D20 Failure Modes VI: Suffering Peasantry Batman!

English: A chaos magic ritual that uses videoc...

Where do they find the TIME for this stuff?

In standard d20 the world is full of magic and full of monsters. Yet virtually all of the magic is either (a) designed solely for combat, or (b) is priced ridiculously out of range of ordinary folk. There’s a distinct lack of magic for ordinary people and tasks. On the “monsters” end… traveling beyond the walls of cities is fearsomely dangerous in many areas, and perilous even in more civilized places. Mid-level adventurers can easily wind up in danger; how well can low-level noncombatants expect to fair?

If you look at it honestly, the d20 peasantry is going to be fearsomely poor, chronically underfed (and often weak and stupid due to that same chronic malnutrition) – and both desperate and short-lived because they’re so often killed by monsters. Worse, they’ve got to support a top heavy society of militaristic specialists just to remain alive; taxes on what little they can produce are going to have to be high. “Money” is not going to figure in their lives because they don’t need a medium of exchange; they need to barter for a little salt and preserved meat so that they can live through the winter. Gold isn’t even useful to them; they don’t have days to make the dangerous trip to a city where they can spend it or to hunt for someone locally who has a surplus of something to sell to them instead of trading that surplus for stuff that they DO need. Gold is pretty… but you can’t eat it. There may be a few coppers floating around, but for the most part the peasantry has no use for money. Money only becomes really useful when there are substantial, regular, surpluses – when you can be reasonably sure of being able to trade the money for what you need. Without surpluses… there’s no guarantee of THAT, and money becomes worthless. You can see that happen during any natural disaster even today.

In medieval times money was useful in cities, where the powerful gained access to surpluses by leaving everyone else on the verge of starvation. Why did stealing a weeks wages bring the death penalty? It was because if someone robbed you of a weeks wages… you and your kids did not eat for a week. When you were already living on the edge of starvation, that might mean that they died – and it could even kill you if it left you too weak to work. Modern notions of “justice” mean little under such circumstances. If you want a somewhat more realistic medieval price list, look here

As for magic items… Magic items are like having a shotgun and kevlar suit when everyone else is naked. They’re not tools, or luxuries, or ways to show off. They’re POWER. Minor items may be sold for money – but major items are power on the level of “commanding a hundred fanatical followers”. You don’t just BUY that. When it comes to power on that level… you trade like for like among equals, take it from those with less power, and try to hide it from those with more power. Treachery, theft, and murder are to be expected – especially when the fast track to personal power is “kill things and take their stuff”.

The real standard of value in a basic fantasy d20 campaign is the Magic Item. Thanks to Wealth-By-Level EVERYTHING else is priced around that. After all, once you hit sixth level or so… are there really any more mundane items to buy that will make much of a difference to you?

Yet the vast majority of d20 settings feature a functioning monetary system, reasonably happy, contented, and healthy populations, legal systems that pay some attention to actual justice, readily available low-level magical items (potions, scrolls, etc), a distinct shortage of crippled children, communities with NPC spellcasters (which they cannot afford to pay and who have virtually no powers that are useful outside of combat), a shortage of plagues, and many traveling merchants. Sure, real medieval societies had merchants – but they DIDN’T have much in the way of real monsters to eat them.

d20 settings are prosperous because playing in a society full of desperate, crippled, child-beggars who are almost all doomed is not fun for most people.

To make that work by the rules, instead of setting it up by GM fiat and ignoring the problem (which does work, but REALLY irritates the people who like world-building and coherent settings) or just giving the peasants some handy powers, we need ways to upgrade farm productivity to modern levels, heal wounds, cure diseases, and keep monsters away. We need to find ways to make villages prosperous enough to support specialists like that rarely-useful mage, to have them actually trade in fairly substantial sums of money, and to let people travel with reasonable safety. Yet we don’t want to leave the adventurers with nothing to do, make them unimportant, or even make their magic less potent and valuable by comparison.

Eclipse and The Practical Enchanter do have some mechanisms set up to cover this. Neither spends enormous amounts of space on those methods since the exact details don’t usually matter much in play – but I did want to cover it.

The primary mechanisms are Ritual Magic, Hedge Wizardry, and Relics, and the simple fact that point-buy characters can buy the things they need, rather than being shoehorned into classes.

Ritual Magic comes in two major styles – the “high magic” of unique and potent rituals that some Adventurers use and the “low magic” of blessings for flocks and fields, steering monsters and disasters around your village, “sweating out” illnesses, warding vermin out of the granary, and so on that adventurers rarely bother with. High magic rituals tend to call for all kinds of exotic components; herbs from the isles of the sunset, a dragon’s fang, water from the a mystic spring deep in the haunted caverns, and so on. It accomplishes mighty deeds. Low magic rituals tend to call for things like candles, salt, and a shot of whiskey – and make for good crops, strong, healthy, animals, greatly reducing the number of monsters that wander into the village, and turning potentially lethal illnesses into a couple of days in bed. Such rituals are slow and of no use at all in combat – but they’re also well within the reach of peasant grandmothers. Villagers rarely need the fast, potent, magic of heroes and adventurers – but this means that the “default village” will be reasonably prosperous, capable of supporting a few specialists, fairly safe, and have a mostly healthy and productive populace.

There are a selection of sample low magic rituals here (scroll down) and here and  discussions of ritual systems over here and here.

Hedge Wizardry is a single feat in The Practical Enchanter (available for 6 CP for those using Eclipse) that provides a spellcaster of with a wide selection of simple, practical, spells for harvesting crops, cleaning houses, and many many other tasks. While you do need a bit of spellcasting ability to use Hedge Wizardry, enough magic to use these effects is readily available at first level in Eclipse – even with the character point penalty for being a non-combative non-adventurer. Similarly, Hedge Wizardry includes the ability to make Conjures – rather cheap magic items using those practical effects, some of which should be within the reach of a prosperous village.

Hedge Wizardry is covered more extensively in a series of articles here – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII. In Eclipse you can also get practical magic in other ways – but this is perhaps the quickest.

In Eclipse point buy your basic first-level Village Priest-Magician is likely to have a series of highly practical talents rather than combat abilities. That’s because cultures that have people like that in their villages, and who pass on that tradition, tend to prosper and expand at the expense of cultures with less practical orientations. That’s why useful innovations – agriculture, using metal, the wheelbarrow, and (in a d20 fantasy cosmos) the use of practical magic – spread so rapidly. A first level non-adventurer gets 36 character points to spend (an adventurer gets 48). That’s not a lot – but it’s more than enough to purchase the 24-point Sacerdos Pastor village priest package. He or she will be able to mitigate illnesses, bless flocks and fields, help with a childbirth that’s going badly wrong, mediate with an annoyed river-spirit that’s been smashing fish traps – and send for some adventurers if some actual attack comes up.

In Eclipse gods can get along without worshipers – but if they want to wield the awesome might of Godfire they need at least some, and the more the better. Luckily for them, In Eclipse a god can invest in powers that help out their faithful followers. They’re unlikely to invest much in bestowing help on Adventurers; there aren’t very many of them and a 10’th level fighter is rarely as grateful for a little help as a first level farmer (much less a couple of thousand first level farmers) – but even a few small bonuses for the peasantry is a wonderful way to find worshipers. When a few regular prayers to the grain-goddess may get you a +3 bonus on grain-related Farming checks and a harvesting-spell which will save you days of back-breaking labor and possibly save your harvest from an early storm… the grain-goddess is going to have a pretty reliable pool of worshipers every year. Travelers can perhaps gain some guidance on avoiding things that they can’t handle – allowing ordinary folks to travel occasionally. That sort of thing won’t be much of any help to adventurers of course – but when they need divine help they can just talk to the party cleric.

When gods compete… you win!

Finally, of course, we have the sellers of potions and scrolls. Somehow they almost always have what you want available, but never seem to have much of a stock when you sneak in after hours and raid the place… Moreover, they never seem to have the kind of personal power that running a business like that would seem to call for. For THAT we have the Philosophers Stone – a very useful device for villagers, but one of far less use to adventurers. You can find it over HERE, although you’ll have to scroll down a bit.

Put all of that together… and you’ll wind up with prosperous, well-built, hamlets, with mostly healthy inhabitants, well-tended gardens, the surplus crops to pay their taxes and still be able to sell some, money circulating and even a bit saved, several small shrines, a village priest who can actually help people, and possibly even a resident low-powered mage who can provide a few potions and scrolls. Of course, when monsters do (rarely) show up the contrast, the peril – and the desire to send for adventurers to help out – is all the greater (and they can actually afford to PAY those adventurers something). Even with a world full of monsters such places will resemble happy modern villages much more than a collection of smelly mud huts perched beside a river full of pollution and disease.

After all, what’s the use of “saving” people from monsters and evil overlords if you’re just going to send them back to a short, miserable, life of drudgery?

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the
web expansion. If you want, there are some reviews.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.


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