Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nutritional Nightmares

Given the number of followers with food blogs, I’ve been thinking I need to build up a post for their benefit. For the gentle readers who don’t know, before I found income as a writer, I worked as a chef for 12 years. Food is in my blood. Literally.

Although it is convenient and saves much hassle in the game, I have never been a fan of ‘rations.’ The Player’s Handbook does not specify what is in these rations, but I suppose it’s what was once called the “ploughman’s lunch.” To paraphrase the link, a thick piece of cheese, a pickle, bread and fruit; from other sources I have heard that it would also include a substantial piece of dried meat, beer, turnips and so on. A wider diet for farmers developed in the 18th century with improvements in agriculture (the link only gives the origin of the name, not the combination of foods). Rations would probably be in a larger quantity than would be carried by a farmer going no further than several rods from his home.

In considering the consumption of food by adventurers, there’s no better example than the voyageurs of Canada ... since we have good records for how much they ate, and what sorts of foods.  Again, taking this from the sources, daily food consumption was ten pounds of salmon, or fifteen pounds of whitefish, or three pounds of pemmican ... dried meat pounded together with fat and berries.  Total intake could be higher than the 7,200 calories suggested by the post.  A meal at a fort - where beef or pork was available - could easily measure as much as 6-8 pounds.  The loads the men carried and the difficulty of the terrain they crossed compares nicely with what one imagines for a fully outfitted party climbing into the mountains with packs, weapons, tools  ... and treasure on the return trip.

If you choose to play your campaign as a DM without the use of rations, you will quickly run into a particular problem, that being one of nutrition.  By the height of the voyageurs operations into the interior of Canada and the United States there had been evidence to show that certain kinds of foods were necessary to the survival of expeditions - and companies forced their employees to consume set amounts of citric acid or vegetables to reduce the onset of scurvy and other diseases.

Obviously, you can demand your players eat a certain amount of everything (you can research those amounts) if they want to stay healthy, but this quickly degrades back into a rations format ... with the players allotting 'days' of food available on their character sheets even if you don't care to do so as a DM.  They will do this because it is the easiest method to get the food issue out of the way and get back to adventuring.  Players have no more desire to muck about with nutrition than they have to measure their encumberance rate.

But if you have an interest in driving yourself nuts, I have a suggestion for you.  After much thought about food and D&D, I made the connection last night, inspiring this post.  As such, none of it is written in stone ... I'm just spitballing here, looking perhaps to build some kind of working system over the next few months if I get time.

To begin with, create separate categories for consumables.  To keep it fairly simple, let's make six categories: meats, cereals, milk products, fruits/vegetables, salt and indulgences.  This last category would include confectionary, tobacco, spirits, and so on - tasty things.  More categories could be made, and the ones mentioned broken up into smaller bits, but let's just use these six for the sake of construction.

Now, let's say that the player has to eat a certain amount in each category to stay healthy.  And let's say that unhealthiness in each category produces a different disease.  Still without getting into specifics, let's call the diseases A, BC, D, E and F.  Therefore, if you don't eat enough meat, you may come down with a nasty case of 'A.'

And just to give the player a chance to get enough of each category of food, let's measure it not by the day, but by the week or the month.  In my opinion, by the month is best ... it allows for greater flexibility.  If the player gets into a place where fruit isn't available for a couple of weeks, they can try to catch up.

Now, here's the rub:  you don't tell the player how much of each type they have to eat.

You do set a certain amount of food that must be consumed in a day.  You can measure it by calories, or by weight.  You can say to the player that when they are resting in a town, they must eat at least 3,000 calories/day, and when adventuring, 6,000 calories/day.  Or alternatively, 20 oz. of food and 40 oz. of food.  You provide them a wide selection of foods from the market, and let them buy whatever they want.  Without hints!

It is, after all, a medieval world.  Offer them six types of each thing, or ten types of each thing, whatever you like.

Then, every few days, when its convenient, tell them to scratch off the amount of food they've eaten, and mark down on your chart how much of each category they've consumed.  Assign a percentage chance based on how much they've fallen short of a particular category, roll, and if the dice so indicate, tell the player that they've caught the category-appropriate disease.  If you want, obviously, you can just let them know the symptoms.

You could, if you wanted to micromanage it further, assign an increasing likelihood of the appropriate disease if the player fails to change their diet ... even saying that they will catch the disease not based on the die roll, but when the amount they've eaten falls such-and-such short of what they actually require.

Oh, I should point out that the disease "F" resulting from too few "indulgences" could be a psychological malady, like depression or paranoia, as the result of the player not knowing how to have a good time in the interest of saving their money.

Of course, over indulgence in indulgences could result in subtractions to the other categories.  You could also include a limit to how much of a particular food could be processed by the body in a certain time period - if I was low on fruits and vegetables, and tried to eat my quota - to 'catch up' - much of that would be simply expended and prove to be of no value.  Overeating a particular kind of food other than indulgences, in a short period such as the fruit example, or over a long period, could also have repercussions.

Hopefully, one member of the party would consistently eat well and remain disease free, pulling the other party members onto the right track ... but then this could be goofed with by the system also.

Not everyone eats the same food with the same effects.  You could make rolls that indicated for some people, lemons did not sit well with them ... forcing them to give away the three pounds of lemons they bought before their journey.  Or play it so that for whatever reason, they learn that anything they eat that produces a 'disconcerting' result on the other end produces only half the desired result.  Thus, they find that their characters have to test various foods before finding exactly the diet that fits right for them.  Jarod might learn that he has to have pomegranates to get the best results, where as Tothlane has a bad night whenever he eats pomegranates.  And if pomegranates are for whatever reason not available, Jarod must eat Tothlane's nectarines ... to get some benefit, even though nectarines hate Jarod.  Certain races, naturally, could have certain preferences.

It is really a question of how much notetaking you want to do as DM.  Given that I have a trade system that indicates the availability of a wide variety of foods, the availability/non-availability of items works particularly well for me.  And I think that much of the measurement for eaten food vs. unhealthiness could be handled by an excel spreadsheet rather easily.

Such a system could really generate some interest at the market, and in the food that was discovered among whatever humanoids were slaughtered just lately.  I can hear groaning from players who learn that the seventeen crates contain dried apricots ... while one druid goes, "YES!"  And I can also hear the conversations of players micromanaging their diets as best they can, never being absolutely certain they've eaten enough of everything ...


  1. I can see people at my table groaning in agony. Not that I don't think this is a reasonable idea,I just think players are generally too lazy to enjoy it.

  2. As with so many of the good ideas that cry out to be used, this makes me think that the GM needs backup, in this case in the form of a GN - 'games nutritionist'. He or she could support a number of gaming groups part-time to help manage all of the details, coming up with fresh, exotic thoughts, tables sagging under the weight of options and satisfying effects.

  3. I do track food and water to an extent just in case it can lead to a plot hook where the party is away from a source of one or the other for a long period of time.

    I usually make it a number of points per day; 10 points of food, 10 points of water. If they kill a deer, they can gather 100 points of food etc.

    In terms of a balanced diet, I don't bother too much with it except in certain situations. 1) if they players are forced (or choose) to eat only 1 type, or limited types of food for a length of time I give them morale penalty until they mix it up. If they eat a good balanced meal, like at an inn or spend a decent amount of money on good food, they get a morale bonus for a day.

    I had a party full of people that would only buy "hard tack" because it was the cheapest thing listed in the books.

  4. I actually love this idea, Alexis! I've been working on putting together an online campaign that tends toward the "grittier" side of D&D, and this sounds like an excellent way to add just another level of (potentially lethal) realism to the game.

    I might go ahead and try to write up a little system for this myself, although I tend not to be that great with the nitty-gritty of such matters. I do hope you'll find time eventually to put together a nutrition system of your own, as I'm sure it would be quite a nice addition.

  5. And that's just for the people. Mounts and pack animals can eat twice as much or more than people, though that's somewhat mitigated by their ability to graze on the surrounding vegetation.

  6. This is a pretty awesome brainstorm. As usual, I have nothing useful to add, but you've given me plenty of food for thought (whoops...I didn't even realize what I just typed when I typed it).

  7. In theory this is interesting, but... It quickly becomes tedious. Before too long, players will start buying the same safe food combinations in every marketplace, and at that point you might as well let them buy rations instead of yet another round of "four chickens, a dozen apples and six potatoes."

    Wouldn't you rather spend your limited playing time fighting monsters, instead of buying groceries?


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact alexiss1@telus.net with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.