Medieval Professions V: more NPCs you won’t find in published adventures


Pilgrims, like the famous band described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were a common sight in the Middle Ages.

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, the RPG Athenaeum has thus far outlined 12 important Medieval occupations, which never seem to appear in the pages of published D&D modules.

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

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

The third posting, describing the duties of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here.

The fourth part in this series, detailing the vocations of barber, falconer and miller, can be found here.

Today’s post will discuss the rag and bone man, the chantry priest, and pilgrim.

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Keeping civil order in D&D – without heroes or magic


This manuscript page from the Yale Law Library details part of a Medieval law, but such laws were enforced in ways that differed greatly from the typical D&D setting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are loosely based upon Medieval history and culture is both a benefit and a liability.

The benefit can be found in relying upon player expectations in order to enhance suspension of disbelief; since most players aren’t medievalists (which is a pity), telling them that there are knights and castles and dragons around is enough to get the game rolling, and the players will mentally fill in missing details as play progresses.

The liability emerges from that same circumstance. Since dungeon masters (DMs) and players – including professional designers – typically don’t know a great deal about Medieval daily life, they tend to place a Medieval veneer on 21st Century social systems when designing communities for D&D settings. While such anachronisms don’t affect game mechanics, it does forsake an opportunity for a DM to provide a more accurate picture of how things were, thereby providing a more immersive experience for players.

One aspect of D&D setting design that routinely gets the “veneer treatment” is law enforcement. Typically, the city or town watch is the staple of public safety, sometimes supplemented with a peasant militia, providing what basically amounts to a modern police force equipped with chainmail. Historically, the closest pre-Renaissance society gets to such a thing is the office of wait, or night watchman, who shouts out the time on the hour each night and keeps an eye out for trouble or fire, but these fellows weren’t organized into bands responsible for public safety until the 15th Century.

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When D&D is the wrong tool for the job


There are times when the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game isn’t the most effective tool for the job, even when the job is creating a backstory for a D&D adventure or campaign.

While working on a few non-player character (NPC) anecdotes to add flavor to my next D&D campaign, I was presented with something of a conundrum. I wanted to retell a story of a skirmish-level battle, but most of the participants weren’t standard D&D heroes with classes, levels and powers as explained in the rules. Instead, the protagonists were town watchmen, some militiamen, a guard captain and a fighter with a bit of ecclesiastical training, all people whose abilities are outshined by even a first level D&D character. Without wanting to reduce the combat to a meaningless tussle between minion-type monsters or to draw up a battle story from scratch, I resorted to an infrequently used weapon in my D&D arsenal: a different game system. Continue reading

You gragdok! The evolution of setting-based swear words in RPGs


While reorganizing Athenaeum content into a forthcoming post index, this writer happened upon this post, which dealt with creating a unique flavor in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign by developing slang words for the common tongue.

One area of language that post didn’t explore, though, was the evolution of campaign-specific curse or “swear” words to express increased emotional intensity, anger or severity of insult. While most heroes would jump at the chance never resort to using such language during a game, this post discusses how such words may develop in a campaign setting, so that villains may use them to reveal their dastardly, irreverent personalities.

After some research – which was not verified for historical accuracy, since the only intended fruit of this labor was to add color to a fictional game setting, making reality moot for the moment – it appears that words tended to travel four different routes to “cursehood,” routes that could be easily exploited by a Dungeon Master (DM) to set a campaign apart.

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More fantasy inspiration from real sites


The famous Hanging Temple is a feat of ancient engineering - and great inspiration for a potential D&D setting.

Creating awe-inspiring, fantastic locations for a Dungeons & Dragons game is a challenge placed before every dungeon master (DM). Fortunately, there are real sites that press upon the boundaries of fantasy which can inspire DMs.

During the months that passed since writing this first post on the topic – a post describing the Crystal Cave of the Giants, Bannerman’s Castle, The Barringer Crater and Centralia, Pennsylvania – this writer has learned of three more sites which, with modification, could make ideal settings for a D&D adventure.

The Hanging Temple of Xuankongsi

Construction of this remarkable edifice began in the Sixth Century, in the Chinese province of Shanxi. Also called the Temple in the Air and the Temple in the Void, the structure was built a third of the way up a nearly sheer cliff, roughly 75 meters above ground. Construction began with a massive excavation into the cliffside, large enough to house 40 rooms and six main halls. The subterranean portion of the complex is positioned behind a massive wooden facade extending well into the open air, supported by horizontal beams from within the excavation, wooden pillars from below and the cantilevered weight of the facade itself. Continue reading

Medieval Professions IV: More NPCs You Won’t Find in Published Adventures


As this 13th Century drawing suggests, falconry wasn’t only practiced by medieval nobility.

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, the RPG Athenaeum has thus far outlined outlined six important Medieval occupations, which never seem to appear in the pages of published D&D modules.

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

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

The third posting, which focuses on the trades of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here.

Today’s posting will describe the trades of the barber, falconer and miller. Continue reading

Medieval Professions III: More NPCs You Won’t Find In Published Adventures


While probably not a physician in the strictest sense, plague doctors like the one pictured above were a common sight during the Black Death of the 14th Century.

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, the RPG Athenaeum has thus far outlined outlined six important Medieval occupations, which never seem to appear in the pages of published D&D modules.

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

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

Today’s entry will focus on the trades of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor. Continue reading