Medieval 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 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. To that end, that post outlined three important Medieval occupations which never seem to appear in the pages of published D&D modules: the messenger, gravedigger and rat catcher.

A few site visitors suggested that expanding this topic may be helpful for dungeon masters (DMs) who want to color their settlements with a bit of historical realism or have the opportunity to role-play an unusual non-player character (NPC) with an interesting occupation.

Thus, a second installment of what has become a series on Medieval professions follows, with attention being devoted to the chandler, crier, and dragoman.

Although the chandler’s craft required some specialized skills, Medieval candle making wasn’t so difficult as those contemporary professions requiring apprenticeships and journeyman experience. As a result, chandlers historically weren’t among the wealthiest craftsmen.

The chandler’s raw materials were few and easy to obtain: flax or wool for candle wicks, beeswax or tallow for the body of the candle, a dipping pot large enough to accommodate the intended size of the candle and a heat source to melt the wax or tallow.

Chandlers that kept bees harvested both beeswax and honey, usually by building a small fire of green wood beneath the hive, the smoke from which would temporarily drive the bees away. The honeycomb would typically be filtered through a porous cloth, with the honey first obtained used for sweetening and the “last” honey – that obtained bt wringing out the cloth at the end of the process – going toward the production of mead. The beeswax went to produce candles.

Chandlers that rendered tallow would obtain it from boiling animal fat in water with a bit of dissolved salt; the tallow would float to the surface and be collected. Note that beef or sheep fat was preferred for this process, as candles made from pork fat burned smokily and smelled terrible.

There were essentially two methods for making candles: repeatedly dipping the wicks into a deep pot of wax or tallow, or melting the wax and repeatedly pouring it down the suspended wick. In either case, the candles typically had to be molded into their final shape by hand, and the bottoms of the candles needed to be cut so that they were level at the end of the process.

In a D&D fantasy setting, chandlers may be a bit more well-to-do, particularly if their craft entails including making candles of different  colors, scents, or even making candles compatible with certain magic rituals.

During the Middle Ages, criers – people so named for walking through a settlement, ringing a hand bell and shouting information - were a primary method of telling time and making announcements. While larger bells, such as those located in churches and large civic buildings, would sound for such events as masses, the start and end of business, evening curfews, or an attack on the settlement, it was the town crier who brought the townsfolk their news and spoke with the voice of local authorities.

The messages they called out covered the same sort of topics that interest modern citizens: proclamations from the government, upcoming criminal trials, religious edicts, people of note who are expected to visit the settlement, and so forth. In some communities, they would solicit prayers for the ill or deceased, and some even shouted whatever they were paid to say.

In a fantasy setting, criers can be employed for all of the historical functions just described, but they can also be hired for game-related purposes, such as spreading court gossip, praising a person or organization (some villains will even hire criers to portray them as community benefactors), summoning heroes to audiences with ruling authorities, and anything else the DM can imagine. In one campaign, I had one hero’s nemesis use a crier to challenge that hero to a duel in a large city square at an appointed time. The nemesis sent his minions to detain the hero on the day of the duel, hoping that the hero would not attend the duel and be publicly branded a coward. Fortunately, the hero overcame the minions and arrived jut in time to give his nemesis a sound drubbing before a crowd of hundreds.

The game session that contained those events took place in 1988, and the player still talks about it.

In the strict historical sense, the dragoman was a diplomatic interpreter who typically spoke the Arabic and Persian langauges, in addition to knowing the tongues of one or more European nations; dragomen became prominent figures in political relations bewteen the Ottoman Empire and the west. The meaning of the term is sometimes bleached to include interpeters between two nations with different languages. In either event, the scarcity of bilingual literacy during that period of history ensured that dragomen were well-paid.

Since the language differences between humans in our real world were pronounced enough to make dragomen necessary, the numerous races in the D&D game would require even more of these interpreters. These translators could find themselves handling very delicate diplomatic issues, complicated not only by differences in languages, but differences between species.

In a D&D game, dragomen could cross paths with heroes in a variety of ways. Player characters might protect dragomen on diplomatic missions, spy on their movements, carry or intercept their correspondence, or even attack them if directed or personally motivated to do so.

While not every settlement of a D&D campaign will have chandlers, criers or dragomen, their respective professions will at least provide a “Medieval sense of place” in a D&D game, and will at best provide pathways to adventure.

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9 comments on “Medieval Professions II: more NPCs you won’t find in published D&D adventures

  1. Ameron says:

    The idea of dragoman is pretty cool. I think language is often underutilized as a power tool in D&D. It’s always assumed that everyone understands everyone else. That does make things simpler, but it’s highly unlikely. My wife (in real life) is an interpreter so I’ve given the concept serious thought over the years. If your PC is the only person who knows what both sides are saying, it puts you in a position of tremendous power. Suddenly taking feats to learn more languages becomes a desirable choice. Something for DMs and PCs to consider.

    • Alric says:

      I concur. It seems that the less popular feats – like languages – can become vitally important by minor tweaking of a game setting.

      Very good observations, as usual, Ameron.

  2. dysonlogos says:

    Have you seen “Everyone Else”, a PDF from E.N. Publishing? It’s a d20 product with all kinds of generic low level NPCs like chandlers and midwives and so on.

    • Alric says:

      Hello, dysonlogos, and welcome.

      I hadn’t heard of that .pdf – I’m usually home-brewing material. Is the Everyone Else document something we should plug here?

  3. Scott says:

    I posted my cheat-sheet a while back: a list of 100 professions I keep handy for generating NPCs on the spot. It’s not exhaustive, of course, but it covers most of the bases. Since I only need it for improvising, that’s good enough.

  4. El cerero, el pregonero y el trujamán…

    En esta ocasión tene­mos el cerero, el pregonero y el trujamán. Aunque el trabajo del cerero reque­ría de ciertas habilidades, la fabrica­ción de velas durante el medievo no reque­ría el proceso contemporáneo de aprendizaje y experiencia. Como consecue…

  5. [...] The second posting, detailing the livelihoods of the chandler, crier, and dragoman, can be found here. [...]

  6. Greg Older says:

    Other professions similar to the dragoman is the reader and the scrivener. In a world where much of the population is illiterate, anyone who is literate could make money as a reader to read aloud texts to those who would pay them. A scrivener would be hired to write down contracts and other documents for someone incapable of writing. Both often hung around temples and law courts; the latter place they would often help defendants with their law cases to read warrants and writs or to write them up for a summoner (who delivered summons to accused and witnesses for trial). This might all seem a bit boring until you think of the adventure possibility of a reader reading aloud a forbidden book or a scrivener who wrote down something involving a conspiracy. Then there is the nasty summoner that knocks on the PCs’ door saying they have to appear in court because they were witness to a crime (or are accused of one!).

  7. [...] The second posting, detailing the livelihoods of the chandler, crier, and dragoman, can be found here. [...]

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