We tested this world last night, to plaudits of ‘What a gripping episode!’ and ‘I can’t believe we made it out of that alive!’ Even though I made a host of mistakes—not least in the way I ran combat—the gang were nonetheless seized with tension as they scrambled for the next move and flung the dice furiously. This is the point of combat, after all; I can deal with my mistakes in another post, as I made far too many to address appropriately in the confines of this one. Suffice it to say that we ended the night on a bit of a cliffhanger, and the players insisted that we continue the adventure in our next session.
I do confess that the 14th century is possibly my favourite period of history; having already carried in my head a cache of background for the culture and landscape, drumming up a precise setting was relatively easy. I created several pre-rolled characters two weeks ago, and spent the rest of the time determining the best starting domain for our purposes and researching the history of Shropshire. I had absolutely no idea what to give the players for an initial quest until I was seized with a paroxysm of inspiration three days before play.
To my surprize, no one chose a fighter. Actually, it occurs to me that we could have gone the entire night with no combat at all at no detriment to the session. Again, for various reasons, only three players showed up, and the characters chosen were:
- Hodegekin the Healer, a diminutive and childlike priest from the sick house of St Giles
- Aylard, a bookish mage and language expert; son of a locally renowned mercenary
- Hamyln of Lake Field, a bagpipe-playing thief with an improbably large head
This still leaves several pre-rolled characters from which to choose should any of the other party members condescend to enter the game during the next session. As our stopping point was at an inn in the wee hours of the morning after our three heroes narrowly escaped death in an underground thieves’ guild, anyone who joins next time has an easy entrance as an additional guest at the inn who was awakened by the commotion.
The starting point for the campaign is the town of Ludeforde, population 1,725. It is a market centre of the sale of wool and cloth, and is home to a number of other trades, as well as nine knights, seventeen armed members of the town guard, and over forty clergy. Its market day is Thursday. Government is suitably seated in the castle visible in the watercolour below, in the form of Lord Edmund de Mortimer, Third Earl of March, aged 25. He has two very young children. Naturally enough there's also a town crier, a town idiot, a few lepers, and other types typical of the setting.
Reconstruction from discovershropshire.org very similar to our Ludeforde of centuries before
In my hex map, far from complete, Ludeforde is at the southernmost point.For the purposes of the first session I simply superimposed and enlarged a field of hexes over a topography map until each edge of the hex was approximately a mile long. Since the hex grid is a layer, I can easily adjust the size if it later turns out I've been wrong about the distance. I plotted the location of settlements, keeping names used in the Domesday Book and extrapolating their probable locations in relation to modern municipalities. Plainly, I haven’t mapped out the whole domain and had to concentrate on areas the party was likely to visit. I thought the party would probably take my hints and go as far as Wenloch, so I finished at least that much of the area in preparation; but instead all they covered was the road north from Ludeforde, with a stop in the market town of Stretone to purchase provisions, and then further north into Shropesberie where they remain since the end of the session.
North of Shropesberie is lots of peat bogs, mixed woodland and rough grazing to the northwest with lots of isolated hamlets and farmsteads, more livestock coming from the northeast, lots of mining to the west--Wenloch's livelihood is based mostly on copper, limestone and shale--and from west of Ludeforde come lots of rushes, heather, bilberries and clay.
Simply outlining the economies and getting the locations of everything roughly plausible was all I had time for. If the party chooses this setting as the one to run in indefinitely, I could be convinced to map out every shires ende of Engelond, but it would take ages (and teach me an awful lot in the process).
The countryside, as the party traversed the road going north, would be mostly rolling hills, pasture and farmland. Much of the way would be given to partially plowed fields on either side. The occasional church spires visible in the distance would indicate a market town every several miles along their journey. Occasional merchants or pilgrims would pass, and every once in a while they would see peasants plowing the land near settlements, or animals grazing on the hills. Rarely, one might encounter robber bands or some similar danger; these are not omnipresent. As nearly all the wolves in England have been killed by this time, neither is there much danger from wild beasts.
Most of the settlements on the map (smallest font) are manors and hamlets of about a hundred people. In a slightly larger font are the market towns; the only city, Shropesberie, is in the largest font of all.
A city like Shropesberie, with a permanent population of around 3,000, would swell to double or triple that number on market days and be awash with music and festivity, with the inns and alehouses filled to capacity. The buildings are mostly timber in the old style, but are slowly being replaced with stone after the current fashion, so here and there would be one covered in scaffolding. The finest inns and houses would be seen first as the party enters from High Street, and continuing onto Pride Hill would see more fine town houses (such as the one of the knight the party went to meet), then rows of merchants' houses with their shops on the bottom floor, and downtown tiny cramped workshops with their stalls open onto the street to sell their wares. Down the back alleys, easily accessible from the middle-of-the-line inn in which the party was put, are muddier and fouler-smelling streets and homes of the poorest tenants (where one of the PCs nearly had his money pouch snatched by street urchins when wandering over there alone).
A market town like Stretone would be, aside from the surrounding pasture and farmland, mostly thatched-roof houses and stables, as the city ordinances against such structures (for fire prevention) don’t apply here. The market takes place in makeshift stands and tents in front of the churchyard. The church might also provide accommodation for poor travelers. As the party arrived without horses, they would be highly unlikely to be accepted into an inn under ordinary circumstances.
The Broader Context
As the characters are all in their teens, the second and third pandemics of the Black Death would be in their living memories. They would have been born into an England at war with France, and remember that only two years ago the English forces were sufficiently debilitated by the plague to give nearly all their territories on the continent except Calais, Bordeaux and Bayonne. Only a month before our game begins, the characters would have known of riots in London kindled by political issues they little understand and that would have little influence on their western backwater town.
It was important that enough time had passed since the last devastation of the plague that prices had somewhat levelled. In particular livestock would be incredibly cheap for at least a year or so following a substantial reduction in the human population, but I needed a modicum of stability to design my master price list for goods and services. It was also important to me that NPCs as well as PCs be able to travel easily, and by the end of the third pandemic the feudal system has been considerably eroded, although still in place in many areas.
Certain things about 14th-century life which I was compelled to include did take some getting used to, not least of which is the money. This is the third time I’ve forced my players to acclimate to an unfamiliar system of currency and I do sympathise. Since players do read the blog and were working so hard to grasp it, here’s a cheat sheet.
1 pound (L) = 20 shillings
1 crown = 5 shillings (s)
1 shilling = 12 pence (d)
1 penny = 4 farthings
1 mark = 13s 4d
Having had a taste of it in our original campaign, they knew that food and drink were expensive, labour was relatively cheap, and land was dirt cheap, so prices in this world didn’t create any consternation. When the PCs went shopping, all I had to do was hand the players a list of what they’d find in the market, and leave them to their calculations—freeing me up to frantically rack my brain for the next thing.
Then there was the odd way of measuring times of day, which also bears repeating. Clock time certainly exists, but it is measured with less than perfect accuracy by the timekeeper in the main church of any town, from which town criers take their cue. Most people’s purposes are suited by the traditional seven-part division of the 24-hour cycle:
- Prime, first hour (or two, or three, depending on the season) from daybreak on, when most people rise and start their day
- Terce, approximately midmorning
- Sext, midday, or what we call ‘noon’
- Nonce, midafternoon
- Vespers, near evening, when people return from the fields, most shops close, and the church bells ring out the evening service
- Curfew, when the final bells of the evening ring and taverns close, and after which only the armed men of the night watch are allowed to be out. Characters walking the streets after curfew are likely to be arrested as nightwalkers and put into the local prison.
- Night, the dark time between curfew and prime, when everyone is supposed to be in bed
Note that a hamlet wouldn't even have a church, so the people living in one would rely on the above divisions alone.
The year is punctuated by a large number of feast days, and I do hope to have these worked out by the time of the next session.
I won’t bother with another Excel screenshot here; the spreadsheet I’m using is quite similar to that for Ebrauc with the exception that temperatures are slightly higher (though with a bit more extreme variation) and the climate is less dismal overall. March is a comparatively dry month, so the party hasn’t got stuck in a downpour yet. (Incidentally, though, if this does happen, contemporary technology allows characters to purchase a waxed overmantle which would provide some protection against rain, and was not available in the Anglo-Saxon setting.)
In summary, this world and session were very well received. I’m still waiting for reactions from those who might run in it for the first time in the next session, or possibly votes from players according to what they read here and discuss with those who were present. The degree of my passion and foreknowledge surely comes through to some extent when I’m providing detail and role-playing NPCs, but I could just as easily see myself getting into either of the other worlds enough to bring my knowledge up to par should the party select one of those over this one. What this exercise has really driven home for me is that it's much more compelling when fantasy elements are injected into a solid historical foundation than it is when the party are inserted into a fantasy world with no basis (as I suspected in the beginning).
It might take only another session or two before our permanent campaign setting is finally chosen.
Discovershropshire.org (Ludlow picture and several leads)
Gies, Joseph and Frances (1969) Life in a Medieval City.
Gies, Frances and Joseph (1990) Life in a Medieval Village.
Hindle, Brian Paul (1990) Medieval Town Plans.
Hodges, Kenneth. “List of price of medieval items.” Several versions online.
Mortimer, Ian (2008) The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England.
Wikipedia articles on the history of Shropshire