I was recently reading a fascinating book, The accidental city : improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. It was filled with a number of fascinating facts and historical events that were new to me–or made new by the context of the book. Even more, the chapters detailing the differences between the various Louisiana implementations of slavery led me to realize just how varied the experience could be. Visiting Monticello while reading the book, combined with the excellent work on Mulberry Row presentations at the estate, made me realize that I had “research” that might add complexity to your worlds.

Many fantasy novels I’ve read feature either the nobility (the Deryni novels are a particular favorite of mine) or vaguely defined peasants destined for greatness, who soon overtop social convention. For a more authentically medieval feel to a game, try incorporating serfdom and villeins. If you want an alien feel to your game, consider borrowing several historical models for the lowest rungs of the social ladder–or merging the traits of widely separated cultures to create a unique lowest rung (or lowest several rungs) for your society.

Some fantasy authors write about horses as if they’re a type of motorcycle that just happens to eat hay. Similarly, it’s easy to skim over the lowest rungs of workers and peasants. Take some time to invest your peasants, slaves, and SINless with personality and drive. Don’t let them degenerate into grain powered robots.


Serfs are a broad class of peasant, common to Europe from the dark and medieval ages. (In Eastern Europe, serfdom continued much later.) Most serfs were not slaves, though exceptions existed. In general, individuals became serfs only when times were devastating or when protection was desperately required, as the condition was hereditary. A famine generations ago could lead to being born a serf. Serfs were owed specific protections, and were subject to many restrictions. Perhaps most strangely to modern ears, land sales included the serfs on the land! Similarly, leaving the land without the landowner’s permission was not legal for serfs–though those who managed to stay away [often in a free city or borderland] for a year and a day won their freedom–at the cost of forfeiting all rights to the land.

Within serfdom were several more specific statuses (see the linked wikipedia article), ranging from free tenants (who owed only nominal service, basically farmers renting the land) to cottagers (who had a cottage and just enough land to support a family). Various fees and taxes were assessed (eggs at Christmas, etc.), and labor was required (ranging from harvest aid only to six days a week of service).

In England, Serfs’ requirements were often written in contracts as currency (though these requirements were paid mostly in labor, livestock, and produce), while continental Europe usually wrote serfs’ contracts in terms of goods directly. This difference led to many serfs purchasing their freedom in England (but much less so on the continent) when Spanish silver (from their American conquests) flooded Europe.

Untouchables — are castes most strongly associated with India and Pakistan. (Similar castes occur in communities of southern and eastern Asia.) Untouchable status is hereditary. Social restrictions limit what members of the caste are allowed to do, though concerted effort in India (via hiring and representative carve-outs for Dalits) have widened what’s permissible.

Dalit status was associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as leatherwork, butchering, or removal of animal carcasses, cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. Dalits could make good profits by interacting in ways prohibited to the higher castes. Even on attaining wealth, they remained scorned and locked out of many institutions. Similarly, specific acts of meekness and deference were required by custom–defiance often led to beatings. Marriage out of caste was taboo–and dangerous to both. (Much of my limited knowledge about the subcontinent comes from the great book, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, which was excellent.)

Gai’shain is a fantasy version of servitude, from Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. An Aiel who is touched in battle swears service to his (or her) captor on his honor (toh) for a year and a day. They don white robes and refuse to touch a weapon, or even defend themselves, during that time.


While slavery did exist during medieval times, it was relatively uncommon–it was the lowest status of serfdom, with all the obligations and essentially no privileges. In later periods, it evolved into a separate form.

American Slavery: My history classes introduced me to American slavery, which remains my mental default, but there are many variations–and there are reciprocal responsibilities in slavery that I hadn’t learned in school.
- At Monticello, the owner provided food each week looked like the picture above.
- The owner was also obligated to provide new clothing each summer and winter, and a new blanket every three years.
- Labor was owed from dawn until dusk, Monday through Saturday.
- After their day’s labor, and on Sundays, slaves could work for themselves in their own gardens.
- Jefferson bought much produce from the gardens of his slaves for his own table–and the slaves livened up their monotonous meals with squash, melons, chicken and eggs from their efforts.
- Everything was locked down on the plantation, but theft was still rampant. Marriages among slaves lacked legal standing, and were often entirely the product of slaves without solemnizing beyond their community.
- Skilled slaves were also paid an income. (A joiner was paid $20/year, while Jefferson’s french trained chef was paid $4/month.)

Louisiana French Slavery: New Orleans was the frontier, at the edge of swamp and distant from French authority. Slavery’s hand was varied; for long periods of the 17th and 18th centuries, few slaves were imported, leading to more familiarity, mastery of French by the slaves, and a creolization of culture.
- The incomplete nature of the early settlement led to “leakage” of slaves into the swamps, including extensive semi-permanent settlements
- Early slaves who fled but were captured often pointed out that they’d never left their master’s property
- Like the American Slave, the workweek was Monday through Saturday, dawn until dusk
- Louisiana slaves commonly supplemented their income with hunting, fishing, and logging
- Custom allowed slaves to gather for recreation (particularly dances) and visit other plantations on Sundays
- Marriages were performed by the slave owners
- Cohabitation was common; masters weren’t embarrassed by their illegitimate children borne by their slaves–in fact, they often emancipated the children (or both the mother and children) and openly treated them as heirs. (If no rightful heir was born, a mulatto son could inherit. Even if a rightful heir existed, mulatto sons could inherit a one-fifth share.)
- During down cycles in the economy, slaves were sent out to labor and split their earnings (apparently 50/50) with their owners
- Specific laws and offenses varied; the laws were the Code Noir. Many of the official provisions were ignores (such as the penalties for cohabitation). Several successive codes noir were adopted through this period.

Louisiana Spanish Slavery:
- From 1763 to 1803
- Initially adapted Spanish law onto existing French norms, but grew more Spanish in tone under later governors
- Under Spanish Law, all rights (for slaves and slaveholders both) flowed from the King
- Slaves could bring suits in court against their masters for mistreatment
- Slaves could initiate offers to buy their freedom. Masters had to negotiate fair terms with their slaves, or the price would be set by the market
- Similarly, free family of slaves could initiate offers to buy their relatives
- Marriage could only be solemnized by priests… which had the side effect of being inconvenient to masters, so few marriages were recorded
- The burdens of manumitting slaves were reduced (from crown permission under French rule to a notary’s signature under Spanish), resulting in many more manumissions being officially recorded.

Ancient Greece and Rome:
In ancient greece, there were several words/terms for slaves. Many were captured in war; doulos / dmôs particularly referred to war prisoners taken as booty.
- Slaves of the god owned land, and were close to freemen in status
- Common slaves often resulted from piracy and were foreign, though they could also hold property and be artisans.
- Later, slaves were more commonly women (captured in battle), while men were ransomed
- Most slaves were used in agriculture, mines, and quarries

The Greeks had many degrees of enslavement. There was a multitude of categories, ranging from free citizen to chattel slave, and including Penestae or helots, disenfranchised citizens, freedmen, bastards, and metics.The common ground was the deprivation of civic rights.

And much more

This barely scratches the surface of even the lowest rung of societies. There are many other styles of slavery (such as Roman and Visigoths), plus modern and futuristic versions of the impoverished and destitute. (How many destitute asteroid miners have you read about in science fiction?)

In the meantime, how have you emphasized the realities of peasant life in your games? Have your serfs ever been more than comic relief? Similarly, what are some traits you’ve given your own unique cultures, particularly the slaves, serfs, and spat upon? Please share your culture’s foundations with us in comments.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

11 Responses to Building Cultures: Social Classes, The Lowest Rung (Part One)

  1. Nikolai Gogol wrote a great book about serfdom in Russia called “Dead Souls”. The protagonist attempts to commit fraud by buying the title of dead serfs from land owners. Land owners were taxed based on how many serfs they own. However, censuses were not taken as often as taxes were due. Chichikov offers to buy the title to dead serfs for very little money. This gets the dead serfs off the tax records of land owners. It also gives Chichikov an inflated wealth on the books. His intention is to borrow against the dead serfs he officially owns before the next census, and then run with the money.

    Political slavery is also interesting:

    During the mid 17th century, under James II and Charles I, Irish political prisoners and children were sold in huge numbers as slaves in the Americas. In 1650, 70% of Montserrat’s population was Irish slaves. They were also the majority of slaves shipped to Antigua. Irish slaves were much cheaper than African slaves and were sold in Virginia and the Carribean.

    The Helots are another great example of how political prisoners become slaves. Annually, Sparta would declare war on Helos, making it simply an act of war, rather than a crime to beat or kill a Helot slave. These slaves freed up the Spartan male population to be professional soldiers. They also necessitated a strong, repressive military force to keep them from rising up against the Spartans they outnumbered.

    • Those are very interesting examples. I’ve been interested in why serfdom spread east while it was being discontinued in western Europe. The dead serf ploy sounds like a great plot for a swindler in the game, if your players are up for it.

      I hadn’t heard that about Irish slavery; that puts a very different spin on things. (I had heard about selling children into slavery out of desperation, but this is a very different level and organized scope.) Do you know if they were indentured or lifelong slaves?

      The Helots are another group that I know little about. That’s a quirky trick, declaring war annually–it’s a good reminder that perverse outcomes are far more likely than everyone falling into line with a law they dislike.

  2. Great article!

    I’m a big fan of social science fiction, so whenever I look at any setting, I think to myself: “How do these people live?” The lowest, the highest, the outsiders, I want to have a clear image in my head of how these groups see themselves and others, and how they interact. My games tend to be centred on personal interaction, so this clear conception of social groups is absolutely vital to my ability to run the world.

    Sometimes the process goes like this:
    1. Who holds the power?
    2. What is this power based on?
    3. How does this affect everyday life?

    That last question is the most immediately important to running a game. No matter what circles the characters move in, they will have frequent dealings with “the lower classes”; they may ignore these servants/serfs/slaves/employees/etc., but they can’t hide from them. They will keep popping up wherever the PCs may roam.

    I love playing class differences in games. They create fruitful tension between characters, not only through differing world views and customs, but through the physical environment as well: where there is a class divide, there will be drastic differences in living conditions. And that makes for some delicious fish-out-of-water scenarios!

    I admit that most of my games acquire a strongly comedic bent. I’m just one of those people who can’t resist cracking a joke. For instance, when I depict the urban decay and human squalor of a cyberpunk city, it will, in all likelihood, take a turn for the absurd; but never, ever would I want to let my players (and especially myself) forget that these places are inhabited by people. Imaginary, yes, perhaps caricarutic, but people nonetheless. I’m of the mind that the greatest virtue of roleplaying is that it makes you step into someone else’s shoes, and I want my players to empathize with my NPCs, whether they love them or hate them. My style of GMing hinges on the collaborative creation of a meaningful world, and to a human being there is no stronger source of meaning than the presence of characters that register as people.

    On a practical note, my favourite trick for giving the players a sense of everyday life in the setting is for them to end up in the home of people on the bottom rung of the social ladder. It shows the PCs what the challenges of the preterite masses are, and therefore what their “superiors” think they deserve. And visualizing the home is a wonderful way for myself to dive into the world and get a proper sense of it.

    • Inviting the PCs into the homes of the lowly is a great way to humanize them and make them more relate-able. Good trick!

      Your games sound very interesting; much like a good LeGuin novel, it sounds like exploring a culture and following things through is a big part of the interest.

      • Thanks! Role-playing is at its best when it’s like being on board the starship Enterprise: a continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before!

  3. I’ve been a doing a bit writing recently for a supplement looking at the dark ages in role playing, and how serfs lived. It should be a great read once it’s done. My own contribution rests more on how wars were waged with a peasant army backed up by a few rich people on horses…

  4. Most of my fantasy games tend to a Western European flavor, so serfdom is the standard. Often, unless there’s a specific emphasis on caste struggle/war, I paint it as a mix of free tenant and cottager types with very few true serfs. Something closer to the emerging middle class and stable currencies of later medieval periods that the gold/silver standard of DnD tend to reflect.

    Some other types of lower castes and slavery that came to mind:

    Debt-bondage – essentially the same as serfdom, one could sell themselves into slavery or service until they paid off a debt. They may retain their own land and theoretically remain free for the duration. In practice this isn’t always the case.

    Prison labour – criminals are often used as free/cheap labour. Some places it’s more akin to slavery than others.

    Jewish slavery laws – were some of the most favorable historically, including punishment for the mistreatment of slaves. At least when it concerned Jewish slaves. Another interesting bit, after seven years of service, any Jewish slaves were freed and any land taken from them returned. Additionally, Jews in poverty could sell themselves to another Jew, essentially offering their services for a place to live and food to eat. Non-Jewish slaves were more along the lines of your typical slave, and accounts as to how well the law was followed (for both) differ.

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