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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Little Dungeon on the Prairie

I've been reading my daughters the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" books. Right now we're on "Farmer Boy", but I've been reading ahead a bit. By "a bit" I mean I'm on the 8th book (Hey, they're kids books!). I'd never read them as a kid, so it's interesting to fill in the literary gaps.

In "Big Woods" (the first book), Charles Ingalls (Pa) farms and hunts and traps in and around his tiny farm and log home in the forests of Wisconsin. He and his family live an almost subsistence lifestyle. One or two trip per year to the "town" of Pepin account for the things they cannot easily make or find for themselves, most of which are obtained by trading furs. As time goes on in the series, the Ingalls encounter more and more of the modern era (railroads, threshing machines, store boughten goods, etc.).

Why am I bringing these books up on a gaming blog? Well, it occurred to me that they paint a fascinating picture of a partially pre-industrial lifestyle, tempered with the periodic incursion of "modernity." To me, this depiction of mid-to-late 19th century frontier America carries a lot of material to model your typical farmer/villager in a D&D fantasy world if you put magic in place of technology –hardly a new idea, I know.

Not Pictured: The unicorns in the barn.

A few things in particular draw my gamer eye in these books:

  1. Just the sheer amount of WORK these people do. Whether it's the Wilders in "Farmer Boy" or the Ingalls in the other books, they are up before dawn and working the whole freaking day! I know, I know; what's in the books may or may not reflect the actual reality of their lives with perfect accuracy, but I think most students of that period would agree that the settlers and homesteaders worked pretty darned hard! Besides, I'm not talking about the history, I'm talking about the stories. In a fantasy game, the peasants probably have it harder than the Ingalls. If you are using a medieval model, they might be serfs. They almost certainly don't own their land, and they likely don't live in a democracy. 
  2. It's also incredibly interesting (to me) to read the first hand account of how things actually got DONE. Need a sled to haul wood? Here's how they built one during a single afternoon! Necessity is the mother of invention, and people who live off the land need certain things to survive but they necessarily can't always just run to the general store and plunk down a few electrum pieces for them.
  3. As I mentioned before, the juxtaposition between the "old fashioned" (mundane) way of doing things and the modern (magical). In a high magic world, farmers might be able to obtain things like a healing potion for emergency first aid, or a druid might dowse the best place for a well to avoid repeated effort in digging one; but the fact remains that most of their survival depends upon them working hard and sticking to it. 
  4. The Ingalls, and most of the families you meet in the books, are fairly straitlaced protestants. Their religion, their work ethic, and their sense of morality is pretty inflexible. Rural folk in the preindustrial age tended to be pretty insular, if not downright close-minded. That's not to say the same things never happened in cities, but it was certainly common enough in the countryside. Peasants and farmers and villagers are not known for being real open to weirdness, especially if it flies in the face of established social mores. Your character might be a barbarian from the wild steppes of Angabolg, whose cultural dress is a tattered loincloth made of the warrior's first kill, but if he comes to a remote village where a man without a hood on might as well be naked, he may not to be well-received. That's not to say that the puritanical standard should be universal among farmers; but whatever they believe, they tend to have believed it for a long time and won't adapt quickly. 
  5. The value of things might be a bit different when one is far from "civilization." How much is that ruby bracelet worth in a town that has maybe 50gp in coin total? It's like if the US Congress went ahead with the trillion dollar coins idea and somebody stole one. What could they do with it? Ask for change?? Value is assigned by the market. Read: the buyer(s). Some farmer isn't going to sell you his food in the middle of a blizzard if it means his family starves. How would he spend those coins if he can barely reach the barn to milk the cow? In a society where a large percentage of the population is operating without much of a safety net, they tend to look out for themselves. That's not to say they're necessarily heartless,  just pragmatic. Sure, they might let you stay until the storm blows over and even share their dinner with you, but if you want to buy his horses, he'll say no unless he's real confident he A) won't need them right away, B) gets enough money to buy new ones, and C) will find any available in time for him to do things like harrow and plow for the spring crops. 
I think sometimes we (gamers) tend to think that our culture and era's realities can be applied to these imaginary times and places. While I do think that many parts of human life are nearly universal, it's interesting to see how people used to live and think and see how different it might be. It's also fun to think about applying those things to the game and how it may change what the players can or can't do.

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