Three Medieval professions that don’t appear in D&D adventures

Although it isn’t necessary to conduct extensive research into Medieval daily life to create an exciting Dungeons & Dragons game, bringing real-world history and anthropology to the game can bring a level of “background realism” that players will appreciate. Most published adventure settings include non-player characters (NPCs) engaged in those professions players may know from school history classes  - merchants, knights, friars, peasants, carpenters, blacksmiths and such – along with those professions of particular interest to adventurers, such as scholars and weaponsmiths. While the professions typically presented are certainly enough to convey a believable setting, adding some less-known, but historically accurate Medieval professions can add to your setting’s believability and provide you with an opportunity to role-play some unusual characters.

Medieval careers, especially during the later Middle Ages, were more diverse than many people think. The purpose of this posting is to describe three Medieval careers that never seem to be mentioned in most published settings, but could contribute greatly to the development of an adventure or a settlement’s “sense of place.” These include the messenger, the gravedigger, and the rat catcher.

Messengers were employed by local aristocrats and religious dignitaries who, as their name implies, deliver messages. Depending on the campaign, magic or technology may have taken up some of the messenger’s work load, but there will always be people who lack the means to send magical missives or who avoid using magic out of a desire to remain undetected.

In any event, messengers were a critical to the function of Medieval government and religious institutions. They needed to be highly motivated, brave and self-reliant people, as the journeys they undertook sometimes brought them through dangerous terrain or into the hunting grounds of predatory animals, such as wolves. And, of course, they often had to bring unpleasant news to powerful people. The common phrase about “killing the messenger” represented a real danger for historical messengers; in fact, laws were eventually enacted to protect messengers from the fury of angry message recipients.

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, messengers can be reliable sources of information about the condition of roads and river crossings, troop movements, human or humanoid banditry and happenings in nearby settlements. If the heroes discover the remains of a slain messenger, several adventure opportunities can emerge, depending on the contents of the message. Delivering an unopened message to its intended recipient will likely bring an ally to the heroes’ cause, but opened messages – particularly correspondence between villains – will probably draw your heroes into adventure very quickly.

Gravediggers had the unenviable job of preparing the resting places of a settlement’s dearly departed. Historically, they weren’t particularly well-paid, although they could become respectably wealthy during times of abundant work, such as periods of plague. In  regions such as Eastern Europe, some believed that the dead could rise from a grave and prowl the countryside, feasting on the living (some researchers suggest that these beliefs gave rise to our popular vampire legends); in such cases, gravediggers shared the responsibility with clergy of interring the dead in such a manner that would make such emergence impossible, typically by decapitating the corpse and turning the head face-down, and weighing down the suspect body with heavy stones.

In a D&D game, gravediggers are uniquely qualified to advise heroes about town residents passing to the next life. This information can include common causes of local death, determining how long something has been dead by rate of decomposition, the grave visitation habits of townsfolk, and grave robbing, along with reporting evidence of fantastic elements such as foraging ghouls, packs of giant rats and evil cult activities.

The rat catcher was a surprisingly well-respected fellow, particularly after popular opinion decided that rats played a role in human illness. Historically, this opinion shift is related to people first thinking cats were witches’ familiar spirits, deciding cats were therefore unlucky, and killing cats in order to be safe from witches. The reduced cat population led to an explosion in the rat population, after which rats were considered unlucky. As the name implies, the rat-catcher captured and killed rodents, protecting personal dwellings and critically important food stores.

In a D&D game, a rat catcher probably has a great deal of information heroes might want. It is very likely that he has been inside of nearly every building in his town of employment, and people tend to ignore him while he works. Need to help a companion escape from jail? The rat catcher goes in there twice a week, and knows about guard shifts and passwords. Want to know where the Lady Alandra keeps her correspondence? The rat catcher probably knows. Unscrupulous rat catchers may be found in the employ of roguish organizations, selling their knowledge to the highest bidder; even honest ones may be motivated or duped into sharing what they know by compelling argument or careful questioning.

If you think that highlighting Medieval careers would provide useful information for your campaign, please indicate so in the comments section of this post; if enough people think it worthwhile, it may become a regular feature of this site.

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22 comments on “Three Medieval professions that don’t appear in D&D adventures

  1. Raolin says:

    I guess we were a head of our times back when I played regularly, Messengers were usually a way to progress the plot of a campaign. Either finding a chatty fellow on the roads with missives to the next town or by the city watch looking for respectable looking adventurers to carry a message to a certain town. To even other variations. Blind Scribes, Harolds, Or even an organized postal service as a background story to some npc’s characters. Armies run on messengers too. Sometimes the party needs to waylay said messengers to get information.

    While we didn’t use gravediggers much we did use them for local information on the dead, ghosts, to set the mood in a local cemetary.

    Rat catchers were always good for information when the characters are leaving an Inn in the morning. Along with the stable boy, ratcatchers were usually young boys around 10 give or take a few years who when treated nicely by the party would easily give up local info.

    Other ocupations to consider are the herbalist, money lenders/exchangers (your local merchant isn’t likely to be able to just know what a certain gem would cost and if it was an expensive one wouldn’t be able to give the right amount.)

    Something else to think about is the indentured servants. Or regular citizens working off a sentence. These are all ways to include a little resentment into NPCs

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for visiting again, Rao. It sure sounds like you were ahead of your time. I’d like to chat with your old DM someday…

  2. The Snarky Herbalist says:

    Yes, excellent article. Keep them coming.

    Imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would be without the character of the apothecary.

  3. Alric says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Snarky one. I’ll make sure to add some more.

    On an unrelated note, that is an interesting screen name – do you have a blog?

    Alric

  4. Nermal2097 says:

    Great article. This would make a great regular feature, especially if you expand it to include other day-to-day details of medieval life.

    • Alric says:

      We’ll do. I’ve put medieval dining on the editorial calendar for next week.

      And welcome to the site, Nermal.

      Alric

  5. [...] professions II: more NPCs you won’t find in published D&D adventures This recent post on the RPG Athenaeum suggested that, while it isn’t necessary to conduct extensive research into Medieval daily life [...]

  6. D&D, and RPGs in general, represent an interesting paradox: most gamers get into it specifically to escape from their “daily grind”, yet the careful inclusion of a “daily grind” in the proper context can add immeasurable value and richness to the gaming experience. These articles are a case in point: how many entry-level gamers ever stop to think about how people communicated before we had the Internet and cell phones? What were some of the consequences of the medieval superstition about cats?
    Perhaps more importantly, these articles highlight the high *cough* return of investment value of a little DM research time.
    To borrow an observation from a far wiser man than myself: “If you’re not careful, you may learn something before we’re done.”

    • Alric says:

      Hi Perrin, and thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

      I’ve found that the “daily grind” is indeed important, if for no other reason to remind the heroes that things happen when they aren’t around. In some games – especially in video RPGs – the entire setting seems to respond only to what the heroes do, a condition that lacks the depth of the best fantasy stories and, in my own opinion, the best D&D games.

      • nazgarthe says:

        Indeed daily grind is one of the many things people come to these games to avoid but there avoiding There daily grind the daily grind of fantastic characters is exotic and unrelated to them making it all good

  7. [...] I remembered a great article from The RPG Athenaeum that mentioned the rat catcher as a lowly worker who had access to lots of information. While a rat [...]

  8. Maydofeil says:

    Dude, messengers are under services for “2 cp per mile” or half if they were going that way anyway.

    • Alric says:

      You are indeed correct.

      There is a difference, though, between something being mentioned as a service in the rules and something being employed as an adventure element. I’ve never seen a messenger character used to further a published D&D adventure in 25 years of being a DM, which is why I include that profession here.

      Very astute observation, just the same. Thanks.

  9. El mensajero, el sepulturero y el cazador de ratas…

    Aunque no es necesa­rio desa­rrollar demasiado la vida cotidiana medieval[1] para crear ambiente en una aventura, la introducción de ciertos detalles o background puede hacer que los juga­dores se sientan más cómodos en el entorno que se les plantea. L…

  10. Snowfalcon says:

    This article is appreciated. I don’t know that I’ll use it directly in the campaign I’m running, but such things are always in the back of my mind when I play.

    As an avid amateur historian and reenactor as well as craftsman interested in traditional crafts, particularly metalwork, there are times when the differences between D&D and archeology and history and my own experience are kind of painful. That others are thinking along similar lines regarding realism is appreciated.

  11. [...] The first posting in this series, describing the vocations of messenger, gravedigger and rat catcher, can be viewed here. [...]

  12. Kre Ales says:

    Just reading this article fills me with adventure ideas involving villanous rat catchers, innocent messenger boys, and a shady rat catcher. All the trappings of an Elizabethan tale (but not like the Scarlet Letter)!

  13. nazgarthe says:

    hey im new to d&d barely played a week and now im making a adventure i was looking for some kind of precedent to make rat catcher and mesenger profesions as well as the possiplity for adventures to waylay/protect mesengers (atm i have no real place for grave digger but they would have shown up along with lumberjacks and chambermaids) im a lover of historical fiction so i like to include these kinda things any advice

  14. nazgarthe says:

    ps sorry for my bad grammer and punctuation

  15. [...] The first posting in this series, describing the vocations of messenger, gravedigger and rat catcher, can be viewed here. [...]

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