One of the things that have always bothered me about many of RPG settings is the almost clinical way the cities and settlements are described. Waterdeep, Magnimar seem very clean and the maps seem to show a swept and empty town that parties can swan through heading to whatever objective they have in mind. Even Sandpoint (the major town setting for a lot of Paizo’s Aps) seems very clinical though there is a nod with a dung cleaner and a rubbish dump where goblins can be found.
Anyone with knowledge of actual life in the Middle Ages will know that life expectancy was extremely low due to the unhygienic and desperate life was both in towns and villages:
- Sanitation was almost unheard of. Pits were built in yards for filth or thrown into the street. Streets themselves were never paved except in the heart of major cities and even then open sewers meant that rats and disease were commonplace.
- Diet of the lower class was equally bleak. Meat was the province of the rich and even when poorer families were able to get hold of some; the fare was the cheapest cuts or the offal. Instead they lived off bread and grain, with the odd piece of meat reserved to the main worker in the family (normally the man).
- Inns and taverns also had food and the drink of equally poor quality and often neat spirits or strong cider or mead was served rather than ale. This led to many fights and drunken brawls. As such it was not uncommon for the town sheriff to be placed very close by!
The latest adventure path for Pathfinder is set in Osirion (the Golarion version of Egypt) and again there are some major issues that need to be pointed out:
- The main river was everything. It was worshiped as a divine entity in its own right and provided water for making, cleaning, cooking and growing. It was also the main highway and so traffic along river routes were the easiest, cheapest and quickest – especially when going downstream.
- As river water was so polluted, the main drink was beer. As boiling the water as part of the process killed the bacteria, it was believed this was blessed by the gods. Infants drank milk and nurse maids were highly revered within the society, though many slaves were also used for this as well (think of Moses).
- Animals within the river were revered. These were only hunted on the blessing of the temple and the temple also hosted many rites that involved the river (holy barges).
- Sand was a major problem. It got into all the food etc and bread especially always had an element of sand as it got into the flour at the milling stage. This meant that dental health was extremely poor in the desert towns and cities and even pharaohs often had abscesses or loss of teeth!
All the above is only the tip of a fascinating ice-burg and I would encourage any DM to spend a few hours to research the appropriate setting and how the common folk would have lived. This can add an element of realism and a creative DM can add no end of adventures or “fluff” to give a true feel to their campaign!