by Wanderer Werewolf
©2008 Wanderer Werewolf
One of the hardest things for the average Game Master is to decide how adventurers are seen in their world. These are people whose equipment costs more than the average plow horse (and thats just the armor!), who come waltzing into town with armloads of gold and gems and wild stories. More than a few of them are mysterious figures with no known pasts (particularly if your players, like mine, have been burned too severely by the threaten their families trope). Yet most GMs take the low road, the easy way out! In their worlds, adventurers get no special notice, no unusual treatment; they might as well be basket weavers for all the attention they get.
Thats common, and thats understandable. After all, most of the time, its the adventure and the adventurers that take center stage, and thats as it should be. Were telling heroic sagas, not soap operas. But a closer look at medieval life can provide needed insights, and lead to better, more realistic interaction between the adventurers and their surroundings.
To begin with, the most common type of settlement in the average country was the village. Villages tended to be clustered along main roads, with many amounting to what would later be called one-horse towns; these settlements would have no inn, maybe one tavern or eating place, and a handful of other businesses. With an average of five miles between them, these would be close-knit communities, with regular communication between them. Not to mention occasional rivalries; according to tradition, soccerfootball, in Europestarted as a contest between two villages. (Distance reference: Medieval Demographics Made Easy)
Now the problem with small towns, as most people whove lived in one will tell you, is that nobody has any secrets. Everybody knows everybody else, and Outsiders are typically gossiped about for days. (Outsider, in the Small Town Dictionary, means anyone who doesnt come from right around here. If its more than two villages out, in other words, it might as well be another country.) As long as youre in the lands of whatever lord owns your village, youre reasonably safe; once you pass beyond his borders, however, you are a true Outsider, and as liable to being cheated and robbed as any German tourist in Florida. After all, if you want to bring charges, you have to go through either their neighbor (wholl be honor-bound to stand up for his fellow villager) or through their local lord. (You may remember, from a previous installment, that lords often snapped up each others outlying villages. As you can imagine, the animosity they cant take out on each other tends to be expressed toward travelers, innocent or not.)
What no secrets means in practice is that theyll invent all sorts of wild and fanciful tales to explain you. Is there a wizard or sorcerer in your group? A month after theyve left, the villagers will still be talking about the amazing worker of magics who once stayed in their townand thats if hes Level 1! Fighters? Obviously hardened mercenaries in some lords employ, probably on a secret endeavor. Druids? Strange folk, not quite human, with their strange and magical beasts by their side. Barbarians are particular targets; with their outlandish accents (outlandish means not of this land, after all), strange garb and fierce demeanor, hell likely be touted as a half-giant before the week is out.
(Rogues, and all others of the thiefish sort, will be getting their own special section at the end. Youll see why when we get there.)
The other half of it is a very simple problem: When you know everybody in your hometown, anything bad Must Come from Outside. Strangers in medieval times were suspected of everything from carrying disease to poisoning wells to being in league with the devil. With their obvious arms and armor, most costing more than the average plowhorse, the adventurers are just as likely to be suspected of planning an invasion of the local lords lands. (Which can get interesting when, as sometimes happens, the peasants want to serve a different lord.) Compared to strangers in small towns, Spider-Man was a close friend to J. Jonah Jameson.
Please note, though, that the situation isnt without its appeal; what P.T. Barnum liked to call the lure of the exotic (which is why Charlie Stratton of Connecticut was billed as Tom Thumb of England). Most peasants of the medieval period never traveled farther than the next village unless they were making a pilgrimage; people from outside are going to be an incredible draw. A bard, wizard or sorcerer who can perform magic tricks is worth his weight in gold pieces when youre looking for a place to spend the night, and fighters will have any lord with more money than sense vying for their services. Do they need a place to spend the night? If theyre reasonably friendly and approachable (and somewhat generous with their money), the locals will be figuratively knocking each other down to offer a room for the night. (Barbarians, because of their uncivilized nature, tend to be an exception; exotic is nice, but not when it smells like its rolled in a dirty stall.) Even a lack of money wont be a problem if they have some good stories; this is where a bard can come in very handy, although a paladin may find it hard to stomach hearing a battle against four orcs described as a hard-fought battle against the forces of the savage humanoids.
All of this feeds the rumor mill nicely; before long, half the rumors the village offers up will be about the troop of comrades-in-arms who once traveled through. If they go on to become famous, well, tourist trap is a modern term, but the idea dates back to Vespasians mother and her endowment of any holy relic site that had a claim. Check a map of England sometime and see how many places name Robin Hood as a former resident.
(Before long, mind you, a rumor ceases to resemble its source material. Adventurers may be chagrined to hear of their adventures in places theyve never been.)
Of course, after the mention of crimes and unjust accusations, a few words about thieves are mandatory. After all, the average thief of the Middle Ages had a pretty hard go of it. Stealing from peasants was easy; since the houses were typically made of plaster and lath, you could break through the wall faster than through the solid wooden door and shutters. Problem was, the average peasant didnt have anything worth stealing. The nobility, on the other hand, had plenty worth stealing, but lived in manors with walls of wood and/or stone, surrounded by armed guards. Neither smash-and-grab nor lockpicking would help you with these; it was time to think smarter.
It was time to invent the cover story.
Because the standards of evidence were much lower in the medieval courts (you could be exiled for being caught with stolen goods, if you had a bad enough reputation, according to the 1166 Assize of Clarendon), the best defense was not to be a thiefat least, not as far as anyone else knew. When it comes to treasure protected by guards and stone, after all, a glib tongue can be worth more than a sharp dagger. (The mumming robberies of the previous column are a case in point; nobody expects a clown to rob them, after all.) If your thief-player doesnt want to go the classic scout route, its time to look into supplementary skills to reinforce a cover: In D&D, for example, this can take the form of Perform, Craft or Profession skills, the more mundane the better. After all, whos going to suspect the groups fletcher, weapon sharpener or mapmaker? Even as an Outsider, therefore, its important for a successful thief to look as ordinary as possible.
Next time, well be looking at the legal codes of the Middle Ages, with a focus on Trials by Ordeal. The Trial by Water wasnt always what you might think