Sunday, July 5, 2009


Agriculture is without question the fundamental technology in the creation of civilization. Like fishing, it greatly increases the food supply, the success of which is lent aid by the storage of food, the management of food and the expansion of food producing areas. Grains lead to the consolidation of population, technological discovery and empire building.

Thankfully, I don’t have to talk about all of that now. Much of what is above falls under later technologies, created as the result of agriculture, and thus can wait for another post. All I need talk about presently is the recognition that the biosphere can be manipulated.

To quote Jared Diamond from Guns, Germs and Steel, p.88,

”Most species are useless to us as food, for one or more of the following reasons: they are indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects) or dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses). Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest.

“By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more calories per acre. As a result, one acre can feed many more herders and farmers ... than hunter gatherers.”

Agriculture also increases the strength and health of a population, but to a greater degree than an abundant fish supply – primarily because of the variety of food produced and the benefits of a non-meat diet, but also because the effort required to harvest grain is much less than that needed to harvest fish. What physical prowess that is lost in the cultivation of non-resistant plants (fish requiring more effort), is more than made up for with free time to think or train towards other goals. Yes, it is true, harvesting grain is a tremendous effort – but it is an effort that is accomplished over a much shorter time, to give a year’s supply of food or more. Fishing requires constant year round effort, as fish cannot be preserved (the preservation of fish with salt is a later technology than what we’ve discussed here).

One last bit of background: the earliest agricultural development would be the recognition that grains produced their own seed, and that this seed was spread naturally, producing more plants. Once this was observed for what it was, cultures could affect a more widespread distribution of the seed through personal intervention – thus increasing the natural food supply. That is the understanding that resulted in what we call ‘agriculture.’ The earliest development did not include irrigation or straight plowing.

Very well, what does all this mean for D&D? First of all, agricultural societies should greatly outnumber non-agricultural societies. In cases where we are talking about food production without food storage (covered by Civ IV under ‘pottery’), a three-fold or four-fold increase is reasonable. Ten fold increases should be for reserved for more advanced societies. There are numerous reasons for this – more food, increased birthrate among a population which can afford to remain in one place year round and so on.

Thus, if you perceive a primitive tribe made up of norkers (Fiend Folio, a creature I’ve always seen as a sort of caveman-goblin), the number stumbled upon in the river valleys and deltas should be four times the number encountered in the hills. Thus, instead of 3-30 appearing (hunter/gatherers), the number should be closer to 12-120 – existing as a loosely held together culture in scattered but grouped huts, living off the domesticated plants in the area.

Whereas a group of hunters would lack social cohesion, the loose settlement would have a designated ‘leader’, who would have to power to coordinate attack. Time spent training to defend the home would allow diverse combat groups: a group throwing spears or stones, another group trained to rush in with clubs, a third group sent to circle around the enemy and attack from behind. Free time would mean the development of tactics, which as DM you should apply.

(Acknowledged that hunter/gatherers would devise different but equally effective tactics in hunting prey – but those would be offensive, while the tactics for an agricultural community would be defensive).

Also, as populations expand, they overwhelm the capacity of the immediate environment – as a result, ‘colonies’ are created of a set portion of the core population, which go out to find other, similar places in which to settle. Thus, our group of norkers would only be partially isolated. Ten or twenty miles downriver would be another similar-sized grouping, many of whom would be known to the locals encountered by the party. There might be dozens of communities strung throughout the region, which might in turn gather at certain times of year to exchange information and genetic partners (marrying outside the tribe was common). These norkers may know a great deal more about the surrounding hundred miles than may be counted upon. Thus they may be a source for information, or potentially a greater danger to a passing player character led army than might be dreamed of.

These articles are meant to be an overview, so I think I’ll leave it at that. What more there is to be said depends on the development of later technologies, so I will save it for then. But I do want to take this opportunity to talk about food.

There is very little suggestion as to what foods non-human races consume ... particularly in terms of dungeons. I suppose that dungeon edibles consist of the creatures themselves, the upper levels being prey for the lower levels, until all is eventually consumed by vast, awful creatures picking the lowest levels for every scrap imaginable.

But still, plant life is essential to a successful food chain, and I’d like the gentle reader to consider Diamond’s words. Orcs, fire newts, goblins or kobalds are not limited to human-acceptable foods. A mass migration of monarch butterflies may be a marvellous, rich time for a colony of kenku (birdmen), while a yearly infestation of death’s head mushrooms may be the singular reason the area is full to the gills with troglodytes. Ettin may grow trees in order to harvest bushels of leaves and small branches for direct consumption – who says they don’t have bellies designed to digest such matter? Very small nuts may prove as good as grain for trolls, who need not remove the shells and who might therefore have something to combine with their meat diets.

That biomass which humans and demi-humans cannot consume may sustain various other races – who in turn might intentionally destroy all the biomass consumable by humans in order to ensure a good crop of tent caterpillars (cultivated on an entire landscape of nothing but small hemlock trees) or who knows what else. Plus, those same races may despise humans for destroying hemlocks and caterpillars in order to plant inedible grain and fruit orchards. Plum trees may be poisonous to ettin.

There are many possibilities.

1 comment:

Zzarchov said...

I have found all of these posts good reading (this kind of thought is what I like to pore over when GMing), I really liked the bit at the end though, about farming poisonous substances (to us anyways). Alot of possibilities there.