town and the breads of this town were curiously flat, baked and covered in salt. Locals would pay for samples of yeasts from other towns as the Brewing Guild held sway. Later mention was given to their cheeses; brine soaked pressed curd cheese and dense sharp cheddars in black waxes.

Much of this seems to be color, but when a snack of farmer’s and cheddar cheeses, pretzel crisps and Guinness is produced, the town of Mossburg comes alive in the minds of the players. Also its plots, intrigues and eccentricities are made more relevant and plausible. Beer and Pretzels gaming never tasted so story based.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 26, 2009 @ 7:14 am

I love how you pointed out just how easy it is for those of us in the industrialized world to eat. We know longer live “hand to mouth” with our food supply and you can use the food supply to explain so much about the game world. Such as why the orcs and goblins always attack the farms on the outskirts of the kingdom (simple – they are hungry and that’s where the food is).

Water is another modern convenience that GMs should use to illustrate the game world and its dynamics. A recently failed assassination attempt of an NPC in my game had the PCs asking the target why these people wanted him dead. His family had given some water rights to farmers not under their banner, and some of there own farmers and people were pissed about this. When asked why the family helped those outside of their rule the response was “If we deny them water their crops fail. If their crops fail they starve. If they starve they will attack us for food. A starving enemy is the worst kind, for he has nothing to lose while you risk everything.”

This kind of thing just helps the game world snap into place. Good stuff!

#3 Comment By Sarlax On March 26, 2009 @ 11:14 am

My recent D&D campaign had a climate collapse as a major feature for a about a quarter of the game. The short story is that, unknown to almost everyone, the world’s climate had been artificially stabilized for centuries, but that changed, bringing on a harsh winter. The PCs’ region didn’t have much developed agriculture, sustaining itself instead through a little trade and gathering from the jungles.

When winter hit, the PCs had already taken a number of cities and towns under their protection and started looking for food supplies. The jungle was now worthless, so they needed to look elsewhere, but the entire planet was getting colder, so food would be a problem everywhere.

The winter advanced in such a way that they knew of the weather changes first, so they did something equally clever and cruel – they bought as much food as possible from places that didn’t know the cold was coming. Via teleportation and magic gates, they shipped large quantities out of those still-warm places and brought them back home. They didn’t arouse suspicion, as it was known that the PCs came from an area ravaged by war and they had already been importing some food for years.

The PCs also looked into more exotic methods of food-production. They cultivated cave-fungus, for instance. The druid actually fostered colonies of honeybees that had been hybridized with red dragons; these extremely aggressive bees could tough it out through the cold and warmed small areas, meaning crops could be grown around the city in the cold. Their honey also packed some heat.

While no single adventure was about food, food management was important for several adventures, until the system was stabilized. It was fun to play out for me, because it wasn’t the sort of problem that can be solved just by being high-level, and because it forced the players to make hard choices about how to treat their homeland and the lands of others.

#4 Comment By Tony Graham On March 26, 2009 @ 11:19 am

I recently used the down-on-their-luck farmers ploy in a game module as a tool to alert the players that all was not well in the area. Bad harvests and sickening sheep flocks drove the good farmers to taking a stab at being incompetent highwaymen.

In a city I’m working up, food preparation is the center of many people’s day. Three large farmer’s markets, complete with butchers, are spread around the city. Much of the traffic around the gates each day consists of farmers & herders bringing in their product. Street vendors can be found hawking food & drink in any busy public square.

Real portable wealth can take the form of small bags of spices – peppers, salts, herbs, nutmeg (to spice beer/ale no less). Casks of such could amount to a small fortune.

Any force (men, orcs, gobs, etc.) encroaching on a town or city would attack the outlying farms and ranches first. Even a small force could seriously disrupt life in the city if the food coming in begins to slow.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 26, 2009 @ 11:43 am

Food’s a great motivator, although I try not to ‘equalize’ the good guys with the bad guys through hunger or wealth. (I prefer my evil with a capital E.) But if you like the complicated ‘shades of gray’ approach, hunger is one of your greatest weapons.

You’re right; food has been the rallying cry (if not the actual impetus) for more revolutions than anything else. Many of the protests leading up to the Russian Revolution revolved around bread,and it’s no coincidence that acronym for one of the largest political parties in Mexico is PAN (Spanish for ‘bread’).

Point of order: During the Irish potato ‘famine’, Ireland was a net exporter of food. The proper term might be ‘starvation’, as the English were calling the shots at the time…

Some day, I’d really like to run a session that revolves around a dinner served by a host, either a quest-giver or a thankful noble. We’ll serve what the characters are eating, use goblets and trenchers, and try to remain in-character for the entire meal.

#6 Comment By MoonHunter On March 26, 2009 @ 11:48 am

I have always been a big fan of food and how it impacts the world. It is one of those “little things” that world revolves.

I have done a number of submissions on [9] about these.

Culture and Food
Food is Life. Food, what is eaten, when it is eaten, and how it is eaten, says a great deal about a culture.

The Breakfast of Champions
Every culture has a different idea of what constitute’s breakfast. Even regions inside the same culture can vary quite a bit (like grits with hot sauce in Texas or Fishcake mix in omelets in New Hampshire). What do they consider “food” first thing in the morning in your space?

For the historically orriented The Book of Cookrye
Do you know what people should be eating at the social and technological level of your historical analog/ fantasy world? Do you know what people were eating in the real world at the same cultural/ technological level? Well here is your chance. Did you also know one of the main contributing factors to nationalism and the nation states, post printing press, was the creation of national cuisine through books?

And my personal favorite…..
A Dash of Salt
“The Official Strolen Citadel Cookbook” Also known as The Citadel Recipe Book of the Strange and Unusual.

Here you will find recipes for preparing and eating exotic animals found here in the realm of fantasy. Have a hankering for Gartrap steaks? Want to learn how to properly prepare a Squicken? Well look no further.

This thread is a submission writing exercise. Take your inspiration from something different, like cooking, and bring it into your gaming. Take a recipe and add fantasy elements to it, or explain how this recipe fits into your fantasy (science fiction) game/ setting.

#7 Comment By DrOct On March 26, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

In our game food has generally been used mostly for flavor (wow that was an unintentional bit of humor!), but it’s been fun. I’m a player in that campaign, and my character especially does stuff with food to make things a bit more interesting. I’ve put a fair number of skill points into cooking, and my character is always trying to find new and interesting spices and ingredients whenever we find ourselves somewhere new and exotic. He’s also always trying to make friends with and help out cooks we encounter. In one short adventure we were on a ship for a few weeks, and my character spent some time making friends with the ships cook and helping her out. It wasn’t crucial to anything but he did learn a little more about the ship and crew, and knew his way around some of the less used parts of the ship because he was helping to get supplies and working in the kitchen.

While it generally doesn’t make any real mechanical difference my character will occasionally make a skill check to try to make our trail rations into something a bit tastier by adding spices or cooking them in some interesting way. Sometimes I roll well and we’re all told that the rations are great, and sometimes I roll poorly and we all have to suffer through a bland or even bad meal.

So though we haven’t made food central to our game so far, it has been a nice way to add some little touches here and there both to the game world and to our characters.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On March 26, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

[14] – Mossburg sounds like a town many of my characters would like to visit. I’d avoid it, because I’m much more interested in good bread than good beer. Remind me to swing by and join your table when the party’s in Mossburg!

[15] – Explaining orcs and goblins as motivated by hunger is great– and definitely edges your world towards shades of gray. I like your water examples, and really like your wise nobleman. It’d be hard to explain to your people, but it shows real forethought.

[16] – That’s a neat backdrop to a world. The Time of the Dark trilogy uses global cooling for its own nefarious but similar purposes… I like it.

[17] – I like your foreshadowing with trouble at the outskirts. And using spices as trade goods is obvious, but something I’ve never done. Though it’d make getting hit by an Ice Storm very costly…

[18] – Sounds like the Irish potato famine goes in the same bucket as China and North Korea then. If we game together for a session, the in character feast sounds like a good session to do. 😉

[19] – Those little touches are great. I’m often amazed at how willing PCs are to put up with iron rations just because they don’t trust the innkeeper. If they could smell the cooking pig, you know a few of them would go for it!

#9 Comment By DocRyder On March 26, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

Stouts: For those not in the Know, there are many “beers” and ales made that are more like runny oatmeal than clear liquid. When I was doing Renaissance Faires, I knew a few folks who would bring that slop to faires :-).

@ScottM: Another point of fact: That whole Verbena thing was based on things the druids would do historically (or so the stories go). WWGS stuff actually seems pretty well researched, from what I’ve been able to determine.

Related to that, years ago, Mike Nystul (the creator of The Whispering Vault [20]) was working on an RPG called “Crusade” in which the characters’ behavior influenced his demesne on profound level. If he were cruel and oppressive, the land itself would change in response. It was a fascinating idea, and I really wish he’d done more with it before leaving the industry. If fact, if I thought I could get the rights…

#10 Comment By BryanB On March 26, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

This article brings up things we don’t often thing about as GMs.

Famines were very tough on the peasant class because their primary food was bread. When grain was scarce, bread was scarce. It effected beer production as well.

It is hard to field an army if one can not feed it. Since armies consume massive amounts of food, then it may be near impossible to field a large standing army during times of famine. Hopefully, the country next door is having the same problem.

Very interesting comments by all.