Freem is a root/tuber plant, with the edible nodes being about the size of an adult fist. Bright blue, highly nutritious and grown underground until harvest, Freem is able to support twice as many people per acre as wheat. It has allowed the small freehold farms of the eastern parts of the Isle to become self sufficient on about five acres, once a dairy animal is added, and even that is not required.
Yes, it's a potato.
Really, and I’m not exaggerating, the potato was the key to this campaign. Not only did allow me to vaguely justify the cities and population centers, but it gave me the population, politics, culture and history. All from spuds. Or rather, from the original question that was answered by the phrase, “Potatoes me lad. Potatoes”
Population issues and Why they do or don't matter
Okay, so I worry about things like population density and support in a given area – keep in mind I was still in high school when D&D came out, and you have an unfortunate picture of a youngster who thinks too damn much. But, if you’re reading my blog, you probably have a hint that it hasn’t gotten any better, right?
I started with the map, and the simple statement of where the castles and towns were, and the need to place a couple of largish (by medieval standards) cities. While it never really comes up in play, logistics and population: how do all those people eat (and….um, UN-eat) seemed important to the campaign.
And, the fact is, it was both crucial and absolutely a waste of time. No one has ever asked how the hell all those people in that city get enough to eat, and why they have the money to pay for it. Never, ever, not even once. Dammit !
BUT, what it has done for me is to shape the fabric of the world that the players move thru.
See, even with very limited or non-existent reference materials (pre internet, remember? Ooooooohhhhh. Scary. If you think trying to look up medieval demographics in a public school library is easy or sufficient, well……yeah), in trying to answer these questions, the Wilderness survival map became a living campaign. . I thought about the people, the institutes, I questioned the conclusions and started over when I found a new book or fad idea about populations. Looking at population and infrastructure issues, even in a very superficial way got me looking at how the inhabitants interact and live, and how one could fit that into an adventuring milieu. Those led to politics, and technology, and from there to cultural assumptions, and why there was adventuring land.
The goals for this excercise, such as they are, or History in the real world, and why Germans and Irish have much in common
So, first, we have a new frontier – but one full of Ruins, and few if any indigenes (human or otherwise) so, some kind of abandoned island, obviously, BUT; it needs lots of food production (for the cities and towns), and no strong political rule (or the monsters and dungeons get burned out –and the adventurers become brigands), plus a steep drop off in population concentration (to give lots of wild and unexplored areas). So it’s on an island, newly discovered, but not yesterday –say seven or ten generations. In fact, it is like some of the large pacific landmasses, or, more accurately, the Atlantic isles (the Azores, canaries, St Helena, etc, expanded and with ruins added). Next, we have to add intensive agriculture for supporting large cities (the City State, Modron) in a limited area: so it can't be the size of the Atlantic isles, whereas Australia and New Zealand are too big. What works? What historically was a balkanized somewhat wild land that could nonetheless support several moderate cities, several kingdoms (or whatever) and still have untrammeled wilderness?
Well….another Atlantic island: Ireland.
Specifically, the Ireland of Brian Boru and before. However, we need more actually unknown land –and historical Ireland doesn’t provide that. So, assume something the size of Ireland, but only first settled (say) a half dozen generations ago. That should give us the population for the cities, but not the wilderness; see, temperate North America filled up damn fast. So, we need slow trickle immigration, and a factor to allow a medieval based civilization to clump up more than it naturally would, and survive. So, a dangerous wilderness, (and by which dangers I mean more than wolves and rattlesnakes), to make people fort up, and high yield agriculture to allow them to feed lots of people at least at subsistence levels on a little ground. This makes farms smaller, defensible, and self sufficient, even with several generations of subdivision thru inheritance. And we get…..well, shucky darn. Germany in the 30-years war. The dangers weren’t Orcs, although one can argue that Orcs, being simply bandits, would have been less dangerous than what they had: undersupplied , unpaid but heavily armed armies of a time of religious warfare.
Enter the hero of the opressed proletariat, the Potato
See, economy and trade essentially collapsed in Germany towards the end of that period (due to the wars), and large areas were quite literally made uninhabitable by famine, plague, relocation, scorched earth campaigns, and massacre. What allowed some population base to survive, especially in the face of plundering armies, and also to rebuild and recolonize, (surprisingly quickly), was the potato. It's great for a poor land, and for a survival food – it's hard for the nobles to take as tax, yet feeds the serfs who grow the stuff they do take, and doesn't displace the more desirable products all that much. It turns latifundia and estate/bound serf farming into heavily taxed rent farmers –which, despite what it sounds like, is a big step up. Perfect, really.
We already know it takes less land than wheat; it’s also harder to steal, (being as they are
underground before harvest), and quite heavy for the nutritional value compared to grain agriculture. Their harvest is less time dependent, and they are much more resilient to weather and war effects. Add in the fact that potatoes don't keep or store as well as grains, and you have a survival food that isn't all that great for armies or trade, and one that is almost impossible to entirely swipe or eradicate (anyone ever having grown potatoes knows that there’s always another one somewhere.) Travel and trade in the potato was limited due to spoilage, and the fact that there is no good preserved version of the potato in Europe (like flour, smoking, drying, etc) made sure that the farmers generally ate the potatoes, and sold the produce on the extra land they had.
What this meant for the campaign
So, turning potatoes to Freem and adding it to the Isle, we get the pastoral population areas I needed (the Freem valley, and the cantons and freeholds) with lots of midsized towns, a few cities, a sharply divided demographic, clustered populations (as in post potato Ireland, BTW) and low population density areas outside those areas, dwindling to nothing, due to the short time that people have been there, and the slow spread of population. Farms grow Freem for their own use, but also produce more tradable/transportable ag products to sell. Near the cities we have estates and Latifundia, but the bulk of the food is from small self sufficient farms capable of high surplus production. That demographic has kept any kind of organized unification at a minimum, so lots of small baronies, rather than an evil empire (except where needed for plot). Similarly, no huge outside or local powers contending for dominance (except as etc). The wild west, plus Ireland, plus early colonial America, plus potatoes. Perfect !
Note that while similar to much colonization in the real world, the bulk of the Isle was slowly settled by peasants and serfs, not conquistadors ; until….well, dungeons. Yeah, the other resource of the Isle.
Okay, enough about potatoes, and on to gold next time. Specifically, killing people and stealing their silverware. You know. Roleplaying.
Next: There's GOLD in them thar dungeons !