RPGs, like great historical dramas of imaginary history, tend to focus on the grand exploits of those whose names make it into the books: kings, queens, popes, caliphs, charlatans, and generals. But those are just the faces at the front; no movement, no city, no kingdom is possible without vast armies of people holding it up. Every bite of bread in a duke’s meal passes through hundreds of hands who till, mill, transport, guard, and bake it. Every stone that falls during a castle siege was once lifted by the back of a worker history forgot. But this is fantasy, and if our stories can raise the dead in howling masses to swarm over invading armies, surely we can raise up humble heroes who maybe never became kings, but instead made a difference in their small corners of the world.
Plus, if I read one more character backstory about a long-lost heir growing up in obscurity*, my eyes will roll so hard I might swallow them.
Most fantasy games do a pretty good job of providing a variety of backstory options: you can be royalty, soldiers, guild merchants, entertainers and more. Often, there’s an “other” option that provides the ability to play characters with more prosaic backgrounds. Frequently, these are light on detail, and for good reason. At first blush, it’s hard to argue for playing a mud-spattered peasant hacking away in a field when you can play a cloistered wizard or swashbuckling pirate.
With that in mind, this article is here to help you flesh out that “other” category a little bit, splitting into three main areas of lowborn adventure. The focus of this article is on games that at least somewhat model a fantastic version of semi-medieval or Renaissance Europe**. There are absolutely other games, and strong reasons to branch out beyond a teeny-tiny sliver of the world’s population when building out unbounded worlds of the imagination, but even that sliver has some depths we still haven’t plumbed in fiction and games. For instance: how did cities of tens of thousands of people handle waste without underground sewers? Read on to find out. You know you want to.
Guild artisans in most games tend to focus around martially-applicable skills. Woodworking, stonemasonry, and maybe brewing. While artists may be (in fact probably are) members of guilds, a player or GM may want to focus on those specialists whose areas of expertise purely operate within the realm of the decorative. It’s tempting to write off such characters as flighty, irrelevant comic relief, but consider this: for an individual to make a living in any of these fields, they had to be at the absolute top of their artistic game, with sufficient customers to make a living — often an extravagant one. When power stemmed directly from proximity to the throne (or its delegated representative), these artists were sometimes able to wield considerable influence
Perfumer: of all the roles to ignore, this seems the easiest, until you consider that in order to have any kind of success with this relatively new technology, practitioners required regular access to exotic substances like musk and ambergris, in addition to laboratory facilities robust enough to extract oils from a dizzying array of other plants and even animals. Combine this with the fact that many nobles liked to have everything from their stockings to their gloves scented, a perfumer is the perfect place to start as a poisoner, or as the victim of an elaborate framing (as may very well have happened to poor Mr. Bianco).
Clothier: Being a tailor is a demanding job for any population — people of all shapes need to wear clothes, after all. As with everything else, however, working with nobility carried greater risks and greater rewards. Like all artists in this section, a gifted tailor had direct access to the halls of power, and the ability to define tastes for a generation. Additionally, many nations had sumptuary laws that prohibited individuals from dressing above their station. Any attempt at deception in the halls of power absolutely requires, if not a professional clothier, at least someone with a keen eye for detail and access to clothing that it would otherwise be illegal to own.
Visual Artist: Are you a visual artist? If so, cool. You can skip this section. You already get why artists are awesome and I don’t need to convince you.
If you’re not an artist, do me a favor. Draw someone. Your best friend. Yourself. Take as long as you need. Okay. Done? Do you think you could hand this to someone and have them pick out who you drew from a lineup? Another exercise: do the same thing with an object. A building. A strange plant or an even stranger animal. Remember that (absent world-changing magic) characters in these games exist without cameras or photocopiers. In addition to the access that any successful artist has during this time to the movers and shakers in their corner of the world, a visual artist has the nearly-magical ability to reproduce sights and structures that their audience hasn’t actually seen. Consider the chaos that an artist who has witnessed a crime committed by a well-connected protagonist can create.
Of course, this ability isn’t sorcery — it’s the result of painstaking training that can take up to thirteen years. But in the real world, it’s hard to argue with the results; works like the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Vitruvian Man, as well as countless other visual masterpieces by artists named after mutant ninjas, speak to the power of art to speak to the human (or turtle, or rat) spirit.
Contrary to expectation, consider giving characters with artistic backgrounds bonuses to intimidation rolls (to represent the scary amount of power they can wield by proxy) or deception rolls, representing their skill in mimicking the customs of those they spend so much time around.
Distinct from courtiers or hangers-on, these are the people who do the actual work in a palace or estate. For every pampered nobleman or noblewoman, dozens or hundreds of people scurried invisibly in the background to ensure that arms were properly sewn on clothes, bread was baked, and candles were made. The number of servants a given noble had varied by rank, with barons having about 45, and royalty sometimes having nearly a thousand just for themselves. Some roles have more potential for adventuring than others—the more a lord or lady relies on a character, the less likely they are to be able to go dig around uninvited in a dragon’s stuff. Servants can include the usual exciting fairy-tale entries such as hunters, knights, and whipping-boys but also include such easily-overlooked roles as:
- Valet of the Chamber: this role encompasses a number of potential duties within the palace — while it can be as menial as looking after a noble’s clothing and ensuring he or she is dressed well, this can also include work such as scheduling a lord’s time and determining whose requests make it onto the Queen’s reading list. While such valets may not have much spare time when duties called, thankfully, in the case of more important royalty, a different valet is assigned for daytime and night-time roles.
- Stable-Keepers/Carters: If someone’s coming or going in a castle, odds are good that those who are responsible for driving and maintaining the only available methods of transit are going to know all about it.
- Groom of the Stool: Exactly what it sounds like. This person was responsible for helping a noble in their most vulnerable state. Sure, it’s not glamorous, but no one in a castle is more likely to know the precise, gruesome details of a king’s health. More than an encyclopedic knowledge of what a given member of the aristocracy ate the day before, such individuals are very likely also…privy…to state secrets, and if someone’s looking to hide a secret affair (or the fallout from one), no one is more likely to know than the groom of the stool.
Note that noble servants generally have the run of a castle, and can be virtually anywhere without arousing too much suspicion. They’re also the most likely to know all the ins and outs of palace intrigue, without necessarily being invested in any of it. GMs interested in creating a mechanical benefit for castle servants may consider providing a bonus to rolls for stealth within the castle or among other servants, or for knowing the deep, dark secrets of those in power. Alternately with unfettered access to treasuries, wardrobes, and other resources, careful or canny characters can supply an entire adventuring party if they’re careful to cover their tracks (or to return what they’ve “borrowed” before the next time a blue blood needs it).
Even cities of just a few thousand can produce a truly prodigious amount of really gross fluid. And when you factor in the inherent squickiness of a Medieval or Renaissance diet, well…someone had to make the drains run on time. As anyone who has been to an outdoor festival can tell you, you can’t just take thousands of people into a field and expect everything to sort itself out. Those who are responsible for maintaining the gruesome underbelly of a city are every bit as important as those tending to the comfort of the upper classes, even (maybe especially) if those upper classes never see them.
Gong Farmer: Let’s talk about toilets. When heeding the call of nature, if a citizen of a medieval or Renaissance city was very lucky, they may find themselves near a “house of easement” over a river that conveniently washed away the evidence. As we all know, PCs are almost never actually lucky, so why not lean in and make a character or an NPC responsible for mucking out latrines and keeping the results outside the city? To add injury to insult, in the Ancient Roman Empire, these latrines were occasionally known to host dangerous creatures or explode, and
Sure, the job may be gross, but it also has its upsides for PCs. Some cities (such as London) enforced a strict curfew during this time period, and not only were gong farmers allowed to be out during this time period, but they were only allowed to be out during this time period for obvious reasons. It’s hard to find a better job (or at least a better cover) for characters looking to skulk around a city at night. In the real world, gong farmers routinely succumbed to disease or even suffocation from their work, but heroes are above such concerns, and might get a bonus to resisting poisons or diseases.
Bathhouse Management: Contrary to popular belief, bathing was a popular practice during much of the middle ages. In addition to private baths, most large cities sported public bathhouses, which were destinations in and of themselves. In England, such houses were called “stews” or “stewes” and were popular places to socialize, play games, and…do other things that one would imagine might be done in such places. Simultaneously places to get squeaky clean and to purchase some company (*cough*) these bathhouses were often owned by prominent clergy, which prevented their somewhat less-than-savory reputation from getting them closed. Additionally, they were also often professionally run by members of a guild every bit as educated and exacting as any other. Characters who run a bathhouse likely make a good living, but also have access to members of every strata of society, a great deal of privacy, and eyes everywhere. Yes, everywhere.
Vermin Hunter: Forget rats. Give me wild freaking pigs. In the 1300s, London had so many wild pigs hunting through the garbage in the streets that they had to appoint official swine killers, paid a bounty for each pig they brought in. In a city without any centralized method of waste management, fighting vermin isn’t so much a battle as a continuous, all-out, unwinnable war against nature. Vermin hunters in an RPG have a perfect excuse to be pretty much anywhere gross creatures can be found (basically everywhere) and to lay traps, carry weapons, and drag suspicious-looking bags leaking bodily fluids through the street without anyone giving them a second glance. Consider giving characters with a background in vermin hunting bonuses to tracking and fighting creatures that share habits or anatomy with the scavengers of the city.
High-flying games full of nobility, honorable (or dishonorable) combat, and intrigue among the upper classes are a lot of fun. But in history, there was a whole world of stories going on beneath the noses, feet, and…other body parts…of the gilded elite. These stories can intersect with and inform kingdom- and continent-spanning adventures, or can provide fodder for games that never set foot outside their home city. Even if you don’t use these character occupations for your PCs or prominent NPCs, it’s worth thinking about how those with these jobs and hundreds more made their living when the circumstances of their birth didn’t guarantee them immortality in the history books.
So what are your favorite unusual occupations? Did I miss any that you don’t feel your game world is complete without?
- The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: a laser-focused guide to England in the 1300s, this incredibly detailed guide is a romp through the history, culture, and ideas of a very specific time and place. If you can make it through the first chapter, the rest of the book is truly gripping.
- Everyday Life Through the Ages: What can I say about this book? No, really. I have no idea what to say about this book.
- Making Good Scents: Fragrance in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: This article by Barbara D. Diggs is an excellent overview of the topic of perfumery during this time period. Take some time to look at some of her other excellent writing too, while you’re there.
- Medieval Jobs: A straightforward list of medieval jobs that goes a little bit further than nobleman, innkeeper, merchant, criminal. Useful for fleshing out larger lists of NPCs.
*Yes, I know that it’s a popular fantasy trope stretching back to the beginnings of the genre and that the biggest authors do it, but it loses its power when your ragtag adventuring party is basically a Dark Ages version of the UN in exile. If your group enjoys those characters, go you. But maybe consider branching out?
**If you find yourself digging through this article looking for any hint of historical inaccuracy, hooo boy are you in for a treat. I’m deliberately mashing together multiple areas and time-periods with game stuff in mind, so there’s going to be no shortage. You are very smart.