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The Importance of Food

By Stephen ~runester~ Jarjoura


Food is certainly important when we think of RPG Players. In fact, a session which doesn't pause for a glass refill (caffeine is vital, Mountain Dew is popular, I happen to like Diet Coke) and an order of carry-out (Chinese is popular, Pizza is the old stand-by); would hardly be imaginable. When it comes to the characters, though, food is either seen as a necessary piece of equipment (right there with the pitons and the box of candles) or as window dressing to help describe a scene (the feast hall, replete with the carcass of a slain boar and the servant girls pouring mead from pewter pitchers).

In real life, food is an essential fixture of culture, society, and socialization; and comes with a complete set of customs, history, and nuances. A clever GM could take advantage of this to use food as more than just a line item on an equipment list that the players are expected to keep track of and remember to replenish ... or just part of the scenery described when the characters are introduced to a new tableau. The GM could use food and meals as integral parts of the plot, making something ordinary into the source of fresh dangers, and opportunities.

While researching this paper, it became increasingly apparent that the subject is ... vast .... A 1,000 page reference work would probably be considered an "overview." I am not exaggerating here. Food is and was and will continue to be an integral part of human life, society, culture, law, custom, tradition, science, health, and concern. Instead of even attempting that ... I'll just do my best to highlight ideas that GM's may find useful when they want to "spice up" their campaign.

In The Beginning

"Cooking is one of the oldest of human activities; indeed it may be the oldest above basic animal survival. At the wandering hunter-gatherer level of society, cooking is very simple - kill something, throw it on the fire along with whatever vegetables and fruits were found that day, eat." [1]

Being completely portable (a prerequisite for the early nomadic hunters) meant no oven or hearth. Even the simplest cooking utensils and implements (pots, pans, the elegant Wok) require access to metal and the ability to extract and shape it. All of this would come later. In the beginning was the stick and the fire and everything went on the stick and in the fire.

In a Stone Age group, it has been surmised that the best part of the meat went to the chief or leader. The rest being allocated by rank. Therefore, where you sat (in relation to the chief) and which portion you were allocated were important, public indicators of rank and importance. Customs as to who dispersed the meat and when eating could begin would be among the first meal-time social mores.

Whereas the men were expected to hunt and measured in prowess by their ability to bring home the meat, the women and children would do the gathering portion of "hunter / gatherer" and ironically, it has been forwarded, that they actually supplied the greater portion of the tribes dietary needs. It was the grains, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, and roots that provided the bulk of their calories.

This could provide a model for campaigns with: ancient humans, modern day stone-age cultures in various out-of- the-way places, and primitive cultures encountered on alien worlds. Having a guest refuse food offered by the chief or the chief's primary wife would be seen as a serious affront and possible crime. Taking food out-of-turn, or eating food that had been allocated to someone else, would also be a serious crime. Some foods were thought to be holy (psychedelic mushrooms being one such) and being eaten or taken away by a stranger would certainly bring down the wrath of the tribe. Participating in a hunt was seen both as a rite of passage, and also a bonding experience. This could be used to make friends with such a tribe, or gain access to tribal secrets such as the shamans cave, etc.

Remember, in a culture like this where the men may have spent all day in the wild hunting and women tending their children and either gathering foods or maintaining the living environment; the meal was the one time that the entire tribe came together in a semi-formal setting. Issues would be debated, decisions made, gossip shared, and cliques formed. It may not have looked like much to us, but to someone who was watching for the social order, you could tell who was getting along with whom, who was fighting, who were flirting, and who were being treated as outsiders by the group.

The roleplaying opportunities are great! You have the maze of custom, taboos, and social mores to navigate while your party tries not to anger or offend the tribe. You have the complex social interactions which may be used to forward a plot or theme, or even used by the characters to push the tribe in a particular direction. Say the characters are trying to find tribe members to show them the nearly impossible path to a great cave complex. Knowing who to schmooze, impress, and bribe; as well as who to avoid, who may actually have the information, and who is just playing the strangers for fools; are all matters that can be discerned and acted on over a great meal.

Manners In A Harsh Environment

"Hospitality is a cornerstone of Arab life. It is commonplace for Syrian families, particularly desert dwellers, to welcome strangers into their home. The tradition developed from the harshness of desert life - without food, water and shelter from strangers, most desert travelers would die. Wherever you go in Syria, you are likely to hear the word, tafaddal (loosely translated as welcome) and you will frequently be invited into people's homes for food or a cup of tea."[2]

In an environment as harsh and unforgiving as a desert, the manners and social mores that emphasize hospitality and generosity can mean life or death to a traveler. In some Muslim communities, especially the desert and wilderness dwelling Bedouin, the custom of hospitality to a traveling stranger carries with it almost the same force as Law. There are variations, such as the "Three Day Rule" which requires the host to be gracious and generous, but only for three days. After which, it is now considered impolite and selfish for the guest to continue to take advantage of the host.

Hospitality usually means three things. The guest stays in the hosts tent. The guest is given food and drink (usually water or tea). The guest's animals are also taken care of. If a host is particularly wealthy, the three days of hospitality may be used as an excuse to show off his opulence and build his reputation, both for his generosity and for his importance. Slaughtering and serving a lamb or calf, plying the traveler with expensive wine and fruits, having the whole meal served by servants, are all ways of making the basic hospitality into a more extravagant display.

In some groups, the custom of hospitality is so strong, that it is even required if the traveler is your enemy. That is an instance where the guest would certainly not want to overstay the three days!

See Gawaine and the Green Knight for an Arthurian example

The guest also has obligations. Sometimes it is to tell stories and entertain (and educate) the host. Sometimes a gift is expected at the end of the three day period. If the guest has been good and the host very gracious, he may be sent out with supplies for himself and his animals, and perhaps even a gift from the host.

Again, food & water mean life. "Breaking bread" with someone means more then just sharing a meal. A guest in your house can have a powerful influence on a family group. The traveler could be a thief, murderer, or scoundrel. The host may be as well! Law may contravene custom; what would a good host do if the traveler were wanted by the authorities? Give shelter, as required by custom; or turn them in, as required by law?

This type of social more grew up in a harsh, desert environment, but could be extrapolated to any harsh environment where travelers would be in serious danger if not for the hospitality of others. For example, a game world with a region of many small islands may have developed such a policy, since traveling between islands is dangerous and there is no way to resupply a vessel in-between. The characters could easily offend their host if they do not enquire about the limits of his hospitality, or if they violate other behavior seen as appropriate for guests (romancing the host's daughter or wife(s) may fall into this category)! This also makes a great game hook for the GM who wants to provide clues the characters need, or a special piece of equipment, spell, or weapon they may need later. Remember, if the guests anger the host and are asked to leave without the vital item they need, do they sneak back and steal it? If they pull a stunt like this, the word will spread and they may find it very hard to find shelter the next time they need it.

Perhaps the host has some unpleasant task that needs to be done, and has asked the guests to return his hospitality by taking care of it for him. Maybe that's something adventurers wouldn't mind doing, like cleaning out a nest of nasties, or staying up all night, three nights in a row, until they can face the desert demon that has been plaguing his flocks. It may also be something they don't like doing, like assassinating a competing chieftain or assisting the host on a raid of another groups flock. Remember the subtle ties created by the host-guest relationship. The characters may want to just say "no" and be done with it, but the fact that they may have been saved and treated very well by someone who did not know them should make them squirm.

If it doesn't, twist the blade a bit. Make it clear that guests are expected to comply with their hosts, that the host has spent a lot of material and time feeding and caring for them, and that he may spread rumors about how ungrateful and devious they are as guests. Now let the players decide if their characters stick to their morals (and take whatever consequences may come) or cave in and rationalize a way to acquiesce (and take whatever consequences may come)!

He Who Controls The Spice

"Exotic spices have been playing a part in civilization for over 5,000 years. Spices have been used for not only adding flavour to food, but also for providing vital medicines and beauty aids. Historically, spices have been a valuable asset, resulting in battles between pirates and traders for the ownership of a prize as rare as gold."[3]

There are several important things to remember about spices. First, is that refrigeration is a fairly recent invention. Spices were used, in part, to cover the taste of foods (especially meats) that had begun to turn. Second, spices were thought to have medicinal uses and were sought for those reasons as well. Many people still believe this, and there is some evidence for it! Third, spices are a consumable; which means the demand next year will be just as great (or greater) then it was this year. That makes for great business opportunities, and the whole supply, shipping, distribution, and retailing aspects of it.

I realize that most players love to play characters that capture a ship full of treasure ... and by treasure they mean gold, rubies, diamonds, and the like. But, many of the most valuable shipments traveling the seas, just a few centuries ago, were carrying spices. Further, the spice routes that delivered this perishable, consumable commodity from far off and exotic places (like India, China, and Africa) to the tens of millions of consumers in Europe were extremely lucrative. In fact, so lucrative wars were fought over and fortunes made by the spice trade.

"At the close of the eighteenth century, the Americans entered the spice trade. The trade in pepper, created the first millionaires in skippers of the pepper ships."[3]

A GM may introduce a spice with mind expanding, almost magically powers (a la Dune). Or, perhaps it has general curative powers, but needs to be taken on a continuing basis (like ginseng, only better). It could have psycho- pharmacological uses, to induce visions in a shaman, to quiet the violent mood swings of a bipolar. It could even just be a passing fad, something the wealthy are advocating, the poor are emulating, whilst the merchants are just getting rich.

The primary themes to remember when introducing a spice into a campaign are the following. It's a consumable, so the need for it will grow as more people begin using it, and "repeat business" is high. The rarer, the more valuable, and rarity is a function of limited production (maybe it only grows in one specific environment / island / planet / valley), and difficulty in shipping (in the 18th century, it would take two (2) to three (3) years for a pepper shipment to get to the America's). Finally, it's utility: what it is good for (to preserve meat? it tastes good? to cure ailments? to expand the mind? as part of a religious / magical ritual?).

It should also be remembered that spices come from a variety of sources and need varying stages of processing. They can come from tree bark (like cinnamon) or a nut (like cocoa) or a root (like ginger) or a leaf (like peppermint) or in a more exotic campaign, may come from an insect, or an animal, or maybe even some special gland or secretion of humans. As for preparation, it may be as simple as throwing some minced mint leaves in a salad, to extracting the essential oils of cocoa for inclusion in a chocolate, to brewing with hot water like most teas, to filtering hot water through like crushed and roasted coffee beans.

Further more, adventurers may: protect a spice trade route; plunder a shipment of spice; go on a quest to open a new trade route; find the special ingredients needed to prepare a rare spice; or even deliver a spice with curative powers to someone of importance who desperately needs it. Remember, spices often represent both wealth, and travel to exotic places. Both of which are par for the course to most adventurers.


I realize that this has only been the tiniest, tiniest portion of what can be written on the subject of food and meals and how it all applies to RPG's. I do hope that this article sparks some creativity in the minds of GM's and players; and they find new and innovative ways to use foods and meals as role playing opportunities and plot hooks.

Bon Appétit!


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Stephen ~runester~ Jarjoura was first introduced to RPG's via TSR's Star Frontiers. This was followed by Hero Games's Champions!. This, non-FRPG introduction to RPG's has forever tainted him, planting the seed in his heart for "something different" in the roleplaying tableau. As a (nearly) lone voice crying out for anyone to play The Window or Sorcerer in an endless wilderness of d20 supplements ... he carries on as best he can.

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